When Beliefs CollideErwin W. Lutzer | June 3, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
Why do Christians differ? The church landscape is filled with fissures. Human limitations, perversions, unbelief, and preferences have wreaked havoc on the visible body of Christ.
The church is not perfect, as it is composed of imperfect people! With an attitude of patience, God’s people are called, committed, and connected to one another through the Holy Spirit. While we often disagree, unity exists even in division, through our common Lord, doctrine, and service.
I have a reading I would like to share with you entitled, “Baptists on the Bridge.” It says:
Once I was in San Francisco walking along the Golden Gate Bridge when I saw this guy on the bridge about to jump. I thought I would try to stall him or detain him long enough for me to put film into my camera. I said, “Don’t jump.” He turned his head and said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you.” He said, “How do you know there is a God?” I said, “Of course there is a God.” He said, “I guess you’re right,” and a tear came to his eye.
I said to him, “Are you a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu or what?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me too, small world!” I said, “Protestant, Catholic, or Greek Orthodox?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me too; Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me too; Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me too; Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reform Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.” I said, “Me too.”
“Are you Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, ‘Me too. Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879 or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.” I screamed, “Die heretic,” and I pushed him over.
I have a question to ask you today: what ever happened to the church that Jesus built? Millions of people say that they belong to the church that Jesus built, but we are so divided. The divide isn’t only between Catholic and Protestant. You look at the Protestant side of the ledger and you find that there are Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. And then you find that within those groups you have various categories, like different kinds of Baptists or Presbyterians.
Why do we differ? That is the question. What can we do about it if we need to do anything about it? Some people say that we have too much unity already and that we are sacrificing truth. Other people say that what we need is more unity. Where do we go?
On a superficial level it is understandable why we might disagree. If you read the Bible, especially for the first time, you see it is a vast book treating many different topics in many different ways. It is difficult to get your mind around it so some differences are very understandable.
It is sometimes said that Martin Luther opened the Bible to the common person. That is true, but he was against the idea that each person has their own little interpretation. He said, “If everybody interprets the Bible in his own way then he can go to hell in his own way.” We need to stand on the shoulders of those who have preceded us and we need some collective wisdom when it comes to interpreting the Bible.
Let me give you some reasons why we do have differences. First of all, we can point to such things as the limitations of man. It is understandable that there would be disagreements regarding free will versus predestination. There are all kinds of mysteries connected with that topic. Some come down on one side of that ledger and some come down on the other side of the ledger.
Also, some of the verses in the Bible need to be interpreted within a larger context. For example, let’s suppose that the only verse in the Bible regarding salvation was Acts 2:38. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.” Now if that was the only verse on salvation, we might conclude that baptism is necessary for salvation. But you have hundreds of references in the New Testament, particularly in the book of John that clearly say that he who believes is saved. Then you look at Acts 2:38 and you realize that there is a reason why Peter connected it with baptism. But, baptism isn’t necessary for the forgiveness of sins. So you can understand that this can happen and differences arise.
We not only have the limitations of men but also the perversions of men. We have our bias and our sinfulness. We all have a tendency to go to the Bible to find out what we want it to say. If we want it to say that we are a part of our salvation and we contribute to our salvation we can find texts that seem to say that and then you can build a whole system of doctrine, sacrament, good works and penance. You can build all those things around a certain theory because of our desire to say that if salvation is free then people are going to misuse it.
You also have the power of the church throughout history. For example, in medieval times it was believed that grace was communicated through the sacraments. Think of what that meant! This meant that the priest had in his hand the destiny of the souls of those in his parish. If he didn’t give them the sacraments, they would go to hell.
In fact, there were times like in the days of John Huss in Prague where the Pope issued an interdict. This meant there could be no sacraments whatsoever in the city because Huss was preaching the gospel and it was known that if there was an interdict people would become so angry with him that they would kick him out of Prague, which is exactly what happened. If you are told that there are no sacraments, it means that you are being consigned to hell. The power of the priest was absolutely overwhelming and people love power, don’t they?
In addition, there is the unbelief of men. There are some splits in the Protestant denominations for example that are legitimate and right. You have certain bodies of believers who have moved away from the truth of the gospel. The Episcopalians are facing the possibility of a split over ordaining gay clergy. There were also some Presbyterian churches that no longer preached the gospel, if I might say, and so there were different groups that broke away and now there are many, many Presbyterian churches that very clearly preach the gospel.
Then you have the preferences of people. We are into our own preference in worship style. Someone says, “I go to this church because I like the worship style and I like its music,” or, “I can’t take that church because I don’t like the music.” Personal preference today trumps doctrine and it often trumps the vision of a church because we want to go where it suits us perfectly.
When I am at pastor’s conferences I am always asked, “Is Moody Church a traditional church or is it a contemporary church?” I smile and I say, “We are a biblical church.” Isn’t that wonderful? Thank God that we have both traditional and contemporary as we try to take the best from both.
