GOD’S FIRST COMMANDMENT: BELIEVE ME!
When God created Adam and Eve (the first parents of the human race), He placed them in the Garden of Eden. In that garden there was a special tree that God had created; the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong’. God gave Adam and Eve one moral commandment to live by:
Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat thereof you shall surely die.
GOD’S COMMANDMENT WAS SIMPLE: There was only one Law, not many.
GOD’S COMMANDMENT WAS EASY: It was a commandment not to do something. No effort was required.
GOD’S COMMANDMENT WAS CLEAR: God was indicating that righteousness cannot be achieved through learning the difference between right and wrong. To learn right from wrong would be a sin worthy of death. The way of righteousness would be to simply believe God and obey His commandment concerning the forbidden fruit.
Throughout the Bible ‘believing God’ is also referred to as ‘having faith in God’.
WHY IS FAITH IMPORTANT?
Roughly 3500 years ago, long after the days of Adam and Eve, God gave 10 commandments to the world through the prophet Moses (Exodus chapter 20). These 10 commandments sum up God’s moral requirements for us; what we must do if we would be accepted (justified) and blessed by Him. These commandments are sometimes referred to as the ‘Decalogue’ (10 sayings).
God’s commandments are divided into two sections. The first five address the ‘vertical’ relationship between ourselves and God (and our parents). The second five address our ‘horizontal’ relationships with our fellow man. The first five are summed up in the commandment ‘Love God’, and the second five are summed up in the commandment ‘Love your neighbor’.
When God gave His one commandment to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, it represented the first five laws of Moses. The forbidden fruit represented the question of whether or not Adam and Eve were willing to love and worship God. It represented the question of whether or not they were willing to acknowledge:
1) The infinite wisdom of God.
2) The righteousness and trustworthiness of God.
3) The goodness, kindness and generosity of God.
4) The infinite power of God.
THE IRONY OF EDEN IS THAT FAITH OBEYS THE LAW, WHILE LEARNING RIGHT FROM WRONG BREAKS THE LAW.
WHAT WAS GOD’S PLAN?
OK, so faith was the right attitude toward God, and a fulfillment of the first five laws of Moses. But what about Adam’s everyday interactions with other people? What would define a righteous approach to his fellow man? God’s plan was simple. As Adam supplied the ‘primary righteousness’ of believing and honoring God, not eating the forbidden Fruit, God was going to enter Adam’s body through the Holy Spirit and live inside him. The love, kindness, goodness and compassion of God Himself would flow out of Adam’s heart. This is still God’s plan today. God wants to share His very nature with us; He wants us to truly know what it is like to be God.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit” says the Lord of hosts.
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are sons of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.
Wherefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.
To whom God would make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
2 Peter 1:4
Righteousness belongs to God alone. It is a supernatural trait. For instance, the ability to love our enemies is supernatural; we are not capable of it. But we can experience this ‘secondary’ righteousness if we are willing to provide the ‘primary’ righteousness of acknowledging and glorifying God.
FAITH = OBEYING THE LAW
As I have just pointed out, the forbidden Tree represented the most important Law of all time:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Deuteronomy 6:5, Matthew 22:37
In requiring that Adam and Eve simply believe Himself, God was asking them to acknowledge His glory and trustworthiness, while also being thankful that He had created them and had given them all that they had. It was a most reasonable request and commandment.
Faith is often referred to in the Bible as ‘godliness’. It is an acknowledgement of God’s glory, and of the worship that He deserves. A proper attitude toward God is also the foundation of all other righteousness. When our hearts are right toward God, they are ‘tuned’ to relate properly with our fellow man as well. It is impossible to love our fellow man if we do not love God first. The logic of this is straightforward.
Suppose a thief commits murder during a bank robbery, killing a bank employee. Do you suppose that he will be concerned about running stop signs during his getaway? Of course not. If he has committed the greater crime, he will have no regard for lesser laws. The same thing applies to mankind. If we are willing to ignore our Creator, and even to declare war against Him, how can we love lesser beings who are mere creations? It is impossible to truly value or respect a fellow human being, if we are unwilling to love God. The apostle Paul explained how all of man’s wickedness toward our fellow man flows out of the first and greater crime of disrespect for God:
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
King David also recognized this connection between how we treat God, and how we treat our fellow man, confessing that his adultery and murder had their roots in his opposition to God:
Against You (God), You only, have I sinned and done this evil in Your sight.
This connection, between faith in God and obedience to God’s entire Law, is seen in God’s two-part description of Abraham’s character. First God acknowledged the righteousness of Abraham’s faith, and then acknowledged Abraham’s fulfillment of all of His laws:
Abraham believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness.
Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.
The apostle Peter also pointed to the ‘heart-purifying’ nature of faith. In explaining to his fellow Jews why he declared the gospel of Jesus Christ to ‘unclean Gentiles’, Peter said…
So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them (the Gentiles) by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us (Jews); and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.
Faith (believing God) represents obedience to the first and greatest commandment. And where genuine faith is found, love for our fellow man and fulfillment of the rest of God’s commandments will surely follow. This connection between faith and obedience is also found in the book of Revelation, where believing the Gospel and keeping God’s commandments go hand in hand:
And the dragon (Satan) was angry with the woman (Israel), and went to make war with the remnant of her seed (Christians), which keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.
Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.
FAITH WITHOUT LOVE – LOVE WITHOUT FAITH
Many who call themselves Christians are devoid of love for their fellow man, and are guilty of a great many sins and crimes. Because of their hypocrisy, some have come to despise Christianity. But the fact that there are Christian hypocrites does not nullify God’s word or Christianity itself. God’s coming judgment has been declared openly, and He has said throughout the Bible (in both the Old Testament and the New) that all men (including Christians) will be judged according to their deeds and reap what they have sown (for a further discussion of the fact that Christians must continue in obedience to God, see The Necessity of Christian Perseverance).
The apostle Paul wrote about the connection between faith in God and love for man, declaring that faith without love is useless, and teaching that whenever genuine faith is present, then the trait of love for our neighbor will also be found:
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and have all knowledge, and though I might have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:2
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which works by love.
But the Bible also talks about ‘love without faith’. The fact that God requires us to love our fellow man does not mean that everyone who ‘loves’ will be accepted by Him. Today many people point to hateful people from various religions and proclaim that ‘It’s not religion, but love that matters’. There is a growing worldwide consensus that says ‘If we love our neighbor as ourselves, then it does not matter which God we believe in. If a Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim loves his neighbor, then he will be justified by God as surely as any Christian can be’.
But the first commandment is that we must love the one true, living God. There is only one such God, and He has fully revealed Himself to the world through His creation, through His word, and through His Son, Jesus Christ. If we will not acknowledge and honor this God, then it is impossible for us to truly love our neighbor. All talk of loving our neighbor while we practice ‘religious tolerance’ is just as empty as faith without love. The Book of Proverbs warns about people who believe that by simply loving their neighbor, joining hand in hand, they will escape the judgment of God:
Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished: but the seed of the righteous shall be delivered.
Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished.
THE FEAR OF GOD
In the Bible faith in God is also called ‘the fear of the Lord’. Some people say that they don’t want a God whom they must fear. They imply that such a God must be a tyrant. Their objections overlook, however, the fact that the love of God has already been clearly manifested to us. It is He who has made us and placed us on this planet in the first place, and has opened the door to everlasting happiness for all of us, based simply upon the requirement that we acknowledge His trustworthiness and allow Him to lead us.
God wants to be a Shepherd to us. When He created us, He brought us into a dangerous universe where the forces of good and evil were already engaged in battle against each other.
Know that the Lord, He is God. It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.
God brought us into this world of moral conflict as free moral agents, and with this moral freedom came the possibility of either living forever (as a reward for righteousness) or dying (as the result of wickedness). And God made our choice as clear and simple as it could be.
Those who discount the value of fear in our lives are really striking at the very foundations of human society. Fear is an essential part of our everyday experience. Our fear of death prolongs our lives and guides us to success in almost every important thing that we do. We generally view fearless people as dangerous, uneducated, foolish or insane.
We teach our children to look both ways before crossing the street, and not to go with strangers, because we fear for their safety. Men dig down to bedrock before putting up buildings, bridges and dams because they fear the waste of wealth and loss of life that might result from carelessness. We pass laws about the proper testing and construction of planes, trains and automobiles because we fear crashes. NASA tests and re-tests its equipment and procedures, because it fears encountering some unforeseen event in space. The fear of lawsuits governs doctors and hospitals in the practice of medicine.
People who reject ‘the fear of God’ don’t really have a problem with fear; they have a problem with acknowledging and obeying God. Fearing God is the ultimate foundation of all human success. It represents the wise path that God has chosen to someday lead mankind to an eternal future where fear and death will be forever abolished.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
The fear of the Lord prolongs days, but the years of the wicked shall be shortened.
THE LOGIC OF DISOBEDIENCE
There was a serpent in Eden who contradicted God, challenging Eve concerning what to believe:
And the serpent said unto the woman ‘You shall not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.’
In effect the serpent was saying ‘God knows right from wrong, and He is righteous. If you learn right from wrong, you will be like God, and be able to achieve the same results that He has achieved!’
