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26. Salvation and Perfection are Inseparable

– Chapter 26 –

Salvation and Perfection are Inseparable

In this chapter we examine three important matters regarding regenera­tion, renewal and perfection.

First, in the teaching of Jesus, there is no salvation apart from perfection. In today’s Christianity, this statement may seem astonish­ing, so it will be examined in some depth.

Second, there is no perfection apart from faith. Combining this with the first point, we have the vital principle of salvation by faith.

Third, we need to define more precisely the meaning of faith as seen in Scripture. The Reformation did us a great service by teach­ing the principle of justification by faith, but did not complete that service because it failed to define what that faith is. So I will re­turn to the topic of faith with the aim of arriving at a more precise definition.

No salvation apart from perfection

In Scripture there is no salvation without perfection, that is, we can­not hope to be saved without being perfect in heart. This is seen in the account of the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-26, a passage that is crucial for understanding the Lord’s teach­ing on salvation. Let us read this account, paying particular attention to the word “perfect” in the middle of the passage (v.21), and to the many references to salvation (shown in boldface):

16 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the command­ments.”

18 “Which ones?” the man inquired. Jesus replied, “‘Do not mur­der, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as your­self.’”

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your poss­essions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?” 26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (NIV)

1. Seven references to salvation

Let us examine this passage. What is the main issue here? The whole discussion is started by a simple but crucial question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” Hence the whole account is centered on the quest­ion of obtaining eternal life, as con­firmed by the many words shown in boldface. The evidence for this is so abundant that it can be presented in seven brief points:

First, there is the question which starts the whole dis­cussion, the one asked by the rich young ruler: “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” (v.16)

Second, Jesus refers to eternal life when he replies, “If you want to enter life, obey the com­mandments” (v.17).

Third, Jesus refers to eternal life when he speaks of “treasure in heaven” (v.21), with its inseparable link with perfection: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

The “if you want to” clause that is used here and in the second point, shows the parallel between “if you want to enter life” and “if you want to be perfect”. These are not two alternatives from which we choose one and not the other. “To enter life” and “to be perfect” are inseparably linked. We cannot have God’s life (eternal life) without having His perfection (His character or image).

Fourth, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.23). Elsewhere he says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (Jn.3:5). To be born of the Spirit (born anew) and enter the Kingdom is to “enter life”.

Fifth, Jesus again refers to the Kingdom when he says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v.24).

The word “enter” in points 2, 4, 5 high­lights the parallel between three phrases: “enter life”, “enter the kingdom of heaven”, and “enter the kingdom of God”.

Sixth, the astonished disciples exclaim, “Who then can be saved?” (v.25), demonstrating that the whole discuss­ion is about salvation.

Seventh, Jesus concludes the discussion with a striking statement on inheriting eternal life that returns to the initial question of eternal life: “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (v.29).

The overwhelming evidence in the whole passage shows that this pass­age, from the begin­ning to end, focuses on the question of inher­iting eternal life. Moreover, this question is intertwined with the matter of perfection (v.21). With­out perfection of heart, you cannot enter into life, or inherit eternal life, or be saved, or enter the kingdom, or have treasure in heaven.

2. Is the Lord’s teaching distasteful to us?

Today we are so used to the preaching of a cheap gospel that we can read this passage and miss its plain meaning. Jesus’ teaching on salva­tion is so distasteful to us that we tell ourselves that he cannot mean what he says. But if that were so, could someone tell us what he really means? And why does he speak of being perfect?

When Jesus talks about perfection, how does he present it? Does he say to the rich young man, “My friend, you’re a nice person and are moving on the right track. So why don’t we add a cherry on top of the icing, and supplement your spirituality with a touch of perfection?”

That is not how the Lord depicts perfect­ion. Perfection is not a spiritual luxury or a higher-level Christianity, but something funda­mental to salvation. It is crucial to the whole question of eternal life. When the rich young ruler turned away sorrowful, rejecting the call to be perfect, Jesus did not say, “He is a good man, but he could have been better by aiming for perfection”. On the contrary, what Jesus said was, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven” (v.23). It is not an issue of spiritual improvement, but of salvation. Perfect­ion is not about reaching a higher spiritual state after hav­ing entered the kingdom of heaven. It is about entering the kingdom, period.

The disciples caught his point, so they asked him: Who then can be saved if not this rich man? He is moral and religious, noble and upright, and if he is not saved, who stands a chance? Jesus acknow­ledged their point, saying: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v.26).

With men this is impossible. Jesus teaches a salvation that is impossi­ble for the natural man to attain or even accept. Yet many churches preach a sugar-coated gospel that is almost impossible for man to refuse.

