[Righteousness] is given “freely” ([Romans] 3:24). This is very important, because it is possible to think of faith as a kind of “work,” a calling up of some psychological feeling about God. Some people think of faith as an intense attitude of surrender or a state of certainty or confidence. But Paul takes care to say it comes “freely”…We must not fall prey to the subtle mistake of thinking that our faith actually saves us, as though in the Old Testament God wanted obedience to the law for salvation, and now he has changed the requirements and all he wants is faith. That is a misunderstanding of both the Testaments, of the role of both law and faith! In both the Old and New Testaments, it is the work of Christ that merits our salvation. In both, faith is how it is received, and that is all it is. Faith is simply the attitude of coming to God with empty hands. When a child asks his mother for something he needs, trusting that she will give it, his asking does not merit anything. It is merely the way he receives his mother’s generosity.
This is crucial because, if you come to think that your belief is the cause of your salvation, you will stop looking at Christ and start looking at your faith. When you see doubts, it will rattle you. When you don’t feel it quite as clearly or excitedly, it will worry you. What has happened? You’ve turned your faith into a “work”! Faith is only the instrument by which you receive your salvation, not the cause of your salvation. If you don’t see this, you will think you have something to boast about: The reason I am saved is because I put my faith in Jesus. This is a subtle misunderstanding which cuts away our assurance, and boosts our pride. And [Romans 3] verse 27 says the gospel leaves no basis for boasting.
(Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, p 81).
“Theodoret, a Syrian bishop in the fifth century, likened the gospel to a pepper: “A pepper outwardly seems to be cold…but the person who crunches it between the teeth experiences the sensation of burning fire.” In the same way, he goes on, the gospel can appear at first like an interesting theory or philosophy. But if we take it in personally we find it full of power.
What does its power do? It is the power of God “unto salvation” (Romans 1:16, KJV). The gospel’s power is seen in its ability to completely change minds, hearts, life orientation, our understanding of everything that happens, the way people relate to one another, and so on. Most of all, it is powerful because it does what no other power on earth can do: it can save us, reconcile us to God, and guarantee us a place in the kingdom of God forever.”
(Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, p 20)
If you were traveling through Europe by train and needed to ensure that you caught the correct connections to reach your final destination, you would likely pay close attention to the train schedule. Finding a schedule online, you download it, pack your bags, and head to the station believing you have an authoritative resource in your hands.
Once you arrive at the station, the ticket agent affirms that you do have an authoritative schedule, but that it has some wrong information regarding the trip. Concerned? Most likely. Want to know what it off? Absolutely. Do you consider the schedule and its details an authority anymore? Not likely.
Nevertheless, the ticket agent assures you that the concept is right, it is just some of the key instructive details that are wrong, so it is still an authority that you can rely on. You press for details, but the agent sidesteps by saying that they aren’t really sure themselves; and all you need to do is disregard any instructions that don’t feel right to you or that you disagree with based upon those around you at the time. All the while, the agent insists that the document you possess is authoritative.
What do you think about the agent’s view of the schedule being authoritative, just as long as you ignore the parts of the schedule and the details that you and/or those around you don’t like? Most likely you think the agent has a messed up definition of “authoritative” and are starting to have misgivings about whether or not you will actually reach your destination.
The illustration may seem a bit silly and unrealistic, yet it is precisely how too many professing Christians view the Bible. Rather than taking 2 Timothy 3:16 as “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,” it is twisted around to “All Scripture that is profitable for teaching is breathed out by God.”
The first (the actual text) properly places the Bible as the authoritative element over our lives, opinions, and feelings. The latter (the people often actually live out) places our opinions and feelings as authoritative over the Bible. The former says that all Scripture is profitable and we need to allow it to change our hearts. The latter says only what we like is profitable, the other parts are “in error.”
Almost immediately, any Bible believing Christian will likely object to the thought of twisting Scripture and stripping it of its authority. Yet, I attended a seminary that professed the Bible to be authoritative, but then proudly championed sociopolitical causes in direct contradiction to many clear passages in the Scriptures (they didn’t advertise this when I first applied…only afterwards did it come to the surface). They were experts at saying “Paul was wrong/misguided/overly influenced by his culture when he wrote…” or “That passage actually means the opposite of what it says in English and Greek/Hebrew because…” or “That is a purely first century construct that we don’t need to follow today because…”
I wholeheartedly agree with digging into the biblical text and doing proper hermeneutics (for example see blogs posts like these here and here and here and here). What I found telling was that I was challenged and dinged points by my graduate assistants when I would give answers that were based upon Scripture being “breathed out by God” and being the authority over current hot-button politically correct issues. It soon became clear that, like the train schedule in the illustration, the Bible was considered to be these teachers’ authority, so long as they had the freedom to override anything they (or society) found to be objectionable.
