What We Believe
Good news of regeneration and justification
by Peter Toon
All biblical quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the New International Version.
Part 1 – The Gospel
1. Good news is needed
2. Good news from God
Part 2 – Regeneration
3. Removing misunderstanding
4. Born anew
5. New life and discipline
Part 3 – Justification
6. Clearing the way
7. Right with God
8. Freedom in the Spirit
Appendix: Protestant and Roman Catholic interpretations
To be a child of God, and to live as a child of God, are what vital Christianity is all about. Encountering Christ, and living every day for Christ, are what being a Christian means. The spirituality and the living are more important than having a right theology. Those who know a lot about doctrines whose lives show but little of the love of God are not good advertisements for Christ.
Ideally we should live for Christ and have a good understanding of the Christian life. The best way is to enjoy personal fellowship with God and have a mature appreciation of that spiritual union.
The aim of this book is to encourage Christians to live as children of God in the world by providing encouraging teaching from the New Testament. This teaching is in the form of explanations of three important themes – Gospel (good news), regeneration (new birth) and justification (right relationship with God). I have sought to avoid technical discussion, for my aim is to be understood by anyone who can understand the contents of a newspaper.
It gives me personal satisfaction to record that I wrote these pages at the time of the celebrations in Germany for the 500th anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther (1483–1546). Luther’s writings have often inspired me and there are several references to him in the text. I have yet to find a writer who more clearly and powerfully explains what justification by faith really means.
My wife, Vita, kindly typed the manuscript for me and was patient with me whilst I wrote it.
As I wrote I could not help but think of the small parish I serve, and so I dedicate the book to the people of St. Mary’s Church, Boxford.
Dr. Peter Toon
The Rectory, Boxford, Suffolk.
You are a human being and God is your Creator. So you will be restless until your life is in harmony with God and his will for you. Christian discipleship is the way to personal fulfillment in harmonious fellowship with God through Jesus Christ. The good news is that your Maker and Judge has become, and is today – now – your Saviour.
There is remedy for your internal disease; there is cure for your preoccupation with your own needs and desires; there is a tonic for your spiritual and moral sickness; there is power to live as a child of God. It is birth from above by the Holy Spirit of God. It is to be born again.
There is also a remedy for your sense of not-belonging and isolation; there is pardon for that guilt you feel; there is healing for your memory; there is cure for the fragmentation of your life that you experience. It is justification by faith. It is a right relationship with God in and through Jesus Christ.
Christianity is a dynamic faith, giving life and hope. To be born again by the Spirit of God is a transforming change within your heart and soul. It is an invisible but real action of God. Each person must be born physically of human parents. To be a Christian you must also be born – spiritually by the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, ‘You must be born again.’ And the same Jesus, now the exalted Lord and Saviour in heaven, speaks the same word today.
There is no alternative to physical birth. It is the only way for a human being to enter this world. There is also no alternative to spiritual birth. It is the only way for a human being to receive new and everlasting life. This new birth is the beginning of a life which continues after death: it is also life of a unique kind before death. To be born again is to live and walk in the Spirit with Jesus, and with his other disciples, through pain and pleasure, through success and failure, as you love God and your neighbour.
Christianity is a reconciling faith, creating right relationships. To be justified by faith is to be placed by God in a right relationship with himself, as your Judge. Your guilt as a sinner is cancelled and you are united to Jesus Christ. So, what Christ has – righteousness – is counted by God, the judge, as yours. You are accepted in Christ by God, ,who becomes your Father. And, being right with God, it is possible for you to begin to form right relationships with your fellow human beings. Justification is the origin and foundation of right relationships in God’s world. To be justified is to be released from excessive concern with self to be free to be concerned about others.
John Wesley, the famous evangelist and founder of Methodism, made this claim: ‘If any doctrines within the, compass of Christianity may be properly termed “fundamental”, they are doubtless these two – the doctrine of justification and that of the new birth: the former relating to that great work which God does for us, in forgiving our sins; the latter, to the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature.’ How right Wesley was! Regrettably the Church has often either neglected or forgotten these fundamental doctrines.
This book has three parts. In the second and third parts regeneration (new birth) and justification (right relationship) are explained as vital doctrines for today. The first part describes the Gospel, the good news from God. It is only because God has taken the initiative, it is only because there is a Gospel, that there can be new life through regeneration and a new relationship with God through justification.
PART ONE: The Gospel
1: Good News is needed
The media provide us with so much bad news. Our newspapers and television networks excel in their coverage of disasters, crises and corruption. Further, their presentation of news creates an atmosphere of constant emergency. There is a dearth of exhilarating, good news.
The country needs to hear the Gospel of the living God. Jesus Christ, the reigning Lord and Saviour in heaven, wants people across the length and breadth of the land to hear and receive the Gospel. Those who. believe the promises of God concerning Jesus Christ are born again of the Spirit. Those who receive this Gospel are placed in a right relationship ,with God, the Father: they are justified by faith. Such genuine Christians then become advertisements for the Gospel. What God has achieved in them by the power of the Gospel is seen in their changed attitudes and life-styles.
The Gospel is no longer preached directly by the Lord Jesus. Certainly he preached good news when he lived and taught in ancient Galilee and Judea. He communicated the Gospel in, the synagogues, villages, towns and cities of Palestine. However, since his ascension into heaven, he relies entirely upon his disciples to preach for him. In fact, he preaches through them and so is dependent upon them. Yet, at the same time, they are dependent upon his Spirit to help them.
So the Gospel is the priceless treasure of the Church. It is to be proclaimed and communicated in all kinds of ways to the world. Possible ways of proclamation and communication increase as use is made of modern technological aids. Today, we can use the old methods of preaching and distributing literature. We can also use the new ways such as video-cassettes and software for home computers. However, one way which remains fundamental, and which can be so easily forgotten or neglected, is that of ‘gossiping the Gospel’. The Lord Jesus expects each disciple daily to communicate the Gospel in word and action in relationships with family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and strangers.
Signs of need
As there are various ways in which the Gospel is to be communicated, so there is a variety of signs today which reveal how much the good news from God is needed. One of these is the amount of worrying that there is in our society. This is not a new problem, of course, for Jesus remarked that pagans of his day were always engaged in it. Worry, however, expresses itself today rather differently than it did in the ancient Mediterranean world.
Have you noticed how busy everybody – or at least most people – seem to be? There is always something else to do and not time to do it. There are letters to write, people to visit, phone calls to make, home repairs to do and a host of other things as well. Westerners are busy people. And, let us be honest, being busy is a kind of status symbol. How often a conversation begins, ‘I realise you are very busy but ...’ Amazingly, the abundance of time-saving aids now available does not seem to create more time for us. And, for the unemployed, there is not only the indignity of no work but also the further indignity of not being able to be seen to be busy all the time. Many of us – too many of us – are slaves. We are preoccupied with keeping ourselves busy, and we worry when we are busy and worry when we are not busy enough.
Have you also noticed how preoccupied most people are with tomorrow and the next day? The two words which often reflect this attitude are ‘What if...?’ We worry about security of all kinds for tomorrow in order to avoid ‘What if I am sick?’ or ‘What if my daughter goes off to live with her boyfriend?’ or ‘What if business declines?’ or ‘What if I lose my job?’ So concerned are we to be right for tomorrow that we are not right today. We are restless. The media do not merely encourage our worries, but add to them. Like a great spider, consumer society catches us in its web of contrived needs. We worry that we ought to have this or that, and do not have it. When we get it, then we worry about the next thing.
So many of us seem to be happy, content and enjoying life to the full – look at the pictures of smiling people in magazines and on television commercials. Yet, beneath the surface, the opposite is often the case. We question the very life which we dash around to support; we criticise the values of the consumer society; we recognise that we are being exploited and manipulated by powerful forces. We find depression, anger, resentment, boredom and other powerful negative emotions arising within us. And sometimes one or several of these surface in an outburst of words or actions, or both. Tablets from the doctor do not really help; neither does too much alcohol or too much entertainment or fun. Distractions cannot finally cure.
After talking about worry and showing the way out of it, Jesus said, ‘Be concerned above everything else with the kingdom of God.’ The Gospel of the kingdom, he claimed, is good news to those concerned with the realities of physical life – food, clothing, security. The message from and about Jesus does not ignore our human needs. It declares that they must be put in the right perspective and seen in the light of the kingdom of God (see Matthew 6:24–34).
Great numbers of people think that life has no real meaning: they need to know of God’s plan and purpose. There are strained relations and sometimes hatred between people in our society: between man and wife, parents and children, different social and ethnic groups, members of different political parties, school teachers and pupils, and employees and employees. There is need for reconciliation and harmony.
Standards and values adopted by families, by schools, by government and especially by parts of the media are often immoral and selfish. There is need for renewal of our moral vision. Local churches are often low in numbers and weak in spiritual power and insight. There is need for each congregation to be a dynamic, loving community, having a worship and a fellowship which deeply satisfies our religious and spiritual longings. Not a few church leaders call for changes in society through political, social and economic action, but they say little or nothing about the human predicament of sin and evil. There is need for church leaders to be fearless uncoverers of evil and sin and enthusiastic proclaimers of the Gospel, as well as spokesmen for a better social order.
Meeting the need
The Gospel of God concerning the Lord Jesus Christ has within it the power to heal broken lives and relationships. It can give meaning and purpose to living. It provides new standards of behaviour and supplies the power to embody them in action. Further, the Gospel will revive congregations of Christians if they will hear it again with open hearts. ‘Chords that are broken will vibrate once more.’
The good news is addressed to all human beings, each of whom suffers from the same spiritual disease. This reveals itself in different ways – in worry, for instance – and can be called selfishness, sin, gone-wrong-ness and spiritual death. Whatever we call it, it is the root of so many of our human problems. Further, every human being is not only spiritually dead (lacking a vital, spiritual relationship with the living God) he is also moving towards a certain end – death. The Gospel is addressed to those who know that they will die. If they receive Christ through it, then they are ready both to meet their God as judge and live in abundant life in the age to come.
Regrettably, the Gospel so often falls on deaf ears. This may sometimes be blamed on the poor quality of the communication. However, the deeper reason is that many people either do not want to, or cannot, hear. Some feel content with their lives as they are. Some cannot face the dislocation of their life-styles and arrangements which they know the Gospel will cause. Some appear unable to believe that there is genuine good news. Some feel that all their needs can be supplied (if not today then tomorrow) by the advanced, scientific and technological society in which they live. Actually people in western society appear to have little or no sense of the presence of God in his world. It is not that they deny his existence: rather it is that God (and the Church) do not seem to be immediately relevant to life as it is – to education, work, pleasure, politics and so on.
Thoughts perhaps turn to God, and hearts may perhaps desire him, at particular crises and in special difficulties. But in general, though we all admit that we have real needs at most points in our lives, the mood of our materialistic society has the effect of causing us to look to other sources than God for help in need.
In communicating good news of the living God today the position of people in our society has to be kept in mind. It is no good addressing them as if they lived in the seventeenth century and had a vivid sense of the presence and activity of God in his world. In fact, the lack of a real sense of the presence of God ought to be one of the factors causing the Church to pray for a visitation of the Holy Spirit to open people’s hearts. People need to be told that there is a living God and that they need to relate rightly to him. They should be reminded that each human being has two aspects, a soul and a body. People need to be urged to consider that not only do they have a physical life to live on earth but also they, have a spiritual life to live in the age to come. They should not be allowed conveniently to forget that there is a God. They must be prevented from allowing the fast-moving creations of modern society to act as a dark cloud to block their recognition of signs of God’s presence in his world.
People are in fact both deaf and blind. The loud noises of society deafen their ears. The bright lights of society blind their eyes. They walk in darkness and think that it is light. And, when they see the true light, and hear the true word, they turn from it and continue to walk in darkness. When their conscience is pricked to think of God and their duty to him, or of his gracious offer to them, they dull their conscience by turning their attention hurriedly to other things and thoughts. Young people who feel a desire for union with God turn to pseudo-eastern mysticism. And, enjoying the good feelings that come their way, they see no immediate need for Christ or Christianity.
We cannot avoid the reality of deaf ears, hard hearts, closed eyes, stubborn wills and misguided minds. The Gospel can only be effective in human lives when it is communicated in the presence and power of the invisible Spirit of God. Only God himself, working secretly in human lives, can open hearts to respond to, and receive, the Gospel. Centuries ago the prophet Jeremiah studied the human condition among ‘religious’ Jews and said this of it: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ (17:9). Just as the seeds in my garden only grow when they are watered, so the words of the Gospel only take root and grow in human hearts when they are watered by the divine water, the presence of the Spirit of God.
Since the Gospel is the good news from God, he does send forth his power to accompany the Gospel. Centuries ago the prophet Isaiah recognised this truth when he proclaimed the word of the Lord to the people of Judah: ‘As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth, and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes forth from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire, and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’ (55:10–11). So the Christian community is constantly to pray that God’s power will accompany God’s Gospel. If it does not, deceitful hearts will not be changed and the Gospel will not be effective.
This is why Jesus gave this teaching about the Holy Spirit before he returned to heaven. He said to his disciples:
When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer, and in regard to judgment because the prince of this world now stands condemned (John 16:8–11).
Sent from God the Father in the name of Jesus, the exalted Saviour, the Holy Spirit prepares hearts, minds and wills to accept the Gospel. He convicts of sin, making people aware of the true identity of Jesus and of their neglect of, and opposition to, him. He does this by making them aware of the victory of Jesus over death and over ‘the prince of this world’ (Satan or the devil). The cross of Christ is the judgment of the world for there the real nature of both Satan and sinful human beings was demonstrated. The Resurrection reveals that Christ is Saviour and victor over Satan and that salvation is only in and through him.
To claim, as we have done, that people are spiritually dead and incapable in their own power of beginning a deep and meaningful relationship with God does not mean that they are incapable of doing any good in the world. Of course much kindness exists; some people are very generous with their time and money in helping others. The Gospel does not condemn or even discount genuine concern for the welfare of people. What it does condemn is the attitude which says, ‘Because I am a person who helps other people, therefore I am acceptable to God and can be called his child.’ The Gospel says that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. He alone is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father except by him. And Christ expects those who come to God through him to excel in their concern for their fellow human beings. If we could earn our way into God’s favour by our good deeds or kind thoughts, there would be no need for good news from God. If salvation were within our own making, there would have been no need for the eternal Son of God to become Man. The Gospel is good news because it tells of what God has done for us.
Let us agree that what is needed in our society is the pure Gospel of genuine good news. This means that we also need far more committed Christians and much more vital Christian influence. For the sake of God’s glory, and the well-being of our society, we need a revived Church which is morally and spiritually influential. This book is merely a very small part of the answer to that need. In the next chapter we shall examine what is the actual content of the Gospel.
2: Good News from God
The word Gospel is the modern form of Godspel’, ‘good news’. The Greek word used in the New Testament is euangelion. This became evangelium in Latin and thus we have the English word ‘evangel’, meaning ‘good news’. The Gospel of God is the good news concerning the result of God’s personal and costly involvement in our human history and life. The eternal Son of God became man, Jesus of Nazareth. For our sake, he lived, taught, suffered, died, rose from death and ascended into heaven. The Gospel is good news because it offers hope to the hopeless, pardon to the guilty, peace to the enemy, freedom to the captive, comfort to the distressed, purpose to the confused, joy to the sad, love to the loveless and salvation to the lost.
The Gospel is a message from heaven to earth. It comes from our Creator, the Lord of the universe. He calls all human beings, who are like rebellious children, to return to him as their caring Father. He calls people from all countries, races and social classes to begin a harmonious relationship with himself as their Saviour. He calls everybody, young and old, male and female, to enjoy eternal life in his presence. And he welcomes and values each person individually: there are no second-class members of God’s family and kingdom.
