The Evolution of Salvation
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
In many churches and temples across America sermons and homilies are preached by rabbis, imams, priests, gurus, and ministers from a wide range of traditions, and in each case, most of the folks in attendance will be yearning to hear something that makes them feel good about how they’re living, will give them hope for tomorrow, and will comfort them when they are in pain. Most of those who worship will return to their homes satisfied with what they hear from their religious leaders, but sadly, most of them will not have heard the Truth about the God who created the heavens and the earth and everything in them. We know that our Muslim neighbors return from worship with dreams of good and prosperous futures driven by their own good deeds. We know that our Jewish brothers and sisters have gone home empty—not even knowing what they’ve missed in their study of God’s holy Word. And we are all acutely aware that the Buddhists and Hindus among us have received only the worthless wisdom of men instead of the divine truths for which their spirits thirst. So many of those who seek to know the mind of God every week find nothing but the comfort of their own delusions, and for these who chase after the false gods of self or of their own righteousness to find their hope for living, we offer our sympathy, our prayers, and the Lord willing, our witness to the One, True God. It really is tragic that so many have been led astray by false teachers and prophets to follow after things that cannot satisfy and things that lead not to life, but to death. But what is even worse is that in our own community and in many of America’s Christian churches, the message of salvation through our Lord Jesus is being traded in for counterfeit gospels teaching different kinds of joy, peace, and salvation than God’s Word proclaims.
You may not think that you’ve heard these fake gospels, but I guarantee that you have—maybe even in your own families because that’s the way these things go. It’s not that people want to throw out Scripture or to take Jesus out of their religion, but that’s exactly what ends up happening when we lose track of the true, saving gospel. So just what are some people teaching and calling it “Christianity?” Some of the worst counterfeit gospel schemes I’ve heard are so wrongheaded as to advertise special services where nationally renowned preachers will be coming in to give people special blessings so that their bank accounts will prosper. It’s like someone’s worked some good, “white magic,” and God is secretly giving away money as a reward for someone cracking His secret code for worldly success. Of course, there’s always a substantial door charge for these “worship services,” so it’s fairly easy for us to spot these as frauds from far off. But I’d be really surprised if there are too many people here this morning that haven’t at least prayed for God to help us increase our bank accounts just a little—even when our requests had nothing to do with life and death financial issues. Usually, we’re in a little bind and we think it would be great to have a coin-operated deity—you put your quarter in, pull the lever of prayer, and occasionally, you hit the jackpot with a successful stock or other investment.
Along these same lines are fake gospels that tell you that God wants you to be happy, and all you have to do to get there is to pray a certain prayer for so many days, and voila! Instant happiness. There is no thought about giving prayerful contemplation of Christ’s suffering and the proper relationship that all faithful Christians have with suffering as they serve their Lord selflessly in good times and in bad. It’s true that suffering, worry, and high levels of stress are no fun and are not even part of God’s original plan for us, but when we seek to relieve the suffering that God sometimes allows to occur in our lives, we may miss out on the growth and incredible blessings that leaning on God in those difficult times can (and usually does) produce! Our need to seek happiness comes not from God’s work in our lives, but out of our own selfish desires to create lives so easy and carefree that we don’t even need a Savior. A gospel of happiness like that is anything but biblical. People who preach that God wants us to be “happy” are confusing human happiness—an idea crafted by the world around us and consisting of what we typically summarize as “The American Dream”—with God’s desire that we should find “contentment” in Him and be at peace when we take His promises for us to heart
We’ll get around to these promises soon when we talk about whether or not the gospel evolves, but right now, let’s just say that “God desiring good for those who love him” almost always involves the painful but necessary processes of being tested and tried in the faith through things ranging from holding your tongue when an annoying in-law insults your potato salad to losing your four-year-old grandson to brain cancer. God doesn’t will any suffering to occur, but it does occur because Adam brought sin into the world—God’s promise to us in suffering is that we’re not alone when we suffer and, because he loses literally thousands of sons and daughters every year to the devil—a loss that’s harder for Him to bear than the death of loved ones is for us—he understands our pain
Once we get used to idea that God doesn’t desire that we should all be millionaires or should be wearing saccharine-sweet smiles and dancing in the sunshine every day of our lives, we start seeing that there are other, more subtle fake gospels out there too. Not surpisingly, these more subtle gospels are usually backed up by Scripture itself, but it is Scripture taken out of context or warped so badly that again, any sense of Jesus as the center of the Gospel is lost. In today’s Old Testament passage, we have just the kind of Scripture that can be manipulated to forget that Jesus alone saves you and me. Let’s take a look. Ezekiel 18:30-32 says this— “Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways,” declares the Sovereign LORD. “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! Please keep this passage in front of you as we discuss it. Most Christian denominations in our country read these three verses as clear indications that it’s up to us to reform our ways in order for us to be saved. They will tell you that in the old days, the Israelites found their salvation in obeying the Law, and then God’s plan for salvation evolved into its next phase when people who were alive in the time of the disciples were running around converting sinners in the name of Jesus. Converting sinners and spreading the Word was their way of obeying the Law, but now that everybody knows about Jesus, the way we’re saved is to repent and give our hearts to Jesus—to try our best to obey the Lord’s Laws like He did so perfectly all the way to the cross.
