Celebrating the Protestant Reformation by Highlighting the Doctrine of Justification

On October 31, 1517, a German monk, named Martin Luther, posted a document for academic debate on what was effectively the local bulletin board, the castle-church door. Luther probably wanted a discussion and debate with other professors and theologians over a matter of theological concern.

Luther was only 33 years old at the time, but he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Doctor of Theology, and a professor at the university in Wittenberg. He saw himself, in that moment, as a faithful servant of the Church of Rome. But Luther had heard about a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who was selling indulgences to people all over the Roman empire.

Indulgences, which are still part of Roman Catholic teaching and practice today, [1] are official letters from the Roman Church which absolve a person of some or all of their sin based a faith-infused act of some kind. Tetzel’s indulgences, authorized by the Roman Pope, were effectively absolution for sins for a financial donation. Tetzel’s jingle was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, Luther knew more theology than many, and he believed that indulgences were antithetical to any biblical understanding of repentance or forgiveness. So, Luther wrote 95 statements of dispute against indulgences – the document we know today as “Luther’s 95 Theses.”[2]

Some of his students translated Luther’s original document from Latin to German, and they also used the newly invented printing press to make lots of copies. Before Luther knew it, he had become the spearhead and voice of many discontents with Rome. In response, Luther also became the target of Rome’s fury, and he was the kind of man who usually added fuel to the fire.

On April 17, 1521 (not quite 4 years after he had nailed the 95 theses to the church door and probably about 2 years after he had trusted in Christ alone as Savior[3]), Luther was standing in a room with the Roman Emperor – Charles V – and several high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Copies of Luther’s books and tracts were piled on a desk in front of him and the full authority of the church and of the state was bearing down on him. The one question Rome asked was, “Will you recant (or retract and apologize)?”

Luther was forced to make a brief response. So, he said,

“I am bound by the Scriptures… and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[4]

Everyone, including Luther, expected that he would be burned at the stake. But in God’s providence, Luther was spared a martyr’s death. He lived another 3 decades, in which he translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to German, he wrote many more books and tracts, and he pastored and taught with a keen focus on the cross and the justifying work of Jesus Christ.

In one sense, Luther was a giant among the reformers. His voice echoed throughout the western world, and it continues to do so today. My own church still sings songs Luther wrote, and I still quote him in my sermons and teaching. But, in another sense, Luther was just one reformer among many.

Zwingli and Bullinger were notable reformers in Switzerland, and, in England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley both lived and died for their Protestantism. These two, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake together in Oxford, England on October 15, 1555. As the wood was being stacked around their legs, Latimer (now famously) said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” And so, they did. The flame consumed them, but the gospel-fire spread wildly.

John Calvin was a French reformer who spent most of his time writing and preaching in Geneva. Calvin was nearly the opposite of Luther, a studious introvert and not the bombastic life-of-the-party. Calvin spent most of his life suffering from some chronic illness or another, but Calvin also had a precise mind and a profound ability to speak and write with clarity.

Every Christian is indebted to Calvin for his incredible work of systematic theology, a multi-volume set we know today as “Calvin’s Institutes.” He first published the text in 1536 as a “Basic instruction in the Christian Religion.” It was 6 chapters and about 200 pages long by today’s formatting. Calvin published the final version of that work in 1559, which has 80 chapters and about 1,600 pages, but Calvin still called it a “Basic instruction…”

Calvin’s preaching, which is available today in manuscript form, and his commentaries are both quality sources of deep intellectual study as well as practical/pastoral instruction. And, I believe, the Christian who throws Calvin out because of a distorted view of some truncated version of Calvin’s doctrine will inevitably suffer loss for it.

Each of these reformers, and many others like them, protested the common teaching and practice of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. But what was it exactly that they were protesting? And should Protestants still protest today?

On the one hand, Protestants and Roman Catholics, both then and now, have a great deal in common. We believe the same things about God as trinity, about Jesus as both God and man, and about the value of human life, which is grounded in the fact that all humans were-and-are created in the image of God.

But, on the other hand, Evangelical Protestants (including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and even non-denominationalists) have been and continue to be at odds with Rome on some very important issues. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, we can see at least two major disagreements, which still remain today: 

One, on the doctrine of justification… “How are guilty sinners justified before God?” And two, on the place of ultimate authority… “Who has the authority to answer this question, or any other on faith and practice, definitively?”

In this essay, I will (like a good Protestant) argue from the position that the Bible is our highest authority. But the authority of Scripture is not my main focus here, so I will just have to assume that point for now. For the interested reader, I’ve written on that subject elsewhere.[5]

Primarily, I’ll focus here on the question of how sinners can be justified. And I’ll argue that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. I will make my case from the Bible and then I’ll urge us to believe this gospel, as opposed to any other, by clarifying the biblical position in contrast to others – both old and new.

If you’re reading this essay with your Bible beside you, then turn now to Romans 3, and let’s try to understand the biblical answer to our desperate question: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?”

THESIS

God justifies sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, and unjustified sinners should expect God’s justice; therefore, let us receive God’s righteousness by faith.

1.  GOD JUSTIFIES SINNERS THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST

Romans 3:9-28 is a small portion of an entire letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome during the first century. Though the “Roman Catholic Church” would grow to mean something far different in time, the “church in Rome” then was simply the united body of Christian believers who lived in Rome.

Paul’s letter to these Christians was and is a masterful treatise on the gospel. As a matter of fact, this letter was one of the books of the Bible which Martin Luther taught through at the seminary in Wittenberg. But he didn’t always enjoy the book of Romans as a marvelous display of God’s grace and love.

Luther initially had some trouble with chapter 1, verse 17, which says, “In it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed…” Luther said of this verse,

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle [or letter] to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice [or righteousness] of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing [sinners]… My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my [good work] would [satisfy] him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”[6]

Luther understood that sinners are guilty before God, and Luther knew God’s righteousness demands justice. And that’s where the gospel message begins for all of us… with bad news, and not good.

