Do you ever wake up in the night with scary revelations from God?
I do. Not real often, but it has happened several times over the last three decades. At the start, I hated it. I would wake up with this idea in my head, and I would be somewhat excited about it. Then I would compare the idea with Scripture, and pretty much every time I was astounded at how verses I had wondered about just clicked into place.
I remember one night, God—I’m pretty sure it was God—asked me, “Is there anywhere in the Bible that ‘the Word of God’ is used as a reference to the Scriptures in general.”
My memory was better then, so I started racing through the New Testament in my head. I couldn’t think of anywhere. So I got on my computer and searched every occurrence of “word” in the New Testament, nearly 300 of them, and there were no such occurrences.
You can read my conclusions, because I found some AWESOME stuff reading the New Testament all night that nighs, at >http://www.christian-history.org/the-word-of-god.html.
If you think you have a biblical reference where “the Word of God” means “Bible,” the way we use it today. Let me know.
I was so excited that night I was throwing my hands in the air because I was learning that the Word of God is in us and can be powerfully used by us. The Word of God, in any form, transmitted from one person to another gives them access to all that God has to say. It was the most awesome revelation of my life.
Then as the excitement wore off, I realized … “Oh, oh.”
I might think it was amazing; I might be delighted as things that had puzzled me were solved with pristine clarity from Scripture; but what were other people going to think?
Even though Protestants are a remarkably novel brand of Christianity, they don’t approve of novelty any more than the early churches did. I have long experience with people freaking out about my revelations no matter how clearly scriptural they might be. As Mark Twain once said (paraphrased from memory):
Laws are written on sand; customs are written on brass. Break a law, and you may well get away with it. Violate a custom, and your punishment will be swift and sure.
So here’s tonight’s middle-of-the-night revelation, another one that seems, well, pristine. I like that word because for me it indicates cleanliness. There is no mess to clean up in Scripture, no verses to explain away, just click, click, click, as verses slip into place like puzzle pieces.
There’s a big mess of tradition left to mop up. It will be a disgusting job, I’m sure.
He Who Fears God and Labors at Righteousness
Have you ever wrestled with this statement from Peter?:
In every nation, the one that fears [God] and labors at righteousness is accepted by him. (Acts 10:35)
Do you believe that?
I didn’t. I immediately rectified that once I noticed this verse on about my 20th read through the Book of Acts, but before that I did not know that God accepts those of any nation who fear God and labor at righteousness.
I used to believe that without believing in the name of Jesus, there was no way to be accepted by God. I used to believe that works had nothing whatever to do with our relationship with God unless we were in the Anointed One, in Jesus. Outside of him, we are all condemned, hopelessly lost no matter what we do.
But Peter says that’s not true.
Cornelius Accepted while a Lost Gentile
Peter was talking to Cornelius, a Gentile, when he said those words. Cornelius was not a follower of Jesus. In fact, no Gentiles at all were followers of Jesus. In a few minutes, Cornelius was going to become the first one.
Was it a random choice by God? Was it chance? Was it the sovereign election of God?
Sure, it was the sovereign election of God, but it was not a random, unconditional election. It was entirely conditional. God himself said so. (Election is always conditional. Being elected is entirely in your control. Go do 2 Pet. 1:5-10. Verses 3-4 talk about getting the power to do verses 5-10, but verse 10 says being elected is up to you.)
There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius … devout, and someone who feared God with all his household, who gave many alms to the people [i.e., the Jews], and always prayed to God. He saw in a vision … an angel of God coming to him, and saying … “Your prayers and your alms have come up as a memorial before God.” (Acts 10:2-4)
While Cornelius was separated from the commonwealth of Israel, while he was still a sinner, God paid attention to his generosity and his prayers (said an angel of God) and accepted him for his fear of God and labor of righteousness (said Peter).
Do you believe that?
Do you, or I, have a choice but to believe it?
The Whole World Makes Sense Again
It’s not just the whole context of Scripture, but the whole tenor of life on earth, which says that God rewards good and punishes evil. Consider this passage from the Old Testament Scriptures which is quoted in the New Testament Scriptures …
The one that would love life and see good days, let him restrain his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile. Let him eschew evil and do good. Let him seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears attentive to their prayers, but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil. (1 Pet. 3:10-12, quoting from Ps. 34:12-15)
Is this only true for Christians?
God … will repay everyone according to their deeds. To those who, by patiently continuing to do good, seek after glory, honor, and immortality, [he will repay] eternal life. But to those who are contentious, and who do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, [he will repay] indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jews first, and also of the Gentiles. … For when the Gentiles, who do not have the Law, do by nature the things that are contained in the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves. They show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience testifies, and their thoughts all the while either accuse or excuse one another. (Rom. 2:6-9,14-15)
I have heard for years that the apostle Paul was speaking hypothetically in those verses. IF it were possible for any human to “patiently continue to do good” or obey their conscience, then God would repay them eternal life and their thoughts would excuse them.
