Assurance

Here’s a thought that struck me today: Even if we were made completely perfect right now, we would still need a Saviour.

We often struggle with assurance of salvation. Are we truly saved? Will we persevere in salvation? Will we enter into heaven glorified, or are we going to hear, to our shock and horror, the awful indictment of Christ: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’ (Mat. 7:23)?

I often find that such anxieties are rooted in either an actual lack of salvation or in a lack of understanding of what salvation is. I’d like to briefly address the second kind.

What happens when we are saved is a two-fold exchange. First, our total and complete sin/depravity/falleness is counted to/accounted/imputed on Christ (1 Pet. 2:24) and second, Christ’s perfect righteousness is similarly counted to/accounted/imputed to us (Rom. 4:22-24). If only the first step took place, we’d be forgiven but could not enter heaven (Mat. 5:20); if only the second step took place, God’s justice wouldn’t be satisfied, and He would have to let unforgiven sinners into heaven.

When we fret about our security in salvation, it’s often because we’re confused about on one these two truths. And this usually manifests as: “I’m not sure I’m saved, because there is so much sin and imperfection in my life”. Translation: “I know I’m forgiven, but I’m not sure if I’m righteous/good/holy/perfect enough to enter heaven.”

Well, think about it this way: Imagine that you woke up tomorrow, and you found yourself completely perfect – I mean sparkling, squeaky clean perfect. Not a shred of perverted thought enters your mind. Not a hint of lust. No anger other than righteous indignation. You have divine wisdom shooting out of every pore. Your church has to change buildings to accommodate the fish in your evangelistic net. You minister 24/7, you have an all-consuming desire for God and your heart beats in perfect sync with His. You read passages like “…be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48) and you don’t feel a smidgen of conviction – and for all the right reasons! In short, you’re living on earth as if you’re in heaven.

Question: If all this were true of you tomorrow, would you be able to enter heaven ONLY on the basis your now-perfect righteousness? Would God be satisfied enough?

The answer is no. Why? Because you would still be bearing the stains of your imperfect, sinful past – of the time before you were perfect.

Back to earth now. Will you or I ever be as perfect as that this side of eternity? No. Then how can we possibly be sure of ever being saved?

Answer: Because our salvation does not depend on our righteousness, crucial though it is. Our salvation, our entrance into the glorious, heavenly eternity depends completely on the righteousness of Christ, which, if we are indeed saved, has been imputed/accounted to us.

If you look to yourself, you will never have any assurance of salvation. If you look to Christ instead, and realise that His perfect righteousness is yours by faith, your heart will be bursting at seems with certainty – not because of you, but because of Him. And doubt will be as abhorrent to you as blasphemy.

Spiritual “careers”

16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”– Luke 12:16-21

I can’t read this passage without thinking about Ecclesiastes. For example, in Ecc. 2:18, Solomon says: I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me.

Of course, Solomon realised what the rich man of Jesus’ parable didn’t: Wealth is fleeting. The central message of Ecclesiastes is that, apart from God, ALL of life, every achievement, every success, every great idea, every accomplishment, every discovery, invention, technology and attempt to utopia is, ultimately, futile. Not because it might not succeed; but because it has no lasting value, and it thus has no intrinsic value.

But Jesus explicitly sums up the wisdom of Solomon:

So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (v. 21)

What a shocking re-evaluation of life! Imagine using this standard for everything we do – and we should, otherwise we risk being called “fool” (άφρων) by God Himself.

And that expression is so powerful: “…rich toward God” (εἰς Θεὸν πλουτῶν). We are not called to simply carry out some chores for God; we’re told to accumulate what He considers to be wealth. Just as we naturally work and plan and invest and strive to gain wealth, we are now, as new creatures in Christ, called to pour our energy to invest in heavenly riches. We’re called to build “spiritual careers”, if I’m allowed the simily.

So, what are we spending our energy, time and resources on? In v.33 Jesus says:

Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.

Sooner or later, my soul and your soul will be required of us. And the frightening reality is that, although we knew, although we were warned, we will still appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) carrying with a disturbing amount of junk that His purging fire will consume (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

Let’s take some time today to review what we are investing ourselves in. What are our real goals in life? Are we looking forward to one day retiring, chilling out on a nice recliner ready to enjoy the fruits of our labor? Jesus told us that that is what those who do not know God want out of their brief sojourn across the earth.

But we know that we are eternal, and eternity should be the perspective by which we look at and live out our days – as many or as few as we have left.

