Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sermon: Behavior Modification v. The Gospel (text and video)

text: 1st Thessalonians 5:23-24:
23May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.
Today we finish 1st Thessalonians. The bulk of our time today will be spent on vv. 23-24. Vv25-28 can be dealt with more quickly and if we have time we'll do so. But we'll focus mostly on 23 and 24. To understand the significance of those two verses, let's back up to the beginning of chapter 5 and list all of the imperatives Paul gives to the Thessalonians just in this one chapter:

v.6 "be alert and self controlled"
v.8 "be self controlled"
v. 11 encourage one another
v.12 respect those who work hard among you; who are over you in the lord
v.13 hold them in high regard
v.13 live at peace with one another
v. 14 warn those who are idle,
v. 14 encourage the timid,
v. 14. help the weak,
v.14 be patient with everyone
v.15 don't pay back evil for evil
v. 15 be kind to one another and everyone else. 
v. 16 Be joyful always; 
v. 17  pray continually; 
v. 18 give thanks in all circumstances,
v. 19 Do not put out the Spirit's fire; 
v. 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 
v. 21 Test everything. 
v. 22 Hold on to the good.
v. 22 Avoid every kind of evil.

That's 20 commands in 22 verses depending on how you count them.

It'd be easy to come away from chapter 5 thinking: "I need to do this and not that. I need to avoid this and avoid that." And such an application wouldn't be wrong. All 20 commands are from God: life giving, wise, true, good.  

But it's in the face of commands like these in chapter 5 and throughout scripture that so many people born, bred, raised in church go to their graves never grasping the gospel.

I remember visiting a parishioner in the hospital some years ago, days before his death. I sat by his bed and I asked him, “Are you prepared? Have you put your full trust in Jesus Christ?”

He said: “ I've always done my best to do the right thing and live in the right way. I made a few mistakes here and there but I've never done anything that should keep me out of heaven. I taught my kids to go to church and to live with the same values and they've turned out to be good and decent people.”

That was it.

This man was a faithful churchgoer. He'd listened--or I thought he'd listened--to every sermon. I remember thinking, “Well maybe he gets it but just isn't able to really articulate it.” But when I probed deeper, no. “I've always done my best to do the right thing and live in the right way.” was his gospel.

I realized that day that what I'd heard from countless pulpits is true. Our churches are populated with people who sit in pews every Sunday, who go to Sunday school, who go to bible study and still come away thinking that Christianity is mostly about behavior modification. Moral deism...being "good" for the great god who lives in the sky as opposed to being bad.

So my cousin the alcoholic, my uncle in jail, my friend the kleptomaniac, my mom who sits depressed on the couch watching soap operas all day—what they all need is to come to church. Why? So that they can learn to live in the right way and not do bad things. This is why inviting people to church is important, so that more and more people can learn to live good, decent, respectable lives like us.

Let me say here, that if you think that's your gospel, if that's Christianity for you, then you have, in dramatic fashion, missed it. You are not in Christ.

Don't feel unique. You are far from alone.

I used to be baffled at why so many people raised in church believe in their heart of hearts that all religions are the same and buy books like the “Tao of Jesus” or “The Buddhist Jesus” and are happy if their son who's been selling drugs and living with his girlfriend suddenly becomes a Mormon because, "Hey, he may not believe the same things we do but at least he's getting his life cleaned up."

I'm not baffled anymore. When you compare the ethical principles of Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Mormonism, and Islam you'll find lots of similarities and if you think the function of religion is ethics, behavior modification, then it doesn't matter whether your cousin becomes a Mormon or a Christian so long as “he gets his life together”. There are millions of Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, churchgoing people who think “living the right way” is what its all about.

It's certainly satisfying. Christianity provides a cut and dry list of things to do and not do. And if you think you basically do them, you've got a reason to congratulate yourself, to think well of yourself. And you also have a reason to shake your head when you hear about the awful things other people do. Churches full of people who believe in behavior modification are, afterall, pleasant places. The right sort go there—people who've learnt to live the right way.

But if behavior modification summed up Christianity. If behavior modification constituted the aim of the gospel, then Paul would have ended his letter in verse 22. "Avoid what is evil." But he doesn't. He ends with a prayer and a promise.

v.23 "May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. 
The prayer begins with Paul's intercession--may God sanctify you fully and completely, may “he” do it. Notice the radical shift from vv 6-22 to v. 23. No religion does this. Verses 6 through 22 are all commands for the Thessalonians to follow, cut and dry, but in verse 23 the imperatives come to a dead stop. Paul lifts up his heart and prays, Lord you do it. You sanctify them. You make them holy.

