Is this a call to communism? No, communism (much like its antagonist, capitalism) is a secular ideology that cares nothing for the Kingdom of God. It uses compulsory and desultory means intended to artificially achieve a ripped off version of God’s design. Naturally, such an ideology is doomed to failure, albeit with countless bodies stacked up in the process.
No, we ought not to go start a commune where private possessions are outlawed, and untold worldly authority handed to those charismatic enough to command our attention. That is to say, we shouldn’t use religion in an attempt to achieve a ripped off version of communism. This isn’t what the first Christians did – they voluntarily held possessions in common – neither is it what we should do.
Nonetheless, we should feel deeply concerned with the fact that the above scene would be nearly unrecognizable in a contemporary setting. I have no doubt that if such a spontaneous outpouring did occur, it would be rebuked. Sermons would be preached, tracts written and blogs posted outlining the theological shortcomings of such a lifestyle. Water would be poured on fires and control quickly re-established by any means necessary. If I’m being completely honest, I’m not 100% certain that this wouldn’t be my own reaction, at least initially.
After all, to witness such a thing and have to compare it to my own lifestyle would be tremendously unsettling. As much as I like to believe that I’m an obedient Christian, many or most of the life decisions I’ve made, albeit with prayer thrown in, have defaulted to the western, individualistic, “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours” way of doing things. Is my “retirement” (not a biblical principle to begin with) contingent on God’s wisdom, or my banker’s advice? Is serving God’s Kingdom at the top of my priority list, or is it 3rd or 4th on the list, just below whatever I happen to be bingeing on Netflix?
Am I saying you should go out and sell your stuff? If you’ve been reading my other posts, you know the answer to that question. Ananias and Sapphira tried just such an external gesture and ended up dead at Peter’s feet. Why, because they held back a little for themselves? Peter went out of his way to tell them that their land, and the money that resulted from the sale of it, was theirs to do with as they wished – guilt free (Acts 5:4). No, it was because they lied to the Holy Spirit. They tried to achieve outward holiness while making room for inward greediness. They washed the outside of the cup.
No saints, Jesus instructions on holiness are clear:
“You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.”
Matthew 23:26 (emphasis mine)
We must pray, pray, pray. We ought to repent over the lack of concern we’ve shown for our Christian brothers and sisters (not to mention those outside the church), ask the Holy Spirit to change our hearts and give us biblical mindsets, forge meaningful and lasting relationships with our fellow believers, and seek the Father’s instructions in everything we do.
Religion is what happens when we artificially replicate the spiritual practices of those who preceded us. Faith is what happens when we respond obediently to the seed that Jesus has planted in our hearts.
I think I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: you and I might read the bible and come away with different theological interpretations on what we’re reading. The further we dive into the details, the murkier the waters get. The bible models a believer’s baptism, but is infant baptism okay? The bible doesn’t speak against it. What about “just war”? Is there such a thing? Certainly there was in Old Testament times, but does that apply to new covenant Christians? Sincere bible believing Christians can believe numerous and opposing things on many such subjects, and still be sanctified by the blood of Christ. We’ll know one day; for now, we postulate.
With that being said, we ought not to come to different conclusions about what we are to do.
There are more things on the list of course (the Lord’s supper for example), but you get the point. These commands are clear, crystal clear; they brook little debate.
And yet, I can sense the opposition coming on already, armed with Ephesians 2:8 (“for it is by grace you have been saved…”) and an accusation that I’m “preaching works”. Such people will grudgingly acknowledge that Jesus actually told us to do stuff, but infer that any attempt to remind confessing Christians of such commands is somehow heretical; it may lead the faithful to incorrectly believe they’re saved by what they do, rather than what Jesus has done. Our obligation is to believe, and only to believe. Anything else is essentially optional. Ephesians 2:8, end of discussion.
Okay, let’s do this, shall we? We can start by putting this verse in its proper context, which is best done (first and foremost) but providing the verses that surround it. What does Paul have to say? He says that we used to be disobedient, dead in our transgressions and sins, but aren’t anymore (v. 1). This disobedience is now the exclusive domain of those who remain under the power of Satan (v. 2). He says we were made alive, as opposed to remaining dead in our disobedience (v. 5). He goes on to state that we were created specifically to do good works (v. 10).
Clearly, Paul believes (and this is stated repeatedly in his many letters) that we were saved from our sin and disobedience to enter into a life of obedience and overall God-pleasing behavior. To this end, Jesus goes out of His way to clarify the differences between what pleases man, and what pleases God (this is, essentially, the whole tenor of the Sermon on the Mount - read Matthew chapters 5 & 6), just so we’re not confused as to what this looks like.
