Tuesday, 8 May 2012

To be or not to be, saved. (Part 3)

By reading these last three parables in Matthew, the ten virgins, the parable of the talents and the sheep and the goats, as teaching, rather than as parable, led to me believing that behaviour could affect salvation.  As I am now a true believer in saved by grace, I have found these parables quite difficult to understand and have appreciated Robert Capon’s book, the judgement parables of Jesus, to assist in understanding these parables, in light of ‘belief’ being the sole principle of salvation.
To save repeating what he says I’ll summarise by saying that the common theme that exists in quite a few, and including these three parables, is one of inclusion.  The ten lamp carrying virgins are invited to attend the wedding, all the guests at the wedding have been invited, even the one in the scruffy clothes, all the weeds and wheat have been allowed to grow together, all the workers are employed, and even the sheep and goats arrive together.  Reading these parables there is a definite theme of; everybody is already ‘in’ and then something happens that then leads to exclusion.  We will certainly find it acceptable that Jesus died for everybody, belief that nobody is excluded by God.  Grace means that anybody can be saved and everybody can be invited.  They are presently in the outer darkness and we invite them into the light.  However this is not the inference here, in these parables everybody is already included, the ten virgins are already attending the wedding, the workers are already employed, the nations referred to as sheep and goats arrive together.   
So in understanding these parables an acceptance that we start with inclusion seems important because it will help us to believe that our starting point with salvation is this; I have been included in Christ’s death and resurrection, I have already been fully accepted by God, I have been already reconciled to God.  Now do I believe that inclusion?  By faith do I accept the inclusion and if this is the basis for my salvation then I can’t really be excluded by bad behaviour or included for good behaviour because it has already been done for me by Jesus.  Perhaps this would change our evangelism, not just our own Hokey-Cokey salvation.  If we thought the person in front of us was already included but had no idea, no belief, no faith in that inclusion and we spent time encouraging them to believe rather than telling them about their sin, would we be more ‘successful’ in our evangelism?  Telling them the good news of a gospel of grace, the good news of reconciliation, rather than the gospel of repentance to acceptance, sounds more like the gospel Paul preached.
Before we start screaming about universalism, the parables are pretty clear that there is still an ‘out’ for those that have no faith, no belief, no relationship.  Jesus is the door and it is open and will stay open for all.  The door does not slam because we have behaved badly.  I certainly used to believe that the parable of the ten virgins was all about ensuring you were ready for when the bridge-groom came, watch as you just don’t know when he’ll come, which is understandable as that’s how the parable ends.  But Jesus must’ve been referring to something more than this especially in the light of the revelation that Christ is in us and we therefore don’t wait in fear that he’ll arrive on the clouds, judge us as not being ready and throw us out of heaven, that we appear to already be seated in.  So what is the parable about if not about being prepared?  Perhaps instead Jesus, in the face of his impending death and resurrection, which is going to happen within the week of him telling this story, is hoping they will see firstly that life is not as straight forward as they might prepare for, the bridge-groom might be late, the car might break down, the doctor might give devastating news, the post might bring an unexpected bill, their Messiah might be about to die, life might be full of the unexpected but you need to see past the reality into the truth that he is coming and to have the assurance and certainty that all will be well.  Secondly, to not rely upon the worldly wisdom of preparing for the here and now, the expectation that the world will run properly and instead rely upon the foolish wisdom that the world does not run properly, it is full of the unexpected and it is only faith that makes any sense.  The faith that despite the circumstances and whether I look stupid for believing, or for bringing extra oil to a daytime wedding, asserts that ‘I do believe’ and that is what matters.  Perhaps this is the message of the ten virgins as the other meaning of, ‘be ready or else’, doesn’t fit with saved by grace through faith.
