25 August 2014

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner

Two men went to the temple to pray. When they returned home one of them was ‘justified’ – right with God – while the other remained as guilty as he was before (even though he thought he was just). We must also ask ourselves, ‘Am I justified? Am I right with God? Or am I deceiving myself?’

Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and publican (Luke 18:9-14) for two reasons; firstly that we may avoid the trap that many religious people fall into, and secondly that we may find the way that leads to life.

So what was the problem with the Pharisee? He was a religious person, well respected by everyone, he observed the law, he shunned sin, fasted and gave charity. Needless to say all these things are good. Why then did he remain unjustified before God?

Pride was his problem. He came up front in God’s presence bragging about himself while belittling other people. He supposedly went up to pray but in fact  he did not ask God for anything. He did not ask for forgiveness. He did not pray for mercy. He did not need them – or so he thought. He considered himself a good person. He trusted in himself that he was just. But God, who searches the very depth of the heart, knew that he was a guilty sinner. Religion and pride had blinded this man’s eyes to his spiritual plight and kept him from seeking God for justification.

The other man, the tax collector, had a different attitude. He humbled himself. He did not try to hide his sin from God. He stayed at the back and did not even lift up his eyes, but looked downwards in shame, beating on his chest in great remorse.

He prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ This man did not look to himself, or anything he had done, but looked away from himself; he looked upward to heaven, to the God he had offended. He appealed to him who alone could forgive his sins. He confessed that he was a sinner, that he broke God’s law, and therefore he deserved punishment. Yet he appealed to God for mercy and asked him to free him for the guilt and punishment he deserved. God, who is rich in mercy, answered his plea and justified him! God freed him from guilt and received him in his loving arms.

Sin keeps us away from God. But it does not have to be that way. Grief and shame should not prevent us from coming to God with a sorrowful heart. God will forgive us. But there is something else apart from sin that keeps us apart from God. Righteousness! Our personal righteousness can also keep us away from heaven. It is proper to do what is good, but it would be a fatal error to trust in ourselves or our works for justification. Our trust must be wholly in God alone who for Christ’s sake justifies all those who come in repentance and faith in him.

To answer the question, ‘Am I right with God?’ – we need to ask another question: ‘Where am I looking - to myself and my deeds, or away from me, towards God and the work of Christ on the cross?

1 August 2014

The Purose of Life

(Gospel e-Letter August 2014)

In the midst of our busy schedules, it is good to stop for a while and ask some really important questions about our life.

1. What is the purpose of my life? 

To love. To be loved. Physical health, wealth and prosperity are fine but dispensable. Better still is the love of my family and friends. But that is not enough. My heart yearns for more. There is an infinite space in my soul that can never be filled except by the love of my Creator. “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:1).

2. What keeps me from experiencing God’s love?

Sin. I know what’s good and bad, yet often I do not follow my conscience. I know God’s law and that I should be obedient to him. Yet many a time I have said ‘no’ to the God who has created me and who keeps me alive. I have challenged him. I have offended him. I am guilty. Sin has separated me from God. (Is 59:2).

3. How can I experience the love of the Father?

Through Jesus Christ, God's Son, who came to the world to reconcile sinners to God. Just as he himself declared: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). He who committed no sin bore my sins in his body on the tree. He freed me from sin, reconciled me to the Father, and made me a child of God.

4. How do I know that my sins are forgiven?

My sins are forgiven because I trust in Jesus Christ with all my heart. I place no confidence in anything that I do or in anyone else. I am confident that God keeps his promise to his people: “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Is 43:25). Moreover he has given me a new heart that hates evil and loves righteousness. He is teaching me to love other people, and above all, to love him, my Lord and Saviour. God is not afar anymore; his love to me is sweeter than honey.

This is how I answer these key questions; what about you dear friend, how do you answer them on your knees before God?

1 July 2014

Justification: Errors to Avoid

(Gospel e-Letter - July 2014)

While most Christians would say that faith is necessary for salvation, there is significant disagreement about the place of works.

Some would add works to faith as the means of justification. They would not say that they are saved by works alone; they still believe in Christ, and in his death on the cross and resurrection. They would also affirm the necessity of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to perform good works so that, ultimately, they will be judged to have fulfilled the law of God and that they merit eternal life. This is basically the position of faithful Catholics.

