The Differences Between Early Christianity and Modern Christianity

When I first read the early church fathers, I had one major question. I wanted to know what the churches believed about the Bible back when they all agreed with one another.

This was critically important to me. I had just spent a year on a remote assignment in Alaska with just 300 other military personnel. Very few, only five or six, were the kind of Christians who talked about Jesus every day and loved to get together to pray and study the Bible. I gathered them up for a Friday night Bible study and witnessing to the Indians in the local Indian village on Saturdays.

Six week later, our small Bible study had broken up over doctrinal matters.

I’m not your typical convert. I was raised Catholic, and I had no experience with Protestant churches. After my boss (and even more so, the Holy Spirit) led me to Jesus, I was gloriously saved and filled with zeal. I was excited about joining a church that only did what the Bible said.

I was shocked to find out the lack of regard for the Bible. From the pulpit I was told to examine the Bible to see if the sermons I was hearing were true. Yet when I asked questions I was shut down. If I argued for something in the Bible, I was told to find another church. At Bible studies throughout the week, I ran into the same thing. Everyone was defensive of their tradition, and any outrageous explanation was sufficient to defend those traditions against the plain statements of Scripture.

Therefore, when I heard about the early church fathers, I longed to know how they interpreted the Bible. One of them wrote:

“As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. I, ch. 10, par. 2, written c. A.D. 185)

I became very hungry to know what that one preaching and one faith was.

Of course, I had the completely unreasonable belief that if everyone heard about this one faith, they would all, or at least mostly, switch from their more recent traditions and return to the ancient faith, once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

The truth is, though, very few were interested. I am hoping you signed up for this newsletter because you are interested.

Here is a quick peek at things they believed:

Justin Martyr and Obedience to God

Let’s begin with Justin Martyr, a Christian from Rome who converted from the philosophy of Plato to Christianity. If you use this first link, you can get to the other chapters I quote with the arrows in the top right-hand corner.

First Apology 10 | Justin Martyr | CCEL

How to Serve God

Justin spends the first 9 chapters of his “First Apology” (“apology” meaning defense of the faith) arguing that Christians should not be persecuted. In chapter 10, he begins his description of second-century Christianity.

He does not begin with theology, but with “how God is to be served.” These are the ways God is to be served:

  1. “He accepts those only who imitate the excellencies which reside in Him.”
  2. “We have been taught that He in the beginning did of His goodness, for man’s sake, create all things out of unformed matter; and if men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy … of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering.”

Justin then gives an interesting description of how we accomplish these works:

“For the restraint which human laws could not effect, the Word, inasmuch as He is divine, would have effected, had not the wicked demons, taking as their ally the lust of wickedness which is in every man …”

“The Word” here is not the Bible, but Jesus (cf. Jn. 1:1). Justin is describing a war between the power and teachings of the Word, Jesus, against the wicked demons and the wickedness of man.

The Central Content of Justin’s First Apology

In chapter 11 of the same work, Justin says that Christians look for a heavenly kingdom, which is why they don’t mind being killed by the Romans.

Chapter 12 is longer, but the first sentence covers the chapter well, “We hold this view, that it is alike impossible for the wicked, the covetous, the conspirator, and for the virtuous, to escape the notice of God, and that each man goes to everlasting punishment or salvation according to the value of his actions. For if all men knew this, no one would choose wickedness even for a little, knowing that he goes to the everlasting punishment of fire; but would by all means restrain himself, and adorn himself with virtue, that he might obtain the good gifts of God, and escape the punishments.”

In chapter 13, Justin defends Christians against the charge that they are atheists. They were accused of atheism for rejecting the Roman gods. He writes, “We reasonably worship [Jesus], having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third.”

Finally, in chapter 14, Justin gets to the most important chapter of his First Apology. There he begins a thorough description of Christianity, and he makes it clear that the behavior and the beliefs of Christianity are the same thing. He says we have to “make a strong opposing effort” against the demons “for our own salvation.” We “follow the unbegotten God through his Son,” whom Justin likes to call “the begotten God” (cf. Jn. 1:18 in the KJV or NKJV).

Then, he describes the community of Christians. They no longer serve their own lusts, but they embrace chastity. They used to value wealth, but now they “bring what we have into a common stock and share with everyone in need.” They used to hate each other because of their different manners and different tribe, but now they “share the same hearth.”

He ends the chapter by saying he is going to talk about the simple commands Jesus gave the Christians.

Damage Control

If you read this far, you might find some of Justin’s words shocking. He is focused on obedience to God and doing what Jesus said without any real emphasis on grace or the power of God. It is not because he does not know about the grace and power of God in Christ. This next paragraph is long, but it is well worth reading.

For our own Ruler, the Divine Word, who even now constantly aids us, does not desire strength of body and beauty of feature, nor yet the high spirit of earth’s nobility, but a pure soul, fortified by holiness, and the watchwords of our King, holy actions, for through the Word power passes into the soul. O trumpet of peace to the soul that is at war! O weapon that puts to flight terrible passions! O instruction that quenches the innate fire of the soul! The Word exercises an influence which does not make poets: it does not equip philosophers nor skilled orators, but by its instruction it makes mortals immortal, mortals gods; and from the earth transports them to the realms above Olympus. Come, be taught; become as I am, for I, too, was as ye are. These have conquered me: the divinity of the instruction, and the power of the Word; for as a skilled serpent-charmer lures the terrible reptile from his den and causes it to flee, so the Word drives the fearful passions of our sensual nature from the very recesses of the soul. It first drives out lust, through which every ill is begotten: hatreds, strife, envy, emulations, anger, and such like. Lust being once banished, the soul becomes calm and serene. And being set free from the ills in which it was sunk up to the neck, it returns to Him who made it. (The Discourse to the Greeks, ch. 5)

Of course, that paragraph brings us to one other bit of damage control. Justin Martyr was not a Mormon. He did not believe we would become gods ruling our own worlds. In reading through the church fathers, it is clear they equate immortality with divinity. Any one who becomes immortal because of Jesus’s gift of eternal life is by definition a god. They justified this with Jesus’ words in John 10:34-35. That is why, in a “discourse to the Greeks,” Justin would use terminology that shocks us today.

