“Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Romans 4:4-5 KjV
“Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” Luke 18:10-14
In the course of studying about the faith of our fathers I have come to some terrible conclusions.
One of these and perhaps the most important to us right now is the issue of foundations. If we can see that the very foundations of our Christian experience have been compromised, we have a chance to fix it. If we fail to acknowledge that the foundation is faulty, the entire building is in grave danger of collapse. This collapse may not happen when you are ready for it; it may be during the night or in a storm while you sleep.
On a construction television show that I once watched, the homeowner called the show because he couldn’t understand why he could dig out the concrete in his foundation fairly easily. The home was unleveled, the concrete foundation falling apart; the whole of this very expensive house and all of its inhabitants were in great danger. Why? The foundation was not solid enough to do its job of supporting the structure that was built upon it. In order to save on costs, the contractor had cut corners in the solidity of the concrete and after a few years, the damage became evident.
For us, we are talking not about the investment of a home but rather about your eternal security and the health of the church here in America. Nothing could be more important to us.
Do you figure that perhaps the enemy might know this? That all he would have to do is change the composition of the material in a foundation and though it looks decent at the start, the cracks will begin to appear after time? Those cracks would begin to show in times of stress, of danger or in the midst of the storms of life. And it is only then, at the exact point when you realize that you need the stability of a foundation the most, that your true state, and the immediate danger of catastrophic system failure is revealed.
So, here is the question I put to you now: Has our 21st Century Christianity lost something foundational and utterly necessary to producing not mere decisions but rather genuine conversions? And what are the repercussions to us of having a faulty foundation?
As we learned previously, a cheapening has occurred, we have substituted the pearl of great price for cultured pearls meant to look like the real thing. And because we have paid so little for those pearls ourselves, we are quite willing to sell them to others just as cheaply. This has led to our churches being filled to the brim with people who are the product of cheap grace and born out of a need to fill up space with as many warm bodies as possible so that we can be reckoned to be a success.
If our calls to salvation are flawed in this way, could it be because we, like those contractors, have cut corners? Have we weakened the mixture so as to make the product cheaper for those seeking to emulate our own foundation? And if the product that we were given was similarly compromised and we compromised the mixture even further for those who followed us, where does this eventually lead? To entire generations whose houses have been built upon the sand, not upon anything even closely resembling a rock.
The altar call of the 21st Century looks like this; we first grow quiet and contemplative. Then, the minister begins to talk earnestly about salvation. It usually centers around how bad your life has become and how God can make it all better if you give Him a chance. Some brave ministers will mention Hell as being a possibility tonight if you don’t ask Jesus into your heart, most don’t go this far. Then comes the fateful moment; the group is told to “bow their head and close their eyes, with no one looking around”, because we don’t want anyone’s decision to be hampered by the embarrassment of being seen by others.
Then the question is put to the group- who would like to ask Jesus to come into their heart, who would like to be “born again”? They are then told to go ahead and lift their hand if they would like to accept Christ (“I see that hand, thank you.”) and then we lead the entire group in a prayer called “The Sinner’s Prayer”. Again, it has to be the whole group that prays this prayer out loud, we do this because of the potential embarrassment of those who lifted their hands, or just in case someone, being too embarrassed to lift their hand to ask Jesus into their hearts, wouldn’t be shy about praying something that the entire group is praying at that moment.
Whatever gets them to say the magic words is fair game after all; those magic words will save them. This little belief system has led to one “Evangelist” producing cards with the sinner’s prayer written on them. He then had people cover the city, getting people to repeat the magic words written on the cards. If you could get them just to say what was written on the card, they were saved! He would then report inflated numbers of “conversions” and claim that they were in revival.
After everyone says the magic words of the Sinner’s Prayer, the group is then told to open their eyes and clap for those who did so. In some churches, those people are then invited to come up front or follow a person into another room where they will be given their first bit of propaganda on the new subculture they have joined.