Further, Jesus clarifies and solidifies Paul’s contention on the primacy of good works:
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
- Matthew 5:16 (emphasis mine)
Contrary to popular belief, this verse isn’t about putting a Jesus fish on the back of your car, listening to Christian music, wearing Christian baubles or even telling people that you love Jesus. There’s nothing with any of these things, of course, but that’s not what Jesus is saying here. We are to let God’s light shine out to the world through our good works. We are to be “guilty” of such acts of kindness and benevolence that people around us don’t know what to do except glorify God. Our moral character is to be so radically changed for the better that the devil doesn’t have any grounds from which to launch his accusations.
So what is Paul saying? After all, he goes on quite the tangent in Galatians 5, stating:
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
Aren’t I just trying to yoke you in slavery, to tangle you back up in a web of legalistic rule-keeping? Aren’t I trying to detract from the assurance of your salvation and set you back to earning it?
No, I’m not. You are saved by grace through faith, and faith means a lot more than attending church once a week and telling people that you believe stuff. Satan believes that Jesus is the son of God (James 2:19), and he’s not saved, is he?
Look, I’m not qualified to get into a debate on the mechanics of salvation. Frankly, I’m not sure any of us are. How exactly does it work? At which point to we become saved? The moment we confess? Baptism? First act of repentance? If we were predestined for salvation, were we ever damned in the first place? But again, the bible is clear on what we are to do. Believe, repent, get baptized (etc.), and don’t get cocky, because it’s God’s grace that saves, not human effort.
I will say that in Galatians 5 Paul is talking very specifically about circumcision and a ceremonial law that was given to the Israelites for the purposes of identification and the forgiveness of sin. Sacrificing animals for the forgiveness of sins seems awfully redundant and pointless if our sins are forgiven by Christ’s sacrifice, does it not? But never did Paul, or Jesus, or any biblical writer, ever advocate against the performance of good works.
Good works are not the same thing as religious works, and in these passages, Paul was trying to address the latter. For Paul, good works should be the necessary and inevitable outpourings of faithful and obedient hearts, which in themselves ought to be the true identification of a sincere believer (see Romans 6:1-14, Galatians 6:1-10, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21). Though he doesn’t state this outright, it could be argued that one of the reasons Paul thinks so little of circumcision is because it’s no longer necessary; God’s people should now be readily identifiable by the radical transformation that has taken place in their lives.
True, if you’re saved, you’re saved by God’s grace through your faith, not by works. But an “acceptance” of Christ that engenders no actual intent to change one’s life is not a biblical description of faith.
Are you saved? Great! Now get to work.
Undoubtedly, a doctrine of cheap grace has contributed as well. Any church that preaches a one-time confession without repentance – i.e. a complete u-turn in one’s life – preaches an emaciated gospel; and an emaciated gospel can’t be expected to get it right.
Let’s get to the point: if the gospel we’re preaching does not sound like good news to the poor, there’s a problem. The gospel is good news to the poor, it’s sight to the blind, freedom to the captives; it cares about peoples’ material and spiritual needs – not just one or the other.
A church that feeds the hungry without sharing the good news of Christ does little good. Conversely, a church that preaches the word but shows no interest for the physical needs of its listeners sows shallow seed.
And now, to bring this down to a personal and perhaps troubling level:
Many evangelical pastors have found ways to “spiritualize” the parable of the sheep and the goats found in Mathew 25. “If we’re saved by grace through faith”, they reckon, “and if faith means to believe”, then surely this mystical parable must mean anything except what it plainly says: that hell is a place reserved for the selfish, Heaven for the compassionate. Do you find such arguments compelling?
Here’s my takeaway: faith and idle belief aren’t the same thing; we can't dovetail a self-centered lifestyle with authentic Christian living. It just. Doesn’t. Work.
Yes, we’re saved by grace through faith, which is marked by an inward change of heart that is afforded us by the Cross. And no, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked will not, as an external exercise, get anyone into Heaven. It’s the blood of Christ that does that.
But if we have truly declared Yeshua our Lord as well as savior, and if we’ve truly turned our hearts to Him for safekeeping, then our attitudes towards others should change. Sometimes this is a rapid process, sometimes it happens slowly, sometimes people repent so late in life they don’t necessarily have time to do anything but confess (the thief on the cross comes to mind), but what’s our excuse?