Once we go down the path of deciding what parts of the Bible have authority in our lives and which ones do not, we change the solid Scripture described in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 into an empty verse and truth based upon our own twisted hearts.
Timothy Keller, in Judges for You, helps drive this point home when commenting on Judges 17:
We filter out (consciously or unconsciously) things about God that our hearts can’t accept. In some ways, this is the main sin of our time…
The most serious way we do this is by consciously, intellectually rejecting part of scriptural revelation of God. We do this whenever we say: We can no longer accept a God who does this… or who forbids this…When we use the term “no longer,” we wrap ourselves in the mantle of so-called progress…This means we, like Micah’s family, are reshaping God to fit our society and hearts instead of letting God reshape our hearts and society.
Another way we do this is simply psychologically ignoring or avoiding those aspects of God’s revelation we don’t like…
A third way we do this is by subjectivizing all morality. For example, two professing Christians may be having sex with each other though they are not married. Why? Because they prayed (good) and then “felt peace about it” (irrelevant!). They ignore the objective commands about sex and marriage which God has given them in his word…They follow God’s law so far, but they then twist or add to it so that they can do what they like.
Why is this such a problem? Because it makes it impossible to have a truly personal relationship with God. In a personal relationship with a real person, the other one can contradict you and upset you – then you have to wrestle through it to deeper intimacy. But when we simply ignore (either intellectually or psychologically) the parts of God we don’t like, it means we don’t have a God that can ever contradict our deepest desires or say “no” to us. We never wrestle with him. We never let him make demands on us. We can end up worshiping a much more comfortable God, but also a non-existent one (pp 169-170).
Jesus himself tells us to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33). But I’m afraid many people want to negotiate the cost rather than count it. (Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus, p. 200)
When Jesus calls a person to salvation, which is the same as a life of discipleship according to the Bible, he is making a call to surrender our lives unto him and make him Lord of our lives. All of a sudden, there is a paradigm shift from “me” being in control to Jesus being in control.
If we are honest, rarely is it “me” in control, rather it is something else such as status, money, sex, reputation, lifestyle, or something else that is truly dictating the terms to us about why we opt to do or not to do something. If we are truly honest, when we say “yes” to Jesus, we are removing a created thing from being god in our lives and making the uncreated, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God who loves us and knows what is ultimately the best for us and saying “yes” to him being Lord of all aspects of our lives.
Realistically, whether or not to say “yes” to Jesus is a no brainer. We simply seem to opt for “no brain” rather than the “no brainer” decision, when it comes to the day-to-day choices of having Jesus as Lord.
Timothy Keller, in his book Encounters with Jesus, aims right at the heart of our decision making process and the excuses that we too often make to try to wiggle out of saying “yes” to Jesus being Lord; whether the “yes” is in coming to Jesus for salvation or whether the “yes” is in the day-to-day of a Christian:
People sometimes say to me, “I would like to be a Christian, but will I have to do this? Will I have to give up doing that? Will I have to pray, give up sex, quit my job, change my views?” Certainly questions like this have some legitimacy, because you do need to consider what it will cost you to become a Christian. Jesus himself tells us to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:25-33). But I’m afraid many people want to negotiate the cost rather than count it. That is, they are willing to give up things, but they won’t give up the right to determine what those things are. They want to be in a position to do ongoing cost-benefit analyses on various kinds of behavior, which keeps them in the driver’s seat, on the throne of their life, as it were. I once heard a Bible teacher put it like this – “When it comes to following Jesus, the hardest thing to give is in.” When God comes to Abraham, he says, “Abraham, get out of our homeland, out of the land of the Chaldess, and follow me.” Abraham says, “Where am I going?” And God essentially says, “I’ll show you later.” God wants Abraham to give up the right to determine for himself the best way for him to live (pp 200-201).
If you really want Jesus in the middle of your life, you have to obey him unconditionally. You have to give up control of your life and drop your conditions. You have to give up the right to say, “I will obey you if…I will do this if…” As soon as you say, “I will obey you if,” that is not obedience. What that is really saying is: “You are my consultant, not my Lord. I will be happy to take your recommendations. And I might even do some of them” (p 204).