Confessing Your Sins Over and Over Again – Part Three

As we have been discovering, in the Bible confession is never offered as a substitute for repentance. It’s but a first step toward repentance and then restitution. James, the half-brother of Jesus, had this to say about the role of confession in the life of a believer:

“And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:15-16).

James calls for confession to one another as part of our repentance and restoration. James seems to indicate here that illness is sometimes caused by hidden sin. Regardless of where you land on that one, don’t miss the implication in James’s words: Because hidden sin may be the cause of visible illness, the smartest thing you can do is confess. Not only to God, but to the people. In other words, bring out your secrets into the light.

According to this passage, confession precedes physical and spiritual restoration. Again, there’s nothing here about relieving your conscience or feeling better about yourself or wiping the slate clean with God. Confession is the first step towards change. And change is the goal of confession.

No doubt this is what Jesus had in mind when He shocked His listener with this bit of instruction:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

I can imagine someone in Jesus’ audience thinking, Now wait a minute. You’re telling me I’ve walked all the way to the temple, stood in line for half the day, and brought an acceptable sacrifice. And I’m supposed to up and leave? You want me to tie up my lamb or hand my pigeon off to someone else, just to make peace with someone who’s mad at me?

This was certainly a new wrinkle on the Law. Worse than new, it was terribly inconvenient. And besides, isn’t our relationship with God supposed to be our ultimate priority? Isn’t God more interested in our getting right with Him than is getting things right with our next-door neighbour? Aren’t we suppose to put God first? Certainly, we should be concerned about a strained relationship — but surely it could wait until after church!

But Jesus comes along in His characteristic fashion and reverses everything. In effect He says our relationship with God hinges on our relationship with other people — the two are inseparable. He seems to imply that our ability to worship God sincerely and fellowship with Him unashamedly is contingent upon the status of our relationship with others, including those we’ve offended in some way. 

Part of walking with God is making that call you dread making; setting up that appointment you know will be incredibly awkward; writing that letter that you should have written long ago. It means humbling yourself, owning up to your part of the problem, and doing everything within your power to make those relationships right. And when you swallow your pride and take that extra step, something remarkable happens. Guilt loses it foothold in your heart, and the power of sin is broken in your life. 

Open confession has the power to break the cycle of sin. Actually, that’s the purpose of confession. And like most medicinal remedies, it works when applied properly.

If you start confessing your sins to the people you’ve sinned against, odds are that you’re not going to go back and commit those same sins again. Maybe that’s the reason we would rather just confess our sins silently to God — it gives us an out. We can be repeat offenders without embarrassing ourselves. I say “maybe.” In fact, that’s exactly why we confess secretly: In many cases we know we’re going to repeat the offence.

But if you force yourself to confess to your sales manager that you inflated your numbers last quarter, assuming you keep your job, you probably aren’t going to inflate them again. Not if it means having to confess the same infraction a second time.

If you muster the courage to confess to a friend that you revealed to someone something she’d told you in confidence, chances are you’ll never do it again. Not if it means having to confess it again.

If you confess to a teacher that you cheated on an exam, that will probably be the last exam you ever cheat on. 

Guilty people are usually repeat offenders. And as long as you’re carrying a secret, as long as you’re trying to ease your conscience by telling God how sorry you are, you’re setting yourself up to repeat the past (and keep on sinning). However, biblical confession — the way God designed confession to be applied — breaks the cycle of sin and guilt.

So the major carry away: Public confession has the power to purge our hearts of the guilt that keeps us from living out in the open with integrity; secret confession does not. 

Confessing Your Sins Over and Over Again – Part Two

So, let’s continue our look at the religious practice of “confessing our sins over and over again.”

The English definition of confession is to admit to or acknowledge something. But in the Scriptures, confession is associated with change. Confession is just one step in a sequence of steps that leads the guilty out of the darkness and into the light; it’s simply the beginning of a process that ultimately leads to a change in lifestyle or behaviour.

The early Catholic literature on penance and confession support this broadened definition. In the early days of Catholicism, you weren’t allowed to confess the same sins over and over. Only once. Because after you did your penance, change was expected. Penance comes from the word repentance. Repentance is often pictured as a person walking one way, realizing the error of that way, and changing direction to walk in the opposite direction. 

In the Scriptures, confession is clearly connected with restitution, repentance, and restoration. In the Old Testament, confessions was always public and was associated with restitution. Consider this edict from God to Moses: “Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged” (Numbers 5:6-7 NIV).

