Am I Going to Heaven?

This sermon was preached on October 22, 2017 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of sermon.
PDF manuscript of the sermon written in advance.

Whenever a celebrity dies, without fail people get on social media and write “R.I.P.” or “rest in peace.” When someone’s loved one dies, it’s common for people to say, “She’s in a better place,” or, “Now he’s with his wife in heaven,” or something similar. These people write or say such things regardless of what the deceased believed or how the departed lived. It seems that most people think their loved ones go to heaven. Perhaps they can’t bear to think of the alternative.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been answering questions that people have submitted to us (in person at Park Day in West Bridgewater or online). One person submitted a very simple yet very profound question: “Am I going to heaven?” Another person asked a question related to losing salvation, and still another person asked a question about whether God would love them or not if they got a divorce. So, today I want to talk about salvation, and what that looks like.

I’m going to answer this question by looking at one chapter in the Gospel of John. The four Gospels in the Bible are theological biographies of Jesus. They explain who he is and what he did. John presents some of the clearest information about Jesus that relates to salvation and who has eternal life. You may wonder how this chapter relates to heaven, but if you hang with me, you’ll see that it answers the question of heaven and salvation.

So, without further ado, let’s turn to John 6.

I’m going to summarize part of this chapter, since it’s long. The chapter begins with Jesus being followed by a crowd of people “because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick” (verse 2).[1] Jesus had the ability to heal the sick, and he did so in miraculous fashion. As you could imagine, this would draw a crowd.

We’re told that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee and went up on a mountain, where he sat with his disciples (verse 3). It was the time of Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorated the time when God redeemed the Israelites, bringing them out of slavery in Egypt (verse 4). On this mountain, Jesus performs another miracle. He feeds thousands of people with five loaves of bread and two fish (verses 5–13). When this happens, we’re told, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” (verse 14).

A lot of the details of John 6 recall Moses and the exodus out of Egypt. Moses was the leader whom God used. He was the one who said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” So, it’s no accident that Jesus is on a mountain, miraculously feeding people bread at the time of the Passover. We’re even told that were twelve baskets full of bread left over, one for every tribe of Israel (verse 13). Moses foretold of a day when a special prophet would come, the prophet. Deuteronomy 18:18–19 says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” So, when the people see these miracles, they’re reminded of Moses, and they think, “Ah, so this is the Prophet Moses told us about!” They were expecting that just as Moses led Israel out of Egypt, this new Moses figure would free the people from the oppression of the Roman Empire. The Israelites were in their land, but they lived there under Roman occupation. They expected a political ruler, an anointed King, who would come and take care of their enemies. They thought Jesus might very well be that King.

So, we read this in verse 15: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” This is a bit odd. We know from the whole of the Bible that Jesus is the true King. He is Lord. He is God. Yet when the people come to make him king, and to do so by force, Jesus leaves. Many people would want to be king, but Jesus knows they want him to be king for the wrong reasons.[2] They don’t want a king who will lead the people in righteousness and holiness. They don’t want a king who will lead them to God. No, they want a king who will get rid of their enemies and give them prosperity. The fact that Jesus won’t become their king in that way shows that he doesn’t exist to serve our agenda.

In the next passage, we see who Jesus is. Let’s read John 6:16–21:

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.

This passage shows that Jesus is unique. He has power over nature. He can walk on water and, when he gets on the boat, he is able to either overpower the strong wind or make it stop so they can get to the other side of the sea. This is just one of many ways that John shows that Jesus is God.

That paragraph also shows something else: to get where they need to go, the disciples need Jesus. That’s an important message for us. To get where we need to go, we need Jesus. It is impossible without him. We need him in order to reach the other shore safely.

I’ll skip over the next few verses, which basically say that when the crowds realize that Jesus had gone, they came looking for him. But they were still looking for him for the wrong reasons.

Let’s now read verses 25–34:

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

I want us to see four things in that paragraph. First, Jesus calls out the crowd. He says, “You aren’t seeking me for who I am. No, you’re seeking me because I perform miracles and gave you bread.” That should cause us to question why we are seeking Jesus. Do we seek him in order to get things from him or in order to get him?

Second, Jesus says, “Forget the free bread I gave you. That’s food that perishes. But I can give you eternal food. So, work for that.” In other words, Jesus is saying, “Don’t get so caught up in things that fade away, that don’t last. He tells them that he can give them something of eternal value.

Third, when the people ask, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” In other words, Jesus says, “If you want to earn food that gives you eternal life, believe in me.” He doesn’t say, “Do all of these good works to receive this eternal food.” The only “work” that people must do to receive from Jesus is to trust him. That means we don’t earn things from Jesus. We come as beggars with the knowledge that he has what we don’t have and what we need, and the only way we can get it is by receiving it as a gift.

Fourth, when the people ask why they should believe in Jesus, Jesus says, “Just as God sent manna (the bread from heaven that sustained the Israelites), he is sending bread from heaven now.” But this time, the bread from heaven doesn’t perish. It is eternal. As you can imagine, the people say, “Give us this bread!”

So, Jesus tells them about this eternal bread. Let’s read verses 35–40:

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread of life. He is the food they must consume in order to have eternal life. He is the one who can satisfy their spiritual hunger and thirst. Yet, they do not trust him.

Then Jesus says there are people who will trust him. They are those whom the Father has given him. Anyone who comes to Jesus in faith does so because the Father has already given them to Jesus, and they will never be cast out. This is the Father’s will, to save these people. It is the Father’s will that these people will not be lost, but will be raised up to eternal life on the last day, on judgment day. That is the day when Jesus returns to judge everyone who has lived and to usher in the age to come, when the world will be recreated to be Paradise. Everyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life in that Paradise.

We shouldn’t miss the significance of what Jesus is saying. He recognizes that not everyone will believe in him. But there are people who will. And God already knows them, because he has chosen them and he gives them to the Son. All who are given to the Son will have true faith in him, and they will have eternal life. This theme runs throughout the Gospel of John. In John 1:11–13, we’re told that many Jews rejected Jesus but those who receive him become children of God, and this is because they are born (again) of the will of God, not the will of man. In John 3:5–8, Jesus says that in order to enter the kingdom of God, people must first be born again of the Holy Spirit, who, like the wind, blows where he wills. We can’t cause ourselves to be born again. In John 17, Jesus prays to God the Father. Jesus makes a distinction between people whom the Father has given him and the whole world (see John 17:2, 6, 7, 9, 24).

Some people don’t like that idea. In fact, some people didn’t like it in Jesus’ day. We see that in the next paragraph, verses 41–51:

41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Some of the crowd grumbled at Jesus. (Keep in mind that Jesus and John were Jewish. So, when John says, “Jews,” he just means some of the people there.) “Grumble” is a loaded word, because the Israelites grumbled in Moses’ day (Exod. 16:2, 8–9; Num. 11:4–23). They complained that he was leading them to their death. They complained about the food that they received. Just as the Israelites complained then, so some Israelites complained during Jesus’ day. They couldn’t believe that a man who was born of a woman and raised by a carpenter could also be someone who came down from heaven. In other words, they say, “Who does this guy think he is?”

Jesus tells them not to grumble. He says that no one can come to him unless the Father draws that person to Jesus. And the that person will be raised to eternal life on the last day. In other words, Jesus is the only way to the Father, and the only ones who will put their trust in Jesus are those whom the Father has drawn to Jesus. And those people will be raised to eternal life. Jesus doesn’t say, “some of the people drawn to me will be raised to eternal life.” No, all whom the Father gives to Jesus will be raised. That means that salvation begins with God’s work and it ends with God’s work. Salvation can’t be lost, because God saves from start to finish. Jesus does not say, “All are drawn to me by the Father, and some will persevere to the end, and they will receive eternal life.” He doesn’t say, “All are drawn by the Father to me, and some will believe.” No, all that the Father gives to Jesus will believe and they will be raised to eternal life.

Jesus says this because there are clearly some people who don’t believe. In fact, it seems like most of the people there didn’t believe Jesus. This does not surprise him at all. He realizes that many will not believe in him. Many Israelites didn’t trust God. The manna they ate in the wilderness didn’t give them eternal life. But those who trust Jesus will live forever, because he is the true bread from heaven. In verse 51, he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

That last statement confuses the crowd. They can’t understand what Jesus is saying. We see that in the next paragraph, verses 52–59:

52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

This is another example in the book of John when people take Jesus’ words too literally. The crowd thinks, “How can we eat this guy’s flesh?” Jesus doesn’t make things easy for them, because he goes on to say that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Those who do this will be raised to eternal life on the last day.

What is Jesus talking about? Surely, he’s not talking about cannibalism. And he’s not talking about the Lord’s Supper. I suppose Catholics take this literally. They believe that when they take the eucharist, the wafer and the wine don’t just represent Jesus’ body and blood. No, they believe that those elements have been miraculously transformed so that their substance is that of Jesus’ body and blood. I think that misses the point completely.

Jesus is clearly talking in metaphorical terms. After all, he was not actually a loaf of bread that talked. At one level, he says that is spiritual food. To live forever, one must “consume” him. We must live with a daily reliance on Jesus. But when Jesus talks about his body and blood, he’s already looking forward to the cross. Jesus knows that the only way he can give people eternal life is if his body is broken on the cross and his blood is poured out. His body was broken like bread. His blood was poured out like wine. When Jesus died, he received God’s righteous, holy wrath against sin. As Isaiah 53:5 says, “he was crushed for our iniquities.” References to his blood represent his life (cf. Lev. 17:11). His life was drained from his body on the cross so that we may have eternal life. Jesus died to pay for the sins of those whom the Father gives to him, and Jesus laid down his life willingly (John 10:14–18).

All of this may seem strange to us, just as it seemed strange to Jesus’ original audience. But we must understand a couple of things. One, the Bible talks about sacrifice for sin in very gory ways. All the talk of blood shed for the remission of sins shows how gross sin is. Sin is rebellion against God, and sin must be dealt with. God is a perfect judge, and a perfect judge makes sure that crimes are paid for. And the penalty for the crime is commensurate with the crime. If the penalty is death, it shows us that sin is a heinous crime. The fact that God sent his own Son to be a bloody sacrifice shows us the seriousness of sin. The fact that Jesus willingly came to die for his people, and that God would let his Son die, should cause us to wonder at God’s love.

The second thing we should understand is that all of us look to something or someone to give us life. We trust something or someone to give us security, meaning, and happiness. That is, we might say, our spiritual bread and drink. If we trust anything but Jesus, we’ll be left empty and we will die. Football or movies won’t give eternal life. Money won’t. Politics won’t. Power won’t. Good looks and health won’t last. Only Jesus endures. Only Jesus is perfect. And only Jesus dies for us, taking away our problem, our sin against God.

I suppose food is a good metaphor, because we need it every day. We spend a good amount of time and money on food. How much time do we spend on Jesus? We should ask God for our daily bread (Matt. 6:11), but how many of us give ourselves daily to God? Do our lives revolve around him, or do we expect him to revolve around us?

Let’s continue with the story by reading verses 60–65:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

Many of those who followed Jesus found his teachings to be hard—hard to understand and hard to follow. If they are offended by what Jesus has already said, what will they think when he ascends to heaven, where he was before? After Jesus died, he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again, and he rose to heaven. He is the Son of Man, the divine figure of Daniel 7. If they can’t accept that God sent him to be their spiritual food, what will they think of the idea that he is God?

Jesus knows that for them to believe his words, they need the Holy Spirit. His words give life, but they can only be understood, received, and trusted through the power of the Holy Spirit. “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” In a sense, it is miraculous that anyone believes in Jesus, because it is the work of God.

After Jesus said this to the crowd, many turned away from him. We see this in concluding verses of the chapter. Let’s read verses 66–71:

66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” 70 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” 71 He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

This paragraph is both sad and hopeful. It’s sad because people who had followed Jesus, people who were his students, his disciples, left him. They didn’t believe. It is true that people can appear to trust Jesus for a while, only to later turn their backs on him. These are not true believers. They are not the ones the Father has given to the Son, the ones who will be raised on the last day. Even Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, would reject and betray Jesus.

But that paragraph is hopeful, too. When Jesus says to the twelve apostles, “Do you want to go away as well? Peter says, “Where are we going to go? Only you have the words have eternal life. Only you are the Holy One of God.” I think that Peter might have been confused by some of Jesus’ teachings. He probably wouldn’t disagree that Jesus taught some hard things. But he also knew that Jesus was his only hope.

This shows us that we may not fully understand or even fully like what Jesus teaches. But if we trust that he is who he says he is, then he is our only hope, and we must follow him. We must trust him. Who else but Jesus can give us eternal life? There is no one. So, who are we to correct Jesus, or ignore him?

Now that we’ve gone through this chapter, I want to come back to the original question. “Am I going to heaven?” I actually think that question is a bad one. The question shouldn’t be, “Am I going to heaven?” It should be, “Will I be with God for eternity?”

A lot of people like the idea of heaven. They like the idea of eternal life, of an existence without pain or loss. But a lot of people don’t like the idea that God is the greatest reward possible. They don’t like the idea that Jesus is greater than heaven.

I said this on Easter, but it bears repeating. Imagine if God were to make a deal with you. Imagine if he said, “I will let you live in a world without pain, evil, disease, wars, hunger or thirst, and death. I’ll let you live with all your loved ones in that world forever. You will have all of the world’s greatest pleasures. But there’s only one condition: you won’t be with me, you’ll never see me, and you’ll never hear from me.” Would you take that deal?

If so, you don’t have real faith. You’re like the people who wanted the free bread from Jesus, but didn’t want to receive Jesus as their bread. God does not exist to give us stuff. We exist for God, and God gives us himself. Of course, God doesn’t say, “You can have me or Paradise.” No, if we want God more than anything, we get Paradise thrown in. But if we only want Paradise and not God, we won’t get either.

Are you going to heaven when you die? The better question is, are you going to be with Jesus when you die? And the answer to that question comes is a question: do you trust Jesus? Do you believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he did (and does, and will do) what the Bible says he did (and does, and will do)? Do you know that he is the Holy One of God, the only one who can give you his righteous standing before God and the only one who can take away your sin? Is your faith in him one that leads to good works, to following him? We’re not reconciled to God by our good works, but once we’re saved—once we’re born again, or transformed by God—we start to live for him.

Jesus said, in John 10:27–29,

27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

Do you listen to the voice of Jesus by reading the Bible? Does your listening to him lead to obedience? If so, you are one of Jesus’ sheep, one of his people, and you will never perish. No one can take you out of God’s hands because no one is greater than God.

And that leads me to answer another question we received. Someone asked, “What does the Bible mean by 1 Peter 5:8, 2 Corinthians 11:3, and 1 John 5:16 if once you are a believer in Jesus as Savior and you cannot lose your salvation?” Those three verses deal with Satan, false teachers, and a sin that leads to death.[3] I suppose the question is, if you can’t lose your salvation, why are those warnings in the Bible?

I believe those warnings are in the Bible because they are the means God uses to keep his people on the right track. I suppose they are also there because God knows that there will be people in churches who aren’t true believers. God knows who his people are, and those who are his people will listen to these warnings and heed them. Those who are not his people won’t take these warnings seriously.

Many passages in the Bible teach what we might call “eternal security.” We have already seen that John 6 and John 10 teach this. Romans 8 teaches this, too. So does 1 Peter 1.[4] The apostle Paul says that believers were not only predestined to be redeemed, but that they are sealed with the Holy Spirit when they believed the gospel (Eph. 1:13). He says that the Holy Spirit “is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14; see also Eph. 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). If you truly believe in Jesus, God has set his seal on you, just as the Father as put his seal on the Son (John 6:27). That means that nothing can take you away from God. You may stumble and sin. You won’t be perfect. But if you’re a believer, you will turn back to Jesus repeatedly. If you sin, you’ll confess and repent. But that sin won’t remove you from the love of God.

We shouldn’t want to sin, but if we do—and we will—“we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). We know that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross covers all our sins. Do you believe that? If you’re a Christian, you will. If you’re a Christian, you will grow in your love for God and his Son, and you’ll grow in your love for others, particularly other Christians. And if you love Jesus, you will do your best to keep his commandments (John 14:15), not to earn heaven or salvation, but as a new way of living that is right, good, and true. You won’t be perfect in this life, but you’ll grow more like Jesus.[5]

The question is, “Am I going to heaven?” The answer to that question is found in the answer to this question, “Do you want Jesus more than anything else?” If you want Jesus, you get heaven thrown in. If he is your daily bread, you have eternal life. If you trust Jesus, you will be raised on the last day, because God has given you to Jesus’ care. And no one can separate you from Jesus, because no one is greater than God.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “The crowds would have marched him to Jerusalem to crown him as their political Messiah. But he came to do his Father’s will: he would go to Jerusalem not to wield the spear and bring the judgment, but to receive the spear thrust and bear the judgment.” Edmund Clowney, “A Biblical Theology of Prayer,” in Teach Us to Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1990), 158.
  3. An explanation of what the “sin that leads to death” is can be found in my sermon, “The True God and Eternal Life” (July 30, 2017), available at https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john.
  4. Romans 8:28–30 shows clearly that salvation is of God, from start to finish. He foreknows people (not their future free decisions, but people he will save) in eternity past. He predestines them to salvation. He calls them to faith in Jesus through the preaching of the gospel. He justifies them, or declares them righteous, when they believe. He conforms believers to the image of Jesus, so that they live more and more righteously. And he glorifies them, bringing into eternity. Romans 8:31–39 makes it abundantly clear that nothing can separate believers from God. See also 1 Peter 1:3–5.
  5. The book of 1 John was written to Christians so that they “may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). To learn more about how we know we’re Christians, visit https://wbcommunity.org/letters-of-john.

 

Is the Devil Real?

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message answering the question, “Is the devil real?” He provides an overview of what the Bible says about Satan, focusing on who he is and what he does. He also tells us the good news of how Jesus conquers Satan and evil and how Christians can guard themselves against the devil.

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Brian Watson preached this message on October 8, 2017.
MP3 recording of sermon.
PDF typescript of the sermon that was written in advance.

Last week, I started to answer the question of the problem of evil. I said that many people asked questions along the lines of, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?” I had already planned to spend two weeks on this issue. And then, on Monday morning, I woke to the news that there had been a massacre in Las Vegas. One man managed to murder 58 people and injure hundreds more.

As I had already planned to talk about evil, I don’t have much to say about that one event. I will say this: a lot of people think that if we would just do something about guns, we could stop these things from happening. I’m sure there are some things that could be done. People from across the political spectrum are saying we should ban bump stocks, the device that can be put on the end of semiautomatic rifles to make them shoot at rates that are close to automatic rifles. But even if we did that and had increased scrutiny over who bought how many guns and when, we won’t fully eliminate evil. We can restrain it, but we can’t kill it. Only God can do that. And evil is a supernatural force. It can’t be destroyed through better laws, better education, better security, or a better government. As long as evil lurks in the shadows of the supernatural realm and as long as evil resides in our hearts, bad things will occur. I’ll talk more about the supernatural side of evil next week.

But today, I want to address the issue of why bad things happen. Why does God allow bad things, even evil things, to occur?

I don’t know that we’ll ever know exactly why any one particular event occurred. Perhaps we will. But I think there’s a story about Jesus that gives us an indication of why at least certain evils—and perhaps, in the end, why all evils—are allowed by God. That story is the famous story about Jesus raising Lazarus back to life, found in John 11.

Today, we’re going to look at this story and then we’ll draw some conclusions as to why Jesus allowed a tragedy to occur, and perhaps also why God allows all evil to occur. Without further ado, let’s turn to John 11 and start reading. I’ll read the first four verses:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”[1]

I’ll give us a bit of context. John, the author of this biography of Jesus, has told us that Jesus is God (John 1:1) and the Son of God (John 1:14, 34, 49). In the previous chapter, Jesus had been in Jerusalem talking to the Jewish religious leaders. When he said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), they picked up stones to hurl at him. They thought he was committing blasphemy, claiming to be one with God (verse 33). Of course, Jesus was saying that, but he wasn’t blaspheming. He was correct. Still, in order to avoid being killed, he left Jerusalem and crossed the Jordan River and went north. He might have been close to one hundred miles away from Jerusalem.

Jesus had friends named Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, a brother and two sisters, and they lived in the village of Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so Lazarus’s sisters sent a message to Jesus, probably so he could heal Lazarus. What’s important to see is that Jesus loved Lazarus (“he whom you love”) and he also says that his event will not end in death, but in God being glorified.

“Glory” is a very Christian word. It has a meaning of “brilliance,” or “fame,” or “weight.” When we say that God is glorified, we mean he appears to us as more brilliant, he becomes more famous among us, or he takes on more weight in our lives. God never changes. He is always brilliant. But when we see how great he is, he becomes more glorious to us. Somehow, this whole event will reveal how great God the Father is, and also how great God the Son is.

Now, let’s look at the next two verses, verses 5 and 6:

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

We’re told that Jesus loved not only Lazarus, but also Martha and Mary, his sisters. And then we have a very odd statement. Because Jesus loved them, when he heard Lazarus was sick, he deliberately waited two days. Jesus didn’t run to Lazarus and heal him. Actually, Jesus didn’t even have to be in the same place as someone in order to heal them (see Matt. 8:5–13/Luke 7:1–10). We would think that if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, he would heal Lazarus instantly. But he doesn’t. He waits.

Let’s find out what happens next. We’ll read verses 7–16:

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

After two days, Jesus tells his disciples that they must go back to Judea again. This is the region of Jerusalem, where people were just trying to kill Jesus. Jesus’ followers think he’s a bit crazy to think of going back there. But Jesus says that there are twelve hours in a day. On average, there are twelve hours of daylight in any given day. In a world before electricity, that is the time when work was done. So, Jesus means he still has work to do. He must do the work that God the Father gave him to do, and while he does God’s work, he is walking in the light. The safest place for him is in the will of God. So, even if it looks like a suicide mission, Jesus knows he must do the Father’s will.

Then he tells his disciples that Lazarus had “fallen asleep.” Of course, he means that Lazarus has died. Jesus must have known that supernaturally. Yet his disciples don’t get it. They take his words literally. (This happens a few times in John. See John 3:3–4; 4:10–11). So, Jesus had to be abundantly clear. Jesus tells them Lazarus has died. And, surprisingly, he says, “for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” If Jesus was there, he would have healed Lazarus. But he intentionally waited for Lazarus to die. Why? Earlier, he said this event would lead to God—the Father and the Son—being glorified. Here, he says Lazarus’s death, and what will happen soon, will lead to people’s faith.

Now, let’s continue with the story. We’ll read verses 17–27:

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. It seems that Jesus was probably a four days’ journey on foot away, so that if he left right when he knew Lazarus died, he would arrive at this time. We’re told that many Jews from Jerusalem had come to comfort Marth and Mary, and this reminds us that Jesus was in trouble with the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. As we’ll see, by returning to the Jerusalem area, Jesus was risking his safety.

The first to greet Jesus is Martha. If you’re familiar with the Gospels, you might remember another time when Jesus was with Martha and Mary. Martha was busy with all kinds of activity while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to his teaching (Luke 10:38–42). What we see here fits with that story. When Martha talks to Jesus, she says that if he had arrived sooner, her brother wouldn’t have died. But she still has faith that Jesus can do whatever he asks of God the Father. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “Oh, I know he will, because at the end of the age there will be a resurrection of everyone.” That’s true. Whenever Jesus returns, everyone will be raised back to life, some for eternal salvation and some for eternal condemnation (Dan. 12:2; John 5:25–29). But, as we’ll see, Jesus means more than that.

Yet first Jesus says that he is the resurrection and the life. The dead are able to be raised back to life because of Jesus. He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He is the only way to live forever. He says, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” In this world, everyone will die. Only those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die. But everyone else will. Yet Jesus says that those who trust in him, though they experience that death, will live. The one who experiences a spiritual rebirth and believes in Jesus will live forever.

Then Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Martha makes a great confession of faith. She says that she believes, and she knows that Jesus is the Christ. That’s a word based on a Greek word that means “anointed one.”[2] Jesus is God’s anointed King. He’s also the Son of God, who comes into the world to rescue his people. As the most famous verse in the Bible says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Now, let’s see what happens when Jesus sees Mary. We’ll read verses 28–37:

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Martha goes to Mary to tell her that Jesus is here and wants to speak to her. So, Mary comes to him, outside of the village. When Mary comes to Jesus, she falls at her feet and calls him “Lord.” This is clearly a sign of respect. Yet she says the same thing that her sister said: “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It seems John really wants to know that Jesus could have spared Lazarus from this death, but decided not to.

That might leave us thinking that Jesus is cold. But he’s not. We’re already told that he loves Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. And now we see something stunning. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and then also sees others weeping, we’re told he “was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” This is really a deceptive translation. And it’s not just the English Standard Version. Almost every other English translation tones down the meaning of the original Greek. The King James Version says that Jesus “groaned in the spirit,” which is closer. The New Revised Standard Version says Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit.” I’m surprised that the New Living Translation comes much closer. It says, “a deep anger welled up within him.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible says that Jesus “was angry in His spirit.” The Greek word isn’t used much in the New Testament, but it generally refers to anger.[3] Outside of the Bible, it was used to refer to the snorting of horses.[4] You might think of Jesus having his nostrils flared, indignant and furious.[5] Many translations tone down Jesus’ reaction, perhaps for fear of embarrassment, as if the Son of God couldn’t have such a passionate response.

