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The Joy of Opposition

March 8, 2015

Note: This message in its entirely covers much of Nehemiah 4. Due to the length of that passage, it is not included here, but reading it is recommended. 

Four Ways to Turn Opposition into Joy

1. Expect it

Anyone who steps into a position of responsibility in any organization and on any level, must be prepared to pay the price of opposition. “No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it.” (J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, p. 110) Do you think that Nehemiah expected to show up, say a few words, build the wall, and get back to Susa without so much as a hitch?

“There will always, always be opposition from those who are, by nature, negative and critical. But the work must go on. Progress should not stop because a few were critical of the plan.” (Charles Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick) It is a falsely idealistic view of ministry and life to think that it will be without conflict. Nehemiah faced it, Jeremiah faced it, Paul faced it, Jesus faced it, and the early church faced it. We are naive to think that a church or any organization that involves people will be free from it. In fact, there is a key truth here, God’s will didn’t allow the wall to be built without opposition!

Could God have built that wall without any Sanballats? Sure he could. But within his will for Nehemiah and the people building the wall was Sanballat and Tobiah and the conflict, slander, and threats they made.

Might you have a Sanballat in your life right now? Are you living with the consequences of a Tobiah? Might God have placed Sanballat there for your good and even for your joy? This is 1 Peter’s point with all trials. While painful, they are good because of their effect. The pain isn’t good, but what the pain reveals and refines in us is good. Therefore, embrace the trial.

Too often when criticism comes, we think we must be out of God’s will because Mrs. So and So doesn’t seem to be on board. So and so said such and such about our this or that; we must be displeasing God! Joe Stowell once said, “In every church I have pastored, God has placed difficult people around me to keep me dependent on him.” Opposition is not out of God’s will, it’s a part of God’s will. Look at the life and death of Jesus and ask, is opposition part of God’s will? The greater the potential for God to be glorified, the greater the expectation we can have for opposition to it.

If I might make a small tangent at this point, you may be here and in an honest evaluation, you’re not Nehemiah in the story, you tend to be Sanballat. You find yourself regularly at the center of controversy or you thrive on conflict. While it is God’s will for there to be Sanballats, it is never God’s will for us to be a Sanballat. Why was Sanballat so concerned about the wall? Was it the wall or because Nehemiah represented a threat to him? Was it the wall or his finances? His power? Conflict unveils the idols and real motives of the heart. Sanballats are on full display. Don’t be a Sanballat.

2. Pray for it

Look at what Nehemiah does. “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.” (Nehemiah 4:4) What’s Nehemiah’s strategy? He prays! He prays a strong prayer here asking God to turn their evil back on them. The point is that Nehemiah took the matter to God. And he didn’t just do it in verse 4. In verses 6-8 comes the troublemaking and scheming. What does Nehemiah do? “And we prayed to our God.” (Verse 9) When we face opposition that has been sovereignly brought to us by God, we must believe that God has the power to overcome it. Ask him to do so.

Trouble comes and Nehemiah’s on his knees in prayer. We see the same thing with our Lord Jesus. In fact, what was the last thing he did before facing the scourging and the beating, the betrayal and false accusations; what did he do on the cross itself? He prayed at Gethsemane. He prayed on the cross. His last words were prayers.

Do you do that? Do you lay that critical person before God and say, Okay God, here it is. I believe that I am doing your work and here is opposition, please help! I find that when I do that, it makes me more charitable even toward my perceived enemy. It makes me a little more open to even loving my enemy as Scripture and Jesus’ example calls me to do. I see them as God’s tool in my life rather than my enemy. With that, comes a glimmer of joy.

3. Prepare for it

Notice that Nehemiah didn’t simply pray, he took actions to meet the opposition:

  • “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them.” (Verse 9)
  • Verse 13 describes how Nehemiah armed the workers so they could respond to an attack.
  • He put armed guards at the low spots in the wall (Verses 12-15)
  • He had the workers work with a chisel in one hand and a sword in the other. (Verses 16-18)
  • He brought a trumpeter with him so that if an attack came, people could rush to the spot of attack. (Verses 18-20)
  • He had the people stay inside the city until the wall was done (Verse 22).

We certainly should expect opposition and pray for those who oppose us. This also tells us to be prudent and wise in preparing and responding to it.

After we have prayed, and after we have prepared, joy comes because of this fourth and final point.

4. Fear not, God will fight it

“And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, ‘The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.’” (Nehemiah 4:19-20, emphasis added)

In both of these cases, Nehemiah turns the peoples’ attention, not to his preparations, or his leadership, or their ability to fight, but to the God of heaven who is “great and awesome” and who is the “God who will fight for us.”

