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Westside Bible Studies
Exploring the Bible and Christianity in Los Angeles!
Exploring the Bible and Christianity in Los Angeles!


Our Culver City studies on Wednesday 03/29 and 04/05 are canceled. We'll see you again on April 12! :)
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“Hell” is now more of a curse word to most people than a fearful potential future reality. A robust number of people still believe that there is a hell; they seem equally confident that they will not go there. We generally do not like to think or talk about hell; we are quite concerned about and skeptical of those people who do. Hell has become more of a stumbling block to Christians than any point of concern: so many wonder how a loving God could send anyone to hell, and what the Bible says about hell is generally an embarrassment to many. And yet, of all people, Jesus of Nazareth spoke more about hell than anyone else in the pages of Scripture. If Jesus discussed hell, then those of us who would seek to follow after Him do well to explore what He had to say about it.

Most instances of “hell” in the New Testament translate the Greek term Gehenna (so Matthew 5:22, 29, 30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33, Mark 9:43, 45, 47, Luke 12:5, James 3:5-6). “Gehenna” itself translates Hebrew for the “Valley of the Sons of Hinnom,” a valley outside of Jerusalem (Joshua 15:8). Unfaithful kings of Judah built altars to Molech and offered their children as sacrifices to that god there (2 Chronicles 28:3, 2 Chronicles 33:6, Jeremiah 7:31-32; 19:6; 32:35). Later Jewish people considered the place cursed; they deposited and burned their trash there. The sight and stench must have been particularly awful; the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom therefore provided an extremely powerful and visceral image to describe a place of suffering and torment. Just as one would go to great lengths to avoid falling into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, so Jesus encouraged those who heard Him to do whatever it took to avoid being cast into Gehenna, or hell.

At other times Jesus spoke of “the outer darkness,” often noting how it is a place of “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:10-12, 22:1-13, 25:14-30). In each of these passages Jesus indicated that disobedient members among the people of God would be cast there. The imagery fits the audience: “outer darkness” would be a place well beyond any light; God is the light, and in Him is no darkness (John 1:4, 1 John 1:5); therefore, the “outer darkness” involves complete and thorough separation from God. How awful it would be for those who presumed to be near to God to learn they are to be cast as far from Him as possible! This darkness is not a “neutral” place; it is a place of trauma, vividly illustrated by “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth.”

In a similar vein Jesus envisioned a day when those who performed iniquity would be cast into a furnace of fire, in which would be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:36-43). Jesus showed John a vision of the day of judgment in this way: all those whose names were not found in the book of life were cast into the lake of fire along with Satan and his minions (Revelation 20:10-15). The lake of fire also features brimstone, as a place of constant torment; the second death, final separation from God and all that is light and life.

All of these images point to a similar place; it is a place where fire is not quenched, where people suffer and gnash their teeth, a place of darkness, separated from God. Each of these images tells us something about the nature of hell; above all things, it should dissuade us from taking any chances lest we get sent there!

The Scriptures also testify regarding who will be cast into hell: those who do not know God and who do not obey the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). They are those who have committed sin and iniquity and did not repent (Matthew 13:36-43, Romans 2:8-9, Revelation 21:8). Believers cannot become complacent, confident their belief alone will rescue them; not a few warnings about hell are directed specifically to believers who do not actually do what the Father says (Matthew 7:21-23), and who prove to be unproductive servants (Matthew 25:14-30). God will judge impartially (Romans 2:5-11).

While Jesus spoke many times regarding hell, and has provided richly evocative imagery, much has been left unrevealed. Much of what people today imagine regarding hell derives more from later flights of imagination and Dante’s Inferno than anything recorded in Scripture. Hell is not controlled by Satan and a host of demons; as seen in Revelation 20:10, Satan and his demons themselves are cast into hell in God’s judgment. We are not told exactly how those who are in hell experience their suffering and torment. Dante vividly described how he imagined the tortures of hell were meted out; a contrasting view would be C.S. Lewis’ portrayal of people ever resisting the good inherent in God as seen in The Great Divorce. Therefore, what most people reject about hell are matters of belief not found in Scripture. We do well to remember how we imagine hell is just that, our imagination, and the reality might be quite different from what we might expect. Yet, above all things, we hope and pray that none of us find out what hell is like!

While the concept of hell may seem unpleasant to Westerners, a spiritual world without at least the potential for the existence of hell would be much worse. People might declare how they cannot believe a loving God could send anyone to hell. Would they really want to serve a God who had no hell to which to send people like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, or other heinous sinners? How could God be serious about justice if there is no actual penalty to be paid for transgression? The existence of hell is a reminder of God’s justice, a witness to the importance of doing the right and forsaking the wrong, and confidence for all who suffer oppression and degradation that God will call their oppressors into account and justice will be satisfied. In truth the argument is a matter of degree: most people can not only imagine but even expect God to cast the “truly wicked” into hell; they just imagine that God will not send people like them to hell. Such people too quickly absolve themselves of their evil and iniquity, having been deceived into doing so (Hebrews 3:13); we all deserve condemnation, for we have all transgressed the will of God, but thanks be to God that a way of rescue from condemnation has been offered through Jesus Christ (Romans 3:20-28, 6:15-23).

Furthermore, how can God be “loving” while forcing those who wanted little to nothing to do with Him as manifest in their thoughts, words, and deeds to spend eternity with Him (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Revelation 21:1-22:6)? C.S. Lewis rightly noted that there will be two types of people on the day of Judgment: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” God will not compel or coerce; if people wish to live in ways contrary to God’s purposes, then they will spend eternity with the consequences.

