Once again

Over the last year, I have mentioned through a variety of means how God has been bringing some new things to light for me, theological things which have really taken me deeper into who God is, His character and nature, and how He operates.  

It has happened once again this morning.

I have mentioned before how I have been translating the passages from which I have been preaching.  I am currently preaching from Paul’s letter to the Galatian believers.  As I translated and have been poring over the text, God, through His Spirit has been revealing what I consider deeper truths than I have ever before realized, truths that have huge implications for me theologically, spiritually, and practically.

This morning, I was “minding” my own business as I was studying the passage for this coming Sunday’s sermon (Galatians 2:15-21).  Once again, I was hit with Paul’s words about whose faith it is that makes the justification of a person possible. Paul says,

“15We by nature are Jews and not sinners like the Gentiles; 16but knowing that a man is not justified from works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ, even we believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by means of the faith of Christ and not by means of the works of the law, because by works of law will no flesh be justified.”

The faith/faithfulness that brings justification (makes salvation possible) is not mine, but Christ’s.  I read one commentator who even said that it wasn’t until into the 1800’s that the translation of this passage was changed in some translations from “of Christ” to “in Christ.”  That change makes the faith which originates in me the basis for justification.  How can my faith, since I’m dead through the law and sin and have demonstrated myself to be faithless before God, do that?  It cannot.  This cannot be talking about my faith “in Christ” but rather the faith of the only One who is found faithful, Christ.

That got me thinking about other passages that have been used in my growing up years to teach me about salvation and faith, much, if not all, of which was based upon faith that originates in me and what I do in order to become saved.  Let’s take a look at some of them.

Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

This is a passage familiar to many Christians.  The question is this – from where does the faith through which I have been saved originate?  Paul is very clear that this faith is what is God’s gift to me.

Romans 10:9-10: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

Once again, this is a familiar passage.  Somehow, I had also been of the mindset that once a person confessed and believed, it was then that the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the person.  Based upon two other passages of Paul’s that bring a deeper understanding to these words, I now believe that is incorrect and improperly placed an emphasis on what the person did to achieve justification/salvation (and wouldn’t that this then be a type of “work” on my part?).  

First passage – I Corinthians 12:3: “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”  One cannot confess with his/her mouth that Jesus is Lord without first being enabled to do so by the Holy Spirit.

Second passage – I Corinthians 2:12-14: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”  A person cannot believe in his heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead without it first being revealed to us by the Spirit because this belief is in an event which is of a spiritual nature.

The evidence of this reality within me is found in the Holy Spirit’s nature, God’s nature, emanating from me because that nature has been placed in me and it becomes the nature by which I am known.  Just like a person who didn’t know what an apple tree looked like but knew what an apple looked like could go out into an orchard of different trees and recognize an apple tree when s/he saw apples hanging from the tree, I am recognized as a follower of Jesus because the reality of the presence of the Spirit’s nature in me is seen as the fruit of the Spirit which are God’s characteristics and nature “hangs from my limbs.”

I guess what all this boils down to is this: I am becoming to a deeper realization of how little I have to do with this whole justification/salvation process.  Therefore, that means that I have absolutely zero right to view myself as somehow better or more deserving of God’s love, justification and salvation.

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The Parable of the Apple Tree

When Abe, a very young apple tree, was planted in the orchard among other apple and other fruit-bearing trees, he aspired to become a great fruit-producing tree.  Since he was so young, he didn’t grow any fruit for a few years and that gave him time to observe the other trees in the orchard and to think about his own fruit-producing future.  He watched fellow apple trees grow apples and peach trees grow peaches and pear trees grow pears.  

Now Abe, who aspired to be a great tree, decided that what it meant to be a great fruit-producing tree was to be able to produce all different kinds of fruit: apples one season, pears another, peaches the one after that, and so on.  

He mentioned this to Abel, the oldest apple tree in the orchard.  

He said to Abel, “If I work hard enough, I believe that I will be able to grow different types of fruit because growing apples just isn’t enough for me.

Abel responded, “So, you think if you work hard enough, you can become something that is not in your nature to be?”

Abe exclaimed, “Absolutely!  I believe I can do it.”

Able, with sadness in his voice, said, “Why don’t you come back and talk with me in 20 years and let me know how this turns out.”

Abe said, “I will do that and I will amaze you!”

Over the next 20 years, try as he might, Abe just couldn’t grow anything but apples.  It didn’t matter how hard he worked at it or devised ways and schemes to grow something other than apples; what appeared from his branches were always apples.  Oh sure, there were some years that he thought that he had done it when he looked at the blossoms on his branches; he thought they looked different that year.  But, eventually, what began to grow was always apples.

After 20 years, Abe went back to Abel.

Abel asked him, “So, how’d it go in your attempt to grow something other than apples?”

Abe answered, “No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t grow anything but apples.  I mean, I even devised rules and regulations that governed how I took in water and sunlight.  I set a rigid performance agenda that I thought would allow me to grow peaches or pears, but it didn’t matter.  Even when I thought it was working, in the end, I still fell short of my goal of growing peaches or pears and ended up growing apples.  Why did I fail?  I feel so guilty.”

Abel, in all his wisdom as a very old apple tree, said to Abe, “You could only grow apples because it is in your nature to grow apples, just like it is in the peach or pear tree’s nature to grow peaches or pears.  It doesn’t matter what type of rules or regulations you try to follow or rigid performance schedule you put in place, eventually what is in your nature is what you will do.  Unless you change what type of tree you are, you will always grow apples, no matter what.  If what is inside isn’t changed, no set of rules, regulations or rigid performance schedule will make a difference.  And when it is what’s inside that is changed, no manner of rules, regulations or rigid performance schedule will be necessary.”

This parable speaks to how there have been subtle attempts to make changes to the pure and true gospel to make it become a performance based thing with strict rules of living and behavior.  The problem is that rules governing behavior mean nothing if the nature is not changed, and if the nature has been changed, these rules are not needed in the first place!

When one is brought into Christ and Christ comes into him/her, that person’s nature changes from that of the sinful nature to that of the Spirit.  Now, the sinful nature still resides in that person, but the dominant nature is that of the Spirit.  As the person grows in the Spirit, the fruit produced by the Spirit’s nature becomes stronger, better, and sweeter and the norm for the person and the sinful nature becomes less and less a part of us.  

The way to determine the quality of the fruit and the level of dominance of the Spirit’s nature within us is to examine what are our initial reactions to different life situations.  Do our initial thoughts, words and reactions demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness and self-control?  Or do they demonstrate something else?  This is how we can determine the quality level of the fruit of the Spirit’s nature within us.

How does God improve the quality of the fruit?  First of all, notice that it is God who does this.  It is not something we can in our own power and effort do.  God accomplishes this through allowing us to encounter situations in which the fruit of the Spirit’s nature will be grown.  He will put us in situations where patience is necessary.  He will put us in situations in which love must be present even though it is an enemy.  He will allow us to encounter a situation where we realize more clearly that we can have joy no matter what because our joy is found in Him and His presence, not in our circumstances.

It has been, sadly and unfortunately so, way too often and common in Christianity that the focus has been squarely placed upon a set of rules, regulations, and performance schedules instead of where it should be which is the nature inside a person.  Adherence to these rules, regulations, and performance schedules have then been used to determine how mature of a Christian one is or even whether or not one is truly a follower of Christ.

This is not the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ as was revealed to Paul for this is type of gospel is not truly good news, but rather is just a repackaging of the old way as found in Judaism and adherence to the Mosaic Law.

May our focus be on the operative nature inside us and on the process God uses to increase to level of quality of our fruit.