Conclusion

The biggest takeaway from reading the early church fathers is their focus on living the Christian life. It was not about brilliant speaking or great theology, but living out the things Jesus and the apostles taught. As Athenagoras, an apologist who wrote about 20 years after Justin, said:

“Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.’ (A Plea for the Christians, ch. 11, c. A.D. 177)


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Evolution Does Not Equal Atheism

The article, “5 Ground Rules When Discussing Creation vs Evolution” brings up an important point on the subject of evolution vs anti-evolution. (Most people call this evolution vs. creationism, but that nomenclature is the subject of this article.)

Before the author ever gets to the ground rules, he states, “… the two sides (creation vs evolution) are irreconcilable: we either came from God or we didn’t” (parentheses his).

This is simply not true. Most people who accept the [incontrovertible] evidence that life evolved also believe that there is a God who created everything. Those two beliefs are in no way “irreconcilable” or mutually exclusive. The two beliefs on this subect that are “irreconcilable” and mutually exclusive are that Genesis chapters 1-3 are accurate history and that life evolved. The fact is, though, that while most people who accept the evidence that life evolved believe Genesis 1 to be allegorical, they do believe that God created everything.

Scientists and Atheism

A large percentage of those who believe in evolution also believe that there is a God who created everything. Scientists are indeed among the most atheistic of all professions, but as of 2 months ago, only 41% absolutely do not believe in a creator God.

Americans and Atheism

That percentage is much lower among Americans in general. Even in a site arguing for a higher amount of atheist/agnostics in the USA than generally supposed, it is only 26%.  (https://fivethirtyeight.com/…/way-more-americans-may-be-at…/).

Thus, in the United States, we can safely conclude that more than half of the people who believe in evolution also believe God had a role in the process. One page suggests that up to 31% of Americans deny the evolution of men, but mostly because they are scared of being considered atheists if they do. Only 18% reject the evolution of man when they can say God was involved in the process (reference).

The Real Evolution vs. Creationism Debate

In regard to the original article I mentioned, you can’t write 5 ground rules on the creation/evolution discussion if you don’t know what the discussion is. On the other hand, I suspect that many of those who are offended by my argument that the evidence for evolution is incontrovertible have that author’s mindset: evolution is atheism or is at least a denial that God created everything.

As seen above, it is not.

Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design is the argument that yes, evolution may have happened, but it could not have happened without the intervention of God. Stephen Meyer, a leading advocate of Intelligent Design, wrote, “The theory of Intelligent Design does not reject ‘evolution’ defined as ‘change over time’ or even universal common ancestry, but it does dispute Darwin’s idea that the cause of major biological change and the appearance of design are wholly blind and undirected” (2013, Darwin’s Doubt, p. 339, emphasis in original).

Is that all it takes to avoid the ire of creationists? If I take the word “evolution” out, like Stephen Meyer does, then creationists are happy even if I allow that “universal common ancestry” is true? Meyer’s book denies that the diversity that we see in the fossil record in the earliest layers of the earth could have arisen by the mechanisms of random mutation and natural selection, but it agrees that those earliest layers of the earth represent life as it was on earth more than 500 million years ago. His theory does not allow for Genesis 1 to be history; it just posits a Designer, without specifying that the Designer is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

If that is all it takes, then I am happy to posit a Designer, too. I am even willing to posit that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and the transforming power of the Gospel in history is proof that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is that Designer. I rather thought that because approximately 885 of the 900 posts on this blog have been about obeying Jesus as Lord, King, and final Judge of the living and the dead, that my readers would assume that I believe that his Father was the Creator (and thus Designer) of the universe and that Jesus himself is co-Creater. It appears, though, that I need to specify this: The one God and Father created all things through his Son, begotten before all ages, Jeus the Messiah.

But the Designer, the Father through Jesus his only-begotten Son, designed life so that more than 500 million years ago the only representative of our phyla, chordata, (the next classification under our kingdom, animalia) was something similar to a sea squirt. Over time, our phyla gained representatives that were fish, then amphibians, then reptiles, then mammals, and only in the last three million years, noticeably human-like creatures such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus. However that happened, the layers of our earth, no matter where you go on earth, say that happened.

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The Voice of God in the Hearts of our Youth

This story is borrowed from Richard Jacobson, author of the book Unchurching, which you can listen to for free at unchurching.com. You can listen to his Ted Talk there as well.

Circumstances Richard did not initiate made him a youth pastor at one point. As he sought God about how one leads youth, God told Richard he could give only what he has. What he has is a profound experience of relationship with God.

As a result he planned an event, a day of experiencing God. He began hyping that day. “God will speak to you,” he told the youth. He would then emphasize: “No, you don’t understand! GOD, God himself, is going to speak to you!”

That was basically his message for several months, building them up for this great experience of God.

People began hearing about it, and more youth were coming to the youth meeting. The other pastors heard about it, and they asked him what he was expecting the kids to experience. The one question, Richard told me, that they could not get themselves to ask outright, though he was sure they were thinking it, was “What if God does not show up?”

Richard told them he had no backup plan. He was putting all his eggs in one basket. He did not want those to kids to know about God, but to know God.

