A Very Personal Statement of Faith
March 21, 1989
Tonight I sit and stare at the blank face of my computer. It’s dark outside and the boys are in bed. In the kitchen the dishwasher drones and in the bedroom I hear Marlene talking to someone on the phone—I can’t quite tell who it is. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks at a passing car. Things are peaceful in our corner of the world.
Yesterday I had barely gotten to work when Marlene called and said that Buddy McCallum was dying. It wasn’t really a surprise, he’s had cancer for quite awhile, surgery two years ago, and then surgery again last November. I hadn’t seen him since then, until two or three weeks ago when we—Marlene and I—dropped by his house. The cancer had done its grim work. He was thin, down to 119 pounds he said, from 166 pounds before the last operation. He was weak, but he looked good and I could tell he was glad to see us. We sat down and talked about his upcoming treatment—something called Interferon, a wonder drug that might or might not make a difference. But Buddy was hopeful and so we talked about it, and then the discussion drifted to the Dallas Mavericks and then to the firing of Tom Landry. Buddy wasn’t happy about the way they treated Coach Landry. We talked, and after awhile, we prayed together and then got up to leave. Buddy walked with us to the door. He gripped my hand, Marlene hugged him, and he said over and over how glad he was that we came by.
That was a couple of weeks ago. Then another call came yesterday. My dear friend is dying of cancer. The Interferon didn’t work, Buddy has stopped eating or drinking, his weight is down to 110, and the doctors have told him there is no hope. In a day or two they will send him home to die.
One of the family members called and said that when he dies they want me to do the funeral. I buried his wife Lois two years ago. His only son died at the age of ten. And Buddy may die this week.
This week. Easter week. Holy week. What a week for someone to die. I sit tonight and ponder what it is I really believe. I may well have a funeral to do before I attend the Easter Sunrise Service this Sunday morning.
I Believe In God
If there’s anything good that can be said about death, it’s that it has a way of wonderfully concentrating the mind. In a blinding flash of reality, we see that so many of the things we thought were important really aren’t important at all. And some of those great truths we take for granted turn out—in the moment of crisis—to be the rocks on which we steady our shaking souls.
So I say quite simply that I believe in God. For me there is no doubt on that point. Behind our questions, our doubts, our fears, our nagging worries, our sleepless nights—behind it all there is God who created the heavens and the earth. We neither see him nor hear him nor touch him. And though we search to the ends of the earth, we will not find him. Not even in our books of theology. But he is there, nonetheless, and if we seek him with all our hearts, we will find him. The theologians call it paradox and mystery and antinomy—but it doesn’t really matter what you call it. He is there. He has always been there. He will always be there. When the last monument to the creative genius of mankind has crumbled into the dust, He will still be there—Eternal, Enthroned, the Sovereign of the universe.
And I believe that God has spoken to us in the Bible. That seems wonderfully clear to me tonight. The God who cannot be seen or heard or touched—the God who rules over all creation—that God has spoken to us. What he has said is true—as the confession says, it is truth without any admixture of error. There is no error in it because there is no error in God. What he says is true and reliable and trustworthy—not just the message but every little detail as well. Therefore, when the Bible says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (John 14:2) I believe it to be true though I really don’t know what it means. But I rest my soul on this: If God has said it, then it must be true. I smile as I reflect on the fact that Buddy will understand those words in a few days. In moments like these, the fact that I believe the Bible is God’s Word makes all the difference in the world.
And I believe that God loves us. Loves me. Loves all the Buddy McCallums of the world. Loves every man—no matter how wretched—and I really do believe that God has a wonderful plan for every man and every woman. I believe it, for why else would God send his Son to die on the cross? I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t send one of my sons to die. But God did. Love starts with God and it comes rolling down to us by way of the bloody cross. The wonder of God’s love is this—it starts with him and not with us.
Wiped Clean And Born Again
Two years ago when I preached Lois’ funeral I used her Bible and found some margin notes she had written on Romans 5:1. I don’t remember what she wrote or what I said, but I remember the text. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Justification: That act of God whereby guilty sinners are declared righteous on the basis of the death of Jesus Christ. Not made righteous—at least not in this life. But declared righteous—judicially acquitted, forgiven, the slate wiped clean and the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to us. The one thing we spend our life striving for—acceptance—we never find because we keep falling short, but in one moment of faith God gives it to us. And it all comes through our Lord Jesus Christ. Lord—his Deity; Jesus—the Savior; Christ—God’s anointed Deliverer. The end of it all is, we have peace with God, in life and in death.
I believe that sinful men can be born again by putting their faith in Jesus Christ. That is, they can literally be born again. They can be converted, changed, radically transformed. In a world where vast promises are made for everything new, from new cars to soda pop, here is one promise that is both vast and true: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation.” (II Corinthians 5:17) The new birth is more than a religious slogan; it is a reality for those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
Salvation, then, is a free gift of God. It is received on the single condition of trusting in Jesus Christ whose death on the cross is the full payment for man’s sin. Those who are thus born again can never be unborn. They have security which is eternal and, in the words of my friend Jack Wyrtzen, are as sure of heaven as if they had already been there ten thousand years.
I believe that the new life which Jesus Christ provides is made possible through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, I believe that without the Holy Spirit there is no way to live the Christian life. There is no combination of human effort and good intention that can enable us to do what God has asked us to do. The old Youth for Christ doctrinal statement puts it with beautiful simplicity: “We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by whose indwelling the Christian is able to live a godly life.” Which simply means that when I need him—which is all the time—he is always there.
