Free Grace Salvation

God's GraceFree grace salvation means we are forgiven, justified, and saved solely by God’s grace, and not by any human effort or merit. All humanity is inherently sinful and unable to earn entrance into heaven. Our good works do not save. They never have and never will. Salvation is entirely a work of God. He offers it to sinful humanity as a gift, given freely and unconditionally to all who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, believing He died for our sins, was buried, and raised again on the third day (1 Cor 15:3-4). Faith in Christ is the only condition for salvation. Faith does not save. Christ saves. Faith is merely the instrument by which we receive the free gift. And we are saved by grace, which means we don’t deserve it. Scripture reveals, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Some think their obedience to the Law saves them; however, “if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:21).

The Bible reveals we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). Paul is emphatic that we are justified by faith and not by works, saying, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Justification is a single act that occurs at the moment we trust in Christ as Savior. It’s a one-and-done event. At that moment, we are declared just in God’s sight, not because of any righteousness of our own, but because of “the gift of righteousness” (Rom 5:17) that God gives to us at the moment of salvation. This is God’s righteousness, and is gifted to us “apart from works” (Rom 4:6). It is “the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (Phil 3:9). It is this free gift of God’s righteousness that makes us acceptable in His sight.

Furthermore, at the moment of faith in Christ, we are forgiven all our sins (Eph 1:7), have “passed out of death into life” (John 5:24), are given “eternal life” (John 10:28), and are among those “whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:3). As a result, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). We will never experience the Lake of Fire. Never. As Christians, “our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 3:20).

Good Works Should Follow Salvation

Once saved and justified in God’s sight, the Lord directs us to “press on to maturity” (Heb 6:1). That is, to grow up spiritually and become mature Christians who walk by faith (2 Cor 5:7; Heb 10:38). This glorifies God, edifies others, and results in the best life possible in this world. Good works is what God expects of His people. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Paul wrote, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10). The Lord instructs us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Tit 2:12) and to be “zealous for good deeds” (Tit 2:14). We agree with Paul who wrote, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). God clearly calls His people to a life of obedience and good works. There is no question about this. The Scriptures are plain on the matter, instructing us, “like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior” (1 Pet 1:15).

What About Lordship Salvation?

Though good works should follow justification, they are never the condition of it. Unfortunately, there are some who teach Lordship Salvation, which conflates justification with sanctification. Justification is single event whereby we are declared righteous by God at the moment of faith in Christ. Sanctification is the process of growing spiritually and advancing in a life of good works. Those who advocate Lordship Salvation teach that in order to be saved, one must believe in Christ as Savior AND submit to His lordship, which means committing to a lifetime of obedience. According to John Frame, “you cannot accept Christ as Savior without accepting him as Lord…To receive Jesus as Lord is to make a commitment to keeping his commandments.”[1] And John MacArthur wrote, “Saving faith is a commitment to leave sin and follow Jesus Christ at all costs. Jesus takes no one unwilling to come on those terms.”[2] Though I love these men and appreciate much of their writings, I disagree with them on this matter, as their view presents salvation as a two-step-process where faith + commitment = salvation. They teach faith in Christ PLUS a total commitment to a life of obedience. According to Charles Bing:

“This view [of Lordship Salvation] demands that a person is saved through faith, but a faith that commits and surrenders to Jesus as the Lord of all of one’s life. In other words, commitment and surrender are conditions of salvation. Resulting from this starting point is the belief that a true Christian is therefore one who evidences that commitment and surrender in a life of good works…[in this view] God’s grace is no longer free, faith becomes works, and the unbeliever is subject to a performance basis for acceptance with God.”[3]

