October 4, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
SAVED FOR WHAT?
I Peter 1: 8-9, 13-16
The fourth in a series of five.
There was a contest a few years ago to determine the funniest joke in the world. You probably think I’m joking, but I’m serious. You can google it. “World’s Funniest Joke.” Here it is:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed over. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls 911. He’s in a panic. He says, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, we need to make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a gunshot is heard. Back on the phone the guy says, “OK, now what?”
Just because this joke was judged the funniest in the world doesn’t necessarily mean you’re all going to think it’s funny. I didn’t tell it because it’s funny. I told it because of the punch line. “Now what?”
Sometimes Christians think of salvation as an event. You give your life to Jesus Christ and you’re done. You’re saved. You’re going to heaven. You can check that one off your list. But Christians in the Wesleyan tradition are never content to leave it at that. We see salvation as a life-long process, not just a single event. It’s a journey, and wherever we are on that journey of faith, the question is always, “Now what?”
Paul writes in the letter we read for today, “You never saw him, yet you love him. You still don’t see him, yet you trust him — with laughter and singing. Because you kept on believing, you’ll get what you’re looking forward to: total salvation” (I Peter 1:8-9). That’s what we’re talking about today. “Total salvation.” Because we keep on believing. We continue on the journey. We don’t stop. We keep on trucking. (That’s a dated comment if ever there was one!) We never say we’ve arrived, or have it made, or that we’re done. We’re always pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). That’s the way Paul told us in another place what he means by “total salvation”.
This is the fourth sermon in our series on the Wesleyan revival. We’ll wrap things up next week. Today we’re going to be looking at John Wesley’s own faith journey. What he taught about salvation is consistent with what he experienced in his own life. And what he experienced in his own life as well as what he taught can help us all experience revival in our day.
John Wesley was a reader. He’s pictured often reading while he was riding on horseback. Besides the Bible, two books that had a huge impact on his life were A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying by Jeremy Taylor. You can tell by those titles how serious he was about being the best Christian he could possibly be.
Taylor’s book talks about giving God glory in everything we do. He uses Psalm 115:1. “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory.” If you’re looking for a verse to spend some time with in your devotions, this is a good one. Whose glory are we really interested in? Our own, or God’s? How you answer that question is going to make all the difference in the way you live your life.
People who are out after their own glory seldom get even that. What they get is laughed at. But it really isn’t very funny. People who live in such a way that God gets the glory are the people God can use for great things. John Wesley decided after reading Jeremy Taylor’s book which kind of a person he was going to be. “I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words and actions.”
William Law’s book introduced the concept of being half a Christian. He said, there’s no such thing. This too made an impact of Wesley. He resolved that no matter what, he would never be a half-Christian. Later he preached a sermon on this that he called, “The Almost Christian.” He preached it because he saw so many people who were taking their faith so casually.
It’s the same today as it was back then. We have a lot of almost Christians walking around. 83% of Americans self-identify as Christian. But what do they mean by that? Maybe they go to church. Maybe not. Maybe they have a perfect Christmas and Easter attendance record. They probably have a favorable opinion of Jesus. And they try to be decent people. That’s enough, isn’t it?
John Wesley said it isn’t. True Christians wake up every morning and say, “God, I’m going to live this day for you.” They say, “Not to me O Lord, but to your name be the glory.” So the question for us is this: Are you an almost Christian or an altogether Christian? Revival can happen when people start taking their faith seriously.
John Wesley took his faith very seriously. He was reading these books and making these promises to God as a young man. He was determined to be the best Christian ever. But as is often the case, things didn’t quite go as he had planned. He discovered that there is more to being a Christian than taking your faith seriously.
We’ve mentioned his disastrous missionary trip to Georgia. That was the only time he set foot on this continent. He was 32. He returned to England a failure. He felt all the lower because he had set for himself such a high bar for his service to God.
Then came Aldersgate. Aldersgate is a street in London. I went there last week. On Google Maps. That was pretty cool. There was a prayer meeting being held on Aldersgate Street. The date was May 24, 1738. John Wesley was 34 years old. He went to the meeting unwillingly. But it’s a good thing he went. Because God met him there. Here’s what he wrote in his Journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Sometimes people will say this was John Wesley’s conversion experience. It wasn’t. He was a Christian long before. And not an almost Christian. He was an altogether Christian. He was keeping the promise he had made to dedicate to God his whole life, including all his thoughts and words and actions. At least he was sure trying hard to keep that promise. But it wasn’t getting him where he wanted to be. We might say he was trying too hard. Or we might say he was trying to earn his salvation by being a good person. But now he knew, not just in his head but in his heart — his strangely warmed heart — that he could trust Christ and Christ alone for his salvation.
