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You asked for a sermon on “What Must I Do To Be Saved?”

 

Acts 16:30

 

I: — Two decades ago Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the minister at Westminster Chapel, in London , was the best-known preacher in Great Britain . He addressed 2000 people Sunday by Sunday, each year turning his sermons for the past year into books that sold scores of thousands of copies.  Earlier in his life he had trained as a physician, as a cardiologist, to be exact. Having practised for several years as a specialist in Britain he left medicine – where he was a rising star among England ’s medical fraternity – and entered the ministry.  He began by serving small congregations in Wales , and eventually became senior minister to one of London ’s largest congregations. When he was about to retire, decades later, someone gushingly remarked that he had made a huge sacrifice in giving up his career in medicine.   (British clergy of the mid 1950s were paid even less than British clergy are now; Lloyd-Jones was 52 years old before he could afford a car.) “Sacrifice?” the man said in bewilderment, “What sacrifice?   What greater privilege is there than being a minister of the gospel that saves and therefore is humankind’s only hope?”   As important as cardiology is, its importance is relativised by the importance of announcing the gospel.

Whenever I teach a course on the theology of John Calvin, my first lecture is always on Calvin’s health; specifically, his ill health, his medical problems: kidney stones, nephritis, haemorrhoids, asthma, migraine headaches, pulmonary tuberculosis, intestinal parasites, spastic colon. The lecture amplifies each of these ailments in considerable detail.  When the class is beginning to turn green I say to the students, “Why didn’t Calvin take it easier on himself?”   Then I quote Calvin himself from the preface to his commentary on 2nd Thessalonians, where Calvin says tersely, “My ministry is dearer to me than life.” In view of Calvin’s health problems and the atrocious suffering they brought him he could have been easy on himself, could have excused himself from his relentless work, could have spared himself the fatigue and frustration his manifold responsibilities in Geneva brought him. Everyone would have understood if he had said, “I’m not well: I’ll have to stop now.” No one would have faulted him for easing up and reducing his pain; instead, “My ministry is dearer to me than life.”

I understand Calvin. What could ever be dearer to someone whom the crucified has called than the ministry of that gospel which alone “saves” in every sense of the word?

II: — The gospel of Jesus Christ addresses us all, mired as we are in the human predicament. “Mired” is scarcely a neutral word. Other words could as readily be used: “fixed”, “bound”, “sunk”, “fastened”, “imprisoned”. Any of these words would indicate that the human predicament isn’t something humankind can alter. The root human situation can’t be remedied by human effort. This has to be made plain Sunday by Sunday.  It has to be announced again and again that the gospel uniquely provides deliverance. Worshippers must never be given the impression that “Christianity” merely puts a religious “spin”, a religious interpretation, on the world’s self-understanding, which self-understanding never goes so far as to speak of a predicament.

The world has an unrealistically roseate view of the human situation just because the world’s unbelief has blinded it to its own condition. (“Their foolish minds became darkened…” is how the apostle Paul puts it.)  The world views the human predicament in terms of social problems (the fact of social problems is undeniable) or in terms of national self-interest or in terms of corporate rapacity.  But individuals themselves are in fine condition, the world thinks; we are mere victims; we are never perpetrators.  Not surprisingly, then, the world continues to worship the myth of progress. “Every day in every way we are becoming better and better” announced Auguste Comte, the 19th Century “positive thinker.”   The presupposition of human progress appears everywhere in board of education documents, for instance.  It’s taken as self-evident that culture in general and education in particular are vehicles of a human amelioration that admits no profound predicament, no innermost self-contradiction and outermost manifestation of it.

On the one hand, the depredations of the century just behind us — particularly the depredations of the most educated nations — should find us laughing at the ridiculous naiveness of this.  On the other hand we shouldn’t laugh, since people who reject the gospel’s cure and therefore the gospel’s diagnosis are left believing in human progress (despite counter-evidence as unanswerable, for instance, as the history of the western world in the 20th century) as the only alternative to despair.