Jesus makes perfection a condition for enter­ing the kingdom of heaven (v.21), so you may think that he is making salvation impossibly difficult. And you’re right! Jesus wants us to understand that salvation is unacceptable and impossible to the natural man. That is how he himself proclaimed the gospel.

Many churches today preach a salvation by grace, the free gift of God. But they also say that faith is the hand that reaches out to take it. Salvation, as it is presented today, makes it impossible for you to re­fuse it, unless you are a fool. What level-headed person would refuse a free gift with no strings attached? Here we see the wide gulf — the infinite chasm — between the gospel that Jesus preached, and the gospel that we often hear today.

But how did they arrive at that definition of faith in the first place? Where does Scripture say that faith is the hand that reaches out to accept the free gift?

It would be more biblical to portray faith not in terms of hands, but in terms of knees (and heart) bowed humbly and gratefully before God who bestows His mercies. Paul says, “I bow my knees before the Father” (Eph.3:14), a statement that is sandwiched between two refer­ences to faith: “We have boldness and confident access through faith in him” (v.12), and “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (v.17).

Contrary to what is often preached today, Jesus gives a different answer to the question of eternal life: Be perfect. Fortunately he doesn’t leave us in the dark about the meaning of “perfect”. As he explains to the rich young ruler: To be perfect, you must give up all your possess­ions; this will be the outward expression of offering up yourself to God, who had given you all that you have in the first place (1Cor.4:7). Then you will have treasure in heaven which you cannot see with your eyes now, but which you will receive in the future (a vital ingredient of faith, Heb.11:1; Gal.5:5; Rom.8:24). Then come, follow me.

Being perfect is here defined in terms of forsaking all to follow Christ, which shows its connection to Christ-likeness. For what will be the outcome of following Christ daily but to become like him?

As for Jesus’ call to follow him, we can imagine the young man getting worried: “Lord, just now you were talking about keep­ing the commandments. If I may say so, I have kept them to the best of my ability.” Nobody, not even the Lord Jesus, doubts his sincerity. He has gen­uinely kept the command­ments to the best of his ability. Surely a decent person like him, after trying his best, deserves to inherit eternal life without necessarily following Jesus, doesn’t he?

But the Lord’s response is: “No, you must sever your attach­ment to the world, which is represented by your possessions. Then, free from all hindrances, come and follow me.”

Many Christians have reacted negatively to this story: “There must be a mistake here. Salvation isn’t so diffi­cult. The rich young man has kept the command­ments to the best of his ability, and has never done a wicked deed. Tell him to give up some of his possessions, but not all. Given his wealth, that’s already a big sacrifice. If he keeps some of his possessions, he can be a good Christian by helping out the church financially.”

But Jesus takes it to the absolute limit: “No one of you can be my disciple who does not give up all his own possessions” (Luke 14:33). The words “no one” allow for no exception. The word “all” rules out keep­ing anything in the world. It doesn’t take a genius to see the stark contrast between the gospel that Jesus preached and the gospel we hear today. Today we dare not preach the true gospel for fear of getting few converts. If you want to pack your church with people, you need to avoid preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is impossible for the natural man to accept it. It sticks like a fish bone in his throat. Jesus knows it is impos­sible, and he has decreed it that way.

3. The rich young ruler: as perfect as a man can be in the world

The rich young ruler is an elegant and attrac­tive man who must have caught the eye of many a girl. He is not just rich, but “extremely rich” (Luke 18:23). In modern terms, you might picture him driving up to the Lord Jesus in a Mercedes sports coupe. Yet the admirable thing about him is that he is not arrogant. In this man we see the rare com­bination of wealth and humility. We marvel at his unassuming dignity and noble demeanor, the very qualities that are so rare in rich people.

He kneels before Jesus (Mark 10:17), humbling himself before a teacher of lowly status in Israel. At this point Jesus is just a new­comer and an upstart teacher, having been in his ministry for one or two years. Yet the rich man gets out of his Mercedes sports coupe, and kneels on the dusty ground.

His self-effacing humility is different from the way rich people might swagger up to Jesus, saying, “Hey, I want eter­nal life. What’s the deal?” If the rich young man had talked like that, the Lord would have ignored him.

To add courtesy to humility, he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher” (Lk.18:18). But Jesus questions him on that point: Are you just being polite? Do you know what “good” or “goodness” really means?

The young man is free of hypocrisy or super­ficiality. Jesus looks at him, and loves him (Mark 10:21) for the genuineness of his attitude.

