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Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Can One Be Just A Christian Without Being In A Denomination

Many years ago I asked a lady this very question--can one be just a Christian in Christ’s church without being in a denomination?  Her answer was that while that was once possible it is not possible today.  I have never understood that kind of thinking.  To her the church that is Christ’s could not exist today, in the modern era, alone by itself, outside of denominationalism.  That is a position that raises all kinds of difficulties.

In the early years of Christianity, the gospel message when believed and obeyed made Christians and Christians only that were added by God to the church, Christ’s church.  “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47 NKJV)  If the pure gospel message of the New Testament will not do that today then when, where, and how did it lose its power to do so?   Why must I today be in a denomination when all I want to be in is the Lord’s church?

But it is said that the gospel still saves just like it did in the first century, still puts you in the Lord’s church, but then after obeying it you must join a denomination.  Why?  They didn’t in the first century.  Oh, it is said you join one for edification, fellowship, and joint evangelistic and benevolent efforts.   So, is it being said that the first-century church lacked these things?  Is it being said you cannot be in that church today for it does not exist as a stand-alone institution today?  If it doesn’t when did it die out as a stand-alone institution? 

Does the gospel message now when believed and obeyed add you both to the church Jesus built and to a denomination simultaneously?  If so, when did that begin?  If so where can I read about it in the Bible?  If so which denomination does it add me to in addition to the Lord’s church?  If so why is that needed now but was not needed for hundreds of years after the first century had come and gone?  If so when did the gospel lose its power to make me just a Christian, no more, no less? 

When did Jesus and the gospel begin to need help in the saving business?  When did his church alone cease to be the body of the saved?  “He is the Savior of the body.” (Eph. 5:23 NKJV)  The body is his spiritual body, his church, “He is the head of the body, the church.” (Col. 1:18 NKJV)  The Lord adds us to the church when we believe and obey the gospel (Acts 2:47).  Paul says of Christians, “You are the body of Christ, and members individually.” (1 Cor. 12:27 NKJV)

But it is now said that that is not enough--if the lady was correct.  Now to be saved you must also be a member of a denomination (the assumption being that all Christians are).  So, you must be both in the Lord’s church and a denomination to be saved, is that right?  It is if the church Christ built is not sufficient by itself.  But, most denominationalists would say it is not essential to be a member of their particular denomination to be saved, others will do.  Then please tell me of what earthly or heavenly good that denomination serves other than to be a divider of men, one group of believers divided against another group of believers?  If it is not essential to the salvation of men get rid of the thing that causes all the strife and division.

The truth is the church Jesus built does still exist on this earth today without the help of any denomination.  The gospel has not lost its power.  The church of Christ can exist anywhere in the world today when men and women are willing to forget just about everything they have been taught in denominationalism and just take the Bible alone as their guide.  If the church Jesus built does not exist as an operating entity upon earth today in your locality, wherever that be, as it did in the first century in the Middle East, there is only one reason for it in lands where the Bible is readily available--men love their denominations and would rather have them and their creeds and councils and governing bodies than just the simple New Testament church and its worship regulated by the word of God alone.

Let us be honest.  If we take the New Testament, the word of God alone, as our guide a lot of things will have to be given up.  One does not read in his New Testament of, as examples, sprinkling of infants, christenings, sprinkling of anyone at any age and calling it baptism (baptism is immersion), baptism for any purpose other than the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, 22:16), instruments of music being used in New Testament worship, dramas being performed, group musical performances, and a host of other things that have today become commonplace in denominational practices and worship services.  Are those things right?  You cannot read about them in your New Testament which raises the question of does one need a New Testament as a guide.

Nor will one read in his New Testament anything about one man rule of a congregation by a single individual designated as a pastor (each New Testament congregation had multiple pastors), oversight of a congregation by a national church organization, church-sponsored ball teams, raising funds by business ventures, seminars for everything from weight loss to how to do your taxes, and the list could go on.  One must go outside the New Testament for those things. 