But what, precisely, is the Gospel? Careful readers of the New Testament point to the fact that Jesus proclaimed ‘the Gospel of the kingdom of God’; but, when he left them for heaven, his apostles preached ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord’. They ask, ‘Are the two themes identical?’ and, ‘How did the proclaimer of the Gospel become the centre of the proclamation?’ As we briefly describe the Gospel preached by Jesus, and the Gospel preached by the apostles, the answers to these questions will become clear.
The Gospel of the kingdom of God
Obviously there cannot be a kingdom or kingly reign without a king. In Old Testament times, when absolute monarchs were a common feature in the Middle East, the Lord sometimes presented himself to Israel as the King, ruling over the world. For example, ‘The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all’ (Psalm 103:19). For us, today, a ‘kingdom’ suggests the territory over which a king rules. However, the Hebrew word, malkuth, which we usually translate as ‘kingdom’, also carried the meaning of ‘rule’, ‘reign’, or ‘dominion’.
In the New Testament the same principle applies. The Greek word, which we usually translate as ‘kingdom’, is basileia: here, again, it has the broader possibility of meaning ‘rule’ or ‘reign’. If we remember this, then we shall be better placed to appreciate the message of Jesus about the basileia of God’. And there is one more thing we need to know. The expression ‘kingdom of heaven’, in the Gospel of Matthew, means the same as ‘kingdom of God’ in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Matthew used the word ‘heaven’ to communicate with fellow Jews. They did not pronounce the divine name, but used another word – for example, ‘heaven’ – in place of that holy name.
In western society we have no recent experience of a king who has absolute power. Such kings certainly existed a few centuries ago in Europe, but they have long since disappeared. Because of this, we have to make a special effort to think of a king who is at the same time an absolute ruler and a king who sees himself as wholly responsible for the welfare of his people. Total power means total responsibility. To think of God as King is to think of him as possessing tota1 power and exercising it in perfect justice and love.
With this in mind, we are ready to summarise the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God under six headings.
(a) The kingdom of God is near: God’s saving rule is now beginning to be experienced. Jesus began his preaching ministry in Galilee. His message was: ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!’ (Mark 1:15). The ‘time’ refers to the period of history when God took decisive action to bring salvation into the world. The prophets of Israel had spoken of this ‘time’ and, with the ministry of Jesus, it had arrived. This is why Jesus could say to his disciples: ‘Blessed are the eyes which see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it’ (Luke 10:23). Daily the disciples were hearing of the arrival of God’s kingdom; and they were seeing God’s saving rule in action. ‘If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God,’ said Jesus to the people he cured, ‘then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matthew 12:28).
(b) The kingdom of God is near because the saving rule of God is present in Jesus, the Messiah, and in his ministry. The ‘time’ was a time of salvation because of the presence on earth of God’s Messiah, the Saviour and Liberator. Jesus was anointed and filled with the Holy Spirit at his Baptism in the river Jordan. He did his work as Messiah in the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit. Because his life was filled with the Holy Spirit, and since he was totally devoted to God’s cause, his life, ministry and personality reflected the gracious rule of God. Because he totally trusted, loved and obeyed his heavenly Father, he was the living embodiment of God’s loving reign. In him the kingdom was a reality. Wherever he went and worked, there was the saving rule of God. He once said, ‘The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is among you’ (Luke 17:21).
The, saving reign of God is a liberating reign, setting people free from the domination of sin and Satan. So Jesus emphasised that his death and his resurrection were the means by which he would do battle with the powers of death and Satan. As the living representative and embodiment of God’s rule, he would overcome and vanquish these enemies in order to set captives free.
(c) Entry into God’s kingdom brings a new and demanding life: coming under God’s saving rule means entering new and demanding relationships. The Sermon on the Mount describes what life in the kingdom is all about. And what high standards of attitude and action are presented there by Jesus! The moral and. spiritual tone of the lives of disciples is to be such that they are recognised as ‘the light of the world’ and ‘the salt of the earth’. They are called to be humble, meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. They are to keep God’s holy law not only in outward behaviour but also in their secret thoughts. While they are to continue to love their friends, they are also to love their enemies. Disciples are to be people of genuine piety and true religion. Their fasting, praying and giving to others is to be done without attracting human attention. They are to be single-minded in their commitment to God’s cause and they are to trust God to supply all their genuine needs. The new and demanding life of the kingdom is not easy but it is deeply satisfying. Selfishness is replaced by the service of others; communion with God and compassion for the needy are the basis for daily life.
(d) God’s kingdom will wholly come only at the end of the world: the universal saving rule of God will then become the basic reality of the new age. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray for the coming of the kingdom: ‘Your kingdom come’. Looking forward to the end of human history when he, as the Son of Man, would judge the world, Jesus said: ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21). Again, speaking of the day of judgment, Jesus spoke of the division of the people into the sheep and the goats, those who had loved and obeyed God and those who had not. He described the Son of Man saying to the ‘sheep’: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’ (Matthew 25:34). The future for the ‘goats’ will be different: for them there is only the prospect of misery, deprivation, pain and distress. But the ‘kingdom prepared since the creation of the world’ will endure for ever; it will be the place and the sphere of growth into greater experience of the dynamic love of God.
(e) God takes the initiative towards human beings to bring them his kingdom and saving rule. Then he calls for their response of repentance and faith. Since the human race is sinful, God could have exercised his rule in terms of punishment for sin. He chose instead to delay his day of judgment and send forth his rule as the reign of salvation. The Father sent the Son into the world to become Man and to be the Messiah. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Instead of punishing people for their failure to keep his law, God invited them through Jesus to accept his saving rule, to enter his kingdom and to receive eternal life. So Jesus could tell the band of disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom’ (Luke 12:32).
But, while God did not reject half-hearted response to his gift, he actually called for, and wanted, whole-hearted commitment. This meant a complete turn around in attitudes, values and purpose (called repentance or conversion) and it meant trust in him. Using a simple illustration from farming, Jesus taught that ‘No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:62). Ploughing is a single-minded operation. So living in the kingdom means both trusting God and obeying him. And, trust in God is to be like the implicit faith of a baby in its mother’s arms. Jesus said: ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it’ (Mark 10:15).
(f) God’s kingdom cannot be fully understood. God’s saving rule is to be experienced rather than wholly explained. The kingdom of God came near in the ministry of Jesus and was experienced in Galilee and Judea. But there was no major social or political change. Poverty was not eliminated and military occupation by the Romans did not cease. Certainly, individual lives were dramatically altered. Families and groups of people were renewed in love. The power of Satan and evil was overcome in some lives: devils were cast out and healing was experienced. Further, the supreme power of Satan over the realm of death was broken by Jesus when he rose from death.
But the kingdom or rule of Satan was not wholly shattered. Evil remained in the world after the resurrection of Jesus. The power of Satan, evil, death, and sin will remain in the world until the end of the world. When the kingdom of God comes in fullness at the end of history they will, be finally conquered and eliminated. Meanwhile the kingdom is present only in anticipation of what it will be at, the end of the age. Those who respond to the Gospel receive what has been called the ‘down-payment’ or first part of a great legacy, or the ‘firstfruits’ of a great harvest. At the present time the saving rule of God is not immediately recognised in the world. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus that ‘unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3). It takes spiritual eyes to see God’s kingdom and saving rule. This is also why, at his trial, Jesus told Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place’ (John 18:36). That place is God’s place, heaven.
So the kingdom is a secret or a mystery. This is not the mystery of the detective novel which is solved on the last page. It is the secret or mystery which is never wholly solved but which gets more meaningful as its power and love are received. This is why Jesus used stories or parables to describe the kingdom. Such a method highlights the nature of the kingdom but does not describe it too precisely. Strictly speaking, the kingdom of God means the place and sphere over which God will rule after the final judgment. Through the Gospel people actually come to experience a foretaste of God’s rule of love and righteousness before the final judgment. This is a mystery but it is a reality.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord
In the four Gospels the expression ‘kingdom of God’ (or ‘kingdom’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’) appears over one hundred times. In the Acts of the Apostles it occurs seven times and in Paul’s letters only fourteen times. But this apparent decrease in use does not mean a decrease in interest.
The teaching of the apostles about God’s kingdom has to be understood in the light of what they understood as the two great saving acts of God. First, there was the glorious bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead, followed by his ascension into heaven, there to be crowned ‘King of kings’. Secondly, there was the descent of the Holy Spirit from the Father to the disciples in order for the Spirit to represent the exalted Jesus on earth. So, instead of speaking only of God’s kingdom, the apostles spoke both of God’s kingdom and of the exalted Jesus (in whom is the kingdom) and of the Holy Spirit (who brings the kingdom to human lives). The Gospel of the kingdom of God became the Gospel of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, but did not cease to be the Gospel of the kingdom. The good news is of God’s saving action and reign in and through Jesus Christ, and in and through the Holy Spirit.
When Paul was explaining to the church in Corinth the truth of the past resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers, he began by stating the essentials of the Gospel. The good news which he had received from Jesus himself, and which he knew that the other apostles preached, was this: ‘Christ died for our sins. according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to ...’ many disciples (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). Let us examine this brief summary of the Gospel.
Christ died for our sins. The fact of death is emphasised. He who died was not any man; he was the Messiah (Christ). The purpose of his death was for the forgiveness, the rubbing out and cleansing of our sins. In other words, his death was a sacrifice for our sins: it was a vicarious, representative and substitutionary death. Because he took our place, what we deserve need never come to us.
According to the Scriptures. Jesus’ sacrificial death and, resurrection had been foretold by the prophets of Israel. For example, there is a prophecy of his sacrificial death in Isaiah 52:13–53:12; and this Hebrew poem ends with a description of the public acquittal (=resurrection and ascension) of God’s Suffering Servant (Messiah).
‘He was raised on the third day’. By the power of God, Jesus rose from death in his transformed body. He had overcome the power of sin and death and was alive for evermore. He represented all human beings when he died and when he rose from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus, the Messiah, is good news. It means that in and through him true believers will have new life now and, for the age to come, eternal life in new, resurrection bodies.
So we may say that the good news is that of the risen and ascended Jesus who was crucified. The Gospel is what God has achieved for sinners in and through the life, work, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. And it is as true and powerful today as yesterday because Jesus is the same today as yesterday.
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul summarised the Gospel in another way. He had been claiming that his method of preaching was to set forth God’s truth plainly, appealing to the consciences of his hearers. Yet not all understood and not all obeyed the Gospel. He explained why: ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” [Genesis 1:13], made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Corinthians 4:4–6) Again, let us briefly examine this statement of the apostle.
The god of this age. He is Satan, the devil. He sets himself up as a god but he is a false-god. At the present time, and up to the end of the age when Christ will return to earth, he is busy frustrating and opposing the work and will of God. In particular, he aims to prevent people from hearing and appreciating the Gospel. He causes spiritual blindness and deafness so that people neither rightly see nor rightly hear the truth of the Gospel. Without the illumination and power of the Holy Spirit, this deafness and blindness will persist.
The Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. The good news proclaimed in the power of the Holy Spirit is as a light that dispels darkness. Paul’s consuming desire was ‘to open their eyes [the Gentiles] and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus Christ’ (Acts 26:18). The character and nature of God is revealed in and by Christ. He reflects, like a mirror, the true God. So he is the image of God. Therefore, the good news of Christ is actually also news from and about God – who he really is and what he can and should mean to human beings.
‘We preach ... Jesus Christ as Lord’. Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Jewish Messiah (Christ). He has also been given the name of ‘Lord’ since his ascension into heaven. When he ‘sat at God’s right hand’ he was crowned the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Paul explained the background to this in his letter to the church in Philippi. He described the ‘descent’ of the eternal Son to become Man and to suffer and die; and he described the exaltation of the eternal Son in his transformed manhood to heaven to be given that name which is God’s own name, ‘Lord’.
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11).
As ‘Lord’ he became co-regent with the Father as ruler of the world. And as ‘Lord’ he became the Head and life-giver of the Church, which is his body. As ‘Lord’ he is now the King of God’s kingdom. Through him only is there entry into the kingdom. By him alone is there the enjoyment of God’s saving rule. So what Paul proclaimed was ‘that if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Romans 10:9).
Communicating the Gospel today
The message from the Lord Jesus to the world must ring true as good news to those whose spiritual eyes and ears are beginning to open. So the Gospel we proclaim must be in harmony with the principles and content of the Gospel as given in the New Testament.
This means that we need to think twice before opening our mouths, taking up our pens or sitting at our typewriters. When Christians rush into communication, or don’t think deeply about what they are doing, they can easily distort the good news. One common way that this is done is by presenting the Gospel with the words, ‘If you ..., then God ....’. This approach is right in human relations. I say to the gardener: ‘If you cut my lawn, then I will pay you a fair wage.’ And to my child at table I say, ‘If you eat your meat and vegetables, then you can have some chocolate ice-cream.’
But to adopt this structure when presenting the Gospel is to say: ‘If you repent of your sins and if you believe in Jesus Christ, then God will give you his salvation.’ Or: ‘If you make a decision for Christ, then God will recognise you as a true Christian.’ A lot of people present the good news in this way but it has real dangers in it. The major one is that it can give the impression that salvation, or being a Christian, is the result of what I do – it is my repenting, my believing or my decision.
If we recall the message of Jesus and the apostles, then we see that they used a different structure. Jesus proclaimed: ‘The kingdom of God is here: repent and believe.’ The apostles proclaimed: ‘God has vindicated Jesus as Lord: repent and believe.’ The presentation is according to the structure, ‘Because God ... therefore you ....’. This means that though each sinner is called to respond, he or she is responding to God’s initiative. Salvation is already there waiting for us in Christ. But, it has to be received! God’s kingdom is already a reality as a saving rule. But it has to be embraced! What you do is only a response to God’s grace and gift. You never deserve the gift, and you never earn the gift. The Gospel is good news of what God has achieved for the world in Jesus Christ. It is good news of the new and eternal life that he wants to give to us now from Christ through the Holy Spirit.
In becoming a Christian I am not like a robot. I am conscious that I do make up my mind, that I do decide to follow, and that I do begin to trust and obey God through Jesus Christ. The point is that I could not do it – believe, decide, follow, obey – unless God first offered me his salvation and then sent his Spirit to help me to respond. It is not that God treats me like an automaton: rather it is that God treats me as a sinner who is spiritually blind and deaf. So I need spiritual help, direction, illumination and insight from God. Then, with divine grace, I can believe, receive, respond, trust and obey.
We need to give some attention to repentance and faith. They are like, the two sides of the one coin. True faith accompanies genuine repentance: and true repentance accompanies genuine faith. Faith and repentance are called into being in your life or mine by the power of the Word of God in the Gospel.
Faith involves my whole self. In my mind there is a deep and growing conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and is alive forever as the exalted Lord of the Church and the world. I know I am a sinner. I believe with all my heart that Jesus actually took away my sins by his death, and that he lives to be my Saviour and Lord, and I am determined to obey his word and follow him all the days of my life. Faith is doing nothing; it is merely waiting with open hands for God to be gracious to me.
Repentance is much more than offering an apology to God for all my selfishness and my refusal to worship and love him as my Lord. It means accepting God’s verdict concerning myself – a guilty sinner worthy of punishment. So repentance also includes confession of my sins to God – not gloating)over my sordid experience (as ‘confessions’ in popular magazines) but confession with sorrow to the God of love whom I have offended. There is no confession and no repentance without pain – the pain of knowing that I have wronged the God who loves me with an eternal love. Finally, repentance includes the determination to change my attitudes and life and to live according to the will of God in the strength which he will give me.
Faith and repentance don’t just happen like a flash of lightning. There is usually some kind of preparation (which I may not at the time realise is preparation) for believing, trusting and obeying. This preparation differs from one person to another. It is never exactly the same. It could be the experience of living in a Christian home, or the influence of a saintly friend, or impressions gained in an unforgettable event, or the pain and suffering caused by illness, or the ethos of a service of worship, or the contents of a particular book, or one of a countless number of things. As each person is unique in God’s estimation, so the route to him through faith and repentance is also unique – but my route is right for me, and your route is right for you.
