Monday, October 25, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Christ Alone

Preached Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 59:1-21; Colossians 1:15-23; John 14:1-14

I am old enough to remember a time long ago when, if you asked a person whether they were a Christian, some people would actually say, “Of course I am. I’m an American.” This seems like an odd answer nowadays; and there was never actually a time in our history when it was possible for this to be true; but it was a surprisingly common answer, once upon a time.

Even nowadays, I suppose it is possible to ask someone if he or she is a Christian, and he or she might say, “Of course I am. I go to church.” But there is the old preacher’s joke that says being in church doesn’t make you into a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you into a car. The joke tells the truth.

There is a well known Democratic politician who was raised a Methodist, and who is reported to have said, long ago, that she didn’t know how anybody could be a Republican and still be a Christian. (I won’t tell you who that was, from the pulpit.)

This helps us get at the phrase, “Christ alone”. Can there be anything, beside Christ, that makes us Christian: where we were born, where we spend our Sunday mornings, or the particular church we belong to, or something we have done.

“Christ alone” is the answer to a question, but what is the question? There may be a lot of ways of putting the question. How can I be saved? How can I be born again? How can I be born from above? How can I have a relationship with God? How can I be a new person, or a new creation? How can I stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution? How can I be part of a better world? How can I find forgiveness? What is the way to the Father’s house? How can I come home?

The answer is “Christ alone”. Or Jesus put it like this, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6)

“Christ alone” is a phrase that comes down to us from five hundred years ago, during the period of history called “The Reformation”. There are five phrases that have come down to us from that time which all contain the word “alone”. They are scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone.

These phrases came into use as a way of correcting certain abuses and mistakes and wrong directions that had been taken by the church during the chaos of the middle ages. We still experience enough chaos as God’s people in this world to need these phrases. We are thinking about them as a kind of system of anchors put out in different directions around a ship in a storm to hold it safe.

We can see how these anchors work together as a team to keep us centered in our life as Christians, to keep us from distorting the priorities of the Christian life. Faith alone reminds us of the importance of living with a deep trust in God so that we can act courageously and pray confidently. But sometimes we can distort the role that faith plays in living and praying. The principles of “Scripture alone” and “Christ alone” help us understand the nature of faith. For instance, in the scriptures, Jesus does not say, “Your faith in me is the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Our faith is almost an extension of ourselves. It is a part of what we think and do. But “the way, the truth, and the life” have nothing to do with us, except as an invitation and as a gift that we receive through Christ. Christ is greater than our faith because he is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:20). Christ is “the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:12). Faith is a gift from beyond our self. Faith is a gift from God (not self-generated, not something we work out). (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Our knowledge and our understanding of Christ is not “the way, the truth and the life” (although this is a part of our love for him). Christ alone means that everything we need is in Christ and not in us. When Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but by me,” he is not warning us about the quality, or the direction, or even the content of our faith, or our understanding. He means that he is assuming responsibility over us. It is the same thing that he meant when he said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” (John 15:16)

All of this comes from the context of Jesus saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” (John 14:1) Why is he telling us not to be troubled or afraid? It is because he is giving us a promise. Saying that our life with God is by “Christ alone” is not a threat, but a promise. It is the promise of Jesus that our life with God is in good hands, in the very best hands, in hands that have been pierced with nails for us.

Isn’t it funny how we make these words mean exactly the opposite? We make them into a solemn warning; as if we really wanted to be afraid, and for others to be afraid as well; as if we wanted a religion of caution and fear instead of a religion of freedom and love. Christ alone is an important anchor indeed.

In my summer between third and fourth grade I went to a Y.M.C.A. camp for a week. At one point during the week they cleaned out the swimming pool and they started to refill it. The water came into the pool from openings in the sides of the pool that made huge jets of water. It was really powerful and impressive.

I know this because I was in the pool at the time. The camp opened the pool for all the campers while they were filling it. It seemed huge. It was probably an Olympic sized pool; and here it was, full of kids playing in the jets of water.

The only problem with this was that, as the water filled the pool, the level of the water got deeper without everyone noticing this. I didn’t notice, and (suddenly) I got in over my head. Another kid who obviously had lifeguard experience saw that I was in trouble. He grabbed me and started pulling on me in order to save me.

And what did I do? I fought him with all my might. Who did he think he was, thinking that I was in trouble (although I was). I was so mad that I was a real brat to him.
That’s how this world is; the world we are part of. And we really are part and parcel of it.

A pedestrian got hit by a car and a passerby ran up to the man lying in the street and put his coat under his head (maybe he shouldn’t have, but this is an old joke), and he asked the man, “Are you comfortable sir?” and the man lying on the street said, “I make a decent living, thank you.”

Everybody is doing just fine, thank you, and has no need of what we offer. People will tell us that there is no need for any special way, or truth, or life. And Christians, by and large, are just the same; we certainly don’t need any special help, thank you.

