Rescued From Misplaced FaithErwin W. Lutzer | November 6, 2011
Selected highlights from this sermon
Faith can destroy you. All the faith in the world can’t change lethal poison into medicine. Having faith in the wrong “Jesus” can lead you to your own destruction.
So it’s important that your faith is a true faith, a faith based on the true Jesus—a faith based on specific promises; a faith that understands both law and grace; and a faith that’s growing.
A little bit of faith in the true Jesus is better than absolute confidence in a false Jesus.
Faith can destroy you. Some of you are too young to remember the Tylenol tampering episode that took place right here in our area back in 1982. An evil man, a criminal, went into our drugstores and took some Tylenol capsules and filled them with cyanide and then put them back on the shelf. People bought those jars of capsules and as a result, seven people died. Now one thing about them was they had great faith. I mean, after all, the label said Tylenol, so they had faith that this was going to help them. They had no idea that it was going to kill them.
There are two lessons that I think this teaches us about faith. The first lesson is simply this: that faith in itself has no power. Faith can’t save anybody. From time to time you hear, “Well, you know, he’s a person of faith and it doesn’t matter what he believes, but he believes.” Oh, I want to know exactly what you believe, because all the faith in the world cannot take cyanide and turn it back into Tylenol. But there’s a second lesson, and it is really even more frightening in some regards, and that is that sometimes a true faith looks very much like a false one. I don’t know exactly what cyanide looks like but I suppose it looks something like Tylenol. You look at the two and it’s very difficult to tell the difference. And that’s the way faith in Jesus Christ is. There are those, you know, who have a faith that saves, and then there are others who don’t, but outwardly they appear to be very much the same. It’s something that ought to give us some chills. Jesus said this back in Matthew 7. You need not turn to it. I’ll simply read it to you. He said, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and cast out demons in your name and do many mighty deeds in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” I want to say wow! That’s unbelievable. It’s not that these people didn’t have faith. They were not some lackadaisical people. I mean, they were in Christian ministry. They were on television, perhaps, casting out demons and Jesus will say, “I never knew you,” and yet they were doing it in Jesus’ name. It’s scary. Imagine the door to heaven closed in their faces, and they thought for sure that those pearly gates would swing open to welcome them. False faith that looks like the real thing!
What I’d like to do today is to give you some characteristics of the real thing, and I do that for a couple of reasons. First of all, because it’s very important that you and I examine ourselves to see whether or not we are in the faith, and then for another reason also–so we begin to understand the Gospel better and have an answer for some people who may question why Christianity is so special.
How relevant is this? I’ll tell you how relevant it is in my life. It’s as relevant as Friday afternoon. I caught a cab to come home from somewhere and on the way I just casually asked the man to tell me about where he was in his spiritual journey and we had a wonderful conversation. But now it’s time for my suitcase to be taken out of the trunk and it is there, and he says to me, “You know, I figure that all the religions essentially say the same thing, namely, be good.” Now I’ve got thirty seconds–no time for a sermon to say, “Well let me give you a sermon as to why Christianity is special.” No, no, no! We’re talking thirty seconds.
You say, “What did you say to him?” I’m not going to tell you right now, but I will in a few moments. The passage of Scripture I want you to turn to is Romans 4, and remember Paul’s point in the first three chapters, and I preached two messages just essentially on verse 20 of chapter 3 where it says, “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Could it be any clearer that nobody is saved because he is righteous, nobody is saved because he is moral, nobody is saved because he lives a good life? Because by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight.
Now Paul is speaking here as he writes this letter to the Roman Christians, to a diverse group. There are those who are Gentiles, but then there are also Jewish people and they have a tendency to say to themselves, “We’re special because we are called of God,” which is true. They were called of God but they began to depend upon their calling. They began to think to themselves, “We have circumcision,” and as they said to Jesus, “We have Abraham for our father.” And Jesus admonished them. “You may say that you have Abraham for your father, but God is able with these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”
What’s going on in the text? What Paul is going to do is to go back to Abraham and show whether or not Abraham was justified by works or whether he was indeed also justified by faith, and that’s why the fourth chapter opens, because Paul is knowing that if he convinces the reader that Abraham, the great father of the nation, was declared righteous by God by faith, then who are we to argue with salvation by faith alone through grace alone?
