When you look at the news there are tragedies all around us. We have just ended the season of West Niles. There is the pandemic flu coming. There are accidents and violence. Families struggle and relationships are a mess. Parents are estranged from children, spouses separate from one another, children suffer, and evil men have their way. In our lives there is an emptiness in spite of all the stuff we try to cram into that empty place. We cry out to God for help, for salvation, and our Deliverer comes. Sometimes we don’t even know what we need to be saved from, but Jesus comes and the Holy Spirit draws us to the Father, and we are saved.
Salvation: It is a process (rarely happens outside of context) that results in a defining decision. That decision requires humility, but it is a response to God’s work in the heart of the unbeliever.
Let’s look at 3 stories to understand this important truth:
Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) – “You must be born again”
So here we have our first story. In the middle of the night one of the spiritual leaders of Israel comes to Jesus. He comes at night because he doesn’t want to be seen. Jesus does not have a good reputation within the cultural and religious leaders. John was a problem, and then John gave way to Jesus. But the things Jesus said not only challenged the current religious teachings; they were connected to the Old Testament in a very real way. The leaders didn’t know what to make of it. So here comes Nicodemus… and he doesn’t start with a question. He assents to the power he sees in the miracles of Jesus. Jesus cuts right to the chase, to the heart of all. He starts off with a rather startling statement, “If you want to see God, the kingdom of God, you must be born again.”
The culture was all about connecting to God. They knew they were God’s people, His kingdom. The nation was trying to figure out sin and righteousness, trying to understand and obey the Law, the only way they knew how to get to God. And Jesus says that phrase oft repeated, “You must be born again.” In our discussion of salvation we need to start with the words of Jesus. He is the fulfiller of prophecy, the very deity incarnate, so when He speaks, we seek to understand. This phrase has been used for decades by evangelicals in connection with salvation. We can hear Billy Graham speaking to a stadium crowd, waving his Bible, making the declaration, “You must be born again.” He didn’t have to deal with the post-modernists who try to say there are many ways to God, that there is a truth in every religion, every revelation, and no ultimate truth; the hippies were saying that in their day. They can say what they wish, but my Bible doesn’t agree. Jesus said Himself, “I am the way the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me!” Understand, though, that another’s salvation is something we leave up to God. He is the One that peers inside the hearts of man. Salvation is a personal thing, between a person and God and we don’t know what. One who is saved, though, will be changed by that salvation; but that is next week’s message.
“You must be born again.” He doesn’t say you must be born into a good family; or you must be handsome or pretty, or that you must even be a nice person. He says you must be born again. Birth is an event, but also a process. For you and I it is a roughly 9 month gestation period followed by the event of birth. The event itself changes us in the most dramatic ways. From a place of darkness we enter the light. We become more alive than we would have ever thought possible… if we had the where-with-all to think. Given a choice, we wouldn’t be able to see the benefit of birth. We wouldn’t know that we were doomed to die if we stayed where we were. And so at the right time, God moves things along in the way prescribed back in the Garden. And so the non-Christian, the unbeliever, the one who is far from God does not always see the need for God. He does not recognize his or her doom if they stay in their present state. And God comes along and draws them to Himself, so that at the right time, they recognize the Salvation God offers, they believe in Him, and they are born again.
Paul (Acts 9:1-19) – “I am God”
Then we come to Paul; formally known as Saul. Before Acts chapter nine he was a man pursuing God. He had studied the Law and was so sure of himself. He was strong, and used his strength to pursue those who said God was different from His. He would track down the Christians and kill them. And in the middle of his mission of self righteous judgement, God grabbed him for His purposes. Jesus appeared in a blinding light and Paul’s life changed forever. Paul went to the high priest and got official letters from them saying he could arrest followers of the Way and bring them bound to Jerusalem. And so down the road he goes with his men. Do you see him marching? So proud and full of the rightness of his task he was. He was the man of the Law, and the Law demanded judgement. None would find mercy in him for the Law must be satisfied. And then the light shone down on him from heaven. And the voice cries out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul hears and asks who it is he persecutes, and Jesus says, “It is I.” Saul is blind and enters the city of Damascus blind, being led by the hand. For three days he neither eats nor drinks, and he finds peace with God. The God who met Saul on the road to Damascus was the God of history; the fulfiller of prophecy; not some opinion or fly by night theological creation. When you meet Jesus, you meet a man of history as well as a God of eternity. When you meet Jesus He reveals himself as God before you and lays open your soul to your sins. In a very real sense that exposure to your true self, your fallen nature, your sinfulness could sear your spiritual eyes just like Saul’s. When you meet Jesus you may see Him in all His glory, the light of heaven falling around you… and you will know this: You are a sinner. This is the one truth you need to understand about yourself if you are to become a Christian, a follower of Jesus. You have to come face to face with your humanity, your fallenness. Sin is anything that goes against the character of God, and there is no one who has not sinned.
