Our Message About God

For thousands of years, God has been reaching out to mankind to establish a relationship with us, help us know Him and His ways, and bring people together in healthy relationships and community. We all seem to resist God's efforts, though, and we often make a mess of things. Amazingly, God still loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. The pages below set out the basic problem and what God has done to solve it. It's the heart of the message of the Bible. 
In my heart of hearts, I know I am not all I ought to be. I have done things that are undeniably wrong, and I have failed to do many good things that I had the opportunity to do.

It's not pleasant for us to think about our failures. In fact, if you're like me, you have probably found ways to suppress the discomfort you feel over your shortcomings. Some of us call psychology to our defense and take comfort in its rejection of the whole matter of guilt. Another tact is to bury our awkward feelings by staying busy, perhaps even to the point of compulsive busyness. I think the most common way I personally try to avoid the pain of knowing I don't measure up is to remind myself of how many good things I have done or how many people do things much worse than I do.

I realize this is faulty reasoning. It reminds me of the proverbial policeman who catches someone speeding and pulls him over. The patrolman doesn't really care how many times the person has stayed within the speed limit or how many times someone else may have been speeding. Nor does he care how compulsively busy the person is. He is painfully focused on one undeniable fact: the speeder got caught doing wrong! The same is true of my shortcomings. Neither my good behavior on some occasions nor other people's horrible behavior on some occasions changes the fact that I have done things that are flat wrong.

God, of course, is also quite aware of our imperfections. Not surprisingly, though, His approach to handling them is different from ours. He doesn't make any excuses. Nor does he ignore it or downplay it. Instead, like a skillful physician who also has a good bedside manner, He gently but also frankly informs us of the seriousness of our condition. I should warn you, His diagnosis is not flattering. In fact, it's pretty unpleasant. There is some good news that goes along with it, though: God also offers treatment-and it's free! If we are willing to accept God's diagnosis of our condition and to seek His help, we can enjoy the benefits of the treatment He provides.
But first we have to face the diagnosis of our condition. God's word for our shortcomings is sin, and He is painfully clear about how serious sin is. He warns us that sin is a deceptive power that will destroy us if it goes unchecked in our lives (Romans 1:18-32). He points out that sin is also an enslaving power that soon controls us and leads us to repeated failure (John 8:34; II Peter 2:18-19). Even more painfully, he tells us that sin is serious enough in His eyes to break off our relationship with Him (Isaiah 59:2). At its root, sin is rebellion against God, and He will not tolerate rebellion (Luke 19:11-14). In fact, sin is so serious that it dooms us to spend all eternity banished from God's presence (II Thessalonians 1:8-9).

Worse still, every human, including you and me, deserves this fate, because all of us have sinned and continually fall short of the glorious life God wants us to live (Romans 3:23). If that's news to you or if you have trouble accepting it, I understand. As I mentioned before, I recognize that this whole discussion is pretty disconcerting. The diagnosis of a serious illness is never pleasant. But let me urge you not to react hastily to anything that may be putting you off about all this. We have to admit that God's diagnosis of our condition has the ring of truth, even though it is unsettling. Besides, the way we respond to this diagnosis will have eternal consequences (Matthew 5:3).

Like the stubborn old man who refuses to go to the doctor to get his "little lump" checked out, so we sometimes deny the seriousness of our "little imperfections." As is so often true in the case of the tumor, however, so it is with our relationship with God: the situation is far more serious than we like to think about. The unadorned truth is that we are in dire straits spiritually. We desperately need help. We need someone to deliver us from the destructive power and eternal consequences of our sin.

Thankfully, though, there is a way for us to be rescued from our dire predicament. The Bible speaks of this rescue in terms of being "saved." If we are willing to humble ourselves and admit the truth about our spiritual poverty, we can be saved (rescued) from the power and consequences of sin.

But how? How can a person be saved from the controlling power, the devastating consequences and the eternal aftermath of sin?
The starting point for discussing salvation, is not what we can do, but what God has already done. God not only diagnoses our condition, He also provides a cure. God initiates salvation. He makes the first move. He takes the first step. Because of His lavish love, marvelous mercy and amazing grace, God offers us salvation as a gift.

That's what grace is all about. It is a gift God gives us. It is something that is not deserved and could never be earned. No one could ever be good enough to earn what God freely gives us.

