Monday, December 9, 2013

First Things First: Do You Know Jesus?

Starting Your Own Relationship With Jesus Christ  (And Why We Need Him!):

             John 3: 16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

            God so loved the world.  He didn’t just love the world; He so loved the world.  He so loved the world that He (Jesus) would die in our place before He would miss out on an eternal relationship with us.  He knew that we would disappoint Him and hurt Him and fail Him, but He still so wanted a relationship with us that He made a way.  He knew that there would be many, many people that would reject His gift of love and salvation, but an eternity spent with those who would choose Him was worth the price of dying on the cross.  That is some amazing love!     

            Let me ask you something:  If you were to die today or if Jesus came back today, would you be ready?  Seriously!   This life, as we know it, isn't going to go on forever.  And we are not invincible.  People die every day, in every kind of way.  Are you ready to face eternity, what comes the moment after you take your last breath?  Have you figured out who Jesus is and why He matters so much? 

            Because this will be what matters most the moment after you die.  And, quite honestly, it's what matters most in this lifetime, too.

            [Okay, before we go on, let me give you the short version of this post ...
            There are ultimately only two choices: God's Team or Not God's Team.  We are all on one team or the other.  And we are all born on Not God's Team, separated from Him because of our sin nature, handed down to us when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and introduced evil into the world.  And if we do not make a conscious, deliberate decision to join God's Team by accepting Jesus's sacrificial death on our behalf which paid the price for our sins, we will stay on Not God's Team.  And we will die on that team, separated from God forever. 
            We are born separated from God because of our sin nature ... and we will die separated from Him if we do not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.  By accepting His death in our place, we no longer owe the penalty for our sins ... because we accept the payment He made on our behalf.  But if we reject His payment, then we are required to pay it ourselves with eternal death, eternal separation from God.  Hell!  
            But God is doing all He can to call us to Him, to warn us of Hell, to reach down and grab us off of Not God's Team.  But the choice is ultimately ours ... to accept Him or reject Him.  And we will get what we want in the end: an eternal life with Him or an eternal life without Him.  Heaven or Hell.  It's our choice. 
            If you don't want to read this big post but you already know you want to get off of Not God's Team and join God's Team, letting Jesus's death pay the penalty you owe, skip to the end of this post and look for the prayer to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.  Or simply say something like, "God, I believe in You.  And I choose Jesus as my Lord and Savior right now."  Out loud!  In prayer!  And welcome to the Family!]

            Okay, now onto the long version ...

            Maybe right now you’re wondering how you can have a relationship with Jesus.  Or maybe you’re wondering what the difference is between having a “relationship with Jesus” and “religion.”  I believe that confusing these two things has prevented a lot of people from having the kind of relationship with Him that we were really meant to have. 

            So let me clearly say this: A relationship with Jesus is not the same thing as “religion.”  Religion is when God has your mind; a saving relationship with Jesus is when God has your heart!     

             I believe that religion is best defined as “Man’s attempt to get to God.”  We try to follow all sorts of rules or traditions in the hopes that they will score us enough points on God’s big scoreboard to get us into Heaven.  If we could just be “good enough,” He has to let us in, right?  But these are our attempts to get to God.  And they won’t work. 

            Biblical Christianity, however, is all about God’s attempt to get to man.  A relationship with God is only possible because of God reaching out to us.  And He has made a way for us to get into Heaven that isn’t left up to chance.  He’s provided a sure way, instead of leaving us to wring our hands and wonder, I hope I’ve been good enough. 

            You know, I have to ask:  What kind of good, loving God would He be if He allowed something as important as the eternal home of our souls to be decided by a vague definition of “good enough”?  If He left us to wonder if we made it in or not, not knowing until we die?  I can’t think of a crueler cosmic joke.  And yet, for some reason, humans seem to want that.  We would rather try to work our way to Heaven than to simply accept God’s sure, easy way.  Why is that?

