God: One and Three

We are continuing in our series on the fundamentals of the faith. The first of these ideas deals with the existence of God. The Bible does not seek to prove the existence of God; it assumes that He exists. Indeed, the Bible was written as a result of His existence. Previously, we’ve discussed the nature of God, as He revealed it to Moses in the Bible. (See “The God of the Gospel” posts or the podcast.) Therefore, for now we will address some broader points when it comes to our knowledge of God. To refresh our memories, our statement about God says:

There is one God, existent in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All are equally divine, only their functions are different. When referring to “God” it is possible to refer to the Father singly or all three jointly. God is merciful, gracious, perfect, and holy.

And we read this in Mark’s Gospel:

Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one'” (Mark 12:29).

First and foremost, God is self-existent. It’s common for children to ask, “Who created God?” The answer is God is uncreated. He gave this self-definition to Moses at the burning bush. We read in Exodus,
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14). The phrase “I AM” speaks of the One who always was, is, and will be. He is above all, subject to neither time nor space, having created both time and space.

Second, God is sovereign. This means that God is in control of all things. Nothing escapes His eye or His authority. God’s sovereignty flows from His self-existence and extends to the smallest, most minute detail of creation (Romans 9:14-21).. Contrary to some opinions, God’s sovereignty does not negate the moral responsibility of humanity (Revelation 21:6 and 22:17).  There is no “balance” to be found between the two ideas. The Bible teaches both, thus we are to believe both. It’s not our job to reconcile the two. In a similar way, we hold that Jesus is fully God and fully man. There is no ‘balance,’ making Him only partly God and partly man (but here we are jumping ahead….)

FThird, God exists in community. The theological term for this is the Trinity. We speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Three Persons, yet one God. They are all equal, having the same essence, but have taken on different functions. The Son (Jesus) lives to please the Father and make Him known (John 1:18 and 5:19). In turn the Father has given all things into the Son’s hand (John 3:35; 5:22-23; Philippians 2:9-11). The Holy Spirit, no less God than the Father or Son, serves the Father and Son by convicting the world of sin, drawing people to Christ, and testifying about Christ (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:8-15).

There are some important implications of these truths, so we will touch on each one:

First, because God is self-existent and sovereign, He makes His own plans. Nothing surprises Him. Men may make their plans, with some succeeding and some failing. God’s plans, however, never fail. What He wills to come to pass will indeed come to pass.

Second, because God is sovereign, there is nothing that happens to us that does not come through His hands. Even though the world is full of sin and the entire world’s system is hostile to Him, God remains in control. His sovereignty allows Him to take things that are evil and bring good from them. 

Third, because God exists in a self-existent Community, He desires that humankind would be part of that community. Though self-existent and needing nothing, God created humankind in His image. Whatever else that means, it means that humans were created, at their core, to connect in community with God and others. We were not meant to walk alone in this world.

There is, of course, much more to God than that. Many books have been written about Him, and many more will continue to be written about Him–and yet our knowledge of Him will never and can never be complete. What we do know, however, is that He is good and holds each of us in the palm of His hand.


The Fundamentals of the Faith

“How can you support that person/group?” This question is heard often in Christian circles. So many churches and groups have sprung up with such wide-ranging views that it’s often difficult to determine just what makes one “a Christian.” Do you have to believe in baptism by immersion? Do you have to keep the Sabbath? Is it okay to drink wine? Is it necessary to believe that Jesus really rose from the dead? That and many more questions are out there.

In this series, we will try to determine what might be called the “fundamental” truths of the Gospel. At the core, what are those tenets that are essential to the faith? While not claiming to be the final authority on the matter, I would like to suggest these seven truths are at the center.