The parable of the talents.  I used to believe Jesus was telling us to make sure we use the talents he gives us or else we’re in trouble.  I don’t believe that this parable is anything to do with working hard with what you’ve got or on judgement day you’re going to get thrown into hell.  Here the master is away a long time, similar to the bridegroom being late, and when he returns there is a problem with the servant who has not done anything with the talent, as he was afraid.  The man is a character in a story to help us see the nonsense of what he has done with being given something for free.  All he had to do was enjoy the gift and it would have multiplied in his hands.  The story is to help us see how ridiculous we can behave when confronted with sheer grace, we can so easily become the older brother, from the Prodigal Son story, offended by so much lavish love.  We want to see a bookkeeper instead, we want to see our good works rewarded, we want God to have another book alongside the book of life marking down all the good things that we do, like the elder brother who stays home and doesn’t run off, we want our good deeds to be marked down in a book and be rewarded.  Jesus is not a book-keeper he’s a grace provider and the story of the talents is Jesus helping us to see that grace is given to everyone, all you need to do is receive it and trust Him and the grace will do its own work.
Jesus is certainly painting an intense picture for his listeners with these last three parables.  He’s forcing them to focus on their own existence, pointing out that there will be a point when time runs out to choose between the wild, all-included, all-free party or to refuse this grace, to refuse him.  There is a cost to this party, that he is paying in full, and he wants to make sure that they understand that refusing his free gift will not go on for an eternity.
Finally, the sheep and the goats, the story of all stories to fearfully inspire people to do things to avoid being a goat and thrown into hell and I have to doubt that is what Jesus was intending them to believe.  The bible is full of references to taking care of widows and orphans, of taking responsibility for the poor and disadvantaged however there is no reference to your salvation being dependant on it apart from in this story and that is the key.  Jesus is telling them a story with a point and I think we’ve picked up the wrong point.  If it’s true that our salvation is by grace through faith and not by works then clearly Jesus is saying something other than ‘visit the prisoners or the lake of fire awaits’.  So what is the message?  
To begin there is the inclusion of all nations being gathered before Jesus, the Son of Man for separation into two groups.  There is nobody missing, the Jews haven’t been given a free pass at this moment and neither have the Christians, those who we might consider shouldn’t even get to this point are here, those we would thought were on the path ‘straight to hell’ or we wish had been sent straight to hell for their evil acts during their lifetime.  Those who have walked a hidden path and those on platforms are here, everybody is here, all nations are present before Jesus.  Maybe this is one of the points Jesus is hoping we’ll understand that ‘at the end of the day’ we’re all the same to Jesus, we are all in the same boat.  A frightening thought you scream, “What?  So nothing I do here on the earth matters, well I might as well behave as I please and sin to my heart’s desire’!  The knowledge of so much grace leads to so much sin?  I think not!  What we do here on earth, during our lifetime does matter, it matters as to our quality of life and to the quality of life of those around us, what doesn’t matter is whether we get that right or not as our behaviour good or bad will not dictate our salvation otherwise we save ourselves.  Jesus clearly cares about our quality of life, healing the sick, feeding the five thousand and even telling the woman caught in adultery to sin no more.  Even the law’s regulations set out in Leviticus are more health and safety rules than spiritual ones, don’t eat mouldy food, wash your hands, don’t be getting tattooed you don’t know where that needle has been!  Unfortunately we, as ever, took these suggestions by God for a healthier and better life and turned them into requirements for salvation.  The Pharisees were always looking to the failings of the disciples’ keeping of the law; not washing their hands, picking ears of wheat on a Sabbath to accuse them, to show they were sinful and therefore God was not with them.  We just have different sins to accuse people of, to consider them ‘out’ of the favour of God, from speeding to not going to church.  We assure ourselves that God is a just God, an honest God who will ensure those who have done evil during their lifetime are punished; we want them sent to hell.  A seriously understandable position for those who have lost loved ones at the hands of another, understandable when thinking of the atrocities caused by dictators and understandable when looking at the pain and suffering caused by humans to humans, somebody has to pay one day.  However, we do not have a God who gives us what we deserve or what we believe others deserve, instead he gives us his son.  
His son who will judge and use his own motivation of saving the world not condemning it and the only exit is from punishment not from his presence.  The Son of Man is the judge; he came to judge the enemy and to give eternal life to all that believe.  Salvation by grace alone means that it is only belief in Jesus that can save you not behaviour, and thankfully, grace dictates that we do not get what we deserve, good or bad. 