Finally, the day came. Richard admitted his fears. He pictured a newspaper headline: “Youth Pastor Wrecks the Faith of Entire Youth Group.” Nonetheless, he stuck it out. He took the kids to a park in the morning, and he sent them into the woods. “Don’t come out,” he said, “until God has spoken to you.” He also told them to be alone. If they ran across another youth, there were to nod a silent greeting, then go opposite directions.

They were out there a long time, and Richard was crying out to God. “You have to come through, Father. I know you want them to know you. You have to meet them.”

In the afternoon, the kids began filtering out of the woods, one by one. Most said they heard God call them to the mission field or to become a pastor. He assured them that was a good thing, and that if the call was real, God would confirm it down the road. Then he would tell them, “That is not what I was talking about. Go back.”

The terror increased until, finally, one boy came running out of the woods, a look of complete shock on his face. He sprinted to Richard, shouting, “God spoke to me.”

Richard answered with a smile, “I told you he would.”

The young man grabbed Richard’s shirt. “No, you don’t understand! It was really God! He really spoke to me!” It was so real that they were trying to convince Richard!

Richard eyes filled with tears as he told me, “As more came, I asked them, ‘What did he say?’ Every one of them answered the same thing.” Then he paused for effect. I had a good idea what he was going to tell me.

He said, “He told them, ‘I love you.'” Then his voice choked up as he said, “What else would he tell a kid that has no experience of him? Of course, he told them that. It is the first and primary thing they need to know.”

We love him because he first loved us.–1 John 4:19

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Consensus: Why We Read the Early Church Fathers

Today I answered the charge that the early church fathers are unreliable because Irenaeus, one of the most trustworthy early fathers, said Jesus lived to be over 40 and ministered for at least a decade. I was writing to someone whose friend had brought this up. I wrote the following.

The answer to your friend’s question is to explain why we read the early church fathers. Obviously, he doesn’t know. Here’s the short answer:

“We are not looking for individual opinions among the fathers, as though they were a Bible. We are looking for what all the churches agreed was true and was taught to them by the apostles. Along with the occasional odd opinion on unimportant subjects, like how long Jesus’ life and ministry was, we do find a consensus on all the most important facets of the faith.”

And here’s the longer one, complete with an explanation from Irenaeus. All of the following quotes are from Against Heresies, Book I, chapter 10.

When we read the early church fathers, we are trying to find out what the apostles taught their churches. In the process, we have found that there is a core set of teachings to which all the churches held. We also find that outside those core set of teachings, Christians (and especially gifted teachers) were not only allowed to speculate, but encouraged to do so. Irenaeus wrote:

As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. … Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

He adds:

It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself. … But the fact referred to simply implies this, that one may bring out the meaning of those things which have been spoken in parables, and accommodate them to the general scheme of the faith; and explain the operation and dispensation of God connected with human salvation; and show that God manifested longsuffering in regard to the apostasy of the angels who transgressed, as also with respect to the disobedience of men . . .  and discourse how it is that this mortal body shall put on immortality, and this corruptible shall put on incorruption; and proclaim in what sense [God] says, “That is a people who was not a people; and she is beloved who was not beloved”; . . . For in reference to these points, and others of a like nature, the apostle exclaims: “Oh! the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God; how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!”

Okay, that is really long, but the point is that there are things that are part of the “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” that everyone must believe and not change, and there are other things that teachers are encouraged to “bring out the meaning of.” (There are many more things Irenaeus says we can “bring out the meaning of” at the link above.)

Though everyone is certain nowadays that Jesus ministered for three years (or three and a half), that is nowhere said in the Gospels or the New Testament. I admit that Irenaeus probably had not read our modern scholars who figured out that timing. On the other hand, I argue that Irenaeus knew as well as any person in history “the subject matter of the faith itself” and the one truth that shines like the sun above on all churches. He was raised in Smyrna, just over 50 years after they were one of two churches that Jesus commended without rebuke in the Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. He left there as a missionary to Gaul (modern France), and was something of a counselor to the bishops in Rome.

You can skip this paragraph if you want; it is an interesting aside. The churches in Gaul of which he was a part helped prevent one bishop (Eleutherius’) from allowing the Montanist heresy into Rome. Later, Irenaeus himself intervened to prevent Victor from excommunicating Ephesus and its surrounding churches over the timing of Passover (which has been called Easter for just a couple of centuries).

We are not turning Irenaeus, nor the other early church fathers, into a second Bible. There are many witnesses to this one faith that was delivered to the saints by the apostles. We know what ALL churches of the second century believed on communion, the Trinity, faith and works, and baptism. We know what they did when someone wanted to be saved. We do not have to guess or speculate on what they believed about these things because there is plenty of testimony to it.

The fact that Irenaeus had the crazy idea that Jesus lived to be over 40 does not affect that truth at all.

There are evil, cunning men who “quote mine” the early fathers in order to make them seem to say what they do not say. This is true in every field. Sadly, young-earth creationists, supposedly Christians, do this to scientists all the time. Worse, it is the unfortunate habit of modern Christians to quote mine the Bible the same way. It is like they think that if they pull out 25 verses that seem to say we cannot lose our salvation, then 2 Peter 2:20-21 and Galatians 5:19-21 will just disappear. They say senseless things, like that the judgement of the sheep and the goats is a judgment of the nations, not of individuals. Has anyone ever thought that through? Is it Russia that is sent into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels? Or maybe Iran? How does Russia or Iran get sent anywhere without actual people involved? The judgment of the sheep and the goats is a judgment of people and those people either inherit the kingdom or are sent into the fire, and the difference is solely based on what they did and didn’t do.

The early church fathers did not quote mine the Bible. Their beliefs do not involve ignoring 2 Peter 2:20-21 by saying it only applies to false prophets and teachers. Their beliefs do not involve changing James words from “justified by works and not faith only” to “justified by faith alone but not by faith that is alone.”

