No Condemnation

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

Don’t allow yourself to blow past them by treating them with that brand of apathy that so often accompanies over-familiarity. Many of us have read this passage so many times that it no longer carries any meaning for us. But if you keep in mind all that Paul has said in the first seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, the words, “no condemnation” should carry much greater significance for us.

Paul opened his letter with the sobering words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The truth they suppressed was God’s revelation of Himself through creation. People had no excuse for refusing to acknowledge God because He had made Himself visible and knowable through all that He had made. But mankind chose to ignore God. And Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28 ESV). And Paul provides a less-than-flattering list of the things they did that “ought not to be done.” It includes every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, insolence, pride, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, and gossiping. And in chapter two, Paul drops the bombshell that “the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2 ESV). And just so there’s no question as to what Paul means by judgment, he states, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:9 ESV).

So, who does evil? According to Paul, everyone. There is no one who will escape God’s judgment because all stand before God as guilty.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

No one will escape God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And just so we understand what that judgment entails, Paul tells us: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Now, look at those two words again: No condemnation.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under God’s righteous and just condemnation. Which means that His judgment of guilt, which brings with it a mandatory penalty of death, has been lifted. We stand before God, the judge of the universe, as those who are no longer condemned because of our sin. But why? Is it because we got our proverbial act together? Has God removed our guilty sentence because we have somehow reversed our behavior and made ourselves more acceptable in His sight? Of course not.

Paul’s whole point is that we stand uncondemned because we are in Christ. At one point, we stood before God as His enemies, but “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). We were made right with God, not because of anything we did to earn or deserve it, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We now enjoy “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). His death paid the penalty for our sin. He gave His life in our place, presenting Himself as the sacrificial substitute who took away the sins of the world. And His death was necessary because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

His death on our behalf has provided release from condemnation, complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the promise of eternal life instead of eternal judgment.

But what does this have to do with sanctification? Everything. Notice how Paul links our release from condemnation to our freedom from the law of sin and death. That word “freedom” is vitally important to understanding what it means to stand as uncondemned before God. Our release from condemnation was not temporary or limited to a point in time. We weren’t released for a moment and then left to live under the threat of future condemnation. And yet, that is how many of us view the Christian life. We live under the constant fear of falling back under God’s condemnation based on what we do or don’t do. In other words, we see our behavior as the determiner of our status before God. And in doing so, we display a flawed understanding of what it means to stand uncondemned before God.

But look closely at what Paul says:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

Back in chapter three, Paul told us the sobering news that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20 ESV). No one can be made right with God through adherence to the law. Why? Because the law was designed to make man aware of God’s holy requirements. It told us what God expected, but had no power to assist us in living up to those expectations. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the road, the law displayed God’s expectations and condemned our violation of them. It couldn’t make us obey, but it could expose us when we failed to do so.

But Paul says there is a new law at work in our lives. He describes it as “the law of the Spirit of life.” When we hear the word, “law,” we tend to think in terms of restrictions and binding requirements that keep us from doing what we want to do. But the Greek word Paul uses is nómos, and it has a much broader and more pleasant meaning behind it. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is derived from the Greek word “νέμω némō (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals). The law was intended to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The Mosaic law had benefits. It gave directions for life and provided God’s prescribed way for living in unbroken fellowship with Him. In the 23rd Psalm, David describes this prescriptive nature of God’s law. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV). Through the law, God guided, directed, and protected His people. But the law was weakened by man’s flesh or sin nature. Man couldn’t follow willingly or obediently.

So when Paul speaks of “the law of the Spirit of life,” he is telling us that God has provided us with a new way to live in fellowship with Him. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV). The key is the last phrase in these verses. We are to walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are to live our lives in obedience to and dependence upon the Spirit of God. He is the nómos or prescribed way to live in fellowship with and obedience to God. And Paul provides us with a vivid contrast of the choice that lies before us each and every day as God’s children. “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8 NLT). 

Our sinful nature is alive and active. But we are no longer slaves to it. We have been set free from its control. We now have the Spirit of God also living within us, providing us with direction for living a God-honoring life and the power to accomplish it. But we must choose to live under His control and not our own. We must submit to His leadership. We must desire what He desires and long for those things that He has determined as best for us. But in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds us of the constant battle going on within us. “The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other…” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). If we try to please God through our flesh, we will fail. But if we live our lives in dependence upon the Spirit of God, His prescribed means of living a godly life, we will experience life, peace, joy, contentment, and the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ. And no threat of condemnation.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Consider Yourselves…

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. – Romans 6:8-14 ESV

Salvation, is a work of God, from beginning to end. But that doesn’t mean that man plays no part. In response to the Philippian jailer’s question, “What must I do to be saved?”, Paul stated, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31 ESV). The free gift of salvation made available by God must be accepted or received. When Jesus stated, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 ESV), He was offering an invitation that required acceptance. For anyone to receive the rest He offered, they would have to acknowledge their weariness, confess their heavy-heartedness, and come to Him.

Paul makes it clear, all throughout his writings, that faith is required for the free gift of salvation to be received. But even the act of faith is a gift from God, as His Spirit graciously opens the eyes of the spiritually blind and infuses life into the spiritually dead, allowing them to see the light of the gospel for the first time. And as a result, they are saved.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:8-10 NLT

And in much the same way, sanctification is a gift of God, provided for by His grace, made possible by His Son, and powered by His indwelling Holy Spirit. Look closely at what Paul told the believers in Ephesus: “He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” God has sanctified a group of people who He has deemed His own, raising them from death to life, and providing them with a power to live in such a way that they bring glory to Him and reflect His personal emissaries, sharing His message of reconciliation to others.

But each and every believer must avail himself of the new life made available to Him through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, and made possible by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Like Jesus’ invitation to come and find rest, the Holy Spirit cries for believers to rest in Him and find power.

