1 PETER #9: THE HERO OF MY LIFE’S STORY

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Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the world. That means that God knew ahead of time all of the pain and suffering that would occur after he created the world, but he did it anyway. He did it for love. The fact that Jesus was planned from the beginning also means that He is the Hero in the story of my life. My life is here to show the glory of Jesus to the world. This is true of all of us who have trusted him.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 9

1 Peter #9.  1 Peter 1:17-21

Last time in our 1 Peter series, we talked about what it means to live in the fear of the Lord. Among other things, it means we do not need to fear anything else at all. Next, Peter reminds us that our salvation does not come from perishable things, like silver or gold, but rather from the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

This is one of those places that we might miss if we read too quickly. I think most of us do not think of silver or gold as perishable. To get literal about it, there are Roman gold coins from the time Peter wrote still in existence. That doesn’t seem very “perishable” to me. In fact, to get even more technical and literal, even though it is rare to find a two-thousand-year-old gold coin, the actual gold that was used in Roman coins is still almost certainly in circulation today, one way or another. What I mean is, over the centuries, people who had gold coins, or acquired them in some way, melted them down for other purposes. Nobody just throws gold away, and two-thousand year old gold is just as valuable as gold that was mined yesterday. The same goes for silver. Even though, unlike gold, silver tarnishes, it does not lose its value, and it does not cease to be silver, no matter how much time passes.

It is almost certain that Peter knows all this. In those days, people used coins made of actual precious metals (and some less precious, like copper). They were quite familiar with the properties of those metals. Peter certainly knows that fire does not destroy gold, but only refines it (1:7). So, why does he call gold and silver “perishable?”

In the first place, he knows that most people would think like me, and say, “wait a minute. Gold doesn’t really perish.” He’s getting our attention, and saying in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, yes, it is perishable.

Second, he knows that, no matter how long they may actually last on earth, the value of gold and silver to human beings does not last. To be very direct about it: the moment I die, gold becomes completely worthless to me. I might spend my life amassing millions. When I die, it will mean nothing to me. Most of us spend our lives desiring, and often pursuing, more money. When it comes to the end, however,  the amount of money you have is meaningless. It can’t help you when you stand before the throne of God. The moment you die, it is absolutely worthless.

Third, the value of gold and silver is relative, not fixed. There is nothing absolute, or permanent about its value. A  huge, untapped gold mine might be discovered, and then suddenly gold could become as common as rocks, making it worthless. Or humanity might decide for some reason that they don’t care so much about gold anymore – after all, other metals are much more useful for making things. Gold is only worth something because people have decided it is. They could just as easily decide they don’t care about it anymore. This is even more true of paper and “electronic” money. Inflation is the process by which money becomes less valuable. It happens all the time, and, in fact, is happening in 2022, when I am writing this. You can’t trust money to remain valuable.

Finally, in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, gold and silver are like moldy bread. That is the message of these verses: that Jesus Christ is infinitely valuable, and through faith, we have a part in that infinite value. What we have in Jesus is the most precious thing in the universe, and it will remain the most precious thing in the universe for all time. Remember, we have a hope that can never perish, spoil, or fade.

Just a quick note about the first part of verse 18. Peter mentions that his readers were ransomed from the futile ways handed down from their forefathers. This statement makes it almost certain that at least some of the readers were Gentiles. Neither Peter, nor Paul, nor any New Testament writer, considers the heritage of the Jews to be “futile ways.” They all agree that the Jews did not recognize Jesus, who was the point of it all, but they are clear that the Old Testament scriptures point to Jesus, and that, taking into account that it is about Jesus, the Old Testament is a reliable guide to faith and life. Peter would never call the Old Testament, nor Jewish traditions, futile. He might have argued that people used those things in futile ways, but the things themselves have value.

Peter continues:

20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:20-21

Here is a stunning truth, tossed out rather casually by Peter: Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. This sounds very theological, and so we often get a kind of glazed look in our eyes and move on. But it says something incredible about God.

Before He even began to create the cosmos, God knew that the humans he was going to create would turn against him, and reject Him. Before he spun the first light out of nothingness, he knew that we humans would create a massive mess of things, and bring death, and evil, and cruelty and horror into existence. Before anything at all existed (except for Him) he knew that he would enter a world of suffering; he knew that he himself would suffer a torturous death, and even go to a hell that had not yet been spawned, in order to save the creatures he was going to make. He knew it all long before it even began, before he put creation into motion.

And he created us anyway.

Knowing the horror that we would unleash by rebelling against him, God created a plan to neutralize our rebellion. He planned out ahead of time how he would defeat evil. That’s what Peter means when he says that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. When Adam and Eve fell, and sinned, in the Garden of Eden, God was not taken by surprise. His plan was already in place.

Now, why would God do this?

We Christians believe that God is one being, but that he is a Three-Person Being. The three Persons of God love one another with an eternal, infinite love. In fact, of all the worlds’ religions and philosophies, Christianity alone can legitimately show that love is at the core of God’s nature, and therefore, love is the foundation of the universe.

Because there is no limit to God’s love, he chose to make creatures who could share in his love. Now, love must always involve a choice. Imagine you could create a person who would love you unconditionally, no matter what. If you slapped this person in the face, he would adore you. If you mistreated him, ignored him or threw him out, he would still adore you. There would be no choice.  He would have to love you, because you created him without any say in the matter. Now, for the first few days, it might be kind of fun to have someone like that. But after awhile you would realize that this person actually has no will of his own. He doesn’t love you for your own sake. He doesn’t appreciate your good qualities, or forgive your foibles. This person simply does what he is programmed to do. In fact, after a while we would realize that if there is no choice in the matter, then it is not actually love. Real love involves a choice.

Now, if God is ultimate goodness and love, the choice against God has to be a choice for evil. So, as soon as God created angels and humans who were capable of love, he also created the possibility that evil would come into being. And, of course, it did.

To put it simply: He planned from the beginning that he would make creatures who are capable of true love. Therefore, he had to take into account from the beginning that there would also be evil. Therefore, he also planned from the beginning that he would send Jesus Christ into the world in order to defeat evil without destroying love. And he did it all for us, so that we could love each other, and especially so we could love him.

There is another important implication of the fact that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. It means that Jesus is the hero of the story. First, he is the hero of the grand salvation story found in the Bible. Second, Jesus is the hero in the story of my life, and the story of your life.

I don’t naturally think that way. I tend to think that the story of my life is about me. This leads me to act as if life is all about what I want, and what I need. Even if I devote myself to unselfish things, like my family, and the ministry of the gospel, I still look at it as if life is all about me. However, this way of thinking – that life is all about me – does not typically make me happy. It leaves me trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. It leaves me trying to solve problems on my own. Even if I let Jesus enter the story of my life, if my life is still all about my own aims and goals, then it is up to me, ultimately, to figure things out. Jesus might help me (in this way of thinking), but the final responsibility for everything is still mine.

But Jesus was planned before the world began. Every person’s story is actually the story of what Jesus will do in and through their life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels. He made a very interesting choice in telling the stories. The action is narrated by a man called John Watson. We are told the story from the point of view of Watson’s life. To illustrate what I mean, it reads like: “I met Holmes at our club, and then I told him about the empty room,” and so on. You might say, it is the story of Watson’s life. However, the story is not about Watson. The hero of the story, and really, the main character, is not Watson, but Sherlock Holmes. Watson’s life, and his story, were designed by Conan-Doyle to show the greatness of another character: Sherlock Holmes. If we were to put it in theological terms, we might say that Watson’s life becomes a platform to give glory to Holmes.

In the same way, our own lives are meant to be a platform to show the greatness of Jesus Christ. The story is not about us. Yes, we see it from our own perspective, just as Watson sees things from his own perspective. But the real story of our lives is not about us; the real story is about the Hero, the One who was known from before the foundation of the world: Jesus Christ.

When I realize that my life is not telling my story, but rather, telling the story of Jesus, a lot of pressure is taken off me. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to save the day, or move things forward. Jesus is the main character of my life’s story. Jesus is the hero. I’m a sidekick. We sidekicks are still important. Without Watson, the story of Sherlock Holmes would not have been told. In a similar way, God wants to tell a story about Jesus through my life. There is a story through my life that will bring glory to Jesus in a way that is different from the story told through someone else’s life. But I am not the point. I’m along for the ride, along to admire and trust the Hero, who was foreknown from before the foundation of the world.

Now, this sounds very wonderful and lofty, but what does it really mean: “Jesus is the hero of the story of my life?” Let’s get real. I was thinking about this just a few minutes ago, while my pain was starting to get worse. Some nights, when that happens, I’m looking at hours and hours of pure misery. I prayed without much hope, “OK, Jesus, since we’re talking about this, I need a hero to save me from the pain in this moment.”

I’m telling the truth when I say that within a few minutes, the pain stopped getting worse, and even backed off a little bit. But let’s keep it real. I have often prayed for relief, and received none. What then? What happens when the hero doesn’t save you?”

Here’s the truth: He has already saved us. Yes, I live a difficult life. But the end of the story was written before the beginning of time, space and matter. Jesus always planned to go through hell so that I only have to go through earth. I won’t be thrilled if my suffering lasts a few more decades, but a few decades is nothing compared to the eternal joy that awaits me, because the Hero has already won the final battle. For followers of Jesus, every defeat in this life is temporary – even death! Every moment of suffering will be overwhelmed by joy piled upon joy. The Bible fully acknowledges the reality of suffering in this mortal life. But the end of the story makes everything else more than worth it:

6 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.

(Romans 8:16-19, NLT)

So, recognizing that Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the earth, we can live a life of hope:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

NEW YEAR: 2022. KILL THE RESOLUTIONS!

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New Year’s resolutions are a tradition far more dangerous to following Jesus than enjoying a pagan-inspired Christmas tree. The way we do resolutions gives us false hope, and encourages us to focus on things that probably don’t matter much, in the light of eternity. Scripture shows us a better way, a more encouraging, and ultimately, more effective way, to engage in change.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download New Year 2022

NEW YEAR’S 2022

I love Christmas. There’s no way you could call me a Christmas scrooge. I like the spirit of the season. I enjoy getting gifts and I like giving them too. But when it comes to New Year I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, some New Year’s traditions appeal to me. I think it’s a good thing to look at where you have been for the past year, and then evaluate and consider possible adjustments in your life for the next year. Hanging out with your loved ones and considering how important they are to you, is also a great New Year’s tradition.

