“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘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.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, “’Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.’” (John 3:1–21)
Last week we ended our study of this section at verse 9 where Nicodemus, marvelling at what Jesus has just told him, says, “How can these things be?” The whole concept of being “born again” or “born from above” was blowing his mind. For his whole life, he had been told and had taught that the way to please God, get forgiveness, be holy, and have a blessed life, was through rules and religion. He was a Pharisee, a “separated one”, a member of the Sanhedrin, one of the top-dogs of Israel, famous for being a man who not only followed and enforced the Mosaic Laws but all the other extra laws that the Pharisees had since come up with. He was 100% sold out to the fact that it was through stricter and stricter obedience and enforcement of the rules that Israel would be saved.
But Jesus, this newcomer on the scene, who spoke with authority like they’d never seen and backed up His words with great signs and miracles was saying something very different. He was saying that salvation doesn’t come from trying harder and being more religious. He was saying that all of our human efforts to please God through religious fervour were actually working against Nicodemus’ relationship with God. His rules and religion was putting a wedge between him and God, him and others, and was actually leading people into damnation, not salvation. And I think Nicodemus knew it.
When he looked at himself and his fellow Pharisees he didn’t see men that oozed the love of God. He saw people who were harsh, unloving, unkind, ungracious, and who were always worried that God was mad at them because they hadn’t done enough. People who lived in a constant state of either prideful arrogance for being such awesome people – or in fear and deep doubt because they were never sure if they’d done enough. What a terrible way to live. But they were locked into it. Their devotion to traditions, their lust for power, their whole comprehension of God, was locked into this pattern. And I’m convinced Nicodemus felt it.
And here stood Jesus saying that everything he believed was wrong. Jesus said that the only way to find forgiveness, blessing, salvation, and reconciliation with God is to give up being a Pharisee – to totally repent of that way of living and thinking – and to simply ask God to change his heart. I said last week that Nicodemus immediately knew that Jesus was talking about Ezekiel 36 & 27, and I believe that’s what gave Nicodemus the epiphany.
But an epiphany wasn’t enough. It’s one thing to hear the truth – another to submit to that truth. So Nicodemus says in verse 9, “How can these things be?”
The Five Solas
Another way of saying this would be, “How could we get this so wrong for so long? How could everything we’re saying be wrong? Surely there must be some middle ground? I can’t believe that all of my religious fervour, all my hard work, all the self-denial, all the work I’ve put into showing people how to be a good person – counts for nothing?”
This is the problem a lot of people have with Christianity. Christians, atheists, and other religions all take issue. There is something deep inside of us that believes that we can save ourselves, impress God, and earn the right to go to heaven. There’s something deep inside the human spirit that refuses to believe that all our efforts, our good deeds, our self-sacrifice, our worldly success, our passion, our knowledge, our study, our “work for God”, our church attendance, our donations record, our all amounts to nothing in the end.
This was the great work of the reformers like Luther and Calvin who saw the state of the Christian Church – how corrupt and Pharisaical it had become – opened up their Bibles, saw the truth, and began to preach it. They came up with the Five Solas of the doctrine of salvation – the five “Alones” – that were in exact opposition to everything the Roman Catholic Church had been teaching and doing. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Soli Deo Gloria. The Salvation that God offers is by Scripture Alone, by Faith Alone, by Grace Alone, through Christ Alone, and to the Glory of God Alone.
The Salvation Jesus offers is described and understood only through the scriptures, the Bible. It doesn’t matter what “makes sense to you” or how you “feel”. God has outlined the way that people are saved from sin and death and the path of salvation is clearly outlined in scripture. Anything different than that is a lie. That salvation is by faith alone, not by any human endeavour. It is given from God by grace alone, not because we deserve any of it, but because, as Ephesians 2:4-5 says,
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…”
And who does scripture point to? Who must we have faith in? Through whom did this grace come? Through Jesus Christ alone. Acts 4:12,
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” [NIV]
And why did God do it? Why did God make us, let us fall, send prophets, write scripture, save some and condemn others? Why does humanity exist at all? For the glory of God alone. We read that last week in Ezekiel 36. The Reformers weren’t coming up with anything new – they weren’t creating a new church – they were “reforming” the church back to the way it was supposed to be.
Jesus says it this way to Nicodemus in John 3:10-15,
“Jesus answered him, ‘Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”
Jesus says, “You’ve read, memorized, and taught every verse in the Hebrew Bible and you don’t still understand God’s will. Your mind is trapped on earth and all the things you think you can do here to try to climb your way to heaven. Take it from me, the only person who has ever come down from heaven, that there is only one path. Remember the story (Num. 21:4-9) of when all the people spoke against God and Moses, and the Lord sent fiery serpents to poison everyone? No one was going to be able to good-deed their way out of being poisoned. They were cursed and already dead – it was just a matter of time before the poison finished them off. Do you remember how they saved themselves, Nicodemus? What did they do? Did they pray a bunch, sacrifice animals, give tithes? No. What was their path of salvation? God told Moses to make a bronze image of the serpent, set it on a pole, and raise it high in the air so that anyone who looks on it, the moment He sees it, would be saved from the poison that was killing them. That’s how it works. Except in this case, the poison is sin and I’m the One who is going to be raised up – on a cross – and everyone who looks to me will be saved – but not just in this life – they will be given eternal life. Do you understand what I’m saying, Nicodemus? You cannot save yourself by any means because you are poisoned with sin. All of your good deeds are corrupted by sin. Your thinking is corrupted by sin. Every convert you make is doubly corrupt because they are following you! There is only one way to be saved. You need that poison dealth with. You need to look to me.”
And Jesus continues explaining this to Nicodemus in verse 16, the most famous verse in the Bible.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
The Pharisees were all about judgment and condemnation. They loved popping up behind people, catching them breaking one of their rules (not God’s, theirs) and then using their position of authority to judge and condemn them. Read through the gospels again and see how many times Jesus is walking around, teaching, hanging out with his disciples, and then a Pharisee just jumps out of nowhere and starts condemning Him. It’s quite ridiculous once you see it.
But when God did finally send His Son, the Messiah, the Son of Man, the one the whole Old Testament prophesied about, He didn’t act like a Pharisee. He didn’t come and zap all the bad people left and right, killing Israel’s enemies, blasting everyone who didn’t perfectly follow the law, and passing out health, wealth, and power to all the good and obedient Pharisees. He did exactly the opposite. God the Father sent Jesus the Son to save people, not condemn them. Jesus came with an extended hand, not a closed fist. God loved the world so much – Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Romans, Pagans, Tax Collectors, Prostitutes, Adulterers, Drunkards, and yes, even Pharisees – that He was willing to raise up His perfect, beloved, Son on a cross for them.
And instead of the path of salvation being an impossible list of rules that no one could keep. He showed that the Law only had the power to condemn (Rom 8:4), but He – the only person who would ever keep the entire Law, perfectly – had the power to forgive and exchange Himself for sinners. Just as anyone who looked to the serpent was saved, so would any who look to Him. Just as the Israelites in Egypt believed that the blood sacrifice of the spotless lamb would allow death to Passover them, so the blood of Jesus would do the same. Just as anyone who believed that on the Day of Atonement, the bloody death of bulls and goats, and the sprinkling of their blood on the altar, mercy seat, and people, would atone and mane propitiation for – or make reparations for and appease God’s wrath for their own sin – so the blood of Jesus would do the same.
Jesus wasn’t there to bring final judgement. Not this time. He was coming to offer salvation to any who would believe in Him.
Nicodemus’s mind must have been reeling at this point because it went against everything he had ever believed. All the words of the prophets he’s memorized must have been racing through his mind with new understanding, new interpretation, knowing that Jesus was speaking the truth. His guilt and shame for being so wrong must have been immense. But there was that human side that made him want to refuse Jesus’ words, refuse to believe he wasn’t at least partly responsible for his own salvation.
And Jesus doubles-down in verse 18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Zero wiggle room. Salvation comes by the Word of God alone, through faith in Jesus alone, by the grace of God alone, through the Son of God alone, and for the glory of God alone. No other options.
Turn with me to John 14, but keep your thumb in John 3. Jesus is in the upper room preparing his disciples for what is going to happen that night. He will be leaving them because he’s about to be betrayed, falsely accused, condemned, and murdered. They’re obviously freaking out and Jesus says, “‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1–7)
I’m the way, Thomas. You can’t get there unless I take you there. You can’t know truth unless I tell it to you. You can’t have life unless I give it to you. No one can come before God, no one can be saved unless I am the one who brings them.”
That’s what Jesus was telling Nicodemus too.
Turn back to John 3. The natural question that comes to most Christians at this point, I think, is “Why would anyone reject this message?” It’s beautiful, simple, and generous. People everywhere struggle with guilt, shame, and fear. They want to be right with God and others. They want to know forgiveness and hope. They look at their lives and know that this isn’t all there is, that their habits are ruining them, and all the stuff they are amassing is empty. All the things they’ve tried to do to kill the pain, ignore the shame, and distract from the emptiness and hopelessness they feel, isn’t working.
Then they hear the gospel. You’d think that it would come as a welcome relief to them! Hope, help, forgiveness – all for free because Jesus paid the cost. Connection to God, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a cleansed soul, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in this world, it will work out for our good and God’s glory – and that the sufferings of this blip of a life will be nothing compared to the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). Seems pretty, “No duh.” to me.
Why would anyone reject this? Why would Nicodemus hem and haw? Why would the Pharisees condemn Jesus for this message and ultimately betray and murder Him? Why would generations of Christians after be martyred for spreading a message of amazing grace, free salvation, eternal hope, and a renewed spirit, for anyone who would believe in Jesus alone? Why, if Christians have some of the greatest philosophers, scientists, apologists, writers, thinkers, and agents of mercy of all time and in the whole world, would people reject what we have to say with such vehemence?
Jesus answers that question in verses 19-21,
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The reason is that they love their sin and themselves. They prefer darkness. God wants to expose their sin to the light, expose their deeds, expose their thoughts, and let them see how evil they are. But they want to stay in the dark because they don’t want to be exposed. Accepting Jesus’ message means admitting and exposing sin. It means saying, “I’m wrong. I’m a sinner. I’m an addict. I’m a gossip. I’m controlling. I use people. I’m lazy. I’m critical. I’m superstitious. I want glory for myself and don’t want to share. I have hate in my heart that I don’t want to let go of. I don’t want to submit to authority. I love money more than people. I want power. I want to hurt people. I want to use people for my own gratification. I want to steal things because I think I deserve them. I want to do what I want, when I want, and be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and right for me and everyone else. I don’t want God, I want to be God.”
To come to Jesus means coming to the light and having everything exposed. That’s why they won’t come.
Consider your own sins for a moment. Where and when do you do them? Out in the open? Lights on? In front of people? Or do you find a corner, turn off the lights, and get alone?
When you’re about to gossip or slander, do you speak in a loud voice for all to hear, or do you find a corner and whisper? When you want to control and manipulate someone, do you do it in front of their friends, family, and church – or do you do it alone, through e-mail, and tell them to keep secrets? Where do you keep the things you sin with; on a shelf for all to see, or tucked away in a dark place? Where have you gotten in the most trouble, and have had the most problems – with things that people did and said in the open for all to see and hear or the ones that happened during secret meetings, private messages, dark places, and back-room encounters? Sin hates the light, because the light causes it to wither and die.
If you are doing things in the darkness right now, what you are doing is not only dangerous but foolish. Your deeds are only secret from some. God knows, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the news lately, you will eventually be found out.
Isaiah 29:15 says,
“Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, ‘Who sees us? Who will know?’”
In Luke 12:1-3 Jesus says,
“Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” (also Luke 8:17)
I’m telling you the truth.
Turn with me to Ephesians 5 and listen to what the Apostle Paul says,
“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:1–17)
I’ll leave the rest of the passage for you to read on your own time.
But let this be our conclusion today. Jesus is inviting you to the light but your sin loves darkness. I beg you to expose all your dark things to the light. James 5:16 says to
“confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
Do you want healing in your soul, your marriage, your family, your church? Start confessing your sins to one another.
Now, expect resistance. Satan really hates it when Christians do this. He’s going to give you every excuse in the world. “Now’s not a good time.” “They won’t be able to handle it.” “It’s too risky. I might lose my friend, marriage, job, position.”
Something will come to mind, maybe even now, and automatically you’ll hear, “It’s not that big of a deal. You don’t need to confess that one. It’s between you and God.” That’s Satan. Do you want to be free of that sin? Do you want salvation? Do you want healing?
“…Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.”
To whom? First, to Jesus. Use your voice, out-loud, and confess that sin, out-loud, to God and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. God is the one you’ve offended most and who you need to deal with first.
Then, confess the one you sinned against. Confess to the people you affected. Confess to the ones who felt the ripple effects. Confess your sin to your Christian friend. Then tell your mentor, deacon, elder, and pastor. Drag that sin, kicking and screaming, into the light and keep blasting more and more light on it until it is shrivelled and dead. That’s the only way to be free.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)
The very first line of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” from CS Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” is one of my favourites. It says,
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
If you’ve read the Narnia books or watched the movies, then you’ll remember Eustace Clarence Scrubb. He begins the book as a thoroughly unlikeable character. He’s honestly worse than the White Witch. Sure, she was pure evil, but Eustice was a self-centred, know-it-all, cowardly, jerk.
If you don’t know who I’m talking about, then maybe you’ll remember the feeling you had when watching or reading about Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter. I hate that pink lady so much… but back to Eustice.
Lewis spends a good chunk of the book introducing us to this obnoxious and disagreeable person, giving him opportunity after opportunity to redeem himself or show a little bit of good, but it never happens. Then comes the scene where the ship has been hit by a huge storm, is in absolute tatters, runs aground on an island, everybody spills out haggard and exhausted. But they know that even though they are all utterly drained, they must rally for a few more hours so they can gather food and firewood to set up camp. Eustice, seeing that there will be no rest, slowly sneaks away so he can have a nap somewhere out of site.
After a short time, he comes across a dragon’s cave. He watches the dragon die and then sees its store of treasure. His rottenness really comes to the fore as he imagines all the selfish things he could do with this fortune until he falls asleep on a pile of gold. “When he awakes, Eustace is no longer a boy but a dragon, the outward manifestation of his inner greed and selfishness.” He discovers that the gold bracelet he put on his arm is now bringing great pain as it constricts his dragon leg, and when he tries to go to the others he finds himself cut off from his friends, isolated and alone. He curls up in a ball and starts to cry hot, dragon tears.
His friends never give up the search though and eventually, after much suffering and loneliness Eustice starts to regret his ways, miss his friends, and after much trial and error because he can no longer speak, manages to explain his predicament to his shipmates, even use his new form to help gather supplies.
After some time as a dragon, Aslan, the Christ character of the book arrives. He leads Eustace to a garden on top of a mountain where a well stands in the very centre. Eustace wants to enter the water so the pain in his leg could be soothed, but Aslan says he must undress first. Eustice realizes that Aslan must mean that he must shed his skin, like a snake. He sees how dirty and scaly he looks and starts to peel off that layer, “only to discover another nasty, scaly, and rough layer underneath. And then another. After three layers, he realizes it’s vain — he will never make himself clean or get rid of his pain or shed the nasty skin.”
Aslan the Lion then says Eustace, “You will have to let me undress you.” Eustace is obviously nervous about having a huge lion with great claws come and tear at his skin, but he’s so desperate for relief that he relents and lies down on the ground, flat on his back. Lewis describes what happens next from Eustace’s perspective:
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again…. After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me… in new clothes.”
This passage has come to my mind many times since I read it recently. There is some great truth in it.
Often in our lives, we desire to be cleansed, renewed, made right, fixed, changed into a new person. We look at the life we’ve led, the decisions we’ve made, the foolish nonsense we’ve gotten ourselves into, and we wish it could be different. We feel guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, and anger and we want it to change. We are addicted and want freedom. We are afraid and want security.
And so we do what Eustace did first. We try to peel off an outer layer, something on the surface, in hopes that that’s all we need. We read a book, try a change of habit, make a new schedule, commit to exercising, make a prayer time, get a Bible-in-a-year checklist and say we’re going to read it. We tell people around us that we’re going to try to be nicer, better, cleaner, more friendly, less stressed, more committed, more determined – and that we’ll do it by changing one or two things in our life. Give something up, join a group, take a walk, clean our house, and organize our lives.
But it doesn’t work. We strip off that one layer and it’s not too long until we realize that we really haven’t changed anything. We’ve exchanged one bad habit for another, one idol for another, one way of control for another, one enemy for another, and no matter how clean our room is, how clear our schedule is, how many days in a row we read our bible, attend group, or go for a walk, nothing ultimately changes inside of us. The fear, sadness, anger, and hunger are still there.
So we do what Eustace did again. We strip off another layer. We change something else on the surface of our lives in hopes it will change us. We do something radical like die our hair, get a piercing, shave or grow our beard, get a tattoo, buy a new wardrobe, in hopes that if we look different then we will feel different. Then we look around for other things that we can change. We dump our friends and try to find new ones. We see our church and blame them for not doing enough, so we go somewhere else or stop going altogether. We see our doctor and blame them for not giving the right treatment, so we get a second opinion. We blame our medication and figure it isn’t working right, so we stop taking it or go find different ones. We blame our family and spouse, so we ignore them, commit adultery or get a divorce. We blame God so we go looking for another religion.
We hope that if we change what is happening on the outside, change enough surface things, that it will fix our deepest problems. But it doesn’t work. With every surface change, with every layer of stripped-off skin, we eventually realize we haven’t really changed. We’re still the same dragon we were when we started.
“Tim Keller once said in a sermon, ‘The way to deal with guilt is not to avoid it, but to resolve it. Eustace not only realized he couldn’t get his own skin off, but that only God can come and take your skin off, and to do this you have to let him pierce deep. You must take all the guilt on yourself and stop blame shifting and take responsibility for what you’ve done wrong. No excuses. Full in the face.’”
This is what everyone must do before they can know the freedom and healing that comes with being made new by the power of Jesus Christ. They must look their sin in the face, stop making excuses, stop blaming others, stop thinking it’s just a surface problem and say,
“The reason that nothing changes no matter what I do is because I am the problem.
The reason I feel so afraid is that I want to be in control of everything and everyone. I want to be God because I don’t trust Him.
The reason I’m so angry is that I believe that my life should be one of unbroken comfort and ease. Deep down I resent everyone who makes me feel even a little bit uncomfortable, and I hate that God allows suffering in my life, so I hurt others so I control them, punish them for taking my comfort, and feel better about myself.
The reason I’m addicted is that I chose to be. I felt lonely, afraid, sad, or bad in some way and wanted an escape. I knew what I was doing was wrong, knew it had consequences, but chose to do it anyway because I didn’t care about anyone or anything other than myself at the time. I wasn’t fooled into a trap. I jumped into it. And I keep going back into the trap because I don’t want to go through the pain of leaving it, regardless of what it’s doing to me or the people I love.”
The only way to be free of sin is to admit you are a sinner. Admit you like feeling the rush that comes when you are the centre of attention, and so you seek it out, push others down, even steal the glory from God so you can feel good about yourself – because deep down you believe you should be worshipped.
Admit that even though you pretend to be nice on the surface, that deep down you are full of hate and you allow that hate to come out in socially acceptable ways. You would never murder anyone, but you will gossip about them, slander them, mock them, make rude comments about them, and stab them in the back – not to their face but to others or anonymously online – and then when you feel guilty or get caught, you make excuses saying they deserved it. There are people you hate, would never show love or affection or friendship to, even though you don’t know them, simply because of their race, gender, or social status.
Admit that you lie and believe lies on purpose because the truth is less convenient.
Admit that you lust after men and women who you are not married to, and that you want to, that you enjoy it, and you don’t care if pornography and human trafficking and prostitution is utterly destroying people’s lives and making it so you can’t even have a conversation with a young man or young woman without objectifying them, because you like it – and you don’t care about the suffering that comes from pornography because allows you to feel pleasure.
Admit that you have used all kinds of excuses to weasel out of work you should have done because you are lazy.
Admit that you are jealous of those who have more than you, who are better looking than you, who have a better life than you, and you would gladly take all of their comforts and dump all your problems on them if you could because you care more about yourself than anyone else.
Admit that you’ve stolen many, many times. You steal from the government by falsifying your taxes, from stores by keeping change that wasn’t yours or using coupons wrongly, from media companies by stealing signal and sharing passwords, from musicians and artists by downloading their songs and books and art for free instead of paying for them, from your parents when they weren’t looking, from your neighbours, your friends, your church, even from God by not giving Him what you promised Him.
Stop making excuses for your sin, stop blaming others, stop making light of it, stop assuming it’s just a little problem, a white lie, a personality quirk, and admit that you are a sinner who has loved sinning, and will keep doing it for as long as you can, until you are caught, or it kills you. And there’s nothing you can do to stop.
Only then, only when you admit your biggest problem is you, your sin, your failure, your decisions, your debt, will you ever be willing to ask for help. Only then will you roll over, expose your belly, and, regardless of how much you fear it, allow Jesus to change you utterly.
In Alcoholics Anonymous they call this “Rock Bottom” and it refers to the very lowest level a person can hit before they are willing to look up. Some people’s rock bottom requires very little loss before they ask for help – other people need to go through a lot more suffering, but the common theme is suffering, loss, and then admission of need. As long as a person is living in denial, defending what they do, comfortable with their addiction, they will never want to change. Until an alcoholic sees that drinking is a problem, they will never stop, they will never be able to root out what is really driving them to drink. In the same way, until a sinner sees that the real problem with their life is that their sin holds them captive, they will never ask to be freed from it, and thereby never know freedom.
What Happens When You Finally Admit Your Sin
What happens when you ask to be free? What happens when you finally admit you are living under a curse, that there is nothing you can do, and that you want to be free from the living-death that your sins keep you in? What happens when you realize the consequences of your sin are yours, feel the heat of the wrath of God coming against you, and are pressed down with guilt and shame? What happens when you turn yourself belly up and allow Jesus to strip you down and then dress you in His clothes? What happens when you finally admit you are a sinner in need of a saviour?
The picture of Eustace is one of a sinner whose outsides finally caught up with his insides. He was always a dragon, now he just looked it. So what did Aslan have to do? He had to kill the dragon part of Eustace so He could become who He was intended to be on the outside and the inside.
To save us from our sins, Jesus has to kill the sinful part of us, the part that has killed our souls and damned us to eternal death in Hell. Then Jesus must resurrect us to a new, eternal life that is no longer trapped in that curse. The only way to conquer your dragon is to kill it. You can’t make friends with it and hope it will behave. You all know the experience of trying to make friends you’re your dragon-self – it never stays friendly. The only cure for sin is death.
So how does God kill the sin part of us?
He Became Sin Who Knew No Sin
2 Corinthians 5:21 gives the answer,
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
This is one of the most important verses in scripture because it helps us understand how salvation through Jesus works. How is it possible that we can be sinners to the core, rebellious lovers of iniquity, our backs turned against God and toward all manner of depravity – and then be made right with Him without being punished, without facing God’s wrath? How can we go from being dead in our sins (Eph 2:1), destined for Hell, to alive in Christ and live with Him forever? If God hates sin, and the wrath of God must be poured out against it, then how can sinners be saved? How can the curse of sin be broken?
We know it’s not by trying to change our behaviour, right? Not only is that insufficient – because our sins are so numerous and powerful – but it’s ineffective. It’s like trying to cure cancer using lotion. It’s like trying to fix a brain tumour by getting a haircut. The consequences must be terrible and the effect of the cure must be complete.