No, if you want the New Testament church that Christ built a lot of things will have to go by the wayside and you will end up with nothing much that is attractive to worldly men.  The worship service will not be like attending a rock concert or an entertainment event.  It will be very simple--singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, prayers, partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week, the word of God will be preached, and a collection will be taken on the first day of the week to carry on the work of preaching the gospel and carrying for the needy.   

It is a hard transition from a denomination into the simple New Testament church that is led not by a single man or a national oversight organization but by a few select men who meet the biblical qualifications to be elders as found in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1.  These men have no authority to legislate for God.  Their role is simply that of overseers to ensure that the work is done that God has given the church to do.  These men will be chosen by the members of the congregation from among themselves.  No one person designated a pastor by the denominational world will run the affairs of the congregation nor will a national organization.

The name on the sign out front will not matter as long as it is a scriptural designation.  It could simply be called the church (for that is what it is), or the church of God, or the church of Christ, or any other scriptural designation.  The name is more descriptive than it is an actual name.

You will not be voted into the membership.  You cannot join this group of believers.  Why not?  Because God adds you when you obey the gospel.  As I heard one man say recently, he had it right but I had never thought about it that way, you cannot join the church because you are adopted into it and God is the one who does the adopting.

Critics say that in the very act of organizing such a group you immediately become just another denomination.  That goes along with the way they think for they do not want to leave denominationalism behind and thus insist one has to be a member of a denomination and cannot be just a Christian.  They thus proclaim the Lord’s church a denomination.  If they admit we can have just the New Testament church on earth today and worship in it they condemn themselves and they are not about to do that so all they can do is shout and shout over and over again “denomination.”  They will label you and truth be thrust to the wind.

But what they are really saying, if they would think it through, is that God’s word has lost its power to make just a Christian and lost its power to keep his church on earth today out in the open where it can be seen.  They are saying that the seed, “the seed is the word of God” (Luke 8:11 NKJV), produces a different crop today than what it did back in the first century.  Back then it produced just Christians, now you plant it and you get both a Christian and a denominationalist.  Strange seed this is that has undergone a transformation like no other seed in human history.

They are caught in a bind.  On the one hand, they do not want to say you must be in a denomination to be saved but then on the other hand they want to insist you must because to them it is impossible to reestablish the New Testament church today and just have it alone.  They want it both ways; they want to eat the cake and save it all at the same time.  Life doesn’t work that way.  They cannot have it both ways.  But, that is their problem, not mine.

I think most people who are serious about their religion see the great contradictions in denominationalism.  However, they either do not know what to do about it or else their love for it is such that they will not give it up.  I readily admit it is hard to start over but that is what must be done if we are going back to the church Jesus built.

Denominationalism will always have a greater appeal to man than the Lord’s church for it allows more freedom of expression and gives man more say so in what is done and how it is done.  Man has a desire for that.  It has always been that way long before the church ever came into existence.  Mankind wants to do things they want to do unhindered by God.

The concept of restoration of New Testament Christianity is a valid one and there are many churches of Christ in the land today still operating on the principle that it is possible to be just a Christian alone outside of denominationalism, just be a member of the church Jesus built, take the Bible and do what they did in the first century, that and that alone, and be just a Christian.  Unless God’s word has lost its power it is still possible to do that.

The church can be established in its New Testament purity in any area where men and women are willing to leave denominationalism and just take the Bible alone.  It is not necessary to call it the church of Christ although no man should be hesitant to call the local congregation by that Christ-honoring name.  Just give it a scriptural designation, organize it by what you read in your New Testament, accept members based on the way men were made members in the original church Christ built, worship as they worshipped, do the work they did, and leave all manmade inventions out of it.

To answer the question that was the title of this article, “Can One Be Just A Christian Without Being In A Denomination” the answer is yes if the desire is great enough to do so.  But, be assured, those who love their denomination will have none of it.  The Catholics are not the only ones who love their traditions.  As the Apostle Paul said, “For do I now persuade men, or God?  Or do I seek to please men?  For if I still pleased men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Gal 1:10 NKJV)  We can please men (humankind) or we can please the God of men.  Pleasing men means denominationalism.  We ought to choose to please God.