  1. God:  There is one God, existent in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All are equally divine, only their functions are different. When referring to “God” it is possible to refer to the Father singly or all three jointly. God is merciful, gracious, perfect, and holy. 
  2. Jesus: Jesus Christ is the second Person of the Trinity. He is fully God, and having been born of the Virgin Mary, also fully man. He was born in the flesh, lived a perfect life before the Father and people, died on a cross, and rose from the dead. His death and resurrection secured salvation for those who turn to Him in faith. Jesus will return in bodily form in the future to fulfill the Davidic Covenant and rule the nations.
  3. The Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity. The Spirit is to be referred to as “He” or “Him,” not “it,” since He, like the Father and Jesus, is a personal being. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin, assures of salvation, speaks the words of Christ, regenerates the sinner, and dwells in the believer, empowering him for service by giving spiritual gifts.
  4. Sin:  Sin exists in the world because of the fall of Adam and Eve. Sin is more than outward behavior or disobedience to God’s commandments. At its core, sin is the desire of humanity to live independently of God. At the core of the unregenerate person lies the Sinful Heart, a heart turned from God and turned toward self.
  5. Humanity: God created humanity in His image. Adam and Eve were literal people who fell from their position of innocence into sin because of disobedience. Because of that, the whole creation has been contaminated by sin, and every human born since then has inherited a sinful nature, desiring to live independently of God and being hostile to the ways of God. Without Christ, humans are dead in sin, without hope, and in danger of spending eternity apart from God. However, anyone who places faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved, regenerated and changed.
  6. Salvation: Salvation is secured by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. No other act (including baptism or keeping the law) can save a man, and failure to perform any other act (including baptism) will not condemn a man. Salvation includes forgiveness of sin, the reception of a new heart and spirit, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee or deposit of final salvation.
  7. The Church:  The Church (also known as the Bride and Body of Christ) consists of all true believers who have placed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. While local congregations may vary in size, makeup, and style, the worldwide church is one in spirit and is to strive for unity in the truth of the Gospel.

You’ll notice that there is a lot of room for discussion beyond those seven items. Several previous posts have addressed, at least to an extent, many of these topics (and if you haven’t read previous posts, this would be a good time to do so). If you disagrees with these seven items, then I would encourage you to examine your thinking behind the disagreement. If you think something else should be included, why should it? If you think that something that has been listed is not all that essential, then let’s do some more thinking about that.

This list doesn’t suggest that other topics aren’t important. How a believer lives his life is vitally important. The New Testament gives a great deal of practical instruction on what a follower of Christ should “look like.” But, behavior springs from beliefs, identity, attitudes and goals, not the other way around. Jesus never bars the door to those who believed otherwise. He was not afraid of engagement, and neither should we be. Though we do not know the whole of the truth as He does, we can, with honest conversation and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, discern what is the truth. (If you need an example, read Acts 15.) Beyond that, we must also realize that there really are areas of conviction and conscience that are better addressed by the guidelines of Romans 14–but to be clear, these are never universal moral issues, nor are they issues concerning the fundamentals of the Gospel.

In the end, we must give and receive grace, while clinging to the Gospel, if we are to see the lost come to Christ. For they will remember either the grace and love we show, or the division, bitterness and anger. Personally, I prefer they remember the former.

Stay tuned….

Come Just As You Are–Or Not at All

In Second Chronicles 30, we read an amazing story of celebrating the Passover.  What makes this story interesting is that neither Israel (the northern kingdom after the split) nor Judah (the southern kingdom) had celebrated the Passover in a long time. Passover was a big deal. It was instituted by God on the very night that Israel would be delivered from the Egyptians. They were commanded to keep this feast every year. But, like so many other things, that eventually fell by the wayside–especially after the kingdom split after the death of Solomon.

Then along came King Hezekiah in Judah. The first thing he did was cleanse the Temple, which had been polluted by idols and fallen into disrepair. He ordered the priest and Levites to cleanse themselves according to the Law, and restart Temple worship. He was a man dedicated to obeying the commands of God. So, Hezekiah took the next step. He called for a celebration of the Passover. We read,

Hezekiah sent to all Israel and Judah, and wrote letters also to Ephraim and Manasseh, that they should come to the house of the Lord at Jerusalem to keep the Passover to the Lord, the God of Israel. For the king and his princes and all the assembly in Jerusalem had taken counsel to keep the Passover in the second month—for they could not keep it at that time because the priests had not consecrated themselves in sufficient number, nor had the people assembled in Jerusalem— and the plan seemed right to the king and all the assembly (2 Chronicles 30:1-4).

