Coming out of the recent pandemic that saw a near complete shutdown of our society along with critical shortages of many essential items, I am struck by the things we now seem to have an abundance of.
Anger comes to mind as something we have in abundance. And hatred, let’s not forget the overflow of hatred in America. Oh, and I don’t want to forget one other thing we have in great abundance today; finger pointing. Can’t forget that now, can I?
Almost beyond belief, it would seem that the cataclysmic virus that had doomed us all to certain death really wasn’t the apocalyptic event prophesied by the media after all. How could it be, when hundreds of thousands are marching side by side not wearing a mask? Imagine that would you?
Things were so bad that we were strictly forbidden to go to church for fear of spreading this death defying virus, yet somehow or another congregating in crowds of tens of thousands doesn’t pose any health risks at all.
I mean, who knew?
Honestly, I’m thinking the wrong crowds are filling the streets of America. I’m thinking we awful, disease spreading, unenlightened Christians ought to be the ones pouring out into the streets of America to protest the theft of our Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of worship. 
Speaking of pouring out into the streets, I have lived on this earth for just over 65 years, and in that time I have seen many instances where people took to the streets out of frustration and anger over issues beyond their control.
I was just a boy of eight years of age when Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.
I was thirteen when the infamous “Chicago Seven” were arrested for their anti war activities during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Just two years later when I was a 15 year old, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a crowd of Vietnam War protestors, killing four and wounding nine. Living just a couple of hours from Kent State University, it seemed like it was in my backyard.
Since those tumultuous times of decades past, there have been several other noteworthy examples of citizens taking to the streets to protest for one reason or another. Abortion, LBGTQ, Environment, Guns, Women’s rights, Anti-war, and the Million man and Million woman marches have all made their mark on the fabric of American society.
Today, as our nation once again seethes with anger in the wake of the brutal, heinous murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, millions are again taking to the streets in a show of indignation and defiance of the status quo.
Of course, the violence that has erupted during the peaceful marches is the result of a well planned and well funded attempt to destroy the fabric of American society from within. There is only one word that most aptly describes what is being played out before our eyes: EVIL.
We can dress it up any way we like to, but it’s still EVIL. We can call it racism or bigotry or any number of other names, but it’s still EVIL. And this is what those marching and protesting in the streets do not understand. This is NOT an issue of race. It is an issue of EVIL. Even those violent criminals that have been unleashed upon our society are completely misguided. The issue here is not one group hating another. It goes much, much deeper than that.
What we’re dealing with here is of the spiritual nature. Don’t believe that? Read what the Apostle Paul had to say about the subject of EVIL.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. (emphasis mine)
Did you understand what Paul meant? Our battle, your battle, is not with mankind. It is NOT with your neighbor who is of a different skin color than yours. It is NOT with those whose belief system differs from your own. No, the battle is against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
In other words, the battle is against the spiritual forces of darkness that exist in high places. Who is leading the charge of these forces of darkness at play in our society? Why, it’s none other than Satan himself. That’s right, and every person storming the streets today is being played by the devil. Not a popular sentiment, is it?
Why do you suppose racism still exists at the level it does today? Why haven’t supposedly educated, enlightened individuals been able to come up with a permanent cure for racism? The answer is so simple that its almost too simple. The reason racism still exists at its current level is because the cure for racism is the love of God, and the world has largely rejected the Source of this love.
It’s like the old adage about taking a knife into a gunfight. You can be the very best at using a knife, but against a gun you have virtually zero chance of success against your adversary. Fighting systemic racism by protests, even violent protests does nothing to address the root of the problem! To be sure, these marches have gotten the attention of the entire world. They have no doubt spawned new discussions (or soon will) on how best to deal with the problem.
But not one thing is being done to address the root of the problem: we have forsaken God.
And that, dear readers, is not something that can be corrected by marching down Main Street USA. It can only be corrected at an altar.
Have a blessed day,
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? Psalm 2:1
The Bible is the authority, the only authority, the only book that God wrote. It contains 66 books – 39 books in the Old Testament, which is the revelation of God before Christ; 27 books in the New Testament, the revelation of God since the coming of Christ, together makes up the 66 books of the Bible.
In the Bible, God speaks. It is His Word. When we come together, we don’t come together to hear men speak, we come to hear God speak. The responsibility then of the pastor and the preacher is to take the message from God and bring it to the people. I’ve always seen myself, not as a chef, but as a waiter. My responsibility is not to create the meal, but try to get it to the table without messing it up. And that is the responsibility which I try to discharge, as we all do whenever we open Scripture.
So as we come to the 15th chapter of John, like anywhere else in the Bible, we are listening to God. The writer is the apostle John. But the writer is also God, the Holy Spirit who inspired every word that John wrote. Because of this, the Bible is without error, it is accurate, and it is authoritative. When the Bible speaks, God speaks. And when God speaks, we listen, because God says to us what we must know.
The Bible should dominate every life and all of human society, for in it is contained all necessary truth for life in time and eternity. And when a nation or a person rejects the Bible, they have rejected God, and the consequences are dire, dire. Those who listen to God through His Word are given life and blessing, now and forever.
And so we come to the 15th chapter of John. Just to set the stage a little bit, starting in chapter 13 and running through chapter 16, we find ourselves on Thursday night of Passion Week, the last week of our Lord’s ministry. Thursday night was an important night. He gathered with the 12 disciples to celebrate the Passover on that Thursday night when the Galilean Jews would celebrate it.
They met together in a kind of secret place that we call upper room, and our Lord spent that night telling them many wonderful things, giving them many, many promises. As that night moved on, our Lord exposed Judas as the traitor, and dismissed him. And Judas left to go meet the leaders of Israel to arrange for the arrest and subsequent crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. By the time we come to chapter 15, Judas is gone, and only the 11 are left, and they are true disciples.
But as we come to chapter 15, they’re no longer in the upper room. It is deep into the dark of night. But chapter 14 ends with Jesus saying this: “Get up; let us go from here.” Apparently at that time, they left the upper room, Jesus and the 11, and they began their walk through Jerusalem, headed out the east side of the city to a garden where our Lord would pray in prayer so agonizing that He sweat as it were great drops of blood. And while He was praying, they would fall asleep. And into that garden later would come Judas, and the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish leaders to arrest Him. And there, Judas would kiss him; the betrayal would take place; and the next day, He would be crucified.
As they leave the upper room and walk through the darkness of Jerusalem, our Lord continues to speak to them, and what He says to them is recorded in chapters 15 and 16. Of all these things that He says, nothing is more definitive than the first eight verses of chapter 15. Our Lord here give not really a parable – although I guess in the broadest sense could be considered a parable because it is an illustration. It’s really a word picture, a metaphor, a simile.
Listen to what He says, I’m going to read verses 1-8: “I am the true vine and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them and cast them into the fire and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.”
Now it should be pretty obvious from that final sentence what the point of this analogy is. This is about a vine and branches and fruit-bearing that proves someone to be a true disciple. This then is about the nature of genuine salvation. This is about the nature of genuine salvation. This is a concern to our Lord, a concern to all the Bible writers, and a concern to all faithful Christians, and has been through history. How does one know that one is a true disciple? How does one know that one is genuinely headed to heaven? How does one know that he or she will escape hell? How do we know?
Nothing is more important than this. Nothing is more important than salvation. Nothing is more important than eternal life. Nothing is more important than heaven. How do you know? In this word picture, we have everything we need to know.
But before we look at the nature of salvation, just a reminder: there is also, in the verses that I read you, statements that point to the nature of Christ. Before we get to the nature of salvation, the essential reality of salvation, we have to acknowledge the nature of Christ, the essential reality of Christ.
The divine nature of the Lord Jesus Christ is here declared in verse 1: “I am the true vine,” He says. And in verse 5 again: “I am the vine.” How is this a claim to deity? Because of the verb “I am.”
Back in Exodus, chapter 3, when Moses came before God in the wilderness and asked His name, God said, “My name is I Am That I Am.” The tetragrammaton: the eternally existent one; the one of everlasting being; the always is, and always was, and always will be one. Theologians call it the aseity of God, the eternal being of God. He is the I Am.
Throughout His preaching, teaching, healing, discipling ministry, Jesus continually declared that He is God, He is God. He said things like, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.”
In a context of discussion about the Sabbath, He reminds them that, “The Sabbath doesn’t apply to God because God is at work all the time; and the Sabbath doesn’t really apply to Me either because I, like God, am at work all the time.” They were infuriated that He would make such a claim. That was in chapter 5 of John’s gospel.
Later in chapter 8 Jesus said, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing. It is My Father who glorifies Me of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ And therefore if God, who is your God, glorifies Me as God, you ought to also glorify Me.” And again they were offended at such perceived blasphemy.
In chapter 10, He even said it more concisely: “I and the Father are one, one in nature and essence.” In that same chapter, chapter 10 and verse 38, He said, “Though you do not believe Me, believe the works that you may know that the Father is in Me and I in the Father.”
All through His life and ministry, He claimed that He is God. Every time Jesus said, “My Father,” which He said many, many times – every time He said, “My Father,” He was underscoring that He had the same nature as God. And His Jewish audience did not miss the claim. They were not at all confused.
In fact, in chapter 5, verse 18, this is what we read: “For this cause, therefore, the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.” They understood that that is exactly what He was doing, exactly. And one of the ways that He did that was by taking to Himself the name of God “I Am” and applying it to Himself.
There’s a series of those claims throughout the gospel of John. He says, “I am the Bread of Life. I am the Living Bread that came down from heaven. I am the Light of the World. I am the Door, I am the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd. I am the Resurrection and the Life. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” And then He makes the stunning, inescapable claim, chapter 8, verse 58, “Before Abraham was born, I am eternally existing.”
Jesus is none other than the great I Am, the eternal God in human flesh. Is that important to believe? Listen to this, John 8:24, “Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.”
Can I say that another way? If you don’t believe in the deity of the Lord Jesus, you’ll go to hell, that simple. No matter how religious you are, how moral you are, how well your intensions might measure up with the best of humanity: if you do not believe that Jesus is God, you will go to hell. If you believe He is a created being of any kind, no matter how noble or how elevated, you will go to hell. You will die in your sins, which means you will die without forgiveness. The penalty is eternal punishment.
The Jews understood exactly what He was saying. It’s a shocking, shocking, devastating assault on Jewish theology. Their theology had deviated from Scripture, the Old Testament. But it was a well-developed system. And Jesus attacked that theology. He attacked their understanding of God, He attacked their understanding of the law, He attacked their understanding of righteousness, He attacked their perspective on works and faith and grace, He attacked all of the elements of their theology. And then if that isn’t bad enough, that caused them to hate Him. Then He claims to be God, which they see is the ultimate blasphemy, and that becomes the reason they want Him dead.
So here He is on the final night with His disciples, and He reveals another powerful declaration of His divine nature and says, “I am the true vine, I am the vine.” Having looked at that, I want to take you to the most important part of the passage, and that is the nature of salvation, the nature of salvation. I don’t think this is clearly understood by many people, but there’s no excuse, given these simple words.
The drama that unfolds in this analogy is simple: there is a vine, there is a vinedresser, and there are two kinds of branches – branches that bear fruit and pruned to bear more fruit; branches that don’t bear fruit, cut off, dried, burned – that simple. As you well know, our Lord could say profound things in the most simple ways; and that’s exactly what you have here.
We know that the first two characters, Jesus said, “I am the vine – ” verse 1, and He said “ – My Father is the farmer, the vinedresser. So we know the vine is Christ, and the farmer who planted the vine and cares for the vine is the Father. But the question here is, “Who are the branches? Who are the branches?”
There are branches attached to Him. They’re all attached. All the branches are attached. But the ones that don’t bear fruit are cut off, dried, and burned. So who are they? Let me remind you of the context. This all begins back in chapter 13 in the upper room, and it’s pretty clear that there are two types of disciples in that upper room.
Jesus is there, verse 1, very aware that His hour of death is coming. And it says, “He loved His own who were in the world, and He loved them to the max. He loved His own who were in the world, and He loved them to the max, to the eternal limits of His capacity to love.” However, there was somebody else there, verse 2. One of those disciples attached to Jesus, Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, it says in verse 2, “The Devil had already put it into his heart to betray Him.”
I don’t really think there’s a lot of mystery about the two branches. What did Jesus have in His mind that night? They had just left the upper room. The drama that took place there over Judas, the exposure of Judas, the disciples, when Jesus said, “One of you will betray Me,” they said, “Is it I? Is it I? Is it I?” which is to say they had no idea it was Judas.
There was nothing manifestly obvious in the life and character and behavior of Judas that would have distinguished him as a false disciple. He was visibly attached, and for all intents and purposes, looked like everybody else, did what everybody else did. But, clearly, there were two kinds of people in that room that night. There were those who bore fruit and there was that one who did not. There were those who remained abiding in, remaining in, attached to the vine; and there was that one who’s cut off.
I’ve had some discussions with people around the world about this passage, and folks have said to me, “Well, this is proof that you can be in Christ, you can be attached to Christ, and you can lose your salvation.” The Bible does not teach that, and the words of our Lord Jesus, in the gospel of John, are very explicit: “My sheep hear My voice – ” using another metaphor “ – and I know them and they follow Me. And I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father who has given them to Me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one. Together, we hold those who belong to our flock.”
In John 6, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me and I’ll lose none of them.” This is not talking about believers, fruit-bearing branches that all of a sudden are cut off and thrown into hell. This is talking about people who are attached, but there’s no life because there’s no fruit.
Judas had that very night just a few hours before walked away from Jesus terminally, finally. He is what the Bible would call an apostate, an ultimate defector. He had been for three years close, so close that people didn’t even know there was no life. Judas now was on his way to the leaders of Israel to set up the deal to arrest Jesus to get his 30 pieces of silver, and to go from there to hang himself, and catapult into hell.
This is the reality of that night, and this has to be what’s behind our Lord’s thinking and speaking here. He needs to explain to these men Judas. Wouldn’t it seem natural to you that in this intimate talk with the beloved 11 that are still with Him, that they’re all still trying to process Judas. He was high profile. He was the one who carried the money, trusted. They were trying to figure out just, “How did it happen? Who is he? How does he fit? What’s going on?” and our Lord gives us an explanation.
He says, “There are branches that have an outward appearance of attachment, but bear no fruit. They’re taken away and they’re burned.” And He has to be thinking of Judas. Judas, who was in close connection to Him, has left on his way to eternal hell. And, in fact, the Bible says he went to his own place. It says it would have been better for him if he’d never been born, Mark 14.
