Back to Basics

Recorded January 6, 2008

Squirrels in the Attic, Water in the Basement

Romans 3: 21-24

21 But now apart from the law a righteousness from God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

Say that with me: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace whose redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

Romans 6: 23

23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Say that with me: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 10: 9

9 That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Let’s do that one together: “That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I read recently a story that Vince Lombardy when he became the coach of the Green Bay Packers. It was his first time as a head coach, and he pulled all the Green Bay Packers together. He was going to start a new day and a new era with them. So as he assembled these professional football players, these millionaires who had come to learn to play a game. He held up to them a football and he said, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” Then he began to build on that statement. He started at the basics and went on and built some championship teams. He built it by telling them the basics of the game, and by blocking and tackling.

I’ve been under great conviction in the last few months about the fact that we need to start back at the basics. So I took the sermons that I had intended to preach the first month of this year, put them aside and set out, after much prayer, four more sermons that I want to preach this month that deal with the basics. It’s easier for us in the pulpit to sometimes take flights of fancy and highfalutin theology. It’s easier for us to discuss the great Titan theologians than it is to stay at the basics.

I agree with a deacon in one of my churches who said to me at one time, “Bill, just put the cookies on the lower shelf so all of us can eat them.” That’s what I intend to do in the days that come. I’m going back to basics. I want the ABCs to be the formation of our faith. I want us to see what the foundation is and then we can build on that. I agree with Paul when he spoke to the church and he said, “I would not have you ignorant brethren.” A lady I knew, in one of my churches, who was not married, said to me one time, “That’s why I’m not married. ‘I would not have you ignorant brethren.’”

I want you to hear what I have to say. I don’t want to be obscure. I don’t want to impress the intelligence here. I want you to hear it clear and plain. The Bible tells us that it’s Jesus only — not Jesus and; it’s not Jesus and political point of view. It’s not Jesus and something else. It’s not Jesus and strange doctrines. It’s not Jesus and anything else. It is Jesus only. And if we can see that and understand that and cut through all of the static that flows through our community about what it means to be a Christian and understand that the Bible makes it clear that it’s Jesus and, and that’s what I want you to see today.

Most people think when we preach the gospel that we’re preaching cheap religion because the gospel somehow has become connected or an adjective for something that is cheap. If we sing gospel music you’ll automatically know you’re going to shuffle around a little bit and kind of invade your personal space of taste, etc. Some people know that when somebody preaches a gospel sermon it’s going to be loud, manipulative and uneducated. But the truth of the matter is, the gospel is plain and clear and people need to hear it.

Some people have said that our churches don’t know the gospel. I think that our churches don’t know the gospel for one basic reason. They rarely hear the gospel and I stand indicted under that also. In the name of relevancy, we have preached politics, mental health and anything else that’ll fill a pew. We’ve debated worship styles and we’ve focused on all the good deeds that we can do and the churches have become cued community centers, places where people can go without ever hearing of the Lord Jesus Christ.

People have a deep desire to be cared for and for churches to take care of them, but they have no understanding of what it means to give the gospel to the world. Do you know what keeps me up at night? I stay up at night grieving about the people who go through our system, children, young people, adults and senior adults. If I’ve left anybody out I want to put my arm around you, too. I grieve about the people who go through our system here and somehow as they come out on the other end they have not made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ. They have not understood the value and joy that the New Testament promises us in church membership, and they do not understand what it means to be committed.

I fear the day that I’ll have to stand before God and tell him why I was pastor of a church all these years and people came through this church and never came to know Jesus Christ as Savior. We’re not here to entertain. Although I hope there’s some enjoyment in it. We’re not here to dazzle the intellect, although I hope you didn’t have to check your brains at the door. We’re not here to compete. We’re here to proclaim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and we’re here, this day and every day, to help us worship the Lord God Himself. I want us to go back to the place where we can understand that. We live in a marketplace of ideas.

