Imagine for a moment that you have a friend - well, I'm sure you do have a friend, but you know what I mean. This friend is younger than you. He's in a tight spot. And you put him there. He's under terrible pressure. Why? Because he listened to things you were saying to him, followed your advice, and did what you asked of him. You are now writing to him. What would you say?
That was the situation of the apostle Paul when he wrote to the young church leader Timothy. We heard a reading from his letter earlier, and I'd like you to turn to that so you can see it in front of you. There are Bibles around the pews. This is Paul's First Letter to Timothy. It begins on p 1191 and covers just four pages. We're going to pick it up at chapter 4 verses 1-10, which is over on p 1192.
Timothy was a young man, appointed by the apostle Paul to lead the church in Ephesus. When he looked outside the church he saw a hostile pagan world. He was supposed to be working for its transformation. When he looked inside the church he saw people doing all they could to undermine everything he was trying to teach. When he looked inside himself he saw a sinful, fearful and weak young man who was out his depth. What was he to do?
The apostle Paul was his mentor and friend. He was also the one who'd landed Timothy in this sticky situation. Paul knew what Timothy was facing - and what he was feeling. He knew he needed help. That's why he wrote this letter: to make sure Timothy didn't give up; and to give him the help he needed.
So what does he say? Let me sum it up in this way. One: what matters above all else is that people should hold on to true faith in Jesus Christ. Two: there are a lot of people, both outside and inside the church, who are teaching lies. Three: many people believe these lies and they end up abandoning true faith in Christ. Four: you, Timothy, must keep on teaching the truth about Jesus, correcting the lies, and practising what you preach in your own life.
That's really the message of the whole letter. And it's also the message of this section we're looking at. So, 4.1:
The Spirit [that is, God's Spirit, the Holy Spirit] clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught be demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.
Do you see what he's saying? Some people will give up on true, Biblical Christian faith. They'll do that because they start believing the lies that other people are peddling. And here's two things about those false teachers. Firstly, they're completely insensitive to the desperate damage they're causing. They have seared consciences. Secondly, behind their false teaching, though they probably don't realise it, are the lies of the Devil himself. This is a serious business. Eternal life is at stake.
Then look on to verse 6. Paul continues to Timothy:
If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.
In other words, what you have to do, Timothy, in the face of all these Satanically inspired lies, is to stick to the truth about Jesus. Don't get sidetracked and don't stop teaching it. That's your calling.
And what then is the truth, to which Paul has dedicated his life at great personal cost? Well, he puts it in a nutshell in verses 9-10:
This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labour and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, and especially of those who believe.
That is, 'we have staked our lives on the fact that the living God saves us. He is the Saviour.' That's the heart of the matter.
Now there's another of Paul's little nutshell summaries back in 1.15. Just turn back one page to that for a moment. 1.15. He introduces it in the same way, to show that what he's going to say is key:
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst.
So that's the truth that Timothy had to stick to - however many lies were going around - and so must we. The living God is our saviour. Or to put it another way, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Now, what exactly does it mean for us to put our hope in the living God who saves us? Let me clarify that by asking three questions. First, From what does the living God save us? Secondly, How does the living God save us? And thirdly, what must we do to be saved? We'll take those questions in turn.
First, From what does the living God save us?
Answer: he saves us from a Godless life and a Godless eternity. Verses 7-8:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives' tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
A godly life is the opposite of a godless life. God saves us from godless lives.
How does this Godless life seem to those who are living it? It seems to me it would appear to those in the thick of it to be a life of independence, and a life lived in pursuit of passions and pleasures that appeal to us.
But from the Bible's point of view, a godless life - a Christless life - is a living death. Paul says elsewhere (this is Ephesians 2.1):
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…
Not physically dead of course. That's obvious. But dead towards God. Dead to Jesus. Physically, intellectually, socially, culturally the godless may be full of life and vigour. But there is a cold, dead, centre. Those who are godless are utterly unresponsive to God. His words mean absolutely nothing to them. They don't love him. They have no desire to obey him. They don't acknowledge him.
And what is more, because they are dead, they can do nothing about it. A corpse is powerless. It is helpless. It cannot change itself.
So what kind of life do these living dead lead? In a word, from God's point of view, it is a life of slavery. Slavery to the world. Slavery to the devil. Slavery to our sinful natures. Or, as it is traditionally put, when we are godless we are in slavery to the world, the flesh and the devil.
We're in slavery to the world. We have no compass of our own, so our thinking and our behaviour just ape that of the world around us. We like to think that we're independent, making up our own minds about things. But the truth is that without Christ we are just sheep following the sheep in front.
What is more, without Christ we live in slavery to Satan. Now you might think that it's ridiculous and offensive to say that the average law-abiding, kindly non-Christian is living under the power of Satan. But there's no getting away from it. That's what the Bible says consistently. Deceiving spirits hold sway, and things taught by demons - through other people - fill our minds when we are godless.