Hell is a most unpleasant place; we should not wish it upon our worst enemy. God does not want anyone to go to hell but for all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9); those who would follow God do well to maintain the same posture toward their fellow man. Jesus’ warnings about hell were not designed to extend further condemnation for those already aware of their sinfulness; instead, Jesus condemned the very religious people who were the quickest to condemn others (e.g. Matthew 23:33)! Nevertheless, we ought not trifle with the concept of hell. We should want to avoid hell and exhort all with whom we come into contact to avoid it as well. Those who suffer torment would want those whom they love to avoid that torment above all things (cf. Luke 16:27-28)! May we seek to serve God in Christ, see to ourselves, and encourage all to live so as to avoid the hell of fire!

Ethan R. Longhenry
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We will not be meeting for our Culver City study for the next two weeks on account of holiday travels. We look forward to great studies in 2017!
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Popular Beliefs: Original Sin

Therefore, as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin; and so death passed unto all men, for that all sinned (Romans 5:12).

Christianity features many beliefs which prove very popular; many of them are accepted and perpetuated without much thought or consideration to what is said in the Scriptures. We do well to test the spirits and prove all things so that we may be able to do all things in good conscience by Jesus’ authority (Colossians 3:17, 1 John 4:1). One such belief, commonly held but rarely clarified, understands mankind’s condition in terms of “original sin.”

The historic doctrine of “original sin” (or “inherited sin”) insisted that all humanity inherited the full consequences of Adam’s transgression. In this view Adam’s sin maintains a transitive property: it is communicated to a child via the sexual procreative act of his or her parents. Therefore, a child is born in a condemned state; he or she must be baptized in order to be rid of the stain of “original sin.” This interpretation rests on a literalistic interpretation of Psalm 51:5, a particular understanding of Romans 5:12-21, and an understanding of sin as a “communicable” property.

There is no basis upon which to believe that sin maintains any properties that are communicable among persons. God did say He would visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children for generations in Exodus 20:5; and yet God also establishes through Ezekiel how it is the soul that sins which will die, that each person stands or falls before God based on their own transgressions, and not that of their fathers or children (Ezekiel 18:1-32). In order to harmonize the two we must recognize how children very often follow in the footsteps of their parents and thus are more likely to commit the same transgressions; one generation might well suffer consequences of such transgression in the flesh whereas previous generations did not. In the New Testament all discussions of condemnation based on sin are based on the commission of actual transgression as a freewill decision by the person him or herself as a free moral agent (cf. Matthew 25:31-46, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9, etc.). Furthermore, the notion that each generation inherits Adam’s sin is neither stated nor even suggested by Paul in Romans 5:12-21: we can understand “passed unto all men” in ways which do not demand inheritance from a parent, as we shall see.

The strongest case for the argument is found in Psalm 51:5:

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity / and in sin did my mother conceive me.

While many would like to suggest that David is speaking of only his mother’s iniquity and sin, the text does not allow for such a restriction in interpretation. David suggested in this verse that he was born in iniquity and sin: such absolutely represents what he felt at the time his sin with Bathsheba was uncovered (Psalm 51:1; cf. 2 Samuel 12:1-14). We can imagine times in our own lives when we might feel in a similar way, and David gave voice to such a sentiment in Psalm 51. Yet, while David certainly felt that way, was it actually accurate and true? Should we take him literally and seriously?

We must be careful about taking every sentiment in the Psalms literally and seriously; they are written to give voice to the people of God for not only their thoughts but also their feelings. God wanted His people to be able to express themselves before Him according to what they experienced even if that experience was not actually consistent with reality. For instance, in Psalm 44:23, the sons of Korah implore God to wake up and ask why He is asleep. Should we conclude from this verse that God sometimes is asleep and such is why He does not deliver His people? Absolutely not! Heman delivered a similar sentiment in Psalm 88:14-18: Heman certainly felt completely abandoned, but was that absolutely true? Not at all.

Jesus’ own testimony regarding children ought to be considered in this context.

In that hour came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
And he called to him a little child, and set him in the midst of them, and said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4).

And they were bringing unto him little children, that he should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them.
But when Jesus saw it, he was moved with indignation, and said unto them, “Suffer the little children to come unto me; forbid them not: for to such belongeth the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein.”
And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, laying his hands upon them (Mark 10:13-16).

If David is to be taken literally and seriously in Psalm 51:5, and we are to believe that all are tainted from birth by original sin, then children in their natural state are unregenerate and condemned. And yet Jesus not only welcomes little children to Him but considers them as the moral exemplars of the Kingdom. One must become as a little child to enter the Kingdom (Matthew 18:3-4); the Kingdom of God belongs to little children (Mark 10:14). Metaphors and similes only work and prove effective when their source domain, that which is being used to explain reality, are consistent with the target domain, that which one is attempting to describe or explain. Therefore, why would Jesus use the example of little children to speak about humility and standing in the Kingdom if little children are not humble and do not have standing in the Kingdom? Jesus betrays no belief or understanding of children as inherently sinful and depraved on account of having inherited the sin of Adam.

The Scriptures provide no commendation for the historic doctrine of “original sin.” In such a view, babies, small children, and those without consciousness are seen as unregenerate, condemned to hell, and without hope unless baptized as infants (another practice not seen in the New Testament). Such a view has led to the total depravity of Augustinianism and Calvinism, an extreme view inconsistent with Matthew 5:46-47; it has also fed the extremism inherent in “faith only” and the suggestion that mankind has absolutely no role in his own salvation. The historic doctrine of “original sin” has also contributed significantly to the unhealthy perspectives about human sexuality in Western society: for generations many considered it inherently dirty and polluting, even in its proper context, hindering our society and culture from establishing a healthy perspective on sex.

Thankfully many whose churches and religious organizations formerly adhered to the full-throated historic doctrine of “original sin” have come to a more Biblical understanding of man’s condition in the world. The term “original sin” is still used by many of them, but by it they mean that humanity has inherited the consequences of Adam’s sin, recognizing that sin is not a transitive property among people.

While we would suggest that calling such “original sin” causes confusion in light of the historic doctrine by that name, the view is broadly consistent with Paul’s instruction in Romans 5:12-21 and Romans 8:18-25. In Romans 5:12-21 Paul seeks to demonstrate that Jesus’ one act of righteousness in dying on the cross for our sins is sufficient to atone for all the sins of mankind, and he does so by speaking of Jesus as the second Adam. The first Adam committed one transgression, and that one transgression led to the presence of sin and death in the world, and sin passed on to all men for all have sinned; Jesus, the second Adam, is able to atone for all the sin of the world by one act of righteousness since sin all derives from Adam’s one act. In Romans 8:18-25 Paul would add how the creation was subjected to corruption and futility and yearns for its redemption; this only makes sense in terms of Adam’s sin. In this way Paul is able to explain how people (and animals, and elements of the creation) who have not actively committed sin yet still suffer from sickness, pain, misery, and death: they are all subject to sin and death because sin and death are in the world even if they have not actively perpetuated sin through sinful behavior.

Humans, therefore, are not born into sin, but into a sinful environment. Sin has environmental consequences as much as personal ones (cf. Hosea 4:1-3); any definition of sin which speaks only to the behavior of people, transgressive commission or omission, does not fully account for Paul’s portrayal of sin in Romans 7:7-25. On account of Adam’s transgression sin is “in the world”; sin has corrupted the creation and human institutions and systems as assuredly as it has corrupted the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of conscious people.

To suggest the full depravity of mankind, as if man is sinful from birth, is extreme and inconsistent with the evidence found in Scripture. Yet to suggest that mankind is generally good and to weaken the force. influence, and consequences of the presence of sin in the creation is likewise extreme and inconsistent with the evidence found in Scripture. Man’s condition is dire and bleak indeed, even if not absolutely so. May we affirm the totality of what God has made known about man’s condition in the world and seek to find salvation in Jesus (cf. Ephesians 2:1-18, Titus 3:3-7)!

Ethan R. Longhenry
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What the Bible Says About Baptism

And Peter said unto them,” Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

While the Bible’s teachings regarding baptism are not difficult to understand, many times the doctrines of men have confused the issue and have left many people in the dark. Let us consider what the Bible says about baptism.

Baptism is immersion. The Greek word transliterated into English as “baptism” is baptizo, and it means quite literally “to immerse”. This is made manifest in Acts 8:38-39, where Philip and the eunuch “go down” into the water and “come up” from the water. The Bible makes no mention of baptism as sprinkling or pouring, and the idea of “modes” of baptism makes no sense; how can there be “modes” of immersion?

Baptisms in the New Testament are for the purpose of the remission of sin. Not only does baptism mean immersion, the Greek word does not only refer to a religious event: any kind of immersion is a “baptism” of sorts. This is important to recognize, for it means that there can be many purposes for immersion. One can be immersed to be physically cleansed (cf. 1 Peter 3:21), or to join a church, or to make a public profession. The Bible gives one clear purpose for baptism: the remission of sin (Acts 2:38). If we are immersed for a different reason, we should not expect that immersion to have the result of cleansing from sin.

Baptism is in water, but is not about the water. It is manifest from Acts 8:36-39, Acts 10:47-48, and Acts 19:1-9 that baptism was done in water. The “baptism of the Spirit” occurred on two occasions, the day of Pentecost and when Peter preached to Cornelius (Acts 1:4-5, Acts 2:1-15; Acts 10:43-46, Acts 11:15-17), and is not seen at any other occasion. The “one baptism” of Ephesians 4:5, therefore, is manifestly immersion in water for the remission of sin. Nevertheless, baptism is not about water: it is about the one being baptized submitting to God and appealing for cleansing through the resurrection of Jesus (1 Peter 3:21). As we have seen previously, to be immersed in water for any other reason than the remission of sin is just getting wet!

Baptism is the only means described in the New Testament of obtaining the remission of sin, and is necessary for salvation. While the Bible speaks often regarding the believer receiving forgiveness of sins on account of Jesus’ blood (Romans 5:9, Ephesians 1:7, etc.), the Bible only describes in one place exactly how we come into contact with that blood: baptism (Acts 2:38). Without baptism, there is no guarantee of remission of past sin, and it is that sin that separates us from God in the first place (Isaiah 59:1, Romans 3:23). When seen in this way, it is easy to understand why baptism is necessary for salvation, as established in Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, and 1 Peter 3:21.

Baptism is a type of death and resurrection. Paul, in Romans 6:3-7, establishes that baptism parallels the death and resurrection of Christ. As Jesus died and was raised on the third day, so we are baptized into His death, putting to death the man of sin, and rising from the waters of baptism a new creature, walking now in newness of life. If the Bible ever mentions a clear point of delineation between the life in sin and death and the life in righteousness and eternity, it is here and it is the point of baptism!

Baptism is the “antitype” to the Flood. In 1 Peter 3:20-21, Peter establishes that baptism is the “antitype,” a contrary or parallel type, to Noah and the flood in Genesis 6-9. We can establish the nature of the contrast: as Noah and his family were preserved by remaining on top of the water, and all who were underneath perished, so now those who go under the waters of baptism are saved, while those who would “remain dry” will be condemned.

I hope that you can now see what the Bible teaches about baptism. Please consider yourself in light of this message: were you immersed in water for the remission of your sins? If you were sprinkled as a baby, or if you were dipped or had water poured on you to join a church or to make a public profession, you have not been immersed in water for the remission of your sins. Consider the following Scriptures; are you willing to risk your soul on your “baptism,” if indeed you had anything so called? We are always open to studying with you and helping you be right with God!

“He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16).

Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Romans 6:3).

And to you that are afflicted rest with us, at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8).

Ethan R. Longhenry
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Popular Beliefs and Practices: Confession and Repentance

Because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved: for with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).

And when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life (Acts 11:18).

Christianity features many beliefs and practices that prove very popular; many of them are accepted and perpetuated without much thought or consideration to what is said in the Scriptures. We do well to test the spirits and prove all things so that we may be able to do all things in good conscience by Jesus’ authority (Colossians 3:17, 1 John 4:1).

Both confession and repentance are important elements of Christian faith and practice. Both are enjoined upon Christians according to the Scriptures (Acts 2:38, 11:18, Romans 10:9-10). Nevertheless, many maintain misapprehensions about the nature of confession and repentance on account of religious confusion and incomplete definitions.

Confession translates the Greek term homologeo, which means “to speak the same thing as.” In confession, therefore, we are verbalizing what we recognize to be true.

When most people think about confession they immediately think about confession of sin. When we speak about the need to confess in order to be saved, as in Romans 10:9-10, it becomes very easy and understandable to assume that such confession involves confession of sin. And so it is that many believe and teach that we must confess that we are sinners or even our specific sins in order to satisfy the need for confession in Romans 10:9-10.

For Christians who are already in Christ, confession of sin is necessary if we would be forgiven of sins we have committed while in Christ (1 John 1:9). We must confess our sins before God; we do well to have at least one fellow Christian with whom we feel comfortable confessing our sin (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). Honest grappling with our sins before God and among trusted Christians proves necessary for a healthy faith and walk in life; if we prove unwilling to speak out our sins, we allow them to fester and grow toxic within us, leading us to greater sin, alienation from God and His people, and we risk condemnation. David spoke well regarding this situation in Psalm 32:1-11.

Confession of sin is important and necessary for Christians, but it is not the confession spoken of in Romans 10:9-10. By coming to belief in Christ we already demonstrate our recognition that we are sinners (Romans 3:23); we see no indication in the New Testament of God requiring the one who would come to Christ to confess all of their sins beforehand. Instead Paul speaks of confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the good confession which Simon Peter made in Caesarea Philippi and that Jesus made before Pilate (Matthew 16:15-20, Luke 23:1-3; cf. 1 Timothy 6:13). Without a doubt Timothy made this confession before many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12); while Acts 8:37 may be textually in dispute, the Ethiopian eunuch would have most likely made a confession similar in substance before he was baptized.

Western Christians may take confession of Jesus as the Christ for granted, but it remains an important moment in our faith. Belief and faith is something which only God and the believer can see; for anyone else to know it, the believer must say what they believe. Such a statement at many times and in many places comes with significant risk to life and limb, and yet it remains necessary as an encouragement to fellow believers and for the confessor him or herself to verbally identify with Jesus and thus with His people. This confession of Jesus as the Christ is the confession of the Gospel message and remains the basis for our faith and continued participation in the purposes of God (cf. 2 Corinthians 9:13, Hebrews 3:1, 4:14, 10:23, 13:15).

When we come to faith in Jesus, we must confess that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; once in Christ, we then must hold fast to that confession and live according to it, confessing our sins when we fail to live up to the standard of the Gospel of Christ.

Confusion exists regarding confession on account of its multiple applications in definition. Many are confused about repentance on account of different meanings between English and Greek. In English, repentance involves expressing regret or sorrow for past behavior: being sorry for having committed sin. The Greek term translated by repentance is metanoia, which means “a change of mind,” generally for the better.

Repentance is a major element of the Gospel message; Jesus’ proclamation to Israel can be summarized as, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). On Pentecost Peter expected the Israelites who believed in Jesus to repent (Acts 2:38); when Jewish Christians perceived the hand of God in the conversion of Cornelius, they declared that God had granted to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (Acts 11:18). God expects those who would come to Christ to repent; Christians are to live so as to make good on that repentance and repent whenever they turn aside from following Jesus (Acts 26:20).

By necessity such repentance involves sorrow for past sin and the past trajectory of one’s life; by deciding to make a change and to follow Jesus, we demonstrate recognition of the error of our past deeds. We are to be ashamed of the things we did in the past which led us to death (Romans 6:21); we must never forget what we were before we came to Jesus, and resolve to never be like that again (Ephesians 2:1-10, Titus 3:3-8).

But Biblical repentance is much more than just being sorry for what we did in the past: it is the mental resolution and commitment to follow the ways of Jesus wherever they lead. We come to Jesus when we recognize that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God; we are to declare that confidence before others. It is in repentance that we make good mentally on that faith: we have come to know that Jesus is Lord, so we now are committing to do what He says. The resolution is mental; Jesus emphasized that what we feel and do is an expression of what we believe and think, and so if we wish to change our feelings and actions, we must first change our beliefs and thoughts (Mark 7:14-23; cf. Philippians 4:8). If we change our thoughts and mind, our feelings and actions should follow.

