What does it mean to be ‘Lost’?

What does it mean to be Lost?   Usually, in the context of Christianity, one is not speaking of location confusion when using the term lost. To say, “he is lost,” is to say something other than, “he does not know how to make his way from his home to the church building.” The term lost is commonly used in the salvific sense, or regarding a person’s present spiritual condition and eternal destination. Much like a traveler needs to know his or her locale, destination and route in order to make a successful journey, every spiritual pilgrim needs to know his or her spiritual whereabouts, objective and way in order to enjoy the benefits of spiritual triumph.

This question concerning ‘lostness’ may be one of the most important in order to have a better understanding of what it means to be ‘found’ or ‘saved’ in the spiritual sense (i.e. what it means to be a Christian). Essentially, this question is seeking to understand a major difference between those who are Christians and those who are not. There are real distinctions between those who are lost and those who are found, but it is vitally important to know what the actual distinctions are in order to have an appropriate posture towards those in each group.

In an answer to this main question, the following structure will be provided. First, we will attempt to understand the basic nature of humanity, and subsequently try to grasp the chief end or ultimate purpose of humanity. Next, we will delve into some of the effects of sin upon human nature and how they relate to human purpose. Then we will look at the significance of using the term lost to describe every human sinner apart from or without Christ. Last, we will continue our search of the Scriptures to discover how one who is lost may become found. After all, one’s ‘lostness’ or ‘foundness’ is not merely of temporal interest. These categories, and one’s placement underneath each heading, are of supreme significance both in this life and in the eons to come.

What is the nature of humanity?   There seems no better place to begin a study of human nature than at the beginning – the act of God’s creating work. At the creation of humanity, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”[1] This phrase, though, has been at the center of much confusing talk concerning the nature of humanity. From misconceptions about God to misappropriating the ‘likeness’ of God in man, many have taken this phrase and run in strange and unhelpful directions. There is much that one may learn from this phrase, and a closer and wider look at the Scriptures is always beneficial, but we may at least gather that ‘man’ or humanity is a special or unique creation among all else that God has made.

On an aside, I quite agree with Wayne Grudem (a systematic theologian) concerning usage of the term ‘man’ as a reference to the entire human race.[2] One must refrain from postulating the unsuitable use of the masculine term to entitle all humanity unless he or she is willing to oppose God’s own use of the term. It is plain from the context of the previous verse cited that God described His own creation of humanity with the use of the masculine term in reference to the totality of male and female human beings. The Scripture also says, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (emphasis added).[3] There is no mistaking the interchangeable use of ‘them’ – both male and female – and ‘him’ or ‘man.’

Grudem adds that some may find objection still and claim that the use of word ‘man’ as a suitable expression of the concept ‘all humankind’ is merely a Hebrew language feature and not to be continued in our own day. However, such an argument is unconvincing when one reads the opening sentences of Genesis chapter 5 (just a few chapters after the previous citations). “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (emphasis added).[4] It appears therefore that God not only uses the term ‘man’ in reference to the entire human race, but God has chosen to label or ‘name’ humankind with the same masculine term. This is not to say that ‘man’ is the only satisfactory term, but it must at the very least be considered appropriate.

At any rate, the nature of man is directly tied to the creation of man. For God is not merely the organizer of molecules; He is the special and intentional designer of all that He has created, including humankind. In other words, if one wants to know what humankind really is, one would do well to ask the God who drew man into existence and brought humans into being.

Referring to the original passage cited above, man is the unique creation of God. Man was created in the ‘likeness’ of God, and this is no easily articulated semblance. Grudem says, “as we read the rest of Scripture, we realize that a full understanding of man’s likeness to God would require a full understanding of who God is in his being and in his actions and a full understanding of who man is and what he does.”[5] Alas, a full comprehensive knowledge of God and man is something that no sensible person can claim; therefore, an attempt to communicate completely what likeness man has or is of God will result in an inadequate sketch. Yet, there is great value in the sketch.

In every way that man is like God, man carries the divine likeness or bears the image of God. The image of God is the basis for essential human value and dignity. God’s image upon humankind is the reason that man is of pronounced value and the reason that man’s degradation is not only vexing but also immoral and wicked.

It may be said, then, the nature of man or the intended essence of every human is to be like Godto bear God’s image and reflect that image to all others.

What is the chief end of man?   This question is found at the opening of both the shorter and the longer Westminster Catechisms.[6] It is the starting place of any real and meaningful approach to understanding not only the nature of man, but also the supreme and universal purpose thereof. For what purpose has man – every man, woman and child – been created? Essentially, this is a ‘meaning of life’ question. Arguably, this is one of the weightiest questions of all time. Far from being unanswerable or even complicated, the Catechism answers the question with the clear and concise statement. “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s it! This is no small or easy thing, but its simplicity is amazingly refreshing. Indeed, the purpose for which all things have been created is to bring glory to God and enjoy the benefits of His glory upon creation (Romans 11:36; Revelation 4:11).

Because of the common misunderstanding it is important to note – submission, loving obedience, and a generally selfless posture towards God are not tyrannical and malevolent requirements upon humanity from an uncaring deity. Quite the opposite is actually true. In fact, the greater obedience and loving submission that one experiences towards their Creator, the greater joy and fulfillment he or she experiences as well (Psalm 51:12).

It is a myth that a man must put away all of his good desires and any hope for genuine self-gratification and contentment in order to love God (Galatians 5:1).

If this chief end or highest purpose seems foreign to us, it is not for some lack of truth in the claim. Instead, there is great likelihood that the truth of it sounds bizarre because of our own sinful corruption. Our failure to arrive at our chief end, our inability to achieve our highest purpose, is a universal characteristic of the sinful human race. What may be even more sobering is the cause for such devilish disorientation.

What are the effects of sin upon human nature?   Because humankind was created in the likeness and image of God, and because man’s highest purpose and greatest joy is found in the glory of God and enjoyment of Him, then every human should be marked by a fervent and passionate pursuit of godliness and participation in genuine worship of the one true God. However, the least observant among us will note that this is not the case. In fact, the exact opposite characteristics are what we find to be most ubiquitous.

Sin is any lack of conformity to or transgression of God’s law – the clear revelation of God’s own character and nature. Therefore, sin is man being less than or other than he ought; and this is to his own detriment.

Many have suggested solutions to the problem of sin, this failure to live up to or fulfill humanity’s intended design. Secularly, most would recognize a general selfishness exhibited in barbarism that is measured by degree rather than occurrence in humankind. Lying, stealing, murder, adultery, covetousness, and an unwillingness to submit to virtually any authority are all sinful expressions with which humans have become acquainted – and even comfortable in most cases.

If one thinks this assessment too harsh, he or she ought to consider the spirit and not merely the letter of God’s law. For example, if one is thinks himself successful at avoiding any transgression of the law concerning adultery because he has not had intercourse with another man’s wife, he has done well as far as he believes the law to extend. However, when he is exposed to the spirit of the law or what underlies the concise imperative – namely that everyone is to make strong efforts to preserve both their own chastity as well as others, together in thought, word and deed – then he may realize that he is utterly blameworthy.

A wise person would know that only an individual unaware of the range and depth of God’s law, or one unwilling to acknowledge it, would even hesitate to admit he and all others are completely guilty before God and exceedingly sinful.

