In 1997 I began to cry out to God and ask Him to reveal Himself to me. I had labored in traditional church ministry for almost 35 years, was tired, frustrated and convinced that the church as I knew it was a fraud. But I knew God was real and His promise was true, “The Lord is with you when you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you forsake him, he will forsake you.” (II Chronicles 15:2)
I am now prepared to begin to share at least some of what the Lord has been teaching me, and to warn people of the deceptions that have come into what we have always called, “the Church”. But before I do, I feel I have to explain something. I love the people in the churches and the pastors who are trying to lead them. However, as you read through this, it may not sound like it. Some of what I have to say will appear critical. It may sound harsh, even sarcastic. But there are times when truth sounds that way.
In Matthew 23 Jesus is speaking out against the religious rulers of His day. His tone was angry. He was both confrontive and critical. He even used biting sarcasm several times to make His point and illustrate how far these men had departed from God’s righteousness and truth. But His heart was pure. His love and compassion for them was evident. I’m not Jesus, and I can’t say my heart is pure, even though I’d like it to be. But, I can identify with Jesus in this one thing: when I see the religious deception perpetrated on people, I grieve.
Some time ago the Lord took me to Jeremiah 5 and showed me that this passage doesn’t just describe the condition of Israel in Jeremiah’s day, it also describes the condition of churches today. This is what it says:
“And should I not punish them for this rebellion? Declares the Lord. Should I not avenge Myself on a nation such as this? A horrible and amazing thing has happened in the land: the prophets are liars, telling the people only what they want to hear; the leaders deceive my people, using a false authority that I have not given them; and worst of all, the people want it this way. But what will they do when the end comes, and they are still bound up in all this deception?” (Jeremiah 5:29-31)
Herein lies my greatest fear: that most people in the Church are happy with the way things are and will not be interested in anything that opposes the truth as they see it. But all I can say is that I’m confident of the message God has given me, and I know the Word of God can take care of itself. Since most of what God has given me represents a serious departure from conventional wisdom, I can only quote Paul:
“Remember what Isaiah said, God will turn conventional wisdom upside down. The time will come when the so-called religion experts will be the ones who look foolish. So where does that leave the one who thinks he’s wise, or the well educated, or the one who understands the ways of the world? Isn’t God going to expose all this pretentious nonsense? The world never had a clue when it came to knowing and understanding God. That’s why He uses the things that the world thinks are foolish or just plain wrong, even unpleasant, to guide those who trust in Him on their way to salvation.” (I Corinthians 1:19-21)
Now I’ve already mentioned several times that there are deceptions in the Church. What are they? Actually, there are two major deceptions. The first, and most destructive, is the over-all view of what constitutes salvation. I’ll deal with this in some detail in this paper, and also in the paper entitled “The Kingdom of Heaven”. The other major deception has to do with both the organizational form and the present-day function of religious institutions and will be dealt with in the papers entitled “The Chronology of the New Testament”, “Leadership in the Early Church”, and “What Does the Real Church Look Like?”
For the most part, the Church today presents salvation as something the Bible doesn’t know anything about. Depending on whom you listen to, salvation can be based on church membership, several forms of baptism, some variation of denominational doctrinal classes, or a profession of faith. And a profession of faith is usually nothing more than an intellectual agreement with some of the basic facts of scripture (Jesus is the Son of God and He died on the cross for your sins). Some major denominations today don’t really even consider salvation to be an issue. Their position is that God is a benevolent Being who will not allow anyone to go to such a terrible place as hell (if such a place even exists). Salvation becomes a moot point - everyone’s going to heaven.
Other groups have their “Simple Plan of Salvation” based on certain isolated verses, put together in such a way that salvation does indeed appear to be simple. When you add to this simple plan of salvation, an insurance policy known as the “Doctrine of Eternal Security”, you come up with a salvation that is quick, easy to obtain and impossible to lose. However, when you read what Jesus says about salvation (long passages of red letters in the Gospels), you’ll see a salvation that is difficult, that requires the commitment of a lifetime, and can be lost, if you fail to endure and persevere.