That’s one hypothesis, but hypotheses are made to be tested. The hypothesis is “no one except Jesus can live righteously enough to please God.” The conclusion of that hypothesis is that Paul was speaking about something that cannot happen in Romans 2.
I present Cornelius as refutation of that hypothesis.
I also present Job, Noah, and Daniel.
- “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job, and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1).
- “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations … And the Lord said to Noah, ‘Come, you and all your house, into the ark, for you [singular] have I seen righteous before me in this generation” (Gen. 6:9; 7:1)
- “‘Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, they would only deliver their own souls by their righteousness,’ says the Lord God” (Ezek. 14:14).
Unless You Are Born Again
Jesus says that we will not enter the kingdom of God unless we are born again. He says it twice! That should put some emphasis on it!
But what are we to do with Enoch, who was caught up to be with God? What are we to do with Moses and Elijah, who talked to Jesus when he was glorified before his disciples, an event Jesus described as “the kingdom of God coming with power” (Matt. 16:28-17:9; Mark 9:1-10; Luke 9:27-36)?
Jesus tells us that many shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11). We might argue that these many from the east and west are born again Christians, but what about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? They were born again?
Our typical Protestant answer is that their justification came from looking forward to the Messiah. Though they were before his time, his blood applies backward to them as followers of God.
Okay, let’s grant that as true. Then why can’t Jesus’ blood just as easily apply forward in time to those who have not heard the Gospel, but who have “feared God and labored at righteousness”?
Why only Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, and Job? Why not Cornelius?
Why not Frank, your next door neighbor, who lives more righteously than most Christians? (Note: Frank is purely hypothetical, which is apparently our word of the day.)
Why not Kakukau, whose name none of us can pronounce because he speaks in clicks like the rest of his African tribe, who has never had opportunity to hear that God has a Son he sent to earth to be King of the universe? (Kakukau is hypothetical, too, but the clicking language is not.)
Of course, all of this misses the point. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah, and Noah were not born again. Even if you want to apply the blood of Jesus back in time to account for their righteousness, they were not born again any more than Cornelius was before Peter arrived. Yes, Cornelius was born again afterward, but it is God who said Cornelius would be rewarded for his works before he ever met Peter, and Peter said Cornelius was accepted for his fear of God and labor in righteousness before he preached to him.
God Is Not Partial
As I looked at these verses, I was amazed at the constant use of “God is not a respecter of persons.”
- Peter told Cornelius that God’s acceptance of Cornelius made him realize God is not a respecter of persons (i.e., is not partial; Acts 10:34).
- I quoted Romans 2 earlier. Right in the middle of that passage is “There is no respect of persons with God” (v. 11).
Perhaps the most poignant comment to Christians about God’s impartial judgment is in Ephesians 5:
For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor greedy man … has any inheritance in the kingdom of the Anointed and of God. Don’t let anyone deceive you with empty words for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Do not be partakers with them. (Eph. 5:5-7)
The import of this verse is unmistakeable. Don’t be deceived. If you live like the sons of disobedience, God will judge you like the sons of disobedience, and you will inherit wrath rather than the kingdom of God and his beloved Son.
In case that’s not clear enough, Peter tells us:
If you call on the Father, who without respect of persons judges according to everyone’s work, then pass the time of your sojourning in fear. (1 Pet. 1:17)
If God tells us to beware because he is not a respecter of persons, and he means that we will not have an easier judgment than those outside the faith, then does it not follow that he is not a respecter of persons to the lost as well? In other words, if Frank, your unsaved neighbor, does good more than you do, he will receive a better judgment than you will.
God does not distinguish between those who find the story of Jesus believable and those who do not. He distinguishes between those who do his will and those who do not.
We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (Acts 5:32)
And being made perfect, [Jesus] became the author of eternal salvation to all those who obey him. (Heb. 5:9)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. (Matt. 7:21)
Being born Again
The purpose of being born again is to empower us to do righteousness (Rom. 6:14; 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:14; Eph. 2:8-10; Tit. 2:11-14). He did not die to give unrighteous sinners the right to hide behind Jesus’ righteousness and escape judgment. That is a myth.
Little children, do not be deceived, the one who continues practicing righteousness is righteous as he is righteous. The one who continue practicing sin is of the devil. (1 Jn. 3:7-8)
The new birth is an incredible thing. When a person is born again “old things have passed away; all things have become new; now all things are of God” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is a transformation. Through his great and precious promises, we escape the corruption that is in the world through lust. Through his Spirit we become partakers of his divine nature (2 Pet. 1:3-4).
As those who practice righteousness, we are given the blessing of God’s righteousness (1 Jn. 3:7). As those who trust God like Abraham and David, we are given the blessing of Abraham and David (Rom. 4:1-8). We walk in the light, and God does not impute sin to us, but instead we are cleansed continually by the blood of Jesus (1 Jn. 1:7).
