Let me state very clearly that I believe God has no time for religion. In fact, as I have said a number of times before, I believe God hates religion as we see it today. He hates it with a passion. That may be a new thought for you or a timely reminder – either way, it is true. Regardless of the few obscure references to religion in the New Testament, I want to assure you that religion as described by all the contemporary definitions which lie in books and journals all over the world today – and religion as it’s experienced by so many millions of people who claim to be God’s people – is so far removed from what God ordained for us and what God desires that it may very well be the exact opposite of true Christianity.
The fascinating thing I discovered in my research over many years is that of all the definitions of religion I have found, not one of them contain the word relationship. That is very interesting and revealing because even a quick browse through the Bible will reveal to even the most unenlightened, sin-impaired mind that the Christian faith is ALL about relationship! From Genesis to Revelation we have the story of God creating us to be in relationship with Himself and with each other. The whole Bible is about relationships and where they broke down and what God did to fix them and what we are meant to do (and not do) to participate in His global campaign to re-establish close, eternal, intimate relationships with His lost children.
I am not talking about man’s relationship to God in some abstract philosophical sense here – that’s what religion is; that’s what philosophy is. I am talking about man’s relationship with God – a personal, one-on-one, intimate communion as it was always meant to be. That concept is foreign to religion and most of the definitions you would find out there and yet relationship is what it’s all about with God. That’s what the Bible is about; that’s what the Great Commission is about; that’s what the Golden Rule is about; that’s what the Ten Commandments are about; that’s what every teaching and instruction from Jesus and Paul and all the other Biblical writers is about. It’s all about RELATIONSHIP and none of it is about religion.
So let me ask the question again I posed in my last sermon. When God refers to, “My people, who are called by my name ….” who is He speaking about? This is very important to establish BEFORE we move on to the challenging words which follow. In one sense God is talking to anyone who wants to listen and respond. But in another sense, I believe that only those who have a personal relationship with God will be able to understand and receive what God is saying here.
Let me first tell you who God is NOT speaking about here:
He is NOT speaking about those who just subscribe to the organization of human beings known as the Church. The badge of ‘Christian’ is worn by many people across the world for many different reasons but not all of them experience a real relationship with God.
He is also NOT speaking about those who try to relate to Him through laws, rules or commandments. Many people think that if they obey a certain set of God-ordained rules or requirements that they are His people. They lift passages out of context in the Bible and miss the real meaning. Like when Jesus said, “If you obey my commandments, you will be my disciples.” On the surface it looks like a simple formula of man’s good works getting him a place on Jesus’ team. When we study the whole chapter, the whole book and the whole New Testament – we get the big picture and see that this verse actually means: “If you are My disciples, then you will obey My commandments.” Let me put it this way: Jesus said “If you have a real relationship with Me and are filled with My life, then that life within you, as you submit to it, will produce a natural obedience to all that has been commanded, for it will no longer be you who lives, by Me living in you and through you.” The fascinating thing is that this verse could have been translated either way and still be true to the meaning in the Greek language. Why we chose to translate it in a way that encourages religion, is another matter – for another sermon!
God is also NOT speaking about those who know Him only as the God of Abraham, Jacob, Moses or David. The God who related to the men and women of ancient times is a God that none of us can relate to for we were not there. We have some really great stories about God’s dealings with His people over the centuries – and they can be incredibly encouraging because they do reveal the character of our God which never changes – but until we have our own stories of our own experience of God right now, then we really have nothing at all that is our own.
He is NOT even speaking about those who relate to the Jesus of the New Testament – the carpenter who lived and walked the dusty streets of Palestine. This one is really confronting but it’s so true. There is a whole “WWJD – What would Jesus do?” industry out there still with bracelets and necklaces and all sorts of reminders. I believe that for many people with this mindset, they are thinking of the bearded, sandaled carpenter who lived in a different time, a different culture and someone they never met and will never meet in the flesh. We cannot have a relationship with the man Jesus Who walked this earth. However, we can – and we should – have a relationship with the crucified, risen, living, reigning Lord Jesus Whom we can relate to and through to the Father by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This may seem like semantics and you may well ask, ‘Isn’t it the same Jesus?’ My answer would be yes and no. In essence it is the same Jesus because that carpenter was God incarnate. But from a practical point of view as we read the narratives of a man who was locked in time and space and therefore removed from our world totally … it is not that Jesus with Whom we have a relationship.