Peter manifests an excellent commitment to repentance in John 6:68-69. He trusts that Jesus is the Holy One of God and that He has the words of eternal life. We know that Peter will experience many trials and difficulties because his understanding of Jesus and His mission were not entirely consistent with who Jesus really was and what He was actually doing (cf. John 13:36-38); nevertheless, Peter maintained his confidence in Jesus as the Holy One of God and proved willing to change his mind and behavior to align with Jesus’ will (John 21:15-19, Acts 1:1-12:25).

Both confession and repentance are necessary for salvation yet remain important behaviors with significant implications throughout our lives in the faith. To come to Jesus we must declare with our mouths that He is the Christ, the Holy One of God; we must change our minds, deciding to follow Jesus wherever He may lead us. We must then continue to live our lives in light of that confession and repentance, continually confessing our failings and wrongdoing before God and trusted Christians, continually changing our minds when necessary so as to pursue righteousness and avoid immorality, manifesting our confession and repentance in our lives. May we put our trust in Jesus as Lord, confess Him, and repent, and obtain salvation!

Ethan R. Longhenry
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Popular Beliefs: “Once Saved, Always Saved”

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who hath given them unto me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29).

Christianity features many beliefs and practices that prove very popular. People hear about them frequently; their legitimacy is often taken for granted. The Scriptures commend and justify many such beliefs and practices, but we cannot assume that merely because a belief or practice is popular that it is authorized by and pleases God in Christ. We must test all the spirits (1 John 4:1); we must prove all things in Christ (Colossians 3:17).

A very popular belief among Evangelicals can be summarized as “once saved, always saved,” and is sometimes spoken of in terms of eternal security. According to this view once a person has obtained salvation in Christ there is no way in which that person can lose their salvation. This view is often defended by an appeal to John 10:27-29 or Romans 8:31-39; it is also often suggested that since we have done nothing to earn or obtain salvation, there is nothing we can do to lose salvation. Are these claims consistent with what is revealed in the New Testament? Do the Scriptures teach that once we are saved, we are always saved?

Christians can maintain confidence they are in Christ even though outside circumstances prove challenging. It would be easy for Christians to wonder if God had abandoned or forsaken them while they endured trial on the earth; Jesus and Paul seek to reassure Christians in such circumstances, for earthly authorities and spiritual powers of darkness need not triumph, and they cannot separate the Christian from the love of God in Christ Jesus (John 10:27-29, Romans 8:31-39).

Yet the New Testament does not extend this same confidence to those who persist or return to sin without repentance.

“Not every one that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy by thy name, and by thy name cast out demons, and by thy name do many mighty works?’
And then will I profess unto them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity'” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).

Take heed, brethren, lest haply there shall be in any one of you an evil heart of unbelief, in falling away from the living God: but exhort one another day by day, so long as it is called To-day; lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin: for we are become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end (Hebrews 3:12-14).

For as touching those who were once enlightened and tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come, and then fell away, it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame (Hebrews 6:4-6).

For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and a fierceness of fire which shall devour the adversaries. A man that hath set at nought Moses’ law dieth without compassion on the word of two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, think ye, shall he be judged worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant wherewith he was sanctified an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?
For we know him that said, “Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense.”
And again, “The Lord shall judge his people.”
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:26-31).

For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them. It has happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog turning to his own vomit again, and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire (2 Peter 2:20-22).

These passages, in no uncertain terms, warn the Christian that the one who persists in sin without repentance will not be saved but will have fallen away. Many may seek to claim that such people were never saved, and might appeal to 1 John 2:18-20; Jesus spoke of the great deeds done and even spiritual gifts manifest by such people, the Hebrews author declared they were sanctified by Jesus’ blood of the covenant, and Peter considered them as having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of Jesus (Matthew 7:22, Hebrews 10:29, 2 Peter 2:20). If it is true that such people were never actually saved, then none of us can have any real confidence that we are saved! And yet the Hebrews author, Peter, and John have greater confidence in the standing of such Christians before God as would be demanded by this understanding (Hebrews 6:9-12, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 1 John 2:1-6). Many may attempt to protest, and suggest that such people are still saved but have lost their testimony, or are saved but will not enter heaven; in so doing they would render “salvation” meaningless. If one can be saved without entering heaven, what hope can we maintain? From what are we “saved,” and to what end?

The doctrine of “once saved, always saved” is highly dependent on other doctrines. It originates in the Calvinist concept of “perseverance of the saints,” which logically follows from the four other points in the TULIP system. If a person is so sinful they cannot in any way turn to God (T – total depravity), and God has specifically chosen some for salvation and others for condemnation (U – unconditional election), then the blood of Christ is only effective for those who will be saved (L – limited atonement), God will inexorably call the saved (I – irresistible grace), and those who are saved will be saved no matter what (P – perseverance of the saints). Nevertheless, the full Calvinist TULIP system, while internally and logically coherent, is not consistent with what God has revealed in Scripture about the nature of election, predestination, or salvation. Those who adhere to “once saved, always saved” would agree, since many in Evangelicalism have jettisoned limited atonement and many elements of unconditional election and irresistible grace while still attempting to insist on total depravity and perseverance of the saints.

