eternal life

What is eternal life?

Perhaps the most famous Bible verse is John 3:16, “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.”

Jesus said this during a conversation with a higher-up Jewish leader, Nicodemus. He believed Jesus was a teacher especially empowered by God to perform miracles (John 3:2).

Jesus informed Nic he needed to believe a lot more than that if he wanted to “enter the kingdom of God” and have “eternal life” (John 3:5, 15). Namely, Nicodemus must be “born again” and “believe in [Jesus]” (John 3:3, 15).

Nicodemus didn’t understand the born again reference isn’t a physical rebirth but a spiritual birth the Holy Spirit enables (John 3:4-6). When we are born again by the Spirit, we are enabled to believe Jesus is more than a teacher and a miracle worker; we are enabled to understand Jesus is God’s Son, given on our behalves to save us from the eternal condemnation our sins have earned us (John 3:16-18).

Given the context, then, it is right to interpret “eternal life” in John 3:16 as most of us typically do: heaven, a never-ending, blessed existence in the presence of God with all the other believers who have finished their earthly lives.

It is right, but it is incomplete.

Unfortunately, a lot of Christians who believe Jesus is God’s Son and has saved us from our sins understand that to mean the only real difference between us and non-believers is we have the hope of heaven one day.

A lot of Christians’ day-to-day lives remain largely unaffected by the fact that we are saved. Salvation is more of a future thing for us; when we die and are judged, we won’t have to pay for our sins because Jesus already did that.

Don’t get me wrong, that is a huge deal for which we are thankful, but, for most of us, that doesn’t particularly influence our here and now.

Why?

Because we don’t understand “eternal life” is much more than a blessed future in heaven.

Jesus didn’t just use the phrase in John 3:16; He expanded on the concept in 17:3, which reads, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

Jesus didn’t say, “Now this is eternal life: that they may go to heaven one day.” No, eternal life is more than that for Jesus. Eternal life includes going to heaven one day, but it doesn’t start then.

Jesus also didn’t say eternal life is that they will know God and Jesus or that they may know God and Jesus one day. No, eternal life proper is knowing God and Jesus now AND forever in heaven.

Eternal life, then, starts the moment we are born again and believe Jesus is God’s Son who saves us from our sins.

Every day we can know God and Jesus more and more. And because they are infinite, we can live eternally in heaven with them, continuously learning more about them, and never exhaust the subjects!

That’s an exciting prospect–forever learning more and more about God and Jesus–but the whole point of this post is WE CAN START NOW!

How?

You guessed it: by reading the Bible.

Jesus goes on to say in the same chapter that God’s Word is truth (17:17). When we read about God and Jesus in the scriptures, we can trust we are learning the truth about them. And by doing so, we know them more and more.

Forget about living your best life now. Open your Bible and live your eternal life now. (Which just so happens to be your best life, FYI).

On Doctrine and Why You Don’t Have to Have it All Figured Out

While studying Church history from Christ’s death to Martin Luther (1500s), it is interesting to me that I have yet to agree 100% with any one person’s doctrine. I don’t even fully agree with those who, like I do, hold scripture to be the highest authority and earnestly seek to believe and apply all that it teaches.

I’m a Protestant, and I don’t even agree with the founder of Protestantism on all points (Luther believed infant baptism regenerated their souls and doggedly defended transubstantiation).

This observation tells me two things:

1) It is highly unlikely there exists one person with totally correct doctrine, and

2) That’s okay.

The first point should serve to humble me regularly, as it implies I probably don’t have totally correct doctrine.

And the second point should serve to remind me my salvation nor my value in God’s eyes depends on my having perfect theology. Nowhere does the Bible say we have to have all of our theological ducks in a row to have a relationship with God and eventually enter His Heaven.

The Bible teaches this: if you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

See? No mention of having all the right doctrine, just some of the right doctrine.

These thoughts prompt me to give myself grace while studying God. It’s okay if I don’t figure it all out

And, equally important, these thoughts encourage me to show other believers respect, love, and grace if they hold a belief I don’t.

