Sermon 07-19-15: “Then Who Can Be Saved?”

August 6, 2015
Nicholas Winton risks everything to save the lives of children in Czechoslovakia before the war.

Nicholas Winton risks everything to save the lives of children in Czechoslovakia before the war.

When we read the story of the Rich Young Ruler, aren’t we often tempted to identify with the “hero” of this story, Jesus, and think, “What’s wrong with this young man, that he was unwilling to do what Jesus asked of him?” One purpose of this sermon, however, is to help us identify with the one with whom we have most in common: the Rich Young Ruler. Are we so different from him? Do we often live our lives as if Jesus is more valuable than anything or anyone else? 

Sermon Text: Mark 10:13-27

[No sermon video this week. To listen, click the playhead above or right-click here to download an MP3.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript. It may differ slightly from what I said.

Do you know the name Oskar Schindler? Of course you do. His story was made famous by Steven Spielberg in the movie Schindler’s List. Schindler was a German industrialist who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II. But do you know the name Nicholas Winton?

Probably not—and if he had his way, Sir Nicholas, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2003, would be unknown by everyone outside of family and friends. But he didn’t get his way: and when he died two weeks ago at the ripe old age of 106, obituaries in newspapers around the world honored him and his legacy.

Like Schindler, Sir Nicholas saved Jews from being deported to concentration camps. Specifically, he rescued 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia just before the war started. In December 1938, Winton went to Prague and spearheaded an effort to transport Jewish children to safety in Britain. As the New York Times reported, his rescue effort involved “dangers, bribes, forgery, secret contacts with the Gestapo, nine railroad trains, an avalanche of paperwork, and a lot of money”—much of it his own.

When the Gestapo came after him, Winton risked his life constantly and paid Gestapo agents bribe after bribe after bribe to keep them away for as long as he could—until Hitler invaded Poland and the Czech borders were closed. Even after that, Winton worked to raise money and support and find homes for these newly orphaned or soon to be orphaned children.

The amazing thing is, after he performed this genuinely heroic act, for the next 50 years he said nothing to anyone about it—including his wife. Until his wife found a dusty scrapbook in the attic, with names and photographs of the children he rescued. Over his objections, she went public with it. There are many survivors still alive today, now in their 70s and 80s, who call themselves “Winton’s Children.”

It’s a powerful story! Needless to say, there are children no less in need of rescue, no less in need of love, no less in need of salvation today than there were then.

On that note, I need to mention this: I’m proud to be part of a church that did for our community’s children what we did last week at Vacation Bible School. To give you some perspective: we shared the love of Jesus Christ with 126 kids from our community. This required the efforts of 70 adult and youth volunteers, each one serving at least 20 hours last week for free—and some many more than 20 hours. Several children prayed to receive Christ as their Savior and Lord. This church made a difference for eternity. And they even raised a lot of money to send back to our friends in the Dominican Republic.

Brothers and sisters, this is money well-spent; this is time well-spent; this is talent well-spent; this is energy well-spent. And of course, God showed us once again that if we’ll only pray and be faithful to him, he will bless us with his faithfulness. We have more work to do for our children, in the lives of our children, but this is one important step along the way that we ought to celebrate!

But getting back to Nicholas Winton… Here was a man who had money and was willing to risk all of it—and to risk his own life—for the sake of saving others.

In a way, the rich man in today’s scripture is faced with the same choice. I’m going to refer to him by his traditional title, the Rich Young Ruler. We know from Matthew’s gospel that he’s young; we know from Luke’s gospel that he’s a ruler. Hence the name. But the Rich Young Ruler isn’t so different from Nicholas Winton… Will he risk everything for the sake of saving others—not only the poor who would benefit from his sacrificial giving, but also—mostly—for the sake of saving himself?

Is a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, including eternal life and treasure in heaven, worth everything to us? Jesus tells us in today’s scripture that it ought to be. Today’s scripture, in fact, is a real-life example of two short parables that Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel. A man finds treasure buried in a field—a field that he doesn’t own. So he sells everything he has and purchases the field. Or there’s a pearl merchant who finds the most perfect, the most valuable, the most beautiful pearl he’s ever seen—so what does he do? He sells everything he has in order to afford this most perfect, most valuable, most beautiful pearl.