And so, if the other doctrines on which “once saved, always saved” depends prove inconsistent with Scripture, then “once saved, always saved” itself falls apart as a consequence. The Scriptures do not teach total depravity, unconditional election, or irresistible grace; they are extremist positions not consistent with the words or behavior of God or Jesus. Even sinners love sinners and do good to those who do good to them (Matthew 5:46-47); we may not earn salvation by works, but we must prove obedient in our faith if we will be saved (Romans 1:5, 6:1-23, James 2:14-26, 1 John 2:3-6); condemnation in Scripture is based on works, not God’s sovereign choice (Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9); God is love, and love, by its very nature, does not coerce or compel (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 1 John 4:8).

If we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, endure to the end, and do the commandments of Jesus if we would be saved, then it cannot be true that we cannot do or neglect anything so as to lose our salvation (Matthew 10:22, Philippians 2:12, 1 John 2:3-6). Jesus and Paul powerfully affirm that no external force can separate us from the love of God, but they nowhere suggest that we ourselves cannot decide to turn away from the salvation offered to us and fall from grace. If God is love, why would we expect Him to force a person who rejected Him to be saved and enter into His glory?

“Once saved, always saved” is a doctrine derived from the ideas of men and is not rooted in what God has revealed through Jesus Christ. While “once saved, always saved” distorts what God has promised believers, its opposite, “if saved, barely saved,” would put far too much emphasis on our obedience and works as they relate to our standing in Christ. The Christian is not to be lulled into a sense of complacency, believing their salvation secure no matter what they do; and yet to live in a constant state of fear and paralysis, constantly doubting one’s salvation, is no better.

Both extremes fail to grapple with our salvation in Christ as based in relationship. In Christ God seeks to reconcile the world to Himself (Romans 5:6-11); we are to become one with God and each other as God is One in Himself (John 17:20-23). Relationships are based in love and trust: we know the love God has for us in Christ, and He has demonstrated His faithfulness over and over again (John 3:16, 1 Peter 1:3-9). We love, trust, and obey in relationship; the relationship is damaged but not obliterated when we transgress God’s standard, and we are called to confess that wrong, ask for forgiveness, and maintain confidence we have received it (1 John 1:8-10). God recognizes our limitations and weaknesses; that is why provision for forgiveness is given (1 John 2:1). But if we turn away from the relationship and reject God in Christ, we will suffer the consequences of separation from God for eternity; God will not force us back into relationship if we reject Him by word and/or deed (Matthew 7:21-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Christians can outrage the Spirit of grace and profane the covenant by which we have been sanctified; Christians can turn back and no longer follow the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, let us determine never to do so, but seek the way of God in Christ to obtain the resurrection of life and obtain the glory the Father seeks to give us on the final day!

Ethan R. Longhenry
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Acts of the Apostles

Luke had previously written to “Theophilus” regarding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet that was only the beginning of what Jesus had done and taught. The time had come to continue that story and set forth how the Lord Jesus, through the Apostles, made sure His Gospel was proclaimed in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The Acts of the Apostles is the fifth book in modern editions of the New Testament. While Acts and its companion volume, the Gospel of Luke, are anonymous, the transitions from third person plural to first person plural in the latter part of Acts suggest the author was personally present during some of those events; through harmonization with Paul’s letters and through later witness it is agreed that this participant was Luke the physician (Acts 16:8-10, Colossians 4:11; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1, 3.14.1; Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.1.15, Stromata 5.12.82; Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2.2). Luke is believed to be a Gentile, a physician by trade, from Asia Minor (Troas? Acts 16:8-10, Colossians 4:11, 14); it is hard to believe he had not been a God-fearer and had not been previously acquainted with the Hebrew Bible. The events described in Acts take place about 30/33 to 62 CE; it is most likely that Luke wrote Luke and Acts between 57-64 in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome (Acts 21:17-28:31). Luke continues to consciously imitate the historical narrative style of the Hebrew Bible in the book of Acts, describing how the Apostles, specifically Peter and Paul, bore witness to Jesus’ resurrection and lordship to Jews and then Gentiles in the Mediterranean world.

One can divide up Luke’s narrative in Acts in different ways. “Acts of the Apostles” is really some of the acts of some of the Apostles, focusing first on Simon Peter (Acts 1-12) and then on Paul (Acts 13-28). One can perceive patterns of growth, persecution, and victory throughout the text. We will consider the book of Acts according to the pattern established by the Lord Jesus in Acts 1:18: apostolic witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection first in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), in all Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-12), and to the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 13-28).

Luke began Acts with an introduction and connection to the previous Gospel and another account of Jesus’ ascension (Luke 1:1-12). At Peter’s exhortation the disciples appointed another witness to take Judas’ place (Luke 1:13-26). On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit fell on the Apostles; they spoke in tongues; Peter proclaimed the Gospel; three thousand were baptized; the early church associated together and grew (Acts 2:1-47). Peter and John went up to the Temple, healed a man born lame in the name of Christ; Peter preached to the Jews in the Temple; Peter and John were arrested but the Sanhedrin could lay no charge against them; five thousand men believed; the Apostles prayed to Jesus for boldness (Acts 3:1-4:31). Early Christians had all things in common; Joseph called Barnabas sold a field and brought the proceeds to the Apostles; Ananias and Sapphira conspired against the Spirit and die for it (Acts 4:32-5:11). Peter’s standing was great with the people; the Sadducees rise up and have the Apostles arrested; they escaped serious harm through Gamaliel’s wisdom (Acts 5:12-42). Stephen is introduced; he made his defense before the Sanhedrin, and was executed (Acts 6:1-7:60).

