Joy Beyond Suffering

“looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  -Hebrews 12:2, ESV

As mostly Western Christians (assuming that the broad audience of this blog are American), we read the biblical passages that speak of horrific persecution of faithful followers of Jesus with a distant mind. As Dr. Michael Brown recently said, our idea of persecution is being unfriended on Facebook. We don’t understand the concept of having our property seized, facing possible jail time, physical harm, or death because we identify ourselves with Christ. So it is difficult for many of us to relate to some of the beautiful passages such as Hebrews 12, where the writer speaks of a supernatural joy that can be experienced by those who trust in their Savior in the midst of unspeakable suffering and persecution.

PRESENT AFFLICTIONS & PROMISES-

I love the beautiful words of the opening verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, where it speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses” who served as examples for our Christian faith, and then presenting Christ as our “author and perfecter” of our faith. But in order to truly understand why these words of encouragement were necessary, we need to step back into chapter 10 to see just what the original audience of this letter was facing:

“But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a shard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”  -Hebrews 10:32-34, ESV

The early church, as well as many brave believers in hostile nations in our time today, found the words of Christ to be very true- “they will hate you because they hated me”. And again as Paul has clearly explained, anyone who lives for Christ will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). Though many of us may not be able to directly relate, we read of a church that truly had to love their enemies, bless their persecutors, and turn another cheek. They had to scrape and scratch to gain ground for the Kingdom of God, and were forced to count the cost each time they gathered together for prayer and worship. And as a result, Christians had to possess a true faith that testified to their hearts that this world was not their home.

GREAT EXAMPLES-

Hebrews 11 records the famous list of those “champions of faith”- the great figures of old who, through their example of radical obedience, proved the faithfulness of God to those who would dare to believe Him. And though we often are drawn to the amazing miracles that were wrought by their faith, we sometimes miss the point of the author’s referencing of these inspiring men and women.

“All these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised”  – Hebrews 11:39, ESV

Although we tend to point to the stories of Noah, Abraham, and Moses as the primary examples of faith, the author of Hebrews draws also from those who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…” (Heb. 11:36-37, ESV) He points not only to the victorious as the glorious pillars of our faith, but also (and most powerfully) to those who had suffered in hopes of future grace as witness for the saints of Christ.

THE JOY OF THE CROSS-

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”  -Hebrews 12:3, ESV

In a climatic fashion, having addressed the present suffering of the church, and reminding them of their faithful heritage, the author then points to Christ and his own suffering on the cross as the great and final example of how we are to endure this life of continuous struggle. He reminds them of the pure and blameless One who was afflicted by sinners, to remind them of His humility in the face of unjust treatment.

But most importantly, we are pointed beyond the suffering of the cross to see the source of Christ’s ultimate joy: His future glory and exaltation, where He now enjoys the continual fellowship at the right hand of the throne of His father, forever. It was the full confidence and assurance in God’s great promises that propelled Christ through Calvary, and the writer of Hebrews draws on this to spur the church to endure hardships for His sake.

There is a joy that can be found, even in the midst of the most cruel and difficult sufferings of this life. As we look unto Jesus, we recognize that His overarching serenity at the most painful moments of sacrificial obedience, was found not in the moment, but in the promise that was to come beyond the suffering.

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I Don’t Believe in Atheists

I’ve had the opportunity of talking with atheists about the Christian faith on several occasions. And it’s interesting that almost every time when we really got down to the issue, the atheist will point to Christians- not the Bible, the evidence for God’s existence, or their abundant proofs of naturalism- as being their primary reason for rejecting the gospel. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it said that it’s the “hypocrites” that leads to their ultimate denial of the validity of the Christian faith.

To be honest, I can sympathize with those who question the authenticity of Christianity in light of the contradictory lives of many who claim to follow Jesus. As a Christian myself, I cringe whenever I see or hear about someone who has identified as a believer living contrary to his or her confession. Indeed, it makes it much more difficult for those who truly seek to shine the light of Christ in a society that so often observes blatant hypocrisy in the church. So, yes, I can see why an atheist wouldn’t easily accept the claims of Christianity because of the hypocrisy of those that call themselves Christians.

And it’s for this same reason that I don’t believe in atheism.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,  in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools  – Romans 1:18-22, ESV

I have never met an atheist who actually lived as if he believed the claims of his worldview. Although he claims that mankind is the product of natural selection, mutation, and random chance over time and that there is no “god” in the picture, he does not live in accordance with such a system. Allow me to explain:

If man is nothing more than the result of random cosmic change and natural selection, then the evolutionary process suggests that his ultimate goal is self-preservation and to pass his genes on to the next generation. This is the purpose of existence and the natural instinct of ever-evolving creatures in a naturalistic worldview. But do we see atheists living this way?

NO GOOD AHEISTS

“I don’t need God in order to be a good person”, I’ve often heard when discussing the issue of morality from an atheistic perspective. To which I often reply by asking, “What makes a good person?” The common response goes along the lines of, “I love my wife, take care of my kids, and try help anyone in need.” Well, that’s nice… but unfortunately, that makes you a hypocrite.

Think about it for a moment- Why, if you truly believe in the atheistic worldview, would you want to be married? If we are an ever-evolving species, our primary instinct would be to ensure the survival of our race by reproducing as much as possible, yet we find that the human species has forever been marked with an inclination toward monogamous relationships. If evolution is true, then for us to desire faithful, monogamous relationships is counter-productive to our purpose as humans. So for any atheist to desire or practice monogamy, or to be jealous if their partner was unfaithful, or to feel guilty for being unfaithful themselves, is hypocritical.