In the parable, the Son of Man separates the sheep and the goats as a shepherd, not as a market trader.  He is making the point that he is the good shepherd of both the sheep and the goats; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep and the goats.  His death which is imminent will be for all, the good and the bad.  (Note the Passover lamb could be a goat – Exodus 12:5).  The separation in the story is within the context of the inclusion of all in his death.  The mystery of the gospel was that gentiles would now be included, there was no longer any separation of the nations and here is the picture showing that Jesus has drawn all men to himself, his mission to draw all men into himself on the cross and incorporate them both into his body.  Paul covers this in Ephesians 2:15-16. 
The story now sets out the good-sheep bad-goats scenario.  As mentioned above it cannot be that omission to do good, or doing bad, is an obstacle to salvation or that do-gooders are those that get to celebrate, there must be more to this story than that as it would totally oppose the message of ‘whilst we were still sinners’ Christ died for us.  It negates Jesus’ actions of eating and celebrating with tax collectors and prostitutes.  If our behaviour is what will make the difference then we have a salvation based on works.  I doubt Jesus was trying to change his message in the last few days either, as in, he’s been all about the grace and Mr Nice-guy but at the end of the day it will be all about what you did and Mr Burn-in-Hell.  So what is the message?  If belief is the only thing that Jesus is looking for then where is the faith here, which ‘group’ have faith/belief and which do not?  It is interesting to note in this parable and in a previous scripture, Jesus informs his hearers that casting out demons and healing the sick is not enough, it is instead the ‘knowing Jesus’ that matters.  Here the sheep are commended for having a relationship with Jesus, and the goats have no relationship with Jesus and that is the reason for separation, not who feeds the poor.  There is a danger if we read this as anything other than a parable, we start to be motivated to feed the poor because we don’t want to go to hell and that is clearly not the message. 
The parable is not Jesus’ last call to tell us to feed the poor or we’re off to hell, it is his last call, the story to bring all stories together, to tell us that he’s the judge, he’s come to draw all men to himself, he’s the shepherd of all and there is an eternal party for those who discover and believe him and therefore have a relationship with him.  To be frank it has nothing to do with feeding the poor, visiting the sick and the prisoners at all, any more than his other stories were actual about real events.  They are all pointing to a message, one of salvation through grace.  He even throws in a final point that the sheep didn’t even know it was Jesus, to help them know that they cannot work out this salvation; it is through faith alone, not through intellectual human wisdom.  The story of the sheep and the goats is the final spark to light up their darkness before the explosive light that is his death and resurrection.
Here’s the final shocking point, even the belief, the faith, that is your free pass to a secure and complete, eternal life, is a gift.  We do not even work up our faith; it has been given to us by God.  We cannot even claim that our own work of belief has saved us.  We cannot work it out and we cannot improve it or diminish it.  Our salvation has been given to us so that we have nothing to boast in, except Christ.

To be or not to be, saved. (Part 2)

Jesus mentions judgement directly and also through telling parables about a judgement day. On first reading and face value, taking a parable at a time, not taking into account anything but the words written on the page in front of you, they go something like this; there will be a specific day when there will be a sifting of sheep and goats, wedding attendees and employees, where some people will go into heaven and the rest will be thrown out gnashing their teeth. It is understandable that we have in our theology a whole picture of this day, not only because we read them out of context but its depicted all over the classic paintings and shouted from the pulpits ‘turn or burn, the end is nigh’.
It is understandable we believe that is what judgement day will be like, based on how we generally read our bible; one scripture at a time, a whole chapter if we can manage it, believing everything that is written there is God inspired and not taking into account the context, the audience, the writers own preferences, the readers own preferences, the rest of the mission of Jesus, the rest of the bible and the whole of history plus where we live and all the teaching we’ve ever heard and read on that chapter which might be influencing our understanding of what we’re reading. Now I’m not saying that Jesus didn’t tell the parables or that they were not written down correctly but I do believe that we miss so much and can therefore be misled, if we don’t take into account everything else including that it is God inspired and shouldn’t be read without his input as to what he’s trying to tell us about salvation and judgement.