One of the last things Jesus shared with His disciple before He departed this earth was His promise of the coming Holy Spirit.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

And just as Jesus had promised, the Holy Spirit came. He took possession of the disciples, providing with power like they had never experienced before. He transformed them from a small crowd of timid, crestfallen men and women into a powerful force that rocked the world. In a matter of minutes, these people were radically changed from the inside-out and equipped with gifts they had never experienced before. They spoke in languages they didn’t know. They displayed a boldness that had been non-existent just a few minutes earlier. But while we tend to focus on the miraculous nature of the flames of fire hovering over their heads and the gift of tongues emanating from their lips, the real point of the story is that, with the Spirit’s coming, these people were forever changed. Pentecost was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but each and every one of them would go on to experience the life-transformative power of the Spirit in a thousand different ways.

The spectacular and heady days immediately following the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost would not last forever. Yes, there would be many more miraculous moments in the lives of the disciples. They would perform miracles and see many people come to faith in Christ. They would witness Jews and Gentiles receiving the power of the Spirit, just as they had. And in a relatively short period of time, they would witness the birth and rapid growth of the church.

But in the book of Romans, Paul provides us with a much-needed reminder, designed to help us keep our focus as the normalcy of life settles in and the mountaintop experiences fade away. The growth of the church was immediately met with skepticism, which was followed by intense persecution. It wasn’t long before the disciples, and their followers discovered that not every day was going to be like the day of Pentecost.

After his conversion, Paul quickly discovered just how difficult and dangerous faith in Christ could be. He also learned the very real lesson that sanctification was not always easy and living in the power of the Spirit didn’t come without its conflicts. He expressed, in very transparent terms, his struggle with sanctification.

I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. – Romans 7:18-21 NLT

Paul had the Spirit of God living within him, but he also had the presence of his old sin nature. And as he described to the church in Galatia, these two do constant battle in the life of the believer.

But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh. For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. – Galatians 5:16-17 NLT

But Paul was not despondent. He was not surprised. No, he understood the battle going on in his own life and wanted his fellow believers to know that Jesus was the key to their success.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. – Romans 7:24-25 NLT

Jesus was and is the answer. And Jesus provided the Holy Spirit as the means by which the believer can experience victory over sin in his life. But the key that is often overlooked is found a bit earlier in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Beginning in verse one of chapter six, Paul reminds them that they had “died to sin,” been “baptized into his death,” were “buried…with Him,” and “raised…to walk in newness of life.”

But there’s more. They had been “united with him in a death like his” and would be “united with him in a resurrection like his.” Their “old self was crucified” and, as a result,  they were “no longer…enslaved to sin.” Because their old self had died with Christ, they had “been set free from sin.”

All of this sounds great, but is it something we experience in daily life? Or, like Paul, do we still find ourselves saying, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” The answer to our dilemma is not work harder or do more. It is “consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11 NLT). That word, “consider” carries a lot of weight in the original Greek. It carries the idea of giving a thought careful and reasoned consideration. And the verb is in the present imperative, conveying the idea of constantness. We are never to stop thinking about our union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Our old man has been put to death. Sin no longer rules and reigns over us. We have a Spirit-empowered capacity to say no to sin and yes to God. We can live righteous lives, not based on our own self-effort or moral wherewithal, but based on the power of the Spirit within us. Which is why Paul told the Galatian believers:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. – Galatians 5:24-25 NLT

Sanctification, like salvation, is not about self-effort. It is not the American work ethic lived out in the spiritual dimension. God is not interested in self-made men and women. He gave us new lives and made us new creations so that we would no longer live in our own strength, but in the power of His indwelling Spirit. But the temptation we all face is that of forgetfulness – forgetting that we are dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus.

And Paul provides us with a powerful reminder so we won’t forget.

…give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. – Romans 6:13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

God’s Love In Our Hearts

1 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5 ESV

This passage contains some remarkable truths that, because of their over-familiarity to us, have lost much of their weight or glory. Because we have heard these phrases so often, we have become immune to their significance. But look carefully at what Paul is saying. First, he reminds us that we who believe in Christ have been justified by faith, and the result is that we have been restored to a right relationship with God.  We have peace with God because of what Christ accomplished on the cross on our behalf. Just a few verses later in chapter five of Romans, Paul states, “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). Paul pronounced the same undeniable truth to the believers in Colossae:

…you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. – Colossians 1:21-22 ESV

But there is more. Because our faith is in Christ, “we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” For Paul, restoration to a right relationship with God was made all that more significant because Christ’s death also made it possible for us to enter into God’s presence. In fact, Paul told the Ephesian believers that their union with Christ placed them with by His side in heaven.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. – Ephesians 2:5-6 NLT

We enjoy unhindered access into God’s holy presence, right here, right now. And the author of Hebrews challenges us to take advantage of our access by faith into this grace.

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. – Hebrews 4:16 NLT

But along with a sense of boldness, our gracious access into God’s presence should cause us to rejoice because we know that, just as Jesus was resurrected and received a new, glorified body, so shall we. And it is that hope that allows us to rejoice in the face of any kind suffering we may have to endure in this life because we know this is not the end. There is more to come. There is a life after this one. And Paul reminds us that, for the believer, even our suffering has a divine purpose behind it: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.”

And the author of Hebrews uses Jesus as an example of someone who benefited from the suffering He endured in his short, earthly life.

Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.  – Hebrews 5:8-9 NLT

There is little doubt that Jesus suffered. Yet, He remained committed to the cause of His heavenly Father, and obediently fulfilled His divine mission even in the face of opposition, ridicule, physical pain, and a gruesome death. It was His death that made possible our justification by God and our access into the presence of God. And like Jesus, we can experience the amazing truth that suffering can produce endurance, which strengthens our character and focuses our hope on the reality of eternity. Any suffering we have to endure in this life reminds us that the day is coming when “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever”(Revelation 21:4 NLT). And Paul points out that present troubles fade in the light of future glory.

For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! – 2 Corinthians 4:17 NLT

This hope that we have is based on a remarkable truth that we sometimes find difficult to grasp and even more difficult to believe: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Everything we have just discussed has been made possible because God has poured out His love, not on us, within us. Think about that. His love is not just some external expression of affection. It cannot be relegated to an outer display of care and concern that shows up in forgiveness or a willingness to overlook our sin.

