Thursday, March 15, 2012

Are We Earning Our Way To Heaven?

How brave would say you are? Brave enough to come against everything everyone considers acceptable, to stand as an unknown person and change traditions and ways of thinking? Would you come before leaders with little to offer except a revelation from God? You have to be pretty sure of that revelation and you have to be willing to lose everything for it in order to come against things established for thousands of years. You have to be "dead-on" sure about Jesus. Paul was, and Paul did this.

Call him foolish or call him brave but Paul came against the established Jewish way of seeing the law in order to bring the gospel of grace to the Gentiles (you and me). We aren't exactly sure when Paul received this revelation through the teaching of Jesus and by the Holy Spirit but he had it when he was in Antioch and came to Jerusalem to defend the ministry to the Gentiles. He was sure enough about it to stand before the council in Jerusalem, in front of the various apostles, including Peter, seemingly headed up by James, the brother of Jesus. The Church hadn't been around for a long time yet but these were already well respected leaders of the Church.

What had happened was, after the Holy Spirit spread the Church to Antioch, a mainly Gentile city, Barnabas was dispatched from Jerusalem to make a report. Instead, he got caught up in the move of the Spirit and sent to Tarsus for Paul's help, because it was too much for Barnabas alone to train all these people. Paul joined him along with a few others and the church there grew, with mostly Gentiles. Paul operated in the revelation he had received, that it is by grace we are saved and not by works. This is when the circumcision group showed up.

Some well meaning "Christians" from Jerusalem showed up in Antioch and started to teach that people must first convert to Judaism (circumcision) before they could accept Jesus. This threw everyone into confusion because they were preaching the Law of Moses and Paul and the others were teaching grace. This set things up for a show down in Jerusalem as Paul went to present his revelation to the "leaders". In Paul's words:

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.  (Galatians 2:1-5)

Paul did not give in to them for a moment. He went before those great apostles and no one refuted the truth of what had been revealed to Paul. They sent him back with a letter of apology to the Gentiles for the confusion and with a short list of instructions:

"It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things."  (Acts 15:28-29)

Because the Spirit so convinced Paul of the truth of this revelation we enjoy the gospel of grace to this day. Now, believe it or not, my purpose today is not to give you a history lesson but to inspire you to stand up for the Word of God. Paul took great risk to get this gospel out to the world so that we Gentiles would not need to convert to Judaism in order to become a Christian, yet this gospel is now under constant attack. And just like in Paul's day, the attack does not come from the world but from those within the Church.

For a couple thousand years man has attempted to add to this gospel, to get people to live by a law instead of by grace. We are born of the Spirit, must live by the Spirit, must keep in step with the Spirit, knowing that it is only Jesus who saves us. We do not live under law but in the freedom of grace, free in the Spirit of God. Consider some of the things people have turned into a law and have hoped will earn their salvation:

- going to church
- reading their Bible
- giving money
- praying
- living a good life
- doing good deeds, acts of kindness

None of these things are wrong and all of them are very good, but none of them earns our salvation. Only the sacrificial act of Jesus provides our salvation. All these other things are natural actions that result from our relationship with Jesus. I hope you can see the difference. Grace tells us that we cannot earn our way to heaven, yet a great majority of the Church are trying to do that without understanding the difference. They think they have a relationship with Jesus because of the things they do, but we do these things because of the relationship with Jesus. Salvation is not part of this list of things we do. Let me try it again: The list above does not earn our salvation, but they spring out of the salvation we receive by the grace of God.

Now here's the real question and the purpose of this blog this morning: Are you brave enough, sure enough of this revelation of God to stand up to the stronghold of the well established attitude about "earning" our salvation? Are you willing to risk it all, as Paul did, to defend the gospel of grace against the onslaught from the "circumcision group" who teach good works and acts of kindness in place of the gospel of grace? The truth is not found in the soft gospel of the "emerging" church but in the very powerful Word of God. Salvation is not earned, it is given freely by the grace of God.

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