John T. Willis

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Grace and Good Works

A very important matter which has troubled Churches of Christ is the significance of Grace and the significance of Good Works. Numerous books and articles have been written over the centuries about this. In one or a thousands blogs would not cover all the ideas and passages involving this issue. Here are only a few basic thoughts for consideration.

1. As I grew up in Churches of Christ, EVERYONE agreed that we are saved by GOOD WORKS. Two major New Testament letters focus on this concept: 1 Timothy and James. Of course, there are other texts that seem to support this concept in the New Testament. Preacher quote and preach on James 2:14-26 often. One example is James 2:18: "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith." In the 1500s, Martin Luther struggled with the apparent contradiction between James and Paul's letters of Galatians and Romans, and Luther contended that James is not really a part of the New Testament.

2. Anyone who studies Galatians and Romans knows that the emphasis is on GOD'S GRACE. One clear example is Galatians 2:15-16: "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law." Ephesians 2:8-9 emphasize this same point: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--not the result of works, so that no one may boast." In the 1960s, one of our preachers at the Highland Church of Christ, John Allen Chalk, preached a series on Romans. This series is available to anyone who would like to read and study.

3. In the 1960s, Churches of Christ began to realize that God saves us by grace, not by our own good works. This was a major true transformation for these and all people. All of us are sinners. There is no way that anyone can save himself or herself or others. God alone has the power to save us and transform us into his image.

4. The biblical teaching of God's grace and good works is:
    a. God saves everyone by his own free choice in spite of our sinful nature and way of life. There is nothing at all that anyone of us can do to save us.
    b. The only response we have to God for his grace and mercy is gratitude. Gratitude leads us to obey God and to serve him. Good works are the natural outpouring of the human heart full of thanksgiving and gratitude.
    c. Good works are not a burden. They do not drive us to depression. On the contrary, gratitude motivates us to good many more good works than anyone could do by trying to achieve salvation. We achieve absolutely nothing. God saves us in spite of who we are.

5. Read the Bible again. The Bible is full of wonderful messages about the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness. Exodus 34:6-7 contains God's own definition of his nature:
      The Lord, the Lord,
      a God merciful and gracious,
      slow to anger,
      and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
      keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
      forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
      yet by no mean clearing the guilty,
      but visiting the iniquity of the parent upon the children
      and the children's children,
      to the third and the fourth generation."

Share YOUR shortcomings and questions and ideas and experiences and determinations with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Our God Fights for His People--Psalm 18

Numerous biblical texts declare that Yahweh our God is a WARRIOR, who fights in battles for his people and against his enemies. Joshua 10:14, 42; 23:3 declares that Yahweh "fought for Israel." Many reject and dismiss this clear biblical statement. It would be great if we never engaged in battles and war. But sinful people force us into fighting. This is both spiritual and physical. No one can avoid this reality even when religious people would like to evade this.

Psalm 18 is a psalm which emphasizes this reality. It is clearly a doublet of 2 Samuel 22. The setting is that Yahweh had delivered David and the Israelites from their enemies and from Saul. Here David composes this song, praising Yahweh for protecting him and Israel from their enemies. Psalm 18 falls into two parts: defensive fighting, and offensive fighting.

I. Yahweh defends David and the Israelites from their enemies. Psalm 18:1-30.
    a. The superscription in Psalm 18 is very close to 2 Samuel 22, suggesting that originally this particular psalm came from David.
    b. The psalmist begins by declaring, "I LOVE you, Lord." The first commandment is that all of God's people must LOVE Yahweh with all their heart, soul, strength, and mind--Deuteronomy 6:5. The psalmist describes Yahweh as my strength, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my refuge, my shield, the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. The psalmist calls upon the Lord--he PRAYS that Yahweh will deliver him from his enemies. 18:1-3.
   c. Then the psalmist describes his present situation. Enemies threaten him on every side. He calls them the cords of death, the torrents of perdition, the cords of Sheol, the snares of death--all of these are synonymous expressions in Hebrew poetry. In his distress, the psalmist turns to Yahweh for help. Yahweh responded from his temple--here "temple" apparently is heaven. 18:4-6.
   d. Next, the psalmist describes Yahweh's appearance to deliver him from his enemies. These verses are a theophany, a visible appearance of Yahweh. The earth and the mountains reeled, rocked, trembled, quaked. Smoke, devouring fire, glowing coals flamed forth from Yahweh. Yahweh came down and bowed the heavens to earth below. Thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub [an angelic being], he came swiftly on the wings of the wind; darkness and thick clouds surrounded everything. Hailstones and coals of fire brought through these clouds. Yahweh thundered or uttered his voice in the heavens. He sent out his arrows=his lightning, and everyone saw the channels of the sea and the foundations of the earth at Yahweh's rebuke. All this calls to mind the theophany of Yahweh on Mount Sinai when he revealed his Ten Commandments through Moses. See Exodus 19. 18:7-15.
   e. Yahweh reached down from heaven to rescue David and the Israelites from their enemies like drawing out a threatened swimmer in a terrible flood. These enemies, these waves were too powerful for David, but Yahweh intervened and delivered him. 18:16-19.
   f. The psalmist declares that Yahweh delivered him because he had faithfully tried to follow Yahweh's will and commandments. Thus, he has clean hands. He is blameless before Yahweh because he kept Yahweh's ordinances. His enemies are perverse and haughty, but he is humble and pure. 18:20-27.
   g. The psalmist praises Yahweh as his light and lamp. So as a faithful soldier, the psalmist can crush a troop and leap over a wall. Yahweh is perfect; his promise is true, and he is a SHIELD to all who take refuge in him. 18:28-30.

