Sunday, April 25, 2010

What kind of faith is necessary?

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "Hard Soil in Jesus' Hometown." Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

In the first six verses of Mark 6, it is clear that the people of Nazareth are familiar with Jesus. From verse 3 alone, we see three things with which they are familiar. First, they recognize that His teaching is astonishing, beyond anything they normally receive in the synagogues. Second, they understand that the wisdom He expresses is is God's wisdom. Finally, they are familiar with the mighty works that He does. Yet, this familiarity with Jesus' words and deeds did not lead the Nazarenes to led them to offense and stumbling (v. 3b). So widespread was this response that Jesus marveled at the unbelief (v. 6).

The word 'unbelief' raises a question, then. What is saving faith? In our culture, words like 'faith' and 'believe' and 'Christian' and 'prayer' are thrown around quite often. Unfortunately, these words often do not mean what the Scripture says they mean. For example, one may talk about 'having faith' without any idea of what the object of that faith is. Because of this, many seem to have faith in 'faith.' In an attempt to approach life in some kind of spiritual manner, those who use these words in an empty fashion are, themselves, spiritually empty.

So, let's get to the task of defining saving faith. Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology is very helpful in piecing together three components which make up saving faith. They are (1) knowledge of the gospel, (2) agreement with the gospel, and (3) a personal trust in Jesus to save me. Let's walk through these briefly.

First, one must have knowledge of the gospel. Apart from the gospel, nobody can be saved. Paul asks the question in Romans 10:14 - "And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?" The assumed answer to this question is this: "It's impossible to believe without hearing." After all, as Paul goes on to say, "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (10:17). However, as we can see in the text from Mark, knowledge does not equal faith. The crowd in the Nazarene synagogue were astonished at the power of Jesus' teaching and the wisdom that was obviously given from God, yet they were offended...not converted.

In addition to having knowledge of the gospel, one must agree with the gospel. This takes the first element a step further. Rattling off facts is one thing, but agreeing with facts that you can recite is another. Think about those people who feel an inner compulsion to be in a church for Easter Sunday morning. It is quite possible that they hear a similar message every year, depending on the church they attend. They hear about the crucifixion of Jesus for sin, His burial, and His resurrection on the third day. They could recite the facts to you. However, over the years, they have heard different pastors give historical defenses of these events, and they have come to believe that it really did happen. Jesus really did die, and He really was raised from the dead. Does this agreement with the facts mean they are Christians? No. They may concur with the historicity of the events, but this is not saving faith. They may even say they 'believe' in the gospel, but this may simply mean they think the facts are true.

To better illustrate this, think about bungee jumping. You's where daring individuals attach a large bungee rope to their bodies, jump off a bridge or a specially constructed tower, and get the thrill of free falling until the rope pulls them back from severe injury or even death. Now, think about what it means to be a bungee jumper. If I understand the physics behind bungee jumping and believe that the physics are true (i.e.- that a human being really can be sustained by that rope), does that make me a bungee jumper? No. It's only when I strap on the rope and trust it to save me from my own death that I am a real bungee jumper. I may have bungee jumping T-shirts, read the magazines, and follow the professional bungee jumping tour...all the while thrilled to see the physics work every time. Yet, I am no bungee jumper...I am a mere observer.

It's the same with being a Christian (i.e.- having saving faith). I may know the facts and believe the facts to be true, but apart from the third component of our definition, I am not actually a Christian...I do not actually have saving faith. I must put my trust in Jesus to save me. Wayne Grudem puts it this way: "In doing this [i.e.- depending on Jesus to save me] I move from being an interested observer of the facts of salvation and the teachings of the Bible to being someone who enters into a new relationship with Jesus Christ as a living person." In trusting in Jesus, I am solely relying on His death on the cross as the sufficient payment for my sin and my only hope of reconciliation with God.

So, saving faith means knowing the gospel, agreeing with the gospel, and personally trusting Jesus Christ to save me. This may seem very why think about all of this? The first reason we must understand saving faith is in order to see whether we possess it or not. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to "examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith" (2 Cor. 13:5). Do you know the facts? Do you agree that the gospel facts are true? Are you personally trusting in Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for sin alone to save you? The question is not whether we once prayed a prayer or had a religious experience, though many of us have vivid memories of our conversion. The question is you read this blog...are you trusting in Jesus Christ alone to save you from the penalty of sin?

The second reason to understand saving faith is to help us talk about faith with our friends. The words 'faith' and 'belief' are tossed around in our society without real, biblical meaning behind them. We hear things like "Just have faith" and "You just have to believe" and other vague statements that empty these precious words of their significance. If we don't understand saving faith, then we may hear these 'buzz words' and assume that those who use them are truly believers. That being said, we must beware of becoming judge and jury of the spiritual lives of those around us. That's not the goal at all.