Of course there’s progress in the realm of technology, but only in the realm of technology. Technology is the human mastery of the less-than-human, the sub-human.   Therefore there is progress in humankind’s mastery of wind and water and electrons and chemicals and atoms.  But what of humankind’s self-mastery?  There’s no evidence of this at all.  And as a matter of fact it is humankind’s misused mastery of the sub-human that has brought unspeakable suffering, especially in the past 150 years. It’s humankind’s misused mastery of the less-than-human (why does no one ask why it’s forever being misused?) which proves that humankind’s self-mastery is a fable more ludicrous than anything a four year old believes in.

Progress? Think of some of Russia ’s greatest names from the last 150 years: Doestoievski, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov. Then think of Russia ’s history from 1900 to the present.

Progress? Think of some of Germany ’s greatest names: Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Goethe, Schweitzer, Grass, Einstein. Then think of Germany ’s history from 1900 to the present.

Progress? I listen to the radio while I eat my lunch. A noon-hour phone-in program invited listeners to comment on the reduced sentence recently imposed upon a man who had raped his stepdaughter. Because the man had raped his stepdaughter anally it was argued in court that he had preserved her virginity. In recognition of the man’s thoughtfulness the judge reduced the sentence. Is this progress? in a society whose midday radio programming turns a young woman’s lifelong devastation into public entertainment?

Only the gospel saves. Only the gospel tells us that we need to be saved. Only the gospel tells us from what we need to be saved.

 

III: — Then from what do we need to be saved?

(i)         We need to be saved from ourselves.  Have you ever noticed how off-handedly (it would seem) Jesus refers to our polluted hearts and heads?  “You, evil as you are…” he says to his disciples; to disciples, no less. “Out of the heart of humankind bubbles up all manner of depravity…” he says so matter-of-factly, as though it were so obvious that no one could think of disagreeing with him. Our Lord simply assumes that the root human condition is obvious to anybody with one eye open. Were he among us today in the flesh he would say, “ Serbia ? Kosovo?  Iraq ? What’s extraordinary about them? What else would you expect from people like yourselves?”  To those who are religiously fussy about what they eat he declares, “It isn’t what goes in that defiles you; it’s what comes out.” Then he lists some – but only some – of the everyday depravities which he regards as undeniable. Undeniable, to be sure, yet just as certainly incurable — apart from that radical cure of an ailment he presupposes everywhere but argues for nowhere.         Our Lord never attempts to build a case for his understanding of the human predicament; he simply states it, assuming that anyone who disagrees with him demonstrates, by her disagreement, that the human head and heart are every bit as perverse and folly-ridden as he maintains.

In speaking so matter-of-factly about the state of the human heart our Lord is simply endorsing what has since been labelled “Original Sin”. We aren’t going to finesse all the subtleties of the doctrine this morning or attempt to correct all the misunderstandings that surround it. But we must say this much about it. We must understand that sins (small “s”, plural) are the outcropping, the effervescence, of Sin (capital “S”, singular). Our behaviour is an outflow of the condition.  Our thinking, willing, doing are symptoms of our innermost ailment. To treat the symptoms (or think we can treat the symptoms) while overlooking the condition is not only to find the symptoms unaltered; it’s also to persist in blindness, shallowness and folly concerning the condition.  When next someone says to us, “Have a good day”, we should ask ourselves in what a good day would consist.  Good day?  The world-at-large tells us that a good day is a day when we feel so good about ourselves it’s as if we were slightly “high” on whatever it takes to make us slightly “high”.  Our Lord tells us, however, that a good day, a really good day, is the day our Sinnership comes home to us with a conviction that is equal parts horror and disgust.

On the day of Pentecost many people had a “good day”; that is, a Godly day. Peter preached; the Spirit of God drove the message home; dozens cried, “What are we going to do?” Whereupon Peter told them what they had to do: they had to repent, cast themselves upon the mercy of God, look to God in saving faith every day, and pursue that road of discipleship which is narrow because it has to be narrow, just as the cutting edge of a knife has to be narrow if the knife is to be of any use.

It isn’t the case that we need our sins laundered, as though we needed an injection of something-or-other to bring about moral improvement. At bottom we need our Sinnership, the underlying condition, dealt with, for we need innermost Godwardness more than we need anything else.