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Thursday, June 6, 2024

Living in Grace Day by Day

Many years ago I got into a discussion with the editor of one of the brotherhood periodicals over the topic of how a Christian is cleansed from sin that he may commit from time to time.  He had taken the position that a Christian had to confess every single sin he committed or else he was lost.  There was a general debate among brethren back then about this topic which they were calling "continual cleansing."  I am not here to opine on that doctrine except in the case of sins of ignorance.   

I think most Christians agree that when a Christian sins he must repent of his sins and confess them to the Father in prayer asking for forgiveness and depending on the particular sin and the circumstances surrounding it there may be a need to confess to others as well asking their forgiveness, even before the church in some instances.  Some think that it is never necessary to publicly confess sins but I am not one of them.  All sin is against God but some sin is against others as well (Matt. 18:21, 1 Cor. 8:12) and one can commit sin against the church (1 Cor. 10:32, 1 Cor. 11:22, Gal. 1:13).  We need to confess to whomever we have sinned against.    

The editor I am speaking of years ago was taking the confession of sin to an extreme so that any sin not confessed to the Father doomed one, including sins of ignorance.  Now if it was hardness of heart and impenitence that prevented one from confessing a sin that is one thing but ignorance is quite another.  Sins committed in ignorance cannot be repented of and confessed unless it is at a later date when one knows more and has learned better and remembers his past.

However, remembering is part of the problem, a big part of it.  We do not realize we have sinned so the event or occasion when we sinned does not stick in our memory.  There was no reason to remember what to us at the time was meaningless.  We generally remember the evil we have done but if we did not consider our action at the time evil we are not likely to remember it a few days down the road to say nothing of years down the road. 

Now do not get me wrong, ignorance is not an excuse for sin.  If ignorance excuses sin then all those living in lands where they have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel, North Korea for example, are saved and are better off if they never have an opportunity to hear it.  If ignorance were an excuse for sin we would all be better off remaining ignorant.  If ignorance excuses sin one can be saved without the gospel. 

Nevertheless, there was a problem with my editor brother's position.  It is impossible for the Christian to know every single sin he has committed even as he attempts to live the Christian life in all sincerity and faithfulness.  I am to obey the laws of the land, of the government under which I live, but as I drive down the highways and streets of this country I do not see every speed limit sign.  Am I eternally lost because I violated a traffic law I was unaware of?  I am certainly guilty under the law but am I guilty and condemned under grace?    

There is no Christian security, no sense of peace, no freedom from fear of condemnation, no assurance of salvation, and no sense of living under grace versus law when we go that far afield.  John said he wrote 1 John so "that your joy may be full" (1 John 1:4 NKJV) but where is the joy if I must live in fear of my ignorance?  I wonder how many sins we have all committed in our lives when at the time we committed them we had no idea we were sinning.

Is the teenager who has just been baptized supposed to have the knowledge and understanding of the faithful Christian who has read and studied for 50 years?  Is there no room under the grace system under which we live for growth in knowledge and understanding?  "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18 NKJV)

So what is my point?  It is we live under grace, not law.  We do not know every sin in our life or sin that has been there.  We repent of and confess what we know which is all we can do.  I think it likely that many, perhaps most, add in their prayers to God a request that they be forgiven for all those sins of which they are unaware or know not even as they confess the sins they do know.

Do you not only know every commandment found in your New Testament but know exactly how to apply each one of them in every possible scenario that arises in your life?  Can you define every sin listed in the New Testament?  Tell me the difference between a temptation which is not sin according to the New Testament and an evil thought which is (Mark 7:20-23), draw me a line in the sand and tell me exactly when one crosses over into the other.  Is the thought only classified as evil when it is acted upon and thus becomes sin retrospectively only because it was acted on?

