theology

Good Friday Reflection: The Suffering Servant


The Chosen One has died this day
But He, the Son, will rise Sunday
For that is what Amoz’ son did say
And we know that his word is true


Who has believed our message? (John 12: 38, Romans 10: 16)

And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot,

And like a root out of parched ground;

He has no stately form or majesty

That we should look upon Him,

Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.

He was despised and forsaken of men, (Luke 18: 31 – 33)

A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;

And like one from whom men hide their face

He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. (Mark 10: 33, 34 and John 1: 10, 11)

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, (Matthew 8: 17)

And our sorrows He carried;

Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,

Smitten of God, and afflicted. (John 19: 7)

But He was pierced through for our transgressions, (Hebrews 9: 28)

He was crushed for our iniquities; (Romans 4: 25, 1 Cor 15: 3)

The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, (Hebrews 5: 8)

And by His scourging we are healed. (1 Peter 2: 24, 25)

All of us like sheep have gone astray,

Each of us has turned to his own way;

But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all

To fall on Him.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,

Yet He did not open His mouth; (Matt 26:63; 27:12–14; Mark 14:61; 15:5; Luke 23:9; John 19:9)

Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, (Acts 8:32, 33; Rev 5:6)

And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,

So He did not open His mouth.

By oppression and judgment He was taken away;

And as for His generation, who considered

That He was cut off out of the land of the living

For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?

His grave was assigned with wicked men,

Yet He was with a rich man in His death, (Matthew 27: 57 – 60)

Because He had done no violence, (1 Peter 2: 22)

Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

But the LORD was pleased

To crush Him, putting Him to grief;

If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, (John 1: 29)

He will see His offspring,

He will prolong His days,

And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

As a result of the anguish of His soul,

He will see it and be satisfied; (John 10: 14 – 18)

By His knowledge the Righteous One, (Romans 5: 18 – 19)

My Servant, will justify the many,

As He will bear their iniquities.

Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, (Philippians 2: 9 – 11)

And He will divide the booty with the strong;

Because He poured out Himself to death, (Matt 26: 38, 39, 42)

And was numbered with the transgressors; (Mark 15: 28, Luke 22: 37)

Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, (2 Cor 5: 21)

And interceded for the transgressors.

Why Christians Don’t Listen To Moses: 1 – Introduction


Why don’t Christians listen to Moses?

The simple answer is found in Matthew 17:

Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” (Matthew 17: 1 – 5)

This command to listen to Jesus, instead of Moses and Elijah, came from God and is the fulfillment of words God gave to Moses to give to Israel:

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. (Deuteronomy 18: 15)

Peter quoted this very verse in Acts 3 and applied it to Jesus. There is no doubt that the New Testament teaches Christians are to listen to Jesus. This theme is expanded upon by the book of Hebrews, which opens with this:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. (Hebrews 1: 1 – 2)

In regards to the differences between what Jesus and Moses taught, we are told this:

But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says, “Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when I will effect a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house Judah; not like the covenant which I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt; for they did not continue in my covenant (Hebrews 8: 6 – 9)

The book of Hebrews teaches that if the first covenant of Moses was sufficient, God would have no need of sending Messiah and promising through the prophets a new and better covenant. But since the first covenant was never obeyed by Israel, because of their perpetual sin, something better was needed. This better thing is Jesus and the New Covenant.

And so to summarize our initial examination of this issue, we as Christians do not listen to Moses because the New Testament tells us to listen to Jesus, and instructs us that the New Covenant has replaced the Old Covenant, due to the Old Covenant’s inability to produce the repentance and faith God desired.

Faith Toward God: 2 – Faith in Jesus Is Not Enough


Suggested Pre-Reading: Faith Toward God 1


In the same way that faith in a god is not enough, so too faith in a Jesus is not enough. Of course, by “a Jesus” we mean not the real One, but the multitude of fake ones that have existed from the days of Paul until now.