Here’s a few of the scriptures where Jesus is talking about judgement without using parables;
Jesus said that he had not come to condemn the world but save it, John 3:17. God doesn’t judge the world Jesus does, John 5:22. His judgement is just because he doesn’t judge on his own because God is with him, John 8:16.  He is given full authority to judge by God because he is the Son of Man, John 5:27.
From these scriptures together with Jesus’s mission on earth to ‘be raised up to bring all men to himself’, John 12:32, we understand that Jesus is the judge and his motivation is to save the world not to condemn it.
Other scriptures, paraphrased, ‘it will be tougher on judgement day for you than for the Tyre and Sidon and the Queen of Sheba, because they repented and you are not doing so’. It seems pretty simple to me what this means; with Jesus right in front of them, they missed who he was, how much more disappointed, how much more difficult will a judgement day be for them knowing how much they missed the mark. A scripture not to be taken as a hierarchy in hell with some people standing on the heads of others!
‘The men of Nineveh will stand up on that day and condemn you’, note not Jesus condemning them and to be taken in the context of who he is talking to. Here to shock the audience into thinking that their old enemies, the Philistines, will be getting up on judgement day and pointing the finger because they repented. (Not ultimately I might add, on reading Nahum, they did revert to their terrible ways and were destroyed, so Jesus wasn’t making a point about how good the Philistines were). Jesus knows what he is doing to his audience here, pushing them to see the truth, hoping that their worst nightmare of being condemned by their enemies will wake them up to who he is.
So how does Jesus judge; ‘I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind’, John 9:39. So not to condemn but to bring light to the blind and to those purporting to see, namely the Pharisees and teachers, to make them blind. He wanted them to stop teaching the heavy yoke of religion, adding regulation after regulation, purporting to follow all of them themselves. He wanted to make them see that they were blind guides, not seeing at all and hopefully in recognising their blindness would too come to the light. John 12:31 tells us that Jesus came to judge the Prince of this world and that he would be driven out. An interesting note on the power of the enemy following the crucifixion. 1 John 3:8 tells us that he came to destroy the works of the devil. If he succeeded then perhaps we should be less enemy focussed?? He came to drive out the enemy not to condemn humanity. Humanity he came to save. His judgement appears to be meted out as follows;  John 5:24 ‘ the solemn truth I tell you that he who listens to my teaching and believes Him who sent me, has the Life of the Ages, and does not come under judgement’. John 3:18 He who trusts in Him does not come up for judgement.
This seems to be the only exit clause - one of avoiding judgment rather than being subject to it.
Here’s a scripture that we might consider is about behaviour rather than belief; ‘they who have done what is right to the resurrection of Life, and they whose actions have been evil to the resurrection of judgement.’ John 5:29. I think as it is in the context of those who are already dead and in their graves I think it would be a stretch to use this one verse to build a theology that our actions are what save us. It is also worth noting that ‘what is right’ and what we are told is the work of God is to believe in the one he sent John 6:29. So doing what’s right is always going to start with belief.
The scriptures seem pretty clear about how and what is important when talking about judgement. ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned’ John 3:18.
‘Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ John 1:12 and our all-time favourite scripture, John 3:16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son so that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life.’
It seems clear to me in the specific words of Jesus; he is the judge, he judges by bringing light to the blind and blindness to those who see. He throws out the enemy and gives eternal life to those that believe in him. There doesn’t seem to be any other qualifier than belief, belief in Jesus gives eternal life, that’s all there is, nothing else required. There doesn’t even seem to be a need for repentance. It is not mentioned as a qualifier for eternal life, it might follow and there are certainly scriptures about obedience and behaviour but our salvation doesn’t seem to depend on them, only belief. It is difficult therefore to reconcile our evangelism technique of ‘repentance to salvation’, the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and even the ever so popular ‘four points’ which makes consciousness of sin and repentance part of salvation. It is difficult to see how repentance can happen when there is no belief. It is difficult to tell people that they are sinners when ‘whilst we were still sinners Christ died for us’ and as he doesn’t make repentance a requirement, then we shouldn’t. We also confuse repentance with sin, when repentance means turning around, changing our behaviour, with no reference to sinfulness we still connect the two together. Paul says in his letters that he no longer considers men sinners and that God no longer counts our sins against us and yet our loudest evangelism tool is ‘you’re a sinner and you need to repent’. The crucifixion dealt with our sin once and for all and repentance for sin is therefore irrelevant to our actual salvation.
