“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live...”
God, the supreme Creator of all things, is sometimes accused by critics as having created evil. After all, doesn’t God Himself admit, “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:7 KJV)? In this passage, God is not saying He is the author of moral evil but rather that He has the power to bring calamity or disaster as a just judgment (Amos 3:6). What the King James Version renders as “evil” here is speaking of the distress and disaster which people experience as a consequence of their sin (Ex. 34:6-7).
Ok, so Isaiah 45:7 doesn’t teach that God created evil but what about the devil and sin in general? If God is the Creator of the universe, and evil exists in our universe, wouldn’t He at least be responsible for its existence? Let’s examine a few possibilities of God’s creation of which there can only be four:
- That God would create nothing (where there is no possibility for good or evil).
- That God would create an amoral universe (where there is no such thing as good or evil).
- That God would create a universe without freewill (where there is no possibility of evil).
- That God would create a universe with freewill (where there is possibility of good and evil).
The only universe in which love can exist is the fourth possibility, a universe with freewill. This is the universe God chose to create. This is the universe we find ourselves in, both longing to love and be loved by others.
Love is the supreme ethic and the deepest longing of every human heart. This possibility of love is one of the greatest gifts God has given to us. But if we erase freewill, we also erase the possibility of ever experiencing love. These two concepts depend on one another.
But while freewill opens the door to love it also opens the door to evil. The possibility of love makes us all extremely vulnerable to pain and loss. But those of us who have ever opened our hearts fully to God’s love will say it is well worth the temporary pain.
But to receive the eternal benefits of God’s love is a choice of our freewill. Eternal residence either near God in Heaven or away from Him in Hell is ultimately a choice God has left to us.
C.S. Lewis once famously stated, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
A father who takes his son to the doctor for a vaccination may appear to his child in the moment to be cruel. But the father’s decision that once perplexed and angered the child is clearly understood when he is safe from a disease ravaging his town years later. Time and trust are necessary components to making sense of the evil in our world. In time, those who choose to wait on the Lord will understand their pain and learn to even rejoice in it (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Thank God for His love and our freewill.
“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness”
Writers use contrast by laying two things side by side to emphasize their differences to make a point. Biblical authors used contrast all the time; light and darkness (1 Jn. 1:5-10), hope and despair (Eph. 2:1-10), or Paul’s contrast in the book of Romans of faith and works (Rom. 4:4-17).
The only way to be in good standing (“justified” or “righteous”) with God is through, what Paul calls, “faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22). It is impossible for us to justify ourselves, especially with our poor track record. Paul outlines that all have sinned (Rom. 1-3) and are deserving of death (Rom. 6:23). But through the gospel our gracious God has opened up a way for sinners to come to Him and receive forgiveness through the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
By trusting in and responding humbly and obediently to Jesus’ self-sacrifice (“faith”) we can stand before God justified. This, in a nutshell, is the good news. God is not treating us as we deserve but treating us according to His mercy and grace (Psa. 103:10). He can forgive us and maintain His just nature because Jesus paid for our sin when He died on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26).
Paul’s contrast between faith and works show how absurd it is to imagine that we could ever be justified apart from God’s grace.
In Romans 4:4, he says, “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.” That is, if we were to live in such a way that we deserved to be called “just” or “righteous” then the reward of eternal life would be a matter of debt rather than a matter of grace. If we “worked” for eternal life then God would be obligated to pay us.
Paul spent three chapters pointing out that no one, with the exception of Jesus, has ever lived a life deserving of such a reward (Rom. 3:19-20). Therefore, if any sinner is to be in good standing with God it will not be on the basis his “works”. He will not achieve good standing with God through a system of works but through a new system of grace, accessible only by faith.
Furthermore, if righteousness (“justification” or good standing with God) is rewarded on the basis of works which we have done, then grace has nothing to do with it (Rom. 4:16, 5). Works would rule out grace, the two being incompatible (Rom. 11:6). If God’s blessing is of grace, it cannot be of works. If it is of works, it cannot be of grace.
But does this mean we don’t do anything to receive God’s grace? What about baptism? Is it considered “work” in the context of Romans 4? If we are baptized to be saved from our sins are we attempting to be “justified by works”? Let’s find out.
The blessing of God (Rom. 4:9) is His forgiveness of our sin (Rom. 4:7-8) or, what Paul calls, being counted “righteous” by God (Rom. 4:3-6). In this context, we can use “blessing,” “forgiveness,” or being counted “righteous” interchangeably.
The person who is justified by works doesn’t need the blessing of God (forgiveness and righteousness) because he has already achieved good standing with God on the basis of his own conduct. This is what it means to be justified by works. Again, with the exception of Jesus, no one has ever done this!
