Evil and death are conquered!

As we approach the time of year when Christians focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we stand in awe of the way God chose for victory over evil and death. 

Take time to reflect on this great quote and the Scriptures and song of worship below:

“Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin. The maneuver is utterly unprecedented” (Henri Blocher).

  • “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ” (II Corinthians 5:21, NLT).
  • Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying” (John 11:25, NLT).

Top 5 Arguments against eternal punishment

Along with great emphasis on God’s love and mercy, Scripture presents God as the Judge who sends some people into hell.

Jesus warned his followers not to “… fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Jesus referred to hell as a place where God sends people (Matthew 25:41,46).

The Bible doesn’t describe a pleasant end for those who reject God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. But what type of judgment falls on them?

Is it eternal suffering or eternal annihilation? Eternal in consequence or in duration? Part of the debate centers on whether ‘eternal’ is meant as a consequence (i.e. eternal punishment– not eternal punishing; the result being eternal destruction,) or as a duration (i.e. never ending, on going punishing).

Five arguments against eternal punishing

1. The fire is metaphoric

The late John R. W. Stott (a teacher I hold in highest regard on most subjects) suggested that, “The fire itself is termed ‘eternal’ and ‘unquenchable’ but it would be very odd if what is thrown into it proves indestructible. Our expectation would be the opposite: it would be consumed forever, not tormented forever. Hence it is the smoke (evidence that the fire has done its work) which ‘rises forever and ever’ (Rev. 14:11; cf. 19:3)” (Evangelical Essentials, David Edwards, p. 316).

But how does this same approach apply to the burning bush of Exodus 3:2-3 which “burned with fire yet was not consumed”? Consistency of metaphor would lead one to think that smoke rising forever and ever indicates something is burning in the fire.

2. The matter of justice:

Sins committed in a finite realm should not suffer an eternal consequence. Justice demands punishment in proportion to the crime. This argument may sound appealing on the surface but it fails at the Cross of Christ. Why did the infinite, eternal God have to come and die for the sins of finite creatures? Sin against an infinite God is infinite in consequence. Are we implying that people can sufficiently pay the consequence of sin against God? I am sure we are incompetent judges of the penalty sin deserves.

“The Bible does not present us with a God who chances upon neutral men and women and arbitrarily consigns some to heaven and some to hell. He takes guilty men and women, all of whom deserve his wrath, and in his great mercy and love he saves vast numbers of them. Had he saved only one, it would have been an act of grace; that he saves a vast host affirms still more unmistakably the uncharted reaches of that grace. Hell stands as a horrible witness to human defiance in the face of great grace” (How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, p. 92).

“Unless we come to grips with this terrible doctrine (of hell), we will never even begin to understand the depths of what Jesus did for us on the cross. His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself” (Tim Keller).

3. Conditional immortality of the soul:

This is argued by the late Philip Hughes in The Image Restored, pp. 398-407. He taught that immortality belongs to God in the purest sense and to believers only through Christ (I Tim. 6:15-17; II Tim. 1:9-10). This seems to be based on a limited understanding of death as total extinction of existence. But, if spiritual and physical death do not result in cessation of existence, why would the second death? (Eph. 2:1-3; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:6; 14:21:8). Scripture does not equate death with non-existence. The evidence points in the opposite direction.

4. Luke 16:19-31 is a parable (and should not be considered a literal source of information)

This text is not identified as a parable, but even if it is parabolic in nature, treating it as an unreliable source ignores the one who is telling the story. Should we believe that Jesus Christ would use speculative imagery on such a serious matter? If this refers only to a temporary intermediate state ending in a judgment of annihilation, the judgment seems like it would be a welcomed end. This is clearly not the point Jesus is making.

5. The problem of eternal dualism:

Philip Hughes wrote: “With the restoration of all things in the new heaven and the new earth, which involves God’s reconciliation to himself of all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Acts 3:21; Col. 1:19-20), there will be no place for a second kingdom of darkness and death” (p. 406, The Image Restored).