So our Lord helps us to understand the elements of the parable. He is the vine, the Father is the vinedresser; the branches that bear fruit are the true disciples; the branch that bears no fruit, cut off and burned, is a false disciple. That’s the way we understand His words.
There are, in the kingdom of God, possessors of life and professors: “Not everyone that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into My kingdom,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. There are people who build a religious house, but they built it on sand, and rather do not build it on rock. So Jesus really has gathered all the figures in the final night’s drama and formed them into a strong analogy full of meaning.
As we look at this metaphor, many truths unfold for us to consider, and we have to take time to deal with them to some degree. But I think you can now see what the simple understanding is – and we’ll fill that in. Let’s start with the vine, the first character in this picture. The vine, Christ Himself: “I am the true vine,” verse 1, verse 5, “I am the vine.”
He chose to see Himself as a vine, to present himself as a vine. He had earlier, in chapter 10, presented Himself as a shepherd with a flock. He had earlier presented Himself as light. He had earlier presented Himself as, through the Holy Spirit, water. So He drew from familiar analogies.
And you might say, “Well, He referred to Himself as a vine because a vine is lowly, and a vine is in the earth and in lowliness. The vine, if it weren’t propped up by some kind of wires or something, would just run along the ground, and this speaks of His lowliness.” It’s a good metaphor to speak of His lowliness.
Somebody else might say it’s a good metaphor because it speaks of union, it speaks of the closeness and communion of those who are Christ’s with Him, the very same life flowing through the vine, flowing through the branches. Others might say it’s a good symbol, it’s a good word picture because it talks about fruit-bearing, fruitfulness, the result of being in Christ is manifest. Others would say it illustrates dependence, as our Lord said, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” It illustrates that kind of dependence.
All the life comes from the vine. It emphasizes belonging. If you are connected, you belong. And I think all of that is true. But there’s another, much more important reason why He says, “I am the true vine,” and that is because there was a defective vine.
There was a corrupted vine. There was a degenerate vine. There was a fruitless vine. There was an empty vine. Who? Israel, Israel. That’s right. The covenant people of God, the Jewish people.
Israel is God’s vine in the Old Testament. In Isaiah 5, Israel as presented as a vine. God says, “I planted My vine, My vineyard in a very fertile hill,” Isaiah 5. And that chapter, verses 1-7, goes on to talk about everything God did to give them all that was necessary for them to bring forth grapes. They produced beushim, sour berries, inedible, useless. Israel was the vine. And that metaphor carried through the history of Israel during the Maccabean period between the Old and the New Testament.
The Maccabeans minted coins, and on the coin was a vine illustrating Israel. And on the very temple, Herod’s massive temple, there was a great vine that literally had been carved and overlaid with gold, speaking of Israel as God’s vine. God’s life flows through the nation. That was a symbol of Israel. There’s much in the Old Testament. Psalm 80 – sometime you can read Psalm 80 in its fullness – but Psalm 80 tells us the tragedy of Israel’s defection as a vine.
Just listen to a few of the words from Psalm 80: “God removed a vine from Egypt, bringing Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Drove out the nation’s, planted the vine – ” like Isaiah 5 “ – cleared the ground before it, took deep root, filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shadow. The cedars of God with it’s bows, it was sending out its branches. It shoots to the river.” Then this: “Why have You broken down its hedges, so that all who pass that way pick its fruit? A bore from the forest eats it away. And whatever moves in the field feeds on it.”
God planted Israel and then turned on Israel in judgment. Psalm 80 then says, “O God of hosts, turn again now, we beseech you. Look down from heaven and see, and take care of this vine, even the shoot which Your right hand has planted. It is burned with fire. It is cut down.” Yeah, that’s Israel, that’s Israel. Ezekiel said it is an empty vine, no fruit. Isaiah says it produces sort of toxic, useless, inedible results.
Israel had been the stock of blessing. Israel had been planted by God. His life would come through Israel to all who attached to Israel. But Israel was unfaithful, idolatrous, immoral, and God brought judgment. That’s what the Old Testament lays out for us.
The disciples, like all the other Jews, thought, “Hmm, I’m Jewish. I’m connected to God.” Israel, the people of God, the Jewish people, are the source of divine blessing: “I am a Jew; I was born a Jew. I’m the seed of Abraham; I’m connected to God.” Not so.
Our Lord comes along and says, “If you want to be connected to God, you have to be connected, not to Israel, but to me. I am the true vine, althinos. I am the true vine. I am the perfect vine. Through Me, the life of God flows.”
Paul understood that. He said Israel has all the privileges in the book of Romans. They have a form of godliness, but they have no life. They don’t know God. They’re alienated from God. He’s the true vine.
Just to give you a comparison, in the 8th chapter of Hebrews, the writer of Hebrews says, “Jesus is the true tabernacle.” He’s the true tabernacle. He is the true vine. He is the true tabernacle. He is the true temple. It is through Him that the life of God flows.
Colossians 2:7 says, “We are rooted and built up in Him.” These disciples know Israel is going to be destroyed. They know the temple’s going to be destroyed. He already told them that just hours before this. They know it’s all coming crashing down. It’s over. He pronounced judgment on them, not one stone upon another. The fury of God is going to be unleashed.
It’s important that we understand that the stock of blessing is not Israel. “Not all Israel is Israel,” said Paul. Christ is the true vine just as He said in John 1, He is the true light. And in John 6, the true bread. He is the true vine.
Anybody who’s going to know the life of God has to connect to Him, and has to connect to Him genuinely as God, as the I Am. All other vines are false vines. Israel is a degenerate, dead vine. Christ is the true and living vine.
Isaiah says Israel, as a vine, has run wild. Jeremiah says Israel has become a degenerate plant, a strange vine. It’s as if Jesus was saying to those men, “You think that because you belong to the nation Israel, you are secure in your connection to God. Not so. You think that just because you’re a Jew and a member of the chosen race, you are connected to the blessing of God? Not so. I am the vine and life flows only through Me. I am the way, the truth, the life.” So He is the vine.
Now the second character in this picture is the vinedresser, verse 1: “My Father is the vinedresser.” That’s the farmer, the person who cares for the vine. Christ pictures Himself as having been planted by God, and that’s true. The Father was behind everything that Jesus did.
The Father sent the Son into the world, right? That’s what Scripture says. The Father laid out the plan. Jesus said, “I only do the will of My Father. I only do what the Father tells me to do, shows me to do, commands me to do. I only do what pleases the Father.”
The Father cared for Him. The Father provided a virgin so that He could be virgin-born. The Father provided everything for Him. The Father provided the Holy Spirit to empower Him through His ministry. The Father provided everything He ever needed. So it was the Father caring for the Son, and it is the Son who is the One who possesses true, divine life.
Now verse 2 then introduces the branches, the branches. And there are two kinds of branches. “They all appear in Me, every branch in Me.” They all are attached, just like there were lots of people attached to Israel in the past. But not all Israel is Israel, and not everyone who is a Jew is really connected to blessing. They were attached, they were connected, but there were branches that – it says at the beginning of verse 2 – that do not bear fruit. And He takes those away, the Father does – the Father is the judge. And then there were branches that bear fruit, and He pruned those so that they would bear more fruit.
The Father is at work and He’s doing two things, two very divine works. He is judging false branches – cutting them off, drying them out, and sending them to hell; and he is pruning true fruit-bearing branches. This is the Father’s work.
Now let’s look at these branches and just consider what this is saying. The vine is flourishing, growing luxuriantly, but some serious steps are taken by the vinedresser, the farmer. First of all, when He sees a branch that has no fruit, He takes it away, He takes it away. Down in verse 6, He throws it away, it dries up. Those branches are gathered, cast into the fire, and burned. That is drastic judgment by God on false believers, false believers. No fruit.
You say, “Does every Christian have fruit?” Yes, every Christian has fruit. That’s how you know you’re a Christian. What is fruit? Righteous attitudes, righteous longings, righteous desires, righteous affections, righteous virtues, righteous behaviors. That is the manifestation of life; and where the life of God exists, the fruit must be there.
That’s why Ephesians 2:10 says that we have been saved by grace through faith, unto good works, which God has before ordained that you should walk in them. It can’t not be that way, because where there is the life of God and the soul of man, it becomes evident. That’s what it says at the end of verse 8. When you bear much fruit, you prove to be a true disciple. James said, “Faith without works is – ” what “ – is dead,” it’s useless claim. The only way you know faith is real, salvation is real, is by the evidence.
Matthew 7, Jesus said, “You’ll know them by their fruit,” and that’s repeated a number of times in the gospels. Paul in Romans 6 says, “You were slaves to sin, and now in Christ you become slaves of righteousness.” We’re known by our fruit. We’re known by the manifest evidence of transformation.
That’s the only way you can tell a person’s a Christian – not by remembering an event, not by remembering a prayer, not by some wishing and hoping. The way you know someone has been transformed and regenerated and born again is because the fruit of righteousness is manifest in that life. It’s not perfection, but it’s a dominating direction. There are people who attach to Christ and are fruitless.
Look, the whole nation of Israel is seen in chapter 11 of Romans as a branch attached to God. But they were cut off because of unbelief and sin, and a new branch, the church, was grafted in. They had an attachment to God, but it was fruitless. There are many people who are attached to Christianity, attached to the church, attached some way to Christ. But time and truth go hand-in-hand. Given enough time, the truth will come out. And ultimately either in this life or the next – for sure in the next – the Father will send them to the fire. This is a concern all through the gospel of John. In fact, in chapter 6, many of His disciples walked no more with him. Remember that? It’s a call to true discipleship.
There are Judas branches in every age superficially attached. But let’s look at the possessing branches in verse 2. Every branch that bears fruit, evidencing the life God, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit. So the Father does hard work. He completely whacks off the entire branch that is fruitless so that it doesn’t suck the energy out of the vine uselessly. They’re gathered and burned.
But He comes back at the fruitful branches and He prunes them. He purges them. It’s actually a verb kathair that means to make clean. But it was used in agriculture for pruning. It could mean removing waste matter after winnowing grain. It could mean cleaning weeds out of the soil before planting grain. But it also can mean anything that cleans the plant to make it more productive.
Philo, the Jewish theologian at the time of the early New Testament said this: “As superfluous shoots grow on plants, which are a great injury to the genuine shoots in which the vinedresser cleanses, and he uses kathair this same word, and prunes because he knows it’s necessary. So God whacks off some branches completely, false believers who spend eternity in hell. But for the rest of us, God goes to work on us with a knife, with a knife.
In ancient times, I’ve read that sometimes there was a pinching process. It even started with the hand between the first finger and the thumb to literally pinch the end of a growing shoot that could cause it to die. There was sort of a removal of kind of a dead end of a branch. And then there was the thinning of all the sucker pieces coming off that branch. Lots of ways to do that, but all had the same purpose in mind, and that was so that the branch would be more productive. That’s the work of the Father for what He does. The Father comes into our lives with a knife to cut away sin and was us superfluous.
In Hebrews 12:1 it says, “Laying aside the weight – ” right “ – the weight and the sin.” We all have sin in our lives; it ought to be cut off. But we also have stuff that doesn’t necessarily get categorized it’s sin. It’s just unnecessary, wasted, superfluous. Sucker branches.
The Father comes along in our lives with a knife – it’s painful – and He cuts. He cuts sin. He cuts useless, wasteful behavior, preoccupation with things don’t matter. How does He do that? He might do it through sickness. He might do it through hardship. He might do it through the loss of a job or loss of a friend, loss of a loved one, loss of material goods. He might do it through the loss of reputation, slander.
He might do it through failure, something you worked really had to pull off. And He might do it through persecution from people outside, and people you know and even love. He might do it through grief. He might do it through disappointment.
It might be extremely painful emotionally. It mist be extremely painful physically. God orders trouble. This is God providentially using the knife. God orders trouble.
The best thing that can happen to us to prune us is trouble. Second Corinthians 12: “When I am weak – ” the Bible, Paul says “ – then I am – ” what “ – strong.” I would rather be content with afflictions, difficulties, weakness, trials, because in my weakness God’s strength is perfected. James 1: “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, because the testing of your faith produces patience, and patience has a perfecting work.” Peter put it this way: “After you’ve suffered awhile, the Lord makes you perfect.” That’s the knife.
You want to welcome that because you want to be more fruitful. You can chafe in self-pity and wallow around in disappointment complaining, brooding, full of anxiety when things don’t go the way you think they ought to go. Or you can look heavenward and so, “God, thank You. Thank you for working on me to bear more fruit. More fruit.”
You could say, “Why me, God? Why me? Why did this happen to me? How could it ever be?” Or you can say, “Thank You. Thank You, Lord. Thank You. I embrace this like the apostle Paul. I embraced this like James: ‘Count it all joy.’ I embrace this, because this pruning means God intends for me to bear much fruit.”
Another way to look at that is in the language of the writer of Hebrews in chapter 12. Listen to what he says: “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline, nor faint when you are reproved by Him, for those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He received. It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with sons, for what son is there whom his father doesn’t discipline.
“But if you’re without discipline of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them. Shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them. But He disciplines us for our good so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful. Yet, to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” More fruit, more righteousness is the product of divine discipline – trials, tribulation, trouble. The believer is to expect this to be fruitful.
And I want to add something here. The vinedresser has a knife. What precisely is that knife? Verse 3 answers that: “You’re already clean because of the word which I’ve spoken to you.”
You’ve already been saved, and you were saved through the Word, right? Faith comes by hearing the Word. You were saved by believing the Word. It was the Word that did its work in you, begotten again by the Word of Truth, Scripture says, and you will be pruned by the Word.
In the final analysis, it’s not the afflictions themselves that are the knife, it’s the Word of God that is the knife. Now let me explain that. It is not the affliction itself that is the knife, it is the Word of God that is the knife.
Now we should understand the Word of God is a knife from Hebrews 4:12, “The Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It’s a two-edged knife and it cuts every direction, the Word does, the truth of God.
So here’s the idea. The Father is the discipliner. The Father is the one who in His providence, brings about the trials, the troubles, that cause us concern. The Word becomes, however, the actual cutting instrument, because when the trial comes and we react wrongly, the Word convicts us. The Word cuts into our disrespect for God’s purposes. The Word cuts into our hostility. The Word cuts into our anger. The Word cuts into our questioning, and it indicts us. Trials are the handle of the knife. The blade is the Word of God. The Father brings the trial, and the blade is the Word of God. The Word is the knife.