For the Jew, this wasn’t about feeling better about yourself; it was about making things right with the one you’d sinned against — with interest. It wasn’t enough to be sorry. God was interested in change. And having to go public with your sin and make restitution certainly motivated people to change.

When John the Baptist waded onto the scene, he called people to repentance as well as the confession of sins: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:4-5 NASV).

This wasn’t private confession. This was public confession made in connection with public repentance. Joh’s audience was going public with their intentions to live a different kind of life. They weren’t confessing just to silence their conscience; they were really to leave their sin behind and head in a different direction. Confession wasn’t simply a means to feeling better about their sin; it was a public step toward abandoning sin.

A bit further into the New Testament we find the infamous tax collector Zacchaeus following this Old Testament model of confession. But instead of the required one-fifth that God instituted in the law, Zacchaeus gave back four times what he’s taken illegally.

Zacchaeus wasn’t the cute little man depicted in our childhood songs and Sunday school classes. He was a wicked man considered a traitor to his nation. He’d wronged many of his fellow Jews, leaving a trail of relational wreckage in his wake. But when Jesus invited Himself over to Zacchaeus’s house that fateful day, the little tax collector was changed. He found in Jesus the hope and forgiveness he has long since given up on. But Zacchaeus knew instinctively that it wasn’t enough to confess his sins to Jesus. That was a first step, but only a first step.

“Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (Luke 19:8).

How did Jesus respond? He didn’t say, “Oh no, no, no, Zacchaeus! You’re forgiven! It was enough that you confessed your sins to Me. There’s no need to make a public spectacle of yourself.” Instead, Jesus said in effect, “Now I know for sure that salvation has come to this house. Your public admission is evidence of a changed heart.”

Zacchaeus didn’t just admit to his sins of the past, he took public responsibility for them. He confessed in the truest sense of the biblical term.

Over and over the Bible speaks of confession, not in terms of conscience relief, but in terms of life change. Never is confession offered as a substitute for repentance. It’s but a first step toward repentance.

More next time…

Confessing Your Sins Over and Over Again – Part One

Here is something to think about. We confess our sins to God telling Him what it is we believe we have done or thought or said that might have been offensive to Him. Then, we ask for forgiveness and believe the slate is clean. There are many versions of this game. And, it is a game. 

We confess to God, to a priest, to a minister, a rabbi, a friend, or … Then we go about life and continue to live the same way, committing the same sins, and needing to be forgiven again and again, over and over again. So you find yourself – if you are religious – confessing your sins (often the same sins) over and over again and again. Nothing changes but for a few short hours (or minutes) we feel good about ourselves as we have relieved the guilt and done what we believe is right and good. 

Confession then is about guilt relief or, worse still, fulfilling a weekly or monthly religious requirement to remain in good standing with the Church. We know, even while we are confessing our sins, that we will be back the next day (week, month) confessing the same sins again. Our routine has nothing to so with change. We just want to feel better or fill some religious obligation passed on to us by our parents. 

Chances are, you play your own version of the confession game. Some confess to a priest, some confess directly to God, but none of us is really interested in changing anything. But we sure feel better about ourselves. The cloud lifts. The slate’s clean. And now that we’ve gotten God off our case, we think perhaps He’ll be on our side. But would you side up with someone who treated you that way? Who used you that way?

Imagine you had a brother who continually stole from you, embarrassed you publicly, and talked badly about you behind your back — but once a week he came to you and said, in very general terms, he was sorry (which you already knew). But no sooner did you turn around than he was right back at it again. To make matters worse, he has the nerve to ask for your help whenever he gets in a bind. How would you characterize that relationship? Even if you were able to genuinely forgive him each time, what would eventually happen to the relationship? There would be no relationship. At best, you would feel used; more than likely, you would feel insulted. What kind of idiot does he take me for? Does he really think that I believe his apology is sincere when he turns around and does the same things again and again? 

Need I make the application?

Let’s face it; our approach to confession is an insult to our heavenly Father. We certainly wouldn’t dream of staying in a relationship with anyone who treated us that way. It’s a good thing His love is unconditional — otherwise, we would all be in trouble.

So where did we go wrong? Why this endless cycle? How is it that we’ve allowed confession to become a tool to facilitate our sin rather than ending it? Well, I’m glad you asked. Or I’m glad I asked. Anyway, that’s a great question and one that deserves consideration.