This means that what we call conversion (which is the result of what happens to those who believe and repent) is for. some people sudden (or nearly so), while for others it takes a week, a month or a year. Often we find it difficult to distinguish the preparation for faith and repentance from the actual believing and repenting. They seem for many of us to glide into each other. Certainly some people have an exhilarating, a mountain-top, experience and this they call their conversion. Others look back over their lives and recognise that change – real change – has occurred and it has taken weeks or months. What matters is not the speed or the lack of speed but the end product – true faith and repentance which is real conversion to God.
People who respond to the invitation to go forward for counselling at a large evangelistic meeting will be at various stages in their response to the Gospel. Some will be at the point of true faith and repentance; others will be feeling the call of the Gospel and counting the cost; while others will have responded, but will want to know how to live a Christian life and enjoy the inner assurance of the Holy Spirit witnessing with their spirits that they are children of God. All this means that counsellors will need to be wise and discerning. They will have to work out where each person is in the response to grace, and what is the way forward from there. They will need to be aware not only of the riches of God’s grace and the variety of ways that grace conquers hard hearts, but they will also need to know how deceitful the human heart can be. Above all, they must know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be allowed fully to enter each life in the power of the Spirit in order to bring God’s great gift of salvation.
PART TWO: Regeneration
3: Removing misunderstanding
Regeneration cannot be seen. It is the internal, spiritual change caused by the Holy Spirit in the heart of a sinner. Because of this change he or she is brought into spiritual communion with God, the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Eternal life begins with this act of God, the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament there are several; metaphors to describe this necessary work of the Spirit in our hearts.
Of these the most common is that of birth-new birth, rebirth from above, born again and born anew. This metaphor occurs most frequently in the parts of the New Testament written by John. Peter also used the metaphor of birth in his exclamation of praise to God: ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish ...’ (1 Peter 1:3–4). And he also told his readers: ‘You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). Here we learn that the new birth is a gift of God and is produced by the powerful word of God (in the power of the Spirit). In the next chapter we shall explore the picture of new birth in more detail.
Another metaphor is that of creation – a new creation, a new creature. Paul knew the liberating power of God through the Gospel. He wrote: ‘Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17–18. Compare Galations 6:15). Here Paul brings together two great themes – creation and reconciliation. He pictured Jesus as the second Adam, the Life-Giver to the new community of believers. Adam was the head of the old creation; Jesus is the Head of the new creation. And Jesus has become the Head because he first reconciled to God by his death and resurrection the old creation which had become the enemy of God. Entry into this new creation is by the creative act of God – regeneration, the new birth.
To do justice to the biblical teaching on regeneration several common misunderstandings must be rejected.
(a) I must do all I can to be born again. Too many popular preachers have given the impression that the new birth is something that can be achieved by doing the right things. This error is possibly encouraged by the words of Jesus to Nicodemus that ‘you must be born anew’ (John 3:3). If this is read as a direct command to Nicodemus, and to everyone like Nicodemus who is wanting to know about the spiritual life, then confusion can arise. But it is not a command. The ‘you must’ means ‘it is necessary that’. It is like saying to a person who is sick, ‘You must have a major operation or else you will die’. Obviously what is meant is that it is necessary for the surgeon to do the operation and that you need it. You cannot do the operation all by yourself.
This error also arises because two different but complementary truths are not rightly recognised. What God promises to do for you, and what he requires you to do, are not identical. God alone, to quote Psalm 51, can create clean hearts and renew right spirits within us. He does this by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. What he asks of you is repentance and faith. God provides the Gospel and he calls upon you to receive, believe and obey his powerful and saving word.
In human experience the work of God in regeneration and the response of the sinner to the Gospel in repentance and faith are intimately related. The experience is a unity but it does not follow that it is the sinner’s duty to do God’s work. Let God be the God of salvation. Let the sinner be the recipient of salvation.
(b) I am born again if 1 am baptised. Many people are baptised as infants. In baptising them the Church expects that they will be brought up in a Christian home, with Christian influence, example and teaching. For the infants of Christian parents the Church claims God’s promise that the gift of the indwelling Spirit is for believers and their children (Acts 2:39). And there are those who, having been baptised as infants and raised in Christian homes, cannot remember a time when they did not love Jesus and want to serve him. Such people are surely regenerate!
However, the fact that the Church prays and hopes that each child will be born anew by the Spirit is no guarantee that regeneration will occur: We can all tell stories of individuals who have been baptised as infants, and who now have little or no interest in Christian faith and practice. The teaching of the Church has always distinguished the external act of pouring of or immersing in water and the internal act of rebirth by the Spirit. The link between the two is the promise of God and the faith of the parents and sponsors (godparents).
There is no automatic connection between baptism and regeneration. Certainly baptism is the outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual change, but the giving of the sign does not inevitably bring new birth. And what applies to the baptism of infants in Christian families also applies to adult or believer’s baptism.
And a further point needs to be made. It is that the new birth is the beginning of a new type of life which affects the way the regenerate person thinks, feels and acts. The newly born need milk. This means that those who are reborn by the Spirit have to be fed with spiritual and heavenly food and nourished in Christian fellowship and worship. If this does not occur then the new life implanted by the Spirit does not, or cannot, grow and develop. It is restricted and appears to die. Possibly there are many Christians who are reborn, yet hardly alive spiritually. As the verse of the hymn puts it:
Down in the human heart crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore.
Touched by a loving hand, wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.
Let us never forget that only God knows accurately who are the regenerate.
(c) I am born again if I am faithfully serving the church. Many people give devoted service to local churches (understood either as places of worship or congregations of worshippers). In East Anglia, where I live, many loving hands keep medieval churches clean, tidy and tastefully decorated with flowers. Not a few also give much time and energy in efforts to raise money to maintain old and often beautiful buildings. In fact, without such devoted service our places or worship would be in a sorry state.
Yet we all know that other people are equally devoted to other good causes – voluntary societies, clubs, groups and so on. To these they give very generously of their time, talents and money. Obviously we need such people both in our churches and in our society. Without them life would be miserable. But such good activity does not prove that you are born from above; neither does it cause you to be born from above!
Remember it was to Nicodemus, a zealous supporter of good causes, that Jesus said, ‘You and your kind must be born again.’ Activities and heroic service to the local church or to the needs of the poor will not win entrance to the kingdom.
(d) I shall be born again if I have a Christian funeral. This usually comes in a different form: ‘My loved one will be born again if he has a Christian funeral.’ Many people, who are best described as nominally Christian, have a full Christian funeral. The minister makes a charitable assumption and uses the standard Christian funeral service. In fact in those denominations that use set forms of service there is usually no choice of funeral service – it is either the Christian one or none at all.
Now we cannot be dogmatic about what happens to a person after death. We leave the matter wholly in the hands of the living God. However, what we do know is that the recital of biblical, Christian words at a funeral cannot, as a magical formula, change the soul and personality of the one who now lives only in the spirit and no longer in the flesh.
Of course, the new birth can occur on a death bed. New, heavenly life can begin where there is physical and mental decay and deterioration. But, as far as we can learn from the Bible, there cannot be regeneration after physical death.
(e) As far as I am concerned, to be ‘born again’, ‘justified by faith’, ‘converted’, ‘saved’ and ‘to make a decision for Christ’ are all the same. Perhaps you can point to a place and time when you believe that something spiritually decisive happened in your life. Afterwards you recognised yourself as a different person – with new aims in life, a desire to love and serve God, and a commitment to worship, prayer and fellowship in the church. How you actually describe that experience will probably be affected by the way in which the Christian group to which you belong refers to it. So you may call it ‘conversion’ or ‘being born again’ or something else.
Others enter into commitment to Jesus Christ and living for God through what may be called a tunnel experience. They are conscious that some time ago they did not love God and had no desire for spiritual worship and fellowship. Yet it is impossible to set a particular day or week when this began. Like a train going into a tunnel which gradually emerges in a different place some time later, so they have emerged into newness of life.
Then, as we said in (b) above, there are others who have loved God and desired to serve the Lord Jesus since childhood.
In these three different types of experience it is impossible to state exactly when regeneration occurred. The Holy Spirit who brings rebirth is invisible and he works secretly. As we do not see the wind but only, its effects, so we only see the effects of the work of the Holy Spirit. These effects may be instantaneous or only gradually felt and known. Bearing this in mind, it is unwise to make a claim such as ‘I was born again at eight p.m. on the 5th of October’. At that time on that day you had a great experience but only God knows when you were born from above. What is true of your physical birth – you cannot remember it, although you were present – is also true of your spiritual birth.
Conversion refers to the total process of turning around in life: ceasing to serve sin and selfishness and believing, trusting and obeying God through Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour. So it includes repentance, faith and commitment (making a decision). To claim a precise moment for conversion is also unwise. There may well be a moment that stands out, a moment of decision or a moment of vision. That moment may be compared to reaching the top of the mountain. The process of getting up and down cannot be ignored. If there is a great moment of decision or vision there has usually been preparation for it (perhaps not consciously recognised) and there must be movement from it towards God.
Then, if we are to use ‘saved’ in anything like its biblical usage we have to be very careful in what we claim. There are three ‘moments’ when the Christian is saved. First, he was saved when Christ, his Representative and Substitute, offered a sacrifice for sin and was then raised from the dead as the victorious Saviour. This great work of salvation is completed in Christ, once and for all. Secondly, he will be saved at the end of the age at the Last Judgment when there is entry into the new age of perfect love, righteousness and peace. Then gone forever are sin, suffering, and sorrow. Thirdly, there is the receiving of this salvation now, through the gift of the indwelling Spirit of God, who regenerates and provides heavenly life. Now is the day of salvation. Therefore you are saved in Christ; that is, you receive salvation now because of what Christ has done, and in anticipation of the fullness of salvation to be received after the final judgment. So you are saved now in Christ in hope of the resurrection of the dead and the glorious life of the age to come.
Justification is a topic to which turn in Part 3. It refers to the declaration that your sins are, forgiven, that you are accepted in Jesus Christ, that you are a member of the new covenant and that you are an adopted child of God. So we conclude that each of these terms has a specific meaning and should be used with care and discrimination.
(f) I must be born again because I believe in the doctrines of the evangelical faith. An evangelical is a person who is wholly committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the message of hope and salvation for himself and the world. To be committed in this way is to be a genuine disciple of Jesus, enjoying a personal communion with God in prayer, worship and service.
The best of things can go wrong. It is possible, and it happens, that a person can become attached to the doctrines of evangelicalism (for example, the authority and inspiration of the Bible and the penal substitutionary death of Jesus) and miss out on union with the living Lord Jesus Christ. A young person may join a lively youth club at a large evangelical church. Here he may be presented with a. number of ‘doctrines to be believed’ as if they were the contents of a neatly wrapped parcel. He may think that believing the package is what true faith is.
When evangelicals are in a majority (as in parts of the USA) there is a constant danger that believing an attractive package of doctrines will be equated with receiving and believing the Gospel of Jesus and being born from above. Believing all the right things, making use of the correct religious terminology and living by certain Christian rules will be of no use to you at all unless you are born again. The American ‘born-again movement’, given much publicity in recent times, probably contains many who confuse believing evangelical doctrines with being born again by the Spirit.
(g) If I am born again, I am set free from all sinful and evil desires. New life is placed within your heart and soul; but this does not mean that the old life is taken away. By receiving the new life brought to you by the indwelling Spirit of God, your heart becomes a spiritual battle-ground. It is not a contest of equals, for the new is stronger than the old. It is, nevertheless, a real contest. And the believer only triumphs over sinful tendencies and temptations as he lives in submission to Jesus as Lord and is led by the Spirit. The new life can only take over the situation if the desire, discipline and determination of the believer is that this should be so.
To change the picture from birth to enlisting in the army, it may be said that you join the army to fight. The battle is not only with external enemies but also within yourself – against your own sinful nature.
(h) If I am born again, I do not need to be committed to membership of a local church. There are those who believe that if they are united to God spiritually by new birth, they can roam here and there to sample the spiritual goods on offer in this or that church or group. Of course there is much to be gained from meeting as many fellow Christians as possible, but not at the cost of regular participation in one local church. To be born is to be born into a series of relationships – with mother, father, brother, sister, grandparents, uncles, aunties, cousins and so on. Wherever you live you will find members of God’s family who meet regularly together. They need you and you need them for fellowship, worship and service. To be committed to a local church is an indispensable part of what it means to be a Christian.
This is true, but let us be realistic. Many local churches are either very small or seemingly not Gospel-centred-or both. If a church is very small there are restricted opportunities for fellowship and service; worship, also, can seem ‘empty’ when few are involved. If a church only pays lip service to the Gospel and effectively denies it by its general stance and activities, it provides little opportunity for a young Christian to grow in the faith of Jesus.
Therefore, you may ask the question: ‘Do I go to my local church – the one nearest, or the one with which I have had traditional associations – or do I seek out a church that provides ample opportunities for rich worship, fellowship and service?’ This question is not so relevant in the cities where there is wide choice and variety and where people tend to go where they like. But in small towns and in the countryside this is a real problem and there is no simple answer to it. In one case it may be right for a person to travel some distance to a thriving church; in another case it may be right to stay in the small, unexciting local church. Act only after prayer and discussion with wise friends.
Having removed some misunderstandings, it is now time to be positive. By considering the infant before and after birth we gain insight into spiritual birth.
A baby in the womb has eyes which do not see, ears which do not hear, a mouth which does not suck, vocal organs that do not cry, and a nose that does not smell. After birth the baby sees the light, hears the mother’s voice, sucks its mother’s breasts, makes loud noises and smells the air in the hospital. Each human being is made ‘in the image of God’, capable of fellowship with God. Every person has a spiritual nature (soul) but it is out of harmony with its Creator and is not functioning as it ought. Before the new birth your spiritual eyes are blind and you cannot see the light of the world, Jesus Christ. Your spiritual ears are deaf and you cannot hear the words of life. You have no communion with God. You may be religious but you have no real internal experience of the living God. Your spiritual senses are all locked up in the prison of self-centredness and gone-wrong-ness, unable to respond to God’s gracious invitation. You suffer also from an incurable disease; its name is sin.
When the Holy Spirit causes the new birth, your spiritual nature (soul) is restored to the position in which it can function properly. Your blind eyes are opened and you begin to see Christ as the light of the world. Your deaf ears are unstopped and you begin to hear the message of life, eternal life. Your spiritual senses are liberated from their prison and set free to move towards God. Your incurable disease is cured as you begin to enjoy communion with God. The Gospel, which seemed irrelevant and out-of-date to you, is now the most important message in the whole world. God, who seemed to be merely a distant, historical figure, now is your living Saviour and your ruling Lord. The local Christians, who seemed to be a group of odd people, now become your brothers and sisters in Christ. Prayer, which seemed to be a waste of time, now is your real conversation with the Lord Jesus. The Bible, which seemed boring, now is the word of life.
What then is regeneration? It is a change which occurs deep within you; it is the commencement of a new kind of life which is God-centred and it gives a new direction to your judgment, desires, pursuits and conduct.
4: Born anew
Birth is the inescapable beginning to human existence. Each of us entered the world by this route. Since it is so familiar to all human beings of every race, it is not surprising that Jesus used this image of birth to teach a profound truth. Listen in to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
A conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1–15)
Narrator. Jesus was surrounded on most days by large crowds. Nicodemus decided to meet Jesus after dark one evening when he knew that few people would be around. Perhaps he did not want others to know he spoke with Jesus, or perhaps he genuinely wanted a quiet, uninterrupted chat with Jesus about important matters. We are not sure of his motives.
Nicodemus is a mature and an important man. He is a member of the supreme Jewish law-court, called the Sanhedrin. This is why he is called a ‘ruler of the Jews’. And he is an exceptionally devout and religious man. His great aim in life is to keep the Law of Moses in every detail. In fact, he belongs to the group of Jews called the Pharisees.
This group prides itself on its commitment to the Law of Moses and to what is called the tradition of the elders (rules which explain the Laws of Moses). Not only do the Pharisees emphasise the duty of keeping the Law, they also look for the Messiah to come to Israel and deliver the people from Roman bondage.