Herein lies the key to turning opposition into joy. When we recognize that the Sanballats and Tobiahs that rise against us are sovereignly placed in our paths by God himself, and that the crisis which they bring will always work out for our good (Romans 8:28), then there is a source of joy to look into their faces (snarls and all) and to realize, My God will fight for me!

Friends, expect it, pray for it, prepare for it, but do not fear the opposition that will come, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) The echo of that truth, is joy. And that is the joy of opposition.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2015 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Our Calling: Right Thinking and Right Living

February 15, 2015

Sober Thinking

“Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)

The most common use of “being sober-minded” in verse 13 is regarding alcohol and intoxication. 1 Timothy 3 applies it to the qualification for an elder and it is also the mark of a spiritually mature woman. They don’t use alcohol in any controlling way. However, most theologians interpret this more broadly as a whole approach to life.

“For Peter the cares of this life and the pressure of persecution can “intoxicate” the Christian and distract his or her focus just as easily as wine might… The need of the hour is clear judgment and a mind and will prepared to resist anything that would distract them from a hope set on Jesus’ appearing.” (Peter Davids, The First Epistle of Peter: NICNT, p. 67)

Sober thinking is thinking with clarity and focus; the refusal to allow anything to distract. This isn’t sober in demeanor or personality. It is a focused mind that sees life through a grid of gospel priority. It prioritizes God, the gospel, the church, the mission, and doing these things in light of eternity. Its highest and best thoughts are reserved for kingdom and spiritual matters.

Think about what you think about when you don’t have to think about anything. How often do those thoughts turn toward spiritual realities? Do you think about God or ministry or Scripture or eternity? Do you intentionally direct your mind to think about what you want it to think about? You might say, my mind has a mind of its own. No it doesn’t. We can direct our thoughts intentionally toward anything, but this takes discipline and habit.

I have been thinking about my mind some. It seems to me that I don’t think as much as I used to. I find my mentally free moments increasingly filled by reading my email or social media or passively viewing things. Over time, this feels more and more normal. When it comes time to summon my brain to high and holy thinking, it struggles because it’s too distracted. Distracted by what?

I want to spend a little time right here because I think this is such a problem these days. It’s obviously a problem in the culture around us. It seems normal to see a family of five at the restaurant not talking to each other, not looking at each other, everyone engrossed in their smartphones. I remember coming up to greet a family before church and they all were focused on their phones—probably not reading the Westminster Catechism.

We are awash in trivial thinking about trivial things. Just look at what people post on Facebook as an indication of what they are thinking about. It’s not always this way, but isn’t there a lot of silly nonsense posted? If Facebook is an indication of where our minds are at, are we not a long way from Peter’s admonition to think seriously and soberly about truth?

This is not a rant against media or movies or Twitter. I think Peter would have had a Twitter account. I just don’t think he would tweet about dresses worn at the Grammys or Katy Perry’s Super Bowl performance. In fact, what might Peter have shared? Don’t we have it in front of us? What Peter writes about is what Peter was thinking about.

Think about your thinking. You can control your mind by what you put into your mind and what you allow yourself to think about. Satan doesn’t need to convince you of some heresy if only he can distract you from the truth.

You may say, why does this matter? What’s at stake here is hope. Hope in the midst of life. Hope in the midst of troubles and trials. Hope and faith that gets us through the ups and downs of life. Where does it come from? From clear and serious thinking about my life and my relationships and my trials and my everything through the grid of God’s Word and gospel. The more habitually I meditate about these things, the more hope and endurance and joy and peace I will have in the trials of life.

How? What gender is our baby?

Get rid of distractions

Increase truth input – “Whatever things are pure, lovely, commendable, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8)

Recall the grace of God

Love God with your mind

It's a girl!

It’s a girl!

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2015 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Love for the Unseen Christ

February 8, 2015

Trials Magnify to us the Joy of Knowing Jesus (i.e. We Love Him More)

The writer of Hebrews writes to people who have gone through extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Listen carefully to his description.

“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Hebrews 10:32-34 ESV)

These Christians went through some terrible experiences. Public humiliation. Imprisonment. Think today of Christians living in Sudan or how Iraqis must feel as ISIS advances on their village or town. How could you be joyful when people are going into your house and taking away everything of value? This is not a happy thing for us, but for them it was?

On one level, of course not. Nobody chooses this. How could they have joy in a trial like this? “Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” What possession did these Christians have that so trumped the loss of other possessions that losing them actually caused them joy? Their possession is the same possession of every genuine Christian. They had Jesus and eternal life through him. In their soulish estimation, that possession was so wonderful that the taking of their worldly possessions actually gave them joy because it highlighted the value of having Christ. Their joy in Jesus was magnified by the loss. By the trial. By the persecution. The loss of the temporal actually increased their joy in the eternal.