Listen to how Spurgeon explained this: “It is the Word that prunes the Christian. It is the truth that purges him. The Scripture made living and powerful by the Holy Spirit eventually and effectively cleanses the Christian.”
He says, “Affliction is the handle of the knife. Affliction is the grindstone that sharpens the knife. But the knife is the Word. Affliction is the dresser.” He says, “Affliction is the dresser that removes our soft garments and lays bare the diseased flesh, so that the knife may get at it.” Affliction makes us ready for the knife, to feel the Word of God.
The true pruner is God. Affliction is the handle and the occasion. But the pruning, the Scripture is the knife that cuts. Why? So that we would bear more fruit. The more you know the Word, the more you love the Word, the better you react to trials, right? The more you allow the knife to do its work.
You know, we should be praising God all the time here because, as a church, we are so submissive to the Word of God. We know it so well, that when we get into these issues of life that surround us, whatever they may be – these disappointments, these elements of suffering and trial that are so much a part of life – we know the Word of God. And we not only know it, we trust it. We not only trust it, we love it. We not only love it, we want it to do its work, and so we submit to the knife.
And I believe that that is why this church is so fruitful. That is why the fruit from this church circles the globe. You bear much fruit because you have suffered and let the Word do its work, bringing conviction, cutting away the sin and the things that don’t matter. That’s how it is in the kingdom, that a lot of people attach to Christ. Some will be cut off and burned, some bear fruit; and those that bear fruit, the Father works on to bear more fruit, much fruit. That’s the kingdom.
We’re thankful, aren’t we, that we know that we are fruit-bearing branches. If you don’t know that, you’re in a very dangerous situation. Take warning from this passage. Come truthfully to Christ, genuinely to Him.
Father, we are again this morning so blessed together, so thankful. We ask now that You would confirm to our hearts the truth, and set it loose in every life to accomplish Your purpose. We pray in Christ name. Amen.
We’ve been talking about Paul’s gospel, the gospel according to Paul, and I confess to you that this is a great challenge for me to try to narrow this down to a few subjects. In all honesty I’m kind of vacillating a little bit, I’m changing my mind, if it’s okay here and there, so you’ll have to bear with me a little. Tonight I want you to open your Bible back to 2 Corinthians and I want to go to chapter 5. We have talked about the glory of the gospel, we have actually talked about the nature of the gospel in our two sessions this morning digging down into the doctrine of justification with the nature of the gospel is that the righteousness of God has to come down, and it is received by faith, and it is a gift of grace, and that’s how salvation takes place. We’ve talked about that.
It is glorious gospel. It is a substitutionary gospel as we saw this morning. We’re going to see a little more about that tonight. But I want you to understand this concept of reconciliation. It is a reconciling gospel. The gospel reconciles the sinner to God. There’s a passage here at the end of chapter 5 that is a critically essential passage in understanding Paul’s gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel of the blessed God, the gospel of peace and grace and salvation, that Paul called my gospel and even our gospel.
I want you to begin by looking with me at verse 18. “Now, all these things are from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ as though God were making an appeal through us. We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Five times in that passage the word reconcile appears. You saw it. Verse 18, “God reconciled us, gave us the ministry of reconciliation,” verse 19, “God in Christ reconciling the world, committing to us the word of reconciliation.” Verse 20, “Be reconciled to God.” This is about reconciliation.
Reconciliation assumes alienation, does it not? It assumes enmity, hostility. It assumes that people are enemies or worse, violent enemies. And reconciliation needs to take place. Now, you will notice that Paul says we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. And we have been given to affect that ministry the Word of reconciliation. Our message is a message of reconciliation, a message of reconciliation. How are we to understand this reconciliation? Well, in this passage, not only in verses 18 through 21, but backing up a little bit, we have, what I think is the essence of an understanding of the message of the gospel as reconciliation. We are given the ministry of reconciliation. We have received the message concerning reconciliation and this constitutes, according to verse 20, the nature of our ambassadorship. An ambassador was a representative of a monarch who was set into an alien culture to represent that monarch. And so it is with us: we represent the King of kings and we are in an alien culture. And our responsibility is to tell the people in this alien culture, who are enemies of God by nature, that they can be reconciled to God. That’s our message. That’s our message.
I have on occasion been flying in an airplane and had people sit next to me and ask me what I do. I remember answering the question on a flight from New York to LA, and I said, “Well, I’m a preacher of the gospel.” And the guy that I was sitting next to who was pierced every way you could be pierced, must have been frightened because he got out of his seat and never came back. And that’s a five-hour flight. So I’ve learned maybe not to just be so blunt. On the other hand, on occasion I say this. “Oh, I have a great job. I tell sinners that they can be reconciled to God. Are you interested?” I mean, that is what’s called cutting to the chase. But that is exactly what I do. That is what we do. Our message is that sinners can be reconciled to God. That God is a reconciling God who has provided a means of reconciliation and a message of reconciliation is the responsibility of every ambassador of Christ. It assumes alienation, hostility, an enemy kind of relationship, but one that can be turned into a full and complete reconciliation.
Now, as we look at this passage, I want to show you several elements to the ministry of reconciliation. Several elements to the reality of reconciliation. And in order to do this, we have to back up to verse 14 and pick up some things that are there. And backing up to verse 14, I want to say the first component of reconciliation is that it is motivated by the love of God. It is motivated by the love of God. I shouldn’t need to deal with that very much because you’re all very familiar with the fact that God so loved the world, right? That He gave. Hearing His love, not that we love God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. While we were enemies, Paul says He loved us. In verse 14 Paul identifies this, “The love of Christ controls us.” That’s a verb that means put pressure on something to create an action. It could even be translated: the love of Christ rules us. I love the word “control” actually in the NAS. Paul is not talking about His love for Christ; he’s talking about Christ’s love for him. What drives him, we saw he understood the glory of the gospel, right? From 2 Corinthians we talked about that. We understood the transcendent glory of the gospel and was motivated by its unparalleled and unequalled grandeur. Well, he also experienced the love of Christ. Christ had laid a saving claim on the life of Paul so that he was so overwhelmed by this saving love that he could never live for anything but the proclamation of the gospel of that saving love.
Christ’s saving love for Paul controlled him, dominated him, motivated him, ruled him. And he didn’t see it in a personal way. He didn’t see it in a selfish way. Didn’t see it in an isolated way, because he says in verse 15, “And He died for all.” What God has done for me through His love, what Christ has done for me through this magnanimous saving, forgiving, gracious love is not just for me. He died for all so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.
What drove him? What compelled him? What motivated him? It was not only the glory of the gospel in a broad sense, but the glory of the gospel was bound up in the fact that the gospel was such a magnanimous expression of divine love toward an unworthy sinner, such as he was who confessed himself to be a blasphemer. And he realized that this love which God had given to him in Christ which had so totally transformed his life was not just for him, but that Christ died for all so that they who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf. He died for all.
What do you mean for all? He died for all who believe in Him. All who believe in Him. He died and rose again on their behalf. The end of verse 14 says, “One died for all, therefore all died.” I don’t want to get technical here; He died for all those who died in Him. He died for all those who died in Him. It doesn’t mean that He died for the whole world. If Christ died for the whole world, the whole world would be saved. Do you understand that? If Christ actually paid the penalty in full for the whole world, then the whole world would have to be saved because the penalty was paid. There are people who teach that He died for the whole world and if you teach that He died for the whole world, everybody who has ever lived, then His death was a potential death and not an actual death. It was a potential atonement and not an actual atonement. If you say He died for everybody in general, then He died for nobody in particular.
That’s a problem. He died for all who died in Him. He died and rose again on behalf of all who died in Him, who are made manifest by faith. This is an actual atonement. Christ actually bore our sins in His own body on the cross, actually paid the penalty in full. His death is not a potential, it is an actual death. It doesn’t make salvation possible; it makes salvation inevitable. Christ’s death was the death of His people, His elect who would believe. The penalty for whose sins He paid.
You say, “That sounds like predestination.” Exactly. By the way, I know you want to ask that question. Everybody has that question, so tomorrow I’m going to talk about how Paul’s view of predestination fits into His gospel passion. Okay? We do that in the morning. All right.
Paul understood that this love gift of salvation that had been given to him, that controlled his life, couldn’t be kept by him. Because Christ had died for all who died in Him, who were yet to be born in some cases, yet to hear the message of the gospel, but would hear in the future and believe and be saved. What controls his life was the love that God showed him in Christ to redeem him from his wretchedness and from eternal damnation, and that love took control of his life because he knew he was to be an instrument to take the message of that love to everyone he could possibly reach.
So, his whole life changed. Verse 16, look what he said. “From now on we recognize no one according to the flesh.” Do you understand that? What happened in his life? Well, all of a sudden he didn’t view people as external. He didn’t view people as physical beings. He didn’t just see the outside of it. He wasn’t particularly interested in what they looked like. He wasn’t particularly interested in their external behaviors. That’s not how he viewed people. He says it in verse 16, “From now on, from the moment of his salvation on, we recognize no one according to the flesh.” We don’t judge people by what we can see and experience of their physical life. Then he said, “I did that once, did that to Christ, we’ve known Christ according to the flesh.” There was a time when I knew Christ only according to the flesh. And you know what I determined? He was a blasphemer. He was a fraud. He was a false messiah. He was a problem to Judaism. He deserved to be crucified and his preachers deserved to be killed. Do you remember in the stoning of Stephen who was standing there and had the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen placed at his feet? Paul. He had made an external evaluation of Christ and it was totally wrong. Yet now, we know him in this way no longer. My entire opinion of Christ has changed since the Damascus Road. I don’t view people anymore externally. The most horrible result of my doing that, which is what Pharisees did and all false religionists, and all the lost people, the most horrible expression of that kind of judgment was the way I judged Christ. Boy, was I wrong. I just see everybody from a spiritual viewpoint now, don’t you? You understand that?
You know, if you have children who don’t know the Lord, they can get all dressed up and look good and walk out of the house and your heart can break. Everything might be coiffed exactly the way it should be, all you care about is the heart, right? You may have a spouse that’s attractive, doesn’t know Christ, you see right past that. We don’t view the world the way the world views itself.
I was in the White House some years ago, talking to the White House staff and I said, “You know, you guys got a problem here.” I said, “And it’s not the kind of problem you think it is.” I said, “You guys are so bent,” this was in the Bush years, “you are so bent on making sure that you attack the Democrats, that you attack your adversaries, that you have turned the mission field into your enemy. You can’t do that. You might not like their politics, but you can’t look at them after the flesh. That’s a mission field.” That’s how Paul viewed the world. That’s how every believer has to view the world. And Paul says this in familiar words in verse 17, “Therefore, I love this, if anyone is in Christ, he is,” what? “A new creation, old things have passed away, new things have come.” And the “anyone” is the operative word here. Anyone, I don’t know who the all are who died in Christ, for whom He actually paid in full for their sins, I don’t know who they are but I do know that anyone who believes fits into that category and anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.
Paul thus is catapulted into the ministry of reconciliation ‘cause he has a personal first-hand experience of the love of God in Christ given to him that brought about the spiritual transformation of his own soul, changed his eternal destiny and granted him the very righteousness of God in the place of damning human righteousness. That became the passion of his life. It is that love of Christ which controlled him and everybody with him, us. You see the pronoun there in verse 14. We’re all controlled by the reality that we have been made new creations by the love of God in Christ and it can’t be limited to us, anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. We don’t see people the same anymore. If you ask Paul, he would say, “In Christ there’s neither male, female, bond, free, Jew, Gentile.” There’s no distinction. He saw everyone as an eternal soul.
I’m sure you experience this. I do. I see myself looking through the person whoever they are, whether I know them or don’t know them. When I’m exposed to people, it’s their soul that captivates my thinking. It’s their soul. We don’t know people any longer, purely on the superficial level. We live in a world of lost souls. They’re all around us. You might not like their politics, might not like their behavior, might not like their social status, might not like their personality, you’ve got to see past it, because for some of those people, Christ died and paid the penalty for their sin in full and you may be, if available, the instrument that He uses to bring them to the point of the salvation plan for them before the foundation of the world. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation. That’s the heart and soul of our responsibility as believers and that was the way Paul viewed his life. Our ministry is to reconcile men to God, to reconcile women to God, to preach the good news that the relationship of enmity, hostility, hatred, alienation between God and men can be totally changed. And part of that, of course, is defining the fact that there is alienation between men and God. That’s the good news. It is possible for sinners to be reconciled to Almighty God.
I always think about this. You may have heard me say this somewhere on a tape or something. I was riding on an airplane, Southwest Airlines to El Paso, sitting in the dreaded middle seat. I’m squeezed in there and I was preparing for a men’s conference in the El Paso Civic Center. And just got my little New Testament open and was making some notes of what I was going to talk about, and there was sitting next to me an Arabic man, clearly I could tell. And I’m looking at my New Testament and we’re just barely up in the air and after a few minutes go by, he looks over at me and he says, “Excuse me, sir. Is that a Bible?” I said, “Yes, it is a Bible.” He said, “May I ask you a question?” I said, “Of course you can ask me a question.” He said, “Well, I’m from Iran, I’m new in America. I’m in the process of immigrating and I don’t understand American religion. I don’t understand. In My country everyone is a Muslim, everyone. But I don’t understand American religion.” He said, “Could you, sir,” and this is exactly what he said, “tell me the difference please between a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Baptist.” A Catholic, a Protestant and a Baptist, so he had been exposed to at least those three categories. So I said to him, I said, “Yeah, I can tell you the difference.” And I just gave him a simple way to understand Catholicism as a sacramental form of ceremony, et cetera, et cetera. And Protestantism is a protest against that, and a regripping of a personal relationship with God through Christ, and we went through that. And I put the Baptist in the Protestant category where they belong.
So, he said, “Thank you, thank you very much, thank you very much.” I said, “Can I ask you a question, sir?” He said, “Of course, of course.” And I knew the answers but I wanted to hear them from him. So I said, “Do Muslims have sins?” And I knew the answer but I wanted to hear him say it. He said, “Oh, do we have sins? We have so many sins; I don’t even know all the sins.” I said, “Well, do you do them?” “All the time.” Then he said this. “I’m flying to El Paso to do some sins.” “You are?” This is a pretty honest guy. Flying to El Paso, “Yes,” he said, “I met a girl when I was immigrating, that’s an immigration point, and we will meet and do some sins.” “Oh,” this is more information than I really require. I said, “Well, can I ask you another question?” “Of course.” I said, “How does Allah feel about your sins?” “Oh, very bad. Very, very bad. I could go to hell.” I said, “Well, why don’t you stop doing them?” “I can’t, I can’t.” I said, “So you keep doing sins that could send you to hell, everlasting hell?” And then he said this, “I hope the God will forgive me. I hope Allah will forgive me.” And then I said something that afterwards I know, I didn’t think about it. I said, “Well, I know Him personally, and I can tell you He won’t.”
