theology

One Throne—One Gospel

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

It's easy to oversimplify and generalize truth. Doing so can make it seem shallow or trivial. But my observation is that teachers who teach well take difficult to understand truth and make it simple. This enables people to gain a good understanding of what's taught and internalize it.

My basic philosophy of learning is that unless a person (myself included!) struggles to think something through, they won't fully understand it or internalize it. Simple questions and challenges to see truth from different perspectives are useful in stirring up productive thought.

I've been writing on a certain track of thought with previous posts (see links below) and want to bring it to a conclusion—there is only one throne and one King of Kings believers need to submit their life to and this is based on the simplicity and depth of the gospel of Jesus.

Believers need to submit their life to only one throne and one King of Kings

A short review

The presentation of gospel truth—the good news of God's redemption for all humanity—is most often given in bits and pieces within a western cultural context. I wrote about this earlier.

A cursory reading of the New Testament (NT) reveals the gospel is presented in five narratives—4 Gospels and a history of the early church (Acts).

The remainder of the NT books explain this gospel narrative and give an understanding of how the truth of the gospel and its theology impact daily life within the church and among people outside the church. 

The larger narrative of God's Story, as it unfolds throughout the Bible, is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption. Even Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is a heavenly narrative of how God's Story will conclude at the end of the Age.

The larger narrative of God's Story is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption

Worldviews and the gospel

Consider again how truth is processed by different people with different world-views. Generally speaking, western thought presents bits and pieces of information strung together until the whole picture is seen.

In MOTROW, information and truth are understood as a whole, while bits and pieces are only seen as part of the whole. When the truth is presented in bits and pieces a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives often happens.

The post-modern mindset is similar to MOTROW when it comes to understanding truth. This mindset may still approach things in a linear fashion, but there's a freedom to associate other truth or information to a belief. This leads to a belief system like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism mentioned in a previous post.

Are you performing well?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is on what is termed a performance-based Christian faith. This is the idea that I need to do something as proof of believing in God or being a Christian. I need to give something to show my commitment to God.

This is often spurred on by well-intentioned calls to the altar—to accept Christ, to recommit your life to Christ, to serve Christ, and so on.

As mentioned in an earlier post, altars are for offering sacrifices and gifts. I see this as an expression of self-focused performance, especially when repeated many times in different services.

Are these responses or calls to some altar of self-sacrifice genuine? Yes, often they are. But the question ought to be, are they necessary?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is termed performance-based Christian faith

Only 2 vows necessary

I realized long ago that there were only two vows a person ever needs to make—one to follow Jesus and the other being joined in marriage. Both are all-inclusive and exclusive. Neither requires any additional commitments because they are all-inclusive commitments.

The call to follow Jesus is simple and requires no further clarification—Matt 16:24; Luke 14:26-27, 33. God's view of marriage, repeated four separate times in the Bible, is just as simple—Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31.

Some may argue, "But there's more to it than that!" But I ask, does God see it that way?

Reading through the book of Hebrews, I'm reminded of the great access provided for believers in the New Covenant established by God's grace—direct access to God's presence.

This access requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)

There are no minimum requirements for entering and remaining in the Kingdom of God. The only thing God asks is that we come to Him—Matt 11:28-30.

Access to God requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—His throne of grace

What compels you to seek God?

So, back to the question—altar or throne? How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself? Or, are you coming to Him in all circumstances, good or bad?

When my children were young and I was a young pastor, I had an open door policy for my children and wife when I studied for messages. I can become so absorbed in studying that I block everything and everyone out.

My wife would remind me of my need to make myself accessible to my children and her., so I didn't elevate my work or my interests over them.

This is how I see a believer's access to God's presence. I can come at any time, in any condition, in any situation and His door is open. I don't need to offer anything or ask special permission.

The Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are our promised intercessors (Rom 8:26-27, 34) ready at all times to hear us and be our advocates. Nothing and no one stands between believers and God.

How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself?

Guilt or grace?

Even as a young believer, I felt manipulated to respond to altar calls. I don't like being manipulated with emotion, nor do I want to just do something because it's expected or because I feel guilty about something. 