For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully. (2 Corinthians 11: 4)

Paul rebuked the Corinthian church for believing in “another Jesus”, rather than believing in the Jesus of Paul’s preaching. From this we learn that saying “I believe in Jesus” does not qualify as a genuine, Biblical faith in Christ. Just as faith in God must be based on the particulars of Scripture, so too must faith in Jesus be based on the particulars of Scripture. Virtually every New Testament book warns of false teachings – if God does not desire accurate faith in Jesus, then what are all the warnings about? Jesus Himself warns us, saying:

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7: 21 – 23)

Why would Jesus reject people who in His name prophesied and cast out demons and performed miracles? He tells us – they were lawless. But how were they lawless? Their lawlessness is seen in their response to Jesus – they offered up their works as proof of their righteousness before God. To stand before God on the Day of Judgment, and to offer up your works as proof of your worthiness, is a tell-tale sign that you believe in another Jesus, because the gospel of the real Jesus states that man can never by works justify himself before God. We are righteous because of Christ, not because of our works. Paul reminded the Corinthian church of this great truth:

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5: 21)

And Jesus, when asked what the great work of God is, did not say “justify yourself through prophecy and miracles”. Rather, He said

This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent. (John 6: 29)

Faith in the real Jesus is not limited to this one doctrine of Christ making us righteous by His blood. But it is a key doctrine and essential to the gospel. If one does not believe it, then one most certainly does not believe in the real Jesus. And if one does not believe in the real Jesus, then their faith is in a Jesus, which will not be enough on the Day of Judgment.

Faith Toward God: 1 – Faith In god Is Not Enough


If someone asked me, “What do you love about your wife?”, and I answered, “She has eyes and a mouth and a nose”, my answer wouldn’t be based on anything unique to her. Such an answer could call into question whether I actually loved my wife, because my reasons for love were based on things common to all women.

Similarly, if someone were to ask a Christian why they have faith in the God of the Bible, the response ought to be based on more than a list of divine attributes any god could possess. Otherwise, one’s faith is not in The God, but a god. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives us a list of general qualities that not only the real God possesses, but which many false gods are said to possess:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse…(Romans 1: 20)

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness…(Romans 2: 14 – 15)

What Paul is saying is that God through creation has revealed the following about Himself:

  1. He is the creator
  2. He is eternal
  3. He is powerful
  4. He has a moral code

Now even though these things are true of the God of the Bible, a Muslim and an Orthodox Jew also believe them. A theist who believes in these four truths is a far cry from a Christian who believes in Yahweh, the God of the Bible, and that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Eternal Son, second person of the Trinity. The Bible is too particular to allow one’s faith to be based only on generally revealed divine attributes. Christians are to believe in a particular God who interacted in history in particular ways. God parted the Red Sea, carried Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, and rose from the dead on the third day.

A faith in god, which lacks the particulars of Scripture and is based only on attributes that can be derived from nature, is not enough.

Resurrection of the Dead: 4 – The Resurrection Coincides With The Judgment


Suggested Pre-reading: Resurrection of the Dead 3


As we have contemplated how the resurrection of the dead functions as a gateway from this life to the Messianic Age, we must not forget that the Messianic Age is only for those who have trusted in Jesus the Messiah. For those who have not in this life believed in Christ, the resurrection of the dead is a gateway to eternal judgment.

Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12: 2)

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’…Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels’… ‘These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25: 31 – 34, 41, 46)

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself; and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (John 5: 24 – 29)

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20: 11 – 15)

For those who read the Bible but do not believe it teaches an eternal judgment, such as universalists, who think all will be saved, or annihilationists, who think unbelievers will have their life taken away as if they never existed, the resurrection of the dead is a strange event in the chronology of God’s eternal plan. What is this separation taking place, described by Daniel and Jesus and John? Why are people literally being brought before God and placed into one of two categories (righteous or damned)? If all are saved, then putting people into two groups makes no sense at all. If the damned are destroyed with no memory, rather than sent to conscious eternal torment, then why would God keep them as disembodied spirits until the resurrection, reunite them with their bodies, raise them to life, bring them before Him, and then destroy them so that they have no memory of anything?

