Jesus’s Revolution Against the Unfairness of the World

Some years ago, a church bulletin board in a Cleveland suburb displayed the following message: “Prayer is faith’s revolution against the unfairness of the world.”

Some days later, the same bulletin board showed a somewhat different message: “Forgiveness is love’s revolution against the unfairness of the world.”

There haven often been individuals who have romanticized political protest and political violence as a way to revolution against the unfairness of this world. I lived in the town next to Kent State University in 1970, and I was one of those sent home early from junior high school when four students were shot dead due to the turmoil of the political protest and violence at that time. I also lived in Nyack, New York in 1981, when two police officers gave their lives in service in opposing an armed robbery by a renegade political group. I deplore any romanticization of political violence as a way to remedy the unfairness of this world, and I will assert that while there is a place for peaceful political protest, it will not repair the unfairness of this world. So now I say to this generation and every generation that the real revolution against the unfairness of this world comes from Jesus Christ. The revolution against the unfairness of this world is the revolution of faith in God and Christlike love for others. It is the revolution that uses the two weapons of prayer and forgiveness against the obstacles and hurts of this world. It is the revolution of the power of God and changed hearts and not in changed political circumstances.

The revolution of Jesus Christ against the unfairness of this world started in his teaching ministry. It was never a revolution of political protest or of political violence. It was always a revolution of changed people living in a fallen world and bringing into it the power of the world to come, the kingdom of God, that was present in the person of God’s anointed King.

An unusual incident happened during his last week of his earthly life and ministry before his crucifixion. On the slopes of the Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem, stood a fig tree. One day he found no fruit on it, and he commanded that no one would ever eat from it again; the next day it had completely withered and become lifeless. It was the only miracle of judgment and destruction that Jesus ever performed during his earthly ministry, It was this incident which he used to tell his disciples are to deal constructively with the unfairness of the world around them.

The teaching that Jesus gives from this incident is the authorization of Jesus for his people to act radically different than the world in the way that they meet the unfair obstacles and hurts of this world. He gives a mandate for those who have been saved by faith in him,  to deal in a manner with the world around them in a way opposite to the way the world treats them. And understanding and following the revolutionary teaching of Jesus on how to deal with the unfairness of this world is how his followers are to show the difference it makes to be a son or daughter of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

Here, then, is how the gospel of Mark describes the incident of the withered fig tree and the teaching that Jesus gave based on that incident: “And as they were going along in the the morning they saw that the fig tree had dried up from the roots. And Peter, recalling what had happened before, says to him, “Rabbi, look! the fig tree which you cursed has dried up.” And Jesus said to him in answer, “Have faith in God! Assuredly I say to you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Up and be thrown into the sea!’, and does not doubt in his heart but believes in his hear that what he says will be accomplished, it will happen for him. Because of this, I say to you, all things whatsoever you pray for and ask, believe that you have received it, and it will happen for you! And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.” (Mark 11:20-25).

Faith in God is the basis for answered prayer. It makes the difference between simply addressing prayers to God as part of a religious ceremony and making pious God-talk and seeing legitimate requests answered by God. It is the attitude of trust in God and confidence in him that sees real answers to the requests that we make to God. It is the revolution of faith against the unfairness of the world.

Faith in God is a necessary condition of answered prayer. The definite fulfillment of the requests that we make to God in prayer calls for the definite stand of faith in God. The actual answers to prayer, then, come where there is an attitude of childlike trust and confidence in God.

In verses 20-22, Peter noticed an actual example of answered prayer, in the fig tree that had dried up overnight in response to the curse of Jesus upon it. The word of command from the Son of God, in the form of a curse, amounted also as a request to God the Father for a request for the destruction of the fruitless tree. This may be an enacted parable of pronounced judgment, but the main point of Jesus is the need of faith in God for answered prayer. He said, “Have faith in God!” Jesus called his disciples to trust in the power, wisdom and goodness of the heavenly Father whom he had been revealing in his words and deeds. The lesson of faith was that there need not have been any surprise that the prayer was answered, but rather expectation that it would be.

One of the things that tends to be lost in the English translation of this passage is also the interplay of the singular and plural ‘you’s’ in what Jesus says. He isn’t saying to Peter, “You (singular), Peter, have faith in God.” Rather, what he is saying here is to all the disciples: ‘All you here who are listening to me – you (plural) – have faith in God.’ I don’t think that this is a small point. I think that it can have a major impact when we understand that faith in God for answered prayer is not something that comes to or is the responsibility of just certain individuals who have faith. Rather, it is part of what Jesus expects for prayer from all his disciples, and it is part of what he expects from us when we pray together. And I think that the more that we realize this, we will come more and more to see answered prayer not so much in terms in receiving the personal and individual blessings that we seek – though God is certainly gracious and ready to answer prayers form individuals standing in faith before him – but answered prayers coming to believers united in faith in our marriages, families, small groups, churches and fellowships of churches. Although this faith in God for answered prayer starts with each of us as individuals, we truly do see how Jesus wanted it fulfilled when we pursue it in the plural. It will come when we see Jesus addressing not just me, when we change the object of Jesus’s statement from the singular to the plural, but Jesus addressing us – his people who he calls by his name.

Faith in God, then, is what Jesus points to as the condition to see the requests that we make in prayer become realities. it is faith in God – not self confidence, the amount of personal confidence that a person can drum up in oneself, but rather trust in a trustworthy God. This needs to be made clear, because self confidence is only faith in oneself and one’s own capabilities, and not in God. It is not a feeling of faith either, since Jesus says nothing about feelings here. It is not saving faith in Jesus Christ either, as in the third chapter of the book of Romans, as Paul set out, but it is is the continuation of saving faith, in trust and dependence on God. It is a faith in God that comes from knowing God, and it grows as a believer in Christ grows in that relationship with God. And it is not, in the light of other scripture, which includes the direct statements of Jesus himself, the sole condition of answered prayer, since Jesus teaches elsewhere, for example, that praying in his name for the glory of God (John 14:13-14) and continuing in relationship to him and in his Word (John 15:7) are just as necessary for the life of answered prayer. And even more, it can and should include understanding and holding to other promises of God, as faith in the God who made the promises, in asking and seeking from God what he has already promised to give in answer to prayer.

And as far as the answers to prayer, I think that we need to look at how the apostolic church actually exercised their faith in prayer. It was not for things, such as Peter getting a bigger house in the neighborhood of the Jewish High Priest so he could invite him to a neighborhood Bible study, nor for a more attractive spouse, nor for a bigger bank account, nor for most things that many of us now might want in answers to prayer. Here’s where I think that modern prosperity theology has muddied the waters in regard to answers to prayer, that it’s about expecting God to answer prayer for things, and often self indulgent and self aggrandizing things. And even in regard to the church, you don’t find them asking for a sanctuary bigger than Herod’s Temple to proclaim the gospel or a gymnasium or a chariot stable and stadium to carry on a sports ministry to to the sports crazy young people in the Roman empire. Their vision wasn’t for stone, bricks and mortar. Rather, the apostolic church exercised their faith in God in the direction of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to them and through them for the witness of the gospel throughout the world, and for the building up of believers in Christ. We can see them exercising their faith in God in prayer in the upper room before the day of Pentecost, when they were gathered with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1). We can see them exercising their faith in God when they prayed for boldness to share the gospel and for God to provide them with miracles to witness to his gospel (Acts 4:29-30). And this was not so that they could go, “Ooh!” and “Ah!” or say, “That’s awesome!” when they saw the miracles that they were asking for, but so that God’s truth would prevail against the unfair opposition to the gospel that was coming against them.