I was invited one time to participate in a missionary conference at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville back when they’d let me on the campus. That’s been a long time ago. And the theme was The Gospel and Modern Thought. They had John Claypool and Ken Chafin, who are now with the Lord, and they assigned them the topic of Modern Thought. Then they had me come and my topic was, The Gospel. Well, I said, now I’m going to an academic institution. I’m going to be speaking to young theologs. That’s scary. What am I going to tell them the gospel is?

So I sent a letter out. This was long before the days of email. I sent a letter out to as many professors, prominent preachers, and informed laymen as I could. I told them my assignment and I said, “Simply tell me what the gospel is in your understanding.” I got back the biggest mishmash of stuff you’ve ever seen. It was scary. It was across all denominational lines. It had some heavy Baptist influence in it, but the thing that scared me the most is that there was such a confusion about the gospel.

When I’d finished preaching at that conference they applauded the two men ahead of me that preached about modern thought. I preached about the gospel. They were polite. And when I finished, one student came to me and put his finger in his face and said, “Don’t you have anything to say to us except that Jesus saves stuff?” I want to tell you I don’t have anything to say except that Jesus saves stuff. There is not anything to say except that Jesus saves stuff. There is no gospel if you don’t have that Jesus saves stuff. And my intent today, and every Sunday I stand in this pulpit, is to get people to understand that and that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ. And I say this not because of any anger in my heart. I say it out of a compassion. I want people to understand that.

Will Willimon, Methodist Bishop of Alabama, and I were classmates at Emory (Candler School of Theology). Will tells a marvelous story. I wish it had happened to me. He tells about when he was pastor in South Carolina, before he became a bishop. There was a funeral there and it was one of the leading citizens of the city, and they had all the clergy come and say something. Then they had this one clergyman from out in the country. Will said, “I don’t know how he was invited, but he was invited.”

He hadn’t read anything since the Scopes Trial. He was unpolished. His grammar was horrible. He needed to go to the barbershop and to the tailor shop. He came last on the program and he preached hell fire and brimstone. He talked about the glories of heaven and the fires of hell and Will said, “All of us were terribly uncomfortable. This was the funeral of one of the leading citizens of the community.” He said, “When my wife and I got back to the car and we were driving away, we were both just scintillating about how out-of-taste that was. Then there was a long silence and we both looked at each other. We said, ‘Yes, it might have been out-of-taste, but he was right. He was dead right and he should have said it.’”

Now a few of us linger in that never, never land where we don’t decide anything. My intent is to draw you to believe, to get you out of that area where you linger, because there is nothing that tears your soul up, there is nothing that takes your life and puts it into a place where it’s not any good at all, than doubt. When you’re caught in that wretched place, doubt will empty all the energy out of your life. But belief is power. And if you want power in your life, then I want you to know that the only person who can give it to you is the person who died for you and loves you enough that he wants your life to be everything that God in heaven has intended it to be. And the people who have power in our world are the people who believe strongly, mightily, and the only people who have joy are the ones who believe courageously. And the only ones who ever do anything worthwhile are the strong believers.

Now I haven’t gotten out of my introduction yet. But I want to put this right up front. I’ll tell you why I believe the long involved story but it comes down to one thing. Forgive me if I brag a little bit, but my name is Self. I’ve spent ll years past high school in academic work and they were in good academic institutions. They were not diploma mills. I know all the arguments in and out and around, but none of those arguments have helped me. I believe because it is absurd not to believe. I believe because the gospel doesn’t make sense, and if you’re sitting back with some kind of scientific mind and you’re saying, “Well, if I could ever figure out how science and faith can be reconciled, then I’ll make a decision.” No! If you can figure it out it’s too small to do you any good. If you’re figuring out your brain, if you’re trying to have a faith that your brain can wrap itself around, what good is it?

We serve a big God who comes from another dimension into our lives. And we ultimately have to come to the place where we trust him and make a leap of faith into his arms. The world is caught between two cities. There is Jerusalem, a city of faith and there is Athens, Greece, not the Athens you’re thinking about. There’s Athens, Greece, the city of logic, science. These two worlds have always been apart. Remember, Paul preached in Athens and tried to meet them on their own terms and it didn’t work and he said, “I’m vowing from this time on only to preach Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Then his ministry flourished.