If you had tickets to the Super Bowl, but they were in the last row of the stadium, behind a pillar, next to a drunk, and someone came to you and said, “I’m giving you front row tickets but to do so I have to take your back row tickets,” how upset would you be at losing the back row tickets? Not at all. In fact, losing them would make you feel better about having the front row tickets. During the game you look back to the top row seat which you lost and you say, “Yes!”

What are trials? They generally involve losing something. I lose my job. I lose my health. I lose a relationship with someone I love. I lose my security or my identity. Trials involve life taking something from us. What does it feel like? It feels like pain. Physical. Emotional. It hurts.

For the Christian, where does joy come from? In heaven, it’s seeing and savoring Christ forever. On earth? It’s the same. Trials cloud our view or distract us or discourage us. Our focus is on our loss—it’s on back row Super Bowl tickets we no longer have.

Here’s the key. God often takes lesser possessions from us so we cherish having the eternal ones. The extent to which we cherish Christ above all things in this life is the extent to which we will have joy inexpressible and full of glory now. Trials clarify like nothing else where our real value lies.

Here is the beauty of Christian joy. Since it is found in Jesus, circumstances here shouldn’t take it away. This is not either/or, it is both/and. We can experience sorrow and joy. We can experience grief and joy. We can experience pain and joy. We can even experience death and see that death as gain (Philippians 1:21) because after death I get more of Jesus, the source of my hope and joy.

When I think of key points of pain in my life, in nearly every case, I have come from that trial more aware that this world is disappointing and more appreciative of what I have in the Lord Jesus Christ. I have a sense of peace because at least for a time, my heart is purified and my desires for the Lord are heightened.

How about you? Christian, are you in a trial right now? Pain. Threat of loss. Wondering why? Can pain and joy coexist in your soul? It can if your joy isn’t in the hope of getting rid of your pain but in a Savior who entered into our pain and died for it. Joy in Jesus, in the words of the old preacher, the world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” (1 Peter 1:8)

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2015 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

God, Why Am I Hurting?

January 25, 2015

Trials are Purifiers

“In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV)

I read that in modern gold refining, they heat the gold to 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. Let’s say you could talk to the gold as the heat is going up. What would you hear? This is hot! This hurts! Get me out of here! Why is this happening? Why do I get this and silver gets off easy? Please stop this! The guy in charge of this doesn’t love me.

But the goldsmith knows that the only way purification happens is by heat and he knows that the value of that gold is drawn out and purified. Its karat content increases. Its worth is revealed and multiplied.

Peter says that your faith is more valuable than any gold. Gold perishes in the end, but saving faith is eternal. When the heat is turned up on us, we say, This hurts! Stop! There’s some mistake! Why? Why not someone else? Why me?

God’s answer is, You may not realize it, but your faith is far more valuable than your comfort. I am going to reveal it and refine it. This will be a short-term pain for a long-term gain. I don’t think this means we intentionally bring trouble to ourselves. Let God be sovereign over this. We also shouldn’t play God to other Christians. Life in this fallen world has enough fiery trials, doesn’t it?

Questions to Ask When the Heat is Up

  • Am I looking at this from a temporal or eternal perspective?
  • Do I realize trials are necessary at times and are for my good?
  • Is my perspective shaped by confidence in God’s sovereign and good plan for my life?
  • Do I want to grow spiritually more than I want to live comfortably?
  • Is faith refinement a personal goal? Do I aspire to a high “karat” content?

Look at the end result, “So that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 1:7)

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2015 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Indestructibly Saved

January 18, 2015

Present: Heirs of an Inheritance

“To an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith.” (1 Peter 1:4-5 ESV)

We also have been born again “to” an inheritance. We are probably familiar with the concept of an inheritance. An inheritance is something that comes to us by virtue of a relationship, normally a family relationship. When a person dies, there is a reading of the will where the deceased explains how they want their assets distributed. If your name is in the will, you have an inheritance.

What is true about inheritance? They can be very slippery. Your name may be on the will but it can be removed. So be careful what you say at family Christmas gatherings. An inheritance can shrink in value. Grandma spent a hundred thousand dollars on collectible Cabbage Patch dolls in 1981. She has given you the whole collection. It used to be worth something, but not anymore. Your sister got the diamonds and you got the dolls. Thanks Grandma.

People can steal inheritances. There is a story or two in my family tree of inheritance stealing. Unscrupulous lawyers can diminish an inheritance. Thieves can steal grandma’s jewelry—your inheritance.

Massive inheritances can be squandered. A series on the History channel entitled The Men Who Built America got me interested in the family story of the famous Vanderbilts. The family was once worth $300 billion in today’s money. Bill Gates is only at $70 billion. If you’ve toured the Biltmore mansion, there was just one descendant who built that. The Vanderbilt fortune dwarves anything the world knows today. Yet in 1973, just 75 years from the height of Vanderbilt wealth, there was a gathering of 120 direct descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt and not one of them was even a millionaire. Even the greatest material inheritances in history can simply disappear.

Contrast that with the four indestructible qualities of our inheritance as Christians:

Imperishable

To perish is to die. Decay and death is part of everything we know in this world. We can hardly conceive of something that doesn’t ultimately die. But our inheritance is imperishable.

Undefiled

This speaks to its moral quality. It won’t be tainted by sin. There is nothing unseemly or deceptive about it. It is eternally pure and good and beautiful.

Unfading

The flowers fade and the grass withers. Human beauty, fame, and accomplishment fade. The stars of today are forgotten tomorrow. Everything fades. But our inheritance experiences no fading. Time has no corroding effect.

Our inheritance is God and all the eternal blessings which are ours as children of God. Eternal life. Heaven. New Earth. Rewards for the quality of service on earth. Bliss. Beauty. And most importantly, seeing and savoring Jesus and experiencing the fullness of his presence and love.

Guarded by God

The verse goes on, “kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith.” (1 Peter 1:4-5)

This inheritance is located in heaven. Jesus described it as “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20) That’s a pretty good bank vault, isn’t it?

There is a subtle shift here. “Kept in heaven” is our inheritance. The next word is “who.” So he is no longer talking about keeping our inheritance but keeping us. The inheritance is kept in heaven; we are kept on earth. How? “By God’s power…being guarded through faith.” (1 Peter 1:5)

The word there for guarded means garrisoned. It’s used of guarding the city walls from within. It also can refer to protecting from escape. God’s power does both. It keeps us from attack and it keeps us from fleeing.

Here we have a clear statement of the doctrine of preservation. How do Christians stay saved? We are preserved in our salvation by the power of God.

We are exiles by the choice of God. We are born again by the mercy of God. We are kept saved by the power of God. Our faith is guarded. The tense of the verb means this is an ongoing activity of God. Always guarded, 24/7.

An example of this in our culture is the Secret Service guarding US presidents. You’ve seen this. Dark-suited men walking near the president. Talking into their hands. Wearing sunglasses. Looking ultra-cool and dangerous. Why are they there? To provide 24/7 protection. They have incredible power at their disposal. Firepower. Technological power. Air Force One. Agents, money, and missiles. America goes to great effort to guard the life of the president. But as history shows, they can’t guarantee it. Even the best of the best can’t perfectly protect the life of the president.

What does Peter say here? Our salvation is kept by the infinite power of God. It’s like we each have our own spiritual secret service detachment. She’s about to speak to Ms. Gossip, move in. He’s leaving on a business trip with Mr. Skeptic and Mrs. Temptation, all units, code red! He’s in church but not listening, taze him! God’s power is at work always to sustain our faith. Every day. All the time. 24/7. God has marshaled all his power to ensure that our faith, more precious than gold, will remain alive within us.

“God keeps the inheritance for us, and he keeps us for the inheritance.” (Daniel M. Doriani, 1 Peter, p. 17)

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2015 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Spiritual Exiles

January 11, 2015

“To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.” (1 Peter 1:1-2 ESV)

When we are in exile, we want to change where we are. God wants to change who we are.

An exile’s solution to a problem is to be somewhere else. Home. This week I am a climate exile. Friday night about 11:00 at church, my car wouldn’t start. Jennifer and I spent about 45 minutes with cables trying to jump start it. I was so cold. This was a bitterly cold and nasty week. From my perspective, I am a climate exile. I am supposed to live somewhere warm.

Talk to climate exiles and their focus is on geography; where they would rather be—the wonderfulness of a different climate; the punishment of this one this time of year.

Exiles think the solution is a change of location. If your marriage feels like exile or your job feels like exile or your sick body feels like exile, the solution is a different marriage, different job, different body. We want to change where we are.

Then we read elect exiles foreknown by God. Peter doesn’t encourage them to get out of Galatia or Cappadocia and to come back to Rome. He doesn’t encourage them to flee their sufferings and problems. Why? God’s first priority is not changing where we are but who we are.

