THE WAY TO GOD
Because God created the earth and everything in it, he has every right to decide the path we are to take. The created do not get to complain to the Creator.
“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?”
—Isaiah 45:9[footnote]A similar concept is found in Romans 9:20–21.[/footnote]
Although we should submit to God and honor his Word and his will, we tend to try to make our own way through life, putting our own ideas ahead of biblical teaching. Many Christians do this unintentionally by adhering to the concept of an immortal soul that can be saved through free will. Most other religious systems on earth throughout history have promoted similar ideas regarding salvation, nirvana, heaven, or some other type of afterlife. Each religion establishes the means through which a person can earn the afterlife—usually by making choices, passing a test, or accomplishing some task(s). Salvation is not a free ride. It must be earned based on the concept of justice that is ingrained into every person who ever lived.
Meanwhile, some dispense with religion altogether. Everyone goes to heaven; there is no hell.
Yet another option is nothingness, as Carl Sagan asserted in his final book:
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.”[footnote]Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium (New York: Random House, 1997).[/footnote]
In Cosmos, perhaps Sagan’s most famous book, he wrote, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.”[footnote]Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.[/footnote]
Most religions and belief systems present one of the following perspectives:
1. Everything is good; there is no such thing as evil (or vice versa).
2. Only the spirit realm is good; the physical realm is evil.
3. There is only a physical realm. No unseen (unobservable) realm exists.
4. The physical, heavenly, and/or spiritual realms are intertwined. Both good and evil exist in the mix.
5. The heavenly realm is veiled from the physical realm but is linked through the spiritual realm.
Biblical Christianity embraces the fifth perspective. God’s Word says the physical realm will be restored to its original state of perfection before the Fall—but this time the devil will be removed from the picture. In the future, the realms will merge so that the unseen will be seen on earth. God will physically dwell with us.
Before God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, his law had already been written on the hearts of humankind. It was ingrained into Adam, and by extension our human nature. And the law existed even before Adam’s fall into sin. The law is a definition of God’s love in action.
When Adam and Eve broke God’s law in the Garden of Eden, they received the death curse: no longer would they have access to the fruit of the tree of life. But before God carried out this law-based sentence, he offered them the first message of grace recorded in the Bible.
“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
The first message of grace is that Christ will “bruise” the devil’s head. Undeserved grace also came to Noah before the justice of the flood: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8).
God first bestowed grace upon the nation of Israel by taking them out of Egypt; he reminded them of this gift as he was about to give them his law through the Ten Commandments:
“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.”
Passages that describe God’s names, nature, or attributes always trace back to his righteousness and/or graciousness. Sometimes one quality is depicted, and sometimes both attributes are shown to be working together.
God “cannot lie,” “does not change,” and “does not tempt.” We sometimes say that God “can do anything but sin.” God doesn’t seem to have, or want to have, free will to sin. A person can only choose according to his nature. God’s nature is only good so he won’t choose evil. We can only choose to sin based on our original nature (before being born again in the Spirit).
“[P]ut on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
God is true righteousness. Our righteousness can only come from God.[footnote]See 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Philippians 3:9.[/footnote] God only produces righteous acts because his nature is purely and eternally righteous. However, we act inconsistently because we have two natures residing in us (God’s Spirit and our sinful flesh).
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
As we have seen, “heart” is generally a metaphor for the mind, conscience, or inner being. Scripture tells of the Spirit coming to dwell in each; some passages speak to the heart metaphor, while the passage above speaks to Paul’s mind and inner being (which have the same meaning in this passage).
Paul’s “flesh” means the same thing as his “members”; both had been afflicted by the death curse. His flesh was his inherited nature, including his will and emotions. Paul wrote, “I want to do right,” but he could not. This is because he had a (cursed) “body of death.” The cursed body affects our human nature, causing our free will to chooses selfish acts. We can’t escape it.
The body will not be transformed until the resurrection, when Christ shall return and lift our curse. Paul described elsewhere how his mind was being transformed to the mind of Christ in an ongoing process (Romans 12:1–2). Our own transformation is a similar work in progress.
