Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: salvation

JUSTICE CALLED; GRACE ANSWERED

 

But if God is both just and compassionate, what should He do about man’s sin?  Justice demands that He punish it; but compassion wants to forgive the sinner.  And if He punishes sin He destroys man, whom He originally created.  What should He do?

It should be noted that the problem was created by man, not by God.  There is nothing wrong with justice; there is nothing wrong with compassion.  The problem is man’s sin, and man created the problem by doing things that he himself knows is wrong.  The problem lies with us, not with God.

But that being said, what should God do?  There is one possible way out of the dilemma.  If a substitute could be found, someone to take our place and pay the penalty for our sins, God could forgive us while at the same time uphold His justice.  Sins could be punished and forgiven at the same time.

But who would be willing to do such a thing?  And more to the point, who would even be qualified to do such a thing?  The substitute would have to be absolutely innocent himself, or else he would merely be paying for his own sins.   And he would have to be a person whose life would be equal to that of millions of human beings combined, or else he could be a substitute for only one other person.  The rest of us would be lost.  The whole scenario seems highly unlikely.

But then something extraordinary happened.  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4,5; NKJV).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

As it turns out Jesus was the only Person qualified to fill the role.  First of all, He was completely sinless Himself.  He was “in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  He can sympathize with us, having lived here on earth as a human being, yet He never succumbed to temptation.  Yet because He was also God, God the Father’s own dear Son, His blood was of infinite value, and could atone for the sins of all those who would come to Him in faith.

And yet at what a cost to God the Father!  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”  Jesus was the Father’s “only begotten Son.”  God has many adopted children, but Jesus was His only eternal Son by nature.  And it was His only begotten Son that He sent into the world to die for our sins.  Jesus was born under the humblest circumstances, was arrested under false charges and given a mockery of a trial.  He was mocked, scourged and suffered an agonizing death on a cross.  And all of this happened to God’s only begotten Son, the only human being who was absolutely without sin Himself, the last Person on earth who deserved to die.  No greater travesty of justice ever occurred in human history.  And He did that of us, to atone for our sins and obtain forgiveness for us.

Christ would not have done it unless it had been absolutely necessary to satisfy the demands of divine justice.  “. . .without the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:23); and yet “it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).  Therefore God “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:10).

At the same time God would not have sent His Son to die for our sins if He had not had a great love for us.  “But God demonstrates His own love towards us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  God sent His Son to die for us, not because we were lovable – “we were still sinners” – but because of the pity and compassion He has for His ruined and suffering creatures.  And He demonstrates His love for us, but by excusing our sin, but by sending His own Son to die on the cross and atone for it.

“Amazing love, how can it be

That Thou my God shouldst die for me?”

Charles Wesley

In this way the demands of both justice and compassion can be met simultaneously. Sin is both punished and forgiven at the same time.  God is able to “demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).  “Mercy and truth have met together; / Righteousness and peach have kissed” (Psalm 85:10).

It is important to mention that this is the reason why there is no salvation outside of Christ.  It simply not true that Jesus was one of several different great religious teachers down through history, and that “all roads lead to heaven.”  Man’s real problem is his sin and guilt before a holy God, and the only solution to that problem is Christ’s atonement on the cross.  Christ was much more than a great prophet or religious leader; He is the Savior, the only Savior.  “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all . . .” (I Tim. 2:5,6a).

AMAZING GRACE

170

The Conversion of Saul

Given the description of human sin and depravity in Eph. 2:1-3, one might ask why would God ever want to save a sinful lot like that? And yet God does. As Paul goes on to say, “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . .” (Eph. 2:4,5; NKJV). God saves sinners because it is His nature to be merciful and gracious.

God is “rich in mercy.” Mercy is the capacity to feel pity or compassion for those in need. When a merciful person sees someone in dire straits, he reacts by trying to help that one. And God is not just merciful; He is “rich in mercy”; He has an abundant store of mercy. Thus He can feel compassion for the most depraved sinner.