The general posture of sinfulness rather than godly pursuit, and the pervasiveness of such offensive insolence, begs the question – WHY? From whence has this total distortion of purpose and joy come? The corruption of human nature is an inheritance from our forefather – Adam, the first man. Charles Hodge describes the grave situation by saying, “the sin of Adam injured not himself only but also all descending from him by ordinary generation.”[7] Hodge goes on to say that there are three things that may be considered subsequent results of the first sin, which was committed by humanity’s first parents. These effects include the personal and universal guilt of all humankind, the corruption of every aspect of human nature derived from our ancient ancestor, and the inability of natural man to do anything of genuine spiritual good.[8] While these consequences are biblically sound and overwhelmingly applicable, it is not expedient to address these stated results in their entirety here. Therefore, the remainder of this section will focus upon the specific effects of sin upon human nature, especially those contributing to lostness, rather than defending the validity of these stated consequences.

If the citations above seem too far above the average person’s ability to grasp, then it might be helpful to simply describe how Adam’s sinful fall has impacted all humankind. The three consequences above may be explained in the following way. First, every human is counted by God as though they sinned just as Adam did from the time Adam sinned (Romans 5:12). This may seem unfair or unwarranted, but rest assured that all humans were represented well in Adam, and any guilt that he procured for other humans has been multiplied a thousand times over by the daily sin of those who may claim the lack of accurate representation. Second, every aspect of human nature – mind, body, will, etc. – has been negatively affected by the curse of God upon sin (Ephesians 2:3). This result begins to place our fingers on the pulse of lostness. Because of Adam’s sin, God cursed all creation and human nature has been marred and distorted so much so that man perceives the Object of his highest purpose and greatest joy as the most antagonistic rival to such things.

Third, man in his natural state is opposed to genuine spiritual good and godliness (Galatians 5:17-21). This truth is one of the bitterest pills to swallow, but it is also one of the simplest and most easily proven doctrines or principles of Scripture. We use the word good to describe all kinds of things. I have a good dog. I wear a good pair of shoes. I like a good cheesecake. However, we do not understand the term ‘good’ in these sentences to be expressing any moral worthiness or righteous disposition. There is no such thing as a morally worthy or righteous cheesecake (as awesome as some cheesecake might be). Good in the spiritual sense, in the sense about which God is concerned, is an attribute that no descendant of Adam can claim (Romans 3:10-18).  In fact, the Bible says it explicitly, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”[9]

The effects of sin upon the nature of humanity are farther-reaching and more deeply entrenched than any earthly human can know. The Scriptures speak of the wicked heart of man as being not only corrupt but also deceptively so (Jeremiah 17:9). In other words, no earthly man knows the depth of his own depravity because his best attempts to know his own wickedness are efforts from a mind and will that naturally and frequently deceive him.

This kind of man, a naturally sinful man – incapable of seeking his highest joy and unwilling to fulfill his greatest purpose – is lost indeed.

He knows not himself, he knows no authentic way to restore his own joy, and he is both unwilling and unable to lay down his upraised weapons against the only God who might bring him true peace, joy, stability, security, purpose, community, and freedom. God’s first words recorded after the initial sin of man were “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Truly, lost is a just description of one in such a hopeless condition.

What does the term lost indicate?   One may think it a bit odd to begin a discussion about lostness at creation, but setting the proper stage will hopefully prove worthwhile by this point in the investigation. A good and working knowledge of the intended purpose of humankind will be of benefit in understanding the overwhelming lostness that has come upon sinful humanity. The sinful natural man (every man, woman, and child descending from Adam) is lost in relation to himself, in relation to other humans, and most significantly he is lost in relation to his God.

The natural man, that man so catastrophically affected by his own sin and that of others, has lost himself.

He may try to know himself – who he truly is, or what fetches him real joy – but he cannot. When one person wants to know another, it is common to ask questions, which one perceives will reveal something about the true nature of the other. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “What do you like?” “What is your fondest memory?” How cruel it would be to merrily ask these questions of a man who was born into slavery. How much would one hope to learn from a man still trapped in the chains of captivity, if he poses the question “What do you do?” Will the slave disclose his true self in some answer that he might muster? What would his fondest memory be? Would this reveal any genuinely enjoyable experience or merely some temporary illusion of relief from his miserable reality?

Additionally, the natural man may ask himself a thousand questions and each one would be answered with some measure of deception. He often is unwilling to acknowledge his own bondage to sin or the incarceration of its consequences. His own desires deceive him, as he passionately chases all those things that inevitably harm him and steal his joy. Each time he thinks he has found himself, he learns ever so quickly that he was never truly found. He may be here or there, but he is always lost to himself.

The natural man is lost to everyone by whom he longs to be known.

People seek all kinds of relationships and so frequently fancy themselves to have found genuine community with another. Yet, where have they ever truly been known? When has the sinner ever been utterly exposed and without shame?[10] Even in the most intimate relationship of humanity – the committed marriage of one man and one woman – both males and females are disappointed in the lack of intimacy. Where one marriage relationship performs well in the area of physical experience, that same marriage may severely lack intellectual or emotional understanding. It is extremely common for males and females to perceive the greatest marital disunity in areas seemingly unrelated to each other, but every marriage suffers from the same root cause – neither sinner is fully known by the other and therefore neither can experience full rest and genuine community in the relationship.

What of the sinner’s friends? Which one knows him best, and knows everything about him? Does any friend know that his silence regarding serious matters is to the sinner’s detriment? Even a friend who knows the pain that sinful pursuit causes is unwilling or unable to engage the sinner on such ground. The friend does not know his sinful companion well enough to address him admirably and productively. What friend knows of the deepest struggles in the sinner’s heart and selflessly speaks wisdom to his sinful friend? Does he do this while receiving no benefit of his own and conveying no pretense in regards to his own struggles?

The natural man has no true friend. Not one of his dearest allies knows him fully and loves him unconditionally. He does not share complete and unreserved love with any of his peers. He has no hope of ever experiencing such loving relationship with full disclosure and cherished communion. He may be in this relationship or that group of friends, but he is always lost to others.

Most painfully of all, the natural man is lost in relationship to his God.

God is not merely the title or name that we have ascribed to some divine impersonal force that itself is guided by higher laws of so-called nature. No, God is that being which is the origin of all life, exceedingly great joy, sinless passion, righteous vigor, true goodness, pure beauty, genuine truth, unconditional love, caring benevolence, wise providence, and awesome sovereignty. For a man to lose his God is tantamount to the loss of himself and everything else. God is the one to whom he looks for guidance and affirmation; God is his foundation and stability; God is his hope and the object of his faith. Natural man has not only willingly lost his God, but he refuses to be known by the God of his longing.

The natural man will not have the only God capable of being his great joy. No, the natural man seeks to name his own god and create such an abomination in the image of his sinful desires. Sinful humanity will concoct a god whose aim is their sexual, material, or experiential pleasure. What indulgence is your craving today? There is a god made by human invention that will find its fulfillment in feeding that appetite. There is no rule except that of desire; the desire of the moment rules the natural man’s day.

It is not, however, that every natural man is easily observed as having such a curious and decadent idol as his god. On the contrary, the natural man is keenly able to deceive himself and others as to the true measure of his scandalous god. Many natural men bring their idolatrous god with them to a church building and think that this false god is the same as the Object of all other’s worship. Sinful men may even allow their imaginary god to acquire some distorted attribute of the one true God, but they will not humble themselves before the King of Glory and admit their lostness before Him. No, the natural man is convinced of his own sufficiency and does not think himself in need of an all-sufficient God. He may seek a god, an idol of his own creation, but he is always lost and away from his God who created him.