As hard is it can be to fathom, we must hold to the Biblical truth that God will separate people into two groups at the resurrection, and one of those groups will be sent to the lake of fire, conscious of their punishment for rejecting belief in God and His Christ. It is the severity of that day that ought to move us to reach out to those who are lost and to teach them of Christ and His good news.

Resurrection of the Dead: 3 – Matter Matters


Suggested Prereading: Resurrection of the Dead 2


The resurrection of the dead proves that matter matters. For if the physical world that God created played no permanent part in His plan, what would be the point of a resurrection? If we are to be raised from the dead, meaning our souls are reunited with our physical bodies, then there must be a physical place for our bodies to reside. The Bible refers to this place as the new heavens and the new earth.

But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3: 13)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21: 1 – 4)

These New Testament teachings about new heavens and a new earth are consistent with the Old Testament prophets, who spoke about the Messianic Age to come. According to the prophets, the coming Messiah would establish His eternal kingdom on earth – a renewed earth.

And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little boy will lead them. Also the cow and the bear will graze, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. Then in that day the nations will resort to the root of Jesse, who will stand as a signal for the peoples; and His resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11: 6 – 10)

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. (Isaiah 9: 6 – 7)

My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd; and they will walk in My ordinances and keep My statutes and observe them. They will live on the land that I gave to Jacob My servant, in which your fathers lived; and they will live on it, they, and their sons and their sons’ sons, forever; and David My servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and will set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people. And the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when My sanctuary is in their midst forever. (Ezekiel 37: 24 – 28)

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. (Jeremiah 33: 15)

And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed. (Daniel 7: 14)

And in that day the mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with milk, and all the brooks of Judah will flow with water; and a spring will go out from the house of the LORD to water the valley of Shittim. Egypt will become a waste, and Edom will become a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the sons of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood. But Judah will be inhabited forever and Jerusalem for all generations. And I will avenge their blood which I have not avenged, for the LORD dwells in Zion. (Joel 3: 18 – 21)

“In that day I will raise up the fallen booth of David, and wall up its breaches; I will also raise up its ruins and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by My name,” declares the LORD who does this. “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when the plowman will overtake the reaper and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; when the mountains will drip sweet wine and all the hills will be dissolved. Also I will restore the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them; they will also plant vineyards and drink their wine, and make gardens and eat their fruit. I will also plant them on their land, and they will not again be rooted out from their land which I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (Amos 9: 11 – 15)

And the LORD will be king over all the earth; in that day the LORD will be the only one, and His name the only one. All the land will be changed into a plain from Geba to Rimmon south of Jerusalem; but Jerusalem will rise and remain on its site from Benjamin’s gate as far as the place of the First Gate to the Corner Gate, and from the Tower of Hananel to the king’s wine presses. People will live in it, and there will no longer be a curse, for Jerusalem will dwell in security. (Zechariah 14: 9 – 11)

Both Biblical testaments teach that the final destination of God’s people is the starting point – earth. Because we die, and our souls leave earth temporarily, the resurrection of the dead is necessary to bring the righteous souls who have been dwelling with God in heaven back to their earthly bodies. It is on this basis – that God does not do away with His creation but renews it – that we conclude matter matters to God and is a significant part of His eternal plan.

