Our Identity in Christ (Lessons 4 and 5)

After taking a short break over Christmas, I am eager to post the remaining Sunday School lessons I taught this fall on the topic of our identity in Christ. Here are my 4th and 5th sessions. (It took two weeks to get through all of the Scriptures I had chosen.  There was a lot to discuss.)

Hook:

What is an inheritance? When do you get it?  What do you have to do to receive it?

When each of us repented of our sins, surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and accepted Him by faith as our Lord and Savior, at that very moment of salvation, we entered in to all the blessings of the New Covenant we discussed last week. These next two weeks, we will look at the things that became true of each of us “positionally” as born-again believers (i.e., justified, reconciled, forgiven, righteous, holy).  These things are true of all believers, not because of what we did, but because of what Jesus did for us, and how God sees us “in Christ”.  This will lay an important foundation to where we will go over the remaining weeks of this study as to what new resources we receive as believers (i.e., God’s Holy Spirit, a new nature, the very mind of Christ.)

Book:

1) Read John 5:24, 6:35-40, 44-51; 10:1-16, 24-30.  Discuss what is said about Jesus’ sheep.

(Teacher notes: There is so much to see here. In 5:25, he gives the first of many clear indications of what we call eternal security. Jesus says that those who believe have eternal life; they will NOT be condemned. He describes this one-time action that happens to every believer as a crossing over from death to life. That sounds irreversible to me. In 6:37-40, Jesus uses the word “never” to describe what will not ever happen to those who come to Him in faith (which is exactly the same number of those that the Father gives to him). Jesus promises that His followers will never go hungry, never be thirsty, and that He will never drive them away. He reemphasized the fact that those who “choose” to come to Him are those that the Father gave to him. Their destiny is that they will be raised up on the last day. Just so His listeners heard Him clearly, Jesus restates the promise: everyone who believes in Him has eternal life. In 6:44-51, Jesus says the same thing about the Father drawing us to Himself, which results in us coming to faith in Jesus, which brings us everlasting life. It is not about what we do or fail to do. It is about God choosing us, calling us to faith in Jesus Christ, and us believing in Him, which qualifies us to spend eternity with Him. John 10 gives us another glimpse into what is true of those who are Jesus’ sheep. Jesus is clearly the shepherd here. He says that “He call his own sheep by name” (10:3). They follow him (verse 4). Whoever enters through faith in Jesus “will be saved” (verse 9). In 10:24-30, in contrast to the description of Jesus’ sheep, we see that the Jews who did not believe in Jesus were declared to be “not my sheep” (verse 26). Once again, in verses 27-29, Jesus states what is true about those who are His sheep. No one (no, not even ourselves) can “snatch us out of the Father’s hand.”)

2) Read Romans 3:21-26. Where does “righteousness” come from? How does it come to us?

(Teacher notes: Twice in this passage, Paul teaches that the righteousness that both Jew and Gentile have been fruitlessly seeking on their own comes from God. It is not by keeping the Law, which was so important to the Jews, but by God’s grace, which was foreshadowed in the Law and the Prophets. (For example, the narrative of Abram in Gen. 15, which Paul will discuss in the next chapter of Romans.) This righteousness or right standing before God comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. All who believe are freely justified (just as if I’d never sinned) by God’s grace based solely on the atonement that Jesus our Redeemer made for our sins on the cross.)

3) Read Romans 4:3-8; 5:1-2. What does it mean to be justified?  How does this come to us?

(Teacher notes: Here, in 4:3-8, Paul uses Abraham and David as examples from the OT to show that the message of redemption found through faith in Jesus does not contradict the OT, but is actually supported by the OT. One does not become righteous (justified) by good works; Paul has already demonstrated that this is impossible. One becomes righteous when in a wicked condition one comes to faith in Christ. This is a free gift. In 5:1-2, Paul explains that our justification (by grace through faith) brings peace between God and us. This is not the “peace of God, that passes all understanding”, which Paul mentions in Phil. 4:7. This is a peace between wicked humans and a holy God. Jesus Christ made peace through His sacrifice on the cross.)

4) Read Romans 8:1-4. Why is there no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus?

(Teacher notes: Everyone who has heard me teach a time or two knows that Rom. 8:1 is a central promise of the gospel. This clear promise that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus is a lens that we can use to help us interpret those warning passages that might appear to say that a Christian can choose to take a path that will result in losing their salvation. We must understand why Paul can make such a dramatic statement; one that once again implies an irreversible change in one’s condition based on their faith in Jesus. Verses 2-4 explain why those who have faith in Christ are not condemned. It is simply because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything we ourselves have done. Jesus set me free from the law of sin that led to spiritual death. We are under a new law now – the “law of the Spirit of life”. The law was powerless to change us; only God could do that through Christ. Jesus death paid the penalty as a once-for-all sin offering, which means that we are now seen as righteous in God’s eyes.)

5) Read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. What kinds of people were we?  What did God do for us in Christ?

(Teacher notes: We talked about the kinds of people each of us were before we came to faith in Week 2, but we did not look at this particular passage. Paul is contrasting the lifestyle of the believer and non-believer in this section, as the church in Corinth did not quite grasp that their conversion should radically change their conduct. In verse 11, he states plainly that many believers used to practice the kind of evil things that are obviously not typical of Christians.  But, he says, we were washed, we were sanctified (meaning declared holy, set apart), and we were justified. God redeemed us where we were, but loved us too much to let us stay where we were. By His amazing grace, we were set free from the flesh, the world, and the devil, and brought into a new kingdom that is characterized by righteousness.  We did not earn this righteousness by our own efforts. It was given to us by grace through faith in Christ. God supernaturally delivered us from sin and declared us righteous based on what Christ did on our behalf.)

6) Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. What does it mean to be reconciled? Who did this work for us?

(Teacher notes: Before we discuss reconciliation, there is another key element in our identity in Christ that we absolutely must understand. In 5:17, we read that we are new creatures in Christ. This great pronouncement that all believers in Christ are a “new creation” echoes what the OT prophets taught about the New Covenant that would be in effect when the Messiah came. (See Jer. 31:31-34 and Ezek. 36:26-28.) Paul then expands a bit on the ramifications of what has taken place in the life of the believer. He states somewhat cryptically, “the old has gone, the new has come!” What could he have meant here? (Some well-meaning teachers have used this verse to condemn any kind of psychological therapy, even Christian counseling. They have misapplied what Paul said about the old being gone to mean that traumatic events from our past should not impact us in any way now, which is just plain hogwash. But I digress.) In context, I think what may have been in Paul’s mind was that what was true of us under the Old Covenant is gone. We are no longer slaves to sin or to the requirements of the Law. The New Covenant is now in effect, which is comprised of freedom from sin and the Law, grace, and being made new in the image of Christ through sanctification in the power of the Holy Spirit. All of this, Paul says, is from God. He then mentions our reconciliation. This is another way to look at the peace we have with God that was mentioned earlier in Rom. 5:1-2. We were enemies of God. Now we are His children (See John 1:12.) Paul states in verse 21 that God brought this reconciliation about through Christ’s work on the cross to make us righteous in His eyes.)

7) Read Ephesians 2:4-10. How did our position change when we became followers of Jesus?

(Teacher notes: In the previous verses just prior to this section (Eph. 2:1-3), Paul describes our condition before we met Christ by faith: we were dead in our sins; we followed the ways of the world, Satan, and the flesh; we were objects of God’s wrath. In verse 4, we see the stark contrast. “But, because of his great love for us”, Paul states, God “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (verse 5). In addition, verse 6 informs us that “God raised us up with Christ.” He concludes in verse 8, “It is by grace we have been saved.” Moreover, Paul clarifies all that he and Jesus had said on this subject previously in verse 9: “This [is] not from ourselves, it is the gift of God.” It is not about what we did for God; it is about what God did for us. Lest anyone think incorrectly that our change in position as righteous means that we do not need to pursue righteousness as a result of this declaration, Paul clarifies in verse 10 that we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”. Our good works are merely a natural response to God’s work on our behalf.)

8) Read Colossians 1:9-14, 21-22, 2:13-14. Note the imagery of the Exodus in 1:13. What blessings do we all have in this New Covenant promised land to which He has brought us?

