Lost in spite of being good
- 1Timothy 1:1-12
- Philippians 3:1-11
Brother and sister in Christ Jesus,
Today we commence a series of sermons under the heading “Doing Good.”
Protestant Reformed Christians some time shy away from the whole idea of good works. “Are we not saved by grace and not by good works? We don’t deserve our salvation and therefore we only talk about grace.”
I think it was John Calvin who remarked that although we are saved by grace alone and not be good works, grace is never alone; it is always followed by good works.
Deep down in everyone of us there is a desire to be good. Somehow we know it is good to be good. We send our children off to school saying “be good”. We end a telephone conversation and might say “be good”. What exactly we mean both us and those we speak to do not really know, but we agree that we should be good.
We may even confuse being good with being Australian. We, as a result, developed the expression when we think that general consensus would not allow certain behaviour that something is “un-Australian”. When someone cheats his fellow-Australian, he is “un-Australian”, or when the tax man finds out we cheated on our form and fines us, we define that as un-Australian. Australians are not that generous when it comes to drinking and swearing, because let’s face it, Australia is a beer-drinking and swearing nation.
The problem is defining “good”. What is our standard for “good”?
Paul’s evaluation of himself before his conversion
Before Paul became a Christian every good Jew would pat him on the back and say, “Good on ye, Mate! You’re an example of a good man!”
And so he was. Look at his record. He was in no way un-Jewish. He was circumcised on the eight day. His mom and dad took him to the priest not a day earlier and not a day later than what the law demanded. By being circumcised he became part of the Covenant people of the Lord. You could say his life started in the temple – good start.
He did not become a Jew, he was born a Jew; he was not proselyte who converted to Judaism. Coming from a good family, from the tribe of Benjamin, the same as king Saul. Benjaminites were the smallest of the tribes, but they were brave warriors who stood up for what was right, and were very precise with the sword. With their slingshots they could throw a stone at a hair and not miss. (Judges 20:16). Of all the sons of Jacob, Benjamin was the only one born in Israel, and besides Joseph, Benjamin was the favourite son of Jacob. The blood of the Benjaminites filled the veins of Paul.
Calling himself a Hebrew of Hebrews he probably add to his linage the fact that he spoke Hebrews as first language. It was quite common in Paul’s days for Jews to speak Aramaic or even Greek as first language.
Add to this that he made a choice to become a Pharisee. These was the sect that absolutely devoted themselves to the exact observance of the Jewish law. They were the most zealous supporters and interpreters of Old Testament law, and Paul had studied under Gamaliel, its most celebrated teacher.
He took his understanding and devotion of being a Jew to the point that he persecuted the church in his efforts to promote Judaism.
He was no half-hearted Jew. If anyone wanted to judged him in accord with the righteousness the law demands, he would have been blameless. As a committed Pharisee, he paid scrupulous attention to the requirements of the law, and no one could have charged him disobedience to it. He was legalistically faultless. A real good bloke; an example of good living; a real Jewish icon and role model.
“Good on ye, Mate!” He could have earned a headstone with the words “Rest in peace” on it.
Paul as he saw himself after his conversion
Now you have to turn with me to 1 Timothy 1:13 and further.
The first thing he says about, now looking back on those “good old days”, is that he was the worst sinner of them all. The this he added that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor and a violent man.
He knew what sin was. As student of the Old Testament, there would be no doubt in his mind about sin and being a sinner. But according to his own standard he was not a sinner; he was a good Pharisee, always trying his best to be righteous, even more than the average Jew.
As blasphemer there was nothing good he wanted to know about Jesus Christ; there was nothing he wanted to know about any follower of Jesus. Another translation of the word is to revile, or to stigmatise. He did all of this because he supposedly was doing God a favour – or at least he found favour with the leaders of the Jews.
He persecuted the church. Acts 9:1 says he was breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples, and should he find a Christian in Damascus, he got permission from the Jewish leaders to put them in prison.
He said he did these things because he was ignorant and he was unbelieving. He did not know the essentials of who Christ was, and as a result he did not believe in Christ. This did not excuse him for what he did. Jesus did not say to Paul, “You did not know, so you are not guilty of making fun of Me and those who believe in Me.” Paul would later himself write that no one is without excuse. But what he writes in 1 Corinthians 2:8
… these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit… The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 2:10, 14, NIV)
Point is, although Paul knew the Scriptures of the Old Testament by heart, he did not see Christ in them. The Spirit made it possible for him to see, understand, know and believe. He says in 1 Timothy 1:14
The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:14, NIV)
He stresses the point: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And he says “I am the worst.” You see, when he was on his way to Damascus to throw Christians in jail, Christ appeared to him. “Why are you persecuting Me?” For all intends and purposes Paul could say that he was not persecuting Christ, because he thought Christ was dead and buried. Our Lord said he was, because persecuting the followers of Christ was to persecute Christ. At that moment something happened: Paul spoke to Christ, “Who are You, Lord?”