The lake of fire is certainly not a Kingdom. Ongoing punishment itself would be a continuous testimony to the defeat of evil. The reality of victory over death secured by Christ is not threatened by hell (Heb. 2:14-16; I Cor. 15:54-55; Rev. 20:14; 21:4).

What does Scripture teach?

All humans will be resurrected (Jn. 5:28-29; Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15); all will be judged by God (Heb. 9:27; Rom. 2:4-10; 14:10-12; Rev. 20:11-15), and all will be separated between two distinct eternal destinies (Mt. 25:32,41,36; Jn. 3:36; 14:1-3; Rev. 21:3-8).

Where people go after death

Theologian Millard Erickson offers a six-point answer to the question of where people go after death. His points are worthy of careful reflection.

  1. All humans are sinners, by nature and by choice; they are therefore guilty and under divine condemnation.
  2. Salvation is only through Christ and his atoning work.
  3. In order to obtain the salvation achieved by Christ, one must believe in Him; therefore Christians and the church have a responsibility to tell unbelievers the good news about Him.
  4. The adherents of other faiths, no matter how sincere their belief or how intense their religious activity, are spiritually lost apart from Christ.
  5. Physical death brings an end to the opportunity to exercise saving faith and accept Jesus Christ. The decisions made in this life are irrevocably fixed at death.
  6. At the great final judgment all humans will be separated on the basis of their relationship to Christ during this life. Those who have believed in Him will spend eternity in heaven, where they will experience everlasting joy and reward in God’s presence. Those who have not accepted Christ will experience hell, a place of unending suffering and separation from God (The Evangelical Mind and Heart).

Steve Cornell

See: Hell bound?

Good-bye for now Dad


Today I was given yet another reason to look forward to heaven. At 11:30 AM my mother called to tell me that my father passed away (picture to the right is my dad and our daughter).

Just four days earlier, I received a call in the evening to tell me that my pastor, mentor and friend (Dr. Richard Gregory) passed away.

Many years ago, Pastor Gregory led my dad to Christ. It was a result of what he always considered one of his worse sermons. He and my dad were the same age. I love the thought that they can now fellowship together in heaven with their Lord and Savior!

As the oldest son of eleven children (with seven boys), I was always amazed at my dad’s perseverance in providing for what many would consider three families. And he did this under great trial because in his mid thirties he was afflicted with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. His badly bent up hands will always be remembered because he often held them out to tell others of God’s grace in his life.

Not knowing that my Dad was soon to pass away, I did a message last week and will continue this week on his life verse – II Corinthians 12:9 – “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.'”

I took some time today to revisit some truths about life, death and eternity. Great comfort is found in these truths

The Heidelberg catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death? Answer: “That I am not my own, but belong body and soul to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.”

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).

Those who take the promises of Scripture seriously know that there is never a loss of personhood and consciousness with death — only the temporary death of a body.

Scripture specifically states that, “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26). By spirit, it could refer to “breath” or in keeping with the way Scripture views humans, as the immaterial part of our being separating from the material — the departure of the inner person from the outer body.

When Jesus died, he cried out, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit” and breathed his last breath and died (Luke 23:46). His body was laid in a grave, when he was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (I Peter 3:18).

The distinction between inner person and body:

Philippians 1:21-24 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”

II Corinthians 5:6-8 “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (with 4:16-18)

7 truths about death

  1. Death is a curse – Death, according to Christian teaching, is the result of a curse on humanity because of our rejection of the rule of our Creator. With vivid description, God declared that humans must “return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). This has been the experience of all people from the time it was announced.
  2. Death is a penalty for sin – “For the wages of sin is death….” (Romans 6:23)
  3. Death is an inheritance – “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).
  4. Death is an enemy – Death is an enemy and a thief – not a welcomed friend. Death is a separator. It brings things to an end and removes loved ones from our presence. But gratefully, our Creator did not allow death to have the final word. Jeremiah the prophet animated death when he wrote: “Death has climbed through the windows and has entered our fortress; it has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares.”  (Jer. 9:21). In a sense the apostle Paul also animated death when referring to is as: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  (1 Cor. 15:26). Death is an enemy that stalks and threatens us.
  5. Death is agony – “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:24)
  6. Death is a spiritual and a physical reality – “As for you, you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live …. We were dead in transgressions…” (Eph. 2:1-2, 5)
  7. Death occurs twice for unbelievers – “Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8).

Should we expect to live after our earthly lives end?

The story of Jesus didn’t end with death because, “God raised him up putting an end to the agony of death since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:24). And because Jesus broke the power of death, those who trust him as their Savior rest confidently in his promise, “my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:39-40).

Based on this promise, I expect to be resurrected one day. But when I say I expect to be resurrected, I am not merely saying I expect to live after the death of my physical body. Resurrection is more than life after death. Resurrection is life after life after death. Yes, you read that correctly. Resurrection is bodily life after life after death. It’s postmortem existence stage two. I expect to return to identifiable bodily existence just as Jesus returned (see: Philippians 3:20). I expect the same for my Dad and former pastor. 

Six major points of biblical history support the importance of the body.

  1. Creation: God fashions the body from the dust of the earth
  2. Incarnation: God became man
  3. Resurrection (Christ’s and ours)
  4. Ascension: Jesus retained bodily existence at the Father’s right hand
  5. Salvation: The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit
  6. Glorification: Final redemption of the body (Romans 8 )

If we take Jesus Christ at his word, everyone who has lived should expect to be resurrected. Jesus said, “a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).

7 Great truths about heaven

  1. Heaven is a place of unhindered fellowship with God.
  2. Heaven is a place where we always do what pleases God.
  3. Heaven is a place of unhindered fellowship with believers. No more conflicts!
  4. Heaven is eternal — no separation in heaven.
  5. Heaven is home to Jesus our Savior, the Holy Spirit our comforter and the Father of mercies.
  6. Heaven is beautiful beyond comparison: It’s architect and builder is God (see: Revelation 4:1-6).
  7. Heaven is a place of unimaginable joy! (see: Psalm 16:11; Luke 15:10)

Here I rest and here I flourish — in living and dying and anticipating a reunion with those who go before. 

To God be the glory!

Steve Cornell


He says he’s a Christian, but …

How can we know if someone is a true follower of Christ?

  • Is it right to try to discern the authenticity of another person’s faith?
  • Isn’t this a private matter between the person and God? 

I can think of a few important reasons why we should try to discern the authenticity of someones faith.

  1. Most importantly we love the person and want what is eternally best for her. 
  2. Sometimes we must examine faith because we don’t want to violate II Corinthians 6:14-15 – by being unequally yoked together with unbelievers.
  3. We especially need to know when deciding whether or not to marry another person (see: I Corinthians 7:39). 
  4. There is also a great danger of self-deception that must be taken seriously (Matthew 7:21-23).

Always be sure to search your own heart before evaluating the genuineness of faith in another. Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). After thorough self-examination, carefully evaluate the five points below about genuine faith.

1. Verbal profession of faith does not always mean true possession of faith

We live in a fake it till you make it culture. It’s not enough to hear verbal profession when it comes to true faith. There should be substantive evidence of one’s love for God and commitment to follow Him. Remember the warning from Jesus and James:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23).

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone?” (James 2:14). “You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:19-20).

Thought: People can come into the Christian community and learn acceptable practices and words but deceive both themselves and the community as to the genuineness of their salvation.

The most sobering illustration of this is Judas. Jesus revealed to the twelve that one of them would betray Him (John 13:21). Did the disciples all say, “We know who that is!”? No. According to John 13:22, the disciples were unsure about who Jesus intended. Judas had so cunningly hidden his true identity that none of the others immediately thought of him. A parallel gospel informs us that, “each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’” (Mt. 26:22).

