Most Christians are familiar with Paul’s famous words in Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” They would seem to mean that disobedience to God earns the punishment of death. Although Paul’s declaration might explain why we all eventually die, it does raise some questions about the relationship between sin and death. For example, is physical death the only punishment for sin? If we have been forgiven of our sins, why do we still die? And once we are believers, can we sin without fear of death? I hope to answer those questions in this article. Let’s start by laying a foundation about the three kinds of death that are mentioned in Scripture.
This teaching can help you identify where you are at on that spectrum, as well as evaluate if you should move from where you are. Some readers may discover that their spiritual journey can be traced on the spectrum, and for better or worse. If you are Calvinist/Reformed in your theological perspective, for example, you may never have realized how close you are on the spectrum of grace to Universalism. Similarly, if you are from an Amish background, your journey away from semi-legalism may actually have been a pendulum swing that has swung too far. My hope is that all readers will be helped to better understand Scripture’s perfect balance on this important issue.
I’m sure this teaching will elicit lots of feedback, and although I can promise that I will read it all, I may not be able to reply to it all. I appreciate everyone’s understanding in that. — David
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the British woman whose neighbor commented on her garden, “My, what a lovely flower garden God has given you!” She replied, “I don’t mean to sound boastful, but you should have seen this flower garden when God had it all by Himself!”
That funny little story is actually an illustration of a big theological issue that challenges us all. We all know that God is working to accomplish His will, but we also know that human beings have a part to play in many outcomes both temporal and eternal. In the case of the British gardener, she knew that only God can turn a seed into a beautiful flowering plant. That being said, she also realized that, unless she strategically planted flower seeds, kept them watered, and periodically pulled weeds, the outcome would be an ugly mess. She knew what God was responsible for and what she was responsible for. In the end, both could rightfully take some credit for the outcome—although God’s contribution was certainly much more impressive than hers!
Christians often struggle trying to find the dividing line between divine and human responsibility. What is our job and what is God’s job? None of us wants to make a wrong assumption, but still, opinions vary. Although we are all reading from the same Bible, many theological debates revolve around this issue, and two words often surface within those debates. They are grace and works—two words that stand in contrast.
How do they differ?
It does seem odd, in light of the fact that salvation is “by grace through faith” (according to Ephesians 2:8-9 and many other New Testament verses), that the Gospels don’t record a single instance of Jesus using the word “grace” in any of His teachings or conversations. Although John wrote that “grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17), Jesus never actually said that salvation is “by grace.”
Beyond that, Jesus told people to repent and keep commandments if they wanted eternal life, and He repeatedly affirmed that there was a standard of holiness tied with inheriting God’s kingdom and entering heaven (Matt. 4:17; 5:3-10, 20, 22, 27-30; 6:14-15; 7:21; 11:20; 12:41; 18:8, 23-35; 19:16-22; 25:31-46; Luke 10:25-37; 13:1-5; John 15:1-11). That is so undeniably obvious in the Gospels that some try to persuade us that salvation was earned—by works—under the old covenant, the covenant under which Jesus ministered. Let me address that error before I return to our primary question.
The teaching that follows will be included in the next issue of The Awakening! Magazine, which will be mailed to about 62,000 Amish households across North America. My intention is to expose them to what Paul referred to as “the gift of righteousness,” something that stands in contrast to feeble human efforts to be righteous—a phenomenon that tragically defines Amish culture. Very few Amish people understand what the Bible teaches about God’s gift of righteousness. Surprisingly and sadly, many Evangelical Christians are also in the dark, but from a different perspective, on this very important biblical topic. I hope this article remedies that for many.
What follows could be the best news that some readers have ever heard in their entire lives. (I am not exaggerating.) For other readers, it could be of significant help to their spiritual understanding and life as a Christian. If you are blessed in any way by what follows, please don’t keep it to yourself!
The word righteousness, and the related words, righteous and righteously, as well as the negative versions, unrighteous and unrighteousness, are found over 180 times in the New Testament. I’m sure you agree that righteousness is certainly not an obscure concept in Scripture. So what does it mean to be righteous or to possess righteousness?
In my Christian life over the past 49 years, at least three times I’ve watched a wave of “deliverance ministry” sweep through a segment of the church. The first time was when I was just a relatively new Christian, in the late 1970s. A man named Don Basham, who was part of a group of five popular teachers based in Ft. Lauderdale who jointly published a magazine called “New Wine,” wrote a book titled Deliver Us from Evil. It became quite popular within the growing “Charismatic Renewal” that was sweeping through the denominational world.
I read that book and learned that I could actually cast demons out of myself. As an adolescent male, I also realized from reading that book that I had a demon of lust. So, I followed its instructions for self-deliverance.
The book explained that, as any demons came out of me, I might choke, gag or even vomit. Sure enough, when I commanded the demon of lust to come out of me, I gagged. Wow! I felt it! It was the real thing! I was delivered from the demon of lust!
