We’re in a sermon series about what being a disciple of Christ means. Last week we saw that it basically means living for Jesus as Lord or King. So below is a picture of a disciple – the crown stands for the Lord Jesus, ‘J’ is Jesus, and the stickman for the disciple:
Now this week and next we’re going to concentrate on our relationship with Christ – how we’re to trust him (1) and obey him (2). But then we need to put that relationship in the context of the church and the world. So then we’ll look at how we as a church are here to tell the world about Jesus (3) and serve one another (4). But God hasn’t left us in the world only to tell people about Jesus, although that’s their greatest need and our greatest task: people have plenty of other needs to be cared for (5), not least the need for us to stand up for God’s truth in public life (6). So that’s where we’re going over the next six weeks: seeing from the Bible that we are called to trust in Christ, obey his Word, tell the world about him, serve the church, care for needs and contend for truth. Or to put it in the words of our JPC mission statement, discipleship means: godly living, church growth and changing Britain. And we start tonight with trust in Christ.
Now on the one hand I guess some of us will be thinking, ‘I’ve probably heard all this before. This is going to be pretty basic.’ In a sense you’re right. But it’s not basic in the sense that, for example, having arm bands on when you’re learning to swim is basic, but that once you’ve learned you grow out of them and leave them behind. Trust in Christ isn’t just basic in the sense that it’s how you start the Christian life, it’s basic in the sense that it’s the base on which you build your relationship with God for the rest of your life. As someone once said, ‘Trusting in Christ is not just the start of discipleship, it’s the heart of discipleship.’ So if you’re a Christian of any age, this sermon is for you.
On the other hand, you may be someone who’s not yet come to trust in Christ. Maybe you’re like the many people who’ve said to me, ‘I wish I had your faith.’ which sounds a bit like saying, ‘I wish I had your musical ability.’ It makes faith sound like something you either just have or you don’t. And if you don’t, it can seem like there’s nothing you can do to get any nearer to having it. Well, if that’s you, this sermon is also for you, because we’re going to see that faith isn’t something you just have like musical ability. It’s something you exercise in response to Jesus. The more you look at Jesus in the Bible, the nearer you’ll find yourself to being able to trust him.
But I’m also going to mention doubt, because some of us tonight will be in doubt right now about God and where we stand with him. And all of us at some stage will find ourselves in doubt. That’s because this side of heaven it’s simply not possible for us to be perfect in any area of our lives. So if you’re a Christian, you know full well that your obedience, which we’ll be looking at next week, is imperfect. What we also need to face up to is that our faith will also always be imperfect, like a precious metal that’s got some impurities in it, so our faith always contains the impurity of doubt. We’ll also touch tonight on how to deal with at least some kinds of doubt.
So would you turn with me to that Bible passage on trusting in Christ which we had read out earlier? It’s John 3. And I’ve got two headings: (1) TRUSTING IN CHRIST IS THE START OF DISCIPLESHIP and (2) TRUSTING IN CHRIST IS THE HEART OF DISCIPLESHIP.
Firstly, TRUSTING IN CHRIST IS THE START OF DISCIPLESHIP
We’re going to concentrate on just a few verses of John 3, but we need to see the context because context is the first key to understanding any part of the Bible. So look at verses 1-2:
“Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, ‘Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’”
And in reply, Jesus basically says to him, ‘If you look at me and see nothing more than a good teacher, you haven’t actually seen anything, because if only you knew it, Nicodemus, you’re actually talking not just to a good teacher but to your rightful God and King.’ So read on to verse 3 where Jesus says that:
“In reply Jesus declared, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God [i.e. no-one can see – realise – that I am their rightful God and King, and come into relationship with me] unless he is born again.’”
So if you think of Picture 1 (above) of a disciple – someone who’s living for Jesus as King and that’s not how any of us start out life. Picture 2 (below) shows how we all do start out in life – crossing God and his Son the Lord Jesus, out of the picture and living as we want to, i.e. ruling ourselves (hence the little crown on our own heads). But Picture 3 (below) shows that God is still there in reality even if we believe in our minds that he isn’t. That attitude of crossing him out of our thinking (which the Bible calls sin) and all the wrong actions that follow (which the Bible calls sins) brings us under God’s condemnation. To use the word later on in John 3.
