Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end. (Hebrews 3:12-14)
Here, somewhere near the buckle of the Bible Belt, many of us speak (or at least think) this thought about eternal security: “We were once saved, therefore we are always saved.” Our salvation has no force majeure clause, whereby eternal security, in certain instances, could be rendered null and void. When we asked Jesus into our hearts, we were born again. We reason: “One cannot be unborn; we invited Jesus into our hearts and that was that!” Yet, with one word, the writer of Hebrews casts a shadow on our security.
We have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end. (Hebrews 3:14)
Here on the range, where the skies are not cloudy all day, it’s not that there never is heard a discouraging word; it’s that never (or at least seldom) is heard the discouraging word—“if.” It is not a comforting word—at first blush—since it implies that to win the prize (heaven), we must maintain firm hold on the baton of eternal security, even as we cross the finish line. In fact, if we hold it loosely or carelessly, today’s passage implies our hearts are evil and unbelieving!
With all my heart, I believe I have been born again. I believe, in Christ, I have been buried and raised from the dead. I have become a new creation. So…if I entertain the “if” in Hebrews 3:14, will I be loosening my grip on the baton, drifting towards the evil of unbelief? I don’t believe so. In spite of its apparent discouraging nature, we need to face off with this “if,” crediting it instead, with encouraging possibilities.
The verse presents the troubling concept that a born again believer’s heart could be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. This idea is often covered here in Bible Land by the doctrine of backsliding. Backsliding is considered to be a hardened state of heart where God has been shoved off his throne and an individual is functioning as the lord of his own life. With God overseeing the race, classic backsliding doctrine still has the wayward soul crossing the finish line, baton in hand. Exactly how it got there, without the rebel’s grip, no one seems to know—but a sovereign God is credited for the grace that accomplished it. I don’t think I would question this photo finish if it were not for the word “if.”
I find myself in a quandary. I am a son of God, a new creation who has become a partaker of Christ, if I hold fast the beginning of my assurance firm until the end. This sounds absurd though. Its like saying, “I am the son of Bob Cummins (my biological father) if I adequately assert this fact until I die. Is sonship accomplished by confession? I’m contending its conception.
I have a real problem—two apparently incompatible ideas are pressing me for their allegiance. It feels like works versus rest. My options: I could discard one of the puzzle pieces because it obviously doesn’t belong to this puzzle, or I could take a high view of scripture and say, the puzzle is a deep mystery and I can’t understand it. By design, the puzzle is beyond solving. In other words, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it.” (Psalm 139:6)
When I say I have a high view of scripture, what I mean is that it is too high for even John McArthur (And admittedly, that’s pretty high!). Having a high view of scripture means God’s words are critical, but they are only the approach lights to the airport. We will eventually deplane and find ourselves at a high elevation where we see things from the Puzzle Maker’s vantage point and say, “Oh—That’s where that piece fits!”
We can always relieve intellectual pressure by discarding one of the other puzzle pieces, but we would have to forfeit (what I think of as) that high—really high—view of scripture in which if’s are inspired. Granted, “ifs” destroy the convenience of airtight, theological-puzzle solutions, but they more than compensate by leaving us with a lasting security that rests in Christ alone—an unfailing foundation who exists apart, and high above, even our best doctrinal puzzle speculations.
A final word about evil unbelieving hearts. I believe they exist and I’m not confident they will cross the finish line. However, for clarity’s sake, an unbelieving heart is not synonymous with a doubting heart. I believe a doubting heart can still be searching. In fact, faith is redundant without doubt. Doubt is the ever-present context in which faith is worked out; this is why fear and trembling are required. It is in the midst of our doubts where we persevere. Further down the trail, we discover doubts are not the intimidating giants they first appear to be. Over time, they prove to be mere phantoms.
The evil and unbelieving heart is at risk because it has faced doubt and found it to be a convenient excuse to do its own thing (check out the famous atheist, Aldous Huxley’s reasons for abandoning his faith in college. It was directly connected to lust). Here, in its freedom from God, a most frightening thing happens—God gives the heart what it desires: its’ independence. Does this heart cross the finish line with baton in hand? God knows. I don’t know, but I have my doubts.
