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Justification: How people can be made right with God

Three times in today’s Bible reading Jesus talks about people who misunderstand justification. Justification has to do with the question of, “What does it take for a person to be right with God?” It was the central question of the Reformation. As I said in my sermon series on the Five Solas of the Reformation, the Bible alone tells us that people are made right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone and God alone is glorified in justification. (Note the five solas, the five alones)

In today’s reading from Luke 18:9-14, the Pharisee misunderstood justification in thinking that he could be justified by his righteous behavior. Looking at his behavior, he glorified himself. But the tax collector was justified by grace alone, because of his faith … alone.

In our reading from Luke 18:18-30, the Rich Young Ruler also looked at his behavior, thinking that he would be justified on those grounds. Jesus said that he needed to sell everything he had to give it to the poor and then to follow Him. The young man went away sad because he had a lot. Actually, a lot had him! He wasn’t willing to deny himself, take up his cross daily to follow Jesus. (Luke 9:23) Again, he didn’t understand that justification came through grace alone through faith alone.

In the final instance, the Blind Man wanted to recover his sight. (Luke 18:35-43) When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he responded, “I want to see.” He thought he wanted to see in the physical realm, but Jesus gave him spiritual sight in addition to physical sight. Jesus highlighted that he was saved because of his faith alone. As a result, the man glorified God alone.

The Bible alone tells us about justification. You cannot hear the truth of how people can be right with God anywhere else but the Bible. Not your own thoughts. Not other “holy books”. Not other religions. Only in the Bible will you hear that you can’t earn justification. And that glorifies God alone!

Application

Have you put your faith in Jesus Christ alone for your hope of being right with God? Nothing else but faith in Jesus will give you a right standing with God. It isn’t Jesus plus anything. You can only be justified by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus alone. It’s a very unfair exchange. We bring sin and Jesus brings holiness. God makes us righteous because of what Jesus did, if we will only put our faith in Jesus.

Because the Bible alone reveals that people can only be justified by grace (unearned favor) alone, through faith (not behavior) alone in Jesus Christ (no other religious leader) alone God alone receives the glor.

That was the heart cry of the Reformation.
And that’s the gospel truth!

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Knocking on a door

Our Bible reading for today includes a parallel passage from Matthew 7:22-23. In that sad story, Jesus reminds us once again, that not everyone will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, including many who think they have “eternal security”.

In the preaching of cheap grace, preachers often invite their hearers to “ask Jesus into their hearts” or “pray the sinner’s prayer” and/or be baptized and they can be assured they are saved. Yet, only God knows who is and who is not saved!

Our church will be wrapping up a sermon series on the book of Acts in a few weeks. So far, in the first two-thirds of the book, no one has been urged to “invite Jesus into your heart” and no preacher has told anyone to “pray a sinners prayer”. Despite what a preacher or a revivalist told you, those concepts — not just the words — are foreign to the teachings of the New Testament. So what does the teaching of the New Testament say about salvation? That’s a great question!

From Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2) through the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8) through the conversion of the Gentiles (Acts 16) through the conversion of John the Baptizer’s disciples (Acts 19), the appeal is always, without exception, “Repent!” And yet, that word — and that concept for that matter — is rarely heard today.

What does it mean to repent? It means to change your mind, to change your way of thinking, to turn from your way to God’s way. Yes, repentance can be expressed in a prayer, but prayer is not necessary for salvation any more than baptism is necessary for salvation (and it isn’t). Unless you repent, you will perish. (Luke 13:5)

The main takeaway from the preaching in Acts to the teaching in Jesus’ ministry and in the epistles, a call to salvation is a call to die. (Luke 9:23) Not everyone will be saved; only those who place their faith in Jesus Christ will be saved. And not everyone who thinks they are saved is saved.

Jesus emphasizes that the Homeowner (God the Father) decides who gets in through the narrow door and that once He closes the door, it’s too late. There are no second chances. As we’ve seen before, salvation isn’t about doing good things and not going bad things. Salvation is about knowing and being known. (Luke 13:25 CSB, John 17:3) It’s about having a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Salvation is about knowing and being known.
It’s about having a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Application

You may think that you’re saved. On what basis? If God were to ask you why you should be allowed into heaven, how would you respond? If your answer begins with, “Because I…”, you need to go back and revisit the message of the Gospel. Salvation is all about what Jesus did, not you. If you’re saved because of something you’ve done or not done that balances out to be good enough, let me remind you that, all you brought to the equation was the sin that made Jesus’ sacrifice necessary.

Spend a few minutes today looking at your salvation. What evidence do you have that you are indeed saved? What fruit demonstrates that your faith is rooted in a relationship with Jesus Christ? The people in Matthew 7:22-23 and Luke 13:25, 27 thought they would be rewarded for their behavior. They were wrong. What about you?

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Sparrow

Jesus says a lot about priorities in today’s Bible reading. Most importantly, He talks about people who are consumed by worry. He says, don’t worry about what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to drink, what you’re going to wear. (Luke 12:29) Instead, rest in the knowledge that God knows everything about you and He will take care of you. So often, we worry simply because we forget this basic truth.

Jesus says that God cares for sparrows and His kids are worth far more than sparrows. He says that God clothes the flowers more elegantly than Solomon clothed himself.

I’m staggered by the reality that, looking at the size of the universe — so big that some of what we think are stars are actually galaxies of thousands of stars — how a God Who spoke all of this into existence, a God who keeps everything in motion, a God who is in control of every atom in the universe could care for such an insignificant piece of His creation. In fact, not only does He know me, He has numbered every hair on my head. (Luke 12:7)

How could that be?