Irenaeus gives a description of what is the basic truth held by all churches:

The church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, earth, and the sea and everything in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations, the advents, the birth from a virgin, the suffering, the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his appearance from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things into one and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that every knee should bow—of things in heaven, things in earth, and things under the earth—and that every tongue should confess to him, and that he should execute just judgment towards everyone; that he may send spiritual wickednesses and the angels who transgressed and became apostates together with the ungodly, unrighteous, wicked, and profane among men into everlasting fire, but may, in the exercise of his grace, confer immortality on the righteous, holy, and those who have kept his commandments and persevered in his love—some from the beginning of their course and others from their repentance—and may surround them with everlasting glory.

 

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Can We Be Good Enough to Go to Heaven?

My last post was an answer to an inquirer who asked what I meant when I said it requires works to enter God’s eternal kingdom. He wasn’t satisfied. He asked, “How do you know if you are good enough to enter your version of heaven?”

I answered, “That is always the question. Is that a challenge, or is it a real question?.”

He did, after all, ask about “my version of heaven.” My answer tackled both his question and his challenge. Here it is?

How Do We Know if We Are Good Enough to Enter Jesus’ Eternal Kingdom?

Evangelicals do not seem to be able to conceive of the idea that we might have to worry about the judgment. Peter, however, says, “If you address as Father the one who impartially judges according to each man’s work, then conduct yourself throughout the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17). Later in the letter, Peter says, “If the righteous are scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and disobedient?” Paul said he disciplines his body and brings it into subjection “lest having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.”

I have one more thing to add, but first I have to ask: “Did you look up those verses I sent in the first email?” I believe I simply quoted every verse I cited. Those were not interpretations; those were citations. At the very least, can you look at 2 Peter 1:3-11 and compare that to what I said? (See yesterday’s post for the verses and explanations I had already given him.)

The worst and most deceptive doctrine taught by the evangelicals is that God will send a person to hell for eternity for one sin. That is outrageous, unjust, and unscriptural. Read Ezekiel 18:20-30. Is that talking about sinless perfection, or just a general pattern of righteousness? in 1 John 3:7, John says not to be deceived. Notice what he says not to be deceived about. He says, “Do not be deceived, little children, the one who practices righteousness is righteous as he [Jesus] is righteous.”

There are amazing promises to those who walk in the light (1 Jn. 1:7) and who practice righteousness (1 Jn. 3:7). Their sins are forgiven on an ongoing basis (1 Jn. 1:7) and they have the righteousness of Christ (1 Jn. 3:7). This lines right up with Romans 4:8 (which is a quote from Psalm 32). There are people to whom God will not impute sin. Those people, according to 1 John 1:7 and 3:7 are not those who believe and live how they want; they are those who walk in the light and practice righteousness. Yes, the way to walk in the light and practice righteousness is to follow the Spirit and let the life of Jesus live through us, but those things are choices. They are choices we have to make every day. If we make that choice on an ongoing basis, we will find that God both imparts and imputes righteousness. If, however, we are not willing to suffer, not willing to deny ourselves, not willing to make the effort, we may find ourselves mocking God, and God will not be mocked. Sow to the flesh, and you will reap corruption, not eternal life (Gal. 6:7-8).

It is amazing to me that evangelicals have such a problem with saying we have to have works to get through the judgment and enter the kingdom. James said we are justified by works and not by faith only (Jas. 2:24). He was talking about the judgment. Evangelicals simply do not believe that verse. Instead they twist the words into words they find more palatable, like “we are saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” What is wrong with the holy, God-inspired words of James that evangelicals need to improve them? God is not going to treat people favorably for changing words he chose.

Early Christianity: A Defense

I hope you understand that there was a time when all Christians agreed with what I have written here. The fact that one branch of modern Christianity, a branch that produces 4 or 5 half-hearted Christians for every whole-hearted one, is offended by what I teach does not bother me. It is not historically doubtful that the churches of Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, Antioch, and the other apostolic churches taught in the second century what I teach today. None of what I teach about works and judgment is controversial among those who read the writings of the second and third century churches. I am not going to forsake the teaching of the united, holy, and apostolic churches of the second century—a church that did not defend itself and gladly gave themselves to persecution and martyrdom—in order to agree with Christians who are afraid to repeat James 2:24 and consider it heresy to discipline oneself in order to avoid being disqualified.

So, that’s my argument in case your question was actually a challenge. If it is really a question, I will be happy to continue to explain that God does not require sinless perfection, but that he does require working out our salvation with fear and trembling. There are those who are worthy and will walk with Jesus in white, and there are those who are defiled and will not (Rev. 3:4). Worthiness is not sinlessness; it is worthiness, and we are commanded several times to walk worthy of our calling. Revelation 3:4 tells us what happens when we don’t.

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Is Christianity Different than Islam Because It Does Not Require Works?

Another email I answered. This one asked how my teaching is any different from Muslim teaching if I teach that we must do good works to enter the kingdom of heaven after the judgment. I kindly avoided saying that one big difference is that I do not advocate conquering other people, tribes, and countries and putting them to the sword if they do not convert. Of course, that makes me different than the Roman Catholics as well as different than the Muslims. Anyway, here’s my reply.

*****************
Before I address your question, we better define “kingdom of heaven.” I think we “enter” the kingdom twice. We are part of God’s kingdom when we get saved/born again. We become part of God’s kingdom on earth, and we look forward to receiving eternal life at the judgment and living eternally in the heavenly kingdom once it comes to earth.