            I wonder if it has to do with two things: our desire to be our own “master,” and our need to be in control, to feel like we are doing something to get what we want.  We don’t want to be accountable to God and to live for Someone Else.  We want to live the way we want and yet still feel like we can get into Heaven.  So a “good enough” scoreboard sounds pretty good to us.  As long as we are living as decent people and we make sure the good outweighs the bad in the end, we should be able to get into Heaven without having to make Him Lord of our lives.  Right?   

            And we like the idea of working our way to Heaven with our good behavior and likable personality because we feel like we are doing something, having some control over the results.  And that makes the idea of Heaven seem more real and accessible to us.  Because to just trust that a prayer or a decision gets us into Heaven feels too implausible, too unreliable.  We don’t like to leave things up to other people, even God. 

            It would be like someone telling us that all we have to do is push this red button and then we will get eternal peace.  And we go, “That’s it?  Just push this button and we’ll have eternal peace?  That’s too easy!?!  It doesn’t seem right.  We have to do something to get eternal peace.  We have to work at it.  Not just push a button.”  And so we never do push the button because we just don’t believe that it works that way.   

            Well, God did provide a red button, so to speak.  We cannot work our way to Heaven or earn our way to Heaven.  But if we will trust Him and just push the button, we can be sure that our eternal resting place will be with Him in Heaven.  Because it’s not about earning enough points on His scoreboard; it’s about what He’s already done and made available to us.    

            All of history has been about God’s attempt to reach out to us.  And it will ultimately end with us getting what we want: an eternity with Him or apart from Him. 

            In the beginning, God created us because He wanted a close, genuine relationship with us.  And Adam and Eve had this with Him in the Garden of Eden.  And it could have remained that way if they had chosen to obey God’s one, simple command to not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. 

            God knew that if they did eat from it, they would introduce severe, heartbreaking consequences.  He wanted to spare them the knowledge of evil.  He wanted to spare them the consequences that come with evil.  And He wanted to be close to them.  And so that is why He clearly warned them not to do it.  But they did it anyway. 

            They chose to disobey and they ate from the forbidden tree.  Now before this, they were unaware of evil.  They only knew good.  But by their sin, they became aware of evil and let it loose on the world.  And as a consequence, they introduced pain, disorder, and death into the human race.

            (But why did God even provide the “temptation” in the first place, you may ask?  Because if people didn’t have the right and the option to disobey - to rebel against God – then they wouldn’t have the choice to obey and to choose God.  And God didn’t want robots, forced to love Him.  He wanted people who wanted to be with Him.  Isn’t that what we all want when it comes to love - to know that someone loves us because they want to, not because they have to?)      

            Death is part of the consequence of and punishment for mankind’s rebellion.  But it is also an act of mercy, in a way.  Because if mankind were allowed to eat from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, to gain eternal life after introducing evil into the world, we would forever be under the influence of and in the presence of evil and we would never again be able to get back a perfect relationship with God or to enjoy life without evil’s influence.  And therefore, we would never really rest from pain.  But through our physical death, we have a chance to leave this sin-filled life behind us and to enter again into the kind of eternity that we were meant to have.  If we choose it.

            And that’s the most important truth we could share:  We choose where we spend eternity!  And we only have this lifetime to make that choice.  And there are only two options:  God’s Team and Not God’s Team.  (Not official names.) 

            Because of the fall, we are all born on Not God’s Team.  And we will stay there unless we deliberately choose to go over to God’s Team.  We cannot accidentally end up on God’s Team.  Nor do we end up there by default.  It has to be a deliberate, conscious choice - a choice to leave Not God’s Team and join God’s Team.  And we cannot earn our way onto God’s Team.  There is no mysterious “good enough” scale.  When we stand before God, it will be “I chose Jesus as my Lord and Savior” or “I didn’t.”  It’s clear-cut and sure.         

            Of course, we can deliberately choose to stay on Not God’s Team if we want to, by refusing God and His offer of salvation.  And there are plenty of people that consciously reject Him and serve their own gods: nature, false gods, themselves, etc.  And that is their choice.    

