This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Philippians 3:1-11
Sermon prepared by Rev. Trevor Payton, Hagersville, Ontario.
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
We Christians wear masks a lot--especially at church. We’re afraid of what would happen if the masks came off, if the dark corners of our closets were spilled out onto the floor. We prefer to wear the mask and be known as a good Christian.
But when pastors have gained the trust of their people, and when those people build up the courage, and when the conversation reaches that point, it comes out. People say, often with shame or resignation in their voice, “I don’t pray as often as I should”…“I haven’t been doing my devotions regularly”…“I guess I’m just not a very good Christian.”
It often seems like the Christian life is one of constant pressure to “be a good Christian.” We often feel low, down, discouraged, and deflated when our Christian living hits a bump, don’t we? Well, I’ve got good news for you: You’re worse than you think! I know, that probably doesn’t sound like good news, but bear with me for a moment.
Today I will be intensely attacking an insidious old heresy which has infiltrated the church, and which has been accepted by many Christians today. This heresy is called Semi-Pelagianism, and it is alive and well in the church today. And that is one of the main reasons why Christians struggle so much with their faith.
Pelagius lived in the fourth century, at the same time as Augustine. Pelagius said that, yes, sin has infected the world, but it didn’t actually affect people, because, according to him, our human nature cannot be changed by sin. We do bad things, but we are not bad ourselves. In fact, we have the power to do good and turn to God all by ourselves.
That is Pelagianism in a nutshell. It sounds good. In fact, many people today claim it to be true. They say, “Yes, I think I’ll go to heaven when I die. I’ve never killed anyone or stolen anything. I’m a good person.” However, Augustine came along and proved Pelagius wrong, and Pelagianism was rejected as heresy.
And so some of Pelagius’ followers adjusted the teaching, which became known as semi-pelagianism. They said, “Okay, Pelagius was wrong. Yes, sin has infected us, but not every part of us. 99% of us has been damaged by sin, but there remains in us one little spark—1%—that is still good: the human will.”
But do you know what Augustine said? He said that the human will is no more able to seek God than an empty glass is able to fill itself with water. If we are ever to come to God, it must be entirely by God’s grace. Salvation—from the first moment of faith and all the way through the lifelong process of being renewed in the image of Christ, to the last breath we breathe—is entirely God’s work. We get to participate—and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to cooperate—with God in this process of sanctification, but it is God’s work. And so semi-pelagianism is also a heresy.
Interestingly, the Reformation teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone was in many ways a re-hashing of the battle against semi-pelagian heresy. Even though it sounds so nice at first, the deadly problem with semi-pelagianism is that it leads us into works-righteousness. The Heidelberg Catechism does an excellent job of describing the biblical teaching on matters of salvation: I have guilt because I am a sinner, but in Christ God has given me grace, and now in response I live a life of gratitude. Guilt-grace-gratitude…the order is very important! Salvation is God’s work.
But semi-pelagianism inverts that teaching into something destructive: I have guilt because I am a sinner, and so I must live a life of gratitude, and if I do that, then God will grant me grace. Guilt-gratitude-grace… And so salvation becomes my work. This kills faith. There are people who have loved God and lived faithfully to him throughout their entire lives, and yet who, on their deathbed, are still not sure of their salvation. When we turn the order of salvation into guilt-gratitude-grace, we destroy the very foundation of our life in Christ!
The Christian life is a life of joy and gratitude to our awesome heavenly Father who has loved us beyond our wildest imagining. But we so easily twist the Christian life into a life of defeat, heaviness, and shame. And 1% is all it takes to do that. Salvation is not 99% God’s work and 1% our work….No, it is entirely, 100%, God’s work. In fact, the evangelical theologian, R.C. Sproul, says that “The modern church is held captive by [semi-Pelagianism].” And it’s killing us.
The truth of the matter is that sin has infected who we are as humans, and has infected every part of who we are. No single part of us is unaffected by sin. Zero percent. Consider Romans 7:18, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” That sounds like zero percent to me. Or Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Whocan understand it?” Zero percent again. Think about this: Jesus himself said in John 6:44, “No one can cometo me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” As humans who have fallen into sin, we are no more able to seek God or grow in faith than an empty glass is able to fill itself with water. That is the truth.
As I said earlier, you’re worse than you think. And that’s good news.
I have more good news for you: Not only are you worse than you think, but also, you are more loved than you can possibly imagine!
