This passage begins with such a powerful statement from the apostle. Note that he leaves no room for indifference in this statement. It’s a reminder that there are two powers at work in the world, there is Jesus and there is Satan, and to whichever one you are a slave to, the other stands as your opposition. Justin Popovich teaches us that “a man in this world must solve a problem, to be with Christ or against Him. And every man will decide this, whether he wants to or not. He will either be a lover of Christ or a fighter of Christ, there is no third option.” This is the exact point that Paul is making in this first statement.
In our culture, we have adopted this mentality, this term, the “casual Christian,” and applied it to our own Church. We act as though one could maintain their faith as though it were a nice suit, something that they can don for special occasions, but otherwise leaving it hanging in their closet, their lives unaffected by it’s presence there. But then, when we look into Scripture, where do we see this mentality? Where do we see this half-hearted “casual Christianity?” Where exactly do we see an example of half-hearted worship and lukewarm faith? See, I believe completely in the truthfulness and accuracy of Scripture. And I believe that when we read about the lives of the saints, that the reason that the Lord has left us these stories is so that we could look to them and imitate their lives. And, yet, none of them were very “casual” about their faith.
In the Book of Malachi, we do, in fact, see one such example. This was near the end of the Old Testament, and the people had been hearing the promises of the coming messiah for centuries, and it had become sort of cliche to hear about it. Thus, they had grown pretty complacent and lazy in their faith. They would hear the Lord’s demand for sacrifices, but, not being zealous for their faith, they would choose what they wanted to keep for themselves, the best of the best, and then sort of give God the leftovers. Of the sacrifices that they had, they would choose the lame, the blind, to give to the Lord in sacrifice, though being demanded to bring the firstfruits. And, through the prophet, we learn the Lord’s response to this; “when you offer a blind sacrifice to the Lord, is this not evil…but now earnestly entreat the face of God and pray to Him…for this reason the doors will be shut and you will not burn an offering on My altar. I have no pleasure in you, now will I accept an offering from your hands.” (Malachi 1:8-10). See, it’s absolutely this idea that the people were evoking the name of the Lord, praying to the Lord, asking supplications of the Lord; but refusing to fully follow the Lord. They weren’t willing to fully devote their lives to the Lord. They were “lukewarm” in their faith. We see the same warning in the Lord’s warning to the church in Laodicea. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus warns the church, “I could wish you were either hot or cold, but since you are lukewarm, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” (Revelation 3:15-16). And it’s so easy to fall into that, to become as the people in Malachi’s time, or the people in the church of Laodicea. It’s so easy to become so caught up in life that we sort of offer to the Lord this half-hearted devotion. There are very few people that would admit that they don’t want God in their life at all. Most people do want God in their lives, He makes their lives easier. It gives them a fall-back plan if they don’t understand something. It can help instill morality into their lives and the lives of their children. It’s so easy to look at God as this book, and to read the rules and do whatever we can to obey them, and when we fall short just remember that He is faithful to forgive.
But, is that what Scripture really is to us? Is it “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?” Is it a “how to be a good person,” the teacher’s edition? See, that’s what we equate it to when we look at the rules and regulations more than we look at the source of the rules. When we ignore the relationship and focus on the doctrine, it’s easy to forget that God loves us and wants us to turn to Him in repentance. And when God becomes these moral guidelines instead of an actual presence in our lives, it’s easy to just add Him into our pre-existing lives. I consider this fact, when you get married, your life changes drastically. You admit to the fact that you are no longer living for yourself any longer, you are now living for someone else. And when you get married, there’s parts of your life that MUST change. There are certain things that you must be willing to surrender when you get married. So, why would we assume that our marriage, our adoption into the family of Christ, is any different? You can’t marry someone and say to your bride, “hey, I know that this offends you more than anything in the world, so I’ll try to stop, and you can forgive me every time I do it.” And neither can we do that with the Lord.
That’s Paul’s warning here. There is no middle ground when it comes to the Lord. There is no room for adding our faith onto the life we already have, but rather, we must be willing to die to ourselves, to completely surrender everything that makes us who we are, and instead live to Him. That’s why Paul could say, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” One of the pitfalls of our contemporary theology of baptism is that we consider it a public show, a declaration, that we are “under new management.” But, in Scripture, it was our actual death. Anyone who says otherwise has interpreted away the words of the Lord Himself. And Paul’s warning is that there is no room for interpretation, no room for half-heartedness or lukewarm faith. Either you obey the Lord or you don’t. That’s why he asks the believers, “do you despise the riches of His goodness?” Notice the strength of the wording there, not do you dislike, or do you only partly “feel,” but do you despise. In the letter to Laodicea, the cold would be those who didn’t believe, who outright denied the Lord. The hot would be, as the saints, those who were on fire. Those whose every thought, word, action, breath, praised the Lord and His goodness. Then there’s everyone else. The lukewarm are those who know the words of Scripture, who know and understand the ways and commands of the Lord, but, by their actions, show that they just don’t care about them. They are the ones who can quote the Scriptures, who can make a show of their piety, but aren’t willing to surrender their lives to the Lord. They put Him on once a week and make their public appearance of piety in a church building, and then argue, twisting Scripture, that they are saved because they made a profession of faith at a revivalist tent one summer day. Paul here is warning that those people, in their hearts, truly despise the Lord, because they love themselves more than they love Him.
