(Preached at First Baptist, Pauls Valley, OK 1-11-14)
Some New Year’s commitments are better than others! A year ago, I resolved to do something which I had long neglected: I decided to read a verse a day in both the Hebrew and Greek Bibles. I just added it to my regular prayer & Bible reading time in the morning. One year later, I can say that I did it, all year long, and it has been one of the best things I have ever done.
People focus on all kinds of things at the beginning of new year. I read where one person made it their resolution to learn to do better party tricks! But of all the things we could emphasize in the New Year, there is one more important than any other, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As many of us seek to get our lives “right” or “back on track” this year, there is nothing more important to get right than that — getting into physical shape, or getting your finances in order — NOTHING is more important. So this morning I want us to look at I Corinthians 15:1-6, where we find the Apostle Paul writing about the most important thing: the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain …”
I. The Gospel Proclaimed
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you …”
As Paul shares about the gospel, the first thing he does is give a summary of what the gospel is, which he gives in verses 3 and following:
“Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the 3rd day according to the scriptures …”.
That is just a very basic summary of the gospel that saves us:
— it tells us WHAT happened: Jesus died on the cross; He was buried, and on the 3rd day, He rose again (it also goes on to relate how He appeared to Peter, and the 12, and even 500 people at one time — as Paul said in another place, this didn’t happen in a corner!).
— and it tells us WHY it happened: “Christ died for our sins.” Jesus didn’t do what He did as a moral or intellectual exercise; He did it because of “our sins.”
God made us to know Him and have fellowship with Him forever, but we separated ourselves from Him by our sin. Romans tells in details how “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Had God not done something for us, each one of us would have been lost forever, separated from the glory of God. But “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He died on the cross, just as the present verse tells us, “for our sins.” The Greek word here (“huper”) means, “because of”, “in the place of” our sins. Jesus died to pay for our sins, to make us right before God.
And it says He did it “according to the scriptures” — in other words, what He did was prophesied in the Old Testament, like in the Book of Isaiah, chapter 53, where it prophesies of the Messiah that He would die bearing the penalty for our sins: “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried … But He was pierced through for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging, we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon Him” (:4-6) The end of that chapter says “He Himself bore the sin of many.” (:12) Isaiah makes it clear, 700 years before Jesus was ever born, that the Messiah would make a substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.
Several years ago, there was a British tourist who was visiting Florida, and while he was there, he decided to take skydiving lessons. He did, and when it came time for his first jump, he did it “in tandem” with his instructor. A tandem jump is one in which you are linked together with another jumper. But their parachute did not open, and neither did the backup. The instructor knew just what he had to do; it was all written in the manual. At the last minute, just before they hit the ground, the instructor rolled underneath the student, and took the brunt of the force of the landing on his own body. He was instantly killed — but the British tourist was saved, because the brunt of the fall was taken by his master.
This is what Jesus did for us. We deserved for the wrath of God to come upon us for our sins, but just as it was written, “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon Him.” This is just what Paul says the gospel is: “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” He came to “bear our sins in His body on the cross” (I Peter 2:24).
And to prove that He did indeed bear our sins in His body, Jesus was buried, and on the 3rd day He rose again, proving Himself to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead, just as Romans 1:4 says. That, the Apostle Paul says, is the Gospel.
II. The Gospel Received
“Which also you received”
Here we find a vital truth about the gospel: it is not merely “facts” to understand”, but something for you personally to “receive.” The Greek Bible word is “paralambano”, which means “alongside”/”to take.” It is picture of receiving something or someone personally to your side. The word is used twice in Matthew 1, of how Joseph “took” Mary as his own wife. He didn’t just believe facts about Mary, he brought her into his home, into his arms, into his heart. It indicates a personal, meaningful reception.
And that is just what we just do with the Gospel. We must RECEIVE it personally into our own hearts. It is more than just “believing some doctrine” or “saying some words”. So many people mistakenly think that they are right with God because they subscribe to the “right” set of beliefs, or because they have “prayed the prayer” of salvation. But really being saved is more than just “believing” or “saying” the right things. Remember what James said in Chapter 2 of his epistle: “You believe that God is one; you do well, the demons also believe and shudder”! James makes it clear that merely believing facts about Jesus does not save you. Listen: Satan himself knows the “facts” of the gospel, better than any of us. But he has not made it personal by receiving it. And you need to realize that you can be just as lost as he is, go the same hell he is, knowing the same facts he does — if you do not make it personal and RECEIVE the gospel of Jesus personally. This is why John 1:12 says, “As many as RECEIVED Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God.”