(Teacher notes: Colossians contains a lot of similarities with the book of Ephesians. Here in Col. 1, we see some parallels to what we read in Eph. 2. In verses 9-11, we see Paul’s prayer for the church. What I want you to notice is an echo to what we read earlier regarding the natural connection between faith and conduct. True spiritual maturity and understanding leads to Christlike behavior. In verses 12-14, we again see our new identity in Christ. We were delivered from darkness to light, and brought into the kingdom of God, where Jesus reigns. His New Covenant is one of redemption and forgiveness. Note that the verbs are passive, not active. These are things that were done for us: He qualified us, rescued us, and brought us into a land of promise. I do not want you to miss the clear tie-in to the Exodus, where God’s people were rescued from the dominion of darkness in Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea, and brought to a place where God’s presence would lead them and where His protection and power would give them victory over their enemies. Verses 21-22 reiterate what Paul said in Eph. 2, that we used to be God’s enemies, but He has now reconciled us by Christ’s sacrificial death in order to present us “holy in his sight”. He repeats this theme in 2:13-14, teaching that we were “dead in our sins”, God made us “alive with Christ.” At the moment of salvation, he also “forgave us all our sins”. All of these truths should make us grateful for all He has done for us and freely given to us in Christ. Again, these truths also indicate the irreversible nature of the changes to our identity and new right standing before God.)

9) Read Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-23. Contrast the old covenant sacrifices with Jesus’ sacrifice.

(Teacher notes: This section of Hebrews is one of my favorites. In 10:1-4, the writer continues to show the stark contrast between the law, which was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”, with the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this passage, the focus is on the OT sacrificial system. In itself, it could “never by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect” those who brought the offering. It had no power to truly change the heart of the believer and make them holy. As a result, it could not offer complete cleansing for those who brought the sacrifice, nor could it remove their guilty feelings. Even though this system was indeed set up by God to cover the sin of the believer under Mosaic Law, it was always limited. It could not completely take away their sin. We know that in Christ, all of that is changed. What the OT sacrifices could not do, Jesus does. The clear implication I see is that Jesus’ sacrifice, for those who accept Him, not only brings complete forgiveness, but it also perfects us because it changes us from the inside out. Accepting His forgiveness does offer complete cleansing; knowing this does remove the guilty feelings also. Jesus does indeed take away the penalty, shame, and power of sin from us. Skip to verses 10-23. Here, we see that Jesus one-time sacrifice makes us holy (verses 10 and 12). In verse 14, what I took to be implied in the earlier passage is directly mentioned – Jesus’ sacrifice did make us “perfect” (i.e., holy in God’s eyes). This status also gives us hope of inner transformation (sanctification) ; it says that we are “being made holy”. In verses 16 and 17, the writer of Hebrews then summarizes the promises of the New Covenant as it was described in Jer. 31:33 (which he also quoted in chapter 8 of Hebrews). Two key elements of this new deal that were realized when Jesus appeared reflect inner transformation – “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds”, as well as complete forgiveness – “their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” As a result, in verse 19, “we have confidence” to approach God (because our sins truly are forgiven). With this confidence, in verse 22, we are exhorted to draw near to God “in full assurance of faith”, which is based in part on the fact that our hearts have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. This cleansing does remove the guilty conscience for all those who have come to Jesus by faith and accept His free gift of forgiveness, as we mentioned earlier in verse 2. I must say again that the radical change in how God sees those who are in Christ (as holy), in addition to the radical changes that occur in the heart of each believer at the moment of salvation, indicate that these things may be irreversible.)

Look:

“This is a most wonderful truth. I can rest in the fact that God accomplished this without any dubious ‘book juggling.’  Before the infinite Judge of the universe, according to his own flawless reckoning, I now possess total forgiveness and acceptance.  I am justified!  I am judicially righteous, positionally righteous.  This is the way God sees me.”  (Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, David Needham; Multnomah Publishers, 1999; page 57.)

Took:

Try something different this week. Rest in the finished work of Christ.  There is no need for striving to be perfect, no need to work your way into God’s favor, no need to punish yourself for your mistakes, or think that God is punishing you.  Rest.  Accept His peace and forgiveness.

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God’s Faithfulness Through the Generations

There was a country song recorded about eight years ago by Brad Paisley called “Two People Fell in Love”. He points out the obvious – that every one of us owes our very existence to the simple fact that at one moment in time two people fell in love. He describes a family reunion where members from five generations came in from 15 different states to have a picnic every June, all because 60 years ago Stanley Wilson knew that Ms. Emma Tucker was the one for him.

I mention this because I have recently embarked on a journey, not unlike one that many others have taken, to discover my roots.

Two days ago, my son and wife were looking at the family tree information that my wife had collected a number of years ago. Her family has done a much better job about that than mine. I went to the internet to find some tools to help me build our family tree, and discovered MyHeritage.com. Fairly quickly I was able to begin to create a database where I could log in what I already knew, in hopes that I could find much more information about our roots. I was impressed by this site. After spending several hours Friday night on this project (and paying a small annual fee), I was able to place over 270 people on our family tree with great detail. I was also able to locate several supporting historical documents such as actual census reports from 1940 and earlier and two high school yearbook photos of my mom.