I'm not against altar calls per se, just the manipulative way they can be used and the assumptions made based on responses to these calls. I'm especially concerned about the self-effort I see people exerting to get into God's good graces. It's just not necessary.

God didn't ask Abraham to offer his son Isaac more than once. God accepted it and declared Abraham as righteous by faith (Gen 15:6; 22:1-18). Jesus only died once to justify those who trust in Him (Heb 9:12-14), this is made clear in several places in Hebrews.

Is there any need for doing something additional? If you think so, you don't understand God's grace. God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him.

God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him

Confidence in God and His grace

I laid my life at God's altar and I made a vow to my wife over 45 years ago. I don't need to make any more vows or make any sacrifices to gain the Lord's acceptance.

I approach God's throne with confidence when I am in need, though I still fall far short of perfection. My perfection—my sense of completeness—is only found in my Lord and Savior Jesus. I had nothing to offer long ago and still don't, but He has all I am.

What about you?

Are you going to God's altar and waiting for Him to accept you? Or, are you going boldly before His throne of grace at any time whatever your need? (Heb 4:14-16)

Jesus calls each of us to deny our self and take up the Cross, and then follow Him in faith. He doesn't ask us to make more vows at an altar of self-sacrifice. He invites us to come to Him because of His grace, and as the traditional hymn declares—Just as I am.

God doesn't ask us to come to an altar of self-sacrifice but invites us to come to Him because of His grace

Links of previous related posts—

Many Altars but One Gospel

Altar or Throne?

What's Required to Follow Jesus?

What do you think is most important for being a disciple of Jesus? (Click to Tweet)

Commitment? Faithfulness? Discipline? Moral goodness? Sound theology? These are all good things, but I don't believe they are what Jesus is looking for as priority number one.

So... what is the one thing Jesus requires of His followers? A story of restoration gives some great insight into this.

A Journey of Faith

Quoting a truth is easier than living it out in real life. Putting truth on a plaque or poster is nice, but it doesn't change a person's life.

Memorization of Scripture is good for retention, but it won't produce transformation in a person's life on its own. What we know in our minds doesn't automatically bring change in our hearts or our self-will.

Truth doesn't bring transformation until it's transferred from thought into action, which requires an active, personal faith.

An Unimaginable Gift

unsplash.com_PLastra
unsplash.com_PLastra

"I can't believe I won!" As the winners shriek with surprise and jump up and down with joy, some of us watch it all with skepticism, while others may wonder, "Why can't this happen to me?"

I'm talking about those ads showing sweepstakes winners, and even those more sedate, even secretive lucky lottery winners.

This scenario is somewhat representative of a spiritual truth often met with skepticism or qualifications.

Hard to accept

One of the more puzzling paradoxes within the Christian faith is the response of people to the grace of God—God's unearned kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, and approval.

Many people have a hard time accepting the truth of Sola Gratiaby grace alone—because it seems "too good to be true." Granted, some people get it right away and are thrilled beyond belief. Others however, accept it, but later doubt their own worthiness to fully embrace it.

Then there are those who claim to believe in God's grace, but have a plethora of reasons why others don't qualify for this unimaginable gift of acceptance and favor. These same responses to God's grace are seen throughout the gospels and epistles in the New Testament.

Seen it all before

The Pharisees, and later those called the Judaizers, play the role of the spoil sport and point out how grace goes too far. They challenged Jesus during His ministry on earth, especially when He healed people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).

Those in the margins of society—the sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and such—were delighted with God's gracious acceptance and favor they saw in Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).

The early church leaders also struggled with how far God's grace extended and who qualified to receive it. But in a sovereign way God revealed how far His grace reaches, when He poured out His Spirit on a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10:45; 11:18; 15:6-11).

Then, the redemptive message of God's grace (the gospel) began to spread through non-Jewish (Gentile) people, as it did in Antioch (Acts 11:19-24).

The great shocker of all was the supernatural conversion of a radicalized rabbi (Acts 9:1-16). The radical rabbi Saul became the apostle Paul, who explained the theology of God's grace in Galatians, Romans, Colossians, and the book of Hebrews.