I’ve been involved in conservative, evangelical ministries for over 35 years now, and I know how they think. The prevailing concept in these churches is centered in a magical profession of faith that somehow propels people into an automatic relationship with God. But what these people call relationship doesn’t fit the definition of any relationship I’ve ever seen or experienced. Many of them say they have a relationship with God, but the only time during the week they even think about Him is the couple of hours they spend in church activities. But then, they’re really not intimately involved with Him in any way. They’re only listening to someone else talk about Him. And for many, by the time they’re finished with lunch, they couldn’t tell you what the Sunday School lesson or sermon was about anyway.
When you ask most people in churches today if they’re going to heaven, they’ll say, “Yes”, with no hesitation. If you ask them how they know, they’ll probably describe an event (usually their version of a profession of faith) that took place sometime in the past.
Let me drop this little zinger on you: anytime you base your salvation on something you did in the past, you’re in trouble. Salvation is always based on what you’re doing today. This is important, and if you’ll keep this in mind as you read what Jesus says about salvation, you’ll see what I mean. Now, when you ask people about their salvation, what they probably will not do is outline a current relationship of submission and obedience to God. What they probably will not do is talk about their participation in an on-going process of being conformed to the image of Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. What they probably will not do is tell you about a relationship with God that will, at times, be both excruciatingly painful and wonderfully loving, as He strips away the flesh and replaces it with His righteousness and holiness. And what you probably will not see is the repentance and humility He has wrought in their lives.
Instead, what you will see is a plastic mask-like smile that is supposed to tell you everything is just great. You’ll hear them talking about all the things they’re doing or planning to do, where they’re going or what they’re buying. The name of Jesus will rarely, if ever, come up in their conversations. And, even though they sincerely believe they actually have a relationship with God, there’s a perceptible distance, an easily recognizable detachment from Him that says there’s no real relationship there. It’s absolutely impossible to have a real relationship with the living Christ and not talk about it constantly!
My challenge to you is to forget everything you’ve ever learned in church about salvation and simply get your Bible out and read the red letters in the Gospels. Just concentrate on what Jesus said. And ignore what people say about what He said. Forget the books from the Christian bookstore, forget the sermons, and forget anything I have to say in these papers, and just ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth.
God’s plan of salvation is the only one that counts. And it was revealed to us through His Son. That’s basically what Jesus says in John 12:46-50:
“I’ve come to be a light to show the world the way to God, the way to eternal life. Everyone who learns to trust in Me will not have to be in the dark, wondering, Where is God? Or, how can I find Him? You carefully listen to what I have to say, then, carelessly dismiss it. You’re disappointed by what you hear. I don’t condemn you for that. I didn’t come to condemn. I came to save. But you need to listen carefully and understand that those who disregard My message are choosing their own condemnation. My message isn’t going to get any easier. And this is the message that will judge you in the end. It’s not My message. The Father sent Me, and it’s His message. And this message is given to you for only one reason - to show you the way to eternal life. Believe Me, everything the Father tells Me, I tell you.”
In Mark 8:34-38, Jesus gives the Father’s plan of salvation in a fairly concise form. But as you follow the text, you’ll see that it is neither quick nor easy:
“Then Jesus turned to the crowd that had been following Him and said, If you intend to go the same way I’m going (the way to the Father), you’ll have to let go of your own self-interests and submit your life completely to God. You’ll have to embrace suffering, because that’s how the Father perfects His children. And, you’ll have to continually follow me. I’ll have to show you the way. You can never find it on your own. Think it over carefully. The choice is yours. You can live this life any way you choose, and miss out on the life that is to come. Or, you can willingly miss out on whatever this life has to offer, so you can enjoy what the Father has for you in the life that is to come. What’s the sense in trying to have everything now, if you’re going to lose it for all eternity? Besides, the temporary things of this world could never be compared to the eternal things the Father has. And if you’re disappointed now, because all your friends are living the good life in the world, just try to imagine how disappointed you’re going to be when I return in the glory of My Father with the Holy angels and you realize you made the wrong choice.”