Going on, then, we can see that faith in God is necessary to achieve the impossible through prayer. However large the need may be, faith in God will find whatever is asked is entirely possible within the power of God.

In verses 23-24, Jesus goes on to say, “Assuredly I say to you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Up and be thrown into the sea!’, and does not doubt in his heart but believes in his hear that what he says will be accomplished, it will happen for him. Because of this, I say to you, all things whatsoever you pray for and ask, believe that you have received it, and it will happen for you!” He is not promising for anyone the ability to re-arrange the landscape, but rather giving an example of something that they would consider impossible for them that they could accomplish through prayer. They were at that moment descending the slopes of the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem – that was the mountain that Jesus meant when he said, “ . . .  this mountain . . .”  The Dead Sea would have been within sight of them – that would be the sea that Jesus meant. So the phrase means, in answer to believing prayer, for example, they could command the Mount of Olives to be thrown into the Dead Sea. That wasn’t something that Jesus would want anyone to take seriously as a matter of prayer, but rather as an example of something within the power of God that could be achieved through prayer. The emphasis is that the believer must trust God to do the impossible to see him accomplish the impossible, and this promise then becomes the challenge to believers to ask the impossible of God through prayer. And I do believe that we do see this kind of word of command coming from a stand of faith established in prayer in the book of Acts, in the healings of the crippled man at the temple (Acts 3:6), of Tabitha/Dorcas (Acts 9:40), and the crippled man in Lystra (Acts 14:10).

So then, faith in God to answer prayer never, ever limits his power to answer before even asking. The promise of faith is not about the what and the why but about the can and the how of answered prayer. It is a quiet confidence in God’s power that approaches him confidently and appropriates his promises trustingly. And this kind of faith cannot be directed toward one’s own self interest,  but even more to the interests of the kingdom of God first of all. By the time a person in Christ has grown to the place where he or she regularly exercises this kind of faith, in fact, he or she has grown beyond his or her own petty personal interests and material concerns and turns to exercise it more in intercession for the needs of the world and the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.

One of the strongest examples that I can find in Christian literature about this kind of faith is in the diary of David Brainerd, as he pursued his missionary work to the Native Americans in the United States before the Revolutionary War. In a remarkable passage, he states, “In prayer my soul was enlarged, and my faith drawn into sensible exercise for my poor Indians; and though the work of their conversion appeared impossible with man, yet with God I saw that all things were possible . . .  It seemed to me that there could be no impediment sufficient to obstruct that glorious work, seeing that the living God, as I strongly hoped, as engaged for it.”

The prayer in faith to God is revolutionary because it is opposite to the the natural pride and self reliance of human nature where there is little sympathy with Christ and only intermittent experience of being led by his Spirit and walking in his Spirit. It is not the usual way of human nature to deal with problems and difficulties, but the way in which Christ has directed us. And I think that the pride and self sufficiency of many Christians, and therefore many within our churches, leads them to believe that they can make it on their own without having to trust God much in prayer. Howard Hendricks once told how he asked a pastor how much of a prayer life he had, and the pastor replied, “Not much.”

He then asked the pastor how long he had had a problem with pride, and the pastor asked, “How did you know about that?”

Hendricks said, “By your answer to my first question.”

And again, this faith is not to be divorced from the whole teaching of scripture and from the righteous and spiritual common sense leading of the Holy Spirit in prayer that prevents faith in God from becoming presumption. Certainly though, the faith that will see God doing the impossible in this world is necessary to the work of his kingdom and for the demonstration of his glory, though, will often seem to be strange, outrageous and presumptuous when it is exercised, but often understood to be the leading of the Spirit when it happens. For example, in a prayer meeting in the fall of 1982, I prayed for freedom for brothers and sisters in Christ behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union, and for their government to be replaced by a more just and equitable system that would permit the free and open preaching of the gospel. I don’t think that I was alone in the body of Christ around the world in what I was asking, but was simply joining in what many brothers and sisters in Christ were praying around the world. From the others in the prayer meeting, though, I received some outraged and angry looks, as if I were some kind of nut. But I rejoiced after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the following events, as the others around the world who prayed for the same kind of thing to happen, as I could say,  with some joy and assurance, “I prayed for that!”

If, then, I’ve already made the point that the godly exercise of faith in God for answered prayer will be more in the way of intercessory prayer for the witness of the gospel and the working of the Holy Spirit in and through the church. And I’ve already made the point that this kind of faith in God was not to be exercised simply by certain individuals, but by all the disciples of Jesus Christ. So, I want to ask the question, “Where is the place of intercessory prayer in the modern church?” I’m not asking simply about what may have happened to the midweek prayer meeting, although it’s possible that some may find this question leading them to do more to strengthen it. Some churches do have an abundance of small groups where often intercessory prayer does take place among believers on a weekly basis – although I would ask the question whether this intercession includes concerns beyond the stated needs of those in attendance at the group. No, I’m wondering whether intercessory prayer has anywhere near the same place in many churches as it did in the apostolic church, where it seemed to have a significance comparable to the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, and far ahead of singing praises.

Here are several relevant passages:

“And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” (Acts 2:47).

“I call for, therefore, first of all, for requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving, to be made for all men, for kinds and all in authority, that we might lead quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and seriousness. This is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who wishes all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth . . . I wish, therefore, that men in every place pray, as they lift up holy hands without anger or arguing . . .” (I Timothy 2:1-4, 8).

Here’s my suggestion. In many churches, what had been the normal custom of the pastor to offer an intercessory prayer has been left in the past. Usually we may hear some kind of prayer to bless the service or the message from the Word, but pretty much in most churches it’s a series of praise songs, or, in recent months, sometimes something that does not even sound much like praise, but twentysomething angst and weird metaphors allied with a pretty shallow understanding of God, the gospel, and scripture – it seems to me to be more like a bad coffeehouse solo at times. I don’t think that it’s too much to suggest that we could easily drop at least one of these songs for a time of prayer and intercession. If God is truly meeting us in our time of worship, he is gracious enough to give us some time to approach him with the needs of our people, our congregation and the world. We could do this by a pastor leading in intercessory prayer, or, two or three spiritual leaders, leading in intercessory prayer for the needs of the congregation, but most of all for the needs of a lost and dying world that needs men and women who need to know how to exercise faith in God for the power of the Spirit of God to bring them the gospel of God.

But Christlike faith is not all that Jesus calls for to receive answered prayers. He links it with something else. Christlike faith that receives answered prayers also demonstrates a Christlike forgiveness of others.

Forgiveness of others must accompany the prayer of faith. Christlike forgiveness of others is part of the conditions of answered prayer as well. Unforgiveness as well as unbelief will cut short answers to prayer. The forgiveness of others as part of one’s own prayer life as a stand taken before God and then the whole body of Christ and the entire world is love’s revolution against the unfairness of the world.