Why do these two men in these parables spend so much on their respective treasures? Because it’s worth it to them! Why did Nicholas Winton spend so much on rescuing these children? Because it was worth it to him. Why does Jesus ask the Rich Young Ruler to give away his fortune in order to have eternal life? Because it’s worth it to the Rich Young Ruler—or at least it would have been if only he were willing to do it.

A saving relationship with God is worth everything we have. But I’m afraid that we often don’t believe this—or we don’t live as if we believe this. The Lord asked this man for all of his money—and we look at this man’s response and think, “Shame, shame, shame. Why couldn’t that man do what the Lord was asking him to do?”

To which I would respond, I don’t know: the Lord asks us for at least a tithe—ten percent of our income—and far too many of us—most people in this church—say, “Lord, let me give you a rain check on that!” Right? But it’s not just money, of course. The Lord asks us, for example, to be faithful with our sex lives, which includes celibacy in singleness—yet far too many of us have premarital sex. I’ve told you before, I’ve probably performed three- or four-dozen weddings. In all but a small handful of them, the couples were either already having a sexual relationship and—I’m not exaggerating—most were already living together.

Jesus warns us not to get divorced and remarried—except in a very few exceptional cases. We know, just looking at the divorce rate, that we’re often unfaithful to him in that part of our life. We’re often unfaithful to the Lord in our prayer life, in our worship attendance, in our witnessing, in our service to him, in the time we give him. We’re often unfaithful to him in the movies we watch and the books we read and the things we view and the things we do and the time we spend on our screens and devices.

Some of you are probably thinking, “Now, Pastor, there’s a difference between preaching and meddling.” As one sinner to another, I promise I’m preaching to myself, too. By all means, there is grace and mercy and forgiveness for all the ways we fall short. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” By all means!

My point in mentioning these things, however, is to help us identify, for a change, with the Rich Young Ruler—even if we’re not rich, even if we’re not young, even if we don’t have much power. Instead of looking down on the Rich Young Ruler, I want us to look at him face to face. We are not so different from him: because, just like the Rich Young Ruler, too often we demonstrate, through our words, our actions, and our thoughts, that our relationship with Jesus isn’t worth whatever it is that Jesus asks us to give up, to surrender to him. If we thought it was worth the sacrifice… we would make it!

Are we, therefore, in the exact same boat as the Rich Young Ruler? Are we no different from him? After all, Jesus asks him to surrender this thing, and he doesn’t do it; and Jesus asks us to surrender things, and we often don’t do it. Are we in trouble the same way he is?

Maybe… But not necessarily. It really depends on how we understand what’s happening in verses 17 and 18: In verse 17, the young man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

First of all, let’s notice that this is a curious question. That would be like my children asking me, “Dad, what do we have to do to inherit your record collection some day?” How would I answer that? I would say, “You don’t have to do anything, my child. Inheriting something from me is not about doing something, it’s about being something. And your mom and I already took care of that part when we conceived you and gave birth to you. So inheriting what I have to give you is not about what you do; it’s about who you are!”

This is exactly what Jesus wants us to understand in today’s scripture. Because look what Jesus says in verse 18. “And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. What a strange thing for Jesus to say. Is Jesus denying that he’s good. Of course not! If anyone was ever good, it was Jesus. In fact, Jesus says, no one is good except God alone. So if Jesus is good, guess what that means? Jesus is God, God in the flesh. So here we have in Mark’s gospel a little hint about Jesus’ true identity. So in calling Jesus “good,” the Rich Young Ruler has no idea how right he is. So there’s great irony here.

But that’s beside the point. My point is that Jesus isn’t denying that he’s good; he’s denying the basis on which this young man believes that Jesus is good. See, the young man doesn’t know that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. He believes Jesus is merely human—just like everyone else. But he sees Jesus doing all these good things; he doesn’t see Jesus doing any bad things; and, he senses there’s something different, something holy about Jesus, and he wants to know what it is. He knows that, by comparison, his life is missing something. So he thinks to himself, “I know I’m not as good as Jesus is. When I compare myself to others, I usually measure up pretty well in terms of goodness. But when I compare myself to Jesus… well, I know I fall far short. So I better find out from him what else I need to do… in order to be like him. So that I can have eternal life!”

See from this man’s perspective, goodness was about doing and not being. Inheriting eternal life was about what you do and not who you are.

