Is God’s Love Unconditional?

The term ‘unconditional love’ seems to have only appeared fairly recently in human history and is, I think, a product of the modern liberal western mentality which is obsessed with such notions as loving oneself and of always being affirmed and never judged. Past generations didn’t use the term because they simply had no need to. Because they better understood what love is than do people today, the term simply wasn’t necessary. One just talked about love. But because the term is so becoming so increasingly widespread even amongst Christians, we do need to give it some thought. Indeed, a great many believers seem to be incapable of talking about God’s love without needing to be constantly emphasising that it’s unconditional. But is it, though? Is it biblically correct to speak in terms of God’s love being unconditional?

Think of it like this! A coin has two sides and not just one, and many things in life similarly have more that just one aspect to them. So if we talk about something that has various aspects as if it only had one, then although what we say may be true in so far as it goes, it won’t be the whole truth of the matter and will actually be misleading. This is happening more and more in regards to how Christians are increasingly defining God’s love, and the result is not only that they are deceiving themselves, they are also deceiving unbelievers through the unbiblical content of their so-called evangelism.

I concur that it is most certainly the case that love is unconditional; but to merely emphasise that aspect of it’s nature, but to not also represent the other side of the coin, is to completely misrepresent what it is, and to completely fail to properly define it. You can no more have unqualified unconditional love than you can have a one-sided coin. Love that is not unconditional could not be considered to be love, but neither could something be considered to be love which claims itself to be solely unconditional with no further qualification! One-sided coins simply don’t exist, and neither does a love which claims as the only aspect of its nature it’s unconditionality.

Think of parents raising their kids. Any parent worth their salt loves their children unconditionally; but precisely because they love them unconditionally they also, by very definition, desire their ultimate happiness and well-being. Good, decent and responsible parents instinctively know that in order to accomplish this the child must be taught right from wrong and good from bad, and that the parent must be ready, whenever necessary, to actually impose discipline on the child in order to bring about that end. Parents who care nothing about their children’s behaviour, whether it be good or bad, and who care nothing about their developing characters, whether their kids are nice or horrible, and then claim that their lack of concern is because they love their children unconditionally, would not just be extremely bad parents, they would also be talking complete nonsense. Doing whatever is necessary in order to ensure that their childrens’ behaviour is moving from bad to good, and from wrong to right, is one of the necessary evidences that parents do indeed love their children. To then add the (completely unnecessary) caveat that such parents also love their children unconditionally is simply another way of saying that they love their children. A good parent, by very definition, loves their child unconditionally at any and every point in their moral development, but precisely because they do love their children with such unconditional love, they also cannot help but want to see them continually improving in their human and moral development. The ‘other side of the coin’ of love being unconditional is, therefore, that love also seeks to improve, in whatever way it can, the condition and well-being of its object.

The reason that love is, by very definition, unconditional, and why it could never be said to be love otherwise, is because the only alternative would be that it had to be earned. It would need to be secured by ongoing acceptable performance. But of course such could never be said to be love! It is simply the gaining of favour through merit, which is an entirely different thing to being loved! Conversely, however, to claim to ‘love’ someone whilst doing nothing to bring about their improvement is equally a complete mockery. You might as well assure a starving beggar in the street that you love him unconditionally, and then add that precisely because your love for him is unconditional it doesn’t matter whether or not you give him some food. Such would be both a mockery and travesty of any notion of love!

I therefore put it to you that the reason so many Christians are increasingly putting such emphasis on God’s love being unconditional, and going so completely out of their way to assure people that He loves everyone ‘just the way they are’, is because they have been deceived by the prevalent over-emphasis on the unconditional aspect of the nature of love, and the idea that the behaviour of those who are its objects is irrelevant to that love. And what this does, however unintentionally, is to spread the falsehood that the fact that God loves people unconditionally means that He won’t ever judge and punish them. Such is, of course, exactly what unrepentant sinners love to hear! It is a ‘gospel’ of having all the benefits of there being a divine Creator, but a Creator who puts no moral requirements upon those He has created, and Who will never punish them for their rejection of Him! What more could unrepentant sinners want by way of a totally false gospel? All the sin and depravity you could possibly want – with God’s unconditional love thrown in! And it’s Christians who are actually encouraging unbelievers to think like this. But here’s the problem: no such God, and therefore no such gospel, actually exists!