Why was Jesus so angry, and so troubled? He knew Lazarus had already died. He had already seen Martha upset. He knows what he is about to do. But now he sees Mary and others weeping. It’s one thing to know all facts. As God, Jesus could access divine omniscience at any time he wanted. He knew Lazarus had died before anyone had told him. But it’s one thing to know a fact. It’s another thing to experience it. I believe that Jesus was angry that there was death and sorrow in the world. And it’s not because Jesus was like us, powerless and out of control. Remember, Jesus chose not to heal Lazarus. Still, he was so bothered and moved by what he saw that he also wept. And then he asked to see the tomb. (It seems he asked where Lazarus was laid because he “turned off” that divine omniscience. Jesus chose to live fundamentally as a human being.[6])

John wants us to see, again, that Jesus could have healed Lazarus before he died. That’s why he reports that some whispered, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” They’re referring to something that happened in chapter 9, when Jesus healed a man who had been born blind.

Let’s move ahead to see how the story ends. We’ll read verses 38–44:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 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.”

Jesus became angry again, apparently when he saw the tomb. Perhaps he was angry at this visual symbol of death. Perhaps he was angry because it was necessary for Lazarus to die, because he couldn’t heal him the way he healed the blind man. At any rate, Jesus is once again disturbed, and he asks for the stone that closed the tomb to be moved. Martha warned him, quite grimly, that Lazarus’s body was starting to decompose. But Jesus says, “I told you would see the glory of God, didn’t I?”

When the stone was removed from the tomb, Jesus prayed. In a sense, he didn’t have to pray to the Father. He knew what the Father was going to do, and the Father did, too. The prayer was more for the sake of the crowd. He wanted them to know that he was sent by the Father. In this instance, the Father would respond to Jesus’ prayer and his alone. What was about to happen was a sign of divine favor. Once he prayed, he told Lazarus in a commanding voice, “Come out!” And Lazarus did. This is one of the more astonishing miracles that Jesus performs.[7]

Now that we’ve worked our way through this story, I want to think more carefully about what it says about why bad things happen. The way that John reports this story, he makes it clear that it was necessary for Lazarus to die. Jesus could have healed him before he died, but he chose not to. Twice, we’re told that Lazarus’ death led to God being glorified (vv. 4, 40). It also led to people believing in God, specifically believing in Jesus (vv. 15, 42).

Now, when people think about evil in the world, they often think about why God would allow evil to occur. Sometimes, people act as if God is not in control, or they act as if God is not good. I reject both of those ideas because God has revealed himself to be in control and good. I reject any unbiblical picture of God as a nice grandfather who gets really sad when bad things happen, and who wishes he could just do something about all the evil in the world but just can’t. I also reject an unbiblical picture of God as an unloving, uncaring, distant, silent tyrant.

The Bible teaches that God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly wise, and good, among other attributes. That means that God has always existed, he can do anything that he desires, and he never learns a new fact. So, before God created the universe, he knew that evil would enter into it. Yet he chose to create it, even though he didn’t have to. God isn’t required to create a universe, or to create human beings. But he chose to do so, and he chose to create this particular world and all that is in it.

Now, God had a choice. He could have created a world with no evil or he could have created a world in which evil emerged and led to some good things that are not possible without such evil. God could have created angels that never rebelled, so that there would be no Satan, the devil. He could have created human beings who were glorified, who were incapable of sinning and incapable of dying. The mystery is why God did not choose to do that. But think about what would be missing if there were no evil, no suffering, no pain, and nothing bad in the world.

It’s really hard to imagine that, if we stop and think. If there were never any bad, we wouldn’t know how good good things can be. There would never be any evil to defeat. That means there would never be a concept of victory. If there no evil in the world, there would be no Yankees, which means we would never know the joy of the Red Sox defeating them. Seriously, there would be no concept of bravery or courage, for there would be no dangers, no risky situations. There would be no concept of heroism.

If Adam and Eve, the first human beings, never sinned, they would have remained in Paradise with God. Imagine if they had children who never sinned, and they had children who never sinned, and so on. It’s very hard to imagine it fully. But if that happened, there would be no need for the Son of God to become a human being. Jesus, the Son of God, came to live the perfect life that we don’t live. Adam and Eve sinned, and so did all other human beings, except Jesus. We have all failed to live life the way that God made us to. Since we fail to live according to God’s design for humanity, Jesus came to fulfill humanity’s purpose. And he also came to die as a sacrifice for our sins. It’s not clear why Jesus would come if there were never any sin in the world.

If Jesus never came, we would never know to what great lengths God would go to rescue us. We would never see the full glory of God. Or, so it seems.

If Jesus healed Lazarus immediately, people wouldn’t have seen Lazarus raised from the grave. They wouldn’t see God’s power over death. They wouldn’t see that victory, and Jesus’ compassion and bravery, being willing to risk his safety to go back to Jerusalem in order to rescue his friend.

So, this story shows that though Jesus is in perfect control, he deliberately chose for his friends to suffer for a short time so that they would later rejoice, truly know God, and truly believe.

God could have made a world without sin, or he could have made a world in which evil would emerge. The world that God made, in which there is now evil, somehow gives him more glory and, if we know Jesus, it gives us more gratitude. It’s a world that has a richer, more complex story. After all, think of any truly great story you’ve read, heard, or seen, whether in the form of a book, a play, a television show, or a movie. All the greatest stories have evil that must be defeated. They have adventure, bravery, and sacrifice. We are in the midst of the greatest story ever told, and it would seem that evil is necessary to make this story richer.

We can also think of every great piece of art. Great pieces of music, like symphonies, often have dissonance that resolves into harmony. If you were to stop those pieces of music during a moment of dissonance, it would sound ugly, but when these bits of cacophony resolve into euphony, when what sounds ugly for a moment turns into harmony, there is a great sense of fulfillment.

If we were to look at life in light of eternity, we would see that our moments of suffering are short. If we know Jesus, if we trust in him, our suffering can only last throughout this life, and this life is but a blink of an eye compared to a never-ending life with God in the new creation. And so, whatever pain we may experience now is nothing but a small moment in time, like a bit of dissonance that resolves to a beautiful, lush chord.

To take another metaphor from the world of art, imagine that you saw the most beautiful painting imaginable. I happen to find Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings to be marvelous. Imagine we took an extremely high-quality picture of one of his paintings, and then looked at that picture on a computer screen. Then imagine we zoomed in on individual pixels. When looking at individual pixels, they probably look ugly. If we zoomed out just a bit, some groups of pixels might look nice, but I bet groups of them would still look ugly. Yet if we zoom all the way out so we can see the whole picture, everything is harmonious. Everything has its place. Our suffering is like those ugly, small pixelated bits of a larger, beautiful painting. They are the dark bits that make the light stand out.

In light of eternity, our moments of suffering are quite small. The apostle Paul said, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). If we know Jesus, we’ll experience that “weight of glory.” We’ll live in a glorious world forever, and all the pain will be wiped away. There will be no famine, no fighting, no wars, no diseases, no sin, and no death. Every tear that has ever been shed will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4).

But we don’t live in that world now. The reality is that we live in a world corrupted by sin, by the sin of others, and by our own sin. And that is why bad things happen. That doesn’t mean that all bad things happen to us because of our own individual sin. That’s not how things always work. The book of Job is an example of how bad things can occur for other reasons.[8] Even earlier in John, when Jesus healed a blind man, people wondered if the man had been born blind because of his parents’ sin or his own. Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). But bad things happen, generally, because of the presence of sin, because of our sin, someone else’s sin, or because something is happening in the unseen spiritual realm. The presence of sin in in the world separates all humanity from God and his partial punishment against sin is life in a world that has natural disasters, pain, suffering, and death.

That may sound harsh, but think about this: Imagine if tonight, at the stroke of midnight, God removed all evil from the world. Sounds good, right? But what if God removed all evil from the world, not just the big evils like mass shootings and devastating hurricanes, but also the smaller-sized, more mundane evils like hate, greed, envy, pride, covetousness, gossip, selfishness, and so forth? What if God removed all liars, all gossipers, all haters, all people who lust and who envy? The big question is, if God removed all evil at the stroke of midnight, where would you and I be? If we judge evil by God’s standards, we would be removed from the world. So, God is patient and gracious with us. He hasn’t stopped the world yet and made it perfect because he is allowing more time for people to turn to Jesus.[9] If God had stopped the world a hundred years ago, none of us would have been born. We would never have existed.[10] So, even though the world is evil, God is gracious to allow it to go on.

And God uses pain and suffering to get our attention. When we see bad things occur, whether they are natural evils like hurricanes, or moral evils like mass murders, we have another opportunity to think about how fragile life is. We have another opportunity to wonder where we can turn for safety and refuge. We have an opportunity to think about what really matters in this life.[11]

We think that what matters is safety, convenience, comfort, ease, and entertainment. That’s why we might be shocked to hear that Jesus lets his friend suffer and die, and he lets that friend’s sisters experience the great pain of mourning. But God doesn’t want our happiness so much as our perfection. This reminds me of some of the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain. First, he addresses our problem with God. Because of our evil nature, we don’t really want to know God as he truly is. He writes, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”[12]

Then, Lewis says that God isn’t that way. God is love, and real love doesn’t coddle. Real love isn’t afraid to let someone suffer, if that is necessary. If your child needs a painful shot to be immunized, you don’t without hold that treatment because she doesn’t like needles. Lewis writes, “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved; . . . the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love.”[13] God wants us to experience the very best in life, which is him. But, in our natural state, we don’t seek him. That is particularly true when things are going well, when we seem to be in control of our lives. To know that God is God and we are not, we must come to the end of our illusion that we are at the center of the universe. We must come to the end of thinking that we’re God, that we’re in control. God uses pain and suffering to bring us into that position. As Lewis famously writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[14]

That might sound cruel if God were distant and aloof and uncaring. But he’s not. And the chief evidence of that is Jesus. As the Son of God, he lived in heaven for eternity with the Father. He had no pain. But he became a man and entered into an evil world. As we saw in this passage, he wept. And he risked his life. If you keep reading, you see that the news of Lazarus being raised back to life angered the Jewish leaders so much that they decided to kill Jesus and they wanted to kill Lazarus, too (John 11:45–53; 12:9–11).

Lazarus’ death and his coming out of the tomb foreshadow Jesus’ death. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins, not his, because he never sinned. He is the only person who has never done anything wrong, the only one in whom there is no trace of evil. And he rose from the grave. And one day, when he returns, he will call out with a loud cry and his people will leave their tombs. The brief pain of this life will be far, far outweighed and overshadowed by the unending brilliance of eternal life with Jesus.

Jesus told Martha that those who believe in him will live forever. He asked her, “Do you believe this?” That is my question for you. Do you trust that God has a purpose for every pain, even if it doesn’t make sense? Do you trust that he’s good, even when life doesn’t feel good? Do you understand that Jesus is the only God who would enter into evil and endure it to save you from this evil world? Do you realize that he is our only hope, and that no set of laws, no government leaders, no amount of money or power or anything will fix evil? If you trust Jesus, you will live in a Paradise with him forever.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Χριστός.
  3. ἐμβριμάομαι.
  4. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 415.
  5. Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990–), 1:442.
  6. See my sermon, “Jesus Was a Man,” preached on January 4, 2015, available at https://wbcommunity.org/Jesus.
  7. Though he did raise two other people back to life (Matt. 9:18–19, 23–26; Luke 7:11–17).
  8. See https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  9. This is the essence of 2 Peter 3:9.
  10. In the new creation, there will be no more marriage and no more children born.
  11. See Luke 13:1–5. In that passage, some people tell Jesus about some Galileans that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, killed. Jesus says, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” He doesn’t say that the Galileans died for their sins, but he doesn’t rule that possibility out. He simply instructs those present to turn from their sin to God. We don’t have to speculate as to why those people in Las Vegas were murdered, or why people in Houston or Puerto Rico died as a result of hurricanes. When we see evil, we should turn to Jesus.
  12. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35–36.
  13. Ibid., 36.
  14. Ibid., 83.

 

Why Do Bad Things Happen? (John 11:1-44)

Pastor Brian Watson answers the question, “Why do bad things happen?” by preaching a message on John 11:1-44, the famous story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus deliberately lets Lazarus die in order to heal him. He does this so that God would be glorified and people would believe. Perhaps this is why God allows any evil to occur at all.

The Flesh and the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26)

Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 5:16-26 on August 30, 2015. In this passage, the apostle Paul tells us that the Christian must walk by the Spirit, who produces righteous fruit within us. Yet we still battle against the “flesh,” our old, sinful nature. Listen to find out how walking by the Spirit enables us to be like Jesus, whose life was full of the fruit of righteousness.

How Long, O Lord?

Brian Watson preached this sermon on October 1, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF typescript of the sermon written in advance. 

One of the biggest questions that people have about God, and one of the main reasons why people have a hard time trusting God or believing that he exists, is the presence of evil in the world. A few weeks ago, we collected questions that people would like to ask God, and many of them involved pain and suffering. Here were some of the questions:

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” [This was asked twice.]

“Why is there so much suffering in foreign countries?”

“Why are you letting so many people suffer in this world?”

“Why are young children diagnosed with cancer?”

“Why do the people we love die when they are not old?

“Why do bad things continue to happen to me in my life?”

These questions often cause people to doubt God. In fact, the so-called problem of evil has been called “the rock of atheism,”[1] because the very existence of bad things in the world is supposed to challenge the existence of God.

There are various problems of evil. One is called the logical problem of evil. This states that the very existence of evil is incompatible with a God who is omnipotent and good. Those who believe God and evil can’t coexist assume that God would never allow evil to exist in the first place, or that he would remove as quickly as possible. David Hume (1711–1776) captured this problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”[2] In other words, if God is good and loving, he would not allow misery, and if he is all-powerful, he would be able to end misery.[3] So, either he is one or the other, but not both.

However, if a good and all-powerful God has good reasons for allowing evil to occur, there is no reason why this God and evil cannot coexist. Perhaps God allows evil in order to realize some greater good. Even if we don’t know what exactly this greater good is, this idea shows that there is no logical contradiction involved in God’s existence and evil’s existence.

A second problem of evil is called the evidential problem of evil. In this argument, people accept that God may very well have a good reason for allowing evil to occur, but they believe that a good, all-powerful God wouldn’t allow so much evil to occur in the world. In other words, some people say there simply is too much evil in the world for there to be a God, particularly the God of the Bible. But how could we possibly know how much evil there should be? What is the right amount of evil necessary to produce greater goods?

Then there is a third problem of evil, which we might call the existential problem of evil. This isn’t a philosophical argument regarding the existence of God. This is a problem that we all face, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. This is the question of how we cope in a world full of pain, misery, suffering, heartbreak, and, yes, evil.

Today, I want to begin to explore this issue of evil. Because it’s such a big question, I’ll continue thinking about it next week. Here’s what I want to claim today: any system of belief or worldview that doesn’t acknowledge the reality of evil is false; but Christianity does acknowledge that evil is real; the existence of evil is evidence that God exists, because to acknowledge evil is to acknowledge that a standard of good and evil exists; and while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything about why evil exists, it tells us that God will fix the problem of evil forever.

Before we get into this discussion, I want to define evil. Today when I use the word “evil,” I don’t just mean evil people like Hitler, or evil acts like murder or rape. I’m using the word in a very broad sense. When I say “evil,” I mean everything that isn’t the way things out to be. We all sense the world isn’t the way it ought to be. We feel out of sorts. We witness natural evils, like hurricanes and earthquakes, and also diseases and death. We witness human evils, like theft, rape, and murder. And then there are all kinds of smaller-scale suffering that we endure, like loneliness and depression. So, what is evil? Evil is anything that keeps us from being truly happy. We all want to be happy. Augustine once wrote, “It is the decided opinion of all who use their brains that all men desire to be happy.”[4] Anything that disrupts true happiness is evil. I would define “true happiness” as “the way God intended the world to be,” or “the way things ought to be.” I’ll come back to that idea.

Obviously, you don’t need me to tell you that there’s evil in the world. A lot of people aren’t happy. There are many times when we aren’t happy. What worldview, religion, or system of thought can make sense of this state of affairs?

There are some religions or beliefs that maintain that evil is just an illusion, or that suffering can be eliminated through eliminating our desires. These concepts are found in eastern religions and in New Age spirituality. My understanding of Buddhism is that Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, taught that life is an illusion. Our problem is getting wrapped up in this illusion. Or, as one writer puts it, “The problem with existence, Gautama decided, lies in becoming attached to physical life, which is by nature impermanent. The key to salvation is to let go of everything. . . . It is sometimes said that self-extinction is the goal of Buddha’s philosophy; it would be better to put it as realizing one’s self-extinctedness. Nonexistence is the reality; one simply has to become aware of it.”[5] All our suffering comes from thinking that we actually exist as persons, and through cravings that come with such thinking. The key to removing suffering is to realize that all is an illusion. If that is true, then evil itself is an illusion. It’s not real. Can we really say that life is an illusion? That death isn’t real?

Some forms of Hinduism are pantheistic. They hold that the individual soul (Atman) is equal to the soul of the world (Brahman). In other words, all things are one. Enlightenment consists of realizing this truth. New Age spirituality is very similar. Several years ago, a New Age teacher named Eckhard Tolle was very popular, in large part because he was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey. His two famous books are The Power of Now and A New Earth.[6] In the first book, he writes, “[Y]ou are one with all that is.”[7] Tolle believes we are all connected to the Source. For him, the only evil is not to realize this.[8] So, you and death are one. You and a malignant tumor are one. Why fear anything then? All is one. You and Hitler and HIV are one. Does anyone really buy this? Does anyone really live that way?

Buddhists, pantheists, and New Age gurus aren’t the only ones to deny the reality of evil. Some atheists do, too. I’ve recently mentioned that Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and neo-Darwinist, has said that in a world that is the product of chance, where there is no god, there is no such thing as good and evil.[9] Michael Ruse, another atheist and Darwinist, says,

Unlike Christians, Darwinians do not see that natural evil is a problem. Obviously they do not like it and may feel one has a moral obligation to reduce it, but it is just something that happens. No one causes it, no one is to blame. Moral evil is something fairly readily explicable given Darwinism. We have a natural inclination to selfishness. That is to be expected given that selection works for the individual.[10]

If the world isn’t guided by God, why should we expect it would be good? How can we say it’s good or bad? It just is. And what we call evil, such as death, is part of the way large-scale, Darwinian evolution works. A rather unorthodox Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), who advocated the theory of evolution, said, “Evil appears necessarily . . . not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system.”[11] Without the winnowing fork of death and extinction, natural selection wouldn’t work. Species with new and superior traits wouldn’t emerge from old ones.[12] So, given what these atheists believe, what we call evil really isn’t evil. It’s just the way things are. We may not like it, but that’s life.

These religions and worldviews want us to believe that evil is an illusion, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t so bad. But we know better. Evil is real and it’s really evil. Death is an outrage. So is murder and rape, and theft. Hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis that kill thousands of people aren’t the way things ought to be. So, if a religion or philosophy says evil isn’t evil, they’re asking you to deny reality. Really, they’re asking you not to take them seriously. So, don’t.

But Christianity is different. It affirms that evil is a reality. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to deliver us from evil (Matt. 6:13), not from an illusion or something that we simply don’t like. Evil is something that intruded into God’s good creation when the power of sin entered into the world. That is, when human beings started to ignore and reject God and disobey him, evil came into the world. In fact, we might say the presence of evil started with the existence of the devil, Satan. This is somewhat mysterious, but it’s very much a part of reality. It is not an illusion.

And the Bible not only describes the reality of evil, it even has many protests against evil. Throughout the Bible, God’s people cry out to God and say, “This isn’t right! This isn’t fair! How long before you remove evil from this world?” Consider some of these verses:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1–2)

O Lord, how long shall the wicked,
how long shall the wicked exult? (Ps. 94:3)

They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)

These are but a few of the many passages in the Bible that show how evil is something to be mourned, something to be outraged by. In fact, there are whole books of the Bible that take up the theme of evil and injustice. And that is quite interesting because we believe that the Bible is the word of God. Yes, human beings wrote the Bible, but it was God working through these human authors to write what he wanted. So, God himself acknowledges the problem of evil and suffering, and he gives voice to our protests against evil.

This alone, I believe, is actually evidence that Christianity is true. These complaints against evil and injustice match our experience of life. They resonate in our soul in a way that the claims that evil is an illusion don’t.

And, strangely, though evil is a problem for Christians, it is also proof that God exists. To know that something is evil, we must have some kind of standard to indicate what is good and what is evil. According to Christian thought, God is the standard of goodness. He is completely and truly good. And everything contrary to God is evil. Atheists have to cope with evil, but they not only have the problem of evil; they also have the problem of good. Why should an atheist expect goodness in a world of chance and chaos? How can an atheist say something is evil? How can they say genocide is evil? Isn’t that just evolution at work, the fit competing against the unfit, the strong preying on the weak? I don’t think we can discover good and evil. I believe the reality of good and evil need to be revealed to us. The first human beings got into trouble by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They wanted to determine what was good and evil on their own, instead of letting God interpret that reality for them. To know what is good and evil, we need a trustworthy, objective, transcendent standard to measure such realities. In other words, we need God.

With the rest of the time we have this morning, I want us to consider two stories from the Bible that shows how God’s people complain about evil, and how God responds. The first is in the Old Testament.[13] It is the story of a prophet named Habakkuk. We don’t know much about this prophet other than he was in Judah shortly before the Babylonians came in and attack Jerusalem. If you don’t know much about the Bible, this is what is important to know: In the Old Testament, God called a people to himself, Israel. He rescued them out of slavery and Egypt and brought them into the Promised Land. He had given them his law and told them how to worship him and how to live. But they often rebelled against God and worshiped the false gods of the surrounding nations. Because of their sin, God judged them in various ways, eventually bringing in foreign armies to conquer them.

Habakkuk begins with this complaint. This is Habakkuk 1:1–4:

1  The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Habakkuk, like the Psalmists and like Job, ask God, “How long?” He was complaining against the injustice of the Jews in his day. The law, God’s commands, had no power to restrain their evil. They were doing wicked things, and Habakkuk thought that justice would never come. He was wondering why God didn’t respond to his cries.

Then God spoke. Look at verses 5–11:

“Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10  At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11  Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

God tells Habakkuk that he was going to do something that would astound him. In fact, he was already at work doing thing. God was raising up the Chaldeans, better known as the Babylonians, to punish the idolatrous and rebellious Jews, the very people God had called to himself. Babylon was becoming the superpower of the world and their warriors were fierce. God was telling Habakkuk that justice was coming soon.

But this news caused Habakkuk to complain about something else. We see that in the next section, Habakkuk 1:12–2:1:

12  Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13  You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14  You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15  He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16  Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17  Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,|
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Habbakuk’s complaint is found in verse 13. He basically says to God, “You are too pure to even look upon evil. How can you then use the wicked Babylonians to judge those who are less wicked? This isn’t fair! These Babylonians capture people like a fisherman captures fish. They continue to kill and kill your people! Where’s the justice in that?”

God answers again. We’ll just look at the first three verses of his response, verses 2–4 of chapter 2:

And the Lord answered me:
“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,so he may run who reads it.

For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.
“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Then God delivers a series of “woes” to the Babylonians, saying that they will be put to shame, made to drink the cup of God’s wrath, and put to destruction (verses 15–17). He also says,

For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (verse 14).

The point is that though God was using wicked people to judge Israel, he would judge those wicked people, too. Justice would be done. And, in the end, the whole earth will be filled with God’s glory. Everyone will one day know the true God and one day all things will be made right.

In the meantime, God’s people must trust that God will make things right. That is why God says, “the righteous will live by his faith.” The one who is in a right relationship with God must trust that God will make all things right, even when everything now seems wrong. For Habakkuk, things seemed very wrong. Most of the world didn’t acknowledge the true God. Even the people who were supposed to be God’s people, the Israelites, weren’t acknowledging God. They were doing what was wrong. And Habakkuk complained to God. But God told him, “Son, just wait. I have this under control. I know what I’m doing. Trust me. I will judge everyone and all things will be well. Just trust me and you will live.”

In the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet responds with a psalm, a song or prayer. He says that he will wait for that day. He trusts God. He ends with these words, in verses 17–19:

17  Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18  yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19  God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.

Habakkuk says, “Even though things look bleak now, even if there’s famine now, I will rejoice in God. I look forward to the day of salvation. I will take joy in God, for he is my strength, and he will take care of me.” That is faith.

You see, Christianity is not really an explanation of every single thing that happens in the world. The Bible isn’t an encyclopedia that gives us all the answers. What it is a story about God and his world, and about his people. While it doesn’t give us all the answers, it tells us a very important story. God made a good world, and sin corrupted it. Somehow, all the evil in the world is related to the power of sin at work in the world. When the first human beings disobeyed God, the relationship between God and people was fractured. Sin separates us from God. Sin separates us from one another. Sin separates us from the creation, in the sense that there are now natural disasters and life is difficult. And sin even separates us from the people we ought to be. All the bad things in this life are a result of sin. That doesn’t mean all the bad things that happen to us are a result of our sins. Christianity is not karma. Sometimes, we suffer for reasons we don’t understand. Sometimes, other things are happening, things that we couldn’t possibly understand. I think the book of Job illustrates that quite well.

