When The Promises Don't WorkErwin W. Lutzer | January 6, 2008
Selected highlights from this sermon
False teachers spout lies about peace and prosperity. They claim that we can simply speak a word and receive riches and healing. But God doesn’t operate like this.
God has given us promises, but we can’t expect to see their complete fulfillment until we are standing before Him. In the meantime, we pray and learn to endure our suffering by clinging to our eternal rewards even as our temporary world crumbles.
I received a letter from a man in prison named Kevin who says, “I am a prisoner trying to draw close to God using all the resources I can to help me in my relationship with God. We have material from several preachers available to us here. A lot of the material has helped me grow in my walk with God, but I am uneasy about some of what I read, particularly from those who teach about health and wealth. I received a monthly letter a few months ago that said there was power in my confession, and if I were to take authority over my situation and shout, ‘I am rich,’ these blessings would come to me.” I did this for several months, but I’ve not received any extra money. In fact, now the money from my commissary account doesn’t make it on time. More recently I began confessing that I walk in divine health like their ministry instructs me to do, but I discovered that my liver enzymes were off and other lab results were not encouraging. Since then I’ve changed my praying and confess that I am only healed if God wants me to be, so I struggle with whether these ministries are of God or whether they are demonic. Then I thought that if God were to strike that ministry in judgment, then I would know it is wrong. Please give me your advice on this. I am afraid of making false accusations about ministries that talk about Jesus and say they are anointed of God. I just know that their teaching doesn’t work for me.”
Well, Kevin, it doesn’t work for you and it doesn’t work for millions of others. You’re right. It just doesn’t work. [applause]
We live in a time when we find that some teachers, and those that are on television particularly (not all but some), are teaching false doctrine. A man by the name of William Kenyon, who was basically into the Christian Science faith, tried to unite Christianity and Christian Science and as a result you have what is known today as the Word of Faith Movement. This Word of Faith Movement believes that we can simply speak ourselves rich. I was watching television less than two weeks ago and one of these preachers said, “What you need to do is to say, ‘I am a millionaire,’” and then he wasn’t satisfied with that and said, “You need to proclaim, ‘I am a billionaire,’ and you can speak things into existence that are not yet into existence.” That is what is being taught.
Throughout history you find that the gods have always been manipulated by people in an attempt to get from them what we want, and never before has the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ been so manipulated by people to make sure that he gives them what they want no matter what. If you feel guilty you don’t need to deal with your sin. What you need to do is to have a good feeling of self-fulfillment, so we have the self-fulfillment gospel. If you need money, you don’t have to budget carefully and work hard. What you need is a health and wealth gospel, and certainly if you are sick, you can simply command that you be healed, and according to one ministry you can do that and you can do it successfully as often as you need to. There’s no need to deal with issues of sin and reconciliation and repentance. God is there to meet all of your needs, as they exist. You can speak to your wallet and say, “Be thou filled” and the wallet is going to be filled, and it is filled with air. [laughter]
Why is it that these television ministries drag in scripture? We’re going to be dealing with that in successive messages, but let me give you three principles that they use that are false.
First of all, they make no distinction of significance between Old Testament promises and New Testament promises. This takes a longer time to discuss but in the Old Testament God dealt with Israel as a theocratic kingdom; that is to say that it was a theocracy and God says, “I’m going to bless you or curse you based on the land. If you follow me I’m going to give you riches and good crops. If you don’t follow me I’m going to send you drought and grasshoppers.” You find that throughout the book of Deuteronomy and elsewhere. Today God doesn’t deal with us that way. That was Israel as a nation in the land. That’s why you don’t find promises like that in the New Testament. We must distinguish between the Old Testament and the New.
Second, many of these preachers totally ignore some of the conditions that are necessary for answered prayer, and it does seem as if some of the statements that Jesus made were blank checks where we could simply fill in whatever we want, but a closer examination shows that actually there are some conditions. “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, then you shall ask what you will,” but all of this oftentimes is ignored. There are blessings available for everyone regardless of what they believe. Regardless of who they are, they can speak things into existence.