So as he approaches Jesus, Nicodemus has various questions in his mind: ‘Is Jesus the Messiah? Is he perhaps only a great Rabbi? Or is he a prophet?’ He has watched the ministry of Jesus and he is deeply impressed by what he has seen and what he has been told.
Nicodemus. Some of my colleagues and I know that you are a teacher sent from God. You are a genuine Rabbi. We recognise the truth of the things you say. We acknowledge that God is with you as you perform miracles in his name. You turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana. That was an act of God ... I am very interested in what you say and do. There are various points I would like to discuss with you. For example, I am very interested in what you think about the saving reign of God and of his kingdom.
Jesus. This is not the time for discussion. I tell you in all truth that unless a human being is born anew he cannot see the kingdom of God. I tell you solemnly that unless a human being is reborn from above he cannot even recognise the saving rule of God in action. There is no way into eternal life except the way of spiritual birth from heaven.
Narrator. Nicodemus is startled by the direct and blunt approach adopted by Jesus. He decides the best way forward is to act as though he has misunderstood, or not wholly grasped, what Jesus said.
Nicodemus. A man today is the sum of all his yesterdays. What he is today is the accumulation and result of what has been his experience through life. It would be wonderful to think that it is possible to break with the past and to begin all over again. But how can physical birth be repeated? How can the past be cancelled and a new start be made? How can a full-grown man physically shrink so as to enter his mother’s womb for a second time?
Jesus. I am not speaking of physical birth. My concern is with spiritual birth. And I must emphasise that a man must be born of water and of the Holy Spirit. There is no alternative.
Surely you remember the message of John the Baptist, even though, regrettably the Pharisees rejected his baptism? John said, ‘I baptise you with water; but there comes someone after me who will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’ A man required both baptisms. The first, of water, provides the opportunity for, and is the symbol of, genuine repentance for sin and commitment to God’s kingdom. The second, that of the Spirit, is an inner, spiritual gift of God’s presence, reign and eternal life. It is a preliminary experience of the kingdom and the saving, kingly rule of God. Human beings cannot make themselves fit for entry into the kingdom of God. They enter only on God’s terms and in his power. The Spirit works through me as Messiah, and in and through my ministry.
Consider the birth of a baby. In human procreation a mother and. father produce another human being, who grows in the womb and enters, the world. That human being is the same type of being, the same type of flesh, as the parents. There is no evolution from human flesh to the Holy Spirit. The action of the Holy Spirit is to produce in a man a new, spiritual nature which is a non-physical, non-fleshly reality.
Bearing this in mind, you should not be astonished, Nicodemus, that I tell you and your colleagues, ‘You must be born from above by the Spirit.’ As you can see, there is no alternative to this. Spiritual birth is a necessity, and only the Holy Spirit can make it occur.
As the movement of the wind cannot be predicted, so the movement of the Spirit is invisible and not known to man. Further, the origin and destination of the wind remain a mystery. So the human mind cannot fathom the nature of the new life that the Spirit creates in the human life; it cannot fully understand the saving, kingly reign of God which begins and continues there.
Narrator. Nicodemus looks puzzled. He is an expert in religious matters: but, obviously, he has not given careful though to the idea of being born from above and being born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus. I don’t fully understand. How can a birth from above by the Spirit be possible?
Jesus. Surely, as a professional teacher of the sacred Scriptures, you know that they tell us about the new covenant, inner renewal and the indwelling Spirit? What about the prophecies of Jeremiah in Jeremiah 31:31–33 and of Ezekiel in Ezekiel 36:24–32?
I must emphasise that we know what we are talking about. John the Baptist, my disciples and I, have all faithfully declared God’s word to the people. We do not present subjects for discussion but truth to be received. Yet you and your colleagues have rejected our word and the evidence which has accompanied it. If you do not believe what I have been explaining to you in this conversation, how are you going to believe other things I need to tell you?
I can speak with authority about heaven and things from heaven because I came from heaven to be the Messiah and the, Son of Man. My home is in heaven and I came to earth to make it possible for sinful human beings to join me when I return to heaven.
Do you recall the incident recorded in Numbers 21? Serpents bit the Israelites, and God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and to set it on a pole. Everyone who looked at the bronze serpent was healed. I, too, must be lifted up so that whoever believes in me as the Son of Man and Messiah will receive eternal life.
Narrator. Here the conversation ends. Nicodemus is deeply impressed. Only later will he come to appreciate what it means to be born from above by the Spirit. Only later will he see what Jesus meant by being lifted up – lifted up on the Cross and into heaven by resurrection and ascension. In fact, after Jesus has died on the Cross, Nicodemus will accompany Joseph of Arimathea to ask Pilate, the Roman governor, for the body of Jesus in order to prepare it for burial.
Let us pause and notice this important teaching that Jesus placed before Nicodemus. The first and obvious truth is the absolute necessity of birth from above, a birth into the life of heaven. The Greek word used in John 3:3 may be translated ‘born anew’, ‘born from above’ or ‘born again’. Jesus made two points clear. It is the only entrance into eternal life, and it is an activity of God, the Holy Spirit, within man.
The statement ‘you must be born from above’ is not a command like ‘you must pay your taxes’. The ‘you must’ means ‘it is necessary that’. In other words, ‘you must’ is not a call to an activity. It is a call to a recognition that eternal life is a gift, given solely by God who is gracious to mankind. To hear ‘you must be born from above’ is to hear, of the power of God to do a spiritual work within you which you could never do yourself. It is to hear the Gospel of grace, not the message of human merit and achievement. If this is so, are you to sit still, do nothing and wait for God’s wind to blow in your direction? This would perhaps be a reasonable deduction if Jesus had only said ‘you must be born from above’. But he also spoke of a baptism of repentance and of faith. Jesus commended and endorsed the ministry of John the Baptist, which emphasised the need for repentance and acceptance of the Messiah. Jesus, as the Messiah, spoke of the need to look to him: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life’ (John 3:16).
So, while Jesus did not command men to be active and produce a spiritual birth from above, he did command them to repent and believe. The only appropriate response to the Gospel of the kingdom and to the Gospel of the exalted Lord Jesus, the Saviour, is to turn from sin and to believe the good news. And the Holy Spirit who is at work in the world, ‘convicting the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment’, inspires men to repent and believe. The same Spirit also causes spiritual birth from above and imparts eternal life.
To try to fix a precise chronological relation between repentance and faith on the one hand, and the new birth on the other, is to attempt an impossible task. As we do not see the wind, but only its effects on and around us, so we do not see the Spirit, only the results of his activity. Whether the sinner actually repents and believes because he is first born from above, or whether the sinner, helped by the Spirit, repents and believes and is then born from above, are questions that are best left unanswered. Too often Christian groups become polarised over their precise answers to these questions. What we need to emphasise is that new birth by the Spirit and repentance and belief are both absolutely necessary. We may safely leave the answering of these questions to our future life in heaven.
Perhaps we can learn from John 3:1–21 that the preaching of the Gospel concerning the exalted Saviour, the call to repentance and faith, and the Spirit’s activity in creating new life within us are not to be isolated from each other. They belong together. This means that we should not try to explain them more precisely than our Lord and his apostles actually did.
Life is an important theme in the gospel of John and the word ‘life’ occurs thirty-six times. It is not biological life but the life of God. The Gospel begins with the declaration that in the Word (the eternal Son of God) is `’ife, and that life is the light of men’. As the incarnate Word, Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ (11:25) and, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (14:6). Concerning his work as the Messiah, Jesus declared: ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (10:10).
The way in which this gift of life was made available to the world was costly. It was the way of sacrifice and death, the way of being lifted up on a Roman cross to suffer and to die. In this redemptive act Jesus intended to provide living bread for the world: ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’ (6:51). Or, put another way, by his sacrificial death Jesus intended to make himself, as the source of life, available for and to us: ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him’ (6:54–56).
The life that Jesus gave in his sacrificial death was life that conquered sin, death, hell and Satan. The resurrected Jesus is therefore the source of the life for all believers. This new heavenly life is given to believers by the Holy Spirit from him. The arrival of this life in the heart is the new birth. Eternal life begins in the new birth and continues as the believer both lives here on earth in fellowship with God and continues to live in fellowship with God in the age to come.
The life which believers receive is truly the life of God. Jesus said, ‘As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself (5:26). And this life which the Son has is given to the world by and through his death and resurrection. It is imparted to individual believers by the secret work of the Holy Spirit. The gift of God in the Gospel is eternal life. The meaning of ‘eternal’ is not ‘perpetual’ or for an ‘endless duration of time’. Rather it is ‘life proper to the age to come’. Eternal life is a quality of life, lived in dependence upon, and in sweet communion with, God. It is life which does not know change, decay or extinction. It is life in and through Jesus, incarnate Son of God, which grows deeper into the love of God.
One of the marvels of the grace of God is that eternal life is given to the believer in the present; evil age. The life that properly belongs to the age to come, when sin is no more, is received and experienced now. So what the new birth does in giving eternal life is to provide a foretaste of that which is to come. The eternal life brought by the Holy Spirit is a kind of deposit or downpayment from God, with the promise of the rest or the fullness, after the Last judgment in the new age. Thus it is life over which death has no power – has not this life already conquered death in the resurrection of Jesus? And it is life which is so deeply embedded in the heart, soul and personality of the believer that he or she, possessing this life, passes through death to receive a spiritual, resurrection body in the age to come.
Freedom as children of God
When you have the gift of eternal life, then you are free. This was clearly taught by Jesus in conversation with a group of Jews who were interested in his teaching. He told them: ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (8:32). The idea of freedom in the future when they received the Messiah was repugnant to them. Were they not already, by virtue of their descent from Abraham, a free people?
So they responded: ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?’ (verse 33). Their pride as Jews is clear. So also is their disregard for political reality – they were in fact under Roman rule and so not a free people.
So Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it for ever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’ (verses 34–36). In a household the slave has no rights and no permanent place. In contrast, the son has full rights. In God’s ‘household’ the Son, who is the Messiah, has full rights and he is able to set people free from the guilt and power of sin so that they become the adopted children of God.
Freedom from the guilt and power of sin, and freedom (as Jesus enjoyed it) to love, trust and obey the Father is the gift of the Son to those who believe in his name. Where there is eternal life there is freedom, and where there is freedom there is eternal life.
Sanctified human life
To be born from above is to begin to grow spiritually in true knowledge of God. Jesus explained this in his prayer to the Father as recorded in, John 17. ‘Now this is eternal life: that they (my disciples) may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (verse 3). When Jesus spoke of knowledge he had in mind deep, personal knowledge. Think of the knowledge of each other that a loving husband and wife have. In deep communion together, they know each other. Thus knowing God is growing into deeper and richer fellowship with him through Jesus Christ, Saviour and Lord.
Continuing his prayer for the disciples, Jesus asked: ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified’ (verses 15–19). Here we learn that disciples of Jesus do not belong to this world (age), that they need protection from Satan, that they should be continually sanctified by God, and that they should always be ambassadors for Christ in the world.
Because they have the gift of eternal life, and because they have entered God’s kingdom and are moving towards the fullness of life in the age to come, disciples are hated by Satan. He will do all he can to lead them astray. So they need God’s protection in the struggle against sin and temptation. Disciples are to fortify themselves spiritually by receiving God’s help as they pray, trust, and obey him. Disciples must be sanctified by God. To sanctify is to set apart for a sacred use (as were the priests in the temple of Jerusalem); it is to make a person holy. God’s way of making the disciples of Jesus into a holy people is through the truth, through his word. This word concerns the identity and the achievement of Jesus as Saviour and Lord of mankind, for he is ‘truth’. As disciples feed upon the word of God, and are in spiritual union with Jesus, they are set apart by the Spirit for the service of God. Jesus devoted himself wholly to the Father, being nourished by, and obeying his word at all times. His disciples are to do likewise.
Set apart by the divine word for the divine service, disciples go out into the world with the Gospel of Jesus. Not only their words but also the quality of their lives are to witness to the power and truth of the Gospel.
So ‘sanctified human life’ is a life of prayer, trust and obedience; it is also a life of joyful and dedicated service. He or she who is born from above is born to fight against Satan and to follow Christ in love, fellowship and service of the Father.
Regrettably Christians have often allowed different accounts of sanctification to divide them. Some have maintained that the process of being set apart for God’s service must include a ‘crisis’ experience – either a ‘full surrender’ to God’s will or an ‘infilling of the Spirit’. Others have insisted that it is a gradual, uneven process. Surely, what really matters is not the route of sanctification but the reality of being set apart for God’s service. The question to ask yourself is not, ‘What experience of sanctification have I had?’; but, ‘Is the overwhelming desire of my heart to love and serve the Lord?’ A person who is truly born from above and a member of the kingdom is a person who desires to be sanctified, to be holy, to be engaged in loving and trustful service of the Father for the sake of Jesus Christ the Lord.
Does a child of God sin?
The apostle John, from whom we have the Gospel and several letters, not only recorded the teaching of Jesus on new birth but he also gave some inspired thoughts of his own. The first occur in the prologue to the Gospel:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed, in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (1:10–13).
Here John describes the reception that Jesus, as the incarnate Son of God (the Word made flesh), received from his creatures, especially the Jews.
Not all rejected him. A minority received him by believing that he is the Messiah and trusting in him as Saviour. Such believers, says John, became the children of God, adopted into membership of his heavenly family and enjoying his fatherly care. What was true of the believing Jews in the first century is true of Gentiles today. By God’s grace, Gentile believers are born into the heavenly family of God.
But why did John emphasise the negative aspect – ‘not of natural descent (as a Jew), nor of human decision or a husband’s will’? He wanted to remove the Jews’ pride. They thought that their Jewishness commended them to God and brought automatic favour in heaven. John’s teaching is still important today. There is no society, race or group – not even a Christian family – which can confer membership of the kingdom of God. To enter God’s family and kingdom ‘you must be born again’.
In his first letter John made further use of the expression ‘born of God’. He insisted that the new birth is truly the beginning of a new life, with a totally different direction to the old life. And he made this remarkable statement: ‘No-one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God’ (3:9; compare 5:18). Obviously this cannot mean that a believer who is born from above is incapable of sinning for John had earlier stated: ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us’ (1:8).
Therefore John must not have been referring to specific acts of sin (for example, coveting or failing to love) but to the habit of sin. By the new birth the basic habit of self-seeking, selfishness and pride is broken (just as people experience a break in the habit of smoking). The direction of the new life is away from sin and self-centred existence and towards the love of God and neighbour. So the Christian born from above does not have a settled disposition to sin; he is not able to sin habitually. This may be simply illustrated by considering the loving mother. A normal loving mother always cares for her child: this is her settled habit or disposition. But because of anger or excessive tiredness from time to time her words and deeds may be unloving.
This way of understanding John’s teaching is confirmed by the other things John says of those who are born from above. He or she does what is right (2:29), loves both God and fellow Christians (4:7) and overcomes the world, not falling a victim to the attractions it offers (5:4). In John’s teaching the child of God is living a life that is directed away from sin and towards the love and righteousness of God.
5: New life and discipline
A newly-born infant needs milk and security. A baby must be fed and cared for. A born-again believer needs the ‘pure milk of the word of God’ and the security of God’s faithfulness. A new Christian must be fed with spiritual food and nurtured in the caring fellowship of the local church. Further, as a Christian believer, you have to learn to be disciplined, just as a growing child has to learn to exercise discipline in his life. With a confidence in God, like that of an infant trusting its mother as it lies in her arms, you have to develop a discipline of life in order to grow.
We all know how embarrassing it is to have an energetic and undisciplined child in a room with other people! He or she causes havoc. In western countries we are experiencing the results of a lack of discipline in the home, school and society. Recognising this, we now hear calls for the revival of older types of discipline. However, it would be wrong to suppose that discipline has entirely disappeared in our society. It is still there – for example, in the armed forces, athletics and academic life. You cannot run a four minute mile, climb a mountain or gain the Nobel prize in science unless you have exercised much discipline.