He continues: "May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ..." focus on that phrase, "kept blameless".

The Grk word translated “kept” could also be used for "guard" or protect. Blameless means--not guilty, not to be held responsible for wrongdoing. Paul assumes in this second line of his prayer that blamelessness is a state that already exists in his readers. His prayer here is that God will guard and preserve it until Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead.

So this seems confusing doesn't it? The first part of the prayer in v. 23 asks God to sanctify the Thessalonians, to make them holy. The second part of the prayer assumes that the people Paul has just asked God to sanctify are already blameless. How do we reconcile the two together? and how do we understand both in light of the commands he's given to us earlier in the chapter?

I think we'll see how this all comes together if we turn to Romans 8:1-4:

"...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit."

There two truths to pull out of this text that will help us understand what Paul is doing in 1st Thessalonians 5:23

1. Those who trust in Jesus are not condemned. And the reason that they are not condemned is NOT that they are good people or do good things. The law, rules--even divinely given ones, Paul says are powerless. They can do nothing. Why? Because they are bad? No. They are very good. But our sinful nature renders the law powerless. The law cannot and does not make us good. All our attempts at behavior modification are worthless. Even the good things we do are tainted with pride and selfishness which is why Isaiah says that even our righteous deeds are like filthy rags (Isa 64:6). So why are we not condemned? God sent his son, Jesus, who became like us, who became human, to be a "sin offering." What does that mean? It means God himself, in Jesus, was punished, condemned, for our sins in our place. And because of that, those who trust in Jesus' work and not their own, are blameless in God's sight. The righteous requirements of the law are met in us because all of our unrighteousness has been punished already in him and he has imputed to us his own righteousness.

2. Those who trust in Jesus are empowered by and live in accordance with God, the Holy Spirit, not with the flesh. Do believers sin? Yes. Every day. But we are no longer slaves in bondage to sin--our lives are no longer characterized by sin. God indwells us and lives his life in us and daily breaks the chains of sin and death. This is not mere religious behavior modification. This is heart transformation, God making us different

So turning back to 1st Thessalonians, Paul's prayer comes together. "These are your people Lord continue your work of breaking the chains of sin. Lord, preserve them as forgiven people who stand blameless before you not because they've modified their behavior and managed to live "pretty decent lives." But because you shed your blood in their place and have taken their sin away and given them your righteousness.

So now the commands in vv.6-22 are not just things good people do. They are things God does in and through redeemed sinners.

Verse 24 drives a stake through the heart of do it yourself behavior modification Christianity.

"The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it."

That is a declarative sentence. This is not an opinion, a question, a deep thought...this is a proclamation, a promise directly from the throne of God. If you are in Christ Jesus. If you trust in him and his work and not your own. If you do not think you're here because you're a good person but because God alone has brought you out of the pit of hell and set you in his lap as his son or daughter, then this is promise is for you. "He will do it." He "will" sanctify you "through and through". He "will" keep you "blameless" until his kingdom comes.

But wait a minute...I listened to the sermon last week on sexual immorality and I saw the darkness of my heart. I look at myself, my secret thoughts, my hateful attitudes, the muck and the mire of my own sin and I think I'm hopeless.

Good. That's right. You are hopeless. I am hopeless.

"He will do it." The one who called you, who calls you this morning, God, is faithful. He keeps his word. He keeps his promises. He is faithful even when we are faithless.

So you put your trust not in yourself, not in your ability to do what is right and avoid evil, not in your persistence in prayer, you attendance at church, not in your efforts to do good and avoid evil, put your trust in Jesus Christ. Paul's prayer is your prayer. "Lord may you sanctify me through and through. Lord, guard my heart mind and soul in the blamelessness you've already given me in Christ."

And you can know that this is not a prayer that could possibly come to pass. This is not a prayer that God "might" answer. This is a prayer that is fully and wholly in accordance with the revealed purposes and promises of God. He will do it. He will do it.

And if you are here this morning and you realize that the religion you have believed and trusted all your life is a false one, the Faithful One calls you to stop. Quit your attempts to justify yourself. You cannot do it. You will fail. You already have. There is a better way.

Jesus Christ came to save sinners. Put your trust in him. He will do it.

No comments: