Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Religious freedom, Jesus and the Cross ... "

They didn't know who He was ... this One who was going about healing the sick, preaching about the kingdom of God, calling people to repent, calming storms, even raising the dead.  Even the religious leaders of the Jews did not understand that Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promise made first to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden that He would send a Savior who would crush the head of Satan and destroy evil.  They did not understand that Jesus WAS the "Seed of Abraham" through whom forgiveness and eternal life would come to all who believed.  And like many today, they did not understand their own need and why Jesus had come.  Instead, they felt threatened and wanted to get rid of Him!  In the same way, people today feel threatened by His followers, and want to get rid of us!!

Jesus said to the religious leaders of the Jews who claimed that their heritage made them "children of God," "You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world.  I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the One I claim to be, you WILL indeed die in your sins" (John 8:23-24).  Those who declare that Jesus never claimed to be God have either never read the Bible or have rejected what it says.  Jesus went on to say, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32).  When they claimed that they had never been slaves and therefore didn't need to be set free, Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed" (John 8:34-36).

As we hear about the battle over "religious freedom" that is going on in our nation (and which has been going on for at least fifty years), you need to understand what the REAL battle is about.  This week there will be many who go to places called churches to remember the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross and then celebrate His resurrection.  There will be much joy and happiness expressed by people who claim to believe in Jesus because in their minds Jesus is all about LOVE.  "God loves everybody; Jesus loves everybody; and His followers are called to love everybody!"  For millions, that is the message of the cross and the reason to celebrate His resurrection.

But wait! Is that what the Bible teaches?  What about Jesus' words that He came to set people FREE?!  What about the verse that was quoted just a few months ago at Christmas celebrations:  "She will give birth to a son, and you are to give Him the name JESUS, because He will save His people from their sins!" (Matthew 1:21)?  Why did the eternal Son of God become a man in the first place?  Why did God send His Son into the world?  The Bible tells us in what is perhaps the most well-known verse in the Bible:  "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

The inescapable truth of John 3:16 is that those who do NOT believe in Jesus WILL perish and will NOT have eternal life.  So what does it mean to believe in Jesus?  If SIN enslaves you and me, how does Jesus set us free from both the guilt and the power of sin?  Perhaps a brief definition of "sin" would help people understand:  "SIN"  = "missing the mark."  We who believe the Bible today are accused of "singling out one sin" when it comes to homosexuality.  That seems odd to me because our culture today doesn't even acknowledge that homosexual behavior IS sin.  It is true, however, that we point out that practicing homosexual acts, along with every other kind of sexual immorality, is sin ... by God's definition.  God's says, "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious:  sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like ...  those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21).

Remember what Jesus said, "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin" (John 8:34).  So who is guilty of sin?  Every human being alive on the face of the earth and every human being who has ever lived on this earth ... except one - Jesus!  THAT's why Jesus came!!  "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one!" (Romans 3:10-11).  You and I and every person we know or meet is guilty of sin before a holy God and the Bible says that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23).

JESUS came to SAVE us from God's just wrath and judgment against our sin!  He did that by going to the cross and enduring the wrath of the Father in our place.  We don't remember Jesus' death and celebrate His resurrection because it shows us some vague concept of love, but rather, because by His suffering and death Jesus "atoned for," paid the debt for our sins.  In a text read so often on Good Friday, Isaiah wrote, hundreds of years before Jesus died on the cross, "He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to His own way; and the LORD has laid on HIM the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:4-6).  Sin, ALL sin, MUST be punished.  Either you will believe in Jesus and trust that He was punished in your place, OR you will be punished eternally in hell for your sin.  That is true for every person alive today!!

