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Rescued From The Folly Of Self-Salvation

Erwin W. Lutzer | October 16, 2011

Selected highlights from this sermon

We all are born with the potential for great good. But we’re also born with the potential for unimaginable evil because we were all born with sin.

As we read the last part of Romans 3, Paul gives us a stinging indictment of human nature—a nature tainted with sin. A life filled with doing good for others, being completely selfless—even those good works are tainted and unsuitable for entrance into heaven.

But God has a plan, completely independent from anything we can do, that will save us and take away the stain of our sinful natures.

My topic today is the folly of self-salvation. We as human beings are very interesting creatures, aren’t we? On the one hand there is potential for great good. On the other hand, there is potential for unimaginable evil, all existing in human nature, all existing at times in the very same heart.

I recall watching the news and there was a time when I saw news about a tremendously ugly assault of a woman. I’ll just let you fill in the details. And then after the commercial they came back with the story about a woman who was using her own van, spending her own money to feed the poor, and I thought about what an interesting commentary on human nature that was. And those seeds of great wickedness and the seeds of goodness lie in the human heart.

But today we’re going to examine the human heart from God’s perspective, and we’re not going to like what we see. But Martin Luther said that it is not possible for us to ascend into heaven until we have first (ascended and) descended into hell. So we’re going to look at human nature in all of its ugliness. And as we look at this, some of you are going to argue with what the Bible has to say, and when you argue with what the Bible has to say, it only shows you don’t really understand yourself, and you don’t understand grace.

There are many people who believe that grace is wonderful and we’re glad for it but they have no idea why it is so amazing. Now when I preach I frequently emphasize that I want you to hear the entire message, and that’s always the case, but today especially. If you are listening on the radio, and there is another segment of the message, be sure to listen next time because to simply look at the human heart itself can be very depressing but I’m doing it so that we might understand grace, the amazing grace of God, and that’s why I’m going to end by a very brief exposition of grace.

Now in order for you to understand the human heart you must realize that as individuals we are not like individual stalks of corn. It’s much better for us to see ourselves as part of a tree, and the root of the tree is corrupt, thanks to Adams and Eve. And because of Adam and Eve and their sin, they could be thought of as the acorn that is in the ground, and from now on everything that grows is going to be cursed. Oh, your branch might be much straighter than that of someone else to be sure, but at the end of the day we are all part of a very corrupt perverse tree. And in order for us to understand that, I do invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to Romans 3. And we’re going to begin by looking at verse 9, and we’re going to go through this catalog of human nature.

There was a man in Scotland who was walking through a park and he had a leather satchel, and some of the young people there thought that he had a camera in it. Actually he had a New Testament in it. So they said to him, “Would you take our picture?” He said, “I already have,” and then he read this passage of Scripture to them. This is like a window into the human heart, and it’s not a pretty picture, but it will help us to understand grace.

Now in Romans 3:9 Paul says, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.” What an expression! Of course we are sinners but we are also under sin. That can mean under sin’s dominion, under sin’s judgment, but also just the stress and the weight of sin. Some of you understand that very well. Right now you are in your own spirit and your own mind struggling with this weight of sin. The imagery is that of John Bunyan. Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress (and by the way, this is immortalized on his tomb in London that Rebecca and I saw a few years ago) visualizes Pilgrim with a very heavy burden of sin and this pilgrim on the way to the heavenly city is burdened down and can bear it no more, and then he comes to the foot of the cross, and the burden is rolled off at the foot of the cross, and it rolls into the tomb of Christ, and now Christian is able to stand up and to stand erect because the weight of sin has been taken from him. That’s the imagery. We are all under sin.

Now what Paul does is he quotes many verses from the Old Testament. And I think he gives something like a sixteen-point indictment of human nature. We’re going to comment on some of them very briefly and when we are through you are going to want to catch your breath and say, “Am I really that bad?” and the Apostle Paul would say, “Yes, and a whole lot more.” Are you ready for the journey?

First of all, Paul says in verse 10, “There is none righteous, no not one. No one understands,” and we want to argue. And we want to say, “Look at all the good things that we have done. Look at the good things that human nature has been able to accomplish.” But you must remember that Paul is looking at this from God’s viewpoint. When judged in relationship with each other, there are righteous and there are unrighteous, but when judged by the holy law of God there is none righteous, no not one. There is none that understands. In and of themselves they don’t understand. That doesn’t mean that humans aren’t brilliant. There are professors in universities today who can give a brilliant exposition of Christianity and they may even be right in what they say, but yet they miss the point. They don’t get it, and they don’t believe it for themselves. So there is none who understands really left to ourselves, and then the Apostle Paul goes on and we just follow him along this way. “No one seeks after God.”