Problems with Lordship Salvation

There are several difficulties with Lordship Salvation. Firstly, it fundamentally undermines the concept of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and appeals to those who, in pride, feel they can earn their salvation by means of good works. Such a view naturally becomes anthropocentric rather than Christocentric. No greater offense can be given to a legalist than the concept that salvation is entirely and freely by grace, as it gives all glory and credit to Christ, leaving none for them. Let them be offended, and let all glory rest in Christ alone! Secondly, it destroys one’s assurance of salvation, for if one’s eternal destiny is dependent on ongoing obedience, that person will never know if they’ve done enough to prove they were saved in the first place. Add to this the reality that sin is still present in an ongoing way in the life of believers (requiring regular confession; 1 John 1:9), it means sinless perfection will not happen this side of heaven. This means believers will never know if they’ve done enough to prove their salvation to themselves or others, for if their salvation (hypothetically) requires a hundred good works, how do they know it’s not really a hundred and one, or a hundred and two? They don’t know, so assurance is lost. But God wants us to have assurance, as the Bible states, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). Thirdly, those who feel like they are displaying a lifestyle of good works that proves their salvation, there is the possibility of swelling pride and an attitude of condescension as they become fruit inspectors in the lives of others. In this case, legalism will fill the heart, and we know “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov 16:18). Fourthly, Lordship Salvation can be confusing, overwhelming, and discouraging for the new Christian who probably knows little to nothing about the Bible and his new relationship with the Lord. Because we cannot live what we do not know, learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living His will. But this takes commitment, humility, and time. And even when we know God’s Word, it’s no guarantee we’ll obey it. This is why James wrote, “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves (Jam 1:22), and “to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin” (Jam 4:17)

Salvation is Free

Salvation is free. Paid in full by the Lord Jesus who died in our place on the cross, Who “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). Once saved, God calls us to a lifelong process of sanctification. Sanctification is the life we live after being justified, and this process continues until we leave this world, either by death or rapture. The sanctified life requires us to learn and live God’s Word (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18), walk by faith (2 Cor 5:7; Heb 10:38), be filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18), walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:16), and make ongoing good choices to stay on the path of God’s will.

What Happens When We Sin?

Do we sin as Christians? Yes. We sin as Christians. It is possible for a Christian to sin, and to sin as badly as any unbeliever. However, unlike the unbeliever, God disciplines His own (Heb 12:5-11), which includes the removal of eternal rewards (1 Cor 3:10-15; 2 John 1:8), and, if necessary, disciplines the Christian to the point of physical death (1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). It’s never the will of God that we sin, but when we sin, it’s always His will that we handle it by means of confession (1 John 1:9), and then get back into our walk with the Lord.

Let’s be those Christians who commit ourselves to the Lord, learn and live His Word, advance to spiritual maturity, live holy lives, and live sacrificially for the good of others. This glorifies God, edifies others, and results in the best life we can live in this fallen world.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), 197.

[2] John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1988), 87.

[3] Charles C. Bing, Grace, Salvation, and Discipleship: How to Understand Some Difficult Bible Passages (Brenham, TX: Lucid Books, 2015).

Trusting God’s Provision: Resting in His Promises

As Christians, we can depend on the Lord to provide for our daily needs. Abraham knew this to be true and said of Yahweh, “The LORD Will Provide” (Gen 22:14). And Paul wrote, “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (2 Cor 9:8), and “God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). Of course, as Christians, we must not confuse need with greed.

The CrossGod’s greatest provision was for our eternal salvation, which came through His Son, Jesus, Who died in our place and bore the punishment that rightfully belongs to us (Rom 5:8; 1 Cor 15:3-4; 1 Pet 3:18). When we trust in Christ alone as our Savior, we receive forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7), eternal life (John 10:28), are transferred into “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col 1:13), become “children of God” (John 1:12), and are blessed “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3). God’s wonderful grace is amazing! And God, having done the most for us at the cross, will not do less for us after our salvation. Paul wrote, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32). Since God has already demonstrated His maximum love and generosity by giving His Son for our salvation, it only stands to reason that He will certainly provide everything else needed for our well-being, and for a life that glorifies Him and edifies others.

Bible Promises - 1By faith we trust God and rest in His promises. Failure to trust God will result in worry, fear, and an anxious heart that is never at rest. Do our hearts ever become anxious? Of course they do. And does fear ever rise up? Yes, of course it does. Well over a hundred times in the OT & NT believers are told “do no fear” and “do not be afraid” (e.g., Gen 15:1, Deut 1:21; Isa 41:10; Matt 10:28; 1 Pet 3:14). These directives would be superfluous if sinful fear was not a problem for the believer. Sometimes we become like Peter and look at the storm around us (Matt 14:30), become frightened, and sink into what we fear. But when fear rises up, faith must rise higher, always trusting God to keep His Word. When trials come (and they will), we must see them as opportunities to grow in our faith (Jam 1:2-4). The benefit of living by faith is a relaxed mental attitude as the believer focuses on the Lord and His promises. Remember, God always keeps His promises, for “God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent; has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” (Num 23:19). Yes, He will always keep His Word, for “the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind” (1 Sam 15:29), for “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18). God has integrity and keeps His Word, and “is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20a).