Father, teach us to watch over our hearts, that there not be in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from you. Help us to encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “today”, so that none of us will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Thank you that we have become partakers of Christ. By your grace alone, we shall hold fast to our baton from the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.
Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit… Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes… You too, be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour that you do not expect. (from Luke 12:35, 37 & 40)
Jesus reveals that time has been entrusted to men. Today’s Blue Book passage reveals the startling incentives and disincentives associated with our stewardship. He even reveals his sliding scale of responsibility: “From everyone who has been given much shall much be required.” (from Luke 12: 48)
To mine as much wisdom as possible from Jesus’ words, let’s fast forward 20 years and listen in on an imaginary conversation between Timothy and his spiritual father, the apostle Paul.
Timothy: What did Jesus mean when He said, “Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps alight?
Paul: Recall: the context of Jesus’ parable was a wedding feast: “Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to Him when he comes and knocks.” Both Peter and John told me how much Jesus loved to use this parable. They said something came over Him when He spoke about the wedding feast; He seemed to invest Himself into this particular parable like no other. To Jesus, this feast obviously represented an actual event at the end of time where the guest’s attire was critical. Allow me to answer your question about readiness by speaking of our baptism, which ties directly into this issue of our wedding feast attire. For those of us who have repented and been baptized for the forgiveness of our sins, Christ has become our righteousness—Jesus Himself has become our attire. This is the critical thing: being in Christ is the only clothing allowed at the wedding feast. Recall, Timothy, it was by grace you were introduced to faith. And, it was by faith you have been justified before God and can now, clothed in Christ’s righteousness, stand continually and boldly in God’s presence with great joy. It is no longer about you and your performance. In fact, truth be known, you are no longer even alive. You died and were buried with Christ. You have been raised from the dead with Christ and Christ now lives in you. Christ is now your very life.
Timothy: Okay. I think I understand this, but later in His discourse, Jesus scolds the multitude, saying, “You people are great at predicting the weather based on your experience and observation, why then are you so dull in appreciating what is happening right now?” What do you believe Jesus was trying to say?
Paul: What an excellent question. I believe Jesus used this story to highlight the impossibility and the unprofitability of trying to time His return. To maintain our readiness, He said we should not focus directly on the when of His return, rather on the fact He has already come. In other words, we keep the door open for the Master best through our understanding that the Holy Spirit already resides in us! Therefore, our stewardship of time is composed in our celebration of what already is. We are new creations in Christ! Our clothing is the brightest as we recall our favored status as God’s children—those invited into, and participating in, an intimate moment-by-moment communion with the Lord of life.
That imaginary exchange was constructed from Paul’s teachings to the churches in Asia and in Rome.
Father, that we have been invited to a feast which you have prepared, where you will personally serve, is as blessed a circumstance as man will ever enjoy. Our anticipation causes our spirits to burn brighter. May you burn so brightly within us that this world will take notice and awaken to the grand reality that today is truly the day of salvation. Amen.
I watched A Thief In The Night as a wide-eyed baby Christian in 1976. The film opens with a woman awakened by an emergency radio broadcast. In her half sleep, she learns millions of people have vanished from the earth. When she realizes her husband is one of them, she sinks to the side of her bed as the reporter quotes Jesus: “Therefore, be on the alert—for you do not know when the master is coming…lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.”
This film affected me. After watching it I went on high alert! For a decade I fully expected Jesus to return at any moment. That might seem fanatical, but I believed, with Jesus, anything might happen. It was 1976 and the Jesus Movement and the Charismatic Renewal still had some momentum. It was as if Jesus, after failing in the mainline, had sent his servants out into the highways and byways and extended his banquet invitation to a multitude of unlikely characters, such as myself. It was an amazing time! People were being saved and transformed. To my impressionable eyes it looked like the promised harvest—the sovereign ingathering of souls that would occur just before Christ’s return. My bags were packed, but not that well.