Paul called his mind “the mind of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 2:16 and “my mind” in the passage above from Romans 7. Paul had the same mind as Christ. They were of “one” mind, sharing the same thoughts and concerns. In the same way, we may call our heart “God’s heart” or “my heart.” It is a shared heart; though it is a gift of God, it still ultimately belongs to him.
Paul associated his human will with his selfish desire to good. Like Paul, we try to please God in the flesh. But we can’t. Paul understood his death nature was completely corrupted by sin and restrained from doing good.
Romans 7 does not describe a single entity with a mixed nature or the ability to choose good. Paul could not detach himself from both his godly and human natures and decide whether he would do good or evil. He could only live fully in God’s nature or in his own. All actions would either be informed by the mind of Christ or Paul’s own flesh.
When Paul received the Spirit, his old nature did not disappear, even though in other passages he considered it drowned and buried. This is yet another echo of the “now and not yet” concept of salvation. Our sinful nature is “defeated” when the Spirit comes into our life, but we do not achieve our ultimate bodily purpose until the resurrection. In biblical language, when we drown and bury our sinful nature today, our sins are “covered” by God’s forgiveness.[footnote]See Romans 4:7, which is based on Psalm 32:1–5.[/footnote]
This Romans 7 passage presents the two dueling natures—God’s Spirit and Paul’s flesh—not an individual deciding between good and evil options. Free will does not have the power to change our nature, nor can it change Christ’s nature given to us. Nature wars against nature with no hope of reconciling the two.
Paul described a nature enslaved by death where “the law of sin” dwelt. Like Paul experienced, the old nature that we inherited from Adam is warring against the new nature in Christ that we received from God. There is a constant battle. There can be no merger between the Spirit and the “body of death.”
We know Adam and Eve had the ability to choose to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so choice in itself was created “good.” Choice is good under the freedoms we have in Christ. These freedoms can’t be used to obtain salvation, nor should they be used to promote our own selfish interests. Rather, our freedoms allow us to bless and serve others, building God’s kingdom and enriching relationships. Our will is to be the same as God’s will. This was God’s intent. We should be devoted to truth, not enslaved to lies.
“So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, You will become free’?”
“Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.’”
“For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
In the passage above, Christ testified to the purpose of his life and ministry: Christ came to proclaim the truth. In response, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Sinful nature can’t “hear” truth or distinguish it from lies.
Although the Gospel accounts do not say whether Christ fully or directly answered Pilate’s question, we know he gave his disciples the answer. Truth is God’s Word. In the two passages above, Christ first instructed the disciples to “abide” in his Word to obtain truth, then stated that those who “listen” to his Word are of the truth.
When we tell kids to “listen” to what we say, what we really mean is that they should obey. “Listening” or “hearing” is a good start, but then the message must be believed and finally acted upon. Listening also means doing what God commands. Listening, hearing, and abiding all assume follow-through, not just lip service to belief that includes no action.
“Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Forgiveness from sin does not give us freedom to sin further. Freedom from sin is God’s desire for us. But until we receive God’s Spirit and Word and then follow the explicit instructions Christ gave, we will remain in enslavement.
True freedom comes from following God’s law.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”
This verse builds off of John 15:5, which states that we “can do nothing” without abiding in Christ. Christ offers an image where he is the “vine” and the Father is the “vinedresser” or gardener. We in turn must stay connected to the vine for nutrition and growth.
John 15:10 and its description of conditional law combines nicely with Ephesians 2:10, a teaching on the nonconditional election of grace. This is another paradox; both truths are contained within the same gospel.
We are destined to do good works that God has prepared for us. Grace by faith is also based on God’s work.
“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.”
We have to be very careful that we do not interpret our belief as the element that completes our faith. Faith is completed by obedience, not belief. We do get credit for belief (Genesis 15:6) and it is necessary for salvation, but we must go farther.
Faith is a pure gift that flows out of God’s righteousness. Our belief is based on God’s work. In the verse preceding the passage above, Paul explains that we are saved by Christ’s past work resulting in spiritual salvation at the present time. Verses 8–9 focus on grace and do not mention actions we must take to finalize faith, nor do they mention salvation at the second coming—but we can’t take them out of context. These are bookended by verses that speak to these precise “missing” ideas. Make sure that you read Ephesians 2:8–9 along with its grounding verses, 2:7 and 2:10.