The Jesus who walked the streets of Palestine is an incredibly important historical figure but that Jesus was only here a short time. He only ministered here for three years … did what He had to do and left. He needed to get to all of God’s lost children – not just the ones in that time and place and He was not going to do that in a human body, locked in time. He had a job to do in that body and He did it and got out of there so the Holy Spirit could return and make it all real to all of us across the world. So we are encouraged and informed by the stories of the bearded carpenter from Nazareth, but those stories do not introduce us to the Jesus Who is alive and here right now. The stories of old are useless by themselves and can even be used by the enemy of God to rob us of the current reality of our relationship with Him. The eternal, immortal Son of God was in that human body … but too often we only relate to the man, Jesus and not the risen, living Lord of today with Whom we can walk and talk and relate personally thought His Spirit.
He is also NOT speaking about those who seek to earn His favour with their obedience and Godly lives. There are countless exhortations in the New Testament for us to live a Godly life and obey the commandments and live in a manner worthy of our calling. However, our obedience does not have any bearing on God’s grace and favour upon us. Obedience is for us, not Him. Obedience closes the door to Satan and releases the fullness and abundance of the life that has been given to us freely in Christ. Obedience is essential if we want to live fruitful, abundant lives and if we want to experience the power and glory and wonder of this relationship which has been given to us freely by God. However obedience has NO bearing whatsoever on your eternal destiny or your relationship with God from His point of view. Your experience of that relationship may be effected through the guilt and shame that Satan will try to inflict on you as you open the door to him; you may feel like God is no longer close to you – but in reality, your obedience has no bearing whatsoever on your relationship with God which He secured by the blood of His own Son.
He is also NOT speaking about Bible scholars who try to relate to Him through their knowledge of the written text of Scripture. This one is really hard and I am treading on dangerous ground, but important ground nevertheless. There are millions of people all over the world who have a relationship with the Bible and not with God. In actual fact, they don’t have a relationship at all because you cannot relate to anything but a person and the Bible is not a person. We believe that the Bible was compiled under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit and so we place great authority in this written text – and so we should. If everything was left to man’s subjective experience of God and there was no objective reference like the Bible, then the Church may have wandered off the track completely many years ago. However, the Bible is still just a book and you cannot have a relationship with a book. In fact, I would suggest that 90% of the divisions and tensions in the Church over the last 2,000 years have been brought about by people like you and me having the wrong attitude to this Book and expecting it do something it was never intended to do and is simply not able to do. We cannot relate to God through the Bible. God is not the Bible. It is a written book. It doesn’t matter how much the Holy Spirit was active when it was written – it is still just words on a page – and a living, personal being cannot live in the pages of a book. Any three year old child will tell you that.
Yet when I hear how people speak of the Bible; when I see the passionate disputes which arise in interpreting the Bible; when I see the agonising struggles to the point of tears that people have in trying to understand the Bible; I am forced to concede that this Book is treated by many as if it were God and they do not seem to have a personal relationship with the real living God about Whom and through Whom this Book was written. The Bible will tell you about God. The Bible will lead you to God. The Bible will tell you how to experience a personal relationship with God … but the Bible is not God and knowledge of the Bible is not what makes us God’s people. The devil knows more about the Bible than any Christian on the face of the earth and he uses this very Book and our ignorance of what it was meant to be … to bring pain, confusion and division to God’s people every day. Bible knowledge can never and will never equate to a relationship with God.
So who is God speaking about when He says, If my people … ? I will let the Apostle Paul tell us:
Ephesians 1:3-14 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons and daughters through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”
Wow! What a great passage. It goes on and there is so much more in this chapter and the next one. I would really encourage you to read the first two chapters of Ephesians over and over and over again until all the lights go on and the word GRACE is flashing so brightly you cannot see anything else for a while. You were included in Christ, according to this passage, when you heard the truth about your salvation and believed it. At that point the Holy Spirit of God was released in you to make it all real and introduce you to the risen living Lord. Having believed .. Paul said … believed what? Believed what he had just finished saying, that’s what !
- When we believe that God chose us and adopted us as sons and daughters and lavished His grace upon us in Christ …
- When we believe that our salvation and our eternal life with God is a free gift with NO strings attached …
- When we believe that nothing we do or don’t do could ever save us or cause us to lose our salvation …
- When we believe that our eternal relationship with God was secured on the cross by Jesus before we were even born … before we could say yes or no … before we could sin or obey…
- When we believe that we have been set totally and wonderfully free by the grace of God … free to love … free to serve … free to hate … free even to sin ….