He looked at me, He looked at me and said, you know, in his mind he was saying, “How could you know God personally and wind up in the middle seat on Southwest?” That doesn’t make sense. I said, “I do know Him personally and He will not.” He said, “Well, I hope He will.” I said, “I have some good news for you. I know how You can be fully reconciled to God, how You can be completely forgiven and become a friend of God and a son of God, and receive all that God possesses as a gift from Him to you.” He had never heard anything like that in his life. There is no redemption in Islam. And I went on to give him the gospel. He did not respond to Christ, but I think I messed up his weekend. Some girl got very confused. I’m sure she didn’t know what happened. I gave him a bunch of material, sent him much stuff, told him where to go to church in the place he was living, but I never have gotten any follow up. But that’s the truth, isn’t it? Isn’t that what we do? Don’t we tell people they can reconciled to God?
Go back to chapter 5 here, He’s committed to us the Word of reconciliation, literally placed in us the logos as opposed to the mythos. Logos is the word that is true, mythosis the word that is not truth. He has placed in us the logos of reconciliation. We’ve been called then to preach the ministry of reconciliation, to tell sinners they can be reconciled to God. And it assumes that we have to help them to understand that they are currently alienated from God. In other words, you can’t tell people they can be reconciled until you’ve made it clear that they need to be reconciled, ‘cause you don’t want to be the enemy of holy God.
Now, as we think about this ministry of reconciliation, I want to give you just a few things that will help you understand the nature of this great truth, okay? Number one, reconciliation, this is so important, is by the will of God. Reconciliation is by the will of God. Please go back to verse 18; let’s pick up our original text. “Now all these things are from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ.” All what things? All the things that He’s been talking about from verse 14. Salvation, the provision in the death of Christ, being made a new creation, having the old pass away and the new come. This is speaking not about justification but about regeneration. This is by the will of God. All these things are from God. Verse 19, “It is God in Christ reconciling us.” Verse 20, “It is God making an appeal through us.” Reconciliation is by the will of God. That is the foundational reality. We cannot decide to be reconciled to God. We have no power to satisfy God’s anger. We have no ability to set aside His justice, to achieve His righteousness. We’re the offenders. We have been banished from His presence forever. Any change in our relationship with God has to come from Him. Any reconciliation has to be by His design. And this is at the heart of the gospel.
God loves sinners and seeks to reconcile them. He designed a means to reconcile with sinners, to make sinners into sons. It is God who reconciled us to Himself. It is God who is the reconciler. That is just such a profound point. If you go back and study the religions of the world, you will not find, as we said the other night, you will not find a reconciling deity in the history of religion. You will not find a God who is by nature a reconciler. First Timothy 4:10 says, “God is the Savior of all men, especially those who believe.” What does that mean? What do you mean He’s a Savior of all men? Especially those who believe?”
Well, there is a sense in which He’s the Savior of all men. In a very generic, a very comprehensive, a very wide sense, He’s the Savior of all men. What do we mean by that? Physically and temporally, physically and temporally. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is,” what? “Death.” The Bible says, “The soul that sins, it shall die.” The Bible says, “Violate one law and the full weight of the Law will fall upon you.” The Bible says that, “In sin, my mother conceived me; I have been a sinner from conception.” Why am I alive? Why am I here? Because God is by nature a Savior, and every sinner who takes another breath is living proof that God is by nature a Savior. And it is, as Romans 2 says, the forbearance and patience of God with sinners that is intended to demonstrate that He’s the Savior and lead them to repentance.
The very fact that we experience as sinners come in grace, smell the coffee, kiss the one we love, have children, enjoy a sunset, eat a wonderful meal, take a beautiful vacation, have success, appreciate music. Sinners do that. And everyone who ever does any of that, who takes another breath, gives testimony to the fact that God is by nature a Savior, and if He wasn’t, He would destroy sinners before they took another breath.
So, the good news is you don’t have to try to convince God to save; you just need to convince the sinner to receive. One of the things that irritates me about Roman Catholicism, a lot of things do, but one of the most irritating things, one of the most God-dishonoring things, one of the most blasphemous elements of Roman Catholicism is this: look, if you want God to come and rescue you out of your plight, if you want God to deliver you, if you want God to pay attention to you, don’t go to God. He’s really busy. And He’s really holy. He’s holy, holy, holy. And He hasn’t got time for you and He’s hard and harsh. You don’t want to go to God. You don’t want to cry out to God.
Now, you could go to Christ. You could go to Christ because Christ having been a man, and having experienced all the things that humans experience, being in all points tempted like as we are, He’s liable to be a little more sympathetic, but, you know, He’s pretty tough, too. He’s pretty harsh. So if you really have a problem and you really have a need, go to Mary. Go to Mary. Why you go to Mary? Because Jesus can’t resist Mary. He can resist you, He can’t resist His mother. Go to Mary. That is a blasphemy against the nature of God who is a reconciling, loving God waiting for the sinner to come into His presence and ask His forgiveness. You don’t need to go to Mary. Mary never has heard a prayer from any human being since she arrived in heaven. And neither has anybody else in heaven except the Trinity. God is by nature a reconciling God. You say, “Well, look at the Old Testament, how can you say that God is, how can you say He’s a loving reconciling God when some young guys say, “Hey, O Baldy, Baldy, Baldy,” to a prophet, and God sends bears out of the woods and rips them to shreds, what kind of a God does that? What kind of a God sends bears out of the woods to shred a bunch of young men who are yelling, “Baldy, Baldy” at a prophet?
That’s not the question. You say, “What kind of a God opens up the ground and swallows some guys?” That’s really not the question. What kind of God brings down the house on the Philistines? What kind of a God does that? What kind of a God instructs the Israelites to kill the Canaanites? What kind of a God is that? That is not the question. The question is not: why did God take the life of sinners in the Old Testament in those cataclysmic ways? The question is why did He allow most sinners to go on living? That’s the question. The wages of sin is death, death is what they deserve. You know, in Luke 13 they came to Jesus and they said, “You know, we don’t understand, we don’t understand. Some Galileans came into the temple, they were in there worshiping and Pilate’s guys came in, took some knives and sliced them up and killed them all. Why did that happen?
You know, the question is: they’re worshipers. They’re in there doing what they’re supposed to do. How can God let that happen? And Jesus’ answer was, “You’re going to perish, too.” And then they asked a second one, they read in the Jerusalem Gazette that a tower fell over and crushed a bunch of people and killed them. What kind of a God lets that happen?” That’s not the question. Periodically through human history, it all points in times through cataclysms and events like that, God gives testimony to what all sinners deserve that the mass of sinners who go on living and enjoying all the benefits of common grace give evidence to the fact that God is by nature a saving God. He puts His compassion and His mercy on behalf of sinners on display through common grace as a warning to sinners to repent. He is in that sense a Savior of all men, but He is especially the Savior of those who believe because He saves them not physically and temporally, but spiritually and eternally. God is the source of reconciliation. I’m so glad I don’t have to talk God into being willing to accept a sinner.
You know, when Jesus died on the cross, there was a veil, wasn’t there, in the temple that separated God from everybody, or the symbol of God’s presence. God ripped it from top to bottom and threw it wide open. And all sinners who will come have access to one who is by nature a reconciling God. Back to the text. It is God who reconciles us to Himself. It is God in Christ reconciling the world. It is God begging, appealing. Never are you more in line with the will of God than when you preach the word of reconciliation.
Reconciliation, then, is, first of all, by the will of God. Secondly, it is by the act of forgiveness. It is by the act of forgiveness. How in the world can God do this? Well, it comes in verse 19. The only way that God can reconcile with sinners, here it comes, verse 19, is by not counting their trespasses against them. That’s the only way. How is reconciliation possible? How can He reconcile the world? That means all people from all nations who will be reconciled. How can He reconcile them? By not counting their trespasses against them. That’s the issue. He has to set their sins aside.
Now, we already know, don’t we, we talked about it. Micah 7, “Who is a pardoning God like You?” Exodus chapter 33, “God is by nature compassionate, merciful. He is a forgiving God.” The Old Testament is full of that. The New Testament is full of that. God is an eager forgiver of penitent sinners, not counting their trespasses against them. It is the thing that we need to say to sinners. Here’s the question. You can be reconciled to God. God will forgive you all your sins forever. Are you interested? That’s the issue. When people evangelize often, they say, “Do you want to have purpose in your life?” “Do you want to have a better marriage?” “You want to straighten out your slice on the golf course?” “You want to score more touchdowns?” You know. What are you looking for in life? Happiness, contentment, sense of well-being? That is not it. Do you want to die in your sins and go to hell forever? Or, are you interested in full and complete and eternal forgiveness? That’s the message.
Psalm 32:2, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity.” That’s what’s behind this verse. Paul probably thought about it here because he said it, actually, in Romans 4:8, “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.” That’s a paraphrase of Psalm 32. God is willing to erase the sin. In fact, the Old Testament says He’ll remove it as far as the east is from the west. He’ll bury it in the depths of the deepest sea and remember it no more. Colossians 2:13 says that it is God who has forgiven us all our transgressions. And, friends, as we’re faithful to the gospel and faithful to the gospel that Paul proclaimed, what we’re telling sinners is about the forgiveness of their individual sins. This is the good news, that God will forgive all your sins. This is the message of reconciliation. Let’s get past all the superficiality, get past all the prosperity garbage, that Jesus wants you healthy, wealthy, and rich, successful. What He offers is none of that. You may be sicker after you’re saved then you’ve ever been. You may be poorer after you’re saved then you’ve ever been. But you are in the care of the sovereign God who is determined that that is for your good and His glory. But what you will be able to count on, is that you are on the way to heaven because He does not credit your sins any longer to your account.
In fact, I love the language of Colossians which says He blots out the transgression that was written against us. Taking it out of the way, removing it. It’s a reconciliation Paul knows because He’s personally experienced it. It is by the will of God, by the act of forgiveness. Thirdly, it is by the obedience of faith. Now, we talked about this. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this. It is by the obedience of faith. That’s implied in verse 20. To make this happen, the sinner must respond, so here we go. We’re ambassadors for Christ. We’re the representatives of the great King who wants to be reconciled with His alienated subjects. We gave good news to tell them. God will be reconciled to you. God will not impute your sins to you, He will forgive you. Please accept this gift. That’s what verse 20 is saying. It is as if God, through us, is making an appeal. We are begging you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
Now, that doesn’t sound very Calvinistic, does it? You don’t think we go around begging people, please be reconciled, repent, believe, confess your sin, turn from your sin, embrace Christ. Oh, you know, we’re Calvinists. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. Really? Listen, not only should we be begging sinners to be reconciled to God as an act of faith, but listen, it is God making the appeal through us. He might conclude that God isn’t even a very good Calvinist. What? God begging sinners to be reconciled? That sounds absolutely Arminian. What do you mean? That’s what it says. We’re going to look at that dilemma tomorrow.
There is no salvation apart from faith. There is no salvation apart from the willingness of the sinner. What does it say in John 1:12? “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” And yet, “They’re not born of blood, nor the will of the flesh, nor the will of man, but of God.” We know it’s a work of God but still it’s not apart from the sinner. It’s through the sinner’s expression of will. God is a beggar pleading with sinners.
Look at Jesus, “You will not come to Me that you might have life. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. How often I would have gathered you as a hen gathers her brood, but you would not. Your house is left to you desolate. And He wept.” You remember that? He wept. Jeremiah weeps the tears of God in his prophecy. “My eye will run down with tears ‘cause you will not believe.” God Himself is pleading through you with sinners. We are the representatives of a pleading God, a begging God, crying out to sinners, asking them to please believe, and be saved, and be reconciled to Him.
So, the ministry of reconciliation, the work of reconciliation is by the will of God through forgiveness, by the means of faith. That takes us to the fourth and final point, and this is going to capture what we’ve been saying all day. It is by the work of substitution, by the work of substitution. ‘Cause the question then comes immediately: how in the world can God just decide not to impute our sins to us?
To borrow the language of Romans 4:5, how can He justify the ungodly? That frankly, that statement that God justifies the ungodly would be the most, the most unacceptable sentence that Paul could utter in a Jewish context. God determines that the ungodly are righteous? God justifies the ungodly? That is an absolute outrage. How can He do it? As we said today, you know, if a judge sitting at the bench and a criminal came in and he had been accused of multiple murders and he said, “I did it all. I killed all those people, you know, I killed them, and then I dismembered them, and I buried them all over the place. Yeah, I did all that. I feel really bad about it. I’m so sorry for the family. And judge, I’m so sorry, I really am sorry, and would you please forgive me and let me go?” And the judge said, “You know, because you’ve asked, I forgive you, you’re free to go.” You wouldn’t be a judge anymore ‘cause he’s not upholding the Law. It would be an outrage. Is that what God did? Did God just say, “Oh yeah, sure, on your way?”
No, He didn’t. His justice had to be satisfied, and that’s verse 21. That’s the work of substitution. This will wrap up what we’ve been hearing about that really all day. It was BB Warfield who said, “Substitution is the heart of the heart of the gospel.” Let me help you understand verse 21. 15 Greek words. The most condensed, clear, comprehensive statement of the meaning of substitutionary atonement on the pages of the New Testament, verse 21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” If He is not going to impute our trespasses to us, but rather is going to impute righteousness to us, how can He do that and still be just? Here’s how. “He,” that’s God, “made Him who knew no sin.” Who’s that? Very short list. Right? The only one with no sin. “He made Him who knew no sin, sin.” Oh, what did he mean by that? What do you mean He made Him who knew no sin, sin? Well, Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagen, the Word of Faith people tell us, and I’ve heard them say it many times with their own lips that on the cross Jesus became a sinner, He became a sinner, and He had to go to hell and suffer for His sins for three days. And then the Lord let Him be raised from the dead because He had pay for His sins.
