Thursday, October 16, 2014

Exiles on Earth

Far too often Christians regard the commands of God as burdens from which we have been set free. Christ lived the life of following God’s commands for us, and then died in our place so that if we place our faith in Him, we have forgiveness of our sins. Though this is true, it is not where the Christian life ends, but merely where it begins. To place our faith in Christ means that we begin to follow Him, and He is in the complete opposite direction of sin and death. Since logic dictates that one cannot go in two opposite directions at once, we must turn from our sin in order to follow Christ. This is known as repentance, and it is required for the Christian life. I am not advocating a works-based salvation in saying this, but only repeating what scripture teaches (Acts 3:18-19; Acts 20:21). Repentance is not a work that saves us, but is the natural visual representation of our following Christ.
            Therefore, we have not been freed from God’s commands just because salvation is by grace alone. It is true that because of what Jesus has done we are no longer under the civil law dealing with high priests and offering sacrifices, but we are still expected to uphold God’s moral laws. It is important to note that God’s commands are not just some decree that He laid out, but it is the reflection of His holy character. When we become a Christian, we are to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29), who is the exact imprint of the nature of the Father (Hebrews 1:3). To say, then, that we are freed from God’s commands is synonymous with saying we are free from God Himself. This is an appalling thought to any true Christian. No, we must strive for holiness in order to experience a deeper relationship with God. These works are done, not to earn our salvation, but to grow us in spiritual maturity.
            Since we are not capable of turning from our sin on our own accord, repentance could also be considered an act of faith. Faith that, by the Holy Spirit, we will be sanctified. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Also, it is written that, “the righteous shall live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4).” It is by faith that we do what the Father calls us to do, not necessarily knowing what the outcome of the specific action may be, but fully trusting Him who is leading us to that outcome. Hebrews 11 lists many examples of Biblical characters that exercised great faith in the Lord. Noah, for instance, had no empirical proof that water would fall from the sky (a phenomenon now known as rain, which had never happened before at that point in time). This water would cause a flood, the Lord warned Noah. Therefore Noah built an ark as he was commanded to do. God’s word held more weight with Noah than his own understanding. Likewise Sarah was, logically speaking, too old to have a child. Yet instead of considering the logic of the situation, she considered the faithfulness of the One who promised. This same faith is what led Abraham to leave all he knew, for the Lord promised him a greater inheritance. This exact promise is true for us today, but just as Abraham had to no longer count Haran as his home to receive his inheritance in a foreign land, we can no longer count the earth as our home. This is why Peter refers to Christians as “elect exiles (1 Peter 1:1).”
            To consider the Lord’s commands as burdensome demonstrates a lack of faith in our future inheritance. The men and women mentioned in Hebrews 11 were not commended on leaving behind earthly pleasures, or the works they performed, but on their faith in God that led them to leave these pleasures behind and to perform these good works. Since faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this means that they truly believed the Lord’s promises to them and viewed Him as far more valuable than even the tangible comforts and desires of the flesh that were directly in front of them. Therefore, they left it all behind to follow the Lord. They did not consider returning to their old land or old ways of life for they saw that their inheritance in the Lord is far superior. Why should this be done out of grief or sorrow? To be sad to leave behind the fleeting pleasures of the world demonstrates a lack of belief in the superiority and permanence of a relationship with God. Matthew 13:44 says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
            Following Jesus is not an easy thing to do, but it brings immeasurable joy. There is no doubting that it will bring about persecution and suffering on this earth, but that is because a Christian lifestyle is so far from the world’s preferences. For God’s character and the wickedness of the world are always in opposition. When we become followers of Christ, we become exiles on earth; when we become exiles on earth, we partake in the promises of God for a greater inheritance. Therefore, we can have peace for “…this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen (1 Corinthians 4:17-18).”
            The Christian can face suffering with joy. The loss of earthly possessions is a reminder of our permanent home in eternity; the loss of loved ones, relationships, and friendships are reminders of our permanent relationship with Christ FOR eternity. The Christian life is often depicted in scripture as a race to be run. This analogy shows that we are just passing through as we make our way to the goal. If we can truly view it like this, then God’s moral commands are no longer the burdens in our lives of which we feel obligated to obey, but they are part of the goodness of our destination. Sins then become the burdens that keep us weighed down in this life, and we must continually remove them from our lives. For sin is of this world, and to refuse to leave sin behind is to call the world our home. Though giving up a sin is almost always difficult, it has never once been regretted by a true follower of Christ.
            We must now realize that apart from God we could not run this race in the first place. Because of our inheritance of sin (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:3), this world would have been our portion, and hell our final destination. But because of Christ’s work on the cross, we can place our faith in him for our salvation and begin the race of the Christian life. We can also know that Jesus Himself can sympathize with us in our present persecution as we anticipate the coming Kingdom of Heaven. For “…Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).”
            I would now like to encourage any Christian who may be reading this to find a small group of brothers or sisters in Christ so that you can exhort one another daily and hold each other accountable in your fight to become more like Jesus. Tom Wright wrote that “justification is not an individualist’s charter, but God’s declaration that we belong to a covenant community.”

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