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The System of Salvation

Sunday, July 16, 2023

So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

(2 Corinthians 5.6-10)

This passage has much to offer.  Tallying up the major points from start to finish, Paul points toward our imminent meeting with Jesus, reminds us that reality is not limited to what we can see, inverts our perspective on the fear of death, and charges us to please God in all we do, in order to be ready for that meeting, and the reward that lies beyond it.  Any one of these points could command our attention for some time, but that last one, although it didn’t seem at all controversial in its context, is a jarring statement, for some. Paul tells us we will stand before Jesus to be judged, and each of us will “receive what is due for what he has done in the body” (v10).  Isn’t this the guy who wrote Galatians 2.16?

…yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

What about Galatians 3.11?

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

Or Romans 4.4, referring to God’s gift of the righteousness that brings about salvation:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.

Another one, Romans 3.20:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

And finally, the pièce de résistance:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

(Ephesians 2.8-9)

Perhaps Paul should take some time to get his story straight!  Considering the number of times he seems to have said the opposite, surely this little quip in 2 Corinthians was an oversight—an instance of Paul forgetting the basics for a moment.  Right?

Well, no, that’s not right, at all!  Not only was Paul fully aware of how God grants salvation, but his words in 2 Corinthians 5 do not contradict any of these other passages.  How can we show this?  A legalist might point to the the presence of “the law” in three of the five passages in question.  The argument might go like this: Paul meant that works of the Law of Moses could not entitle a person to salvation, but he didn’t say any such thing about works of the Law of Christ!

That would be compelling, if not for passages like Ephesians 2.9, which says salvation is “not a result of works”—not works of the law, but works.  And then there’s the matter of Romans 4, from which we extracted one verse earlier, whose context lays out the argument with no mention of any Law:

For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…

(Romans 4.2-5)

Law in general, and in particular the Law of Moses, feature prominently in the rest of the chapter and book, but Paul’s point here isn’t limited to that specific Law, which had not yet been given when Abraham was first pronounced righteous—not on the basis of any works, but on the basis of his faith.

We can’t explain away everything Paul said about works by appealing to the now defunct Law of Moses; he means works.  So then, how can he say justification and salvation are a “gift,” not a “due” (Ro 4.4) for the things we have done, and then turn around and say that Jesus will give us our “due” (2Co 5.10) for the things we have done?

Part of the trouble comes from translation—the ESV showcases this tension more prominently than other versions, and the Greek text does not make use of all the same vocabulary; but the ideas are there!  More fundamentally, the trouble comes from our desire for a systematic theology—a textbook of the science of salvation, so to speak.  We want to know the exact boundaries of the rules, so we can use them to our advantage.  But that’s not what God wants, or he’d have given us a book of cold and consistent vocabulary, detailed mathematic proofs, procedural notes, and exercises, half of whose answers could be found in the back of the book.  In a sense, each of these elements can be found in the Bible, but it’s not a book of these things.  Instead, it’s a book of oracles, narratives, poetry, and prophecy, and we’re left to find our way through life by its guidance as a whole, rather than following the procedures on page 1 on the day of our birth, page 2 the next day, and so on until death.  It’s not a step-by-step instruction manual, it’s a document for human beings, by which God shares with us “a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2Co 3.6).

Don’t overthink it.  Don’t try to systematize it.  Don’t try to game the system.  It’s not game-able, because it’s not a game.  The “system” is very simple: Christ is in charge, so trust and obey him, and he’ll take care of you.

Jeremy Nettles

Seasoned with Salt

Sunday, July 09, 2023

We increasingly live on the internet.  Facebook’s short-lived “Metaverse” received abundant mockery, was used by few people, and was more or less abandoned after just a year as the social media giant’s new flagship product; but still, in many ways the blending of internet and spatial reality was already the default for most of the world, and that trend is only accelerating, regardless of one company’s failed attempt to monopolize it.

We interact with each other using screens, we learn about what’s happening throughout the world using screens, we let the screens tell us how to get to places we’ve been many times before, we work on screens, we play with screens, we get our music and entertainment from screens, we do our reading, banking, shopping, taxes, bills, and education on screens.  And, crucially, all of these screens, and all of these activities, are now connected to the internet at all times.  They’re generally connected to our hands, too—everyone has seen a family out to dinner, all silently scrolling though their phones instead of interacting with the flesh-and-blood humans sitting at the table.