More than that, the young man is learned and capable by the fact that he is a ruler (Luke 18:18). The word “ruler” may refer to a syna­gogue leader, or it may refer to a member of the Sanhedrin, the highest legal and religious body in Israel, the rough equivalent of the Supreme Court. The Bible does not say whet­her he is a synagogue leader or a member of the Sanhedrin, or both. Whichever is the case, he must have been reason­ably learned and capable to hold either position. In Israel, a position of this type is not obtained by wealth or status, but by one’s ability and knowledge, especially of the law. That is the more impress­ive given the fact that he is a young man (v.20).

What more do you want in a man? He is young, he is learned, he is a ruler, he is extremely rich. Yet he is humble, polite, moral and relig­ious. Poss­essing all these qualities, he is a worthy represent­ative of all that is the best in the human race.

He is perfect as far as the world is concerned. If you are looking for the perfect man, he is an obvious candidate. He has every quality that you could seek in a man. And he has everything that one could wish for in the world: wealth, influence, status, learning, youth. Given that he is moral and sincere, doesn’t he deserve to inherit eternal life?

But the Lord Jesus, despite his love for the rich young ruler, refuses to lower the standard for the sake of admitting him into the kingdom.

This whole account brings out the fact that you can have every­thing in the world yet have nothing in the kingdom of God. You can have worldly (even moral) perfection, yet lack spiritual perfection.

Jesus makes it clear that to obtain the spiritual we must give up all that is worldly. We cannot have both because they are incom­patible. Hence Jesus could not admit the young ruler into the king­dom until he forsakes his worldly attachments. No one who clings to the world can take hold of the kingdom.

This is a vital spiritual truth, and we ignore it to our eternal cost. The Lord Jesus says to the church in Laodicea:

“You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:17)

These Christians in Laodicea think that they have everything (“have need of not­hing”) when in fact they have nothing. Their true spiritual condition is described as being “wretched, miser­able, poor, blind, and naked” (five dire adjectives!), yet they were not even aware of it!

4. What captivates your heart?

Jesus is saying to the rich young man, “As far as the world is concerned, you are as perfect as you could be. But you lack one thing, the most important: perfect obedience to God. My friend, you cannot inherit eternal life because your heart is still tied to the world.”

Before we congratulate ourselves for not being attached to riches, let us search our hearts because there could well be something in the world that still appeals to us. If it is not money, it could be status, recognition or acad­emic degrees. Whatever it is in the world that captures your heart, that is what will stop you from following the Lord wholeheart­edly. More than that, the thing that is gripping your heart will stop you from entering into life, as in the case of the rich young man who was captive to his wealth.

The wealthy seldom think of themselves as being slaves of their riches, but rather as mas­ters of their possessions, for they can dispose of their assets as they wish. But our possessions often control us by tak­ing up our time, energy and attention to manage our assets (house, car, bank account, business). Do we control our possessions or do they control us? The one who is confident that he has control over his riches has not under­stood “the deceitfulness of riches” (Mt. 13:22).

We may congratulate ourselves for not being rich. We own nothing of great value that we need to give up. If we take our belong­ings to a pawn shop, they may be rejected as worthless. So we say, “The rich young ruler cannot enter the kingdom but, hallelujah, we can!”

Not so fast. The Lord Jesus is never superficial. Riches hindered this young man, but something else may be hindering us. We can be sure that everyone is attracted to something in the world in one way or another. It may be a respected position in society, the pride of academic achievement, or the applause of men. To a performing artist, praise is better than diamonds. I knew this only after listening to comments made by several artists. Applause might not mean much to you, but it is every­thing to an artist. It is music to his ears and the thing he lives for, because it is the indicator of his success.

One way or another, everybody is attracted to something in the world, and that thing is specific to each person. It is amazing what people are attracted to. Some are so obsessed with traveling that they work for years to save up for a trip around the world.

Some work like slaves to get a job promotion that comes with perks such as a swivel chair and an office cubicle. The cubicle may be small and suffocating, but for many it represents all of paradise. That swivel chair and the executive desk repre­sent the sum total of his aspirations. He dreams of sitting behind the desk pre­sently occupied by his manag­er, hoping that one day he will be able to put his feet on it and twiddle his thumbs. To gain that cubicle, he toils like a slave for many years.

Something in the world is captivating your heart. For some, it is food. Hong Kong people are familiar with this, and they don’t need me to explain it to them. Food is the joy and content­ment of life for which one is willing to work hard. Not just the Chinese but also the French. When we were in France, I was shocked by the menu prices, yet the restaurants were full of people. Either the people are fabulously rich, or food is for them an enjoyment that is worthy of financial sacrifice. They toil all day at the office in order to dine in the evening.

