The Savior’s Sap

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:5)

I have said here many times that deep down inside of every human being is the desire, whether we acknowledge it or not, to live a life that truly matters. Today’s verse tells us how this is to be accomplished: by staying connected to Jesus, the true Vine.

In the Old Testament, grapes symbolized the fruitfulness of God’s people Israel when they were following His plan and purpose for their lives. In building on this image, Jesus made it clear that He, as our Vine, is the One responsible for our fruitfulness, but we must remember to stay connected to Him. If you cut a branch that is loaded with fruit off from the vine, the fruit will wither and die in short order. Only when the branch stays connected to the vine, receiving its nourishing sap, will it remain fruitful.

So the question is, Are you receiving the nourishment you need to live a life that truly matters? We can answer that question by checking our fruit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Make no mistake, every disciple of Christ is absolutely dependent on Jesus for producing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Our source of life and spiritual fruit does not come from within ourselves. No matter how well we try to live and how hard we work, we simply cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit apart from staying connected to and receiving the sap from the Vine. Jesus laid blunt emphasis to this point, saying “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

This picture of the vine and the branches is as profound as it is personal. When the branch is separated from the vine, it dies; when it is connected to the vine, it lives. And all true branches bear good fruit, which is why Jesus says, “By their fruit you will know them” (Matthew 7:20).

Where have you been receiving your nourishment from lately? From the true Vine? Or from somewhere else? Only to the extent that you stay connected to Jesus will you live a life that will live on after you are gone — that is, a life that truly matters.

One final point: Pruning is necessary. Jesus said, “Every branch that does bear fruit [my Father] prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (John 15:2). To be sure, pruning is painful, but it is necessary. In order to maximize your potential in the service of your Lord, God, the great Gardner, must prune you, even if you are already fruitful, because He knows there is more you can produce.

If this finds you in a season of pruning, fear not! God is at work in you to make you more fruitful for His glory and for the good of others, including good for you!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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The Almighty Is Not Angry With You!

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.” (Jeremiah 31:3)

Throughout my years as a pastor, it has not been uncommon to hear people in the church, young and old alike, who have been saved by grace through faith, say, “I’m sure God is angry with me for what I have done!”

Allow me to clear this up right now: Jesus Christ received all the anger, wrath, and judgment for your sins while He hung on the cross, paying the penalty in full for your sins; because He did that, God can never be angry with you. Let me say that one more time: God can never be angry with you.

When Jesus cried out “It is finished!” from the cross (John 19:30), He meant what He said! God’s anger against your sins was fully exhausted on Jesus Christ. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath and completely satisfied the justice of His Father in heaven. Because of what Jesus has done for fallen sinners who have trusted in Him, we are declared “Not guilty.” As Paul explained so well, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2).

Because God condemned Jesus on the cross, He can never and will never condemn you for anything. Now, that does not mean that you will never be disciplined for the times you rebel against God. God disciplines His wayward children, just as any loving, responsible parent will do. But this discipline is delivered in love for God’s glory and your good.

All too often, we anxious sinners start listening to the devil’s accusations and we start believing them. “How could you possibly have done that?” the serpent hisses cruelly at us. “You really blew it that time! God must be FURIOUS with you. Why, you’re probably not even saved! What kind of a real Christian could do a thing like THAT?!” We’ve all heard those sly whispers; what we must remember is that the devil is a liar and has been since the beginning (John 8:44). We must listen to our Lord, not to the liar; when we do, we can rest assured in our redemption, knowing that the Almighty is not angry with us.

Perhaps there was a time in your life when you found yourself in a relationship where someone cast you aside, kicked you to the curb, and walked away from you. Hear me well when I say this, Christian: Jesus will never do that to you! When He hung on that cross, you were on His heart and your name was on His cracked lips. Jesus lived for you. Jesus died for you. Jesus rose from the dead for you. Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God the Father making intercession for you at this very moment. And one day, Jesus will return to set the new heavens and the new earth in place, where all the saints of God will live together Coram Deo — before the face of God.  

You remember that Peter denied Jesus on the night He was betrayed — not once, but three times. Do you remember how Jesus responded after His resurrection? He restored Peter to his position as His disciple by asking a simple question — not once, but three times, “Peter, do you love me?” Each one of Peter’s replies — “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15) — was drawn from Peter to act as a divine eraser for each one of his cowardly denials. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound of our Lord’s forgiveness!