The natural man’s lostness is totally consuming.  He is lost to himself, he is lost in relationship to others, and he is lost in relation to his God. 

Augustine wrote of this lostness in the heart of a natural man when he said as to God, “Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.”[11] Augustine articulates the matter of this discussion well. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, but the natural man is eternally and completely lost, and he is hopelessly restless in his natural state.  Augustine gives room for hope, however, when he says, “until it repose in Thee.”  Where can this restful tranquility be found, and how may the lost natural man gain such peace?

How may one who is lost become found?   As already discussed, the natural man is not merely lost for lack of knowledge or natural experience; he is lost because he does not want to be found. When the first man sinned he did not seek refuge in the bosom of his Creator, nor did he find relief in any admission of guilt or honest community with his Lord. No, he hid from the One with whom he had previously experienced real love and intimacy (Genesis 3:8, 10). This fallen sinner denied his own guilt and deceived himself as to his true culpability (Genesis 3:12-13).

The Bible is clear; the natural man is hostile to the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14; Galatians 5:17). How then can any willfully lost sinner be found? In John 3:1-8 Jesus speaks in what may seem to be obscure terms, but He clarifies what must take place in order to produce such a conversion.

“Now there was a man … named Nicodemus… This man came to Jesus and said, ‘… We know that you are a teacher come from God …’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? …’ Jesus answered, ‘… That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’” (abbreviated).[12]

Jesus essentially answers the question asked earlier (How can the lost become found?) with the statement, “You must be born again.” The Bible uses other terms to speak of the experience of being “born again.” God uses the term regenerate through the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37:6), the Apostle Paul uses the analogies of life from death (Ephesians 2:5) and divine re-creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), and the Apostle Peter uses the same verbiage as Jesus from John 3 (1 Peter 1:3, 23). The Greek word Peter uses in these two instances is ἀναγεννήσας (anagennēsas), which means to thoroughly change the mind of one, so that he lives a new life and one conformed to the will of God.[13] This is the change necessary in one who is lost – namely his passionate hostility towards all things godly and genuinely good is exchanged for a new love of God and desire to glorify and enjoy Him.

The hope for the lost and natural man is not that he is able to find himself, but that the God of the universe invades his unholy ground with life from above.

Luke chapter 15 is rich with the concept of lostness and foundness. Jesus tells three stories that all illustrate something lost being found. A shepherd lost and found a sheep (verses 3-7), a woman lost and found a coin (verses 8-10), and a father lost and found a son (verses 11-32). The wonder of these three analogies is that the object found in all three is not of great value. The shepherd who lost a single sheep had ninety-nine others and would not likely have experienced tremendous pain at the loss of only one. The woman who lost a single coin had nine others, which would have been of greater monetary value than many of her peers possessed. Her remaining possessions were significant enough to keep her from panic. The son lost was a burdensome and defiant son. The father who lost this kind of son would have been reasonably understood to experience some relief from the loss.

In all three stories, however, Jesus explains that the shepherd, the woman, and the father rejoice at the rewards of their seeking efforts. These stories are not about a lost sheep, a lost coin, or a lost son; they are about the effective pursuit of the finders. The point Jesus conveyed is related to the objection He confronted with these stories. He was being accused of ‘receiving’ sinners (Luke 15:2). The sinners were rightly perceived as less than worthy of the reception, but that is exactly the point! He receives, He seeks, He loves, He knows, and He finds the sinners who are lost.

Jesus is the embodiment of God’s promise to find lost sinners.   The Gospel according to John (the 4th book of the New Testament) opens with a profound statement of Jesus’ nature and purpose. The author speaks of Jesus Christ as the union of God and man. God the Son was before all things and is Himself God (John 1:1-3); and this same God became a man, making Himself known in the person and work of Jesus Christ to sinful humanity (John 1:14, 18).

God’s truly unconditional love is demonstrated towards sinful humankind in His steadfast commitment to know and to find those who were once lost.  The Apostle Paul speaks of God’s loving before the foundation of the world those whom God would ordain to be the adopted and loved children of God through the person and work of Christ (Romans 8:29). The natural man becomes known by the God he would not have known, loved by the Father he did not love, and found by the Friend he refused to acknowledge he lost when he is born from above and made spiritually anew.

The natural man is truly lost and restless, but the effective God of salvation finds lost sinners and gives them the repose they refused to enjoy until they were truly found.

 

Bibliography

Augustine, A. The Confessions of Saint Augustine,. New York: Modern Library, 1949. Print.

Grudem, Wayne A. Making Sense of Series: One of Seven Parts from Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994. Print.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology / Volume 2: Anthropology. [Peabody, Mass.]: Hendrickson, 1999. Print.

Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Bibles, 2001. N. pag. Print.

Sproul, R. C. What Does It Mean to Be Born Again? Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2010. Print.

Thayer, Joseph Henry, Carl Ludwig Wilibald Grimm, and Christian Gottlob Wilke. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Coded with the Numbering System from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996. Print.

The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms: As Adopted by the Orthodox Presbyterian Church : With Proof Texts. Lawrenceville, GA: Christian Education & Publications Committee of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2007. Print.


[1] Genesis 1:26;  All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2] Grudem.  439-440.

[3] Genesis 1:27

[4] Genesis 5:1-2

[5] Grudem.  443-444.

[6] Westminster Catechisms are based on the Confession of Faith authored and labeled at the same Westminster assembly (1643-1652).

[7] Hodge.  192.

[8] Hodge.  192

[9] Romans 3:12

[10] Genesis 2:25 speaks of human nakedness without shame. This is not merely intended to tell the reader of the physical appearance of the first humans in the Garden of Eden before sin entered into creation. They were physically naked, but they were naked in every way. They were utterly exposed to one another and yet unashamed to be so. Each was fully known and completely loved by the other.

[11] Augustine.  2.

[12] John 3:1-8

[13] Thayer.  Strong’s number 313

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.

Should a person ‘receive Christ’?

Is “receive Christ” terminology proper to use in presenting the gospel?

It is of paramount importance that anyone who seeks to articulate the Gospel of Jesus Christ does so in terms that are understandable to the one or ones with whom the evangelist is attempting to communicate.  This means that the evangelist will need to take several things into his or her consideration, and defining or explaining terms that may be unclear is a great way to ensure that the desired message is being heard.  Therefore, concerning the two-word phrase in focus here, “receive Christ,” an explanation of both may make the phrase not only proper but desirable in evangelistic encounters.

The phrases “I received” or “You received” as they are attached to “mercy,” “grace,” “gift,” “salvation,” or even “Christ” are found in more New Testament passages than I could count in a short time.  For the sake of our discussion, let us examine a few.  The Apostle Paul says, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain [or receive (NIV)] salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:9)[1].  So, those of whom Paul speaks – those who are not destined for wrath, but instead for salvation – are recipients of their destiny through the Lord Jesus Christ.  There is certainly much more that could be said here, but it is no tangential matter that salvation comes through the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the mediator of such salvation; He is the provider of the saving work; He is the bringer of the gift. It is clear that salvation is through the Lord Jesus Christ, and anyone who receives this great salvation has no less received the embodiment of it.