So, the king decided to keep the Passover, but he started off on a bad note. The priests and people had not consecrated themselves in time, so they decided to move the Passover to the second month of the year (the Passover was to be celebrated on the 14th day of the first month). Strike one?

Why did they choose to suddenly observe the Passover? The decree makes it quite plain:  O people of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria (verse 6). It was a call to return to the Lord, that He may return to them. Whatever their failings, Hezekiah reminded the people of this:  For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him (verse 9). It is God’s nature to be gracious and merciful and to bend His ear and heart to those who seek Him.

Not many people from the northern kingdom of Israel attended. Most laughed at Judah’s proclamation! Strike two?  But… some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem (verse 11). They “humbled themselves.” That is what attracts God’s attention.

Then we read this:   For there were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves. . . . For a majority of the people, many of them from Ephraim, Manasseh, Issachar, and Zebulun, had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed (verses 17 and 18). So they, celebrated the Passover at the wrong time, didn’t get a lot of support, and ate the Passover while ritually unclean! Strike three?

Something must have happened, because they weren’t killed or cut off from before the Lord. What happened is that Hezekiah offered a heartfelt prayer to the God he knew to be gracious: May the good Lord pardon everyone who sets his heart to seek God, the Lord, the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness (verse 19) How did God respond? One simple sentence: And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people (verse 20).

Now, the question may be asked, “Of what did God heal the people?” The answer is obvious. He healed them of their uncleanness. They turned to Him in faith, believing that He is good and gracious, and He made up for their deficiencies. He restored them to a right standing with Himself. It is a picture of the New Covenant. Why is this story important to us? Today we are still so apt to try to get our lives right before coming to God. We are taught that sin is a barrier between us and God–even those of us who are Christians and have had our sin forgiven.

What if, just what if, that were not quite the case? What if, instead of standing on the other side of some sin barrier waiting for us to repent of our sin and get right, God is actually standing with us giving us His perspective on our sin? Jesus met the woman at the well where she was. He met the sinners and the tax collectors where they were. He wasn’t afraid to get His hands dirty, so to speak. Why should it be any different now?

If that perspective is true, then it changes everything! We are polluted with sin, and NOTHING we can do on our own can change that. We can’t cleanse ourselves. He must do it for us. Do you think He heard and responded to Hezekiah’s prayer because Hezekiah was super-spiritual, had his act together? No. He inclined His ear and heart because, as Hezekiah said, He is good and gracious.

We have forgotten the heartbeat of the Gospel. Jesus came to save sinners, those who know they are in need of Him. And He comes to meet us where we are: no matter where we are. As the old hymn says:

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bid'st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come! I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!

God Came Near

“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which means, God with us (Matt. 1:21-23, ESV).

This passage is perhaps one of the best-known, most quoted passages at Christmas. Great songs have been written about it. And yet, so few truly understand its meaning or implications. For centuries the Jews had waited for Messiah to come and liberate them from their captors. They expected Messiah to come as a conquering King and re-establish the throne of David. This, however, is not what Jesus came to do in His first advent. What Jesus came to do is something humans have tried to do for millennia and have been unable–bring God near.

Mankind has always tried to reach God by human effort ever sense Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden. Though several in the Old Testament were said to have walked with God, He was still far away from most people because of both their sin and the sacrificial system of the day. People in general could not be said to know God, and few believed that He knew or noticed them. Of course God is all-knowing; He knows all things, even my heart. But it’s easy to wonder, as many must have, if He really noticed them among the other more “important” things.

