The Gospel We ProclaimErwin W. Lutzer | October 22, 2006
Selected highlights from this sermon
Some think that salvation is by works, or maybe it’s a mixing of God’s grace with our good deeds. But these assume that we are good and that we have something to offer.
But salvation is completely God’s work of undeserved grace. With love and power, He raises us from our spiritual death and grants us new life. We receive this remarkable gift by faith, with knowledge, assent, and trust. Yet God alone is the Savior—there is nothing we can do to add to the redeeming work of Christ.
I begin today by reminding you that faith can destroy you. Many of us who have been in Chicago for a long time remember that in the early 80’s there was what was called the Tylenol tampering episode. A man who was bent on destruction took some Tylenol capsules and put cyanide in them and put them on the shelf in the drugstore. Seven people died.
This story is a great lesson about faith. First of all, it teaches us that faith in itself has no special merit or special power. Faith cannot take something that is poisonous and turn it into something that is helpful and enable you to overcome your pain and be able to sleep. Faith can’t do that. The only important thing is the object of faith. Faith in itself has no particular value or power.
There is a second lesson that we can learn from this story and it is that sometimes a false faith looks like the real thing. As far as the people were concerned when they took those capsules they thought they were taking Tylenol. The cyanide looked a great deal like the Tylenol powder. In the very same way there are some people who spiritually speaking may be taking cyanide and they think it is Tylenol.
Jesus made an amazing statement in the gospel of Matthew. He said, “Many shall say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name and cast out demons in thy name? In thy name we have done many wonderful works.’” It looks like the real deal, doesn’t it? It certainly looks like the Tylenol that will offer help. But Jesus continued saying, “I will say to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity!’”
I don’t know about you, but in my minds eye I can already see their contorted faces, their disappointment, and their horrendous fear of being turned away from the gates of heaven. The gates of heaven are slammed shut in their faces because even though they worked in the name of Jesus and did miracles in the name of Jesus, they were not the real deal.
This is part of a series of messages entitled, “What we believe and the difference it should make.” I hope that you were with us last time when we talked about the sin that we rationalize. Today I am speaking about the gospel that we proclaim. What is the gospel and how do we present it with clarity? How do we keep ourselves from being among the deceived at the end of time?
There are some very wrong answers to the question of how you get to heaven. There are wrong answers that are widely believed in our culture and throughout the world. One wrong answer is that it is just a matter of works, so just be a good person. You stop and think of that and you realize that is basically the truth and what is taught in many of the religions of the world.
For example, Hinduism focuses on meditation and trying to get yourself into a different mental state. Buddhism talks about following this path or that path. Even Protestantism has people who think they are basically good people. I am always amused when I meet people who say, “I am basically a good person.” Then among our Catholic friends you have the idea that it isn’t merely all works but instead a mixture of works and grace. The idea is that as you participate in the sacraments God takes a bad person and begins to make him better and better. That’s the way in which the gospel is understood.
Do you know what the problem is with all of these views? It is very evident. First of all, the Bible teaches that our whole nature is corrupt. That means that all of our works are contaminated. There is absolutely nothing as pure as God within us.
Furthermore, people forget that the sins they commit can never be taken care of by good works because we will be guilty of that sin forever and ever. You can’t get it out just by becoming a better person and doing better next time, even if you think that happens by God’s grace. As men we have all had the experience of spilling some catsup on our tie. The resolution to say you are going to do better next time does not erase the stain, does it?
There is another wrong view of salvation. There are those who say it is all works and there are also those who say it is a mixture of works and grace. We contribute our good works to what God has done and we cooperate with each other to bring it about. Then there is another view which is a superficial notion of believing on Jesus. You say you trust Jesus but somehow it isn’t the faith that really saves.
The problem with all wrong views of salvation is that all of the views overestimate the goodness of mankind. They make us out to be better than we are. According to one poll, 85% of Americans think they are good enough to get to heaven, and surely with a little help from God they will make it. It overestimates how good we are and grossly underestimates the holiness of God. Because of that we exist with these wrong views of salvation. They are interesting and may even be helpful, but they don’t get you to heaven. People who believe them will find the doors to heaven shut in their faces and they will be disappointed for all of eternity.