I’m telling you that if you’re trying to figure it out and make it logical, it’s not going to work. Ultimately you’re asked to make a leap of faith, to trust God enough to take a leap of faith. That’s the way we come to learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I think it’s kind of silly for the church to talk so much about faith, but no one in it wants to make a leap of faith.

I’ll tell you one story then I’ll get into an outline of the gospel. Billy Graham needs no introduction to any Christian group in the world, but you may need to know who Charles Templeton was. Charles Templeton was his companion preacher. They preached together in the old Youth for Christ world. They went all over the United States and I guess out of the country, too preaching together. In the early days when Billy Graham was coming along, Charles Templeton could out-preach him. He had a more academic mind. He was a better orator and people would hear both of them in some of their rallies and say that Templeton is the one who is going to change the world.

But as they went along, Templeton began to go another direction. Templeton began to try to question and doubt everything. He wanted to have an answer for every little thing. They each started taking crusades in other communities. Templeton would write Graham, “Billy, you have to change your understanding of faith. Billy, you have to bring your ideas of the Bible up to date. Billy, you have to become accommodated to modern theology and technology.”

Billy had trouble. He struggled with that. One day, before Billy started his Los Angeles Crusade that launched him beyond just being a traveling evangelist he was under the influence of a Sunday School dynamo named Harriet Meers. She was at the First Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. She talked to him about the Bible, how he ought to preach it. He went to a retreat center up above in the mountains above Los Angeles and walked in that retreat center for days praying that God would show him the way out of the jungle he was in.

And he says in his autobiography that one day he simply sat down on the ledge at the top of the mountain, opened the Bible and said, “God, I have to take this as your word and I will preach it as your word and I’m taking it on faith that it’s your word and that’s all that I can do.” Billy Graham came down from the mountain, went to the Los Angeles Crusade, and that was the one if you know anything about his life that launched him.

What happened to Templeton? Templeton left the ministry, became a newspaper editor, wrote a lot of books, and in his old age became caustic, became an agnostic, was angry about Billy Graham, and he died a divorced, angry old man because he tried another way. He wouldn’t make the leap of faith. He tried to take Jerusalem and Athens and put them together and it couldn’t be done. Graham said, “I’ll put my faith in faith in Jerusalem.”

Now, what is the gospel? That’s all sort of a warm up. These three texts I mentioned I’m going to hit them quickly. I may come back to them throughout the year. I want you to see them. They’re not the only texts that say this, but they’re the ones that say it the clearest. First, what is the gospel? The word gospel means good news.

Romans 3:23: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” Every one of us is a sinner. I’m sorry to say that. It sounds sometimes preachers preach it and they sound like they‘re happy to tell people that. I’m really not. I heard a man one time preach about hell and everybody was going to hell and he looked like he was enjoying it. I really don’t enjoy telling you that, but all of us, all human beings have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

I mentioned this earlier in a sermon about five or six years ago in my seminary class in theology we were discussing the very fact that every human who had ever lived had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and a young man at the back of the room raised his hand. The professor called on him. He said, “Sir, you don’t understand. I’m from Virginia and none of us from Virginia believe that Robert E. Lee ever sinned.” He was dead serious about that, too. He didn’t pass the course.

All of us have sinned. We can’t work enough. We can’t make enough money and we can’t do enough good deeds to do away with the sin and blight in our life. That’s what that passage said. And only God, out of his love determined that he was going to do something for us. We got right with God. We can get right with God only through Jesus Christ, not through anything we can do. The roads of this world are littered with people who’ve tried to do it on their own.

God loves us so much that he was not willing. God loves us so much that he was not willing for us to go to hell. So he gave us a chance in Jesus Christ that our sins could be forgiven and we could be right with him. We can be obedient to a law, but the law does not save. Only grace saves. God in his grace comes and says, “I’m doing this because I love you and I care for you and l’m making your life clean.” We become Christians not by our work or our wealth or our worth but only by the grace of God. Not by position, or status, or birth, but by the grace of God.