It is the expectation of the Lord Jesus himself that the forgiveness of others is to be a regular part of the believer’s prayer life. It is not too much to say that the most underemphasized condition of answered prayer is forgiving others before God as part of our prayer lives. And it is not too much to say that too often we don’t get what we want from our prayer lives because we don’t give God what he expects from us as part of our prayer lives, namely, forgiving others for each and every offense against us before him.

In verse 25, Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone . . .” Jesus called for forgiveness, then, toward the end of his ministry, just as he had in the Sermon on the Mount and when he gave the outline of prayer that we call the Lord’s prayer. Here his call to forgiveness may have been to forestall a possible misunderstanding that the disciples may have taken from the withering of the fig tree. His call to forgive was tacked on to the end of his statement on the need for faith to prevent them from ever offering requests in prayer that were unanswerable from the start: prayers for the harm of others out of personal spite. This call to forgiveness is Jesus’s call for the believer in Christ not to deal with other people in curses but in forgiveness. It is Jesus’s call that prayer is not to display any kind of hostility or even contempt toward other believers but rather to release them from that hostility and offense before God. Jesus gave his call to forgiveness to apply to every possible offense, every personal judgment, and any kind of grudges for any reason. I think that Jesus gave us this not only because he knew that taking up offenses and grudges against others was a universal habit of human nature but because he had seen it in the lives of his own twelve disciples. For instance, James and John once made asked Jesus, after a Samaritan village refused them hospitality, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus immediately rebuked them for that, and I think that he wanted to make sure that they kept free and generous forgiveness of others as part of the conquering faith of a victorious prayer life – victorious not so much over circumstances, but first of all of the most malicious tendencies of one’s own heart. And like the previous verse, this is also a command in second person plural in the original language, and I think from this we need to apply this not only to our own individual hearts but also in our social relations with each other as believers in Christ in the body of Christ – and there will be more on that shortly.

By the command of Jesus, then, forgiveness must have the broadest possible scope. It must mean letting go of any personal animosity toward anyone for any possible reason. Most commonly, this will be for those who say and do things that may offend or harm ourselves or those that we love, and for those who arouse our envy, hatred and spite. It means that we do not sit in the judge’s seat of our personal and social courtrooms of our hearts and of our evangelical social circles with the determination that we will not be soft on the real or supposed crime of another person against us or anyone else. It is noteworthy that this applies to the state of the heart of the Christian who claims Jesus as Lord, and is never applied to civil justice; it is especially necessary for believers in Christ because we have the tendency to have very strong expectations on how others should act, and there is thus that tendency to cherish and nourish personal offenses and bear grudges, and even to spiritualize and rationalize them, and even to continue stubbornly in them when Jesus through the Holy Spirit puts his finger on that beloved little offense that we have been nursing for far too long.

Here’s the rub, then, with those who claim that they can’t forgive because, “It’s hard!” Jesus does not give a pass on this to anyone because they find it hard or difficult in any way! And neither should we, when someone brings up this excuse. Frankly, I think that the excuse of the extreme difficulty often comes from those who are either too obsessed with the sin of the other person to see anything else, or those who believe that they have something to gain from not letting that other person off the hook; either way, it’s covering the sin of unforgiveness with the sin of deceit. So the first issue with those who claim, “It’s hard!” is the issue of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Each issue of personal offense kept and not released in forgiveness is ultimately an issue of obedience before God and will be answerable at the judgment seat of Christ. And the truth is that over the centuries many, many believers have been able through the grace of God to forgive even the deepest offenses and crimes against themselves and even the most beloved members of their families. Jesus himself was the ultimate example of this kind of forgiveness when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  And Stephen, when he was dying from being pelted with rocks, was able to say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60) .Still another example that may come to mind for many is the forgiveness that God enabled Corrie ten Boom to extend when the guard whose abuse led directly to the death of her beloved sister Betsie told her how he had come to Christ and that he was extending his hand to ask her for forgiveness. And I can attest to the utterly impossible but real stand of forgiveness that Rev. and Mrs. Robert Hullinger took toward Bill Coday, who had murdered their beloved daughter (and my friend) Lisa Hullinger. So, to those who cling to this excuse, we may all legitimately say, “Who are you to say it’s too hard?

Forgiveness before God, then, assures a believer of an unhindered relationship with his heavenly Father. This kind of forgiveness before God that Jesus calls for means that there is no quarrel with another person that stands between him or her and his or her heavenly Father. And this is what it is all about: not letting our gripes with other people poison our relationship with God.

At the very end of this passage, Jesus gave the same reason for forgiveness of others that he gave throughout his earthly teaching ministry: “. .  .so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.” (verse 25). Jesus places here the forgiveness of God as being reciprocal to the the believer’s forgiveness of other people. This does not appear to be the same kind of judicial forgiveness as part of justification by faith through grace, as in Romans 3:31-16, but rather the forgiveness of sins necessary for an ongoing, close relationship with God; as some have put it, it’s relational, not judicial, forgiveness. And the reason for this is apparent: human unforgiveness particularly intrudes into the relationship with the heavenly Father because if intrudes into the prerogative of judgment which God reserves for himself. Unforgiveness amounts to personal judgment of another person which no believer in Christ has either the wisdom nor the justice to pursue. And this is why personal forgiveness of other people is necessary to live in God’s forgiveness and not to have that personal grudge standing between oneself and an unhindered relationship with God.

In the light of scripture, then, the security to forgive is in the justice of God and his promise to defend his people. It takes faith in the justice of God, as he has revealed himself to be the totally righteous, fair and just Ruler and Judge of the world, to forgive just as it takes forgiveness to live in that close relationship with God where relational faith receives answered prayer from God. But even more, in the context of scripture, then, this forgiveness is truly the practice of loving others as Jesus has loved us. This is the revolution of love which comes from practicing forgiveness in the way that Jesus has :

“Let all bitterness and anger and wrath and rage and slander be swept away from you, with all desire to hurt and harm another person. Be kind and merciful to each other, as you forgive each other just as God has forgiven you in Christ,. and be copycats of God, just like beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ has loved you and given himself as a sacrifice and offering to God as a sweet fragrance . . .” (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).

“Love . . . does not keep a record of wrongs . . .” (I Corinthians 13:5).

“ Be extremely serious about your prayer life, and above all things have fervent love for each other, since  love covers a multitude of sins . . .” (I Peter 4:7-8)

It then becomes obvious, as it is often belabored by some now, that the person who bears that grudge is hurt the most before God. But we need to emphasize as well that grudge, those hurt feelings, not only stand between two or more people, but also between every person that takes up, keeps and holds that same grudge and God. Again. this is also a second person plural in the original language; it refers not just to me but also to us. And this is something that is too often skipped over, on how much grudges between believers poison church fellowships, since often the bearer of a grudge passes it on to others, and each person who takes up that same grudge on behalf of the aggrieved party has the same responsibility to forgive before God for their borrowed spite. And this is often why there are so many broken relationships within our churches, that there is someone pursuing a grudge against a believer and continuing obstinately and impenitently to pass it on to other believers, and other believers are easily being drawn into other people’s grudges and vendettas.

