May 13, 2018
Today is Mother's Day. Scriptures don't say a lot about how God's love is like a Mother's love as God is mostly depicted as our Father. But Isaiah quotes God: in Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you.” I'm sure we all have idealized pictures of a mother comforting her son. Julie has a sign in our house with some of her words of “comfort.” quote them.
I enjoy a good joke, or not so good ones. But the point I want to take from Mother's Day is that there is a certain, assumed assurance of love from a mother. Now we can all point to exceptions, but as a rule, a mother's love can be counted on. And in our reading from John this morning, he builds his case for believing all the things we've studied since Easter...particularly God love for us. “If we receive human testimony, the testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts”
We begin by looking at the testimony of God about Jesus. Obviously, God hasn't spoken this testimony to us individually and none of us have seen Jesus in the flesh; our walk with him is spiritual ,not physical like it was for the apostles. But those early witnesses did leave us a record. A trustworthy human testimony of God's testimony of Jesus. Two examples jump out at me, both recorded in all four gospels. First, at the baptism of Jesus, Mark reported it this way, “9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
My second example is the Transfiguration. “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain... 2 And he was transfigured before them, 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 (and) a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Two examples of God the Father testifying to Jesus as the Son of God.
Now where do we go from there? John was one of the apostles who was witness to these things. And he writes in today's epistle that God's testimony, matched up with his own testimony, gives us assurance of God's love and more, the assurance of our salvation through Jesus.
Now you may be wondering about my sermon title today, TULIP. It is an acronym and I will work my way back to assurance of salvation. TULIP is an acronym that we as reformed Presbyterian have long had associated with our denomination. I'm taking a lot of my information today for RC Sproul's book What is Reformed Theology? I don't want to get too deep into theological terms, but we should understand some basic Reformed theology. We know we are Protestant, separated from the Roman Catholic Church during the reformation. But there are divisions in Protestantism too. To help differentiate reformed from others, I'll share a couple of examples. One branch would be Evangelical. This branch holds to a very private, very pious form of worship. It is about a strict moral life and a less liturgical form of worship. Examples would be The Christian Church and Cornerstone.
There are the non-trinitarians. They deny the theory of the Holy Trinity. Examples are the Universalists, Quakers and some churches under the name Church of God.
Pentecostals are into the action of the Holy Spirit including speaking in tongues. The Assembly of God churches fall under this type.
Reformed churches include the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, the United Church of Christ, American/Dutch Reformed Churches and most all Presbyterian churches are in the Reformed category. And the anagram TULIP is used to give a broad explanation of what Reformed denominations believe. Bear with me as I give the briefest explanation of TULIP because my goal is to examine the P in TULIP in more detail.
The T stands for “Total Depravity.” OK, Total depravity overstates our sin nature a bit, I believe. Basically what it means is that human beings live under the effect of sin and corruption. None of us is without sin and sin affects every area of our lives. Total depravity is misleading because we are able, even in our sinful state, to do many acts of virtue; acts of love. The way to look at this T is that we are not good enough to earn our eternal reward. In fact, we are not good enough or wise enough to even seek God on our own. Scripture teaches that we do not seek for God without the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. When God finds us, we are born again.
That leads us to the U; Unconditional Election. You may be familiar with the Christian terminology “the Elect”. These are the people God has selected for eternal salvation. This is a major distinction in that many denominations believe that we need to choose God, we need to do something; say a prayer, answer an altar call, something to prove that we are saved. But the Reformed Theology teaches that God's call to us is not based on our merit; we don't do anything to add to what Jesus did on the cross. It is impossible to say just how and why God elects certain people and not others; if we could do that we would be God. One way to put it is that God calls us and somehow, in God's goodness, we are saved despite ourselves.
L: Limited Atonement. This is the most difficult and most disputed term. It seeks to answer the question, “Did Jesus die for the sins of every human being...or just for the sins of the elect?” Scripture seems clear that not everyone is saved. I can't begin to answer this issue in even if I used a full sermon. Let's leave it at this; Reformed belief says that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is unlimited in its value, but limited to the elect according to God's total knowledge of all choices, actual and potential.
I: Irresistible Grace. This is a little confusing. It sounds as if we are unable to resist the Grace of God. That is not what this means, not exactly. What it tries to say is that grace is given freely by God with no human merit within it. Non-reformed churches might say faith comes before God's saving grace. But we contend that there can be no faith without God's grace coming first. This is one reason I defend infant baptism to my adult baptism friends. An adult baptism calls for a decision first, then the sacrament. A baby has done absolutely nothing to commend themselves to God. Celebrating God's grace in a helpless baby is a wonderful picture of Irresistible Grace; that grace that precedes our decision to follow Jesus. Both work because of God's mercy, but I believe infant baptism is a wonderful picture of reformed theology.