So Paul begins, and this is what he says here in Romans 4:1: “What shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
Now I told you I was going to give you the characteristics of some true faith. First of all, true faith believes specific promises. Now this passage is really quoted from the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. In Genesis 15 God takes Abraham outside and says, “Look at the stars. Can you count them?” (No.) “So shall your seed be. In fact, you personally will have a son and from his seed there is going to be a multitude.”
Are you kidding me? Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 90-as we’ll see in a moment, way beyond, obviously, childbearing age. Abraham, the Bible says in the fourth chapter here, “He looked at his body and he saw it as good as dead (sexually dead) and the barrenness of Sarah’s womb, who never had a child.” Are you kidding? But Abraham believed God and God said, “I’m going to count it to you for righteousness. You’re not going to be saved because you are moral, though it’s good to be moral. You’re going to be saved not because you are special–but you are special. But that’s not it. You believed my specific promise.”
Now that’s not a promise that I believed. God has never said to me that my seed is going to be as great as the stars in the sky innumerable. That’s for sure. Sometimes as children we used to sing, “Every promise in the book is mine.” That’s not true. There were some given to Abraham and others that don’t apply to us. But what you and I need to do is to believe our promises, promises for us when it comes to salvation. And the New Testament is filled with those kinds of promises.
“He who believes on me,” said Jesus, “has everlasting life, and he who believes not in the son shall not see life but the wrath of God abides on him.” Now there’s a promise you can take all the way to the bank.
Yesterday I was reading Revelation 22, the last chapter in the Bible: “And the Spirit and the Bride say come, and let him who is athirst come. And whoever wills, let him come, and take of the water of life freely.” Now there’s something that you can depend upon, namely the free offer of the Gospel to whoever is willing to believe. You have to know the promise. You have to know the Gospel in order to believe it.
Step number one: you need a specific promise.
Step number two: it’s very important that saving faith understands both law and grace, or we could say, it understands the matter of sin and grace, and this is where many people get tripped up, but let’s look at the text.
Paul again says (and I’m quoting verse 2), “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.”
In other words, you can boast, and I have met people and you have too who continually boast. They boast about, “I’m better than So-and-So, and I’m as good as those hypocrites in the church,” and on and on they boast, and they may have a right to boast, but they can’t boast before God, because God doesn’t accept their righteousness. That’s the problem. And so the person who believes in Jesus needs to understand that it’s not a matter of me contributing to my salvation. It’s a matter of receiving what God has done for me.
It’s something like a farmer that I read about who was collecting a lot of money and keeping it at home, keeping it in his sock, as the saying goes, not knowing that in his country that money had been totally cancelled and there was new money printed, and yet he kept on with the same money, and then he brought it to purchase some oxen and lo and behold, it was worthless. He wrote a letter to one of the leaders in the country and explained his dilemma and the leader said, “Your money is worthless. It cannot be accepted, but I will give you the money to purchase those oxen because I think you are an honest man.”
That’s what God says. You know all those good things that you hear about people doing? It’s wonderful they do them but when it gets to heaven it’s all cancelled. God has to do it. And this, by the way, leads me to that taxi driver. What I said to him in the thirty seconds that I had is this: “Take all of the religions of the world and you will find that every one of them is based on works righteousness. You do this. You follow this. You follow that, but there can never be any assurance that you have done enough. Christianity says that Jesus did it all for us, so it’s not what I’m doing for God. It’s what God did for me in Jesus.” That’s the Gospel. (applause) Every religion of the world overestimates human goodness and underestimates divine holiness, and we must understand that.
Now in the rest of this section Paul goes on and this is his argument, and I’m going to summarize five or six verses here very quickly for you.
Here’s the fundamental issue that people in his day asked–the Jewish community. “Well, we’re circumcised. Circumcision is a sign of the covenant and therefore this is proof that we belong to God because we have circumcision and the Gentiles don’t.”
