The Saving God

What do you want out of life? More importantly what makes you feel good? Does your personal self-worth come because you are clever - because you have got three good 'A'-levels, or because you have or hope to have a good degree? Or is it your body that makes you feel good? If you are a man you think you are so fit and handsome; if you are a woman you think you are so beautiful and glamorous. Or perhaps it is your wealth - you've already got some or expect to have some one day. There were people like that in Jeremiah's day. But remember what we heard in our Old Testament lesson (Jer 9.23-24):

This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight," declares the LORD.

The Apostle Paul understood this. He could have boasted in his intellect - probably not his strength, but almost certainly in his wealth or his family's wealth. But he prayed against that and for a right perspective as we heard in our New Testament lesson, Galatians 6.14:

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

Tonight in our evening series on Knowing God we come to the subject of the "Saving God". And I want us to think very carefully about that verse and all it means . We will do that in the context not only of what Paul has to say to the Galatians, but also in the context of the whole bible. Salvation is a vast subject. Tonight I want to focus on the cross of Christ where salvation was achieved. And my headings are first, THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CROSS; secondly, THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS; and thirdly, THE EFFECT OF THE CROSS. First, THE IMPORTANCE OF THE CROSS Paul said: "may I never boast except in the cross." You don't have to be a theologian to see how central to the bible is the cross of Christ and preaching about the cross. Listen to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15.3):

what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

The cross was the first element in Paul's creed! Earlier he had told the Corinthians this:

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2.2).

The cross is there in the bible implicitly or explicitly from Genesis to Revelation. Old Testament prophecies pointed to the cross and Old Testament rituals also did. The religion of the Old Testament was sacrificial from the beginning. Then in the New Testament while Jesus had to take time before the need for the cross could sink into the minds and hearts of his disciples, eventually the turning point came at Caesarea Philippi. And we read (Mark 8.31):

[Jesus] then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.

So Paul now says: "may I never boast except in the cross." Why did he have to pray that prayer? You would think if the bible is so full of the cross, such a prayer was unnecessary. But it was necessary and still is because many people ignore the cross, or they reject it or even hate it. The situation Paul is addressing here in Galatia is this. The Christians there were tempted to turn away from faith in Christ and the forgiveness offered through the cross. They were turning back to "religion" with a capital "R" - rituals and circumcision (a particular ritual that meant a lot to the Jews). Look at verse 12 of Galatians 6:

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. [Listen] The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

The cross and talking about it led then and it still does lead to persecution and opposition. Paul was concerned to preach Christ crucified. But you can go into many churches today where you hardly hear teaching about the cross. Some liberal theologians have virtually re-written the bible. Richard Niebuhr made this observation about the state of much Protestant theology. He said it had produced ...

... a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.

How true that is. So Paul prays "may I never boast except in the cross." But what does the cross mean? Why is it so important? That brings us to our second heading tonight. Secondly, THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 6.14). Sometimes in the bible the "cross" means the wooden cross itself on which Christ was crucified. But Paul is not wanting to boast about two pieces of wood! Sometimes in the bible the cross means "trials" or testing that you have to go through. Jesus said (Matthew 10.38):

anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Paul knew all about trials. But he is not referring to that sort of thing here. No! Paul is using the word here for all the cross stands for - especially for the fact that Christ died for sinners and that God was acting to save the world. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.18-19:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ ... God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.

The cross is where God shows himself to be the saving God. It is this truth and its consequences that Paul wants to boast about. Paul has earlier tried to explain to the Galatians something of what was happening at Calvary when Jesus died. It is a little complicated but vitally important. The nub of the issue is this. God, as we were thinking last week, is a holy God. He hates sin. His hatred and his wrath, however, is not some insane outburst - like that of Michael Stone when he killed Lynn and Megan Russell. No! It is God's moral, righteous anger against wrong-doing. But let's use this tragic case of Michael Stone for another illustration. Can you imagine it, if the judge on Friday had said (and I'm assuming the verdict was correct):

"You, Michael Stone, whatever your childhood and your problems have been, are a vicious murderer: it is only just that you get three life sentences; but I'm not going to give them to you because really I couldn't care less. I'm going to ignore everything. It is Friday. I want to get home to see my wife, because we've tickets for a show in London tonight. The court is now closed."

What would have happened? There would have been uproar. Any illustration always falls short. But God's holiness and righteousness mean that he never says: "I'm not going to bother with wrong-doing. I'm just going to let it ride." His justice means he has to do something about it. But the problem is worse still. The bible teaches that we all deserve God's righteous anger and wrath. It's not just for murderers. According to God's law, we all fail. We are all self-centred and go our own way and not God's. Paul has written to the Galatians in chapter 3 verse 10:

All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."

