Are we saved simply by believing, or are there works we need to demonstrate?

Q.  Jesus says near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

The point of the passage seems to be that those who are rejected were trusting in their works since the justifications they bring to Jesus are the things they did in His name—they weren’t trusting in what He did for them. If that is truly the point, is it enough to simply understand intellectually what Jesus did and believe that we are saved by grace as an unearned gift ? It seems that the Bible kind of says that one is saved solely on an intellectual basis, but at the same time that one isn’t truly saved unless one demonstrates works as well. How do you read that?

That passage from the Sermon on the Mount might not be the best one to use in order to address your question, because at least as I see it, the issue there isn’t believing vs. works.  The issue is trying to use Jesus’ name in exorcisms or prophecies as if it were some kind of magic word, without being a committed follower of Jesus personally–like the sons of Sceva we read about in Acts who were trying to cast out demons by saying, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.”  (Note that the statement you quote comes in the section of the Sermon on the Mount that begins with Jesus saying, “Watch out for false prophets.”)

I think a better way to address your concern would be to compare and contrast the biblical perspectives you summarized at the end of your question:  either that salvation comes by grace through faith, apart from works, or else that some kind of works are needed.  For example, Paul writes in Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”  But James writes, seemingly contradictorily, that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

However, we can tell that Paul and James really aren’t contradicting one another by the way they both appeal to the biblical statement that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

In Romans Paul appeals to the fact that this was said of Abraham before he was circumcised.  Thus he didn’t have to do any kind of works (such as being circumcised or anything else) in order to earn righteousness.  His salvation was a gift that came by faith.

But James appeals to the very same statement to argue that we would never know that Abraham had genuinely saving faith unless he did something to demonstrate it.  That’s why James says that “Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar”–not justified in the sense of being made righteous, but in the sense of being shown to be righteous.  Only a person who was truly trusting God in faith would have obeyed such a difficult command.

And so if we claim to have been saved by trusting and believing in what Jesus did for us, we should reasonably expect that salvation to manifest itself in “works,” not things we do to earn or secure our salvation, but things that flow naturally from it:  deeds of obedience, consecration, sacrifice, and service.  These, both Paul and James would agree, are the signs of true faith.

 

 

 

 

 

Why does a serpent represent what Jesus did on the cross?

Q.  In the gospel of John, when Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, why does he liken Himself to the serpent that was lifted up in the desert in the Old Testament, considering that serpents are usually associated with Satan? Why was a serpent chosen as a type/foreshadowing of what Jesus would do on the cross, especially in light of the Bible always emphasizing the “lamb” that was slain? I’ve thought that perhaps in a sense sin/evil was on the cross since Jesus “became sin” to put an end to it, but other than that it just seems weird to me.

Sebastien Bourdon, “Moses and the Brazen Serpent”

Jesus refers to the way Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole in order to make one specific point to Nicodemus.  Jesus has just told him that he needs to be “born again” in order to enter the kingdom of God.  Nicodemus has misunderstood this and thinks that Jesus is describing something physical rather than something spiritual.  (This happens often in Jesus’ conversations with people in this gospel, as I explain in my study guide to John.)  “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asks.

Jesus tries to explain that he’s talking about being “born of the Spirit,” but Nicodemus still asks, “How can this be?”  So Jesus uses the episode of the bronze serpent to explain more precisely what he means by being “born again.”

This episode is related in the book of Numbers.  The Israelites are traveling through the wilderness and they start complaining about the very manna that God has been providing miraculously to feed them in the desert.  (They say, “We detest this miserable food!”)  As a punishment for their ingratitude, God sends poisonous snakes among them and many of the Israelites start dying from snake bites.  So they come to Moses and admit, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.”  They ask him to “pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”  God forgives the people and tells Moses to make a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.”  God promises, “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”

In other words, an admission of sin and a response of hopeful faith, looking to the means God provided for deliverance, was how the Israelites could be rescued from physical death in this instance.  Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the same thing will be true, on a much grander scale in the spiritual realm, when he is “lifted up” onto the cross.  Anyone who is sincerely sorry for the way they’ve disobeyed and offended God, and who looks in hopeful faith to Jesus’ death on the cross for their sake, will be rescued spiritually and given the chance to live anew.  This is what it means to be “born again.”