Paul here adds a powerful addendum to this statement. “The goodness of God leads you to repentance.” So often I hear people discuss the grace of God as though reception of it is the once and forever cleansing that leads to the kingdom. Once we mentally acknowledge Jesus as Lord, then there is never anything further that we need to do to attain to the kingdom of heaven. And, based on Scripture, this is a heresy that has been spread since the very foundation of the Church. Isn’t it a nice thought though? That you could one time in your life proclaim that you believe that Jesus is Lord and from that point on you could commit whatever transgressions that you desire and still be able to attain heaven? It’d be like living in paradise before you enter into paradise. There’s one problem with this though, it’s not Biblical. See, from the very beginning, people having been twisting the doctrine of grace into a license to continue to sin. From the very beginning they have been saying that to demand holiness, or to demand obedience, would detract from grace. That to attach any sort of action on our behalf to grace makes it no longer a gift and therefore not grace. What seems to be missed from that is that it is grace alone that allows us to attain to this holiness and righteousness, the “righteousness of God,” to quote the apostle. There is a stance that every one of the apostles defends in the New Testament, and that stance is this; grace allows us to be freed from our sins, not add to them. When we continue to chase our sin, regardless of what passage of Scripture we choose to twist to justify it, we make a mockery of the sacrifice of our Lord. In the Book of Sirach, we read the admonishment, “Do not be so confident of atonement that you add sin to sin, and do not say, ‘His compassion is great, He will atone for the multitude of my sins,’ for both mercy and wrath come from Him, and His anger rests on sinners.” (Sirach 5:5-6). It may be this very passage that Hebrews refers to when it states, “it is impossible for those once enlightened and become partakers of the Holy Spirit…if they fall away, to renew them to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” (Hebrews 6:4,6). Jude also warns us against those who pervert the grace of God into licentiousness, and reminds us that even after the Lord rescued those in Egypt, He still destroyed those who did not believe. Consider that for a moment; those that the Lord brought out of bondage, He destroyed because of their disobedience.
God is loving, God is merciful and God is gracious. And praise God for that. But, God is also just and has “eyes too pure to look upon sin.” (Habakkuk 1:13), and we must remember that as well. Our Lord offers us grace and mercy, and promises that should we begin to fall we will always be welcomed back. Countless times the nation of Israel turned away from Him and then returned to Him. But, return to Him we must. He offers us this grace and mercy for the purpose of bringing us to repentance, to “turn now from our evil ways.” (Jeremiah 25:5, 2 Chronicles 7:14); but for those who continue to walk in sin, He promises that He will “by no means leave the guilty unpunished.” (Exodus 34:7, Nahum 1:3, Daniel 12:10) and will “render each according to their deeds.” (Romans 2:6, Psalm 61:13, Proverbs 24:12, Ecclesiastes 9:2).
My brothers and sisters, it’s so easy to fall victim to this teaching. In fact, I have this great fear that so many in our generation have already fallen victim to this theology which teaches that God should be happy that we can make any time for Him at all. I have this amazing fear that so many have accepted as truth this teaching that a single confession of faith is all that is necessary to enter into the kingdom, with no change, no deeds, no holiness, no obedience to our Lord as Lord. I have this eternal fear that many have grasped onto this teaching that they make a once for all confession and at that moment they are eternally guaranteed a place at the heavenly supper. Yet, if that be so, then why are we warned so strongly to “count the cost,” to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling,” to “evaluate ourselves to see that we are walking in the faith.” If our faith is the finish line, then how do we finish the race? If there is no action required, then how do we walk in our faith? Evaluation itself is an action, thus Paul’s warning becomes self-defeating, for if any action on our part is heresy, then there can be no evaluation, thus to obey him shows that we are not in the faith.
Jesus warned us that the gate was narrow and the way was hard that leads to life. This passage has hit me harder and harder lately, as I have meditated on the Church in our generation. One of the things that I’ve noticed is that our theologians work harder and harder to complicate Scripture through interpretations and double-talking, and each time there is a new theological breakthrough, the path to life becomes easier and the gate becomes broader.
The Lord revealed the coming of the Messiah to shepherds mainly because they, like little children, maintained a simple faith. Hear, obey, do, follow. He snubbed the priests, the Pharisees, and the Scribes because they overly convoluted the faith and in doing so lost the truth of the Scriptures. “Always learning and never able to come to knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7). See, a child’s faith is simple, yet, because of our nature, it’s hard. We don’t want to obey. We don’t want to obey the Scriptures, we don’t want to obey the Church, we don’t want to obey the Commandments. We want everything exactly the way we want it and will cling to whatever doctrine allows our own interpretations of these commands to reign supreme. We don’t want to sacrifice the things that we enjoy. Thus, it is hard, though simple. Within our “adult” wisdom though, with each new theological breakthrough, each new layer of seminary hermeneutics, it becomes more complex, but easier. Not simpler, easier. Suddenly, the words of Jesus get changed as we dig deep to determine what each phrase could possibly mean and then pick the one that we prefer. Surely when He said “deny yourself,” He couldn’t possibly have meant deny yourself, what else could He mean. How do we deny ourselves? What are we denying ourselves of?
Jesus tells us that unless we become like little children, we will never inherit the kingdom, and I think that we should cling to that teaching. A simple faith may mean that we have to sacrifice things that we enjoy for the kingdom, that we may have to actually give the creator of the universe our very best to be His disciples, but isn’t that what He demands from the beginning? The fall itself happened because man questioned God and didn’t trust what He had told them, should we truly aspire to repeat the same mistake over and over again? We must remember the words of the Lord, and remember that He tells us over and over again that our lives on earth are not meant to be easy, or full of pleasure; but we must not despise those demands and go our own way, as Israel did constantly during the time of the judges. And we must be very cautious of any teaching which teaches otherwise. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is; and the teaching that we can continue to chase earthly pleasures and gratify the flesh while still attaining to the heavens seems far too good to be true. Far too good to be the “narrow road and the hard way.”
May the grace of the Lord be with you, my beloved family.