In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he had begun his description of the gospel by talking about the unrighteous foolishness of all sinners, who naturally reject God’s truth and choose lies and sin instead (Romans 1:18-32). The Jewish Christians might have been tempted to think that they were better off than everyone else, since they had received God’s special revelation of His law… or, as Paul calls it in chapter 3, verse 2, “the oracles of God.”

Remember, up until that point in human history, God had only revealed His law to one people-group – the descendants of Abraham. But that revelation was not sufficient to solve the problem of sin for anyone – Jew or Gentile. And that’s where I’ll pick it up in chapter 3, verse 9.

Paul asked, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And his answer was, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” The Scripture says, everyone is “under” sin… both those who know God’s law and those who haven’t received any special revelation of it. But, what does it mean to be “under” sin? 

Well, verses 10-18 describe it for us. Drawing from multiple Old Testament passages, Paul lays out a diagnosis of natural humanity – that is fallen, unregenerate, and unbelieving humanity.

Romans 3:10-18 says, “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, noteven one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is terrible news! The Bible tells us clearly that no human being is naturally “righteous” (v10), no one “seeks for God” (v11), no one “does good” (v12), and no one has any “fear of God” (v18). Friend, this is a diagnosis of you and me. Neither of us naturally seeks for God; neither of us naturally does what is right; and neither of us naturally has any genuine fear or reverence for God.

Why in the world, then, should God be favorable toward us?!

The short and honest answer is, He should not be! 

But it gets worse. Even the benefit of God’s law is no help to sinners like us. Look at verse 19 and following. The Bible says, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).

What does the Bible say God’s law does to us when it shows up in our lives? It “stops” our “mouths” and it shows us our “accountability” or “liability” or “guilt” before God. The law is no help to us, not because the law is bad, but because we are.

Do you feel the weight of what Luther was wrestling with when he thought the gospel revealed only “the justice” or the “wrath” of God? What does God’s “righteousness” or “justice” mean for sinners like us?

If God’s gospel only reveals the justice by which God judges sinners, then the gospel mocks us in our despair and misery by giving us wretched news. It only condemns us more profoundly.

But Luther kept on reading and he kept on thinking this through. He said,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is thatrighteousness by which… through grace and sheer mercy… God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise…”[7]

What did Luther understand that brought such a change? I think he understood the heart of the gospel, which we find in Romans 3, verses 21-26. The Bible says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Friend, we see here the beginning of the good news. There is a sense in which God gives righteousness, through Jesus Christ, to those who believe. But how can this be? How can God, who is righteous and just, grant or give righteousness to dirty rotten sinners like us?

Look at the end of verse 22. It says, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Friend, here we come right to the blazing core of the Christian gospel. The question we’re after is: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” Or, to put it the other way around, “How can God’s justice against sinners be satisfied without punishing sinners?”

The answer we see in Romans 3:22-25 is that God satisfied His own wrath by “putting forward” His own Son (Jesus Christ) as a “propitiation” …or as J. I. Packer put it, Jesus was put forward as a “wrath-quencher.”[8]

I don’t think it’s important that you be able to pronounce the word (propitiation), but your soul depends on you being able to understand the meaning of it. Propitiation is the act of appeasing or satisfying someone. In this case, the furious party is God, and the object of His wrath is the sinner (disobedient people like us). And the propitiating act was the work of Christ upon the cross.

We know Jesus offered propitiation at the cross because it was “by his blood” (v25). And we know that it was this substitutionary sacrifice that brought about “justification” because“justification” is what this whole passage is about. Those sinners who are condemned by their sin in verse 23 are “justified” by God’s grace “through” Christ’s “propitiatory” death in verses 24-25. And verse 26 continues the same thought. “It,” i.e. the propitiating work of Christ, “was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Only in the wrath-quenching death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for all those who repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust in Him), can God be both the just God who judges sin and the justifying God who saves or justifies sinners.

Only in the person and work of Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness displayed, both in the punishment of some sinners and in the reward of righteousness, which God gives to other sinners through Jesus Christ.

But is this reward of righteousness something that any sinner earns or deserves? NO! It is a “gift” that comes to sinners by or because of God’s “grace” (v24). And, now, Paul’s question in verse 27 is appropriate: “Then what becomes of our boasting?” And what does he say? “It is excluded. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”

You bet it’s excluded! What boasting can you do if all you contribute to your justification before God is your sin?! How can you boast if all you’ve done is passively put your faith in God’s gracious gift?!

God accomplished it all! God effectively, actually, and irrevocably saves sinners!

God alone and sovereignly makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross. This is why our hearts may rejoice as we sing: 

How deep the Father’s love for us… How vast beyond all measure…                    

That He should give His only Son… To make a wretch His treasure, 

Why should I gain from His reward… I cannot give an answer…                                  

But this I know with all my heart… His wounds have paid my ransom.

But what does this doctrine of justification by faith or trust in what God has done in Jesus mean for those sinners who do not trust in or have faith in Jesus?

2.  UNJUSTIFIED SINNERS SHOULD EXPECT GOD’S JUSTICE

This will be a relatively short point, but it’s one worth making. And it will probably be the second-most offensive point I’ll make in this essay.

If you look to verses 25-26 of our passage, you’ll read an interesting couple of lines. The Scripture says, “This [and This is referring to Christ’s propitiating work on the cross] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It [i.e. Jesus’ propitiation, His sacrificial death] was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time…”

Friend, the Bible never asks, “How could a loving God send someone to hell?” The Bible, unlike self-centered rebels like us, is far more interested in God’s glory than it is in man’s comfort or in our foolish presumptions about fairness.

In verses 25 and 26, the Bible is telling us that God’s own righteousness might have been in question if He hadn’t displayed His wrath in the work of Jesus Christ. The underlying question here is: If God is a perfect judge who always delivers impartial justice, then where is it?! Sinners seem to be walking around freely right now, and God has even promised to let some sinners escape His justice!

Ah, the Bible says, God hasn’t let His waves of justice roll just yet, but there is no question that God will pour out His wrath on all sinners everywhere. We know this because we can see God’s commitment to justice in the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you think God will spare any of us if He did not spare His own Son?  

Friend, do not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience!