Adam and Eve were confronted with a life and death decision about whom to believe. God had said ‘You shall surely die!’, and the serpent said ‘You shall not surely die!’. Because God had placed a strong survival instinct within Adam and Eve, and they faced a ‘life and death’ question, they would have to be completely convinced of the wisdom of their choice. Despite God’s warning of death, Adam and Eve believed the serpent instead of Him. They disobeyed God and ate the forbidden Fruit. What convinced them that they would not die? They believed that the Fruit would give them two kinds of power:
1) The power to produce their own righteousness.
2) The power to tempt others, preventing them from being more righteous.
Adam and Eve believed that God would not be able to condemn them because they would be able to achieve a measure of goodness, while at the same time preventing anybody else from achieving righteousness God’s way. Instead of righteousness being defined by God, it would become ‘a relative thing’, defined by the relative merits of various people. Instead of man meeting God on His terms, God would have to meet men on their terms.
The serpent told Eve that by eating the forbidden fruit, she would become like God. It was the blackest lie ever told. By disobeying Him, Adam and Eve became as different from God as it is possible to become. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, a spirit that the Bible calls ‘Sin’ entered their bodies, instead of the Spirit of God. If Adam and Eve had chosen to believe God, they would have shared in His glory. By learning the difference between right and wrong, they came to share in the wickedness of the serpent (Satan).
THE ‘MORE’ TREE
Why did Adam and Eve disobey God in the first place? What was the attraction that prompted them to disobey God? The Bible tells us that the Fruit was attractive in three ways:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit and did eat, and gave also to her husband with her, and he did eat.
The Fruit was attractive to Adam and Eve because
1) It was beautiful to look at.
2) It was a tasty and brought physical pleasure.
3) Its knowledge would exalt them, raising them to God’s level of wisdom.
The forbidden Fruit was the one beautiful thing, the one sensual pleasure and the one degree of glory that Adam and Eve were not allowed to have. But to Adam and Eve the forbidden Tree represented much more than just the Fruit itself. Because of the knowledge it contained, the Fruit represented the possibility of an unrestrained pursuit of unlimited pleasure and self-glorification, without any fear of God’s judgment.
Although God had created them and given them life, had given them a relationship with Himself, had given them authority over a magnificent planet, had given them marriage and the prospect of raising children, and had set before them the possibility of eternal life as well, this was not enough for Adam and Eve. They wanted more. The Bible refers to such over-the-top, unrestrained desire as greed, lust or covetousness. The apostle Peter attributed all of the moral corruption in the world to lust, and the apostle John set forth the clear distinction between loving God and loving the things of this world:
Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.
2 Peter 1:4
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust thereof: but he that does the will of God abides forever.
1 John 2:15-17
Why does John say that it is impossible to love the world, and to love God at the same time? Because that was the choice that originally confronted Adam and Eve; a choice between a close and personal relationship with the Creator of the universe, or the pleasures and self-glorification that the world might provide. They desired the creation rather than the Creator. Instead of worshipping the living God, they set their affections upon lifeless things. This is why Paul equated covetousness with idolatry (the worship of lifeless idols):
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness which is idolatry.
2 Colossians 3:5
It is interesting to observe that when the Lord Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, He also was tested around these same three aspects of desire (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-12). First, after having fasted for 40 days, Jesus was tempted to satisfy His physical desires (His hunger) by turning stones into bread. Secondly, Satan took Jesus up to a high mountain so that He could see the visual splendor of all of the kingdoms of the world. Jesus could have had all of the fine cars, fancy homes, jewelry and beautiful women that He might have wanted, but He refused it. Lastly, Satan took the Lord Jesus up to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem, and challenged Him to glorify Himself as the Son of God by casting Himself down and letting angels protect Him. Such a demonstration of His divinity would have been most appropriate in that particular Holy place. But rather than claim what was rightfully His in any of these challenges, Jesus chose to humble Himself and put His identity as a man above His identity as God.
Let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus. Who, being in the form of God (in heaven above) did not consider it a thing to be clung to, to be equal with God. But He made Himself of no reputation, taking on the form of a servant, and came (to earth) in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death; even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every other name. That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow; of those in heaven and those on earth, and of those under the earth. And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
WHAT DID THE FORBIDDEN TREE LOOK LIKE?
The story of Adam and Eve has been the object of ridicule for centuries, and never more so than at the present time. Adam and Eve have been so caricatured both by Christians and non-Christians, and there have been so many cartoons and humorous advertisements lampooning the Garden of Eden that now, in our post-modern era, the story is considered ‘dead on arrival’. Strangely enough, however, a replica of Eden’s forbidden tree has become known worldwide as the second most-recognized symbol of Christianity (after the cross). It is the Christmas tree.