Here’s Paul’s argument for the next five or six verses here in Romans 4. What Paul says is this: Abraham was justified by faith and then it was fourteen years later that God gave him circumcision. So the whole point is this. He really is the father of us all, as the text says, when it comes to faith and the reason is because he was justified before God, long before he was circumcised. So if circumcision brings about salvation that just doesn’t wash. He says circumcision is a sign of faith, but it is not an indication of faith. It’s not the way salvation comes. So Paul here is arguing for a message that you and I need to hear: that rituals never save. And yet I meet people who say, “I was baptized a Christian. I have a certificate that says I was baptized a Christian.” I meet people who say that I participated in the sacraments or in one way or another I did this ritual, I did this prayer, and Paul is saying that none of that is a means of salvation. These may be expressions of salvation.
In a little bit we are all going to be able to participate in what we call The Lord’s Supper. As we participate we are saying, “Do this,” as Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.” It does not save, but it is an act of worship because we have been saved through faith. So the answer to saving faith is you need to understand sin and grace, that Abraham was not justified simply because he was a good man. He was justified because he believed God’s promises.
Parenthesis. You see, because all the other religions are based on works, oh, there are people who are absolutely convinced that their religion is true. They are willing to kill others to prove that their religion is true, and be killed, but what they do not have (please understand this) is personal assurance that when they die they will go to heaven, because there’s something within them that tells them that assurance is impossible. Because after all, that assurance is something that they cannot attain to.
Christianity says that when you believe on Christ there is an assurance and that assurance is the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The ministry of the Spirit gives us that deep settled peace that Jesus paid it all, and that we belong to him. Romans 8 says, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God they are the sons of God, and the Spirit cries within our hearts Abba Father–God, You are mine and I am your child, and thank You that You have adopted me into Your family.”
There’s a third characteristic, and that is that saving faith always is a growing faith. For this I want you to look at the latter part of Romans 4. You’ll notice that it says in verse 18, “In hope, he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered he barrenness of Sarah’s womb.”
I should put it this way. True faith is both an act and a process. It is an act. God had told Abraham many times, “You’re going to be great. I’m going to multiply your seed,” and so far as we know Abraham was not justified because he didn’t believe it, but there in Genesis 15 it says he finally really believed God. Before, his faith was perhaps somewhat shallow. He heard what God was saying but there in the fifteenth chapter at least he knew that what God was telling him was the truth and he believed in God. He believed in a God who could do the impossible so it’s credited to him for righteousness. Now that was the act of faith that saved Abraham, but that wasn’t the end of his life of faith, was it?
Years later Isaac is born in accordance with God’s promises and now he’s the son of promise and God says to Abraham, “I want you to take him to Mount Moriah and sacrifice him.” What’s going on there? That’s a longer story. Of course God didn’t want him to be sacrificed and God never let it happen, but God is saying, “Abraham, you know this business of the seed? You believed me once, namely that you were as good as dead, and Sarah was as good as dead – decades way past the age of bearing children – but yet you trusted me that I could actually raise you from the dead. Can you trust me that I will raise Isaac from the dead if you sacrifice him?”
The Bible says in the book of Hebrews that when Abraham went up to Mount Moriah he believed that God was even able to raise him from the dead. Wow! No wonder the text says he didn’t struggle with faith. Well, that’s not exactly what it says. He did struggle with faith. You know the whole story about his relationship with Hagar. Abraham’s faith wasn’t perfect, but as you look at his life, you see the astounding faith he had that he had heard from God and that God was going to fulfill His promises. What an amazing story and you and I know that we come to saving faith in Christ. It is an act and then God keeps bringing us more trials, more trials, more trials. Why? To test our faith–to develop it–to give us such confidence that even if we should be put to death for our faith, we can endure it because as the text says regarding Abraham, he was absolutely convinced that what God said God could perform.
I’d like to nail this down and quickly give you three facts about faith that will help you determine whether or not you’ve really believed in Jesus or whether you’re just going along with the crowd and your family. Listen carefully, because I believe God has been preparing some of you to hear this message, so be careful.
First of all, it’s very obvious that the object of faith is much more important than the amount that you have. Jesus said even a little bit of faith if it is placed in the right thing can bring you great benefits. A little bit of faith in the true Jesus is much better than absolute confidence in the wrong Jesus, and this is maybe why those folks were barred out of heaven.
