Sunday, January 1, 2017

Being Sure

I remember this time, decades ago, when I was at a Christian conference, and the speaker asked a question of those of us present. He asked how many struggled with assurance, struggled with doubts about being a Christian and on the way to heaven. Most of the people raised their hands, and there were many people at this conference. Here were all these Christians, and these were the ones motivated enough to go to a conference, who struggled with being assured when it came to the state of their souls. That’s a problem. These were people who were stressed about life.

These days I don’t hear much about people struggling with assurance. Actually, these days the problem is in the opposite direction. The problem for many today is not a lack of assurance that all is well with their souls but rather the presumption that all is well with their souls. It’s not that these folk have good reasons for that conclusion. They just assume it’s all good. These are people who walk into eternity blind.

So, there are those who aren’t sure about their eternal fate when they can be, and those who are sure about such things when they shouldn’t be. This is a problem not only for the people involved but more so for the kingdom. Those who presume to be Christians, but actually aren’t, can live in a way that makes Jesus look bad. Holiness for them is an unimportant virtue. On the other hand, those who aren’t sure of their standing before God lack the confidence that they can have to live boldly by the Gospel before a watching world. And again, it makes Jesus look bad.

This morning I’d like to talk to you about how you can be sure about your standing before God without falling into the sin of presumption. And to do that I’m going to take a look at a couple of things in Jude’s letter.

Jude writes to some Christians and addresses them in a way that speaks to the problem that I’ve mentioned. He writes,

To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ. Jude 1:1

Called, beloved and kept. It’s the last word that I want you to consider. What’s this ‘kept’? It’s simply the idea of being protected. So, when God decides to save, He takes care of the whole process. He not only rescues us from Satan and our sins, but He also keeps us safe until we arrive in the age to come. To be a Christian is to be kept safe by God. I think that you can see that there is great comfort in believing this part of the Gospel.

Now, I haven’t told you anything new. However, it does get interesting when we take a look at the end of Jude’s letter. There, he writes,

keep yourselves in the love of God …  Jude 1:21

He uses the same word for ‘keep’ here as he did at the beginning of his letter. But here, this keeping safe is not something that God does. It’s something we need to do. We need to keep ourselves within the circle of God’s love for us.

So, what’s going on here? Does God keep us or do we keep ourselves?

There are different ways to respond to this. Here’s one choice, one that is far too common. It’s to ignore one or the other of Jude’s statements. So, there are those who ignore the promise. They ignore Jude’s comforting claim that we are kept safe by God. The result, then, is that the burden of making sure that we remain among the saved is all on us. And that is a tremendous burden. At any moment, we might make that fatal mistake that will result in our being excluded from God’s love and lost forever. How terrifying. And while that’s not as popular an option as it once was, there have been those who have taken it very seriously. And they have suffered for thinking this way.

Now, there aren’t many these days who resolve the problem in this way. Today, people are much more likely to choose differently. Here, the choice is to ignore not the promise of God keeping us but the command to keep ourselves. Now, it just might be that someone who opts for this may never have been told that there is such a command. He doesn’t know that there are things for him to do and that failure here has fatal consequences. So, in a sense, he isn’t choosing to ignore it. But he is ignoring it nonetheless. The assumption at work here is that God loves me, so there’s nothing that I need to do. His love is unconditional, so I’m home free. But, is it safe to ignore one of God’s commands?

I’m sure that your can see that neither of those choices are good. So, there must be a third option. There must be a way that the promise and the command fit together. After all, they’re both in the Bible.

It will help if we understand the reason for Jude’s letter. There were some who professed the faith but who twisted the grace of the Gospel. They said the right things but their lives were making it clear that they did not belong to Christ. So, Jude writes to warn the saints lest they be fooled and become like these phonies. This is why he writes to them about keeping themselves in the love of God. There are things that need to happen, things that they need to do, so that they would not become like these who had turned against Jesus. There are things that they need to do lest they fall away. That’s why Jude writes, ‘Keep yourselves in the love of God.’

Jude knows that the danger of turning away from Jesus is real. He knows that failing here will be fatal. There is much in the Scriptures that echoes this concern.

So, there is this warning from Hebrews.

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. Hebrews 3:12

Then, there’s this from Paul.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith… 1 Timothy 4:1

And Jude knew what Jesus was getting at when He said that there are those who

believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. Luke 8.13

Jude understood, and we need to understand, that there are things we need to do so that we can avoid this fate. We do not coast into the kingdom. There are things to be done. And if we don’t do these things we should not be surprised if we drift away from the faith like so many others. It really is that serious.

However, if that’s all I were to say I would be misleading you. That makes it sounds like it’s all up to us. But it’s not. Our hope is not that we will do a good enough job to keep ourselves in the love of God. That would be a vain hope. Rather, our hope is that we will be kept by Jesus. He will keep us safe.

All you need to do to understand this is reflect on your own experience of living as a Christian. You work at obeying God’s commands, but you blow it. The Spirit points out some sin. How do you respond? You know this. We’re back to repentance and faith. You come again to Jesus and admit your failure. You come and confess your sin. You ask for His forgiveness. And then, you ask that He might change you. In this you renew your pledge to work at the things He has commanded. But your hope is still not that you will do a great job of it. You have work to do, but your hope is that Jesus will keep you safe.

So, your comfort and certainty about your future isn’t bound up in yourself and how well you do. It’s bound up in Jesus. We don’t save ourselves. Jesus saves us. However, that does not relieve us of the necessity of working hard to do all those things that He commands. Refusal to do that will be fatal. The two really do fit together.

The commands are there, commands like ‘keep yourselves in the love of God’. And God forbid that any of us adopt a careless attitude when it comes to obeying them. Those who refuse to take the commands seriously will, bit by bit, drift away. So, aware of the danger, and wanting to honor God, we work at obedience. But, as we all well know, we do a lousy job of it. But in His kindness, the Spirit points out our sins, and we come again to Jesus, repenting and believing. And being forgiven, we return again to work at obedience. We know we won’t do a great job, but we still work at it, entrusting ourselves to our Savior who will keep us safe. The two go together.

Now, why is this important? Back in the days of my youth, the big problem among Christians was a lack of assurance. That is no longer the case. Now, the big problem is presumption. How many profess to be Christians and yet live in a way that is just wrong. But they think nothing of it. After all, they’re Christians enjoying God’s unconditional love, right? No, they’re not. So many are believing Satan’s lies and are on their way to hell. They did not take to heart these words of Jesus.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. ​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 works in your name?’ ​And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Matthew 7:21-23

I don’t want that happening to any of you. There is great comfort in knowing that we are being kept safe by Jesus. But at the same time, there is also great responsibility in doing what is commanded and repenting when we falter.

Being a Christian is not easy. It calls for a lot of work. It is hard to enter by the narrow way, and there are dangers every step of the way. Read Pilgrim’s Progress. If we are going to make it, we will have to endure it all to the end. That will be hard. But we will be able to do that if we depend on the grace of God to get us there.

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