Discipleship and discipline belong together. They come from the same Latin root (disci-pulus=disciple; disci-plina=teaching/discipline). A disciple has to exercise discipline to follow his teacher. Speaking of this, Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23). This suggests that personal discipline is very important in the Christian life. There is a definite denying of self and a taking up the way of the cross. And, because of the general lack of discipline in the culture in which we live, there is an urgent need for new Christians to develop the right kind of discipline quickly, as part of their commitment to Jesus.
Making space for God
In discussing the need for good news, we noticed that a feature of modern society is that everyone appears to be so busy. It is a status symbol to be seen to be, and to be known to be, busy. Every moment has to be filled with something to do and somewhere to go. Then, at the end of the day, much still remains to be done! The day is filled with activity; but, so often, the heart is not contented at the end of the day. People feel frustrated, empty and depressed. And, if being busy is a feature of our society, so also is being pre-occupied with worry about this and that, for today and tomorrow.
Jesus himself was a very busy man and many people made demands upon him. Read the first two chapters of the gospel of Mark and you will see how busy he was each day wherever he went. Yet, at the same time, he was at peace with God and at peace within himself. He lived in constant communion with the Father; he made time to cultivate his relationship with the Father in prayer; he trusted the Father and sought always to do his will. His life was filled with activity but he was fulfilled in heart and soul. And he is the example for busy people to follow. He was filled with the Holy Spirit and in the power of that Spirit he lived a disciplined life, making space for God – to hear God and to love and serve him.
Born-again Christians are real people living in a real world. They are subject to the pressures of that world even as other people are. Therefore they cannot escape being busy, or, at least, appearing to be busy. And, further, they often belong to Christian groups which are characterised by activism – doing this and that, going here and there, all ‘for the Lord’ in sincerity. The great danger of being constantly busy, whether in secular or religious work, is that the heart and affections tend to become fixed on the content of the activities – not on the One for whom the work is done. This leads to frustration, because that activity – even if for the kingdom – is here today and gone tomorrow. Activity, as such, is ephemeral and cannot satisfy the heart.
It is worth reading and pondering what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount about worry and the way out of it. Read Matthew 6:24–34 slowly! When you worry, your heart is not fixed or set upon the kingdom of God. The exalted Lord Jesus is not central to your thinking. If you are looking away from your busy life to the Lord Jesus, your Saviour, then life will be different. This is because you will see your activities in the light of heaven, not in the light of earth.
Jesus also spoke of discipline in the Sermon on the Mount. Read Matthew 6:1–21 carefully. Here Jesus explained the discipline of giving to others, prayer to God and fasting. These do not make up the totality of personal, spiritual discipline but they are at the core of it.
Giving. When you or I give, we usually like to let others know that we have been charitable! You will not have to think long about this to come up with illustrations. In fact, giving to those who need is an occasion which human pride often looks for, and enjoys, for it is an occasion that lends itself to boasting. Have you noticed how people love to be singled out and thanked for doing their bit for the good cause? Spiritual discipline requires that you put to death spiritual enemies within you like pride and vanity. This is why Jesus told the disciples: ‘When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret’ (6:3). This method is not easy. God will certainly know and the recipient will benefit, but others will not know. You give out of love and love asks for no reward.
Prayer. In our busy lives we need to make time in order to be alone with God. There should be space each day when there is no activity. ‘When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen’ said Jesus (6:6). Solitude and quiet are necessary. As the athlete finds time to train, so the Christian has to find time for communion with God. He must make space within his heart and life for God to come to him and speak with him.
At first such a discipline may prove difficult. When you have entered your room you will find not only people but also thoughts knocking on your door, wanting to come in and disturb you and take up your time – to steal it from God. But persevere and keep the door closed against all who would fill the space you have reserved for God. You need to listen to him and he wants to hear you. So go ahead and be persistent. Begin with a brief portion of the Bible, and think about what it has to say to you about the Lord. Be still, and you will know that the Lord is truly your God. From this centre your whole life will be an unceasing prayer. Everything you do will be done in relation to God, who knows and sees everything.
Fasting. The discipline of fasting is to help you develop self-control and thus begin to make space for God in your life. It helps to place you in the position and the frame of mind in which your inner ears are open to hear God and your inner eyes to see him. Fasting can take many forms today and is to be done from small beginnings. There is the abstinence from solid food for a day or part of a day and the denial for oneself of one or more particular pleasures. It is omitting something from your life in order to create more space for God. It is between you and your Lord. As Jesus said, ‘When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting’ (6:17). The intention is not to deceive others, but to master the old self so that the new life within you can grow and flourish.
Personal discipline when done for the Lord aids personal discipleship. It will not earn or merit for you the grace of God; but, it will help to place you in the position where you can best benefit from your relationship to Jesus Christ and from the gift of the Spirit within you. By discipline you will be enabled to see and know that life has meaning and purpose, when lived for God and his kingdom.
Encountering God through others
While there are important aspects to Christian discipleship that each Christian has to face alone, there are others which must occur within the local church. There is discipline in community. Didn’t Jesus himself create a community by calling a band of disciples to be with him and with each other? They travelled with him, learned from him and each other, and began to live as a community. When he sent them out to work for him he sent them two by two, never alone. After his resurrection and ascension, the apostles and disciples were together in prayer and fellowship when the Holy Spirit came upon them. And from that time two important characteristics of Christianity have been the reality of a community – the Church – created by God, and the joy and privilege of belonging to it. Trying to be a Christian in isolation is to deny Christianity – unless you happen to be alone on the moon.
As human beings we can learn so much from each other. We do not always do so, usually because of our pride, stubbornness and moral blindness. The person who is born from above is placed by the Lord in the household of faith, to live there with others in faith and faithfulness. You are born into the family of God to enjoy brothers and sisters in Christ. You enter the kingdom of God to become a fellow citizen and a fellow heir of those who were in the kingdom before you. You are to live for Christ and in his name for others. In the local church you are to encounter God together with others – in worship, celebration, thanksgiving, teaching and learning, fellowship, prayer, evangelism, mission and varied service to the community around. Not only are you to encounter God directly as you worship, witness and work with others, but also indirectly through your fellow Christians.
The looking for Christ in others is illustrated by this extract from a letter of Martin Luther, the German evangelical reformer, written to the Elector Frederick of Saxony:
‘When, therefore, I learned, most illustrious prince, that your Lordship has been afflicted with a grave illness and that Christ has, at the same time, become ill in you, I counted it my duty to visit your Lordship with a little writing of mine. I cannot pretend that I do not hear the voice of Christ crying out to me from your Lordship’s body and flesh and saying, “Behold I am sick”. This is so because such evils as illness and the like, are not borne by us who are Christian, but by Christ himself, our Lord and Saviour, in whom we live …’
Luther has a way of putting things somewhat dramatically. But the basic point is true. We are to see Christ in each other in times of pain as well as of joy. One of the basic beliefs of the modern Christian hospice movement is that we see and serve Christ in those who are terminally ill. ‘In that you have done it to the least of my brethren,’ said Jesus, ‘you have done it to me.’
It is easy to be friendly with those who have a similar background to your own and who share your interests. Human societies which work on the basic principle, ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ generally flourish. But the Church of the living God is not this kind of society – even if it appears to be in some places. The Church is composed of those who are receiving God’s salvation and who have life from above. This means it is a society of people from all walks of life and types of background. In the Church they are to grow together because in Christ they are already one. Discipline is therefore needed in the local church, which is a microcosm of the whole, to help this growth and to allow the Holy Spirit to manifest the life of Christ in the community of varied believers. Then ‘birds of a different feather will flock together’. Each local church is to be in the world but not of the world. As the group of people who are called to live a disciplined, spiritual life, the church should know how important it is to look above to Christ and to set its sights on God’s kingdom.
To live a spiritual life today does not mean that you must leave your family, give up your job, reject your friends, stop reading the newspaper or watching television. You do not have to cease to make, or to listen to, music or stop your sporting activities. You are not required to curtail your involvement in political and social activities. And you are not expected to give up sexual relations with your wife or husband or to spend great periods of time on your knees in fervent prayer or in solitary meditation. This is not to say that God may not call you one day to leave home or to make some great sacrifice for his kingdom. The point is that God will make these things clear later. In the meantime, you are to live in the old context with new life and new values.
For most Christians the spiritual life is to be lived in the midst of, and through, the busy round of activities at home, work or school. What is new is that you are no longer anxious about many things, for your single aim is to please the Lord. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, said Jesus. No longer are you to experience all the activities of daily life as occasions for worry. Rather you are to see them as the variety of occasions provided by God for serving him. The Holy Spirit does not transport you to another place and another context. No! He helps you to live with new eyes, ears and sensitivity in the old situation and context. What you see looks different because you hear with Christ’s ears. You interpret the world differently because there is new life within you. You find that you have more time for people, to listen to them and be with them. Your outward circumstances and worldly possessions become less important because your mind is not set on these things but is fixed on the exalted Lord Jesus.
To summarise. If you are born from above, you will know the life of the Spirit within your heart; you will have the inner assurance that God loves you and that you are his adopted child; you will have communion with God and know him in a personal way; you will know what spiritual freedom and sanctification mean; and, though you will fail sometimes, you will know that if you confess your sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. You will find that to be a disciple includes being disciplined, but it is a discipline which leads to freedom in service.
PART THREE: Justification
6: Clearing the way
The Jews were familiar with laws and law courts, just as we are. So it is not surprising that Jesus used a legal expression, justified (judged to be in a right relationship) when he told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Here is that story in an expanded form.
The Pharisee and the tax collector
In Jerusalem there was a large and magnificent temple. It had been built, on the site of an earlier one, by King Herod the Great and was still unfinished. For Jews the temple was the unique place to encounter God, to worship him, to offer sacrifice to him, and to celebrate major festivals. The special hours for prayer were nine a.m., twelve noon and 3 p.m.
One day, along with many worshippers, there arrived two men to pray at noon. One looked stern and strict while the other looked sad and depressed.
The stern one belonged to the group within Judaism called Pharisees. The great driving force of his life was the ambition to keep the Law of Moses in all details. He even attempted to be stricter than the Law required. He believed that God would justify him (declare him to be in the right) at the final judgment and cause him to partake in the resurrection of the dead, to live in the new age of righteousness. This justification would be on the basis of his having obeyed the Law.
This devout Pharisee was supremely conscious that he was different to other Jews, for his zeal for religion and the Law was far greater than theirs. So confident was he of his religious commitment and success that he prayed aloud this prayer so that others could hear:
‘I thank you, God, that I am not greedy, dishonest, or an adulterer, like everybody else. I thank you that I am not like that tax collector over there. I fast two days a week, and I give you a tenth of all my income.’
He felt superior: he believed he was superior to others. The Law of Moses only demanded fasting on the Day of Atonement but he fasted over one hundred days a year. The giving of the tenth or the tithe was to be of one’s produce – from field, orchard and herds – not of absolutely everything one had. But he gave one tenth of everything!
The sad man was a tax collector, employed by the Roman occupying forces. Men of his kind were usually dishonest. They were despised by strict Jews. Their duties made it necessary for them to break the Law of Moses – concerning observing the Sabbath, keeping the festivals and eating kosher food. This tax collector stood a long way from the altar and prayed quietly to God. He could not even lift up his head to pray. Obviously he was deeply moved for he kept on beating his chest with his hand. And this is what he said: ‘God have pity on me, a sinner.’ He knew himself to be a real sinner: he believed that God had every right to be angry with him, and he recognised that his only hope was in God’s mercy.
What a contrast in attitudes and in prayers! The Pharisee did not really address God. He spoke to himself and to those near him. He was full of pride and self-justification. He expected to be congratulated. The tax collector was trying to address God, but managed only to utter a few words of self-condemnation. He had no pride and offered no self-justification. He expected to be rejected.
God, the judge of all, carefully watched these men at prayer and he declared that the tax collector was in the right – that is, had a right relationship to God. This wretched man looked to God as his Saviour, not as his Congratulator. The principle that God works on is that a man who exalts himself before God will be humbled by God; but the man who genuinely humbles himself before God will be exalted by God (that is, placed in a right relationship with God). This is because God is Creator and Saviour. He who makes life also gives salvation. Human merit does not give salvation. God alone sets people in the right relationship, a saving relationship, with himself. In return, he expects them to love and serve him with gratitude and joy.
Sorting out words and phrases
The key phrase in Luke 18:9–14 is the comment of Jesus that the tax collector went home ‘justified before God’ or ‘in the right with God’. To appreciate the teaching in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters, on justification, we need to do a little grammatical work.
In English we have the nouns justice and righteousness and the adjectives, just and righteous. But, while there is the verb, to justify, there is no modern verb from the stem ‘right’. Old English had to rightwise. Further, while there is the noun, justification, these is no equivalent word from the stem ‘right’.
We need to be aware that English translations of the Greek New Testament use words built from the stems ‘just’ and ‘right’ to translate words from one Greek stem dikaio (dikaioo=I justify; dikaiosune=justice or righteousness). The family of words built from the stem ‘just’ come from the Latin. In the Latin Bible justitia translates dikaiosune. The family of words built from ‘right’ come from Old and Middle English.
All this may seem complicated, but it is necessary if we are to be aware that English translations of the family of words from ‘dikaio’ use words from the stem ‘just’ and from the stem ‘right’. For example, in Romans 3:22–26 the NIV has the following: righteousness (verse 22), are justified (verse 24), justice (verse 25) and justice, to be just, and justified (verse 26). In each of these cases the stem ‘dikaio’ is used.
However, if we look at the TEV, which is a ‘dynamic translation’, then we find that the following expressions are used: God puts people right (verse 22), are put right (verse 24), is righteous (verse 25), and righteousness, is righteous and. puts right (verse 26). In the TEV ‘to put right’ is used as a dynamic equivalent of ‘to justify’.
From all this it may be concluded that justice and righteousness function as synonyms; that to be just is the same as to be righteous and that for God to justify is for him to put in the right. This may be illustrated by looking at three translations of Romans 1:17.
1. NIV: ‘For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last ….’
2. TEV: ‘For the gospel reveals how God puts men right with himself; it is through faith from beginning to end ....’
3. JB: `The Good News is what reveals the justice of God to us: it shows how faith leads to faith ....’
Here the Jerusalem Bible can be seen following the long Latin-based tradition of speaking of justice rather than of righteousness.
As we shall see in the next chapter, Paul deliberately took up the theme of dikaiosune as the way to explain and defend the Gospel. Obviously as a man of the Scriptures he took the idea from the Old Testament, where God’s righteousness is a powerful theme.
Paul knew well that, for the prophets of Israel, the righteousness of God did not describe an inner virtue or attribute of the Lord. To say, ‘God is righteous’, was not to talk of the perfection of rightness of God’s thinking and planning. Rather, it was a description of the activity of the living God towards people or an individual who were either in the wrong or experiencing suffering or deprivation. He was acting to save such people from disaster or defeat and to place them in the right. Paul recognised that, as the Judge of the world, God acted righteously by restoring a people or an individual to right relationships – either with others on earth or with heaven. God acted righteously when he delivered the Israelites from the bondage of Egypt and when he protected the widow and the fatherless from their oppressors. Righteousness meant salvation; it pointed to the intervention of God as the One to whom all the people were related as his covenant people. This is well illustrated from Isaiah. Speaking on behalf of the living Lord, he cried out, ‘Listen to me, you stubborn-hearted, you who are far from righteousness, I am bringing my righteousness near, it is not far away; and my salvation will not be delayed. I will grant salvation to Zion, my splendour to Israel’ (46:12–13). And, ‘My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations’ (51:5).
With this kind of background in the Scriptures which he prayerfully studied, Paul saw God’s righteousness as that which undergirds and gives power to the Gospel. God acts righteously through the Gospel to place believing sinners in a right relationship with himself. The idea of forgiveness or acquittal is included, but the positive idea of placing in the right is uppermost. The picture behind the use of the word is a simple Jewish law court, held at the gate of the village or town. Here the elder, acting as judge, places a person in the right. The judgment is not acquittal, for that is negative (no case proved against). Rather, the judgment is that the person who has been accused is not merely acquitted but is in right relationships with those concerned in the case. By the judgment of the court he is declared to be in the right.