Elsewhere Paul says, “those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).  Again Paul speaks of recipients of salvation, but this time in terms of grace and the gift of righteousness.  Though the details of this saving work are described distinctly here, Paul remains sure that these gifts come through Jesus Christ.  Here, however, we are given a bit more information as to the specifics of what exactly Christ brings to those who are beneficiaries of His salvation, namely abundant grace and foreign righteousness.  We may find a better explanation of just how abundant this grace is in the context of the passage, but the righteousness of which Paul speaks we know is foreign precisely because it is a gift.  If the righteousness were inherent in the recipient, it may have been said to be enabled, reinforced, or motivated by Christ.  Yet this righteousness is a gift brought to the hopelessly unrighteous inheritor to be received from another who does inherently possess such virtue.

On a separate occasion Paul chastised the Galatian Christians for their ridiculous posture of false human holiness before the judgment of God.  Paul points out the definition of grace as unmerited favor in his question posed to them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2).  The thing being received in this passage is ‘the Spirit.’  Paul is reminding the Galatian believers that God is the giver of His Spirit and all Christians are receivers of the Holy Spirit, not because of their meritorious effort, but ‘by faith.’  There is not the space necessary here to expound on a theological statement concerning the biblical doctrine of the Godhead as Trinity, but it is pertinent to note that the Spirit of God is one in the same as the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9).  Therefore, it is not wrong to say that Paul’s explicit statement here is that all those who hear the Gospel with faith in the person and work of that good message are also recipients of the Spirit of Christ – they have received Christ by His Spirit, the Spirit of God.

It is not new to turn to Romans chapter 3 for the purpose of evangelizing.  The oft-memorized “Romans Road”[2] begins right on this terrain.  While verses 23 through 25 of Romans chapter 3 may or may not be familiar, they lend a great deal of help to our discussion here.  Again we read the words of the Apostle Paul, “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25).  If one unpacks the meaning of this text, the substance of it carries tremendous power.

First, it is clearly stated that ‘all’ are sinners who have failed to live up to the holy demands of God.  This is especially disheartening when one considers the absolute power, perfect justice, and unique eternality of God.  He has enough power to do whatever He desires to do, always justly punishes sin, and He will never ever cease to be exactly what He is now.  This is not good news to the sinner, who finds him or herself under the righteous judgment of that same God.

Second, those sinners to whom Paul referred are also said to be ‘justified’ by a gift of grace.  To be justified means to be made or proven right, righteous, or commendable.  This is almost too incredible to be true!  The same person who is clearly guilty and sinful may be proven to be righteous and commendable?!  Wait… If we pause for a moment and consider the logic of such a statement, it doesn’t make sense.  Either a person is sinful and guilty or one is righteous and commendable, but he or she cannot be both at the same time and in the same way.  How can Paul say that God proves sinners commendable?  Has God forgotten about their sin?  Is He no longer concerned with His righteous demands?  Is God no longer just?  Has He lost His power to condemn?  No!  God remains just, sin remains abhorrent to Him, and He is always utterly resolute in His judgment against it.

Third, the reason that sinners may be proven righteous is explained in the statement that this justification comes ‘through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood.’  Two demonstrative terms are used in the Romans passage that point to the work performed by Christ on behalf of sinners.  (1) Redemption is a monetary term, carrying the idea of buying back, or exchanging something for an award or something else of monetary value.  (2) Propitiation is a term of satisfaction, carrying the idea of a gift given to a conquering king in order to appease his anger towards the offending or rebellious king who has been overcome.  When we see these terms in the light of what Christ has done for sinners, then the justification spoken of earlier becomes clearer.

Jesus Christ offers His own life as a substitute for the sinner before God’s bar of justice.  This accomplishes two things.  One, Christ propitiates or appeases God wrath against sin by absorbing the wrath due sin on the sinner’s behalf.  Jesus redirects God judgment from the sinner and towards Himself.  This is why it is rightly said that God made Christ to be sin even though Jesus had not sinned Himself (2 Cor. 5:21).  Two, Jesus redeems sinners by offering His own righteousness, obedience and goodness to all those who trust Him for it.  God requires a life of holiness from all humans.  Jesus Christ lived the life of obedient righteousness before God that is required of all humanity, and He offers His earned righteousness to sinners as a gift to be received (Rom. 5:19).

Fourth and finally, this gift of justification (proven right and commendable) is to be received by faith.  That is, one must put down all his or her own effort to achieve a goodness of their own, and he or she must simply trust in the effort of another – namely in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  When we visualize this transaction as a dirty-clothed sinner exchanging his guilt-stained garb for the beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness, it would not be hard at all to see why one might describe it as “putting on” a “new self” (Eph. 4:24).

Therefore, we are to understand that sinful humans are ‘proven righteous’ because of the righteousness of Christ.  Furthermore, we may also consider that Christ is not merely the ticket to an eternal reward greater than Himself.  Certainly this is not the case at all!  In spite of contemporary jargon that might suggest, or explicitly claim, otherwise (which is often just a recapitulation of past error), Christ is Himself the prize.  He is the destination!  His presence, His glory, His eminent majesty is what we long to behold!  If we are looking for Christ to take us to a reward that is something other than Himself, then we have set our aim far too low.  He is both our transport and our station, and there is no greater reward than the triune God of our salvation.

Praise be to God!  If we have received Christ’s righteousness, then we have most certainly received Him.  If we are heirs to Christ’s sonship, then we share in His loving relationship with God our Father.  If we are beneficiaries of Christ’s redeeming and propitiating work, then we have exchanged ourselves for Him, our sorrow for His joy, our sin for His obedience, our idolatry for His genuine worship, and our deserved penalty for His earned reward!  With the Apostle Paul, we may indeed say to one another “on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) by receiving Christ – all that He is and all that He has done for you – and “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6).

All terms may be used erroneously or mischievously.  The terms used in articulating the Gospel are most important because of the message they communicate; therefore to twist and mangle them is supremely egregious regardless of intent.  This should drive us to a reverent and diligent commitment to communicate this message and its implications as accurately as we are capable.  So, is it proper to use the phrase “receive Christ” in an evangelistic exchange?  Yes.  If it is explained well then it is not merely proper, it can be wholly advantageous.


[1] All Biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless noted otherwise.

[2] The Romans Road refers to several passages in the book of Romans that may be sited for evangelistic purposes.  Seeking to present the Gospel in biblical terms, the evangelist would begin with chapter 3 and verse 23, then move to chapter 6 and verse 23, then cite chapter 5 and verse 8, and finally land in chapter 10 and verse 13.

God is both perfectly just & amazingly gracious

Justification is the doctrine upon which every Christian relies. It is the only way that sinners may live in the presence of the holy God; they must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ and free from the stain of sin. Quoting the Westminster Confession, Hodge relays the doctrine of justification as follows: “The Lord Jesus, by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven for all those whom the Father hath given unto Him.”[1] Justification is at the core of describing how God’s plan of redemption is effective for the salvation sinners. The word itself conjures up legal connotations, such as crime, law, judge, penalty and judicial declaration. There are numerous works, including the several used as resources here, which beautifully and profoundly extract the keenest observations from the biblical doctrine of Justification. The purpose of this work is to concisely communicate the wonderful work of Christ, both positive and negative, in justifying sinners by providing righteousness, expiation and propitiation.

