Tuesday, June 29, 2010

I Am Bound for the Promised Land

Does the letter to the Hebrews teach we can lose our salvation?

"For this reason we much pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels [the Law, see the post on this subject] proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will be escape if we neglect so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:1-3).

"...Christ was faithful as a Son over His house - Whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope until the end" (3:6).

"Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (3:12).

"For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end" (3:14).

"Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it" (4:1).

"Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience" (4:11).

"For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly ift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame" (6:4-6).

"For if we go on sinning willfully [notice: the only sin mentioned was the "forsaking our own assembly together"] after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?" (10:26-29).

* * * * * * *

So, is the letter to the Hebrews saying we can lose our salvation?

I want you to remember the story of the Exodus, because that's what the letter to the Hebrews asks of us from 3:1-4:11. The children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt through the mighty works of God (the plagues and parting of the Red Sea). Were they "saved" at this point? No. They still had to cross the desert (being supplied with food and water along the way). After making it to the foot of Mt. Sinai and hearing the Word of God, were they "saved"? No. They still had to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, clearing the land in obedience to God's directions, and settle there according to God's Law. They didn't do this, did they? They balked at God's ability to deliver on His promises to give them the Land. So, because of their disbelief, God marched them back into the desert so that the Exodus generation could die there. A whole generation was raised in the desert: "Your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they will suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness" (Numbers 14:33). They were delivered from slavery, witnessed God's miraculous power, were sustained by God, received God's Word, and laid their eyes on the Promised Land, BUT THEY WERE NOT SAVED BECAUSE OF THEIR UNBELIEF! It was only the generation that believed God and crossed the Jordan that were able to tell future generations of the salvation wrought in the Exodus. The others fell in the desert.

Now return to the letter to the Hebrews. Does it say we can lose our salvation, or - keep in mind the recipients of the letter - is the letter comparing that first Jewish generation of the Church to the generation that came out of Egypt by the delivering hand of God?

"Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God" (Hebrews 3:12). Can a person with "an evil, unbelieving heart" be a Christian, or "saved"? No, of course not! He is asking them to examine themselves and encourage each other to not lapse into a sinful lifestyle, for that falling "away from the living God" would be a sign that inside you was "an evil, unbelieving heart." In other words, your lifestyle is a witness to the reality in your heart. We often comfort ourselves for loved ones who are living in open rebellion to the Lord by remembering or recounting some time when they made a public profession of faith. The thing is that it is possible to make a public profession of faith and not be truly born again. A person caught up in an emotionally compelling moment may make a public profession but still have "an evil, unbelieving heart." It is the continuance in the Spirit-filled Christian life as part of a Word-saturated Body that is the witness to a true profession, not a filled-out decision card!

Why did the Exodus generation fall in the desert? Was it because they "lost their salvation," or was it because they were never truly filled with saving faith in the first place (despite their witnessing all the amazing works of God)? "So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief" (3:19). They were never saved to begin with, and neither will any person who does not have true belief to go along with their outward behavior.

"For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard" (4:2). Hearing the good news preached is the means by which God saves people (Romans 10:8-15), but hearing without faith does not result in salvation. Isaiah is told to go preach to a people that will not receive his message unto salvation (Isaiah 6:9,10). All four Gospels and the book of Acts quote that verse (Matthew 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26,27). But when faith is united with the message heard, true salvation is the result, not some false imitation that inevitably withers away.

Jesus speaks of this truth in His parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-9,18-23). What is the seed? The Word of the Kingdom. Some, upon hearing it, show immediately signs they do not understand it. Nothing at all happens when it is sown (preached). Some hear the Word, receive it with joy, but when that same Word begins to cause trouble in their lives, they stumble into oblivion. For some the "worry of the world" and the "deceitfulness of wealth" cause them to abandon that Word which they originally heard. Some, however, hear the Word and it bears incredible fruit in their lives. Let me ask you: who was truly saved?