But God doesn’t leave us with the story of a broken world. If that were the end of the story—things are bad because people sinned instead of trusting God, and then you die—it would be a bad, bad story. But that’s not the end of the story.

No, God had a plan to make things right, to remove the evil in the world. And that story centers on Jesus. As I said last week, God himself entered into the world. The author of life entered into his own creation in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Son of God became a human being. He did this in order to live the perfect life that we don’t live. God’s design for humanity was for people to represent him, rule the world under his authority, reflect his character, worship him, and love him. But we don’t do those things. We tend to act as if we are the center of reality. We try to be our own little gods. This is rebellion. But Jesus always represented and reflected God the Father perfectly. He always came under the Father’s authority and worshiped and loved him. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity. But Jesus did something else. Jesus also took the punishment that we deserve for that rebellion. Jesus took the penalty for our crimes against God. To put it more precisely, Jesus took the sins of everyone who trusts him, so that they can have their evil removed and their sins forgiven.

During Jesus’ life, he experienced pain, suffering, loss, and evil. The very people who should have known who he was rejected him and mocked him. They called him names. Then they arrested him on false charges, they tortured him, and they killed him. Jesus, the Son of God, very God and very man, knows evil firsthand. And he suffered willingly, even though he was innocent, in order to rescue us from pain, suffering, and evil.

And when Jesus was approaching the time when he would voluntarily take on God’s wrath against sin—as he was approaching the time when he would experience hell on earth—he protested. The night before his death, he told his disciples that his soul was “very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:38). Then he cried out to God the Father, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39). In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus’ “sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44). Then, after being arrested and beaten, Jesus was crucified, which was an agonizing way to die. His suffering was beyond the physical pain of being nailed to a cross and left to suffer until he could no longer breathe. His true pain came from feeling as though he were separated and abandoned by God the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Yet though Jesus protested his suffering, he trusted God. When he asked whether it were possible for the cup of God’s wrath to pass him, he said, “not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:38). And when he died on the cross, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God, though his pain was great.

Jesus was able to trust God because he knew that all things would be well. He knew his story didn’t end in death. He knew he would rise from the grave victorious, to show that he paid the penalty for sin and to show that one day God will restore his creation. All who trust in Jesus, though they may die, will rise from the grave in bodies that can never die again, and they will live in a renewed world, one without sin and suffering, one without murder and war, one without death. And then, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. There will no longer be evil, but only peace and love.

I’m going to say more about Jesus next week, because I think the story of Jesus lets us peer into the mystery of evil. If we can say why God would allow evil to emerge in this world, we are only able to do so because of Jesus. But for now, I want us to understand the following truths.

First, the Bible says that God is good. He is the very definition of goodness and love. And he made a good world.

Second, though the origin of evil is a bit of a mystery, evil in the world is connected to the presence of sin in the world. But evil is not eternal. If the world were always evil, then I think that would pose a significant and possibly insurmountable challenge to Christianity. But evil is not the perfect match to God’s goodness. In the end, evil has a limited lifespan. And evil has limited power.

Third, Christianity views evil as an outrage. Death is described as an enemy (1 Cor. 15:26), one that will be destroyed. Injustice of all kinds is an outrage. The cries against evil in the Bible resonate with the cries against evil that rise up in our own throats and that pour out in our own tears.

Fourth, though the Bible doesn’t answer every question about Evil, it says that God is not aloof. He’s not distant and uncaring. He does care about evil. He cares so much that he sent his own Son to experience evil. And the Son, the co-creator of the universe, entered into his own creation and subjected himself to human evil. The Bible also says that God is all-powerful and good. He is able to remove evil from the world and desires to do so. In fact, we’re promised that he will do that in the end. But the way that God removes evil from his people is by experiencing that evil himself. We may not understand everything about evil—in fact, that’s what makes evil so evil, because it’s irrational and confusing—but we can understand that Jesus experienced evil to save us. This is a God you can trust, even if we can’t understand everything about him.

Fifth, the Bible also says that one day God will finally and conclusively remove all evil from the world. For those who trust Jesus, who are united to him by faith, their evil has already been paid for. When Jesus returns, he will utterly transform us so that we won’t sin anymore. And we will live forever. Indeed, those who have faith in Jesus will live because they have been declared righteous and they will be righteous. But those who don’t trust Jesus will be removed from God’s good creation. Those who don’t trust God and his Son, who complain without faith, who claim that, if God exists, he’s evil, or who don’t claim that he exists at all, will be condemned. So, evil has an expiration date, but love, goodness, and justice don’t. God invites us to trust his promises and have eternal life. He asks us to trust his Son and his work on our behalf.

In the end, Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. He is the only answer. And we must put our trust in him, even when things look bleak. We trust that things will not always be that way.

I can affirm that there simply is no other satisfying response to the problem of evil. If God doesn’t exist, there’s no evil—and there’s no good! If everything is an illusion, or if death is simply part of the engine of evolution, there’s no hope. This is how things are and this is how things will always be. But if goodness triumphs over evil, and Goodness himself took the worst evil, absorbed it, and then rose from the grave, and if he’ll come again to crush evil finally and ultimately, then there’s hope. If you’re not a Christian, I would love to tell you more about Jesus.[14] He is the only key that will unlock the riddle of evil. Put your faith in him and live.

Notes

  1. The German playwright Georg Büchner (1813–1837) so described the problem of evil, according to Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9.
  2. David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.”
  3. We might add that if God is perfectly wise, he would know how to end all misery, pain, suffering, and evil.
  4. Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1993), 10.1, quoted in Stewart Goetz, “The Argument from Evil,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 467.
  5. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths: A Christian Introduction to World Religions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 223.
  6. Eckhard Tolle, The Power of Now (Novata, CA New World Library, 1999); Idem., A New Earth (New York: Plume, 2006).
  7. Tolle, The Power of Now, 15, quoted in Richard Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2008), 51.
  8. “If evil has any reality—and it has a relative, not an absolute, reality—this is also its definition: a complete identification with form—physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms. This results in a total unawareness of my connectedness with the whole, my intrinsic oneness with every ‘other’ as well as with the Source.” Tolle, A New Earth, 22, quoted in Abanes, A New Earth, an Old Deception, 146.
  9. “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  10. Michael Ruse, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us about Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 192–193.
  11. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (London: Collins, 1959), 313, quoted in Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 23.
  12. “Evil becomes a kind of auxiliary motor of the progress that has given rise to it. It acts as a goad to prevent us from getting stuck at the present stage of Evolution, to detach us from a world that is still imperfect, and to project us and throw us out of our own centre into God.” Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 24.
  13. If we had more time, I would discuss the story of Job. To understand that powerful story from the Old Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/job.
  14. To learn much more about Jesus, visit https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.

 

How Long, O Lord?

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the so-called problem of evil. He examines the issue of how there can be pain, suffering, and evil if God is good and is omnipotent. Some people think this is an argument against the existence of God. But perhaps evil is actually evidence for the existence of God and the truth of the Bible. After all, some religions and worldviews tell us that evil isn’t real or so evil. However, all experience tells us that evil is real and is an outrage. Christianity says evil is real, it’s a problem, and that Jesus is the solution.

God, Are You Real?

Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 24, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF typescript of the prepared sermon.


Today, we’re starting something new. I’m going to give a series of messages answering people’s questions. I titled the sermon series, “If You Could Ask God One Question, What Would It Be?” The idea is to see what people would ask God if they could speak to him directly. But I’m also taking questions about God, or even handling people’s questions about the Bible or the Christian faith.

When I ask, “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” I’m presupposing that there is a God. I’m assuming that God exists. Most of us here are Christians, and we may never doubt the existence of God. But some of us may have doubts, and we all know people who are skeptics. They may wonder if indeed God exists. Their question may be, “God, are you real?” Or, “God, are you there?” We all know people who outright reject the existence of God. Simply quoting the Bible to these people likely won’t work, since they don’t yet trust that the Bible is the written word of God. Before they can believe the word of God, they need to know that there is a God.

So, how do we know that God exists? I’m going to answer that question as well as I can in about forty-five minutes. Of course, I can’t give a full answer in one message. But I want to give us some good reasons to believe that God—and specifically the God of the Bible—indeed exists. I’m going to work through this very carefully and logically, so please follow closely.

To begin to answer this question, we need to have some idea of who God is. Monotheistic religions—religions that believe in one God—believe that God is a perfect being.[1] The standard monotheistic vision of God is that he is personal, eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, benevolent, and immaterial. That last part is very important. God isn’t matter. The Bible says that God “dwells in unapproachable light” and that “no one has ever seen or can see” him (1 Tim. 6:16).[2] And Jesus said that God is spirit (John 4:24). That means that we can’t see God.

The Bible also says that there is a separation between us God and us due to our sin, which is our rebellion against God, our disobedience of his commands, and our general way of living life without reference to him. Isaiah 59:1–2 says this:

1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
2   but your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.

This explains why we don’t always sense God, why we don’t see him or hear his voice directly. We are estranged from God.

How would you get to know a stranger? There are two ways. The first way is you could get to know about the stranger. You could learn facts about him or her. You could dig up information online, see if any news stories are written about this person, see if they have a website or blog, or discover their social media profiles. You could even stalk this person or hire a private investigator to do that for you.

Yet we can’t see God. We can’t learn about him, at least directly, through observation or experimentation. Though we can’t see God, the Bible tells us that there are clues to his existence which are available to all people. In Christian theology, we call these clues general revelation.

One passage that tells us this is found in the New Testament book of Romans. Romans is a letter written by the apostle Paul, who was commissioned by Jesus to spread the message of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. This is what he writes in Romans 1:18–20:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Paul’s point toward the beginning of this letter is that all human beings are in quite a predicament. We all know God exists, but we ignore him. We suppress the truth about him and don’t live for him. Instead, we worship false gods. And, therefore, we stand condemned by God. Now, if true, that’s bad news. Paul does get to good news later. I will, too. But I want to focus on what he says about our knowledge of God. He says that that “what can be known about God is plain,” because “God has shown it.” More specifically, two of God’s attributes, “his eternal power and divine nature,” are evident from “the things that have been made.”[3]

Is this true? Can we know something of God from the created order?

Well, yes, I believe we can. This doesn’t mean we can know everything about God from studying the universe, but we can know that he exists, and that he is eternal and powerful and intelligent.

Some people don’t realize that there are many arguments for the existence of God. When I say, “argument,” I don’t mean a fight or a quarrel. I mean a philosophical argument, a case presented to show that God exists. Each argument is not definitive “proof” that God exists. Someone can always doubt any of the premises of these arguments, or simply refuse to believe. But they show that the idea that God exists is rational. And when multiple arguments for God are presented, they accumulate a certain weight. In short, together, these arguments make the case that the God hypothesis, that God exists, makes far better sense of life than the atheistic hypothesis, that there is no God. You can’t simply write these arguments off.

When it comes to arguing for the existence of God from the existence of the universe and the complexity of life, there are at two major arguments. The first argument for the existence of God that we’ll consider today is called the cosmological argument. I know, “cosmological” is a big word. It simply refers to the “cosmos,” or the universe. The idea is that the very existence of the universe needs explaining. Why, after all, is there something rather than nothing? This argument states that the best argument for the existence of the universe is that God created it.

Put more formally, this is the argument:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Let me explain each point. The first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause. That’s an important qualification. Because there is one thing that didn’t begin to exist. And that thing is the ultimate bedrock, the thing that needs no other explanation. We believe that thing, or being, is God. Christianity has always believed that God is eternal, uncreated. He doesn’t require an explanation. The Bible presupposes his existence and begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). God sometimes calls himself “I am” (Exod. 3:14; Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 11, 13; 44:6; 48:12; John 8:24). The idea is that God exists, period. He doesn’t need any other explanation. He is the one necessary being. Everything else is contingent. That means that everything else might not have come into existence. The universe doesn’t need to exist. But God does.

Now, if you reject God, you have to state that universe exists, period. It’s just a brute fact. And many scientists used to believe that the universe itself was eternal, that it had no beginning. But in the twentieth century, significant scientific discoveries called that belief into question. And that leads us to the second premise of this argument, which is that the universe began to exist.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists believed that the universe was eternal and static. However, some American astronomers, including Edwin Hubble, observed that distant heavenly bodies were moving away from the Earth, leading them to conclude that the universe was expanding. Judging from the current rate of expansion and extrapolating this data backwards would suggest that at one point the universe was very small and very dense. Scientists believe that all matter, energy, and space were in this dense ball, which expanded into the universe as we know it. Though scientists can’t get “behind” a certain point using models, this suggests that the universe had a definite beginning. This is the so-called “Big Bang.”

Some Christians are afraid of the “Big Bang,” because they think accepting it is the same thing as accepting some form of Darwinian evolution. But the two really don’t go together. In fact, the term “Big Bang” was created by an atheist, Fred Hoyle, in 1949, and it was intended as a pejorative term. He rejected the Big Bang theory because it suggested that God created the universe.

In the 1940s, scientists predicted that if this hypothesis were true, then cosmic background radiation would be found on the edges of the universe. In other words, residual energy of the initial and incredibly hot explosion would be found at the edge of the universe in a cool, harmless form, and the temperature of this radiation would be uniform all around the edges of the universe. This prediction was confirmed in 1965, when two physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working at the Bell Telephone Labs, found this cosmic background radiation. They were working on a satellite designed to detect microwave radiation and they found that such radiation was coming to earth from all directions of space. Penzias and Wilson won the Nobel Prize in 1978. When he won that prize, Arno Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[4]

Penzias said that because if everything that begins to exist has a cause, and the universe began to exist, then it has a cause. What else could cause the universe to exist except God? Not only would an incredibly powerful force need to create the universe, but, as we’ll see, an intelligent agent would have to plan and carry out this creation.

More of the details of this argument are available online at our website, wbcommunity.org. If you search for the “Articles” section under the “Media” tab, you can find an article about this cosmological argument with far more details than I have time to present this morning.[5]

Before we move on to the second argument we’ll look at this morning, I want us to consider this: If God can create a universe out of nothing, can he not perform miracles? Some people have a hard time believing miracles are possible. Yet miracles are reported throughout the world on a somewhat regular basis, even if they are relatively rare. And miracles are certainly part of the Christian faith. If God could make a universe out of nothing, could he not cause a virgin to become pregnant? Could he not raise Jesus from the dead? Can he not, some day in the future, restore the universe to be a perfect place? If God has the power to cause a universe to come of nothing, he has the power to change us and fix this broken world.

Since time is short this morning, I’ll move on to the second argument. The big fancy name for this argument is the teleological argument, but I’ll simply call it the design argument. In fact, there are many different design arguments that can be made. All of these arguments state that life is designed, and therefore there must have been a Designer who created life. And, of course, that designer is God.

Put more formally, here is the design argument:

1. Every design has a designer.

2. The universe has highly complex design.

3. Therefore, the universe has a Designer.

The first premise of the argument is obvious. Of course, every design has a designer. If I found a machine of some kind, even if I didn’t know what it did and even if it were broken, I would still recognize that someone designed and made that machine. We recognize design when we see it.

That leads to the second, and more controversial premise, which is that we find evidence of highly complex design in the universe. As expected, atheists challenge this premise. Francis Crick, who co-discovered the structure of the DNA, says that “biologists must constantly keep in mind that what they see was not designed, but rather evolved.”[6] He said that because biologists continually see what evidently looks like design. But, according to Crick, this intuition that life is designed must be beat back by our firm belief in unguided evolution, which is the atheistic explanation of how life emerged. Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and evolutionary biologist, says, “One of the greatest challenges to the human intellect, over the centuries, has been to explain how the complex, improbably appearance of design in the universe arises.”[7] So, both Crick and Dawkins acknowledge that there certainly appears to be design in the universe. But their atheism won’t allow a Designer in the door. Yet since they can’t ignore the idea that complex forms of life somehow emerged out of non-living things, they have both posited that aliens somehow “seeded” life on Earth.[8]

As I stated before, we recognize design when we see it. Design requires information, not law-like patterns or random chaos. Here’s an illustration of what I mean. This week we had some powerful winds. On Thursday, a number of branches and even one larger limb fell from the big tree outside these windows to my right. The branches happened to fall in a random pattern that didn’t mean anything. But suppose I went outside on Thursday and found that the branches were arranged in such a way as to form letters, which spelled out the words, “I love you.” Would I suppose that somehow the winds had just happened to cause the branches to fall into that pattern? Or would I suppose that somehow had taken the fallen branches and then arranged them into that meaningful pattern? Of course, that would be the best hypothesis.

The point is that we recognize design, because design results in complex patterns that appear in specific arrangements. (This concept is called specified complexity.) Intelligence is required to generate information, to arrange branches or letters or, as we’ll see, nucleotides (the chemical bases that make up our DNA) into particular, meaningful arrangements. Random, unguided events degrade information, they don’t create it. Imagine if I took all the letters of all the words of this sermon I have written, and I put each letter on a little slip of paper. Imagine I had all of those slips of paper stacked on top of each other, so that all the letters appeared in their proper order. Then imagine I took those slips of paper and threw them into the air, confetti style, so that they landed on the floor. Then imagine I randomly grabbed the slips of paper and put them into a new, reordered stack. What are the chances of that new ordering of letters producing meaningful words and sentences? Sure, I might have some new words, and perhaps even a few words strung together. But most of it would be gibberish.

Here’s why this matters. We find evidence of design in cellular biology. In other words, we find design at the microscopic level in even the simplest life forms. Charles Darwin knew nothing of the complexity of life since it was only in the twentieth century that we could even begin to observe such complexity. DNA is our genetic material. It is quite literally encoded information that is found in each of our cells. It is very much like a language. The information contained in DNA is so complex that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, said, “DNA is like a computer program, but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”[9] The information in our DNA determines our physical traits. The information in our DNA is like a set of instructions that are used to build proteins, the building blocks of our bodies.

It turns out that the code of DNA must be rather precise to build new proteins in our bodies. It appears almost impossible that random, or unguided, changes to our DNA would produce new proteins. This is significant because those who believe that large-scale evolution is responsible for the emergence of all of life believe that new traits and, ultimately, new species emerged through random mutations in DNA. The idea is that small changes in DNA led to new traits in species. The members of species that had beneficial new traits were able to out-survive and out-procreate other members of their species. Thus, the new trait was passed on to more members of that species so that, in time, all members of that species would have that trait. And with each successful trait added through random mutations, a species would eventually evolve into a new species. A nearly countless series of small changes to species accounts for all the diversity of life.

The problem is that the chances of producing new, functional proteins through random mutations is unimaginably small. Proteins consist of amino acids, linked together in chains. Recent studies have shown that the probability of a mutation producing a sequence of 150 amino acids that could fold to produce a stable protein is 1 in 1074. That’s one followed by seventy-four zeros. But a stable protein isn’t necessarily a functional one. The probability of producing a stable protein old of that size is 1 in 1077. That’s “one chance in one hundred thousand, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion.”[10] Keep in mind that there are about 1080 atoms in the universe, and that longer proteins can consist of 400 amino acids. The chances of producing a functional medium-size protein by way of random mutations is about the same chances that a blind astronaut has of finding one particular atom in the whole universe. Now, someone can always say, “Well, it’s incredibly improbable, but that’s just how things have worked out.” But I find that it would take much more faith to believe that idea than to believe in God.

Another way that we can see design in biological is in the complexity of molecular machines. Michael Behe, a science professor at Lehigh University, wrote a book about complex biological systems called Darwin’s Black Box.[11] He noted that some biological systems are irreducibly complex. That means that if you take one part away, the system doesn’t work anymore. In other words, it would seem impossible for small evolutionary changes to produce these complex systems, because any advantage that an organism would have comes only by having the whole system. His famous example is the bacterial flagellum. The flagellum helps a bacterial cell swim by acting like a rotary propeller, similar to the way an outboard motor propels a boat. The propeller of the flagellum is a hair-like structure called the filament, which fits into a universal joint called the hook. The hook attaches the filament to the cell’s outer membrane. On the inside of that outer membrane, connecting to the opposite end of the hook, is the rod, which acts as a drive shaft. The rod is connected to the stator, which is embedded in the inner membrane of the cell. Within the stator is the rotor, which rotates the rod, spinning the hook and filament so that the bacteria can “swim.” Several O-rings and other parts hold the structure together, and the motor of the flagellum is powered by a flow of acid through the membrane of the cell. The flagellum can move at up to 100,000 RPM. This system is amazing complex and incredibly small (a flagellum is about 10 micrometers, or 10 millionths of a meter), and this is found in simple, single-cell organisms. Are we supposed to believe that these molecular machines are the result of blind, purposeless, undirected processes? From everything that we know, such complexity is the result of an intelligent agent. Who else but God could come up with DNA and the complex, fully-integrated systems that we find in cellular biology?

If you want to know more about this story, I would encourage you to watch a documentary about Michael Behe called “Revolutionary.” You can watch it on YouTube or at www.revoltionarybehe.com.[12] You can also read about this design argument in far greater detail on our website.[13]

Before moving on to the final argument, let us consider what it means for God to be the designer of life. If God designed life, isn’t there a purpose? If he has designed the laws of physics and the complexity of biology, hasn’t he designed all of life? Doesn’t he dictate our purpose and how we should live? Shouldn’t we want to know what God’s design for our lives is?

There’s one more clue to God’s existence, something that is available to all of us. The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, says that all people have information to know that there is a God. The Israelites had special revelation from God. God performed miracles in their midst and spoke to them and gave them his law. So, they certainly have no excuse for ignoring God and violating his commands. But Gentiles (non-Jews) are also without excuse because, as we’ve seen, they have the witness of God’s creation to tell them there’s a God. But Paul also says they have a conscience which indicates to them that there is a moral law.

To see this, let’s read Romans 2:12–16:

12 For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The meaning of some of this is debated, but I think that when Paul says that Gentiles, though they don’t have the law, sometimes do what the law requires, he means that all human beings have a general sense of morality.[14] A moral law is part of the fabric of God’s design, and we all sense this law. Everyone knows murder, rape, and theft are always wrong. We may not agree on the particulars, but civilizations have largely agreed on basic morality. When we do follow the dictates of that moral law, our conscience is clear. Yet we so often do what we know to be wrong, so that our conscience accuses us.

This leads us to the moral argument for the existence of God. Put formally, it goes like this:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties don’t exist.

2. But objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

The basic idea is that if there is an objective moral law, something real that we can appeal to when injustice occurs, it has to be rooted in something real. It can’t be manmade law, because then we can always change it. Moral values or facts, such as murder is wrong, must be grounded in something (or someone) that is unchanging, and even transcendent and eternal. Moral obligations or duties, such as “you shall not murder,” are personal. They are laws, and laws are written by moral agents. Any unchanging, universal, transcendent moral law must be rooted in the existence of God.

Many atheists have been aware of this. Jean-Paul Sartre said, “It [is] very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him.”[15] Friedrich Nietszche said, “There are altogether no moral facts,” and that morality “has truth only if God is the truth.”[16] And then there’s Richard Dawkins, who writes, “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”[17] In other words, according to these atheists, if there is no God, there’s no transcendent moral law.

But we all know better. Every time we make a universal moral claim, such as racism is always wrong, or that rape is always wrong, we’re not just stating an opinion. We’re appealing to something greater than a personal preference, or even a temporary, manmade code. We’re appealing to a transcendent moral law.

Almost forty years ago a professor at Yale Law School named Arthur Leff wrote an article about ethics in a law journal. He begins his article with these words:

I want to believe—and so do you—in a complete, transcendent, and immanent set of propositions about right and wrong, findable rules that authoritatively and unambiguously direct us how to live righteously. I also want to believe—and so do you—in no such thing, but rather that we are wholly free, not only to choose for ourselves what we ought to do, but to decide for ourselves, individually and as a species what we ought to be. What we want, Heaven help us, is simultaneously to be perfectly ruled and perfectly free, that is, at the same time to discover the right and the good and to create it.[18]

In other words, he says we need a transcendent moral law that come from a final, perfect authority. But he also doesn’t want to be ruled by that authority. What he’s saying is that all moral controversies can be boiled down to what he calls “the grand sez who.”[19] When one person says, “Such-and-such is wrong,” the other person can say, “Says who?” Moral evaluations require an evaluator. According to Leff, “the evaluator must be the unjudged judge, the unruled legislator, the premise maker who rests on no premises, the uncreated creator of values. Now, what would you call such a thing if it existed? You could call it Him.”[20] Leff says, “Either God exists or He does not, but if He does not, nothing and no one else can take His place.”[21]

Then, he adds:

We are never going to get anywhere (assuming for the moment that there is somewhere to get) in ethical or legal theory unless we finally face the fact that, in the Psalmist’s words, there is no one like unto the Lord. If He does not exist, there is no metaphoric equivalent. No person, no combination of people, no document however hallowed by time, no process, no premise, nothing is equivalent to an actual God in this central function as the unexaminable examiner of good and evil. The so-called death of God turns out not to have been just His funeral; it also seems to have effected the total elimination of any coherent, or even more-than-momentarily convincing, ethical or legal system dependent upon finally authoritative extrasystemic premises.[22]

To put it more simply, he’s saying that if God doesn’t exist, then who makes the ethical rules? Who makes the final moral judgments? What is the answer to “says who”?