We all know this isn’t particularly good for us, and we also know that the screens are here to stay—useful but dangerous tools that we must learn to manage and use in moderation.  These interconnected electronic devices already blend the real, physical world with a virtual world of our own making, and what happens on the internet is often just as real as what happens in the “real” world.  An entire generation has now grown up taking for granted the ubiquitous smartphone; but in terms of human development, we’re still very early on the timeline of this virtual reality.  It often takes several generations to figure out what to do with a new and groundbreaking technology—how best to use it, and how best to prevent or discourage its misuse.  In some cases we never figure it out.  This generation will be long dead before this disruptive technology becomes no longer a disruption but a fixture of civilization, but Christians should be ahead of the curve, using not the slowly-accumulating wisdom of man to guide them through these troubled waters, but instead the eternal principles of wisdom laid down in God’s word.

And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.

(James 3.6)

James isn’t telling us to take a vow of silence, but he is warning against saying everything that comes to mind.  In our internet-driven world, there is more opportunity than ever before to speak directly to people all over the globe.  Even with friends and family, it’s easier to say hurtful things through a screen, than face to face—why do you think most couples break up via text message now?  How much worse is the temptation, when you’re talking to someone you don’t know?  Or worse still, when you’re hiding behind a false name and picture?  These trends bring out the worst in humanity, but as Jesus said:

“Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.”

(Luke 12.2-3)

Many people spew ignorance, folly, and hatred all across the internet, every day, and while it’s good to recognize their sin and point it out, it’s also very easy to go about it in the wrong way.  It may feel good to fire off a scathing reply that you believe will humiliate the sinner; but in that case, you’ve only joined him in his sin.  What’s the goal?  Are you the judge?  Or are you God’s deputy, sent to mete out punishments on his behalf?  Shouldn’t your goal instead be to draw the sinner away from his sin and toward God?

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

(Colossians 4.6)

For most of us, there’s very little value in getting into arguments online.  Most of the people you’ll encounter are not receptive to the gospel, and so the pitfalls outweigh the potential benefits.  But occasionally you’ll have the opportunity to speak with a random stranger who seems to be somewhat open to God’s word.  In these instances, speak up—but do it carefully, for the other person’s good and not your own self-righteousness.  Often, this means fielding insults and other verbal abuse.  You may be tempted to lash out in response—but “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ep 4.26-27).  Or, you may be tempted to be genuinely wounded by the things people say to you, or about you—but “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Jesus’] account” (Mt 5.11).

The advice, “be careful what you say,” applies throughout life, but we particularly need to hear it, where the internet and social media are concerned.  Whether it’s gossip, or slander, or betraying trust, or getting involved in fruitless battles of words, there’s enormous potential for us to reject Jesus and pursue something else that we think will bring us satisfaction in this life.  It’s not inevitable.  As with most things, it’s fine to participate in life in the internet age, in moderation and within limits; but we must also be willing to give it up entirely, if necessary, for the sake of our own souls.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

(Matthew 5.30)

Jeremy Nettles

Which King Would You Want?

Sunday, July 02, 2023

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.

(Judges 21.25)

“He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

(1 Samuel 8.17-18)

What a contrast!  The first passage is an explanation of how things got so out of hand in Israel.  It follows the story of the tribe of Benjamin forcibly abducting young women from their homes and families to become unwilling brides to the few remaining Benjaminites, while the wise elders of the nation defended this mass rape to the victims’ families and refused to prosecute their cases.  How did it get this bad?  Well, that was before they had a king, you see!

But in the second passage, Samuel warns Israel that submitting to a monarchy is a terrible idea.  Were things really better, under the judges?  Perhaps some taxation and forced labor are a price worth paying, for stability and order!  There were costs and advantages to each system, and the potential for both good and evil outcomes.  What determined the direction things would go?

Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,

        and your princes feast in the morning!

Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility,

        and your princes feast at the proper time,

        for strength, and not for drunkenness!

(Ecclesiastes 10.16-17)

The earlier system of judges afforded the people great freedom—but what did they do with their freedom?  The monarchy provided much more order—but what kind of order?  The king’s conduct had enormous influence, for good or ill, on the whole nation.  This is visible in the comparison between Saul and David, the first two kings of Israel.  Let’s consider just a handful of the many differences between these two men.

Basis for selection

Saul was chosen by God, it’s true; but God picked him because he satisfied the people’s expectations—after all, they wanted to “be like all the nations” (1Sa 8.20).  What are the first things we learn of Saul?  He came from a well-off family of the tribe of Benjamin, he was “handsome,” and he was “taller than any of the people” (9.1-2).  What more could you want in a king?

David, while he possessed some of those qualities, was chosen on a different basis.  God “sought out a man after his own heart” to replace Saul (13.14), and “rejected” David’s taller brother, who seemed the more likely choice in Samuel’s eyes, because “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16.7).


Saul was reluctant to take on the role God assigned to him.  After anointing Saul, Samuel called an assembly for the nation to proclaim him king.  Saul was eventually found,  “hidden … among the baggage” (10.22).

