Sermon 05-07-17: “Against ‘Easy-Believism'”

May 16, 2017

“Easy-believism,” the idea that being a Christian is easy and requires very little of us, is a crisis in the local church, in the United Methodist denomination, and in the culture at large. Yet today’s scripture speaks against easy-believism in a few important ways. I talk about two of those ways in this sermon.

Sermon Text: 1 Peter 1:13-21

Many of you have used Uber. I never have. I know it’s very popular. In case you don’t know, it’s like a taxi service, except the drivers aren’t taxi drivers; they’re just regular people in their regular cars. You have an app on your phone when you need a ride somewhere.

Uber recently released its “Lost and Found Index,” a humorous report on the forgetfulness of its passengers—i.e., the items that passengers forgot about and left behind in Uber vehicles. For example, the most frequently forgotten item, unsurprisingly, is the cell phone. The second most frequently forgotten item is a ring. That’s surprising… although as someone who tends to take off my wedding band and fiddle around with it—including spinning it like a top on tables—I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising. It spins really well! Keys, wallets, and glasses round out the Top 5.[1]

A surprising number of wedding dresses are forgotten in Uber vehicles.

As an absent-minded person who tends to forget things, I can relate. But all of us know that panicky feeling we get when we lose or forget or leave behind something valuable. “This is so important!” we say. “How could I have forgotten that?”

Brothers and sisters, if, when we read today’s scripture, we get that same panicky feeling—and we say, “This is so important! How could we as a church have forgotten that?”—well, we’re probably reading this passage correctly. Because today’s scripture reminds us of some very important truths that we tend to forget in our Christian lives.

In fact, today’s scripture speaks against a problem that plagues our United Methodist Church, and plagues many of us Christians who live in this particular time and place: And that problem is often called “easy-believism.” Easy-believism. It’s the idea that being a Christian is easy; it’s mostly a one-time decision we make to accept Christ as our personal Savior, and beyond that, little else is required. We give a little of our time, a little of our money, a little of our effort. And best of all, we go to heaven when we die. But mostly we live our lives as we please. Maybe we wouldn’t put it quite like that, but the way we live demonstrates what we believe far more than what we say.

In the previous church I served as an associate pastor, every year around this time we had dozens and dozens of youth who spent months preparing for Confirmation Sunday. Confirmation was a big deal—and it was a big deal for dozens of parents who themselves rarely went to church except at Christmas and Easter, to make sure that their kids were going to be confirmed. Right? Because confirmation is a rite of passage—a sign of growing up—like getting a driver’s license, going to prom, graduating high school: it’s something that kids are supposed to do. And as our youth ministers at this large church knew too well, after confirmation was over, after the kids dressed up in their Sunday best and made their promises to God and the church, after all the pictures were snapped and the gifts were exchanged, about 50 percent of these kids—and their parents, and their families—would vanish from church—never to be seen again. Some would return next Christmas or next Easter. And of course we’ve seen that in our church on a smaller scale.

And when these very lightly committed Christian kids grow up and have children of their own, they’ll do the same thing with their kids. What is wrong with us good Methodists that we could imagine that this is O.K.?

Easy-believism is a crisis. Like the Uber “Lost and Found Index” I mentioned earlier, we have forgotten… We have forgotten some important things in our lives as Christians—things which completely obliterate any sense of easy-believism; things that are mentioned in today’s scripture.

So let me point out two of these things that we Christians tend to forget.

First, notice verse 13: “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you”—when? “At the revelation of Jesus Christ.” What does that mean? The “revelation of Jesus Christ”? It means the Second Coming of Christ. We should focus our hope as Christians, Peter says, on the Second Coming. Then notice verse 20: “He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times.” When are the “last times”? Right now. This means that the most important event in history has already happened: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; the next major event in world history is the Second Coming, when God will draw human history as we know it to a close, when everyone who ever lived will face final judgment, when everyone will either be saved through Christ or damned for eternity, when Satan and his army will be utterly vanquished, and when heaven and earth will become one.