Satan's purpose is to deceive people about the reality and goodness of God, and to persuade people to ignore or reject Christ. Those who will not listen to Jesus are under the devil's sway, even if, as is likely, they don't even acknowledge his existence.
You may have seen the film the Matrix. Its sequel has been going the rounds. It depicts a science fiction world in which humanity is under the power of alien forces, serving the aliens' purposes. But this control is exercised through people's minds. They have no idea that it's going on. With a few exceptions, they are contentedly unaware that there is any alien influence at all. That is fiction - and pretty weird too. But the pervasive influence of Satan is reality. Without Christ, we live in bondage to his lies.
And then also, without Christ we live in slavery to our own self-centredness. That is no exaggeration. We're not talking about dreadful depravity here. Not for most people, anyway - at least, not in practice rather than in thought. We're just talking about doing what we want to do rather than doing what Christ wants for us. A well-known travel company used as an advertising slogan: 'Look after number one and let number one look after you'. They know just how people think.
An ad in a psychology magazine went like this:
"I love me. I am not conceited. I'm just a good friend to myself. And I like to do whatever makes me feel good…"
Plain, ordinary, selfishness.
What are our lives like without Christ? We are living dead. Dead to God. In bondage to the world. In bondage to the devil. In bondage to our own sinful natures. Not a pretty picture. But an accurate one. And because we are dead, there is nothing we can do about it, any more than a corpse can do anything for itself.
And what is more, we cannot see it, because Satan blinds and deceives us. I heard an ex-soldier talking about his wartime experience. He described how in the thick of battle he suddenly fell and found he couldn't move and he thought he'd been hit but he couldn't feel anything. He struggled to move and after a while as he looked down to where his feet should have been he realised that half of one of his legs had been shot away. It didn't hurt at all. He was desperately wounded and all but bleeding to death. But at first he didn't even realise it. And even when he did, unable to move, with the battle raging but no one near, he couldn't do anything at all to help himself.
That is what it is like to be godless. We may not even realise the plight we're in. And there's nothing we can do about it.
And there is one more thing, to cap it all. The Bible says we are 'objects of wrath.' In other words if we live without Christ, one day our rejection of the living God will catch up with us. What we choose, we will be given, and we will be shut out from the presence of God forever. That will be hell.
From what does the living God save us? He saves us from a godless life - a life lived, probably all unawares, in slavery to the world, to Satan, and to sin; a life that is headed for hell.
Secondly, How does the Living God save us?
Well, it happens in two phases. Phase One: God the Father sends the Son, who died and rose again for us, breaking the power of evil once for all, and paying the full penalty for our sin. Phase Two: The Son sends the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out upon us. The cross and resurrection is the once for all objective saving act. And it is the Holy Spirit, who enters our hearts and applies to our lives all that Jesus has done for us.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came in to the world to save sinners…
How does God save us? One: His Son. Two: his Spirit.
When God saves us we are given a new life. That's what happens. The living death of godlessness becomes history. We experience a rebirth which is the work of the Spirit within us. We are born again. We are made new. We are set free. That is the work of the Spirit of Christ within us.
We are reconciled with the living God and we have a personal relationship with him which is his free gift to us. We don't and cannot earn it. We don't get to God by being religious. The false teachers who were troubling these believers in Ephesus were saying that to get to God you had to stay single, and fast. Verse 3:
They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.
George Whitfield was one of the main driving forces, under God, behind the evangelical revival of the 18th Century. As a young man he went through a period of thinking he could get to God by religious practice. I quote from John Pollock:
Twice a week George fasted… He resolved to give up tasty dishes. At table in hall he would purse his lips when the fruit came round and wish that college rules permitted him to leave before grace; the smell of his favourite food was torture. Next week he stopped powdering his hair. When his college gown caught on a nail he did not have the tear mended, saying to himself it must be more humble to 'go nasty'.
Charles Wesley visited him - and cracked a joke.
George laughed, but no sooner was he alone again than he decided laughter was wrong. He must deny himself laughter if he would attain union with Christ… Still no light, no peace, and certainly no joy.
George Whitfield found freedom in the end. In despair one afternoon (I quote) he…
threw himself on his bed and called out, 'I thirst! I thirst!' - his first ever cry of utter helplessness; all previous prayer had been a conscious attempt to merit God's favour. He returned to his desk. He became aware that he was happy, as he had not been happy for nearly a year. Instinctively he knew why. He had thrown himself, at long last, blindfold and without reserve, without a struggle or claim, into God's almighty hands. And Someone, unseen but real, had slaked his thirst - had removed his burden and replaced it with himself… The sheer simplicity, almost absurdity of being saved by such a prayer made George Whitfield laugh. At that laugh the flood gates burst. 'Joy - joy unspeakable - joy that's full of, big with glory!'… George burst out of the room, hurried - a little unsteadily - down the staircase into God's air…. and just restrained himself from slapping an astounded College Porter on the back.
