from the Moorpark Presbyterian Church
No Condemnation, No Separation
by Dave Wilkinson
September 27, 1998
"Pastor, I like your church because its not all born again."
"Im not going to worship at Moorpark Presbyterian any longer. Its just too born again."
I have heard both statements about our church -- sometimes within the space of a few days. Ive been told that we arent born again -- seen by the speaker as a good thing -- and that we are born again -- seen as a bad thing. Then there are also those who see us as born again and think its good and see us as not born again and think thats bad.
Are you confused? So am I.
The reason for the confusion -- and the conflicting messages -- is that the term "born again" has become a cultural code word. Its the one part of the church chooses to say, "we are the group that is really serious about our faith" -- unlike the rest of you.
If they need to differentiate themselves in this way, I wish they could find another phrase -- something subtle and understated like "Real Christians." I want the phrase "born again" returned to the whole church where it belongs. This is because "born-again" belongs to the whole church -- not just those who express their worship in a certain way or who uses a certain Christian jargon. It belongs to the whole church because it is a summary of the whole thrust of the Christian life. Jesus said in John 3, "Unless you are born again -- or born from above -- you cannot enter the Kingdom of God."
What does it mean to be born again? It means that God has made us a new creation. It means, as Paul says earlier in Romans 8, that we have received the Spirit of God into our lives to carry out His work of renewal. This describes all Christians -- not just an elite few. The phrase "born again Christian" is repetitious because there is no such thing as a Christian who has not been born again. If you are a Christian you have been born again and if you havent been born again you are not a Christian -- no matter what else you may be.
Now you may think that I am being picky at this point. But a correct understanding of what it means for us to be "born-again" is essential as we consider an important question in the Christian life.
Here is the question.
"Is it possible to be "unborn-again?" If you are sealed in the Holy Spirit, as Paul says we are when we come to Christ, is it possible to be unsealed in the Spirit. Is it possible for a Christian to lose his or her salvation?
Now I'm sure that we've all known people we've wondered about in this regard. I remember a girl up in Concord who was heavily into drugs. At one time she had been very active in the church but as she looked back she called it her "Jesus freak stage" -- something she had outgrown like an old pair of shoes. I also remember the reports about the apparent initial sincerity of Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple -- before he went off the deep end and brought such pain in Guyana. Or maybe you've wondered about yourself -- have I finally blown it badly enough for God to give up on me?
Is it possible to lose our salvation?
Before we can answer that we first need to define salvation.
Salvation is not sitting in the church.
A person doesn't become a Christian by sitting in the church any more than a person becomes a car by sitting in the garage. Something else has to happen.
Salvation is also not just a verbal assent to a system of belief. In the Godfather movies, Michael Corleone professed his faith in Father, Son and Holy Spirit at the exact moment his men are committing the multiple murders he had ordered.
Salvation doesnt come from sitting is a church or even from repeating a creed. Salvation comes both by a commitment of the mind -- the will -- and a commitment of the heart. As Paul wrote in Romans 10:9 "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For a person believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved."
And if we have trusted Jesus Christ in this way, the Bible says we have become a new creation. We have been born again. We have been given a new heart and a new spirit. Can all this be undone? And yet there are those who seem to fall away from the new life in Jesus Christ. What happens to them?
This issue, which is formally known as the "perseverance of the saints" is the major historic point of disagreement between the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church -- although it is not something we sit around and argue about very often.
The Methodist Church, as it was founded by John Wesley, holds the belief that it is possible for a Christian to fall so far into sin as to lose his or her salvation. This belief is called Arminianism from the Dutch Theologian, Jacob Arminius.
One of Wesley support verses for this belief is Philippians 2:12 where Paul writes: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Wesley interpreted this to mean that we can lose our salvation if we don't watch our step -- if we don't continue to grow toward what he called "perfection." In an extreme case, I had a Nazarene Pastor, who comes out of the same perfectionist tradition, tell me that even a Christian who dies with unconfessed sin in his or her life is lost -- that you are only as secure as your last confession.
