A Picture of Hell

The picture showed multiple columns of smoke billowing into great clouds of flame, ash, and dust behind what would typically be considered a sprawling urban neighborhood with houses lined up one after another. In the distance a helicopter could be seen flying in front of the roiling tumult showing the magnitude of the raging fiery torrent. The caption read, “Hell’s Doorstep,” an apt description.

The word “hell” is used today to describe anything from stubbing one’s toe to engaging in a combat operation. Frequently the word is used lightly with little or no gravity at all in respect to its subject matter. Comedians have used it routinely; the word is sprinkled generously in movies; and television hesitates not the slightest to throw it out if it will generate a mild guffaw.

In stark contrast, however, the use of it to describe the recent fires in California seemed appropriate. The intensity of the flames, the smoke enveloping darkness, the completely dismal portrait painted, all testified to exactly the kind of place described in the New Testament that awaits impenitent sinners.

Hell is not a popular subject. While a majority of Americans believe in heaven and believe they will go there, a far fewer number believe in hell. And even if they believe in hell, they don’t believe in a hell like the one described in the Bible. For many, the concept of hell is like some ill-advised fraternity where you’ll be mercilessly hazed for the rest of your life. While such a concept isn’t pleasant, it nowhere near approaches the truth the Bible reveals about hell.

Hell is described in Revelation 21:8 as “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” Mark 9:43 describes it as a place of “unquenchable fire.” 2 Peter 2:4 describes it as “pits of darkness.” Matthew 25:46 says it is a place of “eternal punishment.” Jude 1:7 calls it “the punishment of eternal fire.” 2 Thessalonians 1:8 says that it is Christ’s “vengeance” “in flaming fire” upon those who “know not God, and that obey not the gospel.”

The pictures out of California this past week were stark. That is the exact image that we should consider when contemplating a life in rebellion to God. Let us not think that we can live rebelliously and escape God’s eternal retribution. While we extend our sympathies to the people who lost loved ones and property, let us, with sober minds, consider what kind of place hell truly is.

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“Miracle Baby”

Several weeks ago there was a storm that went through the upper Midwest. The news reported that a tornado passed through a residential area and a baby was swept away. There’s no doubt that was an emotionally tumultuous evening for the family. However, after the storm was over, thankfully, the baby was found alive. There was tremendous relief to the parents and family of the child; the emotions were running high in the recovery of this child and we can certainly thank God for this child’s safety. Shortly after the baby was found, a headline was run on the Fox News channel, “Miracle Baby.”

What is so wrong in calling something a miracle? What is right about calling something a miracle? We don’t go around all day long calling everything a miracle. We recognize that certain events that occur in life are routine and happen by way of the natural course that life takes. God designed the world to work on a series of natural laws and these laws interact with each other and with us to ensure that we have a relatively stable world in which to live.

Gravity, for example, is one of God’s natural laws and it’s a great thing to have. It keeps our feet on the ground; it keeps our cars on the road; it keeps our refrigerator from coming into the bedroom during the middle of the night. I’m thankful for gravity! Natural law is the non-miraculous way God keeps the earth going.

There are times, however, when natural law appears to be suspended. For example, when a terminally ill cancer patient becomes better; when someone picks up a vehicle in order to free a trapped person underneath; or when a baby that has been swept up by a tornado or strong wind is found safe and sound. Such events are unexpected and unlikely. People see these events and pronounce them “miraculous.”

One of the dangers with saying that something is a miracle is attributing the event to God’s direct involvement. Three men once did this. They had a friend who lost all of his family under terrible circumstances, who lost all of his property to enemies who raided his lands, and who lost his health to the terrible disease. When they looked upon all of these improbably circumstances, they said, “God is punishing you!” God said to those men, “You’re wrong!” God hadn’t punished Job at all; Satan was the one who was responsible for Job’s suffering.

Another danger of this kind of thinking is concluding from the improbably events a good relationship with God. Someone once told me that he knew he had a good relationship with God because he had been saved from a falling brick wall and from pulling out into traffic in front of a semi-trailer truck. My question to him was, “How do you know that God wasn’t ‘saving’ you to give you time to repent!?” How do you know that Satan didn’t save you so that you would believe a lie?

Consider also that for every baby that is saved from a terrible event, there are dozens more that die. Where does this put God if the one He saved He did so by miracle? Does He not love the others enough to save them by miracle? The Bible teaches that the age of miracles has ceased ( 1 Corinthians 13:8-10). Working through natural law, however, God is fair to all; all are treated equally

Let us credit God for blessings received because as our creator, God is ultimately responsible for all things. However, let us not attribute actions to God that are beyond our knowledge. Doing so takes us away from God’s word. We walk on tenuous ground when we base our faith on our own presuppositions regarding improbable events. Faith, the Bible teaches, comes from hearing God’s word ( Romans 10:17). Let’s leave it at that.

