A Lifelong Journey
by Ken Eckerty
As I look back on my twenty-five years as a believer in Jesus Christ, I am amazed at how much I’ve changed—both in “theology” and relationship. The things that I once held as important don’t seem very important to me now. Many doctrines that I once believed to be absolute truth have proven to be, at best, questionable, or at worst, downright false. My personal relationship with the Lord has grown from being works oriented to one of resting in the finished work of my Savior. I can truly say that I am growing from “glory to glory” in God’s grace. In no way do I mean to imply that I have “arrived” because I certainly haven’t. I do feel, however, that I am closer to understanding the heart of the Father than ever before. My journey has been long and in a lot of ways, I feel like I am just getting started.
As I’ve thought about all the things I’ve gone through in my life—my personal struggle with sin, the physical infirmities I’ve battled, the death of those dear to me, personal despair and a sense of desertion by God, and the many different churches I’ve attended and the various theological beliefs I’ve held—I’ve wondered why God had allowed all these things in my life? What was the reason for all the difficulties, suffering, and sin I had experienced? Was there a purpose for the things I once embraced as truth that I now consider false? One church may hold to a particular set of beliefs that directly contradicts the church right down the street. Some churches are very legalistic, while others are more liberal; some are conservative in their worship, while others are more “enthusiastic;” some are steeped in tradition and yet others have put away the types. Who is right? The Calvinistic churches seem to be thriving just as much as the Arminian ones. The Baptists have just as many church members as do the Charismatics.
We know that “A” cannot be equal to “B” and so I think we can safely assume that there is only one truth. If this is the case, then how does it seem that God blesses those who hold onto error as well as those who have the truth? Most of those who disagree on points of doctrine are sincere Christians who belief that they have rightly divided the Word of Truth. Though sincere, those who believe in the doctrine of never-ending punishment and those who believe in universal salvation can’t be both right. Someone has to be in error, and yet God is personally involved in the lives of both groups of believers despite the fact that one is in gross error.
So how are we to look at our brothers and sisters who hold convictions on those things that we would consider to be false or a half-truth?
I must confess that I haven’t, as of yet, totally figured out God’s ways. I have to laugh because I realize just how ridiculous that last statement was. Sometimes I feel so inadequate to try and explain the deep and lofty things of God—but I suppose that’s a good place to be. I’m learning that the longer I’m a believer the less I seem to know. My hope, in this short article, is that I can share some of the things I’ve learned over the years to help you see that God has a definite purpose for all the apparent contradictions in our lives. Nothing happens to us without the consent and sovereign direction of God—and in the end, we shall see that He is a wise, loving, and compassionate Father who will use ALL things to bring about His perfect plan.
Any one who names the name of Christ wants to grow and mature in the Lord. No one wants to remain stagnant, remaining in the same place day after day, year after year. Unfortunately, Christian maturity is not instant—in fact, it is a lifetime process. Maturity comes about through time and experience. No amount of book study will ever be able to replace what is learned in the school of life. Trials, tribulations, temptations, suffering, loss, and even our own sin teach us more about our own self and about God than any book could ever do. Even the very words of God mean nothing to us unless we read them in the light of personal experience. I do not mean to say that we interpret the word of God according to our experiences, but that our experiences give meaning and fullness to what we read in God’s word. Take for example the simple statement, “Jesus died for our sins.” I can read this statement a million times but unless I view it in light of my own personal experience, the words are nothing more than letters on a page. The more I fail in my life, the more I see the need for Christ’s salvation. Take another example, Paul’s statement, “I am the chief of all sinners.” I can testify to the fact that I understand these words much better now than I did twenty years ago. Why? Because I have failed so many times that I now see myself more of a sinner than I did back then. Am I a greater sinner now than I was twenty years ago? No. In fact, I hope that I am more like Christ today. However, my personal experiences have revealed to me the fact that “in my flesh dwells no good thing,” thus giving more meaning to the words of Paul and a much greater appreciation of the work of Christ in me. I understood what these words meant in my head (knowledge), but now, through time and trials, I understand more fully in my spirit (wisdom).