For God to number the hairs on the head of a single individual on the third rock from a small star in the Milky Way Galaxy, how truly awesome is this God? How absolutely mind-blowing is this God? How unlike us is this God? And yet He has done just that!

Application

In light of the awesomeness of God, Jesus tells us to keep our priorities straight: Focus on God and His kingdom instead of worrying about all of those insignificant things that will last an insignificant amount of time on the infinite timeline of eternity. He says that wherever we put our treasures, our heart will be fixed on it.

Where are your treasures? Where do you spend your money? Your time? Your emotional energy? Where are your deepest concerns? How do these things line up with and relate to God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness?

Spend a few minutes today thinking about the vast expanse of the universe. If you’re able to look up at the sky tonight and observe the stars, try counting them. Then again, don’t bother because you can’t! A God who merely spoke everything into being from absolutely nothing has made Himself available … to you.

Call out to Him today. Thank Him for being there. Thank Him that He didn’t just create and then walk away. Thank Him that He is there, that He is not silent, that He is not distant, and that He is only a prayer away.

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose.

— Jim Elliott —

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Despite what some preachers may tell you these days, you cannot unhitch the New Testament from the Old Testament. Today’s Bible reading demonstrates this fact.

John the Baptizer was Jesus’ cousin. Luke recorded Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:21-22. But just before baptizing Jesus, Dr. Luke referred to Isaiah’s prophecy, saying that someone would come, announcing the Messiah’s birth (Isaiah 40:3-5). I don’t know if John realized he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy or not. I don’t know how aware he was of his situation, but he did make mention of Jesus being the Lamb of God Who takes away the world’s sins. (John 1:29)

Anyway… when John’s disciples come to Jesus asking if He is the One they’re waiting for, Jesus refers back to Isaiah 61 — the very passage He had read from when the synagogue officials handed Isaiah’s scroll to Him in Luke 4!

“The Spirit of the Lord God is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of our God’s vengeance; to comfort all who mourn.” Isaiah 61:1–2 (CSB)

Jesus responds, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news,” Luke 7:22 (CSB)

Reading Isaiah’s prophecy and Jesus’ response to John’s disciples side-by-side, you cannot deny that Jesus is applying Isaiah to Himself: good news, healing, and liberty.

After John’s disciples leave, Jesus refers back to Isaiah 40, telling the crowd that John’s was the voice that cried out in the wilderness:

A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain. And the glory of the Lord will appear, and all humanity together will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Isaiah 40:3–5 (CSB)

Yes, John’s was the voice that Isaiah said would cry out in the desert, urging everyone to prepare for the Messiah’s arrival. And Jesus was the Messiah!

Application

Have you had trouble understanding the Old Testament? Have you struggled to figure out how the two Testaments fit together, if at all?

I can tell you that I’ve been there and I’ve done that. I have questioned why Christians even need to read the Old Testament. But not anymore! The more I read the New Testament, the more of the Old Testament I see in it.

Listen to Jesus. Listen to Peter. Listen to Paul and the other New Testament writers. The words of the Prophets and the words of the Psalmists roll off their lips. They knew their Bible. And their Bible was what we call the Old Testament.

As you read through the New Testament this year, don’t gloss over the references back to the Old Testament. When you read the Old Testament, ask yourself, “Where is Jesus in this passage?” If you look a little closer, you’ll see Jesus on every page of the Old Testament. And you’ll find the Old Testament quoted or alluded to over and over again in the New Testament. It’s as if God planned it all along!

The Old Testament. The New Testament. It’s all part of One Big Story: The relentless pursuit of God for His people in a covenant relationship.

Don’t read the Bible, trying to unhitch it from its overall context. It wasn’t written that way! If your Bible has cross-references, use them to see how God interweaves His Word with His Word. You’ll be amazed to see how awesome God is!

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In today’s Bible reading from Colossians 2, Paul addresses the Gnostic Heresy in Colossae head-on. From Webster, Gnosticism is,

“the thought and practice especially of various cults of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis (esoteric knowledge of spiritual truth held by the ancient Gnostics to be essential to salvation)”

Paul strongly demonstrated that Gnosticism is incompatible with Christianity as he talked about Jesus coming in the flesh and that the mystery hidden for the ages has been revealed in Jesus.

Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:9, “The entire fullness of God dwells in Jesus’ body” flies in the face of the Gnostic belief in the “evil” physical realm.

And the modern concept of being a “spiritual person” (v. 18) apart from having a relationship with Jesus Christ is right out of the Gnostic belief system.

Application

Is your belief system based on a “spiritual tradition” that’s been handed down from generation to generation? Or is your belief system based on the infallible Word of God?

The integrity of the Bible has been preserved through generations is not merely a “spiritual tradition”. It is grounded in the reality of time and space. There is no special knowledge that Christians are to seek, only a knowledge of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. Knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3)

If you believe that a person can be a “spiritual person” and as such, be blessed with a heavenly reward, you need to go back and re-read Colossians Chapter 2.

Yes, we are to be “spiritual” people, but that spirituality is eternally linked with life in the Spirit, based on the Word of God.

And that’s why I’m writing these devotionals this year. I want to help you to see the importance and practicality of God’s Word in your life. I want you to be “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.” (Colossians 2:6–7, CSB)

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