So everyone is cursed because no one continues "to do everything" according to the book! The bible teaches that you and I are infected with a bias to do wrong from birth. How many times are you cross with your friends and colleagues or other members of your family? But why are you cross? Because they are doing something wrong. I have news for you. They are just as cross with you from time to time because you irritate them by the wrong things you do. You say: "Oh! these are only little sins." It is amazing how an accumulation of little sins can lead to serious trouble. But during the course of a year, you will be doing something seriously wrong. During a life time - there will be a stack of wrong doing on your account - make no mistake. And don't forget the sins of omission - all the possibilities for doing good that you fail to do. That I believe is where most people sin in an utterly damning way. You are asked to help someone: "Oh! I'd love to, but I've got something else on." You wouldn't love to at all. And you've compounded the fault by being economical with the truth. Think of all the people you have not talked to about Jesus Christ. Nor I am referring to being insensitive - but to those occasions when it was the right time to say something - perhaps taking a stand that would have opened up a conversation. But you did nothing. Then there is the question of money. Christian work in the world is often weak because even good Christian people fail to give because they want to spend money on unnecessary luxuries instead of God's work. Sins of omission are just as serious as sins of commission. Do you remember the parable of the Sheep and the Goats? Matthew 25.41-43:

"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. {42} For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, {43} I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' {44} "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' {45} "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' {46} "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

These people are not the Michael Stones of this world. They are just people doing nothing and committing sins of omission. And they are respectable people who can address Christ as "Lord". But their destiny is eternal punishment. The bible says the wages of sin is death. So death is not just the wages for sexual sins, violence and murder. It is for all sin. So you deserve God's wrath - so do I and so does everyone else. That is the predicament. But - and this is the great "but" - God so loved the world. God is not only a holy God. As we heard in Jeremiah 9.24 he is a God who exercises kindness as well as "justice and righteousness." But our God is not soft in his kindness. He is not a do-gooder who with the best of intentions does more harm than good. He is perfect in his goodness. And Galatians 3.13 goes a long way to telling us how. It says this:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree."

As the old hymn puts it: "in my place condemned he stood: hallelujah, what a saviour." Jesus took the judgment we deserve. It is a mystery. But as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 1.10, it means ...

Jesus ... rescues us from the coming wrath.

Do you now see why people are so opposed to the doctrine of the cross? It is because, if it is true, it proves that you and I are sinners in need of saving. We are not the wonderful people we think we are. Do you like someone telling you, you have done badly in something or another? Of course, not. And there are millions of people who respond to God's verdict of failure on their lives by denial. They don't want to admit to the possibility of God's wrath. The thought of hell is so appalling. But what if it is true? What if all those mediaevals, for all their over literalism, got it right in saying that an eternity without God is terrifying and awful. As Jesus says, it is like outer darkness and it is like eternal fire - which proves that he is using metaphors - how can it be dark when there is fire? But Jesus says, think of those things and hell is worse. You see, the cross is good news - and only good news - in the conte xt of God's judgment. If sin doesn't matter and there is no need to save people from God's wrath, why should Christ, God the son incarnate, die? Some explanations of the cross are utter travesties. They make Christ like a man who walks down Tynemouth pier, saying to everyone: "I love you" and then jumps off the end and drowns. That is not self-giving love but stupidity. Jesus could so easily have avoided the cross. But in his love he chose to "rescue us from the coming wrath", sacrificing his own life for your sins and mine. So the cross is the place of eternal salvation. It is God taking the initiative to save you and me. It means that sin is so serious if it needed God the Son, Jesus Christ, to die as our sacrifice. It means that God's love is so great if he was willing for that to happen. But what about the effect of the cross? That brings us to our final heading. Thirdly, THE EFFECT OF THE CROSS. Look at the last part of verse 14. Paul says that it is through the cross that "the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." What ever that exactly means at least he is referring to some sort of personal transformation. Look at verse 15:

Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything [at the end of the day ritual or the lack of ritual counts for nothing]; what counts [Paul goes on] is a new creation.

Jesus said you must be born again to see the kingdom of God, to understand all these things. There needs to be that "new creation" in the individual life. A man once stood on a soap-box in Hyde Park, London, at Speakers' Corner. He was attacking Christianity.

"People tell me that God exists; but I can't see him. People tell me that there is a life after death; but I can't see it. People tell me that there is a judgment to come; but I can't see it. People tell me that there is a heaven and a hell; but I can't see them ... "

He got some cheap applause and climbed down from the box. Another man then got up and said:

People tell me that there is green grass all round; but I can't see it. People tell me that there is blue sky above; but I can't see it. People tell me that there are trees nearby; but I can't see them. You see, I'm blind!

And Jesus said once to Nicodemus that unless a man or woman is born again they are spiritually blind. They cannot begin to see spiritual things. And Jesus says you must be born again by the Holy Spirit giving you faith and new life. How does the Holy Spirit work? In ways we can never understand. But one of his regular means is the word of God he has inspired and that has at its centre the message of the cross. "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Rom 10.17). As the message of the cross is preached so change takes place (2 Cor 5.14-15):

For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. {15} And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

The effect of the cross is that a new creation begins as the power and love of the risen Christ - who died but then rose again and is alive forevermore - works in human lives by his Holy Spirit. I must conclude. I do so with three questions. One, who here tonight needs to say (and mean it for the first time) "thank you Lord, for dying for me and forgiving me"? You can contribute nothing to your salvation. But by faith you need to receive what Christ offers. God will never force himself on you. Two, who here tonight has drifted away from a living faith in Christ crucified and turned to mere ritualistic religion (like the Galatians) and needs to turn back to Christ? And three, who here tonight needs to let the love of Christ, who gave you so much, lead you to a more sacrificial form of Christian living - "to live no longer for yourself but for him who died for you and was raised again."? Why not respond as you know God would want you to respond?

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