And that’s it! After that, they are told to find a church, read their Bible and pray. You are a now a Christian and have in your possession diplomatic immunity for when you sin and the mandatory “Get out of Hell, free” card that is probably the only reason you wanted Christ in the first place. Just in case, you know, you can never have too much insurance.
Are the means of salvation of any importance? Does any of this matter if the ends are the same? If, no matter how you get in, it all leads to the same destination, then no. If all that matters is that you say the magic words, then any port will do in a storm. But what if those magic words are not real, what then? What if there are no magic words and what really matters is something entirely different? And what happens in the lives of those people who climbed up some other way into the sheepfold?
The means that are employed in our initial salvation become the foundation of our walk with God. If we offer a salvation based on Humanism, one that is tailored at making people happy, wealthy or peaceful, the ends of that would have to be self-centeredness, greed and self-indulgence. If we offer cheap grace, the ends would have to be sin, lack of holiness and lack of consecration. If there is no true conviction of sin, they will never be mindful of sin. In short, what they build upon the foundation that they are provided will be as flawed as the foundation itself. God is not mocked and origin determines destination every time.
I have looked carefully at church history, looking for clues as to what our Fathers believed and taught regarding the means of salvation. What I discovered could not be any more different than what our current experience is right now.
Before I talk about that, I want to touch on something else first. I am of the opinion that “normal” Christianity is not the generic experience that we have come to expect to see all around us. Normal Christianity was the life of Christ, the practices of the First Church and the revelation and practices that have occurred in revival history through the centuries. It was here, in times of revival, that the church was normal in the sight of God. Everything else, our compromise and substitutions, only occur in times of declension. We fall away and come back, like the waves of the sea. At the high point of revival, the church sees and acts as it was meant to.
Knowing this, that whatever the church has become in times of declension is not the normal that God intends for us to live in but rather the effects of religion, flesh and compromise on our part, we simply have to reject the current state of affairs as being abnormal. Nothing can be trusted; the entire apparatus has been compromised by a total lack of understanding that we are not what we are supposed to be.
Paris Reidhead once recounted a story that I feel is perfect for demonstrating this. He said, “They tell about a man, out in the western part of Mississippi in a little rural town, way back up the river, that had a large plantation and many, many slaves.
Somebody came around to the slaves and said that the emancipation proclamation’s been signed. So they went to the owner and said, “Now what does that mean?’ He said, “That means I can’t sell you to anybody else. It means that from now on I just can’t sell you. It’s utterly impossible for me to sell you, the government said I can’t sell you.” “Well, what does that mean?”, they asked.
He said, “Well that means you just go right on ahead and work here and you don’t need to be the least bit afraid. You just work for me and go right on working for me and I’ll never sell you, I’ll never sell you. You can stay right here.”
So, one year went on, two years went on. They kept living in the slave quarters, they kept going to the field, and they kept eating the food, taking the lash of the overseer. Just going right on, and they said, “Isn’t it wonderful to be emancipated? We don’t have to be so feared about being sold, our families won’t be broken up and surely we can live right here with our daddy and our mommy all our life. We’ll go right on working for the master here.”
And so they go right out into the field and grovel and serve and they were talking about being emancipated. Cause they couldn’t be sold to anyone else. Then, someone came along and said, “What are you doing here?” “Well”, they said, “we’re emancipated, we don’t need to be afraid about being sold anymore.” “Listen, you don’t understand what emancipation is, you don’t need to serve that man anymore, he doesn’t own you. He not only can’t sell you, but he can’t make you work for him. You don’t have to do his dirty bidding anymore. You can leave here, pack your things and go down the road and go anywhere you want to go.” “Well he never told us that, that’s what it meant to be emancipated. So, we’ve spent four years working here, when we didn’t have to.”
When the very terms that we use in Christendom have been corrupted, how can you walk in any light whatsoever? And if we find ourselves in a position of waking up and realizing that we have been lied to, you can’t make a partial change, you must affect an entire change. If one term has been compromised, all are in danger of being the same.