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Losing Our Identity

We hear a lot today about identity theft. Unscrupulous fellows have found ways to discover the social security numbers, addresses, names, dates of birth, and other information related to one’s identity and used such things for nefarious purposes. In some cases individuals have become indebted overnight for cars, motor homes, and real estate because they lost control of their unique financial identity.

Psychologists also like to talk about identity. They’re referring to individualism or uniqueness. When one’s sense of purpose evaporates like the morning mist, they “don’t know who they are anymore” and they seek help to rediscover their identity.

Not too many years ago, a gospel preacher said that the churches of Christ were in an identity crisis. He said that we were going to have to change our identity if we wanted to be relevant in the modern world. To be fair, there are some cultural things within the church that may change as the culture changes. Architecture styles change over time; technology changes; fashion changes; the way the culture does business may change. On the other hand, there are some things which must never change if we are to maintain our identity as the church of Christ. Let’s consider a few of those things.

First, we must not change our worship. I’m not talking about what song book we use, the order of the activities, or whether we use Power Point or not. I’m talking about our actions in worship: prayer ( 1 Timothy 2:8), singing ( Ephesians 5:19, Hebrews 13:15), hearing/studying God’s word ( 2 Timothy 2:15), giving ( 2 Corinthians 8-9), and observing the Lord’s Supper every first day of the week ( Acts 20:7). This includes respecting God’s roles of authority for men and women in worship as well ( 1 Timothy 2:8ff). How we worship affects our relationship with God as His people because God demands those who worship Him to do so in spirit and truth ( John 4:23-24). The churches of Christ are unique in their worship and that uniqueness defines our identity.

Second, we must not change God’s plan of salvation. Some in “Christendom” have gone so far as to say that even faith in Christ isn’t necessary for salvation. Some teach that faith alone is necessary even rejecting repentance. Most believe that baptism is not necessary for salvation. The Bible clearly teaches, however, that baptism is prerequisite to salvation ( Matthew 28:18-20, Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:11-13, Galatians 3:27, 1 Peter 3:21). Hebrews 5:9 teaches that obedience is as much a part of God’s plan for man’s salvation as anything else. We must not change our teaching regarding the necessity of baptism in God’s plan for man’s salvation.

Third, we must not change what the Bible teaches regarding the church. The church is a necessary institution for which Jesus died and shed His blood ( Acts 20:28). There is only one body ( Ephesians 4:4) which is the church and Christ is its head ( Ephesians 1:22-23). It is not a body composed of many bodies ( 1 Corinthians 1:10-13). It has for leadership elders which is to say, shepherds (pastors) and bishops. These men are appointed based upon the scriptural qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The churches of the New Testament are also always represented as having a plural number of these governors, not just one. If how the local church is governed is simply a matter of opinion then anything goes in the church. We must not change God’s pattern for the organization of the church.

Fourth, we must not change what the Bible teaches regarding morality. “Christendom” has already abandoned Bible teaching on the above subjects and now we are seeing it abandon Bible morality as well. We must not change God’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage ( Matthew 19:6, 9). We must not change God’s teaching regarding sexuality. We must not change God’s teaching regarding pure speech and godly living. The doctrine of once saved, always saved has wreaked terrible havoc in the church. We must be faithful to the Lord and to His church in order to be saved ( Revelation 2:10). We must withdraw from those who refuse to live faithfully ( 2 Thessalonians 3:6).

Some churches of Christ are experiencing an identity crisis because they have compromised on exactly these things. It just goes to show that we only have an identity crisis insomuch as we lack desire to allow the Bible to rule. If we don’t know who we are then we haven’t been studying The Book. Identity crises come from knowledge crises and God’s word tells us that lack of knowledge destroys ( Hosea 4:6). Let us be zealous, study, and apply what we learn faithfully so that we may maintain our identity as the church of Christ.

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Have you ever been manipulated by someone to such a degree that when the entire thing is over you feel like an old bath towel that has been hung out to dry, just kind of waving back and forth in the wind? I know that I have and I don’t really care to relive those experiences or recount them. They are quite embarrassing to recall and usually emotionally painful as well. Perhaps, however, one of the biggest manipulations in our culture and society is the philosophies of post modernism. Whether we realize it or not, and most do not, the way that we think in our society and culture is influenced. Television, advertisements, the evening news, sitcoms, buying products at the grocery store, video games, movies, restaurants, theme parks, religious services even our closest friends are influenced.

Post modernism is the period of philosophical thought after the period of modernism when rationality and logic prevailed as the primary methods of seeking to understand reality. In the 19th century, however, philosophers divorced rationality from reality and placed a greater emphasis upon personal physical experience and existence (empiricism and existentialism). Philosophy gave up seeking to understand things by virtue of pure reason and instead sought to understand things by means of personal subjective experience. This meant that if something was outside of my personal experience, then it was unknowable because I could not subjectively experience it. Many have credited this movement with divorcing faith (defined as things outside of personal experience) and knowledge (defined as things part of personal experience) and today most simply accept this dichotomy of thought without question. Such was not always the case; the distinction between faith and knowledge made by early post modernistic thinkers was not present in the thinking of early Christians (see for example John 6:69, John 10:38, 1 Timothy 4:3, 1 Timothy 5:13).

