If there were an objective test you could employ to measure the love in your church against the kind of love the bible commands, would it pass?
Most North American churches run like volunteer organizations with optional programming that all in attendance can (and typically do) take or leave at their leisure. The commitment level is roughly correlated to any given family’s ability to “fit in” whatever bible studies or church activities they enjoy. 10-20% of your average church family runs the whole show – overextending their personal commitments well past the point of burnout – while the remainder pick and choose their activities like finicky eaters at a buffet. Disaffected parishioners can often be found waltzing out on a Sunday morning with whispered complaints about the music selection, critiques on the sermon, and general comments about “not feeling fed”.
But how does the bible tell us to approach the church, by which I mean the biblical definition of church, your fellow believers? It tells us to approach it with a love that imitates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins. It calls on us to be prepared to die for one another.
But if we're to be honest, most of us treat our fellow believers with no more deference than we approach our colleagues at work. We hang out with those we like, ignore those we don’t, and make soft cooing sounds of support (but not much use) when we’re informed that someone is suffering.
But here’s John: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love”, and Jesus, for that matter: “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them”. (Luke 6:32)
Love that isn’t willing to sacrifice? It isn’t love.
Here, John the plain-spoken Baptist devastates his compatriots’ worldview with words that echo in eternity. God can turn rocks into Israelites; national heritage won’t cut it. Each and every tree that doesn’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance will be chopped up for firewood. The seed from which it sprouted will serve as no defense, no protection from God’s judgement.
This is serious, deadly serious, so its imperative that we learn what sort of “fruit” God expects to see. John’s audience certainly wants to know, and they ask him “what on earth should we do then?”. He responds:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
- Luke 3:11-14
On first glance, we may read these instructions and conclude that “fruit” is an outward action that pleases God. After all, most of these commands really don’t seem all that difficult; dropping a little charity into the collection plate and refraining from abusing others ought to do it, no?
First, John’s instructions are that difficult. The first two items on the list command us to give away half our stuff (ouch), and not collecting more taxes than Rome required wasn’t as painless as it sounds. Tax collectors didn’t earn a salary, they made their living by charging extra. John is instructing them to give up their livelihoods. Same deal with the soldiers. These demands don’t merely exhort us to become reasonable and rational people who avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes; something much more challenging is implied.
Fortunately for us, John isn’t giving us an austerity checklist, an itemization of incredibly difficult behaviours that will please God and convince Him to lay His axe elsewhere. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Read for yourself what Jesus has to say about fruit:
"And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:23
Sit on this metaphor for a moment. Let it ruminate. Follow it to its natural conclusion. Does soil decide whether it’s good or bad? Does it will healthy trees into existence? Can a patch of dirt sitting loosely on a sidewalk choose to produce a robust and healthy apple tree? Of course it can’t. Even if it isn’t swept away by the wind or the rain, and even if the seed lands where it’s supposed to, and even if said seed manages to sprout, the roots will have nowhere to go; and the tree will die.
No, the point isn’t for you to put together a checklist of “good fruit” (i.e. “deeds”), start ticking off boxes on that list and keep it handy for the judgement day. Your benevolent and/or religious activities will not save you, because they are not the fruit John is talking about. What is?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23
Ah, here we go, now we’re getting to brass tacks. Fruit in keeping with repentance, though it may (and generally ought to) lead to a radical lifestyle change, is a change of heart, a replacement of wickedness with Godly virtue. We must lay hold of the sin that is firmly rooted in our hearts and yank it up, sowing seeds of selflessness and self-control in its place:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
Well how on earth are we to do that? Soil can’t change itself, remember?
Why, the Cross of course! Jesus’ loving sacrifice on our behalf frees us from the judgement of sin under which we’ve been living all this time. While we still do sin and still must contend with the flesh, God sees in us only the righteousness of Christ. We are now a fitting abode for His Holy Spirit. He takes up residence in our hearts and begins the critical work of uprooting weeds and planting healthy trees in their place.
No, scratch that…
WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!! Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that Jesus died for us so He can live in us, personally uproot the nastiness that ails us and turn each one of us into a fountain of everlasting righteousness? How can we even function with this knowledge? How do we ever get off our knees and cease shouting God’s praises so we can eat, drink, or go to work?
Now, some of us come to Jesus with more weeds than others; sanctification is not an easy or instantaneous process. So don’t be disheartened if you’ve sincerely asked Christ into your heart but aren’t living a life that would impress John the Baptist. Beating your breast and condemning yourself will get you nowhere, neither will pulling up your bootstraps and going on a religious self-improvement program. Remember, the work isn’t yours.