That is blasphemy. He was a Lamb without blemish and without spot. He was as sinless hanging on the cross as He ever is eternally. That is why He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” If He’s a sinner, there’s no “why”. On the cross, Jesus did not become a sinner. In what sense was, did He become sin? In this sense and this sense alone. God treated Him as if He were a sinner though He was not.
Now, follow carefully. On the cross God treated Christ as if He had committed personally every sin ever committed by every person who would ever believe, though in fact He committed none of them. Did you get that? On the cross, God treated Christ as if He personally committed every sin ever committed by every believer who ever lives and though He committed none of them. Let me say it in a more personal way. On the cross, God treated Jesus as if He lived your life. He didn’t, but God treated Him as if He did. He treated Christ as if He lived my life. He poured out the full fury of His wrath against our sin as if Christ was the guilty one. Isn’t that what’s pictured in the sacrificial system, going back to Leviticus chapter 1 verses 1 to 9?
So, we say it this way: on the cross God treated Jesus as if He was a sinner though He was not a sinner. Why did He do that? On our behalf, for us. Because His justice had to be satisfied. And I told you this morning that in three hours of darkness He was able to bear the infinite punishment, the eternal punishment of all the collected people who will ever believe, because He is an infinite person with an infinite capacity, and His capacity to bear the punishment had no boundaries.
That’s only the first part of it. God treated Him as if He committed every sin ever committed by every person who would ever believe, and then the flipside of the doctrine of substitution, at the end of verse 21, “So that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. So that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Now, listen to this, this must be understood or you don’t get the full picture in this great verse. Are you righteous? Before God you stand righteous, but are you righteous? If you’re having any question about it, just ask the person sitting next to you, you’ll get an honest answer. Are you righteous? No. Paul said at the height of his spiritual maturity, “I am the chief of,” what? “Righteous people?” No. No. “I’m the chief of sinners.” You’re not righteous. What does this mean? It means that God treats you as if you were righteous. Let me go a step further. On the cross, God treats His Son as if He lived your life so that He could treat you as if you lived His Son’s life. That’s how God sees you. He looks at the cross and sees you; He looks at you and sees His Son. That’s why there’s no condemnation.
Now, you know, somebody might say, “Oh well if I were God, I think I would have designed this deal differently. Why does Jesus have to be here for 33 years for and go through all that hassle? I mean, why didn’t the Father just go to Him and say, “Can I use you for a weekend down on earth? You go down on a Friday, they’ll kill You. You rise from the dead on Sunday, be back by late Sunday evening after a few appearances. Redemption will be accomplished. I just need you for the weekend.” What’s the 30 years about? What’s that for? Scripture tells us what that’s for. He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without what? Sin. At all points means chronologically, from birth. At all points without sin. He lived a complete life without sin. Infancy, childhood, teenage years, young adult, mature adult, full life, He fulfilled all righteousness. Why? Because that life would be credited to your account. That is the active righteousness of Christ that we talked about.
So, on the cross God treats Jesus as if He lived your life, and now He treats you as if you lived His. That’s pretty generous, isn’t it? He looks at the cross and sees you. He looks at you and sees His Son. That’s good news to the sinner. Paul says, “I can’t view anybody any other way than as a spiritual entity, desperately in need of the message of reconciliation. We have been given this ministry, we’ve been given this message, we are here as ambassadors in an alien world. We can’t look at people externally, we have to see them for what they really are, eternal souls who will spend that eternity either in heaven or hell and the message that we must deliver to them is a message of reconciliation that God loves them so much, He is such an eager forgiver, that He is willing to remove their sins from them and replace them with His own righteousness as demonstrated and manifested in the perfect life of His Son. He judged His Son as if He lived your life, so that He could reward you as if you lived His life. This is the glory of the gospel.
Father, we thank You for Your truth. These are just almost beyond our comprehension, these wonders. We are so insignificant, so utterly sinful and unworthy and undeserving. And yet You have granted us this great salvation. May we be like Paul, ruled by such love, realizing that You didn’t just do this for us, but You died for all. And may we give our lives relentlessly and eagerly to the ministry of reconciliation to tell sinners they can be reconciled to a loving, forgiving God who will treat them as if they were as righteous as His perfect Son. This is available through faith in the name of Christ. Thank You for a wonderful evening of fellowship. Thank You for the privilege of worshiping You. We know that You want us to worship You in spirit. We’ve done that as we’ve sung, but also in truth. And now that we’re more enriched with the truth, fill our hearts with joy as we continue to worship You in the name of Your Son. Amen.
“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”
Wherever you’re at right now, the sun may be shining and life is good, making the reality of withstanding anything evil seem remote. Yet from the moment Eve plucked the fruit in the Garden, sin entered, and each day came under the sway of the evil one. It’s for this reason that Paul exhorts Christians to be geared up and battle ready.
Our adversary, Satan, will do his best to disarm you because he knows that a wobbly, defenseless Christian cannot stand. If we are to stand in opposition to his schemes, it’s essential that we make daily use of the most sophisticated armament available – the armor of God. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)
It is incumbent upon each of us to be intimately acquainted with each piece of armor and keep it securely fastened. Puritan saint William Gurnall put it this way, “The armor… is to be worn night and day; we must walk, work, and sleep in them, or else we are not true soldiers of Christ.” With your armor firmly in place, you will be able to stand in obedience. Truth will triumph. You will not wobble or waver.
Today, if you are in the midst of personal trials, stand. In grief and sorrow, stand. In temptation, stand. In the chaos of our times, stand. Believer, in the evil day, stand!
When Notre Dame Cathedral burned in 2019, it was symbolic of a greater European -wide collapse of religious faith which had already taken place. That great cathedral, like most of the others in Europe, had long since passed from being a vibrant community of active worshipers, to an architectural show piece attracting millions of tourists, taking millions of photographs.
The process which has brought about the death of Judeo-Christian culture in Europe is now being replicated in America. If America wants to know its grim future, it only has to consult the facts of present day European society.
From the earliest days of American history, religion played an outsized role. Even during the 1700’s when it was intellectually fashionable for some of our leaders like Thomas Jefferson to scoff at supernaturalism and prefer deism to theism, they still held tightly to the moral and spiritual truths expressed in the Holy Bible. They could do without belief in miracles in general but not the necessary miracle of a creator God who established an unchanging moral order. French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, who had visited America in the 1800’s, took particular note of America’s highly religious national character as compared to European society. He knew the horrors which French society was plunged into as a result of extreme, anti-religious, sentiment. The history of the world is littered with failed revolutions that promised to remake their societies, in a better image. The American Revolution is among the few which have actually succeeded.
The bad news is that we are now no longer on the same path. We have opted for the European model.
The last sixty years of American history reveal that we have been on a new path. It is a path that leads away from freedom and individual responsibility. It is a path that mistakes vice for freedom and socialism for progress and because Europe began this journey before us, we can now see our future, In their present
If we begin with a comparison of religious practice, the surveys of American society show a number between 37% and 22% for Americans who attend weekly services.
The average of these numbers which is below 30% is the lowest in modern American history but if you are a person of faith in Europe, you would be celebrating this as the sign of a “Great Religious “revival. The average church attendance for the countries of Northern Europe is 4%. There are only three countries in Europe where more than 10% of young people attend religious services on a weekly basis.
What must be understood are the characteristics of this new post-Judeo-Christian Europe? What does the sociological data tell us is happening there? Sociologists, psychologists and historians, all agree on one point, the family unit is the basis of all societies. The present European family is in a state of crisis. As much as we lament America’s high divorce rate of 53%, Europe’s is higher, in some countries reaching 60% but worse than the high divorce rates are the high out of wedlock birth rates and the huge increase in single parent families. The, “Max Planck Society” published the following in 2016,
“The significance of marriage slowly started to decline as early as 1970, a process linked to the advance of secularization in many countries… By 1990, the share of unmarried births had already increased fourfold… In many parts of Northern and Western Europe, there are already more births out of wedlock than births within marriage.”
Needless to say the same process is taking place in America .The difference is America’s religious attendance was much higher than Europe’s when the process started. We are moving in the same direction as Europe but at a slower pace.
The fact that European societies are still relatively prosperous and orderly in spite of these demographic changes is only a testament to what historian Will Durant called , “… living in the after- glow of one’s faith”. No society will collapse immediately, but already these changes are showing themselves in a variety of dark statistics.
The crisis in the European family is rapidly becoming a mental health crisis.
The most recent large scale study of Europe, covering 514 million people found that mental illness had increased to 38%.
Based upon World Health Organization statistics, Europeans commit more suicide than the people of any other region of the world. Russia has the highest rate, followed by other Eastern European nations all of which were until recent years ruled by Communist governments which viewed religion as taboo. Following these Eastern European nations the most secular parts of Western and Northern Europe have the next highest rates of suicide. The more traditional and culturally conservative parts of Europe have the lowest rates of suicide. Lagging behind Europe, America is making great strides to catch-up. The CDC reported in 2018 that America now has the highest rate of suicide in 50 years.
In Europe this is not just a problem of highly depressed people wanting to end their lives. There is a concerted effort on the part of medical professionals to assist others in doing so. Belgium now carries the label of the, “world’s euthanasia capital” and even allows suicide by lethal injection for children.
Following the same guiding principle of utility, Europe is now number four on the list of continents which carry-out the most abortions. The fact that the primary victim of an abortion is an unborn child without a voice makes the problem easier to ignore. Much harder to ignore is the explosion in Human Trafficking taking place in Europe.
The Department of Homeland Security has described the problem of Human Trafficking, as a “… modern day form of slavery… among the world’s fastest growing criminal industries.” BusinessLine, reported in 2019 that, “… children now account for 30 per cent of those being trafficked… Trafficking for sexual exploitation is the most prevalent form in European countries…”
Three of the top ten areas for sex tourism are located in Europe and all the others are located in poor less developed regions of the world. In America the same thing is happening. Feminists, pro-homosexual rights advocates, cultural celebrities, are using terms like, “Pan sexual”, “gender fluidity” and “One Love” to begin the major re-education of American society. Harvard professor Sarah Richardson a supporter of this task has described the necessary change in this way,
“Young people will lead us in directions that we have never imagined… more and more young people are transcending gender norms… a more sophisticated view of gender seems to be everywhere we look…. Is expanding our ideas of identify and love.”
Well the Europeans have both imagined and are realizing this “Brave New World” and the “New Morality” looks a lot like the “Old Immorality”. The imagined utopian welfare state of Europe is now being realized for what it is, a dystopian society where the soul of mankind dies and selfish appetites reign. In America we are faithfully re-tracing the European steps which include: The death of faith, the death of the family, and the de-humanization of mankind.
William D. Howard is a freelance writer who has been published in both secular and religious formats. He had a long career as an educator and has traveled in over 40 countries.
The term “dysfunctional family” came into vogue in the ’70s and ’80s to describe families that struggle to deal with one another and that produce problems that follow children into adulthood. However, dysfunction may be more pervasive than you think. It’s said George Bernard Shaw once quipped, “I don’t know if there are men on the moon, but if there are they must be using the earth as their lunatic asylum.” Maybe you read that and think, He must’ve known my family.
Genesis features a prominent tale of family dysfunction among Jacob, his two wives Rachel and Leah, his father-in-law Laban, and Laban’s sons (see Genesis 29-31). There may have been a little bit of fudge in this family, but there were many more nuts. Jacob had deceived his own father and brother and faced a comeuppance from Laban, who tricked Jacob into marrying both of his daughters and kept him on the payroll for fourteen years to do it.
This particular dysfunctional family points to a greater truth: every family is dysfunctional. Does that sound harsh? Let me explain. Because of sin, we all operate at a certain level of dysfunction, especially compared to how God means for us to live. In some families, of course, it’s worse. Dysfunctional people attract other dysfunctional people, which compounds any issue. Jacob and Laban were two peas in a defective pod, but the reason we have their story is so that we can see how God worked despite their issues.
Jacob, who swindled his brother Esau’s birthright and tricked his aged father into giving him Esau’s blessing, left home, thinking he could escape his family’s issues. He wasn’t the first to do this, nor the last to learn that running away doesn’t work, because wherever you go, there you are. You bring yourself, problems and all. Yet Jacob, we read in the New Testament, ended up being described as a faithful standard bearer for God (see Hebrews 11:20-21). In spite of his messed-up behavior, God still had plans for him.
Every family is affected by sin. That’s because we are all broken, flawed individuals who need a Savior. Jesus spoke of the people He came to save as poor, brokenhearted, captive, blind, and oppressed (see Luke 4:16-19). We are inherently dysfunctional. But here’s the good news: God can function in our dysfunction.
In the midst of family squabbles, God came to Jacob and said, “Return to the land of your fathers and to your family, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3). God blessed Jacob while he worked for Laban, and when Jacob was mature enough to see God’s hand at work, God brought him into a new season. That’s because the perfect God works through imperfect people. Admittedly, there’s no other kind of people for Him to use, but use us He does.
You’ve heard it said that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. However, you can choose to adjust to your family. And you can choose to add positively to your family. In fact, the only way to fail when it comes to dysfunction is to take failure as the final word. Let God have the final say, and watch Him work even in the midst of family issues.
Two historic women, one old and one young, were the first to welcome and praise the Savior of the world. And two glorious paintings communicate the beauty of these wondrous events.
Dec 23, 2019
If quizzed “Who was the first person to welcome Jesus and announce his lordship?” how would you answer? It’s an important question when we consider that this man from the nowhere town of Nazareth is the most consequential individual ever.
His teaching and followers across the globe radically transformed world culture, toppled great powers without ever firing a shot, established the world of humanitarianism and accessible medical care for commoners, inspired the scientific method, and enlivened the world movements for justice, human dignity, and individual freedom. He literally divides history and is responsible for the founding of the largest, most diverse collection of people around some basic ideals.
This all started with two women no one had ever heard of, whose life-altering experiences are now illustrated in two exquisite works of art. Mary, a humble, young virgin, by tradition about 14 years old at the time, is told by an angel she will give birth to the very Son of God. At this striking news, she “arose and went with haste” to see her cherished relative, Elizabeth, some 90 miles away.
Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her own miraculous pregnancy, for she was well past child-bearing years. Of course, her baby was Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist.
The beauty of this part of the Christmas story is the miracle that happens the moment Mary enters Elizabeth’s home. Christ is recognized, received, proclaimed, and worshiped, and Mary and Elizabeth are not the only two involved in the divine drama here. We read in Luke 1:41-44:
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
This is a major event in Jesus’ story and thus the Christian church, but we seldom appreciate it as such. It is the first time Jesus is both proclaimed and worshiped as God! This was done, we are told, “in a loud voice.” And Christ the Lord is worshiped by two people at the same time — one very old, one super young.