Paul was a good religious person. Look at verses 4-6 of our text, “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more…” Yes, this is what human religiosity leads to: boasting. Paul continues, “…circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee.” In other words, “I was one of those people who you’d look up to in a church, put on a pedestal, and of whom you’d say, ‘We should all be more like him.’ I was that man,” says Paul. He continues, “… as for zeal, persecuting the church…”Nobody can say I was lukewarm in my response to God. “... as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” The legalistic requirements among the Jews at that time were extreme! 0Sometimes we think we have too many rules and regulations in the CRC. The Jews were far more extreme, and Paul was faultless in them.” (Phil 3:4-6) Paul was a good religious person. If anyone would have entered the Kingdom of God via works-righteousness, Paul was the one. Many centuries later, Martin Luther said the same of himself.
But look at verse 7: “But whatever was to my profit [more accurately, “to my gain”] I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” Paul is saying, “All those good religious deeds and actions, which I used to put my faith in…I now realize they are worth nothing. No, they do not help me…they can only hinder me when I base my confidence in them.” Rather, Paul now realizes that Jesus Christ is the only hope he has for salvation and life.
Philip Yancey once wrote that if, when you preach the gospel of grace, it doesn’t sound too good to be true, then you’re probably not preaching it right. The thing that is so hard for many Christians to believe is that we really are saved by grace alone. Or maybe not just that we’re saved by grace alone, but that we’re also transformed and sanctified by grace alone. We think that, now that we’ve been saved, it’s now our job to mature and grow in holiness. We wrongly think that our sanctification is up to us.
Let me be crystal clear here: Pelagius and his followers are wrong. There is nothing in our journey of sanctification that we have ever accomplished. If we are more holy today than we were 2 years ago or 20 years ago, it’s not because we have done it! We need to recognize and drop the pride which would make us think so. If we are more holy today than yesterday, it’s because God has done it! The reason that our children love Jesus is not because they have found a way to love him; it’s because God has planted faith in their hearts by his Holy Spirit, and has caused it to bear fruit.
But doesn’t God call us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling?” (Phil 2:12) Yes. But finish the sentence: “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:13). Whose work is it? It’s God’s.
But doesn’t God call us in the letter of Jude to “Keep [ourselves] in the love of God?” (Jude 21) Yes. But don’t forget the introduction to the letter of Jude, where the author addresses the letter “To those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ.” (Jude 1) What we see God doing in us, we do in response--but it is God’s work the whole way through. Sanctification is God’s work, and we cooperate with him in it. We participate with God in his work of renewing the whole creation, and also in his work of renewing our lives. We certainly are partners with God in his plan of redemption. But it is God’s plan, and God is the one who will accomplish it. If God did 99% of the work of bringing his kingdom and left the last 1% up to us, then the kingdom of God would never come.
Sanctification is God’s work, and we get to participate with him in it. If semi-pelagianism was correct, and if sanctification were up to us, then we would be hopeless. But semi-pelagianism is wrong. Sanctification—just like any other part of our salvation—is up to God, and therefore we can be confident.
So many of us become discouraged when we encounter a bump in our life of faith. It wears us out, and depresses us. But God’s love doesn’t stop. Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Maybe we wouldn’t be so legalistic if we truly believed the gospel of grace, which says that we are saved by grace alone, which says that we are loved more than we can possibly imagine by Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us.
Some of us raise objections right away. One time, when a pastor was describing this gospel to a sister in Christ, her eyes brimmed with tears and she said, “But won’t that make people not care? Won’t it make them not try anymore? Won’t it make them lazy?” And that is exactly the same question that the Heidelberg Catechism answers. Question and answer 64 asks, “But doesn’t this teaching make people indifferent and wicked?” And it answers, “No. It is impossible for those grafted into Christ by true faith not to produce fruits of gratitude.” Some people are afraid of the gospel of grace because they think it will lead them to fall into spiritual sloth. But no, people give in to sloth because they’re tired of failing, and so they just give up.
So now let’s look at the impact of the gospel of grace. Immediately following the verses we’ve just looked at, in verse 8, Paul declares, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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—righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Do those words sound like sloth to you…?
“I want to know Christ”—this declaration is the heart-cry of every person who has met Jesus Christ and who has been overwhelmed by his love. For those who know they are loved and saved by Christ and being transformed by Christ, petty human legalism and petty human achievement give way to a much deeper, much more all-consuming and passionate pursuit. Paul wants to know Christ, and that does not happen through human effort and discipline and willpower…it happens only through God’s grace.