It says that “for our sake”, because of His great love for us, Jesus chose to exchange Himself for us. This is where Lewis’ illustration of Eustace falls apart a bit – but was actually written about in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”. Jesus doesn’t just tear away the dragon from us. Instead, Jesus becomes the dragon. Or rather, God treats Jesus like He is the dragon. God puts upon Jesus the full weight of His wrath against sin. Jesus, the one “who knew no sin” became sin. Jesus had the entire measure God’s wrath against sin, the full curse, placed on Himself, and then takes the punishment you deserved.
The rejection of Jesus should have been ours. The scourging should have been us.
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
“He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross…” (1 Peter 2:24)
A surface change in our behaviour isn’t enough to deal with the problem of sin. We need to have the curse of sin broken in us. We need someone to kill that dragon. Jesus did that for you, for me, for anyone who is willing to admit their sin and their need for a Saviour. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The scripture is clear, and our conscience attests to the fact that there is nothing we can change in our behaviour to fix the problem (Rom 8:3). We couldn’t obey God, so Jesus obeyed for us. We didn’t want to die for our sin and face hell, so Jesus took our condemnation, died for us, and took the full weight of hell on Himself. We want to be made righteous and free from the curse of sin in our life, to be made clean and right with God and those around us, but we can’t do that ourselves – so Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life, and then died like a cursed sinner, so we, who deserved that death, could be made righteous.
When we put our faith in Jesus, God kills that dragon of sin inside us strips us to the core, and then resurrects us to new life. That’s why Christians are baptized. It’s an external picture of what’s happening on the inside. We admit our sins and then go under the water in death, we are buried with Christ as the water envelopes us, and then we are raised to new life as we come out of the water, cleansed and set free from the curse of sin.
This is why one of the pictures of becoming a Christian is known as being “Born Again”. Jesus said to the Pharisee Nicodemus, a man dedicated to living an upright, perfect life according to the Law of Moses, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) What did that mean? It meant that the way of the Pharisees, the way of laws and rules and surface changes will not make you fit for heaven. You must let God kill your sinful self, your sinful flesh, and let Him resurrect you as a new person, born again.
This happens only when you believe in Jesus. Every other religion, every self-help book, every other messenger will tell you to try harder, do more, pull up your socks, and give you a list of superficial things you need to change so you can become a better person. Or they’ll just teach you how to become friends with your dragon. That’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus doesn’t offer a surface change, a spiritual band-aid, a list of rules and steps to a better life – He offers to take your sins upon Himself, die in your place, destroy the dragon within you, kill your old self, and then resurrect you as a new person, free from your slavery to sin. All He asks is that you admit you need Him and Him alone, believe in Him and Him alone, and allow Him to invite you to enter into His death and His resurrection.
Let me close by reading Romans 6:1-14.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”
[1, 2, 3] I got a lot of help in this section from https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/my-dragon-skin-torn-off
Imagine for a moment that you are sitting at home one night when you hear a weird noise outside your door, see a bunch of flickering lights, and then moments later hear a knock on your door.
You answer it and there stands an alien family from outer space – there’s an alien mom, alien dad, and a couple of alien kids. You look at them for a moment, not being sure how to react, when one of them says, “Hi! We’re on vacation and got a little lost. We were on our way to our favourite spot but got turned around. Then we noticed your planet had its lights on so we decided to stop by. We’ve got a few days left in our vacation and think it would be great for the kids to see a planet like this. But before we head off, we have a question for you: What’s this planet like?”
How do you answer that? That’s a huge question, with a thousand answers. Do you talk about how we do food and water? How we communicate? Do you start with the national and political and religious situations they should consider? Do you start describing mountains and valleys and sunsets, or do you start with the Seven Wonders of the World? Maybe you should start with the history of the planet, it’s location in the solar system, how life came to be, and why it looks the way it does? But where should they go first? What must they definitely see on earth before they leave? What should they definitely avoid? What warning signs should they look out for and what is the best place to go to understand our global culture? If you’re a farmer you’ll probably have one answer, if you’re a geologist another. If you are a politician you’ll prioritize some things, if you’re an artist you’ll mention something completely different.
But the earth is finite, right? Technically, eventually, you could summarize and describe everything they would need to know so they had a basic understanding of planet earth and could set out on their way – but what if they asked you to describe our solar system, or our galaxy – from the atomic level all the way up to the largest formations of stars and everything in between. That would be hard, right?
But again, those things are tangible, physical, measurable. With a good enough microscope and telescope, you could theoretically take a good crack at it and eventually come up with a description of everything in the known universe.
But what about God? He is infinitely more difficult to describe? Why? Because He’s not finite, He’s infinite. He’s not bound by time, He’s eternal. He doesn’t have limits and boundaries that we can mark off because He is all-powerful, ever-present, and all-knowing. He is literally unfathomable. And yet, it is our task as believers is to try to get to know Him. As I said before, from Christ’s words in John 17:3,
“…this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
Theology is the science of studying God. RC Sproul, in his book Everyone is a Theologian says this:
“Theology is inescapable. Not everybody is a professional Theologians with a capital-T, but we are all theologians with a lower-case-t because we all have some view of who God is. And so, fundamental to living and walking as a Christian is clear understanding of the truth of God.”
Regardless of what else we do in this world, our jobs, our family, our struggles and victories, it all revolves around the greatest mission in life: to know God and to know Jesus. All those things – our studies, our work, our relationships – not only teach us about ourselves and this world, but they all come back to teach us about the One who created it and for whom it was created (Col 1:15-17).
That’s what we’ve been getting at for the past couple weeks. In the catechism we are studying, we are trying to get a “clear understanding of the truth of God” so that we can wrap our minds around who He is, what He’s like, and what that means for us.
In truth, the last couple sermons and this one are the same – just broken up over the weeks. It would have been overwhelming to try to answer everything that Day 8 wants me to cover. In Day 8, which covers questions 24 and 25 of the catechism, it is traditional to explain not only the answers to the questions but to give an outline of how we know there is a God in the first place and then spend time describing His most obvious attributes.
Over the past couple weeks I gave a quick review, discussed the first attribute of God found in the doctrine of the Trinity, and then I told you that we would move into talking about more of those attributes. So that’s what I want to do today. As I said about trying to describe earth to those alien vacationers, it’s an impossible task to complete, but there are many things that we can do to get a good start.
God Wants to Be Known
And a good place to start is that God is a person who wants to be known.
Sometimes people say that God is unknowable, too mysterious, too impossible to understand, and therefore they either give up trying or construct a version of Him that is easier for them to comprehend. In fact, I just used the word “unfathomable” to describe Him. But to be “unfathomable” doesn’t mean that we can know nothing about Him, it means we cannot know everything about Him. And, in fact, because of the limited capacity of our language, even the words we use to describe Him will fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. Yes, God is invisible and infinitely complicated, but on the other hand, God is a clearly a person who wants to be known, who has chosen to reveal Himself and has demonstrated a desire to be known in a lot of different ways. Today we’re going to talk about the most general ways.
General Revelation: Creation
First, He makes Himself known in Creation. Romans 1:19–20 when speaking of those who refuse to believe in God it says,
“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
Psalm 19:1–2 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.”
Psalm 8:3-4 says, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
The point here is that creation itself declares that there is a God. Theologians call this “General Revelation” as opposed to “Special Revelation” because it’s not specific. Examples of special revelation are things like the Bible, prophecies, miracles, the person of Jesus – but the world around us, the wonders and power of creation, is an example of “General Revelation”. No one can come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through “General Revelation”, but through it, they can understand some of the big concepts like God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature”. Meaning that everyone on earth, at some point in their life, looks at the world around them, the beauty, complexity, design, and usefulness and thinks, “Wow, there is something beyond me. Something self-existent that was before me, before everything, something beyond me that has the wisdom and power to create all of this.”
General Revelation: Conscience
But that isn’t the only source of General revelation. Coupled with the revelation of God in Creation is Him revealing Himself in our Conscience.
Let me read Romans 2:12-16 which speaks of how all mankind, not only those who have read the Bible, have fallen under the judgment of God. It says,
“For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”
The second General Revelation of the existence of God is that everyone on earth has a human conscience. Yes, this conscience is flawed and imperfect, but it is also universal. Thomas Aquinas called this the Natural Law. What it is is an argument that if there is a universal, objective, moral law to which all humanity agrees, then there must be a Universal Law Giver. There can only be an up and a down, a right and a wrong, if there is some sort of reference point. And that reference point cannot be something we all coincidentally just came up with. We cannot have the belief that this world is all about the “survival of the fittest” alongside the internal, universal moral imperative not to murder. Yet everywhere, regardless of religion, history, or culture agrees that murder is wrong.
I heard a quote this week that said:
“For the atheist, humans are just accidents of nature; highly evolved animals. But animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a cat kills a mouse it hasn’t done anything morally wrong. The cat is just being a cat. If God doesn’t exist, we should view human behaviour in the same way. No action should be considered morally right or wrong. But the problem is that good and bad, right and wrong, do exist. Just as our sense experience convinces us that the physical world is objectively real, our moral experience convinces us that moral values are objectively real. Every time you say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s wrong. That’s an injustice.’ You affirm your belief in the existence of objective morals.” In other words, the person who says that murder, terrorism, and child abuse is morally right is just as mistaken as the person who says that 2+2=5. (The Theology Forum)
Everyone that has ever existed, if they have the capacity for self-examination and self-awareness, has a moment when they see a glimpse of God’s divinity in Creation. It’s universal. Also, every human being has a moment when they realize that their thoughts, actions, and motives are somehow conflicting with what they know is right. Their moral behaviour doesn’t line up with their moral understanding. They inherently know something is right or wrong, not because that thought was written in some book or because their parents said so, but because something greater, something within them has said it was right or wrong. Then they do the opposite, breaking their conscience, creating within themselves guilt and shame.
Every human being has to deal with those two general revelations – and then they must do something about it. They see the vastness of space, the beauty of a sunset, the power of a storm, the birth of a baby and it triggers something primal in their soul. At the same time, they realize that there is something in them that compels them and everyone else, every society on earth, towards and away from certain behaviours. Somehow, even in secret where no one can see them, in their heart of hearts, they feel pride when they do good and guilt when they do wrong.
At that moment they are faced with a choice to either explore those feelings, those revelations, those divine moments. They are given the invitation to seek after that power, try to discover more about it, to find that moral lawgiver – or repress that thought, ignore it ever happened, deny that guilty feeling and repress it until it goes away, to refuse to believe that there is any being above themselves or any morality that should stop them from achieving their own desires.
That is a universal, human experience, and it is what Romans 1 and 2 are all about. In the words of one commentary I have, it says,
“From creation we can learn in general, that there is a God, and that He is omnipotent and all-wise; from conscience, that there is a holy and just God, who hates and punishes evil.” (Thelemann, O. An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. p. 86)
We just went through an election in Carleton Place and we were inundated with road signs with candidates’ names on them and pamphlets in the mail with pictures and slogans. Creation and Conscience are sort of like God’s signs, God’s calling cards, His invitations to know Him more. But what we cannot do is deny we have seen the invitation.
No human being will stand before God and say, “I never knew there was a being above me. I never knew the difference between right and wrong. I never felt that there was power or wisdom beyond myself.” Everyone will stand before God and say, “Yes, I knew in my heart that there was some kind of eternal power and divine nature beyond myself. I perceived it in creation. And I knew that throughout my life I was given the choice between right and wrong and I chose wrong time and again. I stand self-condemned. I chose to deny you, chose not to seek you, and chose to darken my heart so I could choose wrong, against my conscience, so I could have material things. I exchanged the pursuit of God for a lie of my own preference.”
Conclusion: The Virtuous Pagan
The bad news about General Revelation is that it only has the power to condemn humanity. Turn with me to Romans 1:18–25 and let’s read the expanded section of what we’ve been studying. It says,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
The question often comes to Christians: What about the person who has never heard Gospel, never read the Bible, never heard about Jesus? What about the innocent person who grew up in a far-flung country that has never been visited by missionaries or whose tribe wouldn’t let them in? Surely God wouldn’t hold that against them? How could a good and loving God condemn someone to Hell just because they’ve never heard of Him? That’s unfair! This is often called the problem of the “Virtuous Pagan”.
This argument has even been used to say that it is actually cruel of Christians to send missionaries because perhaps God would have saved that person if they had never heard of Jesus. What if the missionary bungled the presentation or the person couldn’t understand the story. We should just leave them alone so that they can find God their way, shouldn’t we?
The Doctrine of General Revelation, as presented in the Bible disagrees. First, God has not promised salvation to everyone and has no obligation to save everyone. The fact that He chooses to save anyone is because of His grace, not because He has to. The Bible doesn’t present humanity as good, moral, wonderful little creatures that God sends to Hell for no reason. Instead, the Bible presents humanity as fallen, sinful, evil beings that have rejected God, rejected objective morality, and have chosen sin instead, making themselves an enemy of God.
Everyone in that has ever existed, in every country, language, and nation, will stand before God and be self-condemned (they will admit their guilt before God) for what they have known through General Revelation. No one will be able to argue that they deserve Heaven because of their own merit or because of their ignorance. Some will be even more condemned because they not only rejected God’s General Revelation through Creation and Conscience, but have actually read the Word of God, seen the Law of God, heard about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and rejected it too.
But the good news is that God has not left everyone condemned. He could have. But instead, God has revealed Himself and His plan of salvation to us and has invited us to be a part of spreading that message to others.
Next week we are going to move from talking about the General Revelations of God to the Special Revelations, and how we can know God better through them.
 Taken from ESV Study Bible note on Rom 1:19-20
 Thelemann, O. (1896). An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism. (M. Peters, Trans.) (p. 86). Reading, PA: James I. Good, D. D, Publisher.
Turn with me to John 3:16-21 and we’ll read it together. We talked about this passage a little bit last week when I highlighted the exclusivity of the claims that Jesus was making as being the only one to have faith in, the one and only way path to forgiveness and restoration to God. I also read John 14:6 where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And then the teachings of the Apostles in Acts 4:12 where Peter says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Jesus didn’t say there were many ways to heaven, that God accepts the worship of other religions, or that anyone’s individual efforts – no matter how good – could win favour with God. No, over and over, Jesus taught and proved that He was the one and only Son of God, sent from the Father to give the message of life.
The first words of Jesus in Mark, the first Gospel ever written, were His declaration:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)
He was saying in no uncertain terms because this was a command: “Here I am! The King of the Kingdom, the One to whom you owe your allegiance, the One that was foretold in all the prophecies, in all the ceremonies, and by all the signs. Now, ‘repent and believe’ in me.”
“Repent” was a word they had already heard lots of times from John the Baptist and it meant to “stop doing what you’re doing, stop sinning, and turn around”, but Jesus added to that message, “and believe”, meaning that anyone who turned around was supposed to follow Him. In other words, have faith in Him.
Faith in Jesus is a mega-theme in the gospel of Mark. When Jesus was asked to heal Jairus’ sick daughter, he was interrupted and then the girl died. And it says in Mark 5:35–36,
“While he was still speaking, there came from the ruler’s house some who said, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’”
In other words, have faith in me. And then Jesus went and raised the child from the dead.
In Mark 4:35-41 we read the story of when the disciples were in a boat and a great storm arose, and everyone was scared they’d capsize, except Jesus who was sleeping in the front of the boat. It says,
“And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’”
In other words, “Guys, I’m in the boat. Do you really think that God’s going to let me drown before I finish my work? Do you really think I’m going to let you all drown? Do you trust me or not?”
And now, let’s read John 3:16-21,
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
It says, quite simply, that God sent Jesus into the world so that the curse of sin that leads to death would be broken and we might have eternal life. It said that when Jesus came it wasn’t to condemn the world, though He certainly could have, but instead He came to bring salvation to us.
We’ve already established, over the past weeks, I hope, that we are sinners in need of a saviour and that Jesus is the only way of salvation, right? So, what is the single qualification for someone to be saved by Jesus? What must a person do in order to be saved by Jesus?
Too Easily Pleased
Turn over to John 6:22–40. This story comes after Jesus feeds the 5000:
“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”
Hold on there for a second. Jesus’ problem here was that the people were so worldly-minded they cared more about a full stomach than a saved soul. They didn’t care that Jesus Christ Himself stood before them, offering access to God – they were more interested in whether or not He would make more sandwiches.
They were, like many of us today, so concerned about their own comfort and wellbeing that they look right past what Jesus really offers and only ask for what ends up being trite, silly, and temporary things.
For example, we just sent our teens off to El Salvador this week, right? What did you pray for them? The prayer I heard most often basically amounted to asking God to make sure they would “be safe” and “have a good time”. And I don’t mean to come across as callous or critical, but those are kind of “loaf” prayers, aren’t they? Are we more concerned that our kids have full bellies and don’t get hurt than what God really wants to do in them? What if God really wants to change them, challenge them, increase their faith, force them to confront what they really believe, drive sin from their souls, and cause them to cry out to Him alone? That can’t happen when they are “safe”, can it? That happens when they get desperate and learn how much they need God. What a terrible waste to send a group off on a mission trip and have them only come home with the biggest report being: “nothing bad happened and we had a good time.” We may as well have sent them to Canada’s Wonderland.
CS Lewis said it this way:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
That’s what Jesus was criticizing there. That they were too easily pleased with loaves of bread and didn’t even desire the Son of God standing right before them.
The Work of God
Let’s keep reading though in verse 28:
“Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
Take a look at verse 27 again. What did Jesus say?
“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”
They completely missed that part. They say, “Ok, Jesus. We want that bread that lasts forever, so that our bellies will be full and we won’t have to worry about that anymore. What does God want us to do? What kind of ceremony? Some kind of sacrifice or worship song or prayer or good deed?” And Jesus says, “Guys, first, the best thing for you isn’t actually bread… I’m not talking about actual bread… and second, you don’t have to work for it. I’ll give it to you…”
Look at what Jesus says in verse 29,
“Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
I told you a while back that every Worldview has 4 Questions they must answer: “Why is there something rather than nothing?, What’s broken with the world?, Can it be fixed?, Where is the future headed?”
Every religion, every worldview answers that question. They all know that something’s wrong with the world, but each one comes up with different ways to fix it. Some believe in humanism, and that through our own ingenuity and technology we will be able to save ourselves. Some believe in environmentalism, that if we just leave the world alone, it will fix itself. Hindu and Buddhism believe that if humans get good karma that they will eventually reincarnate as higher and higher forms of being. Islam believes that unbelievers are the problem and if you everyone would obey the five pillars then they might earn enough points to get to heaven. And New Age groups mush everything together, call everything, including themselves god and say that if anything bad happens it’s because you didn’t control your godhood properly because you are in charge of creating your own reality.
All of these worldviews have the same thing in common: They answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” with the answer, “I can save myself if I try work enough.”
Jesus says, No. There is no amount of work you can do to conquer sin, reverse the curse of death, make everyone get along, stop war, plague, pestilence, and famine, and achieve your way into the presence of the Creator. It’s impossible.
Humans are always trying to figure out what work God wants them to do so they can get their prize, so they can get the loaves and fishes, the comfort, the way out of pain. They want to be able to say they did it themselves, that they worked hard enough, tried hard enough, were good enough, smart enough, and clever enough to save themselves, but the problem of sin isn’t one that we can fix. There’s no amount of work we can do to save ourselves. So when we ask what kind of work we can do to fix everything, Jesus says, “‘This is the work… that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”
There is no work required: Only faith. Believe in Jesus. Trust in Jesus. That’s it. He does the work.
Bread of Life
Keep reading in verse 30,
“So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
This is astonishing. They weren’t listening at all! They look at Jesus and say, “Ok, whatever. Yesterday you gave us actual bread. That was good! Can we have more bread? Moses gave us bread every day! How can we be sure that you aren’t going to flake out on us and forget to bring the bread? Prove that you can do it again. Make you a deal: If you keep filling our bellies and making us fat and happy, then we’ll believe whatever you want… ”
And Jesus’ answer is perfect:
“Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’”
It’s like he’s saying: “No. C’mon you guys! Moses didn’t give you bread. God did! Sure, for a short period in history, while you were wandering in the desert, God sent manna and quail to you so you wouldn’t starve on your way to the Promised Land. But now, standing before you is the “true bread from heaven”, the One who won’t just feed your bellies for a day, but has the power to grant life itself!
“They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’”
Still not getting it. They look around to one another and say, “Oooohhh… I get it! He’s talking about bottomless breadsticks! Yes! Give us that!” Still worried about food. Still stuck on temporal blessings and comfort. Still thinking about their momentary physical need for a bit of bread and not their deeper spiritual need for forgiveness of their sins and restoration to God.
So Jesus spells it out:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
Now pay attention to this next sentence, because this is what we’ve been building towards:
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”
What is the one, singular qualification for salvation? What must we do? Believe in Jesus.
HC LD7a – Belief
Turn your page over to the Heidelberg Catechism Questions for today. Remember last week we learned that Jesus is the one and only mediator between God and man, the only one who can take the punishment for the sins of the world? Look at question 20:
“Are all men, then, saved by Christ just as they perished through Adam?”
This is a good question. In our study of sin we learned that because of what Adam and Eve did in the Garden of Eden, all of their offspring would fall under the curse of sin. Romans 5:12 says, “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…” All humanity was infected with that curse, and therefore we are all sinners and stand condemned. And so the natural question then is, “Ok, then if all humanity is automatically infected with Adam’s curse, does it follow that all humanity is automatically cured by what Jesus did?
And the answer is,
“No. Only those are saved who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”
Just as Jesus makes an exclusive claim to be the one and only savior, so in the same way, He says that the only people who are saved are the ones who make the choice to accept his free gift of salvation. Just as Adam and Eve chose to sin, so everyone must make the choice to believe in Jesus. Remember John 3:18,
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Now, I know, there are a lot of theological debates about what comes first: Does God change the heart before a man can believe? Or does a man have to believe before God changes his heart? If faith is a gift from God than how can man make a choice? I don’t want to spend a bunch of time talking about that today.
I think the moment of salvation works like this: It’s like we are sitting alone in a dark room eating something. We can’t see anything – what we look like, what we’re eating, or any way out. The room is all we’ve ever known, all we’ve ever experienced. But then, all at once, Jesus opens a door and sheds light into the room. We look around and realize we are sitting in filth, surrounded by garbage. We look at the food in our hands, and it’s disgusting, mouldy, maggot ridden…. We feel sick to our stomachs, regretful of where we are, what we’ve been putting in our bodies, disgusted by what we’ve been doing. And then Jesus says, “Hey, I’ve got a place for you and better food. Food that satisfies and makes you well. Will you come and eat what I’ve prepared for you?”
To me, that’s how salvation works. We can talk about the nuances of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace and Conditional or Unconditional Election, but that’s a debate for theologians. I want to keep it simple.
Question 20: Is everyone saved? The answer: No. Only those who have true faith are saved.
Which leads to question 21,
“What is true faith?”
and the answer is beautiful,
“True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.”
That boils down to some very simple beliefs. How do you know if you have “true faith” or if someone you know has “true faith” in Jesus Christ as their Saviour? Are you sure and confident of what God says in the Bible? And do you believe you are forgiven of your sins, not by anything you have done, but because of what Jesus did on the cross for your sake?
It is not enough to say that you believe in God. James 2:19 says, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” Jesus says in John 17:3, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
If the answer to those questions are “Yes, I believe the Bible is the Word of God. I don’t get to make things up about Him or what He wants because He has revealed it to me in scripture. And yes, I believe that Jesus alone has saved me and I don’t need to do nothing else to add to that salvation.” then you are saved! You are a Christian!
