Before we can be judged, we need an examination. God examines our condition to see if we are “good.” This is the quickest test ever.
As Christ said, “No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19b).
We pass the examination if we are deemed perfect.[footnote]See Matthew 5:48.[/footnote] But ever since the fall of Adam from his state of innocence, not one of us has been able to claim perfect righteousness. We can only pass if we obtain Christ’s perfect goodness as a gift.[footnote]See James 1:17.[/footnote]
Below are verses of advice relevant to every person throughout history since the fall of mankind. This is a longer test to examine our condition in comparison to the righteousness of God. Are there degrees of righteousness?
“The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.… But Noah found favor [grace] in the eyes of the Lord.”
—Genesis 6:5–6, 8, NIV
“Can mankind be just before God?
Can a man be pure before his Maker?”
—Job 4:17, NASB
“But how can a man be in the right before God?”
—Job 9:2b, NASB
“Who can make the clean out of the unclean?”
—Job 14:4a, NASB
“What is man, that he should be pure,
Or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?”
—Job 15:14, NASB
“The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
to see if there are any who understand,
who seek after God.
“They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.”
“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.”
“And do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
For in Your sight no man living is righteous.”
—Psalm 143:2, NASB
“Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin?’”
“We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.[footnote]Translated “filthy rags” in the KJV.[/footnote]
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
“This is what the Lord says:
‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
who draws strength from mere flesh
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.’”
“What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
‘None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.’”
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
Humans cannot self-generate even a minor scale of goodness according to Scripture. By nature, our hearts are not up to the task. When God looks at our heart,[footnote] See 1 Samuel 16:7; Romans 2:28–29; 1 Corinthians 4:5.[/footnote] he sees the sin that stems from within.
But we are not without hope.
“And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul [life], that you may live.”
“Circumcise yourselves to the Lord
And remove the foreskins of your heart,
Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem,
Or else My wrath will go forth like fire
And burn with none to quench it,
Because of the evil of your deeds.”
—Jeremiah 4:4, NASB
One of these passages summarizes grace, the other the terms of the law; our nature must be changed if we wish to live according to God’s law, and only God can make the necessary changes within us. This truth has never changed. We need to approach God with a humble and broken heart. Our “self” needs to be drowned in baptismal waters, crucified with Christ, and buried. God freely provides grace through an ongoing process in which his Spirit is poured out continually into “our” heart. He first carves out a location to live (circumcision), then by the gift of God’s Spirit we can keep his law.
Do we really have a sinful nature, or does sin change our nature? Who are we really in our innermost being? What happens to our heart when we turn to Christ? Do we still “own” it? Sometimes the Bible describes God pouring out his Spirit into our heart, and sometimes God promises to give us a new heart. Sometimes he circumcises our heart (a gift of grace), and sometimes he urges us to circumcise our own heart (keep the law).
So the heart presents us with another paradox of law and grace. As elsewhere in the gospel, grace must come first, then the law follows. All seemingly contradictory passages are nonetheless correct. Some passages speak to God’s gift of a new heart, and some speak to the law in our heart. We need to understand the proper sequence. We first need a new heart given to us; only then, through his indwelling nature, can we keep his commands.
When we analyze our heart condition, there are only two states: sinful or clean. Either our heart exists in its own human nature, or it is transformed according to Christ’s divine nature. The two do not mix.
When God gives us his heart, we become “one” with him and with each other as Christ described in the priestly prayer of John 17. We have the same heart. God’s heart becomes ours—we may call it “our” heart because it was a gift—yet it continues to belong to him to share with others. This is yet another divine paradox. Note that we can reject God at any moment and operate from our original sinful heart that still resides in us. We will have two hearts until the last day. As Adam gave us his fallen nature, the “second Adam” (Christ) gives us God’s Spirit.[footnote]See Romans 5:12–18; 1 Corinthians 15:42–50.[/footnote]
Because it is Christ’s nature at work that enables us to keep his law, he gets all the glory when we succeed in doing good. We can only take credit for the sin we commit when we stumble and indulge in our old sinful nature.
We don’t keep the law to obtain salvation. We keep the law because that is the natural output of God’s Spirit at work in us. God’s Spirit motivates us to love others as he loves, and as Christ showed by example—but we cannot do this through our own measure of goodness.