The Apostle Paul expressively speaks of the Gospel in Romans 3:21-26 when he says, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. This phrase is a commonly memorized verse for anyone who has attempted to learn the Romans Road in order to evangelize. The purpose of reciting this text is to point out the reality of universal guilt. Every human sins. The implication is that sin is not only a horizontal offense, but vertical too. Human sin is against self, others and the Creator who made and governs humanity. Those who sin are guilty before God and under the penalty of sin, namely death.

Elsewhere in the same portion of Scripture, the stark pronouncement is declared, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Death here refers, not only in the physical sense of human mortality, but also to the idea that God will distribute His ultimate judgment of wrath on all who have rebelled in sin against His righteousness. God has established the law, all humans have disobeyed it and the perfectly just Judge is obligated to deliver justice. This bleak situation is the common bond of all people. Sin yields death and judgment, everyone has sinned, and God’s righteousness demands that all sinners endure the due penalty.

In an essay on justification, the purpose of preliminarily establishing the sinner’s guilt and God’s immanent wrath is two-fold. First, the gospel is good news because of the converse situation in which the unregenerate person presently finds him or herself. Hodge explains that justification rests “on the principle that God is immutably just, i. e;, that his moral excellence, in the case of sin, demands punishment.”[2] Secondly, the redeeming work of Christ is a wonder without comparison because of the overwhelming holiness and justice of God.  Sinners may not realize and some may even choose not to acknowledge that they are hanging over a perilous pit of destruction.  God’s holy justice and consuming wrath is pointed at them every moment and God holds it back each second for reasons only known to Him. Dr. Sproul notes, “The Greek word Paul uses for ‘wrath’ is orgai. [Ro 3:18] The English word that derives from orgai is orgy… God’s anger is one of passion with paroxysms of rage and fury.”[3] God’s wrath toward sinners is no jovial or moderate thing. The gratitude felt by any sinner’s escape of such fury is beyond expression.

What reason would any sinner have for embracing a hopeful attitude, believing some escape may be found? The message of good news concerning the person and work of Christ appears all the more stunning in front of this abominable backdrop. We who believe are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation” (Ro 6:24-25a).  Jesus has given Himself as the sacrifice for sinners and suffered on behalf of all those who would trust in Him. The suffering life and excruciating death of Jesus Christ would be note worthy if only for the sake of uniqueness, especially in light of His deity. However, the biblical description of purpose behind such a work is that of representation.  Jesus is the representative of sinners before the bar of God’s judgment.  He is the one who absorbs the full wrath of God, which all sinners deserve.

Jesus atoning sacrifice is the work of expiation and propitiation. Expiation, according to Sproul, carries the idea that Christ “removes our sin from us and takes it away.” So then one aspect of Christ’s atoning work is that He removes the sin of sinners; He makes sinners clean. Sproul describes expiation is a horizontal work, washing human sinners, and propitiation is a vertical work, “satisfying the justice of God for us.”[4] God’s justice demands that sinners endure the due penalty for sin, namely His unbridled wrath. God is no just judge if He merely pardons the sinner and withholds punishment. Justice must be delivered, because God is the one and only perfect Judge. Therefore, the work of Christ includes enduring the wrath of God as a representative for sinners. Grudem explains that Christ’s passive obedience can be observed in several ways.[5] Jesus’ obedience was not passive in that He was inactive or unengaged during such a time, but passive in the sense that He was obedient to endure suffering that was inflicted upon Him. Christ’s suffering included the human suffering of mortal life, the physical pain of death by crucifixion, the psychological pain of bearing the sin of all those who would be recipients of His atoning work, the emotional pain of being abandoned by His friends, the unknown pain of mysterious abandonment by His Father, and finally the unimaginable pain of bearing the full wrath of God. Jesus was obedient in a life and death of suffering like no other human has ever or will ever endure.

This is one-half of the work, which Christ has accomplished, that elicits the expression that Paul makes of God, “He [is] just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Ro 3:26). This aspect of Jesus’ redeeming work on behalf of sinners may be considered the negative aspect. Negative, not because it is bad, quite the contrary; His work is incredibly good as He subtracts sin (expiation) from the sinner and places it on His own shoulders in order to bear the punishment thereof (propitiation).  The negative aspect of Christ’s work on behalf of sinners (the subtraction of sin from the sinner and the atonement of such before God) is astonishing even if unaccompanied, yet it alone does not fulfill the necessary conditions of God’s requirements imposed on corrupt humanity. One must be righteous in order to receive approval from the holy King of the universe and to enjoy restful communion with Him. Expiation and propitiation are tantamount to the taking away of the sinner’s debasement, but without a life of perfect obedience the sinner is still not righteous or worthy of the approval of the King.

As established above, in the passage cited, all humanity has sinned and fallen short of God’s standard of perfection. The completed work of Christ is both the subtraction of sinful debauchery and the filthy stain of its vestige, as well as the addition of the perfect righteousness achieved in the life of obedience that Jesus lived as the incarnate God-man. Dr. Sproul comments, “Jesus not only had to die for our sins, but also had to live for our righteousness. If Jesus had only died for our sins, His sacrifice would have removed all of our guilt, but that would have left us merely sinless in the sight of God, not righteous.”[6] Calvin explains, “from the moment when [Jesus] assumed the form of a servant, he began, in order to redeem us, to pay the price of deliverance.”[7] Jesus was not only the representative of sinners in His sacrificial death; He was also their delegate in His impeccable life.

The Apostle Paul, elsewhere in the book of Romans, explains that Christ was the second “Adam” (Rom 5). The first Adam, Paul says, disobeyed as the representative of humanity and God’s declaration of guilt on the entire human race was the result. However, Christ is the second Adam who lives an obedient life before God and as a result the “many” are “made righteous” in the sight of God. It only takes a light consideration of the contrast here to begin to marvel at the incredible distinction between the two “Adams.” The first Adam was directly created by God and placed in a marvelous garden, which he was to enjoy along with his naked wife (Gen 1, 2). The ground and plant life thereon produced vegetation for food effortlessly. For some amount of time, there was absolutely no sin and Adam had immanent communion with God. On top of all this, there was only one rule to follow and even that was a negative rule rather than a positive one, Do not rather than You must Do. Avoiding this one error indefinitely meant blessed, sinless communion with God in perfect contentment forever.

However, Jesus, the second Adam, had much different circumstances.  In fact, the pinnacle of Christ’s obedient life was His time of fasting in the desert (Matt 4). Jesus had been fasting for forty days and was now in solitude in the desert when He experienced His temptation from the devil. This was no lush garden and He had no full belly. Jesus was seemingly all alone. Incredibly, His response was obedience rather than rebellion, even in obviously desolate conditions. The second Adam was a human representative, like the first, but His representation was one of perfect righteousness. Sinners, then, may rely on Jesus’ righteous obedience, as they understand their own lack thereof.

Salvation is wholly a work of the Lord. God supplies all we need and satisfies all of His demands in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God declares sinners righteous and provides the means by which He may declare them so. During the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther’s day, the defining call was the phrase “Justification by faith alone,” sola fide. Sproul says this phrase is “merely shorthand for ‘justification by the righteousness of Christ alone.’ His merit, and only his merit, is sufficient to satisfy the demands of God’s justice. It is precisely this merit that is given to us by faith. Christ is our righteousness. God clothes his filthy creatures with the coat of Christ’s righteousness.”[8]  This imagery of clothing is helpful for a more accurate understanding of the concept.  The sullied sinner who receives the blessed joy of eternal reward in the presence of God almighty does so, not based upon his or her renewed fervor to live well, but because he or she has been covered by the foreign righteousness of Another. Christ’s righteousness is alien to the sinner, but imputed (assigned or accredited) to him or her by God because of the work of Christ.