Others will exclude works completely. Justification is by faith alone, and by that they mean that works have nothing to do with salvation whatsoever. They may encourage and desire believers to live a godly life and do good works, but if such works are absent, they still say that such a person is justified. Indeed if someone has ‘received Christ by faith’ and his life remained unchanged or even dominated by sin, even so he will spend eternity in heaven. This view, sometimes called ‘easy believism’, is not uncommon among evangelicals.

Both views are in error. The Bible teaches that salvation is ‘by grace through faith’ – and it specifically excludes our works as the basis for salvation – ‘not of yourselves, it is a gift of God’. The Bible is even more emphatic, ‘not of works lest any man should boast’. A child can understand that simple statement, but then, it can also be easily twisted. So the Scripture immediately guards against the exclusion of works by telling us that the saved are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works.’ (Ephesians 2:8-10). Works are not the means but the fruit of salvation.

Those who professes to believe in Christ but continues to live in sexual immorality, drunkenness, resentment, dishonesty or any form of unrighteousness, will not enter the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:6,10). It does not take some gross sin to keep one out of heaven. It is enough to do nothing. Christ calls such a person slothful, and these will be the last words he will ever hear from the mouth of Christ: "Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25:14-30).

On the other hand, it is dangerous to rest on our works, even in part, as the basis for our justification. The Pharisee who went to the Temple to pray was a devout Jew who believed in the true and living God. He thanked God and acknowledged that his righteousness was wrought in him by God. He was basing his justification on faith and works which he performed by the grace of God. However, in Jesus’ estimation, he was trusting in himself that he was righteous. In truth he was not. Pride had blinded him to his sin and guilt; he looked to himself instead of turning his eyes to God where he could find mercy.

May God help us avoid both deadly errors – I will not depend at all on my works for justification, not now, not ever; I entrust myself solely to Christ by faith for I am convinced that God justifies me on the basis of his Son’s righteousness and the sacrifice on the cross. And since I am accepted by God and given a new heart, I dedicate myself to good works for his glory, thus showing that my faith is alive and that his saving work in me is real.

1 June 2014

The Final Judgement

(Gospel e-Letter - June 2014)

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

God has fixed a day when he will judge all people according to our works.

Those who die without a Saviour need not wait till that momentous appointment to know the divine sentence on their head. God warns them in Scripture that ‘whoever does not believe (in the Son) is condemned already’ (John 3:18). They are condemned already because their sins remain on them. That Day will simply seal their doom forever and they will be punished according to their evil deeds.

Among the damned there will be those who called Jesus ‘Lord’ but who had continued to live in sin. These ‘Christians’ claimed to have faith in Jesus but their life was devoid of good works. ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ - these will be the last words they ever hear from the mouth of Jesus. (Matthew 7:23).

On the other hand God’s children are recognized by their good works. There will be ‘glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good’ (Romans 2:10). The Lord will also reward us according to our works. ‘Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done’ (Revelation 22:12). Today is our opportunity to work fervently for the Lord; he will not forget our labour of love on that Day.

This does not mean that we are justified on account of our works. For us who believe in Jesus, God has already pronounced a sentence in our favour during our life on earth. ‘Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5:1). Justification is a present reality. The Scriptures reassure us that we are already right with God. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1).

But what about our sins – for we readily admit that we also often break God’s law. Will he accuse or punish us for them? No, not at all, for God will not go back on his word; he has forgiven our sins and promised not to bring them up again. ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more’ (Hebrews 10:17). He will not remember our sins on that day.

Though we are guilty and deserve punishment, yet we will escape the wrath of God because we are justified by the blood of Christ. God did not forgive our sins capriciously but on account of the sacrifice of His Son on the cross.

God’s children are not terrified by the Day of the Lord. For us who believe and love the Lord Jesus, it is not the day of condemnation and doom, but our graduation day, or even better, the long-awaited meeting with our beloved Spouse. The church eagerly prays for the Lord to hasten his return, ‘Come Lord Jesus,’ and rejoices when she hears his promise, ‘Behold I come quickly’.

1 May 2014

Faith and Baptism

(Gospel e-Letter - May 2014)

Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? (Acts 10:47).