But if you are not willing to say those things, and instead doubt God’s Word, make things up about Him, subscribe to other religions or superstitions – or that you think that you can earn your way to heaven through good works or religious ceremonies – then your soul is in danger and there is a very good chance that you are not saved.
We are going to cover a lot more of what the Bible says in the coming weeks, but let me conclude today’s message with this. Romans 10:10 says,
“For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”
Do you believe in Jesus as your saviour? And if so, will you confess that faith to Jesus and others? Don’t keep your belief in your heart because you are told not to. You must first confess your faith to Jesus. You must, in prayer, confess yourself a sinner in need of the salvation that comes from Jesus alone. Have you confessed your sins to Jesus and asked Him to save you? You must do that.
And secondly, have you confessed your faith to those around you? Let me read the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:32-39,
“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Have you confessed your faith to your family and friends? Or are you afraid or ashamed? Are you still trying to gain worldly bread, worldly comfort, trying to gain this life – and missing out on the greater blessing by being completely sold out to the one who is the Bread of Life.
Let me encourage you today: Stop working for things that perish. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36) Give your life up to Jesus. Repent and believe. Confess to Jesus, and then confess your faith to those around you, and so be once and forever saved.”
 CS Lewis: The Weight of Glory
I heard an ad on the radio for the Canadian Legion that started with something like, “Think of all the things you enjoy in life, like summer fun, going out with your family, kissing your kids goodnight. We can take these things for granted because a veteran didn’t. They fought so we could have the freedoms we enjoy without thinking every day. So thank a veteran and join the Legion.”
I think any right-thinking individual wouldn’t argue too much with that statement. We know that there are countries in the world that are still torn by war and oppression and that those powers have tried to export their ways onto free countries. And we know that many Canadian soldiers have gone to war with these evils to protect our freedoms and those of others around the world. I think that anyone with even a passing knowledge of just twentieth-century history would agree with that. The only ones that argue against it are the ones who simply don’t know their history books.
Along that same vein, I’ve found that the more a person studies the Bible, theology, and church history, the more they should be thanking God for the heritage of theological veterans that have come before us. We should be thanking God every day that we live where we do and when we do. We take so much for granted about what we know about God these days, especially in conservative churches like ours. But the truth is that the most fundamental things we believe about God, things which we talk about every day, even things that the average non-church going Canadian knows and speak as though they were patently obvious were once hard-fought battlegrounds.
But those hard-fought battlegrounds are slipping away more and more. There’s an old phrase; I don’t know who said it first, but I’ve heard it from many different people, and it says, “There are no new heresies, just old heresies dressed up in new clothes.” I read a similar thing from Albert Mohler who said, “False teachings emerge anew in every generation it seems, but inventing a new heresy is quite a challenge. After all, once every doctrine vital to Christianity has been denied, all that remains is a change in packaging.”
As one learns more about church history it becomes blatantly obvious all the so-called “new ideas” people have about God, Jesus, or the church, are not “new ideas” at all, just old heresies in new packaging.
Whenever I attend or watch a pastors conference someone always asks the keynote speaker the inevitable question, “What are the biggest problems with the church today?” and the answer never changes: People don’t know their Bibles.
Perhaps the best answer I heard was John Macarthur:
He said, in essence, that the weakness of the church is not a singular issue, it’s a holistic issue. Just as the AIDS virus doesn’t kill you, but weakens your immune system so that other diseases can kill you more easily, so the bland, vanilla, imprecise preaching of the Word weakens Christians and leaves them open to a thousand “heretical diseases” which can kill their soul. And therefore, the cure isn’t to treat the symptoms with a bunch of topical studies or fancy ministry packaging, but to get to the cause, to kill the virus by preaching and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity at all levels.
That means not only preachers that are extremely concerned for the accurate preaching of the Word, but elders who labour in their own realms of teaching. It means small group leaders choosing good, biblical material for their groups rather than merely interesting material. It means Sunday School teachers doing the work to make sure they know their Bibles well and are more interested in their children falling in love with the Bible than just being babysat and getting their craft done. It means parents doing the work to study the answers to their kids’ difficult questions so they can give good answers and ask “Did you read your Bible?” as much as they ask “Did you do your homework?”.
But that takes time, effort and energy – and reading, studying, learning, prayer, humility – which are things our society generally doesn’t do well. Which is why we are spiritually unhealthy, infected, and in danger.
Turn to Paul’s letter to the Galatians 1:6-12. He says,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul was writing to the Galatians to combat the false, heretical teaching that had cropped up, that was corrupting people’s faith in Jesus, and was honestly shocked at how fast it had happened. He had preached to them the one, true, and pure gospel – the truth about Jesus – and he had just barely left town before they started believing dangerous lies – especially the like that Jesus’ death on the cross wasn’t enough to save them, but that they also needed to follow all the Jewish laws too or God wouldn’t accept them. It was a dangerous, false teaching that struck at the heart of the gospel.
Paul’s argument there is threefold, right? First, there is only one gospel and many counterfeit ones, so don’t be fooled. Second, the gospel isn’t something that man came up with but was given to man by revelation from God. And third, anyone who preaches something different from the truth is an accursed heretic who is hurting the church.
When Christians use the word “heresy” or “heretics” need to be very careful. Heresy simply means to believe something that is wrong about the established doctrines, so technically, every time someone says something that departs from Biblical truth even a little bit its heresy, but that’s not how it’s used. When we say “heretic” or “heresy” we’re not talking about people who are still learning, who use bad analogies, or who are simply making mistakes because they’re still trying to figure it all out. We wouldn’t call a new Christian or the kids in the Sunday School heretics because they aren’t 100% accurate. Instead, the word “heresy” is reserved for teachers who purposefully distort biblical truth in such a serious way that they attack the very essence of the Christian faith.
Martin Luther was excommunicated by Rome as a heretic because he taught that Christians are justified by faith alone. Luther replied that the Catholic Church and the Pope were heretics because they had departed from a biblical view of salvation. But that wasn’t the case for all of the disagreements. The Reformers, and many churches today, still disagreed on lots of things, even important ones like the Lord’s Supper and Baptism and how the church is to be structured, but they didn’t label each other heretics, just as we don’t label most other protestant churches heretics – it’s just differences in interpretation.
That’s not to say there haven’t been dozens of important debates over the centuries which remain today. In fact, the more we learn about the Bible, Theology, and Christian history, the more we realize that there really is nothing new under the sun. The wrong theology that people have today are the same errors that people argued over, fought against, declared counsels to settle, and even shed blood over, hundreds of years ago. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants – and must of us don’t even know it. But sadly, a lot of those old theological victories are being forgotten.
I don’t want to go over the data again, but I want to remind you about a couple of important surveys conducted over the past couple years about the beliefs that Christians hold today which I’ve talked about before. The first is from Lifeway and the other is from Ligonier. I’ll link them on my blog if you want to read them, but the results are dismal. Lots of self-proclaimed Christians don’t believe in sin or hell and believe everyone is basically good and will go to heaven to see all their relatives. And the beliefs about Jesus are all over the place!
And people’s beliefs about Jesus are just as bad. Half believed God makes mistakes. A little over half believe Jesus isn’t God but was created by God. Less than half strongly agreed that Jesus rose from the dead. Only two-thirds of Christians say that Jesus death on the cross is the only way to remove the penalty of sin, and less than half believe that He’s coming back.
Where’s the good news in that message? If people are basically good, God doesn’t care about sin and accepts worship from other religions, and everyone goes to heaven anyway, then why even talk about Jesus? But also, if God makes mistakes and Jesus death wasn’t enough, then how can anyone be sure of their salvation? If the word of God isn’t true, then what should we believe? What about all the Bible verses where Jesus makes exclusive claims or talks about sin? What do we do with those? How can God be good and just if ignores sin? How can God be perfect and holy if He allows evil people into Heaven? Doesn’t God care what we say about Him? Is the Bible just a pile of human contradictions? Where’s the good news? Where’s our hope then?
As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19,
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
I saw a great example of this on Instagram this week where I saw this comic: On one side there’s a man at a booth with a sign that says John 3:16 and a huge line of people in front of him. Next to him sits another booth that says, John 3:16-21. The joke is that a lot of people really like the message of John 3:16, but not so much when they read it in context.
Turn there with me. It starts with the famous verses:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Everyone loves that verse, right? But let’s keep reading,
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Hey, that’s pretty good, we can get onboard with that. Keep reading: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned…” Still good…
“…but whoever does not believe is condemned already…”
“because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
That’s not very inclusive, is it? What do we do with verses like with verses like these, or like John 14:6 where Jesus says,
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
or Acts 4:12 which says,
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Or the one that we talked about last week in 1 Timothy 2:5,
“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus…”
Those statements are either the gospel truth and the most important decision ever – or a lie. The only choice is to either believe them as the exclusive claim that Jesus is the only way to be saved, or to deny them, ignore them, or rewrite them so they say something that we prefer.
This is why we’re going through the Heidelberg Catechism. Not because it’s a divine document, but because it’s one of the greatest teaching tools to summarize the Biblical teaching about salvation through Jesus Christ in a way that people can learn. It’s a way for us to do what John MacArthur said: to learn and preach and teach the Bible with precision and clarity so we can combat that “spiritual AIDS” he was talking about. HIV may not have a cure today, but there is a cure for “spiritual AIDS”, right? There is a way to combat heresy, right? It is to commit to learning and teaching the Bible with precision and clarity. Especially about the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” We must get that right because so much rides on that answer. Because with precise and clear teaching on Jesus comes hope, confidence, understanding, as Jesus called it, “Light”. If we are vague or wrong about Jesus, we’re in the dark, we lose hope, we are to be pitied – but if we get it right, then our faith, hope, strength, and confidence in the love of God will grow.
Heidelberg LD6: The Nature of Jesus
Take a look at the questions in today’s lesson from the Catechism. Recall a couple weeks ago when I gave that courtroom illustration talking about how Jesus was the perfect mediator between God and Man because he was both a perfect human and yet also God? Well, I got a bit ahead of myself because the structure of the catechism doesn’t really mention who that perfect mediator is until Question 18.
Remember, this document is meant to be an apologetic, a logical argument, teaching people the basics of theology, right? It’s designed to set up a problem and then show us why Jesus is the answer. First, it explains the misery of sin, why sin must be punished, and how we can’t save ourselves or wriggle away from God’s wrath. Then, when we understand our desperate position, it gives us a glimmer of hope: that there is one way we can be saved – if someone else takes our punishment. But (and this is where we were a couple weeks ago), that person would need to be very special and have very unique qualifications:
As question 15 said,
“He would need to be One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
That narrows the field, doesn’t it? And that reasoning is clarified in today’s questions, as Ursinus makes the case in Question 16 for why Jesus is the only one who fits the qualifications:
“Why must he be a true and righteous man?”
The emphasis here is on the “man”. Why does our perfect mediator need to be a human being?
“He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin. He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others.”
We covered this a little bit last time, but the answer here is simply that the only way to pay for God’s wrath against human sin is for a human to die, right? Equal payment is just. If someone owes you a toonie, you don’t accept a button. If someone is condemned to jail, he can’t send a picture of himself or his pet poodle.
But this mediator must not only be human but a perfect human. They cannot have any sin of their own to pay for, or they wouldn’t be able to die in someone else’s place, right? Again, we talked about this in the previous sermon.
Look at question 17:
“Why must he at the same time be true God?”
So we know why our perfect mediator, the one who can take our place, must be a human, but why must that person be God too?
“He must be true God so that by the power of his divine nature he might bear in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.”
Essentially, because no mere human is strong enough to handle the full wrath of God for all the sins of those who believe for thousands of years multiplied by millions or billions of people. Only one who had the power of God could do that.
Just saying that reminds us of how much Jesus loves us, doesn’t it? What a Saviour, to face that kind of agony for us when we have done nothing to deserve it.
Now to question 18:
“But who is that Mediator who at the same time is true God and a true and righteous man?”
Here we see that apologetic, logical progression of the questions: Ok, so if we agree to all that has come before, about the qualifications for the perfect mediator, then who fits those qualifications? Who has the power to save us from the wrath of God and cleanse us from sin?
“Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor 1:30)”
We sure quoted that passage a lot during our study of 1st Corinthians, didn’t we?
And question 19 comes quickly on the heels:
“From where do you know this?”
And the answer:
“From the holy gospel, which God himself first revealed in Paradise. Later, he had it proclaimed by the patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law. Finally, he had it fulfilled through his only Son.”
The only One who fits the bill, the only One who meets the qualifications is Jesus. The only one who fulfills the promise to Eve, to Moses, to Isaiah and Mary… the only One who fulfills all of the Laws and who was foreshadowed in all of the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Testament is Jesus!
But do you see how this all falls apart once we degrade our belief in the authority of the Word of God, ignore the clear teaching of scripture, and incorporate heresies and false teachings about the person and work of Jesus?
Let’s go back to question 1. Do you remember it? When you face trials and troubles and pains beyond your ability to cope with or comprehend, when you face death and guilt and shame and eternity, when you come to the end of yourself, when you are, as 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 says, “afflicted… perplexed… persecuted… and struck down…”,
“What is your only comfort in life and death?”
Your answer cannot be, “Me, my own strength.” Because it is spent. I can’t be “My medicines or my religion or another person” because they are not enough. Or worse, if you have been listening to false teachers or being lazy in your study, believing lies about Jesus, then when you come to the end of yourself and look for strength in the god you invented for yourself you will find it lacking and say, “He isn’t enough. I don’t know where my hope is. I’m not sure anymore. I have no hope.”
But the answer of a faithful believer, one who has done the work to be diligent and precise and humble in their learning says,
“My only and greatest comfort in life and death is ‘That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit e also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.’”
Therein lies our hope – in the one and only Saviour Jesus Christ, whom we must know only from the true and infallible Word of God.
So, are you reading it? Are you studying it? Are you meeting with other believers to work out your faith with fear and trembling? If you are not, then you are going to be in trouble when trials come. But if you are strong in your faith, strong in your study, in your theology and understanding of the Word, strong in your knowledge of Jesus Christ, you will be able to echo the words of 2 Corinthians 4:8-10:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed….”
Because you will know the One, True Jesus.
The more I study the Heidelberg Catechism, the more I like it. It appeals to me on so many levels – it’s beautifully written, theologically rich and complex, but is also laid out in such a logical way that it’s very readable and straightforward to follow. I wish that I had been able to go through this, or something like it, a long time ago – not as a pastor preaching a series, but as a congregant or student. Even to this day, I feel so far behind in understanding what are considered to be the basics of the Christian faith.
I admit I wasn’t the best student in the world, but I don’t really remember going through any kind of catechism as a child, teen, adult, or when I was in Bible College. Sure, we studied stories and books of the Bible but it seemed divorced, at least in my mind, from how it impacted my daily Christian walk. Even in seminary, as I was taking Hermeneutics, Systematic Theology, Baptist History and Thought, and Christian Ethics, I knew what I was learning was important, but it almost felt like I was memorizing trivia answers so that I seem like I know what I’m talking about, rather than really connecting those thoughts as an anchor to my faith.
I love learning, and I love knowledge, but for a long time that meant simply amassing a bunch of information rather than taking time to meditate on the meaning of what I was actually learning. I learned words like Law, Covenant, Atonement, Grace, Sanctification, and Justification and knew their definitions, but somehow there remained a sort of disconnect between those concepts and my daily Christian faith, my prayer life, bible reading, and personal relationships. I could preach, teach, counsel, and answer lots of questions, but I was more like a theological calculator than an actual pastor. It wasn’t until I started facing a bunch of personal difficulties that those concepts really started to sink in.
Maybe you’ve experienced this: You’ve been to Sunday School and learned lots of Bible stories. Went to Bible camp, got baptized, and sat through a bunch of sermons. You’ve been to Small Groups and read your Bible at home. But your connection to God wasn’t really growing. You know more stuff, and look like a confident Christian on the outside, but on the inside, you wonder if you’re really a believer at all. You keep sinning, don’t pray as often as you know you should, don’t read your Bible with the passion you feel you ought. You come to church and though it’s nice to be here but inside it feels like you’re going through the motions and you hope that no one notices. You like your Christian friends, but are fairly indifferent towards getting to know them better. You still talk about God, but it’s been forever since you actually shared your faith with anyone – partly because you’re not sure if what you have to offer is going to help at all… since you’re not sure how much it’s helping you.
I’ve been in that place, even as a preacher. Showing up on Sundays, sermon in hand, saying what I think are all the right things, but wondering if somewhere very deep down I’m simply parroting other people’s deep thoughts about faith because I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror and face the realization that my own faith is so terribly shallow.
But then, and I don’t know how long ago it was, I started to get really interested in Theology. I think it came because of the mix of my need for good answers to tough questions, my longing for a deeper relationship with God, and my fear of standing up here as a hypocrite leading other people into error. I know a lot of it came because I was facing difficult times and my reaction showed how far I really was from God, how undisciplined, how unsanctified, and that realization started to scare me.
And so, I started asking God for help. And whereas before I was simply reading the Bible because I was supposed to, and reading books about “how to grow a church” or “how to preach” or “how to lead” – those books started to become distasteful to me – I believe God gave me a new interest in Theology. And as I started to study, it was like a healing balm to my wounded soul, like a big drink of cool water after being thirsty for so long. Suddenly those terms I had learned started to move from my mind to my heart to my soul. Suddenly the sermons I’d heard, even ones I’d preached, started to make a different kind of sense to me. Suddenly the music we were singing in church, especially the old hymns, started to speak to my problems, encourage me, challenge me, and build my faith.
A Mighty Fortress
Recall to your mind the first 4 or 5 weeks of this sermon series and then consider the words to the 500-year-old hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”:
“A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing: Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work his woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.”
That speaks of the problem of sin, temptation, and Satan. It continues:
“Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is he; Lord Sabaoth is his name, from age to age the same, and He must win the battle.”
What’s that about? That salvation from sin, death, temptation, and Satan is found in Jesus alone, not in our own strength. That if we try to fight him in our own strength, then we will lose. When I’m utterly ruined by guilt, shame, fear, doubt, trials and temptations – should I buck up, pull up my socks, and try harder? No? Who wins the battle? Lord Sabaoth, or “God of the Angel Armies” is His name. And it continues:
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him.”
But life is still hard, we say, still “filled with devils”, and it threatens to undo us. Why shouldn’t we live in fear? What reason can we give not to live in constant fear of all the things that can and will go wrong? Because God has promised that “His truth will triumph through us”. What does that mean? It means that even through our trials, storms, and sufferings, Satan is still losing. Romans 8:36-37 says that even if we face death all day long and are regarded as sheep for slaughter, we are still “more than conquerors”. Why? Because our enemy is already beaten and is “one little word” away from total destruction. What is that word? “Jesus”. He is the one that can say to a storm: “Peace! Be Still!” and it stops in a moment (Mark 4:35-39). He is the One before whom demons cower who can command them with one word to “Go!” (Matthew 8:289-34). Jesus is the one who, at the beginning of John is called “The Word… who was with God and… was God” (John 1:1), the LOGOS, the power through whom all things came into being.
The hymn concludes:
“That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also: the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is for ever.”
What does it mean to “abideth”, or “abide”. It means to continue, to remain. This whole verse calls to mind John 15:1-11, which is Jesus’ illustration that says that He is the Vine, we are the branches, and God is the Vinedresser. Jesus says,
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:4–11)
To abide, as verse 9 says, means to trust and rest and believe in the love of Jesus? What does that look like? That’s verse 10. It means we keep His commandments, or more simply “do things His way”, because it shows that we trust Him. Jesus says that the qualification for salvation, for answered prayer, for acceptable worship, and for bearing any kind of fruit in this world is that He abides in us and we abide in Him.
“The Prince of Darkness grim,—we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo! His doom is sure,—one little word shall fell him. That word above all earthly powers—no thanks to them—abideth; the Spirit and the gifts are ours through him who with us sideth.”
Some people don’t like these kinds of old hymns because they sound so dark and grim, talking about sin, death, hell, Satan, suffering – but it’s not grim – it’s hopeful! It’s a theological explanation, in song form, of why we need not be overcome by temptation, fear, sadness, or hopelessness. It’s a song that says if “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing”, but that there is one who can win the battle, One who is greater than us, who has chosen to be “on our side”, and who will not only win for us, but will give us even more by granting us “the Spirit and the gifts”?
What does that mean? It means that Christians who abide in Jesus, who trust Jesus, who love Jesus and know that He loves them, will be given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, the very person of God, to dwell in you just as the presence of God dwelt in the Holy of Holies in the temple of Israel (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:16-20). And with His presence comes spiritual gifts like you’ve never experienced before.
Beauty Under Our Noses
There’s a thing online that I come across sometimes that always makes me pause, and it’s the blogs and sites that are dedicated to before and after pressure-washing pictures. Sidewalks, decks, driveways, walls that have been left to the ravages of their environment brought back to their former splendour by some high-pressure water. It’s not that they were ruined, it was just that they were covered in the gunk of the ages.
Hymns and theological studies are kind of like that. We all like seeing a new car, new paint job, new building, or a new piece of tech because it’s so smooth and shiny, but it’s amazing how much beauty there is in the older things around us. Sometimes we walk by a plaque or building or walk down a sidewalk – or pick up an old hymnal, systematic theology, catechism, puritan classic, book of prayers – and assume that it’s just old, tired, useless, or broken down with age – but once we remove the gunk of our own biases and do a little study work – we start to realize the amazing beauty that has been right under our noses.
When I started to study theology, songs like “A Mighty Fortress” started to come alive to me. Not because of their own inherent beauty or power – which I think they have – but because they pointed me to the beauty and power of the promises that God had been telling me all along in His word, but that I was missing or misunderstanding or glossing over because I wasn’t doing the meditative work to allow them to penetrate my heart.
Christ the Mediator
Consider today’s study of the Heidelberg Catechism which speaks of the need for God’s justice to be fully satisfied by Christ our Mediator. Words like “Justice” “Justification” “Satisfaction” Mediator” are rich with meaning, but come across as cold and pedantic, old-timey and covered in the gunk of the ages. So when we hear them or read them they sometimes bounce off of us. But if we take a moment to ponder them, to meditate, study, and explain them, suddenly the beauty and joy of what is being said, starts to come forth.
Look at Question 12, and remember the context. We’ve just spent 4 weeks talking about the trouble and misery of sin. We’ve come face to face with mankind’s greatest problem, and our own guilty conscience. We’ve tried to make excuses, denying our guilt, blaming God, blaming others, denying the need for punishment and the existence of Hell – and hopefully came last week to the place where we finally relent and say, “I am a sinner, condemned by the Word of God and my own conscience. I have offended Holy God and deserve a just punishment for having a heart that loves sin and for the sins I have committed for my whole life.”
Now we come to question 12:
“Since, according to God’s righteous judgment we deserve temporal and eternal punishment, how can we escape this punishment and be again received into favour?”
How can we escape justice? Look at the answer:
“God demands that his justice be satisfied. Therefore we must make full payment, either by ourselves or through another.”
You cannot escape justice. Justice will be done.
Turn with me to Psalm 139 where the psalmist says,
“O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.”
You are caught in your sin, guilty before God. And what happens when we get caught? Our natural tendency is to look for an escape. How do I get out of this problem? Where can I run? God says, “Nowhere.” Justice must be served. We talked about that last week.
In question 13 you search your pockets,
“Can we by ourselves make this payment?”