Listen, tons of Americans who call themselves Christians—I’m tempted to say the majority of Americans who call themselves Christians—believe the exact same thing: You’ve got to be good enough to be in a right relationship with God. If you do good things, that means you’re a good person. If you’re a good person, then what? You’ll go to heaven. You’ll inherit eternal life.

Consider Warren Buffett, the world’s second-richest man—or close to it. Several years ago, he announced that he would donate 85 percent of his $44 billion fortune to five charitable foundations. When asked to comment on this extreme act of generosity, he said, “There is more than one way to get to heaven, but this is a great way.”

This statement is wrong on so many levels. First, it’s wrong because there’s only one way to get to heaven, as Jesus makes clear when he says that he’s the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through him. And he’s wrong when he says that doing good things like giving away most of your fortune will get you to heaven. But in fairness, it’s no surprise that Buffett is confused about this,.

After all, the message of every other world religion, besides Christianity, is this: You want to be acceptable to God, you want to have eternal life, you want to have “heaven” when you die—however heaven is defined? Then do these good things. 

Friends, this is absolutely not the message of Christianity: the message of Christianity is this: none of us is good enough! None of us can be good enough. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Moreover, all of us deserve death and hell because our sins have separated us from a holy God. The apostle Paul even says that our sins have made us enemies of God!

More and more preachers these days preach a gospel that says, in so many words, that Jesus came to tell us that we’re fine just the way we are, that Jesus accepts us just as we are and there’s no reason to change—that we just need to get in touch with our true self, with the person that we are deep inside and we’ll be O.K. Bruce Jenner won an Espy award for “courage” last week because he’s gotten in touch with “who he really is inside!” That’s what everyone says.

Obviously, if Jesus’ message was that we’re fine just the way we are, he wouldn’t have have had to die on a cross. It’s because we’re not fine just the way we are—it’s because we’re badly broken, because we’re sinful, because we have a propensity to do genuinely evil things—that people like us nail people like Jesus to a cross!

In some ways, Warren Buffett and the Rich Young Ruler and so many of us are like Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Remember him? He’s a rich man and a Pharisee, a religious leader, who comes to Jesus at night—genuinely impressed by the miracles he sees Jesus performing and the things he hears Jesus teaching. He says to Jesus, speaking on behalf of his fellow religious leaders, “We know you come from God because no one could perform these miracles you perform unless God is with him.” Again, note the irony: that statement is more true than Nicodemus realizes! Not only does Jesus come from God, not only is God with him—Jesus is God.

But what does Jesus tell him? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is exactly the same point Jesus makes in today’s scripture but in different words: You want to inherit eternal life from God the Father? It’s like my kids asking me what they have to do to inherit my record collection. “If you want to inherit eternal life,” Jesus says, “you need to be born into my family”—which means being “born again.”

But if we’re going to be born again into God’s family, guess what that means? It means that it’s something God is going to have to do—not something we can do for ourselves—any more than my kids can cause themselves to be born into my family. So it’s going to take God doing something. It’s going to take miraculous intervention on God’s part to make that happen. Which is why Jesus says it’s impossible for us—a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle any more than we humans can save ourselves through our own good works! But with God, Jesus says, all things are possible.

The good news is that God has done the impossible for us—through the miracle of incarnation, becoming fully human through his Son Jesus, living the life of sinless obedience to the Father that we were unable to live for ourselves, dying the death we deserved to die for our sins: “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” the apostle Paul says, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” On the cross, Christ exchanged his righteousness for our unrighteousness—he took our sins upon himself and bore their penalty. He was resurrected, which means he conquered death for us, so that we could live forever with him. And he gave us his Spirit to live within us—to change us from within.

If you believe that—that you’re a sinner who deserves death and hell; that you can never do anything to save yourself or make yourself worthy of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness; that God has done it all for you in Jesus; that Jesus’ righteousness, not your own, is the only basis on which you will inherit eternal life; if you believe all that, then, unlike the Rich Young Ruler, you won’t walk away “grieving, disappointed, sad.” You’ll walk away rejoicing because you’ve believed the gospel of Jesus Christ and you’ve received for yourself this gift of eternal life.

I want everyone here to receive this gift! I want you to walk away from this sanctuary a changed person with a changed heart that comes from being “born again.” For some of you, it’s time to take that fist step of faith. Don’t let this hour pass. God has brought you here for a reason. This could be the hour of your salvation!

