Sermon 05-03-15: “Warts and All, Part 4: Tested by Fire”

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

The foundation of the church, Paul says, is Jesus Christ and him crucified. Unfortunately, in one way or another, we often forget about the cross and fall back into “works righteousness”—the idea that we can be good enough to earn salvation. Are you living your life on the foundation of the cross? Watch or read this sermon and find out.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 3:10-23

[Want to listen on the go? Right-click here to download an MP3 file.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Back in 1999, an almanac was published, which ranked cities in the U.S. and Canada from best to worst. They used criteria such as crime, job outlook, climate, and culture. According to this book, the city of Kankakee, Illinois, won the distinction of being America’s worst city—a distinction which might have been quickly forgotten, if not for late-night television personality David Letterman, who featured a Top Ten list related to Kankakee: “Top Ten slogans for Kankakee, Illinois.”

Number ten: “You’ll come for our payphone, you’ll stay because your car has been stolen. Number nine, ask about are staggering unemployment rate. Number eight, we put the ill in Illinois. Number seven, we also put the annoy in Illinois.” Number one: “Abe Lincoln slept here… by accident.”

You get the idea… But the jokes at the town’s expense didn’t end there. For weeks, Kankakee became a running joke on the show. Not long afterward, Letterman called the mayor of Kankakee during the show; he interviewed him; and then, with cameras rolling, Letterman’s people unveiled a new gazebo in the town square, which the Letterman show was donating to the city—hoping, he said, that it might spruce up the town and make it a more livable city. And not long after that, he gave them another gazebo.


So for the past 15 years, Kankakee has had two gazebos in the town square, which were given to them by Letterman, as a joke… Until a few months ago Some students in a high school civics class learned the history of these gazebos, and how they were used to make a joke at their city’s expense. And these students love their city. Sure, like a lot of U.S. cities, they lost some manufacturing jobs back in the ’80s and ’90s, but they’re doing O.K. now. So these students organized a publicity campaign to tear down the gazebos. They even had a carpenter take the wood from a gazebo and build a rocking chair for Letterman as a gift, for him to enjoy during his retirement, which of course will be happening soon.


These were perfectly good gazebos; they were attractive; they cost tens of thousands of dollars; they weren’t cheap. But the citizens of Kankakee were saying, in so many words, that these gazebos don’t represent who Kankakee really is; that they communicate the wrong message about what the city is; that they don’t match—they’re not consistent with—Kankakee’s identity today.

Paul is making a similar point about the church at Corinth. Remember that up to this point, Paul has been talking about the surprising good news of the cross, which is foolishness according to the wisdom of the world. He compares the church to a building. He says that because the church’s one and only foundation is Jesus Christ and the cross, you can’t just put anything on top of that foundation—you can’t put on that foundation the spiritual equivalent of David Letterman’s gazebos—if these things are not consistent with, or not in keeping with, the message of Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul writes: “Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.”

Sobering words.

I was at one of our local hospitals recently, and I noticed that there was the “Truett Cathy Wing” of the hospital—because obviously the Cathy family on this side of town has done a lot of philanthropy—and that’s awesome. Now think about the different kinds of “wings” that we Christians often want to add on to the building of the church. One very popular wing these days is the “Inclusiveness Wing.” This says that it doesn’t really matter what you do or how you live your life, Jesus will love and accept you just the way you are—without asking you to make any hard choices; without asking you to repent or change; without making any demands except that you be tolerant and inclusive of others.

Yet I can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ own exclusive and intolerant words in Matthew 7: “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.”[1] The problem with inclusiveness is that it fails to appreciate the seriousness of sin. That one condition for accepting the good news of Jesus is repentance, which means a changed life.

Another popular wing we try to add to the church building is the “Universalist Wing.” This says that it doesn’t really matter what you believe—or whether you believe at all, really—God wouldn’t judge anyone or send anyone to hell. Yet Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

A third popular wing that we try to add to the church building is the “Good Works” wing. This says, in so many words, that you have to earn your salvation. It says that you’ll go to heaven so long as you’re good enough. And maybe all three wings have this in common: that it’s possible to be “good enough” for God—without the cross of Jesus Christ.

But not so fast… The message of the cross is that none of us is good enough for a holy God! “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags,” the Bible says.[2] The message of the cross is that our sin has separated us from God, who hates sin—a God who has justifiable anger or wrath toward sin, a God who hates the harm that our sin and evil have caused, a God who is committed to justice and will see to it that sin is judged and punished and the world is finally made right.

Friends, are you living in the Good Works Wing of the building? Or the Inclusiveness Wing. Or the Universalist Wing? On Judgment Day, God is going to set fire to these structures and burn them to the ground—because they have no place on the foundation of Jesus Christ and his cross.

Speaking of architecture, in 1689, the city of Windsor, England, was in an uproar. The city fathers had commissioned famed architect Sir Christopher Wren, the designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to design a new town hall. On the bottom floor of the town hall was a large open space called a “corn market,” in which farmers and merchants could display their products. The floor above the corn market would include meeting rooms where the city fathers could gather to conduct city business.