Of course God loves unbelievers unconditionally! Of course He loves them just the way they are! If you don’t love someone just the way they are then that’s just another way of saying that you don’t actually love them. But that doesn’t change the fact that, at the Great White Throne Judgement, this God-Who-unconditionally-loves-everybody-just-the-way-they-are will nevertheless throw those who haven’t repented of their sins, and who haven’t put their trust in Him, into the Lake of Fire for all eternity. However discomfiting to the modern mindset it might be, being loved unconditionally by the God Who actually does exist will avail those who reject Him absolutely nothing. Those who reject Him, and who refuse to repent, will be eternally lost, and the fact that in His love for them He has provided a way of escape, yet a way of escape which they refused to take, will make not the slightest bit of difference to fact of their eternal damnation!

Precisely because of His love the Lord has done everything necessary in order to provide salvation for all, but in order to receive that salvation the sinner must repent and believe, and if they don’t, then eternal judgement is all that awaits them! And the reason the Lord won’t let such into Heaven, even though He does indeed love them unconditionally, is because, as we have seen, there is no such thing as a love which doesn’t seek the improvement of the one loved, and therefore no such thing as a love that can’t be rejected by its object. If someone refuses to be improved by the unconditional love of God (or of anyone else for that matter), then the fact that He does so love them makes no ultimate difference. In refusing to be improved by Him they put themselves beyond anything further He can do. Though loved beyond measure, those who refuse to surrender shut themselves out from that love, and are thereby lost in their sins for all eternity. Moreover, if they so disliked the idea of being morally improved by a righteous God in this life, then just think how much they would hate being in Heaven in the next, where that same holiness and righteousness will be utterly revealed and totally all-encompassing! Don’t get me wrong! I’m not suggesting that they won’t hate being in the Lake of Fire, they most certainly will, but as those to whom God granted their desire to not be morally improved by Him, and to not be set free from their sin, they would also hate being in Heaven, though for completely different reasons!

The notion of a God of love Who just ignores sin, and Who accepts everyone just as they are, and Who is too loving to ever judge or punish anyone, is a complete fantasy! In fact, it is the most ridiculous and full-blown nonsense! There could no more be a God-of-love-but-not-righteousness-and-justice than there could be a coin with only one side. Love is, as we have seen, most certainly unconditional, but unconditional love, precisely because it is love, can never disregard the moral condition of its object.

There are ramifications here for believers too, and they are profound! We need to understand – indeed, be greatly reassured – that, as God’s children, He doesn’t love us any more when we are being obedient and faithful, and neither does He love us any less when we are sinning and in disobedience. When we are being obedient and faithful He smiles on us, but when we are sinning and being disobedient to Him, He still smiles on us, but desires to also discipline us and deal with our rebellion. He will even, if necessary, turn away from us relationally until we properly respond so as to restore our fellowship with Him. I don’t mean that He might not let us into Heaven after all, of course not! The believer getting to Heaven depends solely upon Jesus’ death, and there is nothing that can undo that! No! What I mean is that if we have un-dealt with sin in our lives then we are kidding ourselves if we think He is listening to us any more. He isn’t!

“If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me!” That’s what scripture says!

When we are in unrepentant sin the Lord just patiently waits for us to come clean and get right with Him so He can restore our relationship with Him. In such a circumstance the only thing He is saying to us, irrespective of anything we say to Him is, “Come clean and repent of that sin! You must say you are sorry!” (I have even from time to time found myself desperately repenting of just about everything except the specific thing He is actually convicting me of. Funny old world, isn’t it?)

Married couples understand this principle only too well! A husband who is unkind or disrespectful to his wife before he goes to work can hardly expect his relationship with her to be as it ought to be when he gets home, until he has put things right with her and said the needed sorry. It’s not that he and his wife have stopped being married, but rather that sin has disrupted the relationship between them until things are put right! So even though God’s children, we can nevertheless still be out of fellowship with Him relationally should we harbour unrepentant sin in our lives.

Perhaps we could put it like this: The issue isn’t actually whether God loves us, it’s whether or not we love Him; and Jesus said, “If you love me you will obey my commands.” Being loved is irrelevant unless the one who is loved responds in kind!

So let’s be a bit careful then when we talk about love being unconditional. Let’s make sure that we never, even inadvertently, give unbelievers reason to think that God’s love for them means that He isn’t concerned with how they behave or with their moral condition. Our loving God, precisely because He is love, will one day judge the living and the dead, and unrepentant sinners who have never embraced His salvation will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. That they were loved by Him is ultimately irrelevant to their impending eternal damnation! Their problem is that they didn’t love Him, and therefore refused to obey Him. Any understanding of God’s love that doesn’t take this sobering fact into account is pure, unadulterated deception!

For us as believers though what matters is simply this: precisely because the Lord loves us just the way we are, He wants to also improve us so that we don’t stay just the way we are. He wants to mature us, and to move us forward in Him into ever greater fulness of the Spirit and holiness of life.

As scripture so simply and clearly says, “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.”