I’ve been thinking about those four marines killed in Chattanooga. Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan was in the Marine Corps for 18 years. He survived truck bombs; he survived a rain of mortar attacks during one of the most intense battles in the Iraq war; he earned a Combat Action Ribbon and two Purple Hearts. He survived all that; he earned all that—only to die in an ambush on American soil. Where he thought he was safe—where we all take for granted our safety.

The truth is none of us is safe in this world, none of us is secure in this world, none of us has any guarantees about tomorrow. All we know for sure is that we have this moment to repent and turn to God and be saved. Are we going to take advantage of it or will we let it pass?


14 Responses to “Sermon 07-19-15: “Then Who Can Be Saved?””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    Now that’s preaching the Gospel!!
    All free grace.
    Christ crucified and no other way.
    By His blood on the cross alone.
    Praise the LORD!!

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Okay, I have some issues. In Luke 3:10-14, people come to John the Baptist, and ask, “What shall we do then?”, and he tells them things to do appropriate to their situations. And when Jesus first starts preaching, he follows what John says, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17. Then see Luke 9:57-42. And recall Jesus says, to the effect, if anyone loves family members or even himself more than me, he cannot be my disciple. And even in the text at hand, Jesus tells the ruler that he must do something, and then come and be Jesus’ disciple.

    I recognize we cannot “earn” our way into heaven or be “good enough” to get there. However, we do have to “repent” and have “faith.” And James 2 says that if anyone says he has faith, he has to have some “works” to “prove that up.”

    So, what is meant? This is a difficult puzzle that has engaged much greater scholars than we are! 🙂 I submit, however, that being “born again,” while involving a work of God, nonetheless of necessity is going to bring about a “change of character” if it is to be “salvific.” Having faith does mean, I think, that we have to be willing to “change some things” on account of wanting to have God in our lives. “Lovest thou me more than these?”, Jesus asks Peter. “Yes.” “Feed my sheep.” Salvation requires an “exchange” between us and God. “My life for your life.” I want what God has enough to give up what I have to get it. Hence the pearl of great price illustration you mention.

    So, what exactly do we have to “give up”? Or “change”? I think this can vary from person to person, along the line of how John answered those who asked him. Sort of, what God “puts his finger” on, just as Jesus did with the ruler. Even doing so is not “good enough” to earn salvation without grace and forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to “do it,” whatever “it” is, to “seal the deal.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I know we’ve discussed this often, Tom. As you know, I disagree. 🙂 This is one of those issues about which I feel very Reformed in my theology. I can affirm much of what you say, but with a qualification: Yes, we have to repent and have faith, but God gives us the grace to do so. I also agree that being born again will, of necessity, bring about a change of character, and this change of character, reflected through our actions, is a sign of this inward change. It’s not that we have to do these things to be saved, it’s that we will do these things if we are saved. No scripture you cite, in my mind, contradicts this.

      If Peter loves Jesus, then of course he’ll “feed his sheep,” but doing so won’t the be the basis on which Peter is saved.

      You say we have to be “willing” to “change some things.” By all means! But that willingness itself comes through a prior gift of grace. “Because we are saved, we do these good things…”

      I really liked my point about Jesus’ words, “No one is good except God.” The man’s starting point was wrong: No one can be good, and our goodness—as measured by our works, even giving all our money away—can’t save us.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Wow! I think we’re on the same track Brent. Below was typed while you were typing. 🙂

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes! Honestly, this is why Arminianism, properly understood, is very much of the Reformed tradition.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Don’t think I can go with you about Arminianism, Brent. If you are right that it is “all of grace” that we are saved, then why isn’t predestination true? God either provides someone with enough grace to be saved or he doesn’t, under that scenario. From my vantage point, either we have to “respond” to the grace offered some kind of way to make the salvation “happen,” or to “close the deal,” if you will, or we don’t. If we do, then there is an “exchange” of some type, something we give, for salvation to occur. If we don’t, then I don’t see how predestination isn’t true, as opposed to Arminianism.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Why do you have to be all logical here, Tom? 😉 We Arminians would say that God gives grace to enable the decision to receive the gift of salvation. But we don’t consider this choice a meritorious work. I know… I know… I can call a fish a fowl, but it’s still a fish. But I don’t know… Agreeing to receive the gift is a very small thing indeed. From your perspective, I might feel insecure, never quite knowing whether I’d repented thoroughly enough, or “done enough,” or done whatever equivalent action that the Lord asked me to do in order to be saved.