Finally, we get to the P I've been aiming for since the beginning. I know that is a lot of theological information. And not everyone appreciates it as much as I do, but I've said it before; we should know about our faith; what and why we believe as we do. The P stands for Perseverance of the Saints. Again, the acronym isn't perfect. A better P word would be Preservation of the Saints and I personally prefer Assurance of Salvation. John wrote, “And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” John uses an expression there that bothers many of us conservative Minnesotans; “you may know”. This phrase...many of you know I am taking New Testament Greek lessons on line and I've warned you this was coming. In the Greek this phrase is rendered, “eido” which is defined as to know, or to be aware, to be sure. We can be sure that we have eternal life according to the Apostle John. It sounds awfully presumptuous to suggest that we can know we have eternal life. If you are asked where will you go when you die, it is hard for us to say, “Heaven, without a doubt.” It sounds not only presumptuous, it sounds prideful and arrogant.
But it fits with the tone of the other elements of Reformed faith; if it isn't up to us, but is up to God, we are not responsible to assure our own salvation. We can have assurance of salvation because God is faithful. What it doesn't mean is that we will never slip up and sin or do things that we don't really wish to do. It is not an assurance of perfection. The evangelicals have a saying, “Once saved, always saved”. And that is what I'm saying. There will be times when we mess up, time when we question this assurance. That is normal and it is important to note, our assurance is not based on our feelings but on God's faithfulness.
If you are still with me, you have to ask yourself, “How do I know I am 'once saved'?” If it isn't my prayer or my works that saved me, is it just a shot in the dark? And again, it comes back to the question of how we are saved. Assurance is not based on our perfection but on the perfect grace and love of God. Paul wrote, “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it...” (Phil. 1: 6). And in Romans he embellishes that thought. It is one of my favorite passages, especially for funerals, “Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? (there's that term) It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It doesn't get much clearer than that. But even with all this, it is possible to have doubts. How you happen to be feeling today is not the measure of your salvation or lack thereof.
So can we live with confidence that our salvation is assured? John wrote about receiving testimonies that assure its truth. There are four tests we can look at to help us feel more certain. The first witness of confirmation is scriptures, John 1:12 says, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” One of the basic tenets of the Reformed faith, according to Sprouls, is that our faith is based on God's word alone. A key is the principle of the literal interpretation of Scripture. This means, not that we read it with a naïve or wooden literalism, but we seek to interpret according to the manner in which it is written. In others words, our understanding of the literal interpretation of scripture means we seek the plain sense of what is written without a lot of speculation or allegorization.
The second is the witness of the Holy Spirit. The bible is an external witness, the Spirit is internal. In Romans 8:16 we read, “For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children.” This assurance comes through fellowship with God. Not because we are spending time with God but because, as we spend time with God we hear the voice of the Spirit much more clearly. If God, the Holy Spirit is not part of our lives, it is hard to hear the Spirit speak deep in our hearts and we may miss this testimony.
The third witness of confirmation is the witness of a changed life, a life filled with living as Jesus commands. In our series in I John we've heard many examples of this. 2: 6 says, “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Christ did.” 3: 14: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. 4: 7 Let us love one another because love is from God; 4: 20 Those who say, 'I love God' but hate their brothers or sisters are liars. And 5: 2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” The scriptures teach us the place of the Holy Spirit who works in us to demonstrate a changed life as we learn to love as God loves us.
Lastly, an event of acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Savior is a concrete act that we can look at and then trust Jesus for the rest. It may have been an altar call, an epiphany, a gradual revelation, an experience of surrender, but an actual event brings assurance. It is not a requirement for salvation but a wonderful reminder that Jesus alone saves.
I enjoy a good game of Jeopardy. You all know how it works, you are given the answer and must supply the question. We are going to try that to conclude the sermon today. I will give an answer, you supply the question.
Statement number 1: I am confident that my sins are forgiven and that I will spend eternity with God in heaven because God is faithful.
Okay, what’s the question?(What is assurance of salvation?)
Statement number 2:
My changed life through the power of the Holy Spirit helps confirm this promise for me.
What’s the question?
(What is assurance of salvation?)
Statement number 3:
This is based on faith in the promises of God’s word, not my feelings or my actions or my prayers.
What’s the answer?
(What is assurance of salvation?)
John wrote us a gospel and an epistle to teach us that Jesus is the Son of God and came that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. In his gospel he wrote this, “this book...is written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is...the Son of God...and may have life in his name.” And from our epistle today, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Trust in the good news that you are saved by faith and that is a gift of God's grace. We are assured of our salvation through the faithfulness of our loving God. Amen.
Hymn: Blessed Assurance 317 HLC