We Play the confession game because somewhere along the way we were taught that the purpose of confession was conscience relief. That is, we confess in order to make ourselves feel better about what we’ve done. And if you want to put a theological spin on it, we confess because we think it will somehow help God feel better about what we’ve done. According to our twisted way of thinking, confession puts everything back just the way it was before we did whatever it was we did that made us feel like we needed to confess.

But come on, that doesn’t even make any sense. How can confessing to God what you did to another person make everything right? How does that restore anything? What about the person you’ve wronged?

Not only does it not make sense, it doesn’t work. This pseudo-confession doesn’t remove our guilt. Like Tylenol, our quick confession prayers take the edge off our pain, but they don’t heal the wound caused by our sin. It does not heal the relationship (with God and others) caused by your sinful actions – thoughts, words, deeds. This is why you find yourself repeating and confession the sins of your past (and present) over and over again. The guilt is still there. The issues have not been resolved. Restoration has not been accomplished. In reality, nothing has changed.

More next time…

The Tradition Keepers – Part Three

We are called to “guard our hearts” and no set of official commandments from the Lord or man-made rules from religious authorities will enable us to do that. The commands and the rules help us to have right behaviour and provide a standard to live by or, at least, live up to. But, all of that is on the outside and the heart is an inside issue. But, please note once again, that the inside “heart issues” are really the source of the outside behaviours. An understanding that seems to be have been lost in the Church and in the lives of believers today.

Jesus’ words inspired by the Holy Spirit stated … “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (Matthew 15:18-20).

There are four primary enemies of the heart — four life-blocking agents that become lodged in the heart, poisoning our relationships, our faith, and our character. We could spend days discussing these. But let’s just list them so that you are aware of what they are. These four damage the heart and result in the  ungodly behaviours contained in Jesus astonishing comments. These four enemies of the heart are what we need to be guarding against. They are: Guilt, Anger, Greed, and Jealousy. As I said – the topic of a book in itself.

So how do we “guard” or protect the heart? Again, the topic for a whole book. But, I would suggest the root of “guarding your heart” is to first give your whole heart to the Lord. When we are truly born again we encounter Jesus as more than Saviour from our sins. He is more than our friend. He is more than our new “crisis management expert.” He is Lord. And, we need to make Him Lord. This means selling out totally to Him. Recognizing that He purchased us back from the devil by His death on the Cross of Calvary. He owns us. And we are no longer our own. As Paul writes, “it is no longer I that lives, but Christ who lives His life through me.” This selling out and truly understanding that Jesus is Lord —and personally accepting Jesus as YOUR Lord — is the starting point of being transformed, receiving a new heart, and beginning a new life “in Christ” as a ‘new creature.’

Then, He helps us to guard our new heart. His Spirit living in us helps us to deal with the issues that have wounded our heart before we met Jesus and brings healing and freedom. As He does that, we work at truly knowing how to love the Lord God with “all your heart.” The more junk and baggage that we allow the Spirit to deal with the more of our heart is free to worship, serve, and love God. 

As this process continues (and it is a process or journey) we would do well to read through the New Testament (take a fresh copy and a different version so that you are free to see it with new eyes) and note the references to heart and, in particular, the need to guard it. For example, Luke 12:15 states (Jesus speaking): “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” As you read with fresh eyes and ears — heart eyes and ears — you will note an abundance of verses such as this one. Don’t just jot them down. Pray about them. Meditate on them. Think about them. Think about how they apply to you right now, right where you are. Deal with what the Lord reveals to you. This will free the heart up and heal the woundedness thus allowing you to truly love Him with your whole heart. 

So, it is not a matter of rules and more rules. It isn’t even a matter of spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible reading, and fasting (which can be just more rules and more tradition). These are all things that are on the outside and they do not defile you. Often we fall back into the “religious rut” and do our praying for an hour, reading three chapters of the Bible every day, and so on. Don’t be a tradition keeper. These things are just tools to help us in our journey and often we have turned them into rules. It is what is in your heart that is the real issue right now. Not all the external structure and routines that we fall back onto most times. Don’t become one of The Tradition Keepers.

As you move forward in this you will note that you are experiencing more and more freedom and feeling more spiritually alive and alert than ever before. That is great. So great. But, don’t let your guard down as there is so much more to experience. So, “guard your heart” and aim for the goal of loving the Lord your God with ALL your (healed and set free) heart.

The Tradition Keepers – Part Two

As I mentioned last time – the implications of Jesus’ words are huge and life-changing. You see, our tendency is to monitor our behaviour while pretty much ignoring our hearts. After all, how do you monitor your heart? Keeping an eye on your behaviour is easy. Besides, I have lots of help with that. I can’t get too far off base in my behaviour without somebody drawing it to my attention. But my heart? That seems a bit more complicated.

But if the items on Jesus’ list emanate from the heart (Matthew 15:19-20), then clearly we need a new monitoring strategy. After all, if we knew how to monitor our hearts, if we knew how to deal with trouble at its source, then perhaps we would see a marked improvement in our behaviour. Makes you wonder why no one ever taught us to do this.

Jesus wasn’t the first to point out the importance of the heart. Nearly a thousand years earlier, Solomon echoed Jesus’ concern when he wrote, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NASB). Here we are actually commanded to “watch over” or guard our hearts. The heart is the source.

Somehow, what’s in our hearts, good or bad, is eventually translated into words and deeds. That’s a bit crazy, I know. Especially since it’s so hard to know what’s going on in there. For example, when we hear or see something and suddenly we’re overwhelmed with emotion, we think, That really touched my heart. But we’re always surprised when it happens, aren’t we? Why? Perhaps because we’re so out of touch with our hearts. On the flip side, we’ve all seen and heard things that should have affected us emotionally , and … nothing. No response. And we wonder, What’s wrong with me? Why was everyone else impacted and I just stood there unmoved? Perhaps we have even been accused of being ‘hardhearted’ or having ‘a heart of stone.’ If you’re a guy, you may have even taken pride in the fact that your heart’s not easily moved. But is that a good thing? And is that even true?

The heart is such a mystery. In fact, one prophet asked of the heart, “Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Good question. The implication is, nobody. With which I really concur. And even if we do understand it, we certainly can’t control it — which is all the more reason we need to learn to monitor it. Like the seismic activity of a dormant volcano, what you don’t know can hurt you. If you’ve suffered the consequences from anything on Jesus’ from-the-heart list, you know that to be a fact.

Suddenly someone files for divorce.

Suddenly a kid’s grades drop and his attitude changes.

Suddenly a harmless pastime becomes a destructive habit.

Out of nowhere devastating words pierce the soul of an unsuspecting loved one.

We’ve all seen it, felt it, even caused it. Just as Jesus predicted, what originates in the secret place won’t always remain a secret. Eventually it finds its way into our homes, offices, and neighbourhoods.

Okay, so we’re all volcanoes waiting to erupt. Now what? How do we combat something we can’t even see? How do we guard — or maybe it would be more appropriate to say, guard against — our hearts? How do we monitor what’s going on in that secret place that has the potential to go public at any moment?

I’m glad you asked! 

Next time…

The Tradition Keepers – Part One

My parents had a set of rules by which we, as a family, lived. They were based loosely on the Ten Commandments. Sort of rules that help us to apply the rules. Some were well known and referenced often. Other were somewhat unspoken but recognized and upheld nonetheless. 

Mt parents were not the first to establish a secondary rule to keep someone from breaking a primary rule. Thousands of years ago certain religious leaders were making careers out of it. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, more than five hundred rules had been added to the laws handed down to Moses by God Himself. This ever-growing body of regulations was called “the Tradition of the Elders.” Its sole purpose was to prevent the Jewish population from accidentally breaking one of the original commandments. For example, the Law of Moses forbade commerce on the Sabbath; so they added a clause that forbade the handling of money on the Sabbath, thereby ensuring that no one would violate the original Sabbath law. Over time, the religious leaders had assigned to these traditions a status equal to the Law of Moses.

To the continued chagrin of the Pharisees and Sadducees – the self-appointed guardians of “the Traditions” – Jesus paid very little attention to their traditions. While He and His disciples observed the Mosaic Code, Jesus seemed to go out of His way to violate the man-made laws of the Jewish hierarchy. The religious authorities would often point to these infractions as evidence of His blatant disregard for the Law, thereby refuting His claim to be a spokesman for God.

Matthew records once such incident. Interestingly, the rule that got Jesus into hot water on this occasion was a rule we had around our house when I was growing up. He forgot — well, I guess Jesus never forgot anything. He decided not to wash His hands before He ate. And His disciples followed suit. This was troublesome to the Pharisees, just like it was to my mom.

According to the Tradition of the Elders, everybody was suppose to wash from the tips of their fingers all the way down to the elbows before partaking (there’s a neat church word) of food. Persnickety as it may seem, the Tradition of the Elders went to great lengths to explain how one should wash his hands before eating. Beyond basic hygiene, this rule was designated to keep people from accidentally becoming ceremonially unclean — that is, to keep a person from unintentionally putting the wrong thing, or something that had touched a wrong thing, into his or her body.

