Thursday, July 16, 2015

What I Believe about God and Salvation

This is what I believe in my own words. If you disagree we can still be friends.  

Spiritually, I believe we are convicted and released. Convicted because of objective truth and total depravity. Released because Christ has to change a person's depraved condition himself, and He does that without any help from us-- without our faith, without our choice, without any kind of action from us. I truly believe we can't do one thing before regeneration, not even believe, because we are dead spiritually. Not sick, dead. All dead, not mostly dead. I do not believe a person even has the ability to believe in Christ before he is saved eternally. Believing, accepting Christ, praying prayers... we are incapable of these things before we are saved.

After He changes us (regeneration-- without our help), we love Him so much we begin to seek Him. Depending on our environment, this seeking may take the form of professing faith in Christ, or simply beginning to want to do right things. Think of the Gentiles Paul refers to who had not been taught God's law, but tried to follow it because it was written in their hearts. There are so many people in the world today in this position! Who are we to say they are going to Hell if they don't pray a prayer? They are going to Heaven same as us. Rather than scaring them into checking off boxes, we should be comforting them with the good news that they are free in Christ.

Anyway, after regeneration it bothers us to do wrong things. But we still do wrong things and have that struggle Paul talks about in Romans 7 (Oh wretched man that I am! Who can deliver me from the body of this death!). We can find rest by leaning on Jesus and trusting Him no matter what-- not leaning on our own efforts, whether they are efforts of belief or behavior. And this is why Jesus was harder on the Pharisees than on the people caught committing outright sins. Because the Pharisees thought they were getting it right.

Some people would call my beliefs antinomianism (the belief that the saved are not bound to follow moral laws) . But I do believe it matters whether people do right things in life. I just don't believe it matters eternally. Paul addresses that accusation in Romans 6 (What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we that are dead to sin live any longer therein?). It's very important to live a moral life. It glorifies God. But it is not important eternally. It is a devotional thing. We live moral as best we can because we love Jesus, not because we are trying to meet some standard. And we fall short constantly, but there is no condemnation for it, because Jesus paid the price. He set us free.

We should dwell in that restful place and not try to establish our own righteousness. I think laboring to enter into Christ's rest is the most important labor we can do. Like it says in Hebrews, our high priest totally understands our temptations and how difficult it is to live a good life. He was tempted just like we are, but without sinning. This is why we must lean only on his works, not on our own. Laboring to enter into His rest is not at all like working to establish our own righteousness, nor does it eliminate the necessity of striving for a moral life. It changes the focus of morality from “I am duty bound to follow a code, and I'd better follow it” to “I am devoted to the Lord and want to please Him, but when I fail, he is full of mercy and does not shame me.”

Some people find it easier to live by a moral code, and some people find it more difficult. I believe there are people saved eternally in both of these categories (as well as in every different people group on the planet, whether they have heard the gospel or not). People who find it easier to walk the straight and narrow need to be super careful not to fall into self-righteousness, because it creates hellish shame for others of God's children. I believe this is why Christ was so much harder on the people with the stones than on the woman caught in adultery. Even when I do right things, I am still just one step away from despicable. Any virtues I have were cultivated by Christ, not me. And I may find it easier, but that doesn't mean I am getting it right. The Bible teaches that no man or woman except Jesus behaves perfectly. Sins of pride are just as wrong as sins of lust, but they are more insidious because we think we are doing it right.

You may ask, how does God decide who to save, then? If it is not because of our works? I believe that before God created the world, God the Father and Jesus (who was known as the Word at that time) and the Holy Spirit got together and looked at the way things would turn out after Creation. I tend to think they were like scientists making projections, but of course the most perfect scientists who see exactly how things will turn out if this or that is done. I believe they wanted to create a people to love who would love them back. (This is the whole reason we were created.) They decided it was going to be a sticky wicket creating people with free will who were also perfect enough to dwell with them in eternity.

They had to make a plan to save these people from themselves. They knew Adam wasn't going to resist that fruit, and they saw that without some kind of sacrifice on their part, no human being would be able to live with them in the bright light of their perfection. Everyone would quickly be destroyed, and their plan for a people to love and commune with abolished, if someone didn't do something. They could make the people automatons who did whatever they were told without thought or will, but God didn't want to hang out with people like that. He wanted to be with people who made their own choices, who chose to love Him. He didn't want automatons, and He couldn't have reprobates. Reprobates would be burned up in the mighty perfection of Heaven.