What does the Bible teach about salvation? The text today is the second chapter of the book of Ephesians. Last time we spoke about the first three verses and we talked about how bad off we really are without Jesus. Believe me, it isn’t a pretty picture! We learned that we were dead in our trespasses and sins. We are not physically dead, but spiritually dead. The unsaved are dead in their trespasses and sins.
A friend of mine tells me that he has a picture of Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher who lived in England who had a great deal of impact upon English philosophy. When he died he said that he would will all of his assets to the University College Hospital. He only had one condition: after he died his body would be taken and nicely dressed according to 19th century standards and that he would then be kept in the closet and wheeled out for every board meeting at the hospital. They said, “If you give us all of your money we will do it!” That is what was done.
I was in London about a year and a half ago and I asked the tour guide when we went past the hospital as to whether or not that was done. She said she knew it was done but was not sure it was still done today. She said that the chairman of the board would wheel out his corpse and then the chairman would say, “Jeremy Bentham is present but he is not voting.” When you talk to an unsaved person they are present but not voting because they are spiritually dead.
Next we notice it says in the text that we were deceived and depraved and really bad off. We are talking about a cemetery here. But the good news is that God comes to the cemetery. That is the gospel. Is God coming to raise the dead?
Your Bibles are open to the second chapter of the book of Ephesians and we are picking it up in verse four. “But God, being rich in mercy because of his great love for us, even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, made us alive together with Christ.”
Think of all of the attributes of God that come together when God saves us. First of all, you’ll notice that it says, “Because of his great love for us.” This is an act of love. Remember that God didn’t have to come to the graveyard. God could have bypassed us legitimately. The good news is that he came. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” God was motivated by love.
Now when we think about the love of God we have to distinguish it from human love. Human love basically is based upon the person who is loved. Human love says, “I love you because of your personality, I love you because of your appearance, I love you because I love to be with you and I love the way you make me feel.” That is human love. When the object of that love changes you have divorce. “You’ve changed and you’re not the person that I married. I’m out of here!”
Divine love is very different. Divine love is not based upon the one who is loved. It is based on the lover. God says, “I can go on loving you even when you are no longer lovable.” In fact, the Scripture says, “When we were without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” The Bible says, “Jesus Christ died for us while were yet enemies.” God came when we were playing on the wrong team, when we were his enemies, when we were in the grips of Satan, when we were doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind and were being dragged around by the devil. It is then that God comes into the cemetery and it is his love that motivates him.
Yet as I have explained in different messages, the love itself couldn’t do it. Love needed some way by which justice could be satisfied so that love would be free to redeem. This is one of the great differences between the God of the Bible and a law in Islam. In Islam you basically pay for your own sin. But as I understand it there are some sins that Allah might forgive, if I have this correct. There are some Allah might forgive if they are not too big. So you ask the question, “Who pays for those sins?” There is really no payment for them. Allah just lets bygones be bygones.
The God of the Bible however is so just that his love cannot save unless his justice has been appeased and satisfied. That is the reason that Jesus died on the cross. God had a certain standard that God himself met in Christ. That is why love was now free to redeem. At the cross we see the love of God.
We also see the power of God. It says that when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, God made us alive. What good would it be to believe in a God that is love, a God that is just, even if that justice was satisfied, if he were not a God who could raise the dead? He has to be the creator God, God of very God, so that he can create and come into a cemetery and speak and say, “Get up!” Three times Jesus raised the dead and each time he did it by his word. That is how God raises us up as well.
Now notice what God does in this passage – he makes us alive. Remember that Christianity does not teach that Jesus came to take bad men and make them better, though praise God that happens! Jesus came to take dead men and make them alive. There is a quickening that happens in our hearts. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.” There is something that was created in you at the time that you got saved that wasn’t there previously. God connects us with himself. He comes to the cemetery and he makes us alive.
We would be grateful if he just made us alive. However, for a moment I want the Holy Spirit to show us the incredible generosity of God in doing so much more for us than that. Notice it says that he made us alive and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in heavenly places in Jesus Christ. God says, “I am going to take you and I am going to sit you with Jesus.” This is all spiritually speaking but it doesn’t mean that it is unreal. It is real even though it is not visible to the human eye. We need to understand this in a legal and spiritual sense.