            But I fear that far more people will end up in Hell not by “choice”, but “accidentally.”  Because they ignored the truth about God and decided to not make a decision about Him.  And they thought that it would still be okay, that they would up in Heaven by default because they didn’t deliberately choose against God.  These are the people who say, “I hope I’ve been good enough to get into Heaven” or “Sure, I’m spiritual; I believe in a God out there somewhere.”  But they ignore what the Bible says about the only way to salvation.  But even not making a choice about God is still not choosing God’s Team, and that automatically keeps them on Not God’s Team (the team we start out on).      

            People usually wonder, How could a loving God send people to Hell?  

            The truth is, I don’t think God “sends” anyone to Hell.  He doesn’t threaten us with Hell, as in “If you’re not good enough, this is where you’re going.” 

            He warns us of Hell, as in “This is where you are headed, so please take the way of salvation that I made possible.” 

            He wants all people to come to Him.  He waits patiently over the course of history for as many people as possible to come to Him, pursuing them for years and years.  And He doesn’t give up on us, because He wants us with Him in eternity.  He is far more concerned with where we’re going than where we’ve been.  Which is why He is so ready and willing to forgive (Forgiven by Crowder), no matter what we’ve done in our past.  If we will just  come to Him as we are (Come As You Are by Crowder).  

            He doesn’t “send” us to Hell . . . but He does reluctantly allow us to choose Hell.  And as a matter of fact, according to Matthew 25:41, Hell was created for Satan and the angels who rebelled against God.  It was not made for humans.  It's we humans who choose to follow Satan there by refusing God. 

            God allows us to choose Him or to reject/ignore Him.  And He does this because He doesn’t want to spend eternity with robots.  He wants to spend eternity with those who want to be with Him.  That’s no different from us humans.  We want to be around people who want to be with us, not who are forced to be with us.  And, as I said, I think this is a reason why He allowed evil to exist in the first place.  In order to have the ability to choose God, we had to have the right and the option to choose against God, to choose a different “lord.”   

            When Adam and Eve disobeyed, they introduced a “sin nature” into all of mankind.  And because God is holy, He cannot tolerate sin.  Because He is just, there had to be a penalty for disobedience.  He couldn’t just ignore it or excuse it.  There had to be a penalty.  We would expect any judge worth his position to demand justice and the payment of the penalty for crimes committed.  What would we think of a judge who turned a blind eye to someone who stole or murdered?  That wouldn’t be right.  There has to be a penalty that fits the crime.  This is what justice is. 

            Well, the penalty for mankind’s sin was separation from God and, at death, eternal separation.  Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden and separated from God’s presence.  And this “separation” is passed down to all of us because sin is in the human race.  We are all born on that path of separation, the path to Hell.  And if we die while still on it, we will remain eternally separated from God. 

            But here’s the thing, none of our attempts to get off that path on our own will work. 

            That’s the bad news.  But this is the good news: God made a way.  We can choose to get off that path of separation and into an eternal relationship with God (Heaven) because of what He has already done for us.  Yes, God is holy and just, but God is also love.  And in His love, He couldn’t bear to have us separated from Him.  He so desires a relationship with us that He made a way for us to spend eternity with Him.  And what He did was pay that penalty Himself (Secret Ambition by Michael W. Smith).

            The payment required was death (a physical as well as “spiritual death,” an eternal life apart from Him).  And so Jesus (God the Son, who took on human flesh) came down here and died a physical death He didn’t deserve so that He could pay the price for our sins, so that we could trade in eternal death for eternal life.  This enormous act of love (Oh, What Love by City Harmonic) met the requirements of justice.

            And this is another crucial difference between religion/false religion and Christianity: Jesus Christ.  What we decide about Jesus Christ determines if we have religion/false religion or Biblical Christianity. 