From Here To Mombassa
During this Holy Week I believe in the Church Universal—the great body of believers scattered from Mombassa to Lisbon to Minsk to Darwin to Asuncion to Juneau. In more churches than I can imagine, believers are recounting the final days of our Lord. And this Sunday in a thousand tongues they will sing of his resurrection. They are my brothers and my sisters. They are part of God’s great worldwide family. And between them and me—though we are separated by thousands of miles and vast cultural differences—there is true spiritual unity.
If you want to know the truth, I still believe in the local church. More than ever, I still believe. After ten years as a pastor seeing all that is good and some that is not-so-good, I still believe that the local church is the center-piece of God’s plan in the world today. Nothing will ever take its place. We come to church on Sunday with our minds racing in a thousand directions. It’s been a hard week, filled with long days and busy nights. And then we come to church. Our friends are there, they greet us at the door, we laugh and talk, we sit together, we sing the hymns and pray the prayers. The pastor preaches. We stand for the benediction and out we go. But we are not the same. Something has happened. We have met God there. It’s another one of those mysteries—but God is there on Sunday when the family comes together. I know, I know, in the church things sometimes move so slowly and progress is so hard to see. But it doesn’t matter because God has chosen the church as his primary means of blessing the world. We needn’t be ashamed or feel like we have to apologize for our imperfections. God is there in the midst of his people and his plan is being worked out in the church and, in ways we can hardly understand, he is being glorified.
“Son, You’re Looking In The Wrong Place”
Finally, I believe in the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. The personal, visible, bodily, imminent return of our Lord. And I believe in the resurrection of the dead. A pastor friend told me a few years ago that he believes every church should recite the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday because it contains the phrase, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” That doctrine is so hard for modern man to believe that we need to repeat it every Sunday to remind ourselves it is true.
I am faced with an awful dilemma tonight. My friend Buddy McCallum is dying and I can’t do anything about it. But it’s Holy Week and before long Easter will be here. How do those two things fit together?
When I was just starting out in the ministry, I was asked to perform a graveside service for a man I barely knew. I was young and inexperienced and thought to say a few words of comfort. I fumbled my way through the ceremony and came to the closing prayer. When I got to the part about the resurrection of the dead, the words stuck in my throat. I could barely finish my prayer. I went back home, frustrated and embarrassed. What had gone wrong? Then it hit me. I wasn’t sure I believed in the resurrection of the dead. Up until then, it had all been theoretical. But now I had come face to face with death and all my brave words seemed so hollow.
Out of that experience I began to pray and it seemed as if God said to me, “Son, you’re looking in the wrong place.” Then it hit me. There is indeed a grave that’s empty, but it’s over on the other side of the world, outside Jerusalem, carved into a mountainside. That tomb is empty and it’s been empty for 2,000 years.
Several years ago I visited the Holy Land for the first time. During our visit to Jerusalem, we spent an hour at the Garden Tomb, the spot believed by many to be the actual burial place of Jesus. It is located next to Gordon’s Calvary, that strange rock outcropping that appears to be worn into the shape of a skull. We know it was used as a burial site in Jesus’ day. Many believe it was the spot of the crucifixion.
The Garden Tomb is located about a hundred yards from Gordon’s Calvary and is in fact the spot of beautiful garden built over an ancient Roman aqueduct. To your left as you enter is a typical first-century tomb dug into the hillside. A trench in front of the opening was apparently designed for the massive stone that once covered the entrance.
No Body There
Because the opening is very small, I had to duck to go inside. For a few seconds, you see nothing until your eyes adjust to the darkness. Then you can easily make out the two chambers. Visitors stand in the mourners chamber. A wrought-iron fence protects the chamber where the body was laid. You soon notice that the burial chamber was originally designed for two bodies. However one ledge was never finished for some reason. The other one was. It appears to be designed for a person slightly less than six feet tall.
As I looked around the burial chamber, I could see faint markings left by Christian pilgrims from earlier centuries. After a few seconds another thought enters the mind. There is no body to be found in this tomb. Whoever was buried there evidently left a long time ago. The Garden Tomb is empty!
As you exit back into the sunlight, your eyes fasten upon a wooden sign: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, for he is risen, as he said.”
We look at our loved ones dying and wonder if the resurrection can be true. But that’s backwards. God says, “Look what I did for my Son. Will I do any less for those who put their trust in him?” Put simply: We do not believe in the resurrection of the dead because of anything we can see with our eyes; everything we see argues against it. People die all the time. There hasn’t been a resurrection in a long, long time. But that doesn’t matter. We believe in the resurrection of the saints because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (I Thessalonians 4:14)
And so tonight I have no doubts about my friend Buddy. He may not make it through the week but he’s going to be all right. God has promised to take care of him and he will. And if I preach a funeral this week, I’ll do it in full confidence that the funeral is not the end of the story.
That’s what the return of Christ means to me. The suffering we see around us, the wasting disease, the incredible pain of broken lives—thank God, that is not the end of the story. There are better days ahead—the Rapture, the victorious Return, Christ reigning as King in the very place where he was crucified. And best of all, as the Apostle Paul put it, “We will be with the Lord forever.” (I Thessalonians 4:17)
Five Days From Easter
It’s late now and the house is very quiet. On this day Jesus cursed the fig tree. Tomorrow he faced down the Pharisees. The next day he met with his disciples in the Upper Room. On the next day he was crucified. The day after that he lay in the tomb. And on Sunday—just five days from now—he rose from the dead.
Someone said, “Wouldn’t it be sad if Buddy died this week?” I don’t think so. No, it wouldn’t be sad at all. I can’t think of a better time to die than during the week before Jesus rose from the dead. After all, everything we really believe comes down to what happened this week. If it’s true, then we’re in great shape. And the good news—the gospel truth, as they say down South—is that it’s true, it really happened. And that means that whether we live or die, we’re in great shape tonight.