No, God poured His love into our hearts by placing His Holy Spirit within us. This is a doctrinal truth that contains massive implications. Remember, it was while we were still enslaved to our sin that God sent His Son to die for us. He didn’t love us when we were lovely. He loved us in the midst of our sin-stained degradation. He loved us while we were still His enemies. But He showed that love by placing His Spirit within us. He poured His Spirit into our hearts. And it was that action that provided us with the capacity to respond in love to Him. The Spirit resurrected us from death to life, opening our formerly blind eyes, and placed a new heart within, a heart capable of loving God and others. Paul went out of his way to ensure that his young disciple, Titus, understood this amazing truth.

…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:5-6 ESV

And it was God’s act of placing His Spirit within us that made it possible for us to return to Him the love He showed toward us. The capacity to love God is not something we manufacture. It does not come naturally to any human being. In fact, Paul paints a very bleak but realistic picture of man’s incapacity to love God.

None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

So, for sinful man to experience justification, peace with God, and access into His presence, he must be filled with the love of God in the form of the Spirit of God. And the apostle John presents us with a powerful explanation of this gift of God’s love works itself out in the life of the believer.

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. –1 John 4:16-21 ESV

Notice what John says: “whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” It is God’s love for us, as expressed by His love within us, that perfects us. And because we have God’s love present in us, in the form of His Spirit, we can have confidence in the day of judgment, because “as he is so also are we in this world.” That’s an incredible statement that we must take lightly or treat flippantly. John is not suggesting that we are sinless in this life. He is not saying that we bear the exact image of Jesus. But He is saying that, because of our union with Christ, we have His Spirit within and the capacity to love God and others just as He does. And, as Jesus is now glorified and seated at the right hand of the Father, so are we. Our future glory is guaranteed because of the Spirit’s presence within us.

Paul reminds us that God has “given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Corinthians 1:22 ESV). A little later on in the same letter, Paul repeats this promise.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

God has placed His Spirit within us, and by virtue of that fact, we have the capacity to love God as He has loved us. This ability to love comes from God, not us. And while we do not experience perfectly in this life, the very fact that we can love God is proof to us that we have been adopted by God. We are His children.

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Romans 8:16-17 NLT


English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

God’s Satisfaction With Your Sanctification

19 Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:19-21 ESV

One of the questions we are attempting to answer is whether the believer’s sanctification brings God satisfaction. Or, to put it another way, is there more he or she needs to do become fully acceptable to God? There is no doubt that the average Christian is far from perfect and fully capable of committing sins that offend a holy God. And the Scriptures are replete with admonitions that Christ-followers put every effort into the pursuit of a lifestyle that emulates Christ and honors God.

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.– Hebrews 12:14 NASB

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. – 1 Timothy 6:11 ESV

So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. – 2 Timothy 2:22 ESV

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called… – Ephesians 4:1 ESV

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV

But the real issue is whether these admonitions and the efforts they encourage are intended to produce additional godliness in the life of the believer. The term progressive sanctification is often used to describe the believer’s growth in godliness. It is the part of the believer’s life that connects his justification, which took place at salvation, with his future glorification, which will occur at Christ’s return. During the intervening years between initial salvation and future glorification, the believer is expected to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14 ESV), and to pursue a life of righteousness.

Sanctification begins with regeneration, the implanting of spiritual life in a believer. From that starting point sanctification is God’s progressively separating a believer from sin to Himself and transforming his total life experience toward holiness and purity. The process of sanctifiction for a believer never ends while he is on erth in his mortal body. It is consummated in glorification when that believer through death and resurrection or through the Rapture stands in the presence of God “ conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Romans 8:29). – J. F. Walvoord, R. B. Zuck, Dallas Theological Seminary (1985), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scripture

But one of the dangers inherent in seeing the believer’s sanctification as progressive in nature is that it can leave the impression that he or she falls short of God’s glorious standard for acceptable righteousness. That is certainly not what the quote above implies, but it what far too many Christians have assumed about their relationship with God because of faulty conclusions regarding progressive sanctification.

The question is not whether we are to pursue righteousness or to make every effort to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. It is whether, in doing so, we are making ourselves any more acceptable to God than we already are. If we are not careful, we can turn sanctification into a work where we are attempting to please God by making ourselves more holy through self-effort. But Zuck and Walvoord are very specific when they write, “sanctification is God’s progressively separating a believer from sin to Himself and transforming his total life experience toward holiness and purity.” Sanctification is the work of God, not man. And in the process of sanctifying the believer, God is trying to make the believer more acceptable. The believer’s sanctification is not about satisfaction, but about the actualization of the righteousness imputed to the believer through his union with Christ.

The passage from Hebrews that opened this post provides us with a much-needed reminder that “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19 ESV). In this chapter, the author of Hebrews is comparing the sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross with the Old Testament sacrificial system prescribed by God for the atonement of the sins of the people of Israel. Because of sin, the nation of Israel found itself constantly separated from God and unable to enter into His presence. So, God implemented the priestly office and the sacrificial system so that sinful men could receive cleansing from their sins and restored access to God.

…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 ESV

But as the author of Hebrews puts it:

But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Hebrews 10:3-4 ESV

Once the sacrifice was made, the very next sin the average Israelite committed resulted in his separation from God yet again. So, another sacrifice was necessary. More blood had to be spilled. His righteous standing with God had to be restored.

But there is good news. The author goes on to quote Jesus, describing His role as the final and fully sufficient sacrifice for the sins of mankind.

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,

“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
    but a body have you prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you have taken no pleasure.
Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
    as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’” – Hebrews 10:5-7 ESV

Jesus came to provide a fully sufficient sacrifice for the sins of mankind. His death and the shedding of His blood for the remission of sins was fully satisfying to God. He propitiated or satisfied God’s demand that blood be shed in order for the sins of men to be atoned for. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus paid the debt that was owed.

“Behold, I have come to do your will.” He does away with the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. – Hebrews 10:9-10 ESV

Don’s miss the significance of the author’s words. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” There is no more sacrifice needed. No more blood is required.

