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Faith Walk: Salvation through Faith

March 20, 2011

Sermon: Faith Walk:  Salvation through Faith
Text: Ephesians 2:7-9

As we continue our series of sermons today entitled Faith Walk, we come to the issue of salvation and faith.  You might well ask, “Shouldn’t this sermon be the first in the series?  Shouldn’t we talk about salvation first when we talk about our walk of faith?”  I considered that possibility when I organized this series.  The first message, entitled “Trust and Obey,” focused on the fact that we come to salvation as little children through trust and obedience.  Last week, we learned how the faith journey continues, even when we have some doubt, by taking the next step into the light.  I positioned this sermon, “Salvation through Faith,” at this point in the series because in my own experience.  A time came when I was in the ninth grade or so when I asked questions about my salvation.   Those questions took me deeper in my faith walk.  They took me to another level.  I suspect that most of us have had questions throughout our walk.  Those questions help us mature in our faith.

I have no way of knowing all that you are thinking as you come to worship here in the Sanctuary today.  I am sure that many of you have distractions, thoughts about the activities of this afternoon or the week ahead at work.  I ask you, please, to give me your undivided attention.  Turn your heart and mind to this moment as we think together about the importance of understanding the meaning of salvation.

Hearing a Baptist preacher use the term “salvation” at 11:00 on a Sunday morning is no great shakes.  It does not surprise anybody.  If, however, during the course of the week we encounter someone who wants to talk with us about what it means to be saved, we find ourselves kicking into another gear, bringing ourselves back to the language of Zion.

Dr. Hernandez, a friend who teaches international banking and politics, came to the United States from his home country of Columbia, South America.  As he was standing outside a bank on the streets of New York City, someone approached him and asked, “Have you been saved?”  Having just recently learned the English language, Dr. Fernandez’s only reference for the word “saved” had to do with saving money.  He tried to explain to the person that he did not understand the question.  He told me later, “I quickly learned that I had made a mistake.  If someone asks if you have been saved, the right answer is yes.  Otherwise, you are in for a twenty-minute conversation.”  This man, a devout Catholic, just did not understand the language.

Thinking about the meaning of salvation is so important in our Christian experience and especially in our free-church religion.  We sometimes talk about the security of the believer, saying, “Once saved, always saved.”  I believe in the security of the believer, but we must consider another dimension.  It is true that saying “Once saved, always saved” is a bit like saying, “Once bathed, always bathed.”  The truth is that salvation is a process.  Salvation has a definite beginning, but the experience of salvation deepens and grows over the years, a statement supported by Paul’s words, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).  Paul is probably suggesting a lifestyle in which salvation is an ongoing process.  Yes, I have been saved, but it is also true that I am going to be saved.  Salvation is a moment of beginning as well as a process.

Years ago at Christmastime when I was just a boy, I had $5 to spend on Christmas gifts for all of my family members.  I did it.  I bought little items for my brothers and sisters and something for my father, probably a pocket handkerchief.  I had one thin dime left to buy a gift for my mother.  I had one thin dime to thank her for everything she had done for me, for patching up all my skinned knees, for nurturing me when I could not even lift my own head, for actually saving my life when I had pneumonia.  I bought a pack of sewing needles with that dime.  When my mother unwrapped her gift, she acted as if she had been given a diamond necklace.  She reacted with such love and appreciation.

We want to give another person the very best gift that we can.  God wants to do the same.  God gave us the very best gift He had, His Son, Jesus.

As I was preparing for today’s message, I thought it necessary to read what happened during the last week of Jesus’ life in each of the four Gospels.  I sat down with my Bible and read the events that began on Palm Sunday and continued through Easter Sunday.  I want to encourage you to read again Jesus’ last days as recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Some differences exist in those Gospel accounts, but each account enriches the next.  I want to share with you my insight that has come from this preparation.

The reaction of people to the death penalty has varied for a long, long time.  Recently the state of Illinois voted to abolish the death penalty.  At almost exactly the same time, the state of Ohio executed a prisoner who had been on death row for a number of years.  These two adjoining states made two very different decisions about the same issue.

The Romans did not hesitate to execute people in first-century Palestine.  They put people to death almost without rhyme or reason.  We know that the Romans executed almost a quarter of a million Jews by crucifixion before and after Jesus.  The Romans also executed many, many Christians by the same method.  One emperor actually ignited the crosses of executed Christians positioned along the streets.  Those burning crosses lit the way for him as he rode his chariot into the city of Rome.