Concern for people this world has trampled underfoot comes from God; a lack of it comes from elsewhere. If such compassion isn’t presenting itself, we ought to be deeply troubled, and find urgent reason to cry out along with the psalmist:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Unconvinced? Consider how many bible verses I needed to cram into the start of this post. This was my shortlist. Consider: John 14:23, Luke 16:19-31, Daniel 4:27, Zechariah 7:9-10, Matthew 19:21, Galatians 2:10, Proverbs 31:8-9, James 2:5, Deuteronomy 15:11, Ephesians 4:28, Galatians 6:2, Hebrews 16:13, Luke 6:38, Matthew 5:42, Jeremiah 22:3, Proverbs 19:17, Romans 12:13, Luke 12:33-34, Luke 3:10-11, James 2:14-17, Luke 10:25-37, Isaiah 1:17 (I could go on).
Are we really going to discount all of this by saying that “we’re saved by grace through our very narrow, passive and idle definition of faith”?
Have you witnessed a miracle, participated in one even? If the answer to this question is “no”, does this trouble you?
If we are to put aside the doctrine of cessationism – which is interesting but not biblical* – those of us who haven’t seen the miraculous have some soul-searching to do. If miracles are to follow the believer and miracles aren’t happening, something is wrong, no? Is the biblical record incorrect, or is there just something wrong with me?
There is general agreement on the principle that while miracles are the work of God and happen only in accordance with the will of God, the catalyst of such events is faith (Mark 5:34, Luke 17:9, etc.). Where many have gone wrong, however, is to equate faith with “believing really, really hard”, as if one need merely conjure up an emotional and willful suspension of disbelief. (Such theories are the reason you’ll find, in some corners of the world, people dancing with snakes, a ludicrous exercise if there ever was one).
No, faith means more than that. Who is Jesus addressing but people who have given up everything – their families, their homes, lucrative careers even – to follow Him? Who are these but people who have abandoned even their own sense of reason because they found a man who speaks the words of eternal life (John 6:68)?
We must remember that miracles are:
The second point ought to challenge us profoundly. We evangelicals are notorious for believing that we can lead a self-centered life and be a Christian at the same time, that the American Dream and authentic Christianity can operate in the same arena; they can’t and they don’t.
To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having a job, having a career, having a great deal of money even; riches are biblically dangerous, but not forbidden. But saints, mark well, the “pursuit of happiness” is not and cannot be the preoccupation of the Christ-follower. We’re called to service; we’re called to love God with our whole heart, not whatever’s left by the time we reach Sunday morning. We may have a career, but we may not be a career. We are Christians. Christians may enjoy this world, but we live for the next.
What’s my point? We can’t expect to walk on water if we’re not prepared to leave the boat. That’s my point.
Does this mean that those who have never witnessed or even performed a miracle have no faith, and by extension maybe even aren't saved? Nope, not at all, just saying that a miracle is unlikely to happen if we don't give it the opportunity to do so. We need to step out in faith, not sit down in it.
Heavenly Father, we implore you to give us faith, real faith. We also ask that this faith enables us to perform signs and wonders, not that we may edify ourselves or please the crowd, but that we may bring Glory to your name and serve your Kingdom. We ask this in the precious name of your son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
*A cessationist believes that the Holy Spirit – while still present in the world – only performed miracles in the time of the apostles in order to signal their authority to write the scriptures. Once the bible was complete, the performance of signs and wonders became unnecessary.
This theology, while seemingly logical, has (by definition) no scriptural support. As RT Kendall points out in his invaluable work, Holy Fire, cessationism is grounded in experience, not a thorough understanding of scripture. And while I won’t go into minute detail on this here, suffice it to say that with the reformers (many of whom, ironically, supported cessationism) I must cry “sola scriptura” and move on.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.
- Acts 2:42-45
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
- John 13:34-35
You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
- Revelation 3:17
Today’s North American church has become utterly unrecognizable by biblical standards. Is it any wonder that we can’t persuade our neighbours to cease calling us evil, let alone listen to our message?
I implicate myself here as well, but where is the love for our Christian brother or sister? Not the sort of love that is characterized by emotional outpourings on Sunday morning, but rather that which is grounded in action and sacrifice? How often do we encounter someone in our church community who is struggling financially, and meet that need with prayer alone, or even (more cynically still) an empty promise to pray?
Where are our priorities? Where is our faith? Have we trusted our finances with God, or have we sprinkled a little biblical wisdom into the handling of our financial portfolios? Do we drop a manageable cheque into our respective collection plates and satisfy ourselves thereafter that our duty is fulfilled, and that while the family who sits next to us is out of work, staggering towards bankruptcy? How much of your church’s finances are dedicated to meeting the needs of its congregants, let alone the wider community? 10%? 5%? 0%?
We pray four our brothers and sisters yes, but are we their answer to prayer? If not, why not?
Heavenly Father, I bring my bankruptcy before you. You've given me talents, and I've buried them, deeply. Forgive my selfish and uncaring nature, and change me from the inside out. I ask this in the name of your precious Son, Jesus Christ, who died for my redemption. Amen.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.