Righteousness in the Old Testament may be described as the fulfilling of the demands of a relationship within society or towards God. There are many relationships within society – children and parents, husbands and wives, workers and bosses, priest and worshippers – and all these relationships are part of a greater relationship with God, the Lord of the covenant. When God or man fulfils the conditions imposed upon him by a relationship then he is, in Old Testament terms, righteous.
God acts righteously towards Israel for he is their God. He placed them within, and keeps them within, his covenant. Paul saw in this activity of God a picture of what actually occurs when sinners respond to the Gospel. He places them within his covenant of grace and calls them his people.
In view of the complications of translating dikaiosune, it is not surprising that justification has been misunderstood in a variety of ways. To add to the problem, there is also the fact of human sin in the heart which encourages false understanding of this important doctrine. Here are seven ways in which justification is either misunderstood or falsely presented.
(a) I am justified by my activities for the church or for good causes. One of the most difficult things for religious people to accept is that all their good deeds and activities have no bearing upon their standing before God, as judge. Deep in the human heart is the feeling that God must reward the good works of the kind person. This expresses itself in the common human enterprise of self-justification. As human beings we have a constant desire to be seen to be in the right and so we defend ourselves, exonerate ourselves and sell ourselves in order to achieve such a state of mind. Reflect on your own experience and you will see just how often you engage in self-justification. The Gospel is clear. By my own merits and efforts and by all my justifying of myself, I can never be in the right with God. There is no self-justification or salvation by merit.
(b) I am justified because I believe the Christian creed. Often ‘to believe’ is understood simply as ‘to be in intellectual agreement with certain statements, judged to be true’. So you can believe the contents of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed and any other creed as a collection of true statements; however, you may not be committed to the living God who is the One to whom these statements point. In situations where there are competitive creeds – for example, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Marxism – there is the constant temptation to think that if you believe in the right creed (Christianity) then you automatically place yourself in a right relationship with God. Such thinking is in error!
Also, it is a serious error to assume that because you believe not only the basic Creeds of Christianity but also the specific additional doctrines of conservative evangelicalism or conservative Catholicism, you make yourself more acceptable to God. There is no merit before God in terms of justification because you believe a special package of doctrines. Justification requires the attitude, ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy Cross I cling’. True faith includes a basic content of doctrine but it is a trust in God, a total reliance upon him, that is the real content of saving belief.
(c) I am justified because I am baptised. This is a way of thinking that is common among Roman Catholics, but it is found in other circles as well. It is even found among those that practise adult baptism, for here there is the subtle temptation to believe that you must be a genuine believer, simply because you have made the effort to be baptised as an adult. Baptism is the external and visible sign of God’s justification. The sign, however, cannot guarantee the justification declared from heaven. It can only witness to it. Certainly baptism is important and not to be undervalued. When the devil came to tempt Martin Luther, Luther used to drive him away with the words, ‘I have been baptised.’ Here baptism is seen as assurance, as a sign from God. But baptism without repentance and faith, and thus baptism without God’s justification from heaven, is merely and only an external and visible event.
(d) To be justified means that God has forgiven me. The claim is not so much an error as not the whole truth. Justification and forgiveness are different ways of thinking of the relation of God to the sinner. When the guilt of sin is cancelled and there is acquittal, then we say that a person is forgiven. A right relationship with God is more than the cancellation of the debt or guilt of sin. It includes it but it is more than it. So to equate justification and forgiveness is like saying that a two-wheel drive and a four-wheel drive are the same. In justification God both takes away the guilt of your sins and he places you in a right relationship with himself. This is because he counts to you the perfect righteousness of Christ.
(e) To be justified means that God treats me ‘just as if I had never sinned’. This form of explanation seems fine until you examine it carefully. In justification God sets the sinner in a right relationship with himself and treats that sinner as his adopted child. He does this only because of Jesus, Christ, who died and rose again for us. God does not enter into a relationship with a sinner, pretending that he is not a sinner. No! He counts or reckons to the sinner the perfect righteousness of Christ and, because of this, he treats the sinner as an adopted child. In justification, a sinner is not placed in the position that Adam was in before he sinned in the garden of Eden. Adam’s righteousness was only in potential. Though he began with a right relationship with God that relationship had to be developed so as to become a mature relationship. And, as events proved, it did not last. In contrast, the righteousness of Christ (his right relationship with the Father as the second Adam) is a perfect and everlasting righteousness. And it cannot fail. To be justified is for God to count to your name this perfect righteousness of Christ.
(f) Justification occurs in God’s court in heaven and guarantees that I am in the right with God. It has nothing to do with how I live on earth. It is true that justification occurs in heaven: it is the declaration of God, the Judge, that a right relationship has been created. But it is not true that justification has nothing to do with life on earth. The Lord who counts the righteousness of Christ to you, a sinner, is the same God who causes the Spirit to bring spiritual birth to you. The faith by which you believe and trust in the Lord Jesus as Saviour is a faith which expresses itself in faithfulness to God in daily life.
In fact, God’s declaration in heaven places you within his covenant of grace: it makes you a member of the new covenant, and thus a member of the people in whom dwells the Holy Spirit. These people love, serve and obey God on earth (read Jeremiah 31:31–37 and Hebrews 8:7–13). Those who teach or imply that justification has nothing to do with daily life, and nothing to do with real Christian commitment, do great harm. They neither read the Bible carefully nor know the Protestant teaching on justification. If you examine the Protestant Confessions of Faith from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (and modern ones like the Lausanne Covenant) you will find that they all insist that justification and sanctification (living a holy and dedicated life for God) belong together. Sanctification is the outcome of justification; they are not to be separated from each other.
In his influential and exciting The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Martin Luther presented two complementary truths, always to be held together. They were:
(i) A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
(ii) A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.
The first was his statement of the freedom enjoyed by those who are justified by faith. To them can come no harm because God, the only One who can possibly harm them, has declared them to be in a right relationship with himself. Thus, being set free from selfish concern, those who are justified can give themselves wholly to the service of others. Because of the relationship in which the justified believer stands before God, he is set free to serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and the advantage of his neighbour. True faith is active through love of the neighbour, finding expression in joyful, cheerful, and free service of others, and done without thought of hope or reward. When a believer is declared to be in the right before God, there is nothing else he should want except to be like Christ, who was the loving servant of all.
Luther’s little book is available in a variety of translations and collections and is well worth reading. It is difficult to find anything better on the relationship of justification and righteous living.
(g) Justification was rightly understood by Paul, but misunderstood by James. Regrettably Luther said something like this. So bright was his vision of justification by faith as taught by the apostle Paul, that he believed it had been a mistake to include the Letter of James in the New Testament. When you first read James 2:14–26, after having read Romans and Galatians, it is easy to see why Luther (and others) felt as they did. In fact James 2:14–26 can be read as if it were a definite rejection of Paul’s teaching that justification is not by works but by faith alone.
What James actually teaches is that true faith, the faith that wholly rests in God, must be accompanied by genuine deeds of love, just as a fire produces smoke. If there are no deeds of love then there is no faith. James was probably responding to those who said, ‘I know and accept the creed that Jesus is Lord and Saviour. However, I cannot see that Christian behaviour is absolutely required by the creed. What really matters is being a true believer and believing the right things.’ His answer was that such faith is the faith that devils and demons possess. True faith in the compassionate Christ is expressed in deeds of love. A careful reading of Paul shows that he also taught that faith expresses itself in loving thought and action. So, when seen in context, Paul and James agreed. They appear to disagree because they are facing different questions and problems.
The way is now clear to look at the letter to the churches of Galatia and find out what Paul taught those churches about justification and its implications for life.
7: Right with God
Paul preached the Gospel in Galatia (modern Turkey). As he gathered converts to Christ together for worship and fellowship, churches began to exist and to grow. The converts were filled with the Spirit and were enthusiastic in their commitment to Christ. However, after Paul left, they received false and erroneous teaching from some visitors, Jewish Christians. News of this teaching so horrified Paul that he immediately wrote a vigorous and passionate letter to the churches of Galatia. One of the main themes of this letter was justification by faith. Why not read it? It is only a few pages long.
To appreciate the force of this passionate commendation of justification by faith we need to have some understanding of (a) the message that Paul originally preached to the pagan Gentiles of Galatia, and (b) the false teaching that the visiting Jewish Christians introduced into the churches. After looking at these subjects, we shall then examine what Paul actually wrote about justification by faith.
Gospel for pagan Gentiles
By a careful reading of the contents of the letter to Galatia it is possible to suggest the main themes of Paul’s preaching. Here they are:
(a) There is one God, who is the Lord. He revealed himself to the Jews but he is not a tribal deity. Ordinary people in Galatia (and in other parts of the Roman Empire) thought that each city, area or town had its own god (compare 1 Corinthians 8:5, ‘many “lords” and many “gods”’). Further, they held that each tribe and ethnic group had its own deity. Paul had to declare that the Lord, who revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist, is not a tribal deity, only the God of the Hebrews. Rather, he is truly the God of the whole earth and the Lord and Saviour of all.
(b) This one Lord is the Creator of all. And he is the God of grace, making it possible for his creatures to enter into fellowship and friendship with him. In a society of polytheism and superstition, the message that there is one, and only one, true God is certainly good news. When, however, this one Lord is presented as the God who loves, cares, reconciles, forgives and enters into holy relationships with people of all kinds (men and women, slave and freeman) then good news is certainly being proclaimed. Grace was a favourite word of Paul (see Galatians 1:3; 6:18). It means the personal activity of God towards and in human beings for the purpose of bringing them salvation. So the Gospel is good news of God’s grace.
(c) Fellowship with God is made possible through Jesus of Nazareth. He is the exalted Jewish Messiah, the Saviour of the world and the Lord. People in Galatia (as in most other places) did not need to be told that they needed a Saviour. They believed that hostile spiritual powers opposed them and often sought to destroy them. Paul proclaimed that in Jesus, now the exalted Saviour, God had broken the domination of these evil forces. In his resurrection Jesus had triumphed over Satan and all demons. Further, through his sacrificial death, God had broken down the ancient dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, a wall that kept Gentiles from salvation. In and by Jesus, the Messiah (Christ), there was now the possibility of a happy relationship of love and trust between Jews and Gentiles as they received salvation from the Lord. In fact, Paul added, even before the Jewish nation came into being, God had announced to Abraham that he would become the God of all nations and the Saviour of the world.
(d) People of every race, social class and nation are called to genuine faith in Jesus, who is alive for ever as Lord and Saviour. In and through him is salvation and spiritual freedom given freely by God to anyone who will receive. Paul’s Gospel was good news for slave as well as master, for people living anywhere and everywhere. It was good news of liberation from the tight grip of demonic forces at work within society and individual lives. It was good news of rescue into the love of God and into his service. No price had to be paid. No ritual had to be undertaken and no feats had to be achieved. God only called for wholehearted trust in and commitment to himself as revealed in Jesus. Gentiles did not have to become Jews or behave as Jews. God called for both Jews and Gentiles to repent of their sins and to receive Jesus, the Lord, as Saviour.
(e) Those who respond in true faith to the Gospel receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to give them power to live for Christ as faithful disciples. Paul knew that to be set free from the powerful, pagan ethos, with its inbuilt fears and superstitions, was not possible by mere, isolated human effort. To be able freely and joyfully to live for Christ required divine help. So God provided the indwelling Spirit to live within the hearts, minds and souls of believers to enable them to live as genuine disciples.
(f) In the act of baptism, God publicly accepts the believer as his adopted child, united to Jesus Christ, the exalted Saviour. At the same time the believer commits himself/herself to a way of life, led by the Spirit of God. We do not know what method of baptism Paul used in Galatia. But that does not matter. Obviously he saw it as an important occasion, a baptism ‘into Christ’ and an act of ‘putting on’ Christ (3:27). In its symbolism baptism recorded what God gives in Christ and what a human being offers in response.
False teaching from Jewish Christians
This is what Paul said about this false teaching. He was obviously very deeply angry about it.
‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!' (1:6–9)
Little is known about those who preached a gospel that Paul held was no gospel at all. They were Jews who accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Israel and Saviour of the world.
But they radically differed from Paul in what they added to this basic confession of faith that Jesus is Messiah/Lord/Saviour. They said something like this to the Galatians: ‘What Paul told you is fine but it is not the whole story. He did not tell you to complete your obedience to God by submitting (as Gentile converts to Judaism always have done) to the Law of Moses. In particular, men must be circumcised; then all must obey the dietary regulations and eat kosher food as well as keeping the Jewish festivals.’ In effect they said, ‘Jesus is not a complete Saviour. As well as Jesus you need the Law of Moses.’
Whether these Jewish Christians (called ‘Judaizers’) believed they were actually helping Paul (by completing his teaching) or putting Paul right (for he omitted obedience to the Law of Moses) we do not know. What we do know is that Paul believed that their teaching destroyed the Gospel of grace that he had preached.
Defending the Gospel
Paul began his defence by referring to an incident involving the apostle Peter at Antioch in Syria. Peter, a Jew, joined in the fellowship at both the meal table and the Lord’s table and happily ate with Gentile (uncircumcised) Christians. As a Christian he appeared to be liberated from the rules of Judaism, for these forbade eating with uncircumcised Gentiles. Then, quite suddenly, he did a complete turnabout. He refused to eat any longer with Gentiles and he tried to persuade them to submit to the Law of Moses. In Paul’s eyes Peter had seriously compromised the Gospel.
Peter had allowed the great weight of Jewish law, tradition and custom to influence him. Christ had taken second place. By his action he negated the Gospel, he placed the good news at risk and he dishonoured Christ. Paul saw instantly that the truth of the Gospel was on trial. He rebuked Peter publicly and then offered the following important statement on justification, which he repeated for the sake of the Galatians:
‘We, who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”, know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law, no-one will be justified.
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a law-breaker’ (2:15–17).
This needs some unpacking.
Peter and Paul were circumcised Jews and within the covenant that God made through Moses with the people of Israel (Jews). They were not ‘Gentile sinners’, having no knowledge of God’s will and ways. The two apostles were in a right relationship with God the Father. This relationship had begun and continued, not because they obeyed the Law of Moses as Jews, but solely because they gratefully accepted the salvation freely offered to them in and through Jesus, the Messiah.
Verse 16 needs paraphrasing: ‘We, Jews, are convinced that each human being has a need to be declared righteous at the end of the age when God will judge the world. Further, as Jews, we are convinced that such acceptance by God will never be achieved by offering to God our attempts to keep the laws, rules and commandments derived from the Law of Moses. Instead, we have come to see and to know that acceptance by God occurs now (yes, now) – in anticipation of acceptance at the Last Judgment – through faith in our Saviour, Jesus, the Messiah. This gift of salvation and of a right relationship to God which is provided in Jesus we gratefully accept now, for it is the only way to be in the right with God.’
Verse 17 describes a possible consequence of seeking a right relationship with God, in and by Jesus. It is the breaking of Jewish law and custom concerning meals with Gentiles. Righteousness in and through Jesus has the implication of putting Jew and Gentile on the same level before the one Lord. Actions taken on the basis of the Gospel, and of a right relationship with God, and thus within the ‘body of Christ’ cannot be sinful, whatever Jewish custom may say. Christ cannot be the agent, or servant or initiator of sin. However, to put the shoe on the other foot, to deny the unity of Jew and Gentile in Jesus Christ and to act on the basis of that denial is, in fact, to become a sinner. This is what Peter had done by refusing to eat with fellow born-again, justified believers. He had acted not on Gospel but on Jewish principles. The Jewish Christians, who visited Galatia had been teaching and acting as Peter had done. They were clearly in the wrong and their doctrines must be rejected.