After my over 38 years of following Christ, I’ve learned and experienced a great deal, and I must honestly say that the one thing that continues to astonish me is how so many believers, even otherwise spiritually mature pastors and elders, are so easily drawn into taking on the offenses and grudges of other believers. I think that there is more rampant and totally unnecessary social unforgiveness than many of us would like to admit. From what I can tell, this starts the way most rumors, quarrels and grudges start in our adolescent years, and they are symptoms of how so many in our churches have the same social goals, habits and practices of a high school senior. It usually starts with the hurt feelings of one conceited and talkative person, and it usually is nothing more, but those hurt feelings grow, the offense becomes highly exaggerated and encrusted beneath falsehoods and scare stories, and all this is passed on to others, to get other people worked up over things which were never their business to begin with. And where this comes from a conceited, arrogant and talkative person, there is a great deal of ego validation in this social vindictiveness. And those who are drawn in often seem to be more like adolescents who want to be part of the group of cool kids, and then let themselves be taken in as a part of the element of malicious secrecy, malicious self promotion and even malicious entertainment that come from these often baseless hurt feelings. A more carefully discipled and spiritually mature person, though, eventually learns to reply to these often habitual victims of hurt feelings by, “Be quiet about it, and stop talking about it – let go of your bitterness and forgive – I think that I would hear a very different story from that other person – I cannot be drawn into this – I think that you really need to let go of this . . .” And these kinds of hurt feelings and personal grudges rarely come up under any legitimately scriptural proceedings of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17, I Corinthians 5:9-13), because it will usually be found, if each allegation is considered seriously and calmly and the accused party can reply to each accusation one at at a time, that the person behind the allegations is living in a raging and extended tantrum and his or her charges and insinuations against a brother or sister in Christ will not stand in the light of day.

So then, let’s make a call for group forgiveness more a part of our public ministry, as well as unity in that forgiveness, and restoration to the full love and fellowship of believers of the repentant as Paul wrote in II Corinthians 2:5-11. In our fellowships of believers, let’s make it more outwardly prevalent to extend forgiveness to others in our prayer times, to make explicit and open the practice of Mark 11:25, and to cover the sins of other brothers and sisters in Christ, and to refuse to define and hold down our brothers and sisters in Christ by their past faults and sins. I would urge us to to make it a custom to urge forgiveness of others as well as asking forgiveness of God according to I John 1:9 when we come before God to share the Lord’s Supper. I don’t doubt that we would find our church fellowships to be much more merciful and forgiving if we made extending forgiveness as much as part of our practice of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as taking the benevolent offering is in some churches at that time.

As someone who has himself been a victim of a civil crime in the past and who has been a part of a jury murder for hire trial where the prosecution sought the death penalty, it’s worthwhile for me to take a moment to tell how the forgiveness Jesus calls for fits in with civil justice. The duty of the believer is to tell the truth to assist civil authorities to fulfill their office (Romans 13:1-7) and to decide according to the law without any personal vengeance in the act. I always thought that at the end of the novel The Three Musketeers,  it was done exactly right, where each one of the Musketeers declared their personal forgiveness of Milady de Winter even as she faced civil execution for her crimes and murders.

I’ve left until last in dealing with forgiveness about the emotional consequences of forgiveness and and unforgiveness, and I’ve done this pretty much because we have a tendency to be so emotionally centered in our preaching and teaching, and the emotional consequences are a consequence of obedience to what Jesus commands about forgiveness, and not the reason to forgive. First, there’s a remarkable passage in David Brainerd’s diary about his own experience of forgiveness for those from Harvard who had pursued a personal vendetta against him for an imprudent remark:  “O it is an emblem of heaven itself to  love all the world with a love of kindness, forgiveness and benevolence; to feel our souls sedate, mild and meek; to be void of all evil surmisings and suspicions, and scarce able to think evil of any man upon any occasion; to find our hearts open, simple, and free, to those who look on us with a different eye!”

Two of the most poignant descriptions of extended unforgiveness and bitterness and the extreme emotional torment that it brings comes from both Cindy Swindoll, the wife of Chuck Swindoll, and James Robison – hardly those who would be in any kind of collaboration! They themselves linked together the following passages to describe their own experiences under the sway of extended bitterness:

“And becoming enraged the master (of the unforgiving servant) turned him over to the tormentors until he repaid what he owed. And that is the way my Father in heaven will treat you unless each of you forgives his brother from your hearts” (Matthew 18:34-35).

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your aggravation, and do not give an opportunity to the devil . . .” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

As I recall, both Cindy Swindoll and James Robison reported a tremendous personal oppression due to their bitterness, and they identified their tormentors as demons and described their their experience as demonic oppression due to bitterness and unforgiveness. Scripture definitely connects a kind of demonic inroads into our lives though extended unforgiveness and bitterness, and this is why many people who come to a real victory of forgiveness suddenly seem to experience a great deal of peace, joy, and frankly, renewed and deepened sanity. There’s a clinical term called ambulatory psychosis, and I think that certainly unforgiveness and bitterness is part of the underlying problem in many whom we can say are walking on the edges between sanity and insanity. I’ve often felt, as some other pastors that I have known, that one of the symptoms of this kind of demonic oppression is seeking after praise music to relieve the torment, like King Saul did (I Samuel 16:14-16, 25), and I’ve known a number of people like that, in being practically addicted to praise while holding on to deep bitterness. So, I would bring it back to this again: one of the best things that we can do as a part of public ministry in our churches is regularly to call our people to forgive others, and perhaps to make our call to forgiveness even more clearly and compassionately if more and more people seem to be using praise as an escape from the torment of their own bitterness and the part of their hearts that remains allied to hell.

Forgiveness, then, is revolutionary because it does against the usual human tendency to bear and nurse a grudge. The revolutionary way that Jesus sets for his followers is not to withdraw, plot and sulk, but to forgive as he has brought us forgiveness. After declaring forgiveness before God, then, we need to follow the advice of Peter Marshall: “Never talk about them and never think about them.” This is well worth having an unhindered relationship with one’s heavenly Father.  Christlike forgiveness, then, comes from the person, who is growing to pray like Jesus himself if he were in our shoes, and it is the demonstration of Christlike trust in the heavenly Father and growing to love others has he has loved us.

Jesus Christ, then, calls his followers to deal with the unfairness of the world by his methods. Whatever has happened to us in the past is not to enslave us to brooding and sulking over hurt feelings and past injuries, to complaining about others,  and to be chained to the ways of this world to deal with difficulty and hurt. Rather Christ calls his people to the adventure and joy of faith and love, to see the possibilities that can happen by the grace and power of God if we follow his revolutionary methods. His call is to the revolution of faith, to seek fro God to melt the hearts of the impenitent and obstinate, and to do the miracles of reconciliation and the accomplishment of the impossible. His call is also the revolution of love, in which his people forgive as he has forgiven, as far it is necessary.

Whatever hope and dreams that there may be among us as brothers and sisters in Christ, therefore,  which are in line with the will of God, for successful evangelism, purifying revival and spiritual awakening here and overseas, and to see victories of faith over the obstacles and difficulties of our lives – especially anything that would keep us from our greatest usefulness for Christ in this life – let us take them all to God in prayer and expect his answers for them. Let us take every complaint and every obstacle and turn it into a prayer request. And as your faith grows, let your faith and vision take in the whole world for Christ.

The Christlike heart that expresses itself in Christlike praying, then, is also a forgiving heart. For any believer, therefore, who wants to see answers to pray, take your backlog of grudges and declare your forgiveness before God for them. Ask God to bless that person, and, if you have a tendency to keep digging up grudges, burn the list. Understand that there is no getting around forgiveness if there is any expectation to get close to the God who knows all our hearts and our every thought and for him to hear and answer prayer.

Finally, the revolution of faith and love begins when a person comes to Christ by faith to receive eternal salvation from the path to hell to the place in heaven. Repentance and faith in Christ is the way to sign up for his revolution of the changed heart and to become a believing and loving revolutionary in this world.

Online Evangelism Training From Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

Here’s something worth passing on to other pastors, believers and churches: Billy Graham School of Evangelism. It’s online now!

The One Relationship That Saves

This is how a man in prison once described himself: “This is my fifth time in prison. I’m serving eight years for fraud. I was dirty outside my body, and I never used to wash. I was dirty inside my heart: lust, hatred, revenge, anger and malice.”

Then he gave the description of the change Christ had made in his life: “I was able to stop reading dirty books, I was able to stop using dirty words, and the greatest of all, I was able to love the people whom I had hated . . . For the first time in my life I am . . . free of the filth that has been inside me for years. The truth has made me free, the truth being our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This kind of changed life, cleansed from the inside out, is incontrovertible evidence for the reality of the salvation of Jesus Christ. Even more, the living evidence for the reception of salvation by Jesus Christ, the only Savior, is the new direction and control of the person’s life. The living evidence is a life that is not ruled by sin anymore, but that the new Master is Jesus, and his word guides that person’s life. 

During the time of his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus himself gave this same challenge to show this kind of changed, cleansed life to some Jews who had professed to believe in him as the Messiah. They had made some kind of profession of faith in him as the Messiah, but he then challenged them to a deeper and more accurate understanding of who he truly is and what he has promised to do. They might have seen him as not much more than a political Messiah, who had come to free Israel from the Romans and to restore the kingship of David. Jesus, though, gave them an invitation something deeper, and something that was part of the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah. He challenged them to be his disciples in more than name only, and then to find the freedom from the bondage of sin as they followed his Word. Through that way, they would come to experience the truth of who he is as the Son of God, and they would experience the true freedom which he had come to bring them.

“Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ “

“They answered him, ‘We are the descendants of Abraham, and we have never been in slavery to anyone. What do you mean that, ‘You will become free?’’”

“Jesus answered them, ‘I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, but the Son remains forever. If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free. I know that you are the descendants of Abraham; but you are seeking to kill me, because my Word does not find a place to stay in you. I am speaking what I have seen from the Father; and you are doing what you have heard from your father’” (John 8:31-38).

Following the Word of Jesus shows a genuine saving relationship with him.  That relationship with the Savior, which he calls being his genuine disciple, is  demonstrated by following him as Teacher and Master. The evidence that discipleship is genuine is following the Word of Jesus. 

The challenge to follow the word of Jesus means a personal encounter with saving and liberating truth. This challenge is not to learn new ideas and notions, but to know Truth in Person, to know Jesus himself in the fullness of that saving relationship. This challenge that Jesus gave and continues to give then finds its response from the person who has truly received salvation through Christ, and that response is to follow the Word of Jesus.

In verses 31-32, Jesus gave another one of his challenges to those who were around him: “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” This challenge does not seem to have been given to the twelve apostles, but it is most likely that John the apostle, the author of the gospel, was there to hear it and to witness what followed later. Jesus gave this challenge given to a group of Jews, and it probably took place in or somewhere around Jerusalem. Throughout the gospel John doesn’t give much more than a bare setting for these long discourses where the emphasis is on the words of Jesus and his interaction with the people to whom he was peaching and teaching. The group of Jews that Jesus addressed seem to have been a group who had made had made some kind of public professions of faith that Jesus was the promised Messiah. I don’t think that it’s too much to say that they had probably said something about Jesus being the Messiah and had been baptized as disciples of Jesus. We don’t know how many of them there were; I think that it may have been somewhere around twenty in this group, but it could easily have been many more, since the prior verse, verse 30 says, “As he was saying these things many put their faith in him.” So, Jesus then came back with this challenge to them to prove it and to follow his teaching thereafter. He called them to the reasonable outcome of that declaration of their belief and that was  to accept his teaching as the new direction of their lives. 

Jesus often gave this kind of challenge to those who wanted to be his disciples or made some kind of profession of faith in him as Messiah. He expected their full attention, belief, submission and obedience to him first. This was not something entirely new here in the gospel of John, but it is more like a statement of something that he called for many other places in his teaching, such as in the conclusions to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:21-23 and the Sermon on the Plateau in Luke 6:46-49 — which were probably different accounts of the same discourse. In those other places he gave the implied promise of safety in the final and eternal judgment of God, but here he promises something different, and it will later become clear why he promises something different. His promise is that they will come to know the personal experience of the truth, the liberating power of Christ himself, Truth in Person (for more on Jesus as the Truth in Person, see John  1:14, 1:27 and 14:6). Here, as compared to the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plateau, he starts with the conclusion as the introduction. Rather than give them the fuller explanation of his promises and the practices that he expected that he gave to his disciples in Galilee, he starts here with his expectation of obedience to his Word.

Through the Word of Jesus himself that has come down to us, the challenge of obedience to the teaching of Jesus is still what he calls for as the demonstration of a true saving faith in Christ. It is the culmination of a genuine trust in him for all that he said that he is and all that he has showed that he is. It is what changes the terms of Christian commitment from the repetition of accepted words or a prayer to words and actions that show submission to the word of Jesus as the outcome of a true profession of faith. This cannot be against the grace of God in any way unless someone is willing to go to the self contradictory extreme that Jesus himself, the grace of God in person (John 1:14), was expecting something contrary to the grace of God. Jesus was calling them to pretty much what the apostle Paul called, “. . . the obedience of faith  . . .” (Romans 1:5). He was calling for those who had professed faith in him to show the demonstration of the genuine faith that has truly received the grace of God for salvation. He was calling for them to be more than disciples in name only but to come to the full realization of what it means to be his disciple, to experience the freedom that he brings from the guilt and power of sin. And for them, this would mean continued adherence to his preaching and teaching, and after his death and resurrection, continued fellowship with his church and adherence his Word as it continued through the preaching and teaching of his apostles (Acts 2:47) and became the complete inspired written Word of God (II Timothy 3:16-17).s

This wholehearted discipleship to Jesus Christ, to follow his Word, is truly the outcome of a faith that believes that he truly is the Son of God and the promised Messiah of God. Unfortunately, many have over the centuries and in our own day preferred to treat the Word of Jesus as something less than fully reliable and the Lord Jesus as someone to be relied upon less than themselves. They show some of the unnecessary reluctance that amounts to actual unbelief that an airline passenger discovered who was sitting next to a Boeing engineer on a piston engine, propeller driven airliner in 1958. It was shortly after the first flight of the Boeing 707 which was the first American commercial jet propelled airliner. The engineer mentioned the extensive testing on the engines of the 707, and the experience of Boeing with large aircraft and engines from the World War II B-17 Flying Fortress bomber to the mighty B-52 Stratofortress bomber. Then the other passenger asked the Boeing engineer if he had flown on the 707 and received the reply, “I think I’ll wait until it’s been in service awhile.”