Leff isn’t a believer. He gives no reason for rejecting the God hypothesis other than the fact that he doesn’t want to have an ultimate authority rule over him. But he ends with these words:

All I can say is this: it looks as if we are all we have. Given what we know about ourselves and each other, this is an extraordinarily unappetizing prospect; looking around the world, it appears that if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel. Neither reason, nor love, nor even terror, seems to have worked to make us “good,” and worse than that, there is no reason why anything should. Only if ethics were something unspeakable by us, could law be unnatural, and therefore unchallengeable. As things now stand, everything is up for grabs.

Nevertheless:

Napalming babies is bad.

Starving the poor is wicked.

Buying and selling each other is depraved.

Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot—and General Custer too—have earned salvation.

Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned.

There is in the world such a thing as evil.

[All together now:] Sez who?

God help us.[23]

The death of God is the death of an objective moral law and an ultimate moral evaluator. And that is, ultimately, a very bad thing, because it would mean there is no justice, no final court of appeals, no one to say definitively that this is right and this is wrong. Everything would be up for grabs.

We can learn a bit about God through these arguments. They establish that believing in God’s existence is rational. I think they establish that theism (that God exists) is far more probable than atheism. I think the God hypothesis is far better than an atheistic one. But these arguments only take us so far. They are limited.

Earlier I said we can learn about a stranger by observing them and by digging up facts about them. But if we want to know a stranger, we need to listen to that person. We need to let him or her speak. We have no other way of truly knowing that person’s personality, desires, thoughts, hopes, dreams, regrets, secrets, and so forth. And so it is with God.

One of my favorite authors is a pastor named Tim Keller. He has written two great books that give us reasons for believing in the existence of God. The more recent one is Making Sense of God, which shows that without God we wouldn’t have reasons to believe that our lives have meaning, that there are rights and wrongs, or that we could ever have justice and hope.[24] His earlier book, which I view as something of a modern classic, is called The Reason for God. I highly recommend both of them to anyone who doubts that God exists. In The Reason for God, Keller writes:

When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C. S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analyzed with empirical methods. He would relate to us the way a playwright relates to the characters in his play. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree the author chooses to put information about himself in the play.[25]

And here’s the thing: the author of life has put information about himself in this play. In fact, the author of life has entered into the play.

We Christians believe that Jesus is God. As the Son of God, he has existed forever. We believe God the Father created the universe through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. And yet, over two thousand years ago, the Son of God also became a man. This is what it says at the beginning of another book in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb. 1:1–4).

Notice that it says that God has spoken. He has revealed himself. Prior to Jesus’ birth, God had primarily revealed himself through the prophets. We call Scripture “special revelation,” because it gives more specific information about who God is and what he expects of us. The most special and specific revelation of God is his Son, who came in the flesh. Jesus taught us most clearly about the ways of God. He, the one who created the world and now sustains it by his powerful word, also died in place of sinners. It’s as if Shakespeare wrote himself into Hamlet to die in place of the melancholy Dane. Or, to put a contemporary twist on it, it’s as if J. K. Rowling wrote herself into the Harry Potter books—and actually, physically entered into the world of those books—to die in place of Harry and his friends.

The best way to know God is to know Jesus. And there is evidence that Jesus lived, died, and then rose from the grave.[26] The best evidence we have about Jesus is the Bible, but there are sources outside the Bible that also confirm his life, death, and resurrection.

We have all broken God’s moral law. We have failed to live according to God’s design. We fail to love and live for the Creator of the universe. But Jesus came and lived the perfect life, fulfilling God’s design for humanity. And though we have broken God’s moral law and deserve punishment, Jesus took that punishment for his people when he died on the cross. And he rose from the grave as the first installment of a new creation, one that won’t be contaminated by sin and death. Everyone who trusts in Jesus has their sins paid for and will live with him forever in that new creation.

So, the question is, “God, are you real?” And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” What is the greatest proof? God sent his Son. To know Jesus is to know God. If you’re here today and you want to know more about Jesus, I would love to help you. But for now, let’s pray.

Notes

  1. Anselm (1033–1109), a medieval Christian theologian, said to God: “You are something than which nothing greater can be thought.” In other words, God is the greatest conceivable being. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, trans. M. J. Charlesworth, in The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.
  2. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. See also Psalm 19:1–6.
  4. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978, quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  5. See https://wbcommunity.org/cosmological-argument.
  6. Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (New York: Basic Books, 1988), 138, quoted in Douglas Axe, Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 3–4.
  7. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 157.
  8. Francis Crick, Life Itself: Its Origin and Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981). Dawkins makes that claim in the film, Expelled
  9. Bill Gates, The Road Ahead, rev. ed. (New York: Viking, 1996), 228; quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 316.
  10. Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 200.
  11. Michael J. Behe (New York: Free Press, 1996).
  12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ToSEAj2V0s; http://revolutionarybehe.com.
  13. https://wbcommunity.org/the-design-argument.
  14. My understanding of this passage is informed by Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 116–125.
  15. Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957), 22, quoted in Paul Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” in Debating Christian Theism, ed. J. P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 86.
  16. Friedrich Nietszche, Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ (New York: Penguin Books, 1068), 55, 70, quoted in Copan, “Ethics Needs God,” 86.
  17. Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American 273 (Nov. 1995): 85.
  18. Arthur Allen Leff, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Duke Law Journal 1979, no. 6 (1979): 1229. The whole article can be found at http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3810&context=fss_papers.
  19. Ibid.: 1230.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.: 1231.
  22. Ibid.: 1232.
  23. Ibid.: 1249.
  24. Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical (New York: Viking, 2016).
  25. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 126–127.
  26. For more information, see https://wbcommunity.org/jesus, particularly the first sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus?” (December 14, 2014). See also https://wbcommunity.org/evidence-resurrection-jesus-christ and the resources linked to that page.

God, Are You Real?

Brian Watson begins a new sermon series, “If You Could Ask God One Question, What Would It Be?” Does God really exist? How do we know? There are some compelling existence of God (the existence of the universe, the appearance of design in biology, and the existence of a universal and transcendent moral law). But the best argument for God is Jesus.

Slavery (Galatians 4:21-31)

On August 16, 2015, Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 4:21-31. Find out why Christianity is different from other religions, such as Islam, that require someone to work for their own salvation. The gospel of Jesus Christ provides freedom, because it promises that someone is saved by grace, not adherence to the law.

Grace Alone

Brian Watson preached this sermon on September 17, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the typescript prepared in advance.

Most of us had relationships with our grandfathers. A few us of have relationships with our grandfathers now. Grandfathers are special people. We have different names for them: Granddad, Grandpa, Grampy, Papa, Pops, Pawpaw. My mother’s father was known to us as Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop was a very influential person in my family’s life. He was very generous to us. I suppose he was generous because he had the ability to give. Though he wasn’t born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he accumulated wealth. He was able to do this because he was frugal (he lived through the Great Depression), he worked hard (he served in World War II as a member of the construction battalion in the Navy, building things in the South Pacific), and he had the good fortune to build houses in northern New Jersey, in the suburbs of New York City, during the Baby Boom, during a time of postwar prosperity. Also, my mother was his only child. So, he could afford to be generous to us.

When my brothers and I were children, my grandparents used to give us money for our birthdays. I think they used to give us a dollar for every year we were alive. So, for my tenth birthday, I would get $10 from my grandparents. But as Pop-Pop got older, he would give us larger amounts of money. So, when I was, say, 18 years old, he didn’t give me $18. He might have given me $100. I don’t remember if that was the exact amount, but his gifts became larger in the last few years of his life. When he gave me these more generous gifts, I would say, “You don’t have to do that.” And he said this to me more than once: “I don’t have to do anything but die.”

“I don’t have to do anything but die.” I suppose if he were a bit more precise, he would say, “I don’t have to do anything but die and stand before my Maker to give him an account for my life.” But, generally speaking, he was right. He didn’t have to eat his next meal or even take his next breath, let alone be generous to me and my family. But he did have to die. That was his way of saying that he realized he didn’t have to give me that money, or whatever gift it was. He was under no obligation to give. And it wasn’t as if I earned that gift. He wasn’t giving me money based on how good of a grandson I was. He didn’t say, “Because you’ve been a good grandson this year, I’m going to give you an extra amount of money.” I’m sure I wasn’t the best grandson. (Though I think I was a better grandson than son, but that’s another story.) No, my grandfather, Pop-Pop, freely chose to give me that gift. He gave it to me because he loved me.

That’s a lot like God’s grace. “Grace” is one of those particularly Christian words. It’s a very churchy word. But we don’t often define what grace means, or have a clear idea of how significant the idea is. And in this year, when we celebrate Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which were written five hundred years ago and which kicked off the Protestant Reformation, it is important to remember the concept of grace. (By the way, PBS recently aired a documentary on Martin Luther called “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World.” You can watch it online.[1]) Luther and the other Reformers recovered the biblical teaching that salvation from sin, death, and condemnation comes through grace by faith. That is, we are reconciled to God, put back into a right standing with him, through God’s gift of salvation. We receive this salvation through faith. But, as we’ll see, even the ability to have faith is itself a gift.

At the time of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church taught that God’s grace was necessary for salvation. But they also taught that such grace could be lost, and that such grace needed to be supplemented with good works, namely taking the sacraments of the Church, like penance. Really, to receive God’s grace meant to be in the Roman Catholic Church, to be baptized in it, take the eucharist (what we call the Lord’s Supper), confess one’s sins to the local priest, and so on. Though the Catholic Church has changed in some ways over the last five hundred years, they still talk about merit when they talk about God’s grace. We still see this in these statements in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.[2]

2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.[3]

Notice how those statements say that though God’s grace initiates salvation, we then merit graces needed to attain eternal life. This is not what the Bible teaches.

In order to see that, today we’re going to look in particular at a passage in the New Testament, Ephesians 2:1–10. This passage comes from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in the city of Ephesus. Paul’s writings were particularly influential in Martin Luther’s theology. Today, we’ll see why.

So, let’s turn to Ephesians 2. I’ll read the first three verses.

1 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.[4]

Paul is writing to a group of Christians and he begins this passage by talking about their former condition. Prior to becoming Christians, they “were dead in the[ir] trespasses and sins” and they followed “the course of this world,” the flesh, and the devil. They were not children of God, but children of God’s wrath.

Now, if you’re not a Christian, that might sound strange and extreme. How could these Christians have been dead? Well, obviously they were physically alive before becoming Christians. But they were spiritually dead. To understand this concept, we need to understand why we exist. Human beings were made in the image of God.[5] That means that we are meant to know God, represent him, rule the earth by coming under his rule, love him, and obey him. It means that we exist to worship God, to glorify him. Our lives should center around him the way the way this planet orbits around the sun. That’s why any human exists. Really, it’s why anything exists.

Before I describe the human condition, let me say this: God didn’t have to create the universe. He wasn’t bored, looking for something to do. And he didn’t have to create human beings. He wasn’t lonely, in need of someone to love. God doesn’t need us. In fact, when Paul was in Athens, talking to people who didn’t understand who the true God is, he said that God isn’t “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). The God of the Bible isn’t a manmade god, an idol. He doesn’t need us and he didn’t need to create us. So even the act of creating the universe and everything in it is grace, a gift that we don’t merit or deserve. We’re not entitled to exist.

But we do exist, because God has made us to be in a certain relationship with him. That’s good news, because it means our lives have meaning and purpose. But there’s bad news: from the beginning, humans have not related to God rightly. We rebel against him. In short, we replace God in our lives with something else. We try to de-god God, as it were. The first human beings thought that they could become like God by disobeying him (Gen. 3:1–7). And we’re really no different.

There are many ways to deny God his rightful place in our lives. One way is to make something or someone else the object of our worship. When we love, trust, and obey something or someone else more than we love, trust, and obey God, that thing or person—whether it’s a job, money, a relationship, entertainment, or anything else—becomes our functional god. In Christianity, we call this an idol. I’ve talked about idolatry quite a bit in the past. But today I want to talk about two other ways that we can deny God his proper place in our lives. One is by breaking God’s commands. When we break God’s moral laws, the laws that are built into the very design and fabric of creation, we reject God’s authority.

This past week, I was reading a book on God’s grace by a theologian named Carl Trueman. In his discussion on sin, he writes, “When I break God’s law, I stand above God’s love, and I feel like I am God, the one in control.”[6] I think that’s right. Sometimes, we know we’re doing the wrong thing. But there’s a certain thrill that comes from breaking the law. It’s the rush of feeling that no one can tell us what to do. When we do that, we feel like God. I know I felt that rush a number of times in my 20s. When we disobey God and break all his rules—all the while enjoying the life he gave us—it would be like me taking that $100 check from my grandfather and using to spend on things he disapproves of and then never talking to him again.

That’s one way of usurping God’s place. Another way is very different. When we strive to be a good person and don’t rely on God’s grace, power, or provision to be a good person, we deny God his place in our lives. This can happen with the most religious people, or with people who simply feel like they have no room for religion in their lives because they’re generally good people. I know that sounds strange, but think about it: when people busy themselves with doing good things, trusting in their own efforts to live a good life, they don’t think about having a relationship with God. Very religious people can talk about church attendance, how much they’ve given to charity, and so on, and not talk much about knowing God in a personal way. Nonreligious people can be very similar, focusing on how they’re good citizens, good employers or employees, and not thinking they need any help from God. This way of treating God would be like taking that $100 check from my grandfather on my birthday and tearing it up and saying, “Thanks, but I don’t need this. I can earn my own money.”[7]

Both ways of rejecting God can be found in Jesus’ famous parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. In that story, a father has two sons. The younger one demands his inheritance while the father is still alive, which is like saying, “You’re as good as dead to me, and I don’t want a relationship with you. Just give me your money.” Then he goes and squanders all that money in a reckless lifestyle. The older son stays home and obeys the father by working hard. When the younger son comes to his senses, he returns home, hoping to grovel in order to be forgiven. But the father rushes to greet him, welcomes him back home, and celebrates the occasion with a feast. The older brother is furious that his father greets his brother that way. He refuses to join the father’s feast, because he doesn’t feel that his younger brother deserves such treatment. After all, he was the one who stayed home and obeyed his father. Shouldn’t he be the one who gets the feast?

In that story, when the younger son returns home, the father says, “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). In other words, he was as good as dead, because he didn’t have a relationship with the father. At the end of the story, we wonder if the older brother is as good as dead to the father, because he refuses to join the feast.

That is what is meant by being dead in our sins. Our relationship with God is fractured. We’re as good as dead because we don’t relate to him rightly. And because of the power of sin in us, we are completely unable to live for God. Instead, we obey the world, which means the forces opposed to God. We obey our flesh, which doesn’t mean our bodies, but our moral weaknesses, our evil desires. And we obey Satan, the “prince” of this world.[8] When we think of Satan, we often think of over-the-top evil, like Adolf Hitler. But Satan often doesn’t work that way. He just wants us to deny God, to doubt God’s goodness, and to live for some other cause. When nice people do good works but don’t have a relationship with God, they are doing something pleasing to Satan, the mysterious, evil spiritual being who is opposed to God.

Again, all of this may sound extreme to non-Christians. But this is the human condition. And the longer I’m alive, the more I am aware of the darkness of my own heart. I’m also aware that most “good” people have some secret sins that they hide very well. And I’m aware that we don’t really seek after God the way that we should. We’re not able to desire God because of our sinful nature. And for that reason, we’re “children of wrath” before being Christians. That means that we are destined to receive God’s right, holy, just condemnation for our rebellion against him. That’s how all of us start out in life.

That’s all bad news. But then Paul gets to the very good news. Let’s read verses 4–7:

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.

“But God”—those are two very powerful words. We once were lost—“but God.” We once were dead—“but God.” God, because he is merciful, doesn’t give us over to what we have earned, which is condemnation, and because he loves us, he made us alive with Christ. Remember, Paul is talking to Christians. He doesn’t mean everyone is made spiritually alive. But those who have a relationship with Jesus Christ have that relationship not because they earned it. No, while they were spiritually dead, unable to seek out God, they were rescued and made alive by God. And Paul makes it clear that this is God’s gift—“by grace you have been saved.”

Jesus, the Son of God, is the only person who lived the perfect life. He didn’t take what was God’s and squander it, living for himself. He didn’t ignore God by focusing on his own efforts. No, he always lived for God the Father, loving him, obeying him, and trusting him—even to death on a cross. He was crucified, which was a torturous way to die. And beyond the physical pain, he experienced God’s wrath. For the first time in his eternal existence as God’s Son, he felt like he was separated from the Father. He experienced hell on earth, not because he deserved it, but because we deserve it. He took that so that whoever comes to him in faith will not experience condemnation. And whoever has a relationship with Jesus is credited his perfect life.

Jesus didn’t just die. He rose from the grave in a body that is imperishable. It is impossible for him to die again. And he is now in heaven, in the direct presence of God the Father, reigning above all things. And Paul says that we Christians are seated with Jesus in heaven. Obviously, we’re still living on the earth. But our true life is with Jesus and all that he has is ours. We may suffer in this life, but truly we are kings and queens. That is, if we know Jesus.

The purpose of this salvation is to display God’s grace. In the first chapter of Ephesians, Paul says that God saved us “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6) and “to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12, 14). For all eternity, God’s grace—his gift of salvation that we are not entitled to, that we did not earn or deserve—will be celebrated. Grace is often defined as God’s unmerited favor. Think of it as a gift that we don’t deserve or earn. It’s not something God is obligated to give. The fact that he would give it to unworthy people who weren’t seeking after him is amazing.

In the next three verses, Paul further explains this gift. Let’s read verses 8–10:

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. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

We are saved from God’s wrath and put back into a right standing with him not through our efforts or good works. No, salvation is a gift. And it is received through faith, which is trusting in God. It’s trusting his promises. In short, it’s trusting that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. It’s agreeing with God that we are in a terrible predicament because we’re dead in our sins, and it’s agreeing that the only way to have real and eternal life is through Jesus.

But here’s where it gets interesting. Paul says that the whole process of being saved by grace through faith is a gift. Even our faith is a gift.[9] The ability to receive the gift comes from God. Without God making us alive, we wouldn’t be able to receive a gift. After all, how many dead men have opened up their hands to receive something? I could have rejected the gift my grandfather gave me. But the gift of salvation is different because God changes our nature so that we receive the gift. He changes us so that we want to receive the gift. Otherwise, we would reject it.

Last week, Ron Bridge referred to John 3, where Jesus says that unless we are born again, we can’t even see the kingdom of God, much less enter into it. And that process of being born again, of becoming a new creation, occurs when the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the one true God, comes upon us and gives us the eyes of faith to see our true condition and the only solution, which is Jesus. God causes us to be born again so that we can have faith. This is not something we generate on our own.

As I was thinking about all of this, another image of salvation came to mind. When we talk about God giving us a gift, we think of something like my grandfather, holding out a gift that I could either take or reject. But God’s salvation is more like this: because of our own foolishness, we had overdosed, and we were choking on our own vomit. If left alone, we would surely die. But God stepped in and rescued us. He changed our position so we wouldn’t choke to death. He cleaned us up. He got us sober. And he gives us the power not to destroy ourselves through our reckless living.

If faith were something we did without God’s help, then we could boast about it. Yes, we could boast if going to church, following the rules, giving to the poor, and so on reconciled us to God. We could say, “Look what I did!” But if faith is something that we do, we also could boast. We could say, “I looked at all the evidence, and I chose to trust in God. I’m very wise, because I made the right decision. Look what I did!” We could look at others who considered the same evidence, those who don’t have faith, and say, “Well, obviously they’re not as smart or as good as me. If they were smart, they would make the right decision.”

The whole process of salvation is God’s work. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Ps. 3:8; Jon. 2:9; Rev. 7:10; 19:1). Consider what Paul writes in another one of his letters, Romans. This is Romans 8:28–30:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

God calls people, which is Paul’s way of saying he saves them. He doesn’t just call; he also gives us the ability to answer. God predestined Christians. He chose them before he created the world (Eph. 1:3–6, 11–12). He did this because he foreknew them, which means he set his love upon them. And then he called them. He brought the message of Jesus, the gospel, to them and he gave them the ability to answer. He also justified them, which means that he gave them a right standing, not on the basis of their works, but entirely on the basis of Jesus’ works. Christians are now being “conformed to the image of his Son.” We’re becoming more like Jesus, growing in our obedience and moral purity. And one day we will be glorified. We will receive resurrected bodies that cannot die again and we will live in glory in a new creation with God forever. Paul already sees this as a done deal, because the whole process is God’s work. This is grace that cannot be lost. “[H]e who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Phil. 1:6).

Does that mean we sit around and do nothing? No. The reason that we are given the gift of salvation is so that we can do the good things that God has prepared for us. When God predestined Christians to salvation, he had in mind things that we would do upon receiving salvation. While verses 8 and 9 are justly celebrated, we shouldn’t forget verse 10: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We were created and recreated for God’s glory, to display his greatness. We are saved by grace to display God’s kindness and love. And when we do what God wants us to do, we also glorify God. Of course, these works are also empowered by God’s grace, by the work of the Holy Spirit. As Augustine said in his famous Confessions, “If anyone lists his true merits to you, what is he enumerating before you but your gifts?”[10] When we live for God, we are returning his gifts to him. If I were a great grandson, I could have used some of that $100 to buy my grandfather a birthday gift. After all, his birthday came a month after mine. (But I wasn’t a great grandson, so I didn’t do that!) In light of the gift of salvation, we should want to obey God and do what is pleasing to him. We should love God more, and we express our love for him by obeying him.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, what does it mean for our lives?

First, I want to address an issue that both non-Christians and Christians might have with what I’ve said. Some non-Christians might say, “If I’m not a Christian, it’s because God didn’t predestine me. Then how can God judge me if I don’t have faith, since he didn’t give me that gift? That isn’t fair.” If that’s your attitude, let me point out two things. One, by saying that something isn’t fair, you’re judging God. And by judging God, what you’re doing is taking the place of God. You’re again trying to de-god God. The root of our rejection of God is pride. You’re not God, and neither am I. We don’t have the right character, the wisdom, and all the evidence before us. Therefore, we’re in no position to judge God. As a Christian, I trust that God has good reason for what he has done. Two, you are right that it isn’t fair, but not in the way that you think. God would be perfectly just to condemn the whole human race. He was under no obligation to send his Son to rescue any of us from condemnation. We have rightly earned God’s wrath, because we choose to reject him. What’s amazing is that God would save any of us, changing our hearts so that we desire him.

I know that Christians struggle with the same thoughts. They may think that the concept of God electing and predestining and granting faith isn’t right or fair. Again, I think pride is the main issue here. I once heard a Christian say that he can remove himself from the grace of God. Well, I would say this: The Bible says otherwise. I can point to many, many passages to demonstrate this truth. If the Bible says that salvation is, from start to finish, the work of God, then to say we can thwart God’s plan for our salvation is to claim we are stronger than God. Again, this is pride. It’s not just a wrong theological position. It’s something to repent of.

Here’s a second thing I want to say, and this is directed to any non-Christians who might be listening. If you’re here today and hearing about how God is gracious, about how he can save the worst of people entirely on the basis of what Jesus has done, and you find yourself desiring to have a relationship with God, then I want you to know this: God is at work within you. If you want to know God truly, to feel his love and acceptance, and to live with him forever, you can. God has ordained the preaching of his word to bring people to salvation. If you’re hearing this message and you find yourself warming up to a relationship with God, I would urge you to follow Jesus. Turn to him and trust him. Turn away from your old ways of rejecting God, whether that comes through breaking all his rules or by striving to be a good person on your own. The opposite of pride is humbling yourself before God. The opposite of striving to earn something from God is resting in Jesus and the work that he’s done. I would love to talk to you more about this if your heart is warming up to this idea.

Now, if you are a Christian, I want to say two more things. First, be grateful. The opposite of entitlement is gratitude. God had no obligation to save you, but he has. And this is not your own doing. You can’t boast at all. God didn’t save you because you were so lovable, or good. He didn’t save you because you were better than others. He saved you because he loved you.[11] Thanks be to God!

It’s so easy for us to look at the world and see all the negative things, the things that aren’t right. And it’s so hard for many of us to be content. Some people look at the glass half full, and others look at the glass and see it’s half empty. There are many times when I say, “Wait, there’s a glass?!?” If we truly know the human predicament, which is being dead in sin, and if we truly know that we’re not entitled to anything, and yet we also know that God has saved us by giving us a priceless gift, how grateful should we be? We should see all of life as a gift. So, be thankful.

And be humble. Tim Keller, a pastor and author, often says that the gospel tells us that in our sin we are far worse than we suppose but in salvation we are more loved than we could imagine. The gospel humbles us and makes us grateful. In short, the gospel shatters pride but also inspires love for God. We can’t boast in ourselves, but we can boast in Jesus and God’s gift of salvation.