Every sinner who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit rests all his or her confidence in escaping God’s judgment on the completed work of Christ. Unlike most other religions and philosophies, Christianity is a worldview based on the inability of humanity to fix anything and a total reliance on God to reconcile whom He will to Himself. God demonstrates His own graciousness in granting sinners the gift of redemption, which can only be found in Christ Jesus. It is not hard to notice the legal notions in J. I. Packer’s comments on the matter when he says, “Whenever God fulfills his covenant commitment by acting to save his people, it is a gesture of ‘righteousness,’ that is, justice. When God justifies sinners through faith in Christ, he does so on the basis of justice done, that is, the punishment of our sins in the person of Christ our substitute; thus the form taken by his justifying mercy shows him to be utterly and totally just (Rom. 3:25-26), and our justification itself is shown to be judicially justified.”[9]

In summary, the whole of humanity is guilty before a righteous Judge. This Judge is like no other. He is omniscient and omnipotent. Added to these ominous capabilities is His attribute of aseity; that is, He is self-existent and will never cease to be. This dreadful combination to sinners means certain and unending punishment for their rebellion. There is no way of escape in them and no hope that the Judge will simply forget or become careless concerning their malfeasance. Holiness and righteousness is the requirement, but sinners are covered in the stinking filth of the opposite. In this miry and hopeless state, God does something most unexpected; He pronounces His declaration of righteousness upon sinners who are not. He does so without the slightest impugning of His own righteousness and this seems all the more conflicting. One may wonder, How can this be?

Indeed, it is a wonder. God declares the sinner righteous in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. This is possible only because Christ is the provision of God for expiation, propitiation and righteousness. The Apostle Paul describes God as the “Just” and the “Justifier.” God commands humans, “Be holy as I am holy” (Lev. 11:44). Only because of the completed negative and positive work of Christ’s obedience can God and the sinner be thus.


[1] Hodge, C. (1997). Vol. 2: Systematic theology : 481–482. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Sproul, R. C. Romans. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2009: 38.

[4] Ibid: 103.

[5] Grudem, Wayne A., and Jeff Purswell. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999: 251.

[6] Sproul, R. C. The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You. Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012: 71.

[7] Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 1997.

[8] Sproul, R. C. What Is Reformed Theology?. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005: 67.

[9] Packer, J. I. (1993). Concise theology: A guide to historic Christian beliefs. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.

Hope in times of suffering, pain and loss

While a young mother was changing her two-year-old daughter’s clothes, she heard Bella’s tiny voice.  Pointing to herself, Bella asked, “I cansoo?”  Leslie, Bella’s mother, was used to interpreting her daughter’s attempts at communication, but this word was new.  “Say it again,” Leslie said.  She needed to hear it again in order to make a good translation.  “I cansoo?”  Bella tried the question once more, but still the word was not clear.  Then Bella pointed to the scar on her tiny body that was left when her chemotherapy port had been removed, and said “Port.  Out.  I cansoo?”

Leslie was overcome with the stark reality of the whole situation, but she was able to maintain her composure for the moment.  Leslie said to her little girl, “Bella, are you saying cancer?”  Bella’s eyes widened and she responded, “YeahI cansoo?”  With a lump in her throat, Leslie said, “Yes baby, you have cancer.”

Bella is still enduring the effects of this terrible disease, but every human to one degree or another experiences suffering, sickness, emotional distress, and general discomfort.  In fact, the grim reality of mortal life is that it eventually ends in death.  However, people have ways of coping with this reality, and life seems to go on – at least for some.  What are we to do with our sense of helpless weakness?  Should we deny the inevitable by thinking that sickness and death are oddities?  Should we eat, drink and be merryfor tomorrow we die?  Is there any place that we may turn for truth, stability and strength?

Yes, as a matter of fact, there is stability and strength to be found in truth.  Yet, the basis for hope may not be what one might expect.  The reason that humans may have hope, especially in times of great distress, is that there is one who has died before us.  But, how can death provide hope for those plagued by death? It is not only the death of another that provides hope, but it is the subsequent display of divine authority and power.

Jesus Christ, the eternal God, was no ordinary man (John 1:14).  His life was lived in perfect obedience to God’s law (Hebrews 4:15), yet He died as one condemned – cursed by God (Romans 3:25).  While Jesus was perfectly good and righteous, He endured the full wrath of God as a sinner of the worst kind (Isaiah 53:4-6). At His moment of death, Jesus spoke out, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  This was to claim that the punishment for sin was thorough, and God’s wrath against all sinners who trust in Christ was exhausted.

Following this atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ conquered death – not for just a little while, but never to die again!  This is where hope may be found in times of painful distress.  This mortal life, under the curse of sin and power of death, is not all there is!  Read the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (v3-4).

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (v20-22).

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (v54-58).

In the life, death and resurrection of Christ we who trust in Him are assured and comforted. In Christ we are able to see our sin for the ugly offense that it is and God’s gracious grace on beautiful display.  In Christ we are able to see death, the final and ultimate foe of all mankind, subdued and overcome by the power of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.

Therefore, the hope… the stability… the strength… the inclination to endure is not that we will be spared from pain, sickness, disease and death…  No, but even in these things we are victorious because of Christ (Romans 8:37-39)!  Oh, Christian, look not only to your temporal merriment, but fix your eyes upon the hope of glory!  Behold the King of splendor!  Lift up your gaze to the eternal, true and living God, who is the Savior of your soul – the steadfast promise keeper.

This life may be marred by difficulty, pain and sin, but our glorious future is more wonderful, more beautiful, more stimulating than anything we have ever known.

A Theology of Church Growth & Outreach

Church growth and church outreach have been topics of interest among church leaders for a long time.  These subjects are not new.  In fact, the biblical record can give us some incredible insight into these concentrated areas.

Far from being a field through which we may walk, seeking to ‘cherry pick’ verses to fit our agenda, the Bible is the storehouse of harvested wisdom and the place that one ought to begin his or her investigation of what it means for a church to be involved in outreach and experience real growth.  There are at least several things of which we may be certain as we study the biblical text with a keen eye towards the areas outreach and church growth.

The first thing we may clearly understand about outreach from the scriptures is that God intends His people to reach out.  There are many things that one might consider the ‘outreach efforts’ of a church, so it seems that defining biblical and effective outreach would be a good starting point.  Outreach may be defined as sharing in the ministry of proclaiming the message of Christ – the ministry of reconciliation – and living in (Gal. 5:25), walking in (Gal. 5:16, 25), keeping in step (Gal. 2:14) with that message and its implications.

One of the most famous passages in the Bible is the one found at the very end of Matthew’s gospel.  Jesus says to His disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).  There is much more that could be said of these verses, but we can at least see that there is indeed a great commission given here.

Jesus tells His followers that they are to be the ones who will now take the content of the message that Jesus Himself came to proclaim – namely the declaration of God’s grace upon sinful humanity (Luke 4:16-21, cf. Isaiah 61:1-2) – to the ends of the earth.  With the commission comes the promise that Jesus Christ, by His Spirit, will be with them in their outreach endeavor.