In that season, large numbers of people were exchanging their religion for rebirth, coming into actual relationship with God. While Keith Green and his Last Days Ministries were sounding the alarm, many of us went to DEFCON 1, setting aside our vocations in order to labor in these fields so ripe for harvest. To the best of our ability, we were awake and about the Father’s business.
We were mistaken though about the timing of Christ’s return. So were the writers of the New Testament. I don’t regret this and I doubt if any of those New Testament saints did either. We were only wrong in one sense. In another more important one, we were right—in that we attempted obedience.
I thought I knew what Jesus meant when he said to “be on the alert.” I didn’t—at least not fully. I missed the spirit of the command because of an unhealthy fear that was undermining grace. Obeying God because you fear he might leave you behind is an inferior motivation for obedience. Fear exposes our unbelief in our Father’s competence to keep us. Fear creates an inordinate focus on personal holiness as a means of gaining God’s approval or blessing. Moving forward because you are being prodded from behind is not the same as moving forward because you are being drawn by His love.
Today, my bags are packed a bit differently. I’m ready to go, but I don’t have a clue when it will be. This is a better way to remain alert since scripture tells us neither the angels nor Jesus Himself knows at what time this will happen.
Father, whether You come today or thousands of days from now, may you find our hearts alert and secure in your love, busy loving you and those around us. Amen.
Job was the topic of the adult Sunday school class I was leading, and at least one attender was troubled over Job’s suffering. This rough terrain had not been plotted on their theological road map. The futility of Job’s life threatened the abundant Christian life as it had been explained to him. He proposed a solution: “Ignore Job.” He reasoned, “Since suffering and futility are minor themes in the Bible, we should discount the book of Job.” I almost fell over! I believed all scripture was inspired by God, and, from my reading, suffering seemed like a major theme. I reasoned, “Just because we are allergic to suffering, we are not exempt from its presence or relevance.”
Job is a man steeped in emotional and physical pain so intense he asked God to take his life. His only consolation was that, maybe, if God quickly answered his prayer, he could die before he cratered to the temptation of denying God. Have you ever been this distraught in your circumstances?
I think I may have a low TfS index (Tolerance for Suffering) because I felt like this in 1990, and my situation was a cakewalk compared to Job’s. None of my children had died and my skin was not falling off (yet). Here is a brief account of that season. I am telling my story because suffering is an experience we will all share. It cannot be otherwise in a world that, for a time, has been subjected to futility.
A host of problems, which had been gaining momentum, converged on me. Some were of my own making. Some were beyond my control. My arenas of suffering included: physical health, emotional-mental health, family relationships (almost all of them), a failing business, a collapsed vision of life and huge question marks about the future. Would I find a job? Would I have a wife? Would I have my health? My sanity? My faith? When I lay down, I could not sleep. My life had become a waking nightmare, and I had managed all this while following Jesus!
My beliefs, which I could not just off-load for convenience’s sake, instructed me that God knew all the details and that he was lovingly involved in all the circumstances of my life. Regardless of its origin, this implied there was a redemptive point to my suffering. I was to take comfort that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him. However, even in the presence of this beautiful truth, the pressure of those converging circumstances was threatening to crush me. I feared that I might suffocate. What was being squeezed out of me, though, were not “hallelujahs.” I wasn’t sure just how much more of God’s intimate attention and lovingkindness I could handle.
Job’s friends were there for me too. I met them face to face, on the radio and in books. They wholeheartedly offered me their patented council for pain relief. Options they presented were: 1) Deny God exists; relieve yourself of the burden of reconciling your miserable life with some fairy tale you’ve subscribed to; 2) Deny God is sovereign and intimately involved in your life; this way God’s reputation can at least be salvaged; His glory will not be tarnished by the debacle that is your life; 3) For God’s sake, swap theologies for a victorious one that offers a more comfortable track to ride on; 4) Repent more thoroughly of the hidden sins that are obviously attracting God’s judgment; 5) Have someone cast out the demons that have been assigned to destroy you and rob you of the abundant life; 6) Take the anti-depressants the doctor prescribes and see a mental health professional; 7) Sing and dance your way to victory as unto the Lord; 8) Pray more frequently (and violently) in your prayer language; 9) Deny your prayer language; it’s a psychological aberration anyway.