Resurrection of the Dead: 1 – Resurrection Is Not Reincarnation


For over a year now, we have been working through a list of seven doctrines central to the Christian faith. This list was derived from the fifth and sixth chapters of the book of Hebrews. So far we have examined the following topics:

We will now discuss the Resurrection of the Dead, starting by contrasting the Christian teaching on resurrection with Buddhist reincarnation. When the Bible speaks of the resurrection of the dead, it is not speaking of reincarnation. There are important differences between the two concepts:

Resurrection Reincarnation
After death, the soul is separated from the body until the Resurrection of the Dead, when the body and soul are reunited and the body raised to life. After death, the soul is placed into a new body.
The soul has one life to be reconciled to God. The soul has many lives to be reconciled to God.
The soul is reunited with its original body, although the original body is renewed. The new body (human or non-human) is different from the previous one and is based upon one’s karma in the previous life.
When the body and soul are reunited, the soul retains its memory and personhood. When a soul is reincarnated, there is no conscious memory of the previous life.

It is necessary to understand the differences between resurrection and reincarnation, because there are those, who starting with the pre-supposition of reincarnation, read the Bible and claim that it teaches reincarnation. Consider for example John 9:

As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9: 1 – 3)

Now how could a man be born blind for his own sins? That would imply his soul sinned prior to birth, and he was born blind as a punishment for those sins. This apparent account of reincarnation is easily explained – there were false beliefs that existed in the days of Jesus, and this was one of them. Indeed, the rabbis may have very well taught reincarnation or the pre-existence of the soul, but that does not mean their teaching was true. Jesus set their error straight – the man was not born blind for his own sins, but rather that the power of God might be displayed in him. This power of God was displayed when Jesus healed the man’s blindness, giving him sight.

Another supposed instance of reincarnation is in the account of John the Baptist. Malachi said that God was going to send Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD (Malachi 4: 5). Jesus said that John the Baptist was the promised Elijah.

And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come. (Matthew 11: 14)

Did Jesus teach John was the reincarnation of Elijah? No. Rather, Jesus taught that John was the typological fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. John functioned in the same manner as the prophet Elijah, but he was not literally the prophet Elijah. Let us remember that in the transfiguration of Christ, the prophet Elijah appeared with Moses before Jesus and the disciples who were with Him. If Elijah appeared before Jesus, how then could John be the reincarnation of Elijah?

It is crucial to understand the distinctions between reincarnation and resurrection. Reincarnation is fundamentally based upon a judgment of works. The resurrection of the dead is based upon faith in Jesus Christ, Who has made atonement not only for our lack of good works, but for the “good” works we do in an attempt to please God and save ourselves. The gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally based upon the fact that humans cannot save themselves – it is the work of Christ that saves us. If someone understands their own heart and their own moral failings, reincarnation is a terrifying prospect. Could you imagine being a weak and terrible sinner, believing that karma is the mechanism by which you will be judged? You would have no hope. But because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the weak and terrible sinner is full of hope. For the gospel declares that people are made righteous through Christ, not through their own power or piety.

It should be easy to see, then, that reincarnation is completely incompatible with Biblical doctrine. If righteousness does not come through the Law, but through faith in Jesus, and if faith in Jesus is a gift of the Holy Spirit, why would the soul be reincarnated over and over and over? The Holy Spirit knows those He has predestined to eternal life, and He gives them faith in the first, and only, life on earth.

Repentance From Dead Works: 3 – Don’t Forget Good Works Are Dead Works


Suggested Pre-Reading: Repentance From Dead Works 2


We have been looking at the concept of repenting from dead works.  First, we saw how some in the early church believed circumcision was a good work necessary for salvation – an idea that was put to rest by the apostles, who made it clear that faith in Christ’s death and resurrection was sufficient. Then, we saw how the apostles still supported the performance of good works by Christians. Although the works did not contribute to salvation, they were necessary by-products of salvation, since the power to perform good works comes from the Holy Spirit.

We will conclude our examination of repenting from dead works by reiterating the main point: good works are dead works. Over the course of the Christian life the temptation will arise, one way or another, to doubt the gospel and think that our works contribute to our righteous standing before God. Unlike the early church, we will not be tempted to add circumcision to the gospel, but we will be tempted to add something.  In our day various Christian individuals or groups have been tempted to add the following to the gospel:

  • Speaking in tongues.
  • Performing penance.
  • Observing the Jewish feasts.
  • Saying “Yeshua” instead of “Jesus”.
  • Believing in the five points of Calvinism.
  • Not believing in the five points of Calvinism.
  • Being baptized.
  • Only reading the 1611 King James Bible.
  • Participating in social justice.