Finally, many of these ministries fail to understand that our authority as believers is a relative authority. It is a limited authority. We don’t have the same authority as Jesus. We are in Jesus, but we are not Jesus. We cannot speak to storms and hurricanes like Jesus spoke to the raging sea on Galilee.
Many years ago there were some of these folks who met in Washington, D.C. to ban Satan from the city and to send him packing and to make sure that he would not enter the city of Washington, D.C. again. Wow! Isn’t that interesting? What do you think? Do you think that God answered their prayer, or isn’t there some empirical evidence that maybe their prayer hasn’t been answered?
My dear friend, if we could do that we’d banish him from the whole planet. If you ask why God has Satan in Washington, D.C. the answer is because the Lord hath need of him. God uses Satan for his own purposes, but we don’t have that kind of authority. We have authority over the devil. That’s true. I believe even in casting out demons, but our authority it totally derived, and it is not unlimited. We cannot speak things into existence. I was looking at a website yesterday where one of these men has written a book, “Imitating God,” where he says we can speak things into existence and we can have unlimited authority. No, we can’t.
The series of messages is entitled “The Triumph of Unanswered Prayer.” Normally we say there’s no triumph in unanswered prayer. There’s only triumph when God answers. Oh, yes, you’re wrong this time. You’re wrong. We will show that God, through unanswered prayer, has an agenda that might ultimately even be greater than his agenda through answered prayer.
Another way that we could describe this series is to say that we must live with unfulfilled promises. There’s nothing wrong with the promises, but we need to know whether those promises are for today; we see parts of them for today but the fulfillment of them lies in the future.
Who is this series of messages for? This series of messages is for anyone who asked and didn’t receive. It’s for anyone who has anger toward God because you know that God could intervene; you know that God could heal that person and he didn’t and in your soul you have anger toward the Almighty. This series of messages is for you.
It’s for those of you who found prayer to be boring and irrelevant, those who would never attend a prayer meeting under almost any condition because they believe essentially that prayer changes nothing. It’s for those who want to get closer to God but it seems so impossible and you’re so discouraged that you don’t know how to do it.
Before this series is over I’m going to give you a whole new paradigm as to how to pray, a paradigm that will lead to fulfillment in your own individual prayer life, whether you get the specific answers that you seek or not. We’re going to find that God has an agenda that transcends many of the things that we often ask him for.
Hebrews 10 is the text for today. We’re talking about people who believed on Jesus and they are going through a time of great testing, and there’s no doubt that they are praying that they’d be delivered from the test, but there is no deliverance. We’re going to look at this passage of scripture very simply. We’re going to see the challenge that they faced and the suffering that they faced, and then what we’re going to do is to see their attitude in the midst of it and the reward, and then we’re going to apply it to our lives, and we’re going to be changed because we’ve heard God’s word.
Notice it says in Hebrews 10:32, “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you’ve done the will of God you may receive what is promised.”
First of all, what is it that they were enduring? What was their challenge? Well, it was severe suffering because of Jesus. There were not only being marginalized. You’ll notice it says it was sometimes public. Verse 33 ways, “sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach.” It reminds me of when the Communists took over China how pastors actually were paraded down the streets with all kinds of things strewn across their bodies, including Bibles that had been torn in two. They were humiliated and they were publicly exposed and publicly shown to be people who were to be reproached. That’s something like we have going on here in the text, and not only was it severe and public, it was also voluntary. I find this very interesting because even those who didn’t have to suffer chose to suffer by their identification with those who did. You’ll notice that verse 34 says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” You had compassion on those who were in prison.
Verse 33 says, “You became partners with those who were treated this way, and you visited them in prison.” Someone suggested that when the holocaust was taking place in Germany it would have been wonderful if in every one of those freight cars filled with Jews there were two or three Christians who voluntarily joined them and went to their death, showing their identification with those who were being so severely mistreated.
These people wouldn’t have had to have as much suffering as they did but they were willing to take up the cause of those who were targeted for persecution. And by the way, that’s the way in which most of the church exists today. It’s not always like it is here in America. You’ve heard about Kenya just recently where sixty or eighty people ran into a church during what apparently became like a civil war. The church was burned down and bombed and the people ran from the church to save their lives and people were waiting for them to gun them down.