Though Paul vehemently stood against the truth of God's grace, he became the great teacher of the Gentiles, who explained the grace of God better than anyone since Jesus.

Why we struggle with grace

I'm thankful for my first pastor, Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, back in the early 70's. I didn't have preconceived notions or teaching about grace, so I accepted what I read in God's Word and how it was confirmed by Pastor Chuck's teaching.

I don't remember if he said this exactly, but his attitude was that he'd rather err on the side of grace than legalism or judgment.

Over the years, I've watched people struggle with the simple but powerful truth of God's grace. We all do, even though we believe in it. There's a myriad of reasons why, but here's some that come to mind.

  • It seems to good to be true— human skepticism, even to the point of cynicism fueled by the world around us, is the biggest reason. It all started back in the garden when the first humans believed a lie rather than trust their Creator (Gen 3:1-7).
  • Looking for exceptions to the rule— this reason extends from the "too good to be true" attitude, but is characterized with "what ifs" and other limitations imagined or passed on by others, who contrive various scenarios where God's grace can't be applied.
  • Beyond the reach of God's grace— this is rooted in shame and the closed loop of unresolved guilt. Surely, we reason, there's some limit to God's grace, either because we've benefited from it so often or done something deemed so terrible.
  • Who qualifies to receive it— this includes various religious and moral hurdles church leaders and people contrive, similar to objections brought up to Jesus and the early church leaders (see earlier section).
  • You've gone too far— limits are put on how many times a person has appealed to God for His grace because of repeated failures. Also, the dreaded "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" (Mark 3:28-30), which gets interpreted various ways according to a person's situation.

Here's what I've learned through the truth of Scripture in my own life of faith—

God's grace is greater than our failures, fears, doubts, and expectations of others.

Tying it all together

How do the first three foundational Solas work together?

  1. Grace and faith—Sola Gratia and Sola Fide– One of the clearest expressions of how grace and faith fit together is in Ephesians 2:8-9—For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
    • This should free a person from a performance-oriented Christian life, since personal effort (good works) is of no value for gaining favor with God.
    • Grace is the great equalizer when it comes to faith, and humility is the true evidence of experiencing God's grace.
  2. Faith and Scripture—Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura— Paul reminds believers that faith comes from hearing the truth of God's Word (Rom 10:17).
    • Genuine Christian faith needs to be grounded in the truth of the Scripture through the work and witness of God's Spirit (Gal 3:2-6).
  3. Grace and Scripture—Sola Gratia and Sola Scriptura— our understanding of God's grace needs to be grounded in the truth of God's Word, not human reason (dogmatic beliefs) or emotion (shame or guilt).
    • This is spelled out in many places, especially in the epistle of Romans— Romans 5:8-10; 12, 15, 18-21.

Don't complicate the simplicity of God's grace, and don't despise its simplicity. The depth of God's truth isn't complicated, it's simple.

When you begin to doubt the truth of Sola Gratia, I encourage you to read through the epistle of Galatians, especially chapters 3–5, also chapters 5–8 of Romans.

What exceptions or exclusions have you seen people make about God's grace?

How has God's grace overwhelmed your failures, fear, and unmet expectations?


This is the 5th in a series of posts to consider the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Here are the previous posts—

 

Why Do You Believe That?

God Won't Fit In a Box, Nor Will I

Sola Scriptura—A Simple View

Gateway to God's Heart

 

Understanding terms—

Many of the theological terms used by Christians become like a foreign language to nonbelievers. Believers need to understand these terms well enough to put them in their own words, or as I call it IYOW (In Your Own Words).

I've tried to give some simple clarification of terms in these posts, but I encourage you to make your own effort at understanding these terms so you can explain them IYOW to others.

If there's a specific theological term that proves hard to grasp, let me know. I'll at least point you in the right direction for an answer, if I can't help you with my own explanation.

Gateway to God's Heart

unsplash.com_KRodriquez
unsplash.com_KRodriquez

Faith is simple, but it's often a mystery to many people, even believers. Why? Because it defies analysis and any effort to quantify it.

Faith is the gateway to God's heart. It's the means by which we enter into a relationship with God.