Walk by FaithGod will provide. The challenge for us, as His children, is to accept His Word as true and apply it to our lives on a regular basis. The walk of faith requires us to have discipline of mind and will, to learn and live God’s Word, and to stay focused on Him and His promises. As God’s children, we are to “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). The walk of faith is what He wants, for He says, “My righteous one shall live by faith” (Heb 10:38), and “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). The life of faith is what Pleases God, “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him” (Heb 11:6). Will there be failure on our part? Yes, more often than most of us would like to admit. But that’s why daily confession is important (1 John 1:9), as we acknowledge our sins to God, trust that He forgives, and then move back into a walk of faith. Let us continually learn and live God’s Word, always trusting the Lord will provide and that He will keep His promises to us. This way of living will glorify God, edify others, and result in a relaxed mental attitude for us as we lean on the Lord.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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Beyond Self-Interest: Embracing Disadvantage for the Blessing of Others

Jesus Healing SickThe more I understand biblical Christianity, the more I think our advance to maturity involves being willingly disadvantaged that others might receive an advantage. To be voluntarily disadvantaged means I am deprived of something so that others might gain an asset, an edge, a benefit, or an opportunity they might not have otherwise. This is charitable on my part, in which I give for the benefit of others. This is how Jesus lived, as He said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus voluntarily gave His life on the cross that others might obtain what they could not receive by any other means; forgiveness of sins and eternal life. What was a disadvantage to Him resulted in a benefit to us.

The purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice was to result in forgiveness and salvation to humanity, granting us an advantage or opportunity for eternal life with God. From this perspective, it can be said that Jesus voluntarily assumed a position of disadvantage by taking on human form, enduring suffering, and ultimately sacrificing His life so that we might have an advantage, which is the opportunity for forgiveness, salvation, and reconciliation with God. When we embrace this way of thinking, it will become more natural for us to think of others over self. Paul wrote, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).

Too often we ask, “What’s in it for me?” or “What do I get out of this?” When it comes to loving others in the biblical sense, we should not ask what others can do for us, but what we can do for others, that they might be blessed through our sacrifice and service. This way of thinking is completely antithetical to our fallen human natures and the values of the world. What I’m describing is virtue love; a love that is thoughtful, sacrificial, and constantly thinks of how others might be edified, encouraged, or built up in some way. Examples might include giving of our time to arrive early at church to make sure everything is clean before others arrive, or speaking a kind word to a discouraged heart, or giving of our finances to support a growing Christian ministry, or working extra hours to help a coworker succeed, or giving up our lunch hour to mow a widows overgrown yard, or to sacrifice a vacation to help a struggling family with food, rent, or auto repair.

This way of living gives and expects nothing in return. It looks for those who are so impoverished that they cannot repay. Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14). There’s nothing wrong with entertaining and caring for family and friends; however, we should not be concerned only with these, but also with serving the less fortunate. We should be intentional about helping “orphans and widows in their distress” (Jam 1:27), because it is right in God’s sight to help to the needy. Those who live this way will be “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21), will “store up treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20), and will hear the words of the Lord, “Well done, good and faithful slave” (Matt 25:21).

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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The Road Ahead: Developing a Plan for Success After Prison

This article is written primarily to the one who has recently been released from jail or prison. The intention of the article is to provide some helpful advice to be successful. I write to let you know that success is possible after a life in prison, as long as one measures success by the right metric. For the Christian, that metric is God and His Word, and success is measured primarily by it. People and societies have their own metrics for success, and Christians must be careful to abide by society’s norms, as long as they don’t conflict with God’s. This requires wisdom and discernment.[1]

As a fully pardoned ex-convict, my journey to success has been bumpy and blessed at the same time.[2] I received my gubernatorial pardon on February 10th, 2005, fifteen years after the time of my release in 1990. However, for those years I carried the felony conviction, life was very challenging. I often identified with Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as I felt unfairly discriminated against by many who worked against me. However, rather than complain or accept defeat, I worked to improve myself as best I could with what was available to me. I chose to be better rather than bitter.