Saul began persecuting Christians in Jerusalem, and they scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1-4). Philip preached to the Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:5-40). Saul sees Jesus on the road to Damascus and is converted (Acts 9:1-31); Peter heals in Lydda and Joppa (Acts 9:32-41). The Lord then provides the way for Peter to preach the Gospel to Cornelius and his men, Gentiles, and the report is accepted by the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 10:1-11:18). The Gospel spreads to Antioch of Syria; the Apostle James was killed and Peter imprisoned by Herod Agrippa I; Peter escaped thanks to an angel; Herod Agrippa I was struck by God and killes (Acts 11:19-12:25).

Barnabas and Saul are called by the Holy Spirit to participate in what is often called Paul’s first missionary journey: to Cyprus; opposition, blinding of bar-Jesus (Elymas); Barnabas and Paul to Galatia, John Mark returned to Jerusalem; preaching in Antioch of Pisidia; conversions and persecutions there and in Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium; encouragement of saints and appointment of elders; return to Antioch of Syria (Acts 13:1-14:28). Jewish Christians from Jerusalem attempt to impose the Law of Moses on Gentile Christians in Antioch of Syria; conference in Jerusalem; decree that Law is not to be imposed on Gentiles; Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways (Acts 15:1-41). Paul and Silas embarked on the second missionary journey: through Galatia; Timothy circumcised, joined Paul; Macedonian call; conversion of Lydia and the Philippian jailer in Philippi in Greece; conversions and persecution in Thessalonica, to Berea; Paul in Athens, preaching on the Areopagus; ministry in Corinth for eighteen months; persecution; return to Antioch of Syria (Acts 16:1-18:23). Apollos was converted in Ephesus while Paul was away (Acts 18:24-28). Paul’s third missionary journey is then recounted: to Ephesus; great work there for two years; Ephesian riot; return to Macedonia and Achaia; headed to Jerusalem; conference with Ephesian elders in Miletus; to Tyre, Ptolemais, Caesarea, and Jerusalem (Acts 19:1-21:17). In Jerusalem Paul paid a vow in the Temple; accused of defiling the Temple by Jews of Asia; riot; Paul imprisoned; Paul gave his defense to the people, brought before Sanhedrin; plot hatched to kill Paul; Paul brought to Caesarea; Paul before Felix; Paul before Festus, appeals to Caesar; Paul makes defense before Festus and Herod Agrippa II (Acts 21:18-26:32). Paul’s fourth journey is recorded: to Crete; shipwreck in storm, washed up on Malta; to Three Taverns and to Rome; preaching to the Jewish Christians in Rome, proclamation of Gospel to all in Rome over two year period (Acts 27:1-28:31).

Luke ends his narrative with Paul preaching the Gospel of Christ in Rome. His narrative in Acts might have ended, but the story of the apostolic witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would continue. In Acts Luke set forth how the Kingdom of Christ was established on earth and how it spread around the Roman world. We do well to proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the Apostles did, imitate the means by which early Christians obtained salvation, and participate in the story of God’s work through His people in the church of Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry
Acts of the Apostles
Acts of the Apostles
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Popular Beliefs: Faith Only

For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Christianity features many beliefs and practices that prove very popular. People hear about them frequently; their legitimacy is often taken for granted. The Scriptures commend and justify many such beliefs and practices, but we cannot assume that merely because a belief or practice is popular that it is authorized by and pleases God in Christ. We must test all the spirits (1 John 4:1); we must prove all things in Christ (Colossians 3:17).

A very popular belief, especially among Protestants and Evangelicals, features belief itself: belief in salvation by faith only. According to this view, the only thing that a person needs to do in order to be saved is to believe, or have faith, in Christ. This perspective often reduces faith to a set of propositions to which mental assent is given: as long as one mentally accepts the idea that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, such is sufficient to save. Does faith only make the best sense of what God has revealed regarding faith in the New Testament?

In English, “belief” and “faith” are synonymous yet distinct words. In Greek, the terms translated “belief” and “faith” are come from a single word family: most often “faith” translates the Greek noun pistis; “to believe” translates the Greek verb pisteuo. The Hebrews author provides a compelling definition for belief/faith in Hebrews 11:1:

Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.

Faith thus involves assurance and conviction; faith is grounded in knowledge about God and what He has accomplished for us in Christ, but is not merely that knowledge itself. One could know many ideas and facts about Jesus without necessarily having faith in Him. For this reason the Hebrews author goes further in Hebrews 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to be well-pleasing unto him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him.

If we would come to God, we must believe that He exists. We must believe that God is the One Who Is, the Existent One, as good of a translation as any of the divine name YHWH (Exodus 3:14-15). Without a doubt we must mentally accept the propositions that God exists, is our Creator, has made Himself known through Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, died, was raised in power, is Lord, and will return (Acts 2:36, 17:23-31, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 1 Peter 4:19). We most assuredly must accept “the faith” as delivered once for all the saints (Jude 1:3).

But can faith rightly be reduced to mere mental acceptance of a set of propositions? James warns against such oversimplification in James 2:19:

Thou believest that God is one; thou doest well: the demons also believe, and shudder.

James is right: the demons constantly confessed their belief in Jesus as the Son of God (e.g. Matthew 8:28-29). The Scriptures extend no hope for the salvation of the demons! While mental acceptance of the proposition that Jesus is Lord is necessary for salvation, it by itself is not sufficient for us to be saved. Our faith must go deeper.