Discipleship seems to be defined, at least in overarching terms, by Jesus in the words that describe the activity of “discipling all nations.”  Baptize and teach are the two imperatives, and these are under the lead imperative of “make disciples.”  Therefore, outreach and church growth are closely linked, and outreach is every Christian disciple’s commission as well as privilege.

The effectiveness of a church’s outreach may be entirely based on its depth of its spiritual growth and understanding of the Gospel message.  Those who have received the message of hope, and trust in the Object of that message, will seemingly have an expected inclination to share that same hope-filled message with others.  A close consideration of what has actually transpired in order for a sinner to be redeemed will be helpful here.

The Apostle Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:10-11).  Once we sinners were enemies of God and under His judgment.  Now, because of the death and life of Christ, we currently enjoy and look forward to the day when we will ultimately enjoy complete reconciliation with the God of our salvation.

As a Christian comes to understand more profoundly the reality of his or her new position before God, especially when contrasted with their previous position, he or she will likely become a more enthusiastic participant in the ministry of reconciliation – or outreach.  Turning again to the Apostle Paul, he says elsewhere, “All this is from God [the passing from death and judgment to life and new creation], who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).  In other words, we who have been reconciled have received not only our own reconciliation from God, but we have also received the commission from God to play a role in His ministry of declaring reconciliation upon others.

This is a marvelous and humbling reality for all Christians – we have been reconciled and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, or we who are the beneficiaries have become the heralds of the same Gospel that we received.  Therefore, God intends His people to be actively reaching out with this message of hope.

The second thing that we discover clearly presented in the scriptures concerning outreach is that Christians are expected to stir one another up towards such efforts.  In addition to finding our motivation for outreach efforts in our own reconciliation, we may also find further encouragement towards this ministry in the camaraderie of our fellow Christian community.  The author of Hebrews writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Two things seem to jump out from this text immediately.

One, love and good works are to be the theme of Christian life and activity.  Throughout the letter to the Hebrews, the author has been laboring the point that Jesus is the all-sufficient Savior.  Significantly, Christ has performed all that is necessary for sinners to be redeemed and glorified, and He has performed this task in exemplary fashion.  Jesus is the perfect example of all that He is and does – and this is particularly of interest to us because Jesus is both God and man.  Therefore, He is the perfect example for humanity in all that He did and does.  No one can be compared with Christ when it comes to love and good works.  His love was unconditional and His good works were (and are) the evidence of such love.  From self-sacrifice to enriching others in notably personal ways, Jesus is the quintessential picture of what a Christian life ought to look like.

Two, love and good works are clearly encouraged by other believers in the context of time and life spent together.  Love and good works are not meant to be done in passing at a weekly church meeting or merely articulated through some media outlet.  This may get more to the heart of what discipleship actually looks like, but doing life together is where love and good works are actually manifested.  Whether by living out a life of love and good works, or by lacking these in one way or another, only in regular close proximity are Christians able to stir one another to such love and good works.  It simply is not possible for real discipleship to take place without the deep relationship of Christian life upon Christian life.

Both love and good works are two sides of the same coin; good works evidences love, and one will not be present without the other.  These are to be enjoyed by all those who interact with Christians.  Believers and non-believers alike may benefit from the operation of love and good works in and through the life of a Christian.  Non-believers can especially profit from these in the area of outreach.

There may be much more consideration given to the form that love and good works takes on in each local context, but that Christians should impact their community with love and good works is evident.  God has instituted a community of faith wherein all believers are to stir one another towards love and good works as they live in step with the Gospel together.

The third and overarching characteristic of outreach that one might find in the biblical text is that it may be performed with confidence.  Christians may have the full confidence that the Gospel message they proclaim is true, and the One who promises to save will not prove to be unfaithful.  The author of Hebrews says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

“Hope,” translated here from the Greek word elpidos, does not mean wishful thinking.  The term loses a bit of its original intent if we hear it with our contemporary ears.  Hope, in the biblical sense of the word, is much more akin to a confident expectation than to a mere possibility.  This has big implications for the confidence of every Christian – both for personal assurance and for public declaration.

Every Christian may indeed hold fast to their confident expectation of ultimate glory.  Why?  Because He who promised has demonstrated that He is faithful!  God has actually and surely saved sinners through the substitutionary obedience and sacrifice of Christ!  We can proclaim this truth with supreme confidence and more than sufficient evidence.

Christians may also proclaim the Gospel message in different ways and in diverse relationships with full confidence that sinners will be saved.  The Apostle Paul says, “If you confess with you mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (Romans 10:9-11).

The imperative here is to believe and confess, but the indicative (that which will be the subsequent result) is that salvation will accompany such belief and confession.  Christians may declare to their unbelieving friends that they not only might be saved upon placing full trust in the risen Lord, but that they most certainly will be saved.

Not everyone who hears the Gospel message will believe.  In fact, many will reject the claims of Christ and the claims of those who have trusted Him.  Conversion may be the result of evangelism, but it is not the ultimate goal; God’s glory is the ultimate goal of evangelism.  Christians glorify God in an accurate presentation of the character and nature of God, particularly as He has demonstrated and revealed Himself in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We play the role of ‘planting and watering’ the seeds of truth, and it is God who causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5).  Additionally, we may endure the rejection and assault of as many as will not receive the Gospel message in order that we may continue to proclaim it for the sake of those who will (2 Timothy 2:10).  We proclaim this beautiful message of reconciliation and do so with total confidence in the God of salvation; He will do what He said He would do.

Outreach is the individual and collective participation of Christians in the ministry of reconciliation.  The particular application of what outreach looks like may vary greatly from one church to another and from one situation to another within each church.  The Bible is full of examples of outreach.  They are so numerous and distinctive that it seems foolish to attempt to construct a rigid theological framework around the method(s) of outreach and evangelism.

Of two things we can be sure; (1) the content of the Gospel message is essential to biblical outreach, and (2) that message may be communicated through all sorts of mediums.  Christians may, therefore participate in the ministry of reconciliation, live in step with that message as the Spirit of God empowers such life, and do so with tremendous confidence in the God of all salvation.

Church growth will positively impact outreach and will be positively impacted by outreach.  As was mentioned before, the two are closely linked.  While it is not true that every local community of believers must needs increase in number or that God promises to provide such inflation, God does indeed glorify Himself in the inevitable growth of His universal Church.  We may benefit from turning to the Scriptures once more, this time for wisdom and clarity on the subject of church growth.

First, any growth that a church enjoys is from God and according to His providential and gracious activity.  For the sake of clarity, church growth (at least in the sense it will be used in this essay) is not tantamount to numerical increase in any particular local church.  Instead, church growth is the deepening of spiritual maturity and the numerical proliferation of the universal body of Christ.  Church growth then will have a varying impact on all local churches, possibly even a negative effect on local churches who have become less than Gospel-centered or so liberal that they have lost the Gospel altogether.  Again, God providentially and graciously moves to grow His kingdom, the body of Christ, as He sees fit.

The Apostle Paul says, “Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:18-19).  Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae includes this section of encouragement, which is that his readers hold fast to God/Christ – who is the Head of the body – as they understand their own operation as members of that body.  Elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul goes into greater explanation of the relationship of one member to another.  Here we may at least understand his point that Christ is the head of the Church and He is the one that grows the Church with a growth that is ‘from God.’  Far from being attributable to man in any way, genuine church growth is from God.

Laboring this point further, and turning now to the book mentioned previously, Paul charges the Corinthian Christians to keep from forming factions around any particular man or group.  He says, “What is Apollos?  What is Paul?  Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each.  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.  He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers.  You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9).  It seems Paul is not willing that anyone misunderstand his idea here.

