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)
The Bali Nine
This week in Indonesia, a group of eight convicted drug traffickers who were caught, arrested, and tried, finally met their end at their execution. I can’t imagine there is much sympathy out there for a group of drug smugglers, and there aren’t too many people in the world who would have a problem with them being removed from the planet.
They were called “The Bali Nine” and were bad guys who did bad things. One, named Andrew Chan, was the mob boss and mastermind, the other, Myuran Sukumaran, was his brutal enforcer – the rest the cronies who smuggle heroin and other illegal substances across borders. They were arrested in 2005 and during their trial cast as terrible villains who were clearly lying on the stand, unrepentant for their crimes, and bizarrely insistent of their innocence.
As the truth started come out it was found that their case was full of holes, especially about Chan and Sukumaran. The “mastermind” wasn’t a mob boss or drug cartel kingpin – actually, he lived with his parent and drove a 1991 Hyundai! The “enforcer” worked in a mail room, was an art lover, and had only taken a few martial arts classes. These were just fools who thought they could make a quick buck selling some drugs. In 2006, their case was taken to the Supreme Court – who returned the surprising outcome of upgrading their sentence to the death penalty! These men were to be made an example of to the rest of the world: This is what happens to drug traffickers in our country! From that moment their lives would be lived in prison, awaiting their execution.
Chan and Sukumaran were Australians and gave their first interview to an Australian news program in 2010. “By the time [they] gave their first in-depth media interview… they were noticeably changed men. Gone were the hard expressions, the denials.” They were introduced to the world as repentant, gentle young men, who didn’t deserve to die. Chan had become a Christian, was ordained as a Christian priest, and his faith was taking hold of the rest of the members of the group. “…He declined to speak [much] about his faith, [and] he now spent much of his day in prayer or religious study, and led mass for other prisoners.”
The interview changed the world’s opinion of these men and petitions started to flood in to have the Australians brought back home, or at least to have the execution stayed. But the president of Indonesia promised that there would be “no forgiveness” for these men. He considered the drug trade to be a “national emergency” and planned on executing as many people as he could. He actually said, “This crime warrants no forgiveness.”
On March 3rd, shackled and escorted by soldiers, Chan and his friends were sent to a prison island off the coast to await their execution. Less than two weeks ago, on April 24th, Andrew Chan, full of hope that his life would be miraculously spared, got married, in a ceremony in his prison.
Then, at 12:30am on April 29, just three days ago, as hundreds of people, including their family members begging the president for mercy, gathered on the ports to support them, Andrew Chan was tied to a wood stake with 8 other prisoners, had crosses laid over their hearts, and were executed by firing squad.
But what made this execution different than all of the others that had happened in that place, was that these men were singing. These prisoners were singing praises to God. “It was breathtaking,” said Pastor Karina de Vega. “This was the first time I witnessed someone so excited to meet their God.” The men refused to wear blindfolds so they could look their executioners in the eye. The pastor said they sang Amazing Grace, in unison. “They bonded together. Brotherhood. They sang one song after another. Praising God. They sang a few songs together, like in a choir.”
After singing Amazing Grace they moved on to the song “10,000 Reasons” which begins, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name. The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning, it’s time to sing Your song again. Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes. You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger. Your name is great, and Your heart is kind. For all Your goodness I will keep on singing. Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find. And on that day when my strength is failing. The end draws near and my time has come. Still my soul will sing Your praise unending. Ten thousand years and then forevermore.”
A Christian Death
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.’” (Mark 8:34-9:1)
Andrew Chan started his life wanting to “gain the whole world and forfeit his soul”, but ended it by “denying himself and taking up his cross and following [Jesus].” He did not die as a martyr for the faith, but as a Christian should die – having repented of his sins and asked Jesus for forgiveness, having lived a life of spiritual service and self-improvement, having shared his faith with all around him, and having faced death eyes wide open, unashamedly praising His God, trusting Him for the deliverance of his immortal soul. May we all meet Jesus that way.
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ
Our salvation is a free gift from Jesus. We are all sinners condemned to hell, and Jesus chose to take God’s wrath and the punishment for our sin in our place on the cross. He died and rose again on the third day to show that He won the victory over death, and was the way for all people to come back into a right relationship with God. Anyone who believes this is saved from their sins and can be called a Christian. That’s how one begins a relationship with Jesus Christ – but that is not the end of the story.
There’s a reason that Christians use the phrase “Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” It has two very specific words – “Saviour”, which means the one who saves us, and “Lord”, which means our Commander, our Boss, our Leader, the one who has the ultimate power, authority and influence – our Master and Ruler.
The first part of our call from Jesus Christ is that He wants to be our Saviour. He wants us to be free from sin and with Him forever. The second part of His call is to be our Lord. This is a call to discipleship. These calls are not to be separated, but are indelibly intertwined. We cannot have Jesus only as our Saviour and not as our Lord. Jesus’ call to follow Him is a call to be saved – and a call to be His disciple. If we refuse to call Him Lord, then we are refusing to be saved.
Most people are good with a Jesus who is willing to save them from their sin – but they struggle with the Jesus who demands their full submission and total commitment. But Jesus is abundantly clear that we don’t have a choice in the matter.
In the passage we have just read we see Jesus hinging our salvation on two important things: something we need to put down and something else we need to up. First, we need to be willing to put down – or “deny” ourselves. Second, we need to be willing to “take up our cross”.
What does it mean to deny ourselves? Jesus defines it in the passage. It means to “lose our life” for Jesus’ sake and the sake of the Gospel. It means to forfeit the world for the sake of our souls. It means to surrender our immediate, material gratifications because we believe that God’s spiritual blessings are more valuable. We deny ourselves the pursuit of good in this world because we believe the good of the next world is better – and that we can’t have both.
Jesus said in Matthew 6:19-21:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
When we “come after” Jesus, we choose to be His disciple, to live His way, by His priorities. Now let me be clear. I’m not talking about asceticism. Asceticism is the practice of extremely strict self-denial as a mean of seeking a higher spiritual plane. This is common in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. For the ascetic, everything physical is evil and therefore should be removed from our life. The perfect life is the one lived in the spiritual realm, detached from everything material. This means fasting for long periods of time, and purposefully making oneself suffer through heat or cold, sleep depravation, self flagellation (which means beating and flogging yourself), and even self-mutilation as a way to train yourself to overcome, and prove how terrible, the physical world is.
That’s not what Jesus is saying. To deny oneself is not to do without things. It doesn’t mean that you reject your physical self, or hate material things. What it means is to renounce yourself as the most important part in your life. It means replacing your love of yourself with a love for God-in-Christ. His interests come before yours.
Paul addressed asceticism when he wrote to the Colossians. They were confused about what they were allowed to do, eat, drink, have, and not have. People were trying to convince them that they needed to give up everything physical so they could be closer to God. He said to them:
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:16-23)
Jesus isn’t calling people to asceticism, but to self-denial. Can a follower of Jesus be wealthy? Sure! But if they live in fear of losing their wealth and put their faith in their wealth, then they have a problem. Can a Christian have nice things? Sure! But if they prefer their things to people, and refuse to part with their things if Jesus asks them to, then they have a problem.
To follow Jesus is to surrender our self-identity and discover God’s identity for us. We no longer decide who we are, but we find who we are based on the word of God and the Holy Spirit within us. In other words, we no longer find our identity as a father, mother, child, carpenter, farmer man, or woman – but as a servant of God. We drop all of our self-appointed labels – pastor, wise-man, helper, arguer, peacemaker – and take up the identity that Jesus gives us. It means we drop our expectations of ourselves. Our life is lived seeking to discover who God has created us to be, and helping others become what God created them to be too. God even gets to tell us what our children are going to be – we don’t get to tell Him.
Denying yourself means dropping your selfish desires and picking up God’s desires for you. It means letting go of earthly security and trusting God’s plan – even if that means discomfort, danger and uncertainty. It’s no longer your money, it’s Jesus’ money, and He can do whatever He wants with it. Your body is no longer your body, it’s Jesus’ body, and He gets to tell you what to do with it. Your plans no longer plan your life, Jesus gets to plan it for you. Your church is no longer your church, it’s Jesus’ church, and He gets to design it whatever way He thinks is best. Your job, your school, your children, your position, your house, your car, your everything is no longer yours – it all belongs to Jesus to do with it whatever He will.
Taking Up Our Cross
Along with denying ourselves, which is the putting down of our self, we also must “take up the cross”. Asceticism leaves a person empty – it is emptying of the self. God doesn’t want us empty. Instead, He wants us full of Himself. Not removal, replacement.
Taking up the cross is an incredibly vivid picture of what followers of Jesus might expected to face. Many around the world today are facing persecution, and no doubt our day is coming soon. The Romans, who were Mark’s original audience, certainly knew what Jesus meant. Going to the cross was a one-way trip.
The cross is a place of death where one is in full submission to whoever put you there. Following Jesus meant identifying with Him and His followers, and that meant being willing to go where Jesus and his followers would go – and that meant suffering. It meant social and political oppression and ostracism. The loss of job and family. It meant putting down one life and picking up one was completely different – no turning back. For some, following Jesus cost them their financial security, it cost others their life. Jesus knew that His followers needed to be prepared to face the consequences of living life in His name, and for the sake of His Gospel.
In Luke 14:25-34 Jesus speaks clearly about counting the cost:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus says that we must count the cost of being His disciple, and then He says something very interesting about people who start out as disciples, but give up after the cost is too much.
“Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is of no use either for the soil or for the manure pile. It is thrown away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
What Jesus is describing at the end there are “Christians who blend into the world and avoid the cost of standing up for Christ.” They refuse to deny themselves. They want the best of both worlds – salvation and worldly living. They want to follow Jesus to a point, but be their own lord when it suits them. “But Jesus says that if Christians lose their distinctive saltiness, they become worthless. Just as salt flavour and preserves food, Christ’s disciples are to preserve the good in the world, help keep it from spoiling, and bring new flavour to life…. Being ‘salty’ is not easy, but if Christians failing this function, they fail to represent Christ in the world.” (Life Application Bible Commentary: Luke; Pg 365)
John Stott wisely reminds us, “We should not ask, ‘What is wrong with the world?’ for that diagnosis has already been given. Rather, we should ask, ‘What has happened to the salt and light?’”
Paul called this kind of life a “living sacrifice” in Romans 12:1, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
I once asked someone about their relationship with Jesus and they answered me, “I’d be willing to die for Him, if that tells you something.” The question isn’t just whether we’d be willing to die for our faith – the question is whether we are willing to be a living sacrifice, dying to self every day, picking up our crosses every day, and following Jesus, every day.
Conclusion: Model & Compromise
Jesus isn’t asking us to do anything He didn’t do Himself. Philippians 2:5b-8 says, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
It says Jesus “emptied Himself”, which means He gave up the status and privileges that were rightly His – as a Member of the Triune God, worthy of worship and praise, perfect in all ways, the same essence as God the Father – and took on the form of a servant, a member of His own creation, humbled to the extreme. And then He picked up our cross, for us, and died in our place.
Using the words of our passage today, He lost his life for our sake, gained the world and saved our souls by forfeiting His body, returned his sold for ours, and took our shame upon Himself so we would never have to feel shame again. He became an adulterer and a sinner for our sakes, and God turned His back on Jesus – so that He wouldn’t have to do it to us. Jesus made it possible for us to see the glory of His father with the holy angels. He asks us to follow Him – which means denying ourselves and taking up our cross.
My challenge to each of us today is to examine ourselves, asking God in prayer and asking our brothers and sisters around us, where they see us compromising our “saltiness”. In what areas of our life have we decided that the cost of following Christ is too much? In what ways are we unwilling to follow Jesus? What has Jesus asked us to do (or stop doing) that we have said “No, Lord” (which is an oxymoron)? In what ways have we tried to profit by gaining the world, at the expense of our souls? What worldly, sinful pleasures, have we exchanged for the presence of Jesus?
And finally, and perhaps most seriously, have we ever denied Jesus and His word? Have we ever been so afraid of the world that we have chosen comfort (not even our lives, but merely comfort) over proclaiming the name of Jesus and His gospel? In what ways have we made ourselves part of this adulterous and sinful generation, and been ashamed of Jesus, ashamed of standing up and being numbered as one of His followers?
I encourage you to pray about that, and to ask your brothers and sisters where they see compromise in your life. And I invite you to do the same for me.