Well I can go around saying that I’m not perfect (which comes as a surprise to no one). And when I say it I am probably thinking what a wonderful thing it is that I am so self-aware, and honest, and humble. But just try to tell me one of the ways that I am not perfect, and advise me on a plan of action for just how to make the necessary changes, and see how I react.

And, by the way, do you want to know what is really wrong with you?

It is because our hearts are shaped this way that our only true hope is Christ alone.
Isaiah gives us an example in his book. “For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil. They hatch the eggs of snakes and spin a spider’s web. Whoever eats their eggs will die, and when one is broken, and snake is hatched.” (Isaiah 59:4-5)

It sounds extreme; that world of long ago. But we see and hear this same world in the news every day. But the most surprising thing about Isaiah’s message is that he is not speaking to the heathens. Isaiah is speaking to God’s people. This is the church of his day, full of people who do not know their own heart. If we want to find ourselves in the Bible, we must see that this is where we are. This is us.

There is a Disney cartoon program called “Phineas and Ferb” in which there is an evil scientist named Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz who is always plotting to take over the world and spread his evil plans. But he fails every time. In one episode his evil mentor encourages him by saying, “Heinz, you don’t have to conquer the world in order to spread evil. You can do it through all the little things you say and do every day.” And that is what we do.

If we kept an exact record of every thought and feeling that passed through our minds, every second of the day, we would be ashamed to read it. If we thought that other people could see our thoughts and feelings at every passing second, just by looking at us. We would all hide.

A five year old knows lots about injustice and evil from both sides; and we become experts as we grow up. We receive more wounds and we become more insensitive as we grow up. Only we would do almost anything to avoid having anyone see through us.

The world we live in has not been working well for a long, long time. The world that so alarms us is the way it is because it is full of human beings just like us. Welcome to the human race!

And yet, the world as it is doesn’t want a way, or a truth, or a life that it can’t devise for itself. The original humans, in the form of Adam and Eve, wanted to be self-governing. They wanted a life that they could devise for themselves. What we have is the result.

The world as it is doesn’t want to admit it needs such a way, a truth, or a life from beyond itself. The world as it is says that our growing scientific knowledge means that we don’t have to look for ways and answers from beyond this world any more. But the more our world advances in knowledge and technology, the more violent, and destructive, and unjust, and outrageous it becomes.

In the face of this, do you know that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life? Chesterton once said that it is not true that the Christian way has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and left untried.

Isaiah says, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey. The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him and his own righteousness sustained him.” (Isaiah 59:14-16)

God himself took up the cause. God did for this world what it could not do for itself. God did for us what we could not do for ourselves.

God’s arm reached down into our world to do the work of salvation. Now God doesn’t have an arm like ours with bones, and muscles, and sinews; but God has strength within himself. God has the ability to use his strength to do his work. This arm, this strength, is Jesus. Jesus is God in the flesh, God as a human being, doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Jesus is what the Isaiah meant when he said, “his own arm worked salvation for him.” “Christ alone” is the equivalent of saying “God alone”. Paul describes this when he writes, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” And this makes the world mad. It even makes some people who profess to be Christians mad; because it seems arrogant and exclusive.
Christians have acted arrogantly. We have acted in ways to exclude others as if we were better than them. The cure is to look at what Jesus is saying and where he is saying it.

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:8-9) One of the things that Jesus is telling us, and the whole world, is that God is not exclusive. God wants to be known, and loved. God wants to be present.

There is a house for God and us together. It is the Father’s house. We are made to be together. As Paul said, God wants “to reconcile all things to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:20)

The world says it wants to see all religions as equal. The problem with this is that they are so different in the essence of what they teach about the nature of the world, and of God, and of how we find our purpose. They are so different that if they are all equal they must all be very far away from the way, the truth, and the life.

If no one in the world is close and everyone is far, then it seems that the reality of the universe must be that God, if there is a God, must be very far away. God must be very difficult to know, and must be very uninterested in reaching out to us, or else he is unable to reach out to us. And we are on our own.

Jesus tells us that “the way, the truth, and the life” of God is not distant. It is close. It has a face that cannot be mistaken for another. It has a voice distinct from all other voices. It has hands and fingerprints that are absolutely unique. “The way, the truth, and the life” is approachable and knowable. It is found in Jesus, in Christ alone.

Is this arrogant? It could be. But where has the way, the truth, and the life been? Where is it going?

It has taken off its clothes, and rapped itself in a towel, and become a foot washer. Jesus and his disciples, at the moment where we read about them in John, have just finished the Passover feast, and Jesus has just finished washing the disciples’ feet, every one of them; even the feet of Judas Iscariot the betrayer.

This is not an arrogant truth; not for Jesus and not for us. And Jesus has told us to do likewise. Jesus has told us that the world will know that we are his disciples if we are foot-washers, and if we are a servant people who know how to love others. (John 13:1-17)

And Jesus is on his way to the cross with a vengeance, in order to destroy his enemies. But the enemies of Jesus are not people. They are the sources of evil in this world: injustice, unrighteousness, lies, hypocrisy, violence, abuse, willful blindness, heartlessness.