None of us knows when that will happen. But Jesus is clear, the Bible is clear, that the persecution of Christians, the persecution of the Church, will increase before the Second Coming. And I know that there are always Christians who like to point to “signs of the end”—when I was a kid, The Late Great Planet Earth was a best-seller. Twenty years ago, the Left Behind series was. Well-meaning but misguided Christians speculate and predict, and speculate and predict, and I get it… After a while, the Second Coming can start to seem like science fiction or fantasy—it can seem about as real as the best-selling fiction that the doctrine so often inspires. But what does Jesus say? His return will be at an hour no one expects—like a thief in the night. If we expected it to happen at a certain time, Jesus tells us it won’t happen then! So it’s natural all these predictions have been proven wrong.

But it’s worth noting that no less a respected Christian leader than Pope Francis himself said couple of years ago that—given that Christian persecution is at an all-time high right now—not at the time of the apostles and the early church, but right now. More Christians are suffering and dying right now for their faith than ever before. He thinks the end could be near. Who knows?

What we know for sure is this: God has given us this time, these two thousand years, as a season of mercy and grace to get ready for the Second Coming of his Son. To get ourselves ready, first, and to get the world ready by sharing the message of salvation that God offers us through Jesus. But the Second Coming means that time is running out!

So today’s scripture is a wake-up call. How often do we consider that the Second Coming might happen in our lifetimes? Or next year? Next week? Or even today?

But this raises a question for us: How can we look forward to the Second Coming, which Peter says we’re supposed to do, when we know so many of our friends, so many of our neighbors, so many of our co-workers, so many of our family members, perhaps even our own children or grandchildren, haven’t yet received God’s gift of salvation in Christ? How can we be O.K. with that? Do we not sense how urgent our church’s mission is? The Christians to whom Peter was writing didn’t need to worry that they weren’t doing enough to witness to their faith, since so many of them were literally suffering and dying for their faith. What about us?

The Second Coming is one idea in this passage that opposes easy-believism. What else?

How about this: “You also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” As I was studying 1 Peter recently, I came across this insightful, if depressing, observation from pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul. He wrote,

When Justin Martyr [a friend of the apostle John who lived near the end of the first century] addressed his apologia, his defense of Christianity, to Emperor Antoninus Pius, he sought to defend the truth claims of Christianity, but he also challenged the emperor to examine the lives of Christians and to observe their purity. No apologist would use that as an argument for Christianity in our culture today. We cannot.[2]

When Peter talks about holiness, he’s talking in part about the importance of lifestyle evangelism: non-Christians should be able to look at the way we live and see a real difference. If they don’t—if we just blend in with our culture and live like everyone else—isn’t that a problem?

When Peter tells us to be holy, he means two things: First, he means we should live lives of moral purity. Does holiness mean that we won’t ever sin? No. As the apostle John says in 1 John, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So “holiness” doesn’t mean sinless perfection. But it does mean that as we become aware of sin in our lives, we repent of it and pray that God would give us the power to avoid giving into the temptation next time. Being holy means that our lives ought to be characterized by a hatred for sin—a hatred for our own sin.

Are they?

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I’ve performed three dozen weddings in my pastoral ministry over the past 13 years. I’m required to do premarital counseling. I ask questions. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that in all but three or four of these three dozen weddings, these couples were already living together or already sleeping together—and besides that, they had slept with people prior to the person to whom they were engaged. And most of these couples were good Methodists! That ought to shame us. Too many of us are flagrantly disobeying God and his Word when it comes to the way we conduct ourselves in our sex lives! It’s as if we’ve shrugged our shoulders and said, “Sin isn’t such a big deal after all.” God’s Word says, “Be holy as I am holy!”