That said, I believe we enter God’s kingdom now by faith in Jesus as Christ, Son of God, and Lord (Jn. 20:31; Rom. 10:9-10). When this happens, we are given all things that pertain to life and godliness, become partakers of the divine nature, and escape the corruption that is in the world through lust (2 Pet. 1:3-4). Thus, we are both delivered from and forgiven for our sins (Tit. 2:11-14). (Of course, I am not talking about sinless perfection, but I am talking about a noticeable transfer from being moved by the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience [Eph. 2:1-3] to walking in the light [Eph. 5:8-10; 1 Jn. 1:7].)

We then live our life by the life of Jesus, walking by the Spirit, as described in Romans 8:3-8 and Galatians 2:20. Through the Spirit, we build on our faith by adding virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love. If these things are in us and increasing, we will not be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of Jesus. If we do not, then we will forget that we were purged of our old sins (2 Pet. 1:5-9).

Peter follows up by saying that if we “diligently do these things” we will make our calling and election sure and we will reap an abundant entrance into Jesus’ everlasting kingdom (2 Pet. 1:10-11). In a similar vein, Galatians 6:7-9 says that if we sow to the flesh, we will reap corruption, but if we sow to the Spirit we will reap everlasting life. The next verse then says not to grow weary in doing good because we will eventually (in due season) reap if we do not lose heart. Obviously, then, putting verses 8 and 9 of Galatians 6 together, if we sow to the Spirit, then we will be able to avoid growing weary, and by patiently continuing to do good, we will reap everlasting life (cf. Rom. 2:6-7).

I hope I have explained my statement that we will enter the eternal kingdom after our judgment only if we have done good works. I trust this also explains why what I teach bears no similarity to Islam at all. Remember, though, that while Islam is a terrible, strange deviation from Christianity, it was indeed a deviation from Christianity. Mohammed was influenced by both Christianity and Judaism, and he twisted them together into a monstrous travesty of the true faith. It should be no surprise, then, if there are surface resemblances to Christianity or Judaism here and there, just as there are resemblances between Mormonism and Christianity, but one is not the other.

Again, thank you for writing. I would be happy to answer any further questions you have.

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How I Became a Heretic (to the Evangelicals)

I was raised Catholic, gave up on Catholicism, explored eastern mysticism as a teenager, and wound up agnostic at age 20. The prayers and daily witness of my first Air Force supervisor and some reading of the Gospels led to a life-transforming conversion at an Assembly of God church building on a Wednesday night in 1982.

I was excited to join a church for which the Bible was “the sole rule of faith and practice,” and I was anxious to learn.

Maybe Not the Sole Rule for Faith and Practice

For those of you raised in church, this is going to seem like a joke, but it was not to me. It took me six months to get through the New Testament twice and the Old Testament once. My biggest surprise was NOT finding Sunday school, nor a Sunday morning service with 3 songs, an offering, and a sermon, nor a Wednesday night Bible study/business meeting. How could something that the Pentecostals, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists all believe and practice NOT be found in “the sole rule of faith and practice”?

It only got worse from there. I was baptized almost as an afterthought a month after my conversion. The reason I was given was that baptism is simply a public testimony to a salvation that had already occurred. Yet every baptism in the Book of Acts occurred immediately upon belief, not only on the same day as believing, but often within minutes. The Philippian jailer in Acts 16 was baptized in the middle of the night with only his own family as witnesses!

This is all I can remember struggling with my first nine months as a Christian. The town of Niceville, Florida had a thriving and active Christian community, and I was in some sort of Christian activity every day, whether it be a Bible study, church service, Christian music night at the skating rink, or street witnessing.

What Does the Bible Really Say?

After nine months, the Air Force sent me on a remote assignment to Alaska. I found only 5 or 6 committed Christians there, and I immediately gathered them up for a Friday night Bible study and passing out tracts in the local Indian village.

I had something to do with creating the explosion that happened within 6 weeks. I had already noticed that although we were always careful to say that God was Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the New Testament was not nearly so careful. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul says, “For us there is but one God, the Father, … and one Lord, Jesus Christ.”

I can’t remember where I was getting all the tracts we were using, but one of them suggested the possibility that the only-begotten Son of God was begotten before all time rather than just at Bethlehem. This made a lot of sense to me, and it seemed to explain the contrast between the Bible’s wording and the wording my Christian friends used. I shared this with the others on Friday night, and one of them ate it up. He got quite excited about the idea, but the others did not.

One Friday evening, we got into a deep discussion about it. I loved it, but one new Christian, who had been converted there in Alaska, was offended by the arguing and refused to speak to any of us from then on. It was only a couple more weeks, and most of them refused to meet with each other anymore. I eventually won the new Christian over, and he would at least hold discussions with me. In fact, I was no longer cut off from anyone, but several of them remained cut off from each other. The rest of my one-year tour was spent with only one or two Christians at a time.

This provoked me to start over. I decided I could not be Assembly of God anymore, I needed to get in the Bible and find out what it really said. I spent all my time in it, snatching every moment to read it that I could.

Romans 2:6

I ran across one verse that stuck in my craw. Romans 2:6 says that God will repay us according to our deeds. Despite the fact that the Assemblies of God believe that a Christian can lose his or her salvation by living an ungodly life, “salvation by faith alone” was a central theme of their conversations and teaching.

In fact, I remember explaining this to my Catholic mom (who had been raised Church of Christ, but converted to Catholicism so she could marry my dad). The conversation went something like this:

Mom: So we go to heaven by faith alone?
Me: Yes.
Mom: So I can do whatever I want, and as long as I believe in Jesus, I will go to heaven?
Me: No. You have live out your faith by obeying Jesus.
Mom: So I have to do good works.

We went around like that for a while before I realized I was not equipped to win that argument. This happened in Florida when I was only a couple months old in the Lord, so I figured I just needed to learn more.

Romans 2:6, though, seemed to agree with my mom. I was puzzled. I wrote it on the blank last page of my Bible, which would accumulate a lot more verses on judgment by works over the next six years.