And God has the “great love with which He loved us.” Our English word “love” is capable of a wide variety of meanings, some of them contradictory to each other. But the Greek word used here (agape) came to have a distinctly Christian meaning. The classic description of agape is, of course, I Corinthians 13: “Love (agape) suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself ; is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil . . .” (I Cor. 13:4,5). “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

But how did He love us? How do we experience it? Our text says that He “made us alive together with Christ” (v. 5), “and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). We, of course, were not literally and physically resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven with Christ. We are still very much physically alive here on earth. What does our text mean, then? What is apparently referred to here our union with Christ, a union that is both positional and mystical. Positionally we have a new status with God. Our sins have been forgiven, and we have been adopted as God’s children and made heirs of eternal glory. We have a new relationship with God. In that sense we have been brought from death to life.

And all of this came about because once we believe and have sealed our faith in baptism we have become one with Christ. He is our representative; He acts on our behalf. Thus what is legally true of Christ is also true of us. He is righteous in the sight of God the Father, therefore we are as well. If He died, was buried, and rose again, then we are considered to have done the same as well.

But our union with Christ is also mystical. If we have been truly born again Christ is living within us through His Spirit. “For I through the law died to the law that I might live in God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:19,20). When I became a Christian I was born again; I received spiritual life from Christ. I have a new awareness, and new motives and desires. I want to please God in all that I do.

The passage emphasizes that all of this is the result of God’s grace, His pure, unmerited favor. “For by grace you have been saved by faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9). “Grace” (charis) means kindness, goodwill, favor. In this passage Paul draws a contrast between “grace” and “works.” Salvation is “the gift of God,” not something that is earned through our good works. We owe our salvation entirely to God’s good favor, not in anything that we have done or deserved. It is something that we receive “through faith” – we simply put our trust in Christ and His finished work on the cross.

And it is all of grace, “lest anyone should boast” (v. 9). God’s purpose in our salvation is that “in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). That a holy and just God would save guilty, hell-deserving sinners is extraordinary indeed. It is a truly remarkable display of grace and kindness, and we rightly stand amazed at it all.

What it all comes down to is this: why should God have saved me? When I look back on my own past life there was nothing there deserving of God’s favor and blessing. I was a sinner. I willfully did things that were wrong and I justly deserved to be punished for the sins that I had committed. Even worse, I was a sinner by nature. Sin was deeply ingrained in my very psychology. God owed me nothing but His just condemnation. But He saved. Out of His own pure grace and mercy, and not on account of anything that I have done, He saved me. I owe it all to Him. I can take no credit for it myself. And hence I owe Him all of my gratitude and praise. What a wonderful Savior!

“Jesus paid it all,

All to him I owe;

Sin had left a crimson stain,

He washed it white as snow.”

Elvina M. Hall

 

GROWING UP FUNDY

Review:

Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith

Robb Ryerse

Civitas Press, 2012

206 pp., pb.

What is it like growing up in a Fundamentalist home? Are there any alternatives to Fundamentalism? Is it possible to leave Fundamentalism and still be a Christian? Pastor Robb Ryerse explores these questions and gives us some intriguing answers in his book Fundamorphoses: How I Left Fundamentalism but Didn’t Lose my Faith.

As it turns out Pastor Ryerse and myself have quite a bit in common. We were both raised in churches that were affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC). We both lived, at least for a while, in Upstate New York – he near Utica and I near Syracuse. We both studied, at least for a time, at Baptist Bible College of Pennsylvania, where we both had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the school’s beloved history professor, Dr. Rembert Byrd Carter, or “Doc Carter” as he was affectionately known. We both went on to study at seminaries connected with the Reformed tradition – he at Biblical and I at Westminster. But then our paths diverged.

Pastor Ryerse went on to pastor some Fundamentalist Baptist churches, but became increasingly frustrated with what he found in them and with the whole Fundamentalist movement in general. He eventually left the GARBC to become involved with the “emerging church” movement. I, on the other hand, never went into the formal ministry, but was involved in a lay capacity in a wide variety of churches – Reformed Episcopal, Primitive Baptist, Mennonite, Plymouth brethren, and Reformed Presbyterian. Theologically I moved in the opposite direction from Pastor Ryerse – I looked to the past for answers – to the Puritans and Reformers – and basically became a Reformed Baptist. I am currently part of an informal house church group. Musically I could do without the guitars and drums – give me the old time shaped-note hymns from The Sacred Harp in four part a cappella harmony. And so, having both left the GARBC, Pastor Ryerse and myself have very different perspectives on life.