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

You should turn away from your sin and cling tightly to Jesus. You should plead with God to blot out your transgressions with the blood of His own Son, so that you may be spared from God’s unrelenting wrath, which is surely coming.

God will show no pity in the day of judgment. Look what He has done to His beloved Son in order to save those sinners who are recipients of His grace!

The Bible says that if you do not repent and cling to Jesus then you are “storing up wrath for yourself” which will be poured out “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Unbelieving and unrepentant sinners should expect nothing but God’s justice.

3.  GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECEIVED BY FAITH ALONE

With this point, which will probably be the most offensive one to some readers, I’m going to contrast the biblical gospel with other versions of the gospel, which are not really any gospel at all. My purpose here is not to be divisive or mean just for the sake of meanness. But, rather, my purpose is to hold up the true gospel, right next to some other ideas that try to pass themselves off as the gospel, so that we will know better how to tell the difference. 

Remember our primary question. We’re asking, “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” I’ve answered this question already by pointing us to Romans 3, and by arguing from the Bible that God makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross.

But how does any sinner receive this gracious gift of righteousness? In real time and in the experience of our real lives, how do we move from being an object of God’s wrath to being an object of His grace and mercy? 

Well, from God’s perspective, the matter is already settled. From before the foundation of the world, He has loved and chosen a people for His name’s sake. And the Father sent the Son into the world in order to die as the substitute for those He came to save (or to justify). And God’s Spirit perfectly applies the work of Christ to all those the Father has loved and chosen.[9]

Praise God for such a marvelous salvation! He has decided it. He has planned it. And He will complete it perfectly… all the way through to the end!

But, from our perspective, the matter is still unfolding. We don’t come into this world knowing and believing the gospel of Christ. We are not naturally loving and serving our good King. Rather, we begin as guilty and rebellious sinners.

How, then, do sinners like us trade our unrighteousness for the righteousness of God in Christ? Or, to put it another way, what must we do to be saved (or justified) before God?

It will probably be helpful if I add a little clarifying note with regard to the precise language I’m using when I say “justified.” The Bible speaks of “salvation” as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen.

The Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. But this is a way of using the same word to mean slightly different things.

What we really mean when we speak this way is: The Christian has been regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God. The Christian is being sanctified, renewed, and spiritually matured. And the Christian will be glorified, resurrected, and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

So, to speak of “justification” is to refer to a precise aspect of the overall work and experience of Christian salvation. But justification is a critical piece of the puzzle. In fact, Martin Luther said,

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[10]

Indeed, to get justification wrong is to lose the gospel altogether. To get justification wrong is to lose salvation and to lose even the whole Christian church. So, let’s dig just a little deeper into justification here.

In the 16th century, and still today, the Roman Catholic Church taught and teaches that a sinner actively participates in his or her justification by (at minimum) observing the sacraments of the Church, of which baptism is primary.[11] In other words, justification is not only an act of God, but it is also an activity in which the sinner plays an “instrumental” role, namely the sinner contributes to the “process” of his or her justification by performing religious duties.[12]

In fact, Rome has formally condemned anyone who teaches or believes the view that justification is something only God does through Christ, which is to be received only by simple faith.[13] Simply put, Rome has officially declared eternal damnation on anyone who teaches or believes the doctrine of justification as I have explained it above.

But Rome is not the only church to teach a gospel of justification by faith plus religious obedience. Historically consistent Churches of Christ teach the same. For example, Graceton Church of Christ (located near me) affirms that baptism is “an act which is essential to salvation.”[14]  Very much like official Roman Catholicism, Churches of Christ seem to mix together faith in the Lord Jesus with other religious activities which Christians are commanded to do as a result of their faith in Jesus.

But the Bible doesn’t teach justification by faith plus anything!

The Bible teaches us that God justifies by His grace through the work of Jesus Christ. Justification is not something we do. It’s not something we can do! We don’t contribute to our justification in any way. We are passive recipients of God’s gracious and effective work, which provides perfect righteousness for us.

This is marvelous good news for sinners like us, because it means that we have a truly effective savior. Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible for sinners like us; He truly and actually died in our place. And in so doing, He quenched God’s wrath against us and made us righteous in God’s sight. We must simply believe or trust that this is true.

At 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther was dying, and his friend asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther simply responded, “Yes.”

May God help us too, to have no guilt in life and no fear in death. May God help us all to stand in the love, in the sacrifice, and in the power of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Luther, Martin. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-boc.html

Packer, J. I., and Dever, Mark. In My Place Condemned He Stood. Crossway, 2007.

Rafferty, Oliver. P. Catholic Views of Justification. In P. R. Eddy, J. K. Beilby, & S. E. Enderlein (Eds.),Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group, First Image Books edition, 1995.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker Books, 1995.

Waterworth, J. Ed. and trans. The Council of Trent. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. London: Dolman, 1848. Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995.

ENDNOTES


[1] See the official Vatican authorization of indulgences as recently as March 20 of 2020. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/20/pope-francis-authorizes-plenary-indulgences-and-general-absolution-coronavirus

[2] See Luther’s 95 theses: https://marcminter.com/2017/03/30/martin-luthers-95-theses/  

[3] See this article on Luther’s conversion: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/story-martin-luthers-conversion/

[4] Quote from: Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[5] Here’s a popular level article I wrote on the subject: https://marcminter.com/2017/05/10/christians-dont-need-the-bible/ and here’s a more academic article on the same: https://marcminter.com/2018/11/01/sufficiency-of-scripture/

[6] Sproul, 56-57.

[7] Sproul, 57.

[8] Packer, 23.

[9] See all of this laid out in Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:27-39; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; and elsewhere.

[10] Sproul, 67.

[11] Rafferty, 280. See also chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, which says, “Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only- begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just…”

[12] Rafferty, 278-280.

[13] See Waterworth, session 6, especially canons 9, 12, 24, and 30.

[14] See full content at http://www.churches-of-christ.net/tracts/job041u.htm

A Summary of “What is the Gospel?” by Greg Gilbert in 22 Quotes

Greg Gilbert does a fantastic job of addressing this question (What is the Gospel?), and the book is not lengthy at all. It is my hope that this brief summary will serve as an encouragement to buy and read this book in total. Here is an overview of Gilbert’s book in the form of 22 direct quotes.