When David had likewise been anointed but remained unknown to the public, he was running an errand for his father when he discovered a Philistine spewing blasphemies at the Israelite army, along with a challenge that not one of these warriors was willing to accept.  David couldn’t understand why no one else had stepped up to put a stop to this.  He told Israel’s big, strong, warrior king, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (17.37). 


Saul made a show of devotion to God.  He “cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land” (28.9), made sure to offer sacrifices before battle (13.12), rebuked his army for eating blood in hunger and haste (14.32-34), and encouraged David to “fight the Lord’s battles” (18.17).  But many of these were self-service masquerading as piety.  In reality, Saul rebelled against God and “rejected the word of the Lord” (15.23).  This is, perhaps, most clearly observed in his numerous attempts to Kill David, despite David’s consistent, humble service.

David, on the other hand, put his own life on the line for the sake of God’s reputation (ch17), and for his people’s well-being (chs 18, 23, 29 & 30), and—most tellingly—to make peaceful gestures toward Saul, even as Saul was trying to kill him (chs 24 & 26), vowing, “I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the Lord’s anointed” (26.11).

Which would you choose?

There are many more contrasts to draw between Saul and David—between the bad king whose reign is regrettable, and the good king whose reign is a blessing.  If you could choose between these two, who would it be? Saul might have looked the part, but now that we see the character of these two men, it’s plain that David is the better choice, despite the many—many!—flaws he showcased later in his life.  It may seem like a silly question, since Saul and David lived and reigned more than three thousand years ago, and we don’t get to choose between them.  But in fact, a more important version of the same choice faces each of us, just as it faced the Israelites to whom Joshua presented the following dilemma:

“And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

(Joshua 24.15)

Whom will you serve?  The “ruler of this world” (Jn 12.31) who looks like “a great red dragon” (Re 12.3), or the King of Heaven, who looks like “a lamb” (4.6)? 

Jeremy Nettles

Living in the Past

Sunday, June 25, 2023

And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.

(1 Samuel 12.19-22)

Despite being “broken in pieces” by the kingdom of God (Da 2.35), the Roman Empire was the most important in a long line of earthly kingdoms in many ways.  It was the political structure of the world into which God sent his Son to save us.  Its language—Latin—although dead today, still speaks, exerting its influence in science, medicine, law, government, and a host of other fields, including the everyday vocabulary of billions of people who speak languages that either descended from it directly, or borrowed from it heavily.  Most countries’ governments today are modeled, in part, on the Roman system.  But one of the major turning points in that system is noteworthy for its contrast to the Israelites’ experience a thousand years prior, summarized in the passage above.

Only God knows the full truth of Rome’s early history, but according to Roman legend, the city was ruled by a succession of seven kings, the last of whom was deposed and exiled due to numerous abuses of his people.  This supposedly took place in the year 509 BC, and over the next four centuries the Roman Republic was ruled by a system of checks and balances including a senate, a voting citizenry, and a small number of executives who served generally short terms and then relinquished their power.  You can probably see many similarities, at least in principle, to today’s representative governments, and this system came with an intense aversion to monarchy.  The Romans, to put it simply, hated the idea of being ruled by a king again.

Then along came Julius Caesar, and the Republic, already faltering, collapsed in on itself.  Caesar wasn’t formally recognized as a king, but everyone could see the direction things were headed, even before the senate, mostly full of his toadies, voted that he should be dictator for life.  A group of several dozen senators decided to put a stop to this madness, and hatched a plot to assassinate him, which they carried out on the infamous “ides of March” (i.e. March 15), in the year 44 BC.  The conspirators had no plan for what to do next, because they thought the people were on their side, and expected things to go back to normal.  In fact, what was “normal” had changed, without them noticing.  The people loved Caesar, and made their feelings known by burning the Senate house, eventually putting a latrine in its place.  The assassins meant to rescue the Roman Republic from Caesar, but by murdering him, they instead sealed the Republic’s fate.  Rome was plunged into civil war, and when the dust finally settled, it was no longer a Republic, but an Empire, ruled by a single man, Augustus Caesar.

Israel’s situation with their newly successful King Saul mirrors Rome’s story in many respects, but the ending was different.  The Israelites had demanded a king over Samuel’s protests and warnings (1Sa 8).  Even after Saul’s great victory over the Ammonites (1Sa 11), Samuel reminded the people of their mistake, calling it “wickedness” to ask for a king (1Sa 12.17).  Yet, his instruction for them was not to get rid of Saul.  He didn’t tell them to go back to judges and local rule by each town’s elders.  Instead, he told them,

If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well.

(1 Samuel 12.14)

It must have crossed many men’s minds, that they could be rid of the king rather easily, and thus, seemingly, rectify their sin in asking for a king in the first place.  But that’s never the way it works.  What’s done is done, and can never be undone.  God provided wise counsel through Samuel, who simply told them to make the best of it, and move forward.