And the answer is
“Certainly not. On the contrary, we daily increase our debt.”
The Judge has declared us guilty and demanded we pay for that guilt. He has seen that we are debtors who are in way over our head, owing more than we could ever repay, with interest working against us with every minute that goes by. Psalm 130:3 says, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” In other words, if God actually showed anyone the full weight of their sins – all they have done, said, and thought wrong, all the things they did but shouldn’t have done, or didn’t do but ought to – would anyone be able to argue with Him that they are perfect? No, of course not. At death, our Debt Collector, who is also the Judge, calls us in to pay the debt. Every moment of our life was a moment of grace. He could have called it anytime – and if we cannot pay him back, we must face the terrible consequence of Hell.
But the Judge, says this: “I want full payment, now! Can you pay it?”
In Question 14 we look around the divine courtroom, desperately hoping to find someone who can help us by paying the debt:
“Can any mere creature pay for us?”
Perhaps there is another human who is good enough to pay our debt? Perhaps God would accept an animal on our behalf? The answer comes:
“No. In the first place, God will not punish another creature for the sin which man has committed. Furthermore, no mere creature can sustain the burden of God’s eternal wrath against sin and deliver others from it.”
An angel can’t take our punishment because they are a spiritual being and the punishment for sin must be endured in body and soul. The death of an animal can’t satisfy the debt because it doesn’t have an immortal soul and cannot choose to take the punishment on themselves. Even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament those sacrifices were only temporary and insufficient. Hebrews 10:3 says that “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins…”.
What about another human being? No, our debt cannot be paid by someone who also owes a debt to the Judge. They must pay for their own sins. If I owe a million dollars and cannot pay it back, then how could I turn to another human being – even if he be a saint – and ask him to pay? He’s in debt too because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). We look around the courtroom, all around the world, and find no one who can pay our debt for us – and we know we are condemned.
Then Question 15 comes:
“What kind of mediator and deliverer must we seek?”
If no angel, no animal, and no human on earth can pay our debt for us, then to whom can we turn to save us from the consequence of our sin debt?
The answer comes:
“One who is a true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures; that is, one who is at the same time true God.”
As 1 Timothy 2:5-6 says: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all…”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
You stand before the Judge and Debt Collector who is God and know you are condemned in your sin debt to death and punishment in Hell. You look around the courtroom for anyone else who can pay it, and find no one.
But then, the Judge Himself looks you in the eye and says, “I have an idea.” And He calls in His own Son. He says, “Son, this one owes me more than they can ever repay. They are condemned to death and hell. Would you be willing to take their place, exchange yourself for them, stand before Me in judgement, and take their punishment? Would You take their sin debt and allow Me to pour the fullness of my wrath, all of Hell, upon You, for their sake? You are the only one that can do it. You are my Son and my Word, perfect in every way, and everything I have is yours. You have no debt. I’m willing to accept you in their place.”
Jesus has all the qualifications to be the perfect mediator between sinful humanity and perfect God. He is the perfection of God born as a man, and totally without sin.
Jesus looks at you and says, “I am willing if you want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jesus says, “I will abide with you. I will abide in you, just as my Father abides in me. I will take His wrath against you upon myself. All you have to do is admit that you can’t pay the debt and that you need me. I’m the only one that can do this. You cannot do this alone. There is no amount of good deeds or praying or religion you can do to pay this debt. Are you willing to let me pay it for you? If you say yes, I will give you freedom from sin, the Holy Spirit, a new purpose, spiritual gifts, a peace that passes understanding, and eternal life. I will reverse your curse and pay all your debt for every sin you commit from birth until death. And then I will stand before the Father in Heaven as your advocate, your mediator, interceding on your behalf. I’ll be the life-giving vine, you be the branch that I make fruitful. Do you want that?”
That is the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. This is what it means that He is our mediator – not priests or pastors or popes or Mary or saints — this is a promise we only find in Jesus.
All we must do is admit we are sinners and believe that Jesus died on the cross and rose again to pay for that sin. That’s the gospel. This is how salvation works. And He’s willing to do it if we are willing to turn our lives over to Him.
These are the promises I see in scripture, in the study of good theology, and in the songs that point us to that promise. Will you accept them? Will you study? Will you sing?
Let me close with the words of Romans 8:31-38, which I have read many times, and will read many more:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
If you recall last week, question 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism told us how a Christians greatest comfort is found in life and in death is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ, and then question 2 asked, ““What do you need to know in order to live and die in the joy of this comfort?” The answer was three things: “First, how great my sins and misery are; second, how I am delivered from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such deliverance.”
Those three things are the outline of the rest of the catechism. The next 127 questions over 51 Sundays are broken down into three words: Guilt, Grace and Gratitude. The argument there is basically: You cannot understand how important the solution is if you don’t really understand the problem.
Have you ever had a car that started making noise, and even though you have no idea what’s wrong, you know something is? I’m sure you have. So you walk into the shop and what’s the first question that they ask you? “What’s wrong with it?” or “What’s it doing?” Which changes the event from a professional encounter between two adults to some sort of sound effects radio drama. “Well, when I drive down the highway, there’s a really loud scream like ‘EEEEEEEE!’ and a sort of rumbly grrrrrrr sound in the back and then when I stop it gets all crunchy and then goes ka-thunk!”
And then, if you have a good mechanic, they go, “Oh, ok. I think I know what that is. Let me take a look.” And then miracle of miracles, you come back in a couple hours and it’s fixed! They say, “Oh, you needed a new fan belt, some brake pads, and your CV joint was damaged.”
That’s kind of what the second question is saying. If you don’t understand your problem, which is the misery of your sin, then you can’t really understand the grace of God or the works of Jesus Christ. You’ll know there’s something wrong. You’ll hear the weird noises of your life – strained relationships, broken promises, debt, anxiety, out of control anger or lust, shame – but unless you understand the problem of sin, you won’t really know how to deal with the problem. You need someone who can interpret the weird noises in your life, explain what’s wrong, and then offer a solution. That’s what the Bible does.
Am I A Sinner?
The questions the Heidelberg Catechism has for us today continue the thought from last week. If the first thing we need to know is “how great my sins and misery are” then the next logical question is say: “From where do you know our sins and misery?” The answer is: “From the Law of God.” Question 4 follows naturally with:
“What does God’s law require of us?”.
Ok, if the Law of God is what shows us our sin, then what does it require? But instead of giving the answer as the 10 Commandments or the hundreds of other laws in the Bible, it quotes what Jesus said when He was asked the same question:
“Christ teaches us this in a summary in Matthew 22: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Question 5 comes next, and it’s one that we likely wouldn’t come up with as our next question, but is critically important to answer:
“Can you keep all this perfectly?”
In other words, “Can any human being perfectly love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly love their neighbour as much as they love themselves?” To which the answer, if we’re honest with ourselves, should be “No”, right? The Catechism says,
“No, I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbour.”
That’s where some people usually start to argue. They say, “I don’t actually hate my neighbour. I don’t hate anybody! Sure, I’m not perfect in my love for God or others, but I don’t hate anyone…”
Hold that thought for a moment and let me show you a quick video. It does such a good job of explaining it in such a short time that I think it’s better if we just watch it together. It’s from “The Bible Project”, which can be found either on their website or through our Right Now Media subscription.
The LAW is a Mirror
I know that’s a lot to digest, but for today the thing I want you to remember is simply that God’s Law, the Bible, is a mirror. All the rules and expectations that God set through the prophets in the Old Testament, that Jesus taught in the Gospels, and that the Apostles said in the New Testament, are written to be a mirror that reflects the truth back to us.
James 1:22–25 says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”
It’s not one of those mirrors that makes you look bigger or smaller than you really are, it’s not tinted like rose coloured glasses to make things look better, nor is it tinted like dark sunglasses to make everything more gloomy and depressing, it’s just a mirror that simply reflects back the truth.
Have you ever known someone who has said, or perhaps you yourself has said, “That’s why I don’t like to read the bible, it makes me feel guilty.” That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons that the Bible is written. If you are in good standing before God, if you know you are forgiven and are living righteously, then the mirror reflects that back. You see God’s love, patience, kindness, generosity, sacrifice, and how He’s on your side. But if you don’t know where you stand with God, if you still love your sin, if you haven’t asked forgiveness, then the mirror of the Word is going to reflect that, and you’re going to feel guilt, shame, fear, and see God as a judge who hates and condemns you.
That guilt, that shame, that fear of condemnation that you feel, is not a bad thing. It’s not a reason for you to put down the Bible and ignore God and stop praying – it’s supposed to drive you to humility, to admit your wrong, and then to call out to Jesus for salvation and help!
Sin Goes Deep
The book of Romans is divided up just like the Heidelberg Catechism. The first three chapters are about sin, chapters 4-11 are about how we are saved from that sin, and then chapters 12-15 are about how our lives are transformed by that salvation. Guilt, Grace, Gratitude. The whole first section is written so that anyone who reads it understands the universal problem and misery of sin and could not possibly walk away thinking that they are in good standing with God. It shows the picture of how everyone has an immoral, messed up conscience and a broken relationship with our Creator – how deep the problem goes.
Turn to Romans 3 and let’s read starting at the middle of verse 9:
“For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”
Notice how all of those are quotes from the mirror of Old Testament. To our modern ears, which are so used talking about self-esteem and blaming everyone and everything else for our problems, that sounds harsh, but remember what the video said: “Jesus showed that love is far more demanding than we realize…. And that our hearts are not currently equipped to fulfil even the basic command of God.”
In Matthew 5, which the video quotes, Jesus says love isn’t just about not murdering people, it’s about everything we say, do, and think about others when we’re angry – even to the point of forgiving and doing good for our enemies. He says that loving faithfulness to our spouse isn’t just about not committing adultery. That love encompasses is about everything we look at with our eyes and all the things happening in our hearts with every other person we meet. Jesus says that the law of love doesn’t just say, “Keep your promises”, but says that every word you say should be the truth.
James 2:8-10 says something similar,“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”
In other words, if you show any partiality towards someone, even once, – because of race, colour, gender, financial status, celebrity level, or personal relationship, you’ve broken the entire Law of God and stand guilty before him. A commentary I read this week said it this way,
“God as the highest good desires to be loved perfectly…. Indifference and lack of love toward Him are only lesser degrees of hatred…. [And] from the same root of sinfulness… arises also that relation toward our neighbor in which we love ourselves more than we love him….” (“Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism”, Otto Thelemann; Pg 124-125)
But, some say, “Can’t non-believers, non-Christians feel love towards people?” That form of love is not a divine love, born of sacrifice and obedience, but a “natural love” that is ultimately for one’s own pleasure and to one’s own advantage – a love that is more about self than the other. That’s why it so easily moves from love to hate. Have you ever known someone who once loved a person but now hates them? At one time they would have argued tooth and nail that their whole heart was for that other person, that they would do anything for them, but now, they won’t speak to them, won’t forgive them, insult them behind their back, and are filled with bitterness that won’t stop. That’s natural love.
The love that is from God doesn’t work like that. The love that we have from God is one that, as 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “…always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
That’s why, when Romans 3 says, “None is righteous, no, not one…”, it’s exactly right. When we compare the light of God’s love to ours, our love looks like darkness. When we compare our life to God’s Law, we can’t say that we love like Him, our only conclusion must be that we hate Him and hate our neighbour. Why? Because we’ve all lied, and we don’t lie to people we love, we lie to people we don’t like, people we hate. We’ve all preferred someone over someone else, and loving people don’t do that, hateful people do. We’ve all done something with bad, selfish motives, proving that our greatest love is ourselves and not God or others.
When we look into the mirror that is the Law of God, the Bible, the purpose isn’t merely to look at a mirror. That’s one of the dangers of Bible Study or trying to read the Bible in a Year. No one looks at a mirror to see the mirror, they look at it to see themselves. In the same way, when we read the Bible, the Law, the commandments of God, the purpose isn’t merely to learn about them or memorize them – but to have the Spirit of God, through the living and active Word of God, look at us, pierce our soul, and discern the thoughts and intentions of our heart, so we can know our true selves through it. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
So Romans 3:19 continues, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”
When we look into the perfect mirror of the Word, it should shut our mouths from all the excuses we give for our bad behaviour and all the ways we try to defend ourselves. It should stop our mouths and make us know that we really are accountable to God. And when we face that knowledge of sin we must tremble. It should cause us to feel fear, guilt, and shame. That’s what it’s supposed to do.
And that fear, guilt, and shame, should drive us to want to do something. When the noise of our broken car gets so bad we can’t stand it, we bring it to the mechanic, right? And so, when, through the reading and hearing of the word, we start to understand and feel the misery of our sin, the sickness of our souls, the damage we have caused, and the judgement of God, it should drive us to want to do something – to be rid of that fear, guilt, and shame. And how do we do that?
We come to Jesus, the one who paid for our sins on the cross.
Look at the next verses in Romans 3:21-26, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
We talked about propitiation last week. It is the removal of wrath by the offering of a gift. Jesus offered His blood for ours, taking God’s wrath which we rightly deserved, so that anyone who has faith in Jesus, who recognizes their sin, hates it, wants to be clean from it, and believes in Jesus alone for that Salvation, could be justified before God.
Once that happens God changes our hearts, cleans us up, and we see ourselves in the mirror very differently. Suddenly instead of being covered in sin and feeling fear, guilt and shame, we see ourselves as cleaned up, redeemed, and the Bible looks like light, guidance, and hope. It’s not the impossible standards of a terrible judge, but the loving words of a kind father who is helping us navigate this life.
Let’s close with the reminder of the story of the Rich Young Ruler found in Matthew 19:16-22.
“And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’”
Sounds like question 2 from the catechism, doesn’t it? Jesus’ answer sounds a lot like our questions from today.
“And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“How can you attain salvation? Obey every law perfectly. Love God perfectly and love others perfectly.” How does the young man respond?
“The young man said to him, ‘All these I have kept. What do I still lack?’”
“Sure, Jesus, I looked into the mirror of the perfect law, all 613 commandments, and know for a fact I’ve kept every single one of them perfectly. I’m good. I’m a good person.” Jesus had already told him that there’s only one that is good, and the young man probably wasn’t Him, but the young man missed that one. It’s just like a lot of people who think they are “good” and don’t really need salvation, don’t need Jesus, don’t need repentance, don’t need prayer. Maybe that’s you today. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked and asked if they need prayer or help with accountability or with study and they say, “Nah, I’m good.”
And what does Jesus say? He just grabs literally the first commandment. “You shall have no other god’s before me.” (Exo 20:3) Or the first part of his summary, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.”
Verse 21, “Jesus said to him, ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
That was quick. Did He really love God with all his heart, soul, mind and strength? Nope. He loved money and possessions. Did he really love others, like “the poor”, as much as he loved himself? Nope. He wanted to be rich and giving his riches to the poor would make him equal with them – and even thinking of that made him sad.
The Rich Young Ruler was lying to himself. I implore you not to do that. First, don’t make the mistake of avoiding the Bible because it makes you feel guilty, but second, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are “good enough for God”. Allow the conviction of scripture to drive you to your knees, drive you to repentance, drive you to beg for God’s grace, to turn to Jesus for mercy, to thank Him for salvation, and to want to live a better, more righteous way.
We’ve been working through a series on Stewardship over the past few weeks. Stewardship is the word that Christians usually use to talk about how we see and use all the good things that God has given us in this world. Our jumping off point was 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 where Paul is asking the church to set aside some money he can bring with him to help out the needy church in Jerusalem, but hopefully, by now we’ve all realized that godly stewardship encompasses so much more than just our finances.
We’ve talked about a lot of subjects in this series. We’ve talked about the reputation the church has with the world around us when it comes to money, why we pass the plate on Sundays and the importance of building a habit of a lifestyle of generosity.
We’ve covered a few big Stewardship questions, the first of which is “Whose is it?”. Regardless of whether it’s our time, talents, treasure, or testimony, the first question Christians need to ask is, “Whose is it?”. The answer to that question radically our outlook. If it’s mine then I can do whatever I want – but if it’s God’s, then that means I’d better ask Him what He wants me to do with it.
That led to the study of the Parable of the Talents where we asked the second big question, “What am I supposed to do with it?” and the most general answer to that question was simply, “God wants us to do something with it that will serve others and honour Him.”
Next came a discussion of the “risk” of using what we have and how our perception of God changes how we see everything we have. If we believe God is generous, then we will be generous with others – but if we feel God is holding out on us, then the risk sharing is too great and we end up holding onto things more tightly and share a lot less.
Which brings us to last week’s message where we moved from not only talking about taking the risk to do “something” with what God gives us but how to use these gifts “best” We started with God’s gift of time and how to perceive and use it in a biblical way.
Along the way, I came up with a brief statement to challenge us and clarify what Christians believe about the use of their time, talents, treasure, and testimony. It simply says, “Everything is God’s and I am a steward of His resources. I will use what He has given me, as best I can, His way, despite the risks involved.”
Are you with me so far? If you want to get caught up on the series, head to my Art of the Christian Ninja blog and you’ll be able to read and listen to them all there.
Talents and Abilities
Today I want to talk about the stewardship of our Talents and Abilities, but first I want to show you this:
David Green said at the end there, “We do not own this company but we’re the stewards.” His son, Steve Green said, “This business has been blessed by God. He has given the family the skills and ability, the opportunity, the time, the ideas – all of these have come… from God, and so for us to lay claim to any of that would be wrong.”
And then Debbie Kinsey, “Management Ministries Coordinator” – which I don’t know what that is, but it sure sounds like an interesting position – she said she heard an employee say, “I clean restrooms and I clean floors to help David Green get the gospel spread worldwide.”
That is a group of people that have a good, Christian understanding of Christian stewardship.
Whose Am I? – Radical Individualism
It all goes back to our first question, right? Whose is it? – but in this case, it’s a little different. It’s not, “Whose is it?? It’s, “Whose am I?” All throughout the scriptures, we are reminded that everything is God’s – the sky, the seas, the animals – but we sometimes forget that we ourselves are God’s.
We live in a radically individualistic society. For a long time societies, cities and nations were built on the premise that the family, the church, our countrymen, the state, the king, or God was the highest thing of value, worth the higher honour, and the most worth protecting, that has shifted in our culture to the highest value being individual rights.
It used to be that if someone’s life was going off the rails, they were making bad decisions, they were being selfish, you could say, “Don’t you know that you’re hurting your family, you are having a bad influence on your friends, you need to change your ways because your life is having a negative effect on those around you.” That concept is more and more foreign today.
Now, we are told from a very early age that we are special, distinct from the group, that the highest consideration in our life should be our own needs, wants, desires, hopes and dreams. This is seen as breaking the bondage of the oppressive forces that have held people down for so long – parents, religion, government, teachers, and everyone that says “no”. The heroes of modern stories are less and less the ones who put themselves second and fight for others or the “cause”. Now more and more of our society’s “heroes” are the ones who break away from everyone else, do what they want, and become whatever they want to be. Instead of running toward others, they run away, and then attract likeminded others to them.
I like superhero movies and I’ve noticed that even the superhero genre is affected. Superman used to put himself at risk and fight for “truth, justice and the American way”, but now he’s brooding, distant, and seems only to fight begrudgingly. If you’ve seen the new Superman movies you’ll remember Superman’s Mom’s advice:
“I never wanted this for you. Be their hero, be their monument, be their angel, be everything they need you to be – or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
That’s radical individualism. Even though you’re Superman, sent to earth to help people and be a good example, his mom is like, “Meh. Who cares about the world? Do whatever makes you happy, kid.”
As we’ve moved farther from God we’ve become more enamoured with ourselves. As we’ve allowed sin to dictate more and more of our actions, we’ve pushed God and others more and more to the side. As we grow more radically individual, our moral compass gets more out of whack. Think about it? What do the rise in abortions, the legalization of drugs, the crazy divorce rate, social media addiction, the destruction of our environment, the military’s consistent recruitment struggles, and the legalization of assisted suicide have in common? Radical individualism.
If the universe revolves around you, then why keep the baby if it will just be a burden to you? If my desires matter most, why not get stoned whenever I want, even when at work or driving? If my happiness and comfort is paramount why stay in a difficult marriage? Why not litter everywhere and mow down a rainforest? Why should I put myself at risk of getting shot somewhere overseas or be stationed somewhere I don’t want to live? And then, if it’s all about me, why not kill myself when I feel like I’m not accomplishing what I want to do anymore?
We Are Not Our Own
That is the absolute opposite of what Christianity teaches. The Bible teaches us that we are not our own. Listen to some of these verses: “…you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 137:13) “You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews.” (Job 10:11) The way you look, how your body is built, your height, eye colour, beauty and deformities are all designed by God. Same with your neighbour, your child, and your friend.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” That means that not only did God design us, but also made each of us able to do good works, and then prepared some things for us to do!
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says to Christians, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” The Bible doesn’t present anyone in this world as free. We are either slaves to sin or slaves to Christ. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” (John 8:34) An unrepentant sinner doesn’t actually do whatever they want, they do what sin wants them to do – which is why it ends up destroying them. In the same way, a Christian doesn’t do whatever they want, but instead have given themselves to God. They were ransomed from hell by the death and resurrection of Jesus. He paid the price and now owns them.
Romans 6:16-18 says it this way,
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
The Bible doesn’t present anyone as being free in the ultimate sense (full-autonomy). No one. Everyone is in servitude to someone – either sin or Jesus. Christians recognize this and say, “I’m so sick of being tossed around and beaten by the my slave master, Sin. I am regretful of all that it has made me do and wish I could get away from him. But I’m trapped and he owns me.” Jesus says, “I will pay your ransom. I will buy you back from sin and death. I will trade my life for yours and then be your new master, your new Lord. And my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Come and be with me.” Part of being a Christian is making Jesus not only our Saviour, but our Lord. And recognizing Him as Lord means recognizing that we are not our own.
You Are a Gift
But there’s another way that we are not our own. Throughout the Bible people are presented as gifts to one another. I can’t think of anyone in the Bible that was placed on earth to be by themselves.
It was not good for Adam to be alone, so God presented Eve to him, and they were to live life together. Abraham was brought out of obscurity not to be made special, but to be the father of nations by which the Saviour would come. Joseph wasn’t made the most powerful man in Egypt because he was so talented, but so the Israelites could be saved from famine. David wasn’t made king because he was so strong and popular, but because He was a servant of God who could defend and lead his people. His successes and failures affected everyone. The times when things to really wrong in the Bible is when people get selfish. Their sin ends up spreading all over the place and ruining all kinds of things.
Consider Jesus. Listen to Colossians 1:15-18, “
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”
That’s quite a description, isn’t it? Everything was “created through him and for him”. The word, “firstborn” there doesn’t mean Jesus was created, it’s a title. He’s the prince of all creation, the one who will inherit it all. Everything is His. He is preeminent.
Now listen to Him teaching His disciples in Matthew 20:25-28,
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’”
Jesus, the preeminent One, says, “No one on earth, not even me, is an island unto themselves. Everyone is a gift to everyone else.” Jesus didn’t come as king of the universe, but as the ultimate servant, the ultimate gift to mankind.
That’s how Christians see themselves – not as mere individuals, but as gifts to each other. First, when we are born, we are given as gifts to our family. We cherish babies of all kinds because they are gifts to us from God. Then, as we grow, we live and serve our family, placing their needs above ours – and they do the same for us. We learn how to serve and be served as we are part of a loving family. Then, we leave our family and we are given as a gift, and receive the gift of a spouse. We get married to someone who helps in ways our family can’t – and we help them in ways their family can’t. In the ups and downs of marriage we learn how to be more holy, more selfless, more humble, more giving, more sacrificial – in short, more like Jesus. And then, in marriage we are given as the gift to our own babies, and the cycle continues.
