2. Death, a vital need

PART ONE: Lifted up – for Death

Lessons in Growth  Meditations: 2. Death, a vital need

Jn 12:24,25  I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

In the first study of this new series I referred to Jesus who said: “when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (Jn 12:32), and I suggested there are three applications that go with that verse and those applications reveal three phases of Christ’s life and ministry, and can also be seen to be three phases of the Christian life that goes on to mature and bear fruit.

Lifted for Death: Now in fact, John added to this ‘lifted-up verse’ “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die,” (v.33) so the first application of it, at least, is to do with Jesus’ death on the Cross. So what parallel is there in the Christian life?

The Wheat Example: Well, look at the two verses at the top again. It is the teaching of Jesus, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies and it clearly homes in on this very same application. Now I confess I have always disliked those two verses because whenever I have heard someone preaching on them, it has always been in a cold, harsh, judgmental and legalistic manner. However, the truth is that Jesus is not using them as a teaching with which to slap us, but instead he is simply laying down a very obvious principle. As with much of Jesus’ teaching it is very graphic and almost overstates the situation.

What happens: You have a grain of wheat and you are a farmer. You drop that grain into a hole in the ground and cover it up. To all intents and purposes it is dead and buried. If we didn’t know any better, we would consider this grain dead, utterly inert. In fact if you left it in a sealed jar in the dark, that is exactly what it would remain, but put it in the ground where – yes, it still looks ‘dead’ – it get moisture and nourishment from the soil, it will germinate and sprout and grow and produce more wheat. Now in the verses that follow, Jesus applies this to other people but, the fact that the ‘lifted-up verse’ follows so soon after, suggests he also had in mind what was about to happen to him. He had to die before the kingdom could be fully born with lots of believers. We’ll see what this means in respect of the individual believer later on and in subsequent studies.

Paul’s Teaching: Now the apostle Paul also used death as an analogy of what happens in the life of the person who becomes a Christian; it is very much a direct parallel: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6:1-4) There is the picture: when we came to Christ we ‘died’ in respect of our ‘old life’ and that is how we are to view it. But this also has practical implications for living out our day by day lives: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (v.11)

The Conversion Process: We sometimes make this very complex but in reality it is very simple. When you came to Christ, the process of conviction that the Holy Spirit took you through, included you becoming aware of a need you had. You were dissatisfied with the life you had and, as the Gospel was shared with you, you realised that what was required of you was complete surrender to God so that Jesus could be both your Saviour and Lord. He could be your Saviour to deliver you from your past life with its failures and weaknesses because of all he had achieved on the Cross. He also needed to be our Lord if we were to live out new lives, guided and directed, taught and empowered by him. For both those two things to happen, it required our complete surrender – to let go of the past and receive the salvation he offered.

Now only this morning I happened to be browsing through some short meditations I wrote years ago, and I came across the following statement about the new life we receive at the time of conversion: “Our new way of thinking must not only realise truth for our new lives but also be aware of and reject the ways of our old lives.” That ties in with Paul’s, “count yourselves dead to sin.” 

Differing Experiences: If we are to understand some of the basic lessons about growth, we cannot emphasise this first phase strongly enough. I have heard the expressions a ‘good conversion’  or ‘they were well born’ used of new Christians and what the speaker is referring to is the depth of the conviction and our salvation experience that some New Testament translations refer to as ‘conversion’ and which John 3 calls being ‘born again’.

‘Past Life’ Effect: Now there are without doubt at least two reasons why this experience is different for different people. The first tends to do with nature of the life the person previously had. I have heard those who came to Christ as young children complain that their experience was shallow because they had never known real sin. Well, they had (selfish godlessness is seen in a child as well as an adult) but they hadn’t recognised it and, yes, it hadn’t had time to really develop and be seen in obvious acts of unrighteousness (except disobedience?). The person who has been saved out of a life of unadulterated unrighteousness is often more grateful for what God has done, although the depth of godly life in the childhood Christian is often a lot deeper. Jesus said, he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:47)

The Mystery of the Heart: The second reason is more mysterious. It is a mystery why the human heart responds as it does. For some, conversion is a major changing point, almost a crisis point of life, while for others it is much less dramatic. Some people seem to be able to ‘see’ the truth so clearly that conviction is deep; for others it seems they almost struggle with the truth, although they do accept it, and so the depth of their experience is not so dramatic. The truth is that the Lord knows and the Lord loves each of us regardless of the depth of our experience. It may be that it is something in our past life that hinders clarity and it may be that the Lord will take a long time bringing that thing to the surface because He knows its potential to cause upheaval if dealt with too quickly.