Christian, your standing with God does not depend on what you do for God; it depends on all that God in Christ has done for you! That is done; it is finished; God can never be angry with you!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Just Like Justus

They [the disciples] proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. (Acts 1:23)

When the time came for someone to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot and bring the number of disciples back to twelve, there were two candidates who were well qualified for the position: Justus and Matthias. The Lord chose Matthias for this position and not Justus. Can your relate to this story? To be sure, there are times in this life when we all probably feel just like Justus.

Did you ever stand in one of those lines in gym class where the two top athletes were picking teams for a game and eventually there was only one player left . . . and that player was you? I had that experience as a boy, and I well remember the sting of hearing someone grumble, “I guess we’ll have to take Boland.” Talk about feeling like an outcast — both unwelcome and unwanted. Perhaps you remember sending your high school transcripts off to your top choice for college, only to be on the receiving end of a rejection letter. Perhaps you felt that sting later in life, when you were expecting a promotion at the office, only to find out that someone else, perhaps someone less qualified than you, was given the position. All of us have stories of being not chosen . . . just like Justus.

But we must not forget the most important message in this story: Even though he was not selected by God to be one of the Twelve, Justus was already on God’s team. He was picked. He was wanted. He was chosen . . . but he was not the one chosen to receive the honor of being added to the roster of disciples. That’s life, and that’s the life we all live at some level. All of us have “not chosen” stories that can reopen wounds from our past. I have often wondered how being the one who was not chosen for such an important position, one for which he was clearly qualified, might have affected Justus. The Scriptures do not tell us. Early Christian tradition recorded that he became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis (“City of the Free”), a village northwest of the city of Hebron.

The one thing I do know about Justus being not chosen is this: when we are on God’s team and we are not chosen for one position, that simply throws open the door to move into another position. This was true for Kim and me. I was not chosen as the pastor to succeed Dr. D. James Kennedy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church after he went home to be with the Lord in 2007. But in 2012, God did choose Kim and me to plant a church. Had I been chosen to fill Dr. Kennedy’s vacancy, I would never have been chosen, along with my wife and family, to plant Cross Community Church.

Remember, life is full of “Justus stories” for all of us. But never forget this biblical truth: It is not what happens to you that makes the greatest difference in how your life works out; it is what you do with what happens that does. What have you done with your “not chosen” story? Has a door recently closed in your life? Start looking for the door that God has opened for you! That new door will always open, a door God has opened up just for you . . . just like Justus.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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The Almighty Always Answers

The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the first. (Job 42:12)

There are many important lessons to be learned from the story of Job. God is sovereign. Satan is real. Life is fragile. I could fill an entire blog post with the myriad, magnificent lessons that can be drawn from Job, but one of the most comforting of these is to know that God actually answered Job’s questions.

Now, it’s true that God did not answer Job in the way he wanted to be answered. Job wanted an explanation for why all the evil things had happened in his life, and he did not get that answer from God. But Job did get an answer, which means that God cared enough about Job to respond to his questions. And Christian, God cares enough about you to respond to all of your questions too. But just remember that, as with Job, His response is often not what you were hoping for or expecting.

After losing his health, his wealth, and all ten of his children, and having received no comfort from his three friends, whom Job later described as “miserable counselors,” God spoke up and spoke into Job’s life:

The Lord answered Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job 38:1-2)

There is no soft, cuddly comfort in those words, and there was little comfort discernible in the many pointed questions God directed at his hurting and faithful servant. But what this lesson is designed to teach us is that where there seems to be no comfort, there is still contact, and in contact we are to find comfort. The Creator and Sustainer of the universe stooped to speak into the life of His servant Job, and He stoops to speak into your life — not just daily, but moment by moment. In making contact with Job, God made it clear that Job mattered, and mattered intensely to God. You see, even as Job gave voice to his grief, anger, pain, and bewilderment, “Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 2:10).

When you find yourself in a storm marked by grief, anger, pain, or confusion, take it all to God. Don’t censor any of it! God knows your heart and He understands your cry. Job could have cursed God and died, as his insensitive wife harshly suggested. But Job’s reply to this faithless “counsel” was filled with faith: “You are talking like a foolish woman,” he said. “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). Job knew that God is sovereign and in control of all things, even during this terrible time when it looked like his life was completely out of control.