            When it comes to religion (or a generalized spirituality), God can be anything to anyone.  He can be found in us, in the trees, in unity, in music, etc.  He can be Buddha, the universe, or a cow.  He can be whatever the person wants Him to be.  And we can get to God in any number of ways: meditation, drugs, good works, giving money, being sincere in whatever faith we have, sex, etc.  And that is what makes it religion or false religion.

            “Religion” doesn’t have to acknowledge Jesus as God, Lord, and Savior.  “Religion” doesn’t have to claim that Jesus is the only way.  “Religion” doesn’t have to believe that we cannot work our way to Heaven, no matter how good we act.  “Religion” can be whatever tickles our fancy or makes us feel good about ourselves, life, the universe, and the end.  What a mess! 

            I know that people want to believe that all religions are right, as long as the person is sincere in their faith.  But the truth is, they cannot all be right, not when they all teach different things about who God is and how we get to Heaven and what Heaven is. 

            If each religion has a different map . . . written by different people . . . with different directions . . . to different places, they cannot all be essentially the same thing.  They can all be wrong, but they cannot all be right.  This “all religions are the same thing” idea is a very sweet-sounding, “love everybody,” naïve way to convince oneself that you don’t have to make a decision about it all.  That no matter what you believe, it’s all okay.    

            But I am here to say that – like it or not - it does matter what you believe.  Tremendously!  Eternally! 

            While “religion” can be whatever we want it to be, a faith grounded in the Bible - Biblical Christianity - knows that “religion” will not save.  It is only Jesus that saves.  And He doesn’t save just because He was “a good person, a good teacher”.  He saves because He is God.  Whatever you do, do not say that He was a “good, wise person” unless you also claim that He is God.  Because if He isn’t God, He was either a liar (deliberately deceiving people into following Him and believing He was God) or He was a lunatic (mistaking believing that He himself was God).  When deciding who Jesus was, it’s only one of these three options: liar, lunatic, or Lord. 

            (And don't think that Christianity is a "blind faith" where you have to suspend all reason and common sense.  It's actually a very reasonable, fact-based faith, backed up by history and science.) 

            In Christianity, Jesus is God, and it is only by His sacrificial death that we are saved.  Because Jesus isn’t just another man.  He is part of the trilogy that makes up the one God of the Bible.  He is God in the flesh, the Holy Spirit is God in the spirit form, and then there is God the Father.  But they all-together make up God, the one and only God.  It’s a mystery, I know, but this is the way it is.           

            And because of Jesus’ death - because God paid the penalty that His justice demanded - we now have the option of going to Heaven.  We can accept His payment on our behalf so that we can once again have a relationship with God.  Or we can choose to pay the penalty ourselves by ignoring or rejecting Jesus as Lord and Savior,  by rejecting His sacrificial death.  Thereby, remaining on that path of separation that leads to Hell. 

            But if we want spiritual life, the only option God has given is to allow Jesus’ death to pay the price for our sins.  And all it takes on our parts is a decision.  It is a decision to believe that Jesus alone made the way for us.  It is choosing to make Him Lord and Savior of our lives (Sweetly Broken by Jeremy Riddle).  This is the “red button” that will bring us eternal peace.  He has closed 99% of the gap between us and Him.  He has done 99% of the work to make salvation possible.  And all we have to do is turn toward Him, open our heart to Him, and believe (We Believe by Newsboys).  It's that simple and sure.

            Romans 10:9 tells us what’s required to restore that relationship with God.  “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  It’s all about Jesus.    

            And I have to say, that’s a mighty fine option - letting Jesus’ death do all the work of getting us into Heaven.  And all we have to do is choose it, like accepting a gift.  How merciful!  It is so much easier than we make it out to be with our “good enough” scoreboard and our efforts to earn Heaven.  (As a Christian, “being good and living right” isn’t something we do to get into Heaven.  But it is how we will want to live after we accept Jesus, living out our thankfulness, our love, and our desire to honor Him.)   