You look at what is happening in Muslim countries today and you find that that is a continual experience. I saw pictures of bombed out churches and bombed out vehicles and dead bodies strewn along the streets in Nigeria, and so that’s what the church of Jesus Christ has always endured.
Here in America we sometimes are scorned and misrepresented by the media, and that bothers me when I hear people say, “Oh, you know, these Christians want a theocracy.” No, if someone wants a theocracy we are as opposed to that as they are, but nonetheless, we put up with a lot of misrepresentation and then we think we have it bad. These folks had their property plundered. The idea that is suggested in the original text is that mobs came and plundered their property. We’re talking about huge devastation to families and to homes. That’s what they endured, but how did they take it? Well, you saw it there in the text. It says, “You joyfully accepted – joyfully – the plundering of your property.”
I don’t know of any American, including myself, who would accept joyfully the plundering of their house or property. I don’t know of anyone who would, but they did it. Why? Because to them, you see, the presence of the world to come was so real, they said, “It doesn’t matter what we endure for Jesus here. Eternity is coming,” and all the things of the earth were weighed in relationship to the coming of eternity.
It reminds me of another story – a true story – of World War II prisoners in a barrack being starved to death in horrendous conditions we can scarcely describe, and suddenly joy breaks out, and they begin to sing and they begin to laugh. Why? Because word had been leaked into the barracks that World War II was over and deliverance was on the way. You can put up with anything – anything - as long as you know that it’s going to be over and deliverance is on the way, and these Christians said, in effect, “We’ve heard from another world. News has been leaked to us that Jesus is Lord, he’s King, he’s God, and someday he’s going to come, and we can accept joyfully the plundering of all that we have because (notice what the text says) we know that we have a better possession.”
They suffered joyfully; they suffered confidently. There was something better that God had in mind and so they endured it, but not only that, however (there is a however here), you’ll notice they were becoming discouraged and they were about to give up.
I’m now in verse 35. “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” Wow. You have need of endurance. You’re running well; you accepted it well, but as it goes on year after year after year, and no doubt they cried to God, and said, “God, deliver us. Bring us some justice,” the justice was not coming, and they became weary and they were about to take their confidence in God and throw it overboard and say, “We’re finished.” That’s where they were.
I’ve met Christians like that; Christians who threw away their confidence because they lived with injustice and unanswered prayer for so long, they said, “If there’s a God in heaven, clearly he doesn’t care. I’m finished,” and they’ve thrown away their confidence. The writer is saying, “Don’t you dare do that because if you throw your confidence away, also with that goes your great reward.” He said, “Don’t throw away your confidence which has great reward.”
I’ve known Christians who have thrown away their confidence because of other Christians. They’d had dealings with some Christian and said, “I did some work for him and he really never paid me. I’m out of here. I’m forgetting the Christian faith. I’m leaving. If that’s…” (Can’t you hear it? You’ve heard it a dozen times.) “If that’s the way Christians really are; if that’s the way they are I want nothing to do with them and I want nothing to do with their God.”
I remember a man in Bible school, a very sincere fellow. He believed that there should be no joking, that there should be no jesting, and some of us didn’t adhere to that all the time, and so when he saw us laugh, or when he saw us put on a skit that was funny, he just thought it was such desecration, and a year and a half after being in Bible school he just left the Christian faith. So far as I know, he’s never returned to the Christian faith. He’s just thrown it all overboard, and said, “If that’s the way Christians are I don’t want to have anything to do with them.” Now maybe we did fail him and maybe what we did was wrong, but you know, his excuse is not going to wash in the presence of Jesus. When he stands in the presence of Jesus he’s going to say, “Well, you know, the reason I threw away all my confidence in you is because of the way in which those students acted in Bible school. That Erwin Lutzer, remember what he used to do? It’s his fault.”
God is not going to buy that and God won’t buy your excuse for casting away your confidence. It often happens because of unanswered prayer. Maybe in another message I’ll tell you about a woman who said, “In light of the fact that God didn’t heal this man for whom we prayed so long and so hard I’m never going to bother God with another request again. Why should I?” She said it in anger. “I’m not going to pray again. Why should I pray?” Oh, oh, now we’re getting serious. Don’t you dare throw away your confidence because it brings great reward. You throw away the confidence that you have in God, you throw away your great reward.