Many people think life is like a test where they must do some work to get a good grade. If there are more good works than bad, they pass the test or tip the scales of justice to their favor, and heaven will be their reward.
“Getting at orthodoxy (or, rather, heterodoxy) among the American population, most (55%) agree that if a person is generally good, or does good enough things for others during their life, they will earn a place in heaven.”
—The Barna Group[footnote]“The State of the Church 2016.” The Barna Group. September 15, 2016. www.barna.com/research/state-church-2016. Accessed May 20, 2019. Note – this link may be broken.[/footnote]
According to another Barna survey, “a large majority of Americans (79%) agreed with the statement ‘every person has a soul that will live forever, either in God’s presence or absence.’”[footnote]“Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death.” The Barna Group. October 21, 2003. www.barna.com/research/americans-describe-their-views-about-life-after-death. Accessed May 20, 2019.[/footnote]
Barna and other research surveys have reported that these ways of thinking represent the majority views for Americans in general, not just American Christians. Culture has promoted the immortal soul myth and legalism, the idea that we can achieve righteousness through our own works.
Can we be good enough to earn our way to heaven? The biblical argument for humility says no. Will our soul live on forever? The Bible is clear regarding our mortal condition. We must take care not to believe the lies spread by our culture—even, in some cases, within the walls of our churches.
“The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick.”
The biblical view is that we are in a desperate condition; we will die unless we undergo spiritual heart surgery. God first circumcises our heart, then through his Spirit gives us a new heart. This new heart is a gift to be believed in, not to be earned by keeping rules, making choices, or performing surgery on ourselves.
This heart transplant is part of the free, eternal healthcare program. The fees are paid out of our inheritance. Christ paid for everything, so we don’t have any dues to worry about. We simply need to believe in it; the law does not oblige us to contribute anything to the payment Christ made on our behalf. By following the prescription plan of redemption, we will receive our inheritance.
God’s Word gives us both commands and promises, based upon his nature of being just and gracious at the same time. His Word delivers the gift of baptism by the Holy Spirit. This gift bestows a new nature upon us; we are born again. In Paul’s famous words, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Here we see a distinction of the two natures in each Christian. There is a nature of life and a nature of death, and both reside in us.
The new nature we receive through the Spirit was originally God’s, but now it is ours as well; we have a shared nature with him. This does not transform our human nature but is a separate nature altogether.
Once born again, we have two hearts, two competing natures within us. We must embrace the new heart and reject the old heart, as it cannot contribute anything toward grace or salvation.
Once we believe in the promises given to us by the Spirit, faith begins to form. The next step is to act out in obedience; this completes our faith. Faith is the bridge that takes us from receiving the gift to living by the gift. Belief is not a true belief unless we act on it through the power of the Spirit given to us. Otherwise we are hypocrites, saying we believe one thing but doing another. Having received the Spirit, should we neglect to follow the Spirit?[footnote]See Galatians 5:25.[/footnote]
When Paul says, “It is no longer I that live, but Christ,” he is clearly talking about his spiritual life, not his physical life. He rejected his previous attempt to save himself by keeping the law, deeming it an impossible task. He drowned, crucified, and buried his sinful heart after his conversion and repented of his former self-righteousness.
Paul received grace and repented afterward. He did not take the initiative in turning to God, nor did God decide to save Paul based upon one of Paul’s good deeds. In being sealed spiritually, Paul experienced the second birth (as Christ discussed with Nicodemus in John 3:3–7). An interesting lesson to note is that God told Paul he would meet Ananias and then receive the Spirit. So Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit and reborn before he could carry out any specific righteous acts to demonstrate repentance. Paul did not “make a decision to follow Christ” in order to receive the Spirit.
“[Ananias] said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ … Then he rose and was baptized.”
—Acts 9:17, 18b
Spiritual salvation comes before physical salvation. We are spiritually sealed when we accept God’s gift of a new heart, but we do not receive physical salvation from death until the resurrection. We must continue to wait alongside all people who are kept by faith in God’s grace, anticipating the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises of redemption. Our hope is based on Christ’s fulfillment of the law, and our faith flows out of God’s Spirit within us. We do not contribute anything at all toward either the grace that saves us or the faith that sustains us.