It doesn’t mean that we Christians are not permitted to enjoy a good meal. We can and we do. But we must not let this or anything else become our obsessive desire that drives our lives. The apostle Paul puts it like this:

What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on … those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For the world in its present form is passing away. I would like you to be free from concern. (1Corinthians 7:29-32)

Whatever enslaves the heart must be removed by painful surgery. In fact, it is impossible for the natural man to sign the con­sent form for that surgery. If he cries out to the Lord, “I can’t do it. I can’t give it up!” then he is absolutely correct. It is impossible with man.

To summarize our first point: Without perfect­ion of heart, no one can inherit eternal life. The word that Jesus uses, teleios (τέλειος), is the common Greek word for perfect or complete. In this context, it means perfect obed­ience to God. It is the readiness to give up every­thing in the world, especially the things that captivate our hearts. We must turn our backs on them, deny ourselves, and follow the Lord. The gospel that Jesus preaches is not a crowd-pleaser, but is for those who pursue the truth.

Perfection calls for a faith that believes in the impossible

We are talking about faith because we are talking about the imposs­ible. That is the first and basic character of faith in Scripture. If our defin­ition of faith does not include the impossible, we are not talking about Biblical faith. New Testament faith always has to do with the humanly impossible. Faith is not needed for anything that is possible to man. If we could gain eternal life by human wisdom or effort, we would not need faith.

Let us consider the popular cliché, Salvation is a free gift, and faith is accepting that free gift. The first question that comes to mind is this: Is there anything impossible about this definition? Is it beyond human ability to accept a free gift? If someone offers you a free movie ticket, a free car, or even eternal life with no strings attached, what is so impossible about accepting it? The offer is too good to refuse.

There are many today who, by taking a few verses (Rom.5:15,16; 6:23) out of context, tell us that all we have to do to be saved is to receive eternal life as a free gift, as simple as that. When we compare Jesus’ teaching with these statements by Paul, we may be wondering whether we are listening to the same gospel, or whether there is a glaring contradict­ion between Jesus and Paul.

Jesus compares eternal life to a priceless pearl (Mt.13:46) which is utterly beyond our means to gain. If we are ever to obtain it, there is no way to receive it except as a gift from God. But He does not give it indiscrim­inately or unconditionally.

What is the condition? In the parable, the man had to sell all that he had in order to acquire the pearl. That is not to say that the pearl of eternal life is worth only what we possess (which may be nothing), but that unless we are prepared to part with all that we have, the pearl will never be given to us.

Does Paul teach differently? We hear preachers say that Paul’s only condition for receiving the gift of salvation is to have a faith that, like outstretched hands, receives it. But this is a misrepre­sentation of Paul’s teaching, indeed a falsification of it, even if it is unintentional.

The fact is that Paul teaches the same truth as Jesus. By “all things” in Phil.3:8 (“I have suffered the loss of all things”), Paul does not only mean material things or possessions, but our very lives. This can be seen from the statements, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live” (Gal.2:20), and “the world has been cruci­fied to me, and I to the world” (6:14). These are rad­ical statements that apply to all true believers. “For we have become united with him in the likeness of his death … our old self was crucified with him” (Romans 6:5,6).

Where does the New Testament portray faith as the hand that reaches out to accept the free gift of salvation? Have we become so bold as to invent our own gospel, and reduce God’s costly grace to a cheap grace which many would gladly clutch at?

To the contrary, New Testament faith has to do with what is impos­sible for man to accomplish. This comes out clearly in Matthew 17:20 where the disciples ask Jesus why they could not cast out a demon. Jesus replies, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.”

If you have faith, nothing will be impossible to you, because God will act when you have faith. Mark 9:22-23 tells of a man who begs Jesus to save his demon-possessed son: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replies, “‘If you can!’ All things are possible to him who believes.”

Salvation is impossible to man. In an­swer to the question, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus says, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (vv.25,26).

All things, even the impossible, are possible to him who believes. Because salvation is utterly impossible to man, it depends utterly on God through faith. If being saved is as easy as reaching out for a free cake, what do we need faith for? Do you need faith to accept a free gift? When we get Christmas gifts, do we need faith to accept them?

What is difficult about receiving a free gift from God? I haven’t met anyone who refused salvation as a free gift because he thought that God had some hidden motives! What God requires of us is never concealed in “fine print” but is plainly stated in His word.