It requires no special training or expertise and children seem to get its essence better than anyone. Faith is crucial to become a true Christian.

Sola Fide

This second Sola is closely linked with Sola Gratia, which I'll look at next week. It is a second foundation and theological emphasis of the Protestant Reformation next to Sola Scriptura.

Sola Fide simply means by faith alone—a simple statement and a vital one. The theology of this Sola is what distinguishes Protestant Christianity from virtually all other religions and all pseudo-Christian sects and cults.

Here are important elements to this foundational statement—

  • A person is justified before God (reconciled and made innocent) by faith alone
  • Salvation can not be gained by any effort on our part
  • Christ's righteousness—being without sin in right relationship with God—is imputed (credited) to believers because of His grace, God's unmerited kindness and favor

The Gospel

The Christian gospel, the message of God's redemptive work through His Son Jesus Christ on the cross, can only be received and understood by faith. Not by holding to a set of doctrines or theological beliefs, nor by moral goodness, but a personal trust in God.

The confidence of believers for salvation is in Jesus taking the place of each of us on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice.  This is called atonement, an act of reconciliation between God and people.

Christ's sacrifice on the cross (atonement) enabled Him to provide the means for freedom from the penalty of sin, which is death (Rom 5:18-19; 6:23).

Jesus' reconciling act on the cross set up an exchange for those of us who trust in Him. Our sin was transferred upon Him, as the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and His righteousness was given or imparted to us. This is called imputed righteousness.

Faith that justifies

It's easy to lose sight of the essence of faith when viewing it through a theological lens or trying to define it. True biblical faith is always personal and tied to relationship with God.

The faith that justifies a person doesn't come through theological belief or knowledge of how faith works, it's a matter of personal trust.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. (Hebrews 11:1, 6 NIV)

True faith can't be developed through a right set of beliefs or actions. Neither is it a feeling or a dynamic force we conjure up or make happen. It is a confident surrender of our life to God. This is seen throughout the Old Testament.

Examples of justifying faith

In chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews, many examples are given of people who lived by this kind of faith. Four notable people, Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham, are mentioned in the beginning (Heb 11:4-8).

This justifying faith is seen most clearly in Abraham's life as God promises that He will become the father of many nations (Gen 12:1-5, 7; 13:14-18; 15:1-6). Abraham's trust in God was credited to him as righteousness—

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:3 NKJV)

King David was considered a man after God's heart (Acts 13:22) and he had a similar faith in God and God's promise to him (2 Sam 7:18-22).

Justification by faith and the Holy Spirit

Again, it's important to understand that justification by faith, the theological term connected to Sola Fide, is not based on doctrinal or theological beliefs, nor by anything a person does or does not do in an attempt to be right with God.

The faith that justifies a person is based on a trust relationship with God. A faith that He nurtures in us in various ways—revelation of the truth, supernatural events, making Himself known through life events, or confirmations in our heart by His Spirit.

The personal work of the Holy Spirit in a person's life is too often misunderstood as some spiritual dynamic or conjured up belief, but this is inconsistent with the whole of Scripture.

Jesus makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the One who teaches and guides a believer (John 14:15-17, 26; 15:26) and it is He who leads and points us to Jesus. God's Spirit also brings conviction about sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:7-11; 13-15).

Justifying faith is the gateway to God's heart, and He's the one who nurtures this faith in us. As Paul makes clear to the Ephesian believers—

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; itis the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. (Eph 2:8-9 NKJV)

A person doesn't need to be a theologian to have this faith, for as Jesus reminded His disciples we need to become like a child to enter God's kingdom.

"Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Mark 10:14-15)


This is the 4th in a series of posts to consider the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Here are the previous posts—

 

Why Do You Believe That?

God Won't Fit In a Box, Nor Will I

Sola Scriptura—A Simple View

 

Understanding terms—

Many of the theological terms used by Christians become like a foreign language to nonbelievers. Believers need to understand these terms well enough to put them in their own words, or as I call it IYOW (In Your Own Words).

I've tried to give some simple clarification of terms in these posts, but I encourage you to make your own effort at understanding these terms so you can explain them IYOW to others.