Summary: This sermon answers the question, "Are we saved by good works or by faith?"
The October 22, 1996 headlines of The Times of London cried: Lost Forever: A Nation’s Heritage Looted By Its Own People. Afghanistan’s National Museum in Kabul is rubble, said the newspaper.
It once held one of the world’s greatest multicultural antique collections: Persian, Indian, Chinese, Central Asian, and beyond. But Mujahidin rebels blasted into vaults and shattered display cases, looted the relics, and sold them here and there around the world for quick cash. Rockets slammed into the museum’s roof, burying ancient bronzes under tons of debris. Pottery from prehistory was thrown into bags like cheap china. The Bagram collection, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century, disappeared. Nearly 40,000 coins, some of the world’s oldest, vanished.
The museum, once a repository for Afghan history, became a military post, and the storied past has now been ruined by the unbridled present.
A nation has lost its history. With no history, there is no heritage. And with no heritage from the past there is no legacy for the future.
The same could happen to the church of Jesus Christ. Contemporary Christianity is interested in recent trends, current challenges, and modern methods. So am I. But nothing braces me to face these days like visiting the cloud of witnesses that comprise church history.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed, “If we don’t know our own history, we will simply have to endure all the same mistakes, sacrifices, and absurdities all over again.”
“How shall we labor with any effect to build up the church” asks Church historian Philip Schaff, “if we have no thorough knowledge of her history? History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the richest foundation of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.”
This is one of the reasons I am going to focus on using more illustrations from history this coming year to help us understand how God works in this world and, consequently, in our lives.
Today’s sermon is titled, “Saved by Good Works or by Faith?” The entire 4th chapter of Romans is devoted to Abraham, whom Paul uses as an illustration of the central biblical truth that we come into a right relationship with God by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone, and never by our good works.
Let’s read Romans 4:1-5:
"1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? ’Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness" (Romans 4:1-5)
Jennifer Hua identifies herself as a Christian. A 35-year-old former attorney studying Christian counseling at the Wheaton College Graduate School (Illinois), she has gone to church all her life and is active in her suburban Chicago church. She furthers her spiritual development by daily Bible reading, prayer, listening to and singing worship songs, and interacting with other Christians. And every few months, she carves out time for a spiritual retreat.
“I do all of these things because I know from past experience I need to recalibrate my mind and my heart to be in tune with God,” she says.
James Smith also identifies himself as a Christian. He attended church as a child, but his attendance was minimal as a young adult. He believes in God, occasionally attends Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan when his time-consuming job in the finance district allows, but he does not often participate in other activities to further his spiritual life. He has a Bible but rarely opens it. What leisure time he has he spends with friends, most of whom are of different faiths, and he does not believe that his God is any different from the one his Muslim friend worships.
“I don’t think that God would be a God who would shut others out of heaven because they don’t use the word ‘Christian’ to describe themselves,” he says.
The United States is described in mainstream media as largely Christian (between 70 and 80 percent, depending on the study, identify themselves as “Christian”), and compared to the rest of the world, this is certainly the case. However, not all within this vast group of Christians are alike, as the two above show.
A recent study by Leadership Journal suggests that of those who call themselves Christians there are five kinds. There are Active Christians (19%), Professing Christians (20%), Liturgical Christians (16%), Private Christians (24%), and Cultural Christians (21%). Of these, only Active and Professing Christians said “accepting Christ as Savior and Lord” is the key to being a Christian. That is, more than 60% do not believe that faith in Christ is essential to salvation.