Jesus (and the rest of the New Testament) doesn't teach "once saved" (like it's some isolated event in the past) "always saved." A singular, isolated event of a "prayer prayed" (show me the "sinner's prayer" or "asking Jesus into your heart" in the Bible) or public decision being made is not the thing that seals you to heaven forever. No, Jesus says things like, "the one who endures to the end, he will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). Sounds a lot like the stuff in the letter to the Hebrews. A person who truly receives the message of the Good News preached and has that message united with true, lasting, growing faith in his/her heart, will endure to the end and will be saved. The one who falls away never had faith to begin with, regardless of a "prayer prayed," or one-time confession. True rebirth, true renewal of life, true salvation causes a change in a person's life. It isn't that they are perfect and never sin again, but sin becomes a battlefield and not a place of luxurious vacation. A person who is saved is changed. A person who is lost is capable of spurts of play-acting, but make their true nature known through their lives.

Sometimes they fall away from being part of the Church. Sadly, sometimes they become the wolves in sheep's clothing or the tares among the wheat within the Church. No matter what they are, the faith/belief is lacking from their heart and therefore they are not saved and were never saved to begin with.

Does the letter to the Hebrews teach that we can lose our salvation? No, but drawing upon the Jewish salvation-history of the Exodus, the letter to the Hebrews says that there are some who make a decent showing of being people of faith, but are not really people of the faith, and when difficulty comes in the life of a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, they will fall away. Be disciplined in your life to be an accountable part of the Body of Christ, bearing fruit to His glory...do this to assure yourself that your faith is genuine.

"All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by His Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end" (Baptist Faith & Message [2000], article V).

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Let This Be Our Prayer.

One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Acts 4:24-30. I know very little about most things, but especially prayer. What I do know is that I see prayers in the Bible that cause God to shake the heavens and the earth. "In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words..." (Romans 8:26). I consider that the Spirit also helps us in prayer through the Word He has Authored. So I pay attention to these prayers of the Scriptures given to us by God the Holy Spirit. And this one in Acts is close to my heart.

It is a prayer "to God with one accord" (4:24). Unity of the Church is the Reality of the True Church. It is how the Father has designed the Church, how the Son reigns over the Church, and how the Holy Spirit builds the Church. The disunity we see and experience is from our bringing of worldly concerns into the Church, the continued fleshly desire to build our kingdom rather than Christ's, ignorance or willful rejection of the truth of the Word, etc. We see this Church praying to God as ONE. The unity comes from the Reality established by God (Ephesians 4:4-6), gifted by the Christ Who takes us captive (4:7-11), and the building of the Church (4:12-16). This Church that prays in Acts 4 "to God with one accord" has embraced the Reality, the gift, and the building. And so they come to corporate prayer as the Church.

It is a prayer that draws from the Bible as its heartbeat. The confession of Acts 4:24 that identifies the One to Whom they pray: "Lord, it is You Who made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them..." This is a scriptural view of God. They come as one Body to a God Who is greater than all things because He made all things. He is not their pet god. He is not their good luck charm or servant of their individual goals and desires. He is Maker of ALL.

Then they move on to the Psalm 2 quote, lifting up the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and the salvation of God through history (the citation of David the LORD's servant): "Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ" (Acts 4:25,26//Psalm 2:1,2). This quotation of the Psalms was most natural to the Church. I believe it was part of every corporate prayer time they had together. We read in 2:42 that "they were continually devoting themselves...to prayer [lit., "the prayers"]." I would suggest to you that these early Jewish Christians devoted themselves to "the prayers," which was the Book of Psalms, the prayer-book of the Bible. Even after the Church expanded past its predominately Jewish nature, the Psalms were still vital to the corporate life of the Church:
  • "When you assemble, each one has a psalm..." (1 Corinthians 14:26).
  • "...be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms..." (Ephesians 5:18,19).