You can see and purchase this great book on Amazon by CLICKING HERE.

  1. “It is to God’s Word that we look in order to find what he has said to us about his Son Jesus and about the good news of the gospel” (26).
  2. “Approach the task of defining the main contours of the Christian gospel not by doing a word study, but by looking at what the earliest Christians said about Jesus and the significance of his life, death, and resurrection” (27).
  3. GOD: “First, Paul tells his readers that it is God to whom they are accountable” (28).
  4. MAN: “Second, Paul tells his readers that their problem is that they rebelled against God” (29).
  5. CHRIST: “Third, Paul says that God’s solution to humanity’s sin is the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (30).
  6. RESPONSE: “Finally, Paul tells his readers how they themselves can be included in this salvation” (31).
  7. “We can see that at the heart of his proclamation of the gospel are the answers to four crucial questions: 1) Who made us, and to whom are we accountable? 2) What is our problem? In other words, are we in trouble and why? 3) What is God’s solution to that problem? How has he acted to save us from it? 4) How do I – myself, right here, right now – how do I come to be included in that salvation? What makes this good news for me and not just for someone else?” (31).
  8. “Whatever else you think about the story of creation, the implications of this claim – that God created the world, and especially that God created you – are enormous” (41).
  9. “Scripture proclaims over and over that our God is a God of perfect justice and unassailable righteousness” (44).
  10. “When Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, therefore, they weren’t just violating some arbitrary command, ‘Don’t eat the fruit.’ They were doing something much sadder and much more serious. They were rejecting God’s authority over them and declaring their independence from him” (49).
  11. “Put simply, the Bible tells us that Jesus is both completely human and completely God. This is a crucial point to understand about him, for it is only the fully human, fully divine Son of God who can save us” (61).
  12. “Faith and repentance. This is what marks out those who are Christ’s people, or ‘Christians.’ In other words, a Christian is one who turns away from his sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ – and nothing else – to save him from sin and the coming judgment” (73).
  13. “Putting your faith in Christ means that you utterly renounce any other hope of being counted righteous before God” (79).
  14. “To have faith in Jesus is, at its core, to believe that he really is who he says he is – the crucified and risen King who has conquered death and sin, and who has the power to save. Now how could a person believe all that, trust in it, and rely on it, and yet at the same time say, ‘But I don’t acknowledge that you [Jesus] are King over me’?” (80).
  15. “The kingdom of God, then, simply defined, is God’s redemptive rule, reign, and authority over those redeemed by Jesus” (88).
  16. “He [Jesus] was claiming that the kingdom of God had been inaugurated in him!” (88).
  17. “What this means is that many of the blessings of the kingdom are already ours” (89).
  18. “The kingdom of God is not net completed, and it will not be completed until King Jesus returns” (90).
  19. “The great hope for Christians, the thing for which we long and to which we look for strength and encouragement, is the day when our King will part the skies and return to establish his glorious kingdom, finally and forever” (91).
  20. “The way to be included in Christ’s kingdom is to come to the King, not just hailing him as a great example who shows us a better way to live, but humbly trusting him as the crucified and risen Lord who alone can release you from the sentence of death” (96).
  21. “The church is the arena in which God has chosen, above all, to showcase his wisdom and the glory of the gospel” (98).
  22. “I believe one of the greatest dangers the body of Christ faces today is the temptation to rethink and rearticulate the gospel in a way that makes its center something other than the death of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners” (102).

May God help us all to know the Christ-centered and cross-centered gospel better, believe it truly, turn from sin adamantly, and share the gospel promiscuously.

4 Encouragements for Pastors doing Evangelism

Last week, I was toddling down the sidewalk, enjoying the scenic passage between my pastoral study and a local coffee shop. As I approached the counter, the barista and I exchanged knowing smiles, and the clerk handed me a warm cup of extra-bitter espresso (everyone knows lesser men drink that sugary stuff).

Finishing my afternoon energy shot and folding away my tattered copy of Augustine’s ancient book, Confessions, I noticed that a man sitting next to me was reading a Bible. I stroked my beard and wondered, “Is he reading an acceptable translation?” Thankfully, I observed the ESV impression on the binding when he raised the volume in order to give himself a closer look at the text. 

The man realized I was eyeing his Bible, and, with an inquisitive look, he longingly asked, “Sir, can you help me know what this means?” Sliding his Bible over to me, he put his finger on the page, indicating his concern with the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He was particularly vexed by chapter 2, verses 1-10, so I made use of the passage.

Starting with verse 1, I scourged him for being a terrible wretch. The pitiable man tearfully agreed, and even admitted that he was worse than I knew. Resisting his emotional attempt to derail my exposition by provoking my sympathies, I simply continued. But when I read verses 4 and 5, he rudely interjected, “Who is this ‘Jesus’?! And what does it mean to be ‘saved’ by ‘grace’?!”

As you probably figured, this story is entirely made up (except for the bitter coffee part… seriously, be a man). Evangelistic encounters may never happen like this. In fact, I am a pastor of a relatively small church in rural East Texas, and evangelism can be tricky in my neck of the woods. I only remember meeting one conscious non-Christian in the last four years. My hometown evangelistic conversations usually focus on inconsistencies between the professions of faith I hear and the unfaithful practices I see. I often feel like quoting Inigo Montoya. “You keep using the word, ‘Christian.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Pastors can and should be exemplary evangelists, but sometimes the task can feel intimidating and exhausting. Here are four things I try to remember about evangelism so that I might be more faithful to the task.

One, evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.

I am stealing this definition of evangelism from Mack Stiles. His little book Evangelism is fantastic. Among numerous gems in this book, Stiles defines evangelism by writing, “Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).”[1]

Each part of this definition is worth our time, and Stiles dissects it in the book, but let me stress the content of evangelism here. Don’t assume the gospel. The gospel is the power of God, but only if we convey the message from God that leads sinners to salvation in Christ (Romans 1:16). I try to remember that evangelism is happening when I articulate, explain, and apply the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Two, preaching and teaching are the pastor’s primary work of evangelism.