There are at least three things of important note in this passage.

One, Paul says that he and Apollos are “servants through whom you [those Corinthian Christians] believed as the Lord assigned to each.”  The Lord’s assignment may be the ‘servant’ to the ‘believer’ or the ‘believer’ to the ‘servant,’ but either way this has profound implications concerning the numerical result of any Gospel ministry.  This statement clearly presents God as an ‘assigner’ of ministerial charge and reception.  Deeper study may demonstrate that both are surely assigned by God.  God distributes the one who spends incredible time and effort in Gospel ministry to the field in which he toils; and God consigns the believers who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the use of such ordinary means of grace – the preaching of God’s word – to the undershepherd in whose care they have been placed.

Two, Paul says emphatically, “Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything.”  Now, most ministers would not likely consider their efforts “nothing;” and it does not seem that Paul intends to describe Gospel ministry as nothing here.  Yet, it does seem that he intends to make perfectly clear that all the effort in Gospel ministry that can be conjured by all humanity will amount to ‘nothing’ on its own or without something or someone else.  Unless or until God moves in such a way as to provide or generate growth, it will at best remain potential rather than actual.

Three, “God gives the growth.”  This statement needs no lengthy explanation.  God alone, only, and singularly is responsible and due glory for any growth of His Church.  When His good pleasure is to generate growth, His body will indeed grow.  All genuine, Gospel-centered growth that any local church enjoys is due to the sovereign work of God in and through the means of grace and by the power of His Spirit.

Because church growth is from God, we may secondly understand that church growth is inevitable.  Christ, God the Son, has stated in no uncertain terms that He is about the work of growing His church.  “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16-18).  Whatever else Jesus Christ is saying here about Peter or the ‘rock’ upon which He will build His Church, He is at the very least declaring that He will definitely build His Church, and His Church growth production will actually be successful.  This clear pronouncement from the lips of Christ cannot be overstated. Coupled with the declaration of Christ (already cited in the previous section on the ministry or outreach of the Church) in the Great Commission, which seems to be the method by which He will do such a thing, Christians may be fully confident that Christ/God is successfully building His Church and will continue to be thus.

Briefly recalling the powerful claim of Jesus in Matthew 28, He says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples… And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, abbreviated).  The King of heaven and earth says to ‘make disciples,’ and He will be with His disciple makers all along the way through the end of the task – He will build His Church!  Of this we may have no doubt – Church growth is inevitable.

Third and finally, Church growth is ultimately to the glory of God.  Because it is from Him and empowered by Him, it is to Him and to His glory that the task be done.  It is true that all things are created for the glory of God, chiefly God’s apex creation – man.  Everything of creation, because of the fall, has been marred by sin, but the purpose for which creation was brought into being has not changed.  In the current estate of creation, God is pleased to bring sinful rebels into His Kingdom – the Kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14).  This extension of His Kingdom is for His glory and for the benefit of sinners.

The Apostle Paul says, “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were to first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.  In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-14).  So much more is said here than what is of particular interest to the topic at hand, but there are at least a few things that apply.

Once again, as has already been presented at length, any who are beneficiaries of the ‘obtained inheritance’ have been ‘predestined’ thus ‘according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.’  God is the Giver of growth and the Appropriator of the same.  Additionally, the growth of each individual member of Christ’s body (to draw upon the analogy used previously) is ‘guaranteed’ to continue in growth until he or she is fully matured and takes complete possession of the promise in glory.  Lastly, and of great importance to the subject of church growth to the glory of God, both the obtaining of the inheritance and the delivery of such endowment is ‘to the praise of HIS glory’ (emphasis added).

God is about His glory!  He glorifies Himself in the conversion of sinners, the regeneration of dead men to life in Christ Jesus.  The growth of God’s Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel is to the praise of His glorious grace.  He also glorifies Himself in the sanctification of those He has redeemed.  The growth of love and good works (Heb. 10:23) enjoyed by the Church and by all those who are touched by her is to the praise of His glorious consecration.  God ultimately will, and now does, glorify Himself in the total salvation of all those who are found in Christ.  The steadfast God who is worthy of our confident hope above any other guarantees the growth to maturity, which every Christian will enjoy – sinners will be glorified to the praise of His glorious splendor!

We may at this point breathe in a restful sigh of worshipful serenity in the God of our salvation, for He does and will glorify Himself in our salvation and that of others.  However, as with seemingly every aspect of theology, there is a bit more that might take us over the superlative edge.  Just after the Apostle Paul speaks of the ‘mystery’ of the gospel, he closes the section of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus that consists of the basis for the unity and life of love, which is the thrust of the remainder of this letter, with a call to look to and trust God for that which only He can do.

He says, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Through all generations this same God who works within us to will and to do His good pleasure will do far more than we might ask or think.  The fullness of His redeeming work, sanctifying progress, and glorifying result is too high for us to comprehend!

He who is able to do far more than our minds may conceive, to Him be glory.  To Him be glory in the Church – in the salvation and loving good works of those who are compelled by the Spirit of Christ towards such activity of thought, word and deed.  To Him be glory in Christ Jesus – as the Gospel of Jesus Christ is spread abroad by participants in the ministry of reconciliation and glorifies God in the exaltation of His triune salvific work.  To Him be glory throughout all generations – every generation that passes one to the next will be to His glory as sinners of a new demographic come to understand their universal dependence upon God’s gracious grace.

To Him be glory forever and ever – for we who are the redeemed will be the venerating display of God’s saving work among a sinful creation in order that all eternity will know that God is both the just and the justifier of all those who have faith in Jesus Christ!  Amen.

Contentment in Christ

Contentment is Serenity, Gladness, Satisfaction, Pleasure, Happiness; It is defined as the state of being contented; satisfaction; ease of mind.

The essence or heart of all the commands of God is summed up by Jesus in the single greatest command to love God with all your heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37).  In other words, look to God alone for the true satisfaction, gladness, serenity and contentment of your heart, your soul and your mind.

All sinful expression may be boiled down to some pursuit of contentment – either of the heart, the soul or the mind – in some thing or place other than the God of the universe.  Look to the times when you and I sin… this is where we may find our desire to find our contentment in people, stuff, reputation or life experience – rather than in God.

The painful reality is that you and I are adulterous, thieving, lying and covetous people.

For now (and always), let us both rejoice in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  He is not adulterous, thieving, lying or covetous.  He is faithful, diligent, honest, and perfectly contented.

This is great news, not simply because of His example, but because He is our representative – the substitute for all those who trust in Him!  God the Father looked to Christ the Son and judged Him, the righteous and obedient servant, evil so that those of us who actually are evil would be given Jesus’ perfect righteousness.

What a beautiful scandal of grace!  Oh, that my heart and yours would behold this wonderful Gospel more clearly today…

My hope and yours is not that we might become faithful enough, diligent enough, or honest enough that we are acceptable before God.  Certainly we strive for a life of holiness, but… Our hope is that God has declared us perfectly faithful, diligent and honest – not because we practically are such, but because Christ has covered our rebellion and given us His righteous obedience!

Today, let us be content to behold (drink in with your mind’s eye) the King of Glory as we remember that He is our Redeemer (the one who bought us back from bondage at great personal cost) and not our Judge (the one who rightly condemns us for being the sinful rebels we are)!