Then the Word said, “I will go down there and die for a great number of those people, and then they will be covered by my sacrifice and able to live with us without being destroyed by the light of our perfection.” God and the Holy Spirit agreed, although they were very sad to think of the pain the Word would have to endure. It was a solemn decision to save these people, and the only reason they decided to do it was love.

After deciding to save some people, they figured out the plan of predestination and election. They sorted through all the people who would ever be born, and picked out a great number-- because God's love is great, and because He is mighty-- to save. When I say a great number, I mean huge. I mean as many as there are stars in the sky, or grains of sand on the earth. This number is amazingly large, a vast number of people.  You walk down the street, you are bumping into these people left and right. 

If you have love in your heart, then you can be sure you are one of the chosen, because only God's regenerate children can love. In Galatians, we are told that love is a fruit of the Spirit, a result of regeneration. What do I mean by love? Love for your neighbor, love for your family, for Jesus, for God, for His word. Our actions assure us that we are His children, but the fact of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you (which happens at regeneration) means no matter what you do or don't do, you are His and are going to Heaven.

Some people say God looked down through time and chose people He knew would serve Him best. I do not agree with that. I believe we were all completely and thoroughly disgusting. When God looked down, He saw how horrible we would be without Him regenerating us. Not one of us looked at all good. Think of God as an apple grower and us as apples. He had a bin of apples, and every single one was slimy, putrid, horrid even to touch. Every single one of us. God picked through a huge enormous bin of grotesque apples, and chose a ton of them to make new. He seriously chose rotten apples, because none of those apples were even slightly good. He couldn't choose good apples. There weren't any. I don't believe he looked at the apples and decided, “Well, I can see that this one will serve a good purpose, so it gets chosen.” No. He looked to His own power and said, “I can make these apples new and good through the sacrifice of My Son.” And He chose a great many. If He had made His choice based on what we would do later, then we would be back at works salvation. I do not believe we did anything to get into Heaven. Not one thing.

There is a doctrine called Absolute Predestination, and I want to make it clear that is not what I am talking about. Absolute Predestination says that God orchestrated everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen on earth. I do not believe that. If He did that, we would not have free will. We would be automatons, puppets. God did not want puppets. I believe predestination only refers to God choosing his elect before Creation. Every time predestination is discussed in the Bible, it is in reference to people, not events. 

I also do not believe that God predestined that every one of the elect would hear the gospel. I do, however believe in Providence, the idea that God closely watches out for His people, and sometimes intervenes in their lives. That is different from God orchestrating events.  Although God providentially cares for His children, He does not necessarily provide each of them with a way to hear the gospel at some point in their lives-- just as He does not necessarily provide every child of His with two parents, or enough money to have a comfortable life, or good health.  We live in a sin-cursed world, and the swirling effects of sin buffet us.  The Lord intervenes sometimes, and sometimes He doesn't. I don't know how He decides these things, but I bet it has nothing to do with our righteousness because, well... see above. I believe there are people going to Heaven who have never heard the gospel, and I believe they get there the same way as God's people who have heard the gospel.  The gospel is a sharing of the good news of jubilee-- that we are free in Christ. It is not a means of eternal salvation. 

I also believe there are people who have heard the gospel and walked away who are going to Heaven, because, frankly, we Christ-followers are sometimes not very kind to people who have been hurt, and sometimes it's just too painful to be around us.  This is not God's fault. This is our fault. (See "people who find it easier to live a moral life," above.)  I include myself in this. I have been the Pharisee referred to in Matthew 23, who imposed heavy burdens, grievous to be borne, on the shoulders of others, and refused to lift a finger to relieve them.  Lord help me, never again permit me to do this.

Also, I want to make it clear I am not a Calvinist. For one thing, I do not believe God predestinated events, ie., that His children would necessarily hear the gospel. I also do not believe He chose some people to go to Hell and some to go to Heaven. I believe he chose a (vast, amazingly large number of) people to be with Him in Heaven, and left the others where they were. 