There are other traditions that aren’t so great, like beginning the brand new year by getting falling-down drunk. I also don’t care for the tradition that there is no more eggnog available in stores after New Year’s Eve. And there is one New Year tradition to which I emphatically say, “bah humbug.”

New Year’s resolutions.

Let’s face it, almost nobody keeps them. Nobody remembers them. Do you remember your resolutions for last year? But it’s not just that New Year’s resolutions don’t really accomplish anything for most people. The fact is, New Year’s resolutions, the way our culture practices them, reinforce a false understanding of spiritual reality and human nature. New Year’s, when we make resolutions, is a time when we reaffirm our belief in the power of the flesh.

Consider your most typical sorts of resolutions. We resolve to lose weight. Most of us don’t ever think about how, we just say we want to. We resolve to exercise three times a week. We resolve to say one nice thing every day, or to finish writing a book, or even to read the bible every day. Maybe we resolve not to get falling-down drunk next New Year’s Eve.

None of those resolutions are bad. New Year’s resolutions are full of good intentions.

Three things draw us to New Year’s resolutions. First, we see there is a problem. There are things in our lives that should be addressed. This is a very positive thing, and it is the only part of the resolution concept that I approve of.

But secondly, we gravitate toward resolutions because we are inclined to believe that we have the power within ourselves to change ourselves and make the world a better place.

Third, we tend to make New Year’s resolutions because our focus on what is in this world, instead of our eternal future. I’m not saying it’s bad to lose weight. I want to be healthy. I want to look like my old svelte self. But whether I lose weight or not, I will die someday. When this body is gone, it really won’t matter whether or not I lost weight in 2022. Most of the things we resolve at New Year’s don’t matter eternally. I’m sure some people make eternal-oriented resolutions, but the vast majority of our focus is on things that really don’t matter very much.

New year’s resolutions fail so often for two reasons.

First, they are ultimately self centered. I resolve to do this. I resolve not to do that. The focus of almost every resolution is self. Even an unselfish resolution – like saying something uplifting every day – are not focused on all the encouraging things there are to say – but rather, on the fact that I am going to say them.

Second, they rely on the power of the flesh. Aren’t you the same person that failed to keep your New Year’s resolutions last year? Isn’t the reason that you need to lose weight in 2022 because you failed to control your diet in 2021 (for me, the answer would be “yes!”)? Isn’t the reason you are resolving to exercise is because you have not been exercising? What makes us think that the mere passing of a certain date will make us able to do what we have not done yet?

It is a fake chance to start over – to start over in exactly the same manner you failed before. It is doing what you have always done, and expecting a different result. The reason I’m talking so much about New Year’s resolutions, is because it isn’t just New Year’s. We tend to live our whole lives this way.

Generally, we recognize when we have problems. But our approach to solving them is to put hope in the same flawed person who got you your problems in the first place – you. We think we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We’ll think we’ll just act differently next time. But we can’t. We are trying to live not by the grace of “receive” but by the law of “do.”

God has a different approach to our problems. He would like to kill the sinful flesh. In fact, when we turn our lives over to Jesus, that is exactly what he does. Through faith, baptism buries us with Christ – our sinful flesh is dead and buried. We want to keep resurrecting it, so to speak, and trying to make it work for us. But the bible says, it’s dead. Let it rest in peace. Paul puts it this way:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2:20)

So, you don’t get to make New Year’s resolutions anymore, because the old you is dead. The life you have now is the life of faith, not flesh. It is the Life of Jesus Himself that shall be lived out through you now. Are you going to bind the life of Jesus to some barely-relevant, ultimately meaningless New Year’s resolution?

Colossians 3:1-4, says this:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

You died. Your flesh is counted as dead in God’s eyes. There’s nothing there anymore to fix or reform. You’re trying to put make-up on a corpse, and the result is only grotesque. Why are we messing around like this anymore? Paul says to fix our eyes and our focus on our real life – the eternal life that is ours with Jesus. It’s already in heaven, hidden until Jesus returns. That is where our focus should be for the New Year, not with what is already dead and dying.

Now, you may say, but Tom, what if there is something that really should change in my life, something that may have eternal significance, like getting into a habit of daily bible reading?

I’m so glad you asked.

When I was thirteen years old, I read a book called the Cross and the Switchblade, by David Wilkerson. It was the exciting true story of how a small-town pastor in Pennsylvania began a ministry to gang members in New York City. There was crime and fighting and it was a great book. Also in the book, was the story of how David Wilkerson got filled with the Holy Spirit when he was thirteen. I wanted that to happen to me, so I prayed that God would fill me with the Holy Spirit

As far I could see, nothing happened. I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t speak in tongues. Sometime, not long after that, I finished mowing our lawn. It was my favorite time of day, and our spot in Papua New Guinea was really quite pretty. I looked around and said, “God, you are so beautiful, I’m going to read the Bible every day from now on.”

That wasn’t the first time I tried to read the Bible regularly. I had started many times before, and never got much further than Exodus. But it was the first time I’d tried to read the bible after I asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I read a chapter that night. I read the next chapter the next night. For some reason, I didn’t start in Genesis this time. I read the psalms first. Then the New Testament. Then I went back a read a few books in the Old Testament. Ten years passed…and I had never missed a single day of bible reading until I was about 23. During many of those years I traveled extensively. I often went out, and stayed up late, like any respectable young person. But somehow, I always read my Bible before I turned in, wherever I was, no matter what time it was.

Now, it wasn’t New Year’s when that happened. I didn’t think about some resolution I wanted to make. But the life of God, living through me (not my flesh) resolved in me to do this. I really don’t think I can credit myself with anything here. What thirteen year old boy decides to take up bible reading? What teenager can stick to a promise to read the Bible every day? Not me. It was the Holy Spirit, living in me, that brought forth the resolution, and the power to carry it out.

What we need in 2022, is not more effort. We need more Holy Spirit. More trust in what Jesus has already done for us. We need to hear from him, to obey when he speaks, and trust that he – not us – will carrying it out through us, using His power.

Take a moment right now with the Lord. Ask him to fill you again with his Holy Spirit. Or ask him to do so for the first time!

Now sit quietly a minute more. Let Him speak to you about 2022, about your life, about His life that he wants to live through you. Be aware this next week, of how he might speak to you. And trust him for the power to do what he wants to in you and through you!

1 PETER #7: HOPE RESULTS IN HOLINESS

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Because we have an expectation that our amazing future will indeed come to pass, we will make different choices than those who have no such hope. And that will make us look different, sometimes, even strange, to those who do not share our hope. That differentness is a picture of the holiness of God.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 7

1 PETER #7. 1 PETER 1:14-16

There is a reason we have spent so much time in 1 Peter looking at the hope we have as Christians. In order to understand our next verses, we have to have that hope firmly in mind. After telling us to fix our hope firmly on the grace that will be ours when all things are made new (the revelation of Jesus Christ) Peter goes on:

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

If we did not have the foundation of hope, these verses might sound to us like some kind of difficult and hard duty that we have to perform in order to please God: “Now look, people, you’ve got to do the right thing. You have to be holy. Get it together.”

But we need to remember that all of this begins with the grace that God has already given us, and the hope that we have in Jesus.

Before I go on, let me make sure we define “hope” a little bit. Let’s contrast it to a wish. A wish is something that would be nice if it happened, but for which you have very little expectation. I might wish to win five million dollars at the lottery. I might wish I was six inches taller, or wasn’t losing my hair. I have no real expectation of having those wishes fulfilled. In fact, my wish about the lottery is so weak that I don’t even buy lottery tickets. Wishes don’t change the way we live.

A hope is a reasonable expectation of something that will one day come to be in reality. It is still in the future, but we have a strong belief that it will, in fact, come to pass. Because hope expects fulfillment, it influences and changes the way we behave.

When I was at Oregon State University, I happened to have two friends who were on the women’s gymnastics team. At that time, OSU (Oregon, not Ohio) had a stellar women’s gymnastics program. The team was typically in the top five in the nation, for several years in row, number one, more than once.

One of my friends won the title of top female college gymnast in the country just a month before I met her. My other gymnast friend was a couple years younger, and she went on to win the national solo title the year after I met her. As I mentioned, their whole team also won the gold medal a few times.

Both of these women were part of my “core friends” group. This group of friends would get together, hang out, grab pizza, do Bible study, and even take trips together. But our two gymnast friends lived different lives than the rest of us. I had no hopes of ever becoming a top-ranked college gymnast. But my friends had legitimate hopes of being on the medal podium, when the NCAA gymnastics tournament came around. Their hope led them to make choices that made them different from the rest of us. Sometimes, they didn’t eat the pizza we had ordered. Sometimes, they couldn’t get together with the rest of us, because they had to practice. While the rest of us did our normal things, they spent hours doing abnormal things, like hurling their bodies into the air, twisting, flipping and turning, and landing on their feet.

Don’t miss the point: their hopes directed them to lead different lives. They didn’t practice for hours because “it was the right thing to do.” They didn’t do flips and twists in the air because that’s what good people are supposed to do. They did it because they had a wonderful, amazing hope, one which they fully expected would come to pass: that they would be on the medal podium, come tournament time. And so, they lived in continual expectation of that hope.

Significant hope changes how you live. If you have hopes that are different from those around you, you will live a life that looks different. Peter tells us that we should have every expectation of the fulfillment of our amazing hope. That leads us to live differently, to behave differently than we did before we had this hope. So, in the first place, we need to let go of the way we lived before the hope. At that time, we lived according to whatever passions motivated us. In other words, we lived to satisfy our own desires as best as we could. We decided on hopes that we thought might be workable, and lived for small things, mostly for ways to satisfy our own desires and needs.

Peter tells us that now, we should live as children who love their Father, and want to be like Him. In other words, this change of behavior comes out of love and hope, not law. When I was young, there were two men that I loved with all my heart, and looked up to: my father, and my maternal grandfather. They were different from each other in some ways, but I loved and respected both of them so much, I wanted to be like them. I didn’t try to be like them because someone told me that was the rule. I didn’t do it “because that’s what good people do.” I imitated them as a result of love and respect. I was tremendously blessed by God in that I knew for certain that both my earthly father, and my grandfather, loved me. And because they loved me, I loved them back, and I wanted to be like them.