It made all the difference in his life. There’s a huge difference between trying to be good enough for God to love you and accepting God’s love as a given. Between trusting in yourself and trusting in Christ. Between living in fear that God might condemn you because of something you did or something you might do and living in confidence that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
I want to read for you something written by a famous theologian named Paul Tillich that captures beautifully what happened to John Wesley at Aldersgate, which is also what can happen to us when we stop trying so hard and start accepting God’s love.
Year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear. The old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades and despair destroys all joy and courage. At that moment, a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything. Do not perform anything. Do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we will experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before and we may not believe more than before, but everything is transformed. In that moment grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.
That’s what happened to John Wesley on that long ago night on Aldersgate Street. He accepted the fact that he was accepted. And so I ask you: Have you accepted the fact that you are accepted? Have you stopped trying to earn God’s love? Have you discovered the freedom and the joy that come from living in grateful response to that love? Revival can happen when our hearts are tender enough to accept God’s grace.
John Wesley always looked back to Aldersgate as a key moment on his life, but he never saw it as his spiritual high water mark. He had 53 more years to live. Every day he was asking, “Now what?” What more does God have for me than I have yet experienced? He was always growing as a Christian. The way he put it was that he was on his way to perfection. Or to use the language of I Peter, he was on his way to “total salvation”.
He lived it. He also taught it. He said experiencing salvation is like entering a house. To enter a house you first come to the porch, then you open the door, and finally you walk inside. These are the three steps of salvation.
The porch represents prevenient grace. This is God’s grace at work in our lives before we even know it. Even people outside God’s house — that’s what the porch represents — are not outside the reach of God’s love. They may never respond to God. They may live lives that openly reject God. But God is still there for them. In fact, it’s prevenient grace that makes it possible for us to say “yes” to God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). This gift of God is what we call prevenient grace.
Often when people become Christians they look back and they can see how God was at work in their lives even when they didn’t know it. Even when they weren’t sure they believed in God. They couldn’t see it at the time, but they can see it now. God never forces us to accept this grace. We have to make that free choice. But God does everything short of making that choice for us. God loves us that much.
It’s possible to get stuck in prevenient grace. It’s possible to camp out on the front porch and never open the door. You may go to church. You may leave the service each week feeling better than you did before and that makes you want to come back next week. But that’s as far as you go. You don’t get past the porch. You’re still an almost Christian. You haven’t yet given your life wholly and fully to Jesus Christ.
When you do, it’s like opening the door to that house. This is what John Wesley called justifying grace. To work the analogy, we don’t open the door. God has already opened it for us. But we walk through. We “accept that we are accepted”. And we become new people. “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Something new, something real, something good is happening to us. This peace we didn’t have before, this joy, this love.
Some of you can remember exactly when that happened for you. You may even know your spiritual birthday. For others, and I’m one, this may have been more of a gradual process that started when you were very young. But whether it’s a moment or a process, justifying grace is our response to God’s prevenient grace. It’s what makes us a Christian.
And the question when we become a Christian is always, “Now what?” Because we can get stuck in justifying grace, too. We might have fond memories of that moment when we accepted Christ. Or how close we felt to God that magical day in the mountains or by the ocean or with that loved one when we made a promise to God. But that was our spiritual high water mark. We’ve never gone further. In fact, to use that old word, we’ve “backslid.”
We’ve never, to return to the analogy, actually entered the house of salvation and explored all of its many rooms. That’s the “total salvation” we read about in I Peter. That’s what John Wesley called “sanctifying grace.” Sanctification is the process of being made holy. It is growing in God’s love. This is one part of our Wesleyan tradition that is very precious to us. We don’t believe that once we give our lives to Jesus Christ we are done. We see salvation as a life-long process, not just a single event. It’s a journey toward holiness.
Paul wrote about this in our scripture lesson.
So roll up your sleeves, put your mind in gear, be totally ready to receive the gift that is coming when Jesus arrives. Don’t lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn’t know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God’s life, a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, “I am holy; you be holy.”
Sanctification is the “now what?” of the Christian life. We have never arrived. We are always on the way. We are growing and becoming more and more the people God made us to be. The people God knows we can become as we allow him free rein to work on us.
Back in 1956, Cadillac came out with a concept car. It never went into production. There were very few made. One of them ended up in a junk yard. This is what it looked like.
A collector bought it. I’m sure he didn’t have to pay much. This person went to work on it. When the work was done, the car was driven back to that same junk yard. It now looked like this.
The collector decided he didn’t need to keep the car so he sold it at auction. It sold for $295,000.
We are like that old junked car. This church is like a junk yard. And God is like that collector. He see us not for what we look like now, but for what we will look like when he gets done with us. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of time. It’s going to take a lifetime. But it’s going to be worth it. Will you let it happen to you?
Dear God, some of us feel like a junked car right now. We feel pretty worthless. Pretty discouraged. Pretty defeated. Remind us God, that life is not a snapshot. Life is a movie. We aren’t frozen in time wherever we are in our lives right now. There is more. There is always more. For you who saved us from our sins will also lead us to become new. New and renewed in your love every single day. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.