Ultimately, then, the reality of a genuine decision to trust in Christ is not in saying some accepted and familiar Christian buzzwords. Nor is it found in association with church people and following the socially acceptable ways of thinking, speaking and acting within an evangelical social circle. Unfortunately, that is about all many have within our churches, and it explains why so many do not think, speak and act as if they were following the Word of God. Surveys consistently show that there are anywhere from 25%-40% within our evangelical churches that are in that area of repeating and imitating what they see and hear but are not being ruled by Jesus Christ as Lord through his Word. So, there does need definitely to be a renewed emphasis that the reality of a genuine decision to trust in Christ is a complete reset of the direction of the will, and it resets away from doing what I want and what I find convenient and self serving to the direction of the that follows the Word of Jesus Christ. And this does bring about a need for the renewed emphasis on the disciplemaking as the normal ministry of the gathered church that can never, ever be neglected for the next shiny new trend.

So then,  the first outward discernment of saving faith is the response to the expressed will of the Lord Jesus in his Word. And then, the true discipleship, the true saving relationship to Jesus finds that Jesus continues to impart the power of his salvation to the believer. And then obedience to the will as expressed in the Word of Jesus shows for all the world a real faith and submission to allow Jesus to be one’s Savior from sin in daily life and eternity. And then, it is as a believer continues in obedience to the Word of Jesus that he or she shows true discipleship to Jesus. And then this true discipleship to Jesus, living in a genuine saving relationship to him, means freedom from bondage to sin. And this is true of all the benefits of salvation: they come from that personal relationship with Jesus, and that relationship is the only relationship which saves. This true discipleship, the reception and sharing of life with the Son of God, means that he brings in his power to conquer the bondage of people in sin, in the way that they naturally are in themselves. So many times we can only come down to the conclusion that the problem with the way things are in our lives, in our families and around is simply comes down to the way that we are in ourselves. But only the almighty Son of God can deliver anyone from the way that he or she is in himself or herself.

The power of the Son of God brings true freedom from the natural tendencies to sin that are part of all of us as human beings. Only he can give the power to break the settled tendencies of human nature in a fallen world. Only the almighty Son of God, who is greater than the way that people are by nature and by choice, can provide them with the escape from the way that they are. And here Jesus does something that he does throughout the gospel of John: he ties all the promises of salvation to the relationship with himself as the Savior. And this brings us back to the truth of scripture that all the grace of God is in Jesus Christ and the promises and power of salvation are in the possession of that person that is in that saving relationship.

In verses 33-36, this specific group of Jews who had professed in Jesus showed that they didn’t get where he was going with what he had said about being set free, and so they went back to their reliance on their Jewish heritage, as the descendants of Abraham. So Jesus went on to clarify what he meant.

“They answered him, ‘We are the descendants of Abraham, and we have never been in slavery to anyone. What do you mean that, ‘You will become free?’’”

“Jesus answered them, ‘I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever, but the Son remains forever. If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free!’”

This group seemed to be argumentative and willing to contradict what Jesus had told them. Jesus really did want them to experience the reality of what he had said, so he furnishes them a further explanation of his meaning. This is so much like the personality of the  Jesus of the gospels, that he makes a radical statement to those around them, and they need to find out more from him of what he meant. But this group seemed to be more contradictory and argumentative than some of the others that Jesus had his discussions and explanations with throughout the gospels, and it will soon be apparent why. When Jesus talked about true freedom, they fell back on their presumed relationship to God as sons by their association with their common ancestor Abraham (v. 41). Even more, they looked at their civil standing as freeborn citizens are their reasons to start out their request for more information with a contradiction of Jesus. But Jesus exposed that their presumed position as freeborn descendants of Abraham was contradictory to their actual status as slaves to sin. Their actual status and habitual practice and attitude was the same as that of every human being by nature, heritage and direction. Their actual status was the same as that of everyone else in their lifetime defiance and resistance of the will of God the heritage that they had received from Adam.

So Jesus went on to explain the facts as they knew them in a society where slave holding was legal. The slave can be bought or sold, and has no natural, permanent place in the household. And the household that Jesus was talking about was the household of God the Father, and only the the eternal Son had a legitimate place there. He was stating to them that their real freedom would come from him, who is the eternal Son, and that it would be freedom from the bondage of sin. So then, that relationship with him is the true saving relationship, as he would later state in his great High Priestly prayer to God the Father, in the presence of his disciples: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent” (John 17:3, King James Version).  And here, in his explanation, he specifically ties the power to be set free from sin to being and remaining in that saving relationship through obedience to his Word. He calls them away from their trust in what they thought was their birthright and heritage as Jews, as the descendants of Abraham, and their civil freedom, to see their true need and that he was there to provide for it.

This promise is also tied to the identity which Jesus had already been showing them by their words and their deeds. He was claiming to the the Son of God, their promised Messiah, and to be the truth that sets them free. This would have been an utterly preposterous claim to make if Jesus had been merely a human teacher, and if Jesus had come merely to show people how to live better. But the stupendous promise which Jesus is making here is that he is not here just to make them better than they were before – to be slaves more dressed up and presentable than they were before, but still to be slaves – but to set them free, and to make them, by implication, as free as he himself is from the penalty and power of sin. This is how I would describe living as a believer in Christ, then, and as an obedient disciple: living in the freedom of the Son, and learning how to live like sons and daughters of God. And the apostle John took this into two of the different diagnostic criteria in the letter of I John as to whether a person’s profession of faith in Jesus is genuine: “By this we know that we are in him (Jesus): the person who says the he or she is abiding in him ought to live as he himself lived . . . Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness, because sin is lawlessness. And we know that he was manifested so that he might take away sin, and there is no sin in him. Everyone remaining in him (continuous present in the original language) does not continue to sin (continuous present in the original language)  . . .” (I John 2:6, 3:4-6).

The way that people are, as natural sinners, means that someone else must save not only from the guilt of sin but also from its power. The Savior from sin comes from the outside to bring his life and power. The salvation of Jesus thus means growing conquest of sin rather than the reverse. And thus the fellowship with Jesus as Savior means his freedom comes to the obedient disciple. This, then, has a great bearing on two things what I have seen happening in the lives of many believers in many churches across the United States.