The life we lead as 21st Century Christians is like those poor slaves in the story. We asked what salvation meant and the devil gave us our definition. We asked what the Power of God was and religious people who had never experienced it for their selves defined it for us. And on and on it goes, everything that we thought we knew was based on a flawed definition, a foundation that is weak and unable to bear the weight of a normal Christian life.
The true state of the normal Christian life then can only be seen in times when the Church experienced revival. Revival being the normal of God destroying the concept of normal gained by defining normal on the downward scale of our group experience. As sin runs rampant, we define our normal by it until sin is considered normal. When divorce is more prevalent in the church than in the world, we define our normal according to it until it is accepted and even expected. When the Church has grown apathetic, lazy and cold, we define our normal by that and accept that God does not move today because surely, if he did, we would have seen it by now.
Even more dangerously, in Charismatic circles, we have actually believed that we were experiencing all that God has for us. We take goose bumps, emotionalism or small spiritual experiences as proof that all is right between God and ourselves. We have shrunk the Spirit of God down to the point where the best He can do is to give you a shiver or knock you down and when we have some sort of experience, we assume that this must be God. This God, whose glory filled the temple until the priests could not minister, this God, who man can not look on or he would die, we say that He is behind our little experiences and go on living in utter rebellion against Him and leaving ourselves wide open for any doctrine and any spirit that comes along.
We cannot bring ourselves to admit that were God to actually show up at a meeting, the results would be markedly different than the puniness of our present experiences. He is Jehovah and is larger than your experience, than all of our experiences!
This is a tragedy!
The very fact that revival is so rare should send us to our knees in travail. Because it is not rare simply due to it being a sovereign act of God that He has chosen to rarely bless the Earth with, it is rare only because we compromise so efficiently and effortlessly that the normal of God can never stay with us very long. But make no mistake, revival is the normal of God, it should be the normal experience of the Church and when we live outside of it, nothing that we take for granted should be. We may, all of us, be in for a rude surprise when we see Him face to face.
In regards to the normal means of salvation then, the common experience both lived and taught in a time of declension is no standard by which we should measure it. Rather, we should look to times of revival to see what it looks like under genuine normal circumstances.
I believe that it is here where we have so often failed. A few years ago, a movement started in the Third Wave circles called “The Repentance Movement”. It was generally believed that repentance was the means of salvation and without it, you could not be saved. And so repentance was sought, preachers railed and blasted and people felt really bad. I half expected to begin seeing self-flagellation at the meetings at some point, everyone being so determined to feel bad and suffer.
And yet (curiouser and curiouser) there was no revival, nothing even close. It seemed that God did not respond to the repentance any more than He did to the Humanistic calls made by the other side. In fact, the entire thing devolved to the point to where it was full of very mean people, full of self righteousness, who, when revival did not come, turned instead to heresy hunting and pointing out errors of doctrine as their form of revival and worship.
And so I began to see that perhaps we were confusing the effects of the drawing of God with the means by which salvation occurs. That something else was occurring that was as much of an error in the right ditch as the Humanists were wrong over in the left ditch. And if repentance was not the means of salvation, what was? And was it possible that we had, in our genuine desire to see God move in our day, simply slopped together another mixture and presented it as true and right when in fact, it also could not support us as a foundation.
Upon reading revival history, I discovered something quite profound that had escaped my notice before.
There is only one means of approaching God and anything else added to it will never suffice as a foundation. It is simply this: “I am ungodly, take me to the one that justifies the ungodly”.
We tend to want to add something to it, don’t we? We want to say, “I am ungodly, look at my remorse, look at my tears”. We want to push on God our faith in Christ, our repentance and our desire to know Him. We say “I am a sinner, I have committed sins” but this is mentioned as an aside. We truly feel that the real juice in the sinner’s prayer is, “I believe” and that it is this, your belief that saves you.
