A while ago, Billy Graham spoke at a mission in Sydney, Australia. They had him on the radio and they asked him, 'Dr Graham, if you died tonight, how sure are you that you'd go to heaven?' (I wonder what you'd say.) Billy Graham said: 'I'm certain that if I died tonight, I would go and be with the Lord Jesus.' And the switchboards were jammed with listeners calling in to complain. One said, 'I couldn't believe my ears. How arrogant of anyone to say they were certain of going to heaven.' Why did they react that way? Well, because they believed you get to heaven by being good. Which is not true; but it's a very popular belief. So when Billy Graham said, 'I am certain I'm going to heaven,' they thought he was saying, 'I've been good enough to earn my place.'
But that's not what he was saying at all. Because Billy Graham believes what the Bible says. Which is that, in God's judgement, none of us is good. And the only way to be accepted by God is not by trying to be good, but by trusting Jesus Christ. And that's who Christianity is all about - Jesus Christ and what he's done to bring us back into relationship with God. And sometimes in the Bible you get a sentence which sums up the whole thing. And there's one in that reading we had earlier from 1 Peter 3. Verse 18:
For Christ [that is Jesus] died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
And if you understand that ,and respond to Jesus yourself, you can be as certain as Billy Graham about where you stand with God. And for the rest of the time, I want to ask three questions from that verse:
What does God think of us? What has God done for us? How are we to respond?
First, WHAT DOES GOD THINK OF US?
Well, just read the verse again:
For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous [that's Jesus] for the unrighteous [that's us]…
What God thinks of us is that we are 'unrighteous'. We haven't lived right. We're in the wrong with him. That's God's verdict on all of us - myself included.
A while back, I was pulled up by the police in my car. And I knew what I'd done. I hadn't indicated at a turning. But I had all sorts of lines ready in my mind - which you always think of but never say. 'Well officer, there weren't any other cars around, so I didn't need to.' 'Well officer, I was in a filter lane so it was perfectly obvious where I was going.' The last thing we think of saying is, 'Well officer, you're right. I'm in the wrong.'
And it's like that when God pulls us up and says to us in the Bible that we're unrighteous. Just think of some of the lines we come up with. For example, 'But I've always tried to live a good life.' You may be saying that to yourself right now. If so, can I ask: is that really true? When you say that, do you even believe it yourself, let alone expect others to? I couldn't possibly say that - it would be sheer bluff. But even if you do think it's true of you, can I ask: whose definition of 'good' are you using?
In my gap year, I taught science in Kenya. And soon after arriving, I got my class to do a practical. I showed them how to dissect a flower and I said, 'I want you to draw it.' I left them to get on with it and collected them in at the end to mark later. It was a class of forty; two of the drawings I got resembled the flower, 38 of them were identical copies of a completely different flower. And I couldn't work out what had gone on, and then I suddenly thought, 'Textbook.' Science, to them, was basically copying out the textbook. And I looked in the textbook and sure enough there was a diagram of this wretched flower of which I now had 38 copies. So, I gave the two guys who'd done what I asked 8 or 9 out of 10. And I gave the rest 0/10. And when I handed them back, there was uproar. One said, 'Sir you are very hard man,' which I was pretty pleased with as an 18 year-old. Another said, 'What's wrong with this? You asked for a flower; I gave you a flower'. But in truth, they hadn't done what I asked at all. They'd redefined 'flower' and expected me to accept their definition.
And we play the same game with God. We come up with our own definition of 'good' and expect him to accept it. For example, some peoples' definition of good is this: 'I've never done any of the really bad things' - the 'big ones' like murder or adultery. But listen to these words of Jesus:
You have heard it was said, 'Do not murder', but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement… You have heard it was said, 'Do not commit adultery, but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5.21-22, 27-30)
Ie, you can actually kill or commit adultery in the privacy of your own heart, or mind. God knows what's really going on under the image we project. Imagine we had the big screen up and I could play the tape of your life as God has seen it. Not just a 24-hour-a-day video and sound track. But a thought track. And an emotion track. All in DVD with separate channels to pick up jealousy and pride and bitterness and spite and two-facedness and every other aspect of behaviour. How long would it be before you were diving to pull the plug? Or running for the door? 'I've never done any of the really bad things.' But that isn't God's definition of goodness. So then we say, 'Well, I've lived a better life than lots of people.' But so what?
Imagine you're doing 90 on the motorway and a Porsche goes flashing by in the outside lane. Does the Porsche make you feel better? Probably. Should it make you feel better? No. The fact there's someone behaving worse than you doesn't mean you're in the right. It just means you're in the Ford Mondeo. But you're both speeding. And in life, we can always find people behaving worse than we are, to make us feel better about ourselves. But 'living a better life than lots of people' isn't God's definition of goodness either. Let me give you God's definition of goodness. Jesus was once asked, 'Of all the commandments, which is the most important?' And he said:
'The most important one is this… 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.'' (Mark 12.29-31)
Ie, no.1: 'Do everything in a conscious effort to please God.' And no.2: 'Treat every other person as you would treat yourself.' And when I first really began to understand that that was what God was asking, I realised I hadn't done no.2. And I hadn't even attempted no.1 - like an exam paper, where you turn over right at the end and discover a question you didn't even realise was there.
I still remember the moment when it dawned on me that up to that point in my life I had completely ignored God. I'd not done one single thing in a conscious effort to respond to him. I'd displaced him completely from my thinking about life.
A long while back - in an earlier job - I was very busy. And I got an answering machine message from my father asking me to ring him. I wrote it down and told myself I'd do it later. Three days later, Dad called again. 'Didn't you get my message?' he said. And without thinking, I said, 'Yes I did. But I've been really busy and I'm afraid it went to the bottom of the pile.' Which if you're ever in that situation is the wrong answer. Because Dad just said, 'How do you think that makes me feel?' And he hung up on me. I had displaced him completely from his rightful place. He should have been more of a priority than any of the other things on my agenda. And cutting me off like that was a vivid way of saying, 'I am offended. And if you won't relate to me properly, we cannot relate.'
Well, the root of what's wrong between us and God's is that we've displaced him from his rightful place as the centre of our lives, as the person we should be living for before anyone and anything else. That attitude of displacing him and putting ourselves at the centre is what the Bible calls sin. And the behaviour it leads to - the thoughts, words and deeds - are what the Bible calls sins. And the Bible says the judgement we deserve for our sin is to be cut off from God - now and when we die. We deserve to have God hang up on us. That's what God thinks of us. Unrighteous. And the question I have to ask is: Do you and I have the humility to admit that - to ourselves and to him? That's what God thinks of us. But it's not the whole of what God thinks of us. Which brings us to the second question:
Secondly, WHAT HAS GOD DONE FOR US?
Let me read the verse again - 1 Peter 3.18:
For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
The story is told of a mother in South America. Her daughter ran away to escape the poverty of the village and went to one of the cities and became a prostitute. As you can imagine, the mother couldn't bear doing nothing; but she didn't know where to look, so she took hundreds of passport photos of herself and pinned them up in hotels and bars all over the city. And one day the daughter saw one of them. She turned it over, and there in her mother's handwriting it simply said, 'Wherever you are, whatever you've done, come home.' I don't doubt the mother was grieved at the daughter turning her back on her. And grieved by what she'd then done with her life. But whatever she'd thought about her daughter, she'd not for one moment stopped loving her and wanting her back. And it's just the same with God. He's grieved by our sin. But not for a moment has he stopped loving us, and wanting us to come back. And this verse says what he had to do to get us back:
Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God
Let me try to explain that. We were meant to live in relationship with God, looking up to him as our Lord to tell us what pleases him and what doesn't, what's right and what's wrong and what matters in life. That's the 'righteous' (right in God's eyes) way for us to live. But none of us has lived that way. We've all displaced God in our thinking about life and put ourselves at the centre - that's 'unrighteous'. And it brings us under God's judgement of separation from him - like a barrier between us and him. That's how things stand if nothing is done.
But that's not how God wanted it to stay. What he wanted was to forgive us - ie, to remove the judgement that hangs over our lives, so we could come back into relationship with him. But God couldn't possibly just sweep sins under the carpet. God is just, and it's in his very nature that justice must be done on sins. So the question is: how do you both punish sins and forgive the people who did them? 1 Peter 3.18 says this: 'Christ...' That is, Jesus, God's Son, who became human - became like us in every respect but one. He never sinned (see 1 Peter 2.22). Read on: 'Christ died for sins…' And if he never sinned, he wasn't facing the judgement for his own sins. So that's talking about our sins. When he died on the cross, Jesus took responsibility for the sins of the world. It's as if he said, 'I didn't do them. But I'm willing to pay the judgement for them, so those who did do them can be forgiven.'
For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
So that if you respond to Jesus, if you turn back to God and trust him to forgive you, he will. And he won't just forgive your past. If you do turn to him, he'll forgive everything in your future that needs forgiving, as well. Because no-one lives for God remotely perfectly after they've turned back. That's why it says 'Christ died once for all'. Which means once for all time. He anticipated the sins of your entire lifetime and died for it all. So whatever is on your conscience tonight, he can forgive it. Whatever is on your conscience tomorrow, or next week, or in 10 or 20 or 50 years' time, he can forgive it. That's what God has done for us. Which means two things. For one thing, it means we can be certain - like Billy Graham.
Imagine I take you to the cinema. And we have the usual British argument about 'I'll pay,' 'No, I'll pay,' 'No I'll pay.' And finally, I win, and I pay. And someone in the queue then says to you, 'How sure are you that you'll get into the cinema?' Wouldn't you say, 'I'm certain I'll get in'? And you wouldn't be one bit arrogant to say that. Because I've paid for you. I've done everything necessary for you to get in and stay in right to the end of the film. And it's like that between us and God. Jesus has paid for any one of us to get back into relationship with his Father - and to stay in right to the very end of our lives. To be forgiven our past, and forgiven in the future whenever we need. We can be certain.
But the other thing this means is that there's no other way back to God. If it took something as serious and costly as God's Son dying for us, then there is no other way to God. If we think that our attempts at goodness or our religions can bring us back to God, we are really saying, to God, 'The death of your Son was unnecessary. We can solve this ourselves.' And that is not something to be saying to Almighty God. If it took his Son to die for us, then there is no other way. No way in any of the religions. And no way through our own goodness. If we continue to trust in our own beliefs and in our own goodness, we'll stay cut off from God. That's what God has done for us. And the question is: Do you and I have the humility to accept that we need Jesus and his death on the cross, and that there is no other way? What does God think of us? What has God done for us?
Lastly and thirdly, HOW ARE WE TO RESPOND?
Just think back to the cinema. I've paid for you. I'm holding out the ticket to you. But does that mean you're actually in the cinema? No. It doesn't mean you're automatically in. One, you've got to be willing to come in with me (with all that entails of sharing my company and my taste in films); and two, you've got to accept the fact that I've paid. In theory, pride could still keep you from actually receiving a night at the cinema.
And it's like that with what God has done for us. Jesus has paid for us to be forgiven back into relationship with God. But that doesn't automatically mean any one of us is. It takes those same two things. So, one, we have to be willing to come back into relationship with God. And to submit to his 'taste', or his will, in everything. Which takes humility. Because it means saying to God, 'Up until now, I've been living the wrong way. From now on, I'm going to make you the centre of my life and learn to live your way.' And two, we have to accept that Jesus has paid for our forgiveness and that we can't do anything to put ourselves right with God. Which also takes humility. Because it means saying to God, 'I'm not the good person I thought I was. And I can't make up for any of my sins myself.' Both those things take humility. And despite the fact that, 'Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God,' it's still possibly that pride will keep us from being brought back to God. Let me read that verse one last time - only this time, all the way to the end:
Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit.
Three days after he died and was buried, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared alive to eye-witnesses like Peter - who wrote this verse. That, above all, is why we believe he was God-become-human. And that's why we believe there is a heaven - Jesus went through death. Which means there's life after death. And from where he is now, through the words of the Bible he calls on us to respond to him, as he has done for 2000 years.
Now I realise that lots of us will still have questions. 'Can you trust anything these guys like Peter wrote?' 'Did Jesus really claim to be God?' 'How can you believe in a resurrection from the dead?' 'What would it involve to be a Christian? How would I have to change? Is it worth it?' And so on. If that's you, can I encourage you to take away a copy of Luke's account of the life of Jesus and read it for yourself? And can I invite you to join us either at Food for Thought or at Tavern - places for finding out more and asking questions? But it may be that you want to respond to Jesus now. You want to start life again with Jesus at the centre of your life as your God, and you want to accept his forgiveness. For anyone like that, I'm going to end with a prayer which would be a way of making that response. This is what I'll pray, so you can think whether you'd want to echo it to God:
I know that I am not worthy to be accepted by you. I do not deserve your gift of eternal life. I am guilty of rebelling against you and ignoring you. I need your forgiveness.
Thank you for sending your Son to die for me that I may be forgiven. Thank you that he rose from the dead to give me new life. Please forgive me an change me, that I may live with Jesus as my Ruler. Amen.
If that prayer isn't appropriate for you, why not pray something else? But if it is, and you want to come back to God tonight, you could echo it to him in your own mind. If you've just echoed that prayer to God, and meant it, he has just forgiven you your entire past and committed himself to you for life. That's the greatest fresh start there is. Can I encourage you to do two things next? One is, take a copy of this booklet, Choice We All Face. It goes over the step you've just made and you'll find that prayer we just used in the back. The other thing is to tell someone who can help you to get going in the Christian life. And if you were willing to tell me, that would be great to hear, and I'd love to take your name - to pray for you, and drop you a line.