Whenever the temptation to doubt the sufficiency of the cross of Christ arises, we can follow the example of our Lord, who when facing satanic temptation in the wilderness after forty days of fasting, responded with the truth of the Word of God.  The four passages below show without a doubt that good works are dead works, and that the gospel is truly a gift from God, not something we earn or contribute to in any way.

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. (Galatians 2: 21)

Therefore they said to Him, “What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6: 28 – 29)

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7: 21 – 23)

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18: 9 – 14)

Let us not be considered lawless by God, by adding our dead works to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us be considered righteous through faith, by believing in Him (Jesus) whom He (God the Father) has sent.

Repentance From Dead Works: 2 – Good Works Are A Sign Of Repentance From Dead Works


Suggested Pre-reading: Repentance From Dead Works: 1


The Christian’s relationship to works is inherently paradoxical. On the one hand, the Christian believes with fervor that works do nothing to contribute to salvation – all works are dead works. On the other hand, the Christian believes that good works are part of Christian living and a sign of true repentance. We see this paradox in the ruling of the Jerusalem council, which we just looked at in regards to the dead work of circumcision. The council advised circumcision is not necessary for salvation, yet in their ruling they included commands for converted Gentiles. The Gentiles were advised to abstain from

  • Things contaminated by idols
  • Fornication
  • What is strangled and from blood

The council was not substituting these three works for circumcision, implying that they were needed for salvation. Rather, the council, believing that the converted Gentiles were indeed recipients of a true and abiding faith in Christ, gave them direction as to how their faith in Christ should manifest in their cultural context. Specifically, they were advised to abstain from three sinful practices that were particularly tempting in their society.

What helps resolve the tension in the paradox of performing good works is understanding where the ability to perform good works comes from. It does not come from the Christian’s own intrinsic piety – it comes from the Holy Spirit. In the Mosaic Covenant, God commanded the people to perform good works, and they had to do so by their own power and piety. Hence Israel’s repeated inability to obey God. But in the New Covenant community, made up of those who have been granted faith in Christ, God has indwelt them with His Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who enables a Christian to perform good works and who frees the Christian from chronic enslavement to serious sins. Paul makes this evident in his letter to the Galatians, where he contrasts the deeds of those without the Spirit and the fruit of those with the Spirit:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5: 19 – 24)

The logic of Paul’s argument is quite simple. Because the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a promise of the New Covenant, and because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is focused on promoting good works while reducing sins in the life of a believer, every Christian should see a reduction in the deeds of the flesh and an increase in the fruit of the Spirit, as their lives progress. Since the power to perform good works and be free from habitual sinful practices is a gift from the Holy Spirit, if a professing Christian is significantly lacking good works and significantly enslaved to deeds of the flesh, one may rightly question whether the Holy Spirit is indeed in them.

Now, in light of all of this, it must be said that using one’s works as a measurement of true salvation is complex and nuanced. It is not something to be done glibly, and there is no general formula that can be applied to everyone. It is highly contextual, and requires delicacy and gentleness. The misuse of this idea can result in extremely bad conclusions on both ends of the spectrum. One can look at their life and see their good works and believe they are saved because they are “doing things for God” and living holy lives. Or, one can look at their life and their struggle with sin, and believe that since good works are not increasing at the rate they would like, perhaps they do not have a real faith in Christ. In either scenario, the eye has been lifted off of the saving work of Jesus Christ and placed onto the works, or lack thereof, of an individual.