“After all,” they’ll say, “you can’t argue that God’s Word doesn’t clearly say, ‘Repent and live, meaning that Jesus has made it possible for us to be good enough to pull ourselves up out of the muck.” For a great majority of our Christian brothers and sisters in churches of all denominations across America, this is their gospel! “Jesus died for you so that your sins could be forgiven, and now, having received that forgiveness, it’s up to you to deserve it. Be good to one another, give at least one-tenth of your salary to spreading the news of Jesus to the world, and in some cases, give up drinking and smoking so that you can be the face of Jesus to others who are lost and don’t know Him.”
You have no idea how much I would love to be able to tell you to “be good and forgiving toward one another, to increase your giving to the church so that we could draw more visitors in with great community programs and services, and to get rid of all the human foibles that don’t make you the best living witness that our Lord could have.” I would love to tell you that that’s what Jesus’ Gospel is all about—filling these pews with good, caring people who you will love unconditionally and who will take care of every spiritual and emotional need you will ever have because you were decent enough to allow them to come into your church, but all of this is off the mark. Humanly speaking, it would be great for all these things to happen, but I am grateful this morning (and I hope you are too) that we don’t have to be—in fact, we can’t be—perfect Christians that have earned the privilege to sit with Jesus and the angels in heaven when we die.
God’s plan for salvation hasn’t “evolved” (as so many churches claim) into just a new set of laws geared toward making every church a mega-church. No, God’s plans for salvation, just like each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, have not changed one bit since before time began. God tells us in Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do NOT change…”—He never has, and He never will. Interestingly, the quote from Malachi is not just describing a God that does not change, but it is actually talking about God’s decision to be merciful to the Israelites when they had cheated and robbed Him through their unwillingness to give to His priests. What we hear here is, not only is Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebr. 13:8), but the plan of salvation is unchanging too. Salvation never depended on obeying the Law—we are told that Abraham’s FAITH in God’s mercy and righteousness saved him long before the Law was ever given (Romans), and Paul makes it clear that the only way to read our verses from Ezekiel this morning is to recognize that none of us can repent unless God basically does it for us after first blessing and strengthening us with the Spirit and Christ Himself indwelling. In other words, our salvation depends on God’s faithfulness to us—it doesn’t depend on our faithfulness to Him. Our salvation depends on God’s ability to keep His promise to “save those who trust in Him” (Psalm 86:2) et. al., and I know that I can trust Him in all things—especially this—because even before I could possibly say that I was good enough to be saved through my baptism of the water and the Word, Jesus came and died for me. Even while you and I were still sinners, Jesus lay down his life for us so that we could trust in God’s promise of salvation, so don’t allow anyone to ever convince you that you have to do anything more than live each day with the remarkably peaceful and even “happy” understanding that Jesus has saved you from sin, death, and the devil. God loves you, and He will never change His mind nor alter the requirements. Christ is your righteousness and your salvation—unchanging, never “evolving,” and never dependent on anything you do or even fail to do. With that word, may the peace of God, which is Jesus, His Son, keep your hearts and minds in Him today and every day. Amen.