The first thing which I see happening is that many professed believers in Christ have too little grasp on the understanding that it is the one relationship that saves that can save themselves and others from  our sins and the social and psychological effects of our sins and the sins of others. Understanding this should bring an end to what I have often called the growing psychological perfectionism of many believers, where they seem to place more trust in psychological terms and methods than plain adherence to scripture and following Jesus Christ as Lord of one’s life and Savior from all sins. There does seem to be a scrambling of many after giving and receiving one more bit of amateur therapy or to find and pass on and this little nugget or magical little formula that I think that can rescue you or me from something that I think needs to be fixed, or to find and digest that  one more book by a Christian author that seems to promise rescue from something. We forget that Jesus Christ alone is the Son of God who can bring freedom, that the relationship with him is what will save, and that no one will ever be rescued from sin by a word of supposed wisdom from another believer, that none of us can be the Messiah for ourselves or anyone else ever at any time.

The second thing which I see happening is the tendency of Christian parents to trust the salvation of their own children to association with other believers. I can call this the expectation of salvation through immersion, which even gets to be a kind of forced immersion where it comes through controlling parents, in the evangelical environment and infrastructure, where the ‘right’ way to bring up children becomes keeping them in church and then sending them to  Christian schools, colleges, etc., and expecting that that kind of immersion will save my children. What this kind of coerced and forced immersion often amounts to is trusting Jesus for my own salvation, but trusting churchianity to save my children. They may have not come to know the Son of God as Lord and Savior, but simply to say and do what pleases the others in their environment and infrastructure. The hope in this means that when they walk away that they may not be rejecting Jesus but the controlling, stifling and suffocating infrastructure that they have been raised in, and that they may never have truly come to know the freedom that the Son of God offers them – and that gives a real opportunity to the church, to make it clear what salvation is really about, that one relationship that really saves.

Even more, this brings out the often extensive lack of understanding and experience of the real victory in Jesus that he brings us. He has not promised to make us perfect in this life, but there is much, much more in close relationship and fellowship with Jesus that provides us with conquering grace over sin. I’m often appalled by the shallow songs which are circulating in many worship services. They seem to offer more of a generic forgiveness based up0n a good guy, easygoing God rather than the pardon from sins and reprieve from an eternal hell and conquering grace that Jesus provides. This kind of generic forgiveness is more like the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer described rather than the life and freedom which the scriptural Jesus offered. If, as Tim Keller has said, people come to church to seek victory over their sins, can we say that we are we offering it as the promise of the Jesus of scripture? Or are we  nitpicking them with rules or repeating to the same kind of silly, second hand, dumbed down psychological constructs that they can find in any secular self help book?

The power of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to free from slavery to sin is something that is unique to him and something that must be unique, consistent and continuous in the message of the church. It means hope for anyone who is coming from the depths of the consequences and misery of his or her own sin. It means that there’s hope for conquest for that person who started drinking with friends to be sociable and finds himself of herself getting drunk on Friday and Saturday nights and coming to church with a strong case of guilt and misery. It means the hope of conquering grace for that person who tried the stick of marijuana, and finds that he or she is having difficulty putting behind even if he or she has received salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. It means hope of freedom for that person who has been falling into bed with someone with whom he or she is not married despite the growing agony of his or her conscience, and who comes to church on Sunday mornings hearing about and asking for forgiveness but not being pointed to the freedom that the Son of God brings. It means the hope of freedom for that man, or nowadays, woman, as well, who has become trapped in gazing at naked people and sexual acts between other people. It also means hope for people who have been or who are being pigeonholed by other believers for something, anything, that may have happened in their past –that tendency of dying churches and proud, self righteous professed believers to hold those who sinned in ways that they did not approve under the shadowy cloud of those sins, that incident or incidents in their past – in short, that tendency of some professed believers to try to chain other believers to their past and to make them slaves to their past. Jesus is not the person to make a person a slave to his or her past, but to free a person from his or her past, and we need to keep on saying that as long as it takes until the day that Jesus returns. He is not the person to try to define people by what they may have done at one time or another that was legitimately sin or socially disapproved. Rather, as the Savior, he offers each one who comes to him in repentance and faith a new present and future of freedom of life in the Son.

It does bear repeating that this is not salvation by works, by earning or attempting to earn any credit before God by doing any kind of good deed. The freedom which comes through being a freed slave brings no glory or credit to the freed slave, but to the person who frees the slave. Rather, the is freedom is the human will freed from the power of sin living in the power of the freedom that the Son of God brings. It is living in the power of that one relationship that saves. It is like what the former professional football player Steve Foley told about. He had discovered that some other players and coaches had peace no matter if they won or lost, but he had found only emptiness in his life. Then one night so he knelt by his bed and asked Jesus to come into his life and change him. And the change then came. Here’s how he described it: “My language used to be filthy. One day a guy beat me for a touchdown in practice, and I started to let loose my usual barrage. But this time I was brought up short. I can’t explain it, except that the Holy Spirit was at work. I knew that God wasn’t getting any glory from my mouth. Soon I quit swearing completely.”

The wonderful reality, then, is that the disciple who puts his faith in Jesus as his Savior, who makes the choice to follow his will, will find that the risen Lord is there to free the broken and fallen will from the power of sin. This is then the path of freedom, which the disciple has, so that the disciple  can follow through with that choice of obedience. But unfortunately, there are those who refuse to follow Jesus and thus show that they see no need of him. What this amounts to is a virtual refusal of him as Savior when there is no response to his words.

Jesus went on to speak further to this group of Jews about their spiritual condition based upon the answers that they gave him and the agenda which they had kept hidden. This then shows that habitual resistance to the Word of Jesus is evidence of a false profession of faith in Jesus. Though there may be an outward profession of faith in Jesus and association with his disciples, there may still be a continual, habitual, uncaring resistance and defiance to the Word of Jesus, and even a real, underlying hostility to him. This ultimately shows that there has never been a change of masters in that person’s life.  

In this conversation Jesus gets to the bottom of false and spurious professions of faith, and he shows that they come when people attempt to fit Jesus into their expectations and ways of doing things. At the bottom there is that desire ultimately for that person to retain personal control of the life rather than live for the Master. And this is what Jesus exposed with this group of Jews who had made professions of faith in Jesus as Messiah but who were starting to argue with him and contradict his Word.

In verses 37-38, Jesus exposes the underlying agenda of this group of Jews who had professed faith in him: “ . . . but you are seeking to kill me, because my Word does not find a place to stay in you. I am speaking what I have seen from the Father; and you are doing what you have heard from your father.’” Thus the evidence that he holds up in front of them of their true state before him is their own underlying hostility to Jesus and their contradiction of his own utterances. They had made seemingly some outward profession of him as the Messiah, but they had already shown to him the incontrovertible evidence of the falseness of their faith. In their contradiction of what he had said to them about their need, they had made a virtual declaration that they did not feel the need of him either to save them or direct them. They were satisfied with what they had by birth and tradition. Thus they had given him a demonstration that their faith was no more than a concession to the atmosphere of Messianic expectancy that came with the ministry of Jesus. Their faith in him was only going along with the social atmosphere, and it was not a personal trust and loyalty to Jesus. With some of them, their profession of faith in him was then exposed as covering something much more sinister. So when he put to the test of their profession of faith simply by calling them to obedience to him as the Messiah, they refused his word and turned back to trust in their own heritage and traditions.  