So we must remember we are using works as an imperfect diagnostic of faith. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that many who perform “good works” in the name of the Lord will be cast into hell, so we have direct proof the diagnostic is imperfect. But even though using works in diagnosing true repentance is difficult and imperfect, it is nevertheless a Scriptural doctrine. That is why James wrote so strongly about it, to the point of making it sound like works do contribute to salvation.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (James 2: 14)

No, James is not implying that works contribute to saving faith and salvation. He is simply upholding the teaching that if a person is saved, and has in them the Holy Spirit of God, they will necessarily produce good works. A Christian, whom God has granted a normal length of life, should be able to look back on their life and see an increase in works.

For a concluding word on this topic, we turn to the New City Catechism, which explains the relationship between salvation and works quite well:

New City Catechism Q & A 32

Q: What do justification and sanctification mean?

A: Justification means our declared righteousness before God, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection for us. Sanctification means our gradual, growing righteousness, made possible by the Spirit’s work in us.

Justification is a gift from God, and so is sanctification. Therefore, if we have one, we have the other. But if we do not have one, we do not have the other. That is the essence of what is meant by “good works are a sign of repentance from dead works”.

Repentance From Dead Works: 1 – Good Works Are Dead Works

In our study of the Eternal Judgment, we discussed how neither good works nor bad works contribute to our salvation.  A bad work condemns us.  A good work cannot erase the condemnation incurred.  Therefore, both are dead works.  But there is more to learn about the concept of a dead work. Specifically, there was a unique tension felt by the first Jewish Christians regarding this topic, and it is helpful to us to understand it, so that we do not repeat errors of the past.

For over a millennium, God’s people had as their rule of faith the Law of Moses. Within the Law were numerous divine commands, such as male circumcision and temple sacrifices.  When Christ came and inaugurated the New Covenant, circumcision and temple sacrifices were no longer needed.  But the Old Covenant mindset of some of the Jewish Christians did not change overnight, and there was tension caused by those who believed that the Law of Moses still had to be kept, if not in whole, then in part.  This issue was dealt with by the Jerusalem council.

Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”  And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.  (Acts 15: 1 – 2)

These Jewish Christians wanted to take what was formerly a good work in the Mosaic Covenant and add it to the New Covenant.  In their mind the salvation equation was

Christ + Circumcision = Righteousness Before God

The Jerusalem council, specifically Peter and James, responded to the matter based on their authority as apostles of Jesus, and their intricate knowledge of His gospel.  Peter said:

But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.  (Acts 15: 11)

James said:

Brethren, listen to me.  Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name.  With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, “After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from long ago.”  Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.  (Acts 15: 13 – 20)

God does not require New Covenant members, Jew or Gentile, to circumcise their males for entry into the covenant.  This work, required as part of the Old Covenant, is no longer necessary. But it was hard for the early Jewish converts to let go of things that used to be good, evidenced not only by the need for a discussion in Jerusalem, but by a need for Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which also dealt directly with people who wanted to add circumcision to the gospel.

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.  Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.  And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law.  You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.  For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.  (Galatians 5: 1 – 6)

Paul here reinforces the gospel-law binary.  Man is either saved through faith in Jesus Christ alone, or by keeping the law alone.  Man cannot be saved through a combination of faith in Christ and performing circumcision.  Circumcision is but one tenet of the Mosaic Law, and if one wanted to add circumcision to the gospel, Paul argued one would necessarily have to add the entire law to the gospel.  But if the law is added to the gospel, it is no longer the gospel.

We should always keep in mind the ruling of the Jerusalem council and the words of Paul to Galatia. Although we may not be tempted to add Old Covenant rites like circumcision to the gospel, we undoubtedly, whether personally in our own hearts or in the church through formal teaching, are tempted to add “good” works to the gospel. We must stand strong and resist the temptation, for as we discussed in the examination of the Eternal Judgment, as well as here and now, good works are dead works.  And if a good work is a dead work, it saves no one. And if it does not have the power to save, it cannot be the gospel of Jesus Christ.