Sealing My Status as a Heretic

The Air Force moved me from Alaska to West Germany. It was not my first trip to Ramstein Air Force Base. My father was in the Air Force too, and I had graduated from high school at Ramstein.

When I got there, I was more influenced by my desire for unity than by my questions about how to describe the Trinity or the role of works in our salvation. Gene Edwards’ book, The Early Church, that I had picked up during a weekend in Fairbanks, had made a huge impact on me. In addition, a close friend from Florida had been writing me with teachings about unity that had their source in Watchman Nee, a Chinese teacher and author.

I tried to pass on those teachings wherever I went. It would be impossible to count how many people to whom I brought up 1 Corinthians 3:3. “Paul said that the Corinthians were carnal for saying they were of Paul or Peter or Apollos or Christ,” I would tell them. “Doesn’t that mean that we are carnal when we say we are Baptist or Assembly of God?”

Oddly, almost no one agreed with me, or if they did, their answer was, “That is why I am a Christian first and a Methodist second.” Almost no one grasped the idea that distinguishing ourselves from other Christians was divisive.

I got out of the military and stayed in Germany in order to remain in the house church that was my primary fellowship. I got a job at an English-language Christian bookstore, and God proceeded to devastate both the house church and my life. The story is too complicated to tell here.

I wound up making phone calls for a life insurance salesman who sold to the American military. I had to move into an apartment he owned because I was homeless. The first day I arrived I took a walk and found a shortcut to a big Baptist church that was just off a main thoroughfare. I attended the church on Sunday, and when I did not come back the following Sunday, they sent a visitation team to me.

I have to skip the great story about the girl on the visitation team who became my wife. I have to skip the great story about being nominated for deacon at that Baptist church. I will tell you about two conflicts the pastor and I had.

Church Membership

Three weeks after we were married, the pastor called me in to ask why I was not a member. I told him I had become a member of the church when I was baptized. My commitment to the church was made and sealed at baptism. Signing a membership paper would put something else in the place of baptism. I couldn’t do it. The Pastor told me to beware of spiritual pride.

My wife burst into tears as we drove home. “Why can’t you sign the stupid paper?”

We got home, and an hour later she walked triumphantly into the living room. “My dad is coming over to talk to you.”

My father-in-law is as devout a Christian as any man, and she trusted him implicitly. We talked for a while, and he told my wife, “If I believed what Paul believed, I would do exactly what Paul is doing.”

My wife told me later that her dad handed the reins of her life to me that day. She felt free to follow me on the difficult path we would walk the next thirty years.

The next encounter with the pastor was about baptism.

Water Baptism

I had seen the contrast between the practice of baptism in evangelical churches and the practice of baptism in the book of Acts way back in 1982. It took me several years, however, to understand why the apostles baptized immediately (though now it seems obvious). When I did, I sent a letter to the pastor with my thoughts, asking if he would talk with me. When I got there, he began by accusing me of not tithing. I explained to him that I did tithe; I just did not put the money in an envelope with my name on it. I did not need the tax deduction.

When we got to the subject of the letter, he told me to go to the Church of Christ. He also told me that greater minds than us had discussed that subject for centuries, and he told me to beware of spiritual pride.

Afterward, my wife asked how I could be the only one that is right. I told her, “I can’t be. No one who is alone is right. I can tell you, though, that pastor is not correct. He doesn’t care what the Bible says.”

The Real Heretics

In 1989, a couple years after we were married, I ran across the book, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up?. The book was a survey of 9 Christian writers who wrote in the second and third centuries. I had no idea that we had letters and books from Christians from the second and third centuries. We do, though, and a lot more.

The author, David Bercot, covered about 10 subjects. The rules for the subjects were that at least 5 of the 9 early Christians had to have written on the subject, and all of them who wrote on it had to agree.

I spent all evening and a good portion of the next day reading it. (I was no longer making calls for an insurance agent, but I ran an auto insurance agency and a Christian bookstore both.) When I got home from work, my wife was reading on the bed. I threw Bercot’s book on the bed and told her, “I’m not a heretic! I was just born in the wrong century.”

I was shocked at the agreement between the things I had seen in the Scriptures and the subjects Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up covered. Only 1 subject was new to me. On the other 9, the book and I agreed in advance. After growing used to being a borderline outcast, it was nice to know that had I been born 200 years after Christ’s birth, rather than 2,000, I would have fit right in.

I was thrilled, and I felt justified. I was anxious to spread this new-found knowledge.

What I Have Learned Since

The first thing I did was buy the 10-volume set The Ante-Nicene Fathers. The set contained many, maybe most, of the extant Christian writings from the second and third centuries. Despite constantly being told that the early church fathers disagreed with one another, I found that the fathers of the second and third centuries were in amazing harmony. (In 2011, I published a book about the Council of Nicea in 325, which is when Christians began vehemently disagreeing with one another. It is called Decoding Nicea.)

I quickly deceived myself into thinking that if Christians could just see this, they would drop their traditions and unite. That did not happen. I only alienated the evangelicals even more.

You might wonder why I did not move on to the Church of Christ or to some high church like the Anglicans. One answer is that I do not actually agree with the Church of Christ on baptism. The main answer, though, is that I like to be around people who want to talk about Jesus, spend time in his presence, hear the voice of God, walk by the Spirit, and give themselves to Jesus, the Gospel, and each other. Others have had a different experience, but I found it easier to find people like that among the evangelicals. For all their problems, they have a lot of people who love Jesus. To me, it looks like they have more such people than anyone else does.

So that’s the story of how I came to be a heretic, or at least a borderline heretic, among the people I most want to fellowship with. You can probably see what I’ve done with that problem in the pages of this blog or on Facebook, where I post regularly. Just look up my name there (Paul Pavao).