But where does this leave us? I do have to clarify what is called the invisible church. I don’t like that word very well, but it refers to the whole body of Christ; the church universal. Everybody who belongs to the universal church, or the invisible church as it is called, is a born again believer and will be in heaven. This transcends denominations. Sometimes God’s people are found in the most unlikely places. That is why we do not consign people to hell just because they don’t belong to our denomination. We realize that there are saved people even in some of these churches that no longer preach the gospel. What we recognize is that there is the invisible church.
The invisible church includes the living and the dead. Paul says very clearly in Ephesians chapter three, verse fourteen, “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named.” Someday we will all be together in heaven and that group of the elect in theology is called the invisible or universal church. Everyone who is a member is a born again believer.
Now let’s talk about the local church. Let’s talk about Moody Church. What can we say about it? First of all, to some extent it is a mixed multitude because we are not God. When you become a member of Moody Church you are interviewed by someone who asks you your understanding of the gospel. It is not a huge theological test. We just want to know whether or not you have savingly believed on Jesus.
About 15 or 20 years ago I had lunch with a man over at Michael’s who was a member and he was saying things that were far out there. He sat there and told me that in no sense did he want Jesus to bear his sin and that he would bear his own sin for himself and the penalty. He said, “I can’t expect somebody else to bear my sin.” I said, “Of course you can’t, but that is where grace and love come in.”
You have to understand that he is sitting on one side of the table and I am on the other side and I am sure I took off my glasses and I looked at him and said, “If you continue to believe what you believe then you are going to hell.” And then he said something very shocking. He said, “If I have to go to hell to bear my own punishment, to hell I will go.” Now he was a member of Moody Church. Back then maybe we weren’t very good at screening membership. I think maybe we have improved on that, but let’s not kid ourselves. We don’t always know who is saved and who is lost because we can’t see the human heart. So you have a mixed multitude in that sense.
You also have people that are part of the church who are not members. One thing that you need to know about the invisible church is that it is very, very imperfect. My friend, if Moody Church were a perfect church I would urge those of you who have never joined to be sure that you never joined. Because if you did join it would no longer be perfect! We are imperfect sinners and we recognize that there is carnality and all kinds of struggles.
I spoke to a nephew of mine yesterday who does not go to church and he said to me, “We don’t go because there are so many hypocrites in the church.” I know there are but maybe it is better that they are at church rather than any other place. Maybe some of these hypocrites will get converted someday when the gospel is preached. I would rather have the hypocrites in the church than somewhere else!
Where does this leave us? How are we unified? The Apostle Paul says in Ephesians chapter 4, verse 1, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Live up to who you are! He also says that we are unified in our attitude. He goes on to say we should walk, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.” We are patient with one another and we don’t insist on our own rights. We don’t say, “It has to be done my way or else I’m out of here!”
We are also willing to bear with one another in the bond of peace because Jesus purchased our unity at high cost. We want to walk in the unity that has been created by the Holy Spirit when we receive Christ as Savior. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every church split that ever happened would make it a requirement that before you ever spoke you would have humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, and eager to maintain the bond of peace? That is what the Bible calls us to do. That is why we have to come to church. We have to meet believers that are imperfect and we have to put up with them in a loving way because we are members of the same body.
Not only does our attitude unite us, but our life unites us. Verse 4 says that, “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.” We are unified because we are members of the same body. When one part of the body hurts, the other part hurts also. We are a part of those who mourn and we rejoice with those who rejoice.
Yet it isn’t just that we are committed to each other. God has metaphysically connected us together. You can go to another part of the world and meet a believer in Jesus and even though you have never known him or her, there is a whole area of commonality that you have instantly because they too have been born again of the same Spirit and they are part of the same body. Paul says that there is one body and one Spirit. There aren’t many spirits or bodies. There is one hope by which you were called.
If you are a believer here today, it is because God called you. The same call to salvation that I answered at the age of 14 is the same call that you answered at some point in your life when you believed in Jesus. The Scripture says that we are one and members of the same body.
We share the same attitude and we share the very same life. We are all connected to the head and we are members of his body; of his flesh and of his bones. We are one, even with those with whom we disagree and those who are difficult to love.
We are also united because of our beliefs. The Scripture says there is, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” There is one Lord, which is the Lord Jesus Christ. There is one faith, which is the body of doctrine that has been given to the church. This is where the disagreements come because there are those who leave the one faith and therefore divisions happen because you leave the faith that you have in Jesus.
There is also one baptism. You almost have to smile because baptism has divided the church, has it not? You have infant baptism, you have believer’s baptism, and you have many different understandings of baptism. There are those who believe that baptism is the entrance into the Christian family. There are those who believe it is simply a sign of the covenant. Isn’t it interesting that something in the Scripture that should unite us has divided us? The same can be said about the Lord’s Supper. Luther’s assistant, Melanchthon, said that the divisions were, “deserving of tears”-and they are deserving of tears.
Perhaps the baptism that he is talking about is not water baptism but spirit baptism. There is only one baptism. It says in 1 Corinthians chapter 12, verse 13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” It is the baptism of the Spirit that puts us into Jesus. It is the baptism of the Spirit that makes you one with Him and therefore one with the rest of us.