So that is the single point of comparison:  just as the Israelites needed to look in hopeful faith to God’s provision for their physical deliverance in the wilderness, so Nicodemus (and anyone else, ever since, who hears about Jesus’ conversation with him) needs to look in hopeful faith to God’s provision for their spiritual deliverance in the form of Jesus’ death on the cross.

We should not make any further points of comparison, such as “Jesus must be like a serpent in some way, rather than a lamb, because he said he had to be lifted up just as the serpent was lifted up.”

However, we should keep in mind that in the gospel of John, there are always multiple levels of meaning at work.  Behind physical references there is often spiritual significance.  We’ve already seen that this is true when Jesus speaks about being “born,” and it’s also true when he speaks of himself being “lifted up.”  This can mean simply being raised onto the cross, but as a footnote in the NIV explains each time this phrase occurs in John, “The Greek for lifted up also means exalted.”  We need to recognize that this spiritual meaning is also in view when Jesus says things like, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 2)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

Detail from The Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

I discussed the parable in my last post. To address the other part of your question, I wouldn’t say that people in hell are being punished a second time for sins that Jesus already took the punishment for on the cross. Jesus’ work on the cross is sufficient to atone for all of the sins of the world.  But in order to receive the benefits of that atonement, people need to respond in faith and trust to what Jesus did.

It’s as if someone announced a huge relief fund for the victims of a natural disaster, a fund that would be sufficient to cover all of their losses.  People would still need to apply to the fund to get benefits.  If they didn’t apply, perhaps because they didn’t want to be beholding to anyone, or because they wrongly suspected the motives of the benefactors, they shouldn’t think that they were still suffering their losses because the fund wasn’t sufficient to cover them, or because the losses had to be paid for twice–once by the fund and then again by themselves.  The explanation is that they didn’t apply.

In the same way, if people experience separation from God in hell, this is not because Jesus’ death wasn’t sufficient to pay for their sins, and not because God is making them pay for these sins a second time, but rather because they haven’t chosen to trust in Jesus’ work for their salvation.

I would add that the essential character of hell is separation from God.  In effect, those who choose not to enter into relationship with God through Jesus’ work on the cross are choosing to live out of relationship with God.  A holy God cannot have sin in His presence, and that’s why there’s a place where people who do not embrace God’s provision for the forgiveness of their sins live apart from God.  Hell is also described as a place of suffering, but I don’t think its essential purpose is punishment.  Rather, it’s separation.  People who choose not to be restored to relationship with God are given what they have chosen–an existence apart from God.

I hope these thoughts are helpful in addressing your excellent and thoughtful question.

Does God punish the same sins twice? (Part 1)

If Jesus took the punishment for all the sins of the world on the cross, why does God also punish people in hell?  Isn’t God punishing the same sins twice?  It reminds me of the master in Jesus’ parable who forgave his servant a large debt, but then made him pay it anyway.

These are excellent questions.  Let me start with the parable, which is found in the gospel of Matthew.  We need to understand it in light of its original context.

The ancient servant-master relationship was one in which servants would be entrusted with resources to accomplish the master’s work.  The king or master in this parable is said to be “settling accounts” with his servants, that is, having them account for what they’ve done with the resources he’s entrusted to them.  The first servant can’t account for a huge amount of money and the master is ready to sell him and his family into slavery to collect what he can.  But when the servant begs for mercy, the master says he doesn’t have to repay the money.

However, when this servant refuses to show the same kind of mercy to one of his fellow servants who owes him only a small amount, the master realizes that he wasn’t worthy of this generosity.  And so, still within the ongoing master-servant relationship, the master says that the servant will have to pay the debt, and sends him to debtors’ prison, exactly where the servant sent the one who owed him a small amount.

In other words, this was not a commercial loan that was cancelled through a legal transaction, which the master then tried to renege on.  Rather, these were the arrangements that the master was prepared to make within his ongoing relationship with this servant.  When the servant insisted that he was operating in good faith and would repay everything, the master was willing to make a fresh start in their relationship.  But when the master discovered that the servant really wasn’t operating in good faith, as evidenced by his ingratitude (if he’d really been grateful, he would have shown the same mercy to his fellow servant), the master realized that he would have to conduct the relationship along different lines, and insist on repayment of the misappropriated resources.