Again, you want to argue with Paul. You want to say that in religion and in history man is incurably religious, and so people are groping after God all the time, and you are saying that there is none that seeks after God. The text says none that seeks after God. The best imagery of human nature is Adam and Eve in the Garden. They were not looking for God. They were hiding themselves in the trees of the garden trying to get away from Him. Now mind you they did have fig leaves to cover their shame, and all of human religion is people “seeking for that which is spiritual.” They are really seeking for an answer to their guilt. They are seeking some kind of experience that will give them meaning to life. But certainly in what is called today the New Spirituality, none of those people are seeking after God. No not one. They are seeking for ways to run from God, a holy God to whom they have to give an account, a God who is going to judge their behavior. Are you telling me that they are seeking for Him? They are running from Him as fast as they can, but meanwhile they go into various branches of spirituality to try to find meaning and hope and try to somehow manage their sin.

Now, you say, “Well, I know people who sought God and they are Christians today.” Yes, of course, because what the Bible says is that if we have found Christ it is that Christ came looking for us. “He came to seek and to save that which was lost,” the Scripture says. It is God who came to Adam and Eve there in the Garden and came seeking for them, but they were not seeking for Him. So far as I know, when it comes to sheep, and I’ve never been a shepherd but I know some people who have been, the sheep never go around saying, “Hey, we have to go try to find the shepherd.” The shepherd has to find the sheep, and Jesus said, “No man can come to me unless the Father draw him.”

So God does seek individuals. That’s the message of the Gospel but in and of themselves nobody seeks after God, and then he says, as if that isn’t harsh enough, “All of us have turned aside (the imagery there is of sheep going astray), together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one,” and that includes you and it includes me.

You know, when you look into your heart (and I’ve been a student of human nature-somehow human nature fascinates me because I know what is in my heart and I suspect it’s much like what is in your heart) and when you think of human nature, you must realize that everything we do, even as redeemed people, is tainted with self-interest and sin. I’ve given this illustration of the time when I’m driving along. It’s not a busy street, but it is a street kind of out in the country not too far from the city, and there on the side of the road is a woman who has pulled off, and I stop and ask her what the problem is and she says, “My car is out of gasoline. I should have put some in but I ran out of gasoline.” So what do I do? I go back to a service station, and of course they wouldn’t trust me with a can that I could just use and bring back, so I buy a one-gallon can, and I put gasoline in it of course. And then I take it and put it in the trunk and take it to where she is. And there I am half in a ditch with a suit on. Catch the picture–with a suit on, and I am putting in at least one gallon of gasoline into her tank, and just like that the thought came to me, “I wish all of the people at Moody Church could see me now.” (laughter)

Nothing that you and I do is untainted from self-interest and sin. And you know how we as Christians become pleasing to the Father? Do you know how that happens? Jesus takes our imperfect works and makes them pleasing to the Father, because we can’t even do that on our own. Now when it comes to those who do not know God through Christ, there is none who does good that God can accept, no not one. We are all part of a tree that has been cursed by God. Wow!

Well, we continue on and Paul actually uses parts of the human body to show how this sin within us lives out and he begins with the mouth. You’ll notice it says in verse 13, “Their throat is an open grave.” The imagery is not of someone who was buried and they forgot to put the lid on the casket nearly as much as it really is that the person has been buried for a long time and now the lid is being taken off and what you have is a stench coming from the tomb. You say, “Well, this is exaggerating it a little bit.” You know in polite company there are certain words that you don’t use and so people clean up their act, so to speak, but you have you ever been in company where you don’t have that social pressure? I remember as a student at university I marveled first of all at all of the epithets and the uncleanness that came out of students’ mouths, and then what really surprised me was that it wasn’t just among the boys. It was also the young women. Some beautiful young women were saying very unclean things. Paul says their throat is just like that. Some of you know that. You work in an environment where just one word after another is an unclean word. So it says, “They’ve all turned aside. Together they have become worthless. Their throat is an open grave. They use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps (that is, snakes/vipers) is under their lips.” Always retaliation! Always an insistence on making themselves look good and other people look bad! And you’ll notice it says their mouths are full of curses and bitterness. Again, man without God is like that.

Jesus said that from within the heart of man come evil thoughts–adulteries, fornication, thefts, covetousness–and then He says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” James says you can’t have a dirty well and then find within it clean water, likening it unto the human heart.

You say again, “Well, this is an exaggeration.” Years ago I read a book entitled The Day America Told the Truth. Now, this was years ago so I might be wrong on some things, but if I remember correctly, about fifty percent of the people interviewed said that they lie at least once a day. Some lie multiple times a day. And then I was surprised at the number of people who would do despicable things if you could absolutely guarantee that they would never be found out. And even such things as what they’d be willing to do for ten million dollars. I think it was about seven percent who said that they’d leave their wife and family for ten million dollars.