To borrow a phrase that comes up often from one of our key leaders at work, “This is all mildly interesting.” However, I do not want anyone to miss the point, which was hinted at in the title of this article. God’s mighty hand of protection and blessing is all over the Gehrlein family tree.

The faithfulness of God is something I hold very dear. My favorite old hymn, which they had better sing at my funeral, is “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. This key attribute of God is clearly revealed and illustrated often in Scripture and in the life of His Son Jesus. Psalm 36:5 link God’s love and faithfulness together: “Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.”

God’s faithfulness is also tied to His sovereignty. Since God is ultimately in control of His plans for His people, in spite of their apparent freedom of choice (yes, I am a Calvinist), He is able to control the very circumstances that led to our creation through two imperfect people who fell in love. The way I see it, God ensured that these ancestors in our family tree did what they were supposed to do so that we as His children now could do the things we are called to do.

Let me close with another appropriate verse from Psalm 100:5: “For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Praise be to God for His faithfulness to His children!

Non-Traditional Christmas Verses

I receive a daily reflection in my email written by Dr. Mark D. Roberts from the Fuller Theological Seminary’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership.  He started this week with some thoughts on a passage in Philippians chapter 2 that many would be familiar with, but might not associate with Christmas.  A few days later, he brought up a passage from Hebrews 2 that also relates well to Jesus’ incarnation.

I would like to post my own brief reflections on these two passages and one more that will augment the traditional verses in Matt. 1:18 – 2:12 and Luke 2:1-20 to expand our understanding of the Christmas story, that God made His dwelling among us in His Son, Jesus the Messiah.

1. John 1:1-3, 14.

This is such a deep passage, and a bit daunting for me to try to do it justice. These first three verses point to the eternal existence of God the Son. Jesus, not yet in a physical form, was right there at creation with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. (See Gen. 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness'”.  See also Col. 1:16, “For by him all things were created”.) Jesus was not only with God, but was Himself divine. He was equal in essence or nature with God, and was directly involved in creation. This is indeed a mystery, but it provides us some theological background to the Christmas story and supports our foundational orthodox belief as Christians that Jesus is fully divine. Verse 14 brings us to Nazareth at the Immaculate Conception, where Jesus took on flesh in Mary’s womb. This is echoed in the line from the Christmas carol, O, Come All Ye Faithful: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”  John states that the Word of God now resided here.  John supports what Matthew told us in Matt. 1:22-23, declaring that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 regarding a virgin who would give birth to a son who would be called “Immanuel – which means, ‘God with us.'” This is indeed good news!

2. Phil. 2:6-11.

This is another deep passage that I want to highlight briefly. Paul is exhorting the church in Philippi to imitate the humility of Christ. He seems be quoting a poem here, as indicated by the style in which it appears in the New International Version. This may have been a creed of sorts from the first century. It ties in well with our passage in John, pointing out that Jesus was equal in nature with God the Father. In taking on flesh, he did NOT lay aside His deity, but took on the limitations of humanity. In this sacrificial act, which foreshadows His ultimate sacrifice at the cross, Jesus showed His total dependence on God the Father and His total selflessness towards us. He knowingly left the glory and perfection of heaven to become a weak and lowly fetus, baby, child, teenager, young adult, and servant here on this dusty planet for our salvation. This passage provides some additional insight on what took place prior to Christmas day, showing God’s great love for you and for me.

3. Heb. 2:14-18.

The writer of Hebrews contrasts how Jesus is far superior to the Old Testament. He shows that Jesus not only fulfills the Old Testament prophecies, but is the fulfillment of all that the Old Testament pointed to. The main point in these verses is that Jesus was able to provide sufficient atonement for our sins by being just like us. He was fully human, only sinless; a spotless Lamb. It says of Jesus that “he had to be made like his brothers in every way”. His birth that we celebrate on Christmas Day had one main purpose – He came to die for us. This is a sobering thought, but is one that can truly bring hope and joy to the world. “The Lord is come; let earth receive her king!”

I trust that this meditation will help you to keep Christ in Christmas this year.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 3)

This is the third of eight Sunday School lessons I am currently teaching on our identity in Christ.  If you want to read the introduction I posted a few weeks ago, here is the link.