But washing your hands before a meal wasn’t required by the Law of Moses. Sure, it’s a good idea, but the rabbis had made it a standard for righteousness. Over time this rule had taken on the same significance in the Jewish community as the original laws handed down at Mount Sinai.

But Jesus ignored this rule and didn’t insist that His followers apply it either. Here’s how the whole thing went down as recorded in Matthew 15:1-20 (you can read the whole story ahead if you so which before moving on…)

“Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat (verses 1-2).

Clearly these guys needed something to do. Here they are, standing in the presence of a man who heals the sick and calms the seas with His words, and they’re in a tizzy over the fact that He doesn’t wash His hands before meals. 

Jesus answers their question with a question (which He often did).

“And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (verse 3)

He turns it right back around on them. The Pharisees accuse Him of ignoring the rules they’d tacked onto the Law. Jesus in turn accuses them of breaking God’s law in order to keep one of their tacked-on rules. Then before they can respond, He launches into a scathing mini-sermon. He doesn’t hold back. Calls ‘em hypocrites. He accuses them of nullifying the Word of God for the sake of their homemade traditions. It is brutal.

As soon as He finishes with the Pharisees, Jesus turns His attention to the disciples (who were probably busy high-fiving each other over the spectacle of seeing the religious referees beaten at their own game). He picks up on the cleanliness theme the Pharisees have introduced:

“Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? (verse 17)

Now there’s an insight. What enters a person’s mouth will ultimately pass through the body and exit … I doubt anyone wrote that down, except Matthew. But now that He has their undivided attention, Jesus drives home His point.

“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (verse 18).

His point? God isn’t nearly as concerned about what goes in our mouths as He is about what comes out of our mouth. God isn’t nearly as concerned about what goes into our bodies as what comes out of our bodies. This is new territory for the Jews; they were extremely cautious about what they put in their mouths. Now Jesus was saying that God was more offended by what came out than what went in. 

But it was this comment that must have gotten their attention: “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” 

The heart? Everything that comes out of the mouth comes from the heart. Everything? Did He really mean that? At first glance, I’m inclined to disagree. Surely, not everything that comes out of my mouth originates in the heart?

If you’re like me, there have been plenty of times when you said stuff you didn’t really mean. Again, we’ve covered our mouths and muttered, “I don’t know where that came from!” But apparently, Jesus would respond, “I do. It came from within. It came from your heart.” 

But it gets worse.

Jesus goes on to say that the heart is responsible not only for our words but for our deeds as well.

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone” (verses 19-20).

Evil thoughts? I thought these originated in my …mind. If Jesus is right — and I’m betting He is — my mind isn’t the source of all my thoughts. It goes deeper than that. My evil thoughts originate in my heart. Take a look at the other items on His list. They are all actions, deeds, and behaviours. And they all come from the heart as well.

The implications of this are huge. More next time….

A Fork in the Road – Part Four

Paul the apostle had a life-changing encounter with the Lord while on his way to persecute believers. It was such a dramatic encounter that his name changed from Saul to Paul. Paul served the Lord from that day forward with his whole heart. With passion. He recorded his new approach to life in Colossians, chapter three and we call it “The Passion Principle.” It reads, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (verses 23-24 ESV).

Paul serves as a pattern for this passion in at least three areas. 

1> He shows us what it means to be sold-out, no-holds-barred servant of Christ

2> He is a model of the character of a passionate servant of Christ

3> He is a model or example of the ultimate goal of life – sharing Christ with others

When you reach the fork in the road and decide to make Jesus Lord of your life … then Paul’s words become our mandate. “Whatever you do …” This means that Jesus is Lord of all of your life and every aspect of your daily life. We have looked at two of the three examples for how to live life that Paul the apostle left us. Let’s continue with the third.

For every true believer the ultimate goal is sharing Jesus with others. If we truly love someone — and we are called to love everyone — then we would want them to know Jesus and receive all that He has accomplished for them on the Cross of Calvary.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, then to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). Great passion (Paul’s “Passion Principle” – ‘doing things heartily’) … great passion requires the ultimate in compassion. That’s what makes Paul’s desire to reach the lost so profound: He was one of only three people in the Bible who offered to exchange his life for the salvation of others. Paul declared, “I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” (Romans 9:3-4).