If you are here today as a believer you are already seated with Jesus Christ in heaven. That is one of the reasons why we need not fear death. We are already there with Jesus. That is why we can be assured there won’t be a big hassle on the border from life to death. Our advocate is there and we are already seated with our advocate. We already have residence in heaven and all we need to do is transfer the soul to the right place. God takes us and saves us.
Yet he doesn’t just save us. The purpose of salvation is not just to keep you from hell, though praise God it does! The purpose of salvation is so that God may prove what he is able to do through sinners and for sinners who don’t deserve a thing and who deserve to remain dead in the cemetery. God raises us up and someday we will reign with Jesus Christ, as I read in the book of Revelation last night. We are going to rule with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “To he who overcomes I will grant to sit with me on my throne, even as I overcame and sat with my Father on his throne.”
I have never yet met a Christian who doesn’t want to overcome. Every Christian wants to overcome, but I have met many Christians who don’t want to have anything to overcome. They say, “I want to be an overcomer!” But the minute God gives them something to overcome they complain and they begin to lose hope. Jesus said, “You overcome and you will sit with me and reign with me in heaven.”
We’ve talked now about the love of God and the power of God to raise us. I should also speak about the purpose of God. Why all this? Is it only for our benefit? Praise God that it is for our benefit! Yet look at the text. Notice it says in verse seven, “So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace and kindness toward us in Jesus Christ.” Paul also refers to this elsewhere in Scripture.
What God wants to do is he wants to put us on display. He wants us to be an advertisement for his undeserved grace. In ages to come when he has taken us from the dirt and given us dignity and dug us up from the mud so that we might be able to walk on marble, his grace, his power, his love, and his mercy will be on display through all of eternity because of what he so graciously did for sinners.
Many years ago a portrait was painted of a man by the name of Paul Gibson when he retired as principal of Cambridge University. When he saw it unveiled he gave tribute to the artist. He said, “In years to come people are not going to say, ‘Who’s that man in the portrait?’ People are going to say, ‘Who was that painter, to do such an outstanding job?”
Those who are watching throughout all of eternity, whether it is angels and others, the question is not going to be, “Who are the redeemed?” Rather the question will be, “Who was their Redeemer, to take them from the pit of sin and exalt them in ways that boggle the mind?” Next week as I speak about angels I am going to show you that we are going to be above the angels in the eternal state. This is what God has done for sinners in order to display his glory and to show what he can do. We are exhibit A of the undeserved love, mercy, grace, and power of God.
The question now becomes how is this received? Paul mentions grace earlier in the passage. He says, “For grace you have been saved.” He has to throw that in. But then he gets to verse eight and clarifies it even more directly. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing, it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
What do we say about the grace that saves? First of all, grace as you know is God’s undeserved favor. He is giving us what we don’t deserve out of the abundance of his mercy. That is what grace means. It is obvious that it has to be a free gift. Jesus couldn’t come to Lazarus and say, “I am going to raise you, but I need something from you first. I mean Lazarus, at least wiggle a finger. Give me something and then I will do it for you!” No, no, no, no! It has to be his sovereign choice and his gift. There is no other way that it could be.
And in the process of trusting Christ we receive the righteousness of God. It is not human righteousness added to a higher power. Rather it is an entirely different kind of righteousness. The only way in which you and I can receive it is simply as a gift. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Could it be any clearer in the text?
What else do we say about this grace? It is apart from works. Notice the text says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your doing, it is the gift of God not a result of works.” All the works done by human beings added together from all of the past ages will never change God’s mind regarding a single sinner. As I emphasized, all of our works are tainted and our natures are basically corrupt even though they can do good things, so it cannot be by works. Paul says in Romans chapter eleven, verse six that is by grace and not of works and if it is of works it’s not of grace. You cannot take saving grace and mix it with works and understand the gospel. The good news is that it is a free gift and it is apart from works.
What happened is that God said, “In order to save people I have to clear the deck. I have to make sure that no human goodness is involved in the salvation process.” If there had been some goodness within us that God could use, if there had been something within us that matched the holiness of God, God would have had to acknowledge it and use it. But rather the Bible says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” God says, “In order to do my own thing I have to make it very, very clear that human works can have no part of the salvation process. I must raise the dead and it must not be of works, lest any man boast.”