Abrahamic faith as a model of biblical faith

Romans 4 is an important chapter that defines faith in terms of the imposs­ible. When Paul speaks of justification by faith, he never cheap­ens faith into something that is humanly possible or obtainable without God’s help. Paul is too well versed in God’s word to make this element­ary error. In Romans 4, Paul talks about the faith — Abrahamic faith — that constitutes saving faith:

And without becoming weak in faith he [Abraham] contem­plated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God. (Romans 4:19-20)

When God promised Abraham that his des­cendants will be as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea, why did Abraham have to exercise faith? Because this was humanly impossible! He was already a hundred years old, but that was not the most daunting impossibility. The main obstacle was that Sarah was already ninety years old, and had been barren all her life. If she could not bear a child at the age of twenty, how could she at ninety? She had long lived past the age of child-bearing. It was in the face of these impossibilities that Abraham believed God; and this, as Romans 4 tells us repeatedly, was accounted to him as righteous­ness.

Abrahamic faith exemplifies saving faith, a faith that believes that God can do the impossible, and must indeed do the impos­sible to fulfill His word in us. Paul applies Abrahamic faith to us, in the affirm­ation that Abraham is the father of all who believe (v.11), and in the following:

But the words, “It was counted to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (vv.23-25, ESV; see also the appended note at the end of the present chapter)

Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith in terms of believing in the resur­rection of Jesus Christ. It takes a great miracle, one that is impossible to man, to raise someone from the dead.

In fact the whole gospel is characterized by the impossible. Not­hing in the gospel is possible to man or can be accepted by human reasoning. Right from the start, we are confronted with an impossib­ility: the virgin birth of Jesus. Impossibilities characterize his life from his birth to his resurrect­ion to his ascension. Ascension into heaven? That is beyond the realm of the humanly possible! How did Jesus ascend into heaven? “Oh, that’s easy. A UFO passed by and picked him up!” People would rather invent a wild explanation than believe that God can do the miraculous.

Nothing in the gospels is acceptable to natural reasoning. To the human mind, what God does is “supernatural”. The gospel in its nature confounds human or natural explanation. God in His wisdom established a gospel that cannot be understood or accepted on the basis of human reasoning alone. If you don’t believe in God’s super­natural power, the gospel would be nothing more to you than fairy-tale nonsense or mythology.

Man’s rejection of the impossible

Repulsed by the offensiveness of the gospel, the natural man tries to make it palatable by making the impossible into something possible. A striking exam­ple of this has to do with today’s passage.

After the rich young ruler walks away, grieved and disappointed, the Lord Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is a vivid way of describing the impossible, as is explicitly stated two verses later, “With men this is imposs­ible.”

But what does one Bible commentator tell us? He invents a story about a city gate called the Eye of a Needle, which a camel can just barely squeeze through. How amazing! I have searched high and low through every scholarly com­mentary, encyclopedia, and dictionary, and none is aware of any evidence for such a city gate.[1]

What motivated this commentator to invent such a story? Jesus says it is impossible, yet we decide it is possible, so we fabricate a story of a city gate called “Eye of a Needle,” when in fact nothing of this kind is known to history, arch­aeology or biblical scholarship. I am curious as to which preacher first fabricated this whole thing in an attempt to explain away the impossible by means of the possible.[2]

The gospel offends the natural man, and God forbid that we remove the offense. Yet there are those who twist the gospel in­to a shape or form they prefer: Though it is hard for a camel to squeeze through a small gate, it is still possible.

First point: Faith is confidence in a God who does the impossible

The first and most basic aspect of faith is confidence in a God who does the impossible. In this light, let us consider something that is hu­manly im­possible. Can your heart turn away from the world? Can the rich young ruler give up all his possessions? That’s impos­sible! Can a musician give up his music? That’s equally impossible. Music is his life. To give up his music is to give up his life.

That is precisely the point! The whole point is to give up your life, and nothing less. This leads to a dilemma because it is impossible to give up your life. But the impossible becomes possible when God works in your life and you accept by faith that He can do the impossible in you. The rich young man could have said, “Lord, to be honest, I can’t let go of my riches. You are asking for the impossible. But if eternal life is that valuable, then do a miracle of transformation in my heart so that I may regard my riches as rubbish and gladly give them up.”

The definition of “impossible”

For the sake of precision and completeness, a distinction needs to be made between the relatively impossible and the absolutely impos­sible. In any standard dictionary, one of the definitions of “impossible” is “very difficult” or “extremely difficult,” as in “an impossible child” or “an impossible situation”. The word “impossible” often refers to some­thing not normally possible. A musician does not normally abandon his passion for music, for that would be quite inconceivable to him. Yet it is not absolutely impossible, for he could encounter some exceptional circumstance in life which might leave him so depressed that he refuses to return to music again. A wealthy man would not normally give away his wealth, but that is not altogether inconceivable. He may be afflicted with terminal illness, and with no one to whom he desires to bequeath his wealth, he may choose to give it away to a charitable foundation.