The Scales of Justice
Many biblical concepts sound strange from a human perspective; our beliefs and biases continue to be warped by ancient mythological concepts. Yet we all have a common sense of justice; a moral code of law is ingrained into every person.[footnote]See Romans 2:14–16.[/footnote]
As human beings, we have a figurative scale in the back of our mind that weighs the good things we do against the bad. We all feel the need to do something to earn justice or favor. According to human reasoning, good deeds must be rewarded and bad deeds must be punished. If we sense the scale tipping toward bad deeds, we may redefine what good and bad mean to get the scale back on our side. Some people go so far as to reject the very idea of evil, seeking to eliminate the counterweight altogether. But in rebelling against justice, such people cannot help but acknowledge the intrinsic nature of the concept. They use justice to remove the future need for justice.
Our mythological concept of justice says that if, upon death, a person’s good deeds tip the scale of justice against the bad-deeds counterweight, then the person’s soul can float to heaven. Reliance upon good works and belief in an immortal soul combine to form the most common belief system in America today. This is an ancient myth dressed up in modern language and sensibility, and the majority of western people, Christian and non-Christian alike, have bought in.
We all have the ability to reject God’s plan of salvation. But we have no ability to save ourselves. Through our free will, we can decline God’s offer of redemption and remain mired in eternal death. We can say “no” to God’s gift and say “yes” to our own plan of salvation. If we think we need to do even a little to help earn our own salvation, this is evidence of pride. We need to shake free from the belief that we can balance our own scales.
The world often tells children to have self-esteem and “believe in yourself.” Sometimes we deliver this message ourselves. But this is not the gospel message. From a human perspective, we want our kids to appreciate and develop their own talents and abilities, but it is even more important that they humbly believe in God and let his Spirit equip them to serve others. Promoting a child’s sense of pride is a slippery slope. God has already deemed us worthy of his love. We can’t add to our worth by our own good works, beliefs, or choices.
God places more worth on us than we can know.[footnote]See Luke 12:7.[/footnote] But the devil asks, “Would God let bad things happen to you if he truly valued you?” When we adopt such a perspective, we misunderstand God’s love and justice. We often assume that we anger God with our sin, causing him to withhold blessings or deal out punishments. But God doesn’t give blessings as a reward for good behavior; these blessings are undeserved grace. And while some of our sinful actions do have earthly consequences, God’s discipline is an expression of grace, not a lawful punishment.
“Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing him.”
It should be noted that “disciple” and “discipline” have the same root meaning relating to a student. Both words connote learning. Having received our new heart from the Spirit when we are born again at our baptism, now we need the Spirit to continually teach us how to live as God’s people and follow in his ways.
Discipline is not well understood by the one being disciplined. But we need to realize God is perfecting us through his Spirit living in us. God is holy and expects us to be holy.[footnote]See Ephesians 1:4.[/footnote] We need to humbly fear God before we can live through him. And we need to love others to keep in step with God’s intent. We spend our lives in a transformational process (Romans 12:1–2) until we are fully transformed on the last day (Philippians 3:21).
Human thinking is not God’s way of thinking.[footnote]See Isaiah 55:8.[/footnote] Judgment Day can’t be understood under the law of justice alone, as that seems to leave no room for grace. We think of grace as an all-or-nothing concept, but what about justice? In our earthly justice system, we expect judges to mete out sentences of varying severity based on the level of the offense. But does God judge by degrees? We first need to look at God’s nature to understand his mode of judgment. We already know we are sinful by nature and by actions, but how does God really judge us?
The Law is Love
God is love. Love is directly associated with law, righteousness, and good works. Love is not a feeling or emotion, even if we often think of it this way. So God is in fact lovingly giving of himself when he gives us his law, drawing from his just, fair, and righteous nature.
He gives us his grace and his law through the gospel; both are gifts to us. His plan has always been to transfer his nature to us so we can be givers as well. In other words, we keep his law by loving others. The devil disrupted this exchange when he came onto the scene in the garden. He continues to do all he can to promote selfish acts over the giving relationships God intended for us to experience.
First John 4–5 states God is love and he gives his love to us:
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
—1 John 4:7–8
We are to love (thus keeping God’s law) because God first gave us his lawful nature:
“We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
—1 John 4:19–21
We are to believe in Christ and be born again, and then we are to love:
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”
—1 John 5:1–3
The law is to love; we receive this law after we are born again. Love is obedience to God.