Picture 2: Picture 3:
Picture 3 shows how we all start out life. And Jesus is saying no-one can get out from under that condemnation and come into relationship with God as King unless they’re ‘born again’.
Now I’m not going to unpack the first half of this passage (verses 1-8) in detail. But what Jesus is saying is that if anyone is to get out from under condemnation and come into relationship with God, God has to do something to them. That’s what that picture of being ‘born again’ is meant to get across, because being born isn’t something you did yourself or to yourself. Your mother (plus or minus midwife or doctor or panicking father) did it to you. You contributed nothing but your need to be born – nothing but the predicament of being trapped in a womb and thinking to yourself, ‘How on earth can I get out of this?’ And the answer to that question for any unborn child is ‘You can’t. Unless your mother gives birth to you, you die.’ Applying that physical picture to spiritual life, Jesus is saying that none of us can get ourselves out from under condemnation and come into relationship with God. You can’t do that yourself by trying to be good, or better, or religious, or all the other things Nicodemus, for example, had done. You need God to do something to you. Unless he does, you die spiritually. You spend this life and eternity cut off from God. Now read on to verses 4-8:
“‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!’ [i.e. Nicodemus can’t accept what Jesus has just said and laughs it off.]
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.’”
So Jesus now adds that what needs to be done to us is done by God’s Spirit (verses 5 and 7). The question is ‘how’ which is what Nicodemus asks next, verse 9:
“‘How can this be?’ Nicodemus asked."
Firstly, Jesus answers his attitude because he’s clearly not (yet) open to changing his mind and believing Jesus, so Jesus takes him down a peg, verse 10-13:
“‘You are Israel’s teacher,’ [he’s got the kind of status and role the archbishop of Canterbury has today] said Jesus, ‘and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? [After all,] No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man. [i.e. none of you mere humans has the first-hand knowledge of my Father in heaven that I do.]”
So having answered his attitude, Jesus now answers his question which, verse 9, was ‘How can someone be born again?’ Well, verses 14-15:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man [which was Jesus’ favourite Old Testament title for himself] must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jesus is saying that for us to be born again, he had to be ‘lifted up’. He means lifted up on the cross to die. So he’s saying that his death is the only thing that can get us out from under condemnation and bring us into relationship with God. And to explain that, he uses an incident from the Old Testament. Now a lot of Bibles at verse 14 would give you a cross-reference to that Old Testament reading we had earlier from Numbers 21.4-9. So would you turn back there. In this incident, God’s people have turned against him and brought themselves under his condemnation. And having so far protected them from the snakes infesting their journey, God expresses his judgement by withdrawing that protection, so that many of the people are bitten and die. When they cried out for mercy, verses 8-9:
“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up [or ‘lifted it up’] on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”
So imagine you’re one of them – bitten, poisoned, paralysed, dying, you can’t move and you can’t do anything to help yourself. And God says, ‘Just look at this bronze snake as a way of saying you trust me for healing, and I’ll heal you.’ It brings to mind those pictures we’ve seen again and again on the news of children caught up in famine – the little boy who’s so sick, he can’t move, he can’t swat the flies away, he can’t do anything. But he can look – look into the camera and his eyes are pleading, ‘Please help me.’ And that’s the picture of faith or trust (it’s the same thing) that Jesus chooses to use. Faith or trust in Christ is ‘looking’ to him and his help – out of our complete inability to help ourselves. Now turn back to John 3.14-15 where Jesus says about himself:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man [Jesus] must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
Verse 15 echoes the wording of Numbers 21: just as everyone can look at the bronze snake and live, so likewise everyone who believes in Jesus [i.e. ‘looks’ to Jesus] may have eternal life. But where exactly does faith or trust ‘look’? What exactly does that mean? In our mind’s eye we are to look both back and up. Let me explain: in our mind’s eye we’re to look back to Jesus dying on the cross. And the Bible calls on us to believe that as he died there, he took on himself the condemnation, the judgement and for all the sins we have ever committed and will ever commit. So look at these pictures:
Picture 3: Picture 4: Picture 5:
So Picture 3 above, again, is how my life would look if I wasn’t trusting in Christ. But the Bible tells me that, see Picture 4, ‘He [Jesus] himself bore our sins [i.e. bore the punishment we deserve] in his body on the tree [i.e. the cross]’ (1 Peter 2.24). And it says, ‘The punishment that brought us peace was upon him’ (Isaiah 53.5). It calls on us to believe that all the condemnation we should expect and deserve to get when we die fell on Jesus when he died, so that we might be forgiven and spared it. So that’s looking back.
