Category: Salvation


Christ Is Risen!

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

This past weekend we celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most important event in earth’s history. Jesus made it possible for us to be saved from sin and death through His own sacrificial death. Often when we talk about salvation, we focus on the cross. That is a very important part of the plan of salvation. But the resurrection is equally important. Without it the entire Christian religion is meaningless. Check out what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Some people like to say that if there was no resurrection, no heaven, no eternal reward for following Jesus, they would still be Christians because it’s still worth it. Christianity has made their lives better, so even if it all turns out to be a fairy tale, they wouldn’t change a thing. The temporary benefits of Christianity are enough.

Nonsense. If there is no resurrection, no heaven, no eternity with Jesus, then Christianity is worthless. Actually, it’s worse than worthless, because it gives us a false hope for a better future that will never come. It tells us to believe in a God who is powerless to defeat sin and death. What kind of faith is that? How does false hope make life better? It’s a pitiful way to live. We might as well pursue what little enjoyment we can get out of this life, because this is it. Later in the chapter Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32).

The only reason that Christianity has any meaning or power to make our lives better is because Jesus is alive! “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-22).

Christ is risen! He has defeated sin and death! And the same power that brought Him forth from the grave is the same power that works in our lives to break the chains of sin and to give us hope for a better future when death will finally be destroyed forever.

Jesus’ power is still the same today; it has not diminished in the slightest. We can claim His promise and receive that power in our lives. This isn’t just a once-a-year commitment that we make after we’ve experienced a stirring Easter church service or witnessed a powerful Passion Play. The real challenge is to live every day in the resurrection power of Jesus. Jesus really is alive. Are you?

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We’re over halfway through the first month of 2014. How are your New Year’s resolutions going? Still staying true to them? I’m not big on making New Year’s resolutions. I just think it’s unhelpful to put so much pressure on yourself at the beginning of a year, as if that’s the only time to accomplish anything meaningful. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not criticizing people who set goals and strive to improve themselves. I believe in setting goals; I just prefer to do it throughout the year.

If I did make New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, like many people do, I’d have a wide variety of options to choose from. I’m sure there are many failures and flaws of which I am blissfully ignorant, but the ones I do know about really bother me. I want to improve. I want to do what is right and good, and stop doing what is wrong and bad. I’m sure most of us have that desire. That’s a good thing, right? Those of us who are Christians should be especially concerned about doing good and shunning evil.

But I wonder sometimes: Is that what Christianity is really about? Is this just a religion of self-improvement that helps me overcome my annoying flaws so I can feel a bit more self-satisfied? Is this all that Jesus came to do, to enable me to make New Year’s resolutions and set goals for being a better, nicer, fitter, smarter me?

Maybe there’s more to it than that. The Jesus I read about in the Bible is not concerned with correcting a few character flaws so that people can live reasonably at peace with themselves. He is deeply interested in bringing about total life transformation—a complete paradigm shift that changes the very core of our being. What’s more, He wants a deep personal relationship with us. He wants to be more than a life coach that we visit every now and then when we need a pep talk. He wants to be our best friend, someone we talk to all the time.

So now I’m thinking about my life, my desire to do what’s right, and my relationship with Jesus. I’m a perfectionist by nature, so this is a serious issue. Am I focused on correcting my flaws, instead of pursuing Jesus? What would satisfy me more: to know that I have ridded myself of one more annoying bad habit, or to know that I am daily living in the presence of a friend who loves me despite all of my flaws?

What if the secret to bettering ourselves is not found in trying harder and harder every year to be “good?” What if instead the secret is pursuing a deep friendship with a Man called God-with-us, and by beholding His perfection we ourselves become changed, and not just into the better version of ourselves that we envisioned, but into a perfect representation of His flawless character? Think about it. If you’re a perfectionist like me, would you rather be good, or be perfect?

Is it possible that sometimes we hate sin more than we love Jesus? That maybe for us Christianity is more about overcoming the bad habits that bother us than it is about a love relationship with Jesus? Maybe we appreciate Jesus as Savior because He promises to set us free from our enslavement to evil. But we struggle with Jesus as Lord because, honestly, we’d like to be set free to do our own thing—good things instead of bad things, yes, but still our own agenda, not His.

What we need are not more New Year’s resolutions to do bigger and better things. What we need is a New Year’s revolution: a complete transformation of our entire life that radically restructures our priorities. Jesus comes first, not me. Improving myself is not what’s most important; following Jesus is. And guess what: the great thing about following Jesus is that you will improve. In fact, you’ll have much more success than if you focus on making yourself better. The thing about sin is that it’s like a hydra: chop off one problem and three more grow out of it. We can waste an entire lifetime futilely chopping away at our sin problem, or we can spend a lifetime following Jesus and let Him kill the heart of the beast within us. It’s our choice.

My choice is to have a New Year’s revolution, not just in January, but in every month, week, day, hour, minute, and second of the year. I may not always be completely true to this goal, but thankfully I know Jesus will still love me anyway. That’s why I want to follow Him. I love Him because He first loved me. And as I follow Him, He will show me the way—not to accomplish my own agenda, but to fulfill His will.