The problem people have is that they think they are not too bad; they haven’t reached the threshold of sin and wrong, beyond which one is judged. Any sin, though, is enough to separate you from God. I am not just talking about ultimate judgement or issues of heaven and hell; I am talking about today. If you have not asked Jesus to forgive you of your sin, you are not forgiven. Jesus’ death on the cross is not applied automatically to all people, both in history and the future. Jesus’ forgiveness is applied upon an individual recognizing they are a sinner and can’t ever be good enough to get to God. That’s why God came to us. So we ask God to forgive us of our sins; we are specific, for our sins are specific. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just, and will forgive us. Have you ever come to that point? There are people who have gone to church all their life. They have served on boards, taught Sunday School, and done good works of service; but they aren’t born again – they were too proud to admit that they themselves were sinners, that they were far from God all the while they were working for Him. Church is about community, but at the heart of that community is that we are all sinners walking along this path of life, pursuing the God who extends His grace and offers salvation rich and free. All we have to do is reach out and take it. We do that by admitting we are a sinner, far from God; and we recognize that Jesus is Lord. If our only message was “you are wrong, you are a sinner”, we would be preaching the Law, for that is what the Law does. Jesus offers forgiveness from the condemnation. Listen to the third story.
Peter (Matthew 16:13-19) – “I will change your life”
We have Peter, who is man with a menial job. He is a fisherman, his brother is a fisherman, and his friends are fishermen. He is working at his trade when along comes the Messiah. His brother is excited for Peter to meet Jesus. Jesus calls to Peter and says, “Follow me and I will make you a fisher of men.” And Peter does follow Jesus. For some 3 years he follows this itinerant preacher, balancing his following with looking after his family I don’t know how that worked, but I do know God provided what Peter and his family needed. Jesus dies and is resurrected. Wonder of wonders, and they wait. The Holy Spirit moves and Peter becomes not only a preacher, but the head of the church in Jerusalem. How does one go from fisherman to head of a church? In peter’s case, it started with his conversion. Peter believes that Jesus is the Messiah, but that doesn’t save him. He is not born again at that point. We see the progression of salvation as Peter interacts with Jesus and learns. Finally, in Matthew 16, it clicks. Previously, Jesus warns His disciples about the “leaven of the Pharisees”. He is saying beware of the teachings that push the Law, that teach that it is the Law that saves. Jesus finally turns to His disciples and asks them, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” After receiving the answers Jesus then asks for their statement, “But who do you say that I am?” It is Peter that answers, and I believe this is the moment for Peter when he is born again. His statement is simple, “You are the Anointed One, the Son of the living God!” Peter knew he was a sinner. He was confronted with it again and again. Jesus needs more than just recognition of fallenness. Jesus asks for belief, for faith. In our fallen state we need to recognize that it is Jesus who has the answers, and so we surrender our lives to Him. We make Jesus our Lord. When we recognize we are sinners we recognize Jesus as Savior, as our Forgiver; but when we recognize Jesus as the answer, as the Messiah, we make Him the Lord of our life.
There’s the joke about the one armed fisherman who said it was this big (lift one arm up). Get it? Without the second arm, the other end of the fish, our claim means nothing. So as it is with salvation you need both statements. You need both halves to make the whole. You are a sinner, and so surrender your life – Jesus becomes your Savior and Lord! This is the heart of the Good News. Even though life is a mess and we are powerless to make things ultimately okay, God has already provided the Way. He has already done the work. Are you feeling crushed? Are you spent? Are you tired of trying to do it on your own? Here is the invitation from Jesus Himself: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Some people come very close. They struggle with pride which makes them think it is shameful to come forward in a church, shameful to admit they are weak. A man martyred for his faith said many years ago, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”. Don’t let the pride of the years stop you from having a vital relationship with Jesus.
What people need to know to be saved:
They are a sinner, but Jesus is the Savior.
They must surrender (because they are a sinner) and let Jesus be Lord.