Faith is not complete until we act upon what we say we believe. Paul states that we are not saved by our works in Ephesians 2:9, but then adds in verse 10 that we were created to do good works. The truth is that Christ’s work is given to us. His righteousness passes through us like a conduit; it is reflected by us like a mirror. Rather than trying to perform our “own” good works, we emulate Christ’s perfection.
This is the intent of God’s will for our lives, that we would love and keep his commandments. His Word states his will.
We should not be confused with the past-tense wording of “have been saved” in Ephesians 2:8. Paul is not speaking of the resurrection in the future. He is speaking of being “lifted” or “raised,” as he mentioned earlier in verse 6. This is a spiritual resurrection that we receive at baptism when we are born again in the Spirit. But we will not receive physical resurrection until the “coming ages”; we must wait for the time when grace is fully shown (Ephesians 2:7).
Free Will and God’s Image
Free will obviously relates to freedom. What else does Scripture say about it?
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
—2 Corinthians 3:17
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”
—1 Peter 2:16
There is a clear difference between spiritual freedom and freedom in the flesh. We should notice in these passages that freedom enables us to do good works. We do not receive total freedom to do literally anything, as God’s nature cannot sin. Freedom also refers to our rescue from the slavery of death.[footnote]See Romans 8:21 and Hebrews 2:14–15.[/footnote]
“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
The law of liberty? This sounds crazy at first, but God’s freedom is indeed constricted. Here we see law and freedom working side by side. Freedom in Christ comes from grace.
Biblical teachings about freedom state that we have a limited freedom of choice.
· We do not have a choice to change or add to God’s gifts of grace.
· We cannot change the nature of Christ in us.
· God’s will is displayed in his Word. His Word predefines our destiny.
· We do not have freedom in Christ to sin. We are predestined to do good.
· Once we believe the gospel as-is, God commands us to use our freedom to choose variations of good works within his nature.
· God is holy (or pure, perfect) and requires us to be holy by his Spirit.
Sin is considered slavery or bondage. We say that we have free will in human nature, but it only allows us to do evil and is the opposite of freedom in Christ.
· We do not have a choice to change our sinful nature nor to do good.
· Sinful nature can only be covered (or buried, drowned) by the new nature until our full transformation on the day of resurrection.
· Our sinful nature remains in us, causing us to choose selfish acts until then.
· Our nature only gives us the freedom to choose among sinful variations.
The flesh is not free to do good, and the Spirit is not free to sin. Once we believe the biblical concept of a dual nature residing in us, we can see that we are to live by the Spirit only and reject our sinful nature. This is true freedom. The “perfect law.”
God shows us examples in his own nature. Is God free to lie or do evil? No, Scripture states God is only good and cannot lie. God does not have the freedom to choose sin, so how can we claim that our free will is able to choose good?
In Scripture, nature and will are connected. Nature defines who we are. We cannot change who we are by nature nor who Christ is. In Christ, we have the freedom to choose among variations of good works; in the flesh, we have the freedom to choose among variations of sin.
God’s nature is purely righteous. His will is fixed, based upon his nature only to do good. Yet there is relational flexibility within the fixed will; he loves us and wants us to love, so he invites us to complete his desired will.
Galatians 5:24–25 kills a few birds with one stone. If we have been baptized (our flesh has been crucified, drowned, and buried), then we should live by the Spirit and keep in step with God’s commandments.
Desire is part of our will in the flesh. It is what we want. Our desire is only selfish. But God calls us to keep in step with what he desires. God desires us to exercise humility (Psalm 51:16–17), to pursue knowledge of God (Hosea 6:6), and to obey (1 Samuel 15:22). His commands reflect his will.
God’s law is perfect because he is just. God can’t choose evil as it violates his will. Neither can we choose righteousness and violate our nature. Adam was punished for acting out his choice, and now we all live under the curse of death.
Adam was originally supposed to listen to God and act according to God’s Word. Adam’s free will in itself was not the problem. The problem was that he listened to and believed Satan’s lies instead of believing every word that came out of the mouth of God. He used his free will and rejected God.
Today we are in the same situation. With the gift of God’s Spirit inside us, we have the opportunity to listen to God’s Word and believe and obey. Or we can choose to listen to the deceiver and attend to our own selfish desires. We must be a servant to truth or lies; we cannot choose freely between the two.
Since Adam rejected God’s truth for Satan’s lies, we have inherited his sinful nature. This is the “body of death.” Instead of violating his own law or removing our free will, God cursed us to die. Sin and death are now related.
The curse of death is paramount to understand. There was no curse when God created Adam and Eve; he called it into being as punishment for their sin. We inherited their mortal nature. Notice in Genesis 3 that God’s main punishment was to evict humanity from the garden that held the tree of life. Only the fruit from this tree had been keeping humans from death. Sin itself is based upon a lie that we are inherently immortal, but only God can sustain eternal life. Adam did not have an immortal soul. He had conditional immortality, just as we now have in Christ.
“Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.”
Christ came to destroy the works of the devil and will finally destroy the last enemy—death—after he returns. The devil’s lie led to the death curse for all humanity. This prompted God to send Christ to earth.[footnote]See 1 John 3:8.[/footnote] Christ will redeem his people so that we may have an eternal relationship together (Revelation 21:3). Death and sin cannot exist if this is to happen (Revelation 21:4).
God cannot sin, God cannot choose evil, and yet Adam was given the ability to choose evil. Adam’s nature was in the image of God, but he was not God replicated. Adam was not begotten of Spirit. Death came into humanity once Adam acted sinfully, but note that Adam had fallen into a deceived mindset before physically taking the bite. Sin is a result of believing lies and the one who spreads them. Adam’s sin proved he was not God in human flesh; he had not received the “full” image of God. Christ, however, is called the second Adam, and he does indeed bear the fullness of the Father. Numerous passages speak to the fullness of Christ’s divinity within his glorified body.
“For in him [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”
We cannot know the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:11–13) under human nature, but Scripture states that God cannot choose to do evil because his nature forbids it. His very nature defines what goodness is.
As God’s righteousness begins in his mind and then moves to action, sin begins in our heart. We can sin through our thoughts (Matthew 5:27–28) or words (Psalm 59:12), not just our physical actions. All these self-centered thoughts and desires are sinful and lead to sinful actions. This pattern of sinful thought leading to sinful deed first played out with Satan himself before humans were ever created.[footnote]See Isaiah 14:13.[/footnote]
Actions come from the heart, where motives are developed. An important part of any investigator’s work is determining the motive that led to a given crime. He must understand the mind of his suspect. Depending on the crime, this attempt at empathy may be a deeply horrifying exercise. How anyone could anyone conceive of such a thing?
In a positive sense, we are equally perplexed by the goodness of God. His motives are not our motives. His thoughts are not our thoughts.[footnote]See Isaiah 55:8–9.[/footnote]
How are we motivated? Do we do good because we can choose to do good? Can goodness come from within our own heart? We would not need a new heart if we could obtain goodness from within our own nature or if God could rinse it clean. But the truth is that our heart is motivated to act selfishly. God’s nature is entirely different. He is motivated to act righteously and to give us his righteousness.
We have the same type of free will that Adam possessed. He was created into his human nature, and we were born into ours, inheriting the curse of death that Adam first received.
Scripture teaches that we are sinners not because we choose to commit sinful actions, but because our human nature cannot produce anything else. How else does the nature into which we were born (Psalm 51:5) differ from God’s nature?
God’s Freedom from Temptation
We can be tempted to sin. God cannot be. This is because God alone is good and cannot do anything but good. Goodness is inherent within God.
“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.”
Christ, however, was tempted on earth before his exaltation. Let’s consider Christ’s example while on earth compared to the Father and the first Adam.
This comparison brings up a potential conflict. Christ is God, yet God cannot be tempted with evil. Christ was certainly tempted beyond anything imaginable in Gethsemane (deciding whether to accept or reject the cup of the wrath from the Father). Did God tempt his very own nature as the Son of Man?