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

Jesus Died for Ariel Castro

CrossA couple days ago the news broke that Ariel Castro, the Ohio man who kidnapped three young women and imprisoned them in his house for years as his own personal sex slaves, committed suicide in prison. He was serving a sentence that would have lasted the rest of his natural life.

When I first saw the story on Yahoo! News, I knew immediately what the comments would be like. “Great news!” “Thankfully this saves the taxpayers a lot of money!” “Should have done it sooner!” “Rot in hell!” Now, I won’t deny that for many of us the death of a horrible, violent criminal probably evokes more positive feelings than negative. If it’s somewhere close to home we may even breathe a sigh of relief; our families are safer now. Some might even say that such a reaction is biblical. After all, didn’t the Bible writers sometimes exult over the death of enemies? The answer, of course, is yes. At times the Bible does depict the death of wicked people in positive terms, especially in regard to God’s judgment on sin.

But I’d like us to take a step back for a moment and look at the larger picture here. While there is a part of us that feels relief or even joy when the wicked perish, I have to wonder if that should be our only, or even our primary response. I wonder how God feels about the death of people like Ariel Castro. Is He up in heaven dancing for joy right now? Is He glad that the world is now rid of one more evil man?

There are three biblical principles that give me pause whenever I see people rejoicing over the death of the wicked. The first is expressed in passages like Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (See also Ezek. 18:23, 32.) God does not rejoice when anyone dies, not even the wicked. His greatest desire is that everyone will repent and be saved (see 2 Pet. 3:9). If God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, how can we?

The second principle is the gospel itself. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17). The whole purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth was to save people from death. And lest we think that He came only for good people, remember that He said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Paul, in a similar vein wrote: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Friends, let’s be clear on this: Jesus died for Ariel Castro. He wanted to save Ariel the same way He wants to save every sinner. He loved Ariel and had a plan for His life, a plan that involved an eternity of happiness, not horrific degradation ending in death.

The third principle comes from 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Now, if we were to compare the life of Paul with the life of Ariel Castro, or the life of Charles Manson, or the life of Adolf Hitler, we might be inclined to think maybe Paul got it wrong. He was not the worst of sinners; those guys might not be either, but they’re certainly in the running. But I think that attitude completely misses the point. Paul is demonstrating the humility that comes from an awareness of one’s true sinful condition. When we consider the sins we have committed in comparison with the boundless grace of Christ, we ought to feel utterly unworthy, and with Paul we ought to exclaim, “Jesus died for me—for me, the worst of all sinners!” If ever we look at the death of another sinner and think, “Good riddance; he deserved it,” while looking at our own life with prideful piety, then we have not come to terms with the weight of our own sin. We may like to think that we’re better than the Ariel Castros of the world because we haven’t committed the heinous acts that they did. But perhaps we do not have as high a view of holiness as God has. Perhaps we do not find sin as abhorrent as God does. I like the way Ellen White put it in her book Steps to Christ:

God does not regard all sins as of equal magnitude; there are degrees of guilt in His estimation, as well as in that of man; but however trifling this or that wrong act may seem in the eyes of men, no sin is small in the sight of God. Man’s judgment is partial, imperfect; but God estimates all things as they really are. The drunkard is despised and is told that his sin will exclude him from heaven; while pride, selfishness, and covetousness too often go unrebuked. But these are sins that are especially offensive to God; for they are contrary to the benevolence of His character, to that unselfish love which is the very atmosphere of the unfallen universe. He who falls into some of the grosser sins may feel a sense of his shame and poverty and his need of the grace of Christ; but pride feels no need, and so it closes the heart against Christ and the infinite blessings He came to give. (p. 30)

The only sin that God cannot forgive is the one we refuse to confess. The most despicable, evil sinner in the world can be saved by God, but the prideful, unrepentant sinner, no matter how insignificant his sin may seem to us, is utterly lost. In light of this, we should be careful not to pass harsh judgments on other sinners while exalting ourselves for our imagined purity. It may be that the sinner we think is worse than us will get into heaven while we miss out.

Now, let me make something clear: nothing I’ve written here is in any way a justification for the horrific acts perpetrated by Ariel Castro. There is no doubt that he was an utterly depraved man who sinned against his victims, against humanity, and against God. By all appearances, he is destined for eternal condemnation, though we must always leave final judgment to God. While there is a certain kind of relief in knowing that God will not let him get away with his crimes, that he will pay the ultimate price for his sins, I believe our reaction must involve more than that. If we want to fully reflect the character of God, then we must mourn as He mourns over the needless loss of a life that Jesus died to save.

Think about it: Ariel Castro could have gone to heaven to live eternally with Jesus. The only thing stopping him was his choice to follow his own sinful way instead of accepting Jesus’ free offer of eternal life. The same is true for all of us. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all in the same boat as Ariel. Either we let Jesus pay the price for our sins, or we pay the price. Ariel chose the latter. What will you choose?

 

My friend Vincent, also a pastor, blogged on this topic, too.