Scripture: John 6:52-71
Brothers and sisters, this morning we’re going to celebrate that John Parker Carey, who went on the youth mission trip in June, responded to the call of our Lord Jesus Christ and made a decision for himself to become a faithful follower of Jesus Christ… for the rest of his life. Three other young people on the trip publicly reaffirmed their faith.
On a day like this, I can’t help but think of my own profession of faith, my own baptism, which happened when I was 14. So I’ve been thinking, “What would I have benefitted from hearing back then… back when I was just beginning my life as a young disciple of Jesus Christ?”
The truth is, what I needed to hear back then—and what these young people need to hear today—is probably something that all of us can benefit from hearing. Let’s find out.
Because today’s scripture, the last in our series from John chapter 6, includes some helpful words for both young disciples—like Parker Carey and these other young people in our church—and disciples like the rest of us who may only be young at heart.
And that’s what this sermon is about: a word of warning, followed by three words of encouragement.
But first, the warning: The decision that some of our young people have made public recently is no guarantee of future faithfulness to Jesus Christ. That’s true for all of us. The sincerity of our initial decision to follow Jesus does not guarantee that we will remain faithful to Christ and be saved when our life in this world is over.
Technically, we Wesleyan Christians—otherwise known as Methodists—have a doctrine to describe this: backsliding. Backsliding means that it’s possible to lose the salvation that was at one time imparted to us. And that if we die in that condition, without repenting, without renewing our faith in Christ… then it’s as if we had never believed in Jesus at all.
As I say this, it’s possible that the former Baptists in our congregation are ready to throw rotten tomatoes at me. But hear me out… This is not an issue over which we need to divide. Most Baptists would say they believe in “Once saved, always saved.” Or eternal security of the believer. Or the perseverance of the saints. But I would argue, and I hope you’ll agree, whether we believe in one or the other makes little practical difference. Why? Because both Baptists and Methodists know—because we’ve seen with our own eyes—that plenty of people pray to receive Christ as Lord and Savior—they make public professions of faith—they get baptized—only to fall away from the faith later on in life, to drop out of church, and to live the rest of their lives as if they aren’t Christian at all. Their lives become indistinguishable from non-Christians.
And… our Baptist brothers and sisters would say that these people are proving by their sinful actions and lifestyle and lack of faith that the problem isn’t that they lost their salvation; rather, they were never saved to begin with.
And that’s fine… I think we can all agree that the end result is exactly the same: apart from repentance and faith in Christ, both Methodist non-Christians and Baptist non-Christians will be eternally separated from God! Unless they repent and believe…
And if that describes us, it won’t do us any good, when we face God in Final Judgment, to look back on a particular day in our lives, maybe even this day, August 15, 2021, or a particular moment in our lives, maybe that moment ten minutes ago when Parker was baptized, and say, “But Lord, remember that time I stood up in church and got baptized… Remember when I made that profession of faith… Remember when I prayed that sinner’s prayer?” If our lives do not produce fruit “in keeping with repentance,”1 if our lives show no evidence of being transformed and sanctified by the Holy Spirit working within us, what do we expect the Lord to say to us on Judgment Day? Only this: “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”2
And we see this danger of backsliding or falling away from the faith even in today’s scripture: Look at verse 60: “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’” Please notice: John calls them disciples. Not “false disciples”… Not “people who are pretending to be disciples”… Not “people who thought they were disciples but really weren’t”… No, they’re just disciples… like you and me! Now skip down to verse 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” When the Bible talks about “walking with” the Lord, walking is a metaphor for the way you live your life, especially when no one else is paying attention.
My point is, we have every reason to believe that the disciples in verse 66 were living their lives—at least prior to Jesus’ difficult teaching in John 6—they were living their lives as authentic Christian believers. That their lives at one time were indistinguishable from the lives other faithful disciples. That each of them could have stood up here, as several of our young people did on that mission trip, and said, “I believe in you, Jesus. I’m committing my life to you… I’m going to follow you the rest of my life… I’ll go where you say go. I’ll do what you say to do!”
These disciples in v. 66 could have said that—and they could have meant every word when they said it!
At least until being a disciple became too difficult. “Who can listen to it?” “Who can possibly do what Jesus says to do?” “Who can possibly believe what Jesus says to believe?”
And notice how reasonable walking away from Jesus must have seemed. Jesus just said, in verse 53, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” That sounds weird… for a lot of reasons… no matter how much you wanted to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt… Maybe these frustrated disciples said, “It’s true that he’s done these miracles, he’s taught these powerful things, but this… I don’t know anymore. I don’t know if I could go along with this. I don’t know if I can still follow him.”
And let’s say you’re a disciple in that crowd that day who’s experiencing a moment of doubt, while at the same time you’re watching all of the other Christians you know making the same decision to walk away from the faith… to stop “walking with” Jesus… to stop following him.