Take all of the sins of the world and add them all together and there is now only one unforgivable sin:  unbelief.  Jesus told the Pharisees, "If you don't believe in me you will die in your sins."  Eternal life or eternal death ... that's what hangs in the balance.  John writes in I John 1:8-9:  "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."  Freedom from guilt and from God's just judgment against sin comes only through faith in Jesus Christ ... a faith that turns from sin to follow the path of righteousness.  Simply acknowledging that Jesus lived and died and rose again, without confessing sin and seeking God's forgiveness, without trusting that the blood of Jesus shed on the cross paid your debt, is not faith.  Faith involves trusting God's promise that on the cross Jesus actually became sin for us so that in Him we might be righteous in the sight of God (II Corinthians 5:21).

This is what the Bible teaches, and it is reason to celebrate for those who trust in Jesus, who can sing, "What can wash away my sin?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus!"  And this is why we who believe the Bible and believe what Jesus said are sent into the world to call sinners to repentance.  We have found the cure for the disease of sin that is 100% fatal without the blood of Christ shed on the cross.  "The wages of sin is DEATH, BUT the gift of God is eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 6:23).  This is good news!  And because we love people ... ALL people ... we want them to hear the good news like we have heard it.  In fact, Jesus commands us to tell everybody the good news, even though He and we know that many (most) will not receive it or welcome it.  Why?  Because they are still dead in their sin.

In that third chapter of John's gospel, Jesus goes on to say, "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.  WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.  This is the verdict:  Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed" (John 3:17-20).

Some hear the words of verse 17, "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world," and say, "See, Jesus is love, He didn't come to judge anyone!"  They don't read the rest of the verse and what comes after it.  Jesus doesn't have to condemn anyone because those who sin condemn themselves.  Faith in Jesus is the ONLY cure, the only escape from God's judgment.  Paul testified to the men of Athens in Acts 17:  "God commands all people everywhere to repent.  For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).  Jesus WILL come as Judge when He returns.

Paul would write to Timothy, "Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst" (I Timothy 1:15).  We who speak out against sin of any kind know that we, ourselves, our sinners.  I am no better than any other person.  The only difference is that I KNOW my sin, I confess my sin and I desire with all my heart to turn from it, and so I am thankful for the cross of Jesus and rejoice in His resurrection and His victory over death.  I believe He paid my debt and I am FREE from the guilt and power of sin as His Holy Spirit now works in me.  With Paul I can say, "I have been crucified with Christ and now I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20).

Later in his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul wrote, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1). "You, my brothers, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature!" (Galatians 5:13).  Understand this, I am not "homophobic."  I love people and it is not a sin to be born with same-sex attraction, if that is the case for you (many, if not most, CHOOSE to indulge the sinful nature in all kinds of sexual immorality, even within marriage between a man and a woman).  It IS sin, however, to engage in any kind of sexual immorality, including homosexual practices.  Jesus even declared that lust was equal to committing adultery in God's sight.  The truth is, we are all sinners.

BUT, Jesus came to set us free!!  "Therefore, there is now no condemnation FOR THOSE WHO ARE IN CHRIST JESUS (for those who are united to Him by faith ... a faith that confesses sin, desires to turn from it, and lives by the power of the Holy Spirit in obedience to God's Word).  "... because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of LIFE set me free from the law of sin and death.  For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, GOD did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so He condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law (of God) might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit" (John 8:1-4).

Practicing homosexuality is not the only sin, or even the worst sin, but it is sin ... not because I say so, but because God says so, and Jesus came to set us free from the bondage of sin.  This weekend we are celebrating Jesus' death and resurrection because through faith in Jesus the door to the kingdom of heaven was opened for all who would place their hope in Jesus for forgiveness and life.  Entrance into the kingdom of God is only through Jesus ... confession, repentance, FAITH!!!  Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived:  Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes, nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards nor slanders nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  And that is what some of you WERE!  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (I Corinthians 6:9-11).

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free ... do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Galatians 5:1).  Slavery to sin leads to death ... spiritual, eternal death.  In love, we who know Jesus offer forgiveness and life to those who desire to turn from sin.  Our culture today insists that the road is wide that leads to eternal life, but you cannot claim to believe in Jesus and at the same time believe the lies of the world and of Satan, because JESUS said, "Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).  By the way, that truth is found in the two verses that immediately follow what many call "the Golden Rule."  You can't just listen to part of what Jesus says and ignore the rest.