We enter the family of God, which exhorts one another daily (Heb. 3:13), gives thought to encouraging one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24), and takes special care of one another (Jn. 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 12; Php. 1:27-2:4; etc.).
All of this makes “patiently continuing to do good” a normal thing for the born again. As Paul puts it, if we will sow to the Spirit and not grow weary in doing good, we will reap a reward of eternal life (Gal. 6:9-10).
What a gift we have received from God!
Not Being Born Again
The Scriptures say repeatedly that God will punish those who do not obey the Gospel.
We bring danger when we bring the Gospel. Because the Gospel comes with the witness of God to the spirit of man, when someone rejects the Gospel, God feels that he has been called a liar (1 Jn. 5:10-11). Those who hear the Gospel are accountable for what they have heard.
The problem, however, is that without the Gospel and all its benefits, men are fighting a losing battle against the flesh, the devil, and the world. We all once walked according to the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience, and we were dead in our sins because of it (Ephesians 2:1-3). The Gospel provides the power to triumph in that battle.
I am not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes … for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith. (Rom. 1:16-17)
This is all true!
What is also true, both in Scripture and in what we see around us, is that some, who have not heard or accepted the Gospel, pursue righteousness with a good heart, patiently continuing to do good works, even though they have not received the incredible power of the Holy Spirit.
If it is possible for Abraham, why would it not be possible for some person in the jungles of the Philippines? Why would it not be possible for Frank, your hypothetical neighbor?
Cornelius pleased God, and so God sent Peter to him with the Gospel. He was transformed, and he would walk the rest of his life with the power of the Holy Spirit. So would his family.
But God was pleased with Cornelius and his good deeds before he became a Christian.
How many times have you experienced a person slowly coming to Jesus because of the godly life of a Christian or Christians? Such people begin to modify their life based on the example of the Christians. They see the reality and the goodness of God in their behavior. At some point that person decides they will make the same commitment to God that they are seeing in the Christian or Christians around them.
God does not miss those who choose to do good in the world. He rewards those. The best reward of all is that he sends a preacher (a poorly used term these days) to them like he sent Peter to Cornelius. Then what they are struggling to do out of a desire to please the law they find in their conscience becomes behavior powerfully changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Nonetheless, he notices.
Yes, God saves people out of the most terrible sins. When the apostle Paul was still Saul, he was breathing threats against the church of God when God found him.
Did God randomly choose Paul as his vessel?
No, Paul had some qualifications. He was a good Jew in regard to what he knew, but he was an enemy of God because he didn’t believe in the Messiah. That ignorance would not have excused him eternally, but it did bring the mercy of God. Paul says God chose him because he behaved “ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1:13). Paul was a foolish but devoted follower of God.
God takes notice of the righteous, even the misguided righteous. This notice does not equal salvation, but seeking to be righteous will put you at the front of the line in receiving God’s proclamation of the risen King and for being taught his new law. As Jesus said, “Keep seeking, and you will find” (Matt. 7:7).
Let us not mistake the Gospel of the kingdom for the bizarre idea that God has given up on the idea of doing good or that he has stopped rewarding those who do good. Jesus did not die to make God merciful. He was already merciful. Jesus did not die to make the judgment easier. The judgment of God was already just. Jesus died for us. He did things we could not do for ourselves, reconciled us to God, and then transformed us so that we could remain in that reconciliation.
Preaching the Gospel
I would be remiss if I did not mention that much of what we call Gospel preaching is not the Gospel at all. Saying the right words is simply not enough. Paul rejected the preaching of those who only had words:
I will come to you shortly, if the Lord wills, and I will know, not the word of those who are puffed up, but the power, because the kingdom of God does not come in word, but in power. (1 Cor. 4:19-20)
It is not our words that matter, it is the demonstration that we provide.
My message and my preaching were not in enticing words of men’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. (1 Cor. 4:2)
In far too many cases, both our preaching and demonstration is of carnality and weakness, not Spirit and power. Can we blame US citizens for rejecting the message that they can remain in slavery to their flesh? How real does a free ticket to heaven sound where there is no demonstration of a changed life?
Jesus said the world would be convinced when they saw our love for one another (Jn. 13:34-35) and our unity (Jn. 17:20-23). Paul testified of the incredible power of such a demonstration, which rendered preaching in entire provinces unnecessary because everyone already knew the power of God through the love of the Christians! (1 Thes. 1:5-10).
When we slap a bumper sticker on our car that says, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven,” we might as well display one that says, “Jesus is powerless; we have nothing but words for you.”
We are not “just” forgiven. We are forgiven, but we are also justified and sanctified by the Spirit of our God. We are taught the commandments of Jesus (Matt. 28:20), and we fulfill them (1 Jn. 2:3-4) because sin does not have power over us. That is the difference between law and grace: grace overcomes the power of sin and of the flesh (Rom. 6:14: 8:1-4).