“Martin Luther is held to have said that Christianity is a matter of personal pronouns, in the sense that everything depends on knowing that Jesus died for me, to be my Savior, and that his Father is my God and Father, personally committed to love, nurture, uphold, and glorify me.” (J.I. Packer)
The most important question for many of you here today is not “do you KNOW the gospel”, but have you made it PERSONAL? Have YOU received the gospel? Do you trust that Jesus died for YOUR sins, and that He is YOUR Lord & Savior?
III. The Gospel Saves
“by which you are also saved …”
The word “saved” here is such a familiar word to many of us. We often hear church people used that term, “saved”, and it carries certain connotations for us. But what does it really mean?
The Greek Bible word for “saved” is “sozo”, which means “to rescue from danger or destruction.” (Thayers) The word was used in Ancient Greek stories of of people being “saved” from a shipwreck in which they could have lost their lives, or being “saved” from famine or illness, or “saved” from being killed in a battle.
It is used in the New Testament in that way upon occasion as well. For example, in Matthew 8:25, when the disciples think they are about to die in the storm on the sea, they cry out: “Save us, Lord, we are perishing.” They didn’t mean “save my soul”; they meant “rescue us, we are about to die!”
People have used the word “saved” in that kind of sense all through history. Louis Zamperini was the American solider whose life story is portrayed in the book & the movie, Unbroken, which tell the story of how his B-24 aircraft crashed over the Pacific, and how he drifted on the water for 47 days and how he was finally picked up by the Japanese, only to be taken to torture camps, where he was mercilessly beaten and starved. God had given him incredible gifts of physical strength and stamina, but by the late summer of 1945, Zamperini was sick. His fever was staying at over 103 every day; he’d lost weight even from his already emaciated body. His face had been beaten beyond recognition by his sadistic captors. His time was running out, and he was about to die — it could have happened almost any day. But suddenly the soldiers saw planes with the U.S. star on their wings flying overhead, and soon the Japanese captors fled, and the war was over. Louis and the others were SAVED from the death and destruction that faced them. As he saw how they had been delivered, he exclaimed: “I am free! I am free! I am free!” He had been SAVED!
In the same way, because of our sins, we faced eternal death and destruction in hell, separated from the glory of God forever. When we are lost, as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous sermon, we are hanging over an eternity in hell by a spider’s thread. It could snap at any minute. How can you live, thinking that at any minute you might die — your life is frail, and the time of your death is out of your hands — and spend eternity in hell? But when you receive the gospel, then God transfers you out of the kingdom of darkness, and into the Kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1:13) and you no longer fear hell; you aren’t going there. You no longer need to fear death; it isn’t the door to hell now, it is the gate to heaven. You aren’t dangling by a spider’s thread over hell, you are being held safely in the hand of God where no one can snatch you out (John 10). You have been rescued from danger; rescued from harm; rescued from sin; rescued from hell! You can shout like Louis Zamperini, and with the old hymn, “I’m SAVED, SAVED, SAVED!” That’s the blessing of the gospel for everyone who genuinely receives it: you are “saved”!
IV. The Gospel Test
“If you hold fast the word which I preached to you …”
But “by which you are saved” is not the end of Paul’s message here in verse 2. He says: “By which you are saved — IF you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.” That word “if” is a little word, but it has big implications! It implies a condition. You can have “x”, IF “y.” If you want “y”, you’d better make sure you have “x.” For example, if someone said, “You can have a million dollars IF ….” — I think you’d want to know what the “if” was! So when Paul says you have this great salvation “If …” — “If” what? If we want salvation, we’d better make sure we have the “if”!
In this case the “if” is referring to perseverance in the faith. He says, “IF you hold fast the word which I preached to you.” In other words, if you are really going to be saved, you will keep on believing, keep on following, keep on holding on to the faith of the gospel which Paul proclaimed.
This is where a lot of traditional Baptists miss it. We have heard and been taught that famous Baptist doctrine so many times over the years: “Once saved, always saved.” And it is true. If you are genuinely saved, you will always be saved. But many people have misapplied that genuine doctrine to apply it to people to whom it was never meant to apply. “Once saved, always saved” is indeed Biblical. Ephesians 1:13 says when we genuinely believe, we are “sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” Jesus said in John 10:28, “No one can snatch (My sheep) out of My hand.” (John 10) Once you are really saved, you will indeed always be saved: kept in the hand of Jesus, sealed with the Holy Spirit.