True and False Disciples

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” – Jesus

As I read Matthew 7 this morning, this verse caught my eye. Actually, the heading above this verse that the NIV publishing people added caught my eye. It read “True and False Disciples”.

I found this concept interesting. We frequently hear about true and false prophets and teachers – in fact, Jesus has just been talking about false prophets the verse before – but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard the phrase “true and false disciples”.

A “false” anything is never good. Whenever we read about “false” people in the Bible, they are masquerading as something true and pure, usually purposefully (though not always) conniving to trick people into believing they are the real deal.

Can “disciples” do that? Can people pretend to be Christ followers but not really be believers? And, if so, are those who are “false disciples” always aware they are faking it, or do some of them genuinely believe they are biblical Christians?

The “false disciples” in this verse and the next are characterized as being people who a) believe Jesus exists, b) revere Him in some way, c) do supernatural things, like drive out demons and perform miracles, “in His name”, meaning they d) believe they are doing things that honor Him or, at the very least, require His lending them His authority and power (Matthew 7:21-22).

Why in the world, then, would Jesus reject these people, indicating in no uncertain terms that they are not true followers of Christ (Matthew 7:23)?

Jesus tells us why he would reject these people (and anyone else) back up in verse 21: they did not do the will of His Father in heaven.

How did they not?! They did all kinds of Christiany things. How can Jesus say they weren’t doing the Father’s will, and why does that have bearing on their salvation if we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9)?

Jesus doesn’t spell out exactly what they weren’t doing, but we can deduct that what they were doing was not enough to a) earn their salvation, b) make them authentic Christ followers, and c) put them in God’s will.

In essence these people thought they were doing what God wanted them to do, but, somehow, they were not obeying Him.

Given that their external actions looked good, perhaps the problem of their disobedience was internal: their hearts weren’t in their actions. They were doing these “good things” for the wrong reasons, the primary of which was to earn a spot in heaven.

Earning our salvation is not God’s will. I know this because it can’t be done. There is no one righteous, not one (Romans 3:10). Jesus rejected these people because they didn’t have faith in Him to save them. They were trying to do it themselves.

If that’s not you, that’s great. If you know you are saved not because you do anything right (let alone everything) but because you believe sinless Jesus died on the cross for your sins, taking the punishment you deserve, giving you the reward He deserved, and the Father agreed to not hold you eternally accountable for your sins because you believe these things, that’s wonderful.

But don’t miss that verse 21 still has a strong word for us who have our salvation theology ducks in a row.

Jesus says of us kind of people, us “true disciples”, that we do the will of the Father.

Obedience – ACTING according to His will as it is laid out in scripture – is the sign of true, saving faith. Obedience doesn’t earn salvation, but it is the mark of the one who has been saved. Obedience is the proof in the pudding, if you will.

“Belief” that is not followed by obedience was never belief in the first place. This is true in all areas of our lives: we only do that which we believe.

For instance, I can say I believe eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly is best for my body. But I don’t do anything to act in accordance with that idea. In fact, I do the opposite. I eat junk and sit 15 of the 16 hours I am awake every single day.

Why? Because I am not truly convinced I ought to do otherwise. My twisted logic, my actual belief, is that making the food and exercise choices I make is somehow better than making the choices I don’t make. Yes, I will intellectually agree that I believe my body would be better off if I made healthy choices. But when the rubber meets the road and I have to make decisions, my “belief” is betrayed by my opposite actions. My true belief, whether I am conscious of it or not, is that unhealthy choices are better in some way than healthy choices.

We always act in accordance with our actual beliefs.

If you want to know what a man believes about anything, then, including God, watch what he does. If he runs in the opposite direction of the things espoused in scripture, no matter what he tells you or himself (we are super good at fooling ourselves), he is not a Christ-follower. If he does his best to pursue what God tells him to do in scripture, he is a Christ-follower.

Action is evidence of belief, for better or for worse.

What do your actions say about what you truly believe?