Back to baptism. Were you baptized because you were already righteous and you were trying to maintain your personal righteousness apart from God’s grace? Absolutely not! You were baptized to obtain righteousness, forgiveness and life from God. You were baptized because you realized you were not righteous on your own, that you couldn’t be justified on the basis of your works and you needed God’s gift of grace (Acts 2:38).
Justification on the basis of works is justification based on innocence. One cannot be judged guilty if he has done no wrong. If you had a flawless record of conduct then you could stand before God pure and blameless. In fact, you could proudly say, “I deserve to be in heaven with God.”
But because salvation is based on God’s grace through our faith in what He has done for us, there is no room for our boasting! (Eph. 2:8-9) We don’t deserve God’s blessing but we enjoy it because He extended His grace and we responded faithfully to it.
Faith is the condition that must be met before being justified by God and baptism falls under the umbrella of faith. Baptism is a condition of receiving God’s blessing just as David’s confession of his sins was a condition of his forgiveness in Psalm 32:1-5. This is the very Scripture Paul used to prove the point that we are all justified by faith (Rom. 4:7-8). Baptism is an act of faith in the work of God not ourselves (Col. 2:11-12; Gal. 3:26-27).
Equally important to the physical act of immersion in water is the mindset of the one being baptized. It is absolutely essential that he understands that in his baptism he is appealing to God for a good conscience and for forgiveness (1 Pet. 3:21). The basis of that appeal is in the finished work of Christ, not our own work.
In baptism, a sinner is calling on the name of the Lord to wash away his sins by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16). Baptism is an act of faith, trust, obedience and confession unto salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). God has made this act of submission (baptism) part of coming to Him in faith and receiving His blessing. We are made righteous not on the basis of our works but on the basis of our trust in God’s work for us. Therefore, “the just shall live by his faith”! (Hab. 2:4)
“Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.”
Wynton Marsalis, the Pulitzer prize winning jazz trumpeter, once said of his role as a teacher at Juilliard, “If you want to learn, I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn, I can’t teach you.” This hits on the uncomfortable and mysterious Biblical truth of spiritual blindness. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, Scripture teaches there are some people who simply cannot see the truth for what it is.
Jesus said, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Mt. 13:13) Jesus wasn’t speaking in parables to hide the truth from certain people. He spoke in parables “because” the truth wasn’t getting through to them in the first place. In fact, parabolic teaching is an effective way to increase learning but, fittingly, only to those who want to learn.
Quintilian, a great Roman teacher of oratory said of some of his scholars, “They would no doubt be excellent students if they were not already convinced of their own knowledge… Blessed is the man who has the humility to know his own ignorance, his own weakness, and his own need.”
Behind all fruitful learning are both the desire to learn and an attitude of humility (Mt. 5:3, 6). Being a student (or “disciple”) requires acknowledging there are things we don’t know. Most people see themselves as enlightened and perceptive but may have no clue to the spiritual reality of the condition of their soul or the nature of God’s kingdom or the identity of Christ.
Their minds are already made up. Even when they read the Scriptures, they see what they want to see in them and not what is there. This blindness is not due to any lack of intelligence or ability to reason. It is a result of a heart that has “grown dull” (Mt. 13:15). There forms a kind of spiritual callous over the heart that keeps the truth from penetrating (Eph. 4:18-19).
God has given us charge over our heart (Prov. 4:23; Mt. 6:21; 12:35). Therefore, if we allow our heart to “grow dull” to God’s word we have no one to blame for this condition but ourselves. Jesus told a parable explaining the different attitudes disciples would encounter when sharing the gospel. (Mt. 13:18-23)
It is important to note that he called it “the parable of the sower” and not “the parable of the soils”. In other words, the parable is primarily meant to prepare disciples to expect to encounter a wide range of attitudes. The gospel will be received in different ways and the reception of the message may not always be tied to one’s delivery, it might just be heart of the audience.
With that being said, we’re all listeners too and need to examine the condition of the soil of our own hearts. When we listen to this parable, we are going to find ourselves in one of four categories.
Perhaps you know of someone who lacks spiritual perception and you have been praying for them to see and embrace the truth. Don’t lose hope for that person. The fact is, we don’t know if they are ‘locked in’ to that condition. There does come a point when God will allow a person to fall away from Him (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 2 Thess. 2:11-12) but let’s not forget that He can also give sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18-19).
Part of the preacher’s job is to make personal application from God’s word to the listening audience. His job is not merely to present the information accurately (Titus 1:9; 2:1) but also to persuade, challenge and inspire the hearers to grow. (Acts 18:4)
Many preachers become intoxicated with the ascetic pleasures of gaining Biblical knowledge and mistake it for spiritual growth. They assume everyone who comes to worship and grow is vitally interested in who the Jebusites were. It’s easy to fall into the trap of presenting a bunch of information and calling it preaching.