            This life is not all there is.  And this life isn’t really about this life at all.  Our time on earth is our deciding ground.  It is the time for God to build His eternal kingdom, His eternal Family.  But the choice is ours.  We can reject Him.  We can ignore Him.  Or we can choose Him!  We can choose to believe (Manifesto by City Harmonic) that the Bible is true and that Jesus is who He says He is.  We can choose eternal life, because of what He has already done for us!       

            Now, maybe you are not ready yet to accept Jesus as Lord.  Maybe you don’t really believe yet.  But maybe you want to believe, or you want to want to believe.  These are good, important steps.  He will meet you wherever you are at.  If you sincerely reach out to Him and open the door to Him - even a little bit - the truth will begin to be revealed to you.  And the more you seek, the more you find. 

            But it has to be a sincere, genuine attempt to find Him.  If you are only pretending to look for Him, hoping that you will find nothing, you will get what you are looking for:  nothing!  But if you really want to believe (or want to want to believe), then the best thing you can do is tell Him this.  Simply say out loud something like, “God, I don’t know if I really believe in You.  But I want to know if You are really there.  Please, show me if You are real.”  Pray this sincerely and often, and keep your eyes open.  And when the desire to give up comes, push past it and pray this prayer again.  And then see what happens!  Keep your eyes open and you will begin to find Him.         

            “But I still have doubts!  How can I be a Christian?” you might be asking.  (Welcome to the club!)  The way that I see it, we can choose to believe in God and Jesus . . . even with doubts.  In fact, the only way that we can believe in God and Jesus is while we still have doubts.  Because whether we admit it or not, we all have doubts and unanswered questions, all the time.  (We are just more unaware of them when life is going peachy.)    

            This is why we have to step out in faith.  God says that faith is absolutely necessary.  If we wait until we have no doubts, we will never choose God.  But we can choose, as an act of our wills, to accept that He is telling us the Truth in the Bible.  Faith isn’t saying, “Wow, I am totally convinced of You and my need for You.”  (Although that would be wonderful, of course.)  Faith is saying, “God, I don’t understand everything.  But I will choose to take You at Your Word, even though I have doubts and questions.  Help open my eyes and help me believe.” 

            And here’s a secret:  Faith isn’t something that we have to drum up within ourselves or force ourselves to have.  It is actually a gift from God.  God wants us to choose Him.  He wants us to accept Him.  But He knows that we humans are full of doubts, questions, sin, rebellion, the need to be in control, and the need for absolute proof.  And so, left to ourselves, we would never come to God. 

            But just as He made the way for us to get into Heaven, He also gives us the necessary “tool” to accept His way into Heaven:  Faith!  Galatians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.” 

            What this means is that we get to Heaven only by the fact that He made the way and that He develops our faith in Him.  We do not get to Heaven by anything that we do.  It’s all Him! 

            Our part is not to climb our way to Heaven; it’s simply to accept His gift of faith and eternal life, turning our face toward Him and saying, “Okay, I choose You.  I want to believe.  Help me!  Give me faith!”  If we will just open the door to Him - honestly telling Him where we are in our level of faith and doubt, and asking Him to help - He will grow our faith, our understanding, and our belief in Him.    

            And as we walk with Him, we will learn to trust Him more and to believe in Him more.  And we will come to know that doubts and questions are a part of life and the Christian journey.  And when they come up, the best thing we can do is not feel bad about ourselves and doubt our faith, but to take those doubts to God in prayer and ask for His help.

            Remember, our feelings follow our thoughts.  Our thoughts follow where our mind goes.  And our mind goes wherever we decide to let it go.  If you will choose to put your faith in the Bible and in God even though you don’t “feel it” - if you let your will and your ability to decide lead you - your feelings will eventually get in line.  And as you walk with God and watch Him work in your life and dig deeper into His Word, your faith in Him will be strengthened.  But it takes a decision to believe first, instead of waiting until all your doubts are gone.