That’s supposed to be the motivating factor with God. Now, I know not all of you were as blessed as I was by your earthly fathers or grandfathers. Some of you did not have that love growing up. But you can trust the love of your heavenly Father. He proved his love to you beyond any doubt by sending Jesus to suffer death in your place. Let the Holy Spirit pour that love into your heart and convince you of his Father-love for you.

2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:2-5, ESV)

So, we live different lives, holy lives, because we know that God loves us, and we love him back. We live different lives because we have a different hope. Now, let’s talk about holiness for a moment. Peter writes:

15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Remember, one of the key things about holiness is that it is different, set apart. I have previously used the analogy of clothing. Most of us in the Western world have “everyday clothes,” and then also “fancy clothes.” We reserve our fancy clothes for special occasions. They are set-apart – they are different, intended to be special, to celebrate special occasions. When we wear those clothes, we are sending the message that something special and important is going on. Or think of it this way: Many years ago, some friends gave us a very special set of plates, glasses and eating utensils. This set of dishes is very fancy, and each piece needs to be washed by hand. We don’t put those plates in the microwave either. Those dishes are set apart – they are intended for special occasions: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, and so on. When we use them, it says: “Pay attention! Something important and out of the ordinary is going on right now!”

In the same way, we have already been set apart by God. We saw in 1 Peter 1:2 that God was the one who set us apart, who has made us holy through Jesus Christ. So, we don’t have to become holy – God has already made us that way. But what we are called to do is live out that holiness, that differentness. And, as I have just mentioned, part of living as holy people is driven by our hope of something different than the world hopes for. If we live according to our hope, we will also be living out the holiness that God has imparted to us. It will look different to the world, not “everyday.” We won’t cheat someone when it’s obvious that we could get away with it – not even the government or a large corporation. We won’t use alcohol or drugs, or sex, in inappropriate ways, (for instance, to numb the pain of this life), but instead we will rely on the hope of the grace of God that is coming. We won’t take the opportunity to indulge our sinful desires, even when we think we could “get away with it” without consequence. Because we have an expectation that our amazing future will indeed come to pass, we will make different choices than those who have no such hope. And that will make us look different, sometimes, even strange, to those who do not share our hope. That differentness is a picture of the holiness of God.

At a few different times in my life, I was making a living apart from ministry. In almost any job I had, others would comment about the fact that I behaved differently from most of our coworkers. I didn’t behave that way simply as a point of honor. I did it because I have a hope that my coworkers didn’t have. The same was true of another group of friends I had in college. These were not my “core group” but they were people I ate with regularly, and with whom I hung out occasionally; I don’t think any of them were Christians. Three of us were named Tom. One “Tom” was in the agricultural program, and wore a Stetson hat, so everyone felt the obvious way to distinguish him from the other Toms was to call him: “cowboy Tom.” They had a name for me, too: “holy Tom.” I don’t remember anyone discussing this much, or asking why they should call me “holy;” everyone else seemed to think it just fit, just like we thought “cowboy Tom,” was obvious. I was the only one who objected to that name. But they could see something that I didn’t yet understand: I was different. I wasn’t trying to be that different – but my hope made me different. In fact, I understand now that it was God Himself who makes us different – that is, holy – when we receive Him in faith.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to say I was in complete control of my behavior, or that I tried to put on a good front to impress people. In fact, I’m saying the opposite. It was the hope I have, and the love that God has for me, that made me look different to my coworkers and friends. They recognized something in me as “holy,” when I was not even consciously trying to look that way.

Remember, this different behavior proceeds not from laws about what we ought to do, but rather from our hope, and from our love for God. If you find yourself struggling to bring your behavior in line, I recommend meditating on your hope, and upon the love of God. There is a place for self-discipline, a place to have integrity for the sake of your own self-regard, but the engines that really drive our behavior should be hope and love. If we have a behavior problem, it might be that we have a problem connecting with the love of God, or with the amazing hope of our future in the New Creation.

So don’t be afraid to read:  “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.” I’ll say it again: it isn’t about trying with your own strength to make yourself behave. The key to holiness is hope and love.

That last part “you shall be holy,” is also a kind of promise. We shall be holy, because God has already made us Holy in our spirits, giving us His own Holy Spirit as kind of a down payment on the promised hope.

And when you believed in Christ, he identified you as his own by giving you the Holy Spirit, whom he promised long ago. 14 The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. (Ephesians 1:13-14, NLT)

To encourage our resolve to live different lives according to our hope, let’s end with another statement of that hope:

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. 2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. 3 For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. 4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. 5 God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NLT)

THANKSGIVING NEVER GETS OLD (Thanksgiving Weekend, 2021)

We need to accept that God is truly good, he truly loves us, and he really does have our eternal best interests in mind. Giving thanks to God accomplishes that in a powerful way. Thanksgiving moves the promises of God from our heads into our hearts. (A reprise of a sermon from a few years ago)

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Thanksgiving 2021

GIVING THANKS – 2021

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. I want to talk about why it is so important, what it means be give thanks continually, and how to implement it.

WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT

The older I get, the more I am inclined to believe that thankfulness is a key part in receiving the grace and love and joy that are offered to us through Jesus Christ. When we thank God, we are, in a way, reaching out and receiving what we thank him for. We are agreeing with what the Bible says about his graciousness and love toward us; we affirming something true about the nature of God. We are saying, “Yes, I have received your love and grace,” and as we declare that to be true, it somehow becomes more real to us.

In order to find Joy in God, we need to see Him as an ally, not an adversary. If we see him as something or someone that stands in our way, we cannot receive grace from him.

We need to accept that God is truly good, he truly loves us, and he really does have our eternal best interests in mind. Giving thanks to God accomplishes that in a powerful way.

When we thank him, we acknowledge that He knows more than we do about what is best for us. Thanksgiving opens the door to trusting God, even when we don’t understand. When we thank him, we begin to pay attention to the multitude of good things he has already given. When we thank him, our soul slowly begins to align with God’s purposes and plans.

Thanksgiving moves the promises of God from our heads into our hearts.

 WHAT IT MEANS TO GIVE THANKS

Many people feel that it is hard to be thankful unless you have a lot to be thankful for. I believe that is a very misleading idea. The American holiday and tradition of Thanksgiving originates from Christian spiritual roots. In addition, that tradition was born in the middle of deep hardship.

The “original thanksgiving” took place in the New England settlement of Pilgrims during the sixteen-hundreds. It is true that at the time they celebrated, they had a good harvest. But they had just gone through an incredibly difficult year in which large numbers of the Pilgrims had perished from disease and malnutrition. From a simple cataloging of bad events versus good, they had much more to be upset about than to be thankful for. Yet they held a three day feast, thanking God for his blessings.

The first national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by the brand-new American government in 1777. It is true, at the time many people were elated by the American victory over the British at Saratoga. But also at the time of the proclamation, the British still occupied the capital city of the new country (which was Philadelphia at that point) and also held New York City and several significant southern cities. The war was far from over, and times were still quite desperate, and yet they called for a national day of prayer, thankfulness, and repentance toward God.

Considering this history, perhaps it is appropriate that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday during the middle of the Civil War. Once again, the war was far from over, and many desperate times and terrible battles were both behind and ahead. Yet President Lincoln wrote of the many blessings that persisted in spite of war, and said:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It isn’t my intention to give a history lesson. But I want to point out explicitly that the early Americans seemed eager and able to thank God, even in the middle of significant hardship. In fact, the American Thanksgiving tradition arose more from hardship and war than from peace and prosperity. Even more, I want to point out that this idea of thanking God at all times, even in difficult circumstances, is a biblical practice. Job chapter one records a series of calamities that befall Job, a righteous man. At the end of it all, this is what he did:

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;

may the name of the LORD be praised.”

Psalm 69 was written by someone who felt he was “poor and in pain.” His appropriate response was to thank the Lord:

But as for me — poor and in pain — let Your salvation protect me, God. I will praise God’s name with song and exalt Him with thanksgiving.  (Ps 69:29-30, HCSB)

Paul says, “Good, bad, normal, it doesn’t matter. Give thanks all the time.”

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

When we give thanks in all things – especially in hard things – the love of God begins to take root deeply in our hearts.

Thankfulness also leads to peace and contentment. Philippians 4:5-7 teaches that thankful prayer is an antidote to worry:

Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:5-7, HCSB)

Yes, it is good and proper to ask God for what we need, and to share our burdens with him. It is also important to thank him as we offer up those prayers. Through turning our burdens over with thankfulness, we experience the peace of God, which is beyond understanding. The fact that it is beyond understanding means that sometimes we will experience peace when our circumstances suggest that we shouldn’t be able to do so. It is thankfulness, at least in part, which leads to this sort of peace in all circumstances.

Many of you know of my own struggle with chronic pain. I hate the pain. I hate what it is doing to my body. But I have learned to be truly, genuinely thankful to God in the midst of it – not ignoring it. I feel closer to God today than ever before.

So giving thanks does not mean that everything is just the way we want it. Giving thanks is an expression of trust in a God who is beyond human understanding.

HOW TO LIVE A LIFE OF THANKFULNESS

I want to hasten to say that I am no expert on thankfulness. Many of you are probably better at it than I. What follows are merely suggestions from one who is still learning to live in thankfulness. I have found that thankfulness (and the benefits of peace, grace and faith which come with it) can be encouraged by some self-discipline. Sometimes, it is helpful to just make myself start thanking God. I don’t like mornings, and I’m not usually very happy until after mid-morning. But, stepping into the shower grumpy and irritated, I can begin by thanking the Lord for running hot water, and then soap, and then a towel. I can thank him that I have my own bathroom. That reminds me that I have my own house to live in, and it is plenty for my whole family. I can go on, and thank the Lord for warm, clean socks, and the existence of coffee, and then for my wife and children. You see how it goes: once we get started, there are an endless stream of things to thank the Lord for. I think one thing that is Biblically appropriate is to frequently thank Jesus for his sacrifice for us, and for his promise of eternal life to us.

When you read the Bible, or a devotional, stop and thank the Lord for what you are reading. Pay attention to anything that jumps out at you, and thank him. Even if the Bible passage is describing something difficult, you could pray something like: “Lord thank you that you are with me in all the difficulties and hardships that I face. Thank you that this passage shows me that it is normal for us to face hard times, even when we follow you.”