Moses shared Paul’s self-sacrificing passion for others. He asked God to blot him out of His book if the Lord did not forgive the idolatrous Israelites in the Sinai desert (see Exodus 32:32). God responded by forgiving the people. And Jesus, of course, not only offered His life but “gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6).

What did Paul mean by wishing to be accursed that Israel may be saved? He knew it wasn’t possible for him to be cursed in Israel’s place. But his heartfelt plea demonstrated his deep passion for those outside of Christ. He was willing to give up everything to reach his wayward countrymen. So he lived his entire life passionately in the face of painful opposition (from the same people he was wanting to see born again) to share the gospel. Eventually Paul did give up his life for his faith, but not before bending every effort to bring unbelievers to the Saviour to whom he owed everything.

Henry Thoreau, the rugged New England nonconformist of the nineteenth century, once went to jail instead of paying a poll tax in his state, for he knew the tax supported slavery. Thoreau’s good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson heard Thoreau was in jail and went immediately to visit him. Peering through the iron bars into the cell, Emerson exclaimed, “Why, Henry, what are you doing in there?”

The unperturbed Thoreau shot back, “Nay, Ralph. The questions is, What are you doing out there?”

Paul was in prison numerous times for preaching the gospel. I can imagine a friend coming to visit him and posing Emerson’s questions: “Paul, what are you doing in there? Why did you allow yourself to get arrested for preaching the gospel?” And I can hear the apostle’s bold response: “The question is, Why aren’t you in here too? Where is your passion for the lost?”

That question rings true to me: What else can be more important than sharing the Good News with others? 

Now, admittedly, you and I have not been called to the Gentiles as Paul was. Referring to the Gentiles, Jesus commissioned Paul “to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18).

But just as surely as Paul was sent to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, you, too, have an assignment from God. As a Christian, you have been sent by God to share the good news with the people in your circle of relationships: family members, friends, coworkers, and neighbours. Paul wrote that God “has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Think of it. God came into the darkness at a great price — the price of His only Son — to rescue us and bring us back into His arms. Now He gives us the same task. We are to stride into the darkness and rescue as we were first rescued. Personally, I cannot imagine anyone who fully understands what Christ has done yet doesn’t have a powerful passion to pass on that gift to others.

Paul’s passion was great enough to land him in prison. And as you read this, there are Christians suffering all across the world because they dare to share their faith. Living with passion requires that we share the love of God as found only in Jesus with others. So those who fully understand the depth and power of God’s love for them march onward without hesitation. They know His power and grace will go with them — and be manifest most abundantly — when they dare to step into the darkness. 

Passion is not cheap. But it is real; it is priceless. It may cost your life, but it will save your soul. Generations of believers, now passed from the earth, handed down the gospel so that you could hear it. Now it’s your turn. You stand at a fork in the road as Paul did on the Road to Damascus – which way will you turn?

A Fork in the Road – Part Three

Paul the apostle had a life-changing encounter with the Lord while on his way to persecute believers. It was such a dramatic encounter that his name changed from Saul to Paul. Paul served the Lord from that day forward with his whole heart. With passion. He recorded his new approach to life in Colossians, chapter three and we call it “The Passion Principle.” It reads, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (verses 23-24 ESV).

Paul serves as a pattern for this passion in at least three areas. 

1> He shows us what it means to be sold-out, no-holds-barred servant of Christ

2> He is a model of the character of a passionate servant of Christ

3> He is a model or example of the ultimate goal of life – sharing Christ with others

We looked at the first one yesterday … let’s continue our journey into the truth of these verses and the passion with which Paul lived and we, as believers, are called to live every aspect of our daily life.

On December 1, 1955, a plainspoken African-American woman named Rose Parks boarded a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to ride home – or so she thought. She, too, came to the fork in her road and a life changing and totally life-altering encounter. In her book, Quiet Strength, she wrote: “When I sat down on the bus that day, I had no idea history was being made — I was only thinking of getting home. But I had made up my mind. … I felt the Lord would give me the strength to endure whatever I had to face. It was time for someone to stand up — or in my case, sit down. So I refused to move.”

Though ordered by the bus driver to give her seat to a white man, Rosa Parks remained in her place. One thing led to another in her town and across the nation, and the legal conflict led to a ruling by the United States Supreme Court that racial segregation is unconstitutional.

Rosa Parks didn’t seek — and never claimed — credit for launching the civil rights movement. She only wanted to do what was right. She was passionate about generations of African-Americans who had been denied their God-given and constitutional status as equals among other Americans. She did something about it. A passion for others suffering wrong triggered in Ms. Parks a passion to do her part to make it right. That’s godly character making a positive difference in the lives of others.

