Friday, December 18, 2009

Ephesians 2:8-9, Part 2

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

What does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? How does one become a disciple of Christ? Need a person only say “Hey! I am a disciple of Christ!” and then immediately find himself one of the faithful? Perhaps we ought to know what the word means first, and then we can move on to application. The English word “disciple” derives from two separate Latin roots, “dis-” and “cipere” that mean “two-” and “grasp” respectively. A disciple is literally one who hangs on with both hands. What does the disciple hang on to? Simply put, for dear life. In the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel according to John, Jesus observes, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The first act of a disciple is to allow himself to be “disciplined” by his Master, to do the things that the Teacher instructs. Knowing what to do under any given set of circumstances is the first product of discipleship. This peculiar awareness is not acquired in a day, but it can be facilitated as the disciple increases his determination to be obedient.

We may spend a great deal of time quibbling about those things which we are expected to do as Christians, but the sum and substance of the whole matter was circumscribed by the Lord Jesus Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). There is no escaping that mandate. The ultimate goal of discipleship to the Savior is perfection. Peter teaches much in this same vein:

Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (2 Peter 1:2-10).

Can anything be clearer than that? Certainly the disciple is expected to be proactive, adding each divine attribute to the others previously acquired. Is this accomplished in a trice? Are we to be passive recipients? The answers are obvious.

John the Beloved taught the saints much the same, especially when it came to the time when the promised blessings would be bestowed:

Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).

What is it that a disciple, a son of God, must do in order to “purify” himself? Can this be transacted in a moment? How much time has been given to the children of men to achieve purification? How much time would be required for a lost and fallen man to become as God the Father is? Is this something that a man on his own could accomplish? Has the Father of All given any tools, provisions, or accommodations by which His children might partake of the divine nature? Surely this must be the case or He would not have required this of His children at all. What we will discover, however, is that the price of discipleship is miniscule in comparison to the investment that the Father and the Son have made in bringing about our salvation and redemption from death and hell.

At the heart of the matter is our relationship with God the eternal Father. We call Him Father; we are encouraged to address Him as such. Were all to be revealed to our minds and hearts, we would discover that our kinship with the God of Heaven is not metaphorical, but literal. As His literal spirit offspring, we are capable, with a great deal of help, to become as He is, just as an infant has the potential to become grown adult. This potential takes nothing away from the character of God, any more than any infant takes away from the adulthood of his parents. Just as loving mortal parents nourish, protect, and instruct their little children, so also God the Father nourishes, protects, and instructs His children, preparing and providing for their eventual exaltation, their own coming of age in the eternities. Therefore, we cannot dismiss perfection as something beyond human capacity. The truth is, there is no other acceptable destiny for the children of God save that of being perfected in Jesus Christ.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Ephesians 2:8-9, Part 1

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

I do not recall precisely how much of this passage of scripture we were required to memorize in Daily Vacation Bible School, but I am quite certain that that the first phrase was committed to memory. I do not believe that verse 9 was part of the memorization package, but I do know that when verse 8 was discussed, the subsequent verse was always in tow.

Regardless of what may be the standard interpretation in any given Protestant church today, in the 1950s in my little non-denominational church, the gift of God was eternal life for anyone who confessed Christ. It did not matter much when or where this confession took place, so long as it was direct and unequivocal. Failure to confess Jesus as your personal Savior before death, however, brought about an instantaneous thrusting down of one’s soul into hell. I remember reading countless tracts, most of them illustrated in fine detail, where the horrors of the Inferno were made quite vivid and undesirable. The confession seemed to be all; once those words fell from one’s lips, one’s personal destiny was changed forever. In conjunction with the power of the confession was the absurdity of any “works” that any one might do in order to ingratiate oneself with the God of Heaven. “Works” were meaningless when contrasted with the grace and mercy of God. As a result, no one of my teachers in that country church ever suggested to me that I needed to do anything to improve my eternal lot, save to say the providential words, “I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal Savior”. Thus, I learned more about personal morality and integrity from the Boy Scouts of America than I did from my theological teachers. I do not say this to condemn the good people who taught me, but to demonstrate that that for them, entrance into the presence of God required little more than an abiding belief in Him and His Son.

As I grew older, the rhetoric became more and more strident about the importance of confessing Christ. At some point I came across another pamphlet which treated this subject in some detail. The storyline of the narrative involved two men, both terrible reprobates who between them had committed just about every sin known to man. They lived out their outrageous lives until they were quite old. As a happenstance, one of the men was taught regarding the love of God as manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ just prior to his passing away. He confessed his Savior and at the moment of death was whisked away by the angels to dwell with God for eternity. The other man, unfortunately, had no such opportunity, or was momentarily distracted when the good news became available, and at the moment of death found himself hauled mercilessly down to hell by Satan’s minions. The message was plain: no matter how vile you may have been in your life, confessing Jesus before death made all ills go away. That singular act made it possible for you to abide in the eternal glory. I knew that I was supposed to understand that the mercy of God, His grace and compassion, was sufficient to redeem any man, no matter how sin-laden he may be. I was enough of a Christian at the time to believe that the power of God and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ were sufficient to bring such a man into salvation, but I had some difficulty that the process was really that easy. I had some trouble with the reasoning, doubting that that two-man scenario had actually been spelled out anywhere in the New Testament.

Many years later I came across a similar story that was far more poignant to my mind. The narrative again involved two men, both of whom were honest in their dealings with their fellow men, living by the light which had been afforded them to the best of their ability. Neither of them, however, had ever been introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the time drew near to their departure from this life, one of the men hears of the redemption of Christ, and confesses the Savior with all of his heart. The other man dies without ever knowing anything of Jesus of Nazareth. The narrator of the story posed an interesting question: Why should the one good man be brought into the presence of God and the other good man be thrust down to hell simply because the first was momentarily exposed to true principles by the action of a third party? This was a stunning observation to me. It brought into focus another troubling notion that had been tacitly taught in that little church. What has happened to the hundreds of millions of people who lived before the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh? I have heard that question posed to ministers of the sectarian world and the answer has been definitive: all those who lived out their lives without confessing the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior are utterly lost and damned for eternity. Even if they had no opportunity to know anything of Jesus because of where or when they were born? Yes, they are miserably condemned forever. I thought this doctrine just a little starchy, and one which made God to seem a little capricious. If it was He who determined before the foundations of the earth were laid, the bounds and limitations of the nations (see Acts 17:26), who then could be condemned for not receiving the Gospel if it were not being taught in those particular nations while they lived out their mortal lives? A minimum of four thousand years transpired from the days of Adam and Eve to the time of John the Baptist. What has happened to all those people? Since the days of Jesus and the Apostles, how many of the earth’s inhabitants have actually been in the presence of a minister of Jesus Christ? What may we say of the eternal lot of those who have not been able to choose for themselves whether or not they will accept Christ? I have since learned for myself that there is scriptural evidence that explicitly testifies that provisions have been made for all of them, that every man, woman, and child will have an equal opportunity to accept or reject the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The grace of God, the mercy of Christ, and the principles and ordinances of the Gospel are inexorably knitted together. That which is provided by God toward the salvation of men is far greater than anything a man or any group of men can do, but there is a price for discipleship; there is a requirement for those who profess to love the Lord. We will address these in future postings.