At what exact point in time does self-esteem turn into pride which is sin?  Draw the line in the sand and tell us exactly when.  My point is there are a lot of things that are black and white when we see them in the extremes but who is so perfect in judgment as to be able to draw these lines when they are not so extreme?  We can certainly be ignorant of crossing the line on occasion.  These are only examples of many similar things that could be listed. 

I want to make it clear I believe in strict commandment keeping.  I could quote verse after verse on the need to obey from the pages of the New Testament.  Every reader of the New Testament knows that but the bottom line is we are saved by grace and not by perfection in law-keeping. 

"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast." (Eph. 2:8-9 NKJV)  "I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain." (Gal. 2:21 NKJV)  The word "the" that comes before the word "law" in Gal. 2:21 just quoted is an added word, added by the translators, which is not in the Greek thus Young's Literal Translation of the Bible translates the passage, "I do not make void the grace of God, for if righteousness be through law--then Christ died in vain." 

John tells the Christian how he is saved day by day in 1 John 1:7, "But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin." (NKJV)  The word "cleanses" in this passage is in the present tense meaning it is a constant process, a continual thing.  Commentator Guy N. Woods says of the cleansing of this verse by the blood of Jesus that "it cleanses from sin, not merely or solely the conscience, but sin (amartias), all sin, whether of thought, word, or deed, rash sins, sins of ignorance, of malice, of omission or commission, sins of the flesh, sins of the disposition, sins of pleasure or of pain, sins of every type and kind committed at any time or place." (See his commentary on 1 John 1:7.)  I quoted this only because brother Woods mentions "sins of ignorance."  

E. M Zerr in his commentary on 1 John 1:7 says, "If a man is a worker in the Lord's vineyard and his life as a whole is one of obedience to the law of Christ, he does not need to worry about the mistakes he might make which he does not realize, for the blood of Christ will take care of it and wash them away."  I agree.  

But what does it mean to "walk in the light?" (1 John 1:7)  The Bible describes God's word as light.  "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (Psalms 119:105 NKJV)  "The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple." (Psalms 119:130 NKJV)  To walk in the light is to walk in or by God's word.  It is to be directed by God's word which is the same as to be directed by God.  

But it might be objected that would require perfection in the knowledge of the word and anything short of that would not be truly walking in the word, in the light.  I concede it does place a responsibility on a man to not be lazy or lukewarm in studying and learning God's word.  If we fail to walk in God's word because we were too indifferent and uncaring to find a desire to read and study the word how can we expect our sins committed in ignorance to be forgiven when it was willful ignorance we lived in?  There comes a point in time when we are old enough in the faith to know better as the saying goes but even then we each have different God-given abilities to learn and retain knowledge. 

Whatever subject a man sets out to learn it takes time and that goes for learning God's will as well.  Peter said to those new in the faith, "As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby." (1 Peter 2:2 NKJV)  God thus allows for growth and no babe ever becomes an adult overnight.  Elsewhere the writer of the book of Hebrews says, "Everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe." (Heb. 5:13 NKJV)  If he is unskilled it surely means he has a ways to go to maturity and thus is prone to sins of ignorance. 

Heb. 5:14 sums up the end goal of spiritual growth in knowledge, "But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil." (Heb. 5:14 NKJV)  It thus takes time.  

Yes, I believe we must repent of and confess every sin to God of which we are aware to be forgiven.  John teaches, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9 NKJV)  I also agree, as already stated, that those too indifferent to study and learn are not going to get a free pass because of ignorance.  I would also include in that group those who through hardness of heart are unable to learn the truth (God will judge).  But, to say a Christian man who has a good and honest heart yet sins in ignorance and thus fails to repent of that sin and confess it is condemned is a thing I do not see the Bible teaching. 

Walking in the light is the key (1 John 1:7) but the best any man can do is walk in the light he presently has.  I have more light today than I had 30 years ago because I know more today than I did then.  How about you?  You surely know more today than you did 5 or 10 years ago. 

I am satisfied I have taken the correct position on this subject for the opposing position puts us back under a strict law-keeping system for salvation where one slip up through ignorance condemns you.  Furthermore, that position requires that one be fully mature from the moment he arises out of the waters of baptism in both knowledge and understanding.  That just cannot be correct.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2024

The Prodigal Son--When He Came to Himself

The story of the prodigal son as told by Jesus in Luke 15:11-32 is too long to quote here but is so well known that almost everyone acquainted with the Bible knows the story and the main thrust of the lesson taught there.  However, there is one phrase in the account we do not talk enough about--the phrase “when he came to himself” found in verse 17.

This verse marks the point in the young man’s life where his eyes were opened to the extent he could now see clearly what before had been hidden from his eyes, as the text says, “when he came to himself” (NKJV), and as a result repentance entered his heart. 

When lessons are presented on the prodigal son the phrase, “when he came to himself”, is not talked about much.  It ought to be.  It indicates that while the prodigal son was living in sin there was a sense in which he was not himself.  He was not a person who could see reality; he was not a person who could reason correctly; he was not the person he was meant to be.

One could almost say sin is a form of insanity.  If the Bible is true (as it is) does any man of reason think he can fight against God and win?  How does one fight against God and win?  A sane man reasoning correctly sees there is only one course of action to pursue--a willing submission to the power that is, to the “rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2 NKJV) as the Psalmist puts it. 

Yet, people seemingly do not see that.  Why?  Could it be because they have not yet come to themselves as the prodigal son did?  The life of Jesus offers many examples of people that you and I looking back on cannot understand.  Their actions were unreasonable in light of the things they saw and experienced with Jesus.  They appear to have lost all reason and common sense.  Miracle after miracle, miracles that cannot be denied, are performed before their very eyes and yet they cannot or do not believe.  Jesus raises Lazarus from the tomb, from death to life, after he has been dead four days (John 11:39).  How is that possible? 

When he performs all these miracles it is obvious God is with him.  Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2 NKJV)  After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do?  For this man works many signs.” (John 11:47 NKJV)  Yes, he raises a man from the dead and you think he is not from God, you think he needs to be crucified?  Is this kind of thinking sane?  Is it reasonable?  Nicodemus could see the truth but the Pharisees either did not, could not, or would not but as the case may be there was only one reason for that --  sin.  Sin changes a man to the point he does not reason correctly.

Not long ago I learned of a Christian man, extremely well thought of and liked, faithful by every measurement apparent to an observer, married for 39 years, who announces to his fellow Christians he is leaving his wife, divorcing her to marry a divorced Christian woman in the same congregation.  They had been secretly dating for about a year unknown to anyone.  Is this sanity?  Is it Christian?  Does it lead to heaven or hell?  The wife had no idea so I am told.  Here are a couple of prodigals that need to “come to themselves.” 

We all know what a godly man David was.  I probably enjoy reading the Psalms as much as any book in the Bible.  They reveal the heart of David at his best.  Yet, perhaps no one is a better example to us of how sin changes a person.  I refer to his encounter with Bathsheba, the adultery, the murder of her husband, and the intent to do nothing about it other than hide the facts as best as he could.  David was a prodigal who “came to himself” with the help of Nathan the prophet of God. 

I think one can see both in the life of the prodigal son and the life of David that it often takes the course of events to bring a man to himself.  We know the poverty and want the prodigal son fell into and we know that Nathan the prophet confronted David to his face.  Sin gets such a grip on a man or woman it often takes some kind of outside force to get a man to see his situation and repent and turn away from it.

I once read a sermon where a preacher shocked me as he recalled an encounter that he had as a college professor in a Bible college with a young man who was either an atheist or maybe just rebellious against the faith.  I do not remember that detail but the young man was not about to be a faithful child of God, totally against it.  Here is a paraphrase of what the preacher/Bible professor told him.  He says words to the effect I will pray for you that such events (meaning negative things) will come into your life that will open your eyes and heart.  I have thought about that statement for years.  It was a prayer for adversity.