II. Yahweh Motivates David and the Israelites to Defeat Yahweh's Enemies. Psalm 18:31-50.
     a. In the second part of Psalm 18, the poet begins by proclaiming that Yahweh is INCOMPARABLE, a very important truth declared throughout scripture: see Exodus 15:11;
1 Samuel 2:2. The psalmist asks rhetorically: "Who is God except the Lord? And who is a rock besides our God?" The obvious answer is ABSOLUTELY NO ONE!!! Yahweh is incomparable. 18:31.
     b. The psalmist declares that Yahweh has given him all the equipment he needs to defeat his enemies. Yahweh has girded him with strength and made his way safe; he has made him secure; he trains his hands for war so he can use his bow and arrows to defeat his enemies; Yahweh has given him the shield of salvation and supported him with Yahweh's right hand; Yahweh has made him a wide place so he will not slip. 18:32-36.
     c. The poet continues to praise Yahweh that Yahweh has pursued his enemies until he overthrew them; struck them down until they were consumed; girded him with strength to defeat his enemies; destroyed his enemies; when they cried to Yahweh for help Yahweh did not answer; the psalmist beat his enemies fine like dust before the wind. 18:37-42.
     d. As a result of these victories, Yahweh has made the enemies of David to serve and obey and cringe before David and Yahweh. 18:43-45.
     e. The poet concludes by praising Yahweh for delivering him from his enemies and giving him victories in battle. He extols Yahweh as his rock and the God of his salvation. Thus, David exalts Yahweh among the nations. Yahweh has given great triumphs to his king and showed steadfast love to his anointed one, to David and his descendants forever. 18:46-50.

Share YOUR expectations and reversals and expressions and thoughts and experiences with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis

Monday, August 11, 2014


One terrible BLIGHT in Churches of Christ is the practice of DEBATING on religious topics. If anyone will examine the written history of Churches of Christ, YOU will find that debating has unfortunately been a deep part of our DNA. When I was in Abilene Christian College, many of my fellow students assumed that their role was to preach in a local church, baptize as many people as possible, hold gospel meetings for a week, and conduct debates against people in other denominations. Just check our history. Such debates ranged all the way from whether it is a mortal sin to smoke tobacco to the necessity of immersing people in water for eternal salvation to using instrumental music in public worship to pre- or post-millennium and many others in between. All of these debates were designed to PROVE the opponent is wrong and needs to repent, and these debates were filled with hatred and vehement speech.

Now, let me make things clear. I am a long-time member of the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association of America, and the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament, and in annual and regional meetings, we often are engaged in discussion about biblical and religious matters. But these are always kind and appreciative and friendly, and everyone left as close friends and colleagues. This is VERY DIFFERENT from long-established Church of Christ debates.

Biblically, this type of debates or disputes are CLEARLY SINFUL and contrary to the will of God. Here are ONLY two biblical examples of this truth.

1. Paul gives these instructions in 1 Timothy 6:2-5: "Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church: rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties. Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and HAS A MORBID CRAVING FOR CONTROVERSY AND FOR DISPUTES ABOUT WORDS. From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and WRANGLING AMONG THOSE WHO ARE DEPRAVED IN MIND and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain."

2. Paul writes clearly in 2 Timothy 2:23-26: "HAVING NOTHING TO DO WITH STUPID AND SENSELESS CONTROVERSIES; YOU KNOW THAT THEY BREED QUARRELS. AND THE LORD'S SERVANT MUST NOT BE QUARRELSOME but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, CORRECTING OPPONENTS WITH GENTLENESS. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will."

Here again, Churches of Christ need to repent, to recognize that people in other denominations are just as wise and godly as anyone else. Jesus prayed fervently that all such denominations will collapse. John 17:17-21. No person and no church will ever agree on all topics. It is good to discuss many biblical and religious concepts, but all in love and in full fellowship with God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and all godly people through Jesus Christ.

Share YOUR experiences and concerns and questions and desires and thoughts with others. Let me hear from YOU.

John Willis