(ii)         In saying that we need to be saved from the root human condition we are saying as well that we need to be saved from the judgement of God. You have heard me say many times that God’s judgement is medicinal or surgical; that is, it’s meant to heal. True.  God’s judgement is medicinal or surgical; and it will heal — as long as we submit to it.         To flee it, however, is to forego what alone will heal. Judgement welcomed means restoration to God and recovery within ourselves; judgement dismissed means alienation from God fixed and self-alienation unaltered.  We are delivered from the judgement of God by welcoming the judgement of God. Let me repeat. To flee the judgement of God is to be stuck in it; to welcome the judgement of God is to be delivered from it.

 

IV: — It all happened like this for the prison guard in the city of Philippi . The guard had been charged with ensuring that his prisoners, Paul and Silas (apostles), didn’t escape. A few hours earlier Paul and Silas had been beaten up by mobs egged on by magistrates; then they had been thrown into jail. The prison guard knew, of course that the apostles were Christians.  During the night an earthquake rumbled through the city.  The earthquake broke open the prison doors.  The guard knew that his Roman overseers would execute him if his prisoners escaped. He was about to commit suicide when Paul spoke up: “Don’t bother killing yourself; we’re still here.” Whereupon the guard cried out, “What must I do to be saved?”   The apostles’ reply was quick: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.…”

To believe in the Lord Jesus is to commit ourselves to him.  To believe in the Lord Jesus is to commit ourselves to him whom we now know to be God incarnate. Note Paul’s instruction: “Believe in the Lord Jesus….” Then note how the story concludes: “[the guard] rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.”  Plainly, to give ourselves to Jesus Christ is to give ourselves to God.

 

We need to say more about the prison guard who now rejoiced that he had believed in the Lord Jesus and now knew himself saved.  What had happened to him? What had happened to him to render him saved?

(i)         He was now newly related to God, rightly related to God.  The moment he clung in faith to Jesus Christ; that moment he became as much a child of God as he could ever be.  Because there was now faith rather than unbelief in the depths of his heart he had moved from being a creature of God to a child of God.

The profoundest description of him was “alive” unto God rather than “dead, inert”. The most important activity in his life, when alone, was prayer; when with others, worship. The truth about him concerning God the judge was “pardoned”; the truth about him concerning God the father was “reconciled”.

 

(ii)         Yet the prison guard, in his new-born faith, was given more than a new standing before God; he was also given a new nature from God.  This is not to say he was rendered sinless instantly.  Not at all. In fact he would have to contend with his “old” nature until life’s end.  But at least he could contend with it and wanted to.  And he wanted to contend with his old nature just because he had been given a new nature and knew it.

One of the weaker spots in my 37-year ministry, I feel, has been right here. I think I have understated the profoundest difference that faith in our Lord makes to the total person.  Not merely the difference it makes to our intellectual furniture (I’ve never understated that), but the difference it makes now to the total person. You see, the one question which seekers put to me over and over is, “What difference is faith in Christ going to make tomorrow morning when our feet hit the floor and we have to contend with a world that is as foreign to the gospel as cannibalism is to a Canadian?”

The prison guard in Philippi knew it had made a difference within him so telling that he would never doubt it. It will never make any less a difference to any of us.  Think for a minute: we live in a relationship with God that can never be adequately described but is always intimately known; we are informed by truth that we could never find for ourselves but will always be given to us; we are secure in our Lord not because of the strength of our grip on him but because of the strength of his grip on us; we have been flooded with the a love that Jesus himself calls “living water”.

 

(iii)         The prison guard knew one thing more: he knew what future his faith would bring him. His future was what scripture calls “glorification”, or the consummation, the full flowering of his life in God.

I am not embarrassed to speak of the life-to-come.  I am not embarrassed at finding comfort in the fact that the end of all who are named Christ’s people is a glorious end: we are going to stand forth resplendent on day of our ultimate deliverance.  The apostle doesn’t hesitate to encourage the Christians in Philippi, doesn’t hesitate to encourage the congregation which the prison guard himself now joined, by reminding them, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6)

 

                                                                                                Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

 January 2007