So where does that leave us with respect to religious freedom?  Our culture has officially rejected the Word of God, the truth found in the Bible.  Talk show hosts, church leaders, politicians and others who claim to be "Christians" and who support abortion, homosexual behavior, and a host of others things that the Bible calls "sin," will answer to God for their words and their actions.  Any opinion is accepted today except what is called the opinion of those of us who believe the Bible to be the very Word of God.  What we offer, however, is not our "opinion."  You cannot claim to know Jesus, to be a Christian, and ignore what the Bible says, because the only book that tells you about Jesus is the Bible!!  Either it is all true, or none of it is.

As a follower of Jesus who loves people I am commanded by my Father in heaven and by my Savior to do some things that are hard, and one of those things is to speak out against sin ... ALL sin ... including my own!  In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul writes, "Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient.  Therefore do not be partners with them.  For you were once darkness (we are ALL born that way!), but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.  For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.  But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible" (Ephesians 5:6-13).

God's Word exposes sin and points to the cure:  Jesus Christ!!  It grieves me and others who know Jesus when we see people in bondage to sin.  We welcome those who are struggling with any sin to come to Jesus and we stand ready to walk beside them in their journey to live as His disciple, turning from sin to righteousness.  We all struggle with sin, with temptation, but the power of the Spirit of God working through His Word is able to transform you and to give you hope and joy and peace in Christ.  According to the Bible, "hate speech" is telling someone to go ahead and live in their sin, because in the end you have just signed their death warrant.

Sadly, we are not going to turn back the clock to a time when God's Word was the foundation for some sense of morality in our culture, but we who believe should not be forced to approve of what God says is sin or to participate in approving it in any way.  I heard a pastor say on TV, "I cannot and will not serve a God who doesn't love everybody the same" (meaning every person, no matter what their life is like, no matter what religion or belief they have, or whether they have any belief ... ).  I have news for that pastor and for others who want a god who is willing to overlook sin, unbelief and rebellion:  such a god doesn't exist.  You are serving a false god, a god of your own imagination.  And one day, you will stand before the true God, as I will, and answer for your sin.  My answer will be:  I claim the blood of Jesus shed on the cross as my only plea!  What will you say?  What will those say who have been lied to, who have been told that their sin isn't sin?

"He (Jesus) has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of Himself.  Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him" (Hebrews 9:26-27).

Eternal life awaits those who trust in Jesus, who by His Spirit rest in His sacrifice as the payment for their sin, and who now confess their sin and seek to live in obedience to His Word by the power of the Spirit within us.  Eternal death awaits those who remain enslaved in their sin, blinded to the truth, living to please themselves rather than God.  Love compels us to warn them and to offer forgiveness and life to all who will come to Jesus in repentance and faith.  While we cannot turn back the clock or foolishly hope that our culture would come to its senses, religious freedom must allow us to speak and to live out our faith in this nation that once stood for freedom for all.  How to do that in a society determined to bring God's judgment upon our nation is increasingly difficult.  I commend those legislators who are attempting to preserve OUR rights as citizens of the United States of America, but it is not surprising that we who know Jesus and who believe the Bible to be true are being hated and persecuted today.  

Jesus said, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.'  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.  If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin.  Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.  He who hates me hates my Father as well" (John 15:18-23).

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).  Rejoice in the cross of Jesus and remember that He said those who would be His disciples must "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24).  The road is narrow ... but it leads to life!  Do not grow weary, "for it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for Him" (Philippians 1:29).  Do not rely on government or the world for peace of heart and mind or for hope in the midst of the battle against sin and evil.  Rest in Jesus and live by the power of His Spirit, for HE IS LORD!!

Then, at the end of your life, you will be able to say with Paul and those who have gone before us who have lived by faith in Jesus, the Christ, the eternal Son of God, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day - and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for His appearing" (II Timothy 4:7-8).  AMEN! Come, Lord Jesus!!

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