So when does God save us? When we trust him. When we put our hope in Christ alone. Trusting the living God means accepting his verdict on our lives. It means believing in Jesus. It means asking for the Holy Spirit.
Another man who illustrates clearly the transformation that takes place when we shift from living death, to being born again is Charles Colson. Up to 1974 he was President Nixon's special counsel, and he was sent to prison for a while for his part in the Watergate scandal. He was converted to Christ, and now he heads the Prison Fellowship which he founded. It has tens of thousands of volunteers around the world. Speaking a while ago he said:
I know the whole world laughed at my conversion. It kept the cartoonists of America clothed and fed for a month. People wrote the most incredulous stories about the White House tough guy turning to God. Twenty years later, I am more certain of the reality of Jesus Christ than I am of my own reality.
And he challenged people to examine their own lives. He said:
If you do not believe in God, what do you believe in? I have discovered in twenty years that there are no atheists. There are only people running away from God, rebelling against the moral truth that is in them.
How does the living God save us? Through the death of Jesus, by his Spirit. Hell is averted and heaven opened to us when the Spirit gives us new life. Nothing could be better than that.
Thirdly, WHAT MUST WE DO TO BE SAVED?
The heart of the Christian faith is not what we should be doing for God. It is what God has done for us in Chirst - what he has done in the past and will do in the future.
So what we must do is understand that we can do nothing to save ourselves - and depend on God. Think of it as the five 'R's.
First, recognise. We must recognise how godless we are. If we don't, we won't see that anything needs to be done
Secondly, realise. we must realise that Jesus died for us on the cross to pay the price of our sin - our rebellion against him.
Thirdly, request. We must ask God to forgive our sin because it has been transferred to Jesus.
Fourthly, receive. We must receive forgiveness and believe God's promise that he is our Saviour.
Fifthly, respond. We must respond by committing ourselves to living a godly, Christ-centred life from now on, with his help.
What will that mean? If you're going to take the plunge, then you need to know. So let me mention five aspects of this new way of living.
One: we will listen to God's advice about how to live. How do we hear him speak? He speaks to us through the pages of the Bible. Get some advice from Christian friends about how to get into it, and then start reading the Bible. Then make the Bible a book which is your constant companion for the rest of your life.
Two: we will pass on our experience to others. We will tell others about Jesus. Don't try and tell the whole world to start with. I suggest you think of two people who you could tell what God has done for you: one of them a Christian; the other not.
Three: we will continually be asking God for his help. He wants us to be in constant communication with him about our needs. How do we ask? Just by talking to him. That's what we call prayer.
Four: we will join with others who've put their hope in the living God, so we can encourage one another and work together for God. We cannot go it alone. In other words, get stuck in to church.
Five: we will forgive others, as we have been forgiven by God.
So what's involved in a godly life? There are five things to take on board: reading the Bible; praying; belonging to the church; telling others about Jesus; and forgiving sins committed against you.
So then, how do we receive the gift of salvation? By going through those five R's:
Recognise the eternal danger we're in.
Realise that Jesus paid for our sins on the cross.
Request that God forgive our sins because of Jesus.
Receive forgiveness and believe God's promise.
Respond by committing ourselves to godly living from now on.
Where do you stand? Maybe you know these things are true. Perhaps you were 'brought up in the truths of the faith', as Paul says of Timothy. But you also know that there's a step you haven't yet taken. You haven't yet come clean with God and in your heart knelt in front of him and begged forgiveness, and asked him to save you.
So if that's you, then surely the time has come for you to stop hesitating. If you're ready to take that step, you can do it now. There can be no good reason to delay.
Here's a simple prayer that you can pray. I shall say it through, and then if you've decided that this is the point you're at and you're ready to pray like this, then I'll pray it through again to give you that opportunity.
This is what I shall pray: Living God, I admit that I have been living a godless life. I believe that Christ Jesus died to save me from my sins. Please forgive me. Thank you. Help me to trust you now and always and put my hope in you, my Saviour and my God. And now, I commit myself to living a godly life. Please give my your Holy Spirit to help me. Amen.
So let's now all bow our heads, and any of you who are ready to pray that can say those words after me in the quietness of your own hearts. The rest of you can use the time to talk to God in whatever way is appropriate for you. Let's pray.
Living God, I admit that I have been living a godless life. Please forgive me. I believe that Christ Jesus died to save me from my sins. Thank you. Help me to trust you now and always and put my hope in you, my Saviour and my God. And now, I commit myself to living a godly life. Please give my your Holy Spirit to help me. Amen.
If you prayed that and meant it, then God is your Saviour and you have begun a new life. That is God's promise. It would help you if you tell a Christian friend about the step you've taken. Tell me after the service if you'd like to. And take from the welcome desk at the back a copy of the booklet 'Why Jesus?'. It's a simple explanation of the truths of the faith. But now we're going join together in singing our final hymn. It's there on p 6 of the service sheet. It's a hymn that wonderfully expresses the hope we have in Jesus. Please stand to sing.