Where it begins

July 8, 2017

“As God’s partners, we beg you not to accept this marvelous gift of God’s kindness and then ignore it.” (2 Corinthians 6:1 NLT)

“What makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation …?” (Hebrews 2:3a NLT)

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“Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked so hard to achieve. Be diligent so that you receive your full reward. Anyone who wanders away from this teaching has no relationship with God. But anyone who remains in the teaching of Christ has a relationship with both the Father and the Son.” (2 John 1:8-9 NLT)

You cannot wander away from a teaching unless you were first in it. If you were in the teaching, you had a relationship with the Father and the Son. It is the wandering away that severs the relationship.

In Galatians 5, Paul is writing to Gentile believers who were running the race well (v.7) until a group of legalistic Jewish Christians began trying to convince the Gentile believers that they needed to be circumcised to truly be children of Abraham and heirs to the promise.

The Gentile believers were in danger of being persuaded, so Paul felt it necessary to explain to them (in ch.4) the difference between being enslaved by law and being set free by grace. He clearly declares the good news that Christ sets his followers free from any need to keep the law in order to please God.

Then he delivers this terrifying warning:

“Now make sure you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you.”

“Christ will be of no benefit to you”? How can that be? Once we are saved, are we not always under grace?

Paul presses in: “I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.”

We receive righteousness from God by faith, not by by observing any external requirement. “When we place our faith in Christ Jesus, there is no benefit in being circumcised or being uncircumcised. What is important is faith expressing itself in love.” (v.6)

Two lessons here, though many only focus on the first:

(1) Salvation is by grace through faith, not from works of law. All of us are sinners from our earliest days. No amount of effort on our part can ever earn the favor of Holy God. That’s why the sinless Son of God laid down his life as a sacrifice on our behalf.

(2) Once you have by faith accepted Christ’s blood as payment for your sin, you must not turn away from the life of faith. If you allow yourself to fall away from Christ’s grace, he no longer is of any benefit to you. You will have cut yourself off from Christ and once again exposed yourself to judgment under the law.

Once set free, we must turn our backs on sinful ways, because we are slaves of what we obey: either sin or righteous living — and the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:15ff) If we deliberately keep on sinning, there is no longer any sacrifice to cover them. (Hebrews 10:26ff) When we turn away from God again, we reject Christ and nail him once again to the cross. (Hebrews 6:4ff)

The warning is not the final word, thankfully. “What is important is faith expressing itself in love.” (v.6) “You have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. … Use your freedom to serve one another in love.” (v.13)

A text like 1 John 2:19 does not disprove the possibility of apostasy:

These people left our churches, but they never really belonged with us; otherwise they would have stayed with us. When they left, it proved that they did not belong with us. (NLT)

The text establishes a terrible truth in its own right: It is possible for unregenerate people to mix in a church with God’s people. I doubt there is now or has ever been a congregation for which that was not true.

Deniers refer to a text like this when they wave off the problem of apostasy with a trite dismissal: “Well, obviously they were never saved in the first place.”

Yet if the apostate is nothing more than a church member who was never saved, why does a neighboring text speak to genuine believers about the necessity of remaining faithful and carry an implicit warning about eternal life?

So you must remain faithful to what you have been taught from the beginning. If you do, you will remain in fellowship with the Son and with the Father. And in this fellowship (meno) we enjoy the eternal life he promised us. (1 John 2:24-25 NLT)

The text tells us we enjoy eternal life in fellowship with the Son and the Father, but it also makes remaining in fellowship contingent on whether we remain faithful. Deniers hate the question: What of those who were faithful but do not remain faithful?

We have convinced ourselves that as Christians we are exempt from the warnings God directed toward Israel over their idolatry and tolerance of injustice. We say, “The Almighty threatened to destroy his people for their stubborn disobedience, but our sins are covered by the blood of Christ.”

True — and what a glorious truth!

And yet Hebrews 10:26-29 warns Christians that “if we deliberately continue sinning … there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins.”

Does the Lord no longer expect obedience from his people? Is it no longer necessary for them to pursue holiness? Or perhaps this generation is doing a truly marvelous job of obeying the Lord’s commands — seeking the Kingdom above all else, loving each other the way Christ loved us, loving our neighbor the way we love ourselves, and making disciples of all nations.

A willfully disobedient people should not expect to hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” What lies in store is actually “a terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies.”

“All who are victorious will be clothed in white. I will never erase their names from the Book of Life, but I will announce before my Father and his angels that they are mine.” (Revelation 3:5 NLT)

What a tremendous promise! But don’t forget this was written to a group of Christians who were not being victorious. What little remained of their faith was almost dead and their actions did not meet the Almighty’s requirements.

The warning is “Repent and turn to me again. If you don’t wake up, I will come to you suddenly, as unexpected as a thief.” (v.3) Implicit in the promise is the threat of what happens to those who are not victorious.

Not having your name blotted out of the Book of Life. If a person needed motivation to endure in love and good works, that ought to do it.

What is your teaching about cowardice in connection with damnation? What does this mean in practical terms?

“But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8 NLT)