2. Fruit inspection

“just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions” (Matt. 7:20). “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23, NLT).

3. Objective measures for confirming genuine believers

  1. The primary direction and characteristics of a person’s life- I John 3:9 (NIV)
  2. Works of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:19-24.
  3. The wisdom from below vs. the wisdom from above – James 3:12-18.
  4. The works of darkness vs. the fruit of the Light – Ephesians 5:5-11.
  5. The description of the unrighteous – I Corinthians 6:9-11.
  6. Love for the world vs. love of the Father-  I John 2:15-17.
  7. Love for other believers – I John 3:14; 5:1.
  8. Keeping God’s commandments – I John 2:4, Ti. 1:16.

4. Five desires found in true believers – A practical summary for easy communication

  1. To please God (II Corinthians 5:9)
  2. To know God’s Word (I Peter 2:1-2)
  3. To be with God’s people (Hebrews 10:25;I Jn 5:1)
  4. To share the gospel (Matthew 28:19-20)
  5. To overcome sin (I John 3:9)

Thought: While it is clearly possible for a true believer to have serious moments of disobedience and unfruitfulness, the focus of the lists above is on the primary emphasis of one’s life (Rom. 7:19; I Jn. 2:1; II Pet. 1:5-10).

If the overall direction and characteristics of a person’s life is described by the negative side in the 8 lists above, the person does not have any firm reason to believe that he or she is saved.

If my life testifies against my profession—the apostle Paul’s words apply: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves.” (II Cor. 13:5).

5. What do these verses imply about one who truly comes to faith in Christ?

  • Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit”
  • Luke 18:13,14 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ ”I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.’”
  • I Peter 5:5 “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

A final consideration – Not hungry or thirsty enough

“I am the Bread of Life; he who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 cf. John 4:14).

From these words, we learn that belief is not merely an agreement with facts about God. It is also a matter of appetite, of longing, of hungering and thirsting and finding satisfaction and fulfillment in the one who is the bread of life itself.

Belief is not merely thinking correctly about God and Jesus.  It’s a turning to Jesus as the source of nourishment for life (tasting and seeing).  Rarely is unbelief solely or mainly a matter of changing one’s mind about facts.  It’s a turning of one’s heart away from the Creator and Redeemer. Unbelief, therefore, involves a turning of the heart away from God to search for satisfaction from something or someone else.

Remember these words

“Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Blessed are the poor, needy, hungry and thirsty.  Augustine prayed, “Hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee…”  We add that hearts are hungry until they find satisfaction in God; Our hearts are thirsty until quenched by God.

Steve Cornell

Please take time to listen to this message: What Should you Expect?

Profession vs. Possession of Salvation

“Those whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by his Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace; but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved” (Westminster Confession of Faith).

“Perseverance may be defined as that continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in the believer, by which the work of divine grace that is begun in the heart, is continued and brought to completion” (p. 546, Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof). (see: Mt. 10:22; Jn. 8:31; Heb. 6:9; 10:39; I Jn. 2:19)

The two primary marks of a true believer are obedience to Christ’s word (Jn. 8:31) and chastening by the Lord (Heb. 12:5-12 – cf. also Mt. 7:20; I Jn. 3:9).

Profession vs. possession

The problem many people have with teaching on eternal security (the perseverance of those whom God has saved) results from confusing profession of salvation with possession of salvation. Jesus clearly taught that not everyone who said to Him “Lord, Lord” shall enter the kingdom of heaven. Many people claim to be Christians who have not genuinely responded to the gospel. The issue is not about possibly losing salvation, but whether or not it was ever truly possessed. 

