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.

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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.)

Trust

So, to understate things, Israel had some trust issues with the Lord. (I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.)

The Old Testament spends a lot of time chronicling the ways in which Israel failed to believe God would/could take care of them, despite His promise that He would and His continual actions that showed He would.  They were quick to blame Him when they experienced the fall out of their own unfaithful actions (…this is starting to sound like someone else I know…).

In one particular instance (Isaiah 50:1), an exiled Israel dared to accuse God of abandoning them, comparing Him to a man who divorces his wife and a father who sells his children to pay off his debts (an acceptable practice back then).

God is quick to flip the tables on Israel, correcting their out of touch spin they’d put on the situation. He tells them, essentially, “Oh, you’ve been ‘abandoned’ all right, but not because left you; I gave you warning upon warning upon warning to stop committing idolatry, but you wouldn’t listen. Your stubborn hearts left Me, and now you’re experiencing the natural consequences of the choices you’ve made,” (Isaiah 50:1-2).

If the story had ended here, it’d be nothing more than a he-said-she-said middle school break up. Yes, Israel would’ve been guilty of breaking their covenant with God to only worship and fully obey Him, but God also would’ve been guilty of breaking His end of the deal to never leave or forsake Israel.

Frankly, I don’t have time for a God like that.

Can I say that?

I don’t need a “God” who isn’t true to His word (even when I’m not true to mine). I’ve got plenty of humans that can let me down in that regard (in fact, all of them can, myself included). An untrustworthy, undependable God is not something I am in the market for.

But the story didn’t end there… after God gives the exiled Israel their reality check, something intriguing happens.

He says, “Was my arm too short to ransom you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?”

Do you see it?

God switches verb tenses.

The first question is past tense – was God unable to save Israel from whatever problems they were experiencing, “forcing” them to run to false gods?

The second question is present tense – is God too weak to rescue Israel from her current bondage in Babylon?

Of course, the answer to both questions is no, so the switch in verb tense not only highlights God’s sufficiency in Israel’s past and present situations, it screams the theme of the entire Bible, “REDEMPTION IS COMING!”

Rescue is imminent! God is with us – He always has been – and He is ready to rescue and redeem the hard parts of our lives – of our souls – when we’re ready for Him to. God has never been insufficient in our pasts, and He isn’t insufficient now!

Yes, this is prophecy referring to Israel’s physical rescue from slavery in Babylon. Yes, this is prophecy referring to mankind’s eternal salvation through the person of Jesus Christ. But I believe it is also prophecy referring to the Lord’s rescuing of believers from their everyday trials and tribulations.

The Lord is going to redeem this whole messed up world one day. When He returns, Christ will right it all. But in the meantime, He wants to redeem the individual heartaches we have and stupid choices we make in each of our lives, one by one.

Does He lack the strength to rescue you? Presently? Now?

No, His strength never diminishes. He is the omnipotent One.

Do you lack the strength to trust Him to rescue you? That’s okay. He doesn’t call you to trust perfectly, and His rescuing of you doesn’t depend upon your ability to do so. But being able to trust Him sure makes things easier on you. So ask Him to help you.

“Let him who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God,” (Isaiah 50:10).

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!

How Far Will God Go to Get Our Attention?

“Sometimes it feels like I am being swallowed whole. Like this life is too much. Like I am too much.”

I said that to God.

And a truth popped into my head almost instantly: there is someone who knows what that feels like.

Jonah was literally swallowed whole… and why?

Because he wouldn’t do what the Lord told him to do (Jonah 1). 

“‘Go to the great city of Nineveh…'” God had said. “But Jonah ran away from the Lord…”

Yeah, Jonah has always understood me… us…

“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up… they knew [Jonah] was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so… the sea was getting rougher and rougher…”

Yes, things only go from bad to worse when we’re running away from God.

The Lord caused this storm. He will not hesitate to create storms – “bad things” – to get our attention. 

“‘I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you,'” Jonah admitted.

Jonah’s nothing if he isn’t honest.

Am I? Are you?

Are we willing to tell people, “HEY! I AM RUNNING AWAY FROM THE LORD! I KNOW THAT IT IS MY FAULT THAT THIS GREAT STORM HAS COME UPON YOU!”

I don’t read this as Jonah bragging about his disobedience. I don’t think he is wearing it as a badge of honor. I know I’m not. I read Jonah as a guy who is being honest about where his heart is, transparent about his failings. And I hope I’m read the same way…

At his request, the sailors threw Jonah overboard to save themselves from the storm that was threatening their lives – the storm Jonah had caused. The sailors did this reluctantly, fully believing Jonah would die if they put him in that sea. They didn’t do it for Jonah’s good – they did it for themselves – but they were scared to death – scared of death scared of Jonah’s death

Yes, we can – we must – look at those we love who are weathering a storm God caused in an effort to get our attention and say, “THROW ME OVERBOARD! SAVE YOURSELVES, AND TRUST GOD TO SAVE ME!”

And they might believe if they do that we will die. They might be scared to death – scared of death – scared of our deaths…

But they needn’t be. Because we know there is more to Jonah’s story – to our stories – than a cold, frightening swim in a swelling sea.

“They took Jonah and they threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm.”

God stopped that storm as quickly as He had started it the second Jonah hit the water. He bobbed like a lure, alone, treading water, but he knew – he knew – God was with him. What other explanation was there for a hurricane giving way to tranquility in the blink of an eye?

Can we believe God can do the same for us?

And for the loved ones we must push over the starboard side of a ship that’s sinking swiftly?

God could have stopped that storm and left it at that. He could have left Jonah in the middle of the calm sea, treading water until his legs cramped and his lungs burned. And then God could have let Jonah silently sink in exhaustion below the surface. He could have let Jonah drown.

But He didn’t.

God caused a life-threatening storm. He allowed Jonah to be thrown overboard. And then, “the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah…”

Swallowed whole.

Swallowed alive.

And the swallowing? It saved Jonah’s life. 

“I will let you be swallowed whole,” the Lord tells me, “not because I don’t love you, but because I do. The best thing you can do is what I am telling you to do. And if you have to be swallowed to be saved – swallowed before you’re convinced obeying Me might be a good idea – then that is what I will allow – that is what I will cause.”

It may feel like we are being swallowed alive – and, indeed, we may be – but salvation is in the swallowing.

Lord, help us trust You.