Most professing Christians today believe that it’s up to them to decide how they’re going to live their lives and it’s up to God to bless them in whatever they decide. But Jesus says, if you want to know the way to the Father, you have to be willing to let go of your plans and desires, be willing to renounce what you want, and accept what God wants. This will make most people uncomfortable, but I’m going to just come right out and say it anyway - salvation requires that we give up the control of our lives to God; we can’t be in charge anymore! No one wants to hear that. But, it’s true. This is how Paul said it:
“Don’t you know your body is a sacred place? It’s where the Holy Spirit lives now. He’s God’s special gift to you (God’s presence inside of you, all the time). And your life no longer belongs to you. It belongs to God. It’s bought, and paid for - at a precious cost. So honor God and bring glory to Him through your submission and obedience.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20)
Many people today have bought into the Americanized gospel that tells them to come to Jesus so He can give them everything they ever wanted. When I talk about the Americanized gospel, I don’t mean to imply that Americans are the only ones that believe this. Actually, we’ve been very diligent in exporting this deception all over the world through our mission programs. There are great blessings to be gained in following Jesus, but most of them are spiritual and eternal, not material. In fact, Jesus never saw material wealth as anything but a disadvantage. And, while it’s true He talks about money, He never says anything good about it. He clearly says in Matthew 6:24 that men don’t have the capacity to serve God and manage material wealth (mammon).
The account of the rich, young ruler in Mark 10:17-22 illustrates this principle as well as anything you can find in Scripture. Look at what it says:
“As Jesus was getting ready to leave, a man came running up to Him, and kneeling down he said, Master, I know that You are a spiritually perfect man. Please tell me, how can I have eternal life? Jesus replied, How do you know that I’m spiritually perfect? Only God can be described in such a way. But in answer to your question, you know the commandments as well as I do: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie or cheat or steal, and always honor your parents. And the man said, Master, I have kept all these perfectly, since I was old enough to understand them. Jesus knew he was telling the truth, and He loved him intensely. But He was saddened, because He knew that wasn’t enough. So, He said, there is one thing you lack. You need to sell everything you own and give the money to the poor. Then you won’t have any distractions that would keep you from following Me, and you’ll have treasures laid up for yourself in heaven. Now, when the man heard that, he lost all his enthusiasm for God. And for the first time in his life he was grieved, because he had many possessions and had no intention of letting any of them go"
Here, the rich young ruler represents the very best that the world has to offer, a good, conscientious, moral man. But Jesus knew that even this man, as good as he was, could not successfully serve both God and material wealth. Later, in this same passage, Jesus explains to His disciples that it is virtually impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Actually, He says that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. I’d say that pretty much makes it impossible, don’t you think?
Now, I know I’m touching a nerve here. A lot of professing Christians today truly believe that God wants them to be wealthy. (Supposedly, it’s so they can supportministry. But for most that’s a farce. The more money they make, the more they spend, on themselves. Do you see these people living in modest homes, driving older cars, making any kind of sacrifices for God?) Tune in to any Christian television station and it won’t take long to see that the prosperity message is the most popular message out there. I’m amazed at the lack of Scriptural content and the brazen deception employed by these TV preachers.
At this point, I need to share an unpleasant principle concerning the ways of God. When people choose the wrong course for their lives, God judges them by giving them what they want. You might want to read that again, so you can be sure it says what you think it says. Then, I hope you’ll pay attention to this, because it’s extremely important. The prevailing attitude in the world seems to go something like this. You can ignore God’s Word and do whatever you want to do in this life. If it’s something really bad, there’s a slim chance God will get mad and just strike you dead. If He doesn’t, that means whatever you’re doing must be O.K. with Him. That’s a deception. But, it doesn’t stop there. Many actually take it a step beyond that and boast that it’s God’s blessing. Let me explain what I mean. There are thousands and thousands of very wealthy people in the Church today. The reason they’re wealthy is because the accumulation of wealth has been their priority, the focus of their existence. In spite of what God says about idolatry, rebellion, the importance of making Him your first priority, avoiding the snares of this world, or anything else, they insist that their wealth is God’s blessing on their lives. It’s their way of justifying what they’re doing.
And they can find plenty of others who will agree with them. This is the philosophy of the world: the majority is always right. That’s why politicians take polls. They’re not interested in doing what’s right, they’re interested in doing what keeps their constituents happy, so they’ll be re-elected and retain their power. The Biblical principle is just the opposite: the majority is always wrong, God is always right. When you follow the flesh, there will always be people around who will agree with what you’re doing. When you follow the Spirit, you find yourself virtually alone, avoiding what everybody else is doing.
But wealth is not a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s what keeps you distracted and in deception, so you can never know God in the relationship of intimacy and dependence He requires. Everyone who believes God wants them to be rich should have Luke 12:15-21 tattooed on the inside of their eyelids. This passage starts with Jesus telling people to keep themselves free from covetousness, which is described correctly in the Amplified Bible as the “immoderate desire for wealth, the greedy longing to have more than you need”. He then ends the discussion with a description of the death of these fools (His word, not mine). They died because they spent their lives gathering wealth, instead of making themselves truly rich in their relationship with God.