7 points of clarification – In considering the teaching of perseverance, the following points of clarification are important:

  1. All faith is not saving faith – (James 2:14)
  2. There will be superficial and temporary responses to the Word of God (Mt. 13:1-9, 18:23).
  3. Profession of salvation does not always equal possession of salvation (Mt. 7:15, 21-23)
  4. The Bible does not justify identifying every person who makes a verbal profession of faith as a genuine believer. Please note that Jesus said, “Many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ . . .But I will say to them, depart from me….”
  5. True faith produces fruit or good works (Mt. 7:15-20; 13:23; Ja. 2:17; Eph. 2:10).
  6. The Scripture recognizes a distinction between temporary backsliding and real abandonment of the faith. Peter’s denial of the Lord is the best example of backsliding in the NT. (Lk. 22:31-32 NASB or NIV). Thomas, as well as the other disciples, serves as an example of this after the crucifixion.
  7. Although we cannot know a person’s heart, we are not left without any ability to evaluate the condition of another.

Millard J. Erickson wrote, “. . . our understanding of the doctrine of perseverance allows no room for indolence or laxity. It is questionable whether anyone who reasons, `Now that I am a Christian, I can live as I please’, has really been converted and regenerated. Genuine faith issues, instead, in the fruit of the Spirit” (p. 996, Christian Theology).

“The Lord will not save those whom He cannot command. He will not divide His offices. You cannot believe on a half-Christ. We take Him for what He is Christ the anointed Saviour and Lord who is King of kings and Lord of all lords! He would not be who He is if He saved us and called us and chose us without the understanding that He can also guide and control our lives” (A.W. Tozer, pp. 18-19, I Call It Heresy!).

* Ultimately the words of II Timothy 2:19 should be our position: “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”

Steve Cornell

Testing Genuine Fatih

It’s disturbing to realize how close someone can come to salvation without genuinely receiving it. Someone could come into a Christian community and culturally adjust by learning acceptable practices and ways of talking  only to deceive both himself and the community about the genuineness of his salvation.


The most startling illustration of this is Judas Iscariot. Jesus revealed to the twelve that one of them would betray Him (John 13:21).  Did the disciples all say, “We know who that is!”? No. According to John 13:22, the disciples were unsure about who Jesus intended. Judas had so cunningly hidden his true identity that none of the others immediately thought of him. A parallel gospel informs us that, “each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’” (Mt. 26:22).

If the overall direction and characteristics of a person’s life is described by the negative side in the lists below, the person does not have a firm reason to believe that he or she is saved. While it is clearly possible for a true believer to have serious moments of disobedience and unfruitfulness, the focus of the lists below is on the primary emphasis of one’s life (Rom. 7:19; I Jn. 2:1; II Pet. 1:5-10).

8 Objective measures for confirming genuine faith

  1. The primary direction and characteristics of a person’s life- I Jn. 3:9
  2. Works of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit – Gal. 5:19-24.
  3. The wisdom from below vs. the wisdom from above – Ja. 3:12-18.
  4. The works of darkness vs. the fruit of the Light – Eph. 5:5-11.
  5. The unrighteous – I Cor. 6:9-11.
  6. Love for the world vs. love of the Father-  I Jn. 2:15-17.
  7. Love for other believers – I Jn.3:14; 5:1.
  8. Keeping God’s commandments – I Jn. 2:4, Ti. 1:16.

5 desires found in true believers

  1. To please God (II Cor. 5:9)
  2. To know God’s Word (I Pe. 2:1-2)
  3. To be with God’s people (Heb. 10:25;I Jn 5:1)
  4. To share the gospel (Matt. 28:19-20)
  5. To overcome sin (I Jn. 3:9)

Steve Cornell

The Amish view of community and salvation

What can we learn from them? 

According to the Amish an individual must not make final claims about his standing with God lest he foreclose on assessment and accountability from the community.

One who claims individual certainty of his standing with God is removing himself from answering to the community — particularly to the authority of the elders. This is viewed among the Amish as a prideful betrayal of the kind of humility fitting to mankind. It could also result in excommunication. 