There are several passages in Scripture which make me involuntarily shudder when I read them. The Apostle Paul’s charge to Timothy “in the presence of God and Christ” is one of those passages (2 Timothy 4:1-5). What a thrilling and serious charge! The responsibility given to Timothy is “preach the word” (v2). Paul describes that task by writing, “be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (v2). After Paul warns Timothy of the resistance he is sure to encounter, Paul urges him again, “do the work of an evangelist” (v5).

These charges – “preach the word” and “do the work of an evangelist” – are not separate from each another. In other words, to be a preacher of the Scriptures is to do evangelistic work. I try to remember that the primary and profound work of every pastor is to teach the gospel among his own congregation by preaching good expositional sermons regularly. 

Three, evangelism is life to some and death to others.

While every pastor is responsible for teaching and preaching among his own congregation, he is also responsible to do so outside of the community of faith. And yet, the experienced Christian will know that not everyone hears the message of the gospel with gladness. In fact, some will not respond well at all.

The Bible reminds us that the “aroma of Christ” is a “fragrance of death to death” for some (2 Corinthians 2:15-16). Of course, some will breathe in the gospel with pleasure, as a “fragrance from life to life” (v16), but this is not always so. I try to remember that some people will love the gospel and others will actually hate it.

Four, the results of evangelism are God’s alone.

If the aim of evangelism is to persuade, then we measure success by rate and frequency of conversion, right? Well, not exactly. Obviously, our deep longing is for the lost to be found, the dead to be raised, the unregenerate to be born again. Therefore, we do celebrate when someone responds to our evangelistic efforts by repenting from sin and trusting in Christ.

However, we are unwise to think that evangelistic encounters are only worthwhile if we can record a positive response. The Bible buttresses our faltering confidence in the face of an undesirable reaction by reminding us that we may “plant” and “water” the seeds of the gospel, but “only God gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). I try to remember that faithful gospel conversations are always worthwhile, and I ask God to produce growth.

In pastoral ministry, there are plenty of expectations. If you are like me, then you may regularly leave the office with things left undone. But, we can both take heart. If we are faithfully teaching and talking about the gospel of Christ with fellow Christians and non-Christians, then we are doing the work God has called us to do. If we are lovingly and prayerfully conveying this exceptionally powerful message, then some will love Christ and others will hate us. In all of this, we may be sure that our Chief Shepherd sees all, and He shall reward His servants with an unfading crown (1 Pet. 5:4).

Now, let’s go get a manly cup of joe and talk with someone about Jesus.


[1]Stiles, J. Mack. Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus (9marks: Building Healthy Churches) (p. 27). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

The Wonderful Cross

Have you ever stopped to consider the meaning of the words Christians say and sing?

Oh, the Wonderful Cross” is the title and chorus of a popular church song, written by Chris Tomlin in 2001. This modern song is really an updated version of a much older song (1707) by Isaac Watts, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Both songs highlight a profound Christian paradox. This paradox is, in fact, the essence of the Gospel.

At the cross of Jesus Christ, we see the apex of God’s plan to redeem, to save, to rescue sinful people. Here we encounter the God of righteousness and mercy, justice and grace, holiness and love. While Jesus Christ was a perfectly obedient man, fulfilling every requirement of God’s law, Jesus was counted as sinfully wretched and utterly shameful.

It was my shame and sin which Christ bore on the cross, and this is why I sing.

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain, I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

But why!? Why would the Prince of Glory put Himself under the wrath of God in my place? Ah, this is the matchless love of God on marvelous display… Not that I am so loveable, but that His love is so profound.

The Bible teaches us that God has loved with an unfathomable love. We read of God’s loving self-disclosure when we come across phrases like, “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses…” (Ephesians 2:4–5). Or consider the amazing love of God here: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Since God has loved me so, and since He has demonstrated His love in such a meaningful way, I sing again.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

When I survey the wondrous cross, I do indeed marvel. Such a wonderful cross it is, this monument of suffering and glory, of sorrow and love.

May God graciously grant that my soul, my life, and my all would be an acceptable offering of gratitude.

Cursed Jesus

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13; cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ sets Christianity apart from everything else in the world, including all other religious systems. The good news according to Scripture is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, appalling and glorious. This is true on multiple levels, but the paradox is especially vivid at the cross of Christ.

Jesus is the perfect man, He is the obedient servant and the selfless king. There is none like Him. At the cross, however, Jesus becomes the most heinous sinner of all time. He is utterly righteous and morally pure, but something happens that we are not able to see with our eyes.

God the Father took all of the sin, rebellion, malice, hate, enmity, perversion, arrogance, indifference, greed, and lust from all those who would trust/believe in Jesus and put it on the Son. The perfectly pure One – Jesus Christ – was made to be shamefully guilty.

What unthinkable impropriety we see at the cross of Christ!

Ah, but this is the wondrous and mysterious beauty! That pure One was cursed in order that the cursed ones may be pure. The sinner is exceedingly guilty and, therefore, cursed by God. The sinner deserves God’s wrath, and God is perfectly justified in His vengeance. BUT, God redirects His intense fury! Instead of delivering it on the head of the sinner, God counts Christ as exceedingly guilty and, therefore, curses Him in the sinner’s place! Christ, then, received the justified vengeance of God’s wrath, and the trusting sinner is set free.

This exchange, the sinner’s guilt and Christ’s righteousness, is the very heart of the Gospel. This is the reason the Gospel is most precious to some and most ridiculous to others. To those who are being saved by it, it is most assuredly the power and wisdom of God.

Behold the wondrous mystery, and look to Christ – the hideous and glorious Savior!

Do you know the Gospel?

In short, the Gospel is the story of God’s plan to save sinners. Throughout human history, God has been actively involved in revealing Himself as both righteous Judge and gracious Savior. The story of God’s redeeming work may be best understood if we begin with creation and work our way towards Jesus. In fact, it is a good rule of thumb to always be in pursuit of Jesus.