So Wren completed the building to everyone’s satisfaction—with one glaring exception: Wren had used a new technique for supporting the floor above the corn market that required no pillars for support—except on the sides of the large room. To the city fathers and others, it seemed obvious that the ceiling of the corn market would come crashing down under the weight of people gathered above it in the meeting rooms. The city fathers insisted, therefore, that Wren add four pillars in the middle of the corn market to support the floor of their meeting rooms above.

And Wren hated the idea. Adding these pillars was not only unnecessary: it would detract from the beauty of the open space. But he finally relented and added the pillars. Years after Wren died, the ceiling of the corn market needed painting. While it was being painted, the town made a shocking discovery: Wren had left a tiny space between the tops of the pillars and the ceiling—unnoticeable except under close inspection. All this time, these pillars, which were believed to be holding up the floor above, were actually doing nothing at all except providing a false sense of security—and enabling the great architect to say, “I told you so.”

Our good works—the idea that we can be good enough for God—is like those pillars. They can lull us into a false sense of security. If we imagine that this is the basis on which we’re made right in God’s eyes—that this is the basis on which we’ll be saved; that this is the basis on which we’ll have heaven and eternal life—well, we’re tragically mistaken. Our good works can’t save us.

But… let’s please don’t miss the good news here, because it’s the greatest good news of all: If the church is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and his cross, as Paul says in today’s scripture, then the good news is this: our good works can’t save us!

What a relief! Because even if we thought they could, how would we know for sure? And we’d feel guilty and anxious as we looked toward death and Judgment Day. I bet there are some of you who do feel guilty and anxious because you’re counting on your good works—but in the back of your mind you know you’re not good enough.

No, the good news is that we don’t have to do anything—we can’t do anything—in order to earn this gift of salvation that comes through Christ alone! It’s a completely free gift, bought and paid for by Christ alone! He’s done everything for us through the cross!

Do you think, “I’m not good enough to for God to love and accept and forgive and save me”? That’s right! You’re not! Embrace that truth!

Come before Jesus Christ and the cross with nothing to show for yourself. Imagine that you’re like that man being crucified alongside Jesus in Luke chapter 23. He’s usually referred to as “the thief on the cross,” but we know he’s much worse than that! The Romans didn’t crucify thieves. They crucified insurrectionists, violent revolutionaries… terrorists and cold-blooded killers. That’s who this man was. There was one criminal on the other side of Jesus who was mocking him, and the other criminal, Luke says, rebuked the man. He said, “We’re being condemned to death, and we’re getting what we deserve. Jesus, by contrast, has done nothing to deserve his death sentence.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” So this man recognized that he was a sinner, who deserved death and condemnation for his sins. And what does Jesus say? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

What I love about this image is that this criminal was completely helpless, completely hopeless… literally, he couldn’t move his hands or feet; he was literally stuck there; he could do nothing at all to earn forgiveness, to earn God’s love, to pay Jesus back for eternal life and salvation.

All of us sinners must come to Jesus with the same attitude, the same spirit. And when we do, we will hear our Lord say to us, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Now, I said earlier that change, or repentance, was a requirement for salvation. Isn’t that doing something? Well, yes, but… If we truly understand what God has done for us through the cross of his Son, how could that not change us? And repent… And want to love and serve Jesus for the rest of our lives?

My birth-mother, Linda, is here today. Many of you have met her before. She wanted to come for both Ian’s birthday and for Townshend’s confirmation. Big weekend for us in the White household. When Linda got pregnant with me back in 1969, it was—let’s face it—the height of the sexual revolution, and it was a very easy decision in that culture back then to get an abortion. It was illegal but widely available and widely practiced—and Linda had friends back then who made that tragic decision. But Linda did something much braver, much more difficult—not only to carry me to term and give me birth, at the risk to her health and reputation, but also to make sure that I was adopted into a family who could care for me and provide for me in a way that she was unable to at that time.

That’s an amazing gift she gave me! I can’t begin to pay it back, obviously. And she would never hear of it. But you know what else? It’s very easy to love her and feel, just, undying gratitude to her for this gift! She gave me life and saved my life at the same time. The idea that I wouldn’t love her and be grateful to her, and that this love and gratitude wouldn’t be reflected in my behavior, after what she did for me, is unthinkable.

That’s how our love for Christ ought to be but even more so. So when I preach about things like praying and reading the Bible; making the worship of the Lord your top priority on Sunday; stepping out on faith to give a tithe—which is ten percent of your income—to the Lord through this church; investing your time and talent into serving Jesus through this church and on your own; and sharing this good news of Jesus with friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers—including inviting them here to this church to experience Christ for themselves—when I say that we all ought to be doing these things, I’m not telling us to do something that we shouldn’t want to do already, even if it’s hard.

Because of course you will do these things—not because you’re earning God’s love and acceptance and salvation, but because look at all he’s done for us! Our lives change out of gratitude!

The only way we wouldn’t want to spend the rest of our lives loving and serving the One who saved our lives, saved us from death and hell, and gave us new and eternal life, is if we didn’t understand the gift that has been offered to us through the cross and that many of us have received!