But when we speak of the impossible in relation to salvation, we mean that it is absolutely impossible, akin to the absolute impossibilit­ies that Abraham faced.

Some impossibilities in life are only relat­ive. Even then, that which is relatively or “normally” imposs­ible is still subjectively experienced as something genuinely impos­sible in the heat of the moment; hence the word “impossible” is an acceptable description even in such cases.

Second point: Grace is specific to each person

Faith has to do with grace. Grace in turn means that God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Grace means that salvation is God’s work, not man’s.

The second point is this: God’s grace is specific to each person. In Romans 4, grace is shown specifically to Abraham. In Matthew 19, the invitation, “Come, follow me,” is given specifically (though not exclusively) to the rich young ruler.

God’s grace to you and to me is specific. He does not treat you as a face in a crowd, a record in a database, or a name in a phone book. God knows you as a distinct person, and He will do a work of grace specifically in your life. In turn, it is you and specifically you who must exercise faith. You cannot sneak into the kingdom of hea­ven on someone else’s coattails; it is you who must make the response of faith.

God speaks to every individual. That is why faith is not second-hand. We are not saved just because our father is a pastor, or our mother is a good Christian. It is you who must make the response of faith, and enter the kingdom of your own accord. Moreover, it is you who must turn your back on the world. Hence we can speak of personal faith insofar as each person makes a personal commitment to God on his or her part.

God’s love is not just shown to the human race but to you specifi­cally. “For God so loved the world” — but I am just a face in the crowd, a nobody in this vast world. Yet Paul speaks of “the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal.2:20). God’s love is shown to you specifically and not merely to the whole world. Faith apprehends the truth that Christ died on the cross specifically for me.

God’s specific love calls for a spe­cific response of faith, as in the case of Abraham and in the case of the rich young ruler. Because Abraham depended on God’s grace by faith, he succeeded where the rich young ruler failed.

Third point: Faith believes God’s promise

The third point about faith is that faith always has to do with a promise. The word “promise” is prominent in Romans 4 where it occurs five times in the space of nine verses (vv.13-21). The two main themes of this chapter — faith and promise — are linked in this way: Abraham received God’s promise by faith.

What is a promise? It is something you don’t have in your hands right now, but which you will have in the future. A promise is seen, for example, in Jesus’ invitation to the rich young ruler: Sell what you have (present) and you will have treasure in heaven (future). By faith you exchange the present for the future. Your faith in God rests on His faithfulness and His promise, which He will certainly fulfill at the proper time in the future.

Faith looks forward not back­ward

The standard question regarding faith — “Do you believe that Jesus died for you?” — is not the right one. Because faith looks to the future, the question should be, “Seeing what Jesus did for you in the past, do you believe you will inherit eternal life in the future?” We are not saved through a memory, but through a faith that looks to God’s promises.

We are not saved just by believing that Jesus died for us in the distant past. Faith has to do with the past only insofar as the past relates to the future, that is, insofar as the past (e.g., the atonement) is of a promissory character relating to the future. Future does not refer to some vague, indefinite, or uncer­tain future, which is the only kind of future the unbeliever has. For the believer, the future refers to both the immediate future and the more distant future. By faith we believe that what Jesus did in the past avails for us:

(1) In the immediate future, that is, the next moment or the next day very close to the present moment. It means that we act upon his saving work immediately; for example, we contritely ask for his for­giveness of our sins and receive his forgiveness the very next moment.

(2) His saving work will avail for us in the somewhat more distant future, for example, at the Resurrection.

You can tell whether you have true faith by whether you look to the future and to God’s promises. Abraham lived by God’s promises. He walked with his eyes focused on the future, unlike many Christians who walk with their eyes looking back. How important is the future to you? Do you look with eager expectation for eternal life, “the hope of salvation” (1Thess.5:8)?

Hope is a central concept in Paul’s writings. The Greek word elpis (ελπίς, hope) occurs 36 times in his writings, but only 17 times in the rest of the New Testament. It occurs 13 times in the book of Romans alone. In the New Testament, hope means looking forward with eager expect­ation. The English word “hope” does not bring out the full meaning of the Greek word.

Apokaradokia (ἀποκαρακοκία, “eager longing, deep desire”) occurs only twice in the New Testament, and in both instances it serves as a kind of synonym of “hope,” expressing its emotional aspect (Rom.8:19, “hope” v.20; Phil.1:20).