You are a sinner.
God created everything good, but humanity sinned against God. Sin is any doing, saying, or thinking what God forbids or not doing, saying or thinking what God commands. For our sin, we were cursed with death (both physical and spiritual [Gen 3]) and are born with a wicked aversion to God or the things of God (Rom 3:9-18). The curse of God is fixed upon all sinners, and all sinners deserve no less than the full wrath and judgment of God (Eph 2:1-3).
God loves sinners like you.
God, demonstrating His love for His children, sent Jesus Christ to redeem us (Rom 5:8).
Jesus is unique.
Jesus, God the Son, was born, a man, without sin (Jn 1). He lived as a man and did not sin once (1Cor 5:21). He fulfilled and obeyed every law of His Father, God, and then was condemned to die (Matt 5:17).
Jesus took the place of sinners.
In Jesus’ obedience, He laid down His own life as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all those who would believe in Him (Jn 10:17-18). During His suffering for the sin of His sheep, He received the full wrath of God that they deserve (Rom 3:23-26).
Jesus overpowered death, and He is the risen Lord.
Upon His death He was buried in a grave, but shortly after was raised from the dead (Acts 2:22-33). Jesus’ resurrection assures all Christians that God the Father accepted His sacrificial work and that He is the Son of God.
The only right response is trust.
Because Jesus has died for all those who believe, we are grateful for the wonderful and beautiful sacrifice that He has made for us. We may simply call out to Jesus (Rom 10:13) and completely trust Him alone to save us from our sin and the penalty that comes with it (Acts 4:12).
God adopts sinners by His grace.
Because of the redemptive plan of God, the obedient life and death of Christ and the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, all who trust in the promise of God to save them are united forever in the family of God (Eph 2:19-20).
If you have questions about the content and/or application of this post, I’d be glad to hear from you.

Are You in the Dark or the Light?

In the Bible, God often uses themes and imagery to make His teaching clear. Light and darkness are presented to us in the opening pages of Genesis when God tells us that He created light to dispel darkness at His command (Gen. 1:2-3).

This theme is picked up throughout the Bible, and it is especially prominent in the Gospel of John. John’s Gospel presents a world of darkness, inhabited by wicked people who want to remain in the shadows rather than be exposed to the light.

We find this to be true in our own experience, don’t we?

When someone does something they know they should not do, they often try to hide their activity under the cover of darkness. Either literally or figuratively, wicked things are generally done in darkness (in secret).

Additionally, when these secret things are exposed (when the light shines upon them), the nearly universal response is to run away from the light. How many times have we witnessed people lying to cover up their wickedness? Do the lies stop when someone is caught in a lie? No! The lies continue and become increasingly complicated. This common experience is not only found in the activities of others; it is found in our own activities as well.

What we read about in John’s Gospel aligns perfectly with our own experience: wickedness loves darkness and hates light.

The world of darkness and its wicked inhabitants is disheartening, for sure, but there is hope to be found in the light. John’s Gospel also teaches us that God’s light is both exposing and enlightening. God’s light of truth simultaneously condemns wickedness and provides a clear path towards redemption.

The essential message of Christianity is not a message of personal improvement or moralistic ascendency… quite the contrary.

The good news of Christianity is that God has shown love and mercy towards those who are morally filthy and personally blameworthy. However (and here is the rub), the mercy God offers is only available to those who are willing to expose their own wickedness to the light of His judgment.

If you want to keep pretending that you aren’t as bad as you really are, then you may remain in darkness (at least until you stand before God at the final judgment). But, for those who will come into the light, expose themselves of guilty and disgraceful, there is a great hope.

The hope we may have is provided in the reality that Jesus Christ is the substitute for all who trust in Him.

Jesus (fully God and genuinely human) was born without darkness and guilt. He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s law, exposing Himself as morally and personally pure in the light. However, when Jesus died upon a Roman cross, He was counted as filthy and blameworthy on behalf of all those who would trust Him as their substitute. In this way, God both exposes wicked sinners for who they are and provides hope for their escape from His righteous judgment.

Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free;

for God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.

Since our first parents disobeyed God, creation (including humanity) has become dark. Truth and righteousness have been dulled and obscured in disobedience (Rom. 1:18), and humanity has happily sided with the darkness (Jn. 3:19). However, God’s light is an overwhelming beam (Jn. 1:4-5), both exposing sin and bringing life to those who humbly receive Him (Jn. 1:12-13; cf. Jn. 3:16-21).

May the light of Christ’s truth shine upon us today.

Who needs the Gospel?

It may shock you to learn just how many people think that they do not need the Gospel. Does everyone really need the Gospel? Do you? Does your family? Your friend? Your neighbor?

The message of the Gospel is often assumed or dismissed in my stomping ground. Therefore, you must allow me to briefly articulate the Gospel before I get to the actual meat of this brief article.

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the story of God’s reconciling work on behalf of guilty people. God created all things good and for His glory, but humanity rebelled against God’s good authority. Ever since our first parents disobeyed, all humans find it undesirable to submit to God’s good authority. For this reason, the human experience is marked by bad decisions, hurtful relationships, physical suffering, and ultimately death itself.

However, God did not leave humans to suffer without hope. God promised that someone would bring guilty, disobedient people into a gracious and good relationship with Him. God delivered on that promise in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, the only man who is also God, lived a perfectly obedient life in order to earn God’s blessings. Even though Jesus is perfectly good, He was counted as utterly guilty and bad when God punished Him for the disobedience of others. Jesus was the substitute for all those who would trust Him for it.

God’s fury against rebellion was poured out on Jesus when He was crucified on a Roman cross in the first century A.D. After Jesus died, He demonstrated His power, His person, and His provision by coming back from the dead. Because Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, He gives hope to all humans who trust Him to rescue them from God’s wrath. Therefore, God has reconciled guilty people with Himself by delivering justice and offering gracious pardon at the same time.

So, who needs this message?

People who have never heard it need the Gospel. If someone has never heard the message of God’s redeeming love and grace, then they cannot know freedom from the bondage of guilt and shame. While some people might deny that they feel guilty over the bad that they have done, humans generally know that they are flawed. Such imperfections will pull and bite at the conscience of anyone who takes the time to consider them.