A number of years ago I was speaking at a breakfast in Detroit. I preached the gospel and afterward the cleric who closed in prayer said, “Oh God, we pray that we may live in such a way that when we stand before you we will be proud of all of our accomplishments.” Only God knows his heart, but I do not believe that man knows the gospel nor was he born again.
Can you imagine that? Are we are going to stand before God and be proud of our accomplishments? We will stand before God? We will be on our faces with nothing to present. The hymn says, “Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling.” That is the understanding of the gospel.
The good news is that God’s grace is unaffected by the degree of your sin. I pointed out last time that if you have two corpses, one is not more dead than the other. Does Jesus say, “You know, I was able to raise Lazarus because he was dead only four days. If he had been dead for two weeks, there is no way I could have done that!”? No, because this is God’s work and it is not affected by the degree of your sin. God can save big sinners.
If the truth really were known about some of you, we may find out that you have done some terrible things in your past, even some criminal things. You say, “Is God able to save me?” Yes, of course God is able to save you. Salvation is God’s work and it is not hindered by your sin. We often sing, “The vilest of sinners who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” God can save you.
The Sears Tower is taller than the LaSalle National Bank. We could have some young engineers do some research and tell us about how many feet each building is and other facts. But if you stop comparing them between themselves and begin to compare them from the distance of the farthest star you would say, “There isn’t that much difference between them.” We as humans are different. Some are better than others. But once we begin to compare ourselves with God, we all fall short. God comes along and speaks the word and grants us life. He is not limited by your past.
Now notice it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” The sole requirement is faith. You say, “What does faith involve?” Faith involves three things. First of all, it involves knowledge. Did the people whom Jesus Christ rejected, that he predicted he would reject, those who cast out demons in his name and did all these marvelous works, did they have knowledge? You bet they had knowledge! They may have been on television with open bibles or they may have been brought up in church. Of course they had knowledge.
The second part is that you need assent. Assent is an intellectual conviction that the facts of the gospel are true. It is true that Jesus Christ died for sinners and it is true that he was raised from the dead. We have assent to these and we believe they happened. Did these folks have assent? I would think that they would. I don’t believe they would have been casting out demons and doing miracles if they didn’t have assent. By the way, we’re not sure in whose power they were actually doing these things. They may have used the name of Jesus and yet because of their doctrinal error, demons might have cooperated to make it look as if they were being cast out.
What was missing? Why were they turned away from the heavenly gates? They were turned away because faith involves something else, which is trust. It involves a transfer of trust to Christ. It is not faith in Jesus plus something to add to it, with something else in your back pocket in case Jesus isn’t good enough. The founder of one of America’s great seminaries who understood grace said that he wanted to trust Jesus Christ so completely and so totally that if he gets to heaven and discovers that faith in Jesus alone is not the way of salvation and that you need something else, that he will be turned away and be damned forever. That’s the kind of faith that saves. That is grace. It is a transfer of trust to Christ.
Grace is difficult to accept. You would think that after this exposition that everyone would believe and that those listening on the radio and by internet would say, “Right now wherever I am I am going to transfer my trust to Jesus.” Grace is difficult for two categories of people. First, it is difficult for those who have sinned greatly because they say to themselves, “I am so unworthy and so defiled because of my sin. There is no way that God would accept me.” I hope I answered your question by pointing out that the real issue isn’t the degree of your sin.
Then there is another category of people that are even more difficult to deal with. They are the ones who really, really struggle against grace and don’t receive it. These are the goody-two-shoes people, the people who work in social work and devote their time and their energy, the people who want to better the world, the people who are fundamentally honest and decent people, many of whom attend church. They struggle greatly against grace. They say, “You mean to tell me that I am that bad off?” Then they drag out their list of accomplishments. They struggle and find it difficult to accept grace.
Like somebody once said, “The only time I ever sinned was to take my golf clubs in anger and wrap them around a tree.” “Oh, could I get your autograph here?” Here’s a man who in twenty-six years committed one sin. Wow! He finds it difficult to accept grace. Grace comes along and undercuts all that and says, “The social work that you are doing is great. Keep doing it!” But it buys no saving merit in God’s sight and people don’t like it.