Thank the Lord today, and this week, and every day. Let him encourage thankfulness in your heart!

 

1 PETER #4: GRIEF AND JOY IN TRIALS

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It is normal and appropriate to grieve when we face hard things in our life. Even so, God uses those things to cause us to grow, and to refine our faith in Jesus. We can trust His work through our suffering because His greatest work came through the suffering of Jesus Christ.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 4

1 Peter #4. 1 Peter 1:6-9

6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 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. 8 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, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

Last time, we saw that Peter began by encouraging his readers with the amazing promises of our eternal inheritance. He now provides a contrast. We have that amazing inheritance, a treasure that will always be there for us. It cannot be corrupted, and it will never lose its freshness or joy. Peter now acknowledges that in the meantime, before we receive that inheritance, we may experience various kinds of difficulty and hardship. The word Peter uses for these struggles is usually translated trials. This is a word that is often used in the New Testament.

I want to take this opportunity to address a misunderstanding that some Christians seem to have. Many people seem to think that the only kind of hardship that “counts” as suffering for Christ is persecution. In other words, (they think) if you are persecuted, any hardship that results from that persecution is suffering for Christ. But if a drunk driver hits you and you lose your legs, that’s just bad luck, and it isn’t the same thing as Christian suffering. But Peter here refers to “various kinds” of trials. This is exactly what is sounds like: it means that there may be many different kinds of hardship and struggles that you encounter. It could be illness, or something caused by an accident, or something done to you by someone else. It might be financial hardship, or emotional problems, or struggles in your relationship with someone. The point that Peter makes is this: whatever the source of the suffering, when we are in Jesus, God uses it to create character, or to test character, or both. It ultimately results in praise and glory and honor.

I want to make sure we are clear here. I don’t mean that God deliberately inflicts pain directly upon people. But when pain comes, he puts it to good use. The Holy Spirit, in Romans 8:28, says this:

8 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30, ESV)

God uses all things in the process of making us more like Jesus, more like the people we were originally intended to be, apart from sin. “All things” working for our good includes trials and suffering, obviously. So, when difficult times come about as a result of living in a world full of sin, and living in bodies that are corrupted by sin, God uses those to develop and refine our character.

3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)

The Spirit inspired James to write something similar:

 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, ESV)

I can say, without a doubt, that God has used suffering to make me a better person. He has used suffering to help me feel more close to Him than I had ever felt before. He has used suffering to wean my affections away from the things of the world, to help me become less interested in sin. As Paul, and James write, there have been times when I have rejoiced in the suffering that God entrusted to me. Suffering has made my faith far deeper and stronger than it was before – it has been tested, like gold in the fire, and purified in the same way. By the way, I am not claiming to be some great person. I just mean that God has made me more like Jesus than I was before I began to suffer. I’m still not very far along that road, and I don’t claim to be better than anyone else, but I believe I am farther along than I was before, as a direct result of my struggles.

But I am so glad that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to remind us that there is also grief in suffering. Peter writes here that we rejoice in our eternal inheritance, while the trials are bringing us grief. I don’t believe that there is a conflict in these perspectives. It is possible, and good and right, to rejoice in suffering. It is also good and right to grieve in suffering. Even Paul, who also wrote about rejoicing in suffering, in addition, recorded his deep distress, many times:

8 We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NLT)

I think there are times when suffering results in rejoicing. But at other times, we are pressed beyond our ability to endure (as Paul confesses), and we grieve, and cry out. This too, is an appropriate, godly response to trials, when we cry out in tears, yet still with faith:

11 What strength do I have that I should continue to hope?
What is my future, that I should be patient?
12 Is my strength that of stone,
or my flesh made of bronze?
13 Since I cannot help myself,
the hope for success has been banished from me. (Job 6:11-13, HCSB)
16 I weep because of these things;
my eyes flow with tears.
For there is no one nearby to comfort me,
no one to keep me alive.
My children are desolate
because the enemy has prevailed. (Lamentations 1:16, CSB)
3 I am weary from my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail, looking for my God.
4 Those who hate me without cause
are more numerous than the hairs of my head;
my deceitful enemies, who would destroy me,
are powerful.
Though I did not steal, I must repay. (Psalms 69:3-4, CSB)

Why do I call these passionate, desperate, words, responses “of faith?” Because they were poured out as prayers. They are full of sorrow, and pain and despair, but even in the midst of all that, they were poured out to the Lord. Job, Jeremiah and David (the writers of the three passages above) fully experienced their pain and suffering. They did not pretend that they were OK. They were honest and eloquent about how hard it was. But even so, they brought their pain to the feet of the Lord. Yes, the pain is deep, and even despairing, and yet, by bringing their pain to the Lord, they are showing faith. They are terrific examples for us. I’ll be personal for a moment. Today, I feel much more like the verses I just gave you (by Job, Jeremiah, and David), than the ones about rejoicing in suffering. Yet, I know that I am OK with God. There is room for many different responses to suffering. God can handle it. We have a God who personally knows what it is like to suffer within a human body. The writer of Hebrews says (about Jesus):

17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, NLT)

For the first two years of my suffering, I was confused and troubled; that was OK. God handled it. Then for almost four years, I did truly rejoice in my suffering. But now, today, I identify with the Biblical writers who talk about despair and hopelessness. I don’t believe that God loves me any less now than he did when I was doing well. He knows what it is like. He can handle our unexpected courage and fortitude, and he can handle our crushing despair. He won’t let either one go to waste, but instead, will use all things to cause us to grow into the people he intends us to be. He will use them ultimately to bring praise, glory and honor, where right now we experience suffering, grief and despair. Again, this is something that the entire New Testament affirms in many places:

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18, NLT)

And, what has become my life-verse:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

One gigantic difference between Christianity and every other world-view is this way of thinking about suffering in the light of eternity. If you are an atheist, life is simply fundamentally unfair to most people, and then you die, and it is over. If you live in a wealthy country, you might not see just how deeply unjust and terrible life is for millions, but it is true. If you are a Buddhist, suffering is ultimately meaningless; it is merely an illusion. If you are a Hindu, all of your personal suffering is your own fault; perhaps from a previous life, but it’s still all on you to pay back your debt to karma. But we Christians see suffering in the light of a glorious eternal future, trusting that a God who is far beyond our comprehension is indeed making things right. It is only logical that an infinite God would do things, or allow things, that we don’t understand. Understanding doesn’t always bring comfort anyway. But our comfort comes from trusting God; trusting that He is indeed good, and that he loves us, and we can rely on that, even when we don’t understand, because he went through incredible pain and suffering himself, for our sake.

Remember when Jesus was on the cross? He cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He understood what it was to have grief and despair in trials. And the cross gives us confidence that even when we don’t understand, God is doing something good. At the time, it seemed to the disciples as if it was a disaster. How could God use the crucifixion of the Messiah for good? And yet, through the suffering of Jesus, God brought about the eternal good of untold numbers of people. If God can use the death of Jesus for good, we can trust that he can use our sufferings for good as well, even when we don’t understand what he is up to, or how it could possibly result in good.

Peter has acknowledged the reality of the grief that suffering brings. He has also set up the eternal perspective, and so, he goes on:

8 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, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

Peter saw Jesus personally. It must have been a kind of wonderful thing to him to meet so many people who developed faith in Jesus without ever meeting Him personally. I am sure he was reminded of Jesus’ words to his friend, Thomas:

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29, ESV)

Paul makes it clear, also:

7 For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:6-7, ESV)

Again, from 2 Corinthians 4:18 (quoted above), we are to fix our attention on things that are not seen physically. I’ve said this before, but faith requires a kind of surrender. We have to give up control in order to trust. We have to accept the possibility that we are being foolish. Even so, Peter gives us a clue that when we do trust our unseen Lord, there is a confidence that results. Many people have asked me over the years whether it is possible to know if you are being saved. Well, Peter makes it crystal clear here. He is writing to people who have taken the leap of faith. They are trusting the unseen and infinite God. As a result, they are filled with joy, and they can be sure that they are receiving the goal of that faith: the salvation of their souls.

Of course, as with anything the idea that you can be sure of your salvation can be abused. I have met people who prayed a prayer with a preacher, and got baptized, and have since had nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever. They live the same kind of life as people who have no faith. Even so, they seem to think they will be saved. Thankfully, I am not the one who will judge their fate; even so, I think such people are probably mistaken, and they are often the “so-called Christians” who give other Jesus-followers a bad name.

If you truly do know that you are saved, if you truly believe what the Bible says about Jesus, it will affect how you live. Certainly, you won’t become perfect, and sometimes it will be two steps forward, one step back, but our actions will reveal what we truly believe.

However, we need to be clear. We don’t have faith in our own ability to be good. We don’t have faith in our own strength of faith. We have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and on His ability to keep us and guard us until we receive the amazing eternal inheritance he has promised (which we talked about last time). We can indeed have confidence that we are receiving the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls. In the meantime, yes, we experience  trials and grief, but they are nothing compared to the joy of our eternal future.

Will you trust Him with whatever trials you face today?

1 Peter #1: A LETTER FOR HARD TIMES

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This time we look at the history and setting surrounding the New Testament book of 1 Peter.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 1

1 Peter #1. Introduction

We are starting a new series, today, on the first letter of Peter. I am not utterly against doing topical sermon series’, but I’d like to encourage you to think a little differently about that. As we look at First Peter, the text will introduce a number of different topics. When we do things like that, then I am not deciding which topics to preach about. Instead, the text of the Bible tells us which topics to consider. So, this is a topical series, in a sense. It is just that the bible itself will determine the topics.

Peter wrote only two letters that have survived. We will be looking at the first of these. I’ll take this opportunity to give a reminder about how the New Testament came to be. In addition to the New Testament, we have some of the writings of Christians who lived immediately after the time of the apostles, as well as writings of later Christians, down through the centuries. All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned, referenced and/or quoted from the time of the very earliest writings of Christians. So, for example, the first generation of Christians after the apostles mention 1 Peter, and quote from it. Of course, later generations do as well.