In addition, I do not believe in Perseverance of the Saints. I think it is possible for a child of God to backslide enough that he loses the joy of walking with the Lord and lives his earthly life separate from God, but still goes to Heaven when he dies. It is a sad, sad thing for God's child to lose this connection on earth. Jonah is an example of a child of God who did not persevere. The last we hear of him in the Bible, he is angry and disappointed at God for saving the Ninevites when they repented. There is no evidence that he turned toward the Lord before his death. However, I believe that in spite of his bitter end, he is rejoicing with the Lord in Heaven today.

Gideon is another example in the Bible of God's child not persevering to the end. His last act before dying, according to scripture, was to make a golden ephod and lead the children of Israel into idolatry. Yet Christians hold Gideon a strong man of God, and I truly believe he was. Here's the thing-- we all do stupid stuff. We all walk away from the Lord. David himself did many abhorrent things I don't have room to list here. This theme is presented over and over in the Bible. God's people walk away from Him. They go do what's right in their own eyes. They wander and get lost.

God's law is perfect and exact, and we cannot keep it. None of us. Not even after regeneration. God does not insert a tricky little clause into salvation that says, “Be careful, because if you are hit by a bus and your heart isn't right with Me, you were never saved.” God loves us. He never changes. He is honest. He is not playing a shell game. He is saving His people. Perseverance says that a child of God, though he may err, will ultimately persevere in his faith to the end of his life. This is a works salvation. It is impossible for God's child to attain. More importantly, it flies in the face of Christ's finished work on the cross. He persevered; we did not.

I believe in Preservation of the Saints. I do not think Preservation and Perseverance are different sides of the same coin. Preservation says that Christ's work is sufficient to preserve even the erring child of God who turns his back and is given over to his own devices, even if the child keeps pursuing his own way and never returns to God for the rest of his life. If we turn our backs on God enough, God will allow us to go our own way in this life. However, we cannot do anything at all-- not one thing-- that is bad enough to negate the work Christ did on the cross of saving us. That work was finished when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Nothing we can do will change that.

It is a terrible thing to push against the Lord so much that he finally says, “Okay, go do your own thing,” and removes His providential hand from your life here on earth. Much better to stay close to Him and try to hear and do what He says, no matter how many times you fail. Stay close to the Shepherd. He is gentle and loves you so much. Even His correction is easy, compared to that of the world. Once, when David had grievously disobeyed the Lord, God gave him a choice to endure seven years of famine, or to be subject to his foes for three months, or to endure three days pestilence in Israel. David said, “Oh, please, Lord God, let me not fall into the hands of man. Let me fall into Your hands, for Your mercies are great.” No matter how many times we mess up, we should turn back to the Lord. His mercies are brand-new every morning. He is approachable. He gives wisdom to every person who asks it. And remember, Paul and Peter and David and Gideon had big struggles. In spite of their failings, God loved them so much. He loves us exactly the same. He will not let us go, no matter what. I do think we can separate so much from God here on earth that He gives us up. But not eternally. He would never give up His children eternally. That work was done on the cross. Nothing we can do will change that.

This is what I believe. I get so confused navigating Christian communities. There are many different ways of seeing the Bible. Many times we use the same terms with different meanings. It is difficult to understand each other. But I know what I believe. I want to share the good news of Christian liberty with God's people, but I don't want to put others down for their beliefs. I also don't want to feel like an outcast because my beliefs are different from the mainstream. I am not in charge of others' moral or spiritual walk, nor are they in charge of mine. I want to enter into Christ's rest. It is the work of a lifetime. I am challenged to figure out what to say, how to react (if I act at all), how to help others, how I make and keep contracts with people, how I spend money, how I order my days.

We do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but with spiritual darkness. We may experience many troubles here. Others may make things hard for us. But really, we are wrestling against spiritual wickedness, and that's not necessarily the person across from me who is pushing an immoral agenda. He may be one of God's children, and I do not want to be responsible for pushing him further into darkness by condemning him. I want to disagree with civility.

I aspire to be more like Christ and less like the Law. Nevertheless, I struggle. I get angry. I get envious. I follow after wrong things. Then I pick myself up, go back to the beginning, and try again to stay close to Christ. 

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