Whatever the specific arrangements (and it might not be possible to reconstruct them exactly from our historical and cultural distance), they must have been understandable to the original hearers, and I don’t think the master’s change of attitude towards his servant is meant to be the shocking or puzzling aspect of the parable.  (Most of Jesus’ parables, by design, have some such aspect.)  Rather, I think it’s the servant’s hypocritical and ungrateful response, even after being shown such mercy, that’s meant to shock us.  That’s what Jesus specifically calls attention to at the end of the parable:  Each person who has been forgiven by God needs to forgive their brother or sister from their heart.

I’ll address your question about hell in my next post.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, stained glass, Scots’ Church, Melbourne

Did ancient cultures worship the true God under a different name?

Q. I’m homeschooling my daughters and we’ve been learning about ancient Greek civilization.  When they heard about its highly developed religion, my daughters asked me whether the Greeks were worshipping the true God under a different name.  What do you think I should tell them?

The Bible says that something about the true God can be known through creation and conscience.  Paul wrote to the Romans, for example, that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” (See the Paul’s Journey Letters study guide, Session 24.)  And Luke records in Acts that Paul explained to the people of Lystra, “God has not left himself without testimony:  he has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons.”  Paul also told the Athenians that God created the nations and made them finite in duration and territory so that “they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Luke-Acts study guide, Sessions 21 and 22).  So there is a natural seeking after God, and people are able to find out some things about Him that way.

I would not conclude from this, however, that ancient cultures were actually worshiping the true God under a different name.  In addition to the testimony to God in creation, there is the witness of the covenant community through time about its encounter with the God who has entered human history to redeem people and restore them to relationship with himself.  I believe that people need to connect with that work by hearing and believing this witness.  Thus the witness needs to be offered all over the world.

So I would encourage your daughters to understand that these ancient cultures were in a position to learn something about God, and that some of what they believed about God was therefore true and correct, but that we need God’s self-revelation in order to know Him in the way that we should.  In other words, I don’t believe that the Greeks who worshiped Zeus were actually worshiping the covenant God of redemptive history without knowing it.  But they may have taken some steps toward this that enabled many of them to understand and believe the good news about Jesus when they heard it.

Was Jesus really forsaken on the cross?

Q. I often hear people say that when Jesus cried out on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this was a poignant expression of his suffering and abandonment. But given how well Jesus knew the Scriptures, and how strongly the whole of Psalm 22 describes him and his situation, didn’t he likely have the whole psalm in mind? If so, you could equally see his cry as conveying triumph through suffering. When I thought of this it changed my whole view of the crucifixion.

Guido Reni, Christ Crowned With Thorns

There’s an extensive discussion in Session 8 of the Psalms study guide (pages 52-53) of how Jesus appealed on the cross to Psalm 22.

In my view, the best understanding of what was happening when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” recognizes both the sense of abandonment he was expressing immediately through these words and the sense of faith and trust that’s articulated over the course of Psalm 22, to which he was indeed alluding in its entirety.

In other words, in our interpretations we need to honor what Jesus was experiencing in the moment, but we also need to recognize that he was giving voice to that experience through the words of an ancient inspired song of faith. Jesus was taking his place in the long line of Israelites who used the psalms, written centuries earlier for other occasions, to express what was happening in his own relationship with God.  The Psalms were gathered into a collection and made part of the Bible precisely because people had been using them in this way for so long.

Psalm 22 was probably originally written by someone who had a deadly illness.  However, the uncanny resemblance between what the psalmist describes and the experience of crucifixion, unknown at the time the psalm was written, has convinced many that the inspired writer was given an advance glimpse of Jesus’ sufferings on the cross. In that case this would be a Messianic psalm that speaks as much about the coming Messiah as about the original circumstances of the author.

What we can say for certain is that just as the people of Israel looked back to earlier songs (the psalms) to express their own spiritual experiences, the psalmists themselves also looked forward, as authors like this one express the hope that their words will be used by later generations.  Psalm 22 is a classic psalm of supplication that moves from a cry for help to a statement of trust, and after a description of troubles and petition makes a vow of praise that envisions people in the future all over the world hearing about God and worshiping him.  Jesus fulfilled this vision by creating a worldwide community of followers through his life and ministry, his death on the cross, and his resurrection and ascension.  So the psalmist gave Jesus some words through which to express his most vital spiritual experience, and Jesus in turn gave those words the most marvelous fulfillment that could be imagined.