Transitioning from a period of incarceration to life in a free society can be challenging. In prison, though life is difficult, it is also very structured. Inmates do not have to worry about employment, a bed to sleep on, clothes to wear, food to eat, or whether they can pay for their utilities (just to name a few things). After their release, they are under pressure to learn to adjust to the free world where they have to make it on their own, often with limited support and guidance. A productive life after prison is possible, but only for those who have determination, the right mindset, and the wisdom to succeed. My own journey of success after prison was largely up and down (as life can be). The following points reflect my own mental attitude and choices along the way, and I offer them here to any who may benefit from some or all of them.

  1. Daily Bible StudyStudy God’s Word: Learning God’s Word allows you to operate from a biblical worldview and to frame your life from the divine perspective. You are to “study to show yourself approved to God as a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly handling the Word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). And “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, so that by it you may grow in respect to your salvation” (1 Pet 2:2). Your walk of faith is critical, and you will often face obstacles from a world that cares little about you; a world that also has satanic forces that are set against you. But God is with you and for you (Rom 8:31-39), to give wisdom, grace, and strength to advance in this world, and you must live moment by moment staying close to God and relying on Him for everything. Realize that adversity is inevitable, but stress is optional, as you can take up the shield of faith and protect yourself from the fiery darts of the enemy (Eph 6:16).
  2. Live God’s Word: As you study God’s Word, you must make the conscious choice, moment by moment, to apply it to your life as opportunity presents itself. Ezra was a godly person who did this, as “Ezra had firmly resolved to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). Jesus said, “everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7:24). Hearing and doing. That’s the order. You cannot live what you do not know, and learning God’s Word necessarily precedes living God’s will. But it is possible to learn it and not live it (Heb 4:1-2), which is why James wrote, “prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (Jam 1:22).
  3. Praying HandsBe Devoted to Prayer: Paul said, “Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving” (Col 4:2), and “pray without ceasing” (1 Th 5:17). Prayer is essential to spiritual success as you need to have upward communication with God to express yourself to Him. Prayer is the means by which you make requests to God, believing He has certain answers ready for you, and that you just need to ask (Jam 4:2). Life can be stressful, and developing the habit of prayer allows you to alleviate the pressures by “casting your cares upon the Lord, because He cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7).
  4. Be Thankful: Scripture states, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1Th 5:18). This is done by faith and not feelings. Though you cannot always control our circumstances, you must not allow yourselves to be controlled by them.
  5. Serve Others in Love: Paul wrote, “you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Gal 5:13), and “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal 6:10). As Christians, we are told, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). It helps us greatly if we approach life and people with a serving and giving mentality.
  6. Seek Employment that is Available: As quickly as you can, find employment, as this will provide the financial resources you need to start advancing. However, realize there are many employers who will not hire felons (the reasons are many). Be polite and persistent in your pursuit, as you will eventually find something. And be willing to do menial labor for a while until something better comes along. I was a waiter for nine years, a welder for three years, and even drove a trash truck for a while. God always opened doors of employment for me, even though it was not always what I wanted. Remember, honest work done in an honest way is an honorable thing. And ultimately, “It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Col 3:24), so do your work well.
  7. Deal With Failures: It’s inevitable that you will make some bad choices after your release. You must own them, confess them to God (1 John 1:9), accept responsibility, extend grace to yourself and get back on the path of righteousness. With a few exceptions, relapse does not lead to collapse. You must get up, look to God (Col 3:1-2), dust yourself off, and keep advancing to the spiritual and moral high ground God wants you to attain.
  8. Embrace Difficulties: Learning to embrace your trials by faith is important. James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). God knows the struggles you will face after prison and will use them to refine and develop you into a better person, if You’ll let Him. Remember, God is more concerned about your Christian character than your creaturely comforts, and the trials you face are all under His control, being used by Him to burn away the dross of weak character and to refine the golden qualities He wants to see in you.
  9. Seek Spiritual and Social Support: As Christians, we are “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together” (Heb 10:25). Finding and maintaining a good support group is very important. This should first be a solid Bible church that teaches God’s Word accurately and can help you continue your spiritual advance. But having good social support helps as well, whether from family, friends, or groups that can assist you in your journey. God has a way of placing unexpected people in your path to help you, so you should not be surprised when He sends the right person your way at the right time.
  10. Develop a Plan: As much as possible, you should have a realistic plan on what you want to accomplish after your release and what path you might journey to get there. This may include education, job training, building a support system, and connecting with family and friends who can help.
  11. Be Flexible: Though you may have a plan, life often does not turn out the way you think or want, and making constant adjustments—whether large or small—allows you to be able to improvise, adapt, and succeed.
  12. Be Professional: There are many people who will evaluate you based on your appearance and interaction with them. Being professional in dress, speech, and conduct will work to your advantage.
  13. Seek Material Support: Find out what resources are available to assist with shelter, food, clothing, employment, etc. This might include family, friends, church, or other groups that can assist. Often, there is financial assistance available to help with education and job training.
  14. Be a Minimalist: Paul wrote, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim 6:8). It’s fine if God blesses you with more than these things, but always learn to be content with the basics (Phil 4:11-13), as this will help to keep frustration levels at bay.
  15. Keep Quiet About Your Past: Though some people are safe, friendly, and helpful, the world at large is not. There are many people who think, “Once a convict, always a convict.” It’s okay to share your past, but be careful who you talk to, as it may work against you. Be discerning. Not everyone is your friend.
  16. Avoid Old Habits and Bad Influences: One of the biggest challenges of reentry is avoiding old habits and negative influences. Stay away from people and situations that may lead to trouble. Paul said, “Bad associations corrupt good morals” (1 Cor 15:33). And Solomon wrote, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Choose your friends carefully!
  17. ServeLet Your Past Help Others: Learn to let your past help others who face similar struggles. For over fifteen years I’ve had the privilege of teaching God’s Word in jails and prisons. For me to go back into that environment has been a blessing for me and the inmates that come to Bible class. Many have come to faith in Christ, and others have been helped in their walk with the Lord. My past experience of being in jail half a dozen times (mainly for petty drug offenses) and then going to prison allowed me to speak to others and offer helpful guidance. I’ve published two books that are specifically written for inmates, shared the gospel many times, and explained how to live spiritually while incarcerated. In this way, my past experience has been a help to others.
  18. Manage Your Self-Care: Solomon wrote, “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:6). Get good sleep, stay hydrated, eat well, get exercise, and make time to rest and play. You’re no good to yourself or others if don’t care for yourself in practical ways. Remember, your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), and you should take care of that temple as best you can. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “It is a serious thing to remove the element of relaxation and play from any life. We cannot be normal physically, mentally or spiritually if we neglect the vital factor in human life. God has provided that our joy shall be full.”[3]