But there was just one small problem. It wasn’t very long before I realized the demon wasn’t gone. I found myself still struggling with immodest women. Had the demon returned? How did it gain entrance back into me so quickly? Should I do another self-deliverance?
When you think about it, the phrase “gracious Lord” seems oxymoronic. A lord, by dictionary definition is: “Someone who has power, authority, or influence; a master or ruler, as in, lord of the sea, lords of the jungle, or our lord the king.” Masters and rulers exercise authority over their citizens or subjects. They expect and enforce compliance. They generally are not associated with grace. Rather, just the opposite.
Yet at least 30 times in the New Testament epistles the words “grace” and “Lord” are found in the same verse. In 13 of those verses, the grace spoken of is directly attributed to either “the Lord Jesus,” “the Lord Jesus Christ,” “our Lord,” or “our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So, it is certainly safe to say that Jesus is a gracious Lord. Praise God for that. Let’s start by considering Christ’s lordship, and then we’ll consider His grace. We’re interested, not in a lopsided understanding, but a balanced one.
Perhaps you’ve heard a pastor or preacher say, “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.” Those are known as the “five solas” (or “solae”) because in Latin they are: Sola gratia, sola fida, solus Christus, sola scriptura, and soli Deo gloria. Although all five were not articulated together until the 20th century, the first two, grace alone and faith alone, were mentioned by some of the 16th-century Protestant Reformers to summarize what they felt was most wrong with Roman Catholicism. It isn’t easy, however, to summarize all that God has revealed about salvation in Scripture with four Latin words. In fact, it is impossible. That is one reason why God gave us an entire Bible, and not just four words.
Anyone who reads the Bible and filters everything he reads through the first two solas is going to be scratching his head. That is always the problem with theological mantras. They are limited by their brevity, and if they’re unduly elevated, they can end up supplanting Scripture. If you find yourself often saying to yourself as you read the Bible, “That can’t mean what it says, because it doesn’t agree with one of the solas,” then you’ve got a problem. You are filtering the Bible through your theology rather than what you should be doing, and that is filtering your theology through the Bible.
But it can get even worse. Not only is Scripture often twisted to fit into theological mantras, but the mantras themselves are often twisted to mean what they did not originally mean. That has certainly happened regarding the first two solas. In the end, both Scripture and mantras are misused. Allow me to explain.
Jesus’ Olivet Discourse—so named because He delivered it on the Mt. of Olives while overlooking Jerusalem and the temple—included three parables that are often misinterpreted. They are the Parables of the Unfaithful Servant, Ten Virgins, and Talents. They are followed by Jesus’ foretelling of the judgment of the sheep and the goats which, although not a parable, is often misinterpreted just like the three parables that precede it.
Let’s start by taking a look at the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt. 25:1-13).
The big question facing everyone who reads it is the identity of the five foolish virgins. In the end, they are denied entrance to the wedding feast, and the Lord tells them, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you” (Matt. 25:12).
So, do they represent people who were never saved, or do they represent those who were once saved, but who forfeited their salvation? That is a hotly-debated question in Christian circles. Let’s consider the evidence.
Is there any more beautiful word in the English language than “grace”? If there is, I don’t know it. How lovely it is to think about being undeservedly blessed.
I love gracious people. They won’t let me get away with murder, but they do extend kindness when I sometimes don’t deserve it. They often overlook what fault-finders feast on. They look for the good in me and motivate me by encouragement.
The biblical word (Greek: charis), found more than 100 times in the New Testament, is usually defined as “unmerited favor.” Grace certainly stands in contrast with merit, which is why Paul could write, “But if it [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6).
No one who reads the New Testament can miss the fact that salvation is due to God’s grace. We are saved “by grace…through faith…not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Is it any wonder that Paul referred to his message as “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the word of His grace” (Acts 20:32)?
After His resurrection, Jesus told His apostles that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47, emphasis added). Clearly, according to Jesus, forgiveness of sin from God is predicated upon repentance. That does make sense, as it would seem odd to think of God forgiving people who have no intention of turning from the behavior of which He is forgiving them. It would also seem odd for anyone to expect forgiveness from God—or from anyone for that matter—if they intended to continue the behavior for which they are asking forgiveness. If they did, they really wouldn’t be asking for forgiveness, but rather for a license to continue their offensive behavior.
Jesus’ post-resurrection words to the apostles about God’s forgiveness being predicated on human repentance were no surprise to them, because at least some of them had heard John the Baptist preach, as Scripture declares, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3, emphasis added). Specifically, John preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).
Beyond that, all of the apostles heard Jesus proclaim the identical message, that is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). In order to be ready for the coming kingdom—over which a King would obviously reign—people who were not currently submitted to that king needed to change what they were doing and submit to that king.