Here’s the second thing I want to say to Christians. God’s grace should change the way we treat others. We often treat people according to merit. We think other people have earned our respect or love, or they deserve bad treatment from us. But remember God’s grace. He gave to us though we deserve only judgment. And we should treat others not according to what they deserve, but with grace. That doesn’t mean there’s no place for punishment of crimes, or for consequences of wrongdoing. But it means that we should treat people better than they deserve.

It’s often said that respect is earned. I suppose there’s a bit of truth in that, in the sense that people who are respected have often earned trust. But the Bible tells us to honor people and submit to them not because they have earned it, but because their position requires it. We’re not told, “Honor your father and mother if they’re good parents.” We’re not told, “Submit to political authorities only when they do everything right.” We’re not told, “Submit to your husband if he’s a good husband and father,” or, “Love your wife when she treats you the way you want her to.” No, we’re told to do these things because it is right, because it is part of God’s design.

And we’re told to give to those in need not because they deserve it, but because God has been gracious to us. When Paul wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, he urged them to give to Christians in need. And what was the motivation he used? It was the example of Jesus: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus humbled himself by becoming a human being. And he gave his life to unworthy people so that they could be reconciled to God. He became poor so we could be rich. Therefore, we can and should give our riches to help the poor, not because they deserve it, but because God’s grace has transformed our lives.

Let us be humble, not proud. Let us be thankful, not entitled. And let us be gracious.

Notes

  1. http://www.pbs.org/program/martin-luther-idea-changed-world.
  2. Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 487.
  3. Ibid., 490.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  5. See the sermon I preached on August 27, 2017: https://wbcommunity.org/the-image-of-god.
  6. Carl Trueman, Grace Alone—Salvation as a Gift of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 60.
  7. This “two ways to reject God” concept comes from Timothy Keller, particularly his The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (New York: Dutton, 2008).
  8. See Matthew 9:34; 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15; John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11. Apparently, he is called the “prince of the power of the air” because the air was associated with the demonic in Jewish thought. See Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010, 131–132.
  9. Acts 18:27 says that Paul “greatly helped those who through grace believed.” Paul says that faith is granted (he must mean by God) in Philippians 1:29.
  10. Augustine, ConfessionsIX.xiii (34), trans. Henry Chadwick, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 177.
  11. This concept is seen in God’s words to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6–8.

Love for a Church (Galatians 4:8-20)

Pastor Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 4:8-20 on August 2, 2015. In this passage, Paul talks about his love for the church in Galatia. Other themes include our knowledge of God and our love for God.

Scripture Alone

The following sermon was preached on September 3, 2017 by Brian Watson.

MP3 sermon recording.

PDF of sermon typescript (not a transcript of the audio recording, but what Brian wrote in advance. The text also appears below.)

 

I don’t know how many of you have ever looked at the church’s business cards, but if you have, you may have noticed something strange on the back of the cards. If you turn one of those cards over, you’ll see a map of where the church building is located. That’s not the strange part. The strange part are some foreign words on the left-hand side of the card. There are five phrases written in Latin:

Sola Scriptura
Sola Gratia
Sola Fide
Solus Christus
Soli Deo Gloria

Underneath those phrases are English words that give us the meaning of those Latin words:

The Bible Alone
By Grace Alone
Through Faith Alone
In Christ Alone
For the Glory of God Alone

Why are those words there? Well, the simple explanation is that John Battenfield, who designed the church logo, designed these cards, and he decided to put those words on the back. The reason he did that is because he knows that I subscribe to them. The more important reason is that these phrases are principles that came out of the Protestant Reformation. They describe, quite briefly, what a faithful, biblical Christian faith looks like.

You may wonder, how can there be five “alones”? Shouldn’t there be only one? Well, they’re “alone” in five different senses. The Bible is the only written word of God. Since God is the greatest authority, and since his written word is an extension of his authority, the Bible is our authoritative knowledge of God, salvation, and how to live for God. In other words, our inerrant, infallible knowledge of God is not found in the Bible and tradition, but only in the Bible.

We are reconciled to God by grace alone. That means salvation is a gift. It is not grace plus merit; in other words, our salvation isn’t partly God’s gift and partly something we have earned. If salvation were 99 percent gift and one percent our work, you can be sure we would mess that one percent up.

The way we receive that gift of salvation is by faith alone, not faith and works. Even our faith is a gift from God. The one who is reconciled to God is reconciled only on the basis of trusting God entirely for salvation. It’s true that a real faith will lead to good works, but those good works don’t add to our salvation.

We are reconciled to God in Christ alone. Jesus is the only mediator between God and sinful humans. There is no other savior.

And everything exists, ultimately, for the glory of God alone.

Those are principles of true, biblical Christianity that were recovered during the Protestant Reformation. And this year is the five hundredth anniversary of an event that is, at least symbolically, the beginning of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517, a German monk, priest, and university professor named Martin Luther (1483–1546), nailed a document to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This document was his famous Ninety-Five Theses, which are short statements against what he perceived to be the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther was bothered by the sale of indulgences. The Catholic Church teaches that indulgences can reduce the amount of time that someone spends in purgatory after death. A Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel was selling indulgences in order to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Apparently, Tetzel claimed that giving money to this cause could cover all sins. He encouraged people to buy indulgences for their dead relatives, using this sales pitch: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”[1]

Luther knew that this was contrary to what Scripture taught. In the years leading up to 1517, Luther had been studying and teaching the text of the Bible, particularly books like Romans and Galatians. He came to realize that the Bible taught that our right standing with God comes through grace by way of faith. It is a gift of God, given to undeserving sinners, and it is received by trusting God’s promises.

So, Luther realized that what the Catholic Church taught about salvation, and what it was doing through the sale of indulgences, was wrong. He protested by writing his Ninety-Five Theses. Among the theses, we find statements like these:

27. Those who assert that a soul straightway flies out (of purgatory) as a coin tinkles in the collection-box, are preaching an invention of man.[2]

53. They are the enemies of Christ and of the people who, on account of the preaching of indulgences, bid the word of God be silent in other churches.[3]

54. A wrong is done to the word of God when in the same sermon an equal or a longer time is devoted to indulgences than to God’s word.[4]

79. It is blasphemy to say that the cross adorned with the papal arms is as effectual as the cross of Christ.[5]

80. Bishops, curates and theologians who allow such teaching to be preached to the people will have to render an account.[6]

In his statements, Luther didn’t outright reject the Catholic Church. But he thought that some of its practices were contrary to what is in the Bible, and therefore should be corrected.

Luther sent his protests to Albert, the Archbishop of Mainz, who sent them to Rome. Within a few weeks, his theses had spread throughout Europe. As you can imagine, Luther got in trouble with the Church. (One must keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church was the church of Europe.) In 1520, the Pope said Luther would be excommunicated unless he recanted. Luther burned the Pope’s letter. The Pope then issued another statement of excommunication at the beginning of 1521 and called the Emperor, Charles V, to put it into effect. The Emperor desired to hear from Luther and gave him one more chance to recant. So, an imperial assembly was convened in the city of Worms. At the end of that assembly, Luther said these words:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.[7]

Luther, fearing he would be put to death for heresy, then hid in the Wartburg Castle in Wittenberg. While there, he translated the New Testament into German. Prior to this time, the only available translation of the Bible was the Latin Vulgate, which was 1,100 years old. Luther wanted to have the Bible available in the language that people could read and understand. Later, he supervised a translation of the entire Bible, which was finished in 1534. It is estimated that half a million copies of this Bible were distributed by the time of Luther’s death in 1546.[8]

Luther was not alone. Others wanted to go back to the Bible to rediscover what God had spoken. William Tyndale translated most of the Bible into English before he was executed in 1536. Yes, it was illegal to translate the Bible into the vernacular language. Only some Reformers gave their lives, but all shared the same concern. They wanted to recover true Christianity by going back to the source, the Bible. Why would these people risk their lives to translate the Bible into their own languages and to oppose the doctrines of the Catholic Church? They did this because they knew that the words of the Bible are life-giving and vital. They knew what a treasure Scripture is, and they gave their lives to hear from God in his written word.

They also had concerns about what the Church was teaching in their day. Their concerns were captured by Luther, who wrote the following in a 1521 treatise titled The Misuse of the Mass: “The saints could err in their writings and the sin in their lives, but the Scriptures cannot err.”[9] Luther recognized that the Bible alone is God’s written word, whereas the writings of all the theologians throughout history were not God’s word. God doesn’t make mistakes or lie, but human beings can be mistaken. Therefore, all our true knowledge of God should be based on the Bible, not on the writings of theologians. Of course, the writings of theologians may be helpful insofar as they rightly interpret Scripture. Luther, Calvin, and others often referred to earlier theologians like Augustine. But they knew that theologians could be wrong, and that is why we need to keep coming back to the Scriptures, to make sure that our knowledge of God is accurate.

So, this year, we celebrate the Reformation. And this isn’t just some interesting history. This is always relevant. As long as we need to hear from God and need to know how to be reconciled to him, this issue will be relevant. As long as we wonder how we can rightly live for God, this issue will be relevant.

We are bombarded with so many messages, so many words, and so many voices. How do we know whom to trust? How do we know who is telling the truth? How do we hear from God?

I can’t answer this question fully this morning, but I want to give a brief overview of Sola Scriptura by looking at a few passages in the Bible. First, let us turn to the book of Hebrews, in the New Testament. I’ll read the first four verses of the first chapter.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.[10]

We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. But whoever wrote it, he wanted us to know that Jesus is superior to all angels, prophets, and priests. The covenant he inaugurated, the “new covenant,” is superior to the old covenant made with Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. Jesus is God’s fullest and final revelation of himself.

I want to make a few observations about those verses. First, it says that God spoke. God is not silent. The God who made the world and everything in it has spoken. This is good news. God did not create the universe only to allow us to guess at meaning and truth. He has spoken, and we can know him.

Second, God has spoken “at many times and in many ways.” God hasn’t spoken just once, but multiple times. He spoke audibly to some people, like Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, among others. Sometimes, he spoke to people through dreams and visions.

Third, God has spoken “to our fathers by the prophets.” From the author’s perspective, this means that God spoke the Old Testament through prophets, men such as Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. God did speak directly to some people, but more often than not, God spoke through prophets. He spoke through their writings.

This is something that the apostle Peter mentions in his second letter. After describing his experience of Jesus’ transfiguration, when Jesus appeared in his glory as the Son of God and when he heard the audible voice of God the Father, Peter says this:

19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19–21).

When Peter refers to the “prophecy of Scripture,” he seems to be referring back to the Old Testament, which predicted Jesus’ coming. He says that this Scripture was not produced by men. He means that they didn’t simply invent whatever they wrote. No, they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.” How this works, we don’t really know. What it means is that God didn’t simply dictate what he wanted written. He worked through these prophets, carrying them along to write what he wanted written. But he did this in concert with their own experiences, ideas, and cultural references. So, we can say that the Bible has dual authorship. The letters of Paul are really Paul’s letters. But they’re also God’s word, because God had Paul write exactly what he wanted written, without turning Paul into a mindless writing machine.

So, the Old Testament is the result of God speaking at many times and in many ways to the prophets, who wrote down what the Holy Spirit guided them to write. What about the New Testament?

The author of Hebrews says that “in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.” There’s a lot of meaning packed into those two words. Jesus is God’s Son, and, as the next verse says, he is “radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” He is a perfect representation and revelation of God the Father. And Jesus is the creator of the world, so he is clearly God himself. Jesus is the fullest and clearest revelation of God. That’s why John calls Jesus “the Word” at the beginning of his Gospel (John 1:1–18).

If that is true, then we must think about this: the only reason we know Jesus is because of the writings of the apostles and those who wrote down the testimony of the apostles. Apostles like Matthew and John wrote Gospels, biographies of Jesus. Others like Peter, Paul, and James wrote letters. Mark wrote a Gospel based on Peter’s recollections. Luke wrote a Gospel and the book of Acts based on eyewitness testimony, and we know he was familiar with Paul. In the book of Ephesians, Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Jesus is the cornerstone of the church, the one who determines the church’s size and shape. The apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament are the foundation, and the foundation is laid once. All our theology is built on that foundation.

It’s interesting that we don’t have any words of Jesus written down within the first hundred-plus years after his death and resurrection other than the words we find in the Bible. We do have references to Jesus in non-biblical works.[11] But only in the Bible do we find Jesus’ words and only in the Bible do we find clear theological reflections in his life, death, and resurrection written by eyewitnesses. I don’t think this is an accident. I believe that God is in control of history, and that God reserves the right to be his own interpreter. The Bible is God’s written word. It is from God and it is primarily about God. If Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, it makes sense that God would want Jesus to be known clearly. He wouldn’t want confusing, competing versions of Jesus to be written. In order to know Jesus, the fullest revelation of God, we need to know the Bible.

But Jesus is also the final revelation of God. I think that’s what is intended when we read “in these last days.” In the New Testament, we have this idea of two ages: this age, and the age to come. In Matthew 12:32, when Jesus says that blaspheming the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, he says it won’t be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come.” There are many references in the New Testament to “this age,” the age between Jesus’ first and second comings (Luke 20:34; 1 Cor. 1:20; 2:8; 3:18; Gal. 1:4; 1 Tim. 6:7). Judgement day will come at the end of “this age” (Matt. 13:39–40, 49; 24:3). And eternal life is found in “that age” (Luke 20:35) or “the age to come” (Mark 10:30). The New Testament says that the time between Jesus’ comings is the “last days” (Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Pet. 3:3). And in this era, after the New Testament was written, there is no need for more revelation about Jesus. We know enough about Jesus to trust him and be reconciled to God and to live as God’s people.

I say that because some people may wonder why we should trust an “old book” that was completed over 1,900 years ago. Here’s my answer. First, if God wrote the book through human authors, and if God knows everything, including the future, and God is perfectly wise and good and never lies (Num. 23:19; 2 Tim. 2:13; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18), then it doesn’t matter how old the book is. Since God knows all times equally well, when he authored those words, he knew what would happen today. He knows what will happen in the future, too. So, it doesn’t matter when the words were written. Second, the Bible isn’t a book that is meant to describe all human history. It’s not a technical manual, a scientific textbook, a dictionary, or an encyclopedia.[12]

No, the Bible is a covenantal book. We even see that in the word “Testament,” which comes from the Latin word Testamentum, which means “covenant.” A covenant is a pact or agreement that describes how God relates to his people. God initiates covenants with people and makes promises to them. Covenants also make demands of God’s people. The Old Testament describes the covenants made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David, and the promise of the New Covenant. Most of the Old Testament concerns Israel under the “old covenant” made through Moses at Mount Sinai. That covenant demanded obedience to God’s law. Failure to obey would separate people from God.

The New Testament concerns the “new covenant,” which was made through Jesus’ death on the cross (Matt. 26:27–28). There will not be a “newer covenant.” The new covenant promises forgiveness of sins, transformation through the Holy Spirit, and real, personal knowledge of God (Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27). It is based on Jesus’ perfect obedience, because he perfectly fulfilled God’s law for us. There is nothing better than the new covenant. There is no new information we need to be part of God’s covenant people. We know enough about Jesus to trust that he lived the perfect human life (the kind that we should but can’t live because of our sin), that he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin (because sin must be punished and removed from God’s creation), and that he rose from the grave as a promise that God will someday resurrect the world and his people. We will then live with Jesus forever in a perfect world.

The Bible describes God’s great acts of salvation. Many theologians say that the Bible is about redemptive history. It tells of great and significant events like the creation of the world and of human beings, of the rebellion of humans against God and our fall into sin, of God making covenants and promises, of God bringing Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, and of Israel’s continued sin. And then it tells us about God sending his Son to redeem a people of his choosing. Anyone who turns from sin and trusts in Jesus is part of that people, whether they walked this earth millennia ago or whether they walk the earth right now. The terms are the same: we must have faith in Jesus.

The next great saving act in redemptive history will be Jesus’ second coming. We’re given some information about that in the Bible. So, there is nothing to add to the Bible. In “the age to come,” we’ll be with Jesus in eternity, and then we can hear directly from him.

My point so far is that God has spoken through prophets, and he has spoken through his Son, and we know his Son through the apostles. If we want to hear God, we must read (or hear) the Bible.

There’s one more passage I want to look at, a quite famous one. It shows us what the purpose of the Bible is. Let’s turn to 2 Timothy 3:10–17. This is part of the apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy.

10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

Clearly, Paul wants Timothy to know that he has been honest in his dealings, even suffering persecution, in order to live a godly life. He also wants Timothy to know that there are deceitful people who deceive others. He tells Timothy to continue in the faith that he has learned, which he learned from “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” He’s surely referring to the Old Testament, because that’s what Timothy would have known as the sacred writings. The New Testament was in the process of being written. But Timothy would have regarded Paul’s gospel message as on the same level as the Old Testament, because that gospel message told him about Jesus.

And then Paul tells Timothy that “all Scripture is breathed out by God.”[13] God breathed out the words of the Bible. He sounded the words through the instruments of the human authors of the Bible, the way a trumpet player blows through a trumpet to produce music. The Bible is God’s sounding to mankind. And what does it do? Besides making people wise for salvation, it teaches us, it corrects us, and it equips to do good work for God. This is what the Bible does. If we want to be reconciled to God, know him truly, be taught and equipped and even corrected by him, we need to read the Bible.

Sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone,” simply means that only the Bible is God’s written word. It doesn’t mean that we should only read the Bible. It doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only source of truth. We can and should read other books. We should learn about God’s creation by reading books about history, science, philosophy, and even novels that artfully capture something of the human condition. But we should never confuse those books—or any other words—with the Bible. The Bible is ultimately the work of a God who knows all things and who never lies. All other words are the products of finite human beings who don’t know all things and can and do make mistakes, whether they are honest or dishonest mistakes.

This is what one theologian, David Broughton Knox, says about the Bible:

“The canon [of the Bible] then is a very simple concept. It is putting into one classification or pigeon-hole those writings of which God is the Author, and putting into the other pigeon-hole all other writings which people have written-with a greater or lesser degree of truth—but which were not written by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit to convey God’s mind and Word to the reader, and are consequently not authoritative over the conscience.”[14]

Only God’s words are ultimately authoritative. Great works of literature can be inspiring and even illuminating, but they are not authoritative or inerrant. The words of family, friends, professors, or other so-called experts are not completely true and wise. The words of historians, even if not in error, aren’t normative. They can tell us what happened, but they can’t tell us what should have happened.[15]

Sola Scriptura doesn’t mean that we don’t need teachers. After all, the Bible says that we need pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). So, this concept doesn’t mean we as individuals study the Bible alone. We need to read the Bible in community. But even teachers can be mistaken, and their words need to be checked against the Bible (Acts 17:10–11).

My question for us is, do we read the Bible? Are we letting God speak to us? Do we trust that it is the only inerrant, divinely inspired, authoritative word that can bring us to a saving knowledge of God? Do we trust that it is God speaking to us to teach us and correct us? If we understand that the Bible is God’s word and that God is perfect, we will understand that the Bible can and will correct us, since we are not perfect. That’s what understanding means. We stand under the Bible. We don’t stand over it in judgment, determining what is right and what is wrong, deciding what is truth and what is lie. As one theologian says, “[C]orrect interpretation requires that we must submit ourselves to the Bible’s interpretation of us.”[16]

Toward the beginning of the Bible, we read of a deceiver, a mysterious serpent, who approaches the first woman, Eve. What are the first words out of this deceiver’s mouth? “Did God actually say . . .?” (Gen. 3:1). That question is alive today. I have already read from 2 Peter and 2 Timothy. Many biblical scholars believe that these letters weren’t written by Peter and Timothy, but were written in their name. They try to convince us that the Bible doesn’t tell us the truth. I am familiar with their arguments and I believe they are wrong. Their arguments are weak, built almost entirely on speculation. In fact, in seminary I wrote a 40-page paper on the authorship of 2 Peter, and I’m convinced that it is indeed the work of Peter. I think people attack these books of the Bible because they stress the importance of right belief and they highlight the work of false teachers.

Some people believe the Bible is somehow God’s word and should be authoritative (on some level), but that it also contains errors. In response to views like this, the theologian Matthew Barrett writes, “Because it is God speaking—and he is a God of truth, not error—his Word must be true and trustworthy in all that it addresses. . . . Should Scripture contain errors, it is unclear why we should trust Scripture as our supreme and final authority.”[17] He also writes, “Repeated attacks on Scripture’s own character reveal the enmity and hostility toward the God of the Bible within our own souls.”[18]

Attacking the authority of Scripture or questioning the truth of Scripture was not how Jesus approached the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. When that ancient deceiver, Satan, tempted Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus answered him by quoting Scripture (Matt. 4:1–11/Luke 4:1–13). One of those Old Testament verses that Jesus quoted was, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4; Deut. 8:3). Jesus called the Old Testament the “word of God” (Matt. 15:6; John 10:35). He said that he didn’t come to abolish the Scriptures, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He said the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). We can’t pick and choose which ones we pay heed to. Jesus said that all Scripture points to him (Luke 24:27, 44; John 5:39).

If we follow Jesus, we must take his view of Scripture. We must stand under it, yield to it, submit to it, use it to ward off temptation, and listen to it so that we know how to live for God. Jesus came to speak the words of God the Father (John 7:16; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10, 24). He told the apostles that the Holy Spirit would lead them to know greater truth (John 14:26; 16:13–15). If we know Jesus, we will listen to the Father’s word, delivered by the Son and by the Holy Spirit through the prophets and apostles.

Let me end with more words from the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 1:22–25):

22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for

“All flesh is like grass
and all its glory like the flower of grass.
The grass withers,
and the flower falls,

25  but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And this word is the good news that was preached to you.

Notes

  1. Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone—The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 35.
  2. Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 207.
  3. Ibid., 209.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 211.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45.
  8. Ibid., 51.
  9. Ibid., 40.
  10. All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  11. See the sermon, “How Can We Know Jesus,” December 14, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  12. Listen to the Bible study, “What the Bible Is and What the Bible Does,” https://wbcommunity.org/how-to-read-the-bible.
  13. Paul may very well have only the Old Testament in view, but he also recognizes that other New Testament writings were Scripture. In 1 Timothy 5:18, he quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, calling them both “Scripture.” Furthermore, in 2 Peter 3:15–16, Peter regards Paul’s letters as Scripture, for he talks about deceitful people who twist the meaning of those letters, “as they do the other Scriptures.”
  14. David Broughton Knox, D. Broughton Knox: Select Works, vol. 1, The Doctrine of God, ed. Tony Payne (Kingsford, NSW: Matthias Media), 47, quoted in Graham A. Cole, “Why a Book? Why This Book? Why the Particular Order within This Book? Some Theological Reflections on the Canon,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 467.
  15. The naturalistic fallacy states that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is.” That is, just because something is the case doesn’t mean it ought to be the case. Similarly, we cannot derive an “ought” from a “was.” Just because something was the case doesn’t mean it ought to have been the case.
  16. Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 61.
  17. Ibid., 25.
  18. Ibid., 22.

 

Scripture Alone

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on the Reformation principle known as Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone. How do we know God? How can we hear from him? God speaks to us through his Son, by his Spirit, through the writings of the prophets and apostles. Scriptures include Hebrews 1:1-4; 2 Peter 1:19-21; and 2 Timothy 3:10-17.

Adopted Children of God (Galatians 4:1-7)

Brian Watson preached a sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 on July 26, 2015. This passage discusses how Jesus came at the right time to fulfill the law, so that those who have faith him and receive the Holy Spirit are now adopted children of God.

The Image of God

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on the importance of the image of God. Genesis 1:26-28 says that God made human beings in his image and likeness. Brian explains the meaning and significance of this idea, why it gives us purpose in our lives, how we fail to live according to God’s design, and how we can find hope and renewal in Jesus Christ.

Abide (1 John 2:18-27)

This sermon was preached on June 4, 2017 by Brian Watson.
Sermon recording
PDF of typescript

If you’re a Christian, one of the most exciting bits of news that you will ever hear is when someone you know becomes a Christian. If a relative, a friend, a neighbor, or a coworker puts his or her faith in Jesus, you get excited. On the other hand, one of the most distressing things that Christians will experience is seeing someone we thought was a Christian walk away from the church and Jesus. And that’s usually how it works. Usually, a person leaves the church, and then that person stops following Jesus altogether. I don’t mean that this person leaves one church and becomes a member of another one. That happens, and there are good reasons for moving to a new church. I mean someone quits being a part of any church, and then that walks away from Jesus. He or she may not say they have abandoned Christ, but their life doesn’t resemble a Christian one in any discernible way.

We find that not only disturbing and sorrowful, but also confusing. We see people we thought were Christians change, and we wonder why that could ever happen. We wonder if that person “lost their salvation,” or if they had been faking it the whole time. We wonder who might be next, or if that could even happen to us.

Why do some people turn away from Jesus, particularly after they had seemed to follow him? How can we make sure that we don’t turn away from Jesus? These are questions that our passage this morning answers. So, let’s start by reading 1 John 2:18–27:

18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20 But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.

26 I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. 27 But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.[1]

There are three main things in this passage that I want us to see. And they all begin with the letter A: antichrists, anointing, and abiding.