(Side note: you might argue that if we looked at the actions of the “false disciples”, we would say they are believers, doing things Jesus commanded His disciples to do. But if you observe them just a little while longer, you hear them appeal to Jesus that they should be received by Him because of their actions – not on account of their faith – a blatant violation of scripture. Their true beliefs come out in their actions – they are doing good things to earn salvation – and then verbally when they are informed their actions aren’t going to save them.)

Cheap Grace

I started reading a Bonhoeffer book last week. He wrote it in the 1930’s, but it reads as if he wrote it yesterday.

Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of organized churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquired too cheaply? We gave away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations; we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard.

Bonhoeffer coined the term “cheap grace”. When we share with others that Jesus died on the cross for them and “all they have to do” to get to heaven is accept that, we are setting them up for the biggest fall of their lives (perhaps of their eternities as well). We tell people they just need to check that belief box, and then they can go about their way, living however they want to because all is covered by grace.

But that’s not the message of the Bible.

Belief in Jesus without repentance (defined as being truly contrite and resolving to do the opposite of the wrong you have been doing through the power of the Holy Spirit) is not true recognition of the depth of one’s sinfulness, of the holiness God requires of us, and of one’s need for Christ’s substitutionary death.

When we limit our sharing about Jesus with others – whether individually or from the pulpit – to “cheap grace”, we are only telling one half of the story. Yes, Jesus died to save us, and, yes, there is not one “good work” we can or need to do in order to be saved. But the grace God offers us through the killing of His Son is not cheap at all. As Bonhoeffer says, it is costly grace.

God’s extension of grace to us cost Him His Son. Go back and watch Jesus be beaten to a pulp and crucified in The Passion of the Christ. Not easy to watch for us; how much harder for Jesus’ Dad?

And the Christianity to which Jesus calls us is not cheap either. Go back and read Jesus’ commands to the disciples to give up everything and follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22); to hate their families in comparison to how much they loved Him (Luke 14:26); to die to themselves (Luke 9:23-24). If they wanted to be saved by grace, not having to do anything to earn salvation except believe the Gospel (Ephesians 2:8-9), the disciples would have to do it on Jesus’ terms. And His terms were/are, “accept Me as your Lord and Savior”.

When we offer people cheap grace, we erase “Lord” from Jesus’ terms. We shout Savior, but we don’t even whisper Lord. And that’s not biblical. People think they are becoming Christians because that go-to-Heaven-without-doing-anything deal sounds pretty good to them. But they aren’t surrendering any part of their lives, much less all of their lives to Jesus. They aren’t making Him their Boss. Cheap grace.

So our churches fill up with people who are fat on cheap grace and have never even heard of costly grace, if they attend church at all. The Christians who shared the gospel with them are to blame. And the pastors and Bible teachers they sit under are to blame. Our congregations swell with people who don’t live like Christians because they haven’t been taught the full picture of what it means to follow Christ. They prayed a prayer for cheap grace and think that’ll do. They go to church because it makes them feel good and/or just in case there was some fine print on that cheap grace that says they really DO need to attend church in order to get into Heaven. But after awhile, they don’t really see the point of attending church… they are confident they have their Get Out of Hell Free card, and sleeping in on Sunday mornings or going to brunch early to beat the church crowds is much more appealing. They stop attending altogether, only to be replaced by other people who have bought cheap grace. And on and on the cycle goes.

[Note: many people who accept cheap grace sincerely understand their need for a Savior and believe that Christ is the only Savior who will do. If this is the case, hear me: I believe they are just as saved as people who understand grace is costly. The difference that burdens me is not necessarily their eternal destinies being different. What burdens me is that when people stop at cheap grace and never come to understand costly grace – when they never move beyond belief in Christ to actually following Christ – THEY MISS OUT! They miss out on having a relationship with God that is more intimate than any relationship they have with a human. They miss out on being set free from sin patterns that hurt them and their loved ones. They miss out on being a part of the miraculous, powerful things the Lord is doing all around them. Cheap grace robs them of the life God has for them now.]

As I continued to reflect on what I was reading in the Bonhoeffer book, the Spirit politely insisted I take a look at myself.