Specifically, the gift God gave is His son, Jesus. God sent Jesus to die for the sins we committed, so that we could be saved from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin. Because of Jesus' sacrifice, God is willing to forgive us for all the wrong things we have ever done and all of the right things that we should have done but didn't. Jesus' death on the cross pays the penalty for all these things.

Surprisingly, Jesus never gave a detailed explanation of grace. We are dependent on other sections of the New Testament for that. What Jesus did do, though, is perhaps even more helpful-He demonstrated grace. We see a demonstration of grace in Jesus' forgiving a woman who had been caught in sin (John 8:1-11). We see it in Jesus' forgiving the disciples for their mistakes time and time again (Mark 9:14-32, 33-37; 10:13-16, 35-45). We see it in the miracles and in all the other things Jesus did for people that they didn't deserve. All these are demonstrations of God's grace and mercy, and they show us His desire for sinful people to be saved.

Not only did God send Jesus to die for our sins and graciously offer us forgiveness, He also raised Jesus from the dead! This, too, is essential to our salvation (Romans. 4:25). If God had not raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus would not have been able to forgive us (I Corinthians 15:12-17). When God raised Him from the dead, however, it showed clearly and powerfully that He really is the Son of God (Romans 1:4). He is still alive, and He is seated at the right hand of God interceding with Him on our behalf (Romans 8:34). Since Jesus is the Son of God, as His resurrection clearly indicates, we must listen to Him, submit our lives to Him, and trust Him for our salvation.

Once a person begins to understand this message, that salvation originates with God and is based on His gracious act of sending Jesus, then and only then is it time to consider what role humankind plays in the process. If a person is convicted of his sin and need for God and believes God is willing to save him, his question then becomes, "What should I do?" God's grace is available to everyone, but not everyone receives its benefits. What makes the difference? How can one "receive God's abundant provision of grace and the gift of righteousness" (Romans 5:17)? What response is necessary?
Our basic response to God's grace is faith (Hebrews 11:6). In one sense, faith is a simple matter, yet at the same time it has several aspects. For example, there are certain specific truths that must be believed. We must believe that God really did raise Jesus from the dead and that He is who He claimed to be, namely the Son of God (John 8:24; Romans 10:9). Jesus was not merely a uniquely devoted spiritual teacher; He was God in human flesh and is still the living Lord of the universe.

We must also believe that Jesus' death is the penalty that pays for our sins (Romans 4:25; I Corinthians 15:4; Galatians 1:4). There is nothing we could do independently of Jesus' sacrificial death to cover for the sins we have committed. We have to trust that the death penalty He suffered is counted as the punishment we deserve.

Faith is not merely "believe that," however, it is also "believe in" (John 6:29). It goes beyond merely believing that certain statements are true. It includes the idea of personal faith or trust in Jesus. Many people can tell us facts and we will "believe that" those facts are true. In contrast, there are not nearly so many people of whom we will say, "I believe in him." Believing in someone entails a deep confidence that he or she is reliable and trustworthy. If we come to have that kind of confidence in someone, we will believe that the things he tells us are true, but we will also trust him, rely on him, and even act on what he says. So it is when we come to believe in Jesus.

In order to receive God's gracious provision of salvation, we must also respond to His grace by repenting (Luke 13:1-9). To repent is to "change the mind." This is not so flippant as our common references to changing our minds about simple plans we had made. Rather, it refers to a radical reorientation of our minds. It is a whole new way of thinking. It is a whole new direction for our lives. Previously, we were headed in a predominantly self-centered direction. Repentance means heading in a God-centered direction. A good synonym of repent is "turn." We turn back from our selfishness and neglect of God and turn toward Him.

Genuine repentance is both inward and outward (Acts 26:20). It is not mere behavior modification. It is a sincere change of heart. But neither is it merely a New Year's Resolution. The genuine change in our hearts shows up in actual changes of behavior. We adopt God's thinking and begin to adopt His ways as well. We will not be able to do this perfectly, of course, but there is a definite, noticeable change nevertheless.

Being forgiven by God is also dependent on our confessing in the presence of others that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9-10). This is not a mindless, rote confession. Rather, it is an expression of our earnest belief. What's more, it is not merely words. It is an expression of our heart's intent. To confess Jesus as Lord is not only to state that we believe the fact but is also an announcement to others that we are embracing Him as the Lord of our lives.