Pastor Ryerse’s book is part spiritual autobiography and part treatise on Systematic Theology. He tries to be charitable in describing Fundamentalists, but it is clear that he has major problems with the movement. He describes how Fundamentalism didn’t meet his needs, and explains why he is on a path that he thinks will be more rewarding.

Scripture

So what exactly does Pastor Ryerse think is wrong with Fundamentalism? He has a host of familiar complaints – its narrow-mindedness, its judgmentalism, at times its outright hypocrisy. What is striking, however, is his diagnosis of these ills. He basically criticizes Fundamentalists for taking the Bible too seriously, or at least too literally. He tells us that “Emanating directly from their strict interpretations and applications of the Bible, Christian fundamentalists in America have built a rigid superstructure of legalistic tradition that defines their church and home cultures” (p. 21). He then goes on to assert that “Certitude produces legalism,” and “legalism produces judgmentalism” (Ibid.).

His solution is to argue that the Bible is just one of several sources from which we draw our theology. In particular throughout his book Pastor Ryerse measures doctrine by his own experience. “Theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts, and lives of people who are asking the big questions and seeking answers that resonate,” he says (p. 106).

However, the idea that Scripture should be our only rule of faith and practice did not originate with American Fundamentalists in the 20th Century. What Pastor Ryerse is arguing against is nothing less than the Reformation principle of “sola Scriptura,” and long before the GARBC came into existence orthodox Lutheran and Reformed theologians insisted on the same principle. On this point Fundamentalists are simply following the historic Protestant approach to Scripture.

While I would personally hesitate to say that the “autographs” are “inerrant,” we must nevertheless come to terms with the claims that the Bible makes for itself. “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21; NKJV). If this claim can be taken at face value, then the Bible is, in fact, the inspired Word of God, God’s own revelation to us, and is fully authoritative in all that it teaches. Our role, then, is to submit to its authority, not bend it to fit our own desires.

The problem is that by subjecting Scripture to the test of experience we wind up making our theology conform to our lives instead of making our lives conform to what God has revealed. At the bottom of it we are either pursuing God’s will or we are following our own. And the latter is nothing less than self-delusion.

If Fundamentalist doctrine and practice is shallow and superficial, might not the problem be a failure to take Scripture seriously enough?

The fact of the matter is that virtually the only way we can know about God and salvation is through divine revelation. God must tell us what is true about these things – about the origin, purpose and meaning of life, about what happens after death – we have no other path to knowledge about these things. If God has not spoken then we are in ignorance. Thus any theology not based on sound exegesis is a delusion.

Salvation

Likewise Pastor Ryerse’s view of salvation is problematical. He describes the Fundamentalist view of salvation this way: “For someone to ‘get saved,’ they had to believe a certain set of propositions about Jesus. If a person confessed to having these beliefs, we were willing to give her assurance of her standing before God and eternity in heaven” (p. 69). In other words, in this view “faith” is merely mental assent.

Pastor Ryerse’s own view of salvation is that “The real power of faith is not in leading us to a climactic moment of conversion but in shaping the entirety of our lives. The point of our belief is not punching our ticket to heaven but in growing us and growing with us throughout our lives” (p. 70).

The problem here is that he doesn’t distinguish between justification and sanctification. Justification is an act by which we are declared righteous in the sight of God; it takes place instantaneously. Sanctification is a process that begins at conversion and gradually changes us over time. It lasts throughout our pilgrimage here on earth.

It is easy to see how a person raised in a Christian home could be confused on this point. Young children are often encouraged to make professions of faith before they are old enough to understand the basic concepts of sin and redemption. Some churches are reluctant to talk about sin and repentance, which means that their congregations rarely if ever hear convicting sermons. And in the GARBC the situation is further by the fact that sanctification is often described as “personal separation,” as if the Christian life boiled down to little more than “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew; and I don’t go with girls that do.” Thus it is relatively easy for a young person growing up in a Christian home to think that because he is doing all the right things outwardly he must be genuinely a Christian.