To find the answer, we need context. While James 1:13 simply says God cannot be tempted, the surrounding verses provide much more information to help clarify the Spirit’s message to us.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”
—James 1:12–18[footnote]Also see 1 Thessalonians 2:4.[/footnote]
Our own desire is the real issue, as it begins in the heart, then gives birth to sin. The tempter is our self, not God. We need to resist temptation if we are to obtain eternal life; we must reject our desires and submit to God.
There was a short point in time where Christ could sin. This was before his glorification and during his earthly ministry. While God himself cannot sin, Christ’s humanity prior to the resurrection (Philippians 2:6–7) was different from his current state of glory at the right hand of the Father.
Christ had the potential to sin because he felt the temptation to follow his own will. This does not mean the Christ did sin, nor that he had an evil human nature, nor that he ever would have elected to sin. He could have sinned. Simply, the potential to sin was there. We could also say the opposite: we have the potential to do good under our human nature, but we can’t, don’t, and won’t do good by ourselves.
Christ’s capacity to sin and our capacity to do good are related. We think theoretically we have potential to do good and keep God’s commands, but no natural person under Adam has been able to do this because we are cursed and “consigned to disobedience” (Romans 11:32). Likewise, Christ had free will to choose sin, but he was born of the Spirit, begotten of the Father, and ultimately couldn’t resist doing the Father’s will. We are begotten of Adam and will remain so until we are born again. We can’t choose good until we are born of the Spirit.
If it were not possible for Christ to sin on earth, he could not have been tempted; he would not have legitimately shared in our human experience. Christ suffered greatly because he took on all sin for all mankind, but something deeper was happening beyond his suffering. Hebrews 2:14–18 and Hebrews 4:15 state that he had to be like us in every way in order to be the mediator between God and men. Christ was given the ability to reject the cup—to act upon a separate desire. However, he had learned obedience to the Father while “in the days of his flesh” (Hebrews 5:7–9) before he went to Gethsemane.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one [Christ] who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
“We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
—1 Corinthians 10:9–13
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls [lives] to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
—1 Peter 4:12–19
As we saw in the earlier passage from James 1, God does not tempt anyone, yet he allows temptation to occur as a means of testing our faith.[footnote]See also the book of Job.[/footnote] The Father did not tempt the Son, but the Son was certainly tested. Temptations only come from the devil—or in this case, Christ could have tempted himself to reject the Father’s will and follow his own will instead. The Father allowed Christ to suffer through the Good Friday trials, and Christ willingly accepted and obeyed.[footnote]See Philippians 2:8.[/footnote]
We can follow Christ’s example of obedience and submission. Christ’s examples should be our answers since he was made to be like us in every way. God tests us so that we may complete our faith and reject our sinful nature. Trials, tests, and suffering are part of God’s plan, while temptations that arise from self-motivated desires are Satan’s domain.
“No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.”
—1 John 3:9–11
God tests those who wish to perform righteous acts to ensure that they will practice these within God’s will. His will is defined in his Word, so not only is the test spelled out but he gives us the answer sheet as well. Passing the test is accomplished by following God’s instructions. Though we may wish to rely on a grace “curve” to pass the test, we must not leave out any of the instructions written in God’s law.
Evil is inherent within us. Goodness can only come from the outside, not from within.[footnote]See James 1:17.[/footnote] Christ is our example. Christ gave up his life to achieve resurrection in a glorified body, just like we are called to do. We give up our life in a spiritual sense and receive a new nature by being born again.[footnote]Of course, we are born again only in the Spirit, not in the flesh. Our body will not be transformed until the resurrection.[/footnote]
“Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”
Why would we want to chase after our free will when it isn’t useful for righteousness?
“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’”
We need to daily deny our self. This passage goes against the “once saved, always saved” belief. If we don’t drown our flesh on a continual basis, we risk losing our new life in Christ. As we practice obedience and exercise the faith we have been given, we strengthen that faith.[footnote]See 1 Corinthians 9:25.[/footnote]
Does any of this mean Christ was born into sinful human flesh? Christ was certainly a paradox, being Son of God and Son of Man at the same time. The Bible does not say much about the humanity of Christ at his incarnate birth; the clearest picture we get of Christ’s humanity is his night of prayer and anguish in the garden. On that night, he passed his test, willingly taking and bearing our sins by accepting the Father’s will. He resisted the temptation to serve his own will. By accepting the cup of the Father’s wrath, Christ furthered the plan of lifting the death curse. He gave us the best example of submission by stating, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42b).[footnote]Also see John 12:49–50, Philippians 2:5–8, and Hebrews 5:7–8.[/footnote] Christ was obedient.