If we understand the word "Lord," we will not lightly confess Jesus as Lord of our lives. "Lord" means "master." It is the word that was used to describe the master of a slave. To confess Jesus as Lord, then, entails us adopting the role of a slave. A failure to recognize this makes our confession worthless (Luke 6:46). The word "Lord" is also used in the New Testament to describe the Emperor of the Roman Empire (Acts 25:26). Thus, to be Lord is to be the absolute ruler. To confess Jesus as Lord is to embrace Him as the absolute ruler of our lives.

To participate in God's salvation, we must also be baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:36-38). Baptism is an immersion in water, but it is much more than that as well. In baptism we die to our old lives, are buried, and then are raised up from the dead to begin a new life (Romans 6:1-4). What's more, in baptism we have the incomparable privilege of participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus-the very event that provides the basis for our salvation! Through the mighty power of God, we are carried back spiritually over all the years and all the miles to be joined with Jesus on His cross, buried with Him in His tomb, and raised up with Him by the power of God. We are crucified with Christ and then begin to live a powerful new life in Him (Galatians 2:20). We are "baptized into Christ," that is into a whole new relationship with Him.

Baptism, like confession, is not a mindless ritual, and it's not for just anyone. To be baptized into Christ, a person needs to be old enough to understand the good news of what God did through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2:22-37). He or she needs to be capable of and willing to repent (Acts 2:38). The person must be willing to embrace Jesus as Lord. What's more, since the benefits that come when a person is baptized are the result of God's working, the person being baptized must be able and willing to believe that God will indeed work through it (Colossians 2:11-12). When received with understanding, faith, repentance, and acceptance of Jesus as Lord, God works mightily through baptism to wash a person clean.

Baptism also provides us with a tangible beginning point for our new lives in Christ (Romans 6:4). We don't have to look back and wonder if or when we may have gotten into a relationship with God. Baptism provides us with a specific time and place that we can look back to as the beginning.
We have already noticed that faith, repentance, confession, and baptism are not isolated religious deeds we do to save ourselves. Rather, they are the way God has directed us to respond to His marvelous gift of grace in Christ in order to receive the benefits of forgiveness and salvation. Some other observations about our response are important as well.

First, each aspect of our response is a matter of faith. Repentance is not merely a turning away from sin, it is also a turning toward God. That's not something a person will do unless he or she truly believes in God. The same is true of confession. As we noted previously, to confess Jesus as Lord is to embrace Him as Lord of one's life. I wouldn't dare embrace someone as Lord of my life unless I was thoroughly convinced that he indeed is the Lord. Faith is a part of real baptism as well. In baptism we are "raised up with Him through your faith in the power of God" (Colossians 2:12).

This means that, even though there are tangible actions included in repenting, confessing Jesus, and being baptized in His name, all these responses are a matter of faith. Apart from faith, they would be empty rituals. With faith, however, they are the saving response. The faith-nature of every aspect of our response to God's grace may explain why the Bible sometimes summarizes the necessary response simply in terms of faith or believing (John 3:16).

We should also observe that every aspect of our response to God's gift is a response to Jesus Himself. We are to believe in Jesus. We repent and turn back to God by turning to Jesus. We confess Jesus as Lord and embrace Jesus as the new master of our daily lives. When we get baptized, we die to our old life, are joined with Jesus in His death, and are raised up with Jesus to begin new, spiritual lives. God is not calling us to an impersonal performance of certain procedural matters. He is calling us to respond personally to Him by responding to Jesus, the Savior.

Finally, we should observe that faith, repentance, confession, and baptism are not items on a check list that are to be routinely and mindlessly completed and then crossed off the list. Hopefully this is obvious from what has already been said. Such an approach would be too mechanical and human-centered. God wants our hearts. He wants our souls. He wants our very being. Out of a deep awareness of our sinfulness and failure to measure up to God's will, we humbly beg for mercy. Because He is a merciful and compassionate God, He made an abundant provision of mercy and grace available in Christ. When we understand the good news that Christ's death is available as payment for our own personal sins, we humbly believe in Him, sincerely repent of our sins, earnestly confess Him as Lord of our lives, and get baptized with faith in Him. When we do, God blesses us beyond imagination. He forgives us for all our sins (Acts 2:38), comes to live inside us by means of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39), and makes us a part of His family, the church (Acts 2:41-47). We are saved at last! It then becomes our life-long calling to grow closer to Him, learn more of His will for our lives, and live obediently under His charitable lordship.

Marvin Bryant, Minister, North West Church of Christ