Imagine you have been praying for a co-worker, hoping to find out whether he is a believer or not. One day, you are at lunch with him, and he talks about a difficulty he is facing. He includes a couple of things like this: "Everything happens for a purpose...I've just gotta keep the faith and trust that everything will work out for the best...I've really been praying about this." How do you respond? Do you give an internal sigh and think, "He must be a believer...he talked about faith and trust and purpose and prayer"?

Remember, all these words are not identifiable only to a believer. Rather than making any assumptions, why not ask your co-worker a question or two? Ask questions about what he says, so you understand what he means by these words. He may be a believer who is timid about mentioning Jesus' name to a co-worker, and you will be able to encourage him. He may not be a believer and is in need of real hope. Either way, a firm understanding of saving faith can help you discover whether your friend is a Christian or not.

So, understanding saving faith is critical to us. It is the goal we have in mind as we share the gospel. We do not want to merely transmit information or convince someone that Jesus really lived and died, though knowledge and agreement are necessary. We long to see people understand the gospel, acknowledge the gospel's truth, and receive the Christ of the gospel.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Touch of Faith

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "Jesus: Lord Over Disease and Death." Click on the title to get the audio.]

Reflecting back on the message of Mark 4:35-5:43, it is amazing to see Mark's repetitious teaching of hopelessness, Jesus' power, and faith. The men who were called to be His apostles (3:14) would eventually go out to preach two by two (6:7). To prepare them for this task, Jesus taught them about the kind of responses their message would receive (4:1-20), the way the kingdom grows (4:21-34), and the power of God's kingdom (4:35-43). Even in displaying His power over nature, demons, disease, and death, Jesus' ministry points His disciples back to the gospel they will proclaim...that man is hopeless, that Christ is powerful to save hopeless humanity, and that those who experience Christ's power must believe.

It is on this third concept...the necessity of faith...that I want to focus. A brief glance through the pages of Scripture allows us to see the necessity of faith. Consider the following texts:
1. Genesis 15:6 - "And [Abraham] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness."
2. Habakkuk 2:4b - "...the righteous shall live by his faith."
3. John 3:14-16 - "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."
4. Acts 16:30-31 - "Then he brought them out and said, 'Sirs, what must I do to be saved?' And they said, 'Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.'"
5. Romans 1:16 - "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."
6. Romans 5:1 - "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
7. Hebrews 11:6 - "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him."

Of course, many more could be listed, but I hope you get the idea. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, faith is necessary for our very is necessary for pleasing God. Faith is necessary. In Mark 5:21-43, we see this emphasis of faith clearly. Jairus comes to Jesus believing that his daughter's healing is dependent on Jesus' intervention. When Jesus is delayed and his daughter dies, Jairus is encouraged to continue believing (v. 36). The woman with the 12-year discharge of blood comes to Jesus as well. Having heard the reports about Jesus, she believes that the healing power she needs resides in the person of Jesus. Both a synagogue ruler and a bloody, unclean woman demonstrate faith in Jesus.

One part of this passage stands out to me. Here are verses 30-31: "And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, 'Who touched my garments?' And his disciples said to him, 'You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, 'Who touched me?'" I can see the scene in my mind, can't you? In verses 21 and 24, we see that the crowd 'gathered about him' and 'thronged about him.' Jesus is back on the west side of the Sea of Galilee, where the crowd had pressed in so strongly that previously, Jesus had the disciples secure a boat. He would teach from the boat instead of the shore to avoid being crushed (Mk. 3:9; 4:1).

Apparently, the crowd was pressing in again because the disciples say Jesus' question is unusual. They basically say, "Jesus, everyone is touching you! We can't keep them off you, and you want us to identify exactly which person in this vast crowd touched you?" The difference Jesus perceived, though, was not that an additional person touched him, but he received a different type of touch. This touch resulted in 'power [going out] from him' (v. 30). This was not incidental was a touch driven by faith. The woman who touched him believed the reports about Jesus. She heard the message of Jesus and His power, and she believed. "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17).

All of this makes me think about how we gather in our places of worship each week. Many who gathered as part of the crowds in Mark's gospel were strictly interested in the signs and wonders...the 'wow factor' of Jesus. Fewer came with this woman's attitude of faith...seeking to encounter Jesus and receive what He had for her.

How do we approach the gathering of God's people on the Lord's Day? What are our expectations? Are we just pressing into a crowd to see what will happen this week (i.e. - looking for the wow factor)? Are we seeking to exalt God and experience the unleashing of God's power through His Word? Which one reveals a heart of faith as we come together? What needs to change about the way in which we gather to worship the Lord? I think Mark would have us take a faith lesson from the woman with the discharge of blood, and since it is God the Spirit who inspired the words written, I also believe God would have us learn from her.