Paul commanded Timothy “to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2) You get the sense that Timothy’s heart was to be fully invested, not only in his study of God’s word, but also in his delivery of it to the church.
This requires making application, showing the audience how to apply God’s word in their lives. The preacher who ends the sermon with, “May the Spirit of God apply this to all our hearts, Amen!” probably doesn’t have a clue how to apply the text himself. But it’s much easier to simply present information than it is to present information persuasively. This is because preaching persuasively requires wounding the audience a bit.
This is why persuasive sermons are both draining for the preacher to present and draining for the listener to hear. Because the goal is not merely the acquisition of Bible knowledge but to produce a real change in behavior and attitude, it takes listening with all your mind, heart and soul to truly benefit. (Jn. 16:8)
Knowledge alone makes arrogant (1 Cor. 8:1). For knowledge to be fruitful, it must be enjoined with active faith and love (Gal. 5:6; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; Jas. 2:18-22). The end of knowledge is a transformed character: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
One man said the job of the preacher is to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Someone else once said the job of the preacher is to “break the hard heart and heal the broken heart.” The prophet Jeremiah’s task was to “pluck up and to break down, to overthrow and to destroy” but also “to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10) To wound and to heal. To sting and to sing.
This challenging balance between wounding and healing sets the preacher apart from the false prophets who preach “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. This false hope, God says, “healed the wound of my people lightly” and “misled my people” (Jer. 6:14; Ezek. 13:10). There are many Zedekiah’s of our day who prophesy only good concerning others (1 Kgs. 22). Jesus once warned, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.” (Lk. 6:26) A preacher’s great popularity is usually purchased at the expense of God’s word.
A preacher’s job may involve confronting false teaching. Most false teaching is safely ignored but sometimes an influential man can persuade the weak to lose their faith (2 Pet. 2:18; Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:19; 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; 4:3-4). Paul, speaking from experience, said such false teachers “must be silenced” (Titus 1:10-11; cf. Gal. 2:11). There is a time and place for calling down error but it is not every Sunday.
It is easy for preachers to lose the delicate, Biblical balance of wounding and healing. We may wound well but never heal; believing faithfulness in the kingdom is measured by the hostility and fervor with which we point our finger at others. But this kind of one-dimensional, negative preaching leaves a congregation starving and paranoid. The problem with calling out everything Jesus is against is that we never learn what Jesus is for.
The opposite problem can exist as well. It is easy for preachers to heal but never wound. This preaching is so shallow and syrupy it leaves a congregation starving and sick to their stomachs. It feels good to go to church every week but inside, the soul is atrophied and feeble, not “being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). These Christians are one tragedy away from giving up on the Lord because their faith is not built on a solid foundation.
A Biblical balance must be struck between wounding and healing. It is the burden of the preacher to learn how to wield “the sword of the Spirit” not only with accuracy but also with wisdom and love so as to both wound and heal, sting and sing, with God’s word (Acts 2:37-38; 3:19).
“Come, let us return to the LORD;
for he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;
his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”
These two words changed everything, quite literally. They were written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesian church about 2000 years ago. What makes this word-pair so powerful is the context in which it was used. Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians explaining God’s eternal plan that was coming to fruition in Jesus (Eph. 3:10-11).
In chapter 1, Paul pointed out both WHERE God is completing His plan (“in Christ”) and WHY God is completing His plan (“for the praise of His glory”). In chapter 2, he begins to answer HOW God is going about fulfilling His eternal purpose in Christ.
It begins with regular people like you and me (“you” 2:1).
- Walking in sin
- Following the prince of the power of the air
- Living in the passions of your flesh
- By nature children of wrath
- Separated from Christ
- Alienated from the commonwealth of Israel
- Strangers to the covenants of promise
- Without God
- Without hope
- Is rich in mercy
- Loved us with great love
- Made us alive together with Christ
- Saved us by His grace
- Raised us up with Christ
- Seated us with Christ in heavenly places
- Recreated us in Christ for good works
- Made us part of His eternal plan
- Made us His spiritual masterpiece
- You have been brought near to God by Christ’s blood
- You have been given access to the Father’s grace
- You have been given access to the Father’s power
- You are a member of God’s household
- You are at peace with other Christians
- You are at peace with God
- You are being built into a holy temple for God’s glory
“But God.” These two words changed everything. Whoever you are, “but God” gives you the right perspective. Wherever you are, “but God” defines your purpose. Whatever you face, “but God” gives you hope.
In Ephesians 2, Paul demonstrates our hopeless and lifeless situation to emphasize God’s unmerited initiative, favor, love and power toward us who believe. Because of “but God” we who were children of wrath are children of obedient faith. Because of “but God” we who were dead are now living in Him. Because of “but God” we who were languishing in the spiritual gutter are raised up with Christ to rule in heavenly places! You are now God’s masterpiece!