But faith also looks up because Jesus didn’t stay dead (see Picture 5 above). He rose from the dead and he’s now back with his Father in heaven. When he said in verse 14 that he ‘must be lifted up’, he was talking about all of that: not just ‘lifted up’ onto the cross to die, but ‘lifted up’ from the grave and then ‘lifted up’ to his Father’s side on the throne of heaven. So faith doesn’t just look back to a past event, it looks up to a living person – the Risen Lord Jesus who went through that past event for us. So trusting in Christ is basically ‘looking up’ to him in prayer and pleading, like the look of that helpless child, ‘Lord, please forgive me, please accept me rather than condemn me because you died in my place and took my condemnation for me.’ It’s ‘looking’ to the Lord Jesus in prayer and saying, ‘Please apply to me, to the sins I’m conscious of, the forgiveness that you paid for on the cross, back then.’ John 3 says that anyone and everyone who does that has eternal life – has a new relationship with God, out from under condemnation that will last through death into eternity. Look at John 3.16-18:
“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
So I’m rescued from the situation in Picture 3 (above) to the situation in Picture 4 (above) simply and solely by trusting in Christ and his death in the way he’s explained in John 3. And the obvious question is: Are you trusting in Christ like that, so that you’re able to say, ‘Picture 4 is the picture of me.’?
Many of us will be able to say, ‘Yes.’ If that’s you, I want to remind you of the first half of this passage, verses 1-8, about the work of the Spirit. Because if you’ve come to see yourself as you really are – a sinner deserving condemnation, and if you’ve come to see Jesus as he really is – the sinless Son of God who died for your sins, that is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. Because by nature, we’re too proud to admit our sin, too proud to admit there’s nothing we can do to make up for it or atone for it, too proud to back down from living our own way and let God have his rightful place as King, and too proud to ask for forgiveness. And if we’re doing those things, that only comes supernaturally through the work of the Spirit. So if you are doing those things, be very very grateful for what God has done in your life.
But if you can’t yet say ‘Yes’ to that question, can I ask, ‘What’s stopping you?’ It may be any number of things and I haven’t got time to tackle them all now. But for some of us, it may simply be that we feel totally unfit to come to Christ. My dear old Irish grandmother lived to the ripe age of 101. She was unbelievably healthy. When she was asked for the secret of her long life, she replied, ‘Working hard, having no money and drinking a terrible lot of tea.’ And on the rare occasions when she was unwell, it was always impossible to get her to go to the doctor. She’d always say, ‘He doesn’t want to see me in this state. I’ll drop in on him when I’m better.’ Which, of course, is to miss the point completely, because the doctor wants you to come to him when you’re sick and precisely because you’re sick. And spiritually speaking, the same is true of the Lord Jesus. If your problem is that you feel unfit, you feel unworthy, you feel morally and spiritually filthy, you have some massive burden on your conscience, or you have a secret no-one else knows, then know that you are exactly the kind of helpless sinner he died and rose again for, and know that he wants you to come to him just as you are because staying away from him will achieve nothing, whereas coming to him will change everything.
Let me quote to you some of the hymn verses that have most helped me to ‘look’ to him – come to him in prayer for forgiveness, especially at the times I’ve felt most unfit to do so:
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of him.
[Joseph Hart, Come, Ye Sinners]
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labour of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
[Augustus Toplady, Rock Of Ages]
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come
Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
[Charlotte Elliott, Just As I Am]
You may know you need to start this new and forgiven relationship with God for the first time, or you may know you’ve started it but are miles off course. If either of those is you, come to him, take yourself away after this service and pray, tell him about your sin, tell him about the state of your life and your heart, ask him to forgive you and take you on from there.
That’s the first thing. Trusting in Christ is the start of discipleship.