These few points will help you maintain your Christian walk and live successfully in this world after your release from prison.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] Daniel is a good example of someone who lived a godly life in a pagan culture and was successful in God’s sight, though he sometimes was at odds with people and the culture around him.

[2] I was incarcerated at High Desert State Prison for sales of narcotics (marijuana), and after my release in 1990, God took me on a journey of trials and blessings, frustrations and joys, disciplines and comfort to bring to me to where I am. Today, I feel greatly blessed that God has granted me a small place of service in His plan for humanity.

[3] Lewis S. Chafer, He that is Spiritual (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan Publishing, 1967), 60-61.

The Power of Encouragement: Lessons From the Life of Barnabas

There are several believers in the Bible I admire in one way or another, but none more than Barnabas. I admire him because his life is marked by faith, grace, and because he was an encourager to other believers. Faith, grace, and encouragement. That resonates with me.

We first hear about Barnabas in the book of Acts where we learn his name was “Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles” (Acts 4:36a). Luke informs us that Joseph was also known as Barnabas (his nickname), which means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36b).[1] To be a son of something meant that one was characterized by the quality of the word that follows. In this case, the quality is that of encouragement, which translates the Greek noun παράκλησις paraklesis, which denotes “emboldening another in belief or course of action, encouragement, exhortation…[the] lifting of another’s spirits.”[2]

No doubt, Barnabas’ life reflected what He saw and experienced in his relationship with God. In Scripture, we learn that God the Father is described as “the God of all grace” (1 Pet 5:10), Who sits upon a “throne of grace” (Heb 4:16), Who “gives grace to the afflicted” (Prov 3:34), and provides salvation “by grace” through faith in Jesus (Eph 2:8-9; cf. Acts 15:11; Rom 3:24). Jesus is said to be “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), and the Holy Spirit is called “the Spirit of grace” (Heb 10:29). Grace (χάρις charis) is undeserved favor. It is the love, mercy, or kindness that one person freely confers upon another who deserves the opposite (Matt 5:44-45; Rom 11:6; Eph 1:6; 2:1-9; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5-7). And there is nothing more powerful or encouraging than God’s grace to warm and motivate His people to action. For what flows down from God to his children, when received with an open heart, will find natural outward expression to others, who will “encourage one another and build up one another” (1 Th 5:11a), and will “encourage one another day after day” (Heb 3:13a). I believe Barnabas was one who drank deeply from the well of God’s grace and goodness, and being blessed and encouraged by the Lord, was motivated to do the same to others.