“For the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
God’s gifts are unidirectional—the gospel message passes from God to us. Goodness is not inherent in us, so we need to receive it. God graciously puts a new heart within us.
But the love that flows out of our new heart is bi-directional, passing freely between all parties. The law defines how we are supposed to live in relationships. We can only love after we receive the gifts of God’s grace and the commands given in his Word.
It should be clear that God wants a relationship with us and that we are to act justly with our neighbor. The law is not a burden.[footnote]See Galatians 6:2.[/footnote] If we live by the Holy Spirit, we keep the law. Having already received grace, we do not have the burden of trying to keep God’s law through our own strength.
God’s promises to Abraham demonstrate his grace, while the terms of the Mosaic covenant demonstrate God’s law. Abraham didn’t have to keep any law to receive the promises, only believe and trust in God. Later, he displayed his belief by trusting God to raise Isaac from the dead. Abraham’s faith was considered complete only after he obeyed God’s command.[footnote]See James 2:21–22.[/footnote] God was testing Abraham by commanding the sacrifice of his son. God tests us today by commanding us to obey his word. Our faith is not complete until God tests it.[footnote]See 1 Peter 1:6–7; James 1:2–3.[/footnote]
Israel needed to exhibit the same belief and trust as Abraham. They verbally agreed to love God and their neighbor, but they often neglected to rely on faith as the basis of their lawful living. They did not follow the example Abraham set forth for them.[footnote]See Romans 9:31–33; Hebrews 4:2.[/footnote]
God reveals himself and his attributes through law and justice. We often do not associate love with law, but God’s primary work is to give us his loving nature—and that includes the grace-giving law. When God demands perfection under the law, he is not being unreasonable. He is perfect and requires us to be perfect.[footnote]See Matthew 5:48.[/footnote] We are called to be holy just as he is holy.[footnote]See 1 Peter 1:15–16.[/footnote] But grace precedes the command as God gives his perfect nature to us; he knows we can’t generate perfect righteousness on our own. Yet our obedience is required.[footnote]See Romans 10:16; 1 Peter 4:17–19.[/footnote]
Law and grace are two key elements of God’s nature—the very nature he wishes to put within us. And so we see throughout Scripture two distinct aspects of God’s gospel message:
- God will save us by grace. Salvation is something we receive, not achieve.
- We are to live by God’s nature, a gift we receive through His indwelling Spirit.
We see in Scripture that belief in God is only the starting place of faith. Belief alone cannot complete our justification by faith. John 3:16 does not contain the entirety of the gospel message. Belief must culminate in obedience. Reading on in John 3, Jesus explains for us how the gospel message retains the law, but we tend not to memorize this part of the chapter:
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Here we see belief as a direct conduit for obedience. Are we to believe in the gospel and not act upon its grace? Are we to have faith without works?
Why does Scripture (and Jesus himself in the verse above) insist we need to do good works if we are saved by grace through faith?
The answer goes back to God’s nature of being righteous and gracious at the same time.
- We can say we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), yet it goes deeper than that. We can’t self-generate a loving response to God, so he gave us his loving nature, which enables us to respond.
- God’s law is a loving gift to us. We first receive this gift of God’s very nature at our baptism in the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to be born again, to be born of God.
- We can’t love God or our neighbor until we are born again (1 John 5:1).
First John 5:1–3 is very similar to John 3:36. Both show the connection of belief to obedience. When God graciously gives his gospel message to us, we receive the seeds of faith. We must then believe in this message and finally act upon it, which makes our faith complete. We have no strength in our own nature to save ourselves, but we do have the strength in God’s nature to “obey the gospel” per his will.
Acts 5:32 and other verses about obedience can be taken out of context. The phrasing of this verse makes it seem as if obedience prompted God’s gift of the Spirit, but in light of Scripture as a whole, we see a different meaning. We can’t take any verses out of context. We can’t focus on grace passages while ignoring law passages, or vice versa. All Scripture works together.
The law is useful as a curb to our selfish impulses and as a mirror to reflect the ugliness of our own nature. It shows us how to please God and how to engage in civil obedience. But while the law is very useful in all these ways, perhaps its ultimate purpose is to spread God’s message of grace. As we act in obedience, we allow God’s light to shine on the earth.