First, let’s talk about antichrists. John begins this passage by referring to the antichrist. In verse 18, he writes, “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Many people get very worked up about the identity of the antichrist or, as the apostle Paul describes him in 2 Thessalonians, “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:3). John is the only one who uses the word “antichrist,” which means someone who either is opposed to Jesus or who tries to take the place of Jesus. The Bible indicates that there will be a final person—or perhaps it could be an institution, a movement, or a government—that is opposed to Jesus and will cause trouble for God’s people. But notice here that John doesn’t encourage his readers to speculate about end-time scenarios. He doesn’t encourage us to identify a final antichrist, or to match newspaper headlines with Scripture. His point is that it is already the last hour, and antichrists are already here.

A number of passages in the New Testament indicate that it is already the last hour. We are already living in the end times. This was true in the first century, after Jesus rose from the grave, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit (see Acts 2:17; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; 1 Pet. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:3; Jude 18) and it’s true today. Theologians often talk about this in terms of “already, not yet.” The kingdom of God is already here but not yet fully established. We can enter into God’s kingdom and live as his servants, but clearly not everyone lives as if Jesus is their King. Satan is already defeated, but not yet fully. And yet, he’s at work in the world and will do more before it’s all said and done. And, in a similar way, the antichrist is already here, but not yet. The spirit of antichrist is already present, but the final and ultimate manifestation of the antichrist isn’t here yet. In 1 John 4:3, John writes, “This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

And what does this spirit of antichrist look like? According to that same verse I just quoted, every spirit that doesn’t confess Jesus is the spirit of antichrist. John specifically says that every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2). It seems that some people thought that Jesus didn’t actually become a man, but that he only seemed to have a real human body. This false teaching would later be known as Docetism.

That’s one way to be against Jesus, to deny what the Bible says about him. If we deny that he is both truly God and truly man, we are against Jesus. That’s why we can say the Jehovah’s Witnesses are antichrists. They don’t believe that Jesus is God, as equally divine as the Father. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses think that we’re antichrists because we believe in the Trinity and that Jesus is God. Their website says that one of the way to identify antichrists is: “They promote false ideas related to Jesus. (Matthew 24:9, 11) For example, those who teach the Trinity or that Jesus is Almighty God actually oppose the teachings of Jesus, who said: ‘The Father is greater than I am.’—John 14:28.”[2] But Jesus said other things. Even in John’s Gospel, he claims to be “I am,” which is a reference back to several passages in the book of Isaiah that are used of God (Isa. 41:4; 43:10, 13, 25; 46:4). And what’s interesting is that in those passages in Isaiah, God declares that there is no other God (Isa. 44:8; 45:5, 21; 46:9). The Bible states that there is only one God, and yet the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—we call them three Persons—are all God. To deny what the Bible says about Jesus’ identity is to be an antichrist.

Of course, another way to be against Christ is to deny what Jesus did in dying on the cross and to deny what Jesus taught about various subjects. And we see these heresies promoted today, too. Islam denies that Jesus is God’s Son and that he died on the cross. And many people deny what Jesus says about sin and salvation. Polycarp, an early Christian theologian, said,

“For everyone ‘who does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is antichrist’ [1 John 4:2–3]; and whoever does not acknowledge the testimony of the cross ‘is of the devil’ [1 John 3:8]; and whoever twists the sayings of the Lord to suit his own sinful desires and claims that there is neither resurrection nor judgment—well, that person is the first-born of Satan.”[3] Polycarp didn’t mince words there.

In this passage, John tells us how we can recognize antichrists. In verse 19, he writes,

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” These people, who apparently were teaching false things about Jesus, left the churches that John is writing to. Why did they leave? “There were not of us.” That seems to be John’s way of saying that they never were Christians to begin with. They only appeared to be Christians.

We know that these people were not truly Christians because they didn’t receive the anointing that John talks about in verse 20 and also in verse 27. This anointing must be the Holy Spirit. In other words, these antichrists never received the Holy Spirit. They weren’t born again. It’s not as though they had the Holy Spirit and then he left them. It’s not as though they were born again and then somehow became spiritually dead. It’s not as though they had real faith and then lost it. In short, it’s not that they “lost their salvation.” They never had it to begin with.

I can say that confidently for two reasons. One, the Bible the talks about false professions of faith. Think of Jesus’ parable of the sower. A man sows seed, which is the word of God, on four different types of soil. One is the path. The seed doesn’t take root at all. The second soil is rocky ground, and the seeds seem to grow. However, those plants wither because “they had no root.” The third soil has thorns, which choke out the growth of the plants. And the fourth soil is good soil, which produces grain that grows. When Jesus explains the rocky soil, he says that it represents “the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” In other words, it’s someone who appears to have had a real conversion experience, but that person’s faith isn’t enduring. Jesus says that the soil with thorns “is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” I don’t think either of these soils represent real Christians. (See Matt. 13:1–9, 18–23 for the parable and Jesus’ explanation of it.) Jesus’ point is that not all will receive the word of God. Some appear to receive it but they don’t last. Only the one who bears fruit is really alive.

The second reason I can confidently say that these antichrists were never really Christians is because the Bible says that conversion is an act of God from start to finish, and God’s power guards and keeps those who are truly born again. For example, we can look at 1 Peter 1:3–5:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Notice that Peter says that the God “has caused us to be born again.” We don’t cause ourselves to be born again. Also, the inheritance we are promised is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for” us. It is God’s power that guards our salvation. As someone has said, “If we could lose our salvation, we would.” But God guards and keeps it for us. We have to work as Christians, but God is the one who empowers that work (see Phil. 2:12–13).

Another passage is Romans 8:29–30, which shows that God is the one in control of the whole process of salvation:

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

God foreknew people. In other words, he had set his covenant love on them before they even existed. And he predestined them to be conformed to the image of Jesus, to be saved. He called them by sending the gospel message to them through evangelists, preachers, and ordinary Christians like you and me. When they came to faith, they were justified, made right in his eyes. And these people will be glorified, which is another way of saying perfected. They will be resurrected to eternal life in a body that cannot die. Paul views this as such a done deal that he uses the past tense when he says God “also glorified” these people, as if it was already a reality.

The point is that those who are really Christians don’t fall away from Jesus. But the Bible does teach that there are people who can appear to be Christians who fall away. And their falling away shows that they were not “of us.” There were not transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’ll come back to the implications of that, but for not I want to talk about the anointing that John is referring to. That’s the second thing we see in this passage. In verse 20, John writes,

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.” The Holy One is Jesus (cf. John 6:69), and the anointing he gives is of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus gives to his people. Those who receive the Spirit also have real knowledge of Jesus. They know the truth, which is what John says in verse 21: “I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” The false teachers probably were teaching that they had some secret, elite, more profound knowledge of Jesus. But John says, “No, don’t believe that. What you were taught when you heard the gospel message is true. That’s the real message about Jesus.”

Think about it this way: In order to come to faith in Jesus, we need to hear the gospel message. We need to know some basic, true things about Jesus. We need to know who he is and what he has done for us. That doesn’t mean we must know the whole Bible, or have the most precise theology. But it means we need to know that Jesus is divine, that he alone lived the perfect life and that his death on the cross is the only way our sins can be paid for. In other words, we need to know that Jesus is God and our only hope of being reconciled to God. We should grow in our knowledge of God and his word, but those basic truths remain unchanged. If we hear anything contrary to that message, we must reject it. John’s concern was that the false teachers who had departed the churches he was writing to would try to deceive his readers. And he encourages them to cling to the truth.

The reason John is so adamant about rejecting a different message can be found in verses 22 and 23: “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” Whoever rejects what the Bible teaches about Jesus doesn’t have a right relationship with God. I like what David Jackson writes about this: “If an individual does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ, God’s own Son, sent from the Father, then he is (literally) against Christ. This means that he cannot be in a right relationship to God the Father, for he is denying the whole basis on which such a fellowship could exist.”[4]

In fact, without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, we all would deny Christ. The only way we can see the kingdom of God and enter into it is if the Holy Spirit causes us to be born again. We wouldn’t trust Jesus and know him truly if it were not for the Holy Spirit. In writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul said, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3).

Not only will the Holy Spirit empower someone to confess faith in Jesus, but the Holy Spirit also empowers people to continue to trust Jesus and live for him. In other words, the Holy Spirit causes us to abide in Christ. And that’s the third thing we see in this passage. In verses 24 and 25, John writes, “Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.” Those who are true Christians will stay connected to Jesus. They will rest in him, trusting that he has done all the work necessary for them to be reconciled to the Father. They will follow him, knowing that his is the only path to eternal life. They will obey him because he is King. John encourages them to continue trusting the gospel message that they heard when they first came to faith. The way of a Christian isn’t always easy in this life, but it’s the only way to eternal life. That is the great promise for those who follow Jesus.

In verse 26, John again warns his readers not to be deceived. And in verse 27, he says that they don’t need what the false teachers are peddling, because they have the Spirit’s anointing. Let’s read those verses again: “I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”

John’s desire for his readers—and for all Christians—not to be deceived is understandable. If there’s a truth about who Jesus is and what he’s done, and if knowing the true Jesus is the only way to God and the only way to have eternal life, then it’s important that we know the truth and remain committed to it. Verse 27, however, can be misunderstood. John says that his reader “have no need that anyone should teach you.” John can’t mean that they don’t require any teaching at all. If that’s what he meant, then why would he write them a letter which teaches them? It wouldn’t make sense for John to say, “I’m teaching you that you don’t need a teacher” if he means that they don’t need any teaching at all. John probably means that Christians don’t need anyone to teach something different than the gospel they have already heard. As David Jackson puts it, “Every Christian knows the truth because without it he could not be a Christian. But the fact that anyone knows it at all is attributable solely to the gift of God’s grace, in the person and work of the Holy Spirit.”[5] The false teachers were offering a secret knowledge of Jesus, one different from what the apostles preached. John was saying, in effect, “You don’t need anything else. You already know the real Jesus. The Holy Spirit produced in you real faith in the real Jesus. Don’t be deceived.”

The truth is that we do need teachers in the church. The apostle Paul says that Jesus gave the church pastors and teachers, which probably means pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11). Pastor-teachers feed Christians the nourishing food that is the word of God. Pastor-teachers protect the flock from false teaching. Pastor-teachers equip the saints for ministry, so that they can be effective in their service and witness. John isn’t contradicting Paul. We need to read this passage in context. And we should understand that John is writing to churches. All the “yous” of verse 27 are in the plural. We tend to read the Bible in very individualistic ways, but John wasn’t writing to isolated individuals. The Holy Spirit dwells in Christians individually, but also collectively. He is in their midst, in the churches. He has given the spiritual gift of leadership and teaching to some in the church. The church needs them. And the church has the Spirit’s word, the Bible. They don’t need to hear a different message.

In a way, this is the equivalent of Paul’s words to the Galatians, when he writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). There is no other news about Jesus that Christians need to embrace.

John’s words about not needing another teacher relate to the promise of the new covenant. The new covenant promise is made in the prophets. In Jeremiah, we are told that members of the new covenant would have God’s law written on their hearts, that they would know God, and that their sins would be forgiven (Jer. 31:31–34). In Ezekiel, we read that God would cleanse them and give them the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25–27). So, God’s law is written on his people’s hearts by means of the Holy Spirit. And Jeremiah 31:34 says, “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” Every member of the new covenant knows the Lord. They don’t need someone to teach them that.

Perhaps this is John’s way of saying that there won’t be a newer covenant. The new covenant is the only one we need. The covenant is God’s terms of dealing with his people. His people are those who trust Jesus, who have been forgiven for all their wrongdoing, and who are led by the Holy Spirit. If anyone comes along claiming they have another covenant, they should be rejected. The word “testament” refers to a covenant. The Mormons claim to have “another testament of Jesus Christ.” I believe John would call them antichrists. If anyone says that Jesus has changed, or that there’s new information about Jesus that no one has previously known, that person should be rejected.

So, what does this mean for us? What does this passage teach us and how should we live in light of it?

First, this passage explains, at least in part, why some people who seem to be Christians walk away from the faith. They do so because they were never really Christians to begin with. They did not have the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Still, this is confusing for us. Why would people who appeared to be Christians, who appeared to be sincere and passionate, later turn their backs on Jesus? Personally, I have seen men who have gone to seminary and were part of church plants later renounce what they claimed to believe. Why would they ever go to seminary in the first place?

The answer is that people are attracted to Christianity for different reasons. Some people, and this is true of children, aren’t settled in what they believe. That’s why some people who grew up in Christian homes, made a profession of faith when they were young, and were baptized don’t persevere in the faith. Children are impressionable. They will change when they are adolescents and young adults. That’s why there used to a be a tradition of baptizing people only after were adults. A number of Baptist pastors in the nineteenth century wouldn’t baptize their own children until they were at least 18. This includes Charles Spurgeon.[6]

Still others are attracted to Christianity because they confuse the gospel with something related to Christianity. I have seen people who seemed to be Christians come to Christianity because they like what it says about social justice and peace. They like what it says about loving other people. But those same people are quick to change their views on Jesus and his teachings when the prevailing culture changes. They hang on to Christian views on social justice—at least some forms of social justice—but reject orthodox Christian theology. That’s because they never really were passionate about the gospel. They confused a byproduct of the gospel with the gospel itself.

Other people have turned away from Christianity because they assumed that patriotism, politics, and the American dream are inherent to Christianity. When they saw Christians supporting political issues that they objected to, or that they thought were contrary to Christian principles, they were turned off. They thought, “If that’s Christianity, I want no part of it.” This is a real problem, one that Christians in America have contributed to. Whenever we confuse the gospel with other issues, or when we marry Christianity with a political party or a blind and uncritical love of country, we are being poor ambassadors for Christ. We aren’t representing our King well when we do that and, whether we realize it or not, we are communicating a distorted gospel.

That is why it is so important to be clear about the gospel. The good news of Christianity isn’t “join this political party,” or, “if we only get the right person in the White House/Congress/Supreme Court, then we’ll be saved.” The good news of Christianity isn’t “be a nice person” or “just get along with others.” The good news of Christianity is that although were made to worship and love and serve God, and yet have rebelled against God by ignoring him and rejecting him, God sent his one and only Son into the world to save us. The Son of God became a man, born as Jesus of Nazareth, and he lived the perfect life we don’t live. He always did what was right. He always loved God supremely and loved other people perfectly. Yet he died for our sins. He died to pay the penalty for our rebellion. And whoever puts his or her trust in Jesus, who loves him and follows him, who swears their allegiance to Jesus, not a country or a political party, is reconciled to God. That person is made right in God’s eyes not because of anything they have done, but because of everything Jesus has done. This is a gift given by God, not something we earn. That is the heart of Christianity. Don’t ever confuse the gospel with anything else.

Here is a second issue for us all: Are we truly for or against Jesus? In other words, are we Christians or antichrists? Jesus once said, “Whoever is not with is me is against me” (Matt. 12:30; Luke 11:23). We are either for Jesus or against him. There is no neutral ground. Is Jesus our King or not? Is he our Lord, our Master, as well our Savior and Friend? We are either living for him or we are against him. We either have a real relationship with him, which includes true knowledge of his identity and his works, or we don’t.

That leads me to a third issue: We should examine ourselves. Augustine, in a sermon on this passage, said, “each person ought to question his own conscience, whether he be an antichrist.”[7] You may think that is an odd thing to do, to question whether you are indeed for or against Jesus. But the apostle Paul says the same thing. In 2 Corinthians 13:5, he says, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” I believe the Bible teaches eternal security: “once saved, always saved.” But the question is whether someone has actually been saved in the first place. The question is whether a person has been born again, transformed by God, anointed by the Holy Spirit. We should examine ourselves and ask, “Why am I a Christian? Do I really love Jesus? Do I really believe the gospel? Does my life line up with what I say I believe? Am I moving closer to Jesus or am I drifting away from him?” I would simply ask you, why are you here? Are you here because you know the truth and are grateful? Are you here because you know you need Jesus and his grace? Or are you here thinking you’ve done your religious duty and now God owes you something? These are all questions we should ask of ourselves. Ask God to reveal to you your true spiritual condition. Like David, we should say:

23  Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
24  And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps. 139:23–24)

Fourth, and finally, we need to abide in Christ. We need to take our faith seriously. We stay close to Jesus by using God’s regular means of grace, things like reading the Bible, praying, and being part of a local church. If you stop doing these things, it’s spiritually dangerous. And I do think that being a part of a local church—not just showing up for an hour on Sunday, but getting involved as much as you can—is a very important part of abiding in Christ. Those who drift away from Jesus usually drift away from the church first. That is a very dangerous thing to do. If we see someone who has done that, don’t assume that because they once made a profession of faith and were baptized that they’re okay with God. They’re probably not. They may very well be in danger of going to hell. It is completely appropriate to reach out to that person and show concern for their soul. I think that’s why James ends his letter with these words:

19 My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, 20 let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19–20)

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/questions/antichrist.
  3. “The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians,” 7, in Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 213–215.
  4. David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 69–70.
  5. Ibid., 72.
  6. See Mark E. Dever, “Baptism in the Context of the Local Church,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, NAC Studies in Bible and Theology (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2006), 344–350.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, “Ten Homilies on the First Epistle of John,” 3.4, in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. H. Browne and Joseph H. Myers, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 476.

 

An Old and New Commandment (1 John 2:7-11)

This sermon was preached on May 14, 2017 by Brian Watson.
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“How do you know?” That’s a simple but very important question. There are all kinds of “How do you know?” questions:

“How do you know which career to pick?”

“How do you know who you should marry?”

“How do you know your life matters?”

“How do you know someone loves you?”

“How do you know everything will be okay?”

“How do you know whom to trust?”

“How do you know what happens after death?”

“How do you know you’re a good person?”

“How do you know what God is like?”

“How do you know that you truly know God and have a right relationship with him?”

We started studying John’s first letter a few weeks ago, and one of things that John wants the readers of this letter to know is whether they truly know God or not. He wants them to be certain that they are God’s children, that they have right relationships with God and therefore have eternal life.

Throughout this letter, John gives us a series of tests. In chapter 1, he says that if we say we don’t have sin, we’re deceived, we don’t know God, and we’re calling God a liar. John’s point is that every human being who has walked this earth has a sin issue. We all have rebelled against God. Well, every human being except one, and that’s Jesus.

In the beginning of chapter 2, John says Jesus is our advocate and atoning sacrifice. He says that we can know we know Jesus if we keep his commandments. If we say we’re Christians but don’t obey Jesus, we’re liars and the truth is not in us.

That’s a strong statement. It’s so strong that we should naturally ask, “Which commandments is John referring to? Which commandments must we obey to demonstrate that we’re followers of Jesus and children of God?” And that leads us to today’s passage, which is really a continuation of John’s thought.

Today, we’re looking at 1 John 2:7–11. I’ll read the whole passage first, and then go back and explain it.

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.[1]

John begins this paragraph by saying that he is not writing a new commandment, but an old one that his readers have already heard. But it’s also a new commandment. What does John mean? How can the commandment be both old and new?

To understand what John is getting at, we must think of Jesus’ own words. In the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others. When he is asked which is the greatest commandment, he says

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40).

Jesus sums up the Old Testament commands with these two: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. These are not new commandments, but old ones. They’re both found in the Old Testament. The first is found in Deuteronomy 6:5; the second one comes from Leviticus 19:18. It seems clear that Jesus wants anyone who will follow him to observe these two commandments. They’re not new commandments. They are what God has always expected of his people. I’m sure that this is what John and the other apostles preached when they told people about Jesus.

So, if this commandment is old, how can it also be new? Well, Jesus himself said it was. In John’s Gospel, on the night before Jesus died, he washed his disciples’ feet. This was an act that symbolized what he was about to do for them; in dying on the cross, he was going to wash them of their sins. This is what happened after he washed their feet. Let’s read John 13:12–17:

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Jesus also washed his disciples’ feet as an example. They should wash each other’s feet because he washed theirs. Of course, the meaning of the event has now changed. He’s not saying that we can wash each other of our sins. He means that we should serve one another. In that age, washing another’s feet was a practical act. When you wear sandals on dusty roads, your feet get dirty. In our day, we don’t need to wash one another’s feet, but there are certainly other practical deeds that we can do for each other to serve one another. The point is that Jesus expects his followers to serve one another, just as their master, Jesus, served them. And Jesus’ followers—his servants—will be blessed if they do what he says.

Several verses later, then, Jesus says he is giving them a new commandment. In John 13:34–35, he says,

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The commandment is simple: love one another. How is that new? Doesn’t Leviticus 19:18 says to love your neighbor as yourself? Yes, it does. But look carefully at Jesus’ command: “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The newness of the command is that Jesus himself has modeled it for them. God himself has become man and showed his people what love really looks like. The newness of the command is that Jesus has demonstrated and embodied this love.

Let’s look at one more passage in John’s Gospel. This is John 15:12–17:

12 This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16 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. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

Again, Jesus commands his followers not just to love one another, but to love one another as Jesus has loved them. The greatest love is this: to lay down one’s life for his friends. We’ll talk more about this as we look at 1 John 3. The point that we need to remember now is that Jesus loved us, and that should be our motivation to love others. Jesus laid down his life for us. He had our best interests in mind. He did what we most needed.

That gives us a clue as to what real love is about. So many people talk about love these days, without knowing what it really means. Love is giving someone what is best. Love is more of an action than a feeling. Love is caring for another person. It is giving that person what he or she needs.

To know how to love, we need to know what a person’s greatest need is. Really, to love someone, we need to know what the purpose of life is. If the purpose of life is to “be happy,” then loving another person will mean doing whatever is necessary to make a person feel happy. If the purpose of life is to minimize pain, then loving another person means doing whatever is necessary to make a person not feel bad. But if the purpose of life is to know God and have a right relationship with him, then loving another person means doing whatever is necessary to help that person know God and to help that person have a right relationship with God.

That’s what Jesus does for us. He helps us know God by being the clearest revelation of God there has ever been. He is the true image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). According to the book of Hebrews, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). And Jesus does what is necessary to put us into a right relationship with God. Our problem is that our sins have separated us from God. We aren’t born into this life with a nature that seeks after God. We make other people or other things—or, usually, ourselves—the most important things in our lives. But God should be the most important part of our lives. We don’t live like this, however. We turn from God and do what we want to do instead of what he wants us to do. This leads to all kinds of bad things for us. God’s commands are given for our good, but we think we know better and we do things that are harmful to us. To get back into a right relationship with God, we need someone to wash us of our sins. And Jesus does that for us. Everyone who trusts Jesus is cleansed of their sins and put back into a right relationship with God.

Before we think more about what that love looks like, let’s consider another reason why this command to love is new. Look again at verse 8 of 1 John 2: “At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” The commandment is new because it’s true in “him,” Jesus. As I said earlier, this commandment to love is embodied by Jesus. But John says it’s also true “in you”—in Christians. How is possible that this kind of love is true in Christians? John gives us the answer: “because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.”

John means that the true light of the world, Jesus, has come. And when Jesus came, died for our sins, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven, he poured out the Holy Spirit. This is a new era. It is the age of the new covenant, which was promised in the Old Testament (Jer. 31:31–34). God has written his law of love on the hearts of his people (Jer. 31:33). God has cleansed his people of their sin, given his people new hearts, and put the Holy Spirit inside of them (Ezek. 36:25–27). People of faith in the Old Testament loved one another, but now we can love one another to a greater extent because of Jesus’ example and through the power of the Holy Spirit, who now lives in God’s people.

Who are God’s people? Well, one way to know who God’s people are is to think of the test that John gives us. Let’s read again verses 9–11:

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes

On the positive side, whoever loves his (or her) brother (or sister) abides in the light. That is John’s way of saying that such a person truly knows God, who is light. In that person “there is no cause for stumbling.” That’s the translation of a Greek word (σκανδαλον), from which we get the word “scandal.” John means that a person who really loves others doesn’t put obstacles in their path to God.

On the negative side, however, those who say they know God but actually hate their brother or sister are still in darkness. That is, they don’t really know God. They are spiritually blind. “Hate” may seem like a very strong word. It’s perhaps a bit of hyperbole, a clear contrast to love. To fail to love someone the way that God wants us to love is to hate another person. This “hate” doesn’t have to be active. To fail to feed your child is to hate your child. You don’t have to actively do something bad, like physically abuse the child, in order to hate the child. All you have to do is withhold something good that the child needs. In the same way, when we withhold love from others, we hate them.

When we think of these verses, we need to remember what the Bible says about love. Real love is helping others know God and have a right relationship with him. If we don’t help other people know God, or if we end up teaching false things about God, we are hating another person. We are withholding an ultimate good from others. If we are stumbling blocks to other people, getting in the way of a true relationship with God, then we’re hating a person. In short, if we encourage people to sin, to not repent and put their faith in God, we are hating that person. We aren’t being truly loving.

Real love isn’t doing whatever makes some feel good. Real love isn’t necessarily minimizing another person’s pain, or making them feel “happy.” Real love is helping someone know God and have a right relationship with him. In fact, when we truly love someone, that person might not initially feel good at all. Real love can feel bad at first.