I believe Paul would have approved of the stand (or the seat) Rosa Park took ad the suffering she was willing to endure for it. He cared a great deal about integrity. He didn’t want his words to be devalued or rejected because he failed to practice what he preached. He lived at a high standard of character so that his actions would enhance, not detract from, his message.

For example, as an apostle, Paul had the right to be financially supported by the churches that he served. It was a common, accepted practice among first-century Christians just as it is today — the congregation pays the minister by some means. Paul built a strong case for this protocol in 1 Corinthians 9:1-11. But instead of taking what was due, Paul worked on the side as a tentmaker to earn his own support, and many of those with him took other jobs as well. He didn’t want to be burden to the those he served, and he didn’t want anyone to wrongly construe that he was in the ministry for the money, bringing reproach on the gospel he preached. Paul was passionate about maintaining godly character so that nothing would “hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12).

Like an athlete in training, Paul knew he had to be in world-class condition and play by the rules or he would be the laughingstock of his event. If he was not passionate about developing strong, godly characters those who heard him would have every right to discount him and his message. And Paul was not about to let that happen.

Living totally committed to the Lordship of Christ includes pursuing godly character with passion. And since godly character is really the character of God forming in us, we must rely on the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help is become a person of righteousness and integrity who reflect Christ. As Paul explained in Galatians 5, character building is the process of saying no to the flesh while allowing the Holy Spirit to cultivate His character – pictured as fruit – in our life: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). That fruit grows from a life of passionate devotion to Christ. It grows when we do “all things as unto the Lord.” 

When the world sees that fruit, it opens its heart, suspends its disbelief, and is ready to hear our story; to hear our testimony and the Gospel of the Kingdom (Matthew 24:14 and Revelation 12:11).

A Fork in the Road – Part Two

Paul the apostle had a life-changing encounter with the Lord while on his way to persecute believers. It was such a dramatic encounter that his name changed from Saul to Paul. Paul served the Lord from that day forward with his whole heart. With passion. He recorded his new approach to life in Colossians, chapter three and we call it “The Passion Principle.” It reads, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (verses 23-24 ESV).

Paul serves as a pattern for this passion in at least three areas. 

1> He shows us what it means to be sold-out, no-holds-barred servant of Christ

2> He is a model of the character of a passionate servant of Christ

3> He is a model or example of the ultimate goal of life – sharing Christ with others

Paul – or Saul, as he was called then – was galloping along with his fellow persecutors, salivating at the prospect of dragging more Christians off to jail and maybe even to their death. Then suddenly — bam! — he was on the ground, blinded by a powerful light. A heavenly voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).

Saul answered the question with one of his own: “Who are you, Lord?” (Verse 5). I’ve always thought it amazing that Saul answered his own question: “Who are you? Lord.” Those from the Jewish rabbinic tradition — which was Saul’s background – understood any voice from heaven to be the voice of God Himself. I think Saul knew before he even hit the ground that his life was about to change dramatically.

Nothing reveals more about how Paul saw himself after his conversion than the way he frequently identified himself: “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1). Not “Paul, the famous apostle to the Gentiles.” Not “Paul the author of most of the New Testament epistles.” Just “Paul, a bondservant of Jesus Christ” — period. 

When Paul met Jesus, he didn’t merely assent to the Christian faith. He voluntarily became Jesus’s bondservant. He gave the Lord everything he was and everything he had – his life and breath; his past, present, and future; his hopes and dreams; his passion for living.

Paul’s voluntary servitude to his Lord is even more significant in light of the culture’s laws concerning slaves. In those times it was common for poor people to sell themselves to the wealthy as slaves. In exchange for their labour they received room and board, and, if the master was kind, others benefits. For these people, being enslaved and fed was more acceptable than being free and starving.

Before Paul was born, Roman law stated that no Roman citizen who had been born free could be enslaved. But some unscrupulous people were taking advantage of this law for their own profit. For example, a working-class Roman citizen (we’ll call him Marcus) sells himself as a slave into the employ of a wealthy, unwitting Roman landowner. Sometime after the deal has been done and the money exchanged, Marcus’s accomplish, Gaius, approaches the landowner with papers proving Marcus’s Roman citizenship. “Too bad, mister,” says Gaius, “but Marcus is a citizen and, by law, cannot be enslaved. If you don’t release him immediately, I’ll call the authorities.” Marcus and Gaius take the money and run, and there’s nothing the hapless landowner can do about it. The two men are free to con other wealthy Romans in some other area of the empire. 