The Life experiment, part 3

(Part 1 here and Part 2 here)

10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. – Ecclesiastes 3:10-14

So now we can draw some final conclusions and applications of this passage. We have seen a lot, and it will hopefully give us a very different perspective to life and achievement.

In this passage are taught one great reality: we are not God. Did you get that? Let me repeat it: We are NOT God.

We really need to grasp this, because inside each and every one of us there is always a simmering, festering rebellion to the seemingly cruel randomness of life. Natural disasters that wipe out thousands. A child is kidnapped, abused in unspeakable ways and brutally murdered. A newly-wed, happy couple dies in a car accident. A promising athlete loses her mobility. Cancer. Dementia. Job loss. Just browse today’s news and chances are you’ll find all of these and more in there.

And there just doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it. Where’s that childhood adage that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished? Certainly not in the Bible, and certainly not in Ecclesiastes:

In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. – Ecc. 7:15

So the question, the natural question, is this: What is the meaning of my life? Why do anything? Why don’t we just curl up and die? We call them Big Questions, and they are – and we should ask them. We should be immobilised with despair about them because otherwise we’ll sleepwalk through life and never truly live.

Solomon’s answer is simple: We are not God. That means, first, that there is a God who is intimately involved with and has control of the events of every person’s life. Solomon is not a deist; God didn’t just kickstart the cosmos and then just let it be. Whatever happens in my life and your life, whether “good” or “evil”, it has been ordained by God (cf. Ecc. 3:1-8).

Second, it means that we have absolutely no chance of ever comprehending how the seemingly random events in our life fit in with God’s overarching plan that spans all eternity. We might catch a glimpse of a small part of an infinitesimal section of it, but we can’t. We never really could, but our natural rebellion against God does not allow us to be content with that lack of knowledge and simply trust God.

This is the essence of life’s futility: We can only find meaning from God’s perspective because we are made with eternity in us. So when we look at our life from our own perspective, the sum total of everything we are and we do is zero.

If we understand that, then we can understand the book of Ecclesiastes, and we can understand what Solomon, after failing to give his life meaning with every possible scheme, discovered and wanted to pass on to the generations after him.

Now, nothing of what we’ve learned here would be of any comfort to us unless we knew something comforting about God. After all, without knowledge of God it still looks as if we’re stuck between complete futility and His whims (and we all wonder that sometimes, don’t we?). In other words, I either have to admit that my existence has no ultimate purpose and turn that into my philosophy – as many do – or I have to admit that my existence is completely in God’s hands and who knows what He is going to do with it?

Just pause for a moment, and think: This is what makes the Bible so astonishing; the fact that it is the pleasure of this same God, who is sovereign over all, to reveal to us everything we need to know about Him and His plans this side of eternity.

And what do we learn about God’s plans? What is the great common and ultimate purpose of everything He does?

Jesus Christ, who is the living manifestation of God (Heb. 1:3) told us:

Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to himLuke 20:38

It is His glory. God’s glory is the ultimate destination, purpose, goal and end of everything that God does or does not do.

And with that marker for navigation, because we have eternity in us, we can understand that, even though we are completely unable to see how God uses the events in our lives to glorify Himself, our lives are not devoid of meaning. They are not random and without a reason.

The ultimate purpose of our lives is God’s glory, whether we realise it or not and whether we like it or not.

This is why the truths of Ecclesiastes are frightening to those who do not know God, but in the same time are an enormous comfort and joy to those who know Him and desire above all else to see Him glorified. And who are these people? Can we be one of them and find the only true meaning our lives can ever have?

They are those who, through repentance and faith in Christ have died to themselves and now live for Him who died and rose for them (2 Cor. 5:15). What does that have to do with finding meaning in life? It’s simple: Dying to yourself frees you from the horrifying futility of living for yourself. Those who belong to Christ do not need to chase after every experience and thrill and pleasure in the world, but find their greatest joy and satisfaction in doing everything for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). They don’t need to live for their career, their family, their relationships, their looks, their social status, their gadgets, themselves, but they give all things to God and let Him use them for His purposes (Rom. 8:28; cf. Luke 12:15,21). They do not despair that they didn’t get out of life everything they could or wanted, because their lives are not theirs anymore, but they have abundant life in Christ (John 10:10). They do not feel cheated when the grave opens before them because their treasure lies in heaven and not in this temporary, fleeting world (Mat. 6:19-20).