Today you will see post modernistic thought reflected in just about every aspect of our society. The focus of society has shifted away from the question, “What do you think?” to the question, “What do you feel?” “Feeling,” as a way of discerning truth, has replaced “thinking” in the post modern culture. Feelings are the primary input in regard to sense experience and so whether we are content, discontent, or whatever, it all depends upon what we feel about something. This way of thinking is subtle and many do not understand they are being manipulated by post modern thinking; nevertheless they are manipulated into patterns of behavior that are personally destructive as a result of this philosophy and our default acceptance of it.

We need to understand that such thinking is antagonistic to Christian thought where we are exhorted to use our mind to control our passions. The concept of sobriety is a familiar concept in the New Testament which emphasizes exactly this point. Christians are to be sober ( 1 Peter 1:13) and not allow their personal feelings, passions, and experiences to overwhelm their Christian thought and knowledge. In Christianity, thought leads feelings, not vice versa. This is why Paul can write in Philippians 4:8 “think on these things.” By virtue of our thoughts controlling and shaping our experience, the Christian is able to have the peace that passes all understands ( Philippians 4:7). When our experience, however, leads our thoughts, then we are placed in the situation that James describes in James 1:6 “like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed.” When we allow our experiences to dominate then our thoughts will follow and instead of having a positive, optimistic view of life that we know is ours through revelation, we begin to focus upon physical problems and difficulties that slant our thinking toward pessimism and a generally destructive view of life. We will then have no thought patterns that are capable of processing our experience meaningfully and constructively. Instead our thought patterns will be processed BY our experience, whatever that experience might be. It is due to this fundamental shift in thinking away from experience and toward allowing thought to control their lives that early Christians found themselves “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name” ( Acts 5:41).

It takes a fundamental shift in thinking and a supreme effort of the will in order to break the cycle of post modernistic thought and behavior. We must do this, however, in order to bring our lives back into a pattern that is dominated not by experience, but by thought. It helps when we have individuals around us who are also willing to make the effort. It is, however, incredibly difficult to do in a society where experience trumps thought in every direction we turn. The church can play a great role in providing a haven against post modernistic thought when Christians reject experience as the arbiter of thought and embrace the principles of Christianity as shaping their experiences.

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Saved by Grace through Faith

Saved by Grace through Faith

In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God“.  God’s grace is indeed a wonderful thing without which none would have any hope.  But we need to understand that saved by grace through faith does not mean we have no role to fulfill in our salvation.  If we did not have any responsibility in God’s plan then Paul contradicted himself when he told the Philippians to “work out their own salvation” in 2:12.

Saved by grace through faith means God’s grace is conditional upon faith.  If Grace were not conditional, everyone would be saved whether they had faith or not.  Grace is defined as an unmerited beneficial disposition.  God graciously provided a means whereby man could be saved through the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus on the cross of Calvary.  Man did nothing to earn it, did not deserve it and can never repay what it cost God to provide it.  God offered his way of salvation because of His love and Gracious nature.  Grace as a biblical term represents God reaching down from heaven to fallen man with a plan whereby man could be saved from his sin and have a hope of eternal life with God.  Mankind must meet the conditions God placed on His grace.

But salvation by faith does not mean salvation by faith alone.  The Bible plainly states that our salvation is not in James 2:24 which reads, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only“.  Jesus Christ said in Matthew 7:21 that  “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  People who say “Lord, Lord” are believers.  They have faith, but Jesus says unless they do the will of the Father in Heaven, they will enter the kingdom heaven.  So we must understand that faith as a biblical term represents the system of faith which the Christian must live in obedience to in order to receive God’s grace.  Paul affirmed this to be true in regards to the grace he received in Romans 1:5-6 which reads, “Through Him we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith among all nations for His name“.  This is why the writer of Hebrews wrote concerning Jesus in Hebrews 5:9, “And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him“.

Grace represents everything God did to make salvation available to man.  Faith is a Biblical term representing everything fallen man does in response to God’s grace.  Grace is God’s role in man’s salvation, faith is therefore man’s role which manifests itself in obedience to God’s will.  It is by faith that we obey (Hebrews 11).

When its all said and done, no matter what good we may do in obedience to God will still leave us short of earning our salvation.  Nothing man could do can ever place God in man’s debt or repay God what is cost Him to save us.  Nothing we could do can ever save us apart from the blood of Christ shed on the cross of Calvary.  In the end, our works of obedience will leave us short and it will be the grace of God that bridges the gap between us and an eternity in heaven with Him.  We are indeed saved by the grace of God through the faith of Christ.  Please visit us at www.granbychurchofChrist.org to learn more about God’s grace and our faith.

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