credit Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III

A map of galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and its Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey.

Many use the phrase “the Abrahamic religions” to describe Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. But what does this mean? Do we mean that each religion is a legitimate descendant of the faith Abraham shared or that these three religions merely claim it? If we care about truth, we must accept the second definition, because the three expressions radically contradict. Therefore they cannot all express Abraham’s faith. So what was the faith of Abraham? We must look to Genesis (the earliest account of Abraham’s life) and compare it to Jesus’ own teachings as passed on through his apostles. Doing so, the Christian faith is found to follow Abraham’s faith.

And [God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6 ESV)

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void . . . That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” . . . No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
(Romans 4:13-25)

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:7-9)

For more, read Galatians and Romans 4-5, and of course the rest of Genesis. Discover that Abraham’s saving faith was a faith in God’s grace and promises rather than an obedience to laws. We must conclude that the only truly Abrahamic faith is one that trusts that God saves by faith in his promises and good news.

Image credit: Daniel Eisenstein and SDSS-III (http://www.eurekalert.org/multimedia/pub/119797.php)

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:1-6 ESV)

Are all religions essentially the same? Aren’t they just superficially different? As the Beatles have said in song, “Love is all you need.” Yet love seems to be in short supply! It is not as easy as they make it seem, because Love for God is the only command God has given us and yet how many of us have loved God with all our heart a single day of our lives? Jesus taught that the love of many will grow cold and people will be judged for their evil thoughts and activities unless they believe Jesus was the real deal. And our text today shows that the original preachers did not consider their message of “first importance” to be “love is all you need.” Rather they preached that Jesus physically resurrected and that his innocent death on the cross paid for the problem many refuse to admit, that we love ourselves more than God.

At least love seems to matter to us, but does the truth about reality matter to us? Should we not love truth as well? Everyone seems to have an opinion, but does our Great Designer have His say in the matter? Christianity is essentially based on what Jesus said and did. And He didn’t come preaching about kindness and love. He came preaching forgiveness from a Holy God who has promised wrath and judgement for the loveless sins you and I have committed. He came offering himself as a substitute “ransom” to pay for the sins of many who will trust and believe him. Sin is a debt. Sin is misplaced love. Sin is an evil crime. Sin is setting our own purposes for our life above and against God’s purposes for us. In short, sin is a refusal to love the truth.

What is God’s purpose for us? We exist to worship him and to enjoy him forever. How do we accomplish that? It can only start by trusting that Jesus told the truth that he came from God to fix us and that all others who claimed the same were “thieves and robbers.” All religious founders cannot all be correct about God and eternal life because all religions fundamentally contradict each other. How does one begin to sort through all that confusion? Ideas and theories are abstract and hard to test. But the story of Christianity has, from the beginning, been a story that tangibly enters into human history for us to test.

God offers us Jesus as a test for truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but by me.” How do we know that Jesus was telling the truth? The whole religion stands or falls, according to Paul if we continue reading this chapter, on whether Jesus really did rise from the dead or not. If so, then God has given us proof about who he is and how to relate to him and proof that Jesus’ warning of hell is not just some fear tactic to gain converts. If not, then the search goes on into ever foggier territory, but I have found that Jesus’ claims and the original Christians’ claims about Jesus are all true. Whether we know it or want to admit it or not, all the historical evidence points to the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, and in this hope, we are saved from our pride, from the devil, from death itself, and from God’s eternal punishment for our otherwise unquenchably rebellious spirit. Would you begin to consider Jesus and his resurrection? And consider the Word of God. These have been given as accessible proof, not only of our desperate condition and the frightful punishment for evil, but also for the good news about Jesus and his cross and resurrection which saves us from it.

A Pardon Denied by Unbelief

The Good News about Jesus is a lot like a Presidential pardon from a prison sentence of treason. It proclaims that because we sin continually against our holy and good Creator Sovereign that we can only expect a verdict of eternal guilt for our on-going “cosmic treason.” It proclaims that the means by which we may be forgiven this guilt and debt to God was accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth, almost 2,000 years ago on a Roman cross, that though he was innocent of our treason and sin, he took the penalty for many, that whosoever believes in him and calls on his name will have their eternal guilt taken away (John 3:16; Rom 10:13). Instead of appearing before the judge with our own record of crimes, as if dressed in filthy clothes before a King, we who believe are given a clean record just as if given a set of new clothes that had belonged to the prince, Jesus. The Good News does not stop there and, in fact, it gets even better, but at this point it seems to some so foolish and far-fetched that they will not even look into whether it is true or not. They will just deny it outright, yet at the same time these same people will declare the Bible to be “unfair” because it requires belief in this Good News to be thus saved.

Now this accusation of “unfairness” is just what I would like to put to the test now. I have just reviewed what the Good News is, that of factually received news about who Jesus is and what Jesus has done on the behalf of those who believe. I have pointed out in previous posts (here and here) that our belief acts as a rudder, steering our lives, and thus, logically, matters a great deal to the outcome of our lives. But is God unfair to offer a pardon that only some believe and receive? We can ask that question another way. Is God fair to refuse a pardon to those whom deny it has ever been offered?

