How can I be sure that I am saved?
Revd Colin R Honour's sermon at St Thomas's, Milnthorpe, on Sunday 5th March
Romans chapter 3, verses 21–26.
John chapter 3, verses 1–15.
‘Are you saved?’ is probably not the best way to greet a stranger or to start a conversation.
Same with ‘born again’, isn’t it?
There’s a quote by Denis Leary, who said that ‘the problem with born-again Christians is that they’re an even bigger pain the second time round’.
If you can’t get beyond the emotive language, though, you’ve got a problem because both terms are scriptural and both are valid to us.
Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be ‘born again’ if he was to enter the kingdom of heaven, and of course we’ll come back to that in a short while.
One of the most beautifully humbling, and the most challenging encounters Jesus had was with the thief on the cross. You will remember it, I’m sure. Even during His last painful, most humiliating moments on earth, Jesus was the cause of both division and hope. Luke records that two criminals were crucified with Jesus, one on his left and one on his right. As they hung there in agony one of the criminals hurled insults at Him, but the other one rebuked him saying ’Don’t you fear God? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ His request to Jesus is the key to the whole thing: ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus promised him that ‘today you will be with me in paradise.’
That man acknowledged the wrong he had done, and in his appeal to Jesus acknowledged his need for forgiveness. That act of repentance ‘saved’ him for eternity at the eleventh hour!
Let me tell you about Roy.
Roy was a builder, a man’s man, tough as old boots; he did contract work in some wild areas of the world, especially in Africa where he was caught up in the mining industry. By his own admission, he had done some ‘terrible things’ in his time. I went to see him in the hospice on the afternoon of Boxing Day some years ago, since he was almost at the end of his life. He was terribly distressed, hardly able to speak because of his cancer, but he was almost too frightened to die.
Because he feared God.
I sat with him and asked him if he wanted to repent and find peace. I took him through the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and suggested that if he had prayed it to squeeze my hand- which he did. That moment transformed him even as I watched- his features relaxed, his breathing became more even and he slipped into unconsciousness. He died a couple of hours later.
At his funeral, which was attended by more men than I have seen before or since in a single church, I was able to tell them that Roy had made peace with God and was now in heaven.
A few of the ‘decent’ church folk were quite shocked- but you see, as Saint Paul says, ‘this is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.
It’s our problem not His!
Same with Zachaeus, the detested tax collector who entertained Jesus as a guest much to his surprise, and to the displeasure of his ‘victims’, and, as a result of his encounter with Jesus, repented and offered to make recompence to those he had cheated.
Jesus declared, ‘salvation has come to this house today.’
You might wish to reflect on who took the initiative!
If you’re embarrassed or put out by such criminal conversions and unsavoury characters perhaps appearing in church, then remember the sort of company Jesus so often kept – and why – we are all sinners!
Perhaps a very different scenario: the other extreme in some ways if you like – the story of the rich, respectable, young man (Matthew 19 verses 16-22) who asked Jesus ‘Teacher, what good things must I do to get eternal life?’
‘If you want to enter life’, says Jesus, ‘keep the commandments.’
‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother, and love your neighbour as yourself.’
‘All these I have kept’, said the young man, ’what do I still lack?’
Jesus answered, ‘If you want to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give to the poor; and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me.’
One of the saddest verses in the Bible follows: ‘When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.’ (verse 22).
Jesus’ disciples were shocked at Jesus’ words and couldn’t see why he was turned away- actually, if you read it carefully, it was the young man who walked away. The invitation stood but he wouldn’t accept it.
It wasn’t the fact that he was rich that was the problem, it was that it was more important to him than the grace of God.
The other very important point here is that however many good works we do, we cannot earn our place in the kingdom! And however hard we try to keep the commandments that isn’t enough either.
‘So who can be saved?’ asked the stunned disciples.
Jesus’ reply is the KEY: ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’ (verse 26)
So let’s look at NIcodemus and his personal encounter with Jesus recorded in John’s gospel Chapter 3 verses 1–15 which leads into one of the most famous declarations in the Bible, John 3: 16 which says?
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’
Nicodemus, a Pharisee, an important and influential member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus by night, which was quite telling when you think about it; for whatever reason, he didn’t want to be seen publicly with Jesus (or as a more generous person suggested, this was the only time he could catch Jesus at home).
Anyway, he sought out Jesus, perhaps on behalf of his fellow Jews, and began to try to suss out who Jesus really was.
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’
Jesus’ response floors him!
‘Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.’
‘Born again’ can also be read as ‘born from above’ indicating that not only was rebirth required but that it was a spiritual experience after which one could ‘see’ the kingdom because God’s kingdom was a spiritual kingdom, hence Jesus’ comments to the rich ruler that he was very near to the kingdom but not quite near enough to ‘enter in’ because he didn’t put following Jesus first.
The implication given to Nicodemus was that only those who take the step of faith to enter the kingdom will actually ‘see’ it, that is experience it.
The new birth is prior to and not consequent upon the ‘seeing’.
The commentator suggests that Nicodemus had a genuine difficulty with what Jesus was saying because rebirth humanly-speaking was impossible. A completely new start in old age was equally unimaginable.
He wouldn’t be totally unaware of ideas about spiritual regeneration but either he was genuinely struggling or he was trying to make Jesus’ statements look silly.
It was suggested by others that he might have had in mind the water baptism of repentance administered by John the Baptist, BUT if those who submitted to John’s baptism considered themselves reborn, it was necessary for them to learn that the outward rite was insufficient without spiritual regeneration.
Without wishing to repeat what you might have heard last week, it might we worthwhile revisiting the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus, especially ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’. (John 14 verse 6)
There’s a 1990’s chorus which sums up much of what we’re saying here.
‘Only by grace can we enter,
So – how can I be sure?
Well, have you discovered the fact that you’re human and therefore not perfect, and have you discerned that only God in Jesus can make any difference to your condition even if you’ve already been baptised and confirmed and are trying to lead a ‘good life’.
If so, have you taken that simple step of faith by inviting Jesus to take charge of your life?
Can you stand and declare that ‘I believe and trust in Him’?
Remember, even John Wesley, ordained Anglican minister, had to admit his failure to thrive in his own strength, and was reborn spiritually, born again, born from above, so we are in good company! It’s all about the grace and mercy of a loving God who is continually inviting us to respond to His love and who waits for us to choose to respond.
A single step of faith.
One of our biggest problems is that we like our independence too much and find it hard to place ourselves in God’s hands; the other factor is that too many of us feel unworthy of God’s love and forgiveness, but that is to drift into next week’s topic: ‘How can I know that I am forgiven?’.