I gained a better understanding of this from a professor who studied Amish beliefs and practices and responded to a column I wrote about the Amish view of salvation. He wrote the following:

“I realize that in an age of individualism, and an evangelicalism that stresses a private experience of salvation, Amish faith of communal solidarity in discipleship makes no sense, and the judgments you make about “works salvation” seem totally right to you.” The professor encouraged me to take “time to understand how an Anabaptist theology such as the Amish profess expresses a radically different way of claiming the grace of God as a community of the Spirit.”

“One of the virtues Amish prize,” the professor wrote, “is humility–humility as a practice not as a nice attitude–and one aspect of that humility is to make no arrogant claims about their confidence of special status with God. An Amish bishop was visited by a new minister in the neighborhood who was quite fundamental and inquired repeatedly whether the bishop was saved. Finally he asked, ‘Are you truly born again? Do you know for certain that you are saved?’ The bishop answered, ‘You are asking the wrong person. I will give you the names of people who know me well, of persons with whom I have differed, of my sharpest critics and you can go ask them whether I am saved.’ That is Amish humility.”

What do we say about these concerns?

There should be little doubt that we live in an age of individualism and that evangelicalism is well known for emphasizing a personal experience of salvation. I also recognize that the evangelical Church is far too weak when it comes to the New Testament vision of a “faith of communal solidarity in discipleship” and “claiming the grace of God as a community of the Spirit.” On these matters, many professing Christians have drifted from the Biblical vision for the common life of the redeemed.

Consider a few examples

Philippians 1:6 is a verse often used to claim assurance of eternal salvation.  The apostle wrote: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you (plural) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” This verse is about what God had done and would continue to do in and through the community of believers in Philippi. The “good work” refers to their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” with the apostle Paul (1:5). The pronouns are plural referring to a community experience. 

Philippians 2:12-13 offers another example. Here is a call to the Church to “continue to work out your (plural) salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you (plural) to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”  Certainly this is a call to cultivate stronger discipleship to Jesus. But it is not likely that the original recipients heard this with the ears of Western individualism. They would have heard it as a work that happens in the context of community.

This doesn’t foreclose on personal applications, but it does encourage us to see the New Testament emphasis on community experience as a shared life.  This emphasis can be found in many places. One thinks of the body life imagery.

“… in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”(Romans 12:5) “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 26-27)

Another very strong focus on community is found in the writings of the apostle John. He taught that there are serious implications about true discipleship if one continues in fellowship with the community of believers or rejects the fellowship.

“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (I John 2:19).

Community life for believers was also meant to involve mutual accountability, encouragement and leadership.

“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.” “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (Hebrews 3:12-14; 13:17).

Closing thoughts

While community emphasis is badly needed in evangelicalism (particularly in the West), we cannot entrust to a human community a final verdict about individual salvation. This is not to say that the community must never make judgments about the spiritual conditions of others.

The command “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers” (II Corinthians 6:14) and the contrasts that follow, imply a need to make these kinds of judgments. When warning about false prophets, Jesus said, “by their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:20). Sometimes we must be “fruit inspectors.” We find many evidences of genuine salvation as well as indicators of non-kingdom lifestyles provided in Scripture (e.g. Galatians 5:19-22; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 5:3-8; I John).

We sometimes feel the need to echo the apostle Paul in saying, “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.” (II Corinthians 13:5).

There clearly is not enough emphasis on this in the evangelical Church! But ultimately we must confess that, “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (II Timothy 2:19). Further, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (II Timothy 2:13). 

According to Scripture, the human will is bound to sin. Our condition is so bad that, “… every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure” (Jeremiah 17:9; cf. Romans 3:10-23). The human will is so corrupt that we need the Holy Spirit to remove our blindness to see what Christ has done for us and to believe in Him (see: II Corinthians 4:3-6).

Jesus said, “no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them” (John 6:65). We are enabled by the Holy Spirit to see our need for Christ (II Corinthians 1:21-22; 3:14-18). “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Steve Cornell

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