Remember, God is in the business of making contact with all of His children, and that includes you. The Almighty always answers, but not always in the way we want Him to. Now, you may never hear God’s voice speaking to you directly out of the storm winds, but you will hear His voice in the sacred Scriptures. When your answer to your “Why?” question does not come, remember, you have already received the “Who” behind it: Jesus Christ. Can there be any greater blessing in life than that?

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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The Command to Teach

“I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who leads you in the way you should go.” (Isaiah 48:17)

When you think of words that describe Jesus, what comes to mind? Surely Savior, Redeemer, and Lord quickly come to mind, but we must always remember that the word Teacher belongs near the top of our list. Jesus is addressed directly as Teacher more than 60 times in the New Testament. From the multitudes to the disciples and even to the religious leaders, Jesus was repeatedly addressed as Teacher.

Jesus did not rebuke anyone for addressing Him with this appellation. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’” He said, “and rightly so, for that is what I am” (John 13:13). With no classroom education, with no teaching degree from any recognized rabbinical institution, Jesus was the greatest teacher the world has ever known. He spent time teaching both the common people who had no formal education, as well instructing the biblical scholars of His day. And what was their response? “The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law” (Matthew 7:28-29).

Did you know that the final command of our Lord Jesus before He returned to heaven was a teaching command for His disciples . . . and for you and me today?

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)

If we can measure the success of a teacher by the accomplishments of his or her students, then we would have to say that Jesus was not only the greatest, but also the most successful teacher who ever lived. Jesus taught with power and authority, and it was all rooted in His love, mercy, grace, and compassion. Just a little more than 2000 years have passed since Jesus taught His final lesson here on earth, and more than two billion people from every tongue, tribe, and nation bear the name of Christ. Christianity has spread from its point of origin in Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the world.

So my question to you is this: How well have you learned Jesus’ teaching lesson and put it into practice? I can tell you from personal experience that the greatest privilege in this world is to tell others about Jesus. There is nothing this world has to offer that is more satisfying and meaningful in life than to be part of the salvation process in the life of another person. And the best part of this is that all we have to do is to plant the seeds of the Gospel and water them; we can trust Jesus to supply the increase. He has promised to do exactly that.

Who can you share Jesus with today?

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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No Hometown Hero

Jesus said, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” (Mark 6:4)

Here is but another “wound” our Lord endured during His brief life here on earth. Having been welcomed and honored almost everywhere He went, healing and teaching throughout the towns and villages, when Jesus came to His own hometown, they received Him not. As John wrote, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). And why did the people who knew Jesus best treat Him so poorly? Because they knew Him best . . . or they thought they did.

“Isn’t this the carpenter?” they asked dismissively. “Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3). These hometown people had the same problem that many have today regarding Jesus: they thought they knew Him and were in a position to make judgments about Him. Because they thought they knew Jesus, they considered Him to be no better than they were. As the Lord said through the psalmist Asaph, “You thought I was altogether like you: (Psalm 50:21).

The people of Nazareth were actually offended that many others were following Jesus and hanging on His every word. And notice the outcome of their disbelief: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (Mark 6:5). In other words, seeing their unbelief, Jesus decided not to cast His “pearls” before pigs. Their preconceived ideas about Jesus closed them off from His blessings, both in word and in deed.

Let me ask you this question: Have you ever felt like you were serving well, but not receiving any honor or recognition for it? Or worse, did you believe that false motives were being imputed to your good works? What I am about to say next is as profound as it is personal: Only One came through this world perfect. And if His perfection did not please everyone, your imperfection (and mine) certainly won’t! There will always be people who believe you are unworthy. There will always be places where you will be unwelcome. You must receive that truth and simply get on with life and the ministry of service to which you have been called.

  • God says you are worthy.
  • God says you are welcomed.
  • God says you are wanted.
  • God says He has loved you from all eternity!

With all that God has said about you, who cares what others may say? As Paul asked rhetorically in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

In this world, we have been promised trials and tribulations. We have been warned that we will be buffeted by storms and waves of challenge. But we have also been promised the presence of Jesus. Focus on Christ, not on the circumstances you find yourself in. Know that He who began the good work in you has promised to bring it to completion.