And Us: Summarising where our starting point is, it is to face the things from our past lives which hopefully have been left, dead and buried, and should not be impacting us today – but do! Some of these things we are probably not aware of, and others we just take for granted as normal, but should not be. In this first Part we are going to consider a whole variety of things that should have been covered when we were born again and dealt with by Christ’s work on the Cross, and yet they are still there present in our lives today, and as such, may be hindering our growth. We are about to step on to holy ground.

30. A Second Repentance?

Meditations in Hebrews 6:    30.  A Second Repentance?

Heb 6:4-6  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance

Multi-warnings: Remember, our writer has been warning again and again of the possibility of drifting away from God, of allowing your heart to be hardened, and moving back into unbelief.  He did this,

  • first of all, by pointing out how great our salvation was (Ch.2),
  • then by reminding us of the failure and consequences of the Israelites in respect of the Promised Land (Ch.3),
  • then by explaining there is a ‘rest’ still to be taken by faith (Ch.4),
  • and finally by portraying Christ as our high priest who is there for us and understands us (Ch.5).

ALL of this teaching has this background motive, to encourage his readers not to allow themselves to drift away from the Faith.

Real Conversion: In our present passage, he now gives a warning that if you drift away from the Faith it is impossible for there to be a second repentance. Let me explain that. When a person comes to Christ – truly comes – as we have noted before, repentance, true repentance, must be an ingredient inf the coming about of their salvation. A true awareness that they are lost and need Christ to save them is an absolute essential for the new birth to follow.

The outcome is clear cut; they are clearly born again, new people, and the new life that then follows is clearly utterly different from what it was before. There is a new purpose, a new direction, a new power, a new love. It is all utterly new and it all came about following repentance. Without that repentance, that utter conviction, the Holy Spirit would have been unable to do His work of transformation. His guidance, His direction, and His teaching will only be received on ground that has been cleared through repentance. Now this, in the light of our heading over this study, I might call in this context the ‘first repentance’.

A Possible Second Repentance? The question that those who support the ‘once saved, always saved’ position has to be, do you believe in the possibility of a second repentance? Salvation only flows to and in a life of repentance. It is pure semantics, I would suggest, to say that a person is saved when they have purposefully moved into a place of apostasy where they utterly deny any belief and may even mock their former position. Speaking of such people our writer says, It is impossible for those ….. if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.” (v.4,6) Note the word impossible. Now in what follows the writer explains what “falling away” entails and then why a return is impossible.

What has to be rejected: First of all then, what “falling away” entails.  He speaks of a) “those who have once been enlightened, b) who have tasted the heavenly gift, c) who have shared in the Holy Spirit, d) who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and e) the powers of the coming age.” (v.4,5)  Now let’s look at each of these, but let’s look at what they mean but also actually how each one can be used to encourage us.

a) Enlightened: the reality always is that the person who has been convicted by the Holy Spirit, comes to see the reality of who they are and who Jesus is and what he has done for them. They come to see these truths – they are enlightened. Now when we look back we should remind ourselves of just what took place, the wonder of the revelation we received that brought us to Christ.

b) Tasted heaven: the truth is of course that something of heaven comes down to us – Jesus the Son of God, the Holy Spirit who we’ll come to in a moment, the goodness and love of God that is revealed to us. Once we came through to Christ, this is what we experienced. Again we need to remind ourselves of the reality of this experience; we were not merely enlightened but suddenly everything appeared new, it was like heaven was shining down on us.

c) Shared in the Holy Spirit: being born again’ is a work of the Spirit, being led by Him is a work of the Spirit, being filled is a work of the Spirit. These are not make-believe things, they really happened and we have been transformed and we should not take that for granted but remind ourselves of it again and again.

d) Tasted the goodness of the word of God: from being a dead book, the Bible came alive. There were times when it spoke to us, there were times when it almost shouted the truth at us. We saw the reality of God and His dealing with His people and the wonder of the life of Jesus. It was all there before us on the pages of the Bible, and it thrilled us. Dare we pray for it to do that again?

e) Experienced the power of heaven for the future: previously we had been fearful of death but as we received the revelation from God, as we tasted something of the wonder and goodness of heaven, as the Spirit and the word came alive, so we found ourselves with a strange reassurance about our eternal future, knowing that the present is but a glimmer of the future. Dare we thank Him for that reality and let Him bring it to us afresh?