So you’ll notice that they had this attitude. Well, what’s the reward that they were to receive, and would receive if they were faithful? There are several ways to describe it. In verse 34 it says, “you knew that you…had a better possession.” In verse 35 it says your confidence “has a great reward.” In verse 36 notice it says, “You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” There it is called “what is promised.” And then you’ll notice in context it says, “For yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay.” This is a reference to the return of Jesus.
In verse 38 God is speaking, “But my righteous one (that is you and me if we know Jesus) shall live by faith, and if he (or she) shrinks, back my soul has no pleasure in him.” Wow. He’s talking about people tempted to shrink back because God isn’t intervening and changing their situation, and verse 39 says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.” What a solemn warning!
So what is this great reward that they should have remembered? It is going to take place at the return of Jesus Christ. You see, folks, there are many promises that health and wealth preachers want us to believe, and those promises are valid and good, but they are delayed promises. You see, we don’t have it all right now, and there are folks who are telling you things and over-promising what the Bible promises in this life and they are leading others to disillusionment in God. “Why is it that I can’t speak things into existence,” they think to themselves, and they are disillusioned because they don’t see the total teaching of Scripture on these points.
Oh my dear friend, what is it that you are going through today? What tears at your soul today? Could I remind you that at the coming of Jesus Christ we shall receive our new bodies? At the coming of Jesus Christ we shall receive justice. At the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall receive all that God ever promised in glory, and then there’s something more important than justice, and there’s something more important than divine healing and the new bodies that we’re going to have. There’s something more important and that is the possibility of receiving the very pleasure of God. Notice it says, “If he shrinks (or turns) back,” the Bible says, “my soul (God is speaking) shall have no pleasure in him.” God has no pleasure in those who toss away their confidence because they lack endurance. To hear Jesus say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant,” (I mean if he were to say that and I’m not sure any one of us could expect that at all, but if he were to say that) that would be, well, you know we used to sing the old song, “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.” Don’t throw your confidence away. It has great reward.
Let me give you a couple of observations. First of all, sometimes people who suffer (often when they suffer) they are in the will of God. Is your finger in the text today? Notice what it says. “You have need of endurance.” I love that word endurance. Some translate it patience, but the idea is endurance. You just go on believing no matter what. “You have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God you’ll inherit the promise.” God is saying in effect, “This idea of your homes being plundered and your property being stolen is for you the will of God.” Don’t ever let a preacher tell you that if you’re suffering, you are out of God’s will (because all that you need to is to exercise your authority and to get out of that suffering), because sometimes it is God’s will for you to suffer. There was no escape hatch for Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he said, “Father, if it be thy will, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.”
There are people who are suffering in other countries today, believers who are sitting in jail, believers who are being racked and tortured, and I know this is tough to say but I’m going to say it anyway. They are suffering within the will of God, and I would like to just be an observer regarding the reward that they shall someday receive. Some of us are going to be so far back when the rewards are handed out. All that we’ll be able to do is to see others, but that in itself will be a great blessing as we see them rewarded because they know that they have a more enduring possession, the text says, and they endure it for the cause of Jesus.
Another lesson to be learned is that suffering doesn’t last forever, but God does, or let me say it this way. Suffering doesn’t last forever, but eternity does. Eternity is a long time. Paul says, “The suffering of this present world cannot be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” He calls it the light affliction which is but for a moment. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I have lived with injustice for ten – twenty years.” There are scores that have not yet been settled. Let me quote the scripture again. “Your light affliction (not heavy but light) is but for a moment in comparison to the eternal weight of glory. Paul is saying in effect, “What you need to do is take a scale and on one side put all of your affliction and all the things that God hasn’t done for you, and it would be like a feather, and on the other side the eternal weight of glory would be like an elephant stepping on the scale.” There you see the difference – the eternal weight of glory.