About two hundred and fifty years after the time of the apostles, when Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, a large body of leaders, representing most Christians in the world at that time, gathered together. Among other things, they compared notes about which writings were clearly from the apostles (or others who knew Jesus, like Luke and Mark). To be included in the “canon” (later called the Bible) a document had to have evidence that it was considered genuine since that first generation of Christians, as evidenced by early Christian writings. In addition, it had to be recognized by virtually all Christians in the world at that time as having been used by churches for the previous two-hundred and fifty years. So, if a book was only used, for example, in Alexandria, Egypt, but nowhere else in the world, it would not have been considered a true part of the New Testament. Or, if one group claimed a book was written by an apostle, but no other Christian traditions had a record of it, it was not included.

It is quite clear that very early on, all Christians were aware of 1 Peter, and considered it to be genuine, and were using it to encourage one another in following Jesus. In other words, it is a genuine part of the New Testament, as are all of the books in our modern Bibles.

As is true of many of the books of the New Testament, we have a very good idea of exactly when and where Peter wrote this letter. At the end of the letter, at 5:13, Peter writes:

13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13, ESV)

“Babylon,” is almost certainly a code-name for Rome. Well before the birth of Jesus, the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia was in ruins. The majority of those living within its ancient walls were goats and their herders. There is no evidence that Peter or Mark ever went there, and there would be no reason for them to do so, seeing as there were almost no people remaining there. However, in the Roman Empire, persecution was beginning to become more and more of a reality, as the words of this letter will show us. Probably less than a year after Peter wrote, the Emperor Nero instigated a vicious persecution against Christians in Rome, in which Peter himself was killed. I’m sure Peter could tell that things were getting more and more dangerous. If his letter was intercepted by the government, it would have been disastrous if he explicitly mentioned a Christian church in Rome. So, Peter uses the word “Babylon,” which Christians would have understood to mean “a great city that is opposed to the people of God;” or, in other words: Rome. “She, who is likewise chosen” means, of course, the church. So, to make it plain, Peter means: “The church in Rome sends you greetings.” In keeping with the dangerous times, he mentions only two personal names, Mark, and Silvanus. To name others would be too risky.

Mark is also known as John-Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and sometime companion of Paul. Most scholars believe that he spent several years also with the apostle Peter. He wrote the gospel of Mark.

Mark would have been quite young when Jesus was crucified – possibly a teenager – but he was probably one of those in the larger group of Jesus’ followers; some people think he was the young man who ran away naked at the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52).  In any case, one of the house churches in Jerusalem met at his mother’s home (Acts 12:12), and he would have known Peter for most of his life. Much of Mark’s gospel is likely based upon the stories and teachings of Jesus that Mark learned from Peter.

I mention Mark, because his presence with Peter in Rome helps us set the date for 1 Peter. Mark was in Rome with Paul when Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. If Peter had been there then, Paul surely would have mentioned it. So Peter cannot have been in Rome, nor written his letter before Paul wrote those letters, which would have been AD 62 at the latest. I would guess that Paul left Rome in 62, traveled in Asia minor, and then returned to Rome, probably at about the same time Peter arrived there, either late AD 63 or early in 64. After a brief reunion, Paul traveled on to Spain, while Peter stayed in Rome, along with Mark and Silvanus (also called Silas). Peter wrote his first letter after Paul left, or he, for his part, surely would have mentioned Paul’s presence with him. A few months later, Peter wrote his second letter.

In any case, we know that in July of 64, the city of Rome burned, and the emperor Nero used that as an excuse to start a horrifying persecution of Christians. He blamed Christians for the fire, and it is possible that he executed some Christians by burning them alive in his palace gardens as human torches. Whether or not that last is true, he most certainly sought to kill Christians and destroy the church. At some point during Nero’s persecution, Peter was found and executed. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside down, though I have my doubts about how that actually works. There is no doubt, however, that Peter perished in Nero’s persecution. Many people think that Paul returned to Rome during this time, and was also killed by Nero.

Peter addresses his letter to Christians in a number of different Roman provinces (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia). All of these are found in modern-day Turkey, and cover the northern three-quarters of that country. Some commentators think that Peter was writing mainly to Jewish Christians, but the text of the letter makes it clear that he was writing to both Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians. In fact, it is likely that the Gentile believers outnumbered the Jewish believers in those areas.

The Christians in those areas were living in uncertain times. Christianity was already getting noticed by the Roman authorities, and the emperor Nero was increasingly unfriendly to it. The rest of the empire took their cue from the emperor. Although the recipients of the letter were probably not persecuted as brutally as the church in Rome (until about thirty years later), it was clear that Christians were not welcome in the general culture of the world at the time. In addition, Peter was writing to people who were experiencing struggles and difficulties of all different types, including things that didn’t have much to do with persecution. In short, 1 Peter is a book written to Christians who were facing hard times. As such, I think its message is very encouraging to us today.

For the rest of this sermon I want you to read the entire book of 1 Peter in one sitting. It isn’t long. Or listen to it, as I read it on the recording above, here at clearbible.blog. I think it is often helpful to start a book by reading the whole thing at once, so we can see how one part flows into another. Without further ado, let’s do it.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #10: WALKING BY THE SPIRIT

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Some people think that we live the Christian life with God’s help. They think, “Out of gratitude toward God, I should give glory to Him. So, I should pray, and ask him to help me.” But that isn’t really the Biblical picture of Walking by the Spirit. When we walk by the Spirit, we are trusting Jesus to live the life through us. We respond in faith to His Word (the bible) and promptings from within us. (When there is a conflict between the two, we follow the bible.) But we don’t do it on our own strength. We lean on Jesus, and trust him to show his glory in us and through us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 10

Living Crucified #10. Walking by the Spirit

Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:27-29; John 15:4-5; Galatians 5:16-25; Romans 8:1-8; Romans 12:1-2.

Last time, we talked about the fact that God is in the business of showing his glory to the world. That is, he is manifesting his goodness, love, peace, joy, beauty, truth, justice, grace, creativity, and so on, to the universe. Since that is his business, when we belong to him, he uses us (among other things) to show his glory. This time I want us to get a bit more practical about how, exactly, God shows his glory through us, and what we can do to either hinder it, or help it. What we are aiming for is what Paul expressed so well:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

So let’s begin there. A lot of people make the mistake of believing that  God saves us by his grace, and then we are supposed to make a giant effort to live good lives out of gratitude toward him. But that is not the case at all.

God saves us by his grace, and then he goes on to show his glory through us. It is God’s work from beginning to end, not ours. Paul did not say: “I have been crucified with Christ, and now I live for God’s glory.” No. He said “now Christ lives in me.” Christ is in us, showing the glory of God. Paul said the same thing to the Colossians:

27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 I labor for this, striving with His strength that works powerfully in me. (Colossians 1:27-29, HCSB)

We do not show God’s glory, not even with his help. Instead, it is Christ who shows God’s glory. He does this through us, yes, but it does not come about by our own efforts. Look at what Paul wrote above. Part of the way Christ showed his glory through Paul was through Paul’s teaching and preaching. Paul says he’s been laboring at that, “striving with His strength that works powerfully within me.” In a sense, Paul was working at it. But even as he did what God told him to do, it was Christ who did the work through him. It was God’s strength at work within Paul.

Jesus explained it this way:

4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, ESV)

Our part is to hang on to Jesus – to lean upon him in faith. Apart from him, we can do how much? Exactly nothing. It is Jesus who does the work through us.

So, what exactly, does this look like?

I am trying to lean on Jesus, and let him do the work as I prepare this message. I’ve been praying a bit like this: “Lord, I have no confidence in my own ability to communicate this stuff well. Please show your glory through what I say and write. Do this through me. Here is my mind, use it. Here are my fingers, on the keyboard, use them. Here’s my voice; use it.”

Not long after the verse where Paul talks about being crucified with Christ, and living his life by faith, he writes this:

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-25, ESV)

This business of walking by the Spirit is the same things “living crucified.” We rely upon God within us (and he is within us through the Holy Spirit) as we go about our lives. Now does this mean we just do whatever comes to us, even if it is sinful? No. Paul says the works of the flesh are obvious (he lists some of them in Galatians 5:17-21 above). The scripture gives us clear guidelines, to show us when we are using God’s grace as an excuse to sin, and therefore no longer bringing glory to God.

Here’s another concrete example of it: One time we had a lady who started coming to a house church. She had been raised in a Christian home, but as far as we could tell, she didn’t have a living faith. She lived with her boyfriend and thought nothing was wrong with that. One night she wanted prayer to receive the Holy Spirit. I thought that was jumping the gun a little bit, since she didn’t really know Jesus. But we prayed. When we were done she said, “when you prayed for me, I really did get the Holy Spirit.” I didn’t think so, but I didn’t want to burst her bubble, so I didn’t say anything.

The next day she called me. “I just told my boyfriend he had to move out,” she said. “I have the Holy Spirit now, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t want to live like that.” She had some semi-pornographic “art” in her apartment that she threw out. She said, “The Holy Spirit doesn’t want to look at those things.” She told me some other changes she was making in her life. I was floored. She really did have the Spirit, and she was absolutely “walking by the Spirit.”

Once she was surrendered to Jesus, once he lived in her through the Spirit, I did not have to tell her it was wrong to live with her boyfriend. I didn’t have to tell her that the pictures were inappropriate – the Spirit showed her.

Now I am not saying there is no use in knowing what the Bible says. The Spirit works through the Word to guide, correct and teach us. As time went on, we provided this woman with extensive teaching and mentoring. But the changes in her life were brought about not by other Christians giving her rules to follow, nor by her making a tremendous effort, but rather Jesus living his life through her. Her main work was simply to trust Jesus and respond to him as he led her.

I could tell you more true stories but my hope is that if you are a believer, you will see for yourself that Jesus will live his life through you if you let him. And this is why we don’t need to focus on whether or not we are sinning. If we are focused on Jesus and if we respond to him as he teaches us and leads us, we are not going to sin very often. You see, if Jesus is the one living your life, Jesus isn’t going to want to sin. Jesus is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey. Come on. You know that’s not what I want to do through your life. This is supposed to be My life, as well as yours. Let’s not do that.” And when he does, we need to respond in faith, and say, “OK, Lord, what do you want to do.”

