You may have gone to a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship service this year. It’s a wonderful time to acknowledge the perfect gift of God. Christmas celebrates the gift coming. Easter celebrates its completion. Have you ever stopped to consider what really makes this gift so special?
I grew up learning about Jesus. I put my faith in Christ at quite a young age. The gospel message is an interesting thing. It’s so simple a child can understand and receive it, yet so deep, it confuses many adults.
“At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said,“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” Luke 10:21
I had the joy of my salvation as a young child. It wasn’t until I got older that my theology became muddled, robbing me of that joy. As I tried to understand salvation, it became obvious that not everyone who prays to receive Christ continues to follow him. I wondered about that and began to look for answers.
I understood enough about grace to eliminate false teaching that tries to add to what Jesus completed on the cross. Salvation is received through faith in Christ plus nothing else. There is no self-righteousness before God, no merit of our own. It’s all grace: God’s riches at Christ’s expense. But I said to myself, “I don’t believe the Holy Spirit is present in some of these people that prayed the prayer of salvation.” Either I was mistaken, and the Spirit was present, but the Christian was backslidden, or the person prayed the prayer, but never actually meant it in their heart; never put their trust in Jesus; never decided to actually follow him; and thus never received the gift, or the person stopped believing and lost his or her salvation. It was last one I wasn’t sure about.
I attended a church for a couple of years, when I was a teen, that believed salvation can be lost. This is sometimes referred to as the Armenian Philosophy of Salvation. They believed that if a person stops believing and following Christ, he or she loses it. Since I had seen people I knew and loved, who were active in the faith, fall away, it seemed to me to be a reasonable theological assertion. But you know, assertions have a way of playing themselves out.
I got locked into a mindset that took the power and grace of God to save me and turned it into a quest not to doubt or lose faith because then I might fall away and be condemned to Hell. The was exacerbated because I was leaving behind my childhood understand of faith and growing into my adult faith. I was transferring from the faith of my parents to my own faith independent from them. In that struggle were many hard questions of faith.
I didn’t want to believe because that is what I’ve always been taught. I didn’t want to believe because I feared a vengeful God throwing me into Hell. I wanted to believe because it was true. For me that meant challenging its claims to find out if they are true. But if I do that, am I falling away? Heavy stuff. It was a huge burden to bear and it sucked all the joy from my life. I was as burdened as if I was trying to earn my own salvation again. I completely forgot what the word “gift” means, because it felt like anything but a gift. It was another form of enslavement.
In the end, I still believed in Christ. I just hoped that I wouldn’t stop believing. I integrated the belief that salvation could be lost into my belief system and bridged the failures of that assertion by constantly asking God not to let me fall away.
It took me by surprise, when one night I stated my understanding amongst a group of believers I had joined with in an evangelism program, and several of them quickly jumped in to sharply correct me. I had come to think “this is the way it is.” They were adamantly challenging it. Whatever I was, even at that young age, I was no slouch. I wanted to argue it out. Not fight, but debate it from every angle. They found that uncomfortable. It seemed hostile to them. It wasn’t hostile in any way. It was just me wrestling hard with the doctrine.
I ended up scheduling a meeting with the church pastor. In that meeting, we discussed the hard questions. He told me he didn’t believe God would abort or abandon his children ever. Then he led me back to scripture.
“And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:11-13
He said, “Look what it says: “has eternal life,” “that you may know you have eternal life”. It’s past tense. It’s eternal life you receive when you receive Christ.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24
And Paul wrote:
“The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Romans 8:15-16
There it is. I was living in fear. My pastor helped me realize how I’d lost connection with the wonder of the gift. The gift is all about Jesus. It’s him. He earned salvation for us. He gives it freely. It does not depend on our ability even to sustain our faith.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9
It is God who works in us and gives us salvation. It has nothing to do with us, save on thing. God gives us the choice to receive it or reject it. Once the gift is truly received, you are reborn by the Spirit. There is no crossing back to death.
So what about those who fall away? They are either a born-again Christian rebelling against God or they never really received salvation.
A believer who rebels grieves the Holy Spirit that lives inside them. God disciplines his own. They will either turn around and head the right direction again, or face severe consequences in this life and loss of rewards in the next. The rewards of God are hard to fathom, but its safe to say one wouldn’t want to lose them.
Those who pray the salvation prayer, serve in the church, give a tenth of all they earn, and do many good deeds may still not know Christ. You cannot know him without recognizing him in the heart. Without Christ, we are only following our own lead, which may go astray, particularly if we become bitter when we find there is no power in it and it doesn’t work. It does not save.
Salvation comes to the one who acknowledges in his or her heart that Jesus was God in the flesh; come to pay for all the sin of mankind on the cross; asks for God’s forgiveness through him alone, not by anything he or she has done to earn merit before God, and receives him into the heart to love and to follow him.
When God sees this decision and a simple act of faith a new person is born. God takes away all accusation against you and nails it to the cross. You are dead to sin and alive in Christ. Forgiven forever. Never to be lost.
In Jesus’ own words:
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30
Now that’s a gift.