The situation is even further complicated by the fact that the pastors themselves often show little understanding of what the new birth is. Thus they will often accept a candidate for baptism and church membership on a bare profession of faith with little or no evidence of regeneration. Then everyone in the church, including the candidate himself, assumes that he is a genuine believer.

What is missing in this scenario is any conviction of sin. What we forget is that God looks on the heart. No matter how righteous and upright a person may seem outwardly, he still is a human being with a sin nature. What we human observers see is a well-behaved youngster who is active in his church and Christian school. What God sees is a heart filled with pride, anger, selfishness, lust and greed. God knows what we are really like inside, and if the motive is present, even when the outward action is not, we are still guilty in the sight of God. What God wants to see is a pure heart, not a proud hypocrite. And here we all fail, no matter how righteous we may appear to be outwardly.

True conversion, then, begins with the conviction of sin. This is not to say that a person must weep over his sins for at least a half an hour before he can pray and ask for forgiveness. Personalities and circumstances differ. But in order for true conversion to take place there must be a clear understanding of the real issue: our sin and guilt before a holy God whose law we have broken and whose justice we have offended.

By the same token true saving faith is not just assent to a set of propositions; it is an act of the will in which we place our trust in Christ as our Savior. We do not just believe things about Christ; we believe in Christ; we place our trust in Him. We rely on Him for salvation. Faith acts on the promises of God’s Word. Faith obeys. Hebrews 11 is the great roll call of faith.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

What is strikingly absent in Pastor Ryerse’s account of the Christian life is the role of the Holy Spirit. Sadly, many fundamentalist Baptist churches have so reacted against Pentacostalism that they hesitate even to mention the Holy Spirit for fear of sounding like “holy rollers.” And in those churches more inclined toward an Arminian theology there is a tendency to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit in conversion. And yet the New Testament makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is the agent of the new birth, and it is the Holy Spirit who creates the spiritual life of the church and makes its ministries effective. Paul could say, “And my speech and my preaching were not with permissive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (I Cor. 2:4). Without the Holy Spirit the church is just plain dead.

The new birth itself is a deep, inward change produced by the Holy Spirit. In the case of a person raised in a Christian home there might not be a dramatic outward change. Such a person will continue to be the same outwardly moral and upright person that he always has been. The real change takes place inwardly. The newly regenerated Christian has a new understanding, and new interests and desires. He is conscious of a new relationship with God. He has a prayer life, and he delights to feed upon God’s Word.

It is here that many nominal Christians raised in Christian homes have difficulty. They go through life simply reacting to the opinions of others. It is all a matter of external pressure. But to really know God in a personal, intimate way is liberating. God’s opinion is the only one that matters. Everyone else’s opinion is only secondary. As someone once put it, “the fear of God is the fear that drives away all other fear.” It was this fear of God that prompted Martin Luther to stand before the Emperor and all the assembled nobles of the Holy Roman Empire and declare, “Here I stand; I can do no other.” If we are feeding on God’s Word, if we are spending time with Him in prayer, if we are growing ever closer to Him, the opinions of men simply do not matter. The only question is, what does God think? If I am truly born again, if I have genuine spiritual life within me, it is no longer a matter of trying to please others and live up to their expectations. My aim is to please God and I don’t need any external prompting.

The difference can be illustrated by the life of Paul. In a sense we could say that Paul had a “Fundamentalist” upbringing, if we could use that term in a Jewish context. He was a devout Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6). He even had the added advantage of theological training under one of the leading rabbis of his day. But in the end it was of no avail. In a fascinating piece of psychological introspection he describes his inner conflict in Romans chapter 7. Intellectually he had a high regard for Scripture. He could see that “the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). But he also saw something else at work inside of himself – something dark and sinister. For all of his outward righteousness he was still a human being, born with a sin nature that led him in the complete opposite direction. This created a strange paradox in his psychology. “For what I am doing I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do” (v. 15; cf. v. 19). “But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (v. 23). And this led to his anguished cry in verse 24: “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”   Is it not fair to say that this describes the experience of many today who were raised in Christian homes?