Do you see how this disbelief is actually a denial, not only of the work that Jesus has, in fact, done, but also a denial of any substitution granted on our behalf? It is as if one has said, “No one has paid for my sins, so I will take the responsibility to pay for them myself.” This self-righteous denial leads to a full conviction without pardon, since it was not only rejected but denied as if the pardon had never been offered. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”

How is it that the Bible’s view of God is that He requires faith in or belief in Him in order for Him to save us? Why does it matter what one thinks about God so long as we treat others as we would like to be treated? It matters a great deal, because what we think often extends into what we do and thus how we treat others. God is the ultimate standard for Good, which makes our beliefs about Him and about what goodness is, logically prior to our actions. Not only this, but beliefs in the wrong direction from God lead us into trouble. If we reject God, the only true hope for Life, by putting our trust in a false hope, then we are heading to a destination other than Life. This is demonstrably true in everyday examples: Superstition keeps polio victims in Pakistan from receiving the vaccine that would save them. And over-confidence has no doubt been the final attitude of many a drunk driver who would save himself. Wrong beliefs can lead to death. How much more when the stakes are eternal?

Most importantly, it matters a great deal to God, and He’s the real factor worth considering in this. If God desires to save only those who have faith in Him, then that is completely His business. There is a wisdom in it that goes well beyond a parental “because He said so,” but that He has said so (John 3:16) is no small thing in itself. Our ideas about God are false hopes unless they are grounded in what God is actually like, and the most reliable material revealing God is still God’s own Word, the Bible.

Many have the idea which describes God as “the God of second chances.” But “second chances” would just mean we’d have a chance to try harder this time to follow the moral law (the law to love God and people). Inevitably, we’d fail again and discover that law is not an instrument that is meant to save but to condemn (Rom 3:20; Gal 2:21; 3:21-22). How, then, could belief that it could save ever actually save? Rather, God is the God of Life who creates new hearts from these dead ones, so that even our desires begin to change. Salvation is the adoptive rescue from the system of second chances and merit (Gal 3:26; 5:1). Only when we receive new hearts will we be enabled to obey that law. One day, when we receive new bodies as well (Acts 24:15), we will be as sinless as our heavenly Father (Matt 5:48).

How did Jesus read the Bible? He taught that the Bible, while containing wisdom, was chiefly about him and his gift of eternal life to us, not about us and how we can have our best life now. He frequently showed how the Old Testament ultimately pointed to him. “For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:37 ESV)

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’ Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.‘”
(Matthew 16:21-24)

Peter had in mind what was best for him, but Jesus had a secret ambition which had been in writing for centuries (Isa 53), though how suffering could lead to victory was not understood. When we read the Bible, we will learn wisdom for life, but it is more important that we deny ourselves the center stage as we read it. Then we will see that it is God’s story of redemption.

The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” (Mark 14:21)

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. . . . For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?
(John 5:39-40, 46-47)

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. . .
(Luke 24:44-48)

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt (Hebrews 6:4-6 ESV).

Taken by itself, this seems to suggest that salvation can be revoked if we stop believing before we die. But if salvation couldn’t save us from our sin, then it would not be a salvation from sin. As we will hopefully see, the whole context of the book of Hebrews seems to preclude the interpretation that we are able to lose salvation. Is it really a warning to believers? Or to those who merely “taste tested” Christianity? We know the author’s readers include some that have neglected to believe the gospel, because he concludes the introduction to his book (really a sermon) with: Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it . . . how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard. . . (Heb 2:1-3)

Throughout the sermon, the author repeats this need to pay attention to testimony and thus endure in faith, not to make the point that one can lose their salvation, but to warn unbelievers who are within the church. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Heb 3:14. cf 3:18-19; 4:11). He defines faith as that which endures till death. Then, he comforts those who really do believe, saying, “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things—things that belong to salvation. . . . And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Heb 6:9, 11-12; also 10:39).

The author argues that Jesus died on the cross “once for all” our sins, “thus securing an eternal salvation” (9:12, 26) rather than a potentially temporary one. “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (7:25). “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy” (4:16) For he says to those who believe to the end, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (13:5)

Luther door
Oct 31, 1517 Reformation Day
The Protest for Reformation in the church in the early 1500s may have been triggered by the question of how money for indulgences was garnered and spent, but the root issues on both sides of the Roman Catholic and Protestant divide delve deep to the heart of the Christian faith, that of the authority of Scripture, getting it into the hands of the people in their own languages, and clarifying the Good News of the Gospels (i.e. what one puts their faith in and how one attained salvation of their souls). Thus the Reformers discussed “the Solas” (or “the alones”) which ought to characterize Christian faith.

Sola Scriptura – The ultimate authority for Man to know God’s mind is through God’s Word alone. By Scripture we test all other ideas and urges which we might wish that God had given us (1 Cor 4:6).
Sola Fide – We are saved by “Faith alone” (Gal 2:16) and not by trying harder to do good things while we continue to have a past (or even present) full of guilt. It is a faith in Jesus and his work that saves, but it is not a faith that is alone, for works bloom from faith.
Sola Gratia – Our salvation is a work of grace as a gift from God, so it is “grace alone” that initiates salvation, not our own will, so that none may boast (Eph 2:8).
Solus Christus – Salvation is through Jesus Christ alone and that by faith in him. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” -Peter (Acts 4:2)
Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone (Isa 48:11).

These were ideas from Scripture and had been noticed throughout church history, and here’s just one example a couple decades before it was declared by the Reformers.

When I confine myself to explaining holy Scripture my hearers receive much more light, and my preaching bore much more fruit in the conversion of men to Christ. For the holy Scripture contains that marvelous doctrine which more surely than a two-edged sword pierces men’s hearts with love which has adorned the world with virtue and has overthrown idolatry, superstition, and numberless errors.”
—Dominican monk Girolamo Savonarola,
The Triumph of the Cross, Florence, Italy, A.D. 1498