But more than that. Throughout our lives God gifts us to more people. We are given as a gift to our country to be a good citizen. We are a gift to our church. We are given as a gift to our friends and neighbours. We are given as a gift to our workplaces, our employers and employees, to help each other flourish and find meaningful work in this world.
But as I said, this all gets messed up when selfishness and radical individualism take hold of our hearts, when we start to erect borders and walls between us and others.
- We try to erect the wall of racism, saying that our people group is better than another, refusing to help or listen to others because of a difference in skin colour or nationality.
- We erect economic walls believing that rich people are better than poor, or poor are better than rich, or the middle is better than anyone else.
- We erect walls between the sexes, chauvinism that says men are better than women, and messed up feminism that says women are better than men.
- In the church we see all kinds of these walls, like ageism where young people and old people can’t get along, even long enough to sing the same song.
The devil plays us against each other and they we do his work for him. All of these divisions are ungodly, sinful, and dangerous. Galatians 3:26-29 says to believers,
“…for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
It says, “Guys, the divisions are gone. It’s not about you. You’re all family now. So live for each other.”
The Bible says repeatedly that God has given each of us different sets of gifts to steward. Some have more time, others less. Some have more talents, others less. Some have more money, others less. Some have more experience, others less. Our job is just to figure out what God has created us to do and then go do it. And whatever that is, it’s always going to be about honouring God and serving others.
Three More Things
I just want to say three more things and then I’ll close.
God Don’t Make No Junk
First, I hope that this study helps to changes our perspective of ourselves and others. Sometimes we look at ourselves or someone else and think, “Wow, I’m useless. I’m not strong enough, not brilliant enough, not creative enough, not old enough, not young enough, not experienced enough, not put together enough. God made me wrong and I don’t really have a place in this world. If I was more like this person or that person then I’d really do good, but I’m not.”
I hope this study helps you see that no one is useless. No one is an accident. And, because of the grace of God, no one is beyond his ability to use for His Kingdom. You have strengths, even if you haven’t discovered them. You have abilities, even if you’ve buried them under a pile of sin, fear and shame. But even if you were utterly incapable of doing anything – like a newborn baby – you would still have inherent worth because you are a child of God and one of His image bearers. As they say in the South US, “God don’t make no junk.”
I thought it was really interesting when David from Hobby Lobby in the video said that he used to feel guilty because his whole family went into ministry but he had a heart for selling things in retail stores. He felt bad because he thought that God like ministers, missionaries, and Sunday school teachers better. Why? Because he had a poor understanding of what God expected of him.
If you are constantly comparing yourself to others and trying to be something God didn’t create you to be, you are going to feel like junk. And, on the other side of the coin, if you judge people by your own standards and not God’s, then you are going to see them as junk. You are going to look at your own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of others as problems, excuses as to why you and them aren’t good enough for God to use. And you will want to do what we all do with junk that has no value, that is worthless – you’ll want to throw yourself or them away.
But that’s totally wrong. As long as David thought that God only wants people to be pastors and missionaries he felt like junk. But once he figured out that God didn’t make him to be in full time ministry in a church, he finally figured out he can be in full time ministry by serving God in and through passion he has for managing retail stores and selling craft supplies. That’s amazing! And it’s true for you too. God calls very few people to be missionaries and pastors and teachers. He calls most people to serve outside the church, in their families, neighbourhoods and workplaces. And He uses people of all sorts to do it.
Moses stuttered. Abraham was old. Hosea had a super messed up marriage. David was a hothead who wanted to kill people who he didn’t like and then had an affair. Jonah ran away from his mission. John Mark ran away too. Elijah suffered from ministry burnout. Paul was blind, sick, and used to chase and murdered Christians. Timothy was so stressed out he had stomach problems. Lazarus was dead. And yet God used them mightily.
Whether you think yourself too weak, or you are that prideful person who keeps judging others as disqualified. Listen again to 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”
We Will Be Judged
Second, I want you to realize that at the end of time, the Bible says that Jesus will evaluate every person, every Christian’s contribution to the life of the church and the deeds they have done. Just like the master came home and took account of what his stewards did with their talents, so will Jesus inspect what we have done with what he has given us. Listen to the words of Romans 2:6-8, “God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
How we use the abilities, talents and spiritual gifts that God has given us will be judged. Listen closely. Christian, your salvation is assured, because that is dependent on the work of Jesus Christ. Listen to 1 Corinthians 3:11-13, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”
The foundation of our salvation is built by Jesus, but the life we build on that foundation, the way we use the gifts we’ve been given according to our ability, that will be judged.
We do well when we cultivate a healthy fear of God in this area.
How to Use Them Best
The third question of stewardship, if you remember, is “How do I use it best?”, right? So how can we use our talents and abilities best? That’s a tough one to answer because they are so varied, but let me try.
If you are serving in your wheelhouse right now, you know you’re where you’re supposed to be, then great. Give me a call and talk to some Christian friends about how you can grow in that area. But if you are like a majority of people and haven’t got that figured out yet, then what I want you to do three things:
First, ask God if you are doing the right thing or if you should change? Ask Him to guide you to where you are supposed to serve Him and be open to His call. I’m only a preacher today because I decided one day to be open to a radical change. So open your heart and ask God.
The second is to explore your gifts. In other words, try different things. Take a few personality tests, a spiritual gifts inventory, and a job placement test. Volunteer for different things to try them out. If you stink at it, that’s ok. You’re allowed to make mistakes here. We still love you. What better place is there to experiment with your interests than surrounded by a loving church family, right? There are a lot of people who are serving in the wrong place either because of fear or obligation or confusion. I don’t want that for you.
And third, I want you to get brave and talk to people who care for you about what they see in you, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and then listen. Be willing to try doing what they see in you instead of dismissing it out of fear or because it’s too much work.
It’s been a troubling week again this week as we read about the race riots and murder in Charlottesville, Virginia and the 17 people killed in Barcelona, Spain just this week. It is strange how these things come in waves. Before now I hadn’t really considered how vehicles could be used in a terrorist attack, but now it doesn’t even come as a surprise to hear that someone has rammed people a crowd with a car and killed people. It turns out that suicide bombings are hard to do and more preventable than a vehicle attack, and so we are going to read about this more and more.
What do we do with all this? For a while, up here in our small town in Canada, it was easy to start to think that we were over all this hatred, but in a very short time we witness hatred off all kinds – nationalism, racism, religious – leading to violent outbreaks all over the world – even in our own back yard. Type in “Canada” and “Racism” into Google News and there’s plenty to read.
Fear and prejudice are dividing people more every day. Facebook, YouTube, and our favourite news channels don’t simply tell us what is happening, but turn into echo chambers of what we want to hear so that we’ll keep clicking and watching – which fuels tribalism and separation as we hear less and less diversity of opinion and more and more of ourselves reflected back at us. It’s easy to slip into an “us and them” mentality where I and the people like me are the good guys and everyone else is stupid, evil, and unworthy of our attention or love. And I know for a fact that we are not immune to this here because I’ve heard it and seen this type of thinking from my own friends and fellow believers as they publically denounce other nations, people groups, celebrities, news organizations, movements, religions – even other believers, churches, and pastors. We become more known for what we are against than for what we are about, which not only fuels separation and tribalism, but a prideful, elitist mentality that makes us think that we are better, smarter, and holier than everyone else.
Think about it for a moment. If I asked you to list all the groups you are against, it would be much easier than to list the ones that you identify with and have compassion for, right? I’m not going to list them here because it’s the only thing you would hear and remember from this sermon, but consider for a moment the groups and people you have seen, or have personally vilified over the past weeks, months and years. The people you believe you are better than, smarter than, holier than– and who should just shut up or go away. That’s not love, that pride. That’s not humility, that’s fear. That’s not a Christlike heart, that’s closed-minded prejudice.
Our Role in Salvation
We talked about this over the last few weeks, and even over the past months in our study of 1 Corinthians: Christians are not better than others. We are simply a group of those God has chosen to show the truth to. Yes, that is a bold claim these days – the claim to an exclusive truth – but that’s what we have. We believe that the claims of Jesus Christ being the way, truth and the life, and that no one can come to God except through Him are true – and that every other way is false.
But that shouldn’t lead us to pride, but humility! Remember the verse from Ephesians 2:8-9 last week? We emphasized how much our salvation is not our doing! “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
What do Christians believe about our role in salvation? That we are saved “by grace”, “not our own doing”, “not a result of [our] works” meaning that what Jesus did for us on the cross by taking our sins upon Himself and dying in our places is completely undeserved. It was an act of grace. This is the most distinctive feature, the most special thing, about Christianity, which comes right out of the Bible. There is no other system of thought, no other religion, either past or present that teaches that the path to life, peace, heaven, and God, is an act of divine, completely undeserved favour.
Most other religions (like Bahai, Buddhism, Hinduism) believe that hard work and good deeds will lead to their life’s fulfilment and is their path to God, or freedom, or becoming a god, or whatever their version of heaven is – and that if you don’t do enough you get punished in some way. Islam believes that when you die your deeds will be weighed by Allah and if the good deeds (like prayer, pilgrimages, and generosity) outweigh the bad then you can get into heaven. The only way to really guarantee that you will go to heaven is to be martyred, or die in service to Allah, which really tips the scales. Other religions like Jehovah Witnesses or Mormonism have used some Christian language to give their religion credence, but rewrite or add to the Bible to include a whole bunch of extra works and financial giving that needs to be done or you will be rejected by God. Some who call themselves Christians, like Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have drifted from the doctrines of grace and teach that not only do you need to believe in Jesus, but you need to check off a series of good-deed and religion boxes or you can’t get into heaven. They also teach that even if you believe in Jesus you can lose your salvation by doing bad things – and have a list of ones that are so bad that you can never be forgiven for them. That’s not what the Bible says either.
Last week we talked about the Doctrine of Total Depravity, the belief that everyone, by their very sinful nature, is bent away from God and would never choose to obey Him – and that even our supposed good deeds are still unacceptable to God because they are still tainted with our own selfishness, greed, false motives, and lack of insight.
In this world, it is only Christians that teach that humans cannot do anything good, or achieve any benefit in the afterlife, by our own works. We believe we are utterly and totally dependent on the grace of God.
Believing in the Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity has some serious implications for how we think of ourselves and others, doesn’t it? In one sense they can bring us to despair. We love to think that we are the masters of our own destiny and have the ability to impress others, even God, with our good deeds – and finding out that we can’t, can be a blow to our ego. On the other hand, this can also lead to a deflating depression where every time we start to feel good about ourselves we are reminded that we are utterly weak and wretchedly sinful. Wrongly applied, it can lead to a sort of depression that makes us feel worthless.
And so most people ignore it. It’s hard to tell people there is nothing they can do to save themselves because they are totally depraved sinners who are dead in their transgressions. And so the gospel gets repackaged to emphasize the more positive side, telling people that Jesus loves them, that they are special, chosen, children of light, separate from the dark and messed up world – which is all true, but not the whole story!
The Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity don’t merely end in a depression funk where nothing matters – that’s only where it starts because that is where it must start. It’s meant to drive us to the bottom so we must look upward in worship and thanksgiving. Multiple times in the Bible it says that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (Psalm 138:6; Proverbs 3:34; Proverbs 29:23; Matthew 23:12; Luke 1:52; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) And scripture gives us many different stories that emphasize the point.
Naaman had leprosy and was sent to be cured by the prophet Elisha, but didn’t like that the solution would be as simple as washing in the Jordan river seven times. He wanted something grand and dramatic and instant, not something so humbling that took so much time and obedience, so he got mad and was about to go home. It was only when he humbled himself that he was clean.
Jesus opposed the prideful Pharisees who thought their way was better than God’s. The rich young ruler came to Jesus, pridefully believing he had earned heaven, and Jesus sent him away grieving after being shown that his faith was in his riches, not God. Peter pridefully claimed that he would never deny Jesus, and Jesus told him that he wouldn’t just do it once, but three times.
The young, arrogant, powerful Pharisee named Saul, who hated Jesus and helped to imprison and kill Christians, was stopped dead in his tracks and struck blind by the Lord Himself so he could understand who he was really opposing. And later, while suffering on the mission field as an Apostle of Jesus, he says, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
This is what the Doctrines of Grace and Total Depravity do for us, they humble us and make us look up to God as our helper and strength. They make us realize that we are not wise, but God our Father is and He will share that wisdom with us. We are not good, but Jesus is, and He will share that goodness with us. We are not helpful, but the Holy Spirit is, and He will make it so that we can be.
Therefore, when we look at these terrible situations in Charlottesville and Barcelona – and many other atrocities committed in the name of racism, prejudice, hate, and fear, throughout the world and here at home – we can utterly condemn them as sinful and wrong – but never use them as a way for us to feel superior to others. Instead, they become a reminder of the sinfulness that still dwells in our own hearts and how far we have come because of what Jesus has done in us.
Both Christians and non-Christians I know look at those events and feel the same swells of fear, pride, and hatred. Fear of people different than them and therefore worse. Pride that they and those like them are the ones who are right and good and correct. And then feelings of hatred swell and the desire for revenge takes hold. Now, maybe they aren’t the ones who are going to drive a car through a crowd, or bomb a building, or bring clubs to beat down people that disagree with them – but when someone does, they are secretly glad, saying they “got what’s coming to them”, which Jesus says in Matthew 5 and John in 1 John 3:15 is no different than murder because they have murdered them in their heart (Matthew 5:21-22).
A right thinking sees these events and it brings them sorrow. Sorrow for the sin in this world, for the evil perpetrated, for those who died not knowing the Lord, for the judgement on those who committed the crime, and then – sorrow for all the sins in their own heart that are no different than those they just watched. It drives a right thinking Christian to God in prayer, to their knees in repentance, to righteous anger at the sin, and to a desire to help.
Racism is Unbiblical and Unchristian
We look at the prejudice and racism and we condemn it as ungodly and unbiblical. We know the church has dealt with this from the very beginning as the Bible shows us that sectarianism and nationalism even started to infect the church even as it was forming. But it was wrong then and is wrong now.
- All human beings of all races are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27).
- God shows no partiality based on external difference. 1 Samuel 16:7 says, “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”
- Jesus told us to love our neighbour and then told the parable of the good Samaritan highlighting the sins of racism and nationalism (Luke 10:25–37).
- In Ephesians 2:14 we read that Jesus “has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” between peoples. Jesus smashed all those walls between us where we think we are better than anyone because of something external to us.
- Galatians 3:28 we read that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Racism and prejudice are wrong and sinful. Jesus died for those sins, and Christians should obey Him by loving all people, regardless of their race. But these events don’t just remind us that something is wrong outside us but remind us of where our own heart is darkened in this area.
It should cause us to reflect on how we have disobeyed God by thinking our enemies are other people and not sin and Satan. Ephesians 6:12 says,
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
We should ask ourselves where our own racism and prejudice lies. Who do you hate because of their skin colour or nationality? Who are you prejudice against because of your upbringing? Who are you painting with the same hateful brush, lumping them in with all the others, because it’s easier than seeing them as individuals? Whose souls and eternities do you not care about? Who do you prefer because they are more like you? Who have you deemed unworthy of your attention or time? Are you sitting in an echo chamber that only feeds you what you want to or are you seeking through and turning all those thoughts over to God, judging them by the standards of God’s word?
A Hinderance to Evangelism
I know these stories are troubling, and I know that they can cause a “visceral” reaction within us – visceral means that we create by deep inward feelings rather than intellect – but I beg you not to let them. We are not immune to this and are going to see this more and more in our country and our area. We, in our church, are not immune to racism and prejudice, and we cannot allow them to take hold of our hearts.
We have been talking a lot lately about sharing our faith and this is directly connected. I said that we need to show people love before we share our faith, right? Well, if we hate these people because of our prejudices then we certainly won’t become friends with them, nor show them love, and therefore we will never be able to share with them. What group of people have you decided are not worthy of your love or the gospel?
I said that we need to pray before we share our faith. Are you praying for the salvation of the people you hate because of the colour of their skin or the nation they come from or the history you have with them? Probably not.
I said you need to tell them your story, right? Does your story include segregation, fear of certain people groups, and hatred against certain kinds of people? Or does your testimony share how you obey Jesus by loving the whole world, just as He does.
And I said you need to be patient with the people you are sharing with, right? Are you patient with those you hate? Jesus has given you much patience. He knows your thoughts and has watched as you claim to be one of His people but continue to sin, dismiss His Word, and reject His Spirit – but He still died for you, didn’t he? He traded Himself for you. He keeps forgiving you, loving you, helping you, equipping you, and listening to your prayers, doesn’t He? Why is he so patient? Because of His Amazing Grace and love for you. Are you showing the same to others? These events should cause us to reflect on and reject our own sin.
Gollum and Frodo
I know it’s not quite right to have an illustration at the end of the sermon, but this one, I think, will close us out well. All of this reminds me of a scene from Lord of the Rings.
For those who don’t know the Lord of the Rings, the ring as a sort of sentience, It’s alive and evil and corrupts all who wear it. There was one person who wore it for far too long. Smeagol found the ring one day while fishing and it immediately corrupted his heart. As he wore it he became more and more evil, more and more corrupted, until he was driven from his home town to live in a cave in the mountains of an enemy land. The ring gave Gollum unnatural life for hundreds of years, corrupting him inside and out until he was almost utterly consumed.
After hundreds of years, one day, when the hero of the Hobbit, Bilbo was wandering through the cave, the ring abandoned Gollum in order to find a new owner to corrupt in hopes of being taken out of the mountain. Gollum attacks Bilbo to get it back, but the ring turns Bilbo invisible and allows him to escape. But right before he is about to escape the mountain Gollum blocks his way and Bilbo is presented with a choice – kill Gollum or try to rush past him. He pulls his sword to put this vile creature to death, but instead of allowing his hate and fear to control him his heart fills with pity and Bilbo chooses to jump past instead.
In Lord of the Rings, the ring has passed from Bilbo to Frodo who has been given the task of destroying it – and we can see throughout the books that it’s slowly corrupting Frodo too. But Gollum has not gone away but is always following, always hoping to kill Frodo and get the ring back.
Then this happens:
JRR Tolkien used the Ring as a symbol of sin and Gollum as the creature who has been totally corrupted by it. He is a hateful creature breathing lies, curses, and threats at all times. Frodo feels it would be best if Gollum would have just died. The world would be better off without him. Gollum is hateful and deserves to be hated and dispensed with. He’s in the way, stopping the good people from doing good. But Gandolf, a sort of Christ figure or at least Biblical prophet type in the book, does not hate him – he pities him.
And then he speaks these words: “It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
This reminds me of the Parable of the Weeds that Jesus told in Matthew 13:24-43.
“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’’”
Just as Frodo wanted to kill Gollum, the servants want to go out and pick out all the weeds in the garden, but the farmer says no, stating that his servants are not wise enough or careful enough to be able to do the job without messing up the whole field. They are not reapers and though they think they know what they are doing, they would be pulling out good plants with the bad and would do damage to the crop. He says, “When the time is right I’ll let the reapers do it because they’ll do it right.” And in the next verses we learn that the reapers are angels sent by God – not humans.
What’s the point? We are too much like Frodo and the servants, wanting to hastily jump in with our poor judgement, prejudice, racism, and ill motives, and try to do God’s job for Him. That’s not our job. What does God want? For us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him. Our job, according to Jesus, is to love God, love our neighbour, and love our enemies – not dole out our own poorly conceived, ungodly, prejudice plans. We must repent and ask forgiveness for such thoughts….
 Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, “Grace”.
Chad, Steve and Al are finally back together and talking about the pluses and minuses of the modern testimony movement and the best ways to share your personal faith journey — and things to avoid while doing it.
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When I was growing up, my grandparents had a crab apple tree in their front yard, and every time we went to visit them, my brother and I would see the tree and hope the apples were ready to eat. It was actually quite frustrating for us because we found the readiness of crab apple trees is notoriously difficult to predict. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had an unripe crab apple, but if you have, it’s a memorable experience.
They are uncomfortably hard to chew, and as for taste, they have an extremely intense and unappetizing mix of bitterness and sourness that makes you not only never want to take another bite, but uproot and burn the tree, scattering its ashes so as to never be spoken of again.
But! For that extremely brief period of time when they are ripe – in Alberta anyway – just before they freeze and/or turn to mush, they are actually really, really good. A unique taste right off the tree and extremely good for homemade jelly.
We visited our grandparents quite often, and, as I said, each time we were there we would ask if the crab apples were ready. It was most often “no”, but occasionally – whether because they didn’t know or because they enjoyed our suffering – they would say, “I’m not sure, why not go try one?”
Then the games would begin. I, being the older brother, would do my best to get my younger brother, James to take a bite – while he used all his wits and whining to make me do it.
The scripture we’ve been going through for the past while reminds me a lot of that crab apple tree. Before I went on holidays we were stuck at the end of chapter two, talking about the difference between mature and immature Christians. The Corinthian church, though they were Christians –saved people with the Holy Spirit dwelling within them – had not progressed in their faith, but had actually regressed and were living like spiritual infants.
Hearing about this frustrated the Apostle Paul, because he had been their pastor for a year-and-a-half and hadn’t been gone for very long. He had moved on to plant other churches, but even from far away, was hearing reports about how messed up the church in Corinth was. And so, God inspired Paul to write a letter to them, chastising them for their immaturity and instructing them on what needs to change.
Anyone who has experimented with crab apples knows how Paul must have felt. He planted that tree in Corinth expecting it to grow, mature, bear fruit, and for that fruit to be sweet – but instead, the fruit is bitter, sour, wooden, wormy and disappointing. He longs to be able to praise them for their faithfulness and maturity, for turning away from the sinful world they live in so they can bear the fruit of being disciples of Jesus – but he can’t. Instead of being believers who are light and salt in a city lost in the darkness of paganism and moral corruption, loving God, His Word, and each other – they have instead become more like the city, more immoral, have dimmed their light, lost their flavour, and were acting like immature, children.
In chapter 2 it says that that they had stopped living as spiritual people, and had started to live as “natural” people. Essentially, they had given up their connection to God’s life and truth, in favour of seeking out other sources. They had turned away from Jesus as the “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30), which we read about in chapter one, and had tried to find wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption elsewhere – and in that search, had corrupted themselves to the point that they were no longer even able to tell good from bad, evil from holy, saint from sinner, godly from demonic. We see at the end of chapter 2 that they had had lost their “spiritual discernment” (2:14), their ability to “judge” things properly (2:15), and had given up the “mind of Christ” (2:16), in favour of other voices they thought would be just as good.
All of that cut Paul deeply, but I also believe it grieved God’s heart too. God loves His people and hates to see them wander away from Him, because He knows it will only hurt them. And so this letter is written to explain where they have gone wrong, and to try to call them back.
Let’s open up to 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 and read it together
“But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
Let’s take this apart a little.
In verse 1 we see Paul summarizing the argument he’s been making for almost the whole of the letter so far: the Corinthians aren’t acting like Christians, but like unbelievers. He contrasts two different types of people: the “spiritual people” and the “people of the flesh” – in fact he uses that phrase twice – but follows it up with “as infants in Christ.”
This tells us something important – that the people he was addressing were Christians. This letter was inspired by God and written to a church full of saved people. They were corrupted, sinful, wandering, foolish, carnal, jealous, angry, people – but they were Christians. How could this be?
Because our salvation is not based on our obedience to God, nor our personal holiness, nor our ability to be good, but upon believing in the finished work of Jesus Christ as the crucified and resurrected Saviour of our souls.
Jesus was the one who obeyed all the laws, fulfilling every one. Jesus is the one who perfectly loved the Lord God with all His heart, soul, mind and strength, and perfectly loved His neighbour. Jesus did everything that God commanded of Him, and then offered Himself up in exchange for any sinner who would believe. He would be the once and for all sacrifice, the final payment for sin so that no other payment would ever need to be made. All that is necessary for salvation is to believe in Him.
When the Philippian Jailer asked Paul “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, the answer was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31)
Right after the most famous passage in the Bible, John 3:16, where we read about Jesus as a gift: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”, we read John 3:18, where Jesus says, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And then a little later in John 5:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.”
Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is not stingy with the requirements for salvation. He doesn’t demand that we jump through hoops, make grand displays, shave our heads, or sit in sackcloth and ashes, before He saves us. He doesn’t require us to get baptized, join a church, talk to a pastor, walk down an aisle, raise our hand, or anything else. What God requires of us is simply to believe Him that His Son, Jesus Christ, lived perfectly, died on a Roman cross, truly rose from the dead, and took the punishment we deserved.
That’s the Christian invitation. Will you accept that Jesus is the Son of God who came to give His life for yours, to conquer death, to settle your accounts before God, so you could be with your Father in Heaven? If you do, you’re in.
Belief is Harder
In a sense, even though this puts all the work on Jesus’s shoulders, and makes it a free gift that only needs to be accepted, having faith is in some ways harder than doing what other religions teach. Your admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven will not be judged on your actions, but on what you believe – which is actually a much deeper requirement.
Other religions, cults, and even aberrant (or heretical) forms of Christianity, simply give you a laundry list of requirements and behaviours that you must accomplish or align to, and if you achieve a certain percentage of them, then God (or Karma, or the Universe, or whatever) is happy. Follow our religious rituals and rules properly and then you’re life will be weighed out by a cosmic force, and then you’ll see where you end up.
That’s actually a lot easier than God’s requirement for “belief” or “faith”. It’s easier to follow a list of rules than it is to allow your understanding of the universe to be so radically altered that you actually change the way you think about God, yourself and everything else. Following a religion is shallow, believing in Jesus is deep. Checking boxes so you can call yourself a good person is simple, turning your heart, soul, mind and strength over to Jesus because you believe He is the Lord of your life is hard. Saving yourself by following your own personal idea of how to be a good person and get to heaven is easy because you can make excuses and change your requirements anytime you need to, but humbling yourself before God and following Jesus because you believe His way is the only way, is harder. Judging yourself and others by your personal religious beliefs makes you feel proud and superior to others, judging yourself and others by what you believe Jesus says, brings both deep humiliation and deep appreciation for God’s grace.
The Corinthians were saved people. They believed in Jesus as their Saviour. They were a mess, but they were, as Paul says in verse 1, “in Christ” – and that’s all that is necessary for salvation: belief.
Faith Changes Everything
However, we’re not just trying to get people saved, are we? No, we are saved unto something. The Apostle Paul doesn’t want mere belief, or dead faith. God didn’t plant the crab apple tree to have its growth stunted so it could bear only bitter fruit. He planted it so that it would grow bigger, stronger, and bear fruit that He and everyone else could take and eat and call good.
When Paul planted the seed of that church, he wanted to see it sprout. When Apollos preached there afterward, he wanted to help it grow. But it didn’t.
The Bible never stops at belief, or faith, in God. The demons believe God exists, but that isn’t enough for salvation, is it? The demons believe that Jesus is Lord of all and even Saviour of the World, but they are not saved. Why? Because the Christian faith isn’t just about believing the fact that God exists, or believing the fact that Jesus died and rose again, but having that belief, those facts, take over every part of our lives. That’s why the Bible, Old Testament and New, is so full of teachings that tie our faith in God to a changed life.
This is Paul’s message to the Corinthians is, “I want you to become spiritual people, but you are living as ‘people of the flesh’, carnal people who, instead of being obedient to God and controlled by the Holy Spirit, are controlled by your own natural desires. You may believe in Jesus, but your behaviour looks no different than the world. Your thought patterns are not mature, biblical and godly, but look just like the world’s. You claim to be followers of Jesus, but you think and act like pagans. When I came to you, I fed you with milk because you were spiritual babies, and that was appropriate, but you were supposed to grow up!”
In his letter to Titus (2:11-15), who was a Christian leader who he had sent out to check up on the churches he had planted, combat false teaching, and appoint elders before he moved on, he says this,
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority.”
Do you see the ebb and flow of salvation with a changed life? The grace of God appears and brings salvation – which trains us to put down the things that are ungodly. We are waiting for the blessed hope, the coming of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ – who redeemed us from lawless and works to purify us. He bought with His blood so we could be His own, and we show we are His by being zealous for good works.
Even Now You’re Not Ready
In Titus, Paul is talking to a mature church leader who is given some deep teaching and then commanded to go and declare and exhort and rebuke others, but in Corinth, Paul is talking to spiritual babies. In verse 2 he says, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh.” How does he know that they’re still “of the flesh”, acting like spiritual babies? Verse 3 says, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?”
There’s a bunch of reasons he’s going to get into in the rest of the letter – from their sexual sin to their acceptance of pagan worship practices – but he starts with how they are treating each other. Their church is full of “jealousy and strife”.
How does he know that they are not maturing in their faith? The first reason he gives is because of their attitude towards one another. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
Paul’s argument is that since there is “jealousy and strife” among them, then they are acting like “people of the flesh” and are “behaving only in a human way”. This is a deep, cutting accusation.
In Galatians 5:19-21 we read the opposite of the “fruit of the Spirit”, which are called “the works of the flesh” which include: “sexual immorality… idolatry, sorcery… drunkenness, [and] orgies”, which we would all agree are worldly and sinful, but also included in the list “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, [and] envy” – all relational words. Then scripture says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
This is how sour the fruit of this church was – they were acting like those who are still on the side of the kingdom of Satan and bound for hell. Paul says, “I can’t address you as mature Christians, and your fruit is terrible, because you are still living by the desires of your flesh, living carnal lives, driven by worldly wisdom, and treating each other the way unbelievers do.”
The point of today’s message, and what I believe God is saying here, is twofold.
First, that we understand that we are saved by our faith in the grace of God alone, not by anything we can do – but that that belief must change our lives. If you’re a new believer or a young person, then it is to be expected that you will struggle with the things all new believers struggle with.
- How can I put down the sinful habits I’ve built up?
- How can I learn how to turn to God instead of my vices?
- How can I build healthy boundaries in my life in order to combat bad influences, but still let my light shine?
- How can I discipline myself to read the bible and pray regularly?
- What does my relationship with God mean in relation to my wife, kids, friends, family, school, past, present, future?
- How can I live a life that honours Jesus, and still enjoy the good things in this world?
- How can I get over bitterness, laziness, or prejudice?
- What does God want me to do with my life?
- What are my gifts? What am I supposed to do at church?
- What messed up things have I believed about God, His people, and the world, that I need to change in favour of discovering the truth?
All of these are really important questions, and ones that every new believer has to go through. But that’s the point – we go through them and then continue our journey into deeper things. We allow our belief in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour to open us to the influence of the Holy Spirit within us, so that we become more like Jesus every day.
That’s called maturing, and it’s something that most Christians don’t do. One of my favourite bible teachers talks about the “unnatural man” called the carnal Christian. He sees it as a bad hybrid, an unnatural joining of light and darkness, hot and cold, good and evil. He says,
“The carnal Christian is the one who hasn’t grown up spiritually, and it is evident that he lacks spiritual discernment – not because he doesn’t have the Holy Spirit within him, but because he is not growing in grace and in the knowledge of Christ…. This is a consequence of his relationship to the Word of God…. This unnatural man, this carnal Christian, is a babe in Christ. He has an ability but no desire…. Unfortunately it is on this level that most church members are living today. How can we identify the carnal Christian? It is the Christian who is using the weak arm of the flesh. He uses carnal methods to obtain spiritual goals…. Their motto is: Do what comes naturally. Let the flesh have its way.” (Thru The Bible with J Vernon McGee, Vol 5, 1 Corinthains, Pg 16-17)
He’s right. Many of the Christians I have known and have served, have the ability to grow, but no desire. They live as children of the world, but claim to be followers of Jesus. They come up with all kinds of human, worldly, carnal methods to try to obtain things that can only be given by God. They try to combat spiritual problems with worldly wisdom. They seek human answers to spiritual questions.
This is the first issue, the lack of maturity in the Christian church – and the lack of desire for maturity – which creates carnal Christians, lukewarm church, and people who live as spiritual babies for their whole life, doing more damage than good for God’s Kingdom.
The second point is connected to the first: that we must engage in actively choosing to live as spiritual people and not as natural ones. Another translation of our passage today said it this way, “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your own desires?”
That’s exactly right.
“By remaining immature and allowing that immaturity to divide them, they were wreaking havoc on the church…. James wrote, ‘What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?’” (Life Application Bible Commentary, 1 &2 Corinthians, Pg 48)
Christians aren’t to be controlled by their fleshly desires or their carnal thoughts, or it will lead to trouble in all of their relationships! We are to turn those thoughts over to God and allow the Holy Spirit to control and change our desires. Whenever we choose to be guided by our own wisdom or natural desires, we run the risk of doing things simply to gratify our sinful nature. And that is dangerous.
So, my closing question to you today is this, are you maturing as a Christian – whatever phase you’re in – or are you stuck in spiritual infancy, repeating the same old sins over and over again? When God comes to evaluate your fruit, does it taste like it has maturing in godliness where your life lines up with your beliefs? Or does it taste of hypocrisy, where you’ve claimed to be a believer, but you are still behaving in a fleshly way?
I encourage you to do something difficult: ask those closest to you about this. Ask your parents, children, spouse, and Christian friends if you are walking in step with what you say you believe. Ask them if they have seen you mature and grow over the past year, or if you seem exactly the same (or worse) as you were last year and the year before.
I remember hearing somewhere that it is the psychologically healthier mind that can handle holding opposing thoughts and paradoxes in tension. It’s the unhealthy mind that is always trying to rectify the world and make it fit exactly, perfectly into categories. A healthy mind is ok with not understanding everything in the world and knowing that some things are inexplicable and out of control, and yet clearly exist and must continue. It is the unhealthy one that requires the whole world to be explained and under control.
There are some fun examples of paradox, like what would happen if Pinocchio were to say, “My nose will now grow.”?
Or the famous “Ship of Theseus paradox” in which a ship leaves port in Athens to go on a long journey, and along the way as has to replace the rotten planks, the mast, the sails, and eventually every other part. The question is, is it the same ship when it gets back to Athens?
Or my favourite: Since buttered toast will always fall butter-side down when you drop it, and a cat always lands on its feet. What would happen if you tied a piece of buttered toast to a cat and then dropped it?
Here’s one from Proverbs. Proverbs 26:4 teaches, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.” Which means that it’s often impossible to talk to people who want to do foolish things. That’s true, right? If someone is committed to doing something stupid, there’s very little we can do about it. Well, the next verse says this, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he
Well, the next verse says this, “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.” Which means, we should say something when someone’s about to do something foolish or they might think they’re doing the right thing! Both are true, aren’t they? But it depends on the situation. Sometimes one applies, sometimes another.
As much as Christian apologeticists and theologians would like to have an answer to every question they are posed, God asks believers to hold a lot of truths in tension. Now, these paradoxes are not the same as contradictions. A professor of mine used to say, “The Bible has no contradictions in it, only important differences.” That is to say, the Bible agrees with itself completely, but there are some things in it that are beyond our comprehension.
These paradoxes continue to trouble believers and create a lot of tension. For example:
- If God knows our needs, is all wise and perfectly sovereign over everything, and will always do what is best, then why should we pray or give or serve or sacrifice?
- If God is going to save who He is going to save, then why should we bother sharing the Gospel?
- If God is the one who decides when we are going to die, then how can anyone truly commit suicide or murder?
- If God knows everything and planned everything in advance, but never sins and never tempts, then how can we explain the existence of Satan and Hell?
- How can Jesus be both fully God and fully man?
- How can there be One God in three persons of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?
These are hugely important questions that have been discussed and debated by believers for hundreds of years, and used by atheists and enemies of the Gospel to try to discredit Christianity.
Those questions may be more theological and theoretical in nature, but these types of paradoxes also spill out into how we live out our faith.
- God says that we are saved by grace not works, but then also tells us that we need to be doing good works because we are saved.
- God says that He will oppose the proud, but exalt the humble (James 4:10), so how can we be humble while at the same time wanting to be exalted by God?
- Paul says that we are strongest when we are at our most weak (2 Cor 12:10), so how do we embrace weakness while at the same time trying to grow stronger?
- Jesus says it’s better to give than to receive, because when we give we will receive blessings from God (Acts 20:35). So is it wrong to give to others because we want to receive blessings from God?
- The Bible teaches that Jesus sets us free and gives us an abundant life, and then tells us in Romans 6:18 that we are “free from sin, but slaves of righteousness.”, and that this world will be full of trouble. So are we free and abundant or slaves in a world of trouble?
- Jesus says, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39). How does that work?
This tension is perhaps most keenly felt as we discuss and live out the Doctrine of Sanctification. What is Sanctification? To sanctify something means to make it “holy or purified”. It is closely associated with the word “Consecration” which is the separating of a thing or person fr divine service. In communion, the bread and wine are Consecrated, or set apart for a special service. When a missionary or pastor or elder is called, we are saying they are Consecrated for their mission, or set apart for a special task.
In the Old Testament, there were various things that were consecrated unto God’s temple: the sacred furniture, the priests, the offering, and even the worshippers, were set apart for a special purpose. And when they had been set apart, the first step would be to take the Consecrated thing or person, and then “Sanctify” it. They would do things like wash their garments, change their clothes, and then sprinkle blood or pour oil on it or the person and declare them clean and ready for whatever God wanted to use them for.
If you recall last week, I talked about the importance of knowing you are “called”. I could just have easily used the word “consecrated”. Christians have been called out by God to be set apart as something special in the world. But before they can be used by God, they must be Sanctified. Before sanctification we are “unclean” or “profane” and not worthy to be in God’s presence or used by God.
Remember I said we are spiritually dead, enemies of God, a citizen of the Kingdom of Darkness? That’s our position before we are saved, so in order to be brought into God’s presence, into Heaven, and be used for His Holy purposes in this world, we need to be “Sanctified”, or “cleaned”, or “made holy”, or “purified”. Now, how does that happen? The same way it did in the Old Testament. We need to be chosen, cleaned, changed, and then covered in a blood sacrifice.
Hebrews 10:10-14 says:
“…we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Jesus provides the blood offering that allows for us to be cleansed of our sins and sanctified before God. When the Israelites in the Old Testament were doing it, the priests had to keep killing more and more animals, every day, every month, every year, to atone for the people. Jesus’ sacrifice was the once-and-for-all, final sacrifice that would allow anyone who would believe in Him to be saved.
What does that mean? It means that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are washed in His blood (that’s why we use that phrase), cleansed from their sin, and set apart for God’s special purpose. We can come before Him because He has made us clean. That’s the rules He set out from the beginning. Hebrews 9:11-15 puts it this way”
“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”
Jesus fulfilled everything that was required by God in the Law and completed the work of all that had come before. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were imperfect and wore off. Jesus’ sacrifice is perfect and eternal. God says that “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” and that “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22)
The only one who could die for a human would be a human, but since we all have a sin problem, we can only die for our own sin! We needed a human being to come and live a perfect life, who could then be the final blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the rest of humanity. Jesus chose to be that final sacrifice. Only through His death and the shedding of His blood could we be free from our sins. Therefore the author of Hebrews tells us that we can “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus”. Not by what we have done, but what He has done.
Jesus sacrifice has made it possible for us to be cleansed of our sins and made right with God. When we come to God for forgiveness, He doesn’t say yes because He’s so nice. He can only say yes because our sins are already paid for. Sin must be paid for, and Jesus took the payment. God can’t be in the presence of sin, so everything must be purified, cleaned, and sanctified. It is Jesus’ blood that does that.
What does this mean for us? As I said last week, knowing this keeps the accusing demons at bay. When He starts to say that you aren’t saved, that God rejects you, that you’re not good enough, that you’ve lost your salvation, or that you need to clean yourself up to come to God, then you can say, “No. My salvation isn’t dependent on my own goodness but on the shed blood of Jesus. I can’t sanctify myself or make myself good in His sight – I need Jesus to do that, and He has because I’ve put my faith in Him.”
Now, this kind of thinking seems terribly foolish to a lot of people. Paul says as much to the Corinthians in just a few verses in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Before God gets a hold of our hearts and saves us, this whole idea of sanctification and being saved by the power of a blood sacrifice seems terribly foolish to us. Paul will say something similar in chapter 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”
Herein lies another paradox: that even if we already know this truth, we will always refuse to accept it until God opens our eyes to it. Only God can choose us and clean us up. Only God can sanctify us, gives us the mind of Christ, and give us the capacity to make the choice to love Him.
Until God opens our eyes we can’t even see the problem of sin and our need for sanctification. I was watching a sermon by Alistair Begg this week and he said this,
“Humanity, as it confronts the reality of the human condition has all kinds of suggestions as to how it can be fixed. But that is in large measure because contemporary notions of the state of man are frankly unprepared to give any credence at all to this diagnoses which… runs throughout the Bible whereby the Bible tells us that outside of Christ we are dead, we are enslaved, and we are condemned… It speaks to the issues of our state that everyday we live our lives, every newspaper that unfolds before us, every broadcast that comes across our screen, confirms the reality of what GK Chesterton observed that ‘whatever else may be in doubt, man is not what God intended for him to be.’ And so the explanations that are given are fairly routine.
The trouble is that man is simply sad, or perhaps he is dysfunctional, or we may be prepared to acknowledge that he is sick. That’s why he does these dreadful things, why he kills and maims and rapes and turns in upon himself. This is explained in terms of sickness. The one thing that is almost wholesalely rejected is the diagnoses that the bible gives here, namely that man is sinful. And the reason that this is so crucial is because a superficial view of the human condition results inevitably in attempts to fix the condition in similarly superficial fashion. So that for example, we may try, if man is simply misguided, to cure the predicament by increasing the level of education. If he is sick, by increasing the amount of medication. If he’s just rebellious, then perhaps by legislation – or even by indoctrination or domination…. This is how society as a whole, and towns and cities and families and sports teams and businesses and academic institutions try and do something about the fact that man is messed up.”
You see, this is how man tries to fix his sin problem, and you can see it all the time as the governments of North America try to figure out how to fix what’s wrong with the world. They refuse to believe that sin is the problem, so they can’t find the real cure, which is Jesus Christ. So instead they treat everything topically, or superficially, by giving more access to medication and healthcare. And whatever sins they can’t solve through education, they will create laws against.
- They solve the problem of loneliness, sadness and sickness by making laws so doctors can kill their patients more easily.
- They solve the problem of sexual addiction and broken families by allowing people more access to easier divorces and give them the right to kill the unborn.
- They truly believe that they will solve the world’s problems with education – if we can just educate the youth to be more open minded and teach the terrorists to be more inclusive and kind, then everyone will get along.
- That’s why we have a nanny state where governments want to ban sugary drinks to cure people of gluttony.
- They mandate being nice by jailing anyone who makes others uncomfortable with their opinions, because no one should ever have hurt feelings.
- They rebrand mental illness into alternative lifestyles.
- In some places they try to force people to take care of their stuff by fining them for not recycling and having a vehicle that is too muddy.
- Did you know that doorknobs are being banned in Vancouver, even in private homes, because they aren’t easy enough for some people to open?
How can the world stem the tide of violence and hatred without admitting we need a new heart from Jesus? They make laws.
- One 5 year old girl in Pennsylvania was labled a “terroristic threat”, suspended from school, and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation because she brought a Hello Kitty gun that shoots bubbles to her school.
- Seven year old Joshua was suspended from second grade because he chewed a pop-tart into the shape of a gun and said “bang, bang.”
Do you see how different the Christian view is to this? Christian say that we are evil on the inside, we have a heart problem that needs a complete regeneration from the inside out, a new birth, a recreation, a resurrection by the power of God. We need to be cleansed and given a new heart through Jesus Christ. We need Him to kill the effects of sin in us and then raise us up to new life. We don’t think we can do this on our own. The only way to battle sin is through a miracle from God.
Outside the Christian church it’s exactly opposite. They believe people are basically good on the inside and with enough education, rules, encouragement and tolerance, everyone will finally conquer their sadness, or sickness, or differences, and finally come together.
It’s totally opposite, isn’t it?
This is why Christians preach the existence of sin, the depravity of our hearts, and our desperate need for the sanctifying power of the blood of Jesus Christ.
The Paradox of Sanctification
This is where the paradox comes in. All of what I have said is absolutely true. If you are in Christ you are a new creation. That’s what the Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor 5:17) It’s a present reality. The Bible speaks of it in the past-tense as though it’s already happened!
- Colossians 3:1: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.”
- Ephesians 2:5-6: “…when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
- Romans 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
It’s all past-tense to God. Already done. Our old self is dead and we have been set free. We were dead, now we’re alive and have already been raise up with Him and seated next to Jesus. It’s already happened in God’s eyes! Just like Jesus was dead and buried for oursins, and then raised to life and seated with God, so we died with Christ and now we’re raised to life and death no longer has dominion over us. The thing we fear most, death, no longer has power over us because our life is hidden in God in Christ. It’s a present reality!
If Jesus doesn’t come back first, our bodies will someday die, but it will be like going to sleep and waking up with Jesus. Death has no sting.
That is, by the way, one of the pictures of baptism. It represents the death and burial of our old selves and the new life we have now that we live in Christ. The waters we pass through represent the cleansing of our souls by the blood of Jesus.
The moment we are saved, that we give our hearts to Jesus, we are immediately and perfectly cleansed. Ready for use in God’s temple, able to stand in the Holy of Holies because we have been cleansed by the shed blood of Jesus.
But… it doesn’t feel like that, does it? We’re not perfected yet, are we? I know I’m not. It is a paradox that all of the promises of God are ours the very moment we are saved, but at the same time we must wait for them. God doesn’t deliver us out of this world and make us perfect. This is why Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Our sanctification is sure, but not seen yet.
Many Christians will describe their process of sanctification, which theologians call “Progressive Sanctification”, with the words, “Already, but not yet.” We are already perfectly clean before God, but not yet perfectly sanctified. We’re right before God and there is nothing we need to do to gain salvation, while at the exact same time we are working out our faith with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).
This is why Paul could start his letter to the messed up church in Corinth with the words, “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” That was a super messed up church. They were dividing, arguing, doubting, questioning the apostles, up to their eyeballs in sexual immorality and greed, their marriages and families were messed up, they were slipping into idolatry, and more. And yet, Paul calls them “sanctified… saints”? Why?
Because they were Christians. Their salvation, sanctification and status before God wasn’t based on their actions or maturity – it was based on whether they were called by God and cleaned by Jesus, which they were. Yes, they were messing up their lives and their church a whole bunch, and Paul was going to address that, but he wanted to make sure they knew who they were first. They were God’s people, who had been shown a great love, called out like Lazarus from the grave, chosen from among many to be given undeserved grace, and then sanctified by the blood of Jesus Christ.
They had forgotten their calling and their cleansing, their salvation and their sanctification, and had slid back into living like the world, so Paul needed to remind them of what and who’s they were.
I’m going to talk about the other side of Sanctification next week – that is, our responsibility toward our own holiness – but I wanted to make sure you understood this truth first. You cannot save yourself, you need the blood of Jesus Christ to sanctify you before God. You need to admit you are a sinner who can’t educate or exercise or empower himself enough to save himself. You need a miracle.
And those who have experienced that miracle, I want to you remember how far you were brought – from death to life, from sinner to saint, from impure to pure, and to thank God for that truth. Thank God for saving you from trying to save yourself. Thank God for the knowledge that there is nothing you can do to increase His love for you because He loved you before you ever loved Him. And most of all, thank God for sending His son to die on the cross, shedding his blood for your sake, to make it possible for you to be saved. If it weren’t for Him, you would still be condemned.
A Closing Thought From Ezekiel 36
I want to close today with a reading from Ezekiel 36:22-32 which gives a picture of how salvation works. You see, our salvation through Jesus wasn’t a new idea, but was God’s plan all along – from the very beginning. And even in the Old Testament people weren’t saved by their works, but by their faith – and that faith didn’t come from them, but from God. The Christian faith didn’t come up with anything new that wasn’t in the Old Testament. We simply understand it better because Jesus has shown us what it all means.
Let me read it and as I do, notice how it is God who does the work of sanctification and salvation… and realize why? Not for our sakes, but for His glory: “Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
“Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes.
I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. And I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. And I will summon the grain and make it abundant and lay no famine upon you. I will make the fruit of the tree and the increase of the field abundant, that you may never again suffer the disgrace of famine among the nations.
Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel.
…On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by…. Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it.” (Ezekiel 36:22-36)
Voices In Your Head
One of my favourite country songs is one by Chris Young called “I Hear Voices” which is about a man talking about how thankful he is for all the good advice he’s gotten in his life –from his mom, dad, grandparents, etc – who now exist as voices in his head that help him make decisions. It’s a song by a man who is thankful for those voices, but I think we can all admit that not all the voices in our head are as positive and helpful. Many people, me included, live with a barrage of negative thinking that we simply can’t stop.
“You’re not good enough. You’ll never measure up to where you need to be. You’re a constant disappointment. If people knew what you were really like, they’d hate you even more than they do now. You’re a wreck. You’ll never have enough. You’re not worthy of love. You should just quit. All of your friends are just pretending to like you.
You are small, insignificant, and useless. If you died, you would make the world a better place. You’re the reason that everything has gone wrong.
You are stupid and worthless. Your mind is falling apart, your body is falling apart, and your dreams are falling apart. Your life has no point, no reason, no purpose. Why are you here? Who do you think you are? What is wrong with you?
You don’t deserve happiness! You don’t deserve good things. And every good thing that happens to you is just a trick anyway. It’s a setup. For every moment you feel good, two more are waiting to make you feel even worse.
Your world is on the verge of collapse and it’s all your fault. If you would have tried harder, worked more, loved more, prayed more, saved more, got up earlier, stayed up later, made better decisions, then you might have saved yourself, but you didn’t and now you’re doomed – and you’ve doomed everyone you care about. And it’s all your fault.”
Have you heard those voices?
I’m sure you have. Those thoughts and the sadness, anxiety and fear that come with them are a universal, human condition. You’re not alone. Christians aren’t immune to those voices. In fact, some might say that Christians have it even worse because along with all of that comes the guilt of knowing that we are sinners who have disappointed our Heavenly Father. And Satan loves to grab onto those moments and squeeze them for all they’re worth.
“You are filthy. You said you’d stop doing that and you didn’t. You said you loved Jesus and clearly you don’t. You said you’re a Christian, but you can’t be. You shouldn’t even pray anymore because God’s not listening. Why would he listen to a hypocrite like you? There’s no point in asking for forgiveness because God is sick of you committing the same sins over and over. He hates you. That’s why things are so hard right now, because you’ve made yourself an enemy of God. You don’t act like a Christian. You barely act like a human being! All of the people at church are better than you. No one else sins like you do. You’re a sham, a fake, a fool. You shouldn’t even go to church. You’re not good enough. You should quit. Give in. Stay home where you belong. Your presence profanes the very building! I know where your hands have been. I know what you’ve said. I know the horrible things you’ve been thinking. I know what you’ve done. So does God. And God hates you for it. Give up this bogus faith. You’re not cut out for this Christian thing. It’s too hard. Give up. Go back to your old, easier, life. It made sense and you didn’t feel guilty all the time. God hates you, the angels hate you, the church hates you, your pastor hates you – because you are worth hating. Stay home. Stay alone. Just quit.”
Have you ever felt that? Ever suffered through that kind of thinking?
It’s immensely painful isn’t it? And sometimes, it’s very, very convincing. You feel like that thinking is right.
“I am a mess. I am a sinner. I am filled with sadness, anxiety, pride, fear, and shame, and no matter what I do, I can’t get rid of it. Christians aren’t supposed to feel this way, are they? I’m supposed to be happy, victorious, joyful, nice, loving, aren’t I? Maybe I am beyond help. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I am a fraud.”
The Truth Will Set You Free
This is why we need to know the truth. So we can take these thoughts captive and evaluate them for whether or not they are actually right (2 Cor 10:5). Last week I reminded you that Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) and reminded you that when we start to believe things outside of God’s word, we will find ourselves in bondage.
The church in Corinth, just like many today, had started to listen to other voices and accept other beliefs that were contrary to the Bible, and consequently, they were in bondage to sin, division, lust, greed, and more. They were no longer set free by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, but had allowed false teachers and false thinking to place the shackles back on their souls – and this grieved the Apostle Paul who had spent so much time with them. Just like Eve had done in the Garden of Eden when she took the forbidden fruit, they had accepted the words of a liar, exchanged the truth for a lie, turned their backs on God’s Word, all the while thinking it was going to bring them more freedom, but actually brought death.
Now, instead of living in freedom, their lives and their church was falling apart. And so Paul kicks off his letter with some extremely important words reminding them about who they were and where they had come from.
Let’s read 1 Corinthians 1:1-3:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Over the next couple weeks, I want to concentrate on two super-critical words that God has Paul write to this church that was spiraling out of control. It’s two words that we need to keep in our mind at all times, especially when the negative thoughts, accusations, anxiety, fear, and depression starts to take hold. When those thoughts start to roll in, instead of allowing them to overwhelm us, we need to stop, evaluate them and see if they are true or not. And I believe that these two words will help us: Called and Sanctified. Let’s talk about “called” today.
How Salvation Works
We talked a little about this last week when we said that Paul was reminding the Corinthians whose they were. He was an Apostle of Christ Jesus by the Will of God, and they were the Church of God. But we need to notice something important here: It is not Paul who decided He would be an Apostle, nor the Corinthians who decided they would be a church – it was God who had “called” them to Himself.
This is such a hugely important truth! When the voices in your head start to tell you that you aren’t worthy to be a Christian, that you don’t deserve God’s love, that God is sick-and-tired of you, and that He’s given up on you, you can lean on this unshakeable truth: becoming a follower of Jesus wasn’t your decision. God picked you. He chose you. You are one of His chosen people. Becoming a Christian wasn’t your idea, it was His. He knew exactly what you were, all you had done, and everything that you would do – and He picked you anyway.
Theologians call this the Doctrine of Election, which includes things like Predestination and God’s Foreknowledge, and it’s an extremely comforting bit of theology that simply means that Jesus loved you, accepted you, and died for you way before you even knew about Him. He loved you first. Let me take you through this a bit so you can understand it.
People sometimes think that they are the ones that choose to become Christians, as though one day they just decided that they now hate their sin and want Jesus to take over their lives. The picture they sometimes use of salvation is that people are drowning and God is in a rescue boat throwing out ropes for people to grab onto. All we need to do is grab onto the rope and God will drag them into heaven. And as long as they are holding onto that rope, then they are saved. Not everyone will grab the rope, but instead will try to save themselves by treading water or trying to swim to another island. But, they say, Christianity is the only boat and grabbing onto God’s rope is the only way to be saved. BUT – they caution, don’t let go of the rope, or you’ll be lost again! Make sure you hold on! Do good things, pray every day, be a good person, or you’ll drop the rope and drown.
That’s a false picture of salvation. The Bible says it this way in Ephesians 2:1-9:
“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
No boat, no rope, no hanging on. You were spiritually dead. You could not and would not grab a rope if God sent it to you. Why? First, because you are dead and can’t save yourself, and second because you were his enemy. You followed “the prince of the power of the air”, God’s enemy, Satan. You played for the other team and lived in the passions of the flesh. You were under God’s wrath because you were on Satan’s team. But, even though you were a dead, rotting, enemy corpse, who loved sin, God loved you with a “great love” and chose to resurrect you to new life in Christ. He gave you grace – undeserved merit – “that he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”!
You see, if you’re the one who grabs the rope, then you get the credit (or the glory) for having the strength to hold on to it. God doesn’t share glory with anyone and wants all the credit for Himself, so that’s not how it works. You were dead and God made you alive!
You were Lazarus, dead to the world, rotting, stinky, a corpse, and yet Jesus yelled into your tomb, “Lazarus, come out!” Let me read that part to you because it is a picture of your salvation:
“When [Jesus] had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’ The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’” (John 11:43-44)
That’s what Jesus does for us. He calls us out, takes away that which binds us, removes the disgust, and gives us freedom to “go”.
This truth is a powerful weapon against the enemy when he starts to fill your mind with thoughts about how little you are worth and how much God hates you. You take that thought captive and you ask yourself, “Is that true? Is it true that I’m worthless, that I’m on my own, that God doesn’t love me, that I’m a big disappointment, that I’m alone? Is that true?”
“No!”, you must answer yourself, “I didn’t choose this life, God chose me for it. God’s love for me isn’t based on how good I am, but on how good He is. God raised me from the dead! He didn’t have to but chose to do that for me! I don’t know what made me special in His eyes, but somehow I am. I’m a called person. I’m a child of God because God wanted to adopt me. Out of all the billions of people who have existed on this earth, God reached down and picked me to be one of His own. I did NOTHING to deserve it, in fact I was His enemy, but He called me. He yelled into my tomb and brought me back to life because He loves me so much! So shut up, Satan. I don’t believe you.”
Live as a Called Person
This is something we see all over the Bible, and it’s important we get it clear because it’s something that Paul is going to refer back to a few times in 1st Corinthians. The word “called” appears 13 times in this letter as he reminds the church about where they came from, how much God loves them, and how important it is to live as a “called” people.
Part of the reason that they must live different lives from those around them is because God called them to a different kind of life. God brought you from death to life and bought your soul with the life of His beloved Son. You’re His now. “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” (6:19-20) So lived as you were called to live.
For example, when he is about to talk about the divisions in the church, and their unfaithfulness towards one another, He says “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1:9) Why should you stop dividing and divorcing? Because you’re not there by your own choice; God called you to be there. If marrying that person or joining this church was your idea then go ahead and leave, but if the God of the universe called you to be there, then you better work things out.
When he talks about singleness, marriage, and divorce, he doesn’t just give advice, He reminds them that they need to do what God called them to do. “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” (1 Corinthians 7:17) “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.” (7:20)
He keeps reminding them that they are different now. They are not self-governing but are governed by Jesus, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. His argument, throughout the letter, is to take them back to the truth. Someone convinced them that they were allowed to set their own rules and come up with their own standards. They had forgotten that they were “God’s church in Corinth” and had started to think that their church was their idea.
In chapter 2:26-29 Paul says,
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
Over and over and over Paul says, “Remember, you’re not a believer because you decided to be! God could have left you in stuck in your sin and forgotten your pagan city – but He didn’t. Instead, He called you to be part of His family – and it wasn’t because you were so great, but because you were so weak and foolish. You were called, washed, cleaned up, and made right with God by Jesus Christ and the Spirit, because He loves you. Why would you want to go back to living like those who are deceived?”
You see, this word “called” not only brings us hope when we are in a dark place but also motivates us to action! God chose and called you because He loves you. And now, as a beloved and called person, you are to live your life as a citizen of His Kingdom. He breaks the power of sin, and cancels your debt, so now you go out and forgive others too. You love because you know you are loved. You hate sin and work against it because you know the truth about it. You obey because you honour your new king. You humble yourself because your Lord and Master Jesus did the same for you.
When the voices in your head say, “You’re not powerful enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not strong enough…” you can say, “Yep, exactly. And yet God loves me, He called me, He takes care of me anyway, and I live for Him. And there’s nothing that will change that. He picked me!” Knowing you are “called” has enormous consequences to how you think and live your life, doesn’t it?
More Biblical Evidence
Let me close by sharing just a few more verses about this idea of being “called” or “Elected” or “Predestined” to salvation, so you know that I’m not coming up with this with only a couple of verses. I want you to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your salvation – and the salvation of those you are praying for – has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with God.
In Acts 13:17 Paul explains salvation by starting at the beginning. He says , “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt….” Who chose Israel to be God’s people? God did. He said to them in Deuteronomy 7:6-8,
“For you are a people holy [or “set apart” or “called”] to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers…”
Do you see that? God didn’t save Israel from Egypt because they were so great, but because they couldn’t save themselves! In the same way, God didn’t choose Abram to be the father of the Jewish nation because he was so great. Abram was a worshiper of pagan gods who had a wife who couldn’t bear children, and yet God chose them to be the parents of “a great nation”, to make Abram’s “name great”, and to “be a blessing to others.” (Gen 12:2) Why? For no other reason than because God decided to show Abram some grace. He didn’t deserve it, but God called him anyway.
Same with Noah. Noah wasn’t perfect. He was a sinner who deserved to die in the flood too, and yet he “found favour in the eyes of the Lord.” (Gen 6) Moses too. He was a murderer and a coward and God chose him anyway (Exodus 2). Gideon was a coward too, and yet God used him in mighty ways. Jephthah was a social reject. David was a warmonger and philanderer. We’re all sinners who give God every excuse not to love us.
But this is the story of how God deals with His people. God chose prophets from unlikely places. When Israel wanted a King, God picked him. When God sent His Son to be born as a human, He’s the One who chose Mary and Joseph. We don’t tell Him how things are going to go. He calls us. God is the one who chooses.
Jesus says to the disciples, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44) and when He speaks to them at the Last Supper He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (Jn 15:16) God drew you, I called you and I promise you will be equipped to do what I called you to do. And later in verse 19, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”
Later, God would say this to the Christian church, through Peter,
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pe 2:9–10)
Don’t Forget Your Calling
That’s the give and take of the word “called”. It means you are loved beyond your understanding, and were so before you were even born – and there’s nothing you can do to lose that love. And since your calling was God’s idea, that means that He’s the one who has the responsibility of taking care of you! He’s the one who cleans you up, changes your heart, defends your spirit, and gives you everything you need to do what He’s called you to do.
The only way to mess that up is to either forget it. When we forget that we are called, then it’s easier to start to think that God hates us or that we need to impress Him for Him to love us or that He’s forgotten us and left us to fend for ourselves. None of that is true. That’s why you need to be in God’s Word and talk to God every day – or you’ll start to forget your calling.
If you are a Christian today, then He has proven His love for you, and will continue to. The only question you have to ask yourself is this: Will you live in that love? Will you allow God to love you, speak to you, comfort you, equip you, challenge you, and change you? That’s God’s job and His gift to you. Or do you think all of that is still on your shoulders?
Maybe you need to let go of some things because He wants to bring you healing.
Maybe you need to stop trying to be in control so He can take over.
Maybe you need to get back on your knees, and get back into the word, so God can remind you of how much He loves you.
Maybe you need to change something in your life because you know that you’re not living as you are called to live.
Maybe you need to repent of allowing the lies of Satan to flood your mind and convince you that you are unloved and unwanted.
Maybe God’s been tugging on your heart for a while now, but you don’t want to let Him in because you know He’s going to make a mess in there, ruin your plans, change you into something else, and require you to live differently. He’s been calling you, but you’re resisting, choosing to live your way instead. You know what He wants you to do, but you are refusing.
If that’s what’s going on this morning, I give you a warning: Don’t harden your heart to the voice of God. Don’t be someone who feels the presence of God, and willfully and persistently rejects His call. Don’t reject the ministry of the Holy Spirit that is trying to call you to repentance and forgiveness – or you will be condemned.
The more you practice hardening your heart to the voice of God, the easier it will become until eventually you can’t hear it anymore. Don’t allow yourself to get there. That is asking God for life outside of His presence, which is Hell. Instead, listen to His voice, hear His message, submit to His call, and receive His grace.
You’ve probably heard of Charles Shultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip and cartoon series. Many people know and love his Christmas special, but another classic is the Halloween one called “It’s The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. The Charlie Brown Christmas was extremely popular and the CBS Company was more than happy to air another show that would be just as popular – and that’s where the Halloween special came from. Not just a one-off show, but something that could be shown every year to a new group. And it worked. A lot of people, since its first release on Oct 26, 1959 have seen it.
I really enjoy the TV specials and comics, not only because they are cute and funny, but because Charles Shultz was amazing at sneaking in contemporary issues and, specifically, views about faith and religion, into the story. Shultz himself spent his life on a religious journey and we see it played out in the lives of his famous characters.
For most of our post-Christian culture today, these references go by as quick jokes, but if like me, you’ve been a Christian and lived among “church people” for a long time, then the depth of these moments comes out in fairly stark detail.
The Linus character is always the religious one of the bunch. In the comic, Linus talks about philosophy and theology, and actually quotes scripture quite often. One of my favourite lines, which I’ve used many times, comes from Linus. Lucy is looking out the window at the rain and is worried that the whole world will flood and Linus tells her of God’s promise to never do that again and the sign of the rainbow, and she says, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind.” Linus responds with, “Sound theology has a way of doing that.” I love that line and use it all the time.
That reference is pretty on the nose and everyone can see it, but when it comes to the Halloween Special and the Great Pumpkin, the spiritual allusions are a lot sneaker. The whole show is about practicing false religion and worshipping a false god!
I want to use this favourite cartoon classic as a jumping off point to talk about the difference between false religion and true Christianity. Here’s a clip so you can get the flavour of the program.
Linus believes in The Great Pumpkin; something that no one understands, nor has ever seen, nor has ever heard of. It is an invention of Linus’ mind, but He believes in it with all his heart. At the beginning of the show, all of the other characters take turns mocking him for his beliefs. His sister, Lucy, begs him to give up his strange faith because it makes him weird and people mock her for it – she even threatens violence if he doesn’t give up his faith. One character says, “You’re wasting your time on a fake!” and Linus writes in his letter to The Great Pumpkin, “If you are a fake, I don’t want to know.” He’s so attached to his religious beliefs that he’d prefer ignorance to truth!
Even mailing the letter – perhaps referencing prayer or religious devotion – is a chore since Linus is too short and no one will help him. He overcomes the difficulty through an act of his own intelligence – and by casting his prayer upon the wind in faith it will enter the mailbox and his prayer will be heard. Of course, his prayer letter, even though it goes into the box, will ultimately end up nowhere because the object of his faith simply doesn’t exist!
Many of us likely know someone like that – “My mind is made up! Don’t confuse me with facts!” Linus’ faith is a blind faith – which is something that Christians are often accused of having. People assume that in order to be a believer, one must “take a leap of faith” – meaning that there is a point at which one must give up their brain so they can believe in God. This is a huge struggle for some people, but I want to tell you today, that this is not what Christians believe.
Yes, our God is mysterious and bigger than we can fully process – because He’s God – but He’s not unreachable; nor does He demand we check our brains at the door when we come to church. Unlike Linus, we believe in a historical God, whose actions are testified to in a historically accurate book, substantiated by other historical books. We are one of many generations of people who have told the same stories of true, accounts of historical events.
The Bible is a book written by real men who, in partnership with a real God, told the story of God and humanity. It is a collection of 66 books, written by 40 different authors of a variety of backgrounds (like shepherds, doctors, prophets, and kings) in three different languages, on three different continents (Africa Asia and Europe) over a period of 1500 years, that have no historical errors or contradictions and contain one common theme: God’s love for humanity and his plan of salvation for our sinful souls. That’s beyond amazing.
So, we are not like Linus, having blind faith in a god of our own design, but believe in a God who revealed Himself and who desires to be in relationship with us. We don’t believe in an idea, but in a historical person – Jesus Christ, the main character of the Bible – who is spoken about from the first book of Genesis to the last book of Revelation.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 we read a whole list of historical facts and foundations for Christian belief. It says:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
He doesn’t tell the people he’s writing to to simply have faith, but instead challenges them to look into it! Talk to Cephas (or Peter), to James, to the 500 witnesses that saw Jesus alive after being crucified and buried for three days… go check out the historical fact of Jesus resurrection! Ours is not a blind faith.
Let’s keep going in our Peanut’s story. When Linus finally does get a conversion to his new religion it’s Charlie Brown’s sister Sally who is only there because she has a crush on him.
For the rest of Halloween, Linus goes to “the most sincere pumpkin patch, one without hypocrisy, nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see”. He teaches his new convert that the most important part of his religion is that they are absolutely rock solid in their sincerity, their earnestness, their faith, their total commitment and lack of doubt – because the Great Pumpkin “respects sincerity.”
Now, though scripture does say that we should “fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Jos 24:14), but that’s not what Linus is talking about. Christian sincerity is that quality of life that shows a person has pure motives and is not full of deceit. It’s associated with words like “truth”, “genuineness”, and “godliness”. A sincere preacher is one that preaches without any reason to feel guilty or disingenuous.
That’s not what we see in Linus. Here we get a glimpse of truly religious person who, even though they know the object of their faith is questionable, and that they have invented much of it, they believe they can overcome their doubt through sheer willpower.
These are the people like Oprah Winfrey who believe in belief, who have faith but no object to their faith, who have invented their own version of god and then assume that their “sincerity” will somehow make the object of their faith come to life.
This was crystalized to me during an interview that Stephen Colbert had short time ago with Oprah Winfrey where he asked her if there is a difference between “belief” and “faith”. Her answer was a mumble-jumble of post-modern religiosity that detached faith from an object of faith. Here’s what she said:
“Yeah there is, because there are a lot of people who don’t think they’re faithful people, but have beliefs. You cannot be in the world without believing in something, even if you don’t call it a deity. So there are people who believe in working hard and striving for their best, but don’t necessarily have a religious belief. Faith is very different, I think. Faith is knowing that no matter what, you’re going to be okay. And I’ve always been a part of that faithful.”
Then she went on to share her favourite bible verse. It’s Psalm 37:4 which says, “Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” which for a Christian is pretty simple to understand. It means make your whole life about pursuing the joy of knowing God, and He will shape your heart so that you desire the right things. Not things that will harm you and drive you away from him and others – but things that will help you, bring you closer to Him, and help you love others. Easy exposition there and the rest of the Bible agrees with it.
Here’s what Oprah said:
“Now what that says to me, ‘Lord’ has a wide range. What is Lord? Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness. So you delight yourself in those virtues where the character of the Lord is revealed. Delight thyself in goodness, delight thyself in love, kindness, and compassion, and you will receive the desires of your heart. It says to me, if you focus on being a force for good, good things will come – which is also the third law of motion –which is also karma – which is also the golden rule.”
Faith in faithfulness, belief in belief, “Lord” can mean whatever you want (actually, it’s literally the word YHWH, the proper name of the God of the Israel). It makes my brain melt and my heart hurt. Her beliefs are an absolute mess of made up, reassembled, religion. But would anyone dare to question Oprah’s sincerity?
