The Unclaimed Gift -
One of the most deadly enemies that roamed the early Christian camp was the heretical notion that Christ alone was not adequate for salvation. Believers and nonbelievers alike wondered and puzzled over the peculiar proclamation which insisted:
That salvation is a pure gift of God which has been won for humankind by God's actions on its behalf and has been effected by God without any help or aid from those who would receive it.
It is not unusual that people would puzzle over a premise like that. Such an idea, if we stop and think about it, is not only unreasonable but can be offensive as well. In the early period of Christianity, when such a message was being proclaimed by every true follower of the Way, it came into conflict with three things:
1) The Philosophical Presuppositions of the Day - Many in God's world had been doing some serious thinking on the issues of life and death long before Christ came upon the scene. These thinkers set forth positions which were designed to help people find their way through a hostile world. Hermits, Gnostics, Stoics, and Platonists, to mention but a few of the prevailing philosophical schools, suggested asceticism, pursual of a secret knowledge, self-control, self-discipline, and conformity to rational inviolables as the pathways which would lead the human species out of its mires. Each school put a strong emphasis upon the importance of the individual to work out the solutions to its own problems. Hence, if a person or persons desired saving from anything, they must put their shoulders to the wheel and save themselves. The people in Christ's day did not live in a vacuum and came under strong influence of this kind of thinking. When they were confronted with the message of Jesus and his apostles, that it is not Man who is the key figure in a saving process but God, they often found such a concept difficult to accept. The idea that Man holds the trump card in this game of life makes it difficult for us, as for them, to accept the idea of an unearned, unmerited, and undeserved salvation worked out by God's hand and given us as a free gift, with no other stipulation attached than this, that we accept it in faith.
2) Human Pride - Adults are hesitant about accepting gifts which they know they have not earned or merited. Human pride goads us to earn what we get so that we need not feel that we are debtors anymore. It takes a humble person to confess to the almighty, "God, I am a debtor to you. I did nothing to deserve this, and nothing to gain it. It is a pure gift which has come from your loving hand, unearned, unmerited, and undeserved." It requires the power of God's Holy Spirit to make it, because it places us in the shoes of total dependence; and we care little about being in such a position, even before God.
3) Experience - For most of us, the good things we possess all have price tags on them. We have paid for almost everything we have ever had. Then we are confronted with the strange news of a gospel which declares God's salvation is a free gift. Our experience with all other things causes us to stop and ask: Is that reasonable? There must be a string attach or an unknown hidden cost; and when we can't find either, we wonder if we can take this message of salvation seriously. How could God or anyone else really give us something so valuable as this for nothing?
An Entry on God's Ledgers - There is a price tag attached to salvation. An awful price! Jesus the Christ shed his blood on Calvary's cross to make it possible! Salvation did not come cheap! But the cost of this venture is entered on heavenly ledgers. God paid the price and the followers of Christ become the beneficiaries of his goodness, irrespective of all of their experiences which may shout and proclaim that no good gift comes to anyone apart from payment of a personal price.
What Was the Problem? - A Reversion Movement became the desire of a number of the redeemed to revert to the old customs and practices of the Judaists from which they departed when they first became Christian. Having begun their relationship with a complete trust in Christ's power to save, some members soon began to doubt the truth of it. They sought to add something to what God had done to make their salvation complete. Judaism provided a perfect climate for "the addition game," because it offered things which Christianity didn't offer:
Most of the early converts to Christianity had come out of Judaism. Though many of the redeemed put the past in the past, other followers had not done so. An element of believers, neither Christian or Judaistic but rather Judeo-Christian had done what Jesus had warned against. They had attempted to put "new wine into old wineskins" (Mark 2:22). This group was seen by Paul and others as a destructive element that was doing violence to the message first delivered to the believing community. The second negative influence came from the zealous Judaists who were avowed opponents to the Christian faith. They were angered by the many losses in their ranks and challenged every new departure which Christians had taken and were determined to win the "defectors" back to a reacceptance of the old traditions.
- the feeling that mortals could participate in their own salvation.
- the subsequent feeling that as "participants", they need not stand before God as pure debtors but could appear before him with some righteousness of their own.
- the feeling that they weren't getting their salvation for nothing but could make their own payments for what they received.
The Epistle to the Hebrews - The "unvoiced" questions around which the book of Hebrews is written are:
The author of this letter was convinced that people were joining the Christian or Judaist camp based on how they answered the question about authority. To establish the voice of the Lord Jesus as the one voice that had a right to be heard, the writer portrays Christ as pre-eminent and as superior to all things in the old era:
- Who has the truth, Christianity or Judaism?
- Where is authority found, in the old traditions or in Jesus?
- Who is right, Caiaphas or Christ?
The Epistle to the Galatians - Paul's letter to the Galatians is blunt. The language is strong and the implication is clear. Addressing some believers as foolish and bewitched, the apostle accuses them of falling back into a law righteousness which can and will do nothing to effect a person's salvation. The traveling saint had met the problem of mixing the old with the new so many times in so many places that he had lost all desire to be anything less than blunt in his attack upon this blight of the church.
- He is superior to the patriarchs and prophets of old
- He is the true high priest, and his priesthood supersedes the Levitical priesthood
- He is greater than the temple
- He is superior to the law and the traditions
- He presents a better sacrifice
- Therefore, he makes all the old things obsolete and presents a "new covenant" and a new "kingdom" which cannot be shaken
The Epistle to the Romans - As the threat from within and without had its effect in leading many people astray, Paul refutes the arguments brought against the Christian sect in his letter to the Romans. Although addressed to Roman Christians, by its content, we can conjecture that Paul intended that it be read and heard by Judaists as well. Beyond refuting of arguments, Paul proclaims the lofty hopes which belong to those who are followers of the true light:
Therefore: What Can We Conclude? - As Abraham was justified by faith, so are we. And this is the basis of our hopes. If God's goodness is demonstrated by his willingness to forgive the sinner, then why not sin and make his goodness even better? If we are really under grace, we will not want to be a slave to sin, but to obedience. What has been the purpose of the law then and what has Christ done about the law? There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ because he has set us free from the law of sin and death. When you see this division within the Jewish house, with some appropriating the promises and others not, do not think that the Word of God has failed or that God is not just. Remember, God has not rejected his people. A divine purpose is being accomplished by the rejection of God's own. It is no wonder that Paul proclaims:
- The Gentiles are guilty before God
- The Jews stand under the same guilt
- Law righteousness will not remove guilt, nor will circumcision, nor will special privilege
- When we speak about any being guilty before God, the Jew is no better off than the Gentile
- Yet, there is a righteousness which will save all people
- If the righteousness gained through faith is a free gift, then what right do we have to boast about our good works?
- And are we so naive as to think that God is God of the Jews only?
- He is also God of the Gentiles
- Now all this may sound contrary to the promises and the faith delivered to Abraham, but it isn't
- Abraham's righteousness was not reckoned to him because of his works
- Abraham's righteousness was reckoned to him before he was circumcised
- Circumcism is a seal of the righteousness that Abraham had by faith while he was still uncircumcised
" . . . I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live.'" (Romans 1:16-17)