BarnabasBarnabas’ first act on encouragement was witnessed in his willingness to give of his own resources for the benefit of others; specifically, we are told he “owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). Barnabas was a man of financial means as he owned land, perhaps on the island of Cyprus. Being a man of grace, he sold his property and gave it to the apostles to be used for ministry purposes. The sale of private property was not a common practice among Christians, which is what set Barnabas apart and made him an exceptional person. If such behavior had been practiced by all, there would have been no need to focus on Barnabas and his gracious act. It is a truth of Scripture that God’s blesses believers who are gracious in giving, for “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor 9:10). And Scripture also reveals these openhanded believers will be rewarded by the Lord in eternity (1 Cor 3:10-15).

Later, in Acts, we’re told that the church at Jerusalem sent Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11:22), and “when he arrived and witnessed the grace of God” (Acts 11:23a)—there’s that grace again!—he “rejoiced and began to encourage them all with resolute heart to remain true to the Lord” (Acts 11:23b). Here, the word encourage translates the Greek verb παρακαλέω parakaleo, which means to “call to one’s side.”[3] The picture is that of one person who comes alongside others and encourages them to accomplish a task or finish a race. In this case, it meant encouraging these Christians to press on and do God’s will. Encouraging other believers “to remain true to the Lord” is what healthy encouragement looks like.

Paul and BarnabasWe also learn from other biblical passages that Barnabas was pivotal to the growth of the early church. For example, it was Barnabas who supported Paul shortly after his conversion, even though others had reservations about him (Acts 9:27). It was Barnabas who bridged the relationship between the church in Jerusalem and the church in Antioch (Acts 11:22). It was Barnabas who partnered with Paul and formed a teaching ministry in Antioch that lasted for a year (Acts 11:25-26). It was Barnabas—along with Paul—who was entrusted to deliver a financial donation to suffering Christians in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). It was Barnabas who helped launch the first significant missionary journey into the Gentile world (Acts 13:1-4). It was Barnabas who helped resolve the first major theological issue facing the church (Acts 15:1-25). It was Barnabas who supported Mark, his cousin (Col 4:10), even after Mark had failed to complete a missionary journey (Acts 15:37-38). Unfortunately, Barnabas’ support of Mark resulted in a major conflict with Paul that resulted in their breaking fellowship for a while (Acts 15:39-41). However, from later biblical passages we know that Barnabas and Paul—men who were both known for their grace and love—reconciled their differences and were reunited in fellowship and ministry (1 Cor 9:6; Gal 2:9).

Overall, Barnabas was noted as being an encourager (Acts 4:36; 11:23), who sacrificed his own resources to be a blessing to others (Acts 4:37). He was called “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:24), and one—along with Paul—who “risked” his life “for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26). Barnabas was not without his flaws; however, he possessed the qualities one would like to see in a Christian leader, as he sought to build the Christian community by means grace, love, and solid biblical instruction. Churches and Christians need people like Barnabas, who will stand with them, give them wise counsel, and encourage them in their walk with the Lord.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] The name Barnabas, as it appears in Hebrew (ברנבו), actually means son of a prophet. The question among some Bible scholars is how this could translate as Son of Encouragement? I think Paul helps us here when he spoke to prophets at the church of Corinth, saying, “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (1 Cor 14:31). The idea is that a prophet of the Lord would function as one who encouraged others to walk with the Lord and remain faithful to Him.

[2] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 766.

[3] Ibid., 764.

The Virtue of Humility

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phi. 2:3-4)

       In Scripture, the humble are sometimes described as those who live in impoverished or difficult conditions (Deut. 15:7; 1 Sam. 2:7; 2 Sam. 22:28; Jam. 1:9); however, the inward virtue of humility does not automatically belong to those who are poor or suffer life’s hardships.  Humility is a lowliness of mind, an inward quietness before the Lord that reflects a poverty of spirit.  The humble know they need God and seek Him for wisdom, guidance and strength.  Humility is not a natural quality, nor does it come easily, but it is what the Lord requires of His people (Mic. 6:8; Eph. 4:1-2; Phi. 2:3-4).  The humble live with a constant sense of their weaknesses and inabilities to cope with life apart from God, and are keenly aware of their sinful nature and propensity to turn away from the Lord and befriend the world.  Humility is not a sense of worthlessness, but unworthiness of the Lord’s love and blessings.  The humble realize they deserve nothing good in this life, and any blessing they receive is from God’s grace. 