Read this challenging application of Mark 5:30-31 from J.C. Ryle: "Many followed Jesus from curiosity, and derived no benefit from him. One, and only one, followed under a deep sense of her need, and of our Saviour's power to relieve her, and that one received a mighty blessing.
We see the same thing going on continually in the church of Christ at the present day. Crowds go to our places of worship and fill our pews. Hundreds come up to the Lord's table and receive the bread and wine. But of all these worshipers and communicants, how few really obtain anything from Christ! Fashion, custom, form, habit, the love of excitement, or an itching ear are the true motives of the vast majority. There are just a few here and there who touch Christ by faith and go home 'in peace' (verse 34). These may seem hard sayings, but they are sadly too true!"

Monday, April 12, 2010

Take the Shackles Off My Feet So I Can Dance

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church entitled "Jesus: Lord Over All Demons." Click on the title to get the audio.]

For anyone familiar with the contemporary Christian group Mary Mary, you'll know the song "Shackles (Praise You)." My mind often thinks in song lyrics, and after a week of studying Mark 5:1-20 about Jesus and the Gerasene demoniac, this song got stuck in my mind. How could I help it? The chorus goes, "Take the shackles off my feet so I can dance...I just wanna praise You, I wanna praise You."

As we think about the picture of the demon-possessed man in Mark 5, we notice that this man's conquered condition is a physical picture of the spiritual condition of all mankind. Humanity is conquered by sin. Humanity is, in the words of the Bill Gaither song, "shackled by a heavy burden...'neath a load of guilt and shame."

As we seek to evangelize our friends and neighbors, the picture of a man conquered by sin is a helpful image to associate with those who do not know Jesus. First of all, it's true. Romans 8:7 says, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot." That's an amazing statement, isn't it? Paul is drawing a distinction between believers and unbelievers. The minds of unbelievers (i.e.- the minds set on the flesh) cannot submit to God's law...not will not, but cannot! In other words, their minds are conquered by sin, and there is no room for the rulership of God over their thoughts or lives. This is who we once were, and it is only by God's grace that this has changed. Sadly, it remains true of all who do not believe.

The second reason it's helpful to picture unbelievers in this conquered state is that it encourages us in our evangelistic efforts. Wait a encourages our evangelism? It seems that a shackled humanity should be discouraging...humanity is conquered and hopeless! Well, this is true, but I think if we consider this carefully, we can be encouraged. It encourages us, first, because we know that any rejection of the gospel is rooted in this domination by sin...not by personal vendetta against us or a less-than-perfect presentation. Secondly, we are encouraged that ultimately, the only One who can free them from these shackles is Jesus Himself. Just as in the story, Jesus must intervene and set the prisoner free if they are to be 'free indeed.'

The final reason I would suggest picturing the unbeliever as a shackled man is to fuel our prayers. Remembering how dominant sin is in the unbeliever, we should be driven to pray more fervently for the Lord's intervention. In some ways, we instinctively know that God must make the first move if anyone is to be saved. I say 'instinctively' because we pray knowing that if God does not intervene, our friend will not be saved. We pray things like "Lord, open his eyes...Lord, open his heart...Lord, draw him to Yourself...Lord, show him how sinful he really is...Lord, give him a holy fear of hell and judgment." We do not pray, "Lord, I sure hope he makes the right decision here." We don't go to the throne of grace to express what we wish would happen...we go to plead with the God of the Universe to turn the hearts of men back to Him.

While it is tempting to only envision people like addicts, mass murderers, and those enslaved to pornography as conquered individuals, it is not ultimately helpful. If we do not have a proper perspective of the depravity of mankind, then the gospel is not really the gospel. The gospel brings salvation, and those who need this salvation are desperately and hopelessly lost. If we don't cling to this truth, the gospel can be reduced to a means of becoming a better version of yourself rather than the power of God to break the chains of sin and death.

You see, the seventy-year-old philanthropist who writes million-dollar checks for cancer research can't hear it, but while he writes that check, the chains of his sin rattle louder than any applause he might get. The seventeen-year-old girl who gets good grades and volunteers at a homeless shelter every Thursday sees the smiles of all those she serves, but she can't see the bonds of iniquity that will bring weeping and gnashing of teeth for all eternity. The seven-year-old boy who helps his elderly neighbor by getting her mail every afternoon after school doesn't know it, but he's actually the one that's helpless.

This is the reality of sin's domination over humanity. Let this picture come frequently to your mind, and let the gospel come frequently to your lips. Through the Spirit's application of the gospel, the eyes of the blind open, and chains fall from men's souls, for the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom. 1:16).

Monday, April 05, 2010

A Gospel Reminder

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, entitled "The Message of the Resurrection." Click on the title to get to the audio.]