And in the end, that is what the elderly Solomon found out and wrote down as the conclusion to his big Life Experiment:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. – Ecc. 12:13-14

The Life experiment, part 2

10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. – Ecclesiastes 3:10-14

(Part 1 here)

This is a pivotal segment in Solomon’s Great Life experiment. The word for business in v.10 (הָעִנְיָן) means business, hard labour or (as the KJV has it) “travail”; and rightly so, as labour, work and toil are results of the Fall (Gen 3:17-19). And in the same tone of futility, you can almost hear Solomon sighing as he says these words. That awful, necessary business that God has given people to occupy themselves with until they die, is what we often refer to as “hard work” or “career”.

Ahem. Let’s move on before we get derailed.

Solomon, the old, repentant king of Israel, after having tried EVERYTHING a person could ever experience in a lifetime, draws his earth-shattering conclusions. Remember, he’s preaching (cf. 1:1,2). Imagine him standing on a pulpit with an enormous crowd of his people around him, telling them what he has discovered.

Now picture yourself in the crowd.

Here’s what gets me with this passage (the bold section should be a hint): [God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (v11b).

First, that we all have a sense of eternity in us. Now, some translations have “knowledge” (YLT) or “the world” (KJV) for that word (הָעֹלָם), which literarily means “obscurity” or “something concealed” “vanishing point” but is used several times in the OT with the sense of “forever” (e.g. 1 Chr. 16:36) or “eternity” as in here.

I will hasten to add that this is not Calvin’s “sense of divinity” – at least not in the context of Ecclesiastes. Solomon is telling us that we all carry in us a sense that we are not transient creatures; an innate understanding of what timelessness is and how we fit into it. Too abstract? Think about is this way: This is how we differ from animals. After all, have you ever seen a monkey drop its banana and lament, “what is the meaning of life?”

So this is how Solomon drives home his point: The result of our rebellion against God has trapped us in this futile cycle of toiling and working and striving and doing and achieving and gaining and producing, only for us to be too old to enjoy any of the fruits of our labour in the end, and then die only to leave all we have made to the ones after us (cf. Ecc. 2:18-20; Ps. 39:6, 49:10). But the fact that we can see all of our struggle and labour from an eternal perspective is what drives people to madness and/or suicide. It’s what makes us want to stay under the covers and never go back to work again. It’s what has driven most of western philosophy (you know, the one on TV) since the days of Plato. It’s what we take great pains to avoid contemplating and furiously distract ourselves from with anything we can lay our hands on.

And then, oh, those words: yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. Now, the word “yet” is crucial because it’s actually not there in the original Hebrew (don’t doze off, this is important!). In the Septuagint, the Greek scholars threw in the word “όπως” (“so that”) to connect the phrases. Now, I don’t think it’s without merit, although some other translators have opted for “except that” and “however”. You can see the difference: “Yet” implies that God has meant for us to never realise what He is doing; “except that” simply observes the sad reality that we are unable to do so. My preference is actually for the second translation, because it underscores the burden that we carry as fallen creatures; also, God never leaves His people in the dark concerning His plans (cf. John 15:15). It’s the great lesson Job finally grasped: We are not God.

The point is this: the human tragedy is that no matter how much we work and create and enjoy, we will never be satisfied, never be content, never be completely happy and never be at peace because we are eternal creatures stuck in a temporal, fleeting world.

Please allow me some presumption: If you are of any age and haven’t ever been struck by that reality, then you don’t know anything about life.

We are born, we get on a treadmill of labour, toil, sorrow and grief with brief respites of rest and enjoyment, and we absurdly just go on, too scared to lift our eyes from our feet because then we’d realise that we’re really not getting anywhere.

So what is the resolution to all this? I mean, there’s got to be one! This is the Bible, and we expect answers.

Well, there are answers, but we seldom like them.

Remember 1 Cor.15:58? “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

Think about it. We are eternal creatures, and we will never be truly satisfied with the temporal value our work unless we do something with lasting (aka “eternal”) value. And the only one who could give our labour eternal value is someone who is eternal too. And that, friends, is God.

Life for life has a net value of zero. But a life that is lived for God rather than myself is a life graced with everlasting fruit and joy. And when that becomes a reality, we are set free from the pointless pursuit of equally pointless goals. See, our existence is infected with futility. Nothing we achieve will ever have any value in of itself. And even though we long to, we are completely unable by ourselves to comprehend the Big Picture and understand how our existence  – that is like a breath (Ps. 39:5; 144:4) – fits in God’s eternal plans. But when we completely and utterly trust in Him, we can then begin know all this; and in knowing we can rest because of who God is.