How is a person justified - is it through faith or by baptism? Clearly it is the duty of every new believer to submit to the rite of baptism as ordained by the Lord Jesus. But we ask, did the Lord institute baptism as the means to obtain justification or is it a sign of spiritual cleansing which is accomplished by faith in him?

While there are several scriptures that teach plainly that we are justified by faith, it never said that a person is justified by baptism. So it seems reasonable to suppose that baptism signifies justification which had been previously received through faith.

It is profitable to look at Cornelius’ conversion experience as a ‘test case’ in this regard. Is salvation preceded and obtained by baptism, or is it received by faith, and followed by baptism? Cornelius’ story is emphasized in Acts because he and his relatives were the first Gentile converts admitted into the church. (Please read Acts chapter 10; 11:1-18 and 15:7-11).

An angel told Cornelius to send for Simon Peter, who “will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (Acts 11:14). At first Peter was reluctant to step in a Gentile’s house but he was persuaded by the Holy Spirit to go. When Peter and his Jewish companions entered the house, Cornelius’ family and friends were gathered together, eager to hear what he had to say.

Peter preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, promising that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). As he spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon the group. Peter and the Jewish Christians were amazed because they realized that God had welcomed the Gentiles into the church.

After visiting Cornelius, the apostle Peter had to defend his action before the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem to explain why he had entered a Gentile’s house and received Gentiles into the church (Acts 11). Several years later Peter refers again to that historical event at the Council of Jerusalem:

“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us (Jews), and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7-9).

So, while hearing the gospel, Cornelius and the Gentiles believed in Christ, and God purified their hearts by faith. What should the apostle Peter have done in that situation? He reasoned: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Naturally Peter ordered the baptism of the new converts.

Please note that they were baptized after hearing the Gospel. They were baptized after believing in Christ. They were baptized after receiving the Spirit. They were baptized after their hearts were purified by faith.

We cannot dismiss this clear example as an exceptional case. The apostle Peter himself presents it as the model of salvation to all people.  He declared before the Jerusalem council: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we (Jews) shall be saved in the same manner as they (Cornelius and the other Gentiles)” (Acts 15:11). This then is the biblical pattern for all people, whether Jews or Gentiles. We are forgiven and purified by faith in Christ, followed by baptism to signify this amazing truth.

1 April 2014

Why have you forsaken me?

(Gospel e-Letter - April 2014)

Have you ever felt lonely and abandoned even by your own friends and relatives? Maybe you have experienced moments when apparently even God hid his face from you.

The Lord Jesus suffered the anguish of solitude far beyond anything we can ever know. On the cross he prayed,  “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mattew 27:46).  A more painful and mysterious cry has never issued from human lips.

Prior to this, Jesus had said, “Father, forgive them.” We immediately understand this plea because it accords with his goodness, even towards those who hated him.

Then he said to the malefactor nailed beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” We also understand this promise because it is in harmony with his mercy and forgiveness towards all those who repent and turn to him.

Again, he said to him mother, “Woman, behold your son.” It is unthinkable that Jesus would not make provision for his dear mother after his departure. He entrusted her to his beloved disciple, John, to take good care of her.

But the next time he opened his mouth, Jesus uttered these startling words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Many centuries before, the Psalmist had declared: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken” (Psalms 37:25). Yet on the cross the Righteous One was forgotten by God - He who never committed the least sin, who unfailingly obeyed the whole will of God, and in whom the Father was well-pleased. In that dark hour the Father left the Son on his own.
Why? How can God the Father turn away from his beloved Son?

The Father forsook him because “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21); “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). He forsook him because God is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13) – even though the sin he bore was not his own.

The sin was ours; we deserved the punishment, we deserved to be rejected from God’s glorious presence and cast into the outer darkness. But Christ took upon himself the sins of his people and suffered as our substitue. He was punished in our place.

God forsook him so that we, who trust in his Son, may not be exiled eternally from his presence. He forsook him for a time so that we may enjoy God forever – because after the darkness of that hour dawned a glorious new day when God raised up his Son.

There is no need to be alone, separated from our Creator because of sin. Christ suffered on the cross in order to deal with sin, clear it out of the way and reconcile us with the Father. God embraces us with love when we go to him through his Son Jesus.