"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you...that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared..." (1 Corinthians 15:1, 3b-5a)

About five years ago, I was at a pastor's conference during which Derek Prime spoke about gospel preaching. During his ministry, Sunday evenings were more dedicated to evangelistic preaching because in the British culture of that day, there would be more unbelievers present in the evening. One Sunday evening, he looked out on the crowd and became very discouraged...he knew everyone there and knew they were believers. Immediately, he said he was tempted to not preach evangelistically, fighting thoughts like "Your people already know this." Yet, committed to the preparation he had done, he began to preach his sermon as planned...explaining the gospel.

Just after the sermon began, a young lady entered the church with a small child. Immediately, one of the older ladies agreed to hold the baby so that the young mother could sit in the service. After the service, Derek stood at the back to greet people as they left. When he shook the young ladies hand, he said, "Are you a Christian?" She replied, "No, but I'd like to be." What a wonderful effect of the commitment to gospel preaching! Later in that same conference, Derek made a statement about evangelistic preaching when everyone is a believer. He said, "A healthy believer loves to hear the gospel proclaimed."

I recall this story on the day after Easter for two reasons. First, I am convinced that there were unbelieving people dressed nicely and hearing the gospel in many churches yesterday. While we know that we often 'plant seed' and another will 'water,' it is still encouraging to read of times when God works in the context of one gospel service. Second, the message of Easter doesn't just come around every comes around every Sunday. There is a temptation to think, "I already know this," and to want 'something more.'

The reality, though, is that there is nothing more that we need. Well, one might ask, what about all the ethical teaching in the New Testament? What about learning how to live like a Christian? These things are certainly important, aren't they? Yes, but if we try to divorce Christian living from the Christian gospel then is ceases to truly be "Christian living". You see, all of the ethical teachings of the New Testament find their foundation in the truth of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, was buried, and was raised again on the third day.

How is this true? Let's think about it briefly with a concrete example. Let's say that Johnny has been convicted by God about his harsh words toward others. He learns what the Scripture teaches about how he ought to speak, and he seeks to be obedient in this area of life. What happens to Johnny the first time he blows up in harsh anger at a co-worker? He remembers the teachings of the Bible about the tongue, and he feels his guilt and shame. He goes to the co-worker, confesses his sin, and seeks forgiveness. He is then restored, and again, he seeks to obey what he has learned.

What happens the fourth time? The tenth time? The hundredth time? We all continue to sin, and we all have our own particular weaknesses. From my experience of hearing people's struggles, Johnny can quickly decline into hopelessness, wondering about whether his relationship with God is real or not because of his constant struggle with sin. The line goes something like this, "I've asked God to forgive me, but I just can't get over this guilt." Have you ever been there? What area of life is it for you? Think about that for a minute, identify a struggle, and then read on.

What happens when we think primarily about our obedience to the Bible and its connection to our relationship with God? We can start to judge our acceptance with God based on our ability to control our tongue, our consistency in devotional times, our parenting successes/failures, and more. This is why divorcing the gospel from the ethical teachings of the Bible is so dangerous. God never meant for us to feel more accepted by him based on our performance in ANY area of life. The gospel reminds us that we are accepted by God based ONLY on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Are these areas of obedience important? Yes! We make it our aim to please God in this life (2 Cor. 5:9). However, while we may live in ways that please or displease God, we cannot improve or lose our acceptance with God based on our behavior! A parent accepts his child, even when the child does not please his parent.

So, we must put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13), but we cannot do so in a way that loses sight of the truth that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). This is why the gospel is so critical in the life of every believer and in the life of every church. The gospel is our greatest weapon in the fight for spiritual growth. It continually assures us of who we are, of who Christ is, and of what Christ has done for us. It reminds us of the Spirit who has sealed us by God's grace and indwells us to conform us to the image of Jesus. It reminds us that the God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it. It reminds us that while we may work hard at working out our salvation with fear and trembling, the truth is actually God who is at work in us to will and to do His good purpose.

We cannot live without the gospel, and we cannot grow without the gospel. It is very true that this kind of thinking even leads to the temptation to believe that God's grace is just a license to sin. This, too, is so very wrong. Gospel repentance is the change of our mindset about sin, ourselves, and Christ. We cannot see sin the same way if we have truly been converted by the gospel. The gospel teaches us to see sin as that which separated us from our God, as that which offends the holiness of the One who created and saved us, as that which brought the wrath of God on His dear Son at the cross, and as that which condemns a man to hell. No, the gospel does not take sin lightly.

So, as Jerry Bridges has said, we should 'preach the gospel to ourselves.' We need this to fight against works-righteousness, and we need this to fight against the idea that God's grace is a license to sin. Every Easter, every Sunday, every day...even every hour...we need what the Corinthians needed...a gospel reminder.