Every year ‘Christians’ erect trees in their homes and businesses that incorporate everything that the original forbidden tree represented. First they make this tree (and the other decorations and gifts associated with it) a feast for the eyes. Secondly, they incorporate many physical pleasures in their ‘worship of the tree’. They focus primarily on food and sweets. But some add alcohol, sex and even drugs to the mix. Thirdly, the gift exchange associated with this tree gives people the opportunity to boost one another’s egos. Whether a gift says that the receiver is important, or that the giver is thoughtful and generous, every gift serves to bolster somebody’s self-esteem.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying beautiful things, physical pleasures and the love and respect of others. These things are all God-given, and good if properly enjoyed. But Jesus Christ came into the world because we allowed these pleasures to turn us toward evil. In partaking of the forbidden Tree, Adam and Eve set things in motion that would eventually require the death of the Son of God in order to make our redemption possible. To observe the birth of the Savior by erecting a tree that duplicates mankind’s first rebellion against God, represents a profound ignorance of Christianity at best, and at worst a direct attack upon God. The fact that today’s Christians are oblivious to this parallel says a lot about where Christianity is today. Christians need to consider the words of the apostle Paul:
And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Christmas tree is that children are taught to be covetous. The message that Jesus was born to atone for our greed, lust and pride is nullified. Many families sing carols and read Bibles around the tree, but what is a child more likely to remember; verses and carols, or lights, candy and presents? Later in life, when some of these same children are confronted with the real claims of Christianity, they view the message as ‘unbiblical’ because it isn’t the pleasure-oriented Christianity that they grew up with.
WILL WE TRUST GOD?
God presented a perfectly logical idea to Adam and Eve; that a knowledge of right and wrong would enable them to achieve righteousness. It makes sense, doesn’t it? How can a person do what is right if he does not know the difference between right and wrong? But God told Adam and Eve that learning right and wrong would be a sin worthy of death. He asked them to ignore ‘logic’ and trust Him. Why would He do that? Because God’s commandment represented the question of whether or not Adam and Eve would acknowledge His infinitely greater wisdom as the Creator of the universe.
Adam and Eve were being asked to acknowledge the profound difference between God and ourselves; that the smartest of human beings are mere children in comparison to the One who created us. They were being asked to acknowledge that, no matter what might seem to make perfect sense to us, if God says something different, then we are always smarter to trust Him above anything or anyone else. Adam and Eve’s choice was simple; when challenged with the most important decisions of life, would they lean upon their own understanding, or would they acknowledge God’s glory and depend upon Him?
In both the Old Testament and the New, God’s relationship with mankind is frequently compared to that between sheep and a shepherd. God wants us to acknowledge that in comparison to Him, we as human beings truly are like sheep. We need the guidance and protection of a Divine Shepherd. Sheep who wander off often come to tragic ends; those who stay close to their master enjoy safety.
Know that the Lord, He is God. It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves. We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For you were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
1 Peter 2:25
I would ask my reader to bear with a personal story. Many years ago I worked in a public works department, repairing roadways. Some of the men who worked there had other careers on the side, doing construction and other things after work. Some would laughingly tease these men saying ‘Man, if I had your money, I would burn mine!’. In other words they were saying that the other guy was so rich that, if they could have his money, they would take their own money and use it to light fires in the fireplace (or some other frivolous thing).
Although this idea is silly, it conveys the point that I am trying to make here. God’s wisdom is so much greater than ours, that if confronted with a choice between His wisdom or our own, every one of us would be well-advised to grab His and ‘burn’ ours. This is what the forbidden Tree in Eden was about; the question of whether or not we would acknowledge Who God is and what we are. When God’s wisdom is properly appreciated, it can rightly be said that it is He alone who really has any wisdom at all:
Man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.
Deuteronomy 8:3, Matthew 4:4
Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Timothy 1:17
To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and for ever. Amen.
It was not that God wanted mankind to be ignorant. He did not forbid Adam and Eve to build computers, split the atom or map human DNA. In fact, God commanded Adam and Eve to subdue the earth and rule over it. It is true that many professing Christians give people the impression that Christianity is a religion of ignorance and superstition, but this is not true. God loves human intelligence, industry and creativity. It was He who made us this way, and put these traits within us. But He does require us to acknowledge that ultimately, when confronted with a choice between His wisdom or our own, the truly intelligent person will always choose God’s wisdom over his own.
In choosing to disbelieve God, Adam and Eve had to close their eyes to everything that they knew about Him; they had to ignore His wisdom, righteousness, goodness, love, and power. In fact, ultimately, they had to deny that God even exists! Mankind’s problem is not that we cannot see God, but that we choose not to see Him.