The First to Proclaim Jesus’ Lordship
Elizabeth proclaims the blessedness of Jesus and his mother. The simple but world-changing confession, “Jesus is Lord,” was the first and most basic way Christians began to proclaim their faith and greet one another in the church’s early years. It was the first Christian creed, and Elizabeth was the first to proclaim it, long before Christmas morning. Think on that for a moment.
The second greeting is even more incredible and speaks to an intimate relationship in the Savior’s life. Baby John leaps for joy, literally, at the coming of the Savior. He does so as a child in the darkness of his mother’s womb. (Yes, Christianity has profoundly strong words for the humanity and dignity of the unborn child in John and Jesus’ remarkable in utero contribution to the good news.)
John did not start serving as the forerunner of Christ when preaching about his coming in the desert. It was here, in the womb. And it was two very common mothers, Elizabeth and Mary, who experienced this remarkable, history-changing event. It happened in distinctly womanly interiors of their hearts and wombs, and in the humbleness of Elizabeth’s home. Humble motherhood and the intimate bond only mothers can share is the human font of the Christian story.
To be sure, the Christian church, which is often incorrectly charged with being sexist by people who know little of its actual story, is founded upon two women being the first to welcome and praise the Savior. (Remember as well, it was a small group of women who announced the “second birth” of the Savior, if you will, at his resurrection.) What other major faith or philosophy has women playing such a significant role in its founding? I cannot think of one.
Two famous paintings communicate the beauty of these wondrous events, “The Annunciation” and “The Visitation.” The first African-American painter to achieve significant critical acclaim, Henry Ossawa Tanner, created both. He is a remarkable man and one of my favorite artists.
One of the things I like best in Tanner’s two works here is that he shows us the simple humanness of Mary and Elizabeth. They are not supernatural, other-worldly, saintly subjects in the typical sense. Tanner’s images show us the regular, everyday women they were.
He will not allow us to miss the youth, innocence, and commonness of our Mary. Tanner doesn’t give her a facial expression communicating anything obvious. Is she scared? Stunned? Joyful? Solemn? His Mary is more complex than many artists’ as is undoubtably true of the actual event. Tanner has her communicating all these feelings and struggles at once.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with this most startling news, he found a teenage girl living a typical teenage girl’s life. The greatest royal announcement in the history of the universe takes place in this teen girl’s humble bedroom, illuminated by the majesty of God’s oracle. That is precisely what Tanner gives us, and it’s just stunning. Also, his technique in presenting the folds and flow of her gown and bed coverings is nothing short of magnificent.
As wonderful as Tanner’s “Annunciation” is, his “Visitation” is even more striking.
Just look at it and consider what’s happening here.
When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Tanner allows us personally to witness this event. Elizabeth most likely did not have any notice that Mary was coming or the grand news that prompted the visit. She sits at the table on an ordinary day, when she hears Mary possibly utter what any of us likely would as she comes to the door, “Liz, you home?”
Elizabeth’s divine surprise and wonder is dramatically communicated simply in her uplifted hands. It’s a glorious device. Are they hands of praise or surprise? Certainly both at the same time.
This simple scene of a surprise family visitation and domesticity is the first scene of Jesus being worshiped. Reflect on this a moment. The event we are witnessing right here in this kitchen is the initiation of what the rest of history and eternity will be about, the worship of the second person of the divine Trinity: Jesus, the Father’s beloved Son.
The interchange between these two women in this domestic setting is unspeakably profound. We typically move over it far too easily, wanting to get onto what we see as the center of the Christmas story, the manger.
This exchange is also vitally important because it is the first revelation of Christ beyond Mary’s heart and womb. It is the precise second and scene that commenced the worship of the Son of the God that will continue without end into eternity, the story that encapsulates a Christian’s whole reality.
P.S. Tanner Lived in Philadelphia
I knew Tanner lived in Philadelphia for some time, so on a business trip there some years ago, I wanted to see if his house was discoverable. It was, and I found it, right around the corner from John Coltrane’s home. How cool is that?
Glenn T. Stanton is a Federalist senior contributor who writes and speaks about family, gender, and art, is the director of family formation studies at Focus on the Family, and is the author of the brand new “The Myth of the Dying Church” (Worthy, 2019). He blogs at glenntstanton.com.
Despite a global lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, some 117,000 people from around the world expressed an interest in committing their faith in Jesus after hearing the Gospel through virtual events hosted by evangelist Nick Hall and his young-adult ministry Pulse during the week of Easter.
Pulse led two major events during the week, namely, Leader Check-In and a Good Friday service that featured several high-profile Christian speakers, including Francis Chan, founder of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, California, who now lives in Hong Kong.
“I’m guessing this is the strangest Good Friday you’ve ever had,” Chan told viewers during his quarantined Good Friday presentation broadcast in nearly 100 countries, including Japan, China, Nepal, Thailand, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Ukraine, and Russia, and was translated into 40 different languages.
“You’re used to being in a church building with a crowd of people celebrating the cross of Jesus, but I actually think that there’s something fitting about you being alone because most of you are watching this by yourself or maybe with your family in just a small group,” he said, noting that being alone can be a golden opportunity to connect with God.
“That’s why there’s something good about you being alone right now. It’s one thing to yearn for Him and scream for Him when everyone else is there because the crowd may move you to that. But this Good Friday [it’s good] for you to have some quiet and some isolation so that the core of your being, not just your lips, the core of your being will connect with Him,” Chan said.
Other speakers featured during the Good Friday service were: renowned apologist Ravi Zacharias, bestselling author Max Lucado, NFL Super Bowl Champion and Hall of Fame Coach Tony Dungy, and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez. Worship was courtesy of Christian singers Lauren Daigle, Michael W. Smith, Kari Jobe and Cody Carnes.
“We were literally getting smartphone photos from all over the world — from Nigeria to India and China — of families gathering in their living rooms, around 18-inch cathode-ray TVs, laptops and HD screens watching our services,” Hall said in a release shared with The Christian Post about the collective reaction to the event. “The doors to our church buildings may have been closed, but the church has not closed. We are living through a Great Quarantine Revival, and I think God is just getting started.”
At the Leader Check-In event hosted on April 8, ministry leaders and pastors were encouraged ahead of the Easter weekend. Bible teachers and bestselling authors such as Ann Voskamp, Beth Moore, Chan, David Platt, Rodriguez, Priscilla Shirer and Lecrae offered practical advice anchored in the Word of God.
“This Easter may have been the most significant in a century,” Hall said. “The fields have never been more ripe for harvest as people search for hope and meaning during this global pandemic. It may very well be the greatest opportunity we’ve had to share the Gospel — but we will miss it if we don’t care for our pastors and ministers now.”
I want to welcome you to our continued study of the epistle of James. So you can take your bible and open up to James. We have much ahead of us in this great epistle, but we are going to stop tonight for just a brief look at verse 18. Normally, we would be taking another section starting in verse 19, since we did mention verse 18 in our last study. But I want to stop for a moment and expand our understanding of James 1:18, because it is such a great, great verse. This is a verse that really articulates in a very simple way the meaning of the new birth, the meaning of salvation.
I was interested this morning in the reception for our first time guests to meet a lovely young lady from Japan who understands some English, conversational English and confessed this morning that she found it very difficult to follow what I was saying in the message. And it alerted me not so much to the fact that the words that I say are not intelligible as such, but the fact that the longer you are a Christian and the more you get involved in Christianity and in the word of God, the more sort of evangelical lingo you probably develop and somebody coming in who knows conversational English is going to have a very hard time plugging into what you are saying. It’s a good reminder also, that every once in a while, we need to go back to the simple reality of what the gospel really is and that’s what we want to do tonight. Let’s look together at verse 18 of James chapter 1.
It says this, of his own will, speaking of the father, God the father mentioned in verse 17, “Of his own will begot he us, with the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. A simple verse, but on in which is bound up all the richness of the new birth. The Old Testament said, be holy for I the Lord am holy. Peter says in his epistle, be holy, for I the Lord am holy. In order to enter into the presence of God, man must be holy. Set apart from sin unto righteousness. Now men are not holy. That’s obvious. They are not righteous, that is, they are sinful. They do not think right, speak right, act right, do right. They to not rightly perceive God. They do not rightly perceive themselves. They do not rightly perceive God’s truth, God’s revelation or God’s law or God’s will.
But even though men are not holy and they are not right with God, for the most part they do not perceive that they are not holy. They do not understand that they are not righteous, they do not willingly agree with the diagnosis of scripture that they are sinful. Men are not holy, and worse, they do not recognize either the need for holiness or in many cases, the absence of it. And if they do recognize that they are not holy, they usually blame someone else for that reality.
And that’s what we were discussing in our last look at this tremendous chapter. In directly, men push the responsibility for their sinfulness off on God, typically. And as we looked at verses 13 through 18, we saw that we have no one to blame but ourselves for our own sinfulness. Certainly, we cannot blame God by saying, well, God created us. God made laws that are impossible to keep. God has allowed me to become the way I am by my environment. God put me into circumstances that put such constraints on me I can’t control my behavior, et cetera, et cetera. But what James says to us is, God cannot have any part in our sinfulness either directly or indirectly.
So men have to be holy in order to have a relationship with God. They are not holy. For the most part, they don’t even recognize that they are not holy and if they do recognize that they sin, they will usually blame someone else’s and that someone in a very vague sense is the God who put them in the circumstances they are in and gave them the impulses he gave them and they want to shirk the responsibility. So James says in verse 13 to 18, you cannot blame anyone but yourself for your sin. In verse 13 he says, the nature of evil demonstrates that. No man can say, when he is tempted, I am tempted by God, for God can’t be tempted with evil, neither tempts he any man. You can’t blame God for evil because God and evil are mutually exclusive. And then in verse 14, the nature of man. He says, man has his own problem. Man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed. The problem is in man, it is in his sinfulness, his fallenness. Then he talks about the nature of lust in verses 15 and 16.
Lust when it conceives brings forth sin, sin when it finally comes forth produces nothing but death, and don’t you be wrong about that. In other words, understand that that is the reality of sin, so it isn’t God, because God and evil are incompatible. The problem is in the nature of man and in the nature of man the problem is his evil desire, his lust, his passion for that which is wrong. Then in verse 17, he goes back to discussing the nature of God and says, from God comes every good gift and every perfect gift and that never varies and there is never any shadow cast on that, so you can’t blame God because his nature is to give only good things. Only good comes from God. So, he says, we can’t blame God for our sin because of the nature of evil, the nature of man, the nature of lust and the nature of God Then in verse 18 he sort of sums up his argument by saying, the nature of regeneration itself or conversion or salvation or the new birth shows us that God does not lead us into sin. Verse 18 says, of his own will in other words, it was his will to beget us to become like him. A kind of first fruits of his own creation. So the purpose of regeneration was to give birth into life. To create us to do good not evil. To give us power over sin as a part of a new creation.
So God is in no way involved in our sinfulness. He cannot be mixed with evil. The problem is in man. In man, the problem is bound up with his lust. The nature of God is such that he only gives good gifts and when God touches your life, it is to produce life, not death, to produce righteousness not sin. To make a new creation, not exercise the old one.
So all of those things we looked at last time, point to the fact that God cannot directly or indirectly be the source of sin. God is not and cannot be tempting men to sin. And so we looked at verse 18 in that light. But the verse is so rich because it discusses this matter of the new birth of begetting a person, of regenerating a person and it demands a closer and longer look and we want to do that tonight. He introduces us to the subject of regeneration in verse 18 in connection with a point in his context. And the point is what I have just said to you, he is using regeneration as a way to show you that God doesn’t lead people into sin, he leads them to be creations of a new kind, like him. He leads them out of sin into new life. And that would be inconsistent with any thought that he would lead us into sin. He is recreating us away from sin, not into sin, but apart from the context itself, as we look at the verse, I want you to just examine it in and of itself, because it says so much about regeneration, and the whole teaching of regeneration and new birth is worthy of our careful attention. Now keep in mind what I said earlier and what we noted in the text that man is filled with lust and lust produces sin and sin begets death. It is true that without holiness no one will ever have a relationship with God, no one will ever fully know God. No one will ever enter into God’s eternal presence without holiness. And yet man is unholy and he is sinful and everything in his nature produces lust and evil. To give you a clearer understanding of that, look at Romans with me, chapter 3.
A very familiar portion of scripture to bible students but one that needs examination, in the light of this particular point. At the end of verse 9 he says, Jews and Greeks, they are all under sin. They are literally under the mastery of sin. They are all subject to the control of sin. And then he goes on to show this in extent by quoting from some Old Testament passages and he says, “As it is written, There is none righteous no not one.” There is not one human being created in this world since the fall of Adam that is righteous and that means that is right with God, that does righteously, that obeys the will of God in and of himself.
There is none righteous, no not one. There is none that understands. That is, there is none that fully comprehends that which God requires and is fully able to understand it and carry it out. There is none that even seeks after God. The bent of man is to seek sin. Men love what? Darkness, John 3 says, rather than light because their deeds are evil. They are all gone out of the way. They have all diverted themselves from the path that God ordained for righteousness. They are altogether become unprofitable. The Greek word has to do with sour milk. It is good for nothing. They are absolutely useless. And there is none that does good, not even one. And then he describes the nature of their evil. Their throat is an open sepulcher. It stinks like a dead corpse whose scent comes oozing out of a tomb. With their tongues, they have used deceit. The poison of asps or snakes is under their lips. A man is basically revealed in his conversation and in his mouth, and the ugly, evil, defiled, deadness of his sinful nature comes out through his mouth. The mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are in a hurry to shed blood. Destruction and misery are in their ways. The way of peace have they not known and there is absolutely no reverence of God before their eyes. Here is a definition of sinful man, man without God. And the whole world comes under this in verse 18. Every mouth is stopped and all the world stands guilty before God. And there is no way he says, in verse 20, that through their flesh, they can be justified by God, by keeping some rules by obeying law, even though it be the law of God. The law simply produces the knowledge of sin, it doesn’t produce righteousness. So there is the definition of man from Romans 3. Man in his sinful state, look at Ephesians 2.