And on and on it goes and you look at that–The Day American Told the Truth – and you say to yourself, “Wow!”

Of course there’s an interesting philosophical puzzle I wasn’t going to comment on, but since I have your attention I will. If somebody tells you that he is a liar, can you believe him? I mean I’m just throwing that out there. Paul has an interesting comment in the New Testament. He says, “All Cretans are liars and he says, ‘The reason I know that is because a Cretan told me.’” I’ve always been interested in that. Can you believe a Cretan who tells you that all Cretans are liars? Set that aside, folks. Let’s get back to the text. All right?

So you’ll notice that that is the way it is. I like the prayer that was prayed by Fred Holloman, chaplain of the Senate in Kansas. Wouldn’t you love to pray this in the U.S. Congress? “Omniscient Father, help us to know who is telling the truth. One side tells us one thing. The other side tells just the opposite. And if neither side is telling the truth, we’d like to know that too. And if each side is telling only half the truth, give us the wisdom to put the right halves together.” That’s a great prayer.

There is none that does good. All right, so he talks about our speech, and then he says their feet are swift to shed blood. That’s verse 15. It means that they very easily resort to violence and retaliation. Everything has to be retaliated. There can be no injustice. “You did this to me and I’ll do that to you.” Always violence and retaliation!
“In their paths are ruin and misery, the way of shalom (the way of peace) they have not known.” So that shows us where their feet take them, what their mouths say, and then what their mind thinks. There is no fear of God before their eyes.

Just this last week someone was telling me about somebody who is unrelated to Moody Church, though undoubtedly stories like this happen. It was about a man who left his marriage for a younger woman, and then what he did was he stole money from his wife and children in order to finance this new liaison, and what made it worse was he claimed to be a Christian, and someone said, “Where is the fear of God?” There is no fear of God before their eyes. Nobody is scared of God anymore.

The Bible says in the book of Ecclesiastes, because God does not requite justice immediately, people think it is safe to do wrong. So there are many people today who think that is it perfectly safe to defy God. No wonder the Apostle Paul comes to the conclusion and we’re now in a courtroom scene, and you’ll notice he says in verse 19 of chapter 3, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world may be accountable (or guilty) before God.”

I’ve had people say to me, “Well, you know when I stand before God I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.” When you are at the Great White Throne Judgment, and I hope you won’t be there. I hope that rather you’ll be at the judgment of the church, which is the Judgment Seat of Christ where believers are. They are two separate judgments separated by a great period of time. But if you are there at the Great White Throne Judgment and God presents before you your whole life in the presence of His holiness, your mouth will be stopped and you’ll have absolutely nothing to say. Nothing!

That young man on a plane one time to whom I was trying to witness sitting next to me, when I was telling him why he needed a savior, said, “I am willing to stand before God on the basis of my own record.” Wow! His mouth will be stopped and he’ll know that he is totally guilty before God.

Now, what Paul is saying is, “We are equally guilty.” Oh yes, I know that your branch is so much straighter than somebody else’s. I know that you are saying, “I would never do what So-and-So did.” I understand that, but you and I, remember, are a branch of a tree that is under the judgment of God, a tree filled with sinners, and there we are. And we may justify ourselves in a hundred different ways, but in the presence of God our mouths are stopped and we are equally guilty before God. Of course, it’s much better to live as a good citizen than a bad one and to commit crimes, but at the end of the day we’re all part of this thing called sin, and therefore we are equally guilty. We are equally helpless and dead–equally dead in trespasses and sins. And you know, let’s just remember that it’s not harder for God to raise one corpse than another.

You can actually find this on the Internet. A man by the name of Jeremy Bentham, who died in the early 1800s, was a great utilitarian. He had a lot of money. He willed it to the University College in England under one condition–that at every board meeting his body (which would be properly embalmed) be put in a case and then wheeled out for the board meetings for as long as the university continued and then the chairman used to say, “Jeremy Bentham is present but he is not voting.” And you and I are present but we are not voting. We are dead in trespasses and sins.

Now we come to grace. I promised you that this message would end with optimism and joy, but I want you to think through this now when it comes to grace and why it is amazing. It’s because when God decided to save us He knew that He could not use anything that human beings would do to be a part of the salvation process, because everything that you and I do is tainted. So what God decided to do is to take all human goodness, all of the things that you do that you think are so wonderful, and He put them on a shelf, and on that shelf He put a label that said, “Unsuitable for Use.” It all had to be under the label, “Unsuitable,” and God says, “I am going to institute a salvation that is going to be totally independent of all of the fallenness of human nature, and if I’m going to do it (and that’s why the Bible says salvation is of the Lord) I’m going to have to do this alone. And I’m going to have to provide a way by which righteousness is going to come to human beings, and this righteousness obviously has to be a free gift because the righteousness that I’m demanding is the kind that no human being has.”