Jesus fights against these enemies on the cross. And he conquers them within us when he claims us there on that cross. This is “the way, the truth, and the life” he has been talking about. This is how the Lord’s “own arm worked salvation for him” This is how, “He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.” (Isaiah 59:17)

The cross was his vengeance on sin. The cross is the picture of zeal in the extreme. Who else would go so far as the Lord has gone, in patience, and humility, and blood, and pain?

This is servanthood; sacrificial, redemptive love. It is no sin to say that this is the only genuine and hopeful way. It is not arrogant to claim some special status for love, even though love will never stay on its pedestal.

Jesus washed our feet to make us servants. Servant is the most that we can call anyone to be, when we would help them know the way, the truth, and the life. We call them to be servants like us; servants like Jesus. You can’t be arrogant and do this.
When the church (the people of God) lives like this, no one will call us arrogant any more. Or, if they do, no one else will believe them.

God himself is not proud. In the modern world, where the Christian faith is more and more out of favor, we may find a new blessing in losing our pride. We will not be the top. We will not be the leaders. We will be the bottom. We will be foot washers. We will be people of the cross.

When such a time finally comes, it may seem to us that all we have left is Christ; and Christ alone. This is what all other faithful disciples have found; those who have gone before us. This is the common state of God’s people in the world: having Christ alone.

The truth is that each and every one of us will come to some time and place in which we will seem to have Christ alone. Our first instinct will be to think that we are alone, when we have only Christ. But then we will find that this is not true. We will find that, when we have Christ alone, we have everything we really need because of him.


  1. What inspiring words, and great meaning Pastor Dennis!
    Most definitely something I needed to read today. Every time I read your words makes me feel so peaceful!!

    And thanks so much for your great comments on my blog.

    I always do appreciate them! It means a lot!


  2. Not Saved by Faith Only

    Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. (James 2:24)

    It cannot get any clearer than the verse in James that good works are necessary for Christians to truly have the life that Jesus promises.

    Common objections...

    James is not speaking of salvation. But notice that the verse immediately preceding refers to Abraham's saving faith...

    And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. (James 2:23)

    The book of James is hard to understand and therefore this verse should be ignored. In fact, Martin Luther wanted to remove this book from the Bible.

    But the verse is actually easy to understand for those who accept Catholic teaching.

    Shame on those Protestants...interpreting the Bible as their sole authority with preconceived doctrines.

    Open your Bible to Acts 5:29-32... But Peter and the Apostles answered and said, "We must obey GOD rather than men...(32) and we are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom GOD has given to all who obey him."

    Those verses are unmistakable that we have to do our part by obeying the commandments of GOD.

    Then there is the dreaded (by Protestants) James 2:14-26 which starts with (14) "What will it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but does not have Works?

    Can the faith save him?...(17) So faith too, unless it has Works, is dead in itself...(20) Faith without Works is useless...(21)

    Was not Abraham our father justified by Works when he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? (22) Do you not see that Faith worked along with his Works, and by the Works the faith was made perfect?...(24)

    You see that by Works a man is justified, and not by faith only....(26) For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so, Faith also without Works is Dead." 'Subjective Salvation' in action, is shown for that whole section written by St. James.

    I could go on and on with verses like this, and could ask questions such as, why is there a need for the ten commandments, since we are 'automatically saved'? I think you get the message from what I have shown.

    Read Matthew 25:31:46. It is all about doing good works in this life. Then there is Revelation 14:13, "And I heard a voice from Heaven saying, 'Write: blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Yes, says the Spirit, let them rest from their labors, for their works follow them.'"

    Is that clear enough that works are needed in addition to faith? Still not convinced? Then how about another crystal clear verse? Revelation 22:12, "Behold, I come quickly! And My reward is with Me, to render to each one according to his works."

    I must call it to your attention that the Bible mentions Faith Only, once and only once, in one verse, and in that verse it says NOT by Faith Only. (James 2:24)

  3. Michael, the best thing I can say is to express surprise that you write this way, because I haven't even written about "faith alone" as yet. When I do, you may very well say that I don't believe in it at all. James is one of my favorite books in the Bible. The point is a "living faith" versus a dead faith, which is no faith at all. The gift of faith is the transformation that sees and trusts the grace of God. By this faith the person's heart and life are bound to the life of God and are made into a new creation in which the image of God within us is truly restored and we live for the glory of God. A healthy faith allows us to live in the freedom of the love of God, and we learn to love as God loves. A living faith will have "good works". Works without faith are as good as works without love. Try doing good for someone lovelessly and and see how it goes. Have you ever heard of something in Galatians (5:6) called "faith working through love"? This is living faith, and living faith is what is essential. It is in this sense that it is true that we are saved by faith alone.