Now, if you don’t believe God will give you what you set your heart on, even if it’s wrong, consider this:
“But they quickly forgot all the awesome things God had done on their behalf and how He had provided everything they needed, and they grew impatient and greedy - not wanting to wait on God and on His provision. Instead, they lusted after the things of the world and provoked the Lord, because they wanted the things of the world more than they wanted Him. So, He gave them what they wanted; and, even though it satisfied their flesh, it brought emptiness to their souls.” (Psalms 106:13-15)
The context of the passage above is Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Not long after this, Israel became infatuated with heathen idolatry. Did God’s wrath come down out of heaven and strike them dead? No! God judged them by giving them what they wanted. Look at this passage in Ezekiel 20:23-26:
“Also (because of their rebellion) I swore an oath against them in the desert, that I would disperse them among idolatrous peoples and scatter them throughout the heathen nations. I did this because they would not obey My word. They had rejected My commandments and polluted My holy days - defying My authority. They lusted after strange gods, just like their fathers. So, because that’s what they had chosen, I let them have the heathen idols and all the things that could never bring them life. I let them destroy themselves in the midst of evil. They even sacrificed their children to these false gods. But, when they realized the emptiness and utter worthlessness of what they had done, in the depths of their despair, when it was too late for them, I made them know and understand that I AM STILL THE LORD.”
Israel made the wrong choice. God judged them by giving them what they wanted. Today, most professing Christians are choosing the things of the world, and God is allowing them to have all those things. But, it’s a deception to believe that it’s His blessing; because it’s not, it’s His curse. So, where was I? Oh yeah, I was talking about Jesus’ plan of salvation in Mark 8:34-38. His plan is not simple, it’s not quick, and it’s not easy. The first thing we have to do is deny ourselves. We have to forget our plans, forsake our goals in life, turn our backs on what the world has to offer, and refocus our lives, submit to Him, give Him control, and want only what He wants. We have to understand that salvation requires us to do just the opposite of everything the world tells us is right or reasonable (see the paper entitled “How To Know It’s God”).
The second thing Jesus talks about in His plan of salvation is taking up your cross. Here’s another sore spot with the Church today. Everyone wants a painless, trouble-free salvation. What can I say? Wrong again! It’s obvious that in Jesus’ mind, suffering is a part of the deal. Let me quote a couple of verses, just to give you an idea of what I mean:
“And anyone who is not willing to persevere and embrace the suffering that is required in following Me, can never be My disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
“And Jesus replied, trust in what I’m about to tell you. No one who has been willing to give up houses, brothers, sisters, mother, children or lands because of Me or the message I have, will ever really lose any of those things. I’ll make sure they get it all back, multiplied many times over. But, keep in mind, there will always be suffering along the way, and following Me is never easy. Just remember what’s waiting for you in the end - eternal life!” (Mark 10:29-30)
The way Paul describes his circumstances in I Corinthians 4 is significant to me. This is approximately 20 years after his conversion. And at this point in his life (and with all the great revelation God had given him) he obviously still had not grasped this healthy, wealthy, if you’re really a child of God then everything should be wonderful in your life - kind of Gospel. Look at what he says:
“To this very hour, we experience both hunger and thirst, we can afford only one undergarment and shiver in the cold. We’re treated badly by most people we encounter, and wander from place to place - homeless. We’re forced to work hard every day just to get by. And when we feel the sting of evil accusations against us, we simply bless our accusers. When we experience persecutions, we suffer them patiently, determined to endure. When people lie about us, we try to answer softly; when they lie to us, we let it go. We’re treated like garbage, the filth of the earth.” (I Corinthians 4:11-13)
When you read what Jesus said, then what Paul experienced, you have to wonder, when did God change the rules? I know He didn’t. Men changed the rules, but it doesn’t matter. In this universe, God’s rules are the only ones that count. Men crafted a religion that says what they want it to say. It offers people what they want, it doesn’t require any change, it doesn’t cost them anything and it makes them comfortable with God. And it’s false!