What are you going to do?
Are you willing to stand with Jesus, even if it means standing alone? To the credit of these twelve disciples, they were willing to do that… Well, only eleven… because one of them is Judas! But imagine how hard it must have been! Just 24 hours earlier, upwards of 15,000 men, women, and children were there, following Jesus… And now, at the end of chapter 6, they’re all gone… except for these eleven.
To put things in perspective, 99.9 percent of the population in that area decided that following Jesus, standing with Jesus, standing for what he stands for, doing what he says to do, believing what he says to believe… 99.9 percent of everyone around Jesus on that particular day said, “Nope! We’re not going to do it anymore! This is not for me!”
So if you were in that crowd what would you do? Would you have have been one of the 15,000… or one of the 11?
I ask because Parker and the young people on that mission trip who made a public profession of faith are telling us, and telling God, that they are willing to be a part of the eleven!
By the way, if we were in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and young people like ours today made a decision to follow Jesus, the pastor would ask them: “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”
How would we answer?
How would I answer it? How can I say with confidence that I would die for Jesus when, most of the time, I’m too afraid to “die of embarrassment” for Jesus? I’m a coward! I don’t want to stand out in a crowd! I don’t want to go against the grain!
I just want to conform. I just want to blend in. I just want to look just like everybody else!
I don’t want to be different—I don’t want to live in way that’s conspicuously different from my surrounding culture. I don’t want to be different from everyone!
And yet, our Lord’s message to disciples young and old this morning is this: “You’re going to have to be different… you’re going to have to go against the grain… you’re may even to have to do what will be perceived as crazy by 99.9 percent of the people around you… you’re going to have to be willing to make yourself deeply unpopular for the sake of Jesus Christ… if you plan on finishing the race of your Christian life and hearing our Lord speak these words to you: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
And those words are not guaranteed! You and I are not guaranteed to hear those words!
So… Please… Hear this warning: if there comes a day when you are no longer living as a faithful follower of Jesus, no longer walking with him as his disciple, no longer listening to him, no longer obeying him—or perhaps no longer even believing in him—please take no comfort in the fact that there was that one day or that one moment… way back when… when you believed… when you got baptized… when you reaffirmed your baptism… when you prayed a sinner’s prayer.
That’s false assurance. Okay? And that’s Point Number One, the warning… It’s a severe warning!
Now please, please, please listen to the next three points, because they should encourage you.
First, the gospel is good news, not good advice. I like the way that pastor Tim Keller makes when he distinguishes good news from good advice:
Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.
However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers… The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.3
In today’s scripture, when Jesus talks about the need for us to “eat his flesh” and “drink his blood,” he’s referring to what he will do for us… He will die a sacrificial, substitutionary death on the cross… in our place. He will suffer the punishment for our sins; he will die for our sins; and when he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he will experience separation from God—he will experience hell—in our place. As some preachers put it, “Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father that we were unable to live, and he died the death that we deserved to die.” The Bible says that Christ’s death for sin counts for our death. The Bible says that when we get baptized, we’re “united with [Christ] in a death like his.”4 That means that from God’s perspective, we’re no longer guilty of sin. The Bible says that God nailed our sins to the cross, and Christ paid the debt that we owed God because of our sin.5 The Bible says that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, which reminds us of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” when we do that, Paul says, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
What Christ accomplished on the cross is at the center of our faith. The gospel is good news, not good advice… It’s about what Christ has done for us, not what we need to do for him.
We Christians have a hard time remembering this. Some days, for instance, we may tell ourselves, “I’m feeling really saved today—I’m feeling really loved and accepted by God today because, after all, I’ve avoided that particular sin, or those particular sins, I’ve done these good works… Therefore, God must be really proud of me today. He must really be loving me now! He is so fortunate to have me in his team! I’m proving to him that I deserve this salvation he gave me.”
But then tomorrow comes… and what happens? We commit those awful sins again, we let ourselves down, we disappoint ourselves, we feel guilty. And we think, “I’ve blown it this time. How can I even be a Christian at all? How can I still be saved after all that!”
I’m going to let you in on a secret: You are, at this very moment, sitting in a room full of sinners who would be mortified if the person sitting in the pew in front of them knew just how sinful they really were… I would be mortified! See, we’re trying so hard to keep our worst sins hidden from everyone else, trying to make everyone think that we’ve got it all together, spiritually speaking.
Don’t believe it!
Truth is, we would be embarrassed if people knew how bad we really are! But guess what? Our Father knows! He knows all about even those sins that we try to keep hidden from everyone else! He knows what an absolute mess we are!
