How certain are you of what you believe? Where does your certainty lie?
Or to put it another way, what would you be willing to sacrifice for your faith? How deep does your certainty go?
Would you be willing to give up your safety for what you believe about Jesus?
What about your money? Would you be willing to give that up?
Would you give up your five year plan? Would you give up your health? Would you give up your family’s health?
Would you die for what you believe?
Those stories we just heard are a bit extreme. Most Christians living here in suburban America are not going to face persecution or violence or death for our belief in Jesus.
But it’s a challenging thing to think about, isn’t it? How deep do my beliefs really go?
Today you’re going to have a chance to think about this a bit, because we’re talking about the topic of certainty - faith. Something the people in these stories had loads of.
Before we go on, though, I want to take a moment and revisit where we’ve been over the last month and a half and give you a little bit of context.
A ways back, dad introduced us the concept of the “Evangelism Gap.”
Evangelism Gap lower third
Essentially, there are two big chasms separating the lost from God. One of them (the one on the right) is the chasm of sin - the “sin gap.”
Only surrendering your life to Jesus gets you across that one. If someone who is lost is there, it’d be easy to take them the rest of the way. All we’d need to do is share the good news of Jesus and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
But for many people in our world, there is a second gap standing in their way. This one (on the left) is the “Credibility Gap” or the “Ignorance Gap” or the “Engagement Gap.” Those who are lost on this side of the divide don’t trust Christians, or have never read the Bible, or don’t have any Christ-followers in their lives at all.
If we want to spread the gospel - the good news of Jesus - into our world… if we want to see God’s kingdom grow and expand, we must address the Evangelism Gap.
And so that’s what we’ve been focusing on.
The goal of this series (“Saved”) has been to make things crystal clear about what we mean by the word “saved.” What the point of evangelism even is. What does it mean to be saved?
To do that, we’ve been looking at the book of 1 John.
In the first week of this series, dad shared about the end game of our evangelism - the ultimate hope we call people to. And it’s this: those who are saved share a common life with God.
We can be in fellowship with the Creator of the universe. And in the process, we can have an unparalleled, supernatural life. Right now!
But we can’t do that under our own power. That’s what week two was all about. No matter how good we think we are, our sin has created an uncrossable gap between us and God.
But because God loves us, he took the matter into his own hands. He sent his son to die in our place. So now, if we surrender our lives to Jesus, we have access to the very best possible life.
Week 3 & 4
In weeks three and four, we began to dig into some of the characteristics that make up the life of a believer, the most obvious, outward one being self-sacrificial, compassionate love for others (one of the Apostle John’s favorite topics). If you’re saved, you love.
Along with that came some simple truths. The saved are forgiven. We have overcome the evil one. We are strong. And the Word of God lives in us.
And last week, Tim talked about what it means for us to be adopted by God. The saved are His sons and daughters.
So with all of that in mind, let’s go back to the beginning. Today we are going to circle back to the very core of this salvation experience - to the spark that ignites the whole story.
It’s the foundational difference between those who are lost and those who are saved: certainty in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
How you respond to this idea will have ramifications that echo through every fiber of your life and even the future of the human race. And I’m NOT being melodramatic.
Today I am asking you the most important question of your life. What do you believe about Jesus?
Where does your certainty lie?
1 John 4
Alright, we’ve been going through the book of 1 John throughout this series, and we’re going to go back there one more time. So grab your Bibles and turn to 1 John chapter 4. [House Bibles]
1 John 4:1
Now, I realize some of you may not be super familiar with the Bible, and all this talk of books and chapters and verses and stuff can be a little confusing. And that’s ok.
All you need to know is that, when you turn to a specific book in the Bible, it’s divided up into chapters. Those are the big numbers. The little numbers are the verses, and each chapter starts with verse one.
So the book (a.k.a. The letter) of 1 John is divided up into five chapters, and we’re looking at chapter 4, verse 1. Ok, here’s what John says to his readers:
Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Let’s stop there for just a second.
In the time John was writing this letter, there was a big problem in the Church. False teaching about Jesus was starting to spread and take root. The certainty people had in what they believed had begun to shift and crumble.
There were these sort of celebrity philosopher-teachers traveling around, visiting different cities, and sharing these fascinating, but WRONG, ideas about Jesus. These are the guys John is calling “false prophets.”
Remember, the people making up the early Church were largely illiterate. And even if they could read, there was no New Testament yet. There were just a handful of these letters written by the people who had walked with Jesus.
So when these “false prophets” rode into town and started waxing poetic with their new-fangled ideas, ordinary church-goers didn’t have a whole lot to compare their teachings against.
So John gives his readers a simple test: to see if the teachers they’re listening to are full of the Holy Spirit, or some other spirit. Look at verse 2.
This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: 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.
Ok, what is John talking about here? Were these false teachers arguing that Jesus never existed?
No. Their teaching was more about the nature of this messiah. Let me explain.
A lot of their “false teaching” had to do with this idea of Christ’s divinity. These teachers, who were all subscribed to Greek Philosophy Monthly, by the way, had a two-part view of the world.
There was the beautiful, perfect spiritual world and there was the ugly, imperfect physical world, and never the twain shall meet.
They were uncomfortable with the idea of a perfect God being harmed and dying on a cross because of humanity. That just didn’t fit with their worldview. So they came up with new ideas that made things a little more tidy.
One of these teachers, for example, was a guy named Cerinthus (a few ancient sources say that he and John were not exactly BFFs). His whole idea was that Jesus, the man, got sort of taken over by Christ, the God, during his life, but then Christ left right before the crucifixion, and it was Jesus, the man, who died.
Those are the kinds of things being taught.
But John wasn’t having any of it. He had walked and talked and lived with Jesus, and he knew that this wasn’t some case of divine possession. This Jesus was “Emmanuel,” - God with us - he was fully man, and fully God.
When John says, “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh,” he’s talking about more than just whether or not Jesus existed. He’s talking about the scandalous, mind-bending idea that the God of the universe had become one of us.
This idea flew in the face of the popular philosophies of the day. It didn’t fit with the standard worldview of ancient near eastern people. This idea was wildly countercultural. But John knew it was crucial that followers of Jesus believe it.
Why? Why was this such an important idea? Why was certainty in the humanity and divinity of Jesus so vital?
Because the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the son of God, is the foundation of Christian faith. It is the starting point. Certainty in the truth of the gospel is the core from which all other matters of life and faith and practice grow.
In verse 10, John says,
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
In other words, our faith doesn’t begin with us. It begins with the person of Jesus.
Every aspect of a Christ-follower’s life begins here. Even love - an idea so crucial to John’s faith that he uses the word 45 times in this letter alone - love springs out of certainty that the Son of God lived, died, and rose again.
Anything else - any fine sounding philosophy or intricate theological argument - anything that does not start with the truth of Jesus Christ - is not true Christianity.
If Jesus on that cross had not been divine, his sacrifice would have been pointless.
If Christ, the messiah, had not been a human, he could have never atoned for our sins.
And if Jesus the Christ had not burst out of that grave with resurrection power, the in-breaking kingdom of God would still be nothing more than wishful thinking.
There are plenty of things that can be debated, discussed, and compromised on, but certainty in the person of Jesus is crucial. It is the core difference between those who are lost and those who are saved.
And in the world of 1st Century Christianity, where persecution was real and severe, getting the foundation of faith right was that much more important.
BIG IDEA: The saved are certain of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Now, it’s interesting to look back at the early Church fathers like John and to see what kinds of issues they had to deal with. The influence of Greek philosophy on the Church was a significant obstacle to overcome.
But when we think about the modern Church, though, we tend to think we’ve moved beyond that. Secular philosophy doesn’t influence our thinking anymore. Well…
The Enlightenment in Europe (17th & 18th Centuries) was an important time in world history. We began to deeply value logic and reason and science. And out of that we got things like penicillin and industrialization and Newtonian physics and Snuggies. So it was great.
But with the Enlightenment and rationalism came a whole lot of skepticism about faith and religion. Suddenly, Christians who believed in God and miracles and the power of prayer were looked at as backwards and ignorant.
As a result, two big things happened in the Church.
First, many modern Christian churches became hyper-suspicious of anything scientific, and in some ways even anti-scientific. That’s a story for another time.
But the other thing that happened is that theologians began adopting some of the same values and techniques that the Enlightenment had given scientists and philosophers.
These theologians started using reason and logic and deduction to try and prove that what the Bible said was true. That way, so they thought, they wouldn’t be viewed as old fashioned anymore.
But in the process of systematizing and validating and reasoning out our faith our certainty shifted from the person of Jesus, to a list of theological ideas. It became an intricate, logical house of cards.
In his book, Simply Good News, NT Wright explains why this is a problem.
For many people, believing in God or believing in heaven and hell or believing in Jesus can be reduced to believing in propositions such as “There is a God” or “Jesus died for my sins” or “Jesus truly rose from the dead.” The whole focus then shifts - ironically, of course - away from the events to which those propositions refer to the propositions themselves.
NT Wright, Simply Good News
The way it was often framed for me at Bible college was something like, “Humans have sinned and God is angry with us and the only way for us to go to heaven when we die is to pray a prayer of salvation and ask Jesus into our hearts and we know this is true because we read about Jesus in the Bible and we know the Bible is true because Paul says all scripture is “God breathed” and Peter refers to Paul’s writings as scripture.”
Being a Christian meant having faith in this whole latticework of ideas and getting rabidly defensive when any part of it was threatened. In some ways it had almost nothing to do with an actual person who walked the earth 2000 years ago.
Look. It is great that we have used our intellects and reason to develop profound theological ideas about God. Searching for truth is a fundamental aspect of being human.
But I believe in all of our logic and rationalism, we run the risk of losing sight of the why behind our faith. Of creating just another religious system for people to buy into.
Of turning the good news into little more than good advice.
And a quick side note: By trying to argue people into the kingdom, especially in this post-modern world, we are making the Credibility Gap wider and wider every day.
If we want to reach the lost in this world, we need to stop bickering and debating about theological minutia and get certain about the core of our faith - the person of Jesus. Just like John’s readers, we need to get certain about the gospel.
So here’s an appropriate question: what is the gospel? I mean, we hear that word thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean?
Well, literally, it just means “good news” - the kind of good news a messenger might bring to a city after their king had won a battle. And I think that’s pretty appropriate for the kind of good news we believe.
Let me explain.
Well, we all know the world is broken, right?
Pain, isolation, hatred, injustice, decay… Every one of us has a unique vantage point on the brokenness of the world.
Maybe your family has been torn apart by an abusive father.
Maybe you’ve struggled with deep social isolation and depression.
Maybe you’ve watched a close friend or family member wasting away at the mercy of a terrible disease.
Maybe someone else’s greed or corruption has led to your financial hardship.
Maybe you are locked in the grip of a terrible addiction.
Or maybe you just turn on the news from time to time and see an endless parade of violence, refugees, racism, murder, human trafficking, and the rot and decay of our physical world.
Everyone in this room has been the victim of other people’s sin at one point or another. And we’ve all seen the rippling consequences of our own brokenness played out in the lives of others, right?
The world is broken. We’ve seen it. We’ve felt it. We’ve caused it.
But there’s one other broken place in this world that feeds all the rest of them. It is the source of all misery and pain and loneliness in the world. It’s the broken place of Separation from God.
Humanity has fallen out of communion with our Creator. We are no longer plugged in to the one who breathed life into our species. Our collective lust and greed and pride has severed the connection we once had with God and it has shattered the perfect world he intended.
Every broken relationship and system and reality in this world stems from our separation from God and there is nothing we can do to fix it.
God was not content to leave his beautiful creation languishing under the thumb of sinful man. He was not willing to let his children wander forever. God’s love for humanity was so furious that he broke all the rules to make it right.
In an act so profound we may never fully grasp it in this life, the Creator of the cosmos stepped IN to his own creation and became one of us. Jesus Christ - fully God and fully man - the long awaited response to the groanings of sinful humanity.
Jesus did something we could never do. He lived a sinless life - a perfect representation of God’s intentions for humanity. The only person to ever live who didn’t separate himself from God through sin.
And then he did the unthinkable. Jesus took our guilt and our shame upon himself. He became the living embodiment of sin’s consequences and felt the full weight of God’s wrath as he was executed on a Roman cross.
In that moment, as Jesus breathed his last, the sins of man were atoned for. The price had been paid.