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Legalism and License: A Biblical Definition!

Definitions are crucial or no-one knows what you’re talking about. Humpty-Dumpty said that a word meant what he chose it to mean, neither more nor less, and his philosophy has increasingly caught on. So when it comes to teaching God’s Word it’s vital that we carefully define our terms in order to make crystal clear what we mean by the words we use. So I am going to periodically do some posts by way of defining, in biblical terms, various words and phrases that are used regarding the content of scripture and the Christian life. So let’s start with the terms legalism and license:

Legalism is when Christians require more of each other than the Bible does!

License is when Christians don’t require as much of each other as the Bible does!

Many believers are roundly in one camp or the other, but even those of us who try to get the balance right by staying out of both camps will tend to vacillate between the two. It is quite possible to be legalistic about some things whilst being licentious regarding others, so we must be careful not to let our guard down on this.

I therefore leave you with a couple of examples, after which you can run with the ball yourself:

  1. Any assertion that Christians must follow a particular diet regarding food and drink, or that it is wrong to watch Star Trek, would be examples of legalism.
  2. Any assertion that women can teach and/or be elders in a church, or that if believers’ marriages fail they are free to just go and find someone else to marry, are examples of license.

Wow! That was easy! More biblical definitions to come to come in due course!

 

Biblical Evangelism – Part 5

The final thing we must consider regarding biblical evangelism is that in the New Testament the apostles and the early church taught and practised that baptism was part of the actual conversion process. Throughout the New Testament evangelism consisted simply of the declaration to unbelievers that they should repent of their sins, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptised. That, and that alone, is the biblical gospel. And if you read the Acts of the Apostles you will find that, entirely consistent with that assertion, converts were baptised immediately upon profession of faith in the Lord.

Fundamentally, for two thousand years, the Christian Church has gotten baptism completely wrong, and two errors have dominated regarding it since the emergence of the false teachings of the Early Church Fathers. The first error is when baptism occurs when it shouldn’t (infant baptism), and secondly, when it doesn’t occur when it should; that is, when it is delayed after conversion for the purpose of any kind of baptismal preparation.

We must be clear that, if we go by scripture as opposed to unbiblical Christian tradition, baptism has nothing whatsoever to do with such things as whether your parents are existing church members and themselves baptised, or with joining a church, or with the ministrations of priests or church pastors, or with special church ‘services’ to inaugurate new converts into the Christian life. Absolutely not! None of those things have anything whatsoever to do with baptism! In the New Testament, whether someone was saved publicly in a crowd, or privately with hardly anyone else present, converts were baptised immediately upon profession of their repentance and faith and Jesus. No special meetings were required, and there was certainly no need for church leaders to be present for the purpose of presiding over proceedings and performing the baptism. Biblically, baptism was simply understood to be part of the conversion process. If you were with someone who had just believed in Jesus and gotten saved, then you baptised them as soon as possible – pure and simple!

I’m not suggesting that if someone believes on the Lord but doesn’t get baptised as part of that process they aren’t saved. Of course not! But I am saying that for two thousand years, as with evangelism in general – and many other things pertaining to our discipleship and church life – the Christian Church has followed the false teachings of mere men as opposed obeying the teaching of the New Testament. Or, to put it another way, whether it be evangelism, baptism, church life, or a myriad other things, the Christian Church continues, virtually monolithically,  to go against the teaching of scripture.

So let me summarise what we have seen in our consideration of biblical evangelism:

  1. Nowhere does scripture command that all believers are to engage in proactive evangelism.
  2. Nowhere does the New Testament instruct us to pray for the salvation of unbelievers.
  3. There is not one example in the entire New Testament of an evangelistic declaration that includes the proclamation of God’s love to unbelievers.
  4. The gospel message is the communication of the fact that God’s wrath abides on unbelievers, and that they are commanded to repent, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptised. By so doing they will receive forgiveness of their sins, the free gift of salvation and eternal life.
  5. The New Testament teaches that baptism is part of the conversion process and that converts should therefore be baptised immediately upon repentance and profession of faith in the Lord. There is no biblical requirement for the presence of church leaders, neither for special church ‘meetings’ during which baptisms are performed. Whether the evangelism had taken place in a public or private setting, the early church baptised converts immediately simply upon their profession of faith.