Jesus came to correct that misunderstanding. Not only does God know me–everything about me, mind you–but He also understands me. Jesus experienced the temptations, loneliness, hurt, and rejection that we have all felt (though we may not admit it). It’s ironic that these pains are often felt most during the Christmas season–the very time when God came near. He didn’t stop, however, with living as one of us and experiencing life as we experience it. He made a way for the very Spirit of God to dwell inside us! God came up with that plan as the ultimate way to remind us, “I am with you, and you are not alone.” He whispers that to the woman who sits on a church pew surrounded by people, but feels alone and empty. He whispers it to the man who opens gifts with his family, seeing everyone laugh and have fun, but feeling alone and empty inside. He whispers to the busy pastor and mother and businessman. If only we would turn our hearts to Him and listen. The season is not about Santa or giving gifts, or even family being together (though those are good things).Christmas is about when God broke through the veil and drew near to His people, never to leave them lonely again.

The Gospel of Life

What was the purpose of Jesus coming to earth, dying, and being raised from the dead? Was it only so that we could have a ticket to heaven? We’ve already said, in previous posts, that there is much more to the gospel than that. Jesus declared to the people, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, ESV). Jesus came so that His sheep would have life. What did He mean by that? What kind of life has He promised those who trust in Him?

It’s not a life where all of our troubles vanish.  He told His disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33, emphasis added). It is, however, a life where we learn to joyfully see Him work in us and others in the midst of our tribulations. In our old life, before we were saved, we lived for ourselves; we managed our own lives. Like a child trying to be independent, we often said, “I do it myself!” That, more than the outward behaviors we often focus on, is really the heart of the sinful nature. We went through life trying to avoid the pain of life, or at least to minimize it. To admit we felt pain was seen to be weakness to our stubborn independent heart. That was the old life.

What has changed since Christ rescued us? We often have the same struggles. We still feel the pain of life’s hurts. The difference is that Christ now invites us to turn to Him in those struggles instead of trying to live independently. In the midst of those struggles we can have peace and joy, as we learn that He is really that good, that He would give everything to have us. We see the depth of our own sinfulness and then look into His eyes and still see that welcoming gaze. And as we receive His gaze, He invites us to allow Him to cleanse and change us.

Like many concepts in the Bible, eternal life is twofold:  now and then. Eternal life certainly means that we will no longer be separated from God and will spend eternity with Him. That is the then. However, eternal life is also for now. Eternal life speaks of the quality of life that we experience here. Eternal life, however, is not characterized by a trouble-free life (at least not until we are home). Jesus said we would have trouble in this life, but He also told us not to worry (Matt. 6:25-34). Is it possible to have unshakable peace, unspeakable joy, and unwavering faith in the midst of life’s problems? Absolutely. But to experience those things, we must experience life’s problems. We are going to experience them anyway, with or without Christ. Personally, I prefer to do so with Christ.

What does it mean to turn to Christ in the midst of trials? Are we supposed to be passive, as in the phrase “let go and let God”? Christ never calls us to passivity. The gospel is never against effort. It is, however, against earning. There are things that we do, and then He does what only He can, just as when He turned the water in to wine (John 2:1-11). On the other hand, it is also not a case of “God helps those who help themselves” (no, it’s not in there, for those of you looking for it). The Lord is drawn to those who are humble, weak and needy, not those who can “help themselves.”

What He desires most of us, however, is that we trust Him with ourselves. Turning to Christ means that we place ourselves at His feet and listen for His voice. He has told us that He is in control, that He takes care of His people, and that He is good. We acknowledge that, and do as He directs. While it is tempting to try and pray our way out of a problem, our real prayer should be that He does His work in us. He will bring us through it in His time as we allow Him to do so. 

As we experience His presence, peace, and joy in the midst of trials, that is the life that Jesus came to give us. He wanted us to have it so much that He gave His life that we could have His life.

The Gospel in the Old Testament

When Jesus came to earth preaching the Gospel, He wasn’t preaching a message that was unknown to the Jews. Centuries before, several Old Testament prophets had predicted that God would usher in a new way of doing things. In fact, the Gospel really started off in the promise that God made to Abram.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

The end of this promise is what we want to focus on. Abram was told that in (or through) him, “all the families of the earth” would be blessed. Not only would the Jews be blessed, but all people. This is really the seed of the Gospel. So you see, the Gospel goes way back, even before the formation of the nation of Israel. That is why Paul argues that the law cannot overthrow the promise. The promise was given first. But I digress….