Having a belief that sin affects our salvation either at ‘entry’ point or during, will give us a whole theology of Hokey-Cokey salvation. One minute you’re in, the next sin, you’re out and we will therefore have a behaviour based salvation.
Paul preaches the same message; it is not by works, it is through belief, through faith so that none may boast. I don’t believe that Jesus and Paul were preaching different messages; ‘Jesus, a Jew, preaches the law and Paul preaches grace’. Jesus did not preach the law as a way to salvation, he came to fulfil its every requirement for us and when he does preach about behaviour it is clearly to show how much our behaviour is never going to save us. The rich young ruler believed he had kept every law and yet still knew there was more, being rich and being spiritually perfect still left him with a gap that he knew only Jesus could fill. Jesus sends him away to give away everything, not because he objects to us being rich, but he objects to us finding the next formula for spiritual perfection. He sends him away to lose his life, to become a loser, to realise that there is nothing he could do to save himself. It could only be, and remains only, an acceptance that Jesus is the only saviour. I cannot save myself, I cannot behave my way in or out of salvation. I believe in Jesus and I have the right/power to become his child. I am so loved by Jesus that he came for me so that if I believed in him I would have eternal life.
Paul is very clear in his teaching that grace is all that counts. He writes about salvation by grace through faith without any reference of how to be thrown out of the Kingdom, the church meetings perhaps, but not out of favour with God. He understood the good news that Jesus had fully reconciled man to God.  He knew that Jesus had annihilated the sinful nature – see Romans 6. He knew there was now no condemnation – see Romans 8 and indeed that nothing can separate us from the love of God. His prayers were full of wanting the church to know more about this reconciliation, eyes opened to the full revelation of all that we had now been given, to know the depth, width, height and length of the love of God, to live as children of the light, filled with the fullness of the deity and seated in heavenly places. I don’t see extra requirements in Paul’s letters any more than I can see them in what Jesus was saying, they both preach salvation by grace through faith.
Finally, those parables of ‘in and out’, not enough oil in the lamp = out, not the right clothes at the wedding = out, not enough profit made with the talents given and not enough feeding of the poor = out. Here lies most of our theology about a judgement day where behaviour is the qualifier. But have we read them and understood them or have we read them and scared ourselves silly. Can we read past a story and find what Jesus was telling them through the story, and see that it is still belief and not behaviour,that settles and secures eternal life.

See Part 3 for my thoughts on the parables….

Monday, 7 May 2012

To be or not to be, saved. (Part 1)

‘The solution, the cure, the way out of the cycle of ‘it’s me, it’s them, it’s the structure’ – is the gospel.’ Mags Tyler Jan 2012 blog. So here’s another ‘the solution, the cure, the way out of’ = the gospel and this time it’s the Get out of Jail card on the Hokey-Cokey of salvation otherwise referred to as ‘you’re in you’re out, I’m in I’m out’.
As Christians we have a belief in eternal life, we have a belief as to how to attain that eternal life and to be honest it isn’t always the same requirements that are set out in the bible, of any translation. I’m not even sure we really believe what Jesus said were the requirements for eternal life, and have instead added in a few requirements of our own, just to be sure that our salvation is indeed secure.
We may have differing views over the relevance of eternal life to the here and now. Some believe that the certainty of knowing where you go when you die gives you a sense of hopefulness in this life, a sense that life might be rubbish but it will be over soon enough and then paradise awaits, it can take the sting out of death, an ease to the grief process and some atheists might argue that this is the reason for the existence of most religions, the need to find a purpose in life through finding life after death.  There is here no real expectation of ‘eternal life’ having anything more to do with this life other than ensuring that you don’t exclude yourself again. “So I’ve secured my eternal life best not mess up or God will get the eraser out on the book of life.”