And Us? Now I wonder how you respond to this list? Are these realities for you or do they suggest that in fact you have not actually ever been born again because each of these things – which should be familiar to every real Christian – are in fact alien to you? Have you been convicted that you need to know the reality of this path, truly coming to Christ through real surrender?

It may be that these things are now somewhat of a shadow of what they have once been. If that is so then the writer’s calls are calls to you to renew your knowledge of Him so all these things become a reality again. The fact that you are reading these words would suggest that you are NOT someone who has fallen away, however shallow your present experience of Him may be. But the warning is there that “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, (etc.) if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance.”

I think we’ll pause there because there is perhaps much yet to say about the reasoning of this which we’ll go into in more depth in the next study. The challenge of the book is to face the reality of our Christian lives in the light of each of these experiences and ensure they are realities for each of us today. May they be real.

12. Obedience

Meditations in 1 John : 12 :  Obedience

1 John  2:3,4   We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

In some parts of what appears the Church, it seems that Christian faith is more like a nice social club where we turn up a few times a week and go through various rituals but which have little relevance to the rest of our lives. “Going to church” is just one box in the variety of boxes that make up our lives, and one box does not affect the other boxes. In other words we compartmentalise our lives so the ‘religious’ box does not affect or influence the other ‘boxes’ of business or society or family, or whatever else it is.

Yet this ‘style’ of Christianity is about as far as you can get from Jesus and the New Testament’s teaching. Using the analogy above, what has happened is that, if our encounter with Christ has been genuine, a genuine repentance and surrender to God, then it is like all the boxes of the parts of our lives have been put in one big box and that big box determines, directs and decides all that happens in the smaller boxes. They are now all influenced by the bigger box.

For John obedience is the key issue and it will come up again in his letter. Watch a person’s life and hear of their conversion and then watch and see what happens. If that person’s life starts changing and clearly takes on a new Christ-like nature, where the individual is now clearly following the New Testament teaching and is being filled with love and goodness, and is doing what they are learning are Christ’s instructions, then we will know that what has happened to this person is genuine.

However, watch another person who makes a profession of conversion and we see no changes taking place, then we are being given grounds to suggest, as John does, that this person neither tells the truth about what they have done nor has the truth living within them. Where there is an absence of visible love and goodness growing in this person’s life, then we have every reason to doubt that anything meaningful has taken place in their life, despite whatever they may say.

The individual may claim to be a Christian, but if that simply means they have a high moral outlook on life, that’s not what it is all about. To tie this down we have to go back to their originating experience when they say they became a Christian. If they say they have been a Christian all their life, they are deceived. A person becomes a Christian at some specific point of time. It may indeed be in childhood and that little person may have invited Jesus to be their friend, and that may have been a genuine experience but what invariably happens is, as they grow up, sometime in their teens they have a fresh encounter with God with a fresh, deeper, more meaningful experience of Christ.

But whenever it is, it will be a specific experience. I can accept that for some people it will be a crisis moment and they can clearly identify the moment, and for others it is a growing awareness whereby there is a gradual coming to repentance and surrender, but repentance and surrender there must always be for a genuine conversion where someone encounters God and receives the Holy Spirit.

There is the significant issue: when a person comes to Christ, he imparts his Spirit so that the Holy Spirit indwells us (1 Cor 3:16 & 6:19). He does this when he sees we come to a place of genuine repentance and surrender and he sees we are committed to be obedient to him. The apostle Peter spoke of, the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:32) Thus there are two things that will bring about the change we referred to earlier, possibly over simplistically, as bringing love and goodness visibly into our lives. Yes, there are lots of other things, a desire to read the Bible, a desire to pray, a desire to be with God’s people and a desire to share what has happened with others. All of these things are part of the ‘visible package’ that is this new life and they will be seen in varying degrees of clarity,  but the overall characteristics of love and goodness are THE two primary things that start to be observed in this new life and they are both expressions of obedience.