I do appreciate how unnerving and mind-blowing all this is, but hey, don’t blame me for the fact that the Christian Church is in so much serious error and continues to go against the Bible so much. As an Ephesian 4 pastor-teacher I am mandated by the Lord to teach what scripture says and to refute error, and I must therefore expose the unbiblical and man-originated doctrines and traditions that most other Christian leaders teach, and to which most Christians resultantly adhere. But let me end with this: If you disagree with what I have said and want to counter it in any way, then I think that’s great! Indeed, I positively welcome it! Please feel absolutely free to challenge what I have said and to correct me all you will! (Indeed, feel absolutely free to challenge anything I have ever taught anywhere!) But here’s the deal! You must do so from the text of scripture itself and not on any other basis. You are free to fire all the unscriptural theology, personal opinions and so-called ‘prophetic’ declarations at me you want, but be warned that I will only take notice of arguments and reasonings that are formulated from the text of scripture itself. I have no desire to upset or offend anyone, but when it comes to issues of doctrine, ethics and practise, I only accept as authoritative the teaching of scripture itself.

 

Biblical Evangelism – Part 4

It is nothing short of unbelievable just how much the Christian Church has got wrong when it comes to evangelism and mission. As if we haven’t seen enough that needs to be corrected already there is nevertheless more to come. And it’s not minor stuff either, because we have now got to address the fact that the very content of the gospel message that normatively goes out is,  yes you’ve guessed it, significantly unbiblical! Please underline this next point three times in red ink: Nowhere in the New Testament is there the slightest indication that the early church preached to unbelievers that God loved them.

The biblical gospel is that men and women are under God’s judgement as sinners, and are commanded by Him to repent, believe in Jesus and be baptised. In so doing they are forgiven their sins and brought into eternal life. It is not that God loves them! Indeed, in the New Testament it was only when someone had been saved that they were then schooled in an understanding of the Lord’s great love for them. Nowhere was God’s love included in the content of the evangelism of the apostles and New Testament believers. The closest thing we have in scripture to what we might think of as a manual of evangelism, a how-to-do-evangelism-type piece of literature, so to speak, is the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, in which the story of the evangelistic mission of the apostles, and then of their converts, is graphically presented. Understand, however, and this is so important to grasp, that the word ‘love’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the whole book.

If the evangelistic message for unbelievers is, even partially, that God loves them, then the apostles of Jesus, plus the entire early church, were apparently completely unaware of it. Repentance toward God, faith in Jesus and baptism is what they preached, pure and simple. Notice too that when it came to methodology there was nothing that even closely resembled what we would today think of as an ‘evangelistic rally.’ There was preaching to crowds, certainly, but organised evangelistic events, and so-called evangelistic crusades, nowhere featured in scripture as part of their strategy. And if someone responds by saying that such evangelistic crusades are just the best way to do evangelism today, and are just our equivalent of what the early church did then, then answer me this: why do such rallies and crusades revolve around stirring music, whether of choirs or rock bands, and why dies it all lead up to the total biblical travesty of the practice of the altar call, or ‘appeal’ as some call it. The closest thing to anything like that in scripture was that on the day of pentecost Peter was actually interrupted by folk who were so convicted of sin that they didn’t even want him to finish preaching. They just wanted to get baptised, there and then, and be saved from their sins.

The choirs and the rock bands and the music, along with the carefully staged altar calls, are really about one thing and one thing only, the manipulation of people’s emotions. Hence all the unbiblical evangelistic preaching about God’s love for sinners. In stark contrast, New Testament evangelism never aimed at the emotions, but rather the will and conscience. Biblical evangelism has as its aim causing sinners to feel bad about themselves, not good! People may get genuinely emotional as a result of hearing the truth gospel, and that isn’t a problem as long as it is the genuine gospel being proclaimed, but that isn’t what it is trying to achieve.

One of the things that really does stand out in the pages of the New Testament, and which is so totally different to the whole ‘seeker-sensitive’ nonsense of todays so-called evangelicalism, is that both Jesus and the early church made it difficult to become a believer, not easy! Much of the evangelism we see today is designed to get people saved no matter what, but the very opposite is the case in scripture. Jesus would warn people who expressed a desire to follow Him that it might mean they would end up homeless like Him. The stories He told illustrating the importance of counting the cost of following Him are salutary here. Whether it be assessing whether or not one can afford to build a tower, or deciding whether one has the necessary resources to win a war against an enemy invader, the cost has to be first be thoroughly taken into account. Far from assuring potential converts that following Him would be all blessing (by which most Christians mean mean the pleasant things in life which make one smile) Jesus told them up-front that it would mean that they would be hated and persecuted, often even by one’s own family, and that potential converts would need to hate their lives so as to come to know His instead. I gotta tell you, not very much of this features in most so-called evangelism going on today.

One further example of this! We have already seen that, biblically speaking, church gatherings are for believers and not unbelievers, but Paul does instruct how to proceed should, for whatever reason, unbelievers ever be present. And what he says in 1 Corinthians is that the result of them being present should be that the secrets of their heart are revealed, thus causing them to be convicted of sin, repent and fall on their faces before God. It is unnerving but clear, whichever part of scripture we turn to regarding unbelievers and evangelism, it is always the command to repentance being put to them and not any kind of proclamation of God’s love for them.

Crumbs, that’s got to be it now…surely! Surely there can’t be anything else biblically wrong with how Christians evangelise, can there? Well yes, there’s one more thing we must yet cover…and it’s absolutely major! I’ll see you bright and early in the morning then!

Biblical Evangelism – Part 3

One of the problems that results from Christians believing things that aren’t found in the pages of scripture, yet whilst assuming that what they believe is scriptural, is that when they meet folk who are actually biblical in their thinking they assume that they are the ones who aren’t being biblical. Let me give you an example!

Although most churches are set up and function pretty much the complete opposite to what we see in the New Testament, Christians in such unbiblical churches nevertheless assume that their unbiblical churches are biblical and as scripture teaches. Therefore, when they meet a believer who is part of a church that is actually set up, and which does actually function like the New Testament churches, they correctly realise that it’s the opposite of their experience of what a church ought to be like, but completely incorrectly assume it to be in error and therefore don’t recognise it as even being a church. Indeed, I have faced this argument on more than one occasion from church leaders who have sought to discredit me in some way. Because I am part of a church which is set up like the churches in the New Testament we are therefore completely different to the churches my detractors are part of. Therefore, because these leaders of unbiblical churches don’t recognise us as even being a church, they accuse me of being churchless. Not being part of a church is then presented as the evidence that I have gone rogue and am spiritually deviant, and that I should not, therefore, be listened to.

But of course the fact remains that I am, and always have been, part of a church, just as are those who claim that I am not. But of course it’s just that I’m not part of a church as far as those who think un-biblically about church are concerned! Because they don’t realise that they aren’t thinking biblically about the subject, they are therefore convinced that anyone who is part of a biblically set up church isn’t actually part of a church! Whatever we are part of, these folk claim, it isn’t a church! Can you see the problem?

So in similar vein there may well be those among my readers who now think I don’t believe in evangelism, just as there are Christians in ‘them thar hills’ who don’t believe I am part of a church. So let me make quite clear, notwithstanding what I have said about evangelism and praying for unbelievers, that I do most certainly believe in evangelism, but in evangelism as biblically understood! Nothing could be further from the truth than any suggestion that I don’t believe in, or that I in any way downplay, evangelism!

Indeed, for those who are called to proactively evangelise, and who therefore have the gift of being an evangelist (or apostle), I actually believe that they ought to pursue their calling downright obsessively. What, I ask, outside of being a godly husband and father, could be more important to them? (Indeed, I am convinced that there are those who are called to evangelism whilst still single who will be required to forego marriage, and especially if their gifting is that of being an apostle, with the almost constant travelling involved, precisely so they can be sufficiently obsessed and not have a wife and children distracting them. My own calling is that of the Ephesian 4 pastor/teacher – I am obviously using the word ‘pastor’ here in it’s biblical sense and not meaning the commonly used unbiblical definition – and I think it probably safe to say that I’m more than a little bit obsessed myself. Present me with the slightest opportunity to show folk what the Bible teaches, and/or to pastorally help them grow in the Lord, and I positively guarantee that I will dive in with both feet, hook, line and sinker, all guns blazing and with even a faintly maniacal look in my eye. So yeah, I’m obsessed with my calling, and I expect evangelists and apostles to be obsessed with theirs. But it would be nothing short of ridiculous for either me or them to expect Christians who don’t have the same calling to be similarly occupied or equally exercised as we are.

Returning to evangelists, though, this is not to say that they don’t have a role to play in regards to the saints! They most certainly do! And that role, as Ephesians 4 makes clear, is to encourage and carry those believers along with them who don’t have the gift of evangelism themselves, and get them caught up, so to speak, in the wake of their enthusiasm and evangelistic endeavours. This must, however, be entirely voluntary on the part of the non-evangelists, and must occur at the Spirit’s leading without any pressure being put on them. Remember, there is no command in scripture for non-evangelistically-gifted believers to proactively evangelise. But the beauty of having apostles and/or evangelists around is that they will create all kinds of circumstances in which non-evangelistically-gifted believers can get to do a good bit of responsive witnessing which they wouldn’t have otherwise had opportunity for, due to the apostle/evangelist creating those opportunities for them.

Similarly, pastor-teachers like me will always be looking out for younger men to encourage and mentor, just as Paul encouraged Timothy in his calling and then exhorted him to likewise encourage others by way of passing on his function and gifting to them. But in the process of such Ephesian 4 ministries equipping the saints at large and passing on their gifting to others, we must ensure that we keep ever in mind the vital truth that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are apportioned differently to each according to the Lord’s will, and not all are going to have the same gifts.