Second, TRUSTING IN CHRIST IS THE HEART OF DISCIPLESHIP
Like I said to begin with, trusting in Christ isn’t just basic in the sense that it’s how you start relationship with God, it’s basic in the sense that it’s the base on which you build that relationship for the rest of your life. It’s at the heart of it, not just the start of it. There’s more to trusting in Christ than simply trusting in him for forgiveness, his ongoing and unfailing love, and acceptance. But trusting him for that is absolutely basic or foundational, for our every day lives, and for the very simple reason that we sin every day. We aim not to, those of us who are believers, and we aim to please him every day. But we fail in the attempt every day. Which means that the most basic ‘life skill’ for a disciple of Christ is continuing to ‘look’ to him and trust him for forgiveness. So to learn or revise how to do that, would you turn with me from John’s Gospel to John’s first letter – 1 John 1.6-9:
“If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
That last verse is a great example of the means God has given us to continue to ‘look’ to Christ, i.e. trust him for forgiveness. It’s all very well saying that we’re to ‘look’ to Christ, but where do we look in order to do that, especially when we’re experiencing doubt about where we stand with him? The answer is we’re to look in the Bible because, as John Calvin once put it, that is where we find ‘Christ clothed with his promises’, and faith is always a response to the promises of the Bible which are based on the work of Christ on the cross.
So just imagine that you are doubting God’s forgiveness and doubting his acceptance of you. Now there are various reasons why that might be the case, for example, take a look at 1 John 1.6 again:
“If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.”
That’s saying that it’s possible to claim to be a disciple (i.e. to be in relationship with God) and yet to live as if we were not (i.e. to live utterly unchanged, unrepentant and sinful lives). For example, you might be claiming to be a disciple but sleeping with your boyfriend or girlfriend. In a situation like that, you will end up doubting God’s acceptance of you, because God doesn’t intend to assure us of his acceptance if we’re living unrepentantly. In that situation, we need disturbance, not assurance, until we’ve come to our senses.
But assuming that’s not the issue – assuming we’re trying to please the Lord and yet failing in the ‘normal’ way this side of heaven. What do we do when we find ourselves doubting God’s forgiveness and acceptance of us? The answer is not to look within ourselves, e.g. to try to ‘feel’ accepted, or to think of reasons from the way we’ve lived recently why he should accept us, but to look away from ourselves, away from our feelings and our moral ‘performance’ to Jesus. My old vicar at university, now with the Lord in heaven, used to say, ‘A fresh look within is always a fresh look at sin – look away to Christ!’ And he was right! So when we’re struggling to trust we’re accepted by God, one place to look is to this promise, 1 John 1.9, where we find ‘Christ clothed with his promises’. Just hear it again:
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
The skill we need to develop, in order to continue trusting in Christ, is to ‘preach’ promises like that to ourselves, and to persuade ourselves that they are true of us that they apply to us and they are promises we can ‘read ourselves into’. For example, with 1 John 1.9, the first thing to notice is who the promise is true of. It’s true of us ‘If we confess our sins... ’ So we need to ask ourselves, ‘Am I one of those people who confesses their sins?’, i.e. someone who is trying to please the Lord, but is conscious of failing him, and whose response to that is not that I ‘cover up’ or pretend I’m OK, but to confess my sins to him in prayer? If that’s you, then you need to read the rest of the verse and trust it to be true of you: ‘... he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’ There are three wonderfully assuring things to notice in that verse:
He is ‘faithful’. In John 3, we saw that God promises that whoever believes in Christ ‘shall not perish but have eternal life’ (verse 16) and ‘is not condemned’ (verse 18). I.e. to those trusting in his Son, God promises eternal life – an unbroken and unbreakable relationship with him, starting now and lasting through death into eternity. So if on some occasion, as people trusting in Christ, we were to confess our sins to God and he were to refuse to forgive them, he would be being unfaithful to his promise – his promise that our sin, although it spoils our relationship with him, cannot and will not split it. And unfaithful is something it is simply not possible for God to be. By nature, he must be faithful including to his promises to forgive, so do believe that!
He is ‘just’. I think that deep down one of our problems, when it comes to asking God for forgiveness, is that it feels like we’re asking him to do something unjust. We can end up thinking to ourselves, ‘I’m asking him to overlook this sin, when I know full well that he ought to judge me for it.’ The answer to that is that we’re not asking him to ‘overlook’ our sin. Rather, we’re looking back to the cross where, far from ‘overlooking’ our sin, God poured out his just judgement against it on the Lord Jesus as he stood in for us. And we’re trusting, as we confess our sins, that because justice has been done on our sins at the cross, we can be forgiven justly – God can and does forgive us without compromising his justice. Again, do believe that!