In Ephesians 2 it says, verse 1, “And you who were dead in trespasses and sins.” And here we find that man is characterized again as being dead, the stench of a corpse and the characteristic of his deadness is a deadness in trespasses and sins. Just using two words to show kind of the breadth and the extent of his sinfulness. He walks, it says, according to the course of this world. In other words, he daily conduct is dictated by the evil system. The one who is in charge of his life is the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in the children of disobedience, those are titles for Satan. He functions, verse 3, in the lust of the flesh. He fulfills the desire of the flesh and the mind and he is by nature a child of wrath. That means, he is a target of judgment, he is the object of God’s judgment.
Now all this is very basic, man in order to have a right relationship to God, needs to be holy. Man is not holy. Man doesn’t recognize that he is not holy and sometimes if he does recognize that he is not holy and sinful he tends to blame God for his circumstances, pass off the responsibility which keeps him confined under the subjection of sin and therefore cut off from God. Now the question comes up, what are you going to do to help this man? What are you going to do to change the situation? What does this man need? External changes are not enough. He cannot by some resolution in his own mind determine that he is going to obey the law of God and work his way out of this deadness. He cannot give himself new life.
What he needs is to be recreated. He needs is a new heart, a new inner person, a new life principle. He needs to be born again. He needs to start all over and come out different. As if in the words of Nicodemus, he could crawl back into his mother’s womb and start all over again with a different nature. Since holiness is the absolute condition for acceptance into fellowship with God, sinful man in his fallen dead condition can’t ever have that fellowship and God won’t accept his corrupt self, so he needs a new life. He needs a brand new life. So when we talk about the gospel or the new birth, we are not talking about adding something. We are not talking about tacking something on. We are not talking about putting a ribbon on a sow. We are not talking about putting a new suit of clothes on an old man. We are talking about a total transformation. To enter into a right relationship with God, demands a total new person. You have to go back and start all over again and be born all over again into a new life.
Now scripture affirms this. It isn’t even new, in the New Testament, this was part of the promise in anticipation of the Old Testament. Jerimiah for example, says the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked and Jeremiah says, can the Ethiopian change his skin? Can he by willingly and by being willing rather and wishing can he change the color of his dark skin? And then Jeremiah says, can the leopard change his spots? And the answer is of course not, then, may you also do good that are accustomed to do evil.
You can’t change your life either, so you need a transformation. That’s Jeremiah 13:23 and over in chapter 31, comes the wonderful promise of that transformation, Jeremiah 31:31, “Behold the days come, says the Lord, I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the hand of Egypt, and so forth.” He says, “I’ll make a new covenant,” verse 33, “I will put my law in their inward parts. I will write it in their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. I am going to get inside and change their inside.” They can’t do it on their own so it has to be done for them. Man has to have a change at the very core of his being.
The natural man, that is the unregenerate man, the man that doesn’t know God. The sinful man, the unredeemed man, the unsaved man, does not, 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, “Receive the things of the spirit of God.” He can’t receive them. He’s dead. And a corpse doesn’t respond to anything. And so what does he need? He needs new birth. He needs new life. I just read you Ephesians 2:1 to 3, how that men are dead in trespasses and sin following the lust of the flesh, the lust of the mind, the desires of the flesh, being subject to the leadership of Satan, the prince of the power of the air, they are children of wrath, but it says, even when we were dead in sins in the same chapter verse 5, Christ has made us alive and raised us up. And here is the idea of a resurrection from the dead, of new life, of a new birth. In Romans 6, it says, when you put your faith in Christ, you die and you rise to walk in and it uses this wonderful phrase, newness of what? Of life. Now that’s what every person has to have, newness of life. The old life has to be totally done away and a new life has to come. In Ephesians 4:24, you have put on the new man, which, listen to this, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness. When you come to salvation, you put on a new man, a new person, not new clothes. A new person.
It’s a recreation. The best and most graphic illustration of this is found in the wonderful encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus so turn to John 3 and let’s look at it briefly and remind ourselves of this wonderful, wonderful story. There was a man of the Pharisees, that was, he was a religious leader of great esteem. He may have well been as prominent as any teacher because in verse 10 Jesus says, are you and uses the definite article, the teacher of Israel and don’t know these things.
So here is one man who is recognized perhaps publicly as the teacher in Israel of some great stature, a Pharisee well versed in the law. He approaches Jesus and says we know you are a teacher from God. Here is a man of great esteem. Here is a man who recognizes his own calling, but recognizes one who is even significantly above himself in understanding, so he comes to Jesus and he says in verse 2, we know you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do the miracles that you do except God be with him. And he never says what’s in his heart. He doesn’t ask a question, but Jesus reads his heart. And Jesus answered, that’s an interesting statement because he didn’t ask anything. He just said, you are a teacher, and went on to say, you come from God, we know that, but Jesus answered the question in his heart and said, Truly, truly I say to you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God and he knew that what was in the heart of Nicodemus was how do I get into the kingdom.
Here was a man who was the teacher in Israel. A Pharisee, had it all going religiously, but knew he had not entered into truly to the kingdom of God. How did he know he hadn’t? Because there was nothing inside of him confirming that. So he comes to Jesus and the question of his heart is, what do I do to get into the kingdom and the implication would be, I’m very religious, I study the law, I try to live by the code of the Old Testament. I’m an ethical man. I’m a trusted man. I’m a respected man. What do I need to add to my life to get into the kingdom and Jesus said, you don’t add anything, you start all over again.
You just kill the whole thing and start with birth. You have to be born again. And Nicodemus said to him, how can a man be born when he’s old. Now he’s not asking the physical thing. Give him a break. He’s not saying, physically, how can I go back and be born? He knows what Jesus is talking about. He is simply picking up on the same use of veiled language, of parabolic talk of the meshal, the kind of speech that they use. And he’s picking up on the same metaphor, the same descriptive terms that Jesus is using and he’s saying how does someone so many years in one religion, so many years following one code, so many years to be now a Pharisee and a rabbi and a teacher of the law, ever go back and undo all of that and start all over again.
That’s what he’s saying. And if you have ever witnessed to an orthodox Jew, of any years, you will understand this mindset. How can I ever unravel all this lifelong pursuit of religion and start all over again, that’s what was in the mind of Nicodemus. Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born and he’s tongue in cheek at that point. He’s saying that again, consistent with the analogy that Jesus was using. How can I be born again spiritually? He knows Jesus speaks spiritually. How can I do it? How can it happen? And Jesus says to him, basically, you can’t do it.
You can’t do it Nicodemus, truly, truly, I say to you, except a man be born of water and the spirit, he cannot what? Enter the kingdom of God. He says, you can’t do it. It has to be done by water and the spirit. It has to be done by a power and a resource outside yourself, outside of you. And that power is the water and the spirit. Now what does that refer too? That’s the water of salvation, I believe if you go back for a brief moment to Ezekiel 36, you will see Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus in very familiar terms, he knew the Old Testament. He knew the promise of Ezekiel 36 verse 25, I will sprinkle clean water upon you.
Who is I? God. This is a sovereign act. And you will be clean from your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleans you, what he is saying to Nicodemus is this, number one, you must have a sovereign cleansing by God. Secondly, it comes through the Holy Spirit. You need a sovereign salvation that comes from outside yourself. Just like Ezekiel prophesied, clean water, cleansing your filthiness. Paul writing to Titus talks about the washing of water through the word. The water of regeneration, verse 26, a new heart will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you, take away the stony heart out of your flesh, I will give you a heart of flesh, then this, I will put my spirit within you and cause you from the inside to walk in my statues. You shall keep my ordinances and you shall do them.
So when Jesus says to Nicodemus you must be born of the water and the spirit to enter the kingdom, he’s taking Nicodemus right back to Ezekiel 36 and saying, you know what the prophet said, you need a sovereign cleansing that comes from God outside yourself and the planting of his holy spirit in your heart to give you a new life and a new heart and a new motivation. Why? Verse 6, if you try to do it on your own, that which is born of the flesh is what? All you are going to do is reproduce what? Yourself. More of you. But that which is born of the spirit is what? Spirit. So don’t be surprised that I said you must be born again. Don’t be surprised. Then he says, the wind blows where it wants and you hear the sound and you can’t tell from where it comes and where it goes and so is everyone that is born of the spirit. You know what he’s saying there? He’s saying, I can’t tell you how or when the Holy Spirit does this, but this is a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit. It can’t be charted. You can’t even see it coming or going, but the spirit of God moves in where he wills and gives new birth to whom he wills as sovereign God by the agency of the spirit, through the washing of the water of the word in regeneration, cleanses the heart and plants that spirit within a man. What you need Nicodemus is a new life and that is a sovereign act of God. Just what Jerimiah 24 said in verse 7 where God said, I will give them a heart to know me.
A new nature, a new heart, a new life. If any man be in Christ, 2 Corinthians 5:17, he is a new creature, old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. So what I’m saying here is a new birth is essential. That’s what salvation is. It is God sovereignly coming down to a sinner and by his grace cleansing that sinner and planting his spirit in that sinner so that the cleansing of that sinner takes care of his relationship to God and the planting of the spirit takes care of his power to live in the will of God. And that’s the purpose or regeneration.
Now I want to ask four questions in our verse, James 1:18, let’s go back. That was introduction. James 1:18, I want to ask you four questions about regeneration. Very simple questions and it won’t take us but a brief time to answer the four. First question, what is it? You’ve just said that man cannot know God without holiness. Man is not holy. Man doesn’t recognize his unholiness and when he does, he tends to blame God. How is he ever going to get out of the dilemma. Here is he blaming God for it, or not recognizing it. How is he every going to change. Well, you say somebody brings him so higher standards, some better ethics, a law that he is supposed to keep and he does it on his own. No, that which the flesh produces is more what? More flesh, so what has to happen is, he needs the divine intervention of a sovereign God, who by his spirit comes in, washes away his sin, plants a new life in him. Gives him his spirit to energize that new life unto obedience, that is a sovereign act. That’s really regeneration. But let’s get into this verse and look at the four questions, question number one. What is is? What is the nature of regeneration? And I have already alluded to it, in fact already covered a great portion, but just this phrase, of his own will be begat us. That’s the nature of regeneration.
It is God brining us forth, giving birth to us as new beings. You are not the same. You are a whole new creating. Its’ the same verb, by the way, exactly the same one used back in verse 15. God, when he conceives brings forth regeneration. Brings forth new life, it’s the very same verb. It’s in Eros tense so it looks back to the event of salvation when we were born by the divine parent and given new life as children of God. Now if you want a technical definition for he begat us, here is one that I think is excellent. It’s given by the theologian Berkhoff many years ago, but really says it. Regeneration is, that act of God by which the principle of new life is implanted in man and the governing disposition of his soul is made holy. That is a great definition. Regeneration is that act of God by which the principle of new life is implanted in man and the governing disposition of his soul is made holy. That is a total transformation. That doesn’t sound anything like Romans 3, does it or anything like Ephesians 2:1 to 3. In fact, Peter says, we become partakers of the divine nature. God gives us his own life, his own self, his own righteous character, his own holiness is implanted in us, just a tremendous thought. As a Christian, you and possess the very nature of God, 2 Peter 1:4. We are partakers of this divine nature. Now, in its fullness, we are yet to receive all that that implies, but already that new life principle is planted in us. This is completed in a moment of time. It is not a process. It is an event. It is an act by which God creates you new. It is a secret work. It cannot be perceived. That’s why we can’t, in the words of Jesus, tell the wheat from the tares, because this particular act is imperceptible. It is known only through its effect. We can’t see God recreate someone. That is a divine miracle unseen by any human eye.
But it plants in the person a new life principle and a new disposition that is enabled and driven to keep the law of God. Marvelous. It overcomes the deadness of sin. And the deadliness of sin. No longer are we subject to sin, Paul says in Romans chapter 6, sin no longer has dominion over us. We now follow a new master willingly and eagerly.
Jesus said in John 10, I am come that they might have what? Life. What do dead men need most? Life. And so, he comes to give us new life. So what is regeneration? What is it? He begot us. What does that mean? He gave us new life. Total transformation of the inner person. Second question, who does it? Well, I have already told you that from John chapter 3, who does it? Look back at verse 18 again, of his own will, he begot us. He being God the father mentioned in verse 17 as the source of every good and every perfect gift, of his own will is first in the Greek in the verse, which put is it in the emphatic position showing that the sovereign will of God is the root of this new life. It couldn’t be any other way, because how is a dead person going to give himself life? Impossible. The source of new life is God. God. It is the grace of the giver, not the desire of the receiver. That desire of the receiver is prompted by the grace of the giver. So it is wholly the choice and the work of almighty God.
If I am saved, and you are saved, who gets all the credit? God does. We praise him. Go back to John 1:12 and I want to just draw a little more on this thought. You say, but wait a minute, didn’t I receive Christ, didn’t I believe, of course, you did. You reached out and received him and believed. Look at verse 12 of John 1, “As many as received him to them gave he the right or the authority to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name.” You say that’s right. I believed and I received. Didn’t I do that? Didn’t I initiate that? Look at verse 13, who were born, not of the blood, not talking about a human birth, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man,” but of what? “God.” You believed and you received because it was the will of whom? Of God. It is a sovereign thing. Yes, you believed. Yes, you received. Behind it, all was the sovereign, determinative, gracious will of God.
No, child has ever been born into the world humanly speaking because he or she wanted to be born. Fair enough? The birth of a child is strictly the decision of parents, not of unborn children. Spiritual birth is analogous to that. It is the decision of the sovereign divine parent. No man comes unto me Jesus said, except the father what? Draws him. Except the father draws him and even the very faith we exercise, is granted graciously by God. So our conscious experience of conversion, our conscious experience of committing our life to Jesus Christ of believing in his death and resurrection, of opening our hearts to receive him, of believing the gospel, all is a consequence of his sovereign will.
Beloved when you stop to think that you are saved because he predetermined in eternity past to save you, that is a marvelous thing. God in his grace and love predetermined to have an eternally intimate love relationship with you just because that’s what he wanted, marvelous. John put it this way, we love him because he first loved us. A child gives love to a human parent as a response to parental love and care and the life they gave that child. And because God has willed to save us, because God has willed to give us new life and a holy nature, it is absolutely impossible, James says that he could ever lead us into sin. You see how absolutely incongruous that is? What a thrilling thought. He predestinated us to set his love on us.
To give us new life that we might have eternal fellowship with him and he longs for us to be in his presence and when we go into his presence he will make us like his own son and he will pour out eternal blessing on us forever and ever and ever. No wonder John says in 1 John 3, “Behold what manner of love the father hath bestowed on us that we should be called the children of God.” He can’t even think of an adjective. It’s absolutely indescribable. He just says, what manner of love, he couldn’t even come up with an adjective to describe that kind of predetermined sovereign free choice to love.
Now looking back at James 1:18, just one other thought about that particular point, when it says of his own will, it uses the word boultheis, aorist participle. It is not just a wish, but it is an active will of accomplishment. It isn’t God just wishing it. He wishes us to be saved, it is he wills it to the extent that it actually happens. May I say something to you that’s very profound theologically? This is what we would say is God’s productive will. That is when he wills this, it happens. It is not a wish. You can wish something, oh, I wish, oh, how I wish this will happen and it may be remotely unrelated to what will happen. Or you can say, I will that to happen because it’s within your power to make it happen. That’s the intent of the word here, God’s desire produces the end of that desire. So what is regeneration? It is God recreating us. Who does it? God does it by his sovereign power and we respond to that sovereign grace. Third question, okay, we have asked what and who here is the third on, how does it happen? How does it happen?
You say, well, does God just reach down and bang you are saved, does God just zap you? How does it happen? Well, let’s look back at the verse, verse 18, “Of his own will he begot us,” here it comes, “With the word of truth. With the word of truth.” Or literally, by truth’s word. By truth’s word. That means the word of God, the scripture. You see, God regenerates us and washes us and cleanses us and gives us a new inner person and plants a spirit in us through the power of his what? Of his word. Of his word. Men are born again by the power of the word. If you don’t hear the word, you don’t hear the message that saves, in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul is commending the Thessalonians for how they responded to the preaching of God’s word. He says, “For this cause we thank God without ceasing, because when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth the word of God,” listen to this, “which effectually is working also in you that believe. It is the word that works with a believing heart. God Sovereignly moves to redeem. A person responds to the exposure to the word with faith and salvation takes place. God’s will then of salvation is brought to the heart of a person through an understanding of the word mixed with faith and regeneration takes place. How does it happen? It happens through the word of God. And again, I remind you of Titus 3:5, “Not by works of righteousness which we have done.” We don’t get salvation and new life by doing things, by trying to obey God in the flesh, but according to his mercy, he saved us, watch this, “by the washing of regeneration and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” There are the same two things, the washing of the water of the word and the planting of the Holy Spirit. That’s the sovereign work of God. SO, the word of truth is the issue.
Now let me just take that phrase a little bit further, the word of truth or truth’s word. That particular designation is used several times in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 6:7, you don’t need to look these up, I’ll just mention them to you. It says, by the word of truth, by the power of God and it goes on. In Colossians 1:5, it says, “Of which you heard before,” listen to this, “in the word of the truth of the gospel. The word of the truth of the gospel.” And there the word of the truth is specifically linked to the gospel. By the way, 2 Timothy 2:15 also mentions the word of truth, rightly dividing the word of truth. So the word of truth in general is the word of God.
It is that which God brings to us to unfold an understanding to us of his revelation of himself. In specific, on the basis of Colossians 1:5 we could call it the word of the truth of the gospel. Now with that in mind, we go back to James and we can just simply say that we wouldn’t be out of line to say, that we are born again with the word of truth, not only God’s general revelation, but as in Colossians 1:5, his specific revelation of the gospel. And you say what’s the gospel? The good news that Jesus came, died and rose again, so people are saved then when God sovereignly sets out to give them new birth, to give them a new nature to wash away their sin, to plant his spirit in them. He brings them an understanding of that through the knowledge that comes in the gospel that is preached or that is given to them. That mixed with faith results in the new birth. In Romans 10:17, and I’m just picking up some scriptures that come to mind that I think are related to this as we kind of wind down. But in Romans 10:17, do you remember this, how then shall they call on him whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him in whom they have not heard? How shall they hear without a preacher? And then it says, and how shall they preach unless they be sent and so forth and so on. It’s talking about we have to have preachers. How are people going to hear if they don’t have a preacher? How can we send anybody if there is no one to send? People have to have a preacher, how beautiful, quoting from Isaiah, are the feet of them that preach the gospel. How important it is to preach it, why? Because of verse 17, faith comes by hearing, a speech about Christ. That’s the proper Greek rending of 10:17, faith comes by hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, Romans 10:17. So, God sovereignly saves by moving into a life and recreating that life, but that takes place when a person comes to hear and understand the gospel and it is mixed with faith and that brings about the new birth. What is it? It is total transformation. Who does it? God does it by his own sovereign will. How does it happen? By hearing and believing the gospel of Jesus Christ that he died on the cross and rose again, that comes through the reveled word of God. One other scripture on this regard is 1 Peter 1. Being born again, it says, and here is the definition of the means. Being born again, not of corruptible seed, he’s not talking about human birth, but of incorruptible, here it comes, by the word of God, which lives and abides forever.
By the word of God which lives and abides forever. For flesh, you can’t have a new birth in the flesh, it’s just like the grass and the glory of man is like the flower of grass, the grass withers and the flower falls away. The flesh can’t produce anything lasting, but the word of the Lord endures forever. Now listen, and this is the word, which by the gospel is preached unto you. And again he says, you are born again by the word and the word that you are born again by is the gospel and the gospel is the story of Jesus death and resurrection.
So God sovereignly chooses to redeem, comes down, cleanses the heart, plants his spirit, but in order to do that, the heart must be comprehend the gospel as clearly preached and that comprehension mixed with faith brings about new life, new life. Now, if anything is to change in us, God must do it, but we must respond as well, to the gospel. Now that leaves us with one question, one question. Why is it done? Why? Why does God bother. We know what, we know who, we know how, but why? What is the purpose of making us new? The end of verse 18, this is marvelous. In order that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creation. Boy, what a statement. We could really go to town on this one. The ramifications of this are just tremendous, that we should be, that’s an ace with the verb to be, that’s a purpose cause, with the purpose of producing a new kind of creation, that’s what God wants. He wants a new kind of creation and we are the first fruits of that.
That’s great. What are first fruits? Well, if we had time and we won’t take the time, we could study the Old Testament, mark down Exodus 23:19, Leviticus 23, Deuteronomy chapter 18, Deuteronomy chapter 26, that tells about first fruits. When you planted a crop, God said, I want your first fruits. First fruits meant two things, I want the first in order and I want the best.
When you harvest that crop, bring an offering to me and I want the first that you harvest and that will show that you live by faith, because if you take your first, the tendency for a farmer is to take the first thing that he harvest and he hordes it incase nothing else comes through. So you bring me the first and you bring me the best, that’s the first fruits. The first of a full crop that’s coming later and that’s exactly what it means here.
He says, I want you to, this is thrilling, to be the first and the best indicative of a whole crop that’s coming later. That’s marvelous. Now listen to me carefully, do you realize people that the world will not continue the way it is right now? Do you know that? Do you know that we are headed to a total transformation of the world as we know it? Do you know that this entire operation on the earth will burn up and the bible tells us that the Lord will recreate this earth, to his own liking? He will make a new creation, everything will be born again, everything. Men and women and dirt and hills and valleys and water and grass and plants and animals and everything, in fact, he will make a new heaven and a new earth, there is coming a whole new creation and we are just the first evidence of it.
As Paul says in Romans 8, the world doesn’t even know what we are going to be yet, because we are still veiled in our flesh and waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God when it becomes clear to everybody what we really are. That’s kind of exciting to know what I am in that regard. I’m a sample as a Christian and so are you, of what’s coming. We’re just the first look at the new creation. Incredible. We are his. And he recreates us as symbols, as examples, as illustrations, of his coming new creation. You want to know what the future is going to be like. I’ll tell you what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be like us all new on the inside. It’s going to be like us after we get all new on the outside too, but we are just the first fruits. What is that? The first fruits is the promise of the full crop. The promise of the full crop. And we are the first fruits. What a thought. God says, I want to take you to be my special possession. I want to take you to belong to me. To be symbols of the full new creation yet to come.
Do you realize that here we are in little Grace Community Church in this little pocket of bricks here tonight and the world has no idea what we are, but we are just first fruits of an incredible new creation when God recreates the whole heaven and the whole earth? We are just the first fruits. Creation, it says in Romans 8 is groaning waiting for its recreation. And we also are crying out for the recreation, not of our soul, we have had that, but of our what? Of our bodies where the flesh hangs on.
This new life we have in Christ is a taste of future glory when the whole universe will be recreated. So, what a marvelous privilege is ours. What is regeneration? It’s recreation. Making us all new from the inside. Who does it? God does it sovereignly. When does it happen or how does it happen? It happens when we hear with believing hearts the word of the gospel and then God mixes his faith with his sovereign power, transforms us and why does he do it? Because we are to stand out in the world as living examples of where this world is headed when he recreates is.
Now to put this thing back in James context, try to tell me now that God wants us to sin and I’ll tell you you got a screw loss. There is no way that God wants you to sin. No way he is pleased with your sin. He created you to be a model of a sinless society. That’s what he wants. So when you sin, don’t blame him. Put the blame where it out to be on your flesh and long for the day when your flesh is redeemed.
That’s what it means to be born again and we have much to praise God for. Let’s bow in prayer. Our father, we titled our message tonight, Born to Holiness. And we indeed are committed to that. That we have been made new in order that we who were unholy might be holy. What a tremendous truth that is. Father we thank you so much for making us the symbols of your new creation. And father, we pray that we might shine as lights in the world.
That we might, who have been redeemed be so grateful that we might live in such a way as to properly represent that whole new creation of which we are but the first fruits. Forgive us for those times when we have blamed you for our sin and help us to realize that it is your desire to recreate us unto holiness.
And help us to pursue that with all our might and the power of the spirit. And father, if there are some in our fellowship tonight who have never come to Christ who have never been born again, who have not yet received the life principle. Who have not been changed on the inside. Who have not been washed from all their sin. Who have not received a new spirit and a new inner person. A new life principle. Who have not received the Holy Spirit to live in them. Who are not your special beloved and intimate possession, your first fruits and a promise of a whole new universe. Oh Lord, may this be the night when they embrace Jesus Christ. May they believe in the one who died on the cross for them, shed his blood to pay the penalty for their sin. Rose again the third day for their salvation.
May they put their faith in the living Jesus Christ and may they experience that glorious sovereign mercy and grace and the joy of being first fruits, living examples of the coming recreation. Oh God, help us who know you to live up to who we are. And rightly represent to this world what is coming in the future. We pray in Christ’s name, amen.
I heard about a little girl who proudly announced to her mom that she was going to draw a picture of God. As she grabbed her crayons and a piece of paper, her mom said, “Honey, no one knows what God looks like.”
The girl replied, “They will when I’m done!”
But what is God like? Is God a smiling God or a frowning one? Does He look at us with approval or disapproval?
Because the Bible often refers to God as our Father, we can respond to that in different ways, depending on what kind of father we had when we were growing up.
But regardless of whether our earthly fathers did a good job or a bad job, we need to look at God in an entirely different way. We must look at Him in the pages of Scripture, where He reveals himself.
In the Old Testament book of Numbers, God describes Himself for us in a blessing that He instructed the priests to pronounce over the people of Israel: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24–26 NKJV).
The Book of Numbers is a record of the Israelites’ wanderings in the wilderness. Numbers gives an account of the trials they faced and the mistakes they made as they were journeying to the Promised Land.
We, too, live in a wilderness in a manner of speaking. We’re passing through to another place. We face trials in life, and we make mistakes. We’re fallen people living in a fallen world, and we’re in need of a lot of help.
From this blessing in Numbers 6, we can discover six things about God. We learn how God looks at us, how He feels toward us, and what He wants every believer to know.
“The Lord bless you.” God loves to bless us. Yet what does the word “bless” really mean? We often hear people use it. But really, “bless” is a biblical word. It’s something that only a Christian can fully appreciate and experience.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus both began and concluded His earthly ministry by blessing people. He also said, “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32 NKJV). God loves to bless people. It is His joy.
“The Lord . . . keep you.” The Hebrew word used here for “keep” means “to guard, to watch, or to put a hedge around.” God wants us to constantly know that He will keep us. It’s good to have that reassurance in such an uncertain world.
The psalmist wrote, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:2–3 NKJV). God is always watching us. He always has an eye on us. God is protecting us and keeping us.
“The Lord make His face shine upon you.” God smiles on us. That’s what this verse is saying. Now, this isn’t the picture that a lot of people have of God. But the picture of God that the Bible gives us is that of God shining with pleasure toward His people.
When God sees us, His face lights up with joy. I think sometimes we feel that our failures come as a surprise to God, as though He didn’t know we were going to do that. But remember, He loves us, and He smiles on us.
“The Lord . . . be gracious to you.” God is gracious to us. We need to be constantly reminded that God has extended His grace toward us. And grace is a word that is very important for us to understand. We see it many times in the Bible, especially in the New Testament.
Grace has been defined as “God’s unmerited favor.” But I think one of the best ways to define grace is by contrasting it with other words like justice and mercy. Justice is getting what we deserve, while mercy is not getting what we deserve. And grace is getting what we don’t deserve.
We need God’s grace on a day-by-day, even moment-by-moment basis, because we sin every day.
“The Lord lift up His countenance upon you.” The phrase “lift up his countenance” means “to look, to see, to know, to be interested in, to have one’s full attention.” God is saying, “I watch you every day. You have my full attention.”
Have you ever poured your heart out to someone, and it seemed as though they weren’t even listening? Maybe you were speaking to someone, and they looked past you while you were talking. Or worse yet, they took a phone call: “Wait one second. . . . Hello? . . . Yeah, how are you doing? . . . Oh, I’m not doing anything.”
God isn’t that way. He’s interested. He cares. Of course, there might be times in your life when you’ve wondered whether God really was attentive to you. While it’s true that life is a wonderful adventure when you’re walking with Christ, it’s also true that you’re going to have adversity. You’re going to have hardship. But you’ll never walk through any of those things alone. God will be with you.
“The Lord . . . give you peace.” As we consider all these things, it should change our outlook. No matter what we’re going through, we can have peace because we know the Lord is blessing us. He’s keeping us. He’s smiling on us. And He’s extending his grace to us and paying attention to us. And that should bring peace to our hearts.
However, this is something that only the child of God can experience. Jesus, for all practical purposes, was cursed so that we could be blessed. He died so we could live. He was forsaken so that we could be forgiven.
God said to the Israelites in the wilderness, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19 NKJV).