Do we have a forward-looking faith? Or are we like the natural man who clings to what he has now, unwilling to let go of the present for something in the future? That is precisely the problem with the rich young ruler. He has great riches in his hands right now. He sees the Mercedes Benz parked in his driveway. He opens the door, and touches the leather seats. He presses a button, and the roof goes down. He presses another button, and the CD starts playing. These are tangible things he can experience right now whereas treasure in heaven is too remote.

Many Christians say to themselves, “Must I really give up what I have now to gain something that is still in the future? My bank book shows a good balance. It is real. It is here and now. I’m not going to give it up for treasure in heaven. I don’t live in cloud-cuckoo-land. I am not overly enamored of a future heavenly utopia. I did not get rich by daydreaming but by being practical. I will stick to the present! My type of faith helps me in the present by providing emotional support.” But that is not Biblical or saving faith.

Faith exchanges the present for the future

Exchanging the present for the future is impossible, even unaccepta­ble, to the natural man because in worldly wisdom, the present life, indeed the present mo­ment, is all that you have. You may not see tomorrow or the day after tomor­row, never mind eternity. Faith is contrary to hu­man reasoning. The natural man says, “I have invested many years for this degree. Exchange it for eternity? No thanks. I can taste the lollipop in my mouth, but I can’t taste eternity. Give up the present for the future? I might not have a future!”

And he is absolutely right. The natural man has no future. Only a man of faith — Abrahamic faith — has a future. Abraham suc­ceeded where the rich young ruler failed because he of­fered up everything to God, even his only son. He was looking to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb.11:10), the city where God dwells (Rev.21:2,3).

Jesus is saying to us, “My friend, if you have faith, let go of what you have, ex­change the present for the future, and you will have treasure in hea­ven. Then come and follow me. What you will get from following me in this present age may be blood, sweat and tears, but in the age to come you will inherit the fullness of eternal life.” (Mt.19:29)

The natural man is frightened by all this talk about taking up the cross and following Christ. But how different is the way a man of faith like Paul looks at the cross which he bears: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2Cor.4:17). Compared to the “eternal weight of glory,” Paul considers the cross he bears as a “slight [3] momentary affliction”.

What Paul means by “slight affliction” is seen a few verses earlier, in 2Corinthians 4:8-12. Only someone of true faith can speak of these immense afflictions as “slight” or “light”! That is because Paul has his eyes fixed on the “eternal weight of glory”. By faith he sees God’s pro­mises, and looks to the things that are unseen rather than the things that are seen. The visible things are transient (“momentary”), the un­seen things are eternal (2Cor.4:18). This is impossible for the natural man to see, but faith trusts in God’s faith­fulness to do the impossible.

Hope in Scripture is not wishful thinking but confident expectation

Promise has to do with hope, but not hope as the word is generally used. In common usage, “hope” means wishful thinking as in, “I hope the weather will be nice tomorrow.” This does not represent the mean­ing of the Greek word elpis as it is used in the Scriptures. “Confident expectation” more accurately defines the word in the Bible, for hope in the Bible is imbued with faith, which results in “confident expectat­ion”. Especially in the New Testament, this con­fidence rests on the fact that God’s promises in Christ are always “yes” (2Cor.1:20).

Hope characterized the life of Abraham, who gave up everything to follow God. When God first promised him that his descend­ants will be as the stars of the heavens and the sands of the sea, Abraham didn’t even have a child. Later on, his body was as good as dead, and Sarah’s even more so, being childless in all her ninety years. Yet Abraham be­lieved God’s promise. Romans 4:21 says that he was “fully convinced” (ESV, RSV, NKJV), “fully persuaded” (KJV, NIV), or “fully assured” (NASB). Though confronted by all the human reasons that regarded the fulfillment of the promise impossible, he accepted the promise of God with absolute conviction.

This conviction was not a make-believe or wishful thinking, for it had a solid basis. What did Abraham base his faith on? On nothing less than God’s faithful character and omnipotent power, for Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised” (v.21). If God cannot be trusted, then nothing and no one can be trusted. Yet no one who has ever trusted in God has ever been put to shame for his trust (Isa.45:17; 50:7; 54:4; Rom.9:33; 1Pet.2:6, etc).

True faith hinges on believing that God is able. It is not believing in some intellectual or theoretical sense, but in a real practical sense — so real that we willingly give up our present realities for the kind of future that only God can give. Do we believe that our God — the King of kings, and Lord of lords — is able to do what He has promised us in Christ?

That is saving and justifying faith, the kind we see in Romans 4. We must never twist faith into something wishy-washy, and then mumble some­thing about justification by faith. True faith, as defined by Paul and the Lord Jesus himself, is the full conviction that God will do as He says. He is both able and willing. That is the solid foundation of the perfect obedience of faith.