Humility in the spiritual sense is an inwrought grace of the soul that allows one to think of himself no more highly than he ought to think (Eph. 4:1–2; Col. 3:12–13; cf. Rom. 12:3)…It requires us to feel that in God’s sight we have no merit and to in honor prefer others to ourselves (Rom. 12:10; cf. Prov. 15:33). It does not demand undue self-depreciation but rather lowliness of self-estimation and freedom from vanity. The Gk. term praotēs, “gentleness” (rendered “meekness” in KJV) expresses a spirit of willingness and obedience and a lack of resistance to God’s dealings with us. But humility must also be expressed towards those who wrong us, in order that their insults and wrongdoing might be used by God for our benefit (see Acts 20:18–21). It is enjoined of God (Ps. 25:9; Col. 3:12; James 4:6, 10) and is essential to discipleship under Christ (Matt. 18:3–4).[1]

       The Glory of HumilityHumility should not be thought of as passivity or weakness.  On the contrary, the humble person pursues righteousness and justice (Mic. 6:8) and can be very bold and outspoken.  Moses was very humble when doing the Lord’s will and standing confidently against Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage (Exodus chapters 3-12).  Jesus was humble when driving the money changers from the temple (Matt. 21:12-13), or rebuking the Jewish leaders for their arrogance and hypocrisy (Matt. 23:13-33).  Humility is not thinking less of self, but more of others.  Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phi. 2:3).  True Christian humility is voluntary—or self-imposed—as the believer surrenders his personal desires in loving service to others for their spiritual and material benefit.  It has the notion of child-like dependence, as Jesus taught His disciples (Matt. 18:3-4).  The greatest display of humility is found in God the Son who left His glory in heaven (Phi. 2:5-8; cf. John 17:5), became a man (John 1:1, 14; Heb. 10:5), became a servant (Mark 10:45; John 13:1-17), and ultimately “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi. 2:8).  The glory of humility is seen at the cross (John 12:23, 32-33), where Jesus gave His life as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice for others (Rom. 5:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:18). 

       Humility is the basis for teachability, as David writes, “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in justice, and He teaches the humble His way” (Ps. 25:8-9).  We sin when we ignore God and try to live independently of Him.  Sometimes God uses difficult circumstances to humble us and bring us to the place of perpetual dependence on Him, even though it is our nature to fight against being in the helpless place (read Dan. 4:28-37; 2 Cor. 12:7-10).  Being in the difficult situation—the place of suffering—is sometimes exactly where God wants us, and “the brother of humble circumstances is to glory in his high position” (Jam. 1:9). 

       Scripture provides a true estimation of reality, allowing us to see God, the world, and ourselves from the divine perspective.  The Bible teaches that we come from God and that we have worth because we are made in His image (Gen. 1:26-27).  We live and breathe and eat and enjoy life because God provides for us every moment of every day (Matt. 6:25-32).  God seeks out the humble, for he says in Isaiah, “to this one I will look, to him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isa. 66:2).  And Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  “Jesus does not demand visible self-abasement (cf. Mt. 6:16 ff.; Mk. 2:18–19) but a total trust in God that expects everything from him and nothing from self.”[2]  This is strength through weakness, victory through humility, realizing “the battle is the LORD’S” (1 Sam. 17:47; cf. 2 Chron. 14:11; 20:15).  Scripture reveals the victories of life are not by self-effort, for the Lord declares, ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of hosts”’ (Zech. 4:6), and, “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power” (Isa. 40:29).  Ultimately, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).

       The prideful person rejects God and His revelation and seeks to operate independently of the Lord.  The believer needs to be aware of pride, for “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov. 16:18).  Arrogant people rarely see their own faults, but almost always focus on the faults of others.  Solomon writes about prideful men and states, “When pride comes, then comes dishonor, but with the humble is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2), and, “A man’s pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor” (Prov. 29:23).  It is the humble person who finds success in life; not necessarily a worldly success, but a divine success, in which the believer lives by faith and pleases the Lord (Heb. 11:6).

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] Merrill Frederick Unger, “Humility” The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988).

[2] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), 1155.