As anyone who has ever studied Israel’s history knows, she consistently was unable to keep the Law as given by the Lord. Because of that, Israel suffered judgment after judgment and eventually exile. The Lord continually pleaded through the prophets for Israel to return to Him, but she would not. Finally, the Lord spoke through Jeremiah:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31-34).

This is often popularly called the New Covenant. In addition, the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel about this New Covenant:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. . . . And you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses (Ezek. 36:25-29).

Many things in these two passages are indeed part of the gospel. To summarize these promises, we have:

  • A new heart and a new spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). The believer now has a heart and spirit that are inclined toward God instead of being hostile to Him.
  • The law written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). The commands of God are now part of our nature instead of being external standards.
  • The Holy Spirit within us (Ezekiel 36:27). Not only do we have a heart that longs to obey, and the law now part of our nature, but we also have God’s Spirit inside us to teach us and help us to obey. Though many Israelites were said to walk with God, none were ever said to have the Spirit within them!
  • Personal relationship with the Lord (Jeremiah 31:34). The Lord promises that everyone, “from the least to the greatest” will know Him. Indeed they will have His very Spirit inside them!

One final thought is in order, and it is very important when talking about the New Covenant. This may shock you. It is a one-sided covenant. Just as God made an unconditional promise to Abram, these promises are unconditional. There is no “If you will . . . I will . . .” There is only the repeated phrase, “I will . . . .” There is nothing that we have to contribute to our salvation. Even the faith we have is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8), so that no one may boast. The Gospel, the New Covenant, is all about God and His display of love and grace toward His people, and He now invites all (Jew and Gentile, man, woman, child, black, white, brown, yellow, rich, poor) to experience His love. No matter what we have done, no matter what station in life we find ourselves, He invites us: “Let Him who thirsts drink freely.”

Note: Much of the material in this and succeeding posts is adapted from my book “From Blessed to Transformed: Moving Beyond the Blessed Life”, available on Amazon. For a more in-depth look at the New Covenant, the Gospel, and the believer’s hope, you can purchase it from Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions), or read it for free on Kindle Unlimited.

What It All Means

What does it mean to be a Christian? There have been many answers over the centuries, some of which contradict each other. Some of the most common answers today include:

* It means I’m going to heaven.
* It means I have a personal relationship with Jesus.
* It means living by the Ten Commandments, Golden Rule, or some other subset of the Bible.

All these are (partly) true. A Christian is going to heaven, does have a relationship with Christ, and (according to both Jesus and the Apostle John) obeys the commandments of the Bible. Yet, I would like to suggest that none of those is at the core of what it means to be a Christian. All of those are (or should be) a result of salvation. The Pharisees followed the rules, but Jesus called them whitewashed tombs. Many claim to have a relationship with Christ, but show no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit.

When Christ saves a person, what He does first is fundamentally change his or her nature and identity. Whereas before I was dead because of sin, struggling to live life my own way, hostile to God and His way, now I am fundamentally different. I now long to not only obey God but know Him. Whereas before I thought of myself first (and often only of myself), now I desire to place others first. Do I always do that? No. We must learn to do that. The desire is there. We must nourish those godly desires and starve the desires of the flesh. But again, the desire to be transformed into the image of Christ is there. If one claims to be saved, yet has no interest in knowing Christ, becoming like Him, or obeying Him, that claim of salvation is highly suspect.

What does that all mean? It means, in particular, that I desire to obey the commands of God, not only to please my Heavenly Father, but more centrally because it is who I am. I desire to know Christ and become like Him because of the new nature within me. This idea is not new. The Old Testament predicted these very concepts. If you don’t believe me, look it up.

….or just read the next blog post. 🙂