There is so much joy to be found in Christ, but we squelch it when we cling to that 1% of self-righteousness that our deceitful heart wants to maintain. Pelagius was dead-wrong! Rather than making us more tolerant of sin, grace has the opposite effect: it makes us more eager for God. We want to see him glorified and we want to tell others about him because we see what he’s done in us. When we really believe that God loves us and has fully saved us in Christ, then repentance and surrender is no longer a chore. It’s a blessing! Viewed with eyes that have seen God’s grace, obedience to God is no longer a chore that restricts our freedom. But instead, obedience becomes the path to freedom and the only life worth living!
Let us end with two specific applications here:
First, preach the gospel to yourself. When you find that you’ve fallen into sin…again…remind yourself that you’re worse than you think. Say to yourself, “You think this sin is bad? Ha! You don’t even have a clue how sinful you are. Are you really surprised that you’ve fallen into sin again?” Don’t fool yourself with pride; you’re worse than you think…but don’t stop there. You’re more loved than you can possibly imagine. Again, say to yourself, “Even though you’re so sinful, God still loves you. Jesus Christ still died on the cross for you. ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Rom 5:8). He has taken away your sins, and forgiven you, at great cost to himself.”
Preach the gospel to yourself. This takes the pressure off because you are reminded that it does not depend on you. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Take God—and his Word—very seriously. God says he’ll take care of it, and he’s big enough to follow through on his Word. The Word of God says you are saved by grace, and not by your efforts to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.
Second, in the blood-bought freedom of the cross of Christ, repent from sin. Not in a spirit of heaviness and shame, which actually is more characterized by resignation than sorrow. Sin gains dominance in our lives when we don’t repent of it. James 1:15 warns us that, “After [evil] desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” Don’t give sin a chance to wreck more of your life; bring it to the cross and leave it there. Galatians 5:1 declares, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Don’t let yourself be burdened, either from accepting a false gospel of 99% grace, or from believing the lie that sin won’t make a difference.
Do you see sin gaining a foothold? Good! Thank God that you recognize it. Now turn away from it. Don’t beat yourself up because you’ve fallen again. Given that you’re so sinful, is it really all that surprising that you’ve fallen into sin again? But God has provided you a way out: the gift of repentance in Jesus’ name. You have been given the freedom to repent and in God’s strength to start again on the road of redemption. God doesn’t lose patience with us the way that we do with ourselves.
Allow God’s grace to relieve the pressure you put on yourself. Eventually what you’ll find is that God’s grace and patience with you begins to transform the way you look at yourself, and at others, and at life in general. Then these words from Paul really begin to make sense: “If anyone is in Christ, the old is gone, and the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17) If we think God is constantly angry at us, then that makes it sort of hard to love him, doesn’t it? But if we know from the gospel that the love of our heavenly Father never fails and that he is patient towards us, then it’s easy to love him. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1)
Brothers and sisters, many of us are ashamed that we’re “not good Christians.” As I hope you can see now, there is no such thing as a good Christian…but there is such a thing as a good God. This God has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross to save us, along with the whole creation. All who believe in Jesus have salvation and new life. This salvation, this life in Christ, it does not depend upon you! It is God’s work, and he is big enough to do it—100% of it—all by himself. Let’s open up our hearts and allow him to do it, and let’s rejoice that he is doing it.
Suggested Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Welcome and Announcements
Call to Worship: Isaiah 55:1-2
Opening Song: “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH #625
God’s Greeting: “May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.”
Songs of Praise: “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know” PsH #571,
“My Jesus, I Love Thee” PsH #557
WE CONFESS OUR SIN
Call to Confession: Ephesians 2:1-3
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Ephesians 2:4-10
Song of Response: “Not What My Hands Have Done” PsH #260
GOD SPEAKS TO US
Prayer for Illumination
Scripture Reading: Philippians 3:1-11
Sermon: “Not a Good Christian”
WE RESPOND IN FAITH
Prayer of Application: “Our Father in heaven, you are so powerfully beyond us. We confess that we are more sinful than we understand. We humbly and gratefully receive your Word, that in Christ you love us more than we can possibly imagine. We praise you for sending Jesus Christ to be our Savior and our Lord. We thank you for living and working in us by your Holy Spirit. Please carry through to completion the good work that you’ve begun in us, for the sake and glory of your holy name. Amen.”
*Hymn of Response: “Knowing You” (by Graham Kendrick) (alternative: “When Peace Like a River” PsH #489)
GOD SENDS US INTO THE WORLD
*Closing Song: “In Christ Alone” (by Stuart Townend)(alternative: “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” PsH #568)
*Benediction: “May the Lord bless us and keep us; may the Lord make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us; may the Lord turn his face toward us and give us peace. Amen.”
*Doxology: “To God Be the Glory” PsH #632