Paul moved on to provide in a nutshell the basic elements of his teaching based on the Gospel of grace. If Peter had understood and lived by these, he would never have acted so stupidly in Antioch; and if the Jewish Christians who visited Galatia had understood them, they would never have caused the commotion that they did cause. He wrote:
‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’ (2:19–21)
The use of the first person singular is not to be taken as autobiographical. Paul spoke on behalf of all whom God justified in Christ through faith. We may notice four basic truths that Paul here stated.
(a) Through the Law [of Moses] I died to the Law, so that 1 might live for God. Paul meant that the function of the Law of Moses in two particulars had ceased. First of all it had been the barrier which separated Jew and Gentile and only allowed Gentiles to come to God if they became Jews first; this had been torn down. Secondly, the Law gave the historical order of religious practice to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah; this task was ended. With the arrival of Jesus and his ministry the role of the Law in salvation was over. Thus, set free from the Law, both Jew and Gentile can truly (in Christ and by the Spirit) live for God. Their relationship to the Law is dead.
Later Paul said that the function of the Law before the era of Faith (which came with the completion of the ministry and work of Jesus) may be compared to that of a slave. He carefully guided and protected the child of his master on the way to school each day. He prevented the child from going anywhere or doing anything other than the master decreed. He acted as a repressive tutor and custodian. But with the arrival of the era of Faith there is no need for a custodian. The children of God, as true believers, naturally (as they are led by the Spirit) desire to love, trust and obey their heavenly Father and Jesus, their Saviour. For them the Law has lost importance, since they belong to Christ, possess his Spirit, and have a right relation with God, living as his adopted children (4:1–7).
(b) I have been crucified with Christ. Paul looked upon Jesus not merely as an individual man. He saw him also as representative, substitute and universal Man: the Man for others and the Messiah. Thus his death on the cross was the death of all who believed (and would believe) in this Man. The death of Christ was their death to the Law, to sin and to the domination of demonic forces. His victory over death was also theirs and is theirs. Paul developed this theme of union with Christ in his death and resurrection in Romans 6:1–14. Here he wrote: ‘Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ The basis of the right relationship with God is the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the language of the theology of yesterday, the death of Jesus is the ‘meritorious cause’ of our justification before God.
(c) I no longer live but Christ lives in me. The ‘I’ here is the ego of a human being, seen as the source and root of all evil passions and desires. This centre of sinful, human existence within the believer has been crucified with Christ. It is reckoned to be dead. The new centre of life and freedom is the resurrected, living Christ, who now acts in the believer through the Spirit. ‘Christ lives in me’ is ‘Christ, by the Holy Spirit, lives in me and shares his risen life with me’. This is why Paul told the Roman Christians that Jesus ‘was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification’ (4:25).
(d) The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Not once, but many times, Paul insisted that Christianity is a life of faith: it begins with, and continues in, faith. God provides all in Christ but the receiving is by faith – a sure trust in God’s mercy and grace which expresses itself in faithfulness and loving action. Such saving faith sees in the death of Jesus a sacrificial death for me, even me. Christ is viewed as a personal Saviour.
All these principles are explained in greater detail by Paul in the longer letter to the Romans. You will never be content until you have read and studied that great letter. Try reading it through slowly in a modern translation or paraphrase. It is the place in the New Testament where the theme of righteousness/justification is explained in depth and at length.
Justification by faith is not something that happens once and then is valid for all time. The baby begins to breathe at birth and continues to breathe throughout life. The Christian is one who has believed in the word of God concerning Jesus, exalted Saviour and Lord. He is justified. The right relationship with God that is created by God is maintained, from the human side, as the believer continues to believe. Justification is entering a relationship with God on the basis of faith and staying in that relationship on the basis of faith. It is from faith to faith. It begins and continues in faith.
The experience of justification is also the experience of freedom and life from the indwelling Spirit. In a right relationship with God, the believer knows that he is truly a child of God for the indwelling Spirit provides this deep, personal assurance. Also, in a right relationship with God, the believer finds that he is free to love and serve God by loving and serving his neighbours. To be justified means that you are released from excessive concern for yourself, and you are delivered from the disease of worry and anxiety about your identity and fate.
Paul had to tell the Galatians that they did not receive the gift of the indwelling Spirit because they sought to keep the requirements of the Law of Moses. He had to insist that the freedom they enjoyed as Christians did not come from submitting to circumcision or eating kosher food. Justification by faith, and by faith alone, without the works of the Law, was the basis for God’s gifts of freedom and the Spirit. Placed in a right relationship with God by God’s grace, they were also given the gift of the indwelling Spirit by grace. And possessing the Spirit they were free, free to release the love of God into the world.
Today the message of justification by faith is addressed to a very different situation to Antioch and Galatia. You are not in much danger of being persuaded that your acceptance by God is dependent on your keeping Jewish regulations. But you are in constant danger, whether you are a nominal or committed Christian, of thinking that what you do in terms of religious and social duties (for example, going to church and supporting good causes) earns you some merit before God. All of us find it hard to accept that salvation is wholly the gift of God and that our best activities and our cherished beliefs cannot earn just a little portion of merit for salvation in heaven.
The Gospel of justification declares that God has done all in Christ. It tells you that a right relationship with God, including forgiveness and adoption into God’s family, is a gift of God. The Gospel insists that you can never be anything other than only, and merely, a receiver of God’s righteousness. You can never earn or deserve it. If anyone tells you that you can earn or deserve it, beware of that person: he or she is like the Judaizers of Galatia.
Justification and the Protestant Reformation
We can now see why the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century found justification such an important New Testament doctrine. They claimed that justification by faith alone was ‘that by which the Church stands or falls’. In other words, a Church that does not have the message of justification by faith alone is not worthy of the name of the Church of God – the God of righteousness.
Late medieval religion in Europe can be compared with the religion that the Judaizers of Galatia wanted to introduce. Both could be called orthodox in that they affirmed that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah. Yet both added to this basic commitment. The Judaizers added the Law of Moses while the medieval Church added all kinds of religious practices – from compulsory auricular confession to masses for those who had died and were thought to be in purgatory. In each case the way to God through Jesus Christ was severely hampered and blurred. And in each case it was held that human merit and effort had a part to play in the gaining of salvation.
Martin Luther, the German Reformer, went through agony of mind as he realised that he could never earn his way into God’s favour for he was too great a sinner. And, because he thought of God’s righteousness (in common with many in the late medieval Church) as that justice which punishes guilty sinners (not the provision of a right relationship for sinners) he was in great despair. But let him tell his own story:
‘I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but one expression, “the justice of God”, because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore, I did not love a just and an angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
‘Night and day I pondered until I saw the connexion between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith”. Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon, I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in great love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.’
The passage of Paul is, of course, Romans 1:16–17; but we may add that Luther wrote a powerful commentary on the Letter to Galatia, which throbs with the discovery of justification by faith and with the comparison of the religion of the Judaizers and that of the leaders of the late medieval Catholic Church. Luther’s discovery (or God’s gracious intervention) led him into the work of reformation of the Church. Today, if we catch the same fire that burned in Luther’s heart and mind, we, too, shall be reformers of the Church.
8. Freedom in the Spirit
On behalf of the God of Israel, Isaiah proclaimed: ‘As the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it’ (55:10–11).
The word of God in the Gospel is powerful to create a new relationship between God, the Father, and the believing sinner. Through Jesus Christ, God, who is your Creator and Preserver, becomes by his own effective word and action, your Father and Saviour. The same word of God, which is accompanied by the Holy Spirit, also creates eternal life in your heart. Peter wrote to the young churches that ‘you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God’ (1 Peter 1:23). There is a dynamic, divine connection between the declaration in heaven by the Father that a sinner is justified, and the work of the Spirit on earth in a human heart resulting in new birth. And the connection is in and through the dynamic word of God, which achieves God’s purpose.
In the Gospel and first letter of John, where there is the clearest teaching on the new birth by the Spirit, we noted that this teaching is not presented in isolation. He, who is born from above into God’s kingdom, loves, serves and obeys God in spiritual freedom; and God treats him as his adopted son. In Paul’s letters to Galatia and Rome, which contain the clearest teaching on justification by faith, we noted that this doctrine is also not presented in isolation. He, who is declared to be in a right relationship with God, is also led and indwelt by the Spirit.
Paul only used the image of birth once, preferring (as we noted) the image of new creation. However, he used it in close relation to the image of justification. He told Titus that ‘when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs, having the hope of eternal life’ (3:4–7). Here we have salvation by God’s grace and mercy alone; spiritual birth by the Holy Spirit, justification and eternal life. The justified become heirs, knowing that in the age to come God will give to them their legacy – eternal life.
Having looked at the teaching in Galatians on justification, it is now necessary to turn to two further basic themes which Paul also used in his reply to the teaching of the Judaizers. They are ‘freedom’ and ‘life in the Spirit’, and the presentation of them is intimately associated with that on justification. This clearly reveals that to be justified by faith is vitally related to living a Christian life in the world.
The Galatians knew the physical reality of human slavery for it was part of ordinary life. They were also bound by dark superstitions, fears and prejudices. Freedom was a powerful and evocative word, pointing to things and experiences they did not have. Paul believed that the Gospel did really and truly set people free where it mattered – in the heart, will and mind (see 5:1–24). In his ministry he saw people delivered from slavery to demonic forces, to the tyranny of paganism and superstition as well as from sinful and selfish human passions. He saw them delivered into freedom of ‘faith working by love’, into ‘serving one another in love’ and into producing in their lives the ‘fruit of the Spirit’. Though the converts had become servants of Jesus Christ, they were, in fact, free; for loving and serving God is true freedom.
Paul’s great statement to the Galatians on freedom is this: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery’ (5:1). Here freedom is presented as both the indicative and the imperative of the Christian life of faith and love. Christ has set us free to be free men and women. We are justified by faith and united to Christ, who is the exalted free Man, and so we are totally free – here is the indicative. In the rough and tumble of life in this sinful world, freedom must be experienced and lived out as the purpose and goal of Christian life – this is the imperative. Only because freedom is in the exalted Christ as an objective reality is it possible to be free in daily living. United to the exalted Lord by the Spirit, the believer lives out in real human situations that perfect freedom which belongs to Christ. So Christians must be aware of both aspects of freedom – the indicative and the imperative.
Perhaps these two illustrations will help to highlight the relationship of the two aspects of freedom. The first is of the young man who gets into his modern canoe, carefully fastening himself into it, so that it is watertight. Then he pushes out into the fast running river with its dangerous rapids. His aim is to stay upright and to finish the course as he began it – tightly and safely strapped into his canoe and still watertight. Spectators on the bank shout words of encouragement and experts are there to give help if needed.
The second is of the rider at the rodeo. The daring cowboy is seated on the wild horse that has never carried a man. When the horse is released into the ring, the aim of the cowboy is to stay on the horse’s back. He is greatly encouraged by the shouts of enthusiastic supporters, and there are experts to help if he is thrown to the ground.
The point is that the canoeist began as he hoped to finish, and so did the cowboy. Their aim was to add nothing to what they had, merely to keep it, as they were encouraged by their supporters and friends. In a similar way Christians begin with freedom and are called to maintain it to the end, supported by their fellow Christians. Paul was not concerned that the Galatians would not achieve freedom. No! He feared that they might lose the freedom they already had, and revert to old forms of spiritual and moral slavery. Christian freedom exists as it is lived. In the gift of the indwelling Spirit is both the fullness of, and potentiality for, freedom. As you walk and live in the Spirit, you live and walk in freedom.
The quality of Christian freedom will become clearer if it is compared with the alternatives facing Paul as an educated, Greek-speaking Jew. In Judaism, which he knew well, freedom was seen as the end of the road of effort and merit. Freedom could only be attained when a person had arrived at the perfection of keeping the Law of Moses.
Duty, not, freedom, was what life was about, the duty of obeying the Law. Freedom was not attainable for most mortals.
In the best Greek circles the basic aim of life was to improve raw human nature by appropriate training and discipline so that a person gradually conquered his vices and developed and acquired the virtues. Freedom from ignorance, weakness and stupidity lies at the end of the road when all the right virtues have been acquired.
In comparison, for Paul everything that a Christian is to be is already wholly given at the beginning of the Christian life as the Christian exists in faith-union with Christ and is given the indwelling Holy Spirit. Christians were to stay free and not become slaves again. Let us be honest. Teaching, and popular understanding, in our churches today is often more like Jewish or Greek teaching than that of Paul or Jesus.
It is important to note that freedom is not one of the fruit of the Spirit (5:22). This is because freedom is the ‘spiritual soil and atmosphere’ in which the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience and kindness grow. The indicative and imperative of Christian freedom were repeated by Paul in Galatians 5:13–14 where he wrote: ‘You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do, not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’ Paul carefully distinguished on the one hand, the works of the Law of Moses and, on the other, the fulfilling of the Law. Works were the kind of duties that the Judaizers insisted on – circumcision and food regulations. Fulfillment meant the quality of life to which the Law pointed. And to serve one another in genuine love was exactly what the Law required. In another place, Paul wrote that ‘God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us’ (Romans 5:5). Those who are justified by faith and born of the Spirit are free to love, to love God and to love their fellow human beings. To love is to be free.
The freedom or freedoms that westerners highly prize are primarily materialistic and external. We talk of freedom to vote, to buy a house, to choose a school and doctor, to worship or refuse to worship as and where we will. This form of freedom is important and makes life in western society more tolerable than it was for the majority in ancient Galatia or than it is for people in communist countries. However, western society with all its affluence, science and technology cannot give the freedom of which Paul wrote. This inner and spiritual freedom is the gift of God and is not dependent upon position and place in society. The freedom to love oneself, to love one’s neighbour and to serve and love God comes as a gift from heaven to those who repent and believe the Gospel. Only those who are justified and born again are truly free.
Believing in Christ and receiving the Spirit obviously had a tremendous liberating effect upon the lives of the Christians in Galatia. They could not cease to be male or female, slave or free but they were set free from powerful superstitions, demonic beliefs and fears. As liberated people, they were free to love one another and to serve their neighbours without the old inhibitions and complexes. They belonged to a revolutionary, heavenly society in which God’s grace had created new and everlasting values based on divine love. Certainly, they were always in danger of slipping back into the slavery of mind and heart from which they had been liberated, and so Paul strongly urged them to ‘exercise and maintain the freedom given by Christ in and through the Spirit’.
In terms of moral and spiritual freedom westerners are hardly free. Their inner lives and spiritual possibilities are greatly determined by the impact of the presuppositions and values of their affluent and secular society. Like the air that is breathed, these are absorbed daily from the culture and media. Regrettably, the churches appear so often to be conformists in this society. Their members rarely present themselves as a people who live in the world but are not of the world. They offer little or no example of a genuine alternative society based on the love and ethic of the Gospel. While Christians have the external freedom to worship where and as they like (at the cathedral or gospel hall; at high mass or at an extemporare evangelistic service) they do not appear to be free, genuinely free. Possibly Paul would say to us: ‘Remember that you are actually and really free people in Christ by the Spirit. You have a right relationship with God. Throw aside your earth-bound values. Allow the Spirit of Christ to lead you into genuine freedom to serve your fellow human beings and into radical discipleship.’
Life in the Spirit
To be free and to live in the Spirit are complementary truths. After explaining the revolutionary nature of justification by faith in chapter two, Paul challenged the Christians of Galatia to reflect on their experience of the Spirit and his gifts (for example, prophecy, working miracles, healing the sick, speaking in tongues and messages of wisdom and knowledge). Did they not know abundant life in and from the Spirit without any reference to the Law of Moses or to human merit?
‘I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard (in the Gospel)? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? Does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?’ (3:2–5).
Obviously, the origins of Christianity in Galatia had involved both suffering for the converts and also a remarkable sign of the presence and power of the Spirit who came to them in the name of the Lord Jesus.
In Galatia Paul had proclaimed and explained the Gospel of the Saviour who died to liberate people from sin, death, and demonic powers and who rose from the dead to give them new life in the Spirit. Now he taught that the Law of Moses was a preparation for the greater revelation of God through Jesus Christ. The Galatians believed this revelation. They knew that neither God’s salvation nor the presence of the Spirit were dependent upon their human efforts to be or to do anything.