But we should add an addendum to that old saying: “IF saved, always saved” — “IF saved, always saved.” Just because someone walks down an aisle and fills out a card, or gets baptized, does not mean that they are genuinely saved. There is such a thing as “believing in vain” as Paul mentions here. There are people who make emotional decisions, but who do not really understand what they are doing. There are those who want to please their parents, or other family members, or friends, or whatever. Just because they walk down an aisle doesn’t mean they are saved. That is why we call it a “profession of faith.” They are PROFESSING that they have faith. We cannot know if they really have faith or not. “Professing” faith is not the same as genuinely “possessing” the faith!
So how do you tell? Jesus said “you will know them by their fruit.” And one of the best “fruits” of real salvation is perseverance — continuing in the faith. In The Parable of the Soils Jesus said there is a kind of person whose faith is like a seed that sprouts up quickly, but fades in the summer heat. But there is also a kind of person whose faith is like a seed that grows up and matures and bears fruit. That is the person who is genuinely saved. They persevere in their faith. That is what theologians call the doctrine of “The Perseverance of the Saints.” (Now, you may have heard that term used in connection with Calvinism, and Calvinists do believe it — but non-Calvinist Baptists believe it as well.) It just means that if you are really saved, you are going to persevere in the faith; you are not going to turn your back on it and walk away.
This is just what Paul says here. He says you are saved — “IF you hold fast to the word which I preached to you.” In other words, you are saved IF you persevere in your faith. If you do not persevere in your faith, it demonstrates that you are not saved. Someone may ask: “So what does this mean for the person who ‘made a decision’ at Falls Creek or VBS or in a revival but has dropped out of church for years?” What does this passage say about that? It indicates that person is most likely not saved. He says you are saved “IF you hold fast to the word which I preached to you.” It’s one of the best tests of salvation. If you continue in the faith; you can have every confidence that you are really saved. But if you do not persevere in the faith, it is a good indication that you are not genuinely saved.
Now, someone may say, “But isn’t that like ‘works salvation’: If you go to church and do certain things, then you are saved?” But that is not what the Bible is teaching. It does not say “If you do these things, then you will be saved.” It is teaching that if you do these things, it is because you already ARE being saved! It doesn’t “make” you saved; it demonstrates that you really are.
One of the best illustrations of that I have seen happened when we were painting a little storage shed at the parsonage at First Baptist, Moss Bluff a number of years ago. We loved the paint; it was a “Mark Twain Gray” and we thought it would look really nice on the shed with white trim. But the paint had been out in the shed all winter, and since it had gotten pretty cold, we were afraid it might not be good any more. If it had frozen, the paint would soon peel off. We debated about it for a while, and I finally said, “Let’s put it on. If it is good, it will stay on, and if it isn’t, we’ll soon find out!” So we painted it, and it looked great — all that year, and the next winter, and the next year, and the next. Over time, I finally looked at that shed and said, “I guess that paint was good after all!” Now, staying on the building did not “make” that paint good; the paint was good when I put it on. But staying on the building DEMONSTRATED that the paint was, in fact, good the whole time.
And the same thing is true of our salvation. If you persevere in your faith, your persevering does not “make” you a genuine believer; it merely demonstrates that you really were a genuine believer the whole time. That’s the doctrine of “The Perseverance of the Saints.”
Someone wrote something to the effect of: the best test of whether you are really a Christian is not by looking back at a “decision” you may or may not have made years ago, but by whether you are truly following Jesus NOW! Like Paul wrote, are you holding fast to the word which was proclaimed to you?
What does this doctrine say about you, or someone you know?
— If you have been having doubts about whether someone you know is saved, this one of the best ways to tell. Have they continued in their faith, or have they given it up? If they are not continuing in their faith, there is a real chance they were never really saved, and you need to pray for their salvation.
— What does it say about your own salvation? Have you ever made the gospel personal? Has it ever become more than just a bunch of “beliefs” to you? Have you really received it into your own heart and life? And if you’d say you have, are you showing that it is real in your life by persevering in your faith?
— Surely there are some here today who would say that you have never really made this personal in your life. Maybe you have never really understood it until now. Or maybe it is has just been a bunch of beliefs that didn’t really matter that much to you. But today God is speaking to your heart through His word, and you know that if you do not receive this into your life in a real and meaningful way, you will not be saved. And God’s convicting you: “Now is the appointed time; today is the day of salvation”!
There is nothing more important you will do all this year, than get this one thing right: it’s more important than what you eat, or how you exercise, or how you budget. Make sure you have been saved by the Gospel, and that you are demonstrating it by the way you live:
“Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved — IF you hold fast the word which I preached to you.”