The Jews, though they did have a death penalty, were much more reserved in its use.  The members of the Sanhedrin – sort of the Supreme Court in Jewish life – were responsible for making the decision about death.  This body had many rules and regulations that made passing the death penalty very difficult.  Members were required to sit in a semi-circle so that they could see each other as well as the accused.  They did not speak immediately.  Those sitting behind the accused were never allowed to make negative comments about the accused.  They listened, especially to positive comments.  Younger members of the Sanhedrin spoke first.  The older members did not want their negative comments to influence the younger members.  Once a member of the Sanhedrin made a positive statement about the accused, that person could add no negative statement.  A person could be acquitted with a majority, but a majority plus two was required in order to pass the death penalty.  The whole system was bent toward showing mercy to the accused.

You might not think that from reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death, however.  When Jesus came before the Sanhedrin, the group violated many of its own rules.  First of all, the Sanhedrin met at night in the home of Caiaphas, a corrupt high priest.  As an aside, Caiaphas’ father-in-law before him, Annas, was also corrupt.  Both men served in that position for years at a time when the term of service was usually no more than a year or two.  The Romans quickly put to death those high priests who did not go along with the empire.  Apparently, both of these men were in collusion with the empire; the death of Jesus is the result of an unholy alliance between the temple and the empire.  We might make the mistake of assuming that the Jews are at fault for the death of Jesus.  The corrupt high priests are at fault.

Second, the only people to speak were Caiaphas and Jesus.  On the basis of what Jesus said about himself, Caiaphas pronounced him guilty and ordered that he be put to death.  We know that at least two of the members of the Sanhedrin withheld their vote – Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, men who later buried Jesus.

The Sanhedrin could not actually carry out the death penalty, so they sent Jesus to Pilate, who had traveled from Caesarea Maritima into Jerusalem because of Passover.  Making that trip bothered him, as did the fact that his wife was having bad dreams.  In addition, he did not really want to be bothered with these Jewish upstarts who always seemed to cause trouble.  Furthermore, Pilate had to come out to meet the Jewish leaders.  They would not enter the court where he was.  When Pilate questioned Jesus, he reported back to the Jewish leaders, “I find nothing in this man that warrants the death penalty.  I will have him flogged and let him go.”

Pilate sent Jesus to Herod when he remembered that Jesus was a Galilean living in an area under Herod’s authority.  Herod was very pleased with that arrangement.  He wanted to see Jesus and hoped Jesus would work a miracle.  Standing before Herod, Jesus said not one mumbling word in his own defense.  Finding nothing in Jesus to warrant execution, Herod sent him back to Pilate.  Though Pilate tried to free Jesus twice more, the mob was insistent.  Pilate finally washed his hands of the whole matter, turning Jesus over to Roman soldiers to be flogged and then crucified.

Some years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association carried an account about death by crucifixion.  The article stated that when the prisoner was nailed to a cross, so much weight was placed on the thoracic cavity that in time it filled with fluid.  The person basically suffocated, drowning in his own fluid.  The Romans were ingenious at extracting as much pain as possible from a person sentenced to death.  The legs of the prisoners on Jesus’ right and left were broken in order to place even more weight on the chest cavity.  Breaking the legs ensured a quicker death. The soldiers wanted the guilty to die before sundown on the Sabbath.  Jesus’ legs, however, were not broken because he was already dead.  Just to make sure though, a soldier speared him in the side, apparently hitting a kidney.  Scripture says that water and blood flowed down from his body (John 19:34).  Crucifixion was an excruciating manner to die.

Two women, side by side on treadmills at a YMCA, saw a trailer of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of Christ.  After watching the scene of Jesus’ death, one turned to the other and asked, “Was it really that bad?”  Let me tell you that his death was really that bad.  Crucifixion was a horrible way to die.

Many of the great religions of the world have a symbol of beauty at their center:  the lotus flower, the Star of David, the crescent moon.  Christians, especially those of us who are evangelicals, revere the cross.  Though our central symbol is an instrument of execution, we have sanitized it.  Above the baptistery we see a shiny cross.  A gold cross rests on an altar between candlesticks in front of the podium.  People wear the cross as a piece of jewelry.  Would you wear an electric chair or guillotine around your neck?

The beauty of the cross is not the instrument itself; it is the person who died on the cross.  I sing with you “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, The emblem of suff’ring and shame; And I love that old cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain.”  Jesus was a person, a real flesh-and-blood human being with twelve to sixteen pints of blood just like everyone else.  Those of us in the evangelical tradition believe that his blood is sufficient for the salvation of the world.  “There is a fountain filled with blood,” we sing.  I suppose we come closest to understanding just how precious that blood is when we take the Lord’s Supper.  Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (Matthew 26:28).  The blood of Jesus was shed for the whole world.  His death is the gift of salvation.