Is it difficult to pursue holiness? Yes. Is grace and forgiveness available for us when we stumble and fall into sin? Yes. As John says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

But… Is it possible that if we continue to sin, without repentance—without caring that we’re breaking God’s law—that this may be a sign that we’re not saved at all? That perhaps we never had saving faith to begin with—even though we stood up when we were 12 or 13 and made our confirmation vows and got baptized? Or that if we had saving faith at one point in our lives, we no longer do? Is that possible?

Yes. That is frighteningly possible.

So holiness means living lives characterized by hatred of sin in our lives and repentance when we do sin.

But there’s another aspect to holiness. It means to be “set apart for God.” In the Old Testament, the Sabbath day was holy set apart for God. Priests in the Temple were holy and “set apart for God.” Dishes and utensils that were used in the Temple were also holy and “set apart for God.” This means they were dedicated completely for one purpose and one purpose only: to serve God.

And so are we. All of us, when we answer God’s call and give our lives to his Son Jesus Christ we are set apart for God. This means that everything we do, we do for God. Our only interest in life is pleasing God. We wake up in the morning with one prayer on our lips: “How can I serve you today, God? How can I please you? How can I glorify you? There’s nothing else I want to do today. There’s nothing else I need to do. Forget about my own plans, God. What plans do you have for me? Help me fulfill them.”

Are our lives characterized by single-minded devotion to God?

I confess that often, mine is not. This scripture convicts me. And this hit home with me just a couple of weeks ago. As I’ve mentioned before, I like listening to podcasts—when I’m in the car; when I’m running. I recently found a podcast dedicated to a particular Christian rock label from the eighties and early-nineties called Frontline Records. It’s out of business now. But when I was coming of age as a Christian teenager, I listened to a lot of bands and artists on the Frontline label. I still do today. And this podcast is hosted by a former Christian rock star who was on the Frontline label. And he interviews other former Frontline artists about their time in the industry and what they’re doing today. And a lot of them are still making music. And they’re still loving and serving Jesus.

One interview was with a Christian heavy metal singer who was at the height of his fame 25 years ago. Today he’s pushing 50 and he’s long past his commercial peak. But he described an experience that he had 25 years earlier: He said that his band would often play at large churches. And he said that it was a common but unfortunate experience that these churches would sort of take advantage of these artists. After the show, the pastor might say, “We just don’t have the money to pay you.” And what was the band supposed to do? Sue them? No. It’s a ministry. He said that this happened three times in a row—they hadn’t gotten paid for three straight gigs. And they needed the money. And he said they prayed, and prayed hard. And after the third show, a stranger came up to them and said that the Lord told him that they were having a rough time financially. And so he told the band that he was not only going to pay them what they were owed for the most recent concert, but he was also going to give them a little extra—and that “little extra” was a check for $6,000.

And as this former Christian rock star was describing this, he broke down, in tears. And he said that God has proven himself so faithful when God’s people pray—and how prayer needs to be at the center of our lives.

This story moved me deeply. First of all, if I harbored any suspicions about the sincerity of this man’s faith—because let’s face it, he could have been faking it 25 years ago in order to make money, achieve fame, get women; he wouldn’t have been the first Christian rock star to do that—well, it’s clear he wasn’t faking it. He had nothing to prove 25 years later, and his tears were real. And the second reason his words moved me is because I know in my own experience that his words about God’s faithfulness are true—and I have at least a few experiences of the power of prayer I could share.

But finally, I was moved because his words reminded me of… me. Not the me am now, but the me I was when I was 16 or 17. His words reminded me how on fire I was for the Lord back then. I really wanted to dedicate my life to serving Jesus. What happened? I lost something somewhere along the way. What does Jesus tell the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2? He commends them for working very hard for him. I’ve worked hard for Jesus. They’ve persevered in the faith. I’ve persevered. They’ve stood up to false teachers and stood for the truth of God’s Word. I’ve tried to do that. But Jesus tells them, “This one thing I hold against you. You have abandoned the love you had at first.”

So the question is, “Have I?” That 16- or 17-year-old kid was “on fire” for Jesus because he was in love with Jesus. I want that Jesus again. “God help me, I want to be in love with your Son Jesus again!” Don’t you?