We’ve all heard this one too: “How dare you question my strongly held beliefs! I can believe whatever I want! Even if it contradicts reality and seems utterly confused, is unsupported by any authority, and is a jumbled mess – I believe it! Even though I made it up from my favourite scraps of other people’s religions, it’s what I believe and my ‘sincerity’ will make it count for something!” That’s Linus.
A Christian, as we said before, believes in historical facts and stands on what God has revealed about Himself. We don’t make it up, instead we go to the inerrant word of God and discover what God has said about Himself, and then believe that. We work hard, not to invent a god from the scriptures, but to learn about the God that is revealed in the scriptures. Do you understand that?
Think of it this way. Two men spend their life looking for treasure. One man comes across a treasure map with a big red line that leads to an X on the ground. As he studies it he sees that the map leads through burning deserts, across vast oceans, and finally to an X in a cave on the top of a huge mountain. He invites the second treasure hunter along, but the second treasure-hunter says that sounds like too much work and he has a better idea. So instead, he makes his own treasure map. One that has a much shorter red line that goes through nice hotels, shopping malls, and ending up at a lovely park. It’s a better trip.
Which one will get to the treasure? The one that follows the treasure map, right? But what if the second man truly believes, with all his heart, that his treasure map will lead him to the treasure? No? Why? Because no matter how sincerely you hold a false belief – it’s still a false belief.
Let’s go back to Linus. There he is spending the night in his “sincerest pumpkin patch”. He’s exercising his religion like a monk in a monastery, giving up the worldly pleasures of candy, parties and friends, so he can impress the Great Pumpkin with his religious zeal and be rewarded with a glimpse of the object of his faith.
His friends make a special trip to the pumpkin patch, more than once, to try to convince him to join them, but he staunchly refuses, keeping his vigil in the patch – only accompanied by his singular convert, Sally – who is gets more and more impatient. Linus starts to get more and more nervous that his sincerity, his faith, his religion, just isn’t enough to make The Great Pumpkin real.
Then, in a moment of religious fervour, Linus mistakes Snoopy for the Great Pumpkin and gets so overwhelmed that he faints. But his convert, Sally, stays awake and realizes, with great anger and disappointment, that she’s wasted her whole night. This was to be her first Halloween! She could have had treats, toys and fun with friends – but instead she wasted her time practicing a useless religion that ended with utter frustration and disillusionment.
Have you been there? A lot of people have. They got wrangled into some kind of belief system that doesn’t work out. They put their faith in some kind of faith in a false messiah and they are left utterly disappointed. This doesn’t even have to be a form of god or religion. People put their hope for happiness and fulfillment in things like money, politics, friends, their spouse, their career, an experience – and when it lets them down it colours the rest of their world. It makes it harder to trust anyone. The money goes away, their government is found to be corrupt, their friends let them down, their spouse breaks their heart, they lose their career, and the experiences no longer fulfil.
Sally leaves the patch feeling as though she’s been tricked and she “demands restitution”! She missed out on everything. I know people who have felt that way– even after coming to church. They attended a church, but never really met God or Jesus. Instead, they came for a bunch of other reasons – to make friends, a religious experience, business contacts, to explore morality, because of the music or the inspirational talks – but they never really connected to the true God of the universe and it ended up feeling shallow.
That’s a mistake that a lot of people make. They mistake religion for relationship. They mistake the traditions, decorations, experiences and ceremonies for having a relationship with God. Not that those are bad things – but they are only a means to an end.
We don’t read the bible because it’s a good book – but because it teaches us about our relationship with God. We don’t sing songs merely because it’s enjoyable– but because we are worshipping God. We don’t have potlucks because we merely enjoy eating together – but because it is a way to obey God’s command to grow in love together. We don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper because it’s tradition – but because it reminds us of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord and Friend of Sinners, Jesus Christ. We don’t listen to a sermon because they are interesting – but because we believe God works through the reading and teaching of His Word. We don’t pray to impress others or manipulate God – but to get to know Him better and give Him the opportunity to speak to us and change our hearts.
In Isaiah 1, God has some very serious things to say to His people about their confusion of religion and relationship. Let me read what He says. Keep in mind God is talking to His people and starts by saying they are as bad as Sodom and Gomorrah, which He destroyed because of their wickedness! Look at what He says about their religious festivals. (I’m going to read out of The Message because I think it will help us understand it better.)
“Listen to my Message, you Sodom-schooled leaders. Receive God’s revelation, you Gomorrah-schooled people. Why this frenzy of sacrifices?’ God’s asking. ‘Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of burnt sacrifices, rams and plump grain-fed calves? Don’t you think I’ve had my fill of blood from bulls, lambs, and goats? When you come before me, whoever gave you the idea of acting like this, running here and there, doing this and that—all this sheer commotion in the place provided for worship?
Quit your worship charades. I can’t stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You’ve worn me out! I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance, I’ll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don’t have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless.’”
God is pretty clear about his hatred of empty, hypocritical religion, and yet, somehow, people still keep getting caught up in it. “Commotion”, “worship charades”, “prayer-performance”, “meetings, meetings, meetings!” Like poor Sally, following Linus into the Pumpkin patch, they show up to do their religious duty, go through the motions, and walk away empty – because that’s all it was. It wasn’t pointed at God, they didn’t meet God – it was just worthless, religious activity.
This truth is all over scripture. God doesn’t want anything to do with “religion for religion’s sake”. If it is merely empty gestures, God wants you to keep it. He says that for worship, prayer, charity, and everything else. God despises empty religion – and really, so should we.
A Fickle God
Let’s close with two more and then we’ll be done.
In the next scene we find out that Linus sitting in his pumpkin patch, alone, and is visited one more time by his friends. He rejects them again and yells out, “If the Great Pumpkin comes, I’ll still put in a good word for you!” and catches himself. Oh no – a moment of weakness of faith! He said “If” and not “when”! He mutters to himself, “I’m doomed! One little slip like that can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by!”
A lot of people see God like this – which is why they get caught up in religion. Linus’ god is not one of love, compassion, kindness, mercy and grace, but one of rules and commandments, fickle and unpredictable, spiteful and petty – in other words, the Great Pumpkin is God is not the God of the Bible. He’s more like the Greek god Zeus than the Christian God. So Linus spends the rest of the night trying to make up for his momentary lack of faith. He stays out all night, until 4am, freezing, passing between sleep and wakefulness until he finally passes out from exhaustion. Lucy eventually comes and brings him home having never seen The Great Pumpkin.
This is the god that a lot of people think of when they describe the Christian God. They only know the parts about the 10 Commandments, the Jewish Laws, the Temple Ceremonies that had to be done exactly right. The only church they know is the one that is against everything. No stealing. No lust. No anger. No playing cards. No movies. No beer. No mowing the lawn on Sundays. Etc.
The ones who see God like this don’t understand how Christians can call their God “loving”, because they only hear about the one who kills disobedient people with plagues and disasters. This is a God who wants everyone to feel guilty all the time, gets angry when we step out of line, and then punishes them for it. This is Linus’ god, and the god that many people think we Christians believe in.
This is not a good description of the God of the Bible. The God we preach of created us good and put us in a good environment, and then gave us the choice to love and obey Him or not. That’s why the tree and the deceiver were there – to give us the choice. He didn’t want robots programmed to love him, or people locked in a gilded cage with only one option.
He gave us free will and then we chose to sin. And we’ve all been choosing to sin ever since. We go against our conscience – we do things we know are wrong, without ever even having to read the Bible to know it’s wrong – and that sin makes it so that we can’t be in the presence of a holy, perfect, good God.
Sin lead to spiritual and physical death, and that broke God’s heart, and He didn’t want to leave us that way. So, before He ever created the world, He worked out a plan for our salvation. The penalty for sinning needed to be paid for by every human being – but He would accept a trade. For the Israelites, He would allow the death and shedding of the blood of animals to pay for sin for a short period of time. Sin means death, and God allowed that animal’s blood to be traded for ours, for a time – but that wasn’t the end of His plan.
No, He wanted a permanent solution. So what He did was send His Son to earth to be born as a human being. He would live a human life, but would never sin. The world would hate Him and reject Him, just as Adam and Eve rejected God in in the beginning, and would take His Son and kill Him. But God would use that terrible crime for good. He would let the death of Jesus Christ be the permanent trade.
The wrath of humanity wouldn’t just be on Jesus, but the wrath of God almighty. All of God’s hatred of sin, all of the punishment that was due for humanity’s sin, would be poured out on Jesus Christ. God would punish Him instead of us – and would then offer the trade to humanity. Again, because of His love for free will, God won’t force us to accept the gift, but He will offer it. He will even go so far as to show us the darkness of our sin and contrast it with the light found in Him – and then make it possible for us to accept it. God does all the work of salvation, and allows us to make the choice to accept that free gift.
That’s the love of God. He’s not Linus’ poor, fickle copy. He’s a God of mercy and grace.
Don’t Be Linus
Allow me to close on this. In the final moments of the program, Linus and Charlie Brown sit at their famous brick wall and bemoan their failed Halloweens. Charlie Brown got a bag full of rocks and Linus missed the Great Pumpkin once again.
Charlie Brown comforts his friend, “Well, don’t take it too hard Linus. I’ve done a lot of stupid things in my life too.” We would think that Linus would say, “Yeah. I’ll never do that again.” But no. Linus epitomizes mindless religion, blind faith, and the prideful, stubborn refusal to humble himself and change his mind.
As the credits roll, he yells at Charlie Brown, “Stupid? What do you mean, stupid! Just wait until next year Charlie Brown, you’ll see! Next year at this same time, I’ll find a pumpkin patch that is real sincere and I’ll sit in that pumpkin patch until the great pumpkin appears.” As the camera slowly pulls back and the credits continue to roll, Linus waves his hands, grits his teeth, and keeps blasting Charlie Brown with the passion only found in a religious fanatic, until it fades to black.
My application for you today is simple: Don’t be Linus. Don’t live a blind faith that has no connection to reality. Remember that you can be sincere, but you can also be sincerely wrong. Dig into studying the One, True God and don’t get fooled into weird, religious nonsense that someone has made up or that you are making up for yourself.
And remember that God loves you so very much – and that love is not based on how obedient or religious you are. He loves you exactly as you are today, and couldn’t love you any more than He already does. He’s a good father that loves you so much that He doesn’t want to leave you in your sin, but will do whatever it takes to save you from death, hell and the effects of wickedness in your life. All you have to do is ask for forgiveness, give up the throne you sit on, and turn control of your life over to Him.
And finally. Don’t be stubborn – be humble. If you’re wrong, admit it. If you don’t something, admit it. Allow God to speak into your heart. Listen to what He’s saying. Read His word and let it do the work in your heart. Put down your religious fervour or willful pride, and listen to someone else for a change.
The world is going to fade to black. Don’t let your stubbornness keep you from knowing and finding God.
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As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people, from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me! For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
(Psalm 42-43 ESV)
That’s psalm, epitomizes what we’re talking about today. It’s the song of a man who is battling deep, dark depression – a popular and important subject that still resonates with people today. Another poet, this time a Spanish poet from the 19th century, St John of the Cross, called this kind of depression a “Dark Night of the Soul”. It’s a period of spiritual desolation, of isolation from God and a detachment from the world. Everything is dim or dark, there seems to be no more sun.
The psalmist is not David, but “the sons of Korah”. They were Levites, priests of God, employed to be worship leaders in the temple. Their task in life, for generations since Moses, was perform and produce music to be sung in worship to God.
But now this worship leader was far from Jerusalem and the temple worship on Mount Zion. He felt himself cut off from all he had known and everything he was meant to be. He felt cut off from God himself. It says he’s writing this psalm “from the land of Hermon, from Mount Mizar”, which is almost 200Km away from Jerusalem. It’s been theorized that he’s either a traveller far from home, a captive of an enemy nation leading him out of Israel, or one of the priests following David as he was fleeing Jerusalem during his son Absalom’s revolt. I prefer the theory that that he’s a captive of an enemy nation, likely the Babylonians, because as we read the psalm we see him being mocked his enemies.
Whatever the reason he’s had to leave, this priest is terribly homesick. He’s been walking away from the place he desperately wants to be – walking for 47 hours, according to Google maps – and has reached the range of Mountains known as Hermon. He climbs and climbs until he reaches the top of Mount Mizar and takes a look back toward his beloved Jerusalem, now a dot on the horizon.
Of Two Minds
What struck me the most about this psalm was how this Son of Korah almost seems to be arguing with himself. His heart and mind and soul are wrestling with what is happening to him. His feelings and thoughts are all over the place. He’s doing what we talked about last week – trying to take every thought captive.
It reminds me of the scenes from Lord of the Rings where the creature Gollom is arguing with his alter-ego Smeagol. His angry, bitter, evil self is having an argument with the small remnant of good that’s left in him. It’s an amazing scene and something that I think about often, especially when I’m having an argument with myself, or trying to take my out of control thoughts captive.
Psalm 42 starts with a declaration of desperate need: He’s been on a long journey, up a mountain, far from home – driven by his enemies to go faster than he’d like – but his greatest desire isn’t for something to quench his natural thirst. His greatest need is for something to quench his spiritual thirst. If I’m right about his context, then he’s dirty, thirsty, depressed, and surrounded by enemies mocking him by saying, “Where is your God?”, “He can’t deliver you! You’re ours now! And we’ll never let you go! He’s deserted you! Ha Ha Ha!”
In his mind, as they mock and taunt he’s thinking, “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.” Oh, how he longs for the days when he would sings songs of praise with the God’s people in God’s temple! But now he can’t – and he’s not sure he ever will again. Has God forsaken Him? These trials are too much for him to bear! Where is God now? Physical suffering, emotional suffering, spiritual suffering, relational suffering… he’s feeling it all at once, and his hope is failing him. He’s gasping inside. His spirit is desiccated. He’s desperate for anything to quench this drought.
And then another voice enters into his mind: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
As we said last week, this world is desperately seeking a way to fix their problems without having to turn to God. They put their faith in technology, medicine, politics, and a dozen other places that they hope will finally bring them peace, hope and everlasting comfort. This world offers many, many false cures for our deepest spiritual problems – and at their source, all of our problems are spiritual, by the way.
The psalmist’s real issue wasn’t that he was far from home or surrounded by enemies. There are lots of people inside and outside of scripture that were far from home and under terrible circumstances – but still had faith, hope and peace – think of Paul and Peter worshipping in prison. What was this man’s problem? He was losing hope. He was spiritually weak and getting weaker. Dry and getting dryer.
We can face anything in this world if we are able to continue to remain spiritually strong and hold on to hope. It is when that hope fails us that the physical, emotional, relational, issues begin to crush us.
The world doesn’t get this. They want to solve our spiritual crises with physical treatment — medicine, exercise, diet, technology. And while that can sometimes help – it is not an ultimate solution. A broken spirit needs to be treated with spiritual medicine. We need the doctor of our souls.
And so, what does our Son of Korah do when he feels his spirit drying out to the point of breaking? He begins to apply spiritual medicine. He takes hold of his thinking, tells himself what he must do, and reminds himself of who God really is.
Three times over Psalms 42-43 he says these words, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”
Preaching to Ourselves
Over and over he puts the brakes on the depression train by repeating that phrase. He takes hold of himself: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” “Whoa brain! Hang on! Ok, the pity party has lasted long enough. Hang on. Let’s lift our heads up a minute and take stock of reality. Let’s stop being driven by our body, our emotions, our circumstance, and take stock of what’s really going on here.”
The great preacher, Marin Lloyd Jones, addressed this very thing in his book, “Spiritual Depression”. I’m going to read a large section because I believe it is so helpful:
“I say that we must talk to ourselves instead of allowing ‘ourselves’ to talk to us. Do you realize what that means? I suggest that the main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you.”
Then he quotes the section of Psalm 42 we just read and continues:
“Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why are thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says, ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’ Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have had but little experience….
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: “[Why are you cast down, O my soul?] What business have you to be disquieted?” You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘[Hope in God]’ instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way.
And then you must go on to remind yourself of God: Who God is, and what God is, and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil, and the whole world, and say with this man: [‘I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God’]”
That is exactly what this Son of Korah is doing in this Psalm. He’s taking hold of himself. He is preaching to himself. He’s defying himself. He’s taking captive the thoughts in his mind, evaluating them for truth, and then dismissing the lies. God hasn’t left him! God isn’t against him! He can praise God wherever he is. God has proven that He will save – even if that means he must suffer on earth and then be delivered to heaven. God is still His God and that will never change! God is good! Good is good!
Steps to Battle Spiritual Discouragement / Depression
Last week we took a look at Psalm 37 which gave us five steps for battling discouragement – and I’ve spent a lot of time on step one, taking control of our thought life because if we don’t get step one right nothing else works. As long as we allow our thinking to get out of control and listen to our emotional pain, physical pain, and our spiritual enemies who place terrible thoughts in our minds, then none of the other steps matter.
Step one, from verse, one was: “Fret Not Yourselves”. Do you remember that?
Let’s turn to Psalm 37 and discuss the next four steps which all flow out of the first.
Step 2: Trust in the Lord
“Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (vs 3-4)
There’s a lot going on in these two verses, but let’s just do a fly-by and grab the big theme of “Trusting in the Lord.” Once you take control of your thought life, it is imperative that you fill your mind with truth. That’s what the Son of Korah did, right? He says to himself, “Hope in God!” It’s an action of faith and belief to stop oneself and simply say those words: “Hope in God”, “Trust in the Lord”.
Ask yourself some questions:
- Has God let me down?
- Does God love me?
- Does God know more than me?
- What has God promised me?
- What is the truth?
- Could my thoughts be deceiving me?
- Is there anyone better, stronger and holier for me to trust in? Where is the better place for me to put my trust than God? Myself? Other people? No way. I will “trust in the Lord.”
Get into Romans 8 and read it over and over again: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (vs 35, 37)
Step Three: Commit Your Way
“Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” (vs 5-6)
After we put our hope in God and his Son Jesus Christ, after we’ve chosen to trust Him, place our faith in Him, the next, obvious step is commitment. Choose, come hell or high-water, that He will be your foundation, your strength and your shield.
The Hebrew in this section is really neat. It can be translated “Roll on Jehovah’ road.” Roll your heavy burden from yourself and place it on another. Like the story of Sisyphus we so often roll our burdens up a hill only to have them roll back down to where we started, because we didn’t have the wisdom to try to roll them anywhere helpful. We keep rolling the rock, rolling the rock, rolling the rock, up the hill, up the hill, up the hill… but we have no ultimate destination for it. We’re not taking the burden anywhere – we’re merely carrying it.
The Psalmist says, commit yourself to rolling your rock over to Jesus so He can take it. Part of trust and commitment is making the choice to allow Jesus to deal with your problems His way. “Trust in Him, and He will act” , the psalmist says. That’s always true. He will act. He may not do it the way you think is best – but He will act. He will give you healing, or patience, or comfort, or choose to build your character and faith through suffering so that you gain many rewards in heaven. He is always doing something. Will you commit your way to Him or will you try to roll your rock all by yourself?
In Proverbs 3:5-8 we read the wisdom:
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”
Let’s read that backwards, like we did last week: If you feel broken in your flesh and dry in your bones. Then turn from evil, fear the lord, stop being wise in your own eyes, get on God’s path, stop thinking yourself smart enough to fix your problems, and trust in the Lord.
Step 4: Be Still before the Lord
Step four is the hardest one, for a lot of people.
“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”
You’ve taken control of your thought life. You’ve preached to yourself and decided to trust in the Lord. You’ve committed your life to Him and are choosing to give Him your burden. You’ve rolled your rock to the foot of the cross. Now what?
“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.” Ouch, right? Christian Philosopher, Blaise Pascal, had a great quip where he said:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
That’s funny, but there’s some truth in there, isn’t there?
That’s hard. It’s one thing to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross, it’s another thing to decide to sit there and patiently wait to see what He’s going to do with them.
Now, keep in mind, this isn’t simply sitting alone in a room. We are sitting “before the Lord”. We are not alone. We are able to have a calm resignation that we know that what is happening to us is in the hands of God. Our spirit is quiet, our temperament is settled on God.
This isn’t something that comes naturally to those of us who have been told that action is the answer, and being proactive is always the best. No, over and over in scripture we are told that it is best to put our trust in God and then to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
- “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.” (Lamentations 3:26)
- “But as for me, I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” (Micah 7:7)
Listen carefully to the words of Isaiah 30:15-18,
“For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. But you were unwilling, and you said, ‘No! We will flee upon horses; therefore you shall flee away; and, ‘We will ride upon swift steeds’; therefore your pursuers shall be swift. A thousand shall flee at the threat of one; at the threat of five you shall flee, till you are left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill. Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”
There is a great lesson for us in these verses. Israel, over and over, turned away from God and put their faith in treaties with other, larger nations – only to be destroyed. They put their faith in the size of their own army – and they were defeated. They put their faith in pagan gods –only to be left desolate.
“The LORD waits to be gracious to you”. Isn’t that an amazing verse?! He’s waiting for you, but you’re running around like a fool, panicked and fretting, putting your faith into everything but the One who can help you – and you end up left hurting and alone.
Over and over and over and over we make the mistake of going everywhere else but God first. When will we learn to fall upon the strength of God first, and then “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”?
Step Five: Refrain from Anger
Let’s close with step five where we almost come full-circle.
“Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.” (Psalm 37:8)
Why would the Psalmist put this in here? He’s trusted the Lord, committed his path, put his burden down, and is being still and patient before Him, waiting for God to act? Where does this anger come from? To whom is it directed at?
The answer is twofold: Anger at God and anger at the evil that is affecting him. He’s reminding Himself not to get angry at the situation – again. Why? Because he’s human and we are constantly going through cycles of testing and trusting, faith and failure, worship and anger. We are unstable, cyclical creatures that have to keep going through this process over and over. What an amazingly patient God we have!
He’s telling himself, again, to stop fretting – that’s step one again! And to not get mad at God for taking too long or not doing it his way – that’s steps two to four. He’s reminding himself that whenever he takes things into his own hands and acts out of a lack of faith, lack of trust and out of anger against God or against evil – he messes it up. He ends up doing something evil himself!
Matthew Henry says this,
“If thy heart begins to rise at it, stroke down thy folly… check the first stirrings of discontent and envy, and do not harbour any hard thoughts of God and his providence.”
That sounds a lot like, “Take every thought captive”, doesn’t it?
When we are angry at God, it’s usually because we think we know better than him, that we deserve something we’re not getting, or that He is being unfair.
Do you know better than Him? No. He is wiser than you.
What do you deserve? You deserve Hell, damnation and judgement – that’s it. Anything beyond that is grace – and His grace has been abundant. Your anger may stem from a lack of thankfulness for what you do have!
Is He unfair? See questions one and two! You don’t know what’s going on and you don’t deserve whatever good you have. If God was fair, He wouldn’t have sent His innocent Son to die on behalf of condemned sinners. He wouldn’t have accepted his death as payment for our sin. He wouldn’t have told us right from wrong and given us a hope and a future. No, if He was fair, we’d all be in hell.
I encourage you to meditate on the scriptures we’ve gone through over the past couple weeks, and have a few conversations with yourself – and with God. Pick up Psalm 37, Psalm 42-43, Romans 8, and read them again and talk to God about the ways that you need to grow in faith and patience. Ask Him how you have sinned in your anger against Him and evil, ask repentance, and then ask for grace. He will forgive you, and then He will grant you wisdom and peace, just as He has promised. (James 1:5; Phil 4:7)