When Jesus said, “I never knew you even though you cast out demons and all of that,” they were believing in a wrong Jesus. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11, “I’m afraid that some of you are being misled by another Jesus.” We don’t know exactly what that Jesus was like but we know it was so much like the true one that Paul feared the people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. See, not any Jesus will do. You have today, for example, the cosmic Jesus who indwells everyone. You have the Mormon Jesus, a different Jesus. You have the Santa Claus Jesus that I think I saw on television last night. “You give money to me, and God is going to bless you and give you a lot of money back.” Thank you, and it’s not even Christmas and here we have the Santa Claus Jesus.
And all these people are talking about Jesus. There are some countries in the world where parents name their children Jesus, and it’s a very popular name. You just can’t believe in any Jesus. You have to believe in a Jesus who is a Savior, who shed His blood on the cross for sins, who is qualified to be a Savior. You have to believe in that Jesus. (applause)
And if you come with even a little faith to the real Jesus, He’ll accept you. It’s better to believe in the real Jesus with a trembling heart than to believe in the wrong one with calmness and smug serenity.
I was counseling a woman one day who I believe was a true believer, but she struggled with assurance. She led Bible studies and led other people to Christ, and we were beside a lake, and I said, “You know, an illustration comes to mind of a time when there was a lake that was totally frozen, and somebody wanted to walk across it and midway began to fear that the ice was too thin, and so began to actually to crawl so as to spread his weight, and then off in the distance toward him came a team of horses and he wondered why in the world he was crawling. Obviously the ice was strong enough to hold him.” I said, “I am on the same ice that you are. It is thick. You have promises that you can believe and trust in. You can investigate Jesus. Those promises have every reason to be believed,” but I said, “You are crawling across the lake, and some of us are just so confident, we’re hopping and skipping and sliding around, I guess, on the lake.” Better to trust with trembling a Jesus that can save you rather than to think that you are trusting another Jesus.
A second fact about faith is that sometimes we have to believe even though we don’t know how God is going to do it. When God told Abraham he was going to be great and have posterity more than could be counted, Abraham wasn’t given a game plan as to how God was going to do it. The promise in many respects was too good to be true, and there are some of you here who are listening to this message who are saying, “You know this is too good to be true. I can believe on Jesus and be saved?” and I’m saying to you today, “No matter what problems you have with the promise, even though you don’t quite see how an omnipotent God can do it, it is very important that you realize that it’s not necessary for you to understand it all. You just know that the person who is giving the promise is reliable and that which He says, He is qualified to do. And that’s what you must believe. And when you believe that, God puts everything else in perspective and in place.
Finally, very important, faith is not just information. Faith is an attitude of trust. Faith is a transfer of trust and that’s another place where people go wrong. They say, “I love Jesus. I admire Him. I go to church. I am involved in this ministry or that ministry, and I’m basically a good person and, yeah, I believe.” I have asked many people the question, as I did on a plane this past week, “If you were to die, what would you say if God were to ask why He should let you into heaven?” The man, though educated in religion, said he had no answer, and then he said something that I liked. He said, “I want to ask you that question.” I thought, wow, that’s really great. (laughter)
You see, the fact is, my friend, facts alone don’t save you. There must be that transfer of trust, and in that transfer of trust God saves us, and we begin a journey of trust and challenge because without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he rewards those that diligently seek him out. For some of you, the Gospel that I’ve just presented is indeed too good to be true, because if the truth were known, you know very much that you are a sinner and you need to believe on Jesus. And you say, “But if you knew what I’ve done….” I don’t know what you’ve done but God does, but today, as it says in this text, “We know that God is able to justify you by faith in Jesus.”
Paul ends this chapter by saying that Jesus Christ was put to death because of our trespasses and raised for our justification. What he means is that if Jesus had just died and remained dead… Michael Rydelnik is a Messianic Jewish person who is a great friend of mine. He said that if there is no resurrection, Jesus is nothing more than a dead Jew, but thankfully He is a living Jew–a living Savior. (applause) And today I urge you–don’t just take in this information and say, “Well, wasn’t that interesting?” Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. If God has prepared you for this moment right now, you can receive Him. Shall we pray?
Lord, we ask that You shall take these words and bless them to our hearts, and ask for those who have never trusted Christ, may they do that. And for those of us who have, help us not to take for granted the great miracle that You have done in our lives that we do not understand, but Abraham never understood everything either, and yet he believed You and it was counted to him as righteousness. Grant that for us, oh God, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.