Christian, if you are not a “hometown hero” . . . remember that you are in very good company!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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The Power of One

I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith. (Jude 3)

The great 19th-century English evangelist John Wesley once declared, “If I had 300 men who feared nothing but God, hated nothing but sin, and were determined to know nothing among men but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, I would set the world on fire.” To be sure, 300 men on fire contending for the faith would be an awesome sight to see. Yet it all starts with one . . . and that one is YOU!

They cry of Jude “to contend for the faith” is a call to every Christian, because it is no different today than it was in his day. The Jewish Christians were under attack from the false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing who were spreading lies and heresies about the good news of the Gospel. These false teachers were denying the deity of Christ and perverting the grace of God into a license for immorality.

The Greek word epagonizomai that our English Bibles render as “contend” is generally used to describe an athlete striving with intensity and determination to win victory in the field of competition. The Amplified Bible translates epagonizomai as “fight strenuously.” So the question I am putting to you today is this: Are you contending for the faith? Remember, our Lord Jesus did not entrust the Good News only to His disciples who had known Him personally, but to every disciple who would follow in their footsteps . . . and that includes you and me.

Here are two practical steps Jude provides us so that we can contend for the faith.

  1. “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.” (Jude 20). The goal of the Christian life is Christ-likeness. We contend for the faith when we are growing and maturing in our faith, and we are to use all the means of grace God has given us — including Bible study, prayer, and consistent church attendance — to do so.
  2. “Keep yourselves in God’s love” (Jude 21). Jesus made it clear what is meant here: “If you keep my commands,” He said, “you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). Obedience is not the reason for God to love us; it is the result of God’s love for us. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). We obey simply because we love our God and want to live a life that is pleasing to Him.

Remember, contending for the faith starts with each one of us. Greater is the power that is in you– the power of the One — than any power that will ever come against you. Contend for the faith, Christian! It all starts with you.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Lose To Win

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

The Bible is full of paradoxes — that is, statements that contain two truths that seem to be incompatible. And this is one of them: our Lord says we must lose to win. The only way to start truly living is to lose your life in service to your Savior.

When we look at today’s passage, the very first thing we need to see is that Jesus is not talking to the spiritual elite — “super saints” like Peter, James, and John. No, He is speaking to every person who desires to live a life that truly matters, a life filled with meaning, significance, and purpose . . . He is speaking to you and me today.

Notice that the words our Lord used — “anyone” and “whoever” — leave no room for exceptions. This is a call to all those who claim the name of Christ. To be sure, this call is counterintuitive for all of us, because by nature we do everything in our power to protect ourselves from any and all difficulties, hardships, and painful providences that might lead us down the road toward any kind of loss.

Now, a level of protecting oneself is certainly not a bad thing. It is biblical, in fact, because we are commanded not to live carelessly. “A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge,” the wisdom of Proverbs 22:3 advises us, “but the simple keep going and suffer for it.” The sacrifice that Jesus has called us to live, the sacrifice that leads to loss, is never to be a result of careless, thoughtless, or irresponsible living, but rather sacrifice on account of Christ. When we are living for the sake of our Savior, we reject self-interest, self-rule, and self-service, which means we have invited Jesus to take His rightful place in our lives. With Jesus on the throne of our lives, the place where our King belongs, we not only understand the duty to deny ourselves, but also the responsibility to take up our cross daily. There is a cost to following Christ, and we must be willing to count that cost, and ultimately pay it, if we are His true disciples.

Sometimes this sacrifice can cost us relationships. At other times is can cost us social status or even career advancement. Our Lord’s call is not easy, but it is necessary. And we must never forget that God never commands us to do anything without giving us everything we need to get it done. We have received His strength and His power to live a life of self-denial and cross-bearing. With the supernatural strength of our Savior residing in us through the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, we can deny ourselves with great joy, regardless of the cost, and take up our cross, regardless of the circumstance.

Regardless of where this message finds you — whether you are giving up what the world would consider “good things” or enduring what the world would consider “bad things” for the glory of Jesus — remember that you are not alone. Our Lord Jesus set the perfect example of what it means to deny yourself and take up your cross daily, and in so doing, He made it clear that the cross must always precede the crown, and that true life only comes through death.