The fool has said in his heart ‘There is no God’. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that does good. The Lord looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that does good, no, not one.
Psalm 14:1-3 (Psalm 53:1-3)
Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools.
But without faith it is impossible to please Him: for he that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him.
Ever since the Garden of Eden people have believed that knowledge will save the human race. Some trust in intellectual knowledge and some in moral knowledge, but the Bible warns that knowledge without an acknowledgement of God will always lead to disaster.
Thus says the Lord, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, and let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glories glory in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the Lord who exercises loving kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight’ says the Lord.
The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.
Psalm 118:22-23 (Matthew 21:42, Mark 12:10, Luke 20:17, 1 Peter 2:7)
Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a (powerful, miraculous) sign, and the Greeks seek after (intellectual) wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified: unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness. But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
1 Corinthians 1:20-25
CAN GOD TRUST US?
In choosing to rely on their own righteousness, Adam and Eve also had to make sure that nobody else would become more righteous than themselves. They would have to tempt others to sin, in order to insure their own moral superiority and survival. This willingness to promote evil was a betrayal of God, and a declaration of war against Him. It was a decision by Adam and Eve to give themselves completely to evil, as the means of insuring that nobody else’s righteousness would excel their own.
God has given us a picture of this betrayal in the relationship between Samson and Delilah (Judges 16). Samson shared the secret of his strength with Delilah as a token of love and trust between them, but Delilah betrayed Samson for money. God also revealed the secret of His strength to Adam and Eve, and they betrayed Him for all that money can buy; beautiful things, physical pleasure and glory.
When Adam and Eve learned right from wrong, they were binding God and forcing Him to serve them, just as Samson was bound and forced to serve the Philistines. How could this be? Because God is obligated to judge and condemn sin. By obtaining the power to tempt people and lead them into sin, Adam and Eve were compelling God to oppose Himself, forcing Him to destroy human beings whom He loves and wants to bless. This is why the Lord Jesus saved His strongest warnings for those who lead others astray (Matthew 18:6, 23:13, Romans 14:21, 2 Corinthians 11:29, Revelation 2:14). The prophet Jeremiah has described the dual nature of Adam and Eve’s wickedness; their deceitful denial of God’s existence, combined with a desperate need to achieve the moral downfall of others:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
At the cross the Lord Jesus gave His own life, just like Samson did, in order to ‘knock the pillars out from beneath Satan’s kingdom’. After having overcome every trial and temptation that could be thrown at Him, Jesus gave Himself as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to bring Satan down. Through His death Jesus has conquered the devil, while making escape possible for all of us who have lived in Satan’s kingdom of lies, fear and death.
Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part in the same; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death; that is, the devil. And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.
God now calls each one of us to choose whether we will continue in our rebellion, or repent and take advantage of the mercy that His ‘Samson’, the Lord Jesus Christ, has made possible through His cross.
THE WORKS OF THE LAW
The Bible describes all efforts to achieve righteousness through a knowledge of right and wrong as ‘the works of the Law’ (Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, 3:1-14). Adam and Eve are a perfect example of this. When they discovered that they were naked, they tried to deal with the moral issue of human sexuality by making clothes out of leaves. Their efforts at self-righteousness exposed their disobedience, and God condemned them for it. The Bible describes our self-righteous efforts to cover our moral nakedness in simple terms:
There is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness is as filthy rags.
Before becoming a Christian, the apostle Paul followed this same path. His mistake was typical of many of the Jewish people, who believed that a knowledge of the Law of Moses would enable them to achieve righteousness (see my web page titled Testing Christianity for an explanation of why God gave the 10 commandments to the world). Paul wrote the following words about his mistake, and what he learned:
What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the Law of righteousness, has not attained to the Law of righteousness. Why? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the Law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone; As it is written “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense: and whosoever believes on him shall not be ashamed”.
Romans 9:30-33 (Isaiah 8:14, 28:16)
Today our world is still characterized by many people who want to do ‘the right thing’. Some want to restore the earth and its environment. Others strive to erase the economic disparity between rich and poor. Some seek world peace through broad consensus, while others reject compromise, believing that ‘righteous’ governments must impose their will upon others through economic and military might. Many churches and professing Christians have joined these efforts to achieve ‘practical good’. Some Christians support ‘liberal’ causes and agendas, and some embrace ‘conservative’ ones.
Although these various groups often oppose each other and argue about how things should be done, they all have one thing in common: they trust their knowledge of right and wrong more than they trust God. They are like the Israelites over 3000 years ago:
In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did what was right in his own eyes.