And so we come to the bottom line here. The bottom line, folks, is that there’s nothing wrong with the promises. Every promise of God is yea and amen in Jesus Christ, but we need to realize that until we see Jesus face to face we live with unfulfilled promises. In this series of messages I’m going to go through the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews, and I am going to show you that Abraham died without seeing the promises, and we’ll look at all of the promises that God gave him, but he died and he didn’t see them. Will he see them? Yes, he’ll see them. He will still see them but he died without them.
Could I put it to you this way today, my friend? Today we have the drop, but the Bible says that the day is coming when we are going to have the whole ocean. Today we have the flower, but the day is coming when we’re going to have the garden. Today we get the hors d’oevres but the Bible says that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb awaits us. It is worth it to follow and keep on believing whether God answers your prayers or not. It is worth it. [applause]
You say, “Well, should these people have been praying?” Yes, they were living by promises, but not promises of deliverance, but promises that God would give them endurance, knowing that many of their promises were still future, that God would give them endurance, so that when they had done the will of God, they would receive what was promised at the return of Jesus. God says we have to wait. We don’t get it all now. I don’t agree with the book that says heaven now. No, not even in Chicago is this heaven now. All right?
But there is something in the text that I want you to see. It says that the righteous one - my righteous one (I love that) – God is saying, “My righteous one shall live by faith.” If you belong to God you live by faith, and the way in which you belong to God is also by faith. Remember, this was the text of Habakkuk (and then later on, as it is reiterated in the book of Romans) that sparked what was known as the great Protestant Reformation. As people wondered how they could get God’s approval, they wondered how in the world they could meet God’s high standard. Nobody was meeting God’s high standard. They never even pretended they could because it was too high, and no matter how often they confessed their sin, tomorrow was another day, like trying to mop up the floor with the faucet running, and so they knew not where to turn. And suddenly, as the pages of scripture were unfolded, that wonderful ancient doctrine was discovered embedded everywhere on the pages of the New Testament - that it is through faith that we come to God – faith in what Jesus accomplished for us.
That’s why I say to you today, if you’re not one of God’s and if you’re not his righteous one (notice it says “my righteous one”) the way you become righteous is not by trying to clean up your life, however valuable that may be. The way you do it is you accept the righteousness that Jesus provided for those who believe, and that’s the way in which you can be saved. And once you are, then the life of endurance begins, and the life of believing. We’re saved by faith, and we live by faith, and we live by all the promises just knowing that many of them will not be fulfilled even in our lifetime, but in the end it’ll all prove out to be true.
Notice that the text says this. The author is optimistic in verse 39 where he says, “But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed.” What he’s doing is talking to Christians who could shrink back, and you’ve met them, and I have too, and they will be destroyed and their souls will not be preserved. I don’t think this is a reference to hell. What it is, is a reference to the ruin of those who believe in Jesus but for some reason throw away their confidence and they give up and they stop believing and sin begins to take over and corrodes their souls, and in that sense they are destroyed.
My question to you is this. Do you endure? The first move that you and I need to make is to receive Christ as Savior as a free gift. Now that’s a promise you can depend on. That’s a promise for the here and now. “Whoever hears my word and believes on him that sent me has everlasting life,” Jesus said. So that’s where it begins, but after you have received him it’s a life of faith day-by-day, and you keep on believing no matter what. The result is great possession, better promise, and great reward.
Would you join me as we pray?
Our Father, we want to thank you today that you do answer prayer. We thank you, Father, that as these people cried up to you and they were not delivered that you did give them endurance, which was a great answer to prayer, so that they honored you through their lives, and we believe entered into (partly at least) their great possession, to be fully realized at the return of Jesus. Now, Father, give us endurance. For the person who is here today willing to give up on you, hasn’t prayed in months maybe – seriously prayed – because they don’t think you answer anyway, help them to confess that sin, and to say, “We will continue to believe and to trust and to relate no matter what.”
For those who may here who have never trusted Christ as Savior, they can’t look at this text and say, “Well, I belong to the category there that says, “my righteous one,” because they’ve never received the righteousness of Jesus, would you cause them to believe? Grant them the ability to do that.
And now, before I close, you talk to God if God has talked to you.
Father, hear our prayer and encourage us, we pray. Amen, amen.