Christian, you must lose to win!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Beautiful Believer

He has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

When you think of the word “beauty,” what comes to mind? I live on the east coast of Florida, so the first thing I think of is sunrise at the beach. As a teenager, I served as an ocean lifeguard, and I would often arrive at Hollywood Beach early enough to see the sun rise over the ocean, and the beauty God had created never ceased to amaze me. Some readers might say that “beauty” is best represented by a mountain range covered in show; for others beauty is a nature trail winding through a forest.

In today’s word of encouragement , we read that God is making everything beautiful in its time, and that includes you. That’s right . . . you! In God’s perfect timing, you are being perfected into the beautiful believer you were created to be. Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that it often does not feel this way. Some days we feel like we are everything other than “beautiful” — we think what we should not think, say what we should not say, and do what we should not do. And those are the days when we must remember that God is making everything beautiful in His time and in His way . . . including us!

Never forget that everything is happening for two reasons: God’s glory and our ultimate good, and we can and should trust that His process is perfect. As one Bible commentator put it, “God is working all things out so that, all things considered, it could not have been better.” To be sure, on the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter reflected anything but beauty as he called down curses on himself to emphasize his desperate denials that he had been a companion of Jesus. But after the resurrection, Jesus restored Peter, reminding him that He could see what Peter could not see: the true condition of Peter’s heart. On the surface, Peter looked like a man who had no concern for Jesus at all, but Jesus knew better. Jesus knew that inasmuch as the spirit is willing, far too often the flesh is weak. Jesus knew that Peter’s heart beat for him, though it beat imperfectly.

This is true for all of us. Everything we do, we do imperfectly, often without any measure of beauty. But remember, God is always looking at the heart. Jesus knows you love Him, just like He knew Peter loved Him. The reason Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” was not because He was seeking reassurance, but because Peter did! Jesus knew Peter would be doubting his own faith because of his cowardly denials.

Peter saw his own failure looming large, but Jesus saw Peter’s great faith that would be lived out imperfectly. And not long after Jesus had restored Peter to fellowship, Peter stood boldly before a group of unbelieving Jews on the Day of Pentecost and proclaimed, “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. . . . Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:36, 38).

Regardless of where this message finds you today, remember that you are beautiful in the eyes of God because you are clothed in the rich, righteous robes of Jesus Christ. And in God’s time and in His perfect way, you are being made beautiful in every way. There is a time coming when you will received into glory, where you will be without spot or blemish . . .  in a word, you will be beautiful.

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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Encouragement to Endure

“To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Revelation 2:17)

Is this not a word of eternal encouragement for you to keep on keeping on this day and to endure until you cross the finish line of faith? If we understand this word rightly, our hearts will be stirred unto zeal for the things of our Lord. Our hearts will beat joyfully for Jesus and the glory of His name, regardless of the cost or circumstance.

When John was given this vision of the Lord Jesus Christ, the words “hidden manna” were designed to give him (and us) an echo of the forty years the people of God spent wandering in the wilderness after being freed from their bondage in Egypt. They were in a place were there was no food, yet our Lord gave them manna from heaven to sustain them each day throughout their entire 40 years in the wilderness.

But John has something else in view for us. Thanks to God’s grace, we are made victorious in this life and are invited to sit at the table of our Lord. But it gets even better than that! The “hidden manna” we will be given to eat is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He was the manna of the wilderness and He is our “hidden manna” today. Regardless of where this message finds you — whether you are standing atop the mountain of God in joyous victory or slogging sadly through the valley of defeat, Jesus is your “hidden manna” who sustains us in every season of our lives.

Jesus is our shelter. Jesus is our shield. He is our source of strength and sustenance. He fights our battles and He gives us victory. And He has promised that He Himself is the ultimate reward of the righteous. I believe John also wanted us to remember these words from the apostle Paul: “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Paul was speaking to believers who were facing incredible difficulties and hardships in life, ranging from persecution to imprisonment and even to death. So Paul reminded these beleaguered saints to keep their eyes fixed on the One who had overcome everything — even death itself — and who would never allow anything to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, this is also your truth today, tomorrow, and forever. Walk in it, by grace through faith. And no matter where this message finds you today, remember this: Greater is the power that is at work within you than any power that will every come up against you!

This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!

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