Thursday, August 13, 2015

ReligionSpeak: "Being Saved"

"Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.  
Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle 
in the way of a brother or sister."
Romans 14:13

In my Women’s Bible Study this morning, the question of “being saved” arose, and coming on the heels of my reading of Romans 14:13 last night, it occurred to me how our ReligionSpeak can be a real stumbling block for people of faith, whether they are new to Christianity or have been raised for years in the faith.

Our discussion leader pointed out that she was raised in the faith, from her grandfather who was an evangelical circuit preacher, to her father who inherited his strong and strict convictions.  She now is an integral part of her faith community, but reflected at one time in her history, “Am I really saved?”  

After all, she had no extraordinary experience to point to in order to show the exact moment when she gave her life to Jesus as Lord and Savior.  Not all of us can point to a singular “come-to-Jesus” moment comparable to Abraham’s experience of God in the burning bush, or Samuel being awoken by God’s call in the night, or Matthew being called to follow Jesus from his tax collector’s booth, or Paul being struck blind on the road to Damascus. 

We have a Biblical faith:  we are “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11: 1).  But is that enough?
We don’t have an exciting story to tell, so are we saved?

I might have thought there was an easy answer to this question, but when I started reading various sources on the Internet, I discovered that different denominations and different teachers hold very different views of how to interpret the scriptures around this subject of salvation, or “being saved.”

I should have known that what God intended to be simple, human beings managed to complicate!

According to Cliff and Helen Leitch at
“Virtually every Christian denomination has a unique doctrine about salvation and the related idea of justification, making a sinner acceptable to God…In addition to Bible teachings, these doctrines are based on church traditions and the ideas of popes, bishops, and theologians such as John Calvin, Martin Luther, Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley. Many of these doctrines emphasize one aspect of Bible teaching over another and apply different interpretations to Bible passages. Many wise and devoted people have spent a lifetime of study and prayer and have come to different conclusions about salvation!
          All Christians, however, agree we can be saved only by the grace of God; we cannot save
          ourselves or determine our own fate after death.”

I will share my view of the question, with the hope that it will get you thinking about your own faith journey and your own answers to such questions.

If someone asked me when I “got saved,” I would tell them, “About 2000 years ago, when Jesus died on the cross.”  If you want to hear about my “extraordinary experience” or my “exciting story,” I will send you to the Gospels to read about Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection.  The extraordinary experience and exciting story is not my own; it belongs to Jesus Christ.

My salvation didn’t even happen in my own lifetime! 

What DID happen in my lifetime was my belief and acceptance of what Christ did for me.

I believe that we are saved because God sent Jesus into the world to bear the punishment for our sins, because Jesus died on the cross that our sin might die with him, and because Jesus came out of the tomb, thereby defeating sin and death itself. 
I’m not saying I don’t have a role to play. This amazing act of sacrifice by Jesus is a completely unearned gift to me (see Romans 6:23), but I have to accept it.  A gift does not belong to us until we take it, open it, and make it our own.  When I tell God that I believe with certainty that my sins were forgiven and my relationship with Him was restored when Jesus died, at that moment I am entering that amazing state of grace we might call “being saved.”  For the rest of my life, I will rededicate myself to that decision (sometimes hourly, as one of our Bible study members suggested!), and learn more and more what it means to walk by faith in this blessed identity of Forgiven Woman and Child of God (see John 1:12). 

That walk by faith is not my salvation.  John records Jesus as teaching, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved” (John 10:9). I receive salvation by walking through the gate; what happens once I get to the other side is what Paul refers to as “working out your salvation” (Philippians 2:12).  Suddenly I'm not in this thing called Life alone; I have God by my side, His strength at my disposal to live out my faith in obedience to Him. 

What that life of faith, that walk with God, that radical obedience, looks like is the subject of many, many more posts—maybe a book or two, in fact!

For now, rest assured in Jesus’ work of salvation, already completed on the cross.  You don’t have to look for something spectacular to prove your salvation to someone else or to yourself.  You don’t need fireworks and earthquakes and signs and miracles.  Don’t put that stumbling block in your own way, or in someone else’s way!  Don’t make “being saved” some sort of daunting ReligionSpeak that makes you question the security of your relationship with God. You need only open your heart daily to accept the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness, and then you can walk in the reconciled relationship that Jesus made possible for you. 

Let’s not forget the truth of Jesus’ teaching in one of the first Bible verses many of us learn:  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”(John 3:16). 
Not long after, Jesus also taught, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).  Let’s not look for things to put us into the bondage of doubt, but live in the freedom of God’s Truth!