… only then should we read on in 2 Chronicles 7:14. For then we truly are the people of God to whom He is speaking these powerful words and giving this powerful promise. Brothers and sisters, in Jesus name, hear this warning: The spirit of religion is alive and well. The spirit of Galatians 3:1 is here. Those believers in Galatia sat through Paul’s grace teaching and were set powerfully and wonderfully free as they understood grace in all its truth. Within three years they had lost it. Not their salvation … that was secure. They just lost the experience and power of their new relationship with God. They allowed themselves to be deceived by religious spirits who robbed them of their foundational understanding of God’s grace. They had, as Paul said in Galatians 5, “fallen away from grace.”
If you do not understand God’s grace; if you do not know how you were saved and by Whom; if you are not rooted and grounded in His love and grace rather than your obedience or disobedience – then the rest of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is going to wipe you out in the worst possible way. If you are not secure in your knowledge and experience of God’s grace then when you get to the exhortation to humble yourself and pray and seek His face and turn from your sin, you are going to hear LAW; you are going to hear JUDGEMENT; you are going to hear CONDEMNATION. I promise you, that will be what you hear eventually. It is happening already to some people during this teaching.
Some people have already been confused and have struggled with the “If … then” scenarios in my earlier sermons. Without a solid grounding in the grace of God, you will not be able to separate your eternal security and your already-established relationship with God … from the clear exhortation to let that grace be effective. Do you remember this verse? Hopefully you do from last week.
1 Corinthians 15:10 “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
This is an incredibly powerful and wonderfully simple verse – I encourage you to memorise it. Paul establishes without any doubt whatsoever that his salvation, his understanding of God, his ability to discern God’s will, his ability to read and interpret the Scriptures, his ability to serve God, his desire to serve God … everything is only there by the grace of God. Do you know what the word translated grace is in the Greek ? It is the word charis, which means GIFT. So Paul states boldly that everything he is, everything he has, everything he achieves, everything he understands is a free gift from God by His grace. Then he gets even more profound and says that his understanding and acceptance of that free gift … resulted in a changed life. His understanding of grace was deep enough to have a radical and life-changing effect so that he worked harder than anyone in obeying the commands of God and heeding the exhortations to go and make a difference in this world. Then he adds again, just to make sure we know, that even his hard work was the result of the empowering presence of God in his life.
So don’t even try to humble yourself and seek God’s face and turn from your sin without a solid, foundational understanding of God’s grace in your life. If His empowering presence is not flowing through you; if you are not totally and completely assured of your salvation and your eternal security in Christ; then DO NOT PROCEED PAST THIS POINT. If you do push on regardless, then you will only see law, judgement, frustration and self-condemnation and any changes which do occur in you will be generated by the flesh and will bear no long-term fruit. If you do not know the difference between the conviction of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of God’s people and the accusation and condemnation of Satan, then you need to stop at this point and seek the Lord until you do.
At first they may look the same because conviction and condemnation can both drive you to your knees or flat on your face on the floor. Conviction and condemnation can both impact you emotionally and you may cry out to God under the weight of a heavy heart – but that is where the similarity ends. One brings life and the other brings death. One releases, empowers and transforms, whilst the other binds us and robs us of all power. Conviction and condemnation may look the same but I can assure you their destinations are at opposite ends of the scale.
If you understand God’s grace and have that firm foundation in your relationship with Him, then the teaching which follows in the weeks to come is going to confront you and convict you and force you to deal with the stuff in your own heart which God will reveal – but you will be empowered to do that by God’s grace and you will come out the other end in a far stronger position, deeply convicted and fully empowered to make a real difference and bring this city to Jesus. If you struggle to understand God’s grace and do not have a firm foundation in your understanding of your relationship with Him, then the teaching which follows will wipe you out (assuming you choose to listen to it at all). You will be confused, condemned, powerless and discouraged. You may not even stay in the Church. Such will be the impact of what God is doing in our midst if do not get a firm grasp on the foundation and heart of the gospel of God’s amazing grace.
We need to pray and not stop praying that each and every one of us will press on and embrace the challenging word that is coming from God across the face of the Church. He is shaking up the Church and has been for several years. The river is rising. The days are getting fewer. The harvest time is approaching. God needs an army of people who know who they are in Christ and who understand God’s grace in all its truth and choose to allow that grace to have an effect in changing them and releasing them in repentance, humility, prayer and worship. When this army takes up their position – on their knees, on their face before God – He will bring the victory as He sweeps this whole city and nation into the Kingdom of light and life and hope. Then we will be able to read this verse in 2 Chronicles 7:14 and let it impact us; then we will be able to sing songs of revival with passion, with a heart-wrenching reality – for God’s grace truly is having an effect in us. Amen.