An Appended Note: Abraham’s Faith and Justification by Faith

Our understanding of Romans 4 will govern our under­standing of just­ification profoundly. If we go with the popular view that justificat­ion means “declared righteous,” then justification would not have a relev­ant connection to Abraham’s faith, and Paul’s reference to justifi­cation (4:25; 5:1) would be a non sequitur, that is, left hanging without con­nection to all that he said about Abraham’s faith.

Abraham was not simply declared a father of many nations, but was made the father of many nations by a life-giving transformation within his body which was “as good as dead” (4:19). It is now imbued with the new life. And as a channel of life, Abraham became the father of nations accord­ing to God’s promise, all this because he believed God who gives life to the dead (4:17).

Abraham believed God even though the fulfillment of God’s promise was not humanly possible given the situation that he and Sarah were in. He be­lieved first, and later the promise was fulfilled.

Abraham was “fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised [to give new life to one as good as dead]. That is why ‘it was cred­ited to him as right­eousness’” (4:21,22).

What is the evidence that righteousness was credited to Abraham? By the fact that he did act­ually receive that new life in his own body, and likewise for Sarah. Because of God’s life-giving power in them, His prom­ises were fulfilled. The same is true of those who believe as Abraham did (4:23, 24).

In the case of Abraham and Sarah, what God did was nothing less than a resurrection that took place within their bodies. Paul says that God “raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (4:24) and “raised him to life” (v.25). God did this “for our justification” (v.25) “through faith” (5:1), with the result that we too receive “new life”. This is explicitly affirmed in Romans 6:4, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life”.

The firm link between righteousness and life

Righteousness and life are always linked in Scripture. “He who is stead­fast in righteousness will attain to life, and he who pur­sues evil will bring about his own death” (Prov.11:19). Just as righteous­ness and life are con­nected, evil and death are connected (Prov.12:28; 21:21; Ezek. 18:27, etc).

Paul makes that connection in Romans 5 which is linked to the previous chapter by the word “therefore”. In Romans 5, righteousness and life are mentioned together three times (vv.17,18,21; cf. Gal. 3:21). Verse 18 speaks of “justification of life,” which NIV renders as “justification that brings life”.

Because righteousness and life are connected, when righteousness is “credited” or “reckoned” to Abraham (Rom.4:3,5,6,9,10,22,23) but also to those who be­lieve as Abraham did (vv.11,24), life is likewise credited to them (granted to them). The statement, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteous­ness” (Rom.4:3) is a quotation of Genesis 15:6. Consider the following observations:

First, was Abraham not already a righteous man, one who had close commun­ion with God, when he first heard God’s call and obeyed Him (Gen.12:1ff.)? His righteousness is seen in the events of Genesis chap­ters 12 to 14. What then is the signi­ficance of his being credited with righteous­ness? An answer can be found in the next observation.

Second, being credited with righteous­ness has to do with the fact that Abraham was heirless, and that he and his wife were incapable of having a child. When God promised him an heir “from your own body” (15:4), “Abraham believed Yahweh” (15:6). It has to do with a life-giving work which God would do in Abraham and Sarah, making it possible for them to bring forth life in the form of a child and heir.

The crediting of Abraham with righteousness means that God will soon com­mence in him and Sarah an amazing life-transforming work by which their “as good as dead” bodies will have a new life that could bring forth life. Likewise, if we are credited with right­eousness through faith, or justified by faith, we can begin to experience the new life in Christ because of God’s life-giving work in us.

Analogous to Abraham, we were “as good as dead,” being “dead in transgressions and sins” (Eph.2:1). But whereas Abraham’s difficulty was phy­sical, ours is spiritual and for that reason far more serious. God had no way of saving us from our spiritual predica­ment apart from the death and resurrection of His beloved Son. “God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trans­gressions, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph.2:4,5; Col.2:13).

[1] New Bible Dictionary, 2nd edition, article “Eye of a Needle,” says that the imagery of a camel or an elephant going through the eye of a needle is fam­iliar to the rabbinic writings, e.g., the Talmud, and that it signifies some­thing very unusual, very difficult, and impossible. The dictionary further says “there is no historical evid­ence to support” the view that “needle’s eye” is the name of “a narrow gateway for pedestrians”.

[2] A well-known Christian leader in his bestselling book admits to having promulgated this teaching (viz. a city gate called Eye of a Needle). He had been teaching it for many years to promote his health-and-wealth gospel. Regret­ting what he has done, he now publicly rejects that interpret­ation. It is not clear if he was the one who invented it.

[3] This is the same word (elaphros, ἐλαφρός, which also means light in weight) as appears in Mt.11:30, “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”.


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