People who think the Gospel is irrelevant need the Gospel. There are a number of reasons a person might think the Gospel is irrelevant, but frequently this thought arises from a lack of understanding. If the Gospel truly is the story of how God reconciles guilty people with Himself, then this message is universally relevant. I would argue that there is no message more relevant to every person everywhere.

People who are unimpressed by the Gospel need the Gospel. I often talk with people who are unimpressed by the Gospel. These are normally people who are looking for an immediate remedy for some obstacle of life: financial trouble, parenting confusion, relational strife, health concerns, etc. Someone looking for help dealing with their tyrannical boss may not see any direct connection between their need and the Gospel. However, this betrays a person’s lacking consideration of the Gospel. The greater familiarity one has with the Gospel, and the deeper understanding one has of the implications of this supremely good message, the more he or she will realize that the Gospel impacts everything. The Gospel is incredibly impressive to those who give quality effort to thinking it through.

People who assume they know the Gospel need the Gospel. In the “Bible belt” (that portion of southern America that has as many churches as fueling stations) many people assume they know the Gospel. A large portion of the population recognizes the vocabulary words of the Christian subculture, and they assume that they know the meaning of the words as well. Additionally, these assumptions become increasingly dangerous when they are combined with the belief that general familiarity is tantamount to full inclusion. Those who assume they are Christians because they assume they know the Gospel are in the gravest danger, for they assume far too much.

In case you haven’t noticed the pattern, I believe everyone needs the Gospel. From ignorant pagans to long-time Christians, we all benefit from deepening our understanding of this greatest story ever told. The Gospel of God’s redeeming love is the joy and pleasure of all those who have come to love the God who authored it.

Do you have right relationship with God?

How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?

This question is of supreme importance, though it is not likely on the front of most people’s mind at the moment. There are numerous assumptions in such a question. Here are just some of them: (1) There is a God; (2) God is holy or morally pure; (3) humans are sinful or morally corrupt; (4) God is just; and (5) God is gracious. While many may not regularly consider this question, all people presume at least some of these assumptions. In fact, the Bible argues that all people everywhere are accountable to God precisely because all conscious people know the first four assumptions to be true (Romans 1:18-2:11).

Arguing for the statements here is not within to scope of this brief article, but if the first four assumptions are true, then the question above becomes exceedingly important. If God is pure and just, and humans are morally corrupt, then God must deliver proper justice for all immoral thoughts, words, and deeds. While this reality is unsettling, not everyone sees fit to answer the question the same.

Naturalistic & Humanistic Approach

Some argue for a Naturalistic perspective of the world, and these may deny one or more of the assumptions. “There is no God,” they might say. One Naturalist explained his perspective on the matter of ultimate reality by claiming that the purpose of life is to “stay alive.” If there is no transcendent reality, then I am inclined to agree with such sentiments. However, I find it not the least bit encouraging that all my best efforts to “stay alive” will be frustrated in the end. The life-to-death ratio remains 1-to-1; every living person dies at some point.

There are others who argue from a Humanistic view, and these may also deny at least one of the assumptions. They might claim, “Humans are inherently good, and self-actualization is the highest goal.” Each day is another opportunity to achieve a higher state of self-existence, and all humanity must do is choose the path of greater fulfillment and pleasure. This perspective, however, is simply in denial. Human history is a chronicle of corruption, scandal, and evil. There are bright lights in history to be sure, but by and large the map is covered with the blood and tears of men. One would be hard-pressed to argue for the inherent goodness of humanity in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

A Justified Approach

Since these two worldviews do not seem to be adequate responses to the original question (How can any sinful human experience right relationship with God?), let us now turn to a religious response. Most religious institutions would acknowledge at least a few of the assumptions listed above, but often we find either a denial of God’s justice or the addition of human goodness. It might be helpful to boil things down a bit and arrange religious jargon under a couple of simple headings.

In the end, there really are only two religious answers to the original question.

One, Justification by Works. Many religious people and/or institutions (church, synagogue, mosque, hall, philosophy, guru, etc.) may answer the question with a prescription. “You must do…” While the latter portion of this statement could go in multiple directions, from actions to thoughts and from places to postures, the beginning is always the same. If you want to enjoy right relationship with God (or others, or the universe, or simply with yourself), then you must do, say, and/or think according to a certain prescription. So, this type of thinking we might call “Justification by Works.”

The phrase “Justification by Works” helps us think in terms of what actually brings one into right relationship with God. How is a person “justified” or made worthy to enjoy the right relationship we are after? No matter how you phrase it, if your answer to the question includes something that must be accomplished in order to bring about the desired end, then it is “Justification by Works.” The biggest problem with Justification by Works is that it assumes a great deal more than is reasonable. It assumes that some kind of work (religious or otherwise) can somehow erase disobedience towards God. However, we do not think in such ways even in our own understanding of justice. Think about it: No criminal could think of getting away with murder simply because he promised to go to church; no thief would be relieved from penalty because she started acting with greater kindness; and no adulterer covers over his transgression by doing the dishes one night.

Even though we would not allow such thinking in our worldly experiences with justice, we often presume upon God’s justice in unthinkable ways. We might imagine that God will not punish our millions of sinful actions because we have attended church 10 times over the last 4 years. We might think that God will simply overlook our constant rebellion towards His commands because we got baptized during a church service. We may even think that God will not remember that we have utterly neglected to consider His standards for living just because we prayed several childish prayers at various times in our lives. This is foolish thinking, and we know it.

Justification by Works, then, seems to fall flat on its face when we really think about what we are believing. Therefore, it appears best to consider another option.

Two, Justification by Faith. Rather than a prescription (a list of things to do), the Bible reports a description of what has already been accomplished by another. Jesus (God the Son in human form) was born without moral corruption; He lived a life of perfect obedience to God’s commands; and He was counted by God as the guilty sinner in His death. In other words, Jesus Christ was counted as though He was the one who was actually guilty of the disobedience of all those for whom He died. Then Jesus conquered death itself and demonstrated His power to justify sinners and bring them life.