And guess what? If you are his adopted son or daughter through faith in his Son Jesus, our Father thinks the world of you! Not only does he love you, he even likes you! Your very life gives him pleasure! You bring him joy! Did you know that! He’s not mad at you. You’re not going to disappoint him. You’ve got nothing to prove to him! You look perfect to him… Don’t get me wrong: he knows your ongoing sin, and he’s going to keep working on you to make you better, but there’s nothing you can do to undo what Jesus did for you on the cross…
There’s nothing you can do to undo what Jesus did for you on the cross…
On one condition, of course, that you continue to believe in him.
And to my earlier point… If you backslide, it’s not because of what you do… it’s not because of your sin… it’s because of what you believe. The Bible says that your sinful actions merely prove what you truly believe!
Point Number Three: You’re going to have some really dark and difficult days in front of you… you’re going to have some times and seasons in your life that are hard… You’re going to have to suffer and endure pain… But here’s the encouragement: They are a part of God’s plan for your life. He hasn’t forgotten. He hasn’t stopped loving you. He hasn’t given up on you.
If you don’t believe me, consider Jesus in today’s scripture. Just… objectively speaking, Jesus is experiencing an incredibly difficult day. In just 24 hours, as I said earlier, he’s lost probably thousands of genuine disciples—as well as thousands more potential disciples. And yet the Bible tells us that our Lord “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 1 Timothy 2:4.
So how do you think Jesus feels about all these people walking away from him? It breaks his heart. How do I know this? Because Jesus is 100 percent human. Yes, yes, of course he is also 100 percent God, but I just want to focus on his humanity for the moment. Jesus is not faking it when he shows emotions… when he gets angry, when he weeps, when he’s in genuine pain… And by the way, he has a sense of humor and says funny things, too. I’m sure he laughed a lot—and when he did, he wasn’t just pretending. “I knew in my foreknowledge that you were going to say that punchline, so I’ll pretend it’s funny.” No!
So how do you think Jesus feels when, after all these thousands of disciples and would-be disciples abandon him by the end of the chapter, and he turns to the twelve and asks, “Do you want to go away as well?”
Jesus hurts… Losing friends hurts. So that’s what Jesus is feeling.
And yet… Look at verse 64: “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.”
None of this comes as a surprise to Jesus.
Now look at the last two verses of the chapter: Jesus has known all along what Judas would do to him. Notice in verse 70 Jesus says, “one of you,” meaning Judas, “is a devil.” In other words, it’s not that Satan is possessing Judas, but rather, Judas is unwittingly doing the devil’s bidding. The devil is calling the shots in Judas’s life.
So think about it: It’s a very bad day for Jesus… it seems like the very best day yet for Satan. After all, thousands of disciples and would-be disciples are abandoning Jesus and rejecting his unpopular message; most of them will be bound for hell; and… Satan has a man on the inside of Jesus’ circle! There’s no way Jesus can accomplish his mission now to make it to cross and die for our sins!
You’ve got to admit it looks bad!
And yet, what doesn’t Satan know… that we know? That this “man on the inside” who’s doing Satan’s bidding when he betrays Jesus is also, at the same time, doing God’s bidding. As Peter describes it in his sermon in Acts 2, “But God knew what would happen, and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed.”6
Even Judas’s betrayal was part of God’s prearranged plan. Judas is acting of his own free will, but God knew exactly what he would do, and he used this action as part of his plan for God’s Son Jesus to die an atoning death on the cross!
My point is, God is in charge, God has a plan, and God is sovereign even when it seems like he isn’t… even when—by all outward appearances—events seem to be spinning out of control.
And if that’s true for Jesus, it’s true for us disciples: If, at times, it seems like our lives are spinning out of control, don’t believe it. God is working his plan; he’s got something better for you on the other side of that crisis!
Now let me give you my final word of encouragement from today’s scripture: Stay in God’s Word. Don’t stop reading it, don’t stop studying it, don’t stop believing it, don’t stop hearing it preached in church, don’t stop making it a part of your life every day life!
Listen to Peter’s response to Jesus’ question, “Do you want to go away as well?”
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…”
What’s fascinating to me is, Peter doesn’t exactly answer Jesus’ question. Did you notice. He doesn’t say no. It’s almost as if he’s saying, “What I want, Lord, is beside the point. I’m feeling really uncomfortable right now because of what you just said—I’m feeling the same way these thousands of other now former disciples felt when they rejected you, and I wish I weren’t feeling that way. I wish you hadn’t said something so hard. I wish you would make my life easier. So it’s not that I don’t feel the temptation to leave you, Lord. I do… A part of me really wants to leave, but… there’s something else I want even more: I want your words of eternal life. They’re better than anything else I know! You’re better than anything else I know. And when I read these words, I encounter you. I feel your love, your grace, your forgiveness, your power, your peace… I can’t find that anywhere else. So where am I going to go to find something better?”
John Wesley said:
I want to know one thing—the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be “homo unius libri”[—a man of one book].
The words of eternal life are right here. They’re better than anything. Keep reading them.