Furthermore, why should any atheist desire to help their neighbor? I know of many “good” atheists that are heavily involved in volunteer or community service projects geared toward improving the lives of others, but I can’t help but recognize that this, too, is contrary to the naturalistic system. An evolving species’ primary tendency is that of self-preservation, not self-sacrifice. A guy I was talking to just last week claimed that he, although denying the existence of God, would give the shirt off his back for someone in need. But to help another at the expense or risk of self, is yet again hypocrisy.

In light of what the atheistic evolutionary worldview demands, I’ve yet to meet a true atheist that lives in accordance with their system. I’ve never met a person that didn’t care about (at least) one person in their world enough to go out of their way to seek their welfare above their own. I’ve never met a single atheist that didn’t love someone, and respond to that person in such a way that destroyed the foundations of the naturalistic system they claimed to believe in. And if ever there were an atheist that lived in accordance with their system, they would most certainly be labeled as a monster by our society and institutionalized.

UNDENIABLE IMAGE-

Instead, what we find in every case is that people, regardless of their claim of faith, lives in such a way that reflects what the Bible says: We’re made in the image of God. Evolutionary science cannot explain or account for the reality that human nature carries with it an ingrained sense of morality- a conscience that recognizes right and wrong, justice, reason, and logic. We have an inclination toward community and family, and the overall pursuit of peace and human welfare is seen as a universal goal for all. The atheist agrees with these foundational principles that bind us as a species, but their system can neither explain nor contain them consistently. But Christianity can and does.

Humans are inclined toward faithful, monogamous relationships because as God’s image-bearers we were created for family. We seek the well-being of our neighbors and are willing to sacrifice self for our loved ones because God created us to reflect His love to the world. We understand the value of honesty and integrity because God Himself is true and righteous. No matter how we try to cover up or reason our way out of the knowledge of God that has been built into us, we cannot help but find ourselves living out His proof. Our conscience bears witness to the fact that God made us to be a reflection of His very nature and character, and this reality is inescapable.

What Eternal Security Really Teaches

Throughout my time in ministry, I have found a great number of misconceptions surrounding particular doctrines of the church. Some people are quick to defend a belief that, once challenged, they truly have very little knowledge of. Conversely, there are some doctrines in the faith that are adamantly opposed by those who, by tradition have been taught that certain teachings are in error and thus have never been honestly examined.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to sit with some folks and explain the Reformed doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints– also sometimes referred to as “eternal security”, and less frequently known as “Once Saved, Always Saved”. Granted, each one of the titles given to the biblical teaching that God faithfully preserves His elect for eternity has its own set of issues and arguments- but I’m not too concerned with what one calls it. I’m most interested in what an individual believes about the sure security of those who have come to Christ and have been born again.

WHAT WE TEACH, AND WHAT WE DON’T-

As Reformed Christians, we believe in the absolute, total sovereignty of God in salvation. This is paramount in understanding how we arrive at our views regarding eternal security. Our theology teaches that man prior to salvation is radically corrupt– meaning that his will, mind, heart, and desires are enslaved to sin so much so that he cannot come to Christ in faith and repentance apart from a supernatural work of grace (see Romans 8:7-8, John 6:37-44; Ephesians 2:1-10). In other words, man’s salvation is based solely upon the free will of God, not the will of man. If a person is found to exercise saving faith and repentance, it is because God has graciously granted them regeneration (new birth), and has given them a new heart and a new mind.

Similarly, we believe that the doctrine of perseverance is also dependent fully upon the power and grace of God- that if His bringing us to new life is all of Him, so is His keeping us until the day of redemption. He does not fail to save forever those that He has saved in a moment- He finishes what He starts.

“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand” (John 10:28-29)

Ephesians 4:30 says that believers are “sealed unto the day of redemption”, and Paul reminds the believers in Romans 8:38-39 that nothing in heaven or earth or in all of creation can separate the elect from the love of God. So it is with full confidence that we proclaim that God will ensure the total salvation of those that He has brought into a relationship with Himself.

What we do not believe, however, is that every person who makes a once-upon-a-time profession of faith can hold the same confidence as those that have experienced genuine life-change through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is where I think much of the confusion comes from. Many people have a problem with the idea that everyone that has ever come to an altar or to their pastor and prayed a prayer will never be lost, regardless of the fact that their lifestyle never changed and they never found themselves in a pew after that moment of profession.

“Not everyone that says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…” (Matthew 7:21)

The Bible is abundantly clear in its teaching that God will ensure the final glory of His elect, and it is equally clear that there are many false believers– those that have had a momentary enlightenment or have made a simple verbal acknowledgement toward Jesus Christ. Yet their continued life of sin and unrepentance is evidence of the lack of true conversion, and the Bible makes no promise of assurance for such people.

The difference in understanding the phrase “once saved, always saved” is in the one word- saved. Being saved is an act of God’s grace, not man’s willful, intellectual choice at a particular moment in time. Therefore, if God does the saving, God ensures the complete fulfillment of His goal in seeing that salvation through to the end. If our hope lie in our continued commitment to the decision we made one day in a moment of spiritual passion, then our eternity will be based on the same frail foundation and we would have no basis for lasting hope and peace.

But praise God, our coming to Him was dependent upon a power greater than ours, and so our being kept by Him rests in that same eternal, undeniable, perfect power.