It is never commanded that we should be baptized. Why? Because when you put faith in Jesus you are baptized with the Spirit and you become the one body that Paul is talking about here. There is, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
We are united by our attitude, by our common life, by our common belief, the one faith that we have in Jesus, and we are also united by our service. It says in verse 11, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for work of ministry.” There are about 19 different gifts in the New Testament and that might not be the total. There might be some things that are not listed as gifts. That is the whole purpose of gathering together. We gather to worship, most assuredly, but we also gather to serve.
When I say that we have a parking need and we need people to sacrifice and miss a service once every four or five weeks, there should be such an army of people willing to sign up that the folks at the kiosks say, “Enough! We’ve got more than we can use.” When I say that we need children’s workers I should get a phone call today of someone saying, “Pastor, we had so many people that wanted to work in the children’s ministry that we don’t know where they all are going to fit.” Wouldn’t that be a wonderful phone call? I’ll wait for that one! That is what the body is all about–to function, to volunteer and to sacrifice on behalf of others.
You should say, “If I am part of this then by God’s grace I am going to be united with believers exercising my gift for the work of ministry for the building up of the body of Christ.” You are not just here for yourself today. You are here for other believers who are sitting next to you and for the whole work of God that He has graciously given us the privilege to be involved in. And with the new building and new opportunities to extend the gospel and God’s glory, we are going to need more people than we ever had before. We are going to need more people to give. Can you imagine what that new building adds to our budget? We must work together.
What is the bottom line? The church is not just a group of people who gather together because they’ve decided to follow Jesus. That is not just what we are here. The church is the Father’s family, as we emphasized, and the church is the Son’s bride. He is going to marry us at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb when we show up clothed in the good works that we have done. Good works don’t save you, but if you want to be dressed appropriately at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb you had better do good works because that is what the Bible teaches.
It is also the home of the Holy Spirit; a unity miraculously created by God. That is what the church is, with all of its imperfections, its divisions and its headaches from time to time.
Some people say, “I don’t want to be involved in a church. I don’t want to join, I don’t want to have any responsibility, I don’t want to have any accountability and I like to be a free floater. Whether or not I stay depends on the length of the sermon, and I will go somewhere else more suited to my taste if it is not what I want.” If that’s what you are thinking, you have to at least ask the question as to whether or not you are a Christian.
You say, “Isn’t it possible to be like that and be a Christian?” Yes, it is, but biblically it is an anomaly or an exception. You can’t find it anywhere in the New Testament. There was no believer who did not attach himself to some local assembly, some visible church with all of its problems, whether in Corinth or the church in Philippi or wherever. The unity that God created is the unity that has to be lived out in our own lives, and that is very critical. Are you connecting with my heart today on this or am I all alone? Are you getting what I want to tell you?
If you have never been to Ravinia in the suburbs, you should go there. They have a band shell there and the Symphony Orchestra comes and plays. You don’t have to buy an expensive ticket to get into the band shell because it is open. What you do is you buy a cheaper ticket, like my wife and I do, and then you sit on the lawn with hundreds of other people on a wonderful summer evening listening to the best music. A number of years ago we were there and we brought some food with us and we sat on the blanket and chairs we brought and enjoyed the beautiful outdoors and beautiful music.
Next to us was a man who also brought his blanket and he fell asleep. Proof of this was the fact that he snored very loudly. My wife and I wondered if we should move but we thought, “If we move everyone else will see and know that we moved because he was snoring.” So we decided to put up with a little snoring. When Schubert was finished at the end of the program everybody jumped up and gave them a standing ovation. This guy woke up, saw what everybody else was doing, hopped up and clapped along with everybody else.
That is the way some believers are today. They sleep through life, spiritually speaking, uninvolved, unwilling to sacrifice, and distantly related. When Jesus comes to receive us and at the Marriage Supper of the lamb, they will be in the front row saying, “Here I am; I’m clapping too.” Yet they snoozed through the war.
This morning I woke up with a song in my head: “I gave my life for thee, my precious blood I shed, that thou midst ransom be, and quickened from the dead. I gave, I gave my life for thee, what hast thou given for me?” That is what I woke up thinking about this morning.
In a few moments we are going to have communion and we are going to say, “This cup is the cup of the new covenant in my blood and this bread represents my body, which is broken for you.” Jesus is saying, “This is what I have done for you.” By the way, if you’ve never received benefits from what He has done, you accept your sinfulness, recognize it and come to Him and trust Him. As the choir sang, “My sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross.” You can have that also.
But Jesus is saying to those of us who know Him, “I gave myself for thee, what hast thou given for me? What is your contribution to my body, in terms of time, talents, treasure, and involvement?” That is the question that is burned into my heart this morning and I want it to be burned into your heart as well.
Let us pray. “Father, receive us despite our imperfections and our sins. Receive us as a church despite our limitations and despite the fact that there are those that have perhaps been disappointed with various aspects of ministry. We acknowledge, Lord, that we haven’t lived up to everything that we could have lived up to today. We have nothing to hide and we have nothing to say except that we need You as a leadership and as a congregation. We pray for those who have never trusted Christ. And for those who have, we ask today that You might challenge us and transform us through connecting with your body that cost you so dearly, in Jesus’ name, amen.”