        Do you think if the Rich Young Ruler had done what Jesus asked, he would have been saved?

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, recall that Jesus said to enter the narrow gate, for narrow is the gate and difficult is the way that leads to life, and few there be that find it. Paul says, test yourselves, whether you be in the faith. It does not sound like scripture teaches salvation is as simple as saying “Yes,” or whatever, when the Spirit “prompts.” In the parable of the soils, Jesus points out a number of people who apparently believe they are saved but later succumb to circumstances showing they are not. James says, was not Abraham justified when he offered up Isaac on the altar?

        This is not to say that a true Christian can have no confidence of salvation–the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God. But that does not mean we did “nothing” (except say yes) as part of the “deal.” I also do not think that “sealing the deal” necessarily takes place at the “moment of salvation”–Abraham certainly took steps of faith before Isaac, and in fact Paul points out that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. But we can’t just rest on that passage in Romans or Ephesians 2:8-9 and ignore the substantial amount of other passages dealing with salvation, most particularly those spoken by Jesus himself. Again, Paul himself says, “test yourselves.”

        Would the ruler have been saved had he done what Jesus told him to do? Very likely. Otherwise, why would Jesus have told him to do that? It would have been an “act of faith,” a choosing of the things of God over the things of the world, and act of obedience showing he made Jesus his Lord.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Great discussion, Tom. I’m pulling some of this out for a separate post. Keep in mind: we Wesleyans also believe that we can choose to stop obeying and backslide. So “testing ourselves” is consistent with this: Do we have genuine faith? Is it manifesting itself through thoughts, words, and deeds?

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Again, I agree with Brent. We can’t “logic” the mind of God. For instance, some say that God looks forward in the tunnel of time and sees the decisions we make, and therefore we are elect. That’s just circular. If God saw it, then it happened and was that not predestination too?

        When God said, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy”, that said it all. Sovereignty is sovereignty.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        The rich young ruler would not have been saved just because he did what Jesus told him to do. He would have been saved when he gave, and Jesus received, his heart.

        The end of the story makes this clear:

        25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

        As for the free will to backslide, rebel again, I am less sure of the correct side of that debate. I tend to believe that the “old man” is still fighting God, whenever he gets the chance to do it.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Why do you think Jesus told him, “Go, sell, and then be my disciple,” if the “Go, sell” had nothing to do with becoming Jesus’ disciple? Isn’t “becoming Jesus’ disciple” the equivalent of salvation? I recognize that one must be “born again” to be saved, but what is involved in that? We should not push “illustrative language” or “parables” too far, instead of following more clear teachings which help show what the purport of those illustrations and parables mean. I think there is abundant scripture demonstrating the need for “repentance” and “exercising faith” on the part of the spiritual supplicant who comes to God to receive God’s “blessing” of salvation (even if it may come “after the fact”–God knows the future and can bestow salvation on the basis of what he knows will “come after”). “But without faith it is impossible to please God, for he that cometh to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6. “By faith” the ancients DID thus and so. Hebrews 11 passim. Why is it so hard to accept something done on our part? Where is the “danger” in believing that? There is more danger in saying, “Nothing is required,” when something is.

      • Grant Essex Says:

        My understanding was that Jesus was looking into the young man’s heart, and he knew that his wealth was his real idol. He was exposing the hypocrisy of the the previous statement, “all of these I have kept…”.

        You are right. We can try to take too many things from a parable or a story.

        The story of Peter and Andrew leaving their family’s fishing business and following Jesus is on point with what you are looking for in response to the power of Jesus’ call. Even then, the disciples stumbled and fell back many times. But, Jesus said in his final prayer, “none have I lost, except for the son of perdition….” He holds tightly to his sheep.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    My two cents worth:

    It’s an instantaneous transaction. That prevenient grace that’s in you gets stirred by the Word, and you are moved. I think it’s “irresistible”, and Armenians think it’s resistible. Either way, the instant after you are changed, the fruit of the Spirit begins to evidence itself in works and attitude. That’s sanctification, and it’s a process. Salvation is an event, in an instant.
    That’s probably not very eloquent, but that’s my essence. That’s why we preach. In hope that the word of God will move the spirit.

    “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
    1 Cor 1:21

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