Our spiritual life can be likened to the physical and emotional growth of a human being. The things that are precious and important to a young child mean little more than sentiment to a full-grown adult. A child places great importance on shiny, flashy trinkets, while an adult emphasizes the weightier matters of relationship and responsibility. A child is concerned about the things that can be experienced with his five senses; an adult values that which can’t necessarily be measured such as love, family, and home. Spiritual maturity is leaving behind childish things and pressing toward the goal of being full-grown in Christ (Eph. 4:13), and of course, it should be the goal of every believer to strive for a deeper, fuller revelation of Christ. It is necessary to understand, however, that our pursuit of spiritual maturity in no way negates the value that our childish and immature ways serve in the providence of God, for He uses these things as a tutor to show us the way to Christ. We cannot fully understand and appreciate the value of the new man until God shows us the corruptness of the old one. The beauty of Christ’s righteousness isn’t truly precious to us until we realize the stench of our own self-righteousness. Yes, God desires to wean us from the weak and beggarly elements of our youth and God forbid that we should ever be content to stay there, but let us also understand that God uses all things, including our own childishness, to bring to an end—once and for all—the belief that there is some good in our flesh that can please Him. This is an extremely hard lesson for us to learn that can take many years. In fact, it took me over twenty years before I really begin to see the total corruptness of the flesh, and the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ. No doubt I stayed in this state longer than I would have liked, but as I look back on all of those years, I see that God used all of it to bring me to where I am today—and I am tremendously grateful for those lessons.
Handling the Word of God
Jesus was talking to His disciples during the last few hours of His life. He told them, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12) I believe there are two main reasons why Jesus held back truth from His disciples. First, the Spirit of Truth had not yet been given which, of course, would enable them to understand the spiritual things of God. Second, they had a lot of maturing to do, which would take time and fiery trials to teach them. The way God prepares our heart for new revelation is by “breaking up the fallow ground.” This tilling process requires years of God breaking us down, and building us back up in Christ. Each time He takes a layer of self off of us (through the process of death), He moves us to a higher and deeper level in our relationship with Him. We begin to see things from His perspective, rather than our fleshly, carnal perspective. Bible verses, which have been read hundreds of times before, now take on new light and meaning. Why?—because we are seeing things with the eyes of the Spirit, rather than the eyes of our own understanding.
It is the glory of God to conceal a thing, but the glory of kings to search out a thing.” (Prov. 25:2)
Another reason for God not immediately revealing truth to us (even hiding it) is that truth revealed to an immature child many times actually does more harm than good. This is hard for some of us to understand and accept because Jesus told us “the truth would set us free.” Shouldn’t we all be praying that we come to the “full knowledge of the truth?” Of course we should! But God, in His infinite wisdom reveals truth “line upon line, precept upon precept.” A newborn baby thrives on milk. To that infant, milk is its lifeline. Can you imagine what would happen if a mother decided to feed her newborn baby solid foods? The child could actually die because his system has not been properly prepared to receive the stronger food. Of course, a parent will eventually wean the infant off of the milk and give them solid foods—but not until the APPOINTED time. The milk is a necessity (a truth) to the infant, and in due season, he or she will be ready for solid foods (deeper truth). Applying this to the spiritual, have you ever known anyone who spoke words of truth, and yet hurt others with it? I certainly have—in fact, I confess that I have been guilty of this very thing. Truth is glorious and powerful when handled correctly, but when spoken in pride, self-righteousness, or even hate, it can be a tremendously damaging thing. We know that the problem is not with the truth itself, but the handling of it. Paul tells us to “rightly divide the word of truth.” We often take this to mean how the Word is interpreted, but I believe Paul is also speaking of how one uses the Word of God. A knife, in the hand of a surgeon, can be used to excise diseased tissue, which in turn, can produce healing; however, that same knife, in the hands of a criminal, can be a vicious weapon used for murder. It is the same instrument, yet it yields two totally different results—one good, and one bad.
While all of us desire to know the truth in fullness, God, in His providence toward each of His creatures, reveals only the amount of truth that our hearts can handle. Our Lord is the perfect “discerner of the heart” and knows the very “number of hairs on our head.” Do we not trust that He will bring us into maturity as full-grown sons and daughters? Ecc. 3:11 says, “He hath made every thing beautiful in His time.” (Italics mine)
Law and Grace
I want to use the relationship between law and grace to help illustrate what I am saying. The Bible teaches us that “no man is justified by the works of the law” and that “we are saved by grace through faith, not of works….” We say we believe this even as newborn babes in Christ, however, the reality is that the great majority of believers are living according to the works of their own hands. We set up rules and regulations to govern our lives—do this, don’t do that. We have an exact order of service at our churches that must be followed. We've established traditions and formal rituals in our denominations. We mandate the giving of ten percent of one’s income (tithe). So while we say that we are saved by grace, in reality, our deeds say that we are trying to be kept by the law. (Gal. 3:3)
The primary purpose of the law is to show us how absolutely impossible (in the flesh) it is to live up to God’s holy law, and how Christ is the only way that the “righteous requirement of the law can be fulfilled in us.” (Rom. 8:4) On the one hand, we are told that “…sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me” (Rom. 7:11)—hence the condemnation. But as Paul also says, “the law is our schoolmaster to bring us into Christ.” (Gal. 3:24) So the law both condemns us and points us to Christ—who is our life. Anytime we attempt to justify ourselves by the works of the law, even as a believer, the law condemns us. The law reveals to us how far short we fall of God’s glory, as well as acts as our tutor, bringing us into Christ.