(To be continued)

The Life experiment, part 1

10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. Ecclesiastes 3:10-14

I am convinced that the main focus of what we call “Christian life” is to re-teach us that everything depends on God.

I’ll suggest that you missed that, so please read it another two times. We have time.

Ok?

We are so full of clichés. We say things like “if it’s God’s will” and “trust in God” and “the Lord has a plan” and other such wonderful expressions that most of the time mean nothing to the recipient (obviously someone with a problem) and also rarely reflect our own honest convictions. They’re just some nice, appropriately bland, polite niceties of the Christian culture.

For a number of reasons, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on God’s sovereignty and providence in the past few months. Not that it makes me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly has been one thing I can clearly and humbly say that I’m appreciating in a whole new light. Words I used so lightly before no longer have the same flavour, and little chants I’d recite to myself and to others suddenly are too heavy to just spit out. But the best thing about this process is that passages like the one quoted above suddenly come to life (I will daresay that this is worth any trial).

We know who Ecclesiastes is – King Solomon of Israel (c. 1011 BC – c. 932 BC). Aside from mind-blowing parties, ridiculous (for the time) wealth, superb education, and divinely-granted wisdom (1 Kings 3:11-14) Solomon should stick to our minds as the only person to ever successfully carry out the biggest experiment of all time: the meaning of life. He certainly had the funds, and all the above were part of his methodology (I’ll drop the science puns in a moment). And the book of Ecclesiastes is, in a way, his findings; his data.

Solomon pursued education (1:12-18), self-indulgence (2:1-11), joy (2:12), wisdom (2:12-17), food and drink (2:24), work (2:18-26), wealth and honour (5:8-6:12), foolishness (7:25), love (9:9) and every human desire under the sun. By that we mean that, although Solomon didn’t have an Xbox or a PS3, he definitely experienced the same level of pleasure or thrill or whatever it is that a person can derive from such and other modern or future means.

In short, he did it all and got the robe to prove it.

Now, I find this process shocking, because it’s in the Bible. You’d think that the Word of God would simply give us the answers we need – why are we here, what’s the point of going on day-to-day, etc. But no – God doesn’t shy away from speaking our own language. Long before Christ, who is God incarnate, came to walk among men and experience everything they experience and more and then overcome, God gave us a glimpse of how well He understood the tragedy of human existence.

And that’s what our passage is about. Solomon, after his experiment, tells us that toil, work and labour, are all part of God’s creative design for people (v. 11). And by “creative” we mean that work is part of God’s original creation (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). Of course, like pretty much everything else, the Fall has corrupted work by making it – like everything else – a purpose unto itself.

Stop right there – thinking time. The entire point of Ecclesiastes is that life is meaningless in of itself. Yes, we read that right. Meaningless. Pointless. הֲבֵל, an unmistakable word that means “vanity” and Solomon uses over 25 times in this book. He also uses an idiomatic expression, חַר תרְע”, which translates as “grasping of the wind” – trying to catch air. (Note: it can also mean “trouble/evil of the spirit”, but I think the futility of chasing after air fits the context better).

I really hope that all this is settling in. I’m surprised of how little preaching is ever done on Ecclesiastes, especially in the career-driven, live-for-pleasure, get-all-you-can world of today.

What Solomon discovered was that life in its entirety is pointless. He sums this up quite well in 2:16: For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!

Think about it – he’s right, isn’t he? We work and work and work, we struggle to make our lives “better”, we strive for money, we burn out in our offices, studies, travels, experiences, only to find that we, like everyone else, are going to die sooner or later, and all the enjoyment and grief and thrill and boredom and love and hate and success and failure and anger and calm is going to go with us, and it will make no lasting difference to anyone, including ourselves.

“Wait a minute. Do we need the Bible to tell us that? We pretty much figured that out for ourselves already.”

Yes and no. Yes, it’s important that the Bible tells us that – because the Bible claims to be the Word of God and thus should offer an answer alongside diagnosing the problem. And no, we haven’t figured that out for ourselves – not in any way that matters. If we had, the world wouldn’t be as it is today; instead, we’d either be taking turns blowing our brains out or we’d be tearing ourselves to pieces in the pursuit of God and meaning. We wouldn’t wake up in the morning and just go to work. We wouldn’t plan to have families or pets or careers or vacations or dreams or lives.

Now we can begin to understand Ecclesiastes.

(to be continued)