Judges 17:6, 21:5
Ultimately these efforts to put the world ‘right’ will lead to its destruction, because those who trust in their knowledge of right and wrong will inevitably find themselves doing the exact opposite of what they desire (see Testing Christianity). The Bible’s first question is ‘Must we keep the Law?’, and the answer is a definite ‘Yes!’. The self-righteous person is right about this. But we must go beyond the first question to answer the Bible’s second question, ‘How can we keep the Law?’ The answer to that question is ‘Through faith in Jesus Christ’.
Therefore leaving the (first) principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on to perfection (maturity). Not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God.
In recent years it has been common to see people wearing necklaces and bracelets saying ‘WWJD’ (What Would Jesus Do?), the idea being that Christianity is a matter of figuring out what Jesus would do in any given situation, and then doing that. In reality this concept is Adam and Eve’s disobedience masquerading as Christianity, because the person who does this is simply using his knowledge of right and wrong to determine what he thinks Jesus would do. Christianity is not figuring out what Jesus would do, but believing God and allowing Jesus to live and work within us so that He does what He wants to do, often without us being aware of it.
The important distinction between ‘justification by faith’ vs. ‘the works of the Law’ is that faith is defined by acknowledging and honoring God’s abilities, and trusting one’s own well-being to His faithfulness and competence. The way of faith is an acknowledgement of our own limitations as created beings, and our dependence upon God. The ‘works of the Law’, on the other hand, are based upon what man can supposedly do independent of God. This is why the Bible often describes those who rebel against God as ‘proud’ people:
The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the haughtiness of men shall be bowed down, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low.
“For behold, the day comes that shall burn as an oven. And all the proud, yes, and all that do wickedly shall be stubble. And the day that comes shall burn them up” says the Lord of hosts, “that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.”
Because of this distinction between what God can do and what man can do, when a person who pursues self-righteousness breaks the Law, he is closed into only one possible outcome; being condemned by the Law. It is impossible for such a person to provide an atonement for his own sins, or a fresh start in his life. This is something that only God can do for a sinner; provide a solution for both the penalty and the power of sin. This is why salvation belongs to God:
And the Lord passed by before Moses and proclaimed “The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth. Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and Who will by no means clear the guilty.
It is this distinction, between what proud people can do through a knowledge of the Law and what God can do on behalf of those who condemn themselves for their sins and return to God’s original plan of faith, that Paul described in his letter to Rome and to the Galatians:
But now the righteousness of God without the Law is manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets. Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe. For there is no difference: for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
For the promise that he should be the heir of the world, was not made to Abraham or to his seed through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the Law be heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect. Because the Law works wrath: for where no Law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed.
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin; He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the Law are under the curse: for it is written “Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the Law to do them. But that no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God is evident: “For the just shall live by faith”. And the Law is not of faith, but “the man that does them shall live in them”. Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us. For it is written “Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree”, that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
The fundamental condition for entrance into the forgiving grace of God is a sincere acknowledgement of the truth; that we have been proud, rebellious Law-breakers, worthy of death. That we have despised God and refused to take our proper place as worshipful creatures before our Creator:
Likewise you younger, submit yourselves unto the elder. Yes, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility. For God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.
1 Peter 5:5
THE WORK OF FAITH
While Christians are not justified by ‘works’, when the word ‘works’ denotes the attempts at self-righteousness described above, it does not mean that God does not require Christians to work. He most certainly does. And He warns Christians that, while He wants to save them eternally, a failure on their part to labor for Him faithfully in this world will cause them to lose the reward of eternal life in the next.
To say that we are not saved ‘by the works of the Law’ does not mean that the Christian is not saved by working.
While God condemns ‘the works of the Law’, He demands ‘the work of faith’:
Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! And he who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, that both he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together. For in this the saying is true: ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.
Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.
1 Corinthians 15:58
I urge you, brethren – you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the firstfruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints – that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us.
1 Corinthians 16:15-16
We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the sight of our God and Father.
1 Thessalonians 1:2-3
But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
“To the angel of the church of Ephesus write, ‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary.
Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.”
Those who deny that eternal life is a reward for work should consider the following passages. Those who receive God’s ‘spiritual talents’, and faithfully put them to work, will be rewarded:
After a long time the lord of those servants came and reckoned with them. And so he that had received five talents came and brought other five talents, saying “Lord, you delivered unto me five talents: behold, I have gained beside them five talents more.” His lord said unto him “Well done, you good and faithful servant: you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things: enter into the joy of thy lord.