I came to a place in this season where my deepest conviction was…Christians are driving me crazy!
It felt very lonely, but I knew I could not ignore Job’s experience. If I did, I believed I would forfeit the encounter with God embedded in suffering. In trying to sidestep it, I would have been guilty of trading Paul’s “all things work together” for some entitlement-blessing theology that worked “all things out for me.” While it had its appeal, I believed I would have been swapping the eternal for the temporal, making a bargain I would regret.
I want to be honest for the sake of those who will come to this same spot on the map. While my scriptural logic might sound noble, there was no sense of heroic faith going on here. My attitude was appalling. I was losing it. Hoping against hope, I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other, all the while asking, “Why?” Fast forward 25 years…
It was not mastery of Bible truths that carried me through that period. It wasn’t any of the pat answers offered by pop-Christianity. As messy as it was, I simply trusted that God was a good Father and that He was in those storms with me. I was simply holding on by faith to a truth that I could not feel at all—that he loved me and because of that, good would come from this. Even today, I don’t know if it was an attack, a trial, a test, or all the above. While that remains a mystery, I do know that all those things have worked to my good as Paul promised they would.
If there is an epiphany to my story, it is that our greatest blessing is currently bound up in our greatest obstacles and heartaches. The train wrecks we entrust to Him are the situations in which we will one day meet him. When we rise from the ashes—and we will—we will speak with an authority that allows us to comfort others with the comfort with which we have been comforted.
Father, you are good. You are kind. You are sovereign. In the midst of our trials and tests we are tempted to think otherwise. Give us the grace to persevere and to overcome. Whether we are escorted around or through trying circumstances, be glorified as the world sees us falling more deeply in love with you, more yielded to the sovereign, mysterious paths You lead us on. Amen.
Behold, now is the acceptable time, behold now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2)
We get our word salvation from the Greek word sozo, which means “to rescue, deliver, heal, protect, preserve, to make whole, to do well.” When we think to ourselves or profess to others that we are saved, is this what we mean? Or, do we mean, “My sins have been forgiven; therefore, I have been saved from eternal punishment?”
Considering sozo’s larger meaning, the gospel is not just good news; it’s great news! One teacher I have followed teaches that salvation is the forgiveness of sins, the deliverance from oppression, and the healing of disease. Has he gone too far? Jesus’ provides us with His answer:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
We have not just been saved from a horrific end, but saved into a glorious now, into a kingdom of perpetual new beginnings. It should be normal, with minds that are being renewed, to regularly discover that being a new creation in Christ is a bigger deal than we had previously grasped.
Therefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (from 2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
I don’t fully know what “all these things” refers to, but I can easily imagine that being reconciled to God would include a renewed, sozo–sized salvation, which includes healing, deliverance and blessing.
Father, save us from our impoverished ideas of your kingdom. May we succeed as agents of the eternal life you entrusted to us. May your blood not be wasted upon us. May your Word return to You having accomplished that for which it was sent. Help us to align our hearts with Yours. Upgrade our expectations from then to now. Upgrade our experience from good to great. Succeed wildly in making Your appeal through us. Amen.
Some of us have been through rough stretches emotionally. I have gone through seasons where the Psalms were about all I could read. In those seasons, it was the Psalms that rang truest to me. The author’s gut honesty refreshed me. It’s a big deal to have Spirit-inspired writers giving permission, by way of their example, to be gut honest with myself, others, and with God. When I grasped this, my quiet times were not so quiet anymore.
There were two recurring questions that the new, more open Rob started asking. They were: “WHAT IS THE DEAL!!??” and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!??” Warning: If you pray like this in public, you will forfeit opportunities to lead out in corporate prayer. And further: if you aspire to pray publicly, shouting and weeping should be avoided at all times.