For our purposes the most important element of belief/faith is its demand of confidence or trust. If we truly believe that Jesus is Lord, by necessity, we must recognize that we are not Lord. To believe that Jesus is the Christ demands that we do what He says, just as the earliest audience of the Gospel understood (Acts 2:36-37). Jesus’ question resonates throughout time: “and why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” (Luke 6:36).

First and foremost we must put our faith, or trust, in God in Christ for our justification. “Justification” is a big and loaded theological word that means “to be declared or made righteous.” In short, justification involves standing: on what basis can we stand before God?

It is true that many people believe their standing before God is based on their works. They believe that they have done what God wants them to do; if nothing else, they believe their good deeds sufficiently outweigh their bad deeds so as to justify their entrance into God’s pleasure. Such people labor under a delusion! We again turn to James in James 2:10-11:

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is become guilty of all.
For he that said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “do not kill.”
Now if thou dost not commit adultery, but killest, thou art become a transgressor of the law.

All the good deeds in the world mean nothing if we are guilty of a transgression on account of which we stand on trial: if we are on trial for stealing, and we have stolen but have not committed murder or adultery and have proven very benevolent to those in need, we remain guilty of stealing, and are rightly judged as transgressors. This is why Paul says that no one is justified before God by works of the Law in Romans 3:20: all have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God, and so on the basis of the Law all would be condemned as transgressors (Romans 3:23). Therefore, our standing before God is based on faith in Christ and what He has accomplished for us (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11, Galatians 3:11).

In this way the Scriptures teach us that our justification is by grace through faith, and is absolutely not based in our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). We did nothing nor could do anything through our own efforts which could justify us, granting us standing before God, because we have all transgressed His holy laws, and through ourselves cannot atone for our transgression. We cannot earn salvation through our efforts; we do not deserve it, and it cannot be received like we receive a paycheck for work (Romans 4:1-5).

But does this mean that we are saved by faith only? In the New Testament the phrase “faith only” or “faith alone” is found only once, in James 2:24:

Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.

How astonishing: the only mention of the idea is negated! How can this be?

In James 2:14-26 James anticipates how many would take Paul’s teachings regarding justification by faith further than God intended. James never suggests that man is saved by his works independent of faith, nor does he believe that people can be justified by works of the Law on their own. Instead James illustrates the essential nature of faith as trust: if you believe God is who He says He is, you will then do what He says.

Both Paul and James focus on the example of Abraham, and both center on the Genesis author’s comment in Genesis 15:6 (Romans 4:1-25, James 2:14-26). Paul focused on Abraham’s justification by faith: he believed in God before he received circumcision, and his standing before God was based on his faith (Romans 4:1-25). James focused on Abraham’s demonstration of trust by working in faith: Abraham received promises after proving willing to offer his son on the altar (James 2:21-23; Genesis 22:1-19).

Do Paul and James contradict each other, as many have claimed? Only if we demand a first-century text fit sixteenth-century disputations. When we hear what Paul and James have to say in their own context, we can come away with a more holistic understanding.

Ancient religion was primarily orthopraxic: based in right practice. It was easy for many in Judaism to reduce their faith to confidence in their election and a misguided confidence in their practice of the Law. Among Gentiles it did not matter how one felt about the gods; all that was important was to offer the appropriate sacrifices and prayers and hope the gods provided prosperity and otherwise left you alone. In all such religion the people’s standing was based in what they did. Paul did well to show how misguided such religion proved to be.

Paul and James underscored the fundamental importance of faith while fully affirming that faith demands obedience. Paul began and concluded his letter to the Romans insisting on the obedience of faith by the nations (Romans 1:5, 16:26); James speaks of faith without works as dead, like the body without the soul (James 2:26).

Faithful Christians maintain a tension between faith and works, manifest in Ephesians 2:8-10 and Philippians 2:12-13. We are not saved by our works but are justified by faith so that we can accomplish the good works for which we were created; we must work out our salvation with fear and trembling while God wills and works through us for His good pleasure. There need not be contradiction here; we can understand that nothing we can do can save us and thus put our faith in Jesus Christ for our justification and salvation while recognizing that faith without works is dead, and that trust without obedience is trust in name only.

Throughout Christian history those who have proven faithful to God have recognized that many truths of the faith seem mysterious, difficult, challenging, and do not always fit human logic. People have always been tempted to rationalize certain truths, to flatten them, and to insist on one extreme against another: all such endeavors lead to heresy. God is greater than we are and His ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9); many things make sense on the divine level that may seem contradictory on the human level, just like a three dimensional object would look distorted in a two dimensional world. So it goes with those who would insist on extreme and exclusive terms like “only” where God did not provide them and in fact explicitly negated them: they go to an extreme that is heretical. A man is no more justified by faith only than he would be by works only (Romans 3:20, James 2:24)!

Christians are not justified by faith alone. Christians are justified by an obedient faith (Romans 1:5, Galatians 3:11, Hebrews 11:1-40, 1 Peter 1:22). Christians can do nothing on their own to justify themselves before God; our justification and standing before God are entirely dependent on His grace and mercy expressed in Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-10). If we believe that Jesus is Lord, we must do what He says; we must prove obedient to His purposes (Romans 6:14-23). May we believe in Jesus as Lord, recognize our justification is by faith, and manifest our trust in Jesus through our obedience, and be saved in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry
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Christianity Question

Q: The Bible presents many narratives in which God has chosen wicked people to accomplish His purposes. Would these examples commend and justify voting for a candidate who is likewise wicked?

How would you answer? In a little while we will post the answer we discussed in our study.

Do you have questions about the Bible or Christianity? We'd love to discuss them! Please send them via a G+ message or through our website. Thanks!
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