But all of those, even your belief, are from us and stink of works. Even the heartfelt tears that come as God reveals your sin are not sufficient to appease him alone. When we make an offering of these things to God and attempt to add to his requirements, we short-circuit the system and create a false foundation for our Christian walk.
If tears saved you, then he would no doubt have required those as payment for salvation. If it took an overpowering sense of Hell, He would have just said that. But all that He requires is this, “I am ungodly, take me to him that justifies the ungodly.” And when we come to the place where we know that being ungodly is all that we are and that nothing else has any value whatsoever to him as a means of salvation, this is when we can begin to repent, to believe.
This is both incredibly simple and at the same time, very complicated. Because we must here ask why it is that this is not being produced in our services. To this, I must say, that it is due to our undervaluing of His worth and overvaluing of our own.
If we understood His value, His holiness, His justice and mercy and if we saw clearly our own worthlessness, our sinfulness, our corruption and our fallen state, we would not dare question His demands from the race of man. If we saw Him as He is, we would simply know that our best is not good enough and that it never can be. We would stop trying to make an offering of our tears at being caught in the act, or of our feeble mental assent as to His nature or our disastrous reckoning of divine love.
If we saw this clearly, we would stand with our head down, hands at our sides, the fight taken out of us completely and just say, “I am ungodly. I know this now. There is nothing good in me. I have no virtue that I can offer to him in trade. When I see myself as He must see me, in His infinite goodness and His perfect justice, I know that I am undone. And so here I stand with nothing to say in my own defense, no offering in my hands to increase my own worth. I know that this is what He requires, that I come to Him on this basis alone. I am ungodly. Would you take me to Him that justifies me based on this fact alone?”
In revival, it is understood that ungodliness is the one thing that separates man from God and yet, paradoxically, it is the one thing that ties man to God. Because it is the simple acknowledgement of this fact, without addition and without excuse that God requires as the means to salvation. And when we come to Him with just this, we can then experience true repentance and true belief as we receive in ourselves the inner witness that we have been saved.
The old Methodists taught that sinners should “pray ‘til they knew they were lost and then pray ‘til they knew they were saved” and this is true. When the true nature of God is preached unapologetically without the defilement of 21st Century mindsets, man can see himself for what He is: ungodly. And when we come to God based on this alone, He responds with genuine salvation. And that foundation will hold and it will produce a normal Christian life that has begun not with our own virtues but with the death that Jesus requires of all who would seek to follow Him.
“I am ungodly” then is the admission of the soul who has accepted his fate at the site of the execution and who knows that he has no defense. He goes willingly to his punishment, knowing that he deserves it. And after the sentence is carried out and he dies, that is when he finds the true life just beginning.
And here lies the difference between the Church of Declension and the normal Church of God; the normal Christian life must begin with your death.
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20
You stand before a just and holy God without excuse. So much of the time we go before Him like a prisoner on death row who says, “Yes, I killed someone or stole, or lied or cheated BUT…” then they proceed to give excuse as to why they did what they did or to attempt to off-set the bad with something else such as “I feel really bad about it”. What would be the outcome of amnesty declared in such a case? Why, that person would go on from there feeling as if they were set free because of some quality that they possessed, perhaps it was their remorse or their good qualities.
But the person who stands there and knows that there are no redeeming qualities to them and that justice demands that the sentence be carried out immediately, to which they agree because they deserve it. What would the outcome be of amnesty in that case? Gratitude from the grave.
Christianity must start with this, the complete admission, without additions of “I am ungodly”. This is the necessary first step in the normal Christian life. We are baptized into this death and the life we live is to be His life in us. The old is to be gone, both the positive and negative qualities of it as well. It is to be executed and then the new life that rises is to be His and His alone.
The atonement did not provide anything for you, you being the old man. Whatever benefits there are to the atonement are poured out on Christ, whose life you are now living by the faith of the Son of God.
And friends, this then is the only beginning to the normal Christian life.