Do you understand the gift that you received? Do you really understand it? Will you say “Amen”? Will you say, “Hallelujah”?

If, on the other hand, you look at your life and wonder why you’re not loving Jesus through praying, worshiping, giving, serving, and witnessing, I have to ask: Have you received the gift?


[1] Matthew 7:21

[2] Isaiah 64:6

11 thoughts on “Sermon 05-03-15: “Warts and All, Part 4: Tested by Fire””

  1. i have been thinking about gifts and giving a lot lately. when 13 years old, one of my older brothers did not give me a christmas gift. i was hurt i was angry. i gave him one! fast forward a few decades. a gift should be thoughtfully given and thoughtfully received. my brother went to drug store and bought me a model car. big whoop i musta thought. i do not remember what i gave him (besides a lot of grief). if a gift is thoughtfully given, and even more, given in Jesus-love, then it must be received in that same spirit. if you get a gift and right away feel like you need to give back, then you have not received in love. even if you don’t like the gift or giver, if it was meant in Jesus-love. say thank you. i admit until recently, (like yesterday or last week or lastmonthyear) i have been a poor receiver. if it not something i wanted, then poo. then i was reminded of Jesus saying invite those who cannot repay. they will appreciate it more, their gratitude will be genuine. He has given the gift, or rather, THE gift that cannot be repaid no matter how or how much we give back. He has given us the chance of real intimacy. and isn’t that what giving truly is: an expression of intimacy? i have given over 80 pints of blood, which is something like 5 or 8 persons’ worth. but it is all anonymously given. the receiver could thank the red cross but it didn’t give the blood. but, i never have i given it all at once. Jesus did. it’s the kind of giving he’s famous for. and i am trying to figure out how to be grateful for The gift of debt rescinding without being burdened by guilt or that nagging sense of having to leave to Him my mess. i hate that; it just bugs me that there have been messes that i cannot clean up.

    1. Right. And the cross represents all the messes that we can’t clean up. I am burdened with guilt too often, myself. I read something by N.T. Wright just tonight that gave me pause. Satan not only entices us into sin, but then “accuses” us when we fall into it. I underestimate the power of that “accuser” role of Satan, even though it’s the meaning of his name!

  2. I’ve been thinking some more about this general topic as a result of my daily Bible reading. I’m in 2 Chronicles and just read about King Joash a couple of days ago. Started out real well under the tutelage of the priest, but then went so far downhill as to kill his son! So, is he in heaven or hell? If in hell, does this mean he wasn’t saved when he had the temple repaired? If in heaven, then can we go so far downhill if truly saved? Of course David did about as bad, but he repented. No indication Joash did. This is perplexing to me. What it makes me wonder with respect to this sermon is, even though salvation is clearly by faith, as opposed to “works,” by God’s grace, is change in behavior “inevitable”? And do we really have to do nothing to “retain” such salvation? I see what you are saying about “gratitude,” but does this mean that gratitude is inevitable if you’ve really received the gift? And, even if you are grateful “to start with,” may be “lose our first love,” per Revelations? And if we lose our first love, and don’t “get it back,” are we still “on track” for heaven? I’m merely throwing out questions as opposed to thinking I have any answers to the questions at the moment. Any thoughts?

    1. Tom, I think we have to proceed with caution on some of these questions. Even this Sunday, when I cover 1 Corinthians 6, the question of behavior that could possibly exclude one from (a prior?) salvation comes up. In this case, it’s not so much the behavior that excludes as the faithless attitude behind the behavior. The behavior is a symptom of apostasy, not necessarily its cause. Except… behavior itself, I believe, is a feedback loop that reinforces a lack of faith. As to the lingering question of whether one never had salvation to begin with or had it and lost it, it’s a mystery to me. I continue to lean (as a Wesleyan) toward the possibility of losing salvation, but it’s a close call, biblically. I would say it’s very hard to lose a salvation that was sincerely received. What do you think?

    2. By contrast, recently I heard John MacArthur say, pessimistically, that if it WERE possible to lose salvation, we WOULD lose it. I take his point! I strongly believe salvation is by grace alone and actions are a reflection of a prior grace. How’s that?

      1. Well, that is a very good point by MacArthur! I like to think it is a “once for all” transaction, and certainly there are verses to support that–it’s just those “other verses”! 🙂

  3. God does not want for us to fret and worry about our salvation. Indeed, he wants for us to have the assurance of it. I find the most strident presentation of this assurance in the Book of Hebrews.

    I know that I will be a sinner until the day that I die, but I am a “saved sinner”. And, for that I thank my Lord and Savior every day. Don’t let satan have the toehold of doubt.

    1. Right, Grant, and one of Satan’s jobs, as the “accuser,” is to stir up doubts in our minds about our salvation.

  4. Yes, it’s a “once and forever transaction”.
    The working out of that transaction in our lives, however, can be both very painful and challenging, and exquisitely joyful.
    Being a Christian ain’t always easy!

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