For three days, the son of God lay dead in a tomb. And then, in a flash of divine mercy, he was resurrected to a new life. This moment is the hinge all of history turns on. By defeating the power of death once and for all, Jesus Christ was inaugurated as the king of all creation.
The chasm between God and humanity was no longer uncrossable. Now Jesus was the bridge.
Since that day, the kingdom of God, like a holy wind, has been spreading across this world, healing the broken places. The poor receive care. Orphans find homes. The sick are healed. The hopeless find hope. And even the physical creation itself is being nurtured back to health.
The sons and daughters of God, certain of their savior and no longer afraid of death, are following their king into the rebuilding of a new heaven and a new earth - life the way it was intended to be.
We can be a part
THAT is the good news of the gospel. It isn’t good advice. It’s not a list of suggestions or religious rituals to follow. It’s not a series of esoteric theological statements to be agreed to.
It is news - about an event that changed the course of human history.
NT Wright says it well:
The good news was, and is, that all this has happened in and through Jesus; that one day it will happen, completely and utterly, to all creation; and that we humans, every single one of us, whoever we are, can be caught up in that transformation here and now. This is the Christian gospel.
-NT Wright, Simply Good News
So let me ask you… Are you caught up in that transformation? Are you saved? Where does your certainty lie?
When I was a kid, I remember being absolutely terrified. Every night as I lay in bed, I thought back through my day and tried desperately to remember all the ways I had sinned that day, so I could confess them all to God. I was freaked out that my salvation wouldn’t count somehow if I was too sinful. I didn’t have any certainty.
Inevitably, I’d end up just praying that God would forgive all of my sins from the day, but I never felt super confident that my prayers had worked. This was the “good news” I believed: sin too much and you may not be good enough for heaven. Hooray!
As I got older, I learned that I couldn’t undo the salvation of Jesus. I started to understand what “grace” meant. But my faith was still very shallow and insecure.
Sure, I called myself a Christian and I managed to steer clear of gang violence and war crimes, but most of the decisions I made were based on the fear that I wouldn’t live up to the public image I had painted for myself. My certainty was skin deep.
When I got into college, my fear shifted into something new. I became afraid that my theology wasn’t accurate enough. I spent enormous amounts of time thinking and reading and debating about Calvinism and dispensationalism and pre-millennialism, adding layer after layer to my theological house of cards.
But then everything came crashing down.
Through a series of eye-opening events, I began to see myself for the person I had become, and I realized that I looked almost nothing like the Jesus I claimed to follow. Everything started unraveling pretty quickly at that point, and I sank into the darkest season of my life.
Thankfully, God wasn’t done with me yet. Somehow I managed to get accepted for a year-long internship with Nairobi Chapel in Kenya. And it was that year (2005) that I began really understanding what the gospel was all about.
I realized that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus wasn’t some philosophy. It was news - about an event that had changed the world. This actually happened, and it continues to bear fruit today.
My eyes had been opened and I began to see the healing work of God’s kingdom all around me. It was like a veil had been lifted. I saw love and hope and life springing up all around me, and I eagerly jumped in to be a part of it.
My own life started to be transformed by this newfound certainty in Jesus. I began to love other people the way John talks about in his letter. I began to break free from my addictions to sin. Not because it was the right thing to do but because Jesus wasn’t just a story anymore. He was living and active and within me.
My certainty - my faith - was no longer in a religion. It was no longer in a philosophy or theological proposition. My certainty was in a person. Jesus Christ - the Son of God and the savior of my life.
Today I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that I would die for this.
That’s where my certainty lies. Where does yours?
Are you just going through the religious motions? Or have you surrendered your life to Jesus?
Are you still running on the hamster wheel of self-sufficiency? Or have you given up control to the king?
Is your life feeding in to the brokenness of this world, or is God using you to heal it?
Today might be the day that you drop the facade, let go of your fear, and put your trust in the one who loves you enough to bear the guilt and shame of your sin so you don’t have to.
Friends, don’t wait for everything to make perfect sense before you take this leap of faith. The evidence will come. Understanding will grow. Your journey of salvation begins with just one thing: certainty in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Do you believe it? And are you ready for your life to change?