It’s only when we stop believing it, and stop responding in faith to Jesus that we get into trouble. We get into trouble when WE try to live our OWN lives. Even when we are trying to live our lives in a holy way, if we are doing it on our own, we tend to get into trouble. It is not that God tells us what to do, and then we do it. It is that he leads us, and we simply need to get out of the way and let him do it.

Obviously responding to Jesus does involve us in doing things, in action. We are not supposed to sit on the couch and say, “Come on Jesus! Aren’t you going to move my feet?” The point is that what we do should be the result of us responding to Jesus.

I once had a neighbor who became a Christian. She had been a Wiccan, and when she came to Jesus, she felt that she should burn her books of witchcraft/Wicca. That is, Jesus, living in her, wanted to burn the Wiccan books. My neighbor only had to say, “OK. Since you want to do that, I’ll go get the books, some kerosene and a lighter.” Jesus living in the other woman did not want to have an illicit relationship with her boyfriend. She didn’t say, “Well then, stop me!” Instead, she let him use her mouth to tell her boyfriend to move out. It was her body. She had to open her mouth and say the words. But it was the life of Jesus through her that made it all happen. By the way, her boyfriend became a Christian a few months later, and a year or so after that they were married. They are married today, actively leading in their church and doing missions trips every year.

Here’s a less dramatic, every-day kind of example of living for the glory of God. I am writing this on a day when we normally have an in-person house-church meeting. However, a few days ago, Kari and I spent a fair amount of time with someone who just got sick with Covid-19. We feel fine. Most (but not all) of the people in our house church have been vaccinated, but so was our friend who just got the virus. We texted with the rest of the church, and no one seemed quite sure whether we should meet today in person, or not. I prayed for guidance, but heard no booming voice from the sky. Instead, after praying, I went with my best guess at wisdom, which was that we should meet by Zoom tonight. I trust that Jesus can get through to me, if it is important enough. So I trust he was causing me to make the right decision. Even if I got it wrong, I trust him to work it all out for his own glory. It all felt very ordinary. So you see, trusting is important. We trust that he will get through to us, and when we don’t get any clear guidance (guidance that we know for sure is God) we trust that he has heard our prayer is and is leading us even when we don’t realize it.

We do have some guard rails in this process. He isn’t going to lead us down the path of the flesh. So if we come up with an answer that leads to sin, or to a work of the flesh, we can know that it is wrong. So it isn’t just that anything we feel like doing is automatically the right thing. The bible is very clear about the kinds of thing that we should not do, as we seek to let Jesus live through us. So, if we realize that what we feel like doing is actually wrong according to the Bible, we pray again, and seek an answer that truly brings glory to God.

That ordinary, slightly ambiguous story about deciding whether or not to do church in person is a fairly good example of what faith often looks like in everyday life. It isn’t dramatic. Nothing particularly amazing happened specifically because we met by Zoom. But if we walk by the Spirit, by faith, consistently, God will ensure that his glory shines through us.

He will do it because it is His desire. It isn’t something he’s left us to do on our own. Some of you were with us when we studied the book: Joining Jesus on His Mission. One of the things the author said about doing evangelism, is that Jesus has already set it up for us. It’s like driving a car. We don’t have to know how the engine works, or how the electrical system functions. All we have to do is turn the key and drive. This is true not just of evangelism, but of the whole Christian life. God has already set it up for us. All we have to do is get in – in the passenger seat – and let him drive us.

Now, I want to be clear. We aren’t living for Jesus. We are letting Jesus live through us. The first one still relies on our own flesh-based efforts – we have worthy goals that we are accomplishing (or not) by our own effort. The second one is about completely relying on Jesus to do it. We have to give him our response – we have to say yes to Him and let him use our arms and legs and words, but we recognize at the same time that it is His Life flowing through our unique body and personality.

Jesus lived this way in his own relationship with the Father, while he was on earth. He said:

 “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.”  (John 14:7, HCSB)
The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)
 Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works.  (John 14:10 HCSB)

In this same passage, Jesus himself gives us a clue that he will live the life in us, just as the Father lived the life in him:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me  will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12)

We often think this means we will imitate what Jesus did. I think, in light of the rest of the New Testament, that it means Jesus will live his life through us.

1 Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, 2 because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, 4 in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:1-8, HCSB)

So, we set our minds on things of the Spirit, not on things of the flesh. Either Jesus will do it, as you set your mind on him, and allow him to direct you, or you are on your own. Letting Jesus live through you calls for faith that he will indeed do it. Remember, we act as we believe.

So maybe you are in a situation where God is calling you to speak and act in love toward another person. You don’t feel very loving. Maybe some people wouldn’t even pray. They’d just grit their teeth and try to be loving. Maybe others would pray something like this: “Lord, give me the strength to love this person right now.” But that isn’t exactly right either. That means we are still living the life ourselves, even if it is with God’s help. I think our attitude should be more like this: “Lord, I don’t feel loving. I can’t love this person right now. You do the loving through me. I am willing for you to do that. I make myself available to you for that.” And then we trust Him to come through.

Maybe you need to forgive someone for something they have done to you. This is often one of the hardest things to do and let go of. Many times, we try to do it on our own strength. Sometimes, we begin to get a glimmer of a clue, and we say, “Lord help me to forgive them.” Again, the focus of that prayer is still myself and my own performance.

Remember what Jesus prayed for those who crucified him: “Father forgive them…” We often think of this as Jesus asking the Father for forgiveness on our behalf. And perhaps that is what it was. But what if it was the human-nature of Jesus, who was dependent on the Father to live his life through him, asking the Father to do through him what he, the human-nature of Jesus, could not do on his own? Given the verses in John above, that is a real possibility – this was Jesus, praying in dependence that the Father would continue to work through him and speak through him even in this extreme and terrible situation.

And so we can say, “Jesus, I feel bitter toward this person. I can’t forgive him myself. Even so, I give you permission to forgive through me right now. Lord forgive him – through me.”

Do you see how this could change everything? Our performance could never, will never, achieve our salvation. Jesus did that on our behalf. But our own performance will also never, ever, be enough to live the Christian life either. Just think of it: It is the CHRISTian life. It is his life. He is the one who will live it. Our part is to allow him to; to respond when he speaks through the bible or in our hearts; to let him have our arms and legs and mouth and thoughts and the rest of us, so that he can live our life. This is why Paul puts it like this:

 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.  (Rom 12:1-2, ESV)

We are to present our bodies to Jesus, so that he can use us. We are to let him renew our mind, to transform us from the inside out so that we can hear and respond to Him living his life through us. As a practical exercise, you might consider praying the verse above (Romans 12:1-2). Something like: “Lord, I give you my whole self as yours, so that you can be at work in my spirit. Let me conformed to your word. Transform me, renew my mind, for your glory.” Or we might pray John 15:4-5 (quoted earlier): “Lord keep me abiding in you. Bear your fruit through me today.”

When we are surrendered to him such that he lives through us, we will be more filled with joy and peace and fruit of the spirit, because when we do this, we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were born.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #8: BORN AGAIN

Photo by Spencer Davis on Pexels.com

Our identity, our place of citizenship, and our rights and privileges are determined not by how we act, not by how we feel, but by our birth. The scripture tells us that when we receive Jesus, we have been born again, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. This is true even when don’t feel like it, and even when we don’t act like it.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 8

LIVING CRUCIFIED #8: BORN AGAIN

Galatians 3:2-5; John 3:3-6; 1 Peter 1:3; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Romans 8:28-39

You might want to listen to this one, even if you normally just read. I preached this in an Australian accent to make a point; to illustrate the sermon. It could be entertaining. On the other hand, it could be excruciating.

This series is called “Living Crucified.” I am trying to flesh out something Paul wrote to the Galatians:

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

You see, many Christians get the basic message of salvation, but they are confused about how to live the Christian life. We understand that our actions are of no value in getting salvation for ourselves. Salvation is a free a gift of God, and it cannot be earned through good deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is appropriated through faith. In other words, we get it when we believe that we need it, and that God has really done this for us. God did it all for us. Now, (we think, wrongly) it is up to us to live as good followers of Jesus, out of thankfulness to God. Classic devotional writer Andrew Murray puts it like this:

“The idea they have of grace is this – that their conversion and pardon are God's work, but that now, in gratitude to God, it is their work to live as Christians, and follow Jesus.  There is always the thought of a work to be done, and even though they pray for help, still the work is theirs.  They fail continually, and become hopeless; and the despondency only increases the helplessness.” (Abide in Christ)

We tend of think of it like this: ultimate failure, and the power of death and hell, are defeated through Jesus. Now, once we trust in Jesus we can play the game “safely” so to speak. So we can try and fail and try and fail as much as we need to, without being in danger of going to hell. But does that really sound like “good news?” We are “free” to pursue a cycle of failure? Andrew Murray adds this:

“Dear souls!  How little they know that the abiding in Christ is just meant for the weak, and so beautifully suited to their feebleness.  It is not the doing of some great thing, and does not demand that we first lead a very holy and devoted life.  No, it is simply weakness entrusting itself to a Mighty One to be kept – the unfaithful one casting self on One who is altogether trustworthy and true.  Abiding in him [living the Christian life] is not a work that we have to do as the condition for enjoying his salvation, but a consenting to let Him do all for us, and in us, and through us.  It is a work he does for us – the fruit and the power of His redeeming love.  Our part is simply to yield, to trust and to wait for what He has engaged to perform.”  (Abide in Christ).

In this series, I am trying to explain this in several different ways. So, we’ve learned to put what God says after the “but…” – to agree with Him, and to let our dominant reality be determined by God’s Word and God’s actions. We’ve learned to draw life from the Spirit, not from our outward circumstances – not even the good ones. We’ve learned that when we are in Christ, our old self has been crucified, and we are dead to sin, and to the law. We’ve begun to learn how to fight the ongoing temptations that would try remove us from all these truths we’ve been talking about.

Perhaps some of you may have been trying to put some of this into practice recently. Maybe you’ve been facing temptation and saying, “I’m dead to sin, I don’t want to do that anymore,” but it hasn’t always worked for you. Maybe you’ve been trying to believe desperately, who you really are in Christ, but you still have doubts. And because you don’t fully believe, your actions still don’t look like someone who is dead to sin. If sin is still a struggle, I want to preach the good news to you again today. We’ve discussed why and how it can be problem. We’ve talked about how to fight it. But remember, we are dead to it. Now I want to start talking about our new life. We died to sin, but what are we alive to?