So while the law continually works in the life of a believer to condemn sin in the flesh, at the same time it shows us the only way in which to bring about the righteousness of the law—which is by Christ alone. We need to move away from the “works of the law” and move toward “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” Unfortunately, this does not happen instantaneously. You see, our flesh loves to try and keep the law, and so every time we establish some kind of rule or law in our lives in order to be accepted by God (praying a certain amount of time, reading so many chapters of the Bible a day, giving so much money, not missing a church service, etc.), then in reality we are condemned and judged by God’s righteous law. In fact, in doing this, we are actually nullifying the work of faith wrought about in the Cross. (Rom. 4:14) The carnal commandment condemns and brings forth death (Rom. 7:9, 10), and so all children of God must go through this process of death in order that we might be brought into His life. As long as we are in these “bodies of death,” we will continue to wage this battle of flesh against Spirit. (Gal. 5:17) But as God’s law continually condemns our flesh, and continually points us to Christ, we begin to learn the lesson of the all-sufficiency of God’s grace. And this, my dear friends, takes much time and trials. We slowly begin to realize (not in our heads, but in our hearts) that we don’t need rules and regulations to make us “accepted in the beloved”—all we need is Christ!
God’s ultimate goal is to destroy all flesh, and He uses His law to help accomplish this. The law condemns all men and the Cross is God’s means to complete this death in and through us. The more we submit to this work of death, the more we manifest the life of Christ. (2 Cor. 4:10)
The role of the doctrine of “eternal torment”
The doctrine that teaches that God will torture most of His creation in “eternal hell” is a doctrine birthed from the carnality of man’s flesh. It is law-based. The flesh continually tries to justify itself by the works of the law, and then loves to boast of its accomplishments. The teaching of “eternal damnation” excludes most people from the kingdom of God, thus giving those “who made the right choice” a sense of pride and self-satisfaction that “they are not like other men." While the law is holy, its work brings death. (Rom. 7:9) Consider the similarities to the work of the law and the doctrine of eternal torment. The law is merciless and unforgiving; the doctrine of eternal torment says that God is merciless and unforgiving. The carnal commandment will never make one righteous—it condemns forever; the doctrine of “eternal torment” says that God will condemn the unrighteous forever. Trying to keep the law produces failure and a fear of punishment; belief in the doctrine of eternal torment produces a fear of losing one’s salvation and being punished forever.
God’s commandments and ordinances have a definite purpose, but its condemnation MUST one day end. God’s judgments, wrought through God’s law, have a purpose, and they too must end. Consider the words of Paul:
And this I say, that the covenant that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul that it should make the promise of none effect. (Gal. 3:17)
What is Paul saying here? Simply this: that the law cannot disannul the promise of God because Abraham came before Moses. In other words, the work of the law, which is death, must someday end—otherwise it would be greater than the Promise, even making the Promise void. Orthodoxy teaches that most of God’s creation will be forever judged and banished from the presence of God. This is in direct violation to what Paul is saying here. Judgment CANNOT be the end. It is not greater than the promise. The judgments of the law can never be God’s end, but rather, it is God’s means to bring us to Himself (through grace). The law, which condemns sin in the flesh, is used by God to bring all men to an end of themselves—even in the life of a believer. God’s ultimate purpose is found in the Promise, which is by grace through faith alone. The flesh will fight this purpose with all of its might, but the promise of God in Christ (the gospel of grace) is greater and more powerful than the law (judgment), and rejoices against it. (Jn. 1:17; Ja. 2:13)
While we understand that the law does not bring in righteousness, we see that it has a role in the life of ALL men (even us self-righteous believers). As we’ve seen, the law both condemns sin in the flesh (because it is holy, just, good, and spiritual—Rom. 7:12, 14), and points us to Christ—who is the fulfillment of the law. The less we walk in the flesh, the more we put on Christ; the more we put on Christ, the more His law is fulfilled in us. As stated earlier, this sanctification process of moving from death to life does not happen overnight. Every time we try and do something to make God accept us apart from the work of Christ, death comes and condemns us in the flesh. As we grow in grace, this happens a little bit less each day UNTIL we come into the fullness of sonship.