‘All unrighteousness’. The Bible is littered with that little word ‘all’ and it is wonderfully assuring, here in 1 John 1.9, because we often doubt that we’re forgiven because we feel that there are some sins that he simply can’t forgive. Maybe there’s one sin in our past that we think is ‘too big’, or one habitual sin that we think we’ve sinned ‘too often’. But that word ‘all’ in this promise says loud and clear that there’s no sin you can confess that he cannot and will not forgive. Again, do believe that! And that phrase ‘all unrighteousness’ is also a great help to those who worry about the question ‘Will God only forgive me the sins I confess... what about the sins I commit and don’t even notice?’ The answer to that is that we don’t notice a great deal of our sinfulness and sins. And that’s a great mercy, because if God allowed us to realise how bad we really were, I think all of us would despair. But in his kindness he only allows us to see some of what needs putting right at any given stage. And the answer to the question is that he wants us to confess the sins we do notice as and when we become aware of them, and to trust that not only are they forgiven but that we are also purified ‘from all unrighteousness’ including the very great deal of our sinfulness that we didn’t even spot.
Once we have confessed our sins to him in prayer, and asked him to apply to us the forgiveness that he paid for at the cross, we need then actively to trust that this promise is true of us. The classic mistake to make is to trust how we’re feeling, and very often we’re not feeling forgiven at all. That’s because we’re often still feeling ashamed of our sins, regretful about our sins, convicted of having let the Lord down and so on. Those are good and right things to feel – they’re feelings brought about by the Holy Spirit in us and they help to strengthen our resolve to keep resisting sin in the future. The trouble is that we so easily misinterpret those feelings as meaning ‘I’m not forgiven’, when what we need to do is to trust what this promise in 1 John 1.9 says is true of those who confess their sins. And that kind of trust often has to be exercised in the face of an accusing or regretful conscience. And assurance, i.e. ‘feelings’, of forgiveness only follows that exercise of trust. The wrong thing to say to ourselves is, ‘I’ll trust that I’m forgiven when I feel forgiven’ – that’s faith following feelings. The right thing to say is, ‘I’ll trust that I’m forgiven because the promise says I am, and I’ll wait for feelings of forgiveness to follow later’ – that’s feelings following faith.
So there in 1 John 1.9 is just one example of the means God has given us to continue to ‘look’ to Christ, i.e. trust him for forgiveness – ‘Christ clothed in his promises.’ Therefore, do learn to use that promise, to have it in mind as you pray for forgiveness, and to trust it having prayed for forgiveness. And do learn to use the other promises of the Bible, likewise.
As I said, there’s more to trusting in Christ than simply trusting in him for forgiveness and his ongoing and unfailing love and acceptance. I could preach another whole sermon on trusting Christ’s sovereignty over our circumstances. For example, you may be going through a very hard time right now, or facing all sorts of uncertainty about the future over jobs, a relationship, money or whatever it is. You may be struggling to say to yourself, ‘I know God is being good to me right now.’ Again, I could preach another whole sermon on trusting the wisdom and goodness of the Lord’s revealed will in the Bible. For example, I have Christian friends who experience the temptation of homosexual desires. They don’t want to, but they do. They know that the Lord’s will revealed in the Bible is that they’re not to express those desires in practice in their lives. When we’re struggling with obedience in any area of the Lord’s revealed will, it’s easy to find ourselves thinking, ‘How can God be being good to me when this area of life is so hard?’
Well, what we’ve looked at today is also at the heart of trusting Christ’s sovereignty over our circumstances, and trusting the wisdom and goodness of his revealed will. Because the doubt in both of those cases is whether God is really being good to me, whether God really loves me, and whether God really has my best interests at heart. And when, as John 3 verse 16 tells us to, we ‘look’ back to the cross, that doubt gets answered, because like it says in that most famous of verses:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son... ”
I.e. the standing demonstration that God is good to us, that God does love us, that God does have our best interests at heart, is that he gave up his own Son to die for us. I know that doesn’t ‘solve’ or ‘explain’ all the perplexities of the circumstances and struggles he allows us to go through, but it does keep us from drawing the cruel and false conclusion that he doesn’t care about us. The cross says he does and always will.
So trusting in Christ is the start of the Christian life, and it’s the heart of the Christian life. Only the assurance of God’s forgiveness and love that it brings will motivate us for what we’ll be looking at next week in this series on discipleship – Obeying his Word.