Posted in Bible, Dealing with Scripture Honestly, Early Christianity, Evangelicals, Modern Doctrines | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Doing Good Works Is not Legalism: Salvation by Faith the Bible Way

In this post, I want to rescue you from the negative attitude towards good works that is so common in modern churches.

The Conflict: Works and Faith

The source of that negative attitude is verses like Romans 3:28, which says, “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Another passage is Ephesians 2:8-9 where the apostle Paul tells us salvation is a gift of God, “not of works so that no one will boast.”

On the other hand, the apostle Paul also told one of his students, Titus, to “affirm confidently … that those who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works” (Titus 3:8).

Let me explain how these verses go together, what misunderstanding causes this negativity toward good works, and explain the proper understanding of Romans 3:28 and Ephesians 2:8-9.

Defining Good Works and Salvation by Faith

First, let’s explain terms. When Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from the works of the law,” he means that you can give to the poor, help old ladies across the street, be kind to your co-workers, and love your wife, but none of this will make you a Christian. Becoming a Christian is a purposeful choice to believe that Jesus is God’s Son and begin to follow him (Jn. 20:31). That purposeful choice is what Paul means by faith.

The Misunderstanding

Many churches have twisted this idea. They think that Paul meant that if we believe Jesus died for our sins, then all our sins are forgiven: past, present, and future. It literally does not matter how we live. God will reward us with eternal life in heaven just because we believe Jesus died for our sins.

This, of course, is nonsense. Let’s look at Scriptures that talk about how Christians are supposed to live.

Faith Empowers Us for Good Works

In this Bible study, I am going to copy and paste the verses for you. Normally I make you look them up, but this study is too important.
Titus 2:11-14: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to the intent that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we would live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age; looking for the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good works.”

In this passage you see what happens when a person is “justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” We cannot become a Christian by works, but once we become a Christian “grace” appears. It teaches us how to live godly, so that we can be the people Jesus died for, a people zealous for good works.

Now let’s look at another passage we have already seen, but this time, let’s add one more verse to the passage.

Ephesians 2:8-10: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.”

You saw what grace does in Titus 2:11-14. It teaches us to be godly and to deny ungodliness. Here we see that our faith that Jesus is the Son of God is what brings the grace that saves us. The result of this salvation is that we are created anew in King Jesus for the purpose of doing good works.

Do not be mistaken. You will not inherit eternal life in God’s everlasting kingdom if you do not use the salvation you have been given. Those who live by the flesh will not inherit God’s kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:3-7), and good works are required to receive eternal life at the judgment (Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:8-9; cf. Matt. 25:31-46).

The New Covenant: Why Salvation Is Apart from Works

There is a reason that salvation comes without works.

Salvation comes without works because prior to salvation all of us are stricken with the human condition. We all have a propensity to sin: to seek our own desires and to fulfill our lusts without regard to the damage we may be doing to others, to society, or to the will of the God who created us. God could give us a law explaining exactly how we are supposed to live on this earth, but he did that already with the nation of Israel. He gave them a divine law through Moses. The vast majority of Israel violated that law for centuries.
As a result, God made a new covenant (contract, agreement) with Israel, and with all mankind. This new covenant was predicted 500 years in advance by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-34).

Basically, God explains through Jeremiah that humans are untrustworthy, so he is going to make a new covenant in which he himself writes his laws on our hearts and in our minds. Under this covenant, every person will know him and have his Spirit.

God has always wanted us to do good, but since humankind has failed over and over to be good, he made a covenant with mankind in which, if they came to him through Jesus Christ, he would give them the power to do good by his grace and his Holy Spirit. This is called salvation, and God forgives all of our sins when we enter into this new covenant by believing in Jesus.

2 Peter 1:3-11 gives a great overall picture of what I have taught in this post. Verses 3 and 4 tell us what we receive when we become Christians by faith. Verses 5-10 tell us what is required of us after we become Christians, and verse 11 tells us of the glorious reward of eternal life in Jesus’ everlasting kingdom.

I sure hope this has helped you because it is very, very important.

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Saved by Works and Not by Faith Only

I thought of a way to get across a concept that people struggle to understand: there is a difference between being saved by faith and going to heaven.

Picture a congregation. The congregation is asked, “How many of you are born again?” Many hands go up.

The speaker then asks, “How many of you have gone to heaven?” All hands go down.

Read the Bible with that distinction in mind, and you will find that though you were born again by faith, you will go to heaven only if you have works (and a lot of mercy along the way). Thus the reconciliation between Romans 3 (“faith apart from works”) and James 2 (“works and not faith only”).

The main point I wanted to make is done. Everything below is to answer common objections and perhaps add some explanation and context to what I have just written.

This Is Scary

Is that a scary thought? Peter writes, “If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your sojourning here in fear” (1 Pet. 1:17). It is supposed to be scary.

Paul writes, “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ to receive the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:10-11)

If We Go to Heaven by Works, Then We Can Boast

This objection is prompted (rightly) by Ephesians 2:9: “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

The answer:

  1. Ephesians 2:8-9 is talking about being born again. It is all in the past tense. That salvation has already happened to us, and it is indeed apart from works. The result of that salvation is in 2:10. We are recreated in Christ Jesus to do good works.
  2. Thus, Paul writes, “What do you have that you have not received? And if you did receive it, then why do you boast as though you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). We should be able to boast that Jesus has changed our lives and delivered us from sinful patterns of life. We are not boasting about ourselves, but about Jesus.

How can we claim to be created in Christ Jesus to do good works if we are not doing good works?

Thus, Paul tells Titus, “… concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men” (Tit. 3:8). Other versions have “I want you to affirm constantly.”