“For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
—John 6:38[footnote]Also see John 5:19, 30–31.[/footnote]
As Christ exemplified, we must not act out our own free will. This is an extremely important concept.
Resisting temptation means rejecting the free will that is directly connected to the self; when tempted, we will either yield to our flesh or submit to God. Christ did not yield to the flesh, and because his Spirit resides in us, we also have the strength to resist. But we can only tap into the Spirit’s strength when we humbly submit to God like a child to a parent.
Matthew 7:21 tells us more. Here we see that “not everyone” who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. After all, even devils believe in God. It is right that we should confess our faith after receiving the gift of God’s Word, but we have to bear in mind the context of all other salvation passages. Calling on God must lead to submission to God’s will; if we do not turn to God and turn away from our self, our cry to God accomplishes nothing. True repentance results in us keeping God’s commandments. Receiving grace, we then keep the law.
God’s Way of Salvation
No one is saved simply by hearing the gospel. After hearing, we must believe God’s Word and live out his will. Belief must lead to good works, as his will for us is to love.
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law [of the flesh].”
—Galatians 5:16[footnote]Romans 7 expands on this teaching.[/footnote]
We often think of babies as being totally innocent, yet from the earliest time of our life, we are already intensely focused on our needs and desires. This selfishness is perfectly natural, but sinful nonetheless. Nobody needs to be taught how to be selfish. It is our most foundational instinct. Selfish potential has been with us all along.
God knew what would happen before the foundation of the world; he knew even before the fall of mankind that his creation would need a Savior, someone to teach us how to live by the will of God. Everything was known and predestined in advance of creation. Our names were written in the Book of Life before the Fall. God’s plan all along seems to have been to utilize a long transformation process to align us with his will.
Teaching and discipleship are very important parts of the process. While Adam received instant maturity, God has elected to develop our relational and spiritual maturity over time.
Christ looked to the Father constantly, prompting us likewise to look outside of ourselves, not within. Hebrews 5:8 says that Christ “learned obedience” while in the days “of his flesh.” He humbled himself to an incredible extent while on earth. As Christ relied on the Father, we must rely on the gifts offered by the Spirit. We cannot generate from ourselves the strength we need to resist temptation and live righteously. Adam needed to listen to God’s Word, and we must do the same.
God favors the humble and resists the proud (1 Peter 5:5–6). We have no reason to be proud because we cannot produce from within ourselves any good work to assist in salvation.
Christ conquered sin and thus has more right to boast than anyone—but he continues to be humble and gracious. As the inheritor of Abraham’s promise, he grants us the opportunity to be co-heirs with him. Since he took on our human nature, he can mediate justice with the Father on our behalf. The Father is just and cannot violate his own law, but due to the righteousness of Christ, now the law has been kept. Christ is able and willing to justify our faith in him.[footnote]See Romans 3:26.[/footnote]
God’s commands and revelations are absolute and holy. We cannot debate or judge absolutes. They exist regardless of our opinions or wishes. In the same way that God is eternally “I am,” his commandments just are. We receive his grace via his revelations so we can keep his law.[footnote]See Deuteronomy 29:29.[/footnote]
God gave grace to Adam before commanding him not to eat of the tree, he gave grace to Noah before the flood, and he gave grace to the nation of Israel before giving them the law at Mount Sinai. We receive grace in the new covenant before we are asked to keep God’s commandments, and grace is given to us before we are judged for our deeds. Grace is absolute.
Even with a focus on grace, we see that the law still exists within the new covenant. We were saved by grace to do good works; God wants us to spread the gospel, give generously, and love our neighbor. The New Testament is filled with commands to do good.