I say that because today, it is assumed that love involves making another person feel happy. How often do we hear parents say, “I just want my children to be happy”? Now, being happy isn’t wrong. But true, lasting happiness can only be found in God. The world’s version of happiness is like eating a candy bar. God’s happiness is a daily serving of the finest food. The world’s happiness may seem delicious, but it doesn’t last. It doesn’t nourish our souls. The happiness that comes from God is better for us and it never ends. So, loving parents should say, “I want my children to have the ultimate happiness of knowing God and having their lives transformed by him.” They should say, “I want my children to know Jesus and follow him.”

Love is never opposed to God’s commandments. In fact, to love someone truly is to love them according to God’s commandments. We see that in another passage in the New Testament, Romans 13:8–14:

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

11 Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Notice that in this passage, Paul brings together love and law. He mentions some of the Ten Commandments (don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t covet—Commandments Seven, Six, Eight, and Ten) and says that they are summed up in the commandment to love our neighbors (Lev. 19:18). True love is not wronging your neighbor according to God’s moral law. When we sin, we harm our relationship with God and we hurt others. But when love others, we observe God’s laws, and this is good for us and for them.

Paul also says, like John, that the era of darkness is passing away. He urges us to walk in the light. And that means not fighting, not being jealous, not being drunk, and not engaging in sexual immorality. It’s an era of love, but this is a love marked by discipline and self-control. It’s not a love that says, “Do whatever makes you happy.” It’s a love that says, “Do what God wants you to do, and then you’ll truly be happy.”

So, what does this mean for us? How should we live in light of this passage?

First, I want us to see what our motivation for loving others is. John tells us that true Christians love their brothers and sisters. He means that we should love other Christians. But we also know that Jesus tells us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–28). We can think of many reasons why we should love other Christians. We should love them because Jesus died for them and redeemed them. God chose them and they are precious in his sight. They are part of the body of Christ, and we should love Christ’s entire body. They are part of the bride of Christ, and if we love Jesus, we’ll love his bride. But it seems that the motivation here is Jesus’ example of love. He loved us first, and we should love others in that same way. God loved us while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:6–10), and we should therefore love our enemies.

That kind of motivation to love is very different than the world’s motivation to love. If you ask people who are not Christians why they should love others, you will get different responses. Some who belong to other religions may say, “God commanded us to love.” And while God does command us to love, it’s not just some arbitrary command. The true God commands us to love because he is love and he showed his love for us in his Son, Jesus.

Other people may say that we should love others in order to get something from them. This is a pragmatic, utilitarian sort of view. If everyone did nice things for one another, then life would go better for all of us. There are two problems with this view. One, it’s not the definition of love that the Bible gives us. Love isn’t necessarily “being nice” or “doing good” in a vague, undefined way. Love is helping other people know God, helping them have a right relationship with God, and also helping them experience something of God’s goodness. Too often, we think of love as simply doing something that others want. If we do to others what they want, perhaps they’ll do to us what we want. And that reveals the second problem with this approach to “love.” In the end, it’s selfish. It’s ultimately focused on the self and what we can get. But true love focuses on others, first on God and then on other people.

My point is that we should have the right motivation to love. God loved us in Christ, and therefore we should love others because we have been changed and moved by God’s love. If you want to know what this love is like, read 1 Corinthians 13:4–7:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Recently, I had a friend visiting from out of town, another pastor. As we were talking about life, he said that when he reads that passage, he wonders if he’s ever loved someone else. It’s true that our love for others will always fall short of God’s love for us. But we should still aspire to this kind of love. When we understand how God has loved us, we will love others. God loves us even though we’re not very lovable. He loved us before we loved him. He loves us more than we love him. God’s love is patient and bears all things. God’s love for his children bears and endures their foolishness, their waywardness, and their lack of love. God’s love is forgiving.

The second thing I want to talk about is how we can love others. I want us to think about this in three categories: How we can help others know God; how we can help others experience something of God’s love and goodness; and how we can help others have a right relationship with God.

One, we can love others by helping others know God better. Christians are commanded to do this. The apostle Paul writes, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). When we teach each other, when we share passages from the Bible, when we remind each other of who God is, we love each other. And that love should extend to non-Christians. Teaching them about God is an act of love. Evangelism isn’t primarily about making us feel good, or boosting numbers. It’s an act of love.

Two, we love others when we give them a glimpse of God’s love and goodness. Most of our acts of love could be placed in this category. Serving other people in practical ways gives others a glimpse of how Jesus serves us. Cooking a meal for others gives them a hint of how God has prepared a table for us, how God provides our daily bread, and how God is preparing an end-time feast for his people. Of course, whatever meal we make isn’t those things, but it’s a shadow of those things. It can help point people to the real thing. The same is true of any act of lovingkindness.

Sometimes those acts can be very practical. I recently read the story of a woman who was married and had young children. She and her family were in the process of packing to move from one state to another. At that time, she heard that her brother and his family died in a car crash. Her mother told her to come as soon as she could. This involved getting on a plane. She and her family were trying to prepare to leave to see her mother and to go to her brother’s funeral and they were struggling to get organized.

This woman said that many of her friends told her, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” They were good intentioned, but she and her family were so distraught that they couldn’t think straight. They didn’t know what to ask for. They were so overwhelmed by the chaos of their life and their grief that they couldn’t think straight.

But a man from church showed up at her door and said, “I’ve come to clean your shoes.” The woman was confused. She asked him to repeat what he said. He explained that when his father died, it took him hours to clean and shine the shoes of his many children. He knew this woman would have a similar need. So, he asked for all the shoes in the house, then he sat down on the kitchen floor, spread out newspaper, and cleaned and shined each shoe. This grieving wife, mother, and sister said that not only did this act of love help her pack her family to leave for the funeral, but it also helped her restore a sense of order to her mind. This man’s simple act of cleaning shoes helped her focus on other tasks that enabled her to pack.[2] That is love. This man knew what this woman needed and he gave it to her, without seeking anything in return.

We should know each other well enough to know what each one of us needs. And when we act to give each other what we need, we’re giving each other a glimpse of God’s goodness and love. In fact, God often loves us through the acts of others. And God almost always provides for us through other people. So, when we do good for others, we’re doing the work of God.

The third way we can love others is by helping them have a right relationship with God. We can’t die for the sins of others. And there’s no need to do that, because Jesus’ death on the cross can and will pay for the sins of any who turn to him. But we can help each other stay on track in our relationships with God. When we encourage people to sin, we’re being stumbling blocks to each other. We’re getting in another person’s way of having a good relationship with God. But when we help correct each other, we’re actually loving one another. Think of Jesus’ love for his disciples. Jesus’ love wasn’t a sappy, nostalgic sort of love. Jesus’ love wasn’t always a “nice” love. Jesus loved his disciples so much that he corrected them. He rebuked them. When we challenge each other, it’s not unloving. When we see another person sin and we do nothing, we’re withholding something good from that person. When we see people running away from God and we’re silent, we don’t love that other person. In fact, according to John, we’re hating that person. Correcting a person in a patient, kind, and respectful way is actually an act of love.

If you are a Christian, you must love other Christians and even your enemies. You can’t truly love God without loving other people. That means we can’t be indifferent to each other’s needs. I don’t know about you, but I struggle with this and I find it challenging.

We also can’t hate others. You can’t live in the light if you hate other people. Hatred has a way of blinding us. Hate keeps us from seeing the truth. If you have experienced the love of God in Jesus, love others, whether they are your brothers and sisters in Christ or whether they are your enemies.

If you are not a Christian, I would urge you to think about this love that God has shown us. God loves us so much that he sent his one and only Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. Jesus lived the perfect life that we don’t live, and he laid down his life for us as an atoning sacrifice. His death pays the penalty for our failure to love God and others. Everyone who trusts Jesus, everyone who truly loves Jesus, and everyone who follows him is forgiven of that failure to love. Everyone who is united to Jesus will experience God’s love forever. Everyone who has the Holy Spirit in their life is adopted as God’s child and will never be disowned. That is a love that you can experience today if you turn to Jesus in faith.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Madge Harrah, “This Powerful Story Will Convince You to Stop Saying, ‘Let Me Know if You Need Anything,’” Reader’s Digest, December 1983, http://www.rd.com/true-stories/inspiring/let-me-know-if-you-need-anything/amp.

 

We Have an Advocate (1 John 2:1-6)

This sermon was preached on May 7, 2017 by Brian Watson.
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There always have been, and there always will be (well, until Jesus returns), misunderstandings about Christianity. Some people think that Christianity is moralism. It’s all about toeing the line, obeying the rules, and generally having a miserable time. The writer and atheist H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”[1] Many people see Christians as dour, “holier than thou” killjoys who talk more about what they’re against than what they’re for. Perhaps atheists, agnostics, and generally irreligious people see Christianity as just another religion, one in which you’re supposed to follow the rules if you want to get to heaven.

Other people see Christianity in a different light. I once met a young man whose pastor was a father. This young man was not a Christian. He said he didn’t think it was fair that a good person, say, a doctor who dedicated his life to going to third-world countries where he would serve the poor, could go to hell because he didn’t follow Jesus. Other people, perhaps people who follow strict religions, think that the idea of grace is a ticket to sin. They don’t think it’s fair that a murderer could be forgiven. And they think that if we’re simply forgiven all our sins, then there’s nothing to keep us from continually sinning.

I suppose those misunderstandings about Christianity exist because of false teachers. There have been some people who have stressed obedience so much that they hardly mention God’s mercy and grace. They have falsely given the impression that Christianity is primarily about obeying a set of rules and striving to be a good person. And I suppose there are others who have falsely taught that God’s grace doesn’t place any demands on us, so we can sin abundantly so grace would abound abundantly. Today, it seems that the false teaching regarding Christianity leans toward universalism. Universalism is the belief that, in the end, everyone will be reconciled to God. In other words, universalism teaches that everyone will be saved, everyone will be with God forever.

The passage that we’re looking at today, 1 John 2:1–6, if misunderstood, could cause someone to think that Christianity is all about not sinning, or that everyone’s sins are paid for. But when rightly understood, this passage speaks against such things. John’s letter is so important because it gives us a fuller picture of what it means to be a Christian, and as we study this letter, we’ll discuss false versions of Christianity.

So, without further ado, let’s read the whole paragraph, and then I’ll explain it.

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.[2]

John begins by telling his readers one of the reasons why he is writing to them. He calls them “little children” because he is an old man, and he probably feels a sense of fatherly love for these Christians. Because he loves them and cares for them, he says that he writes so that they may not sin. If that were all he wrote, it would be easy to misunderstand John’s message and think, “So, Christianity is all about not sinning!” Well, the truth is that Christians shouldn’t sin. They shouldn’t want to sin, but not for the reasons that some might think.

You see, John is concerned about three things in this letter. You may say he’s concerned about the head, the heart, and the hands. He wants his readers to truly know God. He wants them to have correct beliefs about Jesus. He also wants them to have a right love for God and for others. That love should reflect God’s love for us and it should motivate everything that we do. And he wants his readers to live rightly. So, rightly understood, not sinning isn’t about trying to earn something from God. It’s about trying to live the best life, the one God wants for us. When we sin, we’re going against God’s design for our lives. Not sinning doesn’t mean life will be easy or fun, but when we sin less, we’ll naturally experience more of God’s blessings. But our desire not to sin shouldn’t be motivated by a desire to earn something from God. It should be motivated by love for God and thanks for what God has done for us. We shouldn’t want to sin because it is harmful to us and it is displeasing to God.

We don’t want to miss the second half of verse 1. John says that is we do sin, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” John knows that we’re going to sin, even though our goal should be to sin less and less. Toward the end of chapter 1, he writes that if we say we don’t sin, we’re liars (1 John 1:8, 10). Though John’s statements about not sinning seem rather strict, I don’t think he expects that we’re going to reach a level of sinless perfection in this life. And the good news is that if we sin, we have an advocate, a defender. The Greek word is παράκλητος, which is used in John’s Gospel to refer to the Holy Spirit. It is sometimes translated “helper” or “comforter.” Jesus promised his disciples that “another Helper” would come to them, the “Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17). The first Helper, our champion, defender, Lord, and Savior, is Jesus himself.

What does it mean for Jesus to be our advocate? A couple of other passages shed light on this issue. Here is Romans 8:33–34:

33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

And here is Hebrews 7:23–27:

23 The former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office, 24 but he [Jesus] holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.

These passages state that no one can condemn God’s chosen people, true Christians, because Jesus makes intercession for them. He is a forever-priest, never failing to intercede for his people. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament Israel, he will never die, and he has no sins of his own to atone for.

To be our advocate, or to intercede for us, means that Jesus is pleading our case before God the Father. It’s as if he is saying to the Father, “Look, I died for them! I took the penalty that they deserve! And, look again, I’m the righteous one! My perfect, sinless life is credited to them. Father, when you consider them, look at what I’ve done.”

Jesus is also praying for us. Perhaps it’s best to consider a passage from the Gospels that shows what that looks like. While on earth, Jesus prayed for his disciples. When Jesus tells Simon Peter that he will betray Jesus, Jesus tells him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31–32). Jesus prayed for Peter. He prayed that his faith wouldn’t fail, even though Satan wanted to sift him like wheat, or remove him from Jesus’ flock. What’s interesting is that the first “you”—“Satan demanded to have you”—is plural. Satan wanted the disciples, not just Peter. And Jesus says he prayed individually for Peter. According to Mark Jones, a pastor and theologian, “There is no Christian alive who has not had Christ mention his or her name to the Father.”[3]

Think about that: If you have real, abiding faith in Jesus, it is because the Father chose you from before the foundation of the world, and because Jesus died for your sins (Eph. 1:3–10). And Jesus is now—right now!—pleading your case before the Father. And he will always do that. That means if you fail—and you will—Jesus is always pleading your case. He will never give up on you. His sacrificial death on the cross is more than enough to pay for your sins. His righteous life is more than enough to present you acceptable and blameless in God’s eyes. That is great news.

Now, let’s move on to verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” That word, “propitiation,” is a big one, and it can be translated in different ways. Sometimes, it’s understood as “expiation,” which means extinguishing guilt, or making atonement. Propitiation includes that idea but goes further. It means to gain or regain favor, or to appease. The idea is that Jesus not only wipes away the guilt of the sinners who trust in him, but he also makes the Father favorable toward them. Robert Peterson puts it this way: “Propitiation is directed toward God and expiation is directed toward sin. Propitiation is the turning away of God’s wrath, and expiation is the putting away of sin.”[4]

The idea goes back to the Old Testament sacrifices for sin. Even before God gave Israel the law, it appears that some sacrifices made God favorable once again toward humanity. In the days of Noah, the people on earth were wicked, and God sent a flood to judge the world. He saved only Noah and his family. After the flood waters subsided, Noah offered up a sacrifice. We read this in Genesis 8:20–22:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

It seems that the smell of the sacrifice pleased God and made him favorable towards humanity. He promised never to curse the ground again and destroy every living creature on earth. This sacrifice seems to have satisfied God’s righteous demand for sin to be punished.[5]

One other Old Testament passage sheds some light on Jesus’ sacrifice. In Leviticus 16, we read about the Day of Atonement. This was one day a year when the sins of Israel would be wiped away and paid for. The high priest first had to offer the sacrifice of a bull for his own sin (Lev. 16:6, 11–14). Then he took two goats. One goat would be killed and the other would be the “scapegoat.” The blood of the goat that was killed would purify the tabernacle and the altar of all the sins of Israel, which corrupted their worship of God (Lev. 16:15–19). The high priest would then place his hands on the live goat, symbolically transferring the sins of Israel to this goat, which would then be released into the wilderness. In Leviticus 16:21–22, we read these instructions concerning Aaron, Moses’s brother and the first high priest:

21 And Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. 22 The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

In that way, all the sins of Israel were removed.

Of course, these actions didn’t actually accomplish anything. That’s why I said they were symbolic. Hebrews 10:4 says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Animals can never be substitutes for human beings. We need a human being who can step in for us. We also need a human being who is a perfect sacrifice, one who is infinite, who can take on the sins of millions and even billions of people who come to him, one who will never change. There’s only one person who can fulfill that role, and that is Jesus. He takes away the sin of everyone who is united to him. And he makes God propitious, or favorable, toward us. Paul, borrowing the sacrificial language of the Old Testament, says, “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). Jesus willingly died for us, and his sacrifice was pleasing to the Father. As 1 Peter 3:18 says, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”

John then also says that Jesus makes propitiation for the whole world. This, again, is verse 2: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” I think this needs some explaining. This may be a verse that attracts universalists. They might say, “Ah, Jesus has taken care of the sin problem of everyone in the world! I don’t think that’s what John means at all. Let’s think through this a bit. First, we should note that in the Greek, it doesn’t say “for the sins of the whole world,” but only “for the whole world.” Now, maybe that doesn’t affect the meaning much, because “sins of” is implied.

But, second, we need to look carefully at how John uses “world” in this letter. One of the ways that we read the Bible well is by paying attention to how an author uses language. We may think we understand a sentence when we’re reading it because we’re reading it the way we would use that language. But what we’re trying to do is understand what John meant. So, look at 1 John 2:15–17:

15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

That first sentence seems quite absolute: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” So, love nothing physical, right? Wrong. Look at how John defines “world” in verse 16: “all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.” But, wait a minute! Didn’t God create everything in the world? In 1 Timothy 4:4, Paul writes, “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” So, in this passage, John means that we shouldn’t love “worldly” things, things that take us away from God, things that cause us to covet and to be proud. He doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love each and every “thing” in the world.

Then look at 1 John 5:18–19:

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.

19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

John says that those who are “born of God” are protected and the evil one, Satan, cannot touch them. Then he says that “the whole world” lies in the power of Satan. Clearly, “the whole world” cannot include Christians, who are not touched by Satan. So, “the whole world” doesn’t mean everyone in the world, just as “all that is in the world” doesn’t mean every single thing and/or person in the world.

Third, we need to use some basic reasoning. If Jesus indeed was the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, in the sense of “for every single person without exception in the world,” that would mean that everyone’s sins would be removed. God would be favorable toward every single human being. We might wish that were the case. Indeed, it would be nice to think that all human beings will be saved. But that’s not what the Bible says. John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Ephesians 5:6 says, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” God’s wrath will come upon those who reject Jesus. But if Jesus were the propitiation for all the sins of every single person in the world, no one would face God’s wrath.

So, what does John mean? I think he means that Jesus is the only savior. He is not just the savior for first-century Christians living near Ephesus. He is the world’s only savior. There is no one else who can make God favorable toward you and forgive you for ignoring him, rebelling against him, rejecting his word, and doing what is wrong. There is no one else who will plead your case before God. No pastor or priest on earth can do that. No politician can. No celebrity or teacher or professor or employer is qualified to do that. The only one God the Father will listen to without fail is his Son Jesus, the perfect, righteous, great high priest. And Jesus only prays for his disciples. In John 17:9, Jesus told the Father, “I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” In short, there is no other savior, and to be reconciled to God, you need to come to Jesus and have a right relationship with him. As much as we would love everyone to be saved, that is not going to happen. Many people simply don’t want to have a relationship with the true God. They want to have a god of their own design, a god they can create and manipulate and control.

But in the end, Jesus will save people of all kinds throughout the world. Revelation 5:9 says to Jesus, “you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Jesus died for the sins of his people. The free offer of the gospel should be made to all people, but not all will put their trust in Jesus and follow him.

Obviously, if this is true, then having a relationship with Jesus is of the utmost importance. How do we know that we are united to Jesus? How do we know that we are reconciled to the Father on the basis of Jesus’ works? Look at verses 3–6 again:

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.

One way that we can know that we know Jesus is if we keep his commandments. If we say we know Jesus but we don’t do what he says, we’re liars. But if we keep his word, we can know that we are “in Christ.” If we’re united to Jesus, we should live like he did.

To clarify things a bit, the commandments of Jesus are not only his “red-letter words,” but also the words he delivered through his apostles (see 2 Pet. 3:2). Jesus spoke in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the apostles wrote Scripture in the power of that same Spirit, so we shouldn’t drive a wedge between the two. Paul’s commands are ultimately Jesus’ commands. So are John’s. Generally, we can say that all of these commands can be summed up in loving God and loving others, though we must be careful to pay attention to the specifics of the ethical principles that run through the whole Bible, in particular the commands found in the New Testament.

Does this mean that only those who obey all Jesus’ commands all the time belong to Jesus? Well, John has already told us that everyone has a sin issue, and he assumes that we will sin and therefore continue to need our advocate, Jesus. So, he can’t mean that we must perfectly obey Jesus’ commandments in order to be united to him. He didn’t write, “Little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. For if you sin just once, you will be kicked out of God’s family.”

What John must mean is that true Christians are generally becoming more and more obedient to Jesus. We can’t say we’re Christians and then ignore Jesus and his apostles. People do that, of course, but they’re liars. The truth is not in them. If we know Jesus, we will listen to his word and do what he says. We may not obey perfectly, all the time, but there will be evidence that we obey.

Some of Jesus’ own words, found in John’s Gospel, shed light on this reality. In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the “good shepherd,” and he calls his people his “sheep.” He says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14). Then, later, he says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Those who belong to Jesus’ flock pay attention to what he says, and then they act.

Later, also in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that those who love him obey him. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me” (John 14:21). “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). What about the one who doesn’t keep Jesus’ words? “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24).

Those who are united to Jesus trust him, follow him, and love him, even if they do so imperfectly. There is no such thing, according to the Bible, as a person who is reconciled to God apart from Jesus. There is no such thing as a Christian who is not a follower of Jesus. There is no such thing as an obedient Christian who doesn’t love Jesus, or someone who loves Jesus but doesn’t obey him.

We do what Jesus says not because we’re trying to earn something from him. We obey because we love him. We trust our shepherd. We trust that his commandments are for our good. And so, we listen. We love Jesus because he first loved us and gave himself for us. We obey not only out of love, but also out of gratitude. In Christian ethics, motivation matters. Those who obey God trying to gain something from him don’t understand the gospel.

What this means is that true Christians continue to grow in obedience. We’ll never be perfect in this life, but we should more and more follow the example of Jesus’ obedience to the Father. Jesus knew Scripture, and so should we. Jesus prayed to the Father, and so should we. Jesus loved others and had compassion on those who were needy, and so should we. But, of course, Jesus is the God-man, completely perfect. We won’t be perfected until we’re with Jesus, living in a new creation. But we should aspire to grow.

John Newton, a former slave trader and the author of “Amazing Grace,” captured this well when he said, “I am not what I ought to be; but I am not what I once was. And it is by the grace of God that I am what I am.”[6] If we’re honest, we must admit that we’re not yet what we ought to be. But if we’re Christians, we should be able to look back at our lives and say, “By the grace of God, I am not what I once was.”

If you are a Christian, start following Jesus. Start with the basics. Read the Bible regularly. Pray regularly. Meet with Christians regularly. Be part of a local church where you serve and are served by others. As you read the Bible and grow in your understanding, live out what you read. Start ordering your home according to Scripture. Husbands, you are the head of your home and should love your wives. Wives, honor and respect your husbands. Parents, raise your children with discipline and instruct them in the things of the Lord. Children, obey and honor your parents. Employees, work hard as if you’re working for God. Be honest. Don’t steal. Don’t covet. Be faithful to your God and your spouse (if you have one). If you’re not married, don’t have sexual contact with others. Love other people. Pay attention to the poor and needy around you. Be generous. Be careful what comes into your eyes and ears. Be careful about what comes out of your mouth.

These are all very basic things, but they’re all important. And we should do these things because they are good for us, because they’re pleasing to God, and because we love him. If you’re a Christian, you need to obey Jesus.

Now, if you’re here today and you’re not following Jesus this way, what are you waiting for? I promise you that there is no ultimate hope outside of Jesus. There is no relationship with God outside of Jesus. There is no deliverance from death and despair outside of Jesus. He is our only hope. If you want to know more about what it means to follow Jesus, I would love to talk to you.

One last word: All that talk of God’s wrath, and of sacrifices, may seem odd to you. I understand. However, that shows that God is serious about justice. God cares more about justice than we do. And living our lives for anything other than God is injustice. Living our lives for something or someone else actually harms us and it destroys God’s world. So, God is right to care about justice.

I want to close with these wonderful words by a theologian named David Jackman:

[God’s] wrath is neither an emotion nor a petulant fit of temper, but the settled conviction of righteousness in action to destroy both sin and the sinner. The glory of the gospel is that we have an advocate who pleads for mercy on the ground of his own righteous action when he died the death that we deserve to die. Once the penalty has been paid, there cannot be any further demand for the sinner to be punished. God has himself met our debt. He came in person to do so. The cross is not the Father punishing an innocent third party, the Son, for our sins. It is God taking to himself, in the person of the Son, all the punishment that his wrath justly demands, quenching its sword, satisfying its penalty and thus atoning for our sins.[7]

 Notes

  1. H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings (New York: Vintage, 1982), 624.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Mark Jones, Knowing Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2015), 179.
  4. Robert A. Peterson, Salvation Accomplished by the Son: The Work of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 85. Propitiation is mentioned also in Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; and 1 John 4:10.
  5. See also Lev. 1:9; 2:1–2; 3:3, 5; 4:29, 31.
  6. Quoted in David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 43.
  7. David Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters: Living in the Love of God, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 46–47.