Rather, remain firmly rooted in Jesus, for:
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:4
And do everything within your power to deepen your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who inhabits your heart; for those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Well, let’s see what’s going on in this particular chapter of the book of Acts. Paul and Barnabas are preaching in Iconium (modern day Turkey). When they receive word that the religious authorities plan to stone them to death (Acts 14:6), they flee, walking about eight hours down the road to Lystra. Little do they know, however, that these same authorities have followed close behind them to Lystra. There these antagonists successfully rally the locals (who just beforehand are ready to worship Paul and Barnabas) and achieve what they set out to do in the first place: stone Paul until he’s dead (or at least appears to be). After this, the two apostles read the writing on the wall and flee much further down the road to Antioch, which is about 2,000 miles closer to home.
Notice that Paul and Barnabas don’t go looking for suffering; they flee it in fact, repeatedly. But their primary objective is never in question. They are charged with preaching the Gospel, and preach the Gospel they will, consequences notwithstanding.
We should be careful not to make an idol of misery here. Biblical lessons should always be read in context, and in this particular biblical context, affirming your faith in public (a requirement of faith) is likely to get you persecuted or even killed; in today’s North American setting, it probably won’t. We ought not to assume, therefore, that this passage negates everything Paul has to say about being saved by grace through faith, it doesn’t. Neither, however, does what Paul has to say about being saved by grace through faith negate everything Jesus has to say about what it really takes to be a disciple:
“Follow me now. Let the spiritually dead bury their own dead.”
- Matthew 8:22
“If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.”
- Matthew 10:39
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.”
- Matthew 7:21
“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
- Luke 14:33
That is to say, ‘faith’ isn’t equivalent to idle belief, theological assent, or the conjuring of an emotional response. Faith is sacrificial in nature. It requires us to do what it takes to obey the clear call of Christ in our lives (read the Gospels if you’re not sure what that is), regardless of what the consequences may be. It requires us to trust Jesus to the point of obedience, even costly obedience.
Take a moment, does this sort of commitment even closely resemble your walk with Jesus? If the answer to that question is “yes” – bravo! Undoubtedly, you’ve seen miracles that most of wouldn’t believe if we saw them with our own eyes, and experienced joys most of us can’t fathom. But if not, what’s holding you back?
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.
Beware the prophet who speaks peace to your sin. There is a heresy out there – fast becoming a consensus – that because we are saved by grace we are free to revel in our sin. No! What biblical prophet ever preached against repentance? Not one.
But, don’t miss the point! Is Micah, in the above verse, preaching the evils of beer and wine? Of course not! This is merely an illustrative example. What he’s saying is that this people has become so perverse, so disobedient, that they would be far more hospitable to a soothsaying liar than to a truthful prophet.
Where are these people at when this is written? They enjoy a comfortable lifestyle marked by plenty of wine and song; but, meanwhile, those in power “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance” (Micah 2:2, NIV). The people eat and drink the profits of injustice and misery; and they will not escape His terrible judgement.
We ought never to be at peace with our sin. Our flesh constantly wars against the Spirit (1 Peter 2:11, Galatians 5:17), and we must fight back. But, to war against the flesh we must be in the Spirit. To war against the flesh while in the flesh is to become a noxious white-washer of tombs; someone who foolishly subscribes to the notion that a cup cleaned only on the outside is clean enough. The Christian wars against the flesh while in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).
What does this mean? We earnestly confess our sins (Romans 10:9-10, James 5:16, 1 John 1:9, Psalm 32:5); we cleanse ourselves in the waters of baptism and eagerly accept the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that our cup can only be cleansed from the inside out (Matthew 23:26); and the Holy Spirit, who has entered our lives by the miracle of the Cross, is the only one who can complete this critical task. We cannot. Our work is to confess, repent, petition and pray; His work is to remake us in our Master’s likeness.
And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6, NLT).
Herod holds the unfortunate record of being the only person in scripture to whom Jesus has nothing to say. This “king” is the worst kind of man. His extravagant wealth is plundered directly from the pockets of God’s people; a people to whom cleanliness is everything are forced to live in filth and destitution while he reclines in detestable luxury.
He is a vacuous, vain and exceedingly empty human being, uniquely responsible for the execution of the greatest man (besides Jesus) who ever lived: an execution brought about by a promise made in frivolity and kept in cowardice.
For Herod, Jesus has no words. And though Herod has or will ultimately come to understand how profound and damning that is, at the time, he can’t care less. Jesus is crucified; Herod goes on his merry way.
But what about you? Are you fearful of God’s wrath? Do you find Jesus’ words disconcerting? Do they make you uncomfortable? Good! Jesus has plenty to say to you! Jesus does not demand perfection, but He does demand repentance – a sustained and repeated decision to turn away from the world’s ways to His own.
Jesus loves us, so like any good parent, He rebukes and disciplines. Does a child enjoy punishment? Does a plant enjoy pruning? Of course not! But a child subject to loving discipline grows into wisdom. A plant properly pruned and lovingly tended bears increasingly better fruit with each passing season. So we may rejoice that God takes the time to discipline us. It is a clear indication that, though we may be a long, long way from shore, we’re not in Herod’s boat.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.