I came to the point in my life when I asked a question, maybe one you have also asked:  How in the world does the death of Jesus on that cross so long ago, the death of one Jew among a quarter of a million Jews, have anything to do with my sin now?  Can you explain that to me?  The best thinkers in our faith have never been able to suggest a complete explanation.  Perhaps the Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard offered the most reasonable answer, saying you have to take a leap of faith.  Even the Apostle Paul called the answer to this spiritual truth a great mystery in I Timothy 3:16.  How do you understand such a mystery?  I do not understand it, but can I tell you that I believe with all my heart that Jesus died on that cross for my sins.

Salvation is precious gift.  It is a very expensive gift.  It is a gift not to be taken lightly.  It came wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.  Salvation cost the Lord Jesus his life.  On the day of crucifixion, Jesus was not afforded any of the modesty that Renaissance artists give him.  He was wrapped in a shroud at his burial.  This gift has been given freely, and we have to receive it.  Paul puts it best:  “By grace, are you saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).  By grace – you cannot earn this gift.  You do not deserve it.  You can never repay it.  You just have to accept it, receive it.  When you do that, this precious gift grants you abundant life here on earth and life eternal beyond.

When I was a boy, the only road from Spartanburg to Asheville was the old Highway 176.  Between Tryon and Saluda, 176 was a winding, torturous road we call the Old Saluda Grade.  Possibly the worst trip in the world was creeping up that highway behind a petroleum tanker truck as it shifted gears, moaning and groaning.  The most frightening trip was descending the Old Saluda Grade with one of those trucks bearing down on you.

It must have been that kind of experience that prompted someone to proclaim the gospel on the Saluda Grade.  I just imagine that in a barn or backyard somewhere, a person scrawled out by hand a bunch of signs that read “Jesus Saves,” “Jesus Died,” and “Jesus died for your sins.”  The gospel signs, dripping paint at the bottom, were nailed to tree trunks and fence posts.  Some were even painted on rocks overhanging the old road.  Every time you turned a curve, another sign appeared.  You wondered, Did Jesus die on this curve?  Did one of those trucks run over him? I remember thinking at the time that I wished those messages had been written a little neater.  Nothing was any messier than those clumsily painted signs!

Those statements were incomplete.  It is not enough to say “Jesus saves.”  Jesus saves Holly.  Jesus saves Mike.  Jesus saves Jack.  Jesus saves Nathan.  Jesus saves Carrie.  Jesus saves Kirk.  Fill in the blank with your name.  Jesus saves me.  Jesus saves by offering a gift of grace.  We cannot earn that gift.  We do not deserve that gift.   We cannot possible repay Jesus for the gift of his life, his blood.  Do not ask me to explain how the gift works.  I cannot explain it, but I can tell you that I believe it with all my heart.

Theologians have asked why Jesus’ death was necessary.  Who required his death?  Did God simply demand His pound of flesh?  Is that the meaning of “atonement”?  Have we simply taken over the Jewish custom of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement?  Have we taken over Passover?    John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:9).  Scriptures talk of Jesus’ death as a ransom in I Timothy 2:6:  “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men…”  We sing about “my ransomed soul.”  Did God or Satan require this?  Did God and Satan sit down together at a bargaining table?  Did Satan tell God, “I will give you the rest of the world if you will give me one Jesus”?  Is a ransom similar to kids trading baseball cards?  John Calvin says that Jesus is our substitute, our surrogate victim.  How are we to understand this?

Reading back through the Gospels at the last week in Jesus’ life, I see myself.  I am right there with Thomas; I, too, have my doubts.  I am right there with Simon Peter; at times I have tended to deny Jesus.  I hate to admit that I am also like Judas; I have betrayed Jesus.  I am right there with that mob, shouting, “Crucify him!”  Who required this death?  All of us required it.  I am not sure that we would have ever believed how much Jesus loved us if he had not loved us to death.

Do you believe that the Lord Jesus loves you so much that he died for you?  That belief makes all the difference.  Isaac Watts worded it this way in “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:  “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small;  Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Are you willing to give your soul, your life, your all to the Lord Jesus Christ who loves you and gave himself for you?  Have you accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior?  If not, please do not delay in making the decision.  We invite you to step forward.  Doing so is a part of the faith walk.

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2011
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