When people claim to be saved by grace yet display disobedience, they send a contradictory message. We are to reflect the light of God’s word. If our “job” in the Great Commission is to spread the gospel (Matthew 28:18–20), should we show the gospel by good works or verbally communicate the message? The truth, of course, is that both methods are required.
People see good works, so our lives help to display the transformative power of God’s nature. We are to live according to the law; words can also be helpful, but we know that actions speak louder than words as we demonstrate God’s love.[footnote]See Deuteronomy 4:5–9; Matthew 5:16; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Philippians 2:14–15; Titus 2:7, 2:14.[/footnote]
Relationships are the key to unlocking the law-and-grace paradox. We love in obedience to God’s law, using the heart we receive by God’s grace.
God’s law is focused on nurturing good relationships. We love God in return (by the Spirit, not the flesh) since he first loved us; and we love our neighbor (by the same Spirit) since God loves them too. Love is the intended basis for every relationship. To show us how to live in this kind of relationship, God first dwells with us.
“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
‘I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.’”
Scripture does not present the concept of a “mutually beneficial” relationship with God wherein God needs our worship; he does not wait for us to obey him in our own flesh before agreeing to save us or bless us. God knows we can’t generate anything pleasing to him on our own. We need to rely on him and the teachings of his Word.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
God does not need our worship or sacrifice. Psalm 50:7-15 presents the same idea: God made everything and doesn’t need sacrifices. This is not why he created us. He can set up a heavenly worship choir any time he so chooses. No, God desires our love and obedience.
“And Samuel said,
‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to listen than the fat of rams.’”
—1 Samuel 15:22
“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
God wants us to know him—to have a relationship.[footnote]See Isaiah 58:2.[/footnote] True knowledge comes by experience. We experience God by listening to and obeying his Word. This proper sequence reflects the order of grace before law. We should read the Bible and agree with it, but we will only obtain full knowledge as we share the message with others and receive the message from others. First we receive God’s blessings, then his commandments follow. Once blessed, we can be a blessing to those around us.
God’s nature contains absolute grace and law; the sequence in which these work has never changed, as God doesn’t change.[footnote]See Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 6:17; James 1:17.[/footnote]
Luke 6:27–36 shows us that God is full of grace and mercy (note verse 36 in particular). We are to be the same. Our first priority is to emulate God’s grace. God designed the Ark of the Covenant so that the “mercy seat” would rest atop his testimony and law (Exodus 25:20–22); likewise, in our own lives, grace is seated over love.
Good works are not optional; God’s laws are absolute. Even the secondary Mosaic laws (regarding ceremonies, cleanliness, and other details) either remind us of our need to trust in God and obey his Word, or point to God’s future works in Christ.
Creation and the Fall
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”
“For it was fitting that he [Christ], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying,
‘I will tell of your name to my brothers;
in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’”
God created the world for his own purpose in the person of Christ. Does this seem selfish? Remember that God is the ultimate giver; he proves his generosity by making us co-inheritors of the earth and giving us eternal life with him. It would not make sense for God to make himself the sole heir of the Abrahamic promise. Why bother?
God could have just made the earth, kept it, and set up a worship choir. Why go through the trouble of making covenants and promises? Why go to the cross? He did all these things for our benefit. He is a giver, not a taker like the devil.
To accomplish his plan, God had to do something first. Before he could justify us under his law, he had to come into the world in human flesh to live amongst his creation; he needed to have a relationship with us at our human level. By becoming like us, God could redeem our human experience. He could accomplish on our behalf everything that our human natures never could: Christ defeated death, did good works, demonstrated faith, and lived out the relationship with the Father we were always supposed to enjoy.
See Hebrews 4:15 for the short version of God’s strategy. The full details are spelled out in Hebrews 2:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation [atonement] for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
God gives himself freely to us. He is a constant giver.[footnote]See Matthew 20:28; John 10:11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 1:4; Ephesians 5:2; 1 Timothy 2:6.[/footnote]
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Christ became humble and obeyed the Father’s law as an example for us.