The churches in the tradition of John Calvin however, including our own Presbyterian Church, would interpret Philippians 2:12 as saying that our salvation is something we already have -- as other scriptures say -- but that we were bought with a price and should never treat the gift of God lightly.
There is a Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown is talking to Linus and says: "Linus, I can't talk with that little red-haired girl. She is really something and I am nothing. If I was something and she was nothing I could talk to her or if she was something and I was something, or if I was nothing and she was nothing. But she's something and I'm nothing."
Linus says: "Charlie Brown, for a nothing you are really something."
You may feel like a nothing. God has said to us, "For a nothing, you are really something." And Paul asks the question, "In the face of all these things -- in the face of all of the troubles we face and all that God has done for us -- what can we say? If God is for us, who can be against us? And if God has already given us the greatest gift, Jesus Christ, cannot we trust His love forever? Once we've answered that in our own lives we can experience the security of the gospel.
The belief of the Presbyterian Church is "once saved, always saved." As the Westminister Confession of Faith declares: "They whom God has accepted in His Beloved, effectually called and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved."
Now different readings of Scripture is what makes theological debate interesting. But this perseverance question is much more than an issue for idle speculation because it strikes at the very heart of the relationship between the believer and God. What does it mean to be born-again as a son or daughter of God? If we blow it, are we removed from the family of God by some spiritual process of retroactive abortion? Is our relationship with God to be based on confidence or on fear?
In Romans 8:38-39 we find these words: "For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, no principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
The eighth chapter of Romans begins with the statement that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It ends with the statement that there is no separation from Christ Jesus. This is the triumph of faith.
Romans 8 expresses a lot of things. But the basis of the confidence Paul expresses here is the awareness that God has done a new work in His people and that nothing will prevent God from bringing His work to completion. Nothing will prevent God from carrying out His purpose now that His Holy Spirit is within us giving testimony that we are God's children.
Paul reminds us in this great chapter that the love of God which was supremely displayed at the cross has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, This love has drawn out from us our responsive love. This love will never let us go because it is committed to bringing us safe home to God in the end. Our confidence is not in our love for God which is faint, fickle and faltering but in His love for us which is steadfast, faithful and persevering. The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints really needs to be renamed. It is actually the doctrine of the perseverance of God with the saints.
But this issue raises a lot of difficulty for some people. They point at example after example of people who, in their opinion, have decisively fallen away from the faith. It does not seem right to them that God should continue to number them among His people.
There are two real possibilities here. The first possibility is that these are people who were never truly Christians -- who gave lip service without the intention of the heart. That is a real possibility. Were not talking about any security for them.
There is a biblical doctrine of the perseverance of the saints but there is no doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. And there are some in the church who aint Christian. Jesus makes that clear in His parable of the Wheat and the Tares. There Jesus warns us that there will be people who seem to be part of the church who are not Christians at all. There will be weeds mixed in with the wheat God has planted. Jesus also warns us there that we dont have the ability to figure out which is which - that a person who looks like a weed to us may actually be an immature wheat that needs to be nurtured.
The second possibility is a person who has experienced the renewing of God's Spirit -- whose faith was at one time of the heart and of the will and not just of the mouth -- but who, through a variety of reasons, has pulled away from the Christian life and maybe even denied the reality of what he or she had experienced earlier. What of this person?
In the third chapter of Ist Corinthians, Paul gives us an insight:
"No one, "Paul writes beginning in verse 11, "can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Paul is saying here that we can't expect to build our Christian life on good works, humanism or any worldly philosophy. The foundation has to be Jesus.
He continues in verse 12: "Now if any person build upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each persons work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each persons work. If anyones work which he built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If anyones work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire."
The person Paul is describing here, the one whose work is burned up is the one who has taken the foundation of the Christian life and built upon it with inferior materials -- or maybe even covered it with a pile of garbage.
