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Saving Faith (an older sermon) – a study in 1st John

originally delivered at Worldwide Discipleship Association’s University of Georgia campus ministry in 2002

“Most Westerners live in a tragically mindless environment.  Life is too fast, and our contact with other persons too impersonal for any real thought or reflection.  Even in the church we are far more often encouraged to join this committee, back this project, or serve on this board than we are counseled to examine our relationship to God and His Son Jesus Christ.  So long as we are performing for the church, few question whether our profession is genuine or spurious.  But sermons should suggest that members of a church may not actually be saved, although they are members.  Teachers should stress that a personal, self-denying, costly, and persistent following of Christ is necessary if a person is to be acknowledged by Jesus at the final day.  In the absence of this teaching millions drift on, assuming that because they have made verbal acknowledgement of Christ ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago and have done nothing terribly bad since, they are Christians, when actually they may be far from Christ, devoid of grace, and in danger of perishing forever.” – James Montgomery Boice

 

That is a pretty shocking perspective, but indeed it is true.  What else could Jesus have meant in Matthew 13:24-30 in the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Jesus said, Let both grow together until the harvest.  Jesus taught that in the Kingdom are both wheat and tares, two plants that look nearly identical until their fruit are fully displayed in the judgment on the day of the Lord. There are people in the Church who look like us and talk like us and act like us but are not really of us.  People who claim the name of Christ but do not have true saving faith.

Some of you, I imagine, probably feel defensive when hearing these words.  We think that surely this quote comes from some radical cult-leader.  James Montgomery Boice was actually a strongly evangelical Presbyterian (PCA) minister from Philadelphia.  He had a dynamic ministry during his life of both spreading the Gospel, preaching the word, writing evangelical books, AND ministering to peoples needs in some of the roughest areas of Phily.  THAT is the sort of faith I see when I look in the gospels faith lived out, rather than a quiet opinion held on Sundays that is afraid to make another peep until 7 more days have passed and they are back in the pew. 

Because I know that so many of us have been, and even are guilty of this, myself included, the subject of saving faith is of great importance to the church today.

 

I.       Faith Without Works 

Since it is so often misunderstood, and so important to the subject at hand, we are going to first turn to the book of James.  Lets take a look at James 2:14-26;

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

 

Right off of the bat I think it is important that we notice the concession that James is making here.  He does NOT write, if a man has faith, but What good is it, my brothers, if a man CLAIMS to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?  James is implying here that there are sometimes people who make, as John Calvin put it, an empty boast of the word when they have no real claim on it.  Calvin later adds, When we are getting down to facts, it does no harm, indeed sometimes helps the case, to allow your adversary the word he wants, since, when the facts are proven, the word also immediately drops from his hands.  What James is allowing to be called faith here is not necessarily the real thing, for this sort of faith (mere mental accent) cannot save him.

Secondly, notice that James is not part of the modern day discussion as to whether a man is saved by faith or saved by works.  He writes, But someone will say, You have faith; I have deeds.  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  James challenges the person who claims to have faith to show him their faith, yet without works — without Godly actions — there is no way on truly showing that it exists!  Such faith is a phantom, a dream, a delusion, wrote Charles Erdmen.  James leads his foe into the heart of his own contradiction how can your faith be proven without works? James, as Jesus, didnt see any distinction between true saving faith, and the works of faith if you have one you will also have the other.

Thirdly, James shows clearly that his concession of the word faith is NOT a reference to saving faith because even the demons possess it, who do not serve God (willingly), nor are they in heaven.  In fact, the demons believe a good deal of what we would call correct doctrine.  According to Mark 3:11-12 they believe in the deity of Christ, in Luke 8:31 they believe in Hell, and in Matthew 8:28-29 they recognize that Jesus is the final judge.  Yet this faith does not save them, nor will it save anyone else that holds it.

Lastly, James in using Abraham as his prime example, proves this point.  According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham had saving faith at least 30 years before he was ever tested in Genesis 22.  James is clearly using the word justified here not in reference to Abrahams justification before God, but rather the justification, or evidence, of his faith before men.  This is further supported by James words show me your faith he is demanding proof of the faith that they claim to have, which apart from good deeds cannot be done.

Some have argued that Paul and James are at odds with one another, but I see them as complimentary.  Paul denounces salvation by dead works, and James salvation by dead faith.  Neither will save you.  But true, Biblical faith, isnt either of those things, but rather a dynamic, living, and active faith that lives in response to that which God has already done for us and is now doing in us. 


II.                   Saving Faith

Knowing what saving faith is not, the next logical step is to look at what saving faith IS what saving faith should look like in the believer.  1 John is a letter written by the apostle John to a Church that had recently divided over issues that appear to be a fore-runner to what we would now call Gnosticism.  A number of believers had apparently left the church and were tempting those remaining to follow this new heretical teaching.  John was writing them partially to let them know how to identify true faith so they too would not be misled.  These are Johns means by which one can identify true faith.