I would love for this church to talk about being on fire for Jesus today. There not a thing wrong with that. In fact, brothers and sisters, in so many words that’s also part of what it means to be holy.

In a letter to a man named Alexander Mather in 1777, John Wesley was talking about the meaning of holiness when he said, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth.”

“Fear nothing but sin.” “Desire nothing but God.” That’s what it means to be holy. That’s what our Lord Jesus wants for Hampton United Methodist Church.

1. “Introducing the Uber Lost and Found Index,” newsroom.uber.com. 29 March 2017. Accessed 6 May 2017.

2. R.C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 46.

13 Responses to “Sermon 05-07-17: “Against ‘Easy-Believism'””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great sermon! I think this “fleshes out” what I would refer to as the “My life for your life” exchange which characterizes the true Christian confession. Or, possibly that commitment may come “down the road” rather than at the moment of salvation, but it must come “sometime” if the perceived salvation is real, in my estimation. This is what I take James to be meaning by saying Abraham was “justified” by offering up Isaac, though Paul says he was justified when he “believed God.” Offering Isaac was the point where that saving faith was “proved up.”

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    At the core of Holiness is Faith. No one can come to God outside of faith, and no one can live for God without sustaining faith. This Faith is not a work of man, but a free, unmerited gift from God. We cannot will to have Faith; we can only receive it and then live it.

    Perhaps “the revelation of Jesus” not only means the Second Coming, but also our first coming when we received Jesus into our hearts and lives.

    The Second Coming will occur when God has redeemed the last of his sheep. I agree that the time is getting closer.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, it is unclear to me whether you are disagreeing with Brent’s sermon or not. Would you agree that at a minimum “faith without works is dead”; i.e., if there is no “change of behavior” along the lines Brent lays out, then there is no salvation (i.e., as you would put it, no Faith)?

      As to whether “This Faith is not a work of man, but a free, unmerited gift from God,” of course we continue to see this issue differently. I won’t belabor the point again here presently.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    I think the sermon is excellent.

    I agree wholeheartedly that “faith without works is dead”. It is also not inspired by God.

    The origin and sustainability of faith goes to the question of “Who gets the glory?” Is is of God or is it of man?

    This issue has been well argued on both sides. You and I just happen to be in different camps.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      As to your third point, I don’t see why there cannot be “shared glory.” God gets the greatest glory for creating, sacrificing, wooing, providing the Spirit after salvation to assist us in our walk, having Jesus and the Spirit intercede on our behalf, coming again to take us to heaven. That is pretty much glory! Can’t God have decided that we as his created moral agents could get a little glory for saying “Yes” instead of “No”?

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    I would love to break bread with you two guys. It’s just not easy to get to the heart of things on a blog. The sincerity of our beliefs comes through, but I’m just not good at written apologetics.

    But, I do believe that all the glory should go to God.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Wouldn’t that be fun? Tom, do you ever have legal business in Atlanta? Grant and I are on opposite sides of town.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yeah, I would love to meet. I don’t know if I will have occasion to get to Atlanta for a stay, but I will certainly keep it in mind if I do!

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    One last try here. Which do you think gives more glory to God: a) creating automatons who just follow their pushed buttons; or (b) creating beings who can independently respond to God’s overtures “of their own free wills?

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    I don’t believe God created “Automatons”. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t in control though. Again, it’s a long detailed discussion. Where in Texas do you live? I’m in Houston and Ft. Worth at least a couple of times a year.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Fort Worth. Work Phone: (817) 878-0574 (easiest way to catch me).

      • Grant Essex Says:

        Thanks Tom.

        I’m in Houston next weekend, where my son and his family live. I’ll be in Ft. Worth sometime in the fall, where my brother-in-law and his family live. His name is Mark Wade. He is President of Bank of Texas, so you may have met him.

        We can make this happen. My cell is 404-580-7479


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