I told you earlier about the woman in the plane I was sitting next to who was very self righteous. She was the kind who would say, “Maybe I have committed two sins, but I would need to think long and hard before I could identify them.” I said to her, “Would you consider yourself ungodly?” She said, “Are you kidding? I’m not ungodly!” I smiled my best smile. Don’t ever be mean unless you smile. If you smile it takes the edge off. I said, “I’m so sorry to hear that because it means that Jesus didn’t die for you.” She said, “What do you mean Jesus didn’t die for me?” I said, “The Bible says Jesus died for the ungodly. If you are not ungodly, he didn’t die for you.”
Do you see how hard it is for her to accept grace? It is tough to accept grace. But for those who are willing to accept grace and transfer their trust to Jesus, admitting how bad off they are, they are the ones that are saved. Jesus said, “Every plant that my heavenly Father does not plant will be rooted up.” It was a false faith. It was knowledge, it was assent, but there was no transfer of trust to Jesus and Jesus alone. When I stand before God I will quote these words: “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.” That is all that I will take to heaven.
The Bible does say that now that we are saved, “Unto good works, which God hath before ordained, that we should walk in them.” Having been converted and raised from the dead, Lazarus has to get out of the tomb and if he lived long enough, to go help make dinner. God wants us to serve him and our works follow salvation. They are not a part of the salvation process, the saving process. That can’t be of works. However, once you are saved you had better work. If you don’t we would have reason to believe you aren’t actually saved. It just naturally follows. It boggles the mind to think that God planned in advance the works we should do.
Jesus told a parable about two men who both believed in grace. There was a Pharisee who went into the temple to pray along with a tax gatherer. The Pharisee was the goody-two-shoes person who couldn’t think of anything terrible that he had done after thinking for a long time. He stood up and prayed, “I thank thee God that I am not like other men, adulterers and extortionists. I fast twice a week and give tithes of all that I possess.” You say, “Did he believe in grace?” Yes, of course. Notice he thanked God that he was not like other men. He was saying, “I am a very good person and I am thanking God that I am so good.” So in a manner of speaking he believed in grace.
The other man, the tax gatherer, had a better assessment of himself. He smote his breast and wouldn’t even look to heaven. He couldn’t look God in the eyes so to speak and said, “Oh God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said that the man who said those words went home justified. The other man left unchanged.
What the Pharisee was saying was, “You know, I am a good person and with God’s help I think I can save myself.” The other person was saying, “I’ve got a real serious sin problem and unless God intervenes I am going to damn myself.” One left justified and the other left quite confident that he would do better next time, with God’s help of course, and thankful that God gave him the grace to do good works.
Hear me out: even the good works that God gives us the grace to do cannot save us. Only what God has done for us in Christ that we receive by faith, and the faith itself is a gift, not of works, so that salvation wholly and totally is of God. That is why we believe that God alone is the Savior.
So I have to ask you today, are you saved? That is very good terminology, by the way. Somebody said to me the other day, “Why do you use this ‘saved’ language?” Well, we have this silly idea here at the Moody Church that we should preach the Bible. It is not widely done anymore, but we use the word saved because you will notice it says, “For by grace you have been saved.” So I have to ask you, are you saved? Has the transfer of trust been made? Our assurance flows from that truth.
Finally, let me say a word about assurance. Do you believe that when Jesus died on the cross and rose again that he did all that will be necessary to stand in God’s presence? If you embrace that for yourself, you not only will be saved, but you will have the assurance that you are because you know that it has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with the wonder of what Jesus did for sinners. That is where assurance is found. So I ask you again, are you saved?
Let’s pray. “Father, we ask in Jesus name that for the many who are listening, and you know who they are, who are cut off from you or who have never been redeemed, never been saved, cause them at this moment Lord to see their need. Give them the ability to trust Christ. Come to them Father and reveal your truth to them. And then Lord Jesus, may they have that calm assurance that their hope is in Jesus alone. Not hope in Jesus and rituals, but Jesus alone. Grant that oh God we pray. And for those who know you as Savior but struggle with assurance, show them the wonder and the beauty of the cross. Help them to rejoice in what Jesus did for them, we ask in your blessed name, amen.”