This person shall be saved, Paul says, but it will be with the smell of smoke on his clothes. He will come to stand before the judgement seat of Christ with the knowledge that he has simply wasted much of his life -- a life he was called to live according to the will of God and in the abundance of God. The Bible says that there is also a variety or rewards -- opportunities we will have in addition to salvation -- which will be lost by this person.
Much of the process of our life on earth is to prepare ourselves to stand in confidence before the throne of God. If we are genuinely Christian, even if we waste our lives is a pursuit of the wrong goals we shall be saved -- but the awareness of our failure will apparently make the immediate experience more painful than joyful. Paul uses the analogy of a man running to safety through a wall of flame as his house burns all around him.
Paul says in Romans 8: "Who is to condemn? Is it Jesus Christ who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us" The only one who can condemn us is the one who has died for us.
Weve looked at this part of Romans 8 doctrinally. Now lets look at it more personally.
We all have a fear of separation. We fear separation from everything. Maybe you have been fired from a job. There is a sense of rejection and worthlessness that comes -- even when the situation is not your fault.
I have had friends who refused to become involved in a romantic relationship for a long time after being hurt -- they know how the last one turned out and they can't face the pain of loss again.
Simon and Garfunkle, in their 1960's song "I am a Rock expressed the fear:
"Don't talk of love, well,
I've heard the words before
They lie sleeping in my memory,
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died,
If I'd never loved I never would have cried."
Parents fear the separation of their children from them -- as they grow older and go away to school or work and start families of their own. Finally there is the fear of separation from all those we love by death.
We all know the fear of separation. Sometimes it is a vague, undefined uneasiness and sometimes it is a stabbing pain.
And in the midst of this fear God comes to us and says: "I will never leave you or forsake you." Even if we cannot love ourselves, God loves us with an everlasting love. Even if we are undergoing persecution or the threat of destruction, God is with us. Four years ago, two American pastors were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics (based on biblical principles) in the public schools. They were also invited to teach at prisons, businesses, the fire and police departments and a large orphanage. About 100 boys and girls who had been abandoned, abused, and left in the care of a government-run program were in the orphanage. They relate the following story in their own words:
"It was nearing the holiday season, time for our orphans to hear - for the first time - the traditional story of Christmas. We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem. Finding no room in the inn, the couple went to a stable, where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger. Throughout the story, the children and orphanage staff sat in amazement as they listened. Some sat on the edges of their stools, trying to grasp every word.
Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city. Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips
in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby's blanket. A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States.
The orphans were busy assembling their manger as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat. He looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy's manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.
I called for the translator to ask Misha why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had only heard the Christmas story once, he related the happenings accurately - until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, "And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don't have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn't, because ! didn't have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, if I keep you warm, will that be good enough gift?" And Jesus told me, "If 'you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody every gave me." "So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and He told me I could stay with Him - for always."
As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears that splashed down his little cheeks. Puffing his hand over his face, his head dropped to the table and his shoulders shook as he sobbed and sobbed. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him - FOR ALWAYS.
Little Misha understood the message.
This morning I'm going to ask you to bow your heads. We have talked a lot about the extent of our need and the gift of new life that God offers in Jesus Christ. It is not something we gain by sitting in church or by thinking good thoughts. It comes by asking Jesus to come into our own lives to do his work in us.
There may be persons here today who have never taken this step of personal faith. Its not something to keep doing over and over again. Jesus comes in the first time you ask Him. If you would like to take that step now please pray this prayer with me and talk to me or Sheri afterwards.
I believe that Jesus Christ is your only begotten Son and that He became a human being, shed His blood and died on the cross to clean away my garbage that was separating me from You. I believe that He rose from the dead, physically, to give me new life... to cause me to be born again. Lord Jesus, I invite You to come into my life. I accept You as my Savior and Lord. I confess my sins and ask You to wash them away. I believe that You have come and are living in me right now and have sealed me for all eternity with Your Holy Spirit. Thank You Jesus. Amen.