Due to the adverse effect of this scam on the Roman economy, a new law was enacted just before Paul came on the scene. The law stated that any citizen that sold himself into slavery could no longer claim free status — not ever. This new law closed the loop-hole. Voluntary slaves became permanent, lifetime slaves with no recourse for freedom. It was with this backdrop that Paul, a Roman citizen, gave himself to Jesus as a servant for life. Paul was so passionate about serving Christ that he signed himself over once and for all. He lived what the hymn writer so eloquently declared: “The world behind me, the cross before me; no turning back, no turning back.”

Being a Jew, the apostle Paul was also keenly aware of Mosaic legislation concerning voluntary slavery. The Law allowed a slave who truly loved his master to declare upon being set free, “I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free” (Exodus 21:5). The Jewish slave who remained in voluntary submission to his master bore an identify mark: “His master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever (verse 6). Similarly, Paul, having suffered extensively in the passionate service of his master wrote, “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Galatians 6:17)

The life of passion for the Christian begins with total surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, It is through presenting yourself to the Master voluntarily, unreservedly, and permanently that you unleash the power of the passionate life. This then becomes your fork in the road.

And, it is the ultimate fork in your road. You are a slave; you are a human sacrifice laid voluntarily upon the alter. You die to the old life so that you may be reborn to the new, wide-open life of Christ and all His power. You die in order to live, you become a slave in order to be free, and you give away the world in order to gain your soul.

More next time….

A Fork in the Road – Part One

General Lew Wallace was travelling by train when he came to his fork in the road. How can that happen when one is travelling on railroad tracks? It happens within. One moment can change more than your life; it can alter your eternity.

Wallace was casually chatting with a colonel named Ingersoll as the train steamed along. Neither of the two men counted himself as a Christian, but that day they were discussing the life of Jesus. Wallace said, “Myths and superstitions aside, I think His life would make a great novel.”

Ingersoll immediately said, “I should say so, and you’re just the man to write it. Once and for all, throw out all the hocus-pocus and show Him to be the plain, common man he undoubtedly was — a good man, but no more than that.”

General Wallace took the advice. But somewhere along the journey of writing, his book took a fork in the road. So did the tone of his life. The more he read, the more he studied, and the more he reflected on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the more convinced he became that Jesus was no plain, common man at all. Truly this was the Son of God. Wallace began in cynicism and finished in worship. His book, Ben Hur, has become a classic. 

Frank Morrison was travelling in elite legal circles when he came to his fork in the road. He was a bright, articulate lawyer who started out with a passion to debunk the “resurrection myth” forever — and he completed his work with another passion entirely. He agreed with the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes that if the facts of a mystery are examined logically and every possible explanation is systematically eliminated, the one that remains must be the explanation, no matter how absurd or illogical it seems. Morison engaged in what his profession called “discovery of evidence” and came to the conclusion that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the third day, beyond any doubt. The book he wrote, Who Moved the Stone?, is still a classic defence of the Resurrection.

But there is a third writer more extraordinary than either of these two — and at least this one, when he came to his fork in the road, was actually on a road! His name is Saul, and passion coursed through his veins in a way the world has seldom seen. As a kind of ecclesiastical hit man for the Hebrew religious establishment, he sought out Christians and persecuted them with ruthless, uncompromising commitment. When he made the same discovery as Frank Morison and Lew Wallace — that the One he persecuted was, in fact, the Lord of life — he rose from the dust and travelled along a new road for the rest of his life.

It was Paul who gave us the passion principle in Colossians 3:23-24…

“Put your heart and soul into every activity you do, as though you are doing it for the Lord himself and not merely for others. For we know that we will receive a reward, an inheritance from the Lord, as we serve the Lord Yahweh, the Anointed One!” (TPT)

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (ESV)

For him, “whatever you do” was reaching the lost for Christ. Evangelism was at the core of every thought, word, and deed. Paul serves as a pattern for passion in at least three areas. First, he shows what it means to be sold-out, no-holds-barred servant of Christ. Second, he is a model of the character of a passionate servant of Christ. Third, he is a model of the ultimate goal in life — sharing Christ with others

Over the next few days, let’s soak up all we can from the remarkable story of the apostle known as Paul. Let’s look at the example he left us after reaching his life-changing fork in the road.