            Skeptics need to see before they believe; but faith demands that we believe before we can see.  People who don’t want to find God won’t.  People who don’t want to believe in Him will not find “proof” of Him.  But people who do want to believe in Him will find Him - if they have the eyes to see and ears to hear.                   

            God is doing all He can to reach out to us - through nature, through His Word, through Jesus coming here in the flesh, through knocking on the door of our hearts, through implanting within us a deep sense that Someone is out there.  He gives everyone the chance to come to Him.     

            He says in Romans 1:20, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” 

            People often say things like "If God's real, why doesn't He prove that He's real?"  Well, He did ... it's called Creation. 

            "Oh, that's just evolution.  It's nature," they respond.  "If He's really real, why doesn't He send us a clear message, in black and white?"  He did ... it's called the Bible. 

            "No, that was just written by men.  It's an interesting old book.  Nothing more.  But if He was really, really real, why doesn't He come down here and show Himself to us physically?  Then we'll believe!"  He did ... and His name is Jesus.  And they still don't believe.

            No one will be able to say, “But I didn’t know that God was real.”  Because God says that we will not have any excuses when we stand before Him and He asks, “Why didn’t you believe in Me?” 

            He will hold us all accountable for the choice we make (or don’t make).  And in the end, He will give us what we asked for.  If we ask Him to cover the penalty for our sins, He will do it.  (He already has!)  But if we ask to be left alone, He will allow it.  He won’t like it and it will grieve Him; but He allows it because He has given us the freedom to choose.      

            [Now, to put some people at ease, I do believe the Bible teaches that there is an age of accountability, an age when we are old enough to choose or reject Jesus’ sacrifice.  If a child dies before this age, they are under His grace and mercy and automatically end up with God in Heaven for eternity . . . because they never made it to the age where they became accountable for their choice.  But after that age (I have no idea what age that is), we are held accountable for the choice we make or don’t make.  But if you lost a baby or child, I believe that you can rest assured that they are already safe in His loving care and will be there to meet you when you get there.]      

            Now, if you want to choose Jesus’ payment for your sin - so that you don’t have to pay it for yourself with eternal separation - it doesn’t take any real effort on our parts.  It was all done by God already.  His forgiveness and grace are already available to us for the taking.  And all we have to do is accept them for the free gifts they are.  All it takes is a genuine desire to turn to God, opening up our hearts and hands in prayer, grabbing ahold of that amazing grace and forgiveness (Grace Like Rain by Todd Agnew).  

            There is no magic formula for the prayer, but as I already said, if you “confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.   For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. . . . ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”  (Romans 10:9-10, 13)   

            If this is something that you want to do, here is a prayer that you can pray.  (Or use your own words, maybe something as simple as "God, I believe You.  I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.")  It doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to be real. 

            Dear God,

            I admit that I am a sinner and that I have been living life apart from You.  But I don’t want to do that anymore.  I want to spend eternity with You.  And so today, I am turning to You.  I am choosing to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.  I believe that He came here and died for my sins, and that He rose from the dead, proving that He is God.  I ask for forgiveness for my sins, and I choose today to make Him Lord of my life.  I open up my heart to You and ask You to fill it with Your Holy Spirit, so that I can live the rest of my life for You.  Thank You for Your sacrifice for me, and thank You that because of it, I can spend eternity with You.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen 

            If you chose to pray this, tell someone about it.  Telling others is an outward testimony about what has gone on in your heart and it helps to cement your decision to turn to God.  And get a Bible and start reading, and find a good, Bible-believing church so that you can grow alongside other believers.  And welcome to the Family!

            [And if you didn't, what are you waiting for?
            Are you so sure that God isn't real (God's Not Dead by Newsboys)?  That Jesus isn't coming back like He said (People, Get Ready  by Crystal Lewis)?  Are you sure enough to bet your eternal soul on it?

            Don't wait too long.  Some day it will be too late (I Wish We'd All Been Ready).]