Our sins, too, have consequences in the present world, and even when God wipes them away from our record in heaven, their earthly consequences often remain, and can even outlive us.  That’s sobering enough; but another lesson is in teaching us to look to the present and future rather than mourning what is past.  Another wise counselor tells us,

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

(Ecclesiastes 7.10)

The past matters, because it’s what teaches us—we learned something from the past just now!  But living in the past is unprofitable, whether pining after the good old days, or hanging on to old sins.  The past is past; the present is now; the future awaits.  What are you going to do about it?  Whether you like it or not, and whether you asked for him or not, a new King reigns.  Will you get with the program, or try to get rid of him and go back to the way things were before?  Samuel, looking forward not only to Israel’s immediate future, but also to Christ, finished his counsel to ancient Israel:

Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the Lord and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you.

(1 Samuel 12.23-24)

Jeremy Nettles

One Word

Sunday, June 18, 2023

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.

(Galatians 5.13-15)

The past two weeks’ articles were launched by this passage, and Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians, in general.  We focused on the freedom Paul mentions, and especially what it does not mean.  First, we considered freedom from the Law of Moses, but a multitude of factors forced us to conclude it was bigger than that—the original audience of Gentile Christians were never enslaved to that Law in the first place.  Then, we looked at the outer limit of this freedom—if Paul succeeded in convincing them they were free from such restrictions as those in the Law of Moses, there was a very real chance they’d latch onto this “freedom” talk and conclude that some horrible sins were just fine! 

This is, in fact, what happened in another location, Corinth—despite more than 18 months (Ac 19.11ff) of Paul’s residency and constant teaching, some of the Christians there managed to convince themselves it was ok for a man to carry on a sexual relationship with his step-mother (1Co 5.1ff); that it made sense to take brothers in Christ before a court that blessed paganism (6.1ff); that visiting prostitutes was acceptable (6.12ff); that the Lord’s Supper was a great time to rub a brother’s poverty in his face (11.20ff); and more!  Paul wrote Galatians  years before 1 Corinthians, but already he—not to mention the Holy Spirit!—saw the danger in running with “freedom” headlong into sin.

However, as we saw in last week’s article, the answer also wasn’t mandatory abstinence from everything your flesh desires.  Many years later, Paul was still singing the same tune, predicting that in the future,

some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

(1 Timothy 4.1-5)

The right method is easily said, but less easily applied.  It’s wrong to forbid certain foods; but it’s also wrong to be a glutton!  It’s wrong to forbid marriage; but it’s also wrong to get married outside the lines of God’s design!  The all or nothing approach seems simpler, but the proper path is in between.

Are you starting to see why many of the Galatian, Gentile Christians were enticed by the prospect of submitting to the Law of Moses?  Smaller factors included clever twisting of the Scriptures to deceive them (Ga 3.1), man’s judgmental gaze, and selfish pleasure at being “made much of,” as Paul says (4.18), meaning that they just enjoyed the positive attention; but the dealmaker was how the heresy made navigating life before God seem so cut-and-dry.  No tough questions, very little thought required—these foods are off limits, a minor surgery for visual confirmation, all the requirements are written down in detail, and that’s all you’re responsible for.  Easy, peasy, check the box, and move on with your life, secure in your own self-righteousness.  But that’s not what Christ brought us!  For our dealings on earth, there’s just one core principle: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Le 19.18).  That’s it?  Such freedom!  But wait…how shall I love my neighbor?

Certainly biting and devouring (Ga 5.15) doesn’t qualify!  And yet, it was easy to convince themselves they were behaving righteously, while biting and devouring over the application of this very heresy!  Certainly the “works of the flesh” are off limits:

sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies…

(Galatians 5.19-21)

Great, there’s a list!  So avoid those things and you’re home free!  Until Paul finishes the sentence, “…and things like these,” and now we have to exercise some kind of personal judgment again.  We’ll be similarly frustrated at the “fruit of the spirit,” if this is our mentality:

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

(Galatians 5.22-23)

Those sound wonderful!  But they’re not as simple to apply in everyday situations, like the Old Testament commandment “You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Ex 23.19).  That leaves very little room for discussion!  Be kind, on the other hand, is something of a judgment call.  In any given situation, there may be a multitude of ways you can behave that are “kind,” leaving it up to you to choose.  On top of that, you’ll face judgment from other people, who may disagree with your choice.  There are two things to remember about this: first, God set it up this way on purpose.  He wants you to be “obedient from the heart” (Ro 6.17), not merely observing a checklist to stay on God’s good side, while pursuing a life of self-gratification; and second, other people may help you decide what is the loving course, but their approval means very nearly nothing. 

“For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ”

(Galatians 1.10). 

Let him be your guide, and be ready to stand and give an answer before his judgment seat.

Jeremy Nettles

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