Friday, August 7, 2015

A Great Cloud of Witnesses

When Peter gave his first sermon recorded in the Book of Acts, he included the words of the Prophet Joel and King David to show that God kept His promises by sending Jesus Christ to be the Lord and Savior of His people (Acts 2:14-36). 

When Stephen spoke before the Sanhedrin before his death by stoning, he recalled God’s promises to their forefather Abraham, His presence with Joseph who had been sold into slavery in Egypt, and His empowering of Moses to deliver His people out of their slavery (Acts 7:2-53).

When Paul spoke to the crowds in Jerusalem after his arrest, he recounted his own conversion from a persecutor of Christ-followers to a devout disciple of our Lord (Acts 22:2-21).

In each of these examples, people used accounts of God’s faithfulness in their lives and history as instruction and encouragement to believers and non-believers alike. 

Throughout its history, the Catholic Church has turned to its saints to reinforce their faith in God’s powerful strength and presence in the lives of believers.  God is said to reveal Himself in a special way in their lives, and these saints are presented as role models to venerate and imitate. 

Our New Testament scripture instructs us to “hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23), and we are assured that “no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).  By His very nature, it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18); what He has promised must surely come to pass, and the Bible is filled with examples of His faithfulness to His people.

My question, then, is this:  Why do so many Protestants fail to place this same emphasis on looking to God’s faithfulness in the past in order to assure ourselves of God’s faithfulness in our present and future?

Our church, for example, has a 170-year history of standing in the heart of Media, Pennsylvania, on Baltimore Avenue.  We characterize ourselves right now as being in a “state of transition” due to the abrupt departure of our Senior Pastor two years ago and the ensuing turmoil caused by the circumstances of his leaving.  Some of us have been energized by the opportunity to address long-ignored issues.  Some of us have been disgusted by the whole situation and how it has been handled. Some of us have been scared of what the future may hold.  Some of us have been angry about one aspect of the situation or another.  Some of us have put our emotions aside, rolled up our sleeves, and gotten to work. 

Overall we have drawn strength from prayer, from worship, from service, and from fellowship.  But I am curious:  what kind of strength could we gain from an understanding of God’s faithfulness to our church throughout its history? I have no idea, because to my knowledge, it has not been discussed. 

Isn’t it likely that a church with a 170-year history has experienced upheavals at some point in the past?  Aren’t there likely to be examples of failed leadership, issues that divided the congregation for a time, tough decisions about facing the future that had to be made?  Couldn’t we find confidence in God’s faithfulness through those times in order to face our own current situation?

If we could recognize the truth of the axiom that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, then perhaps we could spare ourselves just a bit of our current hardship.  If we could recognize the absolute Truth of God’s Word that “God’s faithfulness endures forever” (Psalm 117:2), then perhaps we could draw on His supernatural strength to launch ourselves into the powerful future He has laid out for us.

And this isn’t just about my church and its current journey. 

I think about the value of focusing on Biblical accounts of people who experience God’s faithfulness in order to bring strength to my own particular life situation as a woman, a wife, a mother, a disciple of Christ, a friend, a person who is aging, a person who faces temptation to judge, to anger, to complain, to worry.  God is faithful to me in every role, in every situation, in every personal crisis and struggle, and if I doubt it, I can see His faithfulness in the lives of people like me in His Word.

I think about the value of writing about my own faith journey, so I can see where God has shown His faithfulness in my life, when He has pulled me back time and again when my focus has blurred or my path has strayed.

I think about the value of reading about the lives of other believers—women who fulfill similar roles to mine who write inspirational books for today, missionaries who have experienced God’s faithfulness in strange and challenging environments, saints and martyrs who have paid the ultimate price for their faith in God’s ultimate faithfulness, founders of our denominations who have sought the best ways to honor God with our worship, service, and praise.

I think about the value of listening to one another as we share the stories of our faith journeys.  It’s not such an uncommon practice in the Baptist churches I attended as a child—opening the pulpit to members of the congregation to let them share how God has moved and continues to move in their lives.  Why haven’t I seen that practice in the Presbyterian churches I have attended in adulthood?  I have shared my faith journey with the Elders in order to be accepted as a member of their congregation, but have never been asked about it again.

God is faithfulness, as one of our Bible study participants reminded us yesterday.  Our stories may glorify God, she told us, but they aren’t needed to prove His faithfulness.  God is trustworthy.  Period.  But those conversations about His faithfulness, those accounts drawn from our history, both individually and collectively, about how God is moving in our lives, can help us access God’s strength for the journey. 

He has provided us a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), and I feel that they are a great untapped resource for my own faith journey.  We, too, are part of that cloud of witnesses for others; let’s give some thought to the true stories of God’s faithfulness we can share to encourage one another and build each other up in our faith.
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