So here’s the deal; I’ll be obsessed with my calling from the Lord and you be obsessed with yours. We will thereby complement each other and labour together seamlessly in the vineyard, whether by planting or watering, as the Spirit directs and enables. Biblical ministries must never be thought of as being in competition with each other, and we must never ‘play them off’ against against each other as if to suggest that one is more important than another.

In this whole matter of evangelism and making disciples we must start learning to function properly, by which I mean biblically! We need to stop messing it all up by continuing to do things according to unbiblical Christian tradition – which so few believers seem willing to question and challenge – and to function instead purely in accordance with God’s Word.

More tomorrow, same time, same channel! Be there or be square!

 

Biblical Evangelism – Part 2

We established yesterday that nowhere does scripture teach the commonly held belief that every believer is required by the Lord to be engaged in proactively evangelising the lost. We saw that all believers are bound by scripture to be ready to give an account of their faith whenever called upon by unbelievers so to do, but the idea that all Christians ought to be proactively evangelising is, biblically speaking, a fallacy. But there is quite a bit more to be said about this, and some of it might just blow your socks off!

Part of the package of our commonly held obsession with all things evangelistic and missional is the accompanying idea that Christians should make a priority of praying for the salvation of the lost. Prepare, then, for a bombshell! In over 45 years of reading and studying the New Testament, and in some considerable detail too, I have yet to find a single verse that explicitly or categorically states that Christians ought to pray for the salvation of unbelievers. Paul exhorts Timothy that there ought to be prayer for governmental authority, and there’s little doubt that the leaders he had in mind would have been mostly unbelievers; but the object of the prayer he instructs Timothy to be praying was nothing to do with their personal salvation; indeed, it was nothing to do with them personally as individuals at all, but pertained solely to their political role in the maintenance and continuance of social harmony.

I Timothy 2:1-2 – “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

So where, I ask, are all the verses in the New Testament that teach that prayer for the salvation of the lost should be part of a believers prayer life? (Answers on a post card please!) Amazing, isn’t it? Yesterday we saw that there are no verses in the New Testament teaching that every Christian should proactively evangelise, and now this morning no verses instructing us to pray for the salvation of the lost! Wow! What on earth is going on? Well, I think it’s this:

If we claim that scripture, and scripture alone, is our authority in matters of faith and doctrine, and that the Bible is the inspired and infallible Word of God given precisely in order that our thinking becomes increasingly conformed to it, then we would expect as the years go by that, more and more, the way we think, and the the way we talk, would more and more comprehensively echo what we read in its pages. For example; although it is sadly changing now, throughout church history Christians have said an awful lot about the importance of celibacy outside of marriage and of the necessity for sexual fidelity within it. This doesn’t mean, of course, that Christians throughout church history have always been right about everything, sexual ethics included, but when we turn to the pages of the New Testament regarding that particular subject we do indeed see such thinking plastered all over its pages. Wherever you are in your Bible reading you will never have to read much further in the New Testament before you get to clear and categoric teaching regarding the command of celibacy outside of marriage and sexual fidelity within it. So what I am saying is that should we find ourselves thinking in particular ways about particular things, but then discover that such ideas and/or emphases are not actually present in the pages of scripture, then it should alert us to the fact that something is clearly wrong.

And I have to tell you that wherever you currently are in your reading of the New Testament, not only would you have to read an awful lot further through its pages in order to find instruction and exhortation that all believers are to proactively evangelise and to pray for the salvation of the lost, you will actually not get to any such verses at all no matter how far you read on or how many times you then re-read it! Such statements, teachings and instructions are simply not there! However incredible this seems to us, they don’t actually exist! So when we find ourselves putting great emphasis on things concerning which scripture is virtually silent, then something is obviously very, very wrong. And I gotta tell you, it isn’t the New Testament!

But perhaps I ought to answer a question here that you might be asking yourself, and it’s simply this: Do I ever pray for people’s salvation? And the answer is, “Yes! I most certainly do! Indeed, I pray on a regular basis for the salvation of quite a few folk the Lord has put on my heart, principally, but not exclusively, my remaining unsaved relatives!” But why, I hear you ask? Why would I do that in the light of what I have just written? Well, I do it because there are verses in the Bible that exhort me to make my requests made known to God, and which therefore suggest that I should be imploring him concerning the desires of my heart. Therefore, because I obviously want these folk to be saved, and because, just as I tell Belinda everything (and Bethany most things), I will obviously also tell my Lord and Saviour of my desire for the salvation of those folk too!