I began to wonder if I am guilty of preaching cheap grace to people. I tell people about Christ every week. I share the Gospel. But have I shared cheap grace to the neglect of costly grace? Do I make it a point to emphasize to seekers that their decision to accept Christ as Savior must also include accepting Him as Lord? Boss? Master? I also teach Christians the Bible every week. But have I really been teaching believers cheap grace to the exclusion of costly grace? Am I too quick to offer grace when believers really ought to be challenged to follow after Jesus more completely?

Last week I read this:

Costly Grace

What is our Christianity costing us, really? If we are not committed to doing whatever He wants however He wants whenever He wants no matter what, we need to seriously consider whether we’ve been sold cheap grace. If our being a Christian isn’t costing us anything – everything – we don’t understand what being a Christian really is. The good news is Jesus wants to lovingly teach us.

Are you willing to be taught? 

How He Loves Us

“Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This sentence stole my breath yesterday.

I came across it in the Gospel of Mark, where an account of Jesus’ interaction with a rich man is detailed.

Mark 10:17-22 reads like this,

17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Some things strike me about this account.

The rich man obviously respected and revered Jesus, falling on his knees and calling Jesus “good teacher”. The man appeared to be a devout Jew, upholding these major commandments Jesus mentions. And, yet, the man was very concerned that he might need to do even more to inherit eternal life… It seems this guy wanted Jesus, a leading Rabbi, to confirm that he had dotted his i’s and crossed his t’s when it came to his salvation. He wanted assurance, something, ironically, he would not find in doing anything more.

There he was, pleading his case to Jesus that he had done everything required of him by Jewish law (or at least the “important” things as expressed in the 10 commandments), but he didn’t get it. He didn’t understand that his eternal destiny didn’t depend upon him doing anything…

Instead of wringing the man’s neck in anger… instead of shaking His head in disappointment… instead of throwing His hands up in frustration… Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Jesus validated this man’s worth by looking at him instead of away from him, and Jesus loved him in spite of his failure to understand what Jesus was saying to him. 

Jesus continued, explaining to the man that what he really needed to gain eternal life was to place his faith in Jesus, by way of selling his possessions and following Christ. Unfortunately, this man wasn’t willing to do that.

Two thoughts cross my mind.

One, do we approach the lost this way? When we share the Gospel and people don’t get it, do we look at them and love them anyway? Do we treat them with dignity and respect? Do we continue to care for them in our hearts?

The second thought I have is far more personal. I am often the rich man in this story; I don’t get what Jesus is saying to me, or, worse, I get it and choose not to follow Him. But just as He did with this man, Jesus looks at me and loves me anyway. His is a beautiful compassion that does not waver in response to my behaviors or short-comings. 

And He feels the same way about you. No matter where you are in your journey with Him, He is looking at you with the loving, healing, calming, faithful gaze that only our perfect Savior can sustain. May your heart be steadied by His look and His love today.

Standing in Grace

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Romans 5:1-2

Every word in scripture matters. Every word. God inspired Paul to use the word “stand” for a reason.

A posture of standing communicates strength. Standing commands a certain sense of readiness, stability, and power. Standing is an active posture, utilizing more muscles and burning more calories than sitting or laying.

Most of the time I don’t stand in grace.

I sit, head hung low, shoulders slumped, face downcast, enduring the days the Lord has allotted me.

I mentally assent to the fact that I am saved by grace through faith, and I continue to grow, iota by iota, because of that same grace… but rarely am I inspired to take hold of that grace in my heart and use it as a catalyst to live boldly and confidently in my position with the Lord.

If we correctly understand grace, and we never fully will this side of Heaven, we ought to be on a constant emotional high. We ought to be overtaken by joy and awe all the time because we have been redeemed – bought back from a life of self-induced destruction.

Our confidence ought to be off the charts, our security utterly unshakable, knowing beyond all doubt that we are His. It is finished. Nothing can undo our status as a child of God, forgiven, set free, and empowered by our faith in Jesus Christ to live a life fully pleasing to Him and, simultaneously, fully satisfying to us. (They are one in the same, by the way.) And it is only by grace that this is so.

