Sunday 17th September - "All need to be saved"
(texts: Romans 3:9-20 and Matthew 7:1-11)
[Credits to author James Alison and blogger Kim Fabricus]
Introduction – What Makes Methodism Methodist?
One of my hobbies for the last couple of years has been to discuss different aspects of Christian teaching and theology with other people on the internet.
A question that comes up repeatedly is “What is it that makes Methodists Methodist?”
Some people probably know that neither John nor Charles Wesley ever wanted to start a new denomination – they both wanted their followers to remain Anglican. But I think that Methodist has also become a victim of its own success. I think that Methodism was so successful in 19th century America that today it often seems as if there isn’t anything particularly unique about Methodism. For many people, the Methodist way of telling the Christian story has almost become “generic Protestantism”.
But over the last few hundred years, Methodism has made a contribution to Christian doctrine. And so in thinking about “What makes Methodism Methodist” I thought that this evening and for the next three Sunday evenings that I am planned to preach, that I would look at some of the very basic beliefs of Methodism.
For those of you who are theology boffins, I’m not claiming that we’ll look at Methodist doctrine in great depth. For those of you who want to run screaming from the room at the sound of the words “doctrine” and “theology”, please relax. It’s my intention to try to communicate the basics in a fairly down-to-earth way that will help you on your Christian journey. You can tell me later whether I’ve succeeded or not.
For this evening and for the next three evenings, I’d like to use a framework that has been called “The Four Alls”
- All need to be saved
- All can be saved
- All can know they are saved
- All can be saved to the uttermost
John Wesley is not the originator of “The Four Alls”. This “catch phrase” was developed at the turn of the 20th century. It’s a catch-phrase that tries to express the core of the Methodist faith, what it is that we believe as Methodists.
- All need to be saved
- All can be saved
- All can know they are saved
- All can be saved to the uttermost.
All Need to be Saved
Tonight I’d like us to look at the first of these – “All need to be saved”.
“All need to be saved” is a way of expressing in “real life language” the Christian doctrine of original sin. It’s the message that we are all sinners. It’s the message that we cannot save ourselves and therefore must look to God for our salvation.
But now I need to own up and tell you that I’ve got a very personal problem. And my problem is that I’ve now put myself – as a preacher – in the position of preaching that you and I are sinners. Personally, I have less of a problem telling you that I’m a sinner than I have telling you that you’re a sinner.
So I’d like to begin by sharing with you just a tiny part of my testimony about my own Christian journey.
There is a school of thought which says that most people don’t know that they are sinners and that therefore there is no point in preaching the Good News that God wants to forgive people unless and until you first preach to people that they are sinners.
For good or for evil, I grew up in a congregation where this was the point of view. So every sermon was about 9/10th “you are a sinner” and about 1/10th “God forgives you”.
I actually grew up thinking that the Gospel message – God’s good news – was something like. “Jesus died to pay the price for your sins so God the father is obliged to send you heaven, but he’s really annoyed about having been hoodwinked by the crucifixion.”
Of course, I had heard the message that God loves me, but what I mostly heard was “God hates sin and you are a sinner”. Now, in the logic of a child, what that combination boils down to is “God hates me”.
So I grew up thinking that God loved me a bit but that he hated me a lot. I actually got to the point where hearing the words “God loves and forgives you” made me ashamed and made me run and hide from God’s presence.
And then, one Sunday, many years after I’d left the congregation in which I was raised, the preacher said “God loves you” and suddenly, by the grace of God, I got it.
Oh! God loves me! Real love! Oh! When they said God forgives me unconditionally, they meant unconditionally. God accepts me as I am, God forgives me! Wow!
And I wanted to get up in the middle of that sermon and tell everyone the good news.
Being Wrong Can Be Forgiven
“All need to be saved”. We are all sinners. I’m a sinner and you’re a sinner too. We all need to be saved.
But, dare I say it? There is a joyful flip-side to being a sinner.
And the joyful flip-side is that “being wrong can be forgiven.” When I say I’m wrong, I open myself up to the benefits of God’s forgiveness. It’s when I insist that I don’t have a plank in my eye but that you do have a speck in your eye, that the trouble starts.
All need to be saved. But being wrong can be forgiven.
The evangelist J. John tells a story about hailing a taxi on the streets of London and asking to go to Lambeth Palace – the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The taxi driver asked J. John if he was “one of those Christians” and J. John responded “yes”.
“Please, will you pray to God for me”, the taxi driver said, “I really need God’s help”. J. John said “You can pray to God yourself” “No I can’t,” the taxi driver said. “You don’t know the half of it. God wouldn’t want anything to do with me. Not after the things I’ve done.”
J. John asked the taxi driver if he wanted him to pray with him and the driver pulled the taxi to the side of the road and they prayed together. And the taxi driver learned that he could come before God just as he was that that God did want to have something to do with him.
*I* think that most of us know, down deep in our hearts, that we need forgiveness. I think that there are many people in this world – like me and like the taxi driver – who want to run away from God and who do run away from God because we are ashamed of who and what we are.
I expect that there are a small number of people who don’t think that they need forgiveness, but I don’t think that it’s my job as a preacher to try to persuade them – I think it’s the job of the Holy Spirit to convict them of their sins.
But I do believe that it’s my job as a preacher to make explicit and to put into words what we all know about ourselves down deep inside – that we are sinners. I do think it’s my job to articulate the truth that God has told about us: that all need to be saved.
But I especially think that it’s my job as a preacher to proclaim that the “joy” of being a sinner is the fact that God offers us his love and forgiveness. All we have to do to benefit from his love and forgiveness is to accept them.
First God Forgives, Then we Repent
We don’t have to beg God to forgive us. We don’t have to persuade God to forgive us. God’s forgiveness is offered to us because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Some people say we have to repent before God will offer us forgiveness. I disagree and I certainly don’t think that’s a Methodist view of God.
I do however think that repentance is necessary, but not because God won’t forgive us if we don’t. What repentance does is to open our eyes to accepting God’s forgiveness.
As one of my internet acquaintances says, “God forgives you, therefore you are free to repent.” God forgives first and it’s because of his forgiveness, that we are free to repent.
It’s as if forgiveness were a Christmas present and God puts the Christmas present of forgiveness under the Christmas tree, but the only way we can benefit from the present is to open it up. It is only when we open the present of forgiveness, that we can benefit from what’s inside. But the present was already there before we decided to open it.
The first of the “Four alls” is: All need to be saved. This phrase expresses the biblical truth that we are all sinners. However, the joy of the Gospel message is that before we were aware of our sin, Christ died for us.
Before we even repent, God offers his forgiveness. God forgives us. Therefore we are free to repent. Being wrong can be forgiven.
Come to the table of the Lord, all who are hungry for God’s forgiveness. Come and feast on the banquet that God has prepared for you before the foundation of the world. This is God’s table. His food, like his forgiveness, is freely offered to anyone who will take it. Amen