While the doctrine of “eternal torment” is a law-based teaching that stains God’s character, He uses it in the lives of His children WHILE He is teaching them grace. Little children need rules to keep them in line because of their immaturity. When we first come to God, we realize that He is holy and righteous, and that He has “the power to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” Combine the knowledge of God’s power WITH the desire of the flesh to “work to please God,” and what is the result? We begin to serve God more out of a fear of consequences rather than out of love. This is law. This is not to say that we shouldn’t fear God in the sense of respecting Him—of course we should. My two young daughters respect me because they know I’m a lot bigger and stronger than they are. What I’m talking about, however, is the desire of our flesh to serve God—because if we don’t—He will either punish us or not fully accept us. I understand this all too well because I was stuck in the law mode most of my Christian life. I spoke much of the grace of God but didn't realize that I was mixing law and grace, thus nullifying the power of God in my life. I thought that if I only did more things for God, He would be more pleased with me, and because of this mentality, I never really experienced lasting victory or peace. I was trying to please God by my own works and self-righteousness, and so the law condemned me—big time! Sadly, this is the exact state of the Church. She boasts much of the grace of God, but she has placed the burden of keeping the law upon her shoulders. In doing so, she has become weak, immature, and full of division. She has become just like the saints of Galatia—having begun in the Spirit, yet trying to be made perfect in the flesh. (Gal. 3:3) As God began to bring trials and tribulations in my life to teach me the meaning of total grace, I began to experience victory, and more than that, my image of God began to change. My theology began to shift from law to grace-based. I no longer strive in the flesh to obtain righteousness, but I am resting in the wondrous grace of Jesus to bring about all righteousness. I now serve God because I am in love with Him, not because I fear His wrath.
So it is with ALL of God’s children. The false doctrine of eternal torment is a necessary part of God’s work as He takes us FROM little children TO mature sons and daughters. There are many other things that have the same law-based character (i.e. water baptism required for salvation; tithing, denominationalism, etc.). Anything that we feel we must do in order for us to either to be accepted by Him or to be made holy is legalism—period! Any works that we do must flow FROM His life, not out TO His life. We must come to the place where we truly see Jesus as the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending of our salvation. He who has begun a good work will be faithful to complete the work He has begun in us. (Phil. 1:6)
Everything that happens in our lives, even the untruths we believe about God, is all used by God for His glory. He is going to bring about the “reconciliation of ALL things” (Col. 1:20) by destroying ALL flesh (self-will). God will show each man and woman, in their own unique set of circumstances, exactly what it means to live a life in the flesh—a life alienated from His life. This is exactly what happens when we try to please God by the works of our own hands—we separate ourselves from His life. And finally, when each man has come to the full realization that there is no life whatsoever apart from the life which is found in Jesus Christ, then will the last enemy be subdued under His feet that God may be all in all. (1 Cor. 15:22-28)
NOTE: I have found that any bible truth CANNOT be learned by study methods alone. The truths that led to my victory were preached to me over and over again. In fact, I can remember teaching many a Sunday School lesson out of Galatians, preaching the grace of God yet unaware that I was bound by the same spirit of legalism that I was warning others about. It was through a long period of failure and refining that I realized that I could do nothing to either gain, KEEP, or MAINTAIN my salvation--it is all God’s work.
God’s ways are truly marvelous. He will take every high and lofty thing that seeks to exalt itself above His knowledge, and bring into captivity ALL things to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10:5) While this in and of itself is an awesome thought, it is even more awesome to realize that all these things that compete with God for preeminence, were all created by Him in order that He might, “through death, destroy Him that had the power of death….” (Heb. 2:14) Evil was not a second thought with God. “All things are of Him, through Him, and to Him.” God uses all things in our lives to accomplish His ends (Gen. 50:20; Eph. 1:11).
While I don’t understand many things concerning God’s purposes for the ages and beyond, it is sufficient for me to know that, in the end, nothing will have been meaningless, and nothing will have been for naught. It is this very destruction of death through the process of death that is the great mystery— God’s light coming forth out of the darkness, strength coming from weakness, riches from poverty, maturity from immaturity, resurrection from the grave—all of which were conceived from the very mind of God in order that He might fulfill His ultimate plan of being “all in all.” May our hearts also be comforted in knowing that this wonderful plan of bringing forth life out of death is not for just a chosen few, but for ALL men.
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33, 36)
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Is. 55:8-9)