But of course this doesn’t change the fact that the completely unscriptural idea that people’s eternal salvation somehow depends on Christians praying for them still needs to be countered. Think about it: If someone’s salvation is a matter of divine election, then praying for them to be saved isn’t going to change anything regarding whether God has elected them or not! Conversely, if salvation is based not on God’s choice as to whether or not someone is saved, but rather on the free-will choice of the individual, then what on earth is prayer for their salvation going to achieve? Answer: Absolutely nothing! If you believe your prayer effects a change of their mind regarding salvation, then that is just another way of saying you don’t believe they have free-will; yet scripture makes clear that God holds people both responsible and accountable for their behaviour. So actually, whether you are in the predestination/election camp or the free will camp, neither allow for the assertion that prayer for someone’s salvation is either necessary or effectual! Whether the driving force in salvation is God’s will or the sinners will, any idea that prayer could change either cancels out any idea of free volition, whether divine or human! Even the Lord can’t make a four-sided triangle, or do anything whereby the concept is itself anti-rational! So too with any notion of praying for people’s salvation. Crazy, eh?

So however bewildering this might be – and it sure bewilders me – we must nevertheless still be aware of it! But hey, did we ever think but for one moment that the truth of the Lord of Glory wouldn’t utterly bewilder us? And often too! Believing things the Bible doesn’t teach won’t help us any more than not believing things that it does! If it’s the truth which sets us free, and it most certainly is because that’s what Jesus said, then believing anything which isn’t true will, conversely, land us up in bondage in some way.

We will continue other aspects of this tomorrow, so come back then! Go on, I dare you!

Biblical Evangelism – Part 1

I think that most believers would share my understanding that the Church of Jesus Christ breaks down into various divisions, layers and component parts. There is what theologians like to term the Church Universal, by which they mean all believers throughout time, including the future. Then would come the Church Militant, by which is meant all believers alive at any given moment. Then would come the sub-divisions of the church of a nation, then the church of a city or geographical area…and so on and so forth!

However, whereas these are indeed all biblical aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ as viewed from what we might term its cosmic and corporate aspect, it is nevertheless vital to understand that the New Testament writings, and especially the letters to churches, are concerned not primarily with the cosmic, global or national aspects of the Christian Church, but with the smallest component of all; that is, the individual and specific church each individual believer was required to be an actual part of, and which met in believers homes! Indeed, it is to such churches, and such churches alone (no other type then existed), that the New Testament letters were mostly sent, whether to individual ones or to multiple churches far and wide.

Every believer is, of course, a de facto part of the Church Universal, the Church Militant, the Church National and the church of a whole geographical area, but every believer is most not necessarily part of any given individual and specific church. In the light of these important distinctions there are therefore things that can rightly be said of ‘church’ from the cosmic/global/national/geographic point of view, but which would be nonsensical if applied to individual and specific churches. For example, every Christian in England is, by very definition, part of the church Universal, the Church Militant and the Church National, and it can therefore be said that there is, ultimately, just one church in England; but it would be both ridiculous, as well as sinfully divisive, should any specific and particular church in England claim that it is itself the only church. Nationally there is indeed but one church of Jesus Christ in England, but it is made up of a myriad of individual and specific churches. And of course it is this subdivision of specific and individual churches that gives credence to the fact that whereas all believers are, by definition, part of the Church of Jesus Christ cosmically, globally and nationally etc, it can nevertheless still be said of believers who not be part of an individual and particular church that they are churchless!

It is therefore quite obviously the case that, from the cosmic, global and national point of view, by which I mean the corporate aspect of the Church of Jesus Christ as viewed from God’s perspective, is the means of the gospel being spread throughout the world. It is, in todays common theological jargon, missional! To say that the primary function of the Church of Jesus Christ is to spread the gospel is to make a fully biblical statement. Indeed, as someone once said, in this sense the church exists for mission as a flame exists for burning. However, if one were to say that such is therefore also the case for individual and specific churches, then that statement would be actually completely unbiblical! The thing to be grasped here is the fundamental difference between the Church of Jesus Christ as a cosmic entity and universal manifestation of the Lord, and the individual and specific churches of which every believer is, biblically, supposed to be a part.