This was a defining moment for Paul. Christ revealed Himself to Paul. He writes about it in Galatians 1:
I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles… (Galatians 1:14–16, NIV)
Paul had this dramatic and definite change of course in his life. First he saw himself as this super zealous, outstanding student of the Word of God, part of God’s people, a role model for every young Jew. Maybe he dreamed about becoming a member of the elite Jewish Council. Then, meeting Christ, he looked at himself and saw a pathetic, hopelessly lost sinner, an unbeliever, with books full of knowledge, yet knowing nothing.
I ask myself what many good churchgoers see when they look at themselves in the mirror. They attended Sunday school; they made profession of their faith and became members of the church; they were baptised and they take communion on a regular basis; they put money in the plate; they might even have taught Sunday school; they support missionaries; and they are on the rosters of different activities of their congregation. They help those in need, visit the sick in hospital, and even attend prayer meetings. They hardly say any bad word about anyone and is loved by all. All these things are good things, and quite frankly, anyone who calls himself a Christian and do not do these things is fooling himself.
But in the end, what is it that put us right with God? There is this day that all of us, on God’s appointed time, will stand before Him, looking Him in the face, and then we will have to explain why He should allow us into his eternal heaven.
“Lord, I have done all these things, I don’t need to tell you about all the good things I have done. I never mixed with those who hate You, and I tried my best.” Our God will want to know if we trusted in Jesus Christ only for righteousness. In other words, God will want to know what we did with his gift, his Son, who was sent into the world, not to make as better people, but to make us new.
Our flesh, our old nature, the one we are born with, is one that can never please God, no matter how good we are or how hard we try. Jesus said:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)
This tells us that God know no one who come to Him, unless that person comes in the Name of Jesus Christ; He is our advocate; He is our righteousness; and He is the only one ordained by the Father who is the door through which we must go to enter heaven’s door.
This is the dead end, the cul de sac, for anyone who is honest and sincere about life, and about eternal life: I am sinner, lost, unbelieving, not knowing God; all along I thought I had it all!
Honesty can sometimes be very painful; it drags one off of the throne of one’s life and smashes you to bits before the Holy God. There is another possibility: many have been at the point of understanding the consequences of not following Jesus Christ, but found the price is just too high.
Paul, by God’s grace, took his pride, his standing in social circles, his model life, the confidence the Jewish leaders put in him, all the good things he and others thought about himself, and weighed it up against value the of knowing Christ. It became worthless. He turned his back on those things, not because they were bad in themselves, but because as far as salvation in concerned, everything he considered valuable was worthless. He became a fool in the eyes of his fellow Jews, and now like they did with Jesus and the Christians, they derided and mocked him.
That’s the cost of discipleship. Oh, that God would give you the grace, if you have not done so yet, to not stop at this point. My friend, go all the way – it is worth the while. Listen to what Paul says:
I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. (Philippians 3:8–9, NIV)
Did you hear the crux of this verse: that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ. His good works counted for nothing in the sight of God; Christ’s good work of obtaining and providing freely by grace a righteousness that satisfies his Father counted for everything.
Now, with his life direction having changed completely, he says:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10–11, NIV)
He just want to know Christ – even if it meant that he would suffer like Christ – but by knowing Christ he would attain everlasting life through the resurrection of Christ. And at that point he could stand in the presence of God and know that God will indeed allow him into heaven – he knew Christ, trusted Him completely, obeyed Him with an undivided heart – all along clinging to the sure knowledge that becasue this is the case, heaven is a place to long for, live for and die for.
What now? May I ask you this question, my dear friend?
It was nearly midnight in a church hall. Some members of our congregation got together for some games and fellowship as we waited for the new year to begin. About 11:45 we all sat down and I conducted a devotion. The reading was from our text this morning. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. I want to be found in Him.”
I dropped the hint that maybe we should take these words a our New Year’s resolution, but also made it clear that we can only face the future if Christ is indeed our only righteousness. Very simply I invited those who do not have this sure knowledge in their hearts to trust Jesus Christ as Saviour. The next day I heard that a young man, who was there the previous evening with his godly parents, realised that he was lost without Christ. God made it clear to him that he needed to know Jesus. That New Year’s day he committed his life to Christ, and his life changed – he began to live. By God’s grace he is still standing strong.
What about you?
Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 2 March 2014