This is important because we are often deceived into thinking that our actions determine who we are. If we act sinful, we think we are fundamentally sinners. If we act righteous, we feel good about ourselves and we think we are, by our own efforts, incorporating the righteousness of Christ into our lives. It is to people acting like this that Paul writes:

 I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing — if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?  (Gal 3:2-5, HCSB)

No. We didn’t become Christians by behaving rightly, but trusting ourselves entirely to Jesus. That is exactly how we should continue. You see, your actions do not determine who you are. Instead, your identity is determined by your birth. I was born in the United States of America. But when I was very young, my family went overseas to be missionaries. The majority of my childhood was spent in other countries.

Taim mi stap liklik pikini, mama, na papa, na susa, na mi save silip sampela taim ‘lo’ ol ples. Na taim mipela stap ‘lo’ ples, mipela save tok Tok Pisin tasol; i no gat Inglis. Tasol, mipela i no kamap manmeri b’long PNG, bilong wanem, mipela tok long Tok Pisin. Nogat. Mipela stap manmeri b’lo’ Amerika yet.

I spoke above in a language of Papua New Guinea to illustrate a point. Let me explain the point I was making in that language. Sometimes, we would live in small, remote villages, and when we did, we spoke that language – called Tok Pisin. But the fact that we spoke the language and lived in the village did not make us citizens of Papua New Guinea. Though we were not behaving like most Americans, we did not, for that reason, cease to be Americans.

By the time I was sixteen I did not sound like an American, even when I spoke English. I actually had an Australian accent, since when people there spoke English, that’s how it sounded. I didn’t really know American culture. My first few years in the US, I didn’t get most of the jokes and wise-cracks, because humor is one of the most culture-specific things there is. I didn’t dress in American fashion.

My memories were not of America. In fact my memories and experiences were in a place that was radically different in very fundamental ways from the United States. In short, America had a very limited role in shaping my thoughts, actions, personality, memory or experience. I did not feel like an American at all.

For that reason, did I cease to be an American? Not at all. My citizenship was determined by the country I was born into – not by my feelings, not even by actions. The key was my birth.

Even though I didn’t feel American, I recognized that America offered me more opportunity than anywhere else in the world. I saw my citizenship here as a gift that I could use. I believed what my parents told me, that I was an American citizen. I believed my American passport was valid. You might say, I believed the words that were written about me, and also those that were spoken to me by people I trusted. So I came to America, and now, because I believed that my birth determined my citizenship, I have received many benefits from being American.

Spiritually speaking we need to recognize that it is our birth, not our actions, which determines our identity.

Remember, action follows belief. And Romans chapter ten tells us that the kind of belief we need for this comes from hearing the word of God. We need to trust what has been written about us, and what has been told to us. So I am going to dwell on some more truth from God’s Word today. If we have trusted in Jesus, the bible is very clear about our birth:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:3-6)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, (1Pet 1:3, ESV)
Since you have been born again — not of perishable seed but of imperishable — through the living and enduring word of God. (1Pet 1:23, HCSB)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father also loves the one born of Him. (1John 5:1, HCSB)
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, (Eph 2:18-19, ESV)
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, (Phil 3:20, ESV)

We have been crucified with Christ. The old has gone. The new you has been born into a new life. We have been born citizens of heaven, members of God’s household. Regardless of what we know about heaven, regardless of how we sometimes act like we are from someplace else, Heaven is the place of our citizenship. Our birth certificate proclaims it, our passport affirms it. All of the resources of heaven are ours.

Now, one of the problems is that sometimes we don’t know our own birth rights. We are like princes and princesses who have born to inherit a kingdom. But we were kidnapped as babies, and raised in poverty. Now, our Father, the king has found us and brought us back to the palace. But we don’t even know the rights and privileges and tasks that are ours as royal children. We don’t know the vast resources we have now to fulfill our positions as princes and princesses. In the same way, so often Christians don’t even know everything that is ours, in Christ Jesus. So Paul writes to the Ephesians:

 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength. (Eph 1:17-19, HCSB)

His prayer is that they (and all followers of Jesus) can know these things. He wants us to know our birthrights, now that we have been born again. So I am going to share with you, some of the riches that are yours and mine when we are in Christ. This is what it means to be born again as a citizen of heaven:

In Christ, we are holy, blameless, righteous and above reproach (Eph 5:4; 2 Cor 5:21; Col 3:12; 1 Cor 6:19).

He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and  above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation  under heaven,  and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col 1:22-23)

The “if you continue” is clearly about continuing in faith and hope. It is not “continue to act righteous” but “continue to hold fast to the faith that this is true, that Christ has done this for you.” A wise pastor named Dan Stone wrote: “It is not your striving that releases Christ’s life through you. It is your trusting.” We are in Christ when we continue to trust Him and rest in Him day by day. And in Christ, we are holy and blameless.

In Christ, we are safe and free. I am free from condemnation. I am free from sin and death. I cannot be separated from the love of God (Romans 8:1-2; also 8:31-39). God works for my good in all circumstances (Romans 8:28). I have been established, anointed and sealed by God. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). I can approach God with freedom, confidence and boldness (Eph 3;12; Hebrews 4:16). My real life is already hidden away with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4). I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me. (1 John 5:18).

In Christ, we are significant and important. I am a branch of Jesus Christ, the true vine, and a channel of His life (John 15:5). I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit (John 15:16). I am God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). I am a minister of reconciliation for God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). I am seated with Jesus Christ in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 2:6). I am God’s workmanship; created by Him to do good works, which he has already prepared for me to do (Ephesians 2:10).

These are just a few of many verses and concepts that describe who we are when we are born into Christ and into citizenship in Heaven. This is the true you, the you that is more real and more powerful than what you see in the flesh or feel in the soul. If you continue in faith (that is, if you continue to believe, to trust Jesus and trust that this is all true in Him) then this you will last forever, and ultimately will be expressed through a transformed soul and a new, eternal body.

You may still act or think like a foreigner, from time to time. But if you trust Jesus, you have been born again as a citizen of heaven. All this is truly yours, even though your actions may not yet reflect it perfectly.

All this is leading toward an ultimate purpose: so that Jesus Christ can express His Life through you. Let me put a different way: The purpose of it here on earth is so that Jesus Christ can live your life. That is what we will explore next week.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #7: SIN and GRACE

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Being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus. Let’s talk about how all this looks.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 7

I want to add a few more brief thoughts about fighting sin. The first is this: being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus.

It is easy to get confused about this, for a couple of different reasons. First, it is our sin that separates us from God. Our sin is the problem that keeps us apart from ultimate joy, which is found only in the presence of God. It is also sin that makes the world such a terrible place at times. All war is caused by sin. All violence grows out of sin. Selfish actions, abuse of children, rapacious greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, and hatred are all outgrowths of the root of sin. Depression, self-loathing, self-centeredness, apathy, lack of love – all this proceeds from sin. Even disease and accidents are the result of the fact that sin is embedded in the world.

Since sin is the major problem, it is natural to make the mistake of believing that the solution is to commit fewer sins. And that leads to the second thing that confuses us: many churches do indeed seem to be teaching that the whole point of being a Christian is to control sin. Now, if we could, in fact, control our own sin, that would be a good thing to do. But, if you have tried very hard to do it, you realize that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you can control your behavior (and some people are quite good at that) when you look into your heart honestly, you recognize a deep commitment to get your own needs met, no matter what it takes.

Some people don’t realize what a problem this is, because they can get their needs met through things that are outwardly righteous. But even if the means are righteous, the heart that uses them is not. So maybe you go around helping people and quoting Bible verses in all circumstances. Both of those things are good to do. But it might be that you do them because it makes you feel secure, and good about yourself. It makes you feel like no one can find fault with you. So, even though the activities aren’t wrong, you are doing them for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to get your sense of security, or self-worth, from anywhere but God Himself. It is wrong to believe you can be justified by your own actions.

The bottom line is that every one of us is committed to ourselves, and to making sure that we get our own needs met, no matter what it takes. That is the essence of what the bible calls “flesh,” and we all have it.

As we have been learning through this series, God has dealt with human sin through Jesus. In a spiritual way, God crucified our own sinful hearts on the cross with Jesus. We died with him, and so now we are dead to sin. The way to “control” sin is not to think about it all the time, but rather, to immerse ourselves into the love and joy and grace that are found in Jesus Christ. We trust what the bible says: that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, holy, and blameless. We let Jesus live his life through us. The more we trust him to do that, the more we turn toward him, the less we are controlled by sin.

I want to use Romans chapter 7 to help us understand all this. Please take the time to read all of Romans 7:4 – 8:17. It is about the length of one chapter of scripture. Please do stop reading this right now, and open your Bible and read that. Seriously. Please stop reading this, and go read the scripture passage. Please?

Thanks for reading that. This is a section of scripture that is often misunderstood. In the first place, we ought to read the section I just gave you as one unit. The verse and chapter markings we find in our modern bibles are not part of the original. In other words, they were added to make it convenient for us to quickly find places in the Bible, but they were not inspired by God. So, if I were the one dividing up the book of Romans, I would have the section I just gave you as all belonging together. It would be a mistake to read chapter 7, and then stop without reading any of chapter 8.

In the first part of chapter 7, Paul is making two main points. First, that law is good. It was given by God to show us what sin is. Second, though the law is good, it shows us that we are not good, and the law cannot help us to become any better.

Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:

14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. (Romans 7:14-23, NLT)

We usually read this and think: “Yup. That’s me. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t get it together. I keep sinning and sinning.” So far so good. But many people miss the main point Paul is making. He repeats it over and over again. The point is not that he sins all the time. The point is this: he wants to do what is right.

I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”

I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.

“Well, before I was a Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”

You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.

So, in Romans 7, Paul’s main point is not that he sins all the time. The main point is that now, he does not want to sin all the time. That fact shows that he has died to sin, and has been raised to be with Christ. He has a new heart, a new Spirit, and his new self does not want to sin.

Now, it is natural to ask: “If I am already dead to sin, if I’m already a new creation, freed from sin, why do I keep sinning? If I don’t want to sin, why do I do it anyway? Doesn’t this prove I am half-sinner, half-redeemed?”