When it comes to understanding church life in this context of individual and specific churches, it is vitally important to grasp that the writers of the New Testament never teach, or even suggest, that the function of such churches is to evangelise. Indeed, not only does scripture never suggest that the function of a specific and individual church is evangelism/mission, it rather, in complete contrast, states quite blatantly that an individual and specific church exists solely for the purpose of the building up and spiritual growth of those who are part of it, existing therefore purely for the benefit of those who are already believers. A church and its gatherings are for the purpose of edifying the saints, not evangelism! Individual and specific churches exist to spiritually nurture and build up those Christians who comprise them, pure and simple! Biblically, a church is simply an extended family of God’s people, and families exist for no other ultimate reason than to provide love and nurture for those who are part of the family. A husband and wife love and care for each other! Simple as that! Job done! If they have children then they love and care for them also, raising them in the Lord and preparing them to follow Him as adults, thus repeating the process all over again. But of course, this doesn’t mean that family life is only insular and only about the family members who comprise it. No! As a result of the love and nurture received in family life, each member of that family is enabled to be who they are meant to be outside of the family, being thus enabled to become a better citizen of the wider society in which they live.

And so also with being part of a church. Each believer is, biblically, required to be part of a particular and specific church such as described in the New Testament in order that, as part of that extended family of God’s people, they are nurtured, cared for, held to account and brought into increasing maturity in the Lord. And of course part of that growth is that they in turn learn to provide such care and nurture for everyone else in that church, thus growing in becoming a carer as opposed to merely someone who is just cared for. As with a nuclear family, it is a caring and nurturing thing. Neither nuclear families nor churches exists for any other reason than to provide nurture for those individuals who comprise them. However, as a result of such nurture, each believer in a particular and specific church is thereby spiritually built up and enabled to discover their gifting, function and calling to those unbelievers outside the church, by way of sharing the gospel and doing good works in the world. This is where mission belongs, outside of church life and not as part of it!

Though so very clear in scripture, this is nevertheless sadly and disastrously misunderstood and misapplied by most Christians. As a result, and completely ironically, such misunderstanding actually prevents churches being what they are meant to be, and actually stops them from doing what they are meant to do. The New Testament teaches that evangelism and doing good works in the world (two sides of the same missional coin) are not functions of a church, but rather the function of those believers who comprise a church, and are what they do outside of church life. Get this wrong and a church becomes a dysfunctional church, just as nuclear families can become dysfunctional families.

When we look at the letters to New Testament churches there is something quite amazing that stands out that virtually never has any attention down to it. What we hear today, even from many house churches, is the virtually monolithic challenge to the effect that churches, and therefore Christians, ought to be ‘missional.’ “What’s your vision for evangelism?” “How many churches are you committed to planting in the next year?” “How many folk have you witnessed to this week?” Such is what believers are subjected to again and again and again and again! But when we turn to the pages of the New Testament the simple, and completely amazing, fact is not merely how little of such talk and exhortation we find, but rather that there is none of it at all! At no point does any writer of scripture to a New Testament church in any way suggest that those they are writing to should have a vision, strategy or plan for evangelism. Nowhere does any New Testament writer state, or even suggest, that every believer should be in some way proactively engaged in evangelistic pursuits! The closest thing to any such thought is Peter’s exhortation that his readers be ready to give an answer for the hope they have within them, but of course that is an exhortation to a responsive communication of the gospel when asked, and not an instruction to proactive evangelism.

In the New Testament the way evangelism worked was that apostles and evangelists simply got out amongst unbelievers and preached the gospel. They didn’t drag churches around with them, or try to pressure others into joining them by teaching that everyone else was meant to be doing it too. Quite the contrary! Apostles and evangelists evangelised, and then they either started new churches or fed the new believers into existing ones, so as to be cared for and nurtured spiritually. Those Christians who weren’t apostles or evangelists, and most weren’t, just got on with their daily lives shining like a light for the Lord doing good works in the world; and when those around them asked why they were so different they would simply share the gospel in response as enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Question: What is the strategy for evangelism in the New Testament? Answer: Hardly any at all! But what little there is comprises of apostles (the Ephesian 4 gift of proactive evangelism combined with the Ephesian 4 gift of pastor/teacher) and evangelists (the gift of just evangelism) proactively evangelising, and believers who don’t have such gifts, and most don’t, living quietly and minding their own business, just as the New Testament letters teach, yet being ready to give a response to any who ask them concerning their faith and godly way of life.

Conclusion: It is not the function of individual and specific churches to engage in mission, and church life is actually damaged when such an understanding prevails. Further, it is completely unbiblical, to say nothing of actually unfair and oppressive, to put pressure on believers who are not apostles or evangelists by teaching that they should be taking part in proactive evangelism even if they are not at peace about so doing. The role of believers who are neither apostles nor evangelists is to simply live godly in Christ Jesus, be part of whichever individual and specific church the Lord has put them in, and to support and encourage anyone in that church, or in any other church that they know, who has an Ephesian 4 gifting, be it that of apostle, evangelist, prophet or pastor/teacher.

More to follow in the morning!