It's my normal routine for a Sunday. Up early, a cup of coffee, check my email and the news in case anything has happened overnight that I need to know about before the service, and then any last minute preparation. I have a baptism today. Only three families, which is small by our standards. This is because the application season for the schools is largely over for this year! Enough said.
Here is the next in my series of radio broadcasts on Salvation.
3. Not the Way to Salvation
John Calvin, the 16th century theologian begins his greatest work, and one of the most influential books of all time, with these words:
‘Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.’
St Paul reminds us that we as humans have, generally speaking, declined the offer of knowing God. We have preferred to go it alone, and it has got us into a right mess. A mess that the Bible describes as sin. Much of the time, we have no problem with this: we rather enjoy being selfish and self-centred, but sometimes we realize the damage we are doing to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. We become conscious of the emptiness of our existence and of the futility of our pursuit of material possessions. It is at this point that we start to search for something beyond ourselves that can give meaning to our existence here.
This is perfectly understandable. St Augustine said to God in a prayer: ‘you have made us for yourself and our hearts our restless until they find their rest in you.’ Sometimes we become aware that there must be someone out there, a god, who is bigger and greater than us. We sense that if we can find him, we may find the meaning of our life and a purpose to our existence. After all, if He does exist then it is he ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ so that only by finding him can we find the secret of life.
Sadly, this at times intuitive knowledge, this sense that there really must be a god - a sense which humanity has had for all its existence - is not always accompanied by a similar knowledge of ourselves. We still think we are in a position to do a bargain with God. ‘I’ll show an interest in you if you will reveal yourself to me.’ ‘I’ll show you this interest by doing good works, by being religious, by trying not to do bad things, in return I expect you, god, to do your bit. After all that’s what I deserve. I am not a bad person, am I?’
It’s like a sick person with only days to live planning a cruise next summer in the Bahamas. We just don’t realize how ill, how sinful, we are. We are infected to such an extent that, even if we wanted to, we would be incapable of doing any good that would merit our Creator showing any interest in us. We are, as an ancient prayer expresses it: ‘powerless of ourselves to help ourselves’. We don’t need to do a deal, we need rescuing, we need someone to intervene and help us.
The first step to finding the God we have rejected and lost is to realize how desperate is our situation, how great is our need of him, and how incapable we are of doing anything to win his favour and attention, how impossible it is for us to do anything that might please him, because anything that we do carries the infection that afflicts us. But we are proud. We do not want to admit our weakness, our failure, our powerlessness, and our need.
But the Bible tells us, honestly and categorically as a doctor must tell a seriously ill patient, that we are sick and unless we accept the treatment being offered, we will die. We can continue to pretend that we are not ill, that we will soon get better, that we do not need to undergo treatment, but at the end of the day we are only deluding ourselves and as surely as night follows day: we will die.
It’s not a message we want to hear. We do not want to be lumped together with murderers, thieves, and cheats. But these are just specific manifestations of the sickness we all have. And it is one we need outside help for. St Paul puts it like this: ‘the good that I would I do not, the evil that I would not that I do … Wretched man that I am? Who will rescue me from this body of death?
The first stage in getting better is to accept that you are ill and that you are not going to get better unless you get help quick. To find healing it is essential we are realistic about the seriousness of our illness and wise enough to seek out professional help to deal with it. The Bible is clear that we ALL need help and that help cannot come from ourselves, it has gone too far for that.
Who then can help us? How can we find healing? How can we be saved?
St Paul says:
For I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith …
The word ‘Gospel’ means good news. The Christian message is good news, but it is only good news once we have heard the bad news and it is only for those who have faith, that is, for those who realize that there is nothing that they themselves can do!
But faith in what or whom?