Article linked to Bible study post for March 14 and the set readings:
Numbers 21:4-9 — The Israelites are told to look up to the bronze snake to find God’s mercy.
John 3:13-21 — We find God’s grace and new life through believing in Jesus’ sacrifice for us
Ephesians 2:1-10 — Paul explains how by grace and through faith we have been saved.
The Bible clearly teaches that salvation comes by our faith decision to trust in God’s grace alone — but some churches seek to add religious requirements
GOD’S GRACE, especially God’s grace in granting salvation, is much misunderstood. Both Catholic and Evangelical expressions of Christian spirituality quickly become mired in legalism — and that is the big problem Jesus faced with the Jews and especially the Pharisees of His time.
I remember as a young Christian that I waited a long time to hear a clear explanation of how God’s grace works. Part of the reason was that the church I was in didn’t really believe in grace. It would have been highly inconvenient! They didn’t practise baptism, but a lot of infants who clearly couldn’t talk yet, let alone make a declaration of faith, were brought for dedication and blessing, and the form of Christening service they used was called baptism and it communicated to the families that their infants were now born again. Similarly there was an emphasis on communion in all the weekly services and a kind of implicit belief that receiving the bread and wine at the altar was instrumental in salvation, in some way.
Salvation by works or by God’s grace?
My later experience in evangelical churches revealed a different form of this reliance on “works” which was to do with the quality of one’s discipleship, quiet time disciplines, regular attendance and evangelistic effort.
With one, church ordinances were the gateway to salvation, and with the other stream, it was church worship and attendance and Christian dedication generally.
Support for the idea of an ordinance might come from a casual hearing of this week’s OT story of the complaining and disbelieving Israelites in the desert dying after being bitten by deadly snakes.
Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.Numbers 21:7-9
“Look at it!” So it could be argued that this is like the requirement to attend church, or listen to the sermon, or receive something from a priest. And that style of church is more Old Testament than New — priest and sacrament rather than Word and Spirit.
Doing or being?
But the “good work” they had to do was to regard the bronze snake and think about what it represented… and remember the covenant they had with God. It was a call to repent and believe, which is the message Jesus started His ministry with. If it’s a work, it is a work of the heart — a change of heart — and that’s more about ‘being’ than ‘doing’.
The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”Mark 1:15
Jesus’ talk with the Scripture teacher Nicodemus was against a background of ‘doing’ vs ‘being’. Church ordinances, by their nature, emphasise ‘doing’. And some may see support for this in the NT from James, in a passage which ends:
“You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.”
Taken out of context, this might appear to justify the view that salvation is not God’s gift alone, but also by our good works. But it comes at the end of a discussion which starts:
“What good is it, my brother and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?”James 2:14
The evidence of being born again
Anyone can say that they belong to Jesus. Anyone can claim to be born again — but if it’s true, it is a life transformation which will certainly result in a changed attitude and changed behaviour. Everyone will know whether it’s true or not by the fruit that results:
Jesus said: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good… for a tree is recognised by its fruit.”Matthew 12:33
And that is what James is teaching. Faith, if it is not accompanied by the kind of action that results from faith, is dead — an empty claim.
When Nicodemus went at night to talk to Jesus about the kingdom of God, he had almost certainly witnessed people being baptised in the River Jordan, but Jesus didn’t tell him to do that. He didn’t tell him to do anything — but rather, not to resist what God was doing, in causing faith to rise in Him for who Jesus was — the Son of God, the Messiah sent to bring salvation to the Jews.
He told Nicodemus he needed to be born again — born of the Spirit — in order to see and experience the kingdom rule of God in his life. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and he knew a lot about keeping the rules and doing the right things. He knew all about ordinances! But Jesus just challenged him to be — to be a believer in Jesus, and so enter into new life. He continued:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.John 3:14-16
Here is one Jew talking with another, and there is no mention of priests or rituals or sacrifices. Just repent — have a change of heart — and believe. He says the same to us. Don’t complicate it. It’s not ‘churchianity’, it’s about Me. Will you accept Me as your Lord and your Saviour?
Paul’s reminder — “It is by grace you have been saved”
Our story, which has flowed from the hurting Israelites in the desert to the confused Pharisee talking to Jesus continues with Paul bringing his clarity to his readers and hearers in the church circuit around Ephesus. He reminds them that it is by God’s grace they have been saved.
This argument, about doing vs being, taking the religious route or the faith and grace route, was a hot topic in the early churches. In the congregations there were those of Jewish background, who found it difficult to sit loose to the things Jews thought essential, and there were those of Greek background, who had a performance mentality. Paul needed to lay it on the line. They needed to hear it over and over, just as we do. This is not from yourselves!
We were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus…Ephesians 2: 3-6.
Either it is the gift of God, or it is something we have achieved by merit. It can’t be a bit of both, because that would devalue God’s gift. It’s like saying the gift is nice, but it’s not enough, so I have made my contribution. That’s like offering to pay the Queen to give you a knighthood (don’t try it).
No! God does the giving and we do the receiving, with gratitude.
It’s an important distinction, but a difficult one for some. The church has wanted to have a stake in people’s destiny, and then have people dependent on the church. But our dependence must be rooted in our Father alone. The Wars of Religion were fought in France in the later 1500s with great persecution and bloodshed. The Reformation swept through the Continent and Scandinavia, and the Counter Reformation resisted it.
Today it comes down to us being clear on whether the Bible is our final authority, or just one reference among many, among such as the Church Fathers, the tradition of the denomination, and our human experience and reason.
For the born-again believer, this is a digression. God has spoken through His word and He continues to speak through His word. There are insights to be gained from ancient sources, and we need to think through the differences in culture and context, but we need to know where the baseline authority lies.
And we know our Father, His forbearance, His generosity, His apparent bias towards us, His children, treating us better than we deserve. We rejoice that in His mercy,
God raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace, expressed in His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace, you have been saved, through faith…Ephesians 6-7
/////// © 2021 Ian Greig //////