Those who have failed to put God’s ‘talents’ to work will be cast out of His kingdom:
But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest’. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
GOD’S LAW: THE STANDARD, BUT NOT THE MEANS
When people read some of the things that Paul wrote in Romans chapter 3, they conclude that God has chosen to set aside His Law in providing man’s salvation; that people are not saved through obeying the Law, but through some other way:
But now the righteousness of God apart from the Law is manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the prophets. Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.
Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law.
What needs to be understood is that when Paul used the phrase “apart from the Law”, he meant that God was going beyond what we could accomplish through a knowledge of the Law, to a mercy that would satisfy the just claims of the Law against us while restoring us to the obedience of faith. When Paul wrote “without the deeds of the Law”, he was referring to ‘the works of the Law’; man’s pursuit of self-righteousness. Paul was not saying that we no longer are obligated to obey God’s Law. He was saying that God has made it possible for us to fulfill the Law according to God’s original plan; through faith.
God’s standard of righteousness and His requirement for salvation has never changed. It has always been the same: genuine obedience to His Law. Some see Christianity simply as the forgiveness of our sins, and it is true that forgiveness is a necessity. The penalty for sin must be paid. But forgiveness is simply one part of that which saves us. What saves a person, and ushers them into God’s reward of eternal life, is holiness; deliverance from both the power of sin as well as its penalty. Faith does not circumvent the Law; faith fulfills the Law in very real, practical, everyday terms.
We find this message consistently in Paul’s words throughout the first two chapters of Romans. There is no reason for us to misunderstand him. God’s condemnation of men will be for breaking His Law, and His justification of men will be for obeying His Law:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.
Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness. Full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents. Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful. Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
God will render to every man according to his deeds. To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life. But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile. But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that works good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God.
For (Jewish) circumcision truly profits, if you (a Jew) keep the Law. But if you are a breaker of the Law, your circumcision is made uncircumcision. Therefore if the uncircumcised man (a Gentile) keeps the righteousness of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not the uncircumcised man, if he fulfills the Law, judge you who by the letter and circumcision do transgress the Law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not from men, but from God.
To remove any doubt about whether or not God’s way of salvation is a matter of Law-keeping, I present the following three passages. They begin with God’s description of Abraham, the ‘man of faith’, and end with Paul’s words on the place of God’s Law in the Christian life:
Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.
Think not that I (Jesus) am come to destroy the Law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, until heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the Law, until all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Do we then make void the Law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the Law.
The question isn’t ‘Must we obey the Law?’, but rather ‘How can we obey the Law?’
While some misunderstand God’s will for the Christian because they misunderstand the various ways in which the word ‘work’ is used in God’s word, others object because they believe that salvation is strictly an unconditional ‘gift’; not linked to an initial turning from sin and embracing of the Law, or to a continuing Christian obedience to the Law. For a further discussion of what God expects of a Christian, see my web page titled The Necessity of Christian Perseverance.
FAITH = HOLINESS + MERCY
While both obedience to God’s Law and a willingness to labor for Him are required of a Christian, they are not God’s only requirements. There is a third one: mercy. If there is no mercy in the Christian’s heart for the moral failings of others, he will find no mercy from God for his own.
Mercy is a requirement for entrance into God’s grace, and it is a requirement for staying there as well.
In the Old Testament, when God gave His Laws to the people of Israel, He laid out His moral commandments. But God’s covenant with Israel (the Mosaic Covenant) also contained a system of cleansing rituals and animal sacrifices meant to atone for sins and renew people to a good relationship with God. God maintained a way where sins committed in ignorance could be forgiven, and fellowship with Himself restored (Exodus-Deuteronomy). His only requirement was that a person’s repentance about sin be sincere. All of these things were symbolic of God’s way of salvation through Christ.
These same principles are in effect today under Christ’s New Covenant, which has replaced the Mosaic Covenant. Today Christ is God’s One and only High Priest. As such Jesus not only reconciles repentant rebels with God, but continues to intercede for those rebels after they have become Christians, when they sin and go astray again. As long as a Christian sins in ignorance, there is a place for the mercy of God in his life. But that mercy cannot be obtained if the Christian himself is unmerciful. God is in the business of mercy. To proclaim the gospel is to proclaim the mercy of God. No unmerciful Christian can be fit for evangelism.
The great threat to the Christian is pride; forgetting the moral debauchery and shame that God saved him from, and his desperate need for that same grace and divine supply until he stands before the throne of God to be judged. Nothing has changed. We were totally dependent upon God in Eden, and the Christian is even more dependent upon Him now. There are many reasons why Christians become arrogant and judgmental. Personally I believe that one of them is the false teaching ‘Once Saved, Always Saved’; the belief that a genuine Christian cannot fail to enter into heaven. I address that subject in my web page titled The Necessity of Christian Perseverance. Suffice it to say that God has made it clear; those who show no mercy will find no mercy:
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
And his lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
For he shall have judgment without mercy, who has shown no mercy. Mercy rejoices against judgment.