A disciple was a person who followed a Master, to receive teaching and guidance but they were not a disciple if they did not then obey or put into practice the teaching of the Master. Thus in the famous ‘Great Commission’ Jesus instructed, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20). To be a disciple meant you obeyed Jesus’ teaching. No obedience = no disciple. It IS as simple as that!

4. Obedience

Meditations in Romans : 4 :  Called to Obedience

Rom  1:5,6 Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

We live in days when ‘obedience’ is not a much used word. We like to do what we want to do, what feels right for me. Obedience for adults smacks of control and abuse, we think. When we hear of obedience being mentioned we think of ‘heavy shepherding’, of people being told what to do by authoritative leaders and stories of abuse abound, don’t they!  Well actually that was the theme of gossip in Christian circles twenty years ago, but today we just go with the ethos of the world and prefer to do our own thing. In fact in some churches I am sure that if there was directive teaching that required conformity to standards laid down by the Biblical preacher, there would be uproar – yet that is what the New Testament clearly teaches!

Paul refers to his calling and says that through Christ he has received two things: grace and apostleship. Grace is simply the God-given ability to do something, and God had given Paul the ability to do what he did, and that leading and enabling meant that he did things that were the mark of an apostle and therefore he had the ministry of apostleship. This calling, he said, had come from Christ and was for his name’s sake’, i.e. it was to honour Christ’s own calling. We have already seen how Paul was Christ’s servant, but Jesus was there on earth as a servant of his Father, to fulfil the divine plan. Jesus had prayed, Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you,” (Jn 17:21) and then gone on to ask for his church, that it would work in such a way that the world would know and honour the Father. This was the order: Paul’s ministry would honour Jesus and Jesus would honour the Father. That was what Paul’s ministry was about.

But the outworking of it was to call people from all over the world, the Gentiles, to come to Christ.  And why should they come to Christ? Because they needed to be saved, and Christ was the means of saving them. But it wasn’t just about a one-off being ‘born again’; that was just the start. From the moment of our conversion we start a long walk with Christ where he teaches us to be obedient to his word and to the leading of his Spirit so that we are changed into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor 3:18)

This brings us back to the subject of obedience again. How can we change unless he guides us and we follow? The ‘following’ is an act of obedience.  From the start, Jesus taught his disciples, “Follow me.” (e.g. Mt 4:19, 8:22, 9:9, 10:38 etc.).  Today we ‘follow’ him by responding to the prompting and leading of his Holy Spirit. Jesus came to usher in a ‘kingdom’ (Mt 3:2, 4:17,23) – the rule of God on earth through Jesus and then, subsequently, through us his followers.

Now that ‘kingdom’ or ‘rule’ is a benign rule, a rule of goodness and of love. Everything the Father does through Jesus is to bring His love into our experience so when we talk about ‘obedience’ we need to think very differently to any other use of the word. It simply refers to us bringing our thinking and our lives generally, into line with God’s desire to bless us, and the channel through which He brings that blessing is His Son, Jesus.  Jesus is the means through which we can be forgiven and Jesus is the administrator of God’s goodness which he is able to bring to us as we respond to his leading.

But, we note, it is all by faith, says Paul. We are people of faith because everything we do in response to God, we do in response to one who we cannot see with our eyes or hear with our ears. We ‘hear’ him in our spirit, and faith is responding to what we have heard at that deep inner level. We may use our minds to process what our spirit is sensing but it is then an act of will which exercises faith.  It is as we respond in faith that Jesus is able to lead us and we obey and he blesses.

But there is yet something else here for Paul speaks to those of us, God’s children, Christians, who are called to belong to Christ. Why do we ‘belong’ to him? Because he purchased us: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev5:9,10). Imagine a slave condemned to death who is then bought and set free. That is the picture language of the New Testament. Later in this same book Paul writes, “though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” (Rom 6:17,18). The same idea comes up in a variety of forms in the New Testament: “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” (Col 1:13). We belong to Christ, we live in his kingdom, the kingdom of light, a kingdom of righteousness, a kingdom where obedience to the king is the norm. All these pictures say the same thing: we are part of a kingdom, a kingdom of love and goodness, and a kingdom has a king and kings require obedience, but this obedience is about doing what is good, loving, right, to live in an environment where those characteristics are the characteristics of blessing that comes from God. Who would say that this sort of obedience is hard?