 

The Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4)

This sermon was preached by Pastor Brian Watson on April 23, 2017.
Sermon recording.
PDF of typescript (not a transcript of the recording, but the written sermon that was prepared in advance).

Have you ever heard news that sounds too good to be true? Years ago, I used to get emails offering me great fortune. I’m not sure when this started, but it was around 2004, and I got several of these messages. I guess I was particularly lucky. Here’s an example:

Dear Friend,

I am Barrister Rotimi Adams, the personal attorney to Mr. James Watson, herein after referred to as my client, a national of your country, who until his death was a major crude oil contractor with the federal government of Nigeria.

My client and his entire family were involved in a fatal motor accident along the Sagamu express road, sparing none of the occupants of the vehicle. I have since then made several enquiries to your Embassy, in a bid to locate any relation of my client, and these efforts of mine have not been productive. I then decided to trace his last name over the Internet, and came across your name that is why I have contacted you to assist me in securing the money and property left behind by my client before they are declared as unclaimed and unserviceable by the bank where they have been lodged for safekeeping. I am particularly interested in securing the funds lodged with Global Trust Bank Plc, totaling fifteen Million, United States Dollar (USD15M). This is because the said Bank has issued a notice to me, unequivocally instructing me to produce the Next of Kin/Beneficiary to the said account within the next ten official working days, or have the account confiscated.

I solicit your consent to enable me produce you as The Next of Kin to my deceased client, since you both bear the same last name. The funds will then be transferred to you as the beneficiary and shared according to a proposed sharing pattern /ratio of 70:30, i.e. 70% for me and 30% for you. I will provide all the necessary legally obtained documents to back up any claim we make regarding this process, and will just require your understanding and cooperation to enable us achieve success within a legitimate arrangement, eliminating any liability resulting from any breach of the prevalent laws.

Your urgent response will be highly appreciated; you can as well forward to me your Telephone number immediately for more discussion.

Best Regards,
Barrister Rotimi Adams[1]

That’s great news. I could get 30 percent of $15 million—that’s $4.5 million! Of course, all I have to do is transfer the good barrister some funds in order to pay the fees for acquiring the necessary documents. But it’s totally worth it. After all, what’s an investment of a thousand or two dollars when I’m getting millions of dollars back?

Of course, this is a scam. And we know it is. You’d have to be pretty naïve not to see that. And I should know, because I fell for it twice. But by the third time I received a message like that, I was wise to those scammers. All kidding aside, we know that such a message is too good to be true. We don’t have reason to trust Barrister Adams, or whoever it was that wrote that email.

That email promised great wealth, but the message of the Bible promises us something far greater. The Bible promises us not a few million dollars. The Bible promises us eternal life, a life with God in a perfect world, a life that never ends.

Today, we’re starting to look at a letter that is most certainly written by the apostle John, one of Jesus’ original followers. Towards the end of the 1 John, he tells us the reason for writing this letter. In 1 John 5:13, he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” In the Gospel of John, which uses very similar language, John writes,

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

John wrote his Gospel, his biography of Jesus, so that we would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, and that we would have life by believing in him. And John wrote his first letter so that his readers would know for certain that they have eternal life.

John tells us that by having a proper relationship with Jesus, we will live forever. It’s hard to top that claim. It’s the best news. And John is so sure about his message that he writes, in chapter 4: “We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v. 6). John says that those who disagree with him don’t know God. That, too, is a big claim. In chapter 2, he writes, “No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also” (v. 23). So, not only do you have to listen to John to know God, but you must agree with how he describes the Son, Jesus, in order to have the Father. No one who holds a different view of Jesus than the one John presents has a right relationship with God. No one who denies John’s view of Jesus has eternal life.

A lot is riding on these claims. If John is right, one’s eternal destiny is on the line. John wrote this letter because people who had different views of Jesus left the churches that he wrote to. John wanted to reassure his readers about who Jesus is and how they could know they have eternal life. Having a right view of Jesus is essential. That’s not because God is going to give us a final exam at the end of our lives, as if we’ll be tested on some theological knowledge. No, the idea is that if you have a real relationship with Jesus, you’ll know what he’s like, just as if you’re actually married to your spouse, you’ll know what he or she is like. Jesus isn’t a wax nose. He has a particular identity. And the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, isn’t something we can edit. This message has a particular content. Different religions say very different things about God and Jesus. We need to know who the real Jesus is.

So, how do we know that John is right? How do we know his claims are true? Why should we trust John when we can’t trust Barrister Adams?

One reason we should consider John’s claims is that he says he was an eyewitness to the life of Jesus. And, unlike Barrister Adams, John had little to gain by making that claim. He certainly didn’t stand to make $10.5 million. As a Jewish man living in the Roman Empire, John’s claims about Jesus would put him at odds with both Jews who weren’t Christians and Romans who weren’t Christians. In fact, it’s hard to understand why John and the other apostles would make the claims they do unless they believed what they were writing was true.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s read the beginning of John’s first letter. I’ll read 1 John 1:1–4:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.[2]

John begins by talking about “the word of life.” That could be the message of the gospel, the good news about who Jesus is and what he’s done. But John says that he and others touched the word of life. So, he must be referring to Jesus himself. Jesus is the word of life. You can’t separate the man from the message about him. This is very similar to the beginning of John’s gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1–5).

In both his Gospel and his first letter, John talks about “the beginning.” In 1 John, it seems like he could be talking about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. But in the Gospel, he’s talking about the beginning. In this Gospel, John says that Jesus is God and that he created the universe. Christianity says that Jesus is both God and man, that he is the one who created the universe and everything in it, and that he is the one who gives eternal life.

So, why should we believe this claim?

That’s a complex question, and I won’t be able to do justice to it fully this morning. The evidence is too complex to get into fully, but I’ll try to give us reasons why it’s rational to believe that Christianity is true. After all, if it’s not true, it’s useless. If you read the New Testament, you can very easily see that the writers are stating quite clearly that Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). They say that if he didn’t rise from the grave in a real, indestructible body, Christianity is worthless (1 Cor. 15:12–19).

There are many reasons why people believe in a certain religion. Often, people accept their parents’ faith, or the faith of those around them. Of course, other people rebel against their parents’ faith, and their own faith (or lack thereof) seems to be a reaction against their upbringing. Some people are attracted to a religion because they like what it teaches. They are attracted to a certain vision that a religion paints. But if a religion isn’t true, there’s no good reason to embrace it.

If I didn’t think John and others saw Jesus during his life, could testify to his death, and saw and even touched Jesus after he rose from the grave, I wouldn’t be a Christian. I was thinking about this recently: What would have to be true for me to stop being a Christian? In other words, what would be a defeater for the Christian faith?

I don’t think science can disprove Christianity. I don’t believe the Bible is a book of science. There are ways to harmonize the Bible with various scientific paradigms without doing damage to the text of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that scientists are always right. Not at all. But I don’t think science has the tools to disprove Christianity.

Some people assume that the miraculous and the supernatural don’t exist, and that since Christianity is built on these things, it’s false. But, again, I don’t think science disproves miracles. To disprove miracle claims, you would have to be omniscient. Think about it: To say, “A dead man has never risen from the grave two days after being killed,” is to say that you have known what has happened to every single dead person from the dawn of time. Of course, dead people stay dead. Unless. Unless God exists. If God exists, anything is possible. If God exists, he can bring the dead to life, just as he made a universe out of nothing. We have a number of lines of evidence for the existence of God as well as philosophical arguments that show that the idea of God is rational and coherent. So, miracles are certainly philosophically possible. And we have numerous miracle claims throughout history, from around the world. Many people from all times and places have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3] Though I have never personally witnessed a miracle, I have every reason to believe that miracles are possible.

I think there are only two ways that you could disprove Christianity. One is to show that the Christian system of thought, or the Christian worldview, is incoherent or self-contradictory. Having studied the Christian worldview extensively, I think it’s a system of thought that doesn’t contradict itself. By itself it makes sense. And I think it makes sense of life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Christianity is true. It could all be a lie. If someone could prove that the Gospels and the other New Testament documents were simply made up, and if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave, then I would have to abandon Christianity.

So, should we trust John and his claim that he and others can testify that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is God, that he is the Creator, and he is the one who can give eternal life? I think we have many good reasons to trust John. But in order to see why Christianity is unique as a religion, we have to consider how it differs from other religions.

Before we do that, let make one important comment: We live in a pluralistic society, in which there are many religions. And we live in a relativistic culture, which often refuses to state that any religion is true. But the fact is that they can’t all be true. They say very different things about God and Jesus. They say very different things about how to be reconciled to God and have an eternal reward. The things they say are contradictory. It is impossible that they’re all true. I believe that Christianity is true and that other religions are false. That doesn’t mean I have to be hateful or disrespectful to people with different views. I can love other people even when I say, “I think you’re wrong.” That’s true tolerance.

So, my point is that we shouldn’t belittle other religions. My point is that they can’t all be true. We should, at the least, know the story of their origins. To see why we should trust that the Bible is God’s message to us, we should look at how other religions have made claims about their holy books.

First, let’s consider the story of how Islam started. The story is about a man named Muhammad, living in what is now Saudi Arabia. “Muhammad was in the habit of taking regular periods of retreat and reflection in the Cave of Hira outside Mecca. This is where the first revelation of the Qur’an came to him in 610 ce, when he was 40 years old.”[4] Muhammad was alone in the cave the first time the angel spoke to him, but subsequent times others were with him. According to one account,

When he experienced the ‘state of revelation’, those around him were able to observe his visible, audible, and sensory reactions. His face would become flushed and he would fall silent and appear as if his thoughts were far away, his body would become limp as if he were asleep, a humming sound would be heard about him, and sweat would appear on his face, even on winter days. This state would last for a brief period and as it passed the Prophet would immediately recite new verses of the Qur’an. The revelation would descend on him as he was walking, sitting, riding, or giving a sermon, and there were occasions when he waited anxiously for it for over a month in answer to a question he was asked, or in comment on an event: the state was clearly not the Prophet’s to command. The Prophet and his followers understood these signs as the experience accompanying the communication of Qur’anic verses by the Angel of Revelation (Gabriel), while the Prophet’s adversaries explained them as magic or as a sign of his ‘being possessed’.[5]

According to another account, after Muhammad experienced the first encounter with the angel, “Mohammed [sic] came down from the mountain sick with fear, thinking he might have been possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit.”[6] Both of those accounts, by the way, were written by Muslims.

Muhammad then spoke these revelations to others, who wrote down the revelations. They were only collected into the form of the Qur’an after Muhammad’s death in 632. The Qur’an is very different from the New Testament for a few reasons. One, the revelation came from an angel to one man. Two, Muhammad is not really the author of the Qur’an. He relayed a message, but, at least in the story of Islam, he is not considered an author. And, three, the content of the Qur’an ranges from the time of the Old Testament, including many stories of Old Testament figures like Adam, Noah, Moses, and David, to the time of the New Testament, including many mentions of Jesus. But these revelations were given many centuries after the events took place.

The New Testament, on the other hand, is different. One, it was written by at least eight people and probably nine. Two, it was authored by people, who were under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to write what he wanted written. That’s why we can talk of John writing his Gospel or a letter, or Paul writing letters. They are truly authors, but they were doing exactly what God wanted them to do, so that we also say their words are God’s words. And, three, the authors of the New Testament claim to be eyewitnesses or people associated with eyewitnesses. For example, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, he makes it clear that he wasn’t an eyewitness to Jesus, but he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote up his own orderly account of Jesus’ life (Luke 1:1–4).

The Qur’an talks about Jesus but it says he isn’t the Son of God. It says,

People of the Book [in this case, Christians], do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word directed to Mary, and a spirit from him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a ‘Trinity’—stop [this], that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son, everything in the heavens and earth belongs to Him and He is the best one to trust.[7]

To Muslims, Jesus is just a great prophet, but he is not divine.

The Qur’an also claims Jesus wasn’t crucified. Therefore, there is no resurrection. The Qur’an curses “The People of the Book” (in this case, unbelieving Jews) for killing prophets. These are the people who said, “We have killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of God.” But then, in a parenthetical note, it says, “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him, though it was made to appear like that to them; those that disagreed about him are full of doubt, with no knowledge to follow, only supposition; they certainly did not kill him—No! God raised him up to Himself. God is almighty and wise.”[8]

The problem with this is that the Qur’an was delivered six hundred years after Jesus was crucified and raised from the grave. Even people who are skeptical about Jesus’ identity know that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. That is one of the most agreed-upon facts in the ancient world.[9]

So, the Qur’an gets Jesus wrong. It seems that the Qur’an is a bit of a mash-up of Jewish and Christian doctrines, including later Jewish legends. It seems to contain information from false Gospels, which were written beginning in the late second century, well after all the eyewitnesses to Jesus had died.[10]

Here is the point: The Qur’an is wrong about Jesus’ death. That is certain. And it says very different things about God than the New Testament does. It says different things about salvation, or how to achieve eternal life. Which one would you trust: Eyewitness testimony written by multiple sources within a lifetime of Jesus’ ministry or supernatural revelations directed through one man six centuries later?

Now let’s move on to the origins of Mormonism. Their major prophet, Joseph Smith (1805–1844), lived twelve hundred years after Muhammad. In 1823, in upstate New York, Smith was allegedly visited by an angel named Moroni. The angel told Smith about golden plates, upon which was engraved “the fullness of the everlasting Gospel.” He also told Smith about two stones, the Urim and Thummim, which were “seer stones” that could help Smith translate the contents of the plates into English. The angel told Smith that when he got these plates and stones, he could only show them to a few people. If he showed them to others, he would die. Then, a vision was given to him that indicated the location of the plates. However, he wasn’t allowed to take the plates, which were buried in the ground in a stone box, until 1827.[11]

Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.”[12] Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person.[13] After translating The Book of Mormon, the angel told Smith to return the golden plates.

There are a number of problems with The Book of Mormon. One great problem has to do with its original language, the so-called “Reformed Egyptian” language. In another Mormon book, The Pearl of Great Price, we’re told that one of Smith’s associates, a man named Martin Harris, brought samples of this “Reformed Egyptian” language to a professor at Columbia University, named Charles Anthon. (Martin Harris, by the way, is listed in The Book of Mormon as one eleven total witnesses who saw the golden plates.) According to The Pearl of Great Price, Anthon said that Smith’s translation was correct and that the portion not translated yet contained Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic characters.[14]

That sounds impressive. Who wouldn’t want to have their translation of an ancient language verified by a professor? But there’s a problem. A man named E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”[15]

As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 B.C. and A.D. 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”[16]

Now, let’s compare those stories with the story of how the New Testament was written. The New Testament wasn’t delivered on plates by an angel. It wasn’t dictated by angel. The story is that the eternal Son of God became man and lived in Galilee. He taught in unforgettable, unparalleled ways. He called twelve disciples, who witnessed his teachings and the miracles he performed. At least one of them saw him die, and they all (minus Judas, who was replaced by Matthias) saw him alive after he rose from the grave. Some of them would later write down biographies of Jesus. Others would write letters to churches. At least two other people who weren’t eyewitnesses—Mark and Luke—wrote their own biographies. Mark knew the apostle Peter and Luke knew the apostle Paul. Luke seems to have interviewed other eyewitnesses, including Mary. And Luke wrote the history of the early church called the book of Acts. When they wrote, they were under the direction of the Holy Spirit, who caused them to write what he wanted written. The Holy Spirit used their experiences, knowledge, and personalities to write what he wanted written.

At least eight different people wrote the 27 books of the New Testament. They didn’t write it all together, in the same time and in the same place. It’s not as if they stayed together in a room in Jerusalem and churned it out in a few months. They wrote in different places (Judea, Antioch, Rome, Corinth, etc.), at different times (roughly 48–96), to different churches and/or individuals in different locations. James White, an author who was written on many topics related to the Bible, calls this “multifocality.”[17]

We should observe that the apostles and their associates had no political power. Their own writings admit that sometimes they disagree with each other. Paul says that he had to correct Peter in Galatians 2:11–14. In Acts 15:36–41, we’re told that Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement.” One can suppose that the apostles as well as men like Mark and Luke conspired to fabricate a story, that they made things up to get a following or to gain power. But they had everything to lose, including persecution by Jews and Gentiles. And they don’t always present themselves in most flattering light. In the Gospels, Peter is often presented as headstrong and foolish. Yet he was the leader of the apostles. Why would anyone make that up?

Here are some positive reasons to believe that the New Testament is trustworthy. One, the documents of the New Testament were written early, within the first century A.D. As opposed to the Qur’an, which reports on events that took place hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, the New Testament reports on events that took place only years or decades earlier. Two, the books of the New Testament were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude) or those who associated with eyewitnesses (Mark, Luke, and perhaps the author of Hebrews). Three, the New Testament documents were written by multiple men, who didn’t always agree in life, but who agreed in their writings. Four, we have thousands of manuscripts of these books, some dating to as early as the beginning of the second century. That may not seem very impressive until you start comparing manuscript evidence with other ancient books. Five, archaeological evidence corroborates the New Testament. That doesn’t mean that every event described in the New Testament has left an artifact. But historical places and the names of people have been verified. It used to be that people thought that John’s Gospel was written far too late to be written by one of Jesus’ followers. But archaeological discoveries have shown that John’s knowledge of Jerusalem, was very accurate. And this is something that only someone was familiar with the city prior to its destruction in the year 70 could know.[18] Six, if we can trust that the New Testament is basically historically accurate, then we can see that Jesus often referred to the Old Testament as God’s word (John 10:35; cf. Matt. 19:4–5; 22:43), as an unbreakable (John 10:35), and unalterable document (Matt. 5:17–20). He clearly viewed the Old Testament as authoritative (Matt. 4:1–11). He told his disciples that his words would never pass away (Matt. 24:35). He told them that after he had ascended to heaven, he would send the Holy Spirit to teach them all things and cause them to remember what he said (John 14:26; 16:13–14).[19]

If you want to know more about why you can trust the New Testament to be true, you can visit our website, wbcommunity.org, and find some things I’ve written under the “Articles” section, which is under the “Media” tab.[20] I would also recommend a couple of books. One is Cold Case Christianity, by an LA homicide detective named J. Warner Wallace.[21] Wallace has solved many previously unsolved murder cases, cases that went “cold.” He has been featured on Dateline NBC. He was an atheist in his mid-30s when he decided to investigate the “case” of Christianity. He treated the Gospels like evidence reports and after doing a lot of research, he came to believe they’re true. He also has a website: http://coldcasechristianity.com. Another book that I would recommend is Tim Keller’s The Reason for God.[22] He has a chapter on the trustworthiness of the Gospels, but his book also handles common objections to Christianity and presents a positive, and even beautiful, case for the faith.

Not only is the story of how the New Testament was put together different from the origin stories of the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon, but the message is very different. In Christianity, there is a clear distinction between God and human beings. The same can’t be said of Mormonism, which teaches that God was a man and that men can be gods. But Christianity, as opposed to Islam, also teaches that we can truly know God and call him our Father. Christianity says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). There is no equivalent concept in Islam. In fact, John tells (1 John 1:3) that we can have fellowship with one another and with God. We can be united to God and have a real, personal relationship with him. That’s why John says that his letter makes his joy—and our joy—complete.

And both Islam and Mormonism have a system of merit. Islam says all our works will be weighed on scales.[23] Those whose good works outweigh their bad works and who confess that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger” will enter Paradise. Mormonism focuses on obedience. In the words of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President (or Prophet) of the LDS Church, “Every blessing, privilege, glory, or exaltation is obtained only through obedience to the law upon which the same is promised. If we will abide by the law, we shall receive the reward; but we can receive it on no other ground.”[24]

But Christianity is different. It says we can’t earn our way to God (or become gods and earn our own planets). Christianity says that God came down to us. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The God who is love sent his Son. That is, God the Father sent God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus fulfilled the perfect life that God required; he is the only truly righteous person. Yet his righteousness is credited to all who trust him. (We’ll learn more about what that faith looks like as continue to study 1 John). And Jesus died for us. His death satisfied God’s just demands. All who trust in him have eternal life. This is a gift given to us by a God who comes to us. It is not something we can earn from a God who is either distant and tyrannical or who is, in the end, fundamentally not all that different from us.

If you’re a Christian, I hope this message gives you confidence to know that we have good reasons to believe that Christianity is true. I hope that you can use elements of this message when you try to share the gospel with others. And if you’re not yet a Christian, I would encourage you to do your homework. Be like Jim Wallace and examine the evidence. I would be glad to meet with you, answer any questions you have, and give you resources.

The story of Christianity is unique. I think it’s more beautiful than the story of other religions. And, more importantly, it’s true.

Notes

  1. I didn’t actually save the original emails. I found this example at https://www.expertlaw.com/library/consumer/spam_email_fraud3.html and slightly edited it.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. For an in-depth treatment of miracles, see Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
  4. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, “Introduction,” in The Qur’an: A New Translation by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.
  5. Ibid., xiv.
  6. Tamim Ansary, Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 19.
  7. Qur’an 4.171 in Haleem’s translation.
  8. Qur’an 4.157–158 in Haleem’s translation.
  9. In fact, one strategy for demonstrating the truth of Jesus’ resurrection is to rely on three facts that most scholars, whether they’re believers or not, agree to be true. The first is that Jesus of Nazareth, a remarkable figure who was a wise teacher and possibly a miracle worker, was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. The second is that after Jesus died, his followers claimed to have seen him alive again. They claimed that the resurrected Jesus appeared to various groups of people for a number of days. The third is that Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as the apostle Paul, came to believe in Jesus even though he had previously been an unbelieving Jew and an opponent of Christianity. Given these three facts, it’s hard to explain how they could have occurred unless Jesus actually rose from the grave. Jesus’ followers could be lying, but they couldn’t have experienced a group dream or hallucination. But why would they lie? Lying would bring persecution to them from both Jews who rejected Jesus and Roman Gentiles who said that Caesar, not Jesus, is Lord. And since Christians refused to worship the many gods of the Greco-Roman world, they were often ostracized. And why would Paul lie? He was an enemy of Jesus. He would have no reason to hallucinate a vision of Jesus or to fabricate stories of Jesus.
  10. For more information, see James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2013), 229–247.
  11. This information is taken from “The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” located at the beginning of The Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981).
  12. It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.”
  13. See “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:68–73, in The Pearl of Great Price.
  14. “Joseph Smith—History,” 1:63–65, in The Pearl of Great Price.
  15. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270–272; quoted in Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 212–213.
  16. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216. The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls supposedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud. See Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449–55.
  17. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82.
  18. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 182–183. See also J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 20
  19. One could also add a seventh reason to believe the New Testament. Where the Qur’an and The Book of Mormon seem to protest too much about their truthfulness, the New Testament, while affirming its truthfulness, has an actual ring of truth to it. It doesn’t sound like a fable or a myth. If you compare it with false Gospels from the second and third centuries, such as The Gospel of Peter, you can see what I mean. (You can read that document here: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/gospelpeter-brown.html.) C. S. Lewis, who was a professor of literature, once made the following observation: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of this [gospel] text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage . . . or else, some unknown [ancient] writer . . . without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative.” (C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967], 155, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism [New York: Riverhead, 2008], 110).
  20. https://wbcommunity.org/articles. See, “Why We Can Trust the New Testament,” https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament; “The New Testament versus The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an,” https://wbcommunity.org/new-testament-versus-book-mormon; and “Evidence for the Resurrection,” https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection.
  21. J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity: (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013).
  22. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead, 2008).
  23. Qur’an 21.47; 23.99–104; 99:6–8
  24. Joseph F. Smith, “Eternal Life and Salvation 441,” in Gospel Doctrine, 11th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1959), https://archive.org/stream/gospeldoctrine009956mbp/gospeldoctrine009956mbp_djvu.txt.

 

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Justification (Galatians 2:15-21)

Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 2:15-21 on July 5, 2015. In this passage, the apostle Paul says that a person isn’t made right with God through works, but through faith. Once a person has faith in Jesus, that person is changed and it is now Christ who lives in that person. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Confronting Hypocrisy (Galatians 2:1-14)

On June 28, 2015 Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on Galatians 2:1-14. In that passage, the apostle Paul says that the other apostles agreed with his gospel. Yet Peter later acted like a hypocrite because his actions didn’t line up with the gospel.

The True God and Eternal Life (1 John 5:13-21)

Pastor Brian Watson summarizes the message of 1 John and explores the last section, in which the apostle John stresses the importance of knowing Jesus to have eternal life, praying for those who go astray, and following Jesus, the one true God. To believe in any other Jesus than the Jesus of the Bible, who is truly God and truly man, is to make an idol.

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How Can We Know Jesus?

This message was preached on December 14, 2014. Pastor Brian Watson discussed how we can know the truth about Jesus, particularly in light of all the many claims about “new information” regarding the “true Jesus.” What do historians say about Jesus? What about those “other” Gospels? Listen to know why we can trust what the Bible says about the Son of God.

The Testimony of God (1 John 5:6-12)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 John 5:6-12. What is the content of the Christian faith? How do we know it’s true? Why should we believe it? Christianity says that God became man and has spoken to us. This grand claim should cause us to, at the least, examine the evidence.