No. Although I like the New Living Translation (used above) it does have a major drawback. In verse eighteen, the right translation is this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18, ESV; formatting added for emphasis). In the original Greek it never, anywhere in the New Testament, uses a term like “sinful nature.” The problem is not that we have “bad self,” along with a “redeemed self.” What we have is a part of us that is that vulnerable to sin, called flesh. I mentioned in the beginning that one characteristic of what the bible calls “flesh” is that it is utterly committed to getting our needs (and wants) met, even if it means going against what God says. We all inherited this kind “flesh” from Adam and Eve. Before we became Christians, we all lived according to the flesh. We all found ways to do what it takes to feel better. We all depended upon ourselves, rather than God, to get our needs met. Sometimes we did that in ways that didn’t look so bad (like being a good student to gain approval from adults). Sometimes we did it ways that were clearly wrong (like getting drunk to numb our emotional pain, feel good, and gain acceptance from our peers). But both the good student, and the drinker, were looking to something other than God to meet their needs, and lead them to a satisfying life.

In addition to the word “flesh” Paul also says sin is located in his “members.” The Greek word is usually used as a generic term for “body parts.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus said it is better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell, he calls the eye a “member.” He also calls a right hand a “member.” James calls the tongue a member of the body.

So, sin does not live any more in what we call our “(figurative) hearts”. It certainly does not live in our spirit. It camps out in our bodies. Let’s not forget that the brain is part of the body. Our brains are usually the main problem. So the problem is not that we have two natures. The problem is that we inhabit sinful bodies, with sinful brains. In fact, Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 7:24 (which you just read):

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24, ESV)

What are some important things we know about bodies? First, we know that human beings are more than our bodies. Our physical appearance is not the real us. It is, in fact, one of the most shallow things about the true people that we are in our hearts. And that is where sin is located. Sin is not part of your nature anymore than your hair is a part of your nature. Sometimes you have to deal with your hair (or lack thereof). In interacting with others, it is good to maintain a decent appearance. You might fail to get the job you are supposed to if you show up to the interview with your hair wild and askew. But your hair does not really say anything about the real you.

Now you might be tempted to say: “Well, if I have sin in my brain, that is a real problem, because my brain directs everything I do.” That’s not exactly true. This is a little bit complex, but the truth is often complex. There is a difference between your brain, and your mind. Your brain is a physical organ that operates on electrical-chemical systems. Your mind is your sense of self-awareness. Your mind uses your brain, and is linked to it, but your mind is greater than the physical electrical-chemical processes that occur in the brain. The ideas you have are more than electro-chemical processes. Your thoughts and ideas have existence apart from the physical processes that created them. In addition, your will – your capacity to make decisions and follow through on them – is part of your mind, but not your brain. Yes, your brain does exert influence on your mind (and will). But your mind, and your will are greater than your brain. They will live on when your brain (along with the rest of your body) dies. If you don’t believe that, you are an atheist. Therefore, says our text today, we set our minds upon the Spirit, not the flesh.

5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.( Romans 8:5-11, ESV)

Notice that Paul, also, distinguishes between mind and brain (because our brains are part of our flesh).

When we are in Jesus, the sin that was in our souls and spirits has been crucified – killed and done away with. Our minds, too, have been awakened to God. The only sin left in us is found in our physical bodies. When our bodies die, what remains of sin will die with them. Then we will be raised again with new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. But we already have spiritual life, spiritual holiness, as a kind of down-payment of what is coming. The most important part of you – the part of you that you think of as “yourself” has already been crucified with Christ, and raised again in holiness. There is no connection between the “essential you” and sin. If there was, the Holy Spirit could not live in you without destroying you (Since the presence of God destroys sin).

So, let’s find some practical suggestions for setting your mind on the spirit, not the flesh. When you are tempted to sin, try having a little conversation with yourself.

“This is not what the real me wants to do. This is what my corrupted brain and body think will make me happy. But they are wrong. I don’t need to do this, because in Jesus, I am already whole and complete. This sin will not actually help me.”

Or: “You – my sinful body – are dying already, and everything you want leads to death. But the real me doesn’t want to do this. The fact that I don’t want to do this is proof that the most important part of me is already holy in Christ. I am going to act like I am already holy in Christ.”

Remember this: you don’t have to feel like this is true. You merely need to believe that it is true, and then act according to what you believe. We are talking about a mindset, not an emotion. We are talking about continually trusting that what the scripture says is true. You will not feel that continually, but your feelings can go jump in a lake.

Think about it like this. Have you ever met someone who felt things that are not true? Of course. Many people feel unloved even when they are deeply loved by others. Many people feel worthless when their friends and family value them greatly. Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. God’s Word is. When you believe what God has done for you, it ultimately changes everything.  We will talk more specifics next time.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #6. TRULY FREE TO LOVE.

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God’s grace is so outrageous that we are totally freed from sin. Often, we think we are in a cycle that goes something like this: God makes us clean, and then we get dirty again, and so God makes us clean again, and then we get dirty again…and so on. But that is not what the Bible describes at all. We have been made clean once and for all. The sins we commit now don’t “count” against us at all.
This naturally leads to a question: Does this mean we can sin all we want with no consequence?  Not exactly. After we become Christians, the consequence of sinning is that we injure our relationship with God. It drives a wedge between us. Sin is not a problem of breaking laws any more, but it does reveal that we haven’t fully loved God, or fully trusted what he has done for us. The more we believe that God has truly separated us from our sins, and the more we learn to love God, the less we will want to sin, and the less sinning we will actually do.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 6

Living Crucified #6. Romans 6:1 – 7:6

Let’s recap what we have been learning so far in this sermon series. We began by revisiting what it means to be a Christian in the first place: we repent (that is, turn away) from our sins, and trust God (not our own efforts) to save us through Jesus Christ. Next we looked at the nature of reality: there is our visible, physical reality. In this visible reality, things change. Some things begin, and then later end. People grow older. Everything, sooner or later, decays. Time moves from beginning to end. There is also another part to reality that is harder to grasp. This is the spiritual realm, which we cannot physically see. The spiritual realm is a powerful part of reality, and there, the glory and power of God is fully present. The spiritual realm does not break-down, or end. It lasts eternally. What exists in the spiritual realm is more lasting, more potent, than what occurs in the physical.

After learning about the two realms, we looked at the example of  Elijah, who learned that true, lasting life could only be found in the spiritual realm. Life in the physical has ups and downs. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not, but Elijah could not rely on what happens in the physical. God spoke to him in the spiritual realm, and he learned to draw life from there. Then we saw Leah, who learned the practical lesson of how to draw on that spiritual, eternal life: by putting what God says after the “but.”

After that, we considered something specific that God says: and that is the we (who have trusted Jesus) have been crucified with Christ. That means we are dead to sin, and dead in the eyes of any law that would condemn us. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last time I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.

The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no longer apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.

In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

Imagine I was serving a life-sentence for murder. When I die, the life-sentence is over. That’s all the law can require. If I were to somehow be raised to life again, I wouldn’t have to be in prison any more, because I am dead in relationship to the law that once applied to me. In fact, according to the law (which does not recognize the possibility of resurrection) I remain dead. So whatever I do now has no relationship to any laws. In fact, if I died, and then returned, I could do anything I want, without fear from any laws, because laws do not apply to dead people.

Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? One way you can know that we are interpreting these scriptures correctly is that Paul, also, anticipates that this question will arise (Romans 6:1, and 6;15). Stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE message I am about to give.

Technically, the answer is: Yes. Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.

Imagine I steal something. Someone comes to me and says: “That’s against God’s moral law.”

I could rightly reply: “But I’m dead to that law. That law applied to the old Tom. The old Tom is dead. Punish that dead Tom, if you can, but the law doesn’t apply to me.” Technically, I would be correct.

Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. If you sin, it is counted against the old you, the dead you. That “you” has already been punished for sin – in fact that “you” was executed for sin. Sin has no relationship with the new you. The law has no relationship with the new you.

 That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creations, we are holy, we are blameless in God’s sight, and so on.

I think a lot of people misunderstand this concept. They think of it like this: “God wiped away all my sins, and gave me a clean slate, a chance to start again. Now, I messed up the clean slate already, so he has to wipe it clean again, and I’ll try harder this time.” This cycle gets repeated over and over again. Listen carefully, brothers and sisters: that is not how it is.

All of the sins you commit now don’t count against the new you. There is only one clean slate, and it always stays clean. The sinful you has been crucified. The sins you commit now don’t count against you. They’ve already been nailed to the cross (even the ones you will do tomorrow).

You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.

I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. Although our salvation is accomplished once, for all, our trusting is an ongoing process.

This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us. It’s not working hard. It is trusting; it is putting what God says over the many “buts” that arise throughout each day. It is putting God’s word above outward appearances. It is trusting that what God did in the spiritual realm will work its way out into the physical.

Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner. You act as you believe. When you really believe what the scripture says: that in Christ, you have been made holy – you will begin to act holy. Holiness, by the way, is not at all like “holier-than-thou.” When you meet someone living out of the holiness of Christ, they are kind, and humble and loving, and somehow also pure and good. Not perfect, but they look a lot like Jesus.

If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.

When you believe what the Bible says – that there is no relationship between you and sin, that you have died to sin and to the law, that you are free – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.

Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”

One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”

Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. Even though he was free to be selfish without consequences, he found it is all meaningless and useless. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.

But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he saves the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.

I suggest that if you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved ones, and toward things that are good and right and noble.

Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.

Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I refrain from those things because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.

This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.

Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman whose husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:

 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.

If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then you are still trying to live by rules. You are looking for a rule about how many rules you can break. You are still living by law, not by grace. If this message leads you to be happy that you can get away with sinning all the time, then I think your relationship with God is on rocky ground.

So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. But it isn’t a law problem, it’s a love problem. Cheating on your spouse shows that you don’t love him/her enough to die to your own temptations and desires.

So, when we sin, it isn’t a law problem, it is a love problem, and a trust problem. We sin because we don’t really believe God when he says he has crucified us with Christ, and made us holy, and alive for Him. We sin because we want what we want more than we love God. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him. The answer is not “obey better.” The answer is “trust more,” and when we trust Him, we learn to love him more, and when we love him more, our behavior changes.

I don’t like it when I hurt Kari’s feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.

In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.

Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is a very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.

But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you want to injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.

We don’t fight sin by trying to be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.

Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.