Parmigianino, ca. 1530

The Conversion of Paul

The answer to the question is found in chapter 8: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death” (8:2). What makes the difference in the life a person who has genuinely been born again is the Holy Spirit, and Paul describes the work of the Spirit at length in chapter 8. The Spirit gives life (vv. 4-11), the assurance of salvation (vv. 14-17), hope (vv. 23-25), and intercession (vv. 26,27). And thus Paul concludes the chapter on a triumphant note: “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v. 37). What makes the difference between chapter 7 and chapter 8? The presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer! Is that not what we are missing in our churches today? And Paul is very blunt about the matter: “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Rom. 8:9b). Where does that leave us?

The Church

Which brings us to the subject of the church. In the last chapter of his book Pastor Ryerse describes the type of “emerging church” his is planting in Arkansas. He criticizes traditional churches for putting “belief and behavior ahead of belonging” (p. 202). Candidates for membership have to believe a certain way and behave a certain way in order to belong. At his new church, however, Pastor Ryerse says that “For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail he or she may be’ (p. 203).

It is a little hard to see how anyone who has sat in Doc Carter’s classes could say such a thing. For Doc Carter, beyond anyone else, was quick to point out that a Baptist church, indeed a New Testament church, should be a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership. And this is important, not just because it is a Baptist distinctive, but because it is the only way that a church can manifest life in Christ to the surrounding community. It is the only way that a church can even begin to function the way a church is supposed to. The operative principle is that each individual member of the church is supposed to be vitally connected to Christ through the indwelling Spirit. The church is supposed to be a spiritual fellowship, the communion of the saints, drawn together by a common love for Christ and for each other. This is why Baptist churches traditionally have had church covenants – you were making a formal commitment to your fellow believers to live the Christian life and to function together as a spiritual body.

Is not our problem today that our churches are not very spiritual? For the most part they have become social clubs, with the paid, professional pastor acting as CEO and master of ceremonies. You can get 90% of the congregation out for a “fellowship” dinner, but scarcely 10% out for prayer meeting. Since when did casseroles become more important than prayer? Is Christ present in our gatherings?

Conclusion

What is largely missing in Pastor Ryerse’s book is any sense of the holiness of God, of the sinfulness of man, of the need for repentance, and of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the new birth. Pastor Ryerse seems instead to take a sociological approach to religion. Fundamentalism is a subculture that makes certain demands on its members. But for Pastor Ryerse it was all external pressure – he didn’t feel anything within. At one point he says that “many of us have wondered why some biblical writers speak of God’s presence being so close and near to them while our own experiences have been of a God who is far away” (p. 102). At another point he admitted, “I’m not very good at praying . . . I’ve just never been able to develop prayer as a consistent discipline in my life” (p. 189). In short, what we seem to have here is the psychology of an unconverted person, caught up in a religious milieu but lacking any direct experience with God personally. And thus it was only a matter of time before he would try to redefine his faith to correspond with how he actually felt within.

But in the end as human beings we all have to deal with God as He actually is. In one sense Pastor Ryerse is certainly correct when he says that “theology is conceived and born in the minds, hearts and lives of people who are asking the big questions.” That is, in fact, exactly what most of the great preachers and writers down through the centuries did, from John Bunyan to Martyn Lloyd-Jones – most of them had no academic training in theology at all, but they concentrated on asking the big questions, and tried to understand how the answers applied to life. This is what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” or experiential theology as we might say today, if we could even conceive of such a thing. Pastor Ryerse’s problem is that he is “seeking answers that resonate” with him personally. Rather the great preachers and writers of the past went to Scripture for the answers. (And Moses, Jesus and Paul were no ivory tower armchair theologians!). And that is what we must do. We must go to the Bible and try to interpret it honestly and humbly, allowing ourselves to be taught by God’s Word. We must learn to apply it to our lives. Simply to base our theology on our own feelings and experiences is to lead ourselves astray. We cannot afford to go through life making up things about God because they make us feel good. For this reason I am afraid that Pastor Ryerse’s solution to the problem of Fundamenealism is probably a dead end.