Both of these passages highlight the work of God the Holy Spirit in the Church, and both bring the spiritual exercise of corporate prayer of the Psalms (which the Holy Spirit Authored) into play. So, as the Church gathered to pray in Acts 4:24-30, they naturally wove - by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit - the Psalms written by the Spirit into their prayer. It was what they always did, it honored the God in their midst Who had given them Scriptures, and lifted God's own words back to Him in prayer. Do you see the power already building just in this act alone? The Word is the power of God! Make it your prayer, dear Church!

This prayer remembers the mighty deeds of God. Not just in citing Creation and mentioning David, but the mighty deeds in their own lives. All of humanity ("...Herod and Pontius Pilate...the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel") had been gathered together against Christ. It did not matter. Their greatest opposition became the very narrative of the plan of God: "...to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur" (4:28). Remember the mighty deeds of God in your prayers! This was the theme of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11). We focus on the tongues and arguing over what this phenomenon was, but the point is that they heard "the mighty deeds of God." Remember these deeds and tell of them from both the Bible and your own lives.

Take note of the circumstance of the prayer. Peter and John have been arrested. Peter has given another amazing sermon (3:12-26) and testimony (4:8-12) in the power of the Triune God:

  • "...they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues; and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they hand you over, do not worry about how or what you are to say; for it will be given you in that hour what you are to say. For it is not you who speak, but it is the Spirit of your Father Who speaks in you" (Matthew 10:17-20).
  • "...they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name's sake. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute" (Luke 21:12-15).
  • "...they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them. The gospel must first be preached to all the nations. When they arrest you and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is give you in that hour; for it is not you who speak but it is the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:9-11).

I have said these things before, but it doesn't hurt to remind us all of Who is our power in testimony before the world. They mention the leaders, as Paul commands us to in his teaching on prayer in 1 Timothy 2:1-8. This command is not for the peace and well-being of the land for its own sake or for our comfort. We pray for the leaders because God desires for men to be saved through a knowledge of the truth (2:4), that is, that Jesus is the Mediator between God and men (2:5). We pray for leaders so that those who are appointed as preachers, apostles, and teachers will be able to proclaim the Good News (2:7), which is "our God reigns" (see Isaiah 52:7). The Church is to pray for what Baptist theologian Herschel Hobbs (1907-1995) called "a free Church in a free State."

In this circumstance, they don't pray for their own comfort, do they? Compare that to the content of our own prayers when we pray apart from the Scriptures, when we pray from lives that devote a percentage and not the whole to the Kingdom of God. But a live wholly dedicated to the reign of God, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit and Word, crucified to the world...well, the prayer requests are going to be different. They were being actively threatened by the rulers of the land, but didn't pray for themselves! Let me talk briefly about some "ask whatever you want" passages:

  • John 14:13,14...this promise is held between doing the works of Christ and proof of belief (14:12) and obedience to His commands as proof of love (14:15). The Son responds to prayers in His name to bring glory to the Father. This makes "whatever you ask" have a different flavor, doesn't it?
  • John 15:16...this promise is held between absolute obedience to Christ's command to love in a self-sacrificing way as He loves (15:12-14,17) and is preceded by Christ's statement that He has chosen us, appointed us to bear lasting fruit. This makes "whatever you ask" have a different flavor, doesn't it?
  • John 16:23,24,26 concerns knowledge of Jesus, not receiving our personal (often selfish or fleshly) desires!

Isn't this what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34)? Doesn't James tell us we don't get what we want because of our motives and desires (4:1-6)?

They prayed for boldness in speaking God's Word: "...grant that Your bondservants may speak Your Word with all confidence..." (4:29). This is a common prayer request (Ephesians 6:18-20; Colossians 4:2-4; 2 Thessalonians 3:1,2). Yes, they pray for healing, "and signs and wonders," but these things are requested as support to the bold proclamation of the Word, not for their own physical comfort or desire to witness supernatural power.

The result of this prayer? "...the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the Word of God with boldness" (4:31). God answered the prayer powerfully. The imprisonments and persecutions increased, but the Word was preached boldly. Some died, but the Word was preached boldly. This world increasingly became alien to them, but the Word was preached boldly.

Let this be our prayer.