I have come to believe the Bible professor was right in making a statement of that kind and offering that kind of prayer.  No, he was not praying for the young man to be in a car wreck and paralyzed for life but only a prayer that enough adversity come into his life to get his eyes opened.  No man can come to God who does not first repent.  Those least likely to repent are those whose lives seem to be nothing other than one winning hand after another (a worldly phrase that is applicable here).

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called.” (1 Cor. 1:26 NKJV)  All men are called by the gospel so what does this verse mean?  It means that those who are living this kind of life where everything is seemingly going right and nothing going wrong, a life they can brag about for its worldly success, are seldom going to repent and answer the gospel call.  It often takes some real adversity in life to see a need for God.

A man must feel a need for God before he will seek God and salvation.  The prodigal was forced into a situation where his need became overwhelming.  David was confronted with a prophet sent from God.  David did not doubt that. 

What is wrong with today’s preaching--that is a large percentage of it?  It fails at this very point where there is an unwillingness to confront people with the problem of sin in their lives.  Sin has disappeared from the American vocabulary.  How are people ever going to come to themselves if the whole world seems to be condoning their sin?  How do you sin when there is no such thing as sin such as has come to be the standard of thought in America today?

There was a time in my life (I am 62) where if a couple moved in together not being married it was looked down upon by just about the whole community.  I now know of those who not only move in together, but buy a house, and have children and it is thought to be a wonderful thing even though they remain unmarried.  There is celebration rather than embarrassment, joy rather than sorrow.

Do you think the couple I mentioned above where the man is leaving his wife of 39 years will have a problem finding a place to worship?  I hope you are not that naïve.  It ought to be that way until repentance takes place which means you quit the sin you are committing (you can live in adultery--see Col. 3:5-7).  It ought to be but it won’t be.  Some religious body will welcome them in and rejoice that they have such a loving couple with them now--a couple that wants to be affiliated with them.  Many churches no longer worry about sin in their presence.  (Since writing this article this has now come to pass, the couple are members in good standing with their membership in another congregation despite practicing adultery.)

The words of Isaiah which Jesus said were fulfilled in Matt. 13:14-15 seem applicable in many ways yet today.  “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the heart of this people has grown dull.  Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their heart and turn, so that I should heal them.” (NKJV)

Jesus said, “This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” (Matt. 3:19-20 NKJV)

People can be “slaves of sin” (Rom. 6:17 NKJV).  Some seem to think they can change their life on a moment’s notice, repent any time they want to.  Do you ever notice how it is they never seem to want to?  It is not that easy to do.  It is not easy to do as the prodigal son did and come to yourself.  It is hard to get the want to as long as life is going along pleasingly and pleasantly.

However, God did not make us to be the worst we can be but the best.  Deep down inside I think we all want to be good, do we not?  It is possible.  We can repent.  Like the prodigal son and David, we can face up to facts about ourselves and repent.

The real shame is not in being a prodigal “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23 NKJV)  I am not saying there is glory in being a prodigal but only that is where we all either are now or once were.  But the real shame of it all, the deep everlasting shame is in not going home.  The prodigal went home.  That is where he belonged.  That is where you belong when you are at the best you can be, at home with God.  When he came to himself the prodigal son went home.  If you are living in sin when are you going home?

The world may overlook sin and remove it from the American vocabulary but it is not going anywhere with God.  He knows where it is and who is holding onto it, who will not repent, who is living in sin even while the whole world thinks nothing of it.  That being the case we can only pray that men might come to themselves, casting off the blinders from their eyes, that they might see the reality of the self they have become instead of the person God made them to be.

We would have no one to despair, upon coming to such a realization about himself, thinking all is lost; God has given up on me and will never have me.  As the old hymn goes God is calling the prodigal son, come without delay.  The prodigal can go home if he will.  God awaits him there.

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  (Matt. 11:28 NKJV)

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(While this was posted under today's date it was originally written approximately 15 years ago.)