“[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”
After receiving the gift of Christ’s Spirit, we are able to imitate his attributes, as summarized in 1 Corinthians 13. And in fact we are commanded to do so.[footnote]See Matthew 5:48; John 13:12–16; Ephesians 4:32, 5:1–2; Hebrews 6:12; 1 Pet 1:15–16; 3 John 1:11.[/footnote]
God alone is holy and eternal. We were meant to be holy as well, but the devil and the sin he inspires have mired us in mortality. Since the Fall, our nature has been poisoned by the devil; we are now enslaved to sin and death. We inherited death through a bad gift from the worst giver ever. Our only hope is to receive baptism of the Holy Spirit and new life in Christ.
“The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.”
—1 John 3:8
If we are born of the Spirit, we will act in love. When we act sinfully, these acts flow out of our old sinful nature, the one enslaved to the devil. Our old nature is simply not capable of love. The flesh we are born into is entirely selfish.
“Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us’? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Submission is obedience and denial of self.
Until we receive God’s gifts, we remain in our sin (1 Corinthians 15:17), self-righteousness (2 Timothy 3:5), self-love (2 Timothy 3:2–4), selfishness (James 3:15–16), and ambition (Romans 2:8). These are traits of the devil. We will continue to reflect our human nature by acting selfishly until we become born of God; then we will begin to reflect his nature.
“Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, for every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.”
The Bible clearly states that we are fully sinful when we are born.[footnote] See Psalm 51:5.[/footnote] The process God uses to save us from sin starts with his Word. Through the Holy Spirit, we obtain his nature, which is embedded directly into his Word. But we don’t lose our nature.[footnote] See Romans 7:25.[/footnote] Two natures (two hearts) now compete within us. What will determine which nature wins out? How can we put the old self in remission?
The Mind of Christ
“Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”
We need a faith infusion.
Faith comes by hearing the Word of God.[footnote]See Romans 10:14–17.[/footnote] Abraham heard God’s Word in person, but we hear it by the Spirit. We can’t hear God’s Word or begin to understand Scripture without the Spirit embedded in us.[footnote]See Galatians 3:2–6.[/footnote] After receiving God’s Word, there can only be two final outcomes—submission or rejection. So how do we hear God’s Word if we start out “of the devil” (as described above in 1 John 3:8)?
“For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
—1 Corinthians 2:11–16
Can we even begin to understand God’s plan if we are operating out of our flesh’s sinful nature? How can we grasp the plan with human understanding? If God’s salvation plan doesn’t make sense to our human intelligence, how can we agree to submit to it? It seems foolish from a human perspective that we should reject our own intellect in order to gain deeper understanding.
This is the divine genius of God’s plan. We can’t accept the Word of God, understand it, know it, or apply it without his Spirit coming into our life. We need the mind of Christ, not the mind we inherited from Adam.[footnote]See Romans 8:5–9, 12:2; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Ephesians 2:1–3, 4:17–24; Titus 3:4–7; 1 John 5:19.[/footnote]
Faith is not completed at a singular event; we don’t receive faith as a realized product and then move on. Faith exists as a constant outpouring of the Spirit through God’s Word over our lifetime. We need to repeatedly hear God’s Word and believe in it as stated—never changing, misinterpreting, or rejecting his clear revelation. Faith develops gradually over time by the grace of God and through his Word.
The starting point of faith arrives when we humbly receive God’s Word. We see how the process begins in Peter’s first sermon after Pentecost.
“When the people heard this [the gospel], they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”
All the main concepts for beginning the process of salvation are contained in these two verses.
- The gospel was preached and heard. Faith comes by hearing.
- The hearers were cut to the heart (humbled). The circumcision of their hearts began.
- As spiritual infants, they asked what to do to be saved. They brought nothing to the table and needed discipleship.
- Peter said, “Repent,” or turn to God. They did not need to make a choice to count towards repentance or keep a law of repentance.
- They needed to receive the gift of the Spirit. Unless they actively rejected God’s plan for salvation through baptism of the Spirit, this gift would be theirs. Three thousand were baptized that day, so we know they did not reject this gospel message.
They repented and embraced God’s grace; they did not turn back to themselves. Grace flows in one direction; they could not offer good works to God until they believed in the message and accepted it as a pure gift.
In the next chapter, we will look at the implications of the second element of Peter’s invitation: the call to be baptized.