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. – Hebrews 10:14 ESV

Here we have the stated the vital balance that must be maintained if we are to understand the role of sanctification in the life of the believer. With His death, Jesus has perfected or made complete each and every believer – for all time. And the author describes believers as “those who are being sanctified.” We are constantly being transformed into the likeness of Christ, but not so that we might become more perfect or acceptable. The blood of Jesus Christ has already accomplished that.

But here is the danger we face. Without a clear understanding of our right standing before God because of Christ’s death on the cross, we read a verse like Romans 12:1, and assume that our righteousness is up to us.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

We hear Paul telling us that we have to somehow make ourselves holy and acceptable to God through self-effort. And depending upon the church we attend or the faith community to which we belong, we interpret Paul’s call to be a living sacrifice as entailing Bible study, prayer, tithing, service, meditation, obedience, submission, or some other form of sacrificial effort on our part. We assume that Paul is telling us we don’t measure up, so we have to get busy if we want to have a right standing with God.

But the author of Hebrews has told us, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.” The sacrifice has already been made – once for all. So, Paul’s call that we be living sacrifices is not a demand that we make ourselves acceptable to God, but that we recognize that we have been made acceptable by the blood of Jesus. We are an acceptable sacrifice because Jesus Christ has made us so. We have been imputed His righteousness and stand before God has holy and acceptable. Nothing we do will make us more so. Sanctification is not about achieving acceptability but about accepting our acceptability. We are right with God. And our pursuit of godliness is not meant to make us more right but to bring glory to God as He sovereignly and progressively transforms us into the likeness of His Son.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Past, Present, and Future

1 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours… – 1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV

1 Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 5:23 ESV

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. – Hebrews 12:22-23 ESV

The four passages above provide us with clarification concerning the doctrine of sanctification, but they have also resulted in much confusion and debate over the centuries. Taken out of context or rad apart from one another, they can leave a range of different conclusions regarding sanctification and man’s role in it.

It seems that the Bible treats sanctification using three different tenses: past, present, and future; and with each occurrence a different aspect of sanctification is being communicated. These three different ways of looking at sanctification provide us with a multi-multidimensional frame of reference that helps us better understand the rich nature of this often overlooked and underappreciated doctrine.

But these verses, and others like them, have also been used to propagate a wide range of conclusions regarding sanctification. For some, the fact that sanctification is communicated as having taken place in the past, suggests that it is a one-and-done doctrine. They treat it as they do justification, concluding that it was accomplished at the point of salvation and is, therefore, complete. They rightly state that each and every believer has been set apart or sanctified by God at the point of their salvation.  As the letter of Jude so clearly states, they have been called by God.

To those who are called…  – Jude 1 ESV

The word, “called” in the Greek is hagiazō, and refers to those who have been sanctified or consecrated to God for His use. And the author of Hebrews tells us that who God has called or sanctified “have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV). That calling cannot be revoked. The believer’s state of sanctification cannot be lost. As A. W. Pink so aptly puts it:

…his sacrifice has purged his people from every stain of sin, separated them from the world, consecrated them unto God, setting them before him in all the excellency of his offering. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

As Paul told the believers in Thessalonica: “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13. ESV). So, there is a sense in which our sanctification is a past occurrence, having been accomplished through the Spirit when we placed our faith in Jesus Christ. At that point, we became God’s holy possession, set apart for His use and bearing the full righteousness of Christ. That’s why Peter describes us as “a chosen people,” and he calls us “royal priests, a holy nation, God’s very own possession.” And then he tells us the wonderful consequences of our sanctification: “As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT).

But if we have been sanctified by God and it is a completed process, why do we still struggle with sin? If we have been made holy by God, why does unholy behavior still make up such a large part of our daily experience? When the Scripture talks of the believer as having been sanctified once for all, it is not speaking of a complete eradication of sin from the life of the one sanctified.

…scriptural sanctification is neither the eradication of sin, the purification of the carnal nature, nor even the partial putting to sleep of the “flesh”; still less does it secure an exemption from the attacks and harassments of Satan. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

Even Jesus, praying in the garden on behalf of all those who would place their faith in Him, said to His heavenly Father, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:15-17 ESV). 

Jesus prayed for a specific group of people. He refers to them as “the people whom you gave me out of the world,” and Jesus reminds His Father, “Yours they were, and you gave them to me” (John 17:5 ESV). They had been set apart by God as His possession, and God had given them to Jesus to save. And on the verge of accomplishing His divine mission of substitutionary atonement, Jesus tells His Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9 ESV).

And Jesus asked that His Father “keep them from the evil one” and “sanctify them in the truth.” Yes, they had been set apart by God, and Jesus was going to seal their designation as God’s possession with His death on the cross. But Jesus knew that all those whom God had given Him would still wrestle with the attacks of Satan and the ever-present reality of sin. The New Testament repeatedly points to the reality of indwelling sin. Our own experience as believers provides ample proof that sin is far from eradicated in our lives. Yes, we have been set apart by God for His use. We now belong to Him, and we have even been given a new nature by virtue of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, but we still have to do battle with sin each and every day. That is why the author of Hebrews tells us: “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).

It’s why Paul pleaded so strongly with the believers in Ephesus, telling them to “throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy” (Ephesians 4:22-24 NLT). And He warned the believers in Galatia to “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16 ESV).  Paul also demanded that the Corinthian believers cleanse themselves from anything that defiled the body or spirit so that they might bring their holiness to completion (2 Corinthians 7:1 ESV).

So, while believers have been set apart by God for His use, we must live in keeping with our holy status. In other words, we have been dedicated by God and cleansed from our sin by the blood of His Son, so we must maintain the purity of our lives so that we might continue to bring Him glory through our lives. That is what Paul meant when he wrote to his young protégé, Timothy.

In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use. If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work. – 2 Timothy 2:20-21 NLT

We are to see ourselves as “expensive utensils” reserved for special occasions and for honorable use. That is the motivation behind our efforts to remain pure. We are not attempting to earn favor with God or gain access into His presence through good works. We are striving to live in keeping with His will for us.