Others believe that eternal life starts as soon as you believe in Jesus, as soon as you have said the ‘sinners prayer’ and your spirit comes to life and is connected to God’s spirit and your eternity is now set, you are now seated in heavenly places, have full access to heaven at any time, you can even visit it in visions and dreams. Eternal life and all its benefits are not just for after I’m dead, they can be a reality in the here and now. Jesus comes to live in me now and I live in him, and this can then make a difference to my every day existence. Whilst this has more biblical back up than the previous mere fire insurance theology, there can still be a belief that once saved we can still lose our salvation, we can still go out of the ‘covering of God’ through behaviour and we can still ultimately behave our way out of salvation.
I think it is important to look at what we believe about the how, and when, we secure eternal life as that determines what we believe about; a) losing it and b)the relevance of it in the here and now which in turn helps us with the Hokey-Cokey theology.
We hold a view sometimes that we might be ‘saved’ but only by the skin of our teeth, like there is some kind of grading system in heaven, those that ‘got in’ by some kind of last minute declaration, or made a commitment to follow Jesus but then never did anything ‘good’ with their lives after it, no salvations, healings or deliverances to put in the accounting book for the bigger mansion. Do we really believe there are grades in heaven? An A* for Smith Wigglesworth but a D- for you because you just didn’t do enough or believe enough. I think a belief in a hierarchy in heaven between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, leads to there being a belief in a hierarchy in heaven for everyone and also the need for a hierarchy in the church. I understand the belief in a Trinitarian hierarchy was a major reason why the church after Augustine created and still protects a hierarchy in the church structure. Alternatively, and I think more accurately, there is no hierarchy in the Trinity and therefore no hierarchy in heaven and should certainly not be one in the church. There might be 24 elders but nobody knows who they are, some might have an educated guess as there are no names given I think there can be no sound theology built up around it. Martyrs surely have a bigger house because they paid the ultimate price for the faith and that would certainly seem fair, martyrs and missionaries, people who have given up everything should surely be given a bigger mansion but there is no reference to that in the bible, no definitive verses that say there will be special prize giving events for those who ran the best race. In the absence of definitive verses then I think we are obliged to look at any references in their context and in the context of the whole bible and in light of what the Holy Spirit is telling us, bearing in mind that he can speak to us directly. The trouble is if we believe in a hierarchy in heaven and believe that we have to ‘do’ things here on earth to ensure our salvation is secure or we’ll have a good grade then we have kind of missed the point. We are again looking at our behaviour as some kind of measure of God’s affection towards us. We start to believe in a grading system here on earth and start to consider ourselves or others somewhere on the good Christian/bad Christian scale. It goes something like this; those who are missionaries are the best kind of Christian, especially if their lives are in danger, they definitely get a 10, only a 9 if they are a missionary in the same country they were brought up in, anybody working with the youth, the underclass, in the prisons they too will get points, all this needs to be measured against those with the most salvations, most healings and deliverances again if this is being done in a third world country much more kudos than if in your own town or country. Points are given for how many people have you led to the Lord, how many people have you raised from the dead, how many churches have you planted, how many miracles have you performed and so on. Good Christians going up the scale whilst those who are hidden, sharing their lives with their neighbours, not really praying with anybody and not ‘saying the salvation prayer’ with anybody, not so many good Christian points for them and what about those who don’t pray at all, don’t read their bible, don’t go to church, don’t live a good and moral life, no points at all for them and they are in danger of losing their fire insurance all together. I used to believe this; there is salvation moment, a specific date when I was saved, before this date I wasn’t in God’s favour, in his affection, I was in the dark and an object of wrath and then I said a repentance prayer asked Jesus into my life and then I was saved from that moment, I transferred from darkness into light, from lost to found, to eternal life from hell and then the rest of my life I would need to ensure I did everything to make that salvation secure. Salvation needs to be worked at, the verse we ‘work out our salvation with fear and trembling’ is a good one to inspire us into believing that our salvation is something that is not a constant, and can be made better and more secure. Add in verses about the unforgiveable sin and not crucifying Jesus twice and you’ve got yourself a whole theology of good works = salvation. As soon as we add anything that will affect our salvation we are instantly adding works into the equation and Jesus’s death didn’t do a complete job for our salvation.
My understanding of these three specific verses has changed and therefore so has my belief about my contribution to salvation.