Hook:

To better appreciate who we are as believers in Jesus, we have looked at who we all were “before Christ”. We discussed in detail the clear teaching that all human beings (us included) enter this world as blind, hopeless, enslaved, ashamed, poor, and lost sinners.  We will see clearly that because of coming to faith in Jesus Christ we have now been brought into the light, we can see, we have a new sense of hope, we have been set free; we are forgiven, rich, and found.  Why was there such a dramatic transformation in our lives?  What can we learn about the “New Covenant” that was prophesied in the Old Testament and was fulfilled in the New?

What is a covenant? How many can you name?  What are the essential elements of a covenant?

Book:

1) Read Gen. 6:18; 9:1, 7-17. For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  (Teacher notes: In Gen. 6:18, we see God’s covenant with Noah, the first time we see this word used in the Bible.  This covenant highlights God’s mercy and faithfulness.  In 9:1, which is repeated again in 9:7, we see what God commanded Noah and his sons to do, to be fruitful and multiply.  This is part of the “creation mandate” we read in Gen. 1:28.)

2) Read Gen. 15:5-7, 18. For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  (Teacher notes: Gen. 15:5 is the Abrahamic covenant (when he was still known as Abram.)  It was God’s promise of offspring and land.  This is echoed in v. 18, where the word covenant is used.  This covenant is tied to the previous promise in Gen. 12:1-3, where we see for the first time the elements of being a great nation (descendants) and blessing to all peoples on earth through those who would become God’s people.)

3) Read Ps. 105:8-11, 42-45. For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  (Teacher notes: There were other covenants we skipped.  Some were made to Abraham’s descendants, and are echoed here in the Psalms.  The writer lists covenants to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The land is mentioned again; it is a place for God’s people.  The writer emphasizes the attributes of God’s faithfulness, grace, and mercy in vv. 42-45.  What God expected in return was that His people would respond in obedience.)

4) Read Jer. 31:31-34. For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected? Why was there a need for a new covenant?  What are the key elements of this new covenant?  (Teacher notes: This is a critical Old Testament covenant that we must understand, as it ties in with much of what we will be discussing over the new few weeks.  It is referred to as the “New” Covenant, hinting of a time when the Messiah would come and make all things new.  This covenant promises to put God’s law “in their minds, and write it on their hearts.”  Everyone will have an intimate knowledge of God.  Most importantly, this relationship will be characterized by total forgiveness, where God will remember our sins no more.”)

5) Read Matt. 26:28. (See Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, and 1 Cor. 11:25.) What did Jesus say?  (Teacher notes: Jesus, right before He was betrayed, shared in a Passover supper with His disciples.  When He gave the cup, He stated that this was His blood of the covenant, clearly referring to the New Covenant from Jer. 31, when He said it would be “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).  It is interesting that in both Mark’s and Luke’s accounts, they do not specifically mention forgiveness.  However, we know that Matthew’s Gospel was written to Jews, who would have gotten the reference.  Also, in the version Paul gives in 1 Cor. 11:25, he states that Jesus said “new covenant”.)

6) Read Gal. 3:6-9, 14. How does the Abrahamic covenant apply to Christians now?  (Teacher notes: In this great little passage, Paul ties faith to righteousness by bringing us back to Gen. 15:6, where Abram believed God and God credited righteousness to him.  If we have saving faith, Paul says, we are Abraham’s children.  Paul indicates that we can actually see a glimpse of the gospel in Gen. 12:3 and 18:18, where God’s blessings to all nations, indicating the Gentiles, will come through Abraham, the man of faith.)

7) Read Heb. 7:22, 8:6-13, 9:15, and 10:15-18. For whom was this made?  What was promised?  (Teacher notes: These passages in Hebrews tie everything together.  The writer declares in Heb. 7:22 that Jesus is “the guarantee of a better covenant”.  In Heb. 8:6-13, Paul teaches how the new covenant Jesus brings is superior to the old covenant, is founded on better promises, and is necessary because the old one was obsolete; it was ineffective to change people from the inside.  The writer then quotes the entire Old Testament passage from Jer. 31-34.  He quotes portions of it again in Heb. 10:16-18.)

Look:

1) Summarize the elements of the old covenants made in the OT? Are they applicable today?

2) Summarize the elements of the new covenant that all believers in Jesus Christ have inherited?

3) What is most significant to you about these promises?

Took:

This week, mediate on what it means to be living a “New Covenant” life – a life characterized by grace, not law; relationship, not religion; knowing God, not just knowing about Him, forgiveness, not guilt; transformation on the inside, not works of righteousness on the outside, etc.

How does the new covenant affect your prayer life, ministry, walk with God, and sense of peace?

 

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 2 Supplement)

I recently posted my second of eight adult Sunday School lessons on the topic of our identity in Christ.  This lesson focused on who we were before we were Christians.

What appears below is something I expanded a bit from what I put on the back page of my lesson.  It is a biblical teaching on the word “sinner”.

With the good intention of making seekers in our services feel more welcome, it is often said, “We are all sinners.”  I have to disagree with this assessment.  It does not tell the whole story.

Understanding how Scripture uses this word (and more importantly, how it does not use it) will add greatly to our discussion on our identity in Christ.  If we know who we were before Christ, and truly understand the radical changes that happened at the moment when we became Christians, we will live out our faith with a sense of gratitude for what has been done through Christ for us, to us, and in us.  Furthermore, I believe that some of these changes to us are irreversible.  My observations may be somewhat controversial, but I ask you to prayerfully consider them to see if they have any merit.

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A Study on the Word “Sinner”

After studying a complete listing of 62 references to the word “sinner” (20 in the OT; 42 in the NT), I found that with only a few exceptions, the Bible does not generally refer to believers as sinners.  The word is used as a synonym for the wicked, the unrighteous, the lost, or an unbeliever.  It is what we as human beings all were, but not what believers are referred to after they are saved.  The word is also used to refer to someone in the process of becoming a believer, who recognizes their sinful condition and repents (Luke 18:13).  The Pharisees used the label with pride, regarding others they perceived as living an unrighteous lifestyle (i.e., tax collector, prostitute).  Ironically, they did not see that they themselves were sinners.  Though they were religious, according to Jesus, they were unbelievers (Luke 24:7).  They also used it, inaccurately, to refer to Jesus Himself (John 9:16).

Here are several references worth addressing:

Psalm 1:1.  In context here, the words “wicked”, “sinners”, and “mockers”, are all synonymous.  Those individuals do not have a happy ending, compared with that of the righteous (see verses 4-5.)

Psalm 25:8.  “He instructs sinners in His ways.”  Unbelievers cannot receive such instruction, so this is something different.  Looking at the context (vs. 6-12), this is someone who is coming to faith; they fear the Lord and confess their sins in true humility and repentance.

Matthew 9:10-13.  “Sinners” came and ate with Jesus and His disciples.  This common reference applies to those known to be of ill repute (i.e., prostitutes).  Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance.  (Note: Although the word “repentance” is not specifically stated in this passage, nor in a parallel passage in Mark 2:13-17, it is implied.  However, it is clearly stated in Luke 5:27-32.)

Luke 15:1-10.  Jesus gives a series of three parables; the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.  One of the points He makes is that the tax collectors and “sinners” that were hanging out with him were lost (sheep, coins, sons), and were worth seeking after and rejoicing in when found.

Romans 5:8.  “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Our identity as sinners is clearly presented in the past tense.  Does this imply that there was a change of identity when we became believers, and that this label is no longer applicable to us?  I believe that it does.

1 Timothy 1:15-16.  Paul, wanting to focus on God’s great mercy, states that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  He does use the present tense here, so it would appear at first glance that he may still see himself as a sinner.  However, Paul does not ever use this word or extend that view to apply to all believers anywhere else in any of his writings.  It is likely that his point is simply that his life as one who killed Christians and persecuted Jesus Himself illustrated the extent of the love, mercy, and grace of God towards sinners.

James 4:8.  Here, James addresses his audience using the term “sinners”.  This is an audience that in the greeting of his letter he refers to as “brothers” (James 1:2).  Considering the context of instructions to submit to God in chapter 4, he also uses terms like “adulterous people” (v. 4), “double minded” (v. 8), and “brothers” again.  Here, as in any gathering of believers, there is a mixed audience.  Some are believers; some are not.  This passage is the only one I can find that uses the term in this way.  It is almost like that phrase, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”  The title may apply to some of his listeners, but not to all of them.

Lastly, I want to address this from a grammatical point of view.  Although it may be true that sinners are those who sin, by definition, the converse is not necessarily true, that those who sin are sinners.  Let me illustrate.

Indeed, runners are those who run.  However, those who run are not all runners.  Someone may run to escape a barking dog, for example, and not be a considered a runner.  We understand that being labeled a runner implies that a person runs deliberately, regularly, and works hard to improve their running skills over time.  They may subscribe to magazines to help them run, join clubs to run with others, compete in marathons, buy gadgets to help them track their distance, and purchase special running clothes.  They have earned that title; it is who they are.

I hope you can see where I am going with this comparison.

Sinners, in the biblical sense, are those who sin deliberately, regularly, and sin more over time.  They have no intention or hope of ever stopping, apart from the transforming power of Jesus Christ.  They have earned that title; it is who they are.

But this does not describe the believers’ experience.  Certainly, we do sin.  To say that we do not sin is a lie (1 John 1:8).  However, doing so goes against the new nature we received at our conversion.  Sinning is not something that Christians are to deliberately pursue (1 John 1:6).  If someone does, we have to question the validity of his faith; true saving faith leads to good works (James 2:14-19).

The blessed hope that those who are in Christ have is this: through His death on the cross, Jesus has redeemed us once for all from the penalty of sin; daily, His Holy Spirit gives us strength to overcome the power of  sin; when Jesus returns, we will be set free eternally from the presence of sin.

Just before I was getting ready to head to church to teach Sunday School this morning, I was pleased to find this appropriate quote from the book, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, by David Needham: “What does Scripture say?  If you have received Jesus Christ as Savior, God says that in the deepest sense of personhood, you are not a sinner – no matter what you have been told, no matter how much you feel the pull of sin.  You are righteous!” (p. 67).

So, if we should not state that we are sinners, what can we say that tells the whole story? We can humbly say that we used to be a sinner separated from God, but that Jesus called us to repentance and faith, forgave our sins, reconciled us to God, and has now declared us righteous in Christ.

There will be much more to say on this topic in the coming weeks.

For further study, here is the complete Scripture listing of the word “sinner” (NIV):   Num. 32:14; Psa. 1:1, 1:5, 25:8, 26:9, 37:38, 51:13, 104:35; Prov. 11:31, 13:6, 13:21, 13:22, 23:17; Eccl. 2:26, 7:26, 9:18; Isa. 1:28, 13:9, 33:14; Amos 9:10; Matt. 9:10, 9:11, 9:13, 11:19, 26:45; Mark 2:15, 2:16, 2:17, 14:41; Luke 5:30, 5:32, 6:32, 6:33, 6:34, 7:37, 7:39, 13:2, 15:1, 15:2, 15:7, 15:10, 18:13, 19:7, 24:7; John 9:16, 9:24, 9:25, 9:31; Rom. 3:7, 5:8, 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:24; Gal. 2:17; 1 Tim 1:15, 1:16, 2:14; Heb. 7:26, 12:3; Jam. 4:8, 5:20; 1 Pet. 4:18; Jude 1:15.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 2)

What follows is my second adult Sunday School lesson on the critical topic of our identity in Christ.  (See my post from one week ago where I introduced this subject.)  This lesson will focus on who we were before we became Christians (B.C.)  I will use the standard format that I learned in college: Hook, Book, Look, and Took.

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Hook:

Some believe that man is basically good. What do you believe?  What evidence do you have to back up your belief?

Introduction: To fully appreciate who believers in Jesus Christ become at the moment of salvation, and whom they are continuing to be transformed into through the process of sanctification, it is prudent to look at who we all were prior to that moment, in varying degrees of lostness and sinfulness.

Book:

1) Read Gen. 6:5. How does Moses describe the people of Noah’s day?  Are we the same today?

2) Read Isa. 53:6. (See also Ps. 53:3.)  How does the prophet Isaiah describe human beings?

3) Read John 3:19-20. This verse provides an explanation as to why so many resist God’s truth.

4) Read Rom. 3:9-18; 23. Paul gives a series of OT quotes to show that Jews and Gentiles are sinners. (See the OT references in sequence: Ps. 14:1-3; Eccl. 7:20; Ps. 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isa. 59:7-8; Ps. 36:1.)

5) Read Rom. 5:6-8; 8:7. How does Paul describe our condition?  Can we find God on our own?

6) Read Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 1:21. How does Paul describe sinful nature?

7) Read Titus 3:3. Paul points out that we were all like this.  Does Paul add anything new here?

Look:

Think about the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21-35). There was one man who owed ten thousand talents; millions of dollars in today’s currency.  His huge debt was forgiven.  There was a servant of his who owed him a hundred denarii; a few dollars.  He was not so forgiving.  Jesus’ point was that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven.  My question is entirely different.  Where do you feel that you fall on the spectrum between owing God millions of dollars, or only a few dollars?

In a similar parable (Luke 7:36-47), Jesus explains that how much of a debt you perceive you have been released from will determine how much love you have for the One who forgave you that debt. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the moneylender more, the one with the bigger or the smaller debt.  He said it would be the one who had the bigger debt canceled.  Referring to the sinful woman who had just anointed His feet with perfume and her own tears, Jesus concluded, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. Be he who has been forgiven little loves little” (v. 47).

I truly believe that the more we understand how much we have been forgiven in our own lives, the more our love for God will grow; loving God is the greatest commandment.

Took:

Are you truly grateful for the life that you have been rescued from before you found Jesus Christ? Do you see it as a dark place, where you were blind, hopeless, enslaved, ashamed, poor, an enemy of God, and lost?  Do you see that as a result of coming to faith in Jesus Christ you have been brought into the light; you can see, have a new sense of hope, have been set free, are forgiven, are rich, a child of God, and are found?

How will you think, feel, and act differently today as a result of seeing this contrast between the old you and the new you a little more clearly?

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 1)

As I was going over my Sunday School lesson I was about to teach a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have not posted many of my lessons on this blog. I think it is time I did.

This eight-week series on our identity in Christ that I am teaching now is one I had taught in the summer of 2011. Since I had been spending a lot of time the last few months on writing my book on the theology of work that I am self-publishing, I decided to teach something that would not require a lot of preparation.  I am glad I chose to do this series.  It is extremely relevant to every Christian.   It is a message that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ need to hear.  My intent is to post two lessons a week, so that I will have posted all lessons prior to Christmas.

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I started the class with showing a video of a Christian song from two years ago, Who You Say I Am, by Among the Thirsty.  Hearing these opening lyrics often causes me to weep with joy:

My sin says I’m unworthy, my shame that I’m alone

My heart tells me I’m broken, and I can’t be made whole

But ever since the day I ran into Your grace

You call me righteous; you call me yours

No longer guilty; not anymore

And I am rewritten; I’m spoken for

A new creation, now I stand, cause of who You say I am

Problem: I often hear the word sinners applied to Christians, as in, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace”.  I cringe every time I hear it.  Not that I don’t acknowledge or recognize that I sin; I do.  Daily.  Not that I don’t accept the Apostle Paul’s assessment that he was the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).  I just think that the Bible refers to believers in Jesus Christ using different words: righteous, forgiven, saints, redeemed, new creatures in Christ, chosen ones, sons/daughters of God, etc.  Believers do sin, but to refer to us as mere sinners misses the profound changes (spiritual, emotional, mental) that occur from the moment of salvation, when a sinner repents and becomes born again, moving from darkness to light.  If believers could focus on who they really are in Christ, more than focusing on just their old sin nature (the flesh), making the big mistake of assuming that is all we can be, then we would sin less and less, as we get our eyes off ourselves and on fixed on Christ (Heb. 12:2).

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to discover, understand, and apply biblical principles on our identity as believers. What did we naturally used to do and think as non-believers and what do we supernaturally (by His grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit) do and think now that we are born again? What changes did God make in us when we chose to follow Jesus?  Are some irreversible? What new abilities and spiritual resources do we all have to overcome the powerful influences of our own flesh, the world, and the devil?  Are we merely human, or are we much more than that?

Here are a couple of powerful quotes from a book I bought many years ago:

“God tells us we are alive in a way we have never been alive before, possessing a birthright we never possessed before. . . Could it be that a major reason for the indifference, the epidemic occurrences of moral shipwreck in our evangelical churches, and the shattering of Christian homes is because we have seen ourselves as nothing more than “Christian” forgiven sinners – failing to be what we should be, because we cannot stop being what we think we are?” (David Needham, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, Portland, OR: Multnomah Publishers, David Needham, 9.)

“Perhaps this ‘new personhood’ idea seems far away from the daily reality of your life. That still doesn’t change the basic fact.  If you have received the Savior, you simply are not the same person you were before.” (Needham, Birthright, 63).

We read Ephesians 1:1-18.  I asked the class to list all the words and phrases that Paul uses in this passage to describe who believers are or what they have in Christ.

The big question is this: Do you believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ you are different, not just “in God’s eyes”, but REALLY different from you were before you became born again?

I closed with another music video, You are More, by Tenth Avenue North.