The angel Gabriel said part of John the Baptizer’s mission would be to “change disobedient minds to accept godly wisdom.” (Luke 1:17 NLT)
And disobedient minds is exactly what John found when he began his ministry. (Luke 3) He encountered a people who had become complacent about their salvation — smugly self-satisfied, believing their salvation was assured regardless of the fact that they were living their way rather than God’s way. They told themselves, “We’re safe. We’re the descendants of Abraham” — but they were trusting in their heritage, not in the fact that they were living out their lives day by day in the grace of God that rescues undeserving souls.
When John began preaching in the wilderness, many people came to hear him. While a few were genuinely concerned about their relationship with God, many of them must have been just going through the motions of righteousness.
John had harsh words for his audience: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee God’s coming judgment? … Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever your roots. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
Strong words, empowered by God’s spirit, struck deep into disobedient minds. The crowd recognized their dependence on God for salvation, understood there was nothing in themselves that deserved salvation, and they cried out: “What should we do?”
John’s words cut a self-absorbed people to the quick: “Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God. … If you have two coats, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.”
That is the test: Does my concern for people in need demonstrate that I have chosen God’s way over my own?
In John’s day, the vast majority of God’s chosen people had grown complacent about their standing before God. They took for granted that God would have mercy on them in the end. They had convinced themselves — perhaps with the assistance of their religious leaders — that they had a lock on salvation because they were God’s chosen people. They lived for themselves, not for God’s kingdom. Their daily lives proved they gave no thought to God’s commands about caring for the widows and orphans, the poor and strangers.
Why did they think God would have mercy on people who lived in disobedience to his instructions? Because of their heritage? John told them God didn’t need people with a heritage; he could just as easily use the boulders along the river to populate his kingdom. The Lord was looking for obedience. His eyes are constantly searching the whole earth for people whose hearts are fully committed to him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)
John wasn’t alone in his opinion about the necessity of obedience in salvation. One day an expert in the religious law asked Jesus, “What must I do to receive eternal life?” (Luke 10:25) Jesus turned the question back on him and got the lawyer to confess what he already knew: God requires his people to not only love God supremely, but also to love others as they love themselves.
God requires his people to love others as they love themselves. That includes the poor and needy. Benevolence is a requirement, not just a good idea that’s optional.
Jesus was clear: “Do this and you will live!”
ON THE OTHER HAND …
The flip side of “Do this and you will live!” would be “Don’t do this and you won’t live!”
Did Jesus really teach that those who don’t love others as themselves, who don’t meet the needs of the poor and needy, would not receive eternal life?
How can a person have read the Gospels and not understand that?
Matthew 25 records that Jesus directly tied benevolence to our eternal destiny. His list of the requirements was very clear: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. Jesus even went so far as to say that when his people help those in need, they are doing it to Jesus himself.
The passage says Jesus will divide people into two groups, based on their obedience to help people in desperate need: the “sheep” leave judgment to enter eternal life, the “goats” go away into eternal punishment.
Jesus also was very clear about the necessity of obedience for salvation.
Matthew 7:21 records that Jesus plainly declared, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter.” Even those who protest that they acted boldly in his name will be told, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.”
If that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus also delivered a dire warning about the danger a servant faces when he begins to think he can live like he wants because his master won’t be back for a while: “The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 24: 50-51) The “faithful, sensible servant,” Jesus said, is the one who fulfills his responsibility to care for the other servants in the household.
God’s people don’t look out for the poor and needy because they are afraid of what God will do to us if we don’t. We don’t engage in benevolence because we are required to. If that’s the spirit of our obedience, then we have lost sight of the grace that saves us and have cut ourselves off from Christ. (Galatians 2)
Is this works salvation? Of course not! In his letter to the church at Rome, the apostle Paul was very clear that we can’t ever be justified by what we do. Only the blood of Jesus can make us right before God. But James the brother of Jesus also was very clear when he wrote that works and faith are inseparable.
Paraphrasing James: What good is it if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? You believe in Jesus? Good for you! Even demons know Jesus is God’s son and rose from the dead — and that truth shakes them to the core of their being. Without breath, the body is dead, and without good works, your faith is dead. (James 2:14-23)
THE HOUR’S DESPERATE NEED
In my tradition, the first step in making a public profession of faith in Christ was to walk down the church aisle during the invitation at the end of the service and tell the preacher you wanted to be saved. Not long after, you would be baptized before the whole church. I did that when I was 6.
Did that save me? No, the action itself couldn’t save me, but it did begin a life-changing transformation of who I was. I accepted the amazing grace Jesus offered me and received the gift of eternal life he paid for with his own blood. Jesus had finished all the work needed to accomplish my salvation when he died on the cross; I took a step into the new life made possible by his death.
But that was hardly the last step in my salvation, any more than pulling my car out of the driveway is all that’s needed to reach my destination. What I didn’t understand at age 6 — and didn’t realize for another decade — is that living a life of obedience to Christ’s commands is as much a part of my salvation as that first step down the aisle. I can’t separate my faith from my obedience any more than one side of a coin can be separated from the other. My faith can’t survive a lack of obedience any more than my body can survive a lack of air.
We hear a lot of talk about the need for spiritual awakening in the church today. Some of our Southern Baptist brothers are calling for us to start the new year with solemn assemblies in which we prostrate ourselves before the Lord, repent of our sinfulness and plead for an outpouring of the Spirit that would draw multitudes to Christ.
That is the desperate need of the hour, no doubt about it. But the vast majority of Christians today keep 98% of their time, talent and treasure to squander on themselves. Then they lead their churches to hoard the same percentage. Individual and congregation, we give only a pittance to Kingdom causes. True repentance requires a change of behavior — especially toward the poor and needy. Apart from a change in our behavior toward people in need, we should not expect to see God move in any remarkable way.
Isaiah 58 tells us everything we need to know to see revival break out in our churches:
1 “Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins!
2 Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me.
3 ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers.
4 What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me.
5 You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?
6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
8 “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.
9 Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. “Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
10 Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
11 The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.
12 Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.
13 “Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly.
14 Then the Lord will be your delight. I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob. I, the Lord, have spoken!”
Today, as in the days of John and Jesus, disobedient minds among God’s people need to accept godly wisdom. If we want the Lord to revive his people, if we want to be welcomed into his heaven on Judgment Day, we need to genuinely repent of our sin and help people in need.
[All Scripture references New Living Translation (NLT). Copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust, www.newlivingtranslation.com]
Related: Have we filled our pews with goats?