GOD’S SECOND TREE
God has now placed a second special Tree in the world. He has commanded all people to believe Him and eat its Fruit if they want forgiveness and the ability to experience God’s righteousness. That Tree is the Cross of Jesus Christ, and its Fruit is His broken body and shed blood.
Jesus told people that that they must eat His flesh and blood in order to be saved:
Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Truly, truly I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, you have no life in you’.
When confronted with this idea, the Jews asked “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It’s a good question, and the answer is simple. When we eat food, it enters every cell in our bodies; the proteins, carbohydrates and fats become a part of us. We become united (or ‘one’) with our food; we truly are what we eat. In a similar way, people who repent of their sins are united with Christ. They become one with him in His death, burial and resurrection, and experience the ‘spiritual nutrition’ and new life of being born again with Him. That is why, in John 6:35 & 48, Jesus called Himself “the bread of life”. Union with Him gives our souls life, just as union with ordinary food gives our bodies life.
This union with Christ is not achieved by water-baptism, communion or the Roman Catholic Mass. It is a spiritual union that the Holy Spirit performs when a sinner repentantly judges himself and turns to Christ in sincere faith. So what is this repentance that can unite us with Christ? Jesus described it in terms of picking up one’s cross. One day Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was (Mark 8:27-38). Peter said that Jesus was the Christ, and Jesus responded by telling Peter that he was correct. Then Jesus began to tell His disciples that He was going to be killed at Jerusalem. Peter took Jesus aside and began to object, at which point Jesus rebuked Peter, even calling him ‘Satan’. Jesus was planning to go to Jerusalem to die for the sins of mankind, and Peter was trying to talk Him out of it. Then Jesus made an important statement about His death, and the meaning of that death for Christians:
And when He had called the people together with His disciples also, He said unto them “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.”
Some think that Jesus was talking here about Christians suffering as they follow Him through their lives. While it is true that Christians must be prepared to endure poverty and even death if called upon by God to do so, I do not think that this is what Jesus was talking about here. When He said ‘follow me’, I believe that He was saying ‘follow Me to the place of crucifixion’. Nowhere in the Bible are people who are already Christians ever called upon to carry a cross. In fact, in the epistles, the cross is described as something that has already happened to the Christian; it is a past experience. The apostle Paul pointed this out:
Know you not that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death; that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
For I through the Law am dead to the Law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ.
Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
2 Corinthians 2:17
So what was Jesus saying in Mark 8:34? Jesus was talking about repentance, and the necessity that sinners (if they would be saved) must condemn themselves to the same criminal execution that Jesus Himself was about to endure. The New Testament does not describe the cross primarily as a place of persecution and martyrdom, although Jesus was indeed persecuted. It describes the cross as a Tree where criminals are punished for their crimes:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, being made a curse for us, for it is written “Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree.
Galatians 3:13, Deuteronomy 21:23
Who His own Self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed.
1 Peter 2:24
Jesus was saying that, if someone wants to be a Christian, ‘he must be crucified with Me’. The word ‘deny’ (in Mark 8:34) does not mean to deprive one’s self of something, but rather to judge, despise, disown and repudiate one’s self. When Jesus spoke of picking up one’s own cross, He was talking about condemning one’s self. He was talking about sinners seeing their need for atonement.
It is only as a sinner is willing to acknowledge and accept condemnation for his sin, that he can truly see and believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is the solution for his problem. Repentance and faith always go hand-in-hand. The clearest example of one ‘picking up his cross’ was the thief who was crucified next to Jesus. As he acknowledged that he deserved to be crucified, his eyes were opened to recognize the Savior who was hanging on a cross next to him:
And one of the criminals which was crucified railed at Jesus, saying “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us.” But the other answering rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, seeing you are in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said to Jesus “Lord, remember me when you come into Your Kingdom.” And Jesus said to him “Verily I say to you, today shall you be with Me in paradise.”
For if I build again the things which I destroyed (my old sinful self), I make myself a transgressor. For I, through the Law, am dead to the Law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ.
The Lord is near those that are of a broken heart, and saves such as be of a contrite spirit.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
But to this man will I (God) look; to him that is poor (spiritually) and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My word.
I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:8-9
The faith of the thief on the cross was the faith of Abraham; a faith that is truly righteous in the sight of God because it condemns sin while turning back to the God that we have despised and opposed. And while faith accepts the righteous condemnation of the Law, it looks beyond that condemnation to what God alone can do; offer forgiveness, new life and genuine righteousness through the death, burial and resurrection of His Son.
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