1.            ‘Continue to work out your salvation in fear and trembling’ Philippians 2:12. Here Paul, the great grace preacher of Romans, is suddenly suggesting that salvation is to be worked at. Paul who preaches that salvation is through faith alone and not through works, a gift that none can boast, seems to be suggesting working at our salvation, a little contrary to other teaching. This is quite often the problem we have with scripture, we read one verse and build a theology around it rather than reading the whole letter and maybe all the letters that Paul wrote and Acts to see what his exploits were and discover what Paul was actually suggesting to the Philippian church.  So even here, we don’t necessarily know the rest of the sentence carried on into the next verse – ‘for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’. It is perhaps not too far a stretch to understand that Paul was actually telling them that as it would be unlikely that he would be able to visit them any longer, as he’s in prison, and they are now on their own to work out their salvation but not in reliance on their own works or efforts but to allow God to be at work in them. He is not suggesting that they work at their salvation in a way that would affect the reality or substance of it. I think any other reading of this particular verse has an implication that Jesus did not do a complete job and there is still work for us to do that relates to our salvation. There are works for us to do but they have no impact on our salvation or on whether God is pleased with us or not.
2.            The one and only unforgiveable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. I used to think this was because Jesus was very defensive of the Holy Spirit, I bit like ‘you can say what you like about me but don’t cuss my brother or there will be trouble’. But it just doesn’t stack up with everything else Jesus says, so perhaps our understanding is not correct! Instead what if we don’t recognise the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit then we can’t be forgiven? Nothing to do with Jesus not wanting to or able to forgive us, or all the sins of the world were dealt with on the cross except this one. Instead is Jesus saying ‘if you can’t/won’t see that it is the Holy Spirit, then how can you receive forgiveness?’ We’ve built up a whole fear based theology about not upsetting the Holy Spirit. How many sleepless nights have Christians had worrying about losing their salvation because after they became a Christian they sinned and therefore grieved the Holy Spirit? Is this really what Jesus intended, is this really what this conversation was about or was it more about Jesus pointing out to them that if all you ever see is the demonic and can’t see Jesus or the Holy Spirit at work how can you ever find forgiveness. The context for this verse is the Pharisees accusing Jesus of being demon possessed and it seems clear to me that if all you see is the demonic when you’re looking at Jesus then you can’t receive what is freely given to you.
3.            ‘It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away to be brought back to repentance because to their loss they are crucifying the son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace’ Hebrews 6:4-6. A scripture we have used to worry about losing our salvation or worrying about others losing theirs. If we don’t carry on in being a good Christian, if you decide you don’t like church after all and if you just don’t want to be a Christian any more then there is no way back for you. As the verse says it is impossible. Once again we have forgotten the rest of the verse, it is impossible if you have experienced all of this and then fall away to be brought back to repentance. Perhaps it is impossible because there is nothing left to believe in. If you have experienced everything Jesus has to offer and then turn your back on him, there is nothing left to believe in and therefore to turn back to. Repentance after all is not about sin, it is about turning back, hearing new information and changing your mind. If you have experienced Jesus and he is still not enough for you then repenting will be impossible. I’m not sure it is possible to experience all of those things mentioned and then turn away unless you are very determined to do so, I think with most people who decided Christianity is not for them haven’t experienced much other than a disappointing religion rather than the person of Jesus, the goodness of the word and the powers of the age to come. I think these verses have been used in the past to control people’s attendance at meetings, a tad cultish, ‘once out you can’t come back’. It’s been taught in a way that people have struggled to ‘repent’ as they believe there is no way back for them. A lack of understanding about salvation leads us to create theology’s about who is in, who is out and once you are saved, if you then sin you’re in trouble. A lack of understanding this scripture creates a distance where to God there is none, I think Psalm 139 is pretty clear on not being able to go anywhere where God is not. The door is always open.
So what did Jesus preach about salvation and judgement and is there a difference in what Paul wrote in his letters. Personally, I’m not convinced we’ve been living in the truth about what salvation is all about and have created all sorts of regulations, add-ons and exit clauses because we can’t accept or believe that our salvation is such good news.
More on this tomorrow……