Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Gift of Joy

I want to begin this morning by reading from the book of 1 John.

1 John 1:1-4: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”

And in Philippians 4:4, the apostle Paul writes:

Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.”
The subject of my message this morning is joy, and rejoicing. So what is joy? The dictionary defines joy this way: “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure, elation”. It defines “rejoice” as: “to feel or express great joy or happiness”. If we were to have to choose a synonym for the word joy, I think the obvious choice would be happiness. It’s a word that’s much more commonly used in our society than joy is. But where does happiness come from?

Even the very word “happiness” is a little misleading, I think. “Happiness” comes from the root word “hap”, the same word for happening or happenstance. In other words, the root from which the word “happy” comes from has to do with circumstances. “Hap” is defines as “one’s circumstances or luck”. As the scripture says, “time and chance happen to all men”. We all find ourselves in various circumstances – sometimes we abound, and sometimes we are abased, as the apostle Paul said.

Things happen to us. We don’t have much control over that. Again I ask, where does happiness come from? Does it come from one’s circumstances? Does it come from the things that happen to us? Or is true happiness something that is apart from that?

To those of us on this phone hookup that are in the United States, which is a place where material, physical things abound, I say, look around you. How many happy people do you see? When you go out in public, when you’re at work or at the grocery store or the bank, do you see a lot of people with smiles on their faces? I don’t. I’m sometimes on autopilot and I don’t pay much attention, but every so often I look at the expressions on the faces of the people around me. They don’t look happy. And yet we live in a place where the abundance of physical, material things is overwhelming.

I have done a little bit of traveling in my life. When I was younger, I traveled internationally as part of my job. I’ve been to places in the world where they didn’t have very much, in terms of material physical things. I saw a lot more smiles on the faces of those people than I do here.

Let’s turn to Hebrews chapter 12. I want to read a passage here that I think is very familiar to us, but I want to draw something out of it that I think might be a little bit different than how you’ve looked at this passage before.

Hebrews 12:2: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

What was this joy that was set before Jesus Christ? Was it simply what he was going to receive? In other words, we know that Christ has been glorified. He was resurrected from the grave, given a spiritual body. He was made to look just like his father. He now has a countenance that shines like the sun in its full strength. He has been given all power. He’s been given a throne to sit in. He says “I am set down with my father in his throne”. I’m sure that was part of the joy that was set before him. But was that all of it? Or was there something more to it?

Let’s turn to 1 Peter chapter 2. I want to remind us that we’re told that we are to have the same mind as Jesus Christ had. So just as he was able to endure the suffering that he did of being scourged and crucified, we are also to have that same mind of enduring whatever afflictions come our way, whatever chastening God deems necessary for us, for the joy that is set before us.

1 Peter 2:17-18: “Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king. Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.”

I have worked for some people in the past that were froward. I imagine that some of you have also had that same experience. You know that it is not easy to be subject to somebody that is froward. I am blessed in that the person that I work for now is, for the most part, good and gentle.

1 Peter 2:19: “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.”

Again, we’ve probably all been through circumstances where we encountered grief because of things that other people did to us. We’ve probably all suffered as well for our own faults, from time to time. But it is not uncommon for us to suffer wrongfully. For us to be doing well, doing good, and to have somebody do something to us where we suffer wrongfully. And what are we told to do? We’re told to take it patiently.

1 Peter 2:20: “For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.”

This is what Jesus Christ did. This is the mind that we are told we’re to have.

1 Peter 2:21-23: “For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:”

How was Jesus Christ able to do this? I believe that this is probably the most difficult thing there is to do, what Peter is talking about here in chapter 2. Like he said, it’s difficult enough to take it patiently when you’re buffeted for your faults. Nobody likes to be criticized. Nobody likes to be called on the carpet. Nobody likes to be chewed out or corrected. It’s difficult enough when that happens to take that patiently, knowing that you did something you need to be corrected for. But when you haven’t done anything wrong and you suffer wrongfully for it, to take that patiently… I believe this is the most difficult test of being a Christian. How do we do this? How do we even have joy in the midst of this? James says “count it all joy when you fall into various temptations or trials”. By way of answering this, I want to take a little bit of a detour.

We’re commanded at the Feast of Tabernacles each year to rejoice. To be filled with joy. We know that the Feast of Tabernacles is a picture of the kingdom of God and the millennial rule of Jesus Christ here on the earth, where we will be part of that government. If we were to go back just a few verses in 1 Peter, we’d find that we’re called to be a part of that government.

1 Peter 2:5: “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood –“

Priests are teachers. We’re to be teachers in the millennium with Jesus Christ. Verse 9 says “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood” – not just a priesthood but a royal priesthood, implying kingship. We are to rule and teach. We’re called to be a holy nation, a peculiar people.

At the Feast of Tabernacles each year, we picture this time, and we’re told to rejoice. Part of the Feast of Tabernacles is that we spend our second tithe on food and drink and whatsoever our heart desires. It’s a time of tremendous physical abundance. Again I ask, is our joy in the kingdom going to be solely based on physical abundance? Is it really just going to be based on what we can get and receive? Is that what our rejoicing at the Feast of Tabernacles is all about? Anecdotally, the evidence seems otherwise, looking around at the people in this country that have so much, yet seem so unhappy. Upwards of 25% of the population in the United States is on some sort of antidepressant. Why is that?

We have preserved for us in the scriptures as an example the story of a man who had everything: Solomon. Solomon had everything you could possibly imagine, physically. It did not make him happy. It actually made him miserable. He thought that’s where happiness came from, or he at least wanted to find out if that’s where happiness came from. And like so many people in our modern world that achieve so-called success, he found out that’s not where happiness really comes from. I mean, sure, having physical things can add to our joy. But that’s not the real source of joy and happiness. Solomon actually was depressed, after all was said and done. Just like so many people in our modern society are depressed and go to the doctor for a pill to try to make them feel happy. Because all the things and all the stuff they’ve gotten doesn’t make them happy.

As I’ve said, we’re told to have the same mind as Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:1-5: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.   Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:”

Now, contained in those verses is a wealth of information about joy and about the mind of Christ.

One of the things that’s puzzled me in the past, and I think others have debated this, is in verse 3. It says “let each esteem other better than themselves”, and people have said well, how do we square this with Jesus’ instruction to love your neighbor as yourself? How can you love your neighbor as yourself, but also esteem others better than yourself? What is he saying here?

I think the answer is this: we as human beings, because of our physical nature, and also because of the spirit that pervades this world – the spirit of Satan, which is a spirit of self-centeredness, the way of get – we are automatically attuned to seeking what we need and what we want. Those two things are not exactly the same, there may be some overlap, but we all need certain things to survive. We need food, clothing, shelter. Our natural mind – that is, the human mind apart from the spirit of God – is automatically attuned to that.

Jesus put it this way. He said, these things are what the Gentiles seek after. He told us not to be like that. He said, “take no thought for your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, for all these things the Gentiles seek after. Your father in heaven knows that you have need of these things.” We are not to have our minds focused on trying to get what we need. This is what the minds of everybody in the world is focused on. And this is one of the reasons why they’re not happy. They’re constantly worried about whether they’re going to get what they need. We should not be like that. We should have enough trust in our heavenly father to know that he will provide those things that we need. He won’t always provide us with everything that we want right now, but he will provide us with everything that we need. So we, like the apostle Paul, should learn to be content in whatever state we find ourselves, whether we are abased or whether we abound.

Of course, the trap is that once a person has what they need, then they begin to focus on what they want. This is the state that we find ourselves in, by and large, in this country. In this country, most people have everything that they need. Now they’re not just focused on getting what they need, now they’re focused on getting what they want, and that is naturally where our mind goes.
What Paul is saying here in Philippians chapter 2 is, look on the things of others. Don’t just be focused on getting what you want and what you need. Focus on trying to help others with what they need and with what they want. This is what he means by “esteem others better than yourselves”. We don’t have to think about esteeming ourselves. We already do that. We automatically are focused on things that we need and that we want. We need to focus outward.

Jesus said, “seek you first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”. What is God’s righteousness? Jesus said that this was the other side of the coin from seeking the physical things that we need and want. God’s righteousness is outlined by the Ten Commandments – love God, love neighbor. It is through the love of God shed abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that we are able to look on the things of others and think about what others need and want. That should be our focus.

That is the key to joy. That is the key to happiness. Because if you’re focused on trying to get what you want and what you need, you’re going to constantly be upset. Because other people, intentionally or unintentionally, are constantly going to be thwarting you from getting what you want, where you want, when you want and how you want it.

Have you ever seen how people behave in traffic? Have you ever found yourself behaving in traffic badly? Why? Well, it’s because you want to get someplace and somebody gets in front of you and makes you slow down. Oh, so it took you ten seconds longer to get where you’re going because this guy pulled over in front of you and you had to slow down a little bit. Why does that upset us so much? Because our minds are focused on the wrong place. If you are focused on what you want, you are never going to be happy. Because in this physical life, you are never going to get everything just the way you want it. I see people that are quite wealthy, and yet the littlest thing will upset them because they’re used to getting everything they want how they want it, but it doesn’t even always happen for them. The lunch comes and somebody forgot to add the extra cheese, or the peppers they wanted, or it had mustard on it and they said they didn’t want mustard, and they’re all upset. I’m not kidding – this happens all the time where I work. The people I work for are pretty wealthy, and you cannot imagine the little things that upset them.

The same goes for us. If we are focused on what we want, and what we need, we’re never going to be happy. Happiness only comes from focusing on helping others.

I submit to you that this was a major part of the joy that was set before Jesus Christ. I submit to you that this was a major part of how he was able to endure suffering wrongfully. He knew that what he was going through at that time was going to help a lot of people.

I submit to you that our rejoicing at the Feast of Tabernacles should not be based on what we’re getting at the Feast of Tabernacles, nor should it be about picturing what we’re going to get in the millennium. Sure, part of our joy is that we’re going to be glorified with spiritual bodies, given great power and no doubt have, as it says about God, pleasures forevermore. I’m sure that there are going to be many things pleasurable about being a spirit being, having a glorified body and having that kind of power. But I think that a large part, and maybe the major part of our joy and rejoicing at the Feast of Tabernacles, should be about the fact that we finally, at that time, are going to be able to help a lot of people.

Most people can’t be helped now. They’re not ready. There’s a saying in education which, when you first hear it, sounds simplistic, but the more you think about it, the more profound it is. “Nobody can learn anything until they’re ready.” The people that we come in contact with outside our fellowship aren’t ready. But in the world to come, they will be ready, and we will be able to help them, as a royal priesthood. Ruling and teaching with love.

That is what we really should be rejoicing about at the Feast of Tabernacles, picturing that time.

This, I believe, was a large part of the joy that was set before Jesus Christ. I think this was a large part of how he was able to endure grief. Patiently suffering wrongfully. Just as when we are tried and chastened, we can rejoice, knowing that it is creating something of great value in us, that in the future, this character, this nature that is being developed in us - God’s nature - will allow us to help a lot of people.

In conclusion, Jesus said, “I came not to do my own will, but the will of him that sent me”. Again, this is a statement that, when you start to meditate on it, is very powerful. Jesus Christ was a human being just like we are. Just as we have, built into us, self-preservations, so did he. He didn’t want to die. He prayed in great agony, that night in the garden of Gethsemane, before his arrest. He knew what was coming. But he chose to set his mind, not on getting those things that he needed and wanted, but on helping others. That was what enabled him, in large part, to do what he did. That was the joy that was set before him.

If we want to follow in his footsteps, if we want to be filled with joy, this is what we must do also. We must set our minds, not to seek our own will, but to seek to serve our father in heaven, and to seek to serve those around us in any way that we can. Because although we can’t really help people now in the ways that we will be able to in the kingdom, we can still seek to serve others, whether it be our spouses, our friends, those that we work with or otherwise come in contact with.

We can seek to help others, and in so doing, the spirit of God in us, the love of God shed abroad in our heart, then will enable us to do that in ways that we cannot do ourselves. And it is in so doing that we will be filled with joy – the joy that comes through God’s spirit.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Be Ye Warmed And Filled

by Christina Rothwell

Are we obligated to help the poor? We’ve all seen them – standing outside a fast-food restaurant or on a street corner, perhaps sitting near a subway or bus station -- poor people, probably homeless, asking for money. Oftentimes we just walk or drive on by. We might feel a little bad about not donating, but we rationalize it in a number of ways. “Oh, he’ll just use it to buy more booze.” Or, “If he were more careful with money he wouldn’t be homeless.” But it’s okay to rationalize it away because not giving to the poor isn’t that bad, right?  Surely it isn’t a sin, is it?

In Matthew 25, Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven in well-known parables. He starts out with the parable of the ten virgins, then goes on to the parable of the talents. From there he moves on to say:

Verses 31-46: “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” (All scriptures are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.)
There is a fairly obvious conclusion to be drawn here. Jesus says plainly that those that have treated their fellow man well have by extension treated him well. Logically, we can conclude that those that have treated their fellow man poorly have by extension treated him poorly.

It’s fairly simple to understand. The concept of treating others well is the foundation of Bible-based Christianity. The Bible seems to take special consideration of the poor:

Exodus 23:6: “Thou shalt not wrest the judgment of thy poor in his cause.”
Leviticus 19:20: “And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather every grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger:”
Deuteronomy 15:7: “…thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother:”
Psalm 41:1: “Blessed is he that considereth the poor: the LORD will deliver him in time of trouble.”
Proverbs 21:13: “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.”
It’s easy to forget the poor, to take very little, if any, thought for them. The rich have nice clothes and big houses and shiny new cars – they’re flashy and pretty. The poor are often the exact opposite – shabbily dressed, small houses, driving old beaters – if they have a car at all. To look at them makes us feel bad, and we don’t like feeling bad. If we can manage to ignore the poor, not think of them and their plight, we can continue to go on about our lives feeling good.

But this is not what the Bible preaches.

James 2:1-4: “My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?”
We aren’t to treat people better based on their physical, material wealth. The opposite therefore must be true: we aren’t to treat people worse based on their lack of physical, material wealth either.

Surely we don’t mean to treat any one person or group differently than any other. Surely it’s just a matter of forgetfulness, of innocent neglect, if we don’t go out of our way to help those in need. Surely it isn’t that serious a deal. Jesus understands. Right?

Ezekiel 16:49: “Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom, pride, fulness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
The above passage makes it sound as if neglecting to “strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” is a bit more serious than it may at first sound. Also, going back to Matthew 25:

Verses 41-45: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
Even if our failure to help the poor and needy is only “innocent” neglect instead of malicious intent, the end result is the same: condemnation.

James 4:17: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.”
We recently came into contact with a small Sabbath-keeping group in the United States which has a ministry in East Africa. The East African brethren are faithful and devout – and poor.

We all know the tales of what life is like in poor African countries – starvation, drought, poverty. We’ve heard of the violence inflicted on places like Darfur in Sudan. We see the commercials on TV that exhort us to donate, with accompanying videos of sad, pathetic-looking children. And we change the channel, and try not to think about it. We don’t want to feel bad for others while our TV show is on.

The situation in Africa is certainly unpleasant to think about. Many people go days without food. Some people have to walk two and a half hours one way just to get water. A car is an unheard-of luxury. A man who has taken it upon himself to help the Christians in Kenya travels long distances to help his flock – all by foot, except for the rare occasions when he can afford the $.25 bus fare. Money goes a lot further there than it does here.

We were told of the leader of a large Sabbath-keeping church, a splinter from the old Worldwide Church of God, who refused to help church members in Kenya. When told of the situation in East Africa, the brethren suffering there, and the ways that money – any amount – can be put to use there to ease the situation of the brethren, this church leader said that church, religion, is a business, and that he wouldn’t send any money to help the East Africans in need, because he “wouldn’t get any return on the investment” – even though his church is reported to have around $500,000 in tithes and offerings sitting in a bank account.

1 John 3:17: “But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”
The poor and needy should not be looked on as an investment!

Exodus 22:25: “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.”
Usury is an Old English word that essentially means interest. In other words, Exodus 22:25 states that if you lend to the poor, don’t charge them interest on the loan – don’t look at it as an investment!

Luke 14:12-14: “Then said he also to him that bade him, When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, neither thy kinsmen, nor thy rich neighbours; lest they also bid thee again, and a recompence be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just.”
In other words: don’t look on charity as an investment – don’t expect to get money back from giving to those in need.

We cannot sit idly by while a brother is in need. But who is our brother? Only those affiliated with our church group? Only those who attend a church at all? Or, in fact, is all of humanity our brother?

Luke 10:25-37 “And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour? And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”
In Jesus’ day, Samaritans were personae non grata. The Jews would avoid having anything to do with them, at all costs. And yet this Samaritan went out of his way to help a stranger, one who was presumably a Jew.
There is no excuse we can use to relieve ourselves of the duty, the obligation, to help fellow humans in need.

Galatians 6:10: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”
We have a responsibility to do what we can, what is in our power, to help those in need. We are all, after all, of the body of Christ, at least potentially – and Jesus Christ is also a part of this body. Scripture establishes that whatever we do to our brethren – other members of the body - we do also to him. Do we really want to be guilty of neglecting the needs of our poor brethren – East African or otherwise – and thereby be guilty of neglecting Jesus?

Matthew 25:41-45: “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What Are The Wages Of Righteousness?

The wages of sin, as Romans 6:23 tells us, is death; but what are the wages of righteousness? Or is there any wage paid for being righteous? Can one earn anything by overcoming sin and becoming righteous?

Righteousness, or right doing, is the opposite of sin. And of course the opposite of death is life. So if sin results in death, doesn’t it stand to reason that righteousness should result in life?  Can it be that salvation – that is, being saved from death and given eternal life – is the wage paid for being righteous?

Or is salvation nothing more than a free gift? You’ve been taught that it is. Traditional Christianity teaches that one cannot earn salvation. It teaches that salvation is completely UNmerited. The belief that salvation is simply a free gift, and thus something that we do not -- and CANNOT – earn, is axiomatic in the world of traditional Christianity today. It’s accepted as fact. Few churchgoers today would even think to question it.

But is it true? Is that what the Bible teaches?

Chances are that you would be absolutely astounded to learn what the Bible actually teaches on this subject. But why should it surprise us to find the teaching of traditional Christianity in error on a subject as fundamental as salvation? The Bible says that Satan has deceived the entire world (Revelation 12:9). And in this world more people call themselves Christian than any other religion. Is it possible that traditional Christianity is part of the deception? 

Traditional Christianity is often blinded to the simple truths found in Scripture because it looks at the Bible through the lenses of its long established traditions. A tradition is simply a long established way of thinking. And traditional Christianity is based on a number of long established ways of thinking about the Bible -- which is why I call it traditional Christianity.

But just because a way of thinking is long established doesn’t necessarily make it true. In the days of Copernicus the long established, traditional way of thinking was that the earth was the center of the universe.  Few people at that time even thought to question it. And yet we now know that Copernicus was correct to challenge the long established, traditional way of thinking of his day.

Challenging the traditional thinking of the churches is a daunting task. So much has been falsely assumed and accepted as fact that it’s hard to know where to begin. Most of the churches don’t even know what salvation is.

Saved From What?

Salvation of course means to be saved. But saved from WHAT?

Traditional Christianity thinks that being saved means being saved, not from death, but from an eternity of punishment and torture in hellfire. But Scripture says that the wages of sin is death! “The soul that sinneth it shall die!” That statement is found twice in Ezekiel chapter 18. And Jesus said, “Fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus said that God can destroy the soul. The soul is not immortal.

But what does traditional Christianity teach? It teaches that the soul is immortal. Ironically, the same people who quote Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life,” as a proof text to try to show that eternal life is an unmerited, free gift don’t really believe what it says! Most of them don’t believe that we need to be given eternal life. They think we already have eternal life. And they don’t believe that the wages of sin is death. They think that “the soul that sinneth” will exist for all eternity -- either in heaven for those who profess to accept Jesus, or in hell for those who don’t “get saved.”

I don’t think there is a church organization in the world today that actually believes Romans 6:23. Even those few churches which recognize that the soul in man is not immortal don’t really believe that the wages of sin is death. They preach a message of “not sinning as a way of life” -- but don’t believe it’s possible to live without sinning. They believe in trying to overcome sin, but they don’t believe that it can be completely overcome. And because they believe that it’s impossible to overcome all sin, they think they’ll get a free pass. In other words, they think that God will somehow excuse the fact that they continue to sin and that He won’t actually reward them with the wages of sin.

But Scripture is quite clear on this matter. Sin results in death!

But what is it that results in life? The law of cause and effect says that for every result there is a cause. And there is a cause that results in life eternal!

The Whole Truth

There’s a reason why in a court of law witnesses are sworn to tell the whole truth. It’s because a half-truth is misleading. When we hear only part of the story -- even if the part we hear is true – we can easily be led to draw the wrong conclusion.  And what you’ve heard about salvation is only part of the story. You’ve heard some of the truth, but not the whole truth.

What you’ve heard about salvation is based on the partial testimony of Scripture. It’s based on just a few passages in Scripture. And if these few passages were our only witnesses, we might well be justified in concluding that salvation is indeed simply a free gift. But there are other passages in Scripture that also bear witness to the truth about salvation. And if we are to come to the correct conclusion, we must hear their testimony as well. One such passage is found in Matthew 16:27, where Jesus says:

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward (Greek, apodidomi) every man according to his works.
So there is a reward coming to every man; and it is to be given according to our works. Our works are simply what we do. There’s no question of whether or not we have works. Everyone has works. The only question is whether our works are good or whether they are evil. And as we have seen in Romans 6:23, the reward for evil works—sin -- is death. But what is the reward for righteous works?

The answer is found in Romans 2:6-7, where Paul begins with a statement that is almost identical to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:27. But then he goes one step further and tells us what the reward is.

Who [God] will render (apodidomi) to every man according to his deeds (ergon). To them who by patient continuance in well doing (agathos ergon) seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life (Romans 2:6-7).
Notice that the word “render” here is from the very same Greek word – apodidomi -- translated “reward” in Matthew 16:27. And the reward is ETERNAL LIFE! It’s not an unmerited gift. It’s a reward given according to our “deeds” – according to what we do! It’s given to those who patiently continue in “well doing” – agathos (good) ergon (works).

The idea that works have anything to do with salvation and eternal life is vehemently denied by traditional Christianity. But is that what Jesus Christ taught? Notice Jesus’ teaching on this subject:

And, behold, one came and said unto him [Jesus], Good Master, what good (agathos) thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:16-17).
Now why didn’t Jesus tell this man that there are no works required for eternal life? He could have said, “Eternal life is a free gift. There’s nothing for you to do. Just believe on me. I’m going to do the works for you.” But He didn’t! He said, “Keep the commandments.”

Jesus didn’t preach the same doctrine that you’ve heard about salvation and eternal life. He preached a doctrine of works! He taught that righteousnessright doing -- keeping the Commandments --is REQUIRED for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven!

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).
What we do matters. Just as the laws of the physical universe dictate that for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction, so the Commandments – the laws which regulate the spiritual universe -- dictate that for every action there is a consequence. The consequence of sin is death; the consequence of righteousness is life. There is a cause for every effect! Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Galatians.

Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting (Galatians 6:7-8).
Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap! Think about that. THAT IS NOT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN TAUGHT! You’ve been told that you can continue to sin and still be given eternal life. Paul was inspired to write, “Be not deceived.” And most of you reading this have been deceived! You’ve been told that eternal life is simply a free gift. You’ve been told that there is no cause and effect relationship between sin and death, between righteousness and salvation. But your Bible says otherwise.  

Of course we must not jump to a conclusion based only on the passages quoted above. But neither can we accept any conclusion that contradicts them. Unlike a human court of law, where witnesses can lie, the witnesses in Scripture never lie. (All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 2 Timothy 3:16). And if we are honest we must recognize that the passages quoted above contradict what we’ve been taught.  Thus we cannot accept what traditional Christianity has taught us about salvation.

The truth about salvation is consistent with all the passages in Scripture. There is no contradiction in Scripture. And yet Paul says in Romans 6:23, “The gift of God [is] eternal life.” So how then are we to understand this verse?

The Gift of God

If we are to understand the true meaning of Romans 6:23, we must understand what is meant by the phrase “the gift of God.” And rather than trying to interpret it ourselves and reading our own meaning into it, we must allow the Bible to interpret itself.

In the Bible the phrase “the gift of God” is primarily used to mean the Holy Spirit. Of course “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17); so in one sense even the material blessings of the earth and the ability to enjoy them is “the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 5:19). But primarily in Scripture “the gift of God” means the Holy Spirit. Notice Jesus’ use of this phrase when speaking to a Samaritan woman He encountered at Jacob’s well.

Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water (John 4:10).
So Jesus uses the phrase “the gift of God” to mean the “living water” that He would give. And later John plainly tells us that the “living water” is the Holy Spirit.

In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy [Spirit] was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)  (John 7:37-39).
Jesus’ promise to give this living water – the Holy Spirit -- began to be fulfilled on the day of Pentecost that inaugurated the New Testament era of the Church. Notice that Peter calls it “the gift.”

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy [Spirit] (Acts 2:38).
Again speaking of the Holy Spirit later in the book of Acts, Peter calls it “the gift of God.”  In chapter 8, we read of a man named Simon, who was a sorcerer. He had seen the miracles that were done through the power of the Holy Spirit and he offered money to the apostles if they would give him the same power.

But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money (Act 8:20).
Now let’s look at how the apostle Paul uses the phrase “the gift of God.”

Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands (2Timothy 1:6).
In this passage “the gift of God” is undoubtedly the Holy Spirit. Numerous passages bear witness to the fact that the Holy Spirit is imparted through the laying on of hands. Notice also the context of verse 6: “For God hath not given us the SPIRIT of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (verse 7).

Thus far the passages we’ve looked at containing the phrase “the gift of God” have directly referred to the Holy Spirit. But Paul also uses it as an indirect reference to the Holy Spirit. That is, he uses it to describe something that comes through the Holy Spirit.

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. (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The gift here is faith. Although some have argued that the phrase “and that not of yourselves” refers back to how we are saved, logic dictates that it must refer to faith. Having just informed us that we are saved by grace, it would be redundant to tell us that we are not saved of ourselves. Paul’s readers are not likely to think that they must supply their own grace, but many have thought that they must supply their own faith to be saved. Hence Paul tells us that faith is a gift from God.

And faith being a gift, it is not something that we receive because of works. It comes through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). And the Spirit itself is, as we have seen, a gift from God.

This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:2)  
This is why Paul says, “Not of works, lest any man should boast.” He is talking about how we receive faith, which is imparted through the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is not given according to our works; but as we read in Acts 2:38, it is a gift given to those who repent. (That it is not given on the merit of good works should be self-evident from the fact that repentance is required. Repentance is a decision to cease from evil works, and thus is not required where one’s works are good.)

It has been commonly assumed that “not of works” is talking about how we are saved. But “not of works” is a continuation of the preceding statement, “and that not of yourselves.” It’s easier to see the continuity of thought in the Tyndale translation (the first English translation of the Bible to make direct use of the Hebrew and Greek texts): “For it is the gyfte of God and commeth not of works.” In other words, Paul is still talking about how we receive faith.

So “the gift of God” -- at least in the four passages we’ve examined thus far -- is referring to either the Holy Spirit or to that which comes through the Holy Spirit. But there is one more passage in the New Testament that contains the phrase “the gift of God.” That passage is of course Romans 6:23.

The Gift of Righteousness

What does Paul mean by “the gift of God” in Romans 6:23? The other four times this phrase occurs in the New Testament it is a reference either to the Holy Spirit or to that which comes through the Holy Spirit. Is it possible that Paul means the same thing here?

For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).
Is it possible that what Paul means here is simply that sin leads to death, and the Holy Spirit (or that which comes through the Holy Spirit) leads to eternal life? Let’s examine that possibility. If we go back to the conversation Jesus had with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, we see that there is a definite connection between the Holy Spirit and eternal life.

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life (John 4:14).
Remember that in John 7: 37-39 Jesus calls the Holy Spirit living water. And twice in the book of Revelation the Holy Spirit is called the water of LIFE.

And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely (Revelation 21:6).

And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb (Revelation 22:1).
So the Holy Spirit has the ability to impart life eternal to those who partake of it. It isn’t eternal life of itself, but it gives eternal life to those who drink of it and who allow it to produce in them the fruit of righteousness.

For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting (Galatians 6:8).

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness (Romans 8:10).
With these passages in mind we now go back to Romans 6:23. Earlier we asked the question: is it possible that what Paul means here is that sin leads to death, and the Holy Spirit (or that which comes through the Holy Spirit) leads to eternal life? And we’ve seen evidence that supports that conclusion.

We’ve seen that the other times it appears in the New Testament, “the gift of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit. We’ve seen that the Holy Spirit is something that imparts eternal life to those who “sow to the Spirit” and reap the fruit of righteousness.

But does that conclusion fit with the context surrounding Romans 6:23? Let’s test our hypothesis. In the preceding chapter Paul uses the phrase “the gift” six times, and in verse 17 says that those who receive “the gift of righteousness shall reign in life.” And notice verse 21:

That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:21).
Can you see the similarities between this verse and 6:23? Can you see how it fits with our hypothesis that 6:23 is showing the cause and effect relationship between sin and death, and between righteousness (which comes through the Holy Spirit) and eternal life? Notice now the verses that immediately precede 6:23.

For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness. What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life (Romans 6:20-22).
It should be clear now that our hypothesis is correct. It fits the surrounding context and it fits with the testimony of the rest of the Bible. To conclude anything else makes no sense either in the context of the surrounding verses or in the greater context of all Scripture. Below are some of the many passages that contradict the idea that eternal life is nothing more than a free gift disassociated from righteousness (good works).

And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal (Matthew 25:46).
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28-29).
And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments (Matthew 19:16-17). 
And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1Peter 4:18).
As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent (John 17:2 -3). [He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him  (1John 2:4)]
Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him (James 1:12). [For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous (1John 5:3).]
He that overcometh [sin], the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels (Revelation 3:5).
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their worksAnd whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12, 15). 
Clearly eternal life is for the righteousness. Thus salvation is about becoming righteous. But how does one become righteous?

Choose Life

Not one of us has the power to make ourselves righteous. “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Now this does not mean – as has been erroneously taught -- that we cannot become righteous! (There are scores of passages in Scripture that speak of the righteous – from righteous Abel (Hebrews 11:4, 1 John 3:12) to the “righteous man” whose prayers are heard in James 5:16). No, it simply means that no human being has, of his own volition and of his own resources, made himself righteous. It means, as Paul says, that we must be “made righteous” by Christ (Romans 5:19).

Even the desire to become righteous comes from God. “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God” (Romans 3:11). Again, this does not mean that no one has ever sought God. It means that the desire to seek God does not originate from within us. It comes from God. Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44).

God draws us to Jesus. We do not seek Jesus out of any innate goodness within us. God makes the first move. He chooses us! As Jesus said to His disciples, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” God begins the process of making us righteous by leading us to repentance.

Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? (Romans 2:4). 
This is not to say that we have no part in the process of being made righteous. God does not force us to repent. He draws us to Christ. He leads us to repentance. We must choose to follow His leadership. Those whom God draws to Christ must make a choice. They choose whether to obey or whether to disobey. God does not force us to make the right choice. But He does force us to choose.

It’s the same choice that the ancient nation of Israel faced some 3400 years ago.  As they stood at the threshold the Promised Land, God made a contract – a covenant -- with them. He did not force them to obey the terms of the contract. They were free to choose to disobey. But they did have to make a choice.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Notice the similarities between those ancient Israelites and the true Christians of today. The Israelites did not choose God. He chose them. We did not choose God. He chose us. And God did not choose the children of Israel because they were a mighty people.

For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God: the LORD thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people (Deuteronomy 7:6 -7).
Nor has God chosen us because we were the great and mighty of this world.

For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1Corinthians 1:26-27).
And, as with the Israelites, God has chosen us to be a holy people.

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light (1Peter 2:9). 
In fact, the nation of Israel is called “the church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) and the New Testament Church is called “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Salvation is “of the Jews” (John 4:22) and Christians must be circumcised in heart (Romans 2:29) and must become spiritual Israelites -- in a spiritual sense the children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). The covenants and the promises pertain to spiritual Israel (Romans 9:4-5, 24-26).

And just as God made a covenant with ancient Israel, He makes a covenant with spiritual Israel. And the choice is exactly the same: life or death. The difference is that if we choose to obey, God promises to write His Law in our heart and mind (Hebrews 8:10, 10:16). And God’s Law simply outlines His way of righteousness. In other words, if we choose to obey Him, God will create His righteousness in us. Paul puts it this way:

Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? (Romans 6:16).
   …to be continued