In mortal life, Jesus lived perfectly obedient towards God. In death, Jesus took upon Himself the due penalty and fully exhausted God’s justice towards sinners. In resurrection, Jesus testified to His own power to bring Justification to all who trust in Him. Rather than Justification by Works, the Bible presents a Justification by Faith or Trust. The biblical option is best summarized (in my opinion) by question and answer number 60 of theHeidelberg Catechism.[1] Fortunately, the question in the catechism is nearly identical to the question we have posed here at the outset.

The question is asked,

“How are you brought into right relationship with God?”
And it is answered,
“Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; Even though my conscience accuses me, even though I have grossly transgressed all the commandments of God, and I kept none of them. Even though I and am still inclined to all evil, God, only of sheer grace and without any addition of my works, grants and imputes to me, the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ!
God looks upon me as if I never had sin in me at all, nor committed any sin whatsoever!
Furthermore, God looks upon me as if I had fully accomplished all that obedience which Christ has accomplished for me! All that I contribute towards my new standing before God is that I embrace such a marvelous benefit with a believing heart.”
May we embrace the benefit of right relationship with God by believing in the work of another. May we come to enjoy marvelous communion with our heavenly Father as we learn to trust all the more in the justifying person and work of Christ.

[1] See the full Heidelberg Catechism here: https://www.ccel.org/creeds/heidelberg-cat.html

Jesus, Prayer & Evangelism

Prayer is essential in the life of every Christian.  Most churchgoers would fully acknowledge this as a reality, but some may be embarrassed to answer any questions regarding the frequency, intentionality, or purpose of their own prayers.  Likewise, most churchgoers would accept some responsibility for evangelism generally.  However, personal evangelism and the clear requirement of every Christian to participate would cause a bit of discomfort to say the least.  Prayer and evangelism should mark the lives of every Christian, and no less than Jesus Himself has commanded His followers thus.

Regarding prayer, Luke tells us that Jesus said people ought to “always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).  Jesus Himself provides examples of prayer.  “[H]e would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (Luke 5:16), He “went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28b), and there was a time when “all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12).  People brought children “to him [Jesus] that he might lay his hands on them and pray” (Matt. 19:13), and Jesus prayed when He healed people from sickness and death (Jn. 11:41-42).

The most beneficial passage in the Scriptures concerning prayer is found in the sixth chapter of Matthew in the form of what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  Matthew records Jesus’ helpful statement just before this exemplary prayer, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father” (Matt. 6:6).  We can observe at least a few things from this single phrase.  First, Jesus assumes that Christians will pray.  He says ‘when you pray’ as though there is no question that one will indeed participate in prayerful expressions towards God.  As has already been mentioned, prayer is essential to the life of every Christian.

Second, Jesus expresses the intentionality of prayer as being relationally vertical rather than horizontal.  He says, ‘go into your room and shut the door.’  This does not seem to be a statement about methodology, as though Jesus were saying that one should not pray outside or even inside with any doors open.  Instead, it seems to be a statement about the intentions of the human praying.  We are to pray not in order to be heard by others around us, but in order that we may be fixed on the God of heaven.  Our prayerful relationship is meant to engage us primarily with God.  Third, prayer is an intimate connection with an imminent counselor and omnipotent provider.  Jesus refers to God not only as His Father, but ‘your Father.’  This immediacy of relationship and accessibility of such a powerful refuge is no small thing to consider.

Regarding evangelism, Jesus commissions all who would follow Him to “make disciples” of all people groups everywhere (Matt. 28:19).  While some may attempt to distinguish the group described by terms like believer and disciple, I find no reason at all in Scripture to do so.  In fact, the two appear to be synonymous when referring to one’s relationship to Christ (Acts 9:26; Jn. 8:31).  Therefore, the commission given by Christ to all His followers at least includes evangelism.  Discipleship may refer to much more than conversion, but no one would rationally argue that it refers to less.

Evangelism, then, is the privilege and obligation of all Christians everywhere.  Yet, there is a very real sense in which the conversion of sinners from death to life is something that no Christian can produce.  Indeed, only God can create life where there is none and bring faith into the hearts of those who are bent on disbelief and rebellion (Eph. 2:1-10).  At this, an astute person may ask, “What role does a Christian play in evangelism?”  Well, the Apostle Paul makes a helpful assessment in his first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul says, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7).  He states clearly that evangelism is about ‘planting’ and ‘watering’ ‘seed,’ but God is the one who causes life, growth and salvation.  The analogy of seeds and sowing is not new, and Jesus explained an analogy very much like Paul’s in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8.  The ‘seed,’ Jesus says, is the ‘word of God.’

This subject deserves more time and reference than it is given here, but the word of God may refer to every word that proceeds from the mouth of God, a specific prophecy concerning an immediate event or person, or some compilation of words attributed to God.  The word of God is certainly inclusive of all God’s words, but most particularly it refers in Biblical terms to the Gospel (Acts 11:1) and to Christ as the embodiment of that message (Jn. 1:1-4).  So, then, Christians participate in evangelism by proclaiming and defending (planting and watering) the message of the Gospel (seed).  Christ followers may tell others of the good news, and rely upon God to give the growth; that is they rely upon the Spirit of God to transform the soul of sinners (Jn. 3:3).  This then is where evangelism and prayer intersect, and again Christ affords both instruction and example.

Because God alone makes sinners alive with eternal life, and because Christians have immediate and intimate means of communication with the God of salvation, it is then vitally important that Christians express their reliance upon God through prayer.  Jesus prayed just this way when He prayed, “I do not ask for these only [that is His accumulated followers during His earthly ministry], but also for those who will believe in me through their word [that is all subsequent believers], that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn. 17:20-21).  Jesus clearly associates this belief in His being sent from the Father with trusting Him as Savior or Messiah (Jn. 5:38-40).  Jesus asks the Father to bring unity of belief in the truth of Christ’s person and work to all those that the Father gives the Son (Jn. 17:24).

In summary, Christ teaches us to pray that God save sinners and He emboldens Christians to participate in the work of planting, watering and harvesting the growth only God can bring (Luke 10:2).  Prayer and evangelism go hand in hand.  As Christians tell the story of salvation, it behooves them also to pray that God performs the regenerating work that only He can.