SIN IS A UNIVERSAL PROBLEM

Are Christians “anti-gay”? Well, in one sense we are – the Bible condemns homosexuality in the strongest possible terms. But there is another sense in which it is incorrect to say that we “discriminate against” gays. We do not single out one particular group of people and treat them as pariahs. For homosexuality is just a small part of a much larger problem. The real problem is sin – all kinds of sin. For the Bible condemns not just homosexuality, but also the proud heart, the lustful glance, the gossiping tongue, and selfish greed. And the plain fact of the matter is that as human beings we are all sinners. “. . .for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23; NKJV). Sin is a human problem. Sin is a universal problem.

Sometimes it is said that gays are just born that way and can’t help being the way they are. Therefore, it is said, we should just accept them as they are. But we were all born sinners, and in a sense cannot help but sinning. But that hardly excuses us. The fact remains that we are all guilty in the sight of God. The fact that we have an innate tendency to sin only exacerbates our guilt – it does not relieve it.

God’s standard of righteousness is not based on our natural inclinations but by the nature of God’s own character and by the strict demands of justice. If God is a God of love then by necessity He hates anything that is opposed to love, including our selfish, aggressive behavior. And if God is a just God then He must punish sin by some means or other. If I cannot control my temper and I kill someone as a result, then I have caused real harm and the demands of justice must be met, in spite of my “human inability.”  “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . .” (Rom. 1:18).

And then some will argue that God loves everyone and accepts them as they are. And there is a sense in which God does love everyone. But does that mean that he “accepts them as they are”? Not at all. The Bible explains how God shows love toward us: “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Several remarkable truths are brought out in this verse. The first, of course, is that we are “sinners.” God does not pretend that we are nice, basically good people. He knows better; He can look into our hearts and see what is there, and it is not a pretty sight. But the text says that God loved us anyway, “while we were still sinners.” In other words this is not the kind of love that finds its object appealing, attractive or desirable. Rather, it is a benevolent love that is directed towards those who are manifestly unworthy of it. It is a desire to do good to those who did nothing to deserve it.

But then, what is even more remarkable, is what God’s love led Him to do: “. . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Here was the ultimate sacrifice. Christ was God’s own Son, His only-begotten Son. He was perfectly pure and holy, completely innocent of any wrong-doing at all. And yet God sent His Son into this sin cursed world where He was falsely accused and then sentenced to die a horrible death on a cross. And He did this for us – guilty, hell-deserving sinners. What more could God have done to demonstrate His love for us?

In other words, God does not demonstrate His love for us by excusing or overlooking our sins. Rather, He does it by atoning for our sin. And He did this at enormous cost to Himself. The price had to be paid, and He paid it Himself.

But in order to receive forgiveness we must repent of our sins and ask for forgiveness. Repentance is a change of attitude on our part regarding our sin. Moreover, God gives those whom He saves the new birth. This is a change produced within our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul could write to the Corinthian believers and list a whole catalogue of sins (including homosexuality) and then say “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (I Cor.6:9-11). In other words, God doesn’t just leave us in our sins – He saves us from them.

We need salvation precisely because we are lost sinners. And God’s aim in salvation is not to confirm us in our sins but to save us from them. The whole object of salvation is to deliver us from both the guilt and power of sin.

And so all of us as human beings, whether “gay,” “straight,” or what-have-you, find ourselves in fundamentally the same predicament. We are all lost sinners and we all need salvation. And Christ offers that to us all freely.

As Christians we need to beseech our gay friends and neighbors, in a spirit of gentleness and humility, to come to Christ is repentance and faith and receive salvation. That is the loving thing that we can do for them.

Amazing grace – how sweet the sound –

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found –

Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed!

GEORGE WHITEFIELD, EVANGELIST

George Whitefield preaching

George Whitefield preaching

    We recently had the occasion to read a remarkable sermon by George Whitefield entitled “The Method of Grace.” It is a fascinating example of evangelistic preaching and is well worth taking to heart today.