I think about trials that I have walked through in my life. A few of them made me want to run away. When you are in distress, anywhere seems better than where you are. We see the answer here in this passage: God’s first priority is changing us within; changing who we are; changing how we see ourselves and the world around us. He changes us by putting us in Cappadocia, the last place we want to be. There, in our exile, real growth and change can take place.

Might you be living in Cappadocia? Are you looking to book a ticket out ASAP? Hear the old apostle’s wise words and embrace the change within. Can you dare to pray, God, I want out and I want gone, but more than that, I want what you want. Use this exile and this trial to change me into the person you would have me be. Don’t you think God will answer that prayer? And maybe the reason he has you in Galatia is to get you to the point of surrender and trust and faith?

If there was ever an exile from home, it was Jesus, who left his heavenly homeland to live here among us and to learn obedience by the things he suffered. “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) May his example help us realize that God is behind of all of it and through all of it is working all things together for good.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2015 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Justification: Freedom!

October 12, 2014

Freedom from legalism/performance

Other than the book of Romans, the next clearest teaching on justification is the book of Galatians. In a summary statement, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 ESV)

Some teachers had come to Galatia and were saying that salvation is by faith AND by obeying the law. Grace + works = salvation. Paul called them out as false teachers and said their gospel was no gospel at all.

Paul wrote the letter deeply concerned that the Galatian Christians would revert back to their pre-gospel attempts to save themselves by obeying the Law. He asked a series of probing questions:

  • “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2)
  • “Having begun by the Spirit, are you not being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
  • “You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7)

Why was Paul so concerned? They believed in Jesus, right? Yes. They weren’t in danger of subtracting from Jesus but adding to him. If you believe in Jesus for your justification but then try to obey the Law or man’s rules in order to self-justify, that is another gospel; not one that saves. Was Jesus’ death enough? Or do we need to add a little something?

This is commonly known as legalism. Legalism is requiring human righteousness either before or after justification; obeying some legal code as a condition to be justified or in order to remain so. Both are adding human merit to salvation by grace. Jesus came to set us free from both the requirement to obey the Law to be saved and the requirement to obey the Law to stay saved. The early church dealt with this in Acts 15 with Gentile Christians entering the church and the Jewish Christians already there freaking out because their lifestyle wasn’t shaped at all by Jewish religious customs. The Apostles and the Holy Spirit said that our forefathers couldn’t obey this Law and salvation comes apart from it. Indeed, legalism is the antithesis of salvation by grace. Grace means freedom in a way the law never could.

“Run, John, and work, the law commands,

Yet finds me neither feet nor hands;

But sweeter news the gospel brings,

It bids me fly and lends me wings.”

(John Berridge)

We like it. Yet how many Christians somehow are not trusting in their justification but in their sanctification? That’s legalism—adding to grace man’s human effort. I know that our church has many people from backgrounds like mine where there was a strange mixture of gospel grace and man-made rules. We didn’t have to obey God’s law to be saved but after we are saved, there was an unwritten list of extra-biblical rules that you’d just better conform to. These weren’t God’s laws, they were man-made rules. Rules without grace. Rules without gospel. Rules enslave us. The gospel sets us free. It bids us fly and lends us wings.

Pastor, you can’t say that! People will hear this as freedom to sin! Paul anticipated this response in Romans 6 and wrote in verses 1-2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Below is a recent photo from Liberia. The man in the photo thought he had Ebola but was just declared free from Ebola contamination. Imagine the sense of relief! Does he immediately go drink from a contaminated fountain? Does he carelessly handle contaminated materials? How does a guy live in Liberia who has just been declared free from Ebola?

Liberia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sin is like Ebola. Sin is deadly. Being declared by God uncontaminated by sin (justification) doesn’t embolden us to go back to sin. Now we want to stay away from it—not to be saved—but out of joy and gratitude at being declared forever uncontaminated by it.

These are sins Jesus died for. Sins Jesus bore our guilt for. You say, “The stuff before I was saved, not so much. But more recently, yeah. I can’t quite shake it.” Justification is shaking it. Jesus didn’t die for the sins we commit before we are saved; he died for all our sins. Justification is God’s declaration of righteousness over our entire lives; our entire resume of sin. All of it.

This is true freedom. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from sin. It’s like the guy walking out of the contamination unit—freedom to live again. For the analogy to actually work, while he was in there, let’s say he did have Ebola. But the King of Liberia, who had been given an antidote to Ebola, says, “Hook us up. Transfuse his Ebola blood into me and my perfect blood into him.” Now how does he walk out? Now how does he feel about the king? How does he use his freedom which came to him at such an incredible price?

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

©2014 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

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