Jesus went on to show them the nature of what they were refusing and where the ultimate source and nature of their refusal. Jesus asserted, as he did many times throughout his ministry, that his teaching, his word came from his direct personal communion with the Father as the eternal Son, and the implication that he gives, as he states plainly elsewhere throughout his ministry, that to reject him was to reject God. But then he gave his own diagnosis of them as unsaved (v. 47) because of their rejection of his word and their underlying hostility to them. They showed their true nature to him by their underlying agenda and their arguing with him. They were showing that they were under the influence of their own sinful tendencies and that their own underlying sinful tendencies were being directed by the unseen spiritual influence of the devil. Their true spiritual state was revealed with their underlying and hidden murderous hostility to the truth and habitual falsehood. It is certainly not a far leap from Jesus’s diagnosis of this group to what the apostle Paul had to say about the state of mankind apart from the salvation of Christ: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and sins,  in which you used to live according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who is now at work in the sons of disobedience . . .” (Ephesians 2:1-2).

Certainly no church leader or member should take it upon himself or herself to make it a quest or a habit to seek out and judge the reality of the professions of faith among other believers, although the tendencies of human judgmentalism, criticism and antagonism may incline some to try. Rather, the quality of the professions of faith among believers demonstrate themselves  when the word of Jesus through the Spirit of God reveals the heart and life of that person over the course of time. Those who have made spurious professions of faith show their true colors either in personal confession and genuine repentance and faith when the Holy Spirit reveals their real need to them and they truly receive salvation, or in moral and spiritual degeneration over time due to habitual resistance to the truth. Even more, those who have made spurious professions of faith often demonstrate a pattern of continuous hostility to the truth of the gospel and surreptitious or even overt harassment of other believers in Christ who are seeking to follow Jesus faithfully. They may not be a part of hidden plans to kill Jesus, but they may claim to be saved by faith in Christ but oppose his gospel and seek to abuse and harass his people. 

At this point this may sound theoretical, but any length of pastoral experience or experience with leadership in the church can find a number of such examples. For instance, during a time of revival in 1970, a respected businessman and church member rose to reveal that he had been an active church member and had even run youth camps but had never come to Christ. He revealed his life of antagonism toward and surreptitious harassment of people in the church, and how it had been part of the personal turmoil he had practiced since his childhood. He then revealed how he had come to Christ just a few days before, and how he had been spending the next few days apologizing and making amends to the people he had hurt and offended. I’ve heard the testimony of another couple who came to a church for their wedding ceremony, told the pastor in the premarital counseling that they were believers, and came back years later when they came to Christ in reality for salvation and apologized for their earlier mendacity. There are other stories that come out from time to time – the man who pretended to be a Christian to win the woman who became his wife, only to confess later on that he had lied, or the person who came to church to find a venue for his or her musical talent, and so on. There are a lot of personal and social reasons that some people may say the words which they think will please, impress or manipulate others in regard to their own experience of salvation, and church people need not to be naïve about them.

Nevertheless, I encourage everyone that only with greatest care and consideration should anyone approach to question the reality of the salvation of another person who has had a strong background in church attendance and involvement. As a matter of pastoral care, a simple private conversation can often clear things up. It’s a good idea for a pastor or concerned elders to go over the circumstances of conversion, nature of faith, personal habits of reading the word, occasions of past disobedience and conquest of past sins by the power of Jesus of each church member and regular attender, and certainly with each one in any position of leadership and ministry responsibility. This may be done when a person asks for church membership, but my experience is that too many of these discussions simply rubber stamp anyone who says anything that sounds at all like a belief in God. This private and compassionate discussion is certainly not in any way a quest for something to nail someone with or to discredit that person with from his or her past. Rather, it is to give everyone within the church a compassionate checkup and diagnosis of their standing before God based upon the scriptures. This will often result in opportunities for sharing the gospel in depth with a person with a suspect profession of faith, but it will just as often result in a deeper assurance for the person who does give a scriptural account of salvation and the others who hear it.

So then, the point at which a person demonstrates that he or she has rejected trust in Jesus and the Lordship of Jesus shows, in these cases, that the person probably never genuinely received the Lord in the first place. But that does not have to be the end of the story. The person who made a false profession can also make a new, real and genuine decision and truly experience eternal life in Christ. But it also points out the need to avoid the kind of songs, preaching and teaching that does not assume that people who come to our churches are all right with God just because they show up, even if they do so Sunday after Sunday.

That same Jesus who spoke to that group about the freedom that he offers then went to pay the price for the freedom that he gives by his own death. His cry of, “It is finished!” – “TETELESTAI!” (John 19:30) was his cry proclaiming his freedom for his people. His cry of “It is finished!” during his last few moments of life on the cross was his dying declaration that the freedom that he brings is not cheap grace, but the most expensive gift that he could give. Though there were false professions of faith within his own ministry, our faith is not in the consistency of people but in the reality of the Savior and his saving power. Even though some may say the accepted words and  associate with the people of the church for a while, this may be contrary to reality, but this is no reason for an unreasonable suspicion of other, but rather for each one to consider his or her own profession of faith and experience of salvation before God. To examine our own hearts and experience according to what scripture says about salvation is the responsibility of each one of us, to see whether your faith corresponds to the scriptural depiction of someone who has received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ. If, then, our own faith declares Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, fully God and fully man, who died on the cross for the sins of the world, and who has risen again, to be the risen Lord in heaven who is returning for his people, if we can truly say that we have responded in the scriptural manner of repentance, the decision to turn from one’s sin as the direction of one’s life to the will of God, and faith in Jesus Christ alone for one’s own salvation. Consider then whether your scriptural confession of Christ and the response of repentance and faith has then resulted in a personal, daily relationship with the risen Lord, who has now been imparting to you his victory over sin and death in your life.

If your confession and experience correspond to what the Word of God says, then praise God for your reception of eternal life, and continue then to live in daily faith in Christ and submission to his Word. Make his Word the direction of your life, and humble submission to his will your greatest desire and highest pleasure. If Jesus is a real Savior, his Word is worth following and worth trusting more than anything you may hear from others and anything else that you will ever learn, think or conclude even from within yourself.

If you have truly received eternal life by faith in Jesus Christ, continue to trust Jesus for daily victory over sin. While you can and should certainly trust him for forgiveness daily, to keep the relationship close and the conscience clear with God, there will be less sin to hinder your testimony and grieve the Holy Spirit and more of a testimony to glorify God and reason for joy in God if you experience his victory over sin. So then, come clean, and confess the quick temper, the arrogant stubbornness, the easy deceit, the lustful thought and look, the rebellious selfishness and impatience for what they are before God. But then ask God to change you and for the Lord Jesus to give you his freedom and his victory in your life, to live in and experience his conquering grace to his glory.

If, then,  you find now that you have not truly put your faith in Christ, that he is not the Lord of your life and your only hope for heaven, don’t care about how it appears before anyone else, especially if you have a religious association and reputation. Embarrassment before other people, even people you love and seek to impress, is the least of your problems.  Rather seek for the reality of a life changed by faith in Jesus Christ, and confess your faking it before the God who really is there first of all. Renounce any hopes for heaven except the Lord Jesus who died on the cross for you, and renounce any other Master than the Lord who rose from the dead and has all authority in heaven and on earth.