    Whitefield (1714-1770) was perhaps one of the most phenomenal preachers ever to preach in the English language. The famous 18th Century evangelist traveled extensively through England, Scotland and the American colonies, and was a leading figure of the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. He almost always drew huge crowds wherever he went. Untold thousands owed their conversions to the instrumentality of his preaching.

    The text for this particular sermon was Jeremiah 6:14, in which the prophet Jeremiah, speaking of the corrupt religious leaders of his day, said, “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Whitefield then began his sermon with this striking observation: “As God can send a nation or people no greater blessing than to give them faithful, sincere, and upright ministers, so the greatest curse that God can possibly send upon a people in this world, is to give them over to blind, unregenerate, carnal, lukewarm, and unskilled guides.” Such preachers, Whitefield said, were prone to curry favor with their audiences by giving them a false assurance – by papering over the real and serious spiritual problems that plague the nation. A faithful preacher, however, will tell his listeners the truth, so that they might achieve a genuine peace to their souls.

    Whitefield then proceeded to do exactly that. He began by stressing that true religion is an inward thing, “a work wrought in the soul by the power of the Spirit of God.” Then he pointed to the fact that we are guilty of having committed actual sins. But even more that that, we are sinners by nature. “If we look inwardly, we shall see enough of lusts, and man’s temper contrary to the temper of God. There is pride, malice, and revenge, in all our hearts . . .”

    Whitefield pointed out that sometimes, when people first come under the conviction of sin, their initial reaction is to try to do better, — to try to reform their lives outwardly through their own effort. But without a renewed heart a person may be doing many of the right things outwardly, but for the wrong reasons, and that hardly gains credit with God. “. . . nature cannot act above itself. It is impossible that a man who is unconverted can act for the glory of God; he cannot do anything in faith, and ‘whatever is not of faith is sin.'” Even the good works of Christians are tainted by impure motives. “. . .my repentance wants [i.e., needs] to be repented of . . . Our best duties are so many splendid sins.”

    He then pointed out that many people who were reared in a Christian environment may think that they are Christians, when in fact they are not. They have what is sometimes termed “a historical faith” – an attachment to the Christian religion mainly for social and cultural reasons – lack what Whitefield called “a true faith, wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God.”

    Here we can see one of the most striking differences between Whitefield’s preaching and what often passes for “evangelism” today. Whitefield began by laboring to convince his listeners that they were sinners. Then, and only then, did he proclaim the promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. You have to get them lost before you can get them saved!

    Having described the lost condition of his unconverted listeners Whitefield then went on and came to the crux of the matter. In order to achieve genuine, lasting peace, “You must be enabled to lay hold upon the perfect righteousness, the all-sufficient righteousness, of the Lord Jesus Christ, you must lay hold by faith on the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and then you shall have peace . . . Before we can even have peace with God, we must be justified by faith through our Lord Jesus Christ, we must be enabled to apply Christ to our hearts, we must have Christ brought home to our souls, so as his righteousness may be made our righteousness, so as his merits may be imputed to our souls.” Here we can see that two different things are involved in salvation. One is the act of “justification,” whereby Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” or charged to our account, and we are thereby counted righteous in the sight God. The other element of salvation is regeneration, or the New Birth, the work of the Holy Spirit in our souls, convicting us of sin, bringing us to faith in Christ, and imparting to us spiritual life. The former element does not happen without the latter.

    Whitefield ended his sermon with a heartfelt plea to sinners to flee to Christ for salvation. He warned them of the danger of hell. He cited his own personal experience as an unconverted person. And even though he was a staunch Calvinist he urged his listeners to act, although he did not issue an alter call or ask people to walk down an aisle.

    Whitefield’s sermon is a startling reminder of what is involved in a genuine conversion, and what evangelism is supposed to be like. What is at stake is eternity, and what is involved is the inward transformation of the soul by the power of the Holy Spirit. And what are needed are faithful preachers who will boldly tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. May God raise up such men in our time!