In fact the Hebrew prophets had spoken of a new covenant to replace the covenant made with Moses (Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 36:24–27). So Paul explained the relation of the old era and covenant to the new era and covenant in this way. He referred to the Roman legal practice of guardianship (4:1–7). The father, as head of the household, appoints one or more guardians for his son. He is entitled to inherit his property at a fixed time after the father’s death. During the years in which the son as heir is a minor, he is prevented from receiving and disposing of his inheritance. So, although he is potentially and legally the owner of it all, he appears not to be different from a slave, who has no rights at all. The minor as heir is under the administrator-guardian (to whom the property is temporarily entrusted) until the time fixed by the father in his will has arrived. Then the minor has free access to his inheritance and the guardian has no legal hold over him or the estate.
Before the era of the Spirit and new covenant (which is the foretaste of life in the age to come) Christians were under the guardianship of either the Law of Moses (if Jews) or demonic powers (if Gentiles). As slaves they were subject to their respective masters.
God’s response to this hopeless situation was, said Paul, first, to send the eternal Son to become Man, and, second, to send the gift of the Spirit to those who received the Son:
‘But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir’ (4:4–7).
By the great act of liberation in Christ, slaves are set free and adopted as children into the family of God. They are free and they participate in the life of the Spirit. They call God ‘Daddy’ (‘Abba’).
The presence within the people of God of the indwelling, Holy Spirit, requires that the Christian community follow a definite type of living. This is how Paul described it:
‘So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law’ (5:16–18).
He proceeded to give a list of the acts and attitudes that sinful human nature produces – sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. This list could have been composed in western society in the 1980s! Such behaviour cannot be the behaviour of those who expect to inherit the kingdom of God.
To describe the character of life to be seen in those in whom the Spirit dwells and is at work, Paul chose the image of fruit: ‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, goodness; faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (5:22). It is interesting to note that while the acts which flow from sinful human nature are presented by Paul in a random or unstructured way, the list of the fruit of the Spirit is presented as a unity, in three sets of three. Under the dominion of evil in the world, sinful human nature produces vices in stupid, irrational and haphazard ways. In contrast, the presence of the Spirit within a believer produces through his character and personality beautiful fruit, which has nine different aspects to it. The fruit grows in the believer as he lives in faith and faithfulness. It grows all the time, unless it is prevented by a return to the old ways, acts and attitudes. The fruit of the Spirit is not meant to be a harvest that occurs once or twice a year. It is to be an ever-present harvest, visible in the lives of the followers of the Lord Jesus.
In verse 25 we meet again the indicative and imperative of salvation. ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ It is the Spirit who unites the believer to Christ, who causes him to be born from above, who gives him eternal life and who is the source of the fruit of the Spirit in his life. Thus, in and through the Spirit of Christ, is the indicative of salvation. The Christian life is the outworking in practical day-to-day activity, attitudes and relationships, of the life given in and by the Spirit. Here is the imperative of salvation. The verb used – ‘let us keep in step’ – suggests the picture of a community of faithful believers drawn up in line and marching together as soldiers, following their Captain, the Holy Spirit (who acts in the name of Jesus the Lord).
It is easy to see why Paul resolutely dismissed the rules and regulations of Judaism from the way of life of Gentile converts to Jesus Christ. To walk by the Spirit and to live in the Spirit – to love God and to love each other, and to be in a right relationship with God and with fellow human beings – these are of the essence of Christianity. The intention of the whole Law of Moses was to produce a holy, righteous people, dedicated to the worship and praise of God. In the new covenant this is actually achieved through the work of the Spirit, bringing the power and virtue of Christ to his disciples.
How wonderful it would be if those who are justified by faith could experience the presence and power of the Spirit of Christ, as originally known by the Galatians. Before they were led astray by the Judaizers, their lifestyle and worship could be described as charismatic – enjoying the presence and gifts of the Spirit. However, they had been Christians long enough to know also the reality and power of sin in their lives. They also knew how easy it was to fall back into the old superstitions and practices from which they had been rescued. So Paul told them: ‘Keep the pot boiling. Maintain what you have in the Spirit. Do not let your spiritual life go.’
Christianity and the Church have been in our society for many centuries. Thus our situation is different to that of the Galatian churches. It is the exception rather than the rule today that Christian fellowship and worship are genuinely charismatic. We seem to be as those without life in our worship and church meetings. But, if we are justified by faith, and if we have the indwelling Spirit, then there is no reason why we should not experience the full impact of the presence of the Spirit. So perhaps Paul’s message to us today is: ‘Begin to experience what is already yours in Christ by the Spirit. Let go of all that stands in the way, and allow the Spirit to lead you in daily life, in Christian fellowship and in worship.’
Baptism – sign of freedom in the Spirit
In primitive Christianity baptism was extremely important. It was the decisive event which marked the beginning of a new existence as a disciple of Jesus. It was also the visible entry into the people united to Christ by his Spirit. Paul saw baptism as an effective sign, commanded by Christ, to demonstrate the salvation of God. It served also as a profession of faith in Jesus Christ; it was witnessed not only by church members but also by the local Jewish and pagan societies. Baptism is the sign of the new covenant and so symbolises in its ritual both what God gives and what the human response is.
Paul told the Galatians: ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you, who were baptised into Christ, have been clothed with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:26–28). Here each baptised believer is portrayed as (1) a son or child of God; (2) in spiritual union with Christ; (3) having been clothed with Christ; (4) belonging to a new and revolutionary society centred on Christ.
The picture of the believers wrapped in a cloak, which is the living, exalted Christ, seems an odd image to us. It is, however, a way of speaking about justification, for to be in right relationship with God, a believer must be clothed by God with the perfect righteousness of Christ. In this way God is able to view him as ‘in Christ’ and, therefore, most acceptable.
The new social order created by Christ, the Lord, is to be the living sign of the social order of the kingdom of God. In the age to come, the old social order with its divisions, class structures, racial tensions and sex discrimination will be no more. There will be totally new values for the new society. Baptism is the sign of entry into this new covenant and community. The church, the fellowship of the baptised, is to be the sign and anticipation here and now of what will be in the life of the age to come.
Baptism is, therefore, the event (ordinance or sacrament) which symbolises the reality behind Paul’s teaching on justification, freedom and life in the Spirit. This is because the act of baptism declares the complete gift of salvation given by God, and the total response of the believer, who receives the gift.
First of all, baptism is to be seen as the external and visible sign of both the justification of the believer by God the Father through Christ, and the response of faith/faithfulness from the, believer. To be baptised into Christ is to enter into union with him as the righteous Man: to put on Christ is to be clothed with his righteousness. The joyful submitting to baptism is the sign that the new Christian is convinced of the truth of the Gospel, trusts in the promises of God concerning Christ, and is committed to serving Christ in the world. Paul went into more detail on these points in the Letter to Rome. In 6:1–14 he used the picture of baptism by immersion into water to demonstrate the union of the believer to Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. So the believer dies to sin and is raised from that death to live a new life in the Spirit.
Secondly, baptism is to be seen as the external and visible sign of union with the exalted Lord Jesus as the free Man and as the beginning of a life of freedom. In union with Christ the believer has lost the old life of sin and has gained the new life of freedom. Baptism is, therefore, the sign of the creation of a new type of society, a society which is revolutionary and a constant challenge to the world. In it there are no slaves or slaveholders, no Jews or Gentiles, no ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Baptism is the sign of equality in Christ.
In the third place, baptism is to be seen as the external ,and visible sign of the gift of the Spirit. Paul’s statement of baptism into Christ is shorthand for baptism into union with Christ through and in the Spirit. In fact, Paul put it this way when writing to Corinth: ‘For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink’ (1 Corinthians 12:13). Here baptism is the sign of entry into the ‘body of Christ’ and also of the receiving of the Spirit, who is presented as constantly available to the body of Christ as life-giving.
The baptism of adult converts (and possibly of their small children) was the norm when Christianity first arrived in the pagan, Gentile world. Soon, however, there were Christian families to whom children were born. These were baptised as infants because being the offspring of true believers, they were regarded as within God’s covenant of grace. The promise of the Spirit was, they believed, to believers and to their children. So infant baptism became increasingly common in the Church. Because of this, Confirmation was interpreted as the completion of baptism giving a public opportunity to confess the faith to the whole church.
Regrettably, in the modern Church in western nations, baptism, whether of infants or of adults, has lost much of the power and importance that it had in primitive Christianity. Until each local church is a more dynamic fellowship of worshipping believers; until more discrimination is exercised as to who is baptised and when, and until there is more effective teaching both before and after baptism, the situation will not improve. But you and I can make a start. We can each take his own baptism seriously.
When those who are born from above and justified by grace look at the world, they interpret what they see with the mind and eyes of Christ. From this perspective, self-sufficient society is seen as needing the love of God in Jesus Christ. Technologically-based society is seen as needing spiritual regeneration and a moral calling and purpose for life. Affluent society is seen as needing the riches of God’s grace, and alienated society is seen as needing God’s reconciling power and love.
When regenerate and justified believers see all this they see where their loving energy must be concentrated. To look should be to care; and to care should be to act. ‘In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12).
On two occasions Jesus used the image of harvest to emphasise to the disciples the mission of the Church. ‘Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest’ (John 4:35) he said, and also, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’ (Luke 10:2). People are waiting to be served, helped, given the love of God and provided with the opportunity to enter the kingdom of God. The relationship of the community of believers to the society in which they live is therefore, of great importance: it is presented in various ways in the New Testament. We shall look at three personal and three impersonal images.
Personal images of mission
Witnesses. This picture is taken from the law courts where a person gives testimony to what he knows and believes and to what he has seen and heard. Before his ascension into heaven, the Lord Jesus said to the disciples, ‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses ...’ (Acts 1:8). To what were they to witness? To the resurrection of Jesus: to his victory over sin, death and Satan. If this meant being a martyr (a special kind of witness) then they were to be martyrs – as was Stephen (Acts 22:20).
What can be said of witnesses to Christ today? They are to be totally committed to what they present or else they are not likely to be believed. They are to be truthful, without decreasing or increasing what they have to declare. They are to present their message in a way that is meaningful to their hearers. As witnesses of Jesus Christ today, believers are to be totally committed to what they preach – to Jesus – and they are to speak and act in ways that honour the message and convince their hearers. Witnessing is not what is done here or there but it is the total impact that the believer makes on those around.
Ambassadors. The role of an ambassador is essentially the same now as it was in the first century. He or she acts on behalf of, as well as in the place of, the head of state or government which is represented. In this function he has no mind of his own, for he represents faithfully the message he has been given. Writing to Corinth, Paul said: ‘God has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us’ (2 Corinthians 5:19, 20). God has reconciled the world to himself through Jesus Christ but the world has to accept this reconciliation. Enemies have to become friends. Each Christian and the community of believers is called to proclaim urgently, faithfully, and lovingly the message of reconciliation.
Slaves. Jesus used the relationship of a slave to his master in order to communicate the relationship of the disciple to the kingdom of God. He taught that ‘no-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money’ (Matthew 6:24). A disciple is a slave of God. Further, Jesus taught that ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (slave) and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man (Jesus) did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:26–27). A disciple is a slave of his fellow human beings.
A slave was on duty seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day. He had no rights but was used by his master to do his master’s will. His happiness or misery was dependent upon his master. A Christian is on duty each and every day, for every hour of the day. But he has a gracious Master who does not place on his shoulders burdens that he cannot carry. The image of slavery reminds us that Christ calls for total surrender and utter loyalty to him and to his cause. Anything less is not good enough.
It is marvellous to remember that Christians are not only slaves but also children of God. Slavery points to service while being children points to privilege and security.
Impersonal images of mission
Salt of the earth. Salt has always been a basic commodity. Jesus said, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5:13). Salt is essentially different in taste from the food into which it is mixed and it is, therefore, able to change the taste of the whole. The effectiveness of salt lies in its quality and in its distinctiveness or difference. So the church, to be effective in the world, has to embody the mind and life of Jesus Christ. And the disciple whose life is much the same as that of others around him can hardly function as salt!
Salt is also used to preserve food – meat, for example – from decay. The Church of God is present in the world to prevent moral and spiritual decay and to set and maintain standards of honesty, decency, faithfulness and truthfulness. Again, salt that has lost its power can hardly stop decay and the Christian and local church which have lost the power of the Spirit can hardly expect to make much impact on society. And such an impact is desperately needed today.
Light of the world. Without light there would not be life – at least life as we know it. Light is fundamental in all kinds of ways. Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12). And to his disciples he also said, ‘You are the light of the world ... Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:14–16). Light dispels darkness. Light is the opposite of darkness.
For light to be effective it has to be placed in a strategic position – a candle in a candlestick and a headlamp in the front of a car. Then it drives away darkness. The people of God in the world are there to dispel darkness in the name of Christ. By the message they communicate and by how they live, they are to overcome darkness so that the light of the Gospel is effective. Despite the many technical, literary, artistic, scientific and medical achievements of our society, there is still great moral and spiritual darkness within it. The only light that can dispel this darkness is the light of Jesus Christ. Other lights will not penetrate the depth of this darkness.
A letter from Christ. We frequently send and receive letters. Writing to the church in Corinth Paul stated: ‘You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts’ (2 Corinthians 3:2–3). If each local church were to remind itself that it is a letter from Christ for the local people to read, then how humbled the members would feel! What kind of a letter are we? A lively, loving, caring, compassionate, evangelising letter? Or a dreary, quarrelsome, boring, out-of-date letter? And, if this is personalised, what kind of letter are you when you are read as a letter of Christ to your family, friends and neighbours?
So the born-again, justified believer is called by God to join him in his mission to the world. He is not only to preach the Gospel in word, he is also to embody it in his life. Put another way, he is to preach the Gospel inside the loving and serving of his neighbour. In this way he will assist the Lord to reap the harvest that is ripe.
Protestant and Roman Catholic interpretations
Since the sixteenth century there have been important differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant communions on the doctrines of regeneration and justification. (For further details see P. Toon, What’s the Difference?  chapter 6, and P. Toon, Justification and Sanctification , part 2.)
(a) Baptism. Here the difference is one of the precise relation of baptism to the internal grace of God (the work of the Spirit in the heart).
Roman Catholicism teaches that if you are baptised by a priest of the Church (or, in an emergency, by a lay person) in the name of the triune God then the fact of baptism confirms the fact of regeneration. Since baptism is ordained by Christ and is a sacrament of the Church it is, not an empty symbol. Grace is infused, implanted and imparted to the person who is baptised. However, this grace may later be lost if mortal sin is committed.
Protestantism maintains that baptism is ordained by Christ and is a symbol and sign of regeneration. But it is only a sign, an external symbol of the internal work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. So there can be the sign without the work of the Spirit and the work of the Spirit without the sign. The sign cannot guarantee the arrival of grace in the heart.
(b) Justification. Here the difference is over the meaning of the verb ‘to justify’.
Roman Catholicism has insisted that ‘to justify’ is ‘to make righteous’. Therefore justification is the process of being made righteous. It is begun at baptism with regeneration and is completed at death or after a period in purgatory. Justification may also be understood as including God’s declaration of being righteous in Christ, which occurs at baptism, but justification is not that declaration alone; it is primarily the process of being made holy/righteous/conformed to God’s will.
From its origin in the sixteenth century, Protestantism has insisted that ‘to justify’ means ‘to declare righteous’. Thus justification is the declaration by God, the judge, that a sinner is righteous in Christ and therefore acceptable to him. Such a declaration has immediate consequences for life on earth but the declaration is not to be confused with the consequences.
Both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism affirm that justification is because of the merit of Christ, through his sacrificial and atoning death. To this basic affirmation, Roman Catholicism adds that a Christian does merit salvation, in the sense that he co-operates with the grace of God in the process of being made righteous and so God accepts him because he is actually righteous.
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