Just like you can take a million bananas and keep adding them and add to a billion bananas and never get an orange, in the very same way all the human goodness that has ever been done on this planet from the beginning of time until today cannot change God’s mind regarding a single sinner.

I’m not hearing many “Amen’s.” Am I alone up here? So God says salvation is going to be of the Lord. Furthermore, God says, “When I provide salvation (and that was provided through His son, the Lord Jesus Christ who died on the cross and made a sacrifice for sinners) it’s going to have to apply to any branch on the tree that wants to receive it. So the issue of salvation is not the extent of your sin, even though it would be better if you lived as a relatively good person than a bad person. That’s true, but it’s not as if God can’t save one sinner over against another. All have to be raised. All have to be sought in the graveyard of our spiritual death, and therefore God says that this grace needs to be applicable to anyone who receives it. Now that’s important, because I have no doubt that I am speaking to people today who think that they have sinned too greatly to be forgiven by God. I wouldn’t doubt but that I am speaking to people who have some very terrible things in their background–crimes and what have you.

I remember speaking to a man who was dying, and I didn’t understand why he always said, “I can’t believe,” until I discovered just before his death that he had been guilty of murder and this sense of condemnation on his conscience made him think that surely God was so mad at him that he couldn’t be saved. But the Good News of the Gospel is that if God is seeking you, if God has come to find you, no matter where He finds you He is able to bring you to Himself, because the Scripture says, “He is able to save unto the uttermost those who call unto God by him.” It is really true, as there is a song that we sometimes sing, that the vilest of sinners who truly believes that moment from Jesus a pardon receives. That is the Good News of the Gospel. (applause)

Now I want to conclude by clarifying something. There are some people, and you’ll find them throughout Chicagoland, who believe in grace, but they don’t believe in amazing grace. So they believe in a kind of grace and believe that God gives them the ability to do good works by which they are saved. So they believe in the kind of grace that says, “Oh, I’m doing good and my works save me, but it is really by the grace of God that I can do these good works.” That kind of grace can never possibly save you.

Let me illustrate it from a parable that Jesus told. He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt. He said, “Two men went into the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus. ‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other men who are extortioners, unjust, adulterers, even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give tithes to all of all that I get.” All right. Does he believe in grace? Yeah, a kind of grace! Remember this. He is thanking God that he is not like other men. “Sure, I am the kind who gives tithes. I do all these right things, and that ought to save me, but really I know that it’s by God’s grace that I do these wonderful things. That’s why I am thanking God.”

Well, you know the rest of the story, don’t you? There’s a tax collector standing in the same temple, but he stood afar off. He would not even lift up his eyes to heaven but beat his breast, saying, “God, God, be merciful to me a sinner.” He brought nothing to the table except his great need. He understood that if he was to be saved it could have nothing to do with good works of which he had few, that this was not an issue of works. This was an issue of undeserved matchless grace. God would have to do it all, and Jesus added this commentary: “I tell you that this man went down to his house justified rather than the other, for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted,” and that is why grace is so amazing. It is because God does what we can’t, and I say to you today, no matter how you are listening to this message (whether here at The Moody Church or by some other means–the Internet, the radio, whatever) remember this: If you believe in Jesus, and if God is drawing you to Christ, come to Him. Receive His grace, because in you and in me inherently there dwells no good thing. It is only by God’s direct intervention that we can have eternal life.

Now, what hinders you from coming Christ today? What is the intellectual barrier, the moral barrier? I urge you today to see Christ as the answer and to say with the tax collector, “God, be merciful (the word is propitiated) to me the sinner,” and you will be saved and rescued out of the nothingness of our own paltry works. That is the Good News of the Gospel, and God brought you here today so that you might hear it by the way, so that you might recognize that it is through His grace that fallen human nature can be saved. Come to Christ, even as I pray now. Would you?

Would you bow your head wherever you are as we conclude today in prayer? And if God has talked to you, yes, it is possible for you to receive Christ, even where you are seated, to say, “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I now understand that my works can have no part in my salvation. I confess that, and based purely upon Your mercy and grace, I receive Your forgiveness and Your reconciliation. God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”

You pray that prayer.

Father, we want to thank You today for the cross of Jesus Christ that changes everything. We thank You that even as we sing about the cross, we delight in the salvation that You came to give us. May our singing be an act of worship, and for those who are receiving Christ as Savior, wherever they may be, bring them to full assurance of faith we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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