This psalmist’s days were filled with distress and illness. As he wept and withered away, he pleaded with God, “Hear my prayer! Let my cry for help come before You! Listen to me!” While the anguished writer has no sense of God’s personal attention, he refocuses his remaining energy on something he was more confident about. He seemed to reason, “Even if I may have fallen off God’s radar, certainly Israel, the object of His compassion, has not.”
In his emotional drift, it is as though gut honesty allows the Psalmist’s anchor to catch somewhere way down below the fickle emotional currents and lay hold of the firm reality of God’s goodness. From this place, he is then able to think, write and proclaim with new clarity and fresh authority.
A pastor friend asked me a few years ago why I thought businessmen did not attend his church, which happens to be ultra-positive and upbeat. I admired him for even asking the question. My response was simple: Life has never been perpetually upbeat and positive. I suggested his tone might seem shallow to the businessmen who rarely sees idealism prevail. It may have escaped my friend’s notice that businessmen and psalmists had this trait in common.
Emotionally speaking, my story has some messy chapters in it. Audience responses are interesting. The religious ask, “Brother, where is your victory?” Or, “Brother, what sin are you harboring that has caused you to have such a negative testimony?” Or, (a favorite) “Brother, why are you not in proper submission to authority (namely – a pastor)?” Regrettably, I now have an involuntary twitch when someone calls me “Brother.”
Then there were the hungry listeners, perhaps a bit poorer in spirit, who would breathe a sigh of relief as they heard someone being emotionally honest. They were relieved to know others, especially leaders, also had messy lives.
I do have an ultra-positive testimony but its not because God has exempted me from trying circumstances. My story is upbeat because He is with me in the midst of these circumstances and is leading me through them. I’ve noticed that at my friend’s church a testimony get’s more “amens” if one is delivered from something than if they are merely enduring that something. I’ve also noticed a great deal of pre-emptive religious energy devoted to making life work out (typically, in harmony with the American Dream). Calling this “ministry” is a wholesale disregard of the New Testament and the lives of its writers.
I recall one sermon where the preacher got transparent. With genuine fear and trembling, they confessed they had said a curse word after missing a free throw. The audience braced themselves as the curse word was spelled: “S-H-O-O-T.” My involuntary response to this scandal was, “Well *#! T, I am toast if this is how the score is being kept.”
In my defense, I had a grandmother who was apparently a sailor and a father who was a contractor. I’ve heard a few expletives. Consequently, a foul thesaurus remains in my operating software. I was genuinely proud I hadn’t verbally released my salty oath right there in the sanctuary. I don’t think I was alone in feeling that I would never clear the bar of holiness that had just been set. That may have been the glorious day I decided to quit jumping at all.
Transparency produces credibility and credibility is a root of authentic authority. This is one reason why I think pastors with professional smiles can have credibility problems with businessmen.
In my story, while brokenness has had its place, I no longer highlight it as my singular cross to bear or as the premier value of the Christian life. In my painful emotional drifts, also known as depression, I logged many raw hours in God’s presence, asking questions, often with bitter undertones. For the record, I got very few answers and zero apologies.
My anchor did finally catch, and a great deal of emotional stability was restored as well as a new spiritual vitality. Being emotionally honest is essential to having a personal relationship with God. People want to be led by those who have shared the trials and the pain they have known. Jesus was a man like us who suffered and was tempted just as we are. This qualifies him to lead. He is our safe place. In our transparency, we become safe spaces for others. The good news is God is using us messy, non-professional, Christ-dependent bricks to build his Church.
Father, thank you for giving us permission to be real. Show us how to move forward in being safe places for each other. Show us how to be the honest psalmists you desire, who worship you daily in spirit and truth. Help us to press on to know you through every emotional detour tempting us to think we are lost or unworthy. Deliver us from the evil of living by standards, which are at best, sad parodies of holiness. Amen.