Let’s go on (we’re still talking about Jesus’ plan of salvation). The third thing He talks about, after denying yourself and taking up your cross, is about following Him daily. Now, I know that the KJV doesn’t say “follow me daily”. But, if you check it out, you’ll find that the verb is a present imperative in the Greek, which means it’s a command to start doing something and keep doing it continually. Most contemporary versions translate it correctly. For instance, the Amplified Version says, “...follow Me [continually, cleaving steadfastly to Me].” That’s the right idea. As I’ve already mentioned, most people base their salvation on something they did in the past. You really can’t do that. Your salvation depends on what you’re doing today.
There are several things Jesus says related to this that I think are worth looking at. Consider what Jesus says in Luke 13.
“Earnest effort is required to force your way through the narrow door that leads to salvation - to God! Many think they will enter this door, but will not be able to, because they were not willing to do what they had to do. They made a fatal mistake. Instead of being diligent and persistent in their pursuit of God, they simply followed the foolish crowd.” (Luke 13:24)
If you’re going to follow Jesus, you have to be willing to spend the time and effort required. Again, it’s not quick and it’s not easy. And, you’re going to have to be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to you, because you’re not going to find the truth in the traditional church. In fact, you’ll never find all the truth you need by diligently searching the Scriptures; you need the revelation ministry of the Holy Spirit, as well (John 15:26). I know that’s a strange thing to say, it sounds wrong. I can’t believe I’m saying it, myself. But, I’ve been listening to pastors of all denominations for almost 40 years now, and none of them have been saying what Jesus said. They’re good at talking about what they, and others, think. They know how to entertain you. They’ll tell you what you want to hear, and it will make you feel good. But it’s not God’s truth!
“And as they were walking along the road, a man came up to Him and said, Lord, I’ll follow you no matter what. Jesus was skeptical, and said, Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place to call His own. Are you sure you know what you’re getting yourself in to? Then, to prove His point Jesus asked another man standing nearby, Will you follow Me? But this man could only come up with some phony excuse about having to bury his father. But, Jesus wouldn’t let him off the hook, and He said to him, Let the dead bury their dead. You should take this opportunity to experience real life. Then you could tell others what you’ve found. Then another man stepped forward and actually volunteered, saying, I’ll follow you Master. But first, let me go home and explain to all my relatives what I’m doing and give them all a proper farewell. Then Jesus said, Forget it! That’s not the kind of commitment I’m looking for. You can’t straddle this fence! You’re either in or you’re out! If you’re going to enter God’s Kingdom, come with Me now, and don’t dare look back.” (Luke 9:57-62)
Following Jesus requires sacrifice and commitment. I know this isn’t sounding like the “I’m O.K., you’re O.K., let’s just rejoice and enjoy the revival” - kind of message most people hear on Sunday morning. I’m just quoting the red letters.
“Following Me is like building a new barn. You have to count the cost. If you don’t have enough money, you’ll put in the foundation, maybe get part of the walls up, and have to quit before you get the roof on. People will make fun of you behind your back, because you started something you couldn’t finish. If a king decides to go to war against another king, if he’s smart, the first thing he’ll do is try to find out if his army is strong enough to defeat the other king. If it’s not, he’ll send someone to work out a truce. So, let me put it this way, if you’re going to follow Me, you’d better know what you’re getting yourself into. Because this is the bottom line: if you’re not willing to give up everything that’s dear to you, you can’t be My disciple. You must be able to focus totally on Me, able to set aside every distraction. Otherwise, it’s useless. It won’t work! Do you understand what I’m saying?” (Luke 14:28-35)
The Gospel that some men preach today tells you to come to Jesus because of all the neat stuff He’ll give you. Others will tell you to follow the time-honored traditions and rituals of men and those will lead you to God. Still others will tell you to learn the accepted doctrinal positions of denominational religion. Then there are those who will tell you to reject all other organized religion and submit to a man who has received “special” revelation that no one else has or understands. And finally there are those who insist that none of these variations of religion or religious thought really matter, because God stands ready to accept anyone who has made an attempt, no matter how feeble, at living a good, moral life. All of them are wrong.
God cannot be found in man’s religion. He cannot be found in your participation in religious programs provided by religious institutions. God did not give any man or organization of men the authority to confer salvation on you. The only way that you will ever find God is to personally, individually submit yourself to Him and allow Him to reveal Himself to You. For more information on the deception in the Church regarding what constitutes salvation, see the paper entitled “The Kingdom Of Heaven”.