My pastor asked and so I preached for the first Sunday in Advent. I’m generally not that happy about preaching during the Christmas season. Millions and millions of Advent sermons have been preached. Everything that needs to be said has already been said and more often than not, it’s been said better than I could say it. Not only that, as you know, I’m sort of a Scrooge at Christmas. If we had a Christmas play at church, they would give me the part of the Grinch. Still, every year my pastor insists that I preach during this season and he assigns me an appropriate Advent text. I think I must have done something to offend him. Either that or he’s on a mission to fix me.
Actually, while I’m not fixed...I’m better. It could be Jesus or old age, but whatever it is as I write this, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and I’m kind of glad. At least I’m not irritated and that’s significant progress.
As I prepared the Advent sermon, I learned something new and I can hardly wait to share it with you. You’ll love it and thank me. (And by the way, it’s a universal truth, not just an Advent truth.)
As you know, I’m big on grace. I have a Baptist preacher friend who invited me to preach at his over a hundred-year-old church in another state. He told me I was the only non-Baptist ever in his pulpit. When he told me that, I considered myself a Presbyterian “missionary” to Baptists. My friend said, “I invited you to preach because you have only one horse and you ride it well.” I wanted to say that the Gospel isn’t a horse, it’s the horse...and the wagon, the wagon train and the trip, not just one of the elements of the Christian faith. The Christian faith isn’t a moral improvement society...it’s about Jesus, love and forgiveness. But I kept that to myself and rode the horse as best I could.
David said that we often use others’ sins and our condemnation of them as a scapegoat for our own sins.
There are lots of grace teachers God has raised up in this generation and I can’t tell you how pleased that makes me. But there’s a problem. People who don’t buy into the radical nature of the Gospel get very uptight, angry and critical of those who do. Just this morning I talked to a pastor (a Baptist who sees himself as a “missionary” to Presbyterians) who has been preaching grace with all its power. A man in his church (a retired preacher) accused him of “exalting sin” in the pulpit. He emailed his sermon to me and asked me to read it. I did and told him that the retired pastor was crazy...and if my friend believed a word of the charge, he was crazier than the accuser. In fact, in the sermon, sin was preached with all its horror. The law was given without compromise. And the solution was exactly what the Bible says it is: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In fact in 2 Corinthians 4:7 Paul says that we have the “treasure” of the Gospel in weak and fragile clay pots to show that we didn’t do it. God did.
As I read my friend’s sermon, it was clear that he was big on biblical holiness and biblical sanctification. His message was not that everybody ought to try harder, but that they should love more and the only way to do that is to be loved deeply, fully and unconditionally by Jesus. A lot of those who are uptight about too much grace are saved, but don’t hang around long enough to get loved. When Jesus met the prostitute in Luke 7 he loved and forgave her, and said, “He who is forgiven little, loves little.”
There’s a syllogism here. Premise: Sin is universal and destructive. Premise: People who are forgiven little, love little. Conclusion: Angry and critical Christians are living in denial about their own sin.
My friend clearly taught that when we think we’re righteous, we have lowered the very high and devastating demands a holy God gave to us in his perfect law. And at the same time we have raised ourselves up with an insufferable and dishonest self-righteousness. John the Baptist said that Jesus must increase and he/we should decrease. When that’s reversed, it’s not the Christian faith...instead it’s a lie from a very hot place.
Recently on our talk show we interviewed David Bennett, an Oxford scholar, about his book, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus. David became a Christian in an amazing and supernatural way. His uncle—a very conservative Christian and not given to the supernatural—said to him, “David, I had a vision of you...You will become a Christian within the next three months.” David yelled at him (he hated him and all he stood for) and walked out. In fact, he then became a Christian two months later through another supernatural intervention at a gay bar. It’s really a “wow” story. David is now a solid and celibate Christian apologist for the Christian faith.
David said that we often use others’ sins and our condemnation of them as a scapegoat for our own sins. Good point, that.
My friend Zac Hicks, an incredible worship leader and composer, wrote a wonderful version of the Doxology. We often sing it in our church and, every time we do, I get closer and closer to dancing and speaking in tongues (neither of which Presbyterians do very well). Let me give you the lyrics:
Your perfect Law exposes me
I feel my sin and desperate need
My best good works are powerless
To satisfy Your righteousness
But there is One who lived for me
His life, my only victory
His death forever sealed in time
That I am His and He is mine
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow
Praise Him, all creatures here below
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
That’s it. That’s the Gospel, and the reason for our worship and praise. We really do love because he first loved us and in that love God begins to make us more and more like Jesus until ultimately we will be just like him (1 John 3:2).
All of that is true. We do get better. (Sometimes not much...but better.) We can’t help it. The reason is that we’ve learned a principle you’ve heard me teach a thousand times: The only people who get better are those who know that, if they never get better, Jesus will love them anyway.
Still the accusations continue. You have no idea how often I’ve been accused of encouraging sin. I usually make a joke in response to the effect that I don’t have to encourage people to sin...they were doing fine before I came along. But despite the joke, I still wince. If you’ve listened to many grace teachers, you know that we all wince at that accusation and if you listen closely, we all then cover ourselves with, “But I don’t want you to think that...” Well, everybody but me. I’m old and increasingly don’t care, so I’ve started following Luther’s admonishment to an uptight colleague at Wittenberg, “You’re right! You should go out and sin some more so you have something to repent of.”
The truth is that Christians really don’t have to be encouraged to sin. We like to sin. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t sin so much. I know, I know, there is always the price of sin’s devastation and the emptiness that follows the failure. But still, we don’t have to be encouraged to sin.
Now let me tell you what I discovered working on that sermon: A healed cripple doesn’t have to be encouraged to walk.
Think about it. In Acts 3, Peter and John were used to heal a crippled beggar. Peter said that they didn’t have any money but they had something better. “Look at us,” Peter said. “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” Then the beggar responded, “Thanks, but if it’s all the same to you, I think I’ll just sit here.”
Are you crazy? Of course that’s not what he said.
Luke wrote, “And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God!”
If you’re blind and healed, you don’t have to be encouraged to see. If you’re deaf and healed, you don’t have to be encouraged to hear. If you’re healed of emphysema, you don’t have to be encouraged to breathe. And if you’re crippled and healed, you don’t have to be encouraged to walk. You may not walk very well. You may even stumble. You probably won’t be able to dance right off. But you don’t have to be encouraged to walk.
That’s what happened to us. We’re all, as it were, healed cripples. That’s what justification and imputation are about. It’s by faith alone, by grace alone, and through Christ alone. We don’t need to read books or hear sermons on the horror of being crippled (we already know that) or about how guilty we should feel for being crippled (we already feel guilty). And we don’t need other cripples telling us that if we really loved Jesus, then we wouldn’t be crippled (that’s hypocrisy). That’s all nonsense.
A cripple doesn’t walk because...well...because he or she is crippled.
Jesus says, “Rise up and walk! As you do, I’ll help until one day you will dance before the throne.”
He asked me to remind you.