Paul, the Christians to whom he wrote in Rome, and you and I are to stand in grace. I find it interesting that the text doesn’t read on grace.

The grace given us through our faith in Jesus is our foundation, yes, and we are definitely standing on that foundation. But we are also charged to stand in grace.

That tiny preposition implies we are surrounded and upheld not by our own power or merit or strength but by the very power of grace itself

If we stand in our own strength, it won’t be long before we fall, feint from all the work it takes to get through life. We can’t do it. Or, at least, we can’t do it well.

But when we stand in grace, it’s as if the Lord is holding us up with His own two hands, bearing all our weight for us, relieving our muscles of their duties to keep us upright. And, in that case, we don’t grow weary. We don’t stumble and fall.

You may be realizing about now that I am drawing opposite conclusions from this verse. At first, I said the use of the word “stand” communicates we have an active role in our standing in grace. But then I said the phrase “in grace” implies the standing is not of our doing.

So which is it?

Both.

It is a beautiful mystery how our free will and His sovereignty work together, and if you ever meet someone who can explain it to you fully, don’t believe them.

It seems to me that we have to consent to and cooperate with His desire to stand us up in grace. (I know, I don’t like that sentence either.)

Get out of your seat, Christ-follower. Stand up. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith. Stand in that grace. And allow the Lord Himself to keep you standing. 

True Security

I don’t know if it’s a female thing or a human thing, but I seem to spend a lot of time and energy working toward one thing: feeling secure.

Safe.

Stable.

Accepted.

We can find security in a lot of different places… how much money is in our bank accounts… a significant other to come home to every night… “atta boys” from our bosses… compliments on our children… nods of approval from our parents…

But if that’s all? If those are our only sources of security and significance, we’re setting ourselves up for a guaranteed fall. 

Because that money can be gone the second your car dies or your child needs surgery.

And that significant other can decide you aren’t so significant to them, and they can walk out the door.

And that boss can be unimpressed with your latest project and decide to let you go.

And our children can embarrass us with their choices we didn’t raise them to make.

And our parents can disagree with the paths we take and shake their heads side to side instead of up and down.

These sources of security – they’re all tenuous. Even the most reliable sources can and will let us down because people weren’t made to shoulder the identity of another.

No, there is only One who can handle that responsibility and handle it well all. the. time.

God made us.

In line with the creation story, God made Kelly Marie Vreeland on April 1, 1983, and He saw that it was very good.

If it weren’t, He wouldn’t have done it. God only does good things.

I am His intentional good work, knit together in my mother’s womb, and so are you. 

And if He says we are good, what greater source of security could we have?

God created good things – us – but very early on – from childhood, the scriptures say – every inclination of our hearts was evil (Genesis 8:21).

Ah.

So that’s what happened. That’s why we all feel so not good. Sin overtook that which was good and all but ruined us. But God loved us too much to leave us at that. We needed a rescuer, so He came Himself to redeem us from the Fall – our fall into pure evil.

When Christ died on the cross, He looked me and you in the eye and said, “It is finished.”

His sacrificing Himself for us was done. His pouring out His life to redeem us from every evil inclination that rules our hearts was complete.

Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God offered up complete redemption on a silver platter to each one of us. It was finished. There was nothing else He could do but wait.

He waits to see who will take Him.

He waited a good long while for me. And He’s still waiting for some of you.

But when I chose Him – when I agreed that I needed Him and only He would do – I became God’s daughter.

And the best part is there is no undoing that (John 10:28-29).

Anyone who accepts their need for redemption and acknowledges only Jesus is capable of such a feat becomes God’s child. Forever.

That is security.

There is nothing more sure, more certain.

He meant what He did on the cross, and if He had to do it again, He would because His love for us never changes. He is the perfect Father, delighting in us, wanting only the best for us, leading us, protecting us, and there is no more prominent a position, no securer a place, than being a child of God. 

Take heart, we are His.

We are HIS.

We are His!