“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”
—1 John 5:18–19
Most modern people tend to think of the soul in terms of mixtures that can only equal 100 percent. For example, if a person is 75 percent good and 25 percent bad, she’ll get to go to heaven because she is mostly good. But the literal biblical teaching seems paradoxical and nonsensical to the human mind. How can a person contain a 100 percent good nature and a 100 percent sinful nature at the same time? Our instinctual understanding of justice doesn’t know what to do with such a concept.
Some people favor justice or grace as their preferred way to heaven, but most tend to believe that the two work together simultaneously within a single soul. For example, Christ can come in to clean up or forgive the 25 percent that is bad, and we can keep the 75 percent that is good. An extra-sinful person with the opposite percentages would need Christ three times as badly. Of course this is not a biblical concept.
Most religions and belief systems offer a one-dimensional mixture of law and grace that skews heavily toward grace. Law is scaled back to a manageable degree, only somewhat necessary for salvation. But the Bible presents multidimensional levels of law and grace that confound our human mind. A few other belief systems do speak to extra dimensions of law and grace in concert, allowing for a higher level of reformation within the soul—but they still tend to treat the individual as an entity with a single nature. They do not consider the idea that an outside nature might dwell side by side with our original human nature.
Even a belief system that totally disregards the need for law and insists salvation depends fully on grace will require a justice system of some sort to set the ground rules for the grace on offer. A system where everyone receives grace and goes to heaven requires a law to establish the need for the donor in the first place. The donor will get to decide the plan for salvation, not the receiver.
There is no way to get around the laws of God. They are absolute even as we try to bend the rules he established. Our pitiful attempts to short-sell the evil in our heart are not based upon reality. The reality is that sin and death exist today, just as they always have since the Fall. No imagination or human invention can change this reality. Death has not yet been defeated.
We are beginning to see a new religious worldview gain in popularity in our western culture. The science of quantum physics is merging with eastern religious concepts to argue that there are many paths to get to the same place. The universe consists of a single consciousness, according to this thesis, and there are many ways we can come to realize our place within that whole.
We might find it inspiring to see scientists turn their art toward the supernatural. However, this “many paths” approach excludes the single path we find in Scripture. That is, the way to God is God’s way. Only the biblical model presents a salvation formula that entails 100 percent law and 100 percent grace. It is a paradox of justice and mercy based upon God’s nature.
There are many attributes of God. However, they all trace back to two recurring elements of his nature: law and grace.
In the following passage, God’s nature of law and grace provides a physical place where he can unite with his people.
“The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”
Even though we do not have the Ark of the Covenant today as a focal point of God’s presence on the earth, we can still meet with our Creator. God’s presence is now spread out throughout the whole earth; Christ is our mediator in heaven, so we no longer have need of a High Priest to mediate at a single location in a tabernacle or temple.
We see two important aspects of God’s nature in this passage:
1. The Mercy Seat: this represents the grace of God, through which our sins are forgiven. Grace covers sin just like dirt on a coffin. Our old nature is buried here.
2. The Testimony: this includes the law of God that forms his commandments. God’s law is part of the old Mosaic covenant with the nation of Israel and is part of the new covenant that is called the “law of Christ” in the New Testament. God’s law has not fundamentally changed even though some conditional language changed to nonconditional.
God meets his people at his Mercy Seat, which sits over his law. This custom has not changed in thousands of years as God’s nature does not change.
God’s nature is both righteous and gracious. This is a paradox; two apparently opposite attributes are both true at the same time.
The Mercy Seat does not remove God’s law, but it covers the law. We are thus able to approach God without fear despite our sinfulness. His forgiveness covers our sins. Grace always comes first before the law.
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
It is impossible to do all that Christ commands of us under our nature. The only way we can do these things is to “be merciful” as God is merciful.
God’s merciful nature is given to us. First comes grace—also described as mercy in many places in Scripture—then come works of grace called love.
We are to “expect nothing in return” for the love we show others. If we did expect payment, this wouldn’t be grace at all. So we look to God’s example and see how he is constantly giving his love and his Spirit to the world. He does not need anything in return, not even our worship.[footnote]See Acts 17:24–25.[/footnote] He does not need us to provide our own sacrifice (Genesis 22:14), nor does he expect us to generate good works. He knows we can’t do anything good without relying totally on him.