What is the second point of the gospel? “The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life.” The word “wages” here is the term used when the emperor would pay the soldiers. He would pay the soldiers exactly what they had earned and it was coming to them and there was no way the emperor could get out of paying his army. He had to do it. It was an obligation. That’s the word that Paul uses, but the word here that he uses means that if we sin God, in his infinite creation of the universe, cannot accept us with a sinful blight upon us. And that means that the avenue is death.

Now that is a spiritual death. All of us will die, but I’ve seen people who have tried to flaunt the rules that God has created for us and they’ve gone against the commandments of God, and they’ve thought somehow they were above them, and you can see death come into their eyes. I’ve seen young adults who have bashed themselves against the Seventh Commandment. l’ve seen others who have been so covetous that they would sell their family in order to get rich. And then I’ve seen death come into their lives that way.

All of a sudden you see wretched old people, their beauty gone, their strength gone because they’re living in the death that comes from breaking God’s law. But God has a gift. God has a gift for us because of his passion and love, and that gift is a new life in Jesus Christ. You don’t earn it. You just receive it. The word “gift” is the word “charisma” which means something given to you, not earned. God gives you life. Sin gives you death. I’ve seen sin bring death, spiritual death, to families, to churches and to people.

Now the third thing quickly, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus Christ, believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” It’s very simple. There are two things you have to do. You have to confess. Now there are a lot of people who say, “Well, I’m a secret believer. If I said I was a believer I’d lose my job. I’m a secret believer.” ‘‘I’m a believer in my heart, but I don’t want anybody to know it.” I’ve seen all of these arguments and heard them all. It’s very clear in the scripture. It’s a public, open confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Quickly, in the first century you could put a pinch of incense on the altar and say “Caesar is Lord,” and Caesar would be happy. That meant that you were a subject of Caesar’s. “Curios” is the word there. Same word is used here. The early Christians would not do that. The early Christians would not put a pinch of incense on the altar and say, “Caesar is Lord,” and go about their lives because Jesus was Lord. This says you must confess Jesus as your Lord regardless and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead that the confession is Lord and believe that he’s the Son of God, the resurrected Son of God and thou shalt be saved.

You don’t have to jump through any theological or ecclesiastical hoops except to confess and believe Jesus is Lord. He ranks above all others. Now, the Bible asks several rhetorical questions. Who was on the Lord’s side? But I want to ask you a question. It is a question that sort of goes to Will Willimon's story. It may be in bad taste, but I’m going to ask it because I feel compelled by God to ask it. If you were to die tonight, would you be with God or would you be in hell? If you were to die tonight where would your soul go?

I’m asking you now to take a leap of faith. Some of you will say, “Wait a minute. I’m confused. I don’t know whether I’m a Christian or not.” Well, that can be easily solved. You confess with your mouth, “Oh Lord Jesus Christ,” and believe in our hearts that God has raised Him from the dead thou shalt be saved. You say you don’t know whether or not you’ re a Christian, then confess and believe and that solves it.

I want you to take that leap of faith, not because it makes sense but because it is bigger than any of us can understand. But you know at a deeper level than just in the mind. You know at a very deeper level that the only way you can have peace with God is to surrender your life and heart to Jesus Christ. Now let us bow our heads and hearts for just a moment. Would you do it?

Every head bowed and every eye closed. I want to ask you a question. I promise you I will not manipulate you. I love you and care for you too much than to do that. But I promise you I will not. But I want you to pray in your heart right now. Ask Jesus Christ to come into your life if you’re not sure. This is your time — you and God. Just ask him to come into your life right now. I would not want you to leave here with these issues unsettled. I want you to deal with it right now. “Lord Jesus, come into my heart. Be my Savior.” And then, let me say to those of you who have already made this decision, but are floating around somehow, not connected to a church, you need to pray about that also.

(Taken from an audio recording with minor editorial revisions.)