First, there is the issue of correct doctrine.

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist–he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he promised us–even eternal life. I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.1 John 2:18-27

 

Here John gives us couple of ways that we can identify saving faith.  He says, Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist–he denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.  It appears as though individuals had left the congregation because they no longer believed the truth about Jesus.

Notice that by denying that Jesus is the Christ, we also deny God the Father. Since Jesus revealed the one true God who spoke through the prophets, by denying Jesus we show that we also do not truly believe in the one true God of the Old Testament, since one testified to the truth of the other.

 

Notice, also, the results of this false belief: they left the church.  Remember this; it is SO IMPORTANT that we believe what is ultimately true because what we believe has an effect on what we DO — on how we live!  Here the results of their misconceptions were divisions in the church, but every time we accept what Paul called deceptive philosophy over the truth of God it will have some sort of negative results.  We were made to live out what we believe, whether it be true saving faith, or falsehood and lies.  Either way we will live according to what we believe is ultimately true.

            Later John expands on this thought by saying,  Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God (from 1 John 4:1-6). We should strive to know the Biblical truth about God, and to live out the teachings of Scripture, in order that we might present ourselves as a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:15)

            The next principle by which we can recognize saving faith is obedience.

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he   appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.  No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother. 1 John  3:4-10

 

According to John, you will know a true believer by his fruit he will live a conspicuously moral life.  If this passage does not trouble you, it should. Who of us can claim to have lived such a life?  Can we truly live lives that are essentially sinless?  Does John believe we have to? 

When troubled by these thoughts, I find myself comforted by 1 John 1:8-9: If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  It is made clear here that John does not believe that we can truly be without sin he in fact says that to claim that we are proves that we arent truly believers in Christ.  It appears that the point of Johns moral litmus is that Christians will be striving to live like Christ, yet when we fall short we will be quick to turn to him for mercy, for it is in Christ that mercy is to be found.

He also touches upon this issue in 1 John 2:6 where he writes, Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did, seemingly a distant echo of Luke 6:46 where Jesus said, Why do you call me Lord, Lord and do not do what I say?  If our faith is genuine, we will find ourselves growing (albeit sometimes slowly) more and more in our desire to be obedient to Christ.  We should strive for that obedience, to make our calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:10-11)

Lastly, there is the love of the brethren. 

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:11-18? 

 

Can you imagine what the church would look like if this were consistently true of us?  The problem is that not only do we often not love our brothers and sisters in Christ, but when we do we too often accept a worldly definition of love rather than the Biblical one.

            The world often sees discipline, correction, or even rebuke as acts of judgment and hate, but the God disciplines his children out of love, as we in the church are also called to do to one another.  On the flipside, pre-marital sex is considered an act of love by the worlds standards and it appears as though much of the church has bought this lie as well.  However, God considers it nothing short of adultery pre-marital sex is an act of cheating on the spouse which God is preparing for you.

Boice, in his Foundations of the Christian Faith, says this of Biblical love: Love is not a certain benign feeling nor a smile.  It is an attitude which determines what we do.  It is impossible to speak meaningfully of love in the Christians sense without speaking of the actions which flow from it, just as it is impossible to speak meaningfully of Gods love without mentioning such things as the creation, the giving of the Old Testament revelation, the coming of Christ, the cross and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

John speaks at length on this subject throughout his letter.  He says, Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God, and We love because he first loved us.  Let us love one another, as Christ has loved us, for this is evidence of His saving grace in our lives.

 

III.                 Assurance of Salvation

Now, if you are anything like myself in your faith some of this might leave you despairing a bit.  Oft-time this sort of introspection can do that, but I want to encourage you who are thinking seriously about the genuine nature of your faith not to despair.  Why?  Because Paul clearly states in Romans 3:10-11, quoting Old Testament Scripture, There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  Of our own strength we would not be genuinely concerned as to our spiritual state, and so we can be encouraged if we are concerned that it is very likely that the Holy Spirit is at work in us developing and growing us towards a deeper faith in Christ.

 

Closing;

So,  those of us who are believers should work to make our calling and election sure like Paul who says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, I worked harder than all of them yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.  Let us strive to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, yet falling continually upon his grace, recognizing that it is God who is working in us to will and to act according to his good purposes.  Let us not use the fact that we are saved by grace through faith as an excuse to live in sin, thus proving that the truth is not in us, but let that fact spurn us on to good work, showing that the faith that we possess is truly saving faith, which will not only work to strengthen us, and encourage the body of Christ around us, but also will acts as a living Gospel, challenging non-believers to see Christ for who he really is, without excuse.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.  It is the pearl of great price, to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods.  It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.  Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.” – Detriech Bonhoeffer

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Filed under: Doctrine, Grace, Sermon, Theology

One Response

  1. […] then live however they like and still be in God’s good grace. Just take a look at my sermon SAVING FAITH to see what it looks like.  The doctrine of “Eternal Security” recognizes that the […]

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