Harping on good works is not legalism. It is a command from the apostle Paul, and if you count yourself a prophet or spiritual, then you should acknowledge that Paul’s commands are the commands of Christ (1 Cor. 14:37).

Mercy

I am always stunned that people think I am talking about sinless perfection. Not at all. We all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). God is full of mercy and has made amazing, wonderful, full provision for it (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2). Take advantage of it. Go boldly to the throne of grace and obtain mercy and grace to help (Heb. 4:16).

But don’t be deceived. God is not mocked. He who sows to the flesh, will reap corruption. Only he who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life. Therefore, do not grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:7-9).

Or as God said himself to Moses, “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished” (Ex. 34:6-7).

A Christian must have a pattern of righteousness in his life. A pattern of sin is the mark of a son of the devil (1 Jn. 3:7-10). If you have been born again, you should find your life changing. You should have the ability to add virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly-kindness, and love to your faith and find yourself increasing in those things. Diligently adding those things is the route to an abundant entrance into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:3-11)

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Due Diligence

“Due Diligence” is a legal IRS term. You are allowed to take a questionable deduction on a tax return as long as you have done your “due diligence.” This means that you have researched your deduction enough to confirm a reasonable possibility that it is a legitimate deduction. If the IRS denies your deduction and you have done your due diligence, you will pay the additional tax plus interest and penalties. If they deny your deduction and determine that you have not given due diligence, you will likely be prosecuted.

I think this applies to Bible interpretation as well. Jesus had little tolerance for those who rejected his teachings because of tradition (Mark 7:5-13).

I have a lot of discussions with other Christians about Bible interpretation. I understand that people are people, and we all are subtly different. We are all biased in one direction or another. That does not excuse us from giving “due diligence” to the things that are important. Here are two examples:

An Example of Not Doing Due Diligence

When I was first realizing what the Bible teaches about water baptism, I wrote a four-page letter to the pastor of the Baptist Church I was attending. I asked if I could meet with him about it. When we got together, he tried to intimidate me with accusations, but they weren’t true. Then he simply told me I should go to another church. Finally, I asked him if he had any response to the letter.

He focused in on Acts 22:16. There Paul recounts that Ananias had told , “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” In this passage, he said, “‘Get up’ and ‘be baptized’ go together, and ‘wash away’ and ‘call on his name’ go together. The baptism is unrelated to the washing away of sins.”

This was an example of no diligence at all, much less an appropriate level of diligence. That pastor would have been satisfied with any answer at all, whether it really explained the verse or not. He spent no time at all deciding whether or not “baptism” and “washing away your sins” were actually related. He did not want them to be, so they weren’t. He did not want truth, he wanted the discussion (and me) to go away. (This is the kind of thing Jesus was talking about when he said, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”)

Unfortunately, this is what most religious people do. No examination, no deep thought, just a steadfast devotion to the status quo. In other words, for most Christians, tradition is enough.

The problem with this is that evangelicals have many conflicting tradition. Jesus prayed for us to be one so that the world would know that God sent him, but we refuse to face and tear down the traditions that stop us from being one.

Not Doing Due Diligence, Second Example

This may infuriate some people, but I am pretty sure those whom the following would infuriate quit reading my blog long ago.

2 Peter 2:20-21 says: “For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.”

I am not sure how anyone can read that passage without rejecting eternal security. I have only heard two responses to it:

  1. The chapter is about false prophets, so only false prophets can have this happen to them.
  2. This is a difficult verse.

The first argument is senseless, and the second is false. There is nothing difficult about 2 Peter 2:20-21.

The real difficulty with this passage is that a lot of people do not like it or agree with it. If that’s the case, it is better to tear 2 Peter out of your Bible. It would be much easier to justify removing 2 Peter than to twist 2 Peter 2:20-21 into anything other than a clear statement that Christians can fall away so badly that they will be judged worse than they would have if they had not heard the Gospel.

2 Peter 2:20-21 is a perfect example of the need for due diligence. It creates a massive need for diligence. There are a lot of verses in John’s Gospel and letters that seem to contradict 2 Peter 2:20-21. In fact, the due diligence required is really too difficult for the average Christian. It is our teachers and leaders who should be making the effort to produce an overview of the faith that includes both John and 2 Peter.

Unfortunately, if Christianity were taxes, most pastors and teachers would be in jail for not doing due diligence. All of you suffer for it.

One thing I can tell you is that ignoring verses like 2 Peter 2:20-21 is stupid. Even a child could figure out that this passage warns you not become entangled in the world because you will be judged worse than unbelievers if you do. Ignoring such a clear warning is just stupid.

You can leave the balancing of John and 2 Peter to people who have the time and skills to give you a good explanation of how they correlate rather than contradict. You cannot, however, ignore the warning.

You also need to dismiss any teacher that tells you this passage is not true. Anyone who tells you that you can become entangled in the defilements of the world and be better off than you were before you heard the Gospel (i.e., go to heaven) is wrong. You can ignore their reconciliation of John and 2 Peter because they have reconciled the two in such a way that 2 Peter becomes untrue. A person capable of reconciling the two will show how both are true, not how one is wrong or false.

The Consequences of Not Doing Due Diligence

If you fail to do due diligence with your taxes, you may get away with it. The IRS is not omniscient or omnipresent, and they do not audit every tax return. God, on the other hand, will call us to task one day for every idle word we have spoken (Matt. 12:36). Your lack of due diligence will be found out.

Nonetheless, most of us fear the IRS more than we fear God. If we did, we might be more afraid of failing to do due diligence with the Scriptures. I’m relatively sure that God is not going to care whether we gave diligence to when the rapture will occur; on the other hand, I am certain that he will care whether we save our sinning brother from death of his soul (Jas. 5:19-20). We need to do due diligence about what we should be giving due diligence to!

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