…this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 ESV

We are to pursue holiness because we have been deemed holy by God. As Paul told Timothy, we are to “Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). Why? Because it is God’s will for us and the very reason Jesus gave His life for us. Paul would have us remember that Jesus died so that we might live in newness of life.

For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives…We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. – Romans 6:4, 6 NLT

And the hope that motivates our pursuit of ongoing sanctification is the promise of our future glorification – when our sanctification will be complete and whole. The day is coming when we will become “the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:13 ESV) and “we will be like him”(1 John 3:2 NLT).

We have been sanctified by God. We are being sanctified by God. And the day is coming when we will be perfectly sanctified by God – not just positionally, but practically and permanently.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

The Miracle of Salvation

31 Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved… – Acts 16:31 ESV

The salvation spoken of in the Scriptures is both simple and complex. As the verse above illustrates, from a human perspective it requires nothing more than faith. In fact, as the Reformers so aptly put it, it is faith alone in Christ alone that saves. That’s why Paul told the Philippian jailer all he had to do was “believe in the Lord Jesus.” There is no “and” in Paul’s statement. He added no further requirements to the process. There was nothing more the man had to do other than believe, and we know from Luke’s account that he did.

And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. – Acts 16:34 ESV

Luke also records that this man’s belief took place after Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (Acts 16:31 ESV). In other words, they took the time to explain in detail God’s message of salvation made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son. That is why Luke states that the man rejoiced “that he had believed in God.” He recognized that the gift of salvation was based on the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. It was God who had sent His Son into the world to pay the penalty for mankind’s sin debt and to remove the verdict of condemnation that applied to each and every human being.

But all the jailer had to do was believe. His part was easy. And, later on in his ministry, Paul would expand on the remarkable nature of salvation by explaining, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT).

But while man’s role in the miracle of salvation is simple and based on nothing more than faith, it is anything but a simplistic event. At the moment that the Philippian jailer placed his faith in Jesus, something incredible happened. To put it another way, some incredible things happened. A series of God-ordained and instantaneous actions took place that remained totally invisible to the jailer but were indispensable for his salvation to be sufficient.

As this man was processing and accepting the message as delivered to him by Paul and Silas, God was working behind the scenes, orchestrating a host of invisible elements necessary to turn this man’s simple faith into saving faith.

In theology, salvation denotes a work of God on behalf of men that encompasses a wide range of divine initiatives that includes conviction, regeneration, redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, justification, sanctification, preservation, and glorification. These sophisticated-sounding words connote different actions on the part of God that accompany the miracle of salvation. And, in order for us to fully appreciate what God has made possible through His Son’s death and resurrection, it is essential that we comprehend the unseen and inexplicable nature of God’s work on man’s behalf.

For the Philippian jailer to believe in Jesus as his Savior, a change of heart was required. Like all men, he was a slave to sin, and “lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). He was far away from and an enemy of God, separated from him by his evil thoughts and actions (Colossians 1:21). He was spiritually dead because of his disobedience and many sins (Ephesians 2:1). His mind was blinded by the god of this world “from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT).

So, what happened? How was this man suddenly able to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ? Paul tells us.

…he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:5-6 ESV

The Greek word translated as “regeneration” is paliggenesia and it is comprised of two other Greek words: palin – again, once more, and genesis – birth, beginning. It is where we get the idea of being born again. It refers to a new life or, as Jesus put explained it to Nicodemus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). That phrase can also be translated as “born from above.” In other words, this is a divine rebirth that is completely dependent upon God. That is why Jesus told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Why is this new birth necessary? Because man was born spiritually dead, having inherited the sin of Adam and the death penalty that accompanied it. The Philippian jailer needed spiritual resuscitation. And Paul reminds us that all men require this regenerating work of the Spirit of God if they are going to have the capacity to place their faith in the gift provided by God.

And when the jailer’s eyes were opened and he was able to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,” he believed. Where before, even his righteous deeds had been no better than filthy rags, the jailer was now able to do the right thing and choose Christ. His blinded eyes had been opened and his state of spiritual death had been replaced with new life. And, as a result, he became a new creation.

But that’s not all that happened. As a result of placing his faith in Jesus, he received redemption, what Paul describes as the forgiveness of sins.

He [God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. – Colossians 1:13-14 ESV

The Greek for redemption is exagorazō, and it means “to redeem by payment of a price to recover from the power of another to ransom, buy off.” Tony Evans describes it this way:

Redemption involves paying a purchase price, and it was often used in the context of the slave market. This is how the biblical writers used the term to describe the purchase price that Jesus Christ paid on the cross. – Tony Evans, Theology You Can Count On

At the moment of his salvation, the Philippian jailer was set free from slavery to sin. Not only that, he had all his sins – past, present, and future – completely forgiven. God had redeemed this man from the marketplace of sin, paying the price with the life of His own Son.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

And Jesus Himself described the redemptive nature of His death.

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. – Matthew 20:28 NLT

And what did this redemption accomplish?

  • Jesus freed us from the curse (Galatians 3:10, 13; 4:4-5; James 2:10)
  • God adopted us into His family (Romans 8:15)
  • We are set free from fear (Hebrews 2:14-15; 1 Corinthians 15:54-57)

In giving His life as a ransom, Jesus made it possible for sinful mankind to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is one of the key doctrines of Scripture because it means the sinner, separated and alienated from a holy God, can be restored to fellowship with Him. The Greek word is katallasso and it means “to bring back to harmony, make peace.” In reconciling the Philippian jailer to God, Jesus changed his state from one of enmity and disharmony to that of friendship and peace with God.

Paul reminds us: “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10 NIV). And that reconciliation has tremendous ramifications for our life on this earth as children of God.

Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us. Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory. – Romans 5:1-2 NLT

But how can a sinful man be made right with a holy God? What has to take place for this amazing transformation to be made possible? That brings us to two essential New Testament doctrines that are often overlooked and under-appreciated. The first is justification. It helps us understand what God does at the point of man’s salvation to transform him from a state of unrighteousness to righteousness. Charles Ryrie states the problem this way:

“If God, the Judge, is without injustice and completely righteous in all His decisions, then how can He announce a sinner righteous? And sinners we all are. There are only three options open to God as sinners stand in His courtroom. He must condemn them, compromise His own righteousness to receive them as they are, or He can change them into righteous people. If He can exercise the third option, then He can announce them righteous, which is justification. But any righteousness the sinner has must be actual, not fictitious; real, not imagined; acceptable by God’s standards, and not a whit short. If this can be accomplished, then, and only then, can He justify. Job stated the problem accurately when he asked, ‘how can a man be in the right before God?’” – Charles Ryrie, Systematic Theology

God has three possible options. The first is to condemn mankind for its sin. The second would be to compromise His own righteousness by accepting man in his sinful state. The third is to make sinful men righteous. And justification is the doctrinal explanation of this third and final option. Justification is an instantaneous legal act in which God reckons our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. And, as a result, He declares us to be righteous in His sight.

That brings us to the next remarkable doctrine associated with salvation: Imputation. Because all of the righteous deeds of men are considered to be no better than filthy rags to God, they stand in need of an alien righteousness, a righteousness outside of themselves. And in the miracle of salvation, God imputes the righteousness of Christ to the one who places his faith in Him. It is what has come to be known as “The Great Exchange.” For God to consider sinful men to be righteous, God first had to transfer the sins of man to His Son on the cross. Then, when men place their faith in Christ, they are imputed the righteousness of Christ

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. – 1 Corinthians 1:30 NLT

So, the Philippian jailer believed, but there was far more going on behind the scenes to make his believing faith saving faith. He was regenerated, justified, redeemed, forgiven, and sanctified, or set apart as God’s son. And it was all the gracious work of a merciful, loving God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Righteousness From God Through Faith in Christ

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. – Philippians 3:1-4a ESV

Here, Paul drives home a message that was common to virtually all of his letters – that of true righteousness. And his reason for bringing it up seems to be due to the fact that the Philippian believers were undergoing intense opposition, either from within or without, regarding the issue of circumcision. As a Roman colony, Philippi would have had a large Gentile population and, therefore, the church in Philippi was most likely made up predominately of Gentiles who had converted to Christianity from paganism. In A.D. 50, when Paul, Silas, Luke, and Timothy had arrived in Philippi on their missionary journey, there would have been few Jewish residents in the city. But by the time Paul wrote this letter some 10-12 years later, the Jewish population could have grown and there may have been Jewish converts to Christianity within the congregation at Philippi. The presence of Jews outside the church and Jewish converts within the church had evidently raised an issue that had become a point of contention for Paul: Circumcision.

Paul opens this section with a reminder to rejoice, even in the face of opposition. This is in keeping with his message to them earlier in the letter:

“…it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” – Philippians 1:29 ESV

And Paul had used his own life as an example of joy in the midst of suffering. After all, he was writing to them from house arrest in Rome, facing a trial before Nero and uncertainty as to his fate. But he had been able to tell them:

“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.” – Philippians 2:17-18 ESV

So, even though they were facing opposition, they had every reason to rejoice because they were privileged to suffer for the sake of the gospel.

But it doesn’t take long for Paul’s tone to turn much more serious and sarcastic. He warns them to “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:2 ESV). Now, while this statement is clearly intended to paint the opposition in an unflattering light, there is more going on here than meets our modern, western eyes. 

Paul, writing in Greek, uses a play on words in describing those who were of the pro-circumcision camp. He refers to them as “those who mutilate the flesh.” But that is a translation of a single Greek word, katatomē, which means to cut up or mutilate. In Leviticus 21:5, the priests of God were forbidden to “make any cuts on their body.” In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the word katatomē was used to describe this forbidden practice.

Here is where Paul’s cleverness and open hostility can be seen. The Greek word normally used when speaking of the Jewish practice of circumcision was peritomē and Paul uses it in verse 3.  You can see what Paul is doing here: katatomē vs peritomē. He is comparing the Jewish ritual of circumcision with the forbidden act of self-mutilation. But it’s important to remember the context. Paul is addressing a predominately Gentile congregation. These would have been pagans who had placed their faith in Christ, but now there were being told that their faith was incomplete and insufficient. There were those who were telling them that they must be circumcised and keep all the Jewish laws and religious rituals in order to be truly saved. This message was common in the 1st Century and was propagated by a group that came to be known as the Judaizers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Paul thought about these people. He calls them dogs and evildoers. And his intense anger for them was due to the fact that they were adding to the gospel message he preached. His feelings about this matter are made perfectly clear in his letter to the believers in Galatia.

You are following a different way that pretends to be the Good News but is not the Good News at all. You are being fooled by those who deliberately twist the truth concerning Christ.

Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. I say again what we have said before: If anyone preaches any other Good News than the one you welcomed, let that person be cursed. – Galatians 1:6-9 NLT

And Paul had strong words for the church in Corinth because they were being led away from the simple message of the gospel and buying into a false narrative that essentially claimed true righteousness was based the false formula of Jesus + something = salvation.

As far as Paul was concerned, the Judaizers were the enemy. Although they claimed to be followers of Jesus Christ, they were demanding that everyone become as they were. Their demand was that all the male members of the church in Philippi be circumcised and, essentially, convert to Judsaism before they .could be considered truly saved. And this left Paul in a state of rage, especially because he was unable to do anything about it while under house arrest in Rome. Which explains the strong nature of his rhetoric.

And he completely invalidates the message of the Judaizers, instead offering the Gentile converts to Christianity as the true circumcision.

“For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort…” – Philippians 3:3 NLT

This verse summarizes Paul’s view on the matter. To him, circumcision was nothing more than a work, an outward act that left the one circumcised with a false sense of spiritual well-being. For the Jews, it had become a symbol of their unique status as God’s chosen people. But in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul exposed the flaw behind the Jewish thinking regarding circucision.

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. – Romans 2:25 NLT

In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it. – Romans 2:27 NLT

The problem lies in the dangerous misperception being perpetrated by the Judaizers. In their way of thinking the rite of circumcision was the non-negotiable doorway all must enter on their way to justification before God. But this teaching stood in direct opposition to the gospel message of salvation made possible by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There was no other step needed. To add circumcision to the gospel message was to distort the good news and to make it another gospel altogether. Rather than basing salvation on the grace-gift of God’s Son, the Judaizers were introducing a form of works-based salvation. They were making justification a matter of rule-keeping and self-effort. But Paul reminds the Philippian believers, “We put no confidence in human effort.”

And then he goes on to expose the absurdity of the Judaizers’ argument. If they were going to make it all about human effort and rule-keeping, Paul could have been the poster-boy for self-justification. And he will go on to describe his relative merit as a good Jew who had all the criteria to make him a candidate for justification before God through works. But for Paul, this way of thinking was ridiculous and dangerous. It stood in direct opposition to the message of the gospel. And in a direct attack against the pride-filled Judaizers, Paul sarcastically states: “I could have confidence in my own effort if anyone could. Indeed, if others have reason for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more!” (Philippians 3:4a NLT). And he will go on to describe his so-called credentials for justification before God. But he knew that his curriculum vitae had nothing to do with his right standing before God. His salvation was not based on anything he had done or any worth he brought to the table. It was all the result of the finished work of Christ on the cross. And Paul drove home that point in his letter to the Galatians.

“…we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.” – Galatians 2:16 NLT

For Paul, the formula was quite simple and concise. Righteousness was made available by God through man’s faith in the finished work of Christ. No more. No less. Circumcision becomes nothing more than self-mutilation when used to earn favor with God. Law-keeping becomes disobedience to God when used as an attempt to justify oneself before God. For as Paul stated, no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

No More Gloom.

1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
    you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
    as with joy at the harvest,
    as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
    and the staff for his shoulder,
    the rod of his oppressor,
    you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
    and every garment rolled in blood
    will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV

The last chapter ended on a rather somber note.

And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. – Isaiah 8:22 ESV

The people of Judah would find themselves living in darkness, having rejected the word of God. Rather than seek Him, they would turn to mediums and the necromancers, in a vain attempt to gain insight into the dire circumstances surrounding them. But they will be left in the dark, mentally and spiritually. Isaiah even describes them as having no dawn – no hope for the future. Then God provides the good news. And He delivers it in the past tense, as if it has already taken place.

The people who walked in darkness
    have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
    on them has light shone. – Isaiah 9:2 ESV

The apostle John gives us further clarification about this light.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. – John 3:19 ESV

Jesus, born to Mary, was the Son of God and the light of the world. In His incarnation, His entrance into our world in human form, Jesus became a light shining in the spiritual darkness that had pervaded the land of Israel for more than four centuries. During that 400-year period of time, God had been silent. The prophets had stopped writing and speaking. There was a spiritual void in the land. And the spiritual darkness was palpable. Then the dawn came. The Light broke through the darkness.

And Matthew, quoting from this very passage, wrote of Jesus beginning His ministry in the region of Galilee.

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
    the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.” – Matthew 4:12-16 ESV

Once humiliated under the judgment of God, this region would be blessed with the presence of the Son of God. Naphtali and Zebulun were located in the north around the Sea of Galilee. These would have been the first regions within the northern kingdom of Israel to fall to the Assyrians. And yet, God was promising that this region would be one of the first places in which His Son would minister.

But it’s important that we notice the aspects of this prophecy that appear as yet unfulfilled. Jesus did come. And He began His ministry within the regions of Naphtali and Zebulun. And He delivered a very specific message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV).

But John makes it clear that His message was heard, but unheeded.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

The Jews refused to accept Jesus as their Messiah. His own rejected Him. And yet, God seems to promise tremendous blessings to the people of Israel as a result of this light.

You will enlarge the nation of Israel,
    and its people will rejoice.
They will rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest
    and like warriors dividing the plunder.
For you will break the yoke of their slavery
    and lift the heavy burden from their shoulders.
You will break the oppressor’s rod,
    just as you did when you destroyed the army of Midian.
The boots of the warrior
    and the uniforms bloodstained by war
will all be burned.
    They will be fuel for the fire. – Isaiah 9:3-5 NLT

None of these things happened. Jesus didn’t break their yoke of slavery to Rome. He didn’t remove the oppressor’s rod. The nation of Israel was not enlarged. Because Jesus came to offer spiritual emancipation – a release from their slavery to sin. He came to deliver them from the oppression of spiritual death or eternal separation from God.

The arrival of Jesus on this planet, in the physical form of a man, was intended to provide atonement for the sins of manknd, and to make their right standing before God a reality. He did not come to set up an earthly kingdom or to establish Himself as the King of Israel. At least, not yet. And what the Jews viewed as His failure to come as their conquering king and deliverer from Roman oppression, was what caused them to reject Him as their Messiah.

And yet, God seemed to promise a coming king.

For a child is born to us,
    a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
    And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
    will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
    for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen! – Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

The prophecy speaks of His government, His rule, His throne and His mighty army. And that aspect of the prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. The apostle John, through the vision given to Him by God, describes a future day in which Jesus will reign on this earth from the throne of His ancestor David.

Then I saw thrones and seated on them were those who had been given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. These had not worshiped the beast or his image and had refused to receive his mark on their forehead or hand. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4 NLT

And, as the angel revealed to Mary regarding the birth of her son:

“…behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” – Luke 1:20-33 ESV

God’s promiise, made to the people of Judah through the lips of Isaiah, would one day come true. He did break through the darkness. But the people loved the darkness more than they loved the light. So, God took the good news of salvation to the Gentiles. But the day is coming when God will fulfill His promise to the people of Judah.

Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts, but this will last only until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ. And so all Israel will be saved. As the Scriptures say,

“The one who rescues will come from Jerusalem, and he will turn Israel away from ungodliness. And this is my covenant with them, that I will take away their sins.” – Romans 11:25-27 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Heart Disease.

 33 “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:33-37 ESV

At first glance, these verses appear to contain some confusing and contradictory messages from the lips of Jesus. In His continuing confrontation with the Pharisees, His rhetoric intensified and some of His statements seem contrary to the Gospel as we know it. As usual, we must take into account the context and the individuals to whom His words are directed. The Pharisees were considered part of the religious elite and Israel. They were revered for their piety and their strict adherence to the law of Moses. But they had just accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. In other words, they had judged His works as being evil. So, Jesus determined to address the issue of works or fruit.

He began with what appears to be a command that, from a Christian perspective, sounds a bit strange coming from the lips of Jesus.

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.” – Matthew 12:33 ESV

Can a tree make itself good or can a tree make itself bad? The real issue here has to do with fruit. The nature of the fruit is in direct relationship to the condition of the tree. A good tree bears good fruit. A bad or unhealthy tree bears bad fruit. The fruit merely proves the condition of the tree from which it came.

This was not the first time Jesus utilized this metaphor of trees and fruit. He had previously used it in His sermon on the mount.

16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. – Matthew 7:16-20 ESV

The Pharisees had accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name and power of Satan. But by restoring the sight and speech of the possessed man, Jesus had done a good thing. His actions had released a man from the control of a demon and restored him to health. The “fruit” was self-evident and should have been recognized for what it was: A work of the Spirit of God. But instead, the Pharisees had attributed it to Satan.

So, Jesus addressed the Pharisees on terms they could understand. They were self-righteous men who truly believed that their actions were the determiner of the justification before God. They were confident in their own righteousness, believing themselves to be law-abiding and God-pleasing. But Jesus knew their hearts and called them out for their hypocrisy. He used what would become a favorite term of His when referring to these men: “You brood of vipers!”

This was the same term John the Baptist had used when the Pharisees and Sadducees had showed up in the wilderness seeking to be baptized by him.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Matthew 3:7-10 ESV

These men, who by all appearances were godly and righteous, were actually deadly and dangerous. They were the offspring of Satan himself, and the fruit of their lives was proof. They could no more change the nature of their fruit than an apple tree could decide to bear oranges. Notice what John the Baptist said to them: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” In other words, the only way they were going to change the fruit of their lives was by repenting of the way they lived their lives. They were going to have to change their whole outlook on what it means to be righteous before God. Their belief that good works and obedience to the law earned a man a right standing before God was going to have to be replaced by faith in Jesus. First, they would have to agree with the assessment of the prophet Isaiah.

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

They would need to accept the less-than-flattering conclusion of Solomon:

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

Or as the apostle Paul would later put it:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. – Romans 3:23 NLT

Jesus pulled no punches, but harshly assessed the true state of the spiritual condition.

“How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” – Matthew 12:34 ESV

He leaves little doubt as to His opinion of these men. They were evil and the very words that came from their lips were proof. They were suffering from a serious heart problem. And the Old Testament was full of warnings regarding the heart.

Keep your heart with all vigilance,
    for from it flow the springs of life. – Proverbs 4:23 ESV

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes,
    but the Lord weighs the heart. – Proverbs 21:2 ESV

“How sick is your heart, declares the Lord God, because you did all these things, the deeds of a brazen prostitute…” – Ezekiel 16:30 ESV

Jesus made His view of them crystal clear.

A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. – Matthew 12:35 NLT

They were suffering from an internal disorder over which they had no control. They couldn’t change the fruit they bore because they were incapable of altering their sin natures. The true condition of their hearts would eventually manifest itself. There was no hiding it. And Jesus dropped a bombshell on them that had to have left them reeling in disbelief and anger.

“…on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” – Matthew 12:36 ESV

The day is coming when God will judge all men. And Jesus seems to be saying that He wil judge them according to their words. But it is important to consider all that Jesus has said. His emphasis has been on the condition of the heart. He told them, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” The word translated as “abundance” has to do with surplus or that which fills and overflows the heart. Whatever fills the heart will overflow through the mouth. So, at the judgment, men will give an account for the words they have spoken, because those words will give evidence of the content of their hearts.

Then Jesus summarizes His comments with a statement that seems in direct violation of the Gospel.

“…for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” – Matthew 12:37 ESV

Is Jesus insinuating that our speech will save us? Do we have the capacity to talk our way into the Kingdom of God?

Obviously Jesus did not mean that if a person was able to say all the right words he or she could deceive God and win salvation by clever speech. The basis of justification and condemnation is character, but words reveal character and so become the instruments by which God judges. – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Matthew

Once again, the point Jesus was making had to do with the condition of the heart. As the prophet Jeremiah so boldly put it: “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). Our words and our conduct are merely expressions of the condition of our heart. And we can do nothing to change our words or actions because we can do nothing to change our hearts. That is the work of God. And God had long ago promised to give the people of Israel new hearts, doing for them what they could have never done on their own.

“I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:26-27 NLT

The Pharisees were convinced of their own righteousness. They viewed themselves as justified before God because of their outward adherence to the law of Moses. But Jesus knew their real problem was a heart condition for which their was only one cure: Faith in Him. Their words would end up condemning them because the wicked hearts within them. Had they been willing to pray the same prayer that King David prayed, they would have found Jesus ready, willing and able to answer.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. – Psalm 51:10 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Approved By God.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:1-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and He begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes”.  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word, “blessing” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessing in the original text of Matthew’s gospel was makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes”.

In order to fully understand what Jesus is saying, we must know what He meant by using the word, “blessed”.  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed is a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He has been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse and with good friends. Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 – makarios – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something quite different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the kingdom of heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification: how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. For the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses had made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to enjoy His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

So here comes Jesus, preaching a message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He has to say will rock the world of His listeners. He will tie the blessing of God to poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He will talk about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He will command His listeners to rejoice when they are persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they are slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return. None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus has to say in this passage will turn the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of what Jesus says will be in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) closely to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence. God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment. He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. That is why Jesus would later offer the Great Invitation: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT).

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God, made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson