Back to Basics
January 4, 2004
Each year at Calvary we choose a theme and a theme verse that serve as our ministry focus. We started doing that in 1991 and have continued every year since then. Sometimes we don’t know until October or November what our theme for the next year will be. And sometimes there is quite a bit of discussion on the pastoral staff about which theme we should choose. This year the answer came very early. Last summer while I was preaching in Maine, I began to think about our church and what we should emphasize in 2004. As I thought and prayed about it, one idea kept coming back to me: “We need to equip the congregation in basic Bible doctrine.” And the simple phrase—”Back to Basics”—kept ringing in my mind. Later I asked Pastor Davis Duggins to suggest some Scriptures verses that might be appropriate. When he gave me a list, one verse I had never noticed before popped off the page: “But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20). Most of us probably don’t read Jude very often (and some of us never read it unless we are reading through the Bible in a year), and since it is a very short book (only 25 verses), we might not think of it when we are looking for key verses. But when I read Jude 20, I knew it should be our theme verse for 2004.
There are a number of reasons why this theme is important. We need to go “Back to Basics” because of …
1. The flow of our themes since 9/11.
We all understand that 9/11 changed the way we look at the world. It burst our bubble of security and (at least temporarily) drove America to its knees. As a direct response to the terrorist attacks, in 2002 we took the theme, “God’s Word: Our Unshakable Foundation.” Hundreds of us signed up to ride the “Bible Bus” from Genesis to Revelation. Last year we focused on prayer: “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.” As I thought about the progression from the Bible to prayer, it seemed that the next logical step is to ground ourselves deeply in the basic teachings of God’s Word.
We need to go “Back to Basics” this year because of …
2. Many new people in our congregation.
The point is easy to demonstrate on Sunday morning simply by looking around and asking, “Who are all these people?” Over the last five years, hundreds of new people have joined our church family. Where are they coming from? An informal survey suggests that upwards of 75% of our people have some connection to the Catholic Church. That’s not surprising since Chicago is so heavily Catholic. And since we are an interdenominational church, we have folks coming who are Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Reformed, and from 40-50 other denominations and religious groups. We’re happy to welcome anyone and everyone who wants to worship with us. But since we minister to people who did not grow up here, and to hundreds who did not come from evangelical backgrounds, it’s vital that we emphasize Bible doctrine so that our own people understand what we believe.
We need to go “Back to Basics” because of …
3. The command of Jude 20.
Our theme verse is actually a command: “Build yourselves up in your most holy faith.” Three comments about that command. First, note the sacred nature of the Christian faith. The phrase “most holy faith” appears nowhere else in the Bible. Our faith is holy because it comes from a holy God. Our faith is “most holy” because our God is “most holy.” Everything he says is holy. This means that the Christian faith is not up for grabs. We do not have the right to change it because we find it uncomfortable or unpopular. We are to take our faith seriously because it comes from a holy God. Second, spiritual growth is not optional. Every Christian is to grow in grace (II Peter 3:18). Ephesians 4:15 tells us to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” and Colossians 2:7 says that we are to be “rooted and grounded in him and established in the faith.” God expects us to grow in grace. That means that when 2004 comes to a close, we ought to be further along in our spiritual journey than we are today. If we do not grow this year, then we’ve got a serious problem in our relationship with God.
Third, spiritual growth does not happen by accident. Let me illustrate. I wonder how many of us made a resolution to lose weight this year. Maybe you’re tired of carrying those extra pounds and having your clothes not fit right. Maybe you want to get in shape physically in 2004. I suppose the vast majority of people make some sort of fitness-related resolution each January. Let me offer one word of advice. Even though I’m no expert in this area, and I don’t have any fitness videos to sell, I know this much is true: If you’re going to lose weight this year, something will have to change. You can’t keep on doing what you’ve done and hope to lose weight. It won’t work. If you don’t change what you’re doing, you’ll still be overweight and out of shape 12 months from now. You know what insanity is, don’t you? It’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I can’t tell you exactly what you have to change, but I know that if you don’t change something, you’ll stay just the way you are right now. If you don’t change, prayer won’t help you. You can get on your knees and pray that God will take the weight off, and when you’re through, you’ll still be overweight. I’m all for praying about your weight, but faith without works is dead. At some point, you’ve got to put down the Coke, say no to the mashed potatoes, put down the remote control, and get up off your Blessed Assurance and start walking or running or working out or riding a bike if you want to lose weight and get in shape. It doesn’t happen by accident. You’ve got to make a choice. The same is true if you want to grow spiritually. It won’t happen by accident. At some point you’ve got to change your schedule and rearrange your priorities. That may mean getting up earlier so you have time to read the Bible and pray. It may mean joining a Bible study group or getting involved in a teaching ministry to children or visiting prisoners or volunteering at a local pro-life center. We are commanded to build ourselves up in our most holy faith, but spiritual growth is not magic. It requires a serious commitment from us or it won’t happen.
We need to go “Back to Basics” because …
4. Good theology can save your life.
This principle is becoming more and more important to me. Good theology can save your life. We all know that good theology can save your soul, but in the time of trouble, if you know the truth and if you remember the truth, what you know and remember can save you from despair. During an interview on a radio station in Dallas, we took a call from a woman who was going through a hard time in her marriage, with her health, and with some family relationships. As I listened, I realized she was a Christian who felt overwhelmed. I knew I couldn’t solve her problems in two minutes. So I told her that she needed to go back to the first principles and remind herself of those things she knew to be true. “Good theology can save your life,” I told her. At that point the host broke in and said, “But you’re a pastor. You have to say that.” Yes, I am a pastor and I do have to say that, but I say it because it’s true. What you know can save you when life tumbles in around you. What things are we talking about? Here’s a short list:
God is good.
God is faithful.
He will never leave me.
His mercy endures forever.
This is no mistake.
God has a purpose.
He is working out his plan for me.
God still loves me.
The Holy Spirit indwells me.
Jesus is alive today.
He will return someday.
Before one of the services on Sunday, I chatted with a friend I hadn’t seen for many months. He and his wife have been through a series of incredibly difficult experiences over the past two or three years. Although he had no idea what I would be preaching on, he grabbed my hand and said, “Tell the people that God is faithful. Tell them those three words: God is faithful.” Then he added, “I haven’t always been faithful, but God has been faithful to me.” That’s what good theology does. It saves you from despair when hard times come. It literally saves your life.
We need to go “Back to Basics” because of …
5. The nature of the Christian faith.
In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote a groundbreaking book called Christianity and Liberalism. A leader in the conservative movement within the Presbyterian Church, Machen wrote the book to demonstrate the fundamental difference between biblical Christianity and liberal Christianity. Looking back on the controversy his book provoked, he wrote this assessment:
The issue in the Church of the present day is not between two varieties of the same religion, but, at bottom, between two essentially different types of thought and life. There is much interlocking of the branches, but the two tendencies, Modernism and supernaturalism, or (otherwise designated) non-doctrinal religion and historic Christianity, spring from different roots. In particular, I tried to show that Christianity is not a “life,” as distinguished from a doctrine, and not a life that has doctrine as its changing symbolic expression, but that—exactly the other way around—it is a life founded on a doctrine.
That last phrase deserves special notice: “a life founded on doctrine.” Today many people who claim to know Jesus don’t believe the Bible is the Word of God. There are New Age types who say they love Jesus, but the Jesus they claim to love is not the Jesus of the Bible. At Calvary we want to help people find a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” But we do not mean a “personal relationship” apart from the Christ of the Bible. We mean a true personal relationship with the Christ revealed in the Bible. Salvation is life-changing precisely because it is a “life founded on a doctrine.”
We need to go “Back to Basics” in order to …
6. Counteract the current emphasis on feelings and experience as the final arbiter of truth.
Last weekend nearly 20,000 young people came to Urbana 03, the triennial missions conference sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. John Stott had been scheduled to speak but had a small stroke a week earlier so his message was read in his absence. In it he discusses three great contemporary challenges to the Christian message: pluralism, materialism and relativism. The relativist denies the existence of absolute moral standards. What is right for you is wrong for me, what is wrong for me is right for you. Thus neither abortion nor homosexuality are truly wrong in the eyes of the moral relativist. Stott points out that relativism permeates our culture and is seeping into the church. Then he offers a bit of doggerel that illustrates the meaning of relativism:
It all depends on where you are,
It all depends on who you are,
It all depends on what you feel,
It all depends on how you feel.
It all depends on how you’re raised,
It all depends on what is praised,
What’s right today is wrong tomorrow,
Joy in France, in America sorrow.
It all depends on point of view,
Australia or Timbuktu,
In Rome do as the Romans do.
If tastes just happen to agree
Then you have morality.
But where there are conflicting trends,
It all depends, it all depends.
Against that widespread moral uncertainty (especially in the realm of sexuality), the church must boldly answer the question, “Who is the Lord?” Do we believe the church stands over the Lord (and thus we can “correct” the teaching of the Bible if we don’t like it), or does the Lord stand over the church (and thus the church submits itself to the teaching of God’s Word)? Jesus still asks, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). “To confess Jesus as Lord but not obey him, is to build our lives on a foundation of sand.”
We must go “Back to Basics” because of …
7. The present world conflict.
I am not speaking of the war on terror, but of the growing worldwide clash between Islam and Christianity. The war on terror is a battle of guns and bombs; the clash between Islam and Christianity is a battle of ideas, a clash of worldviews. And the greatest question is this: Who is Jesus Christ? Is he truly the Son of God from heaven, God incarnate, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords? If so, then we must bow down and worship him. If he is only a prophet, then we may honor him but we must not worship him. Between those two points of view, there is no middle ground. In the days to come, we must equip our people with good Bible doctrine so they can confidently stand up and say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
We must go “Back to Basics” because of …
8. The principle of authority.
If you think about it, Christians believe something very profound and fundamentally very radical. In an age of moral and spiritual anarchy, we believe there is a God in heaven that has spoken to the human race. God has spoken and he has not stuttered. He spoke and made himself clear in his Word, the Bible. Writing in the Manchester (England) Guardian, Christina Odone describes the principle this way:
We believe in authority. In an era that prizes individual freedom, Christians believe in a supreme being who dictates our words and deeds. To modern ears, the concept sounds outrageously autocratic. From when to die to when to give birth, from whom to have sex with, to how to spend their money, the chatteratis believe they should enjoy unlimited freedom. But for the Christian, freedom is not an end in itself. Unfettered individualism can mean greed and selfishness, the evasion of personal responsibility, the destruction of the family. Christians believe that from an all-powerful authority stems a clear system of judgment which teaches that there is a right and a wrong. (“Some may hate us, but here we stand,” October 28, 2003)
The serpent’s first attack in the Garden of Eden came at precisely this point. He challenged Eve with this question: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). The church must once again declare the truth of God with boldness. One reason God has used Billy Graham so greatly has been his constant repetition of this phrase, “The Bible says.” To a world that rejects authority, the church must declare the authority of God. The world says, “We want freedom.” God says, “If you want freedom, obey my Word.” Today the world follows the false trinity of tolerance, diversity and pluralism. Our task is to proclaim the truth of God even to those who reject it because it is the truth that sets men free.
We must go “Back to Basics” because …
9. Knowing comes first.
Last summer while I was speaking at Word of Life in New York, I spent some time with Wayne Lewis, the Assistant Academic Dean of the Word of Life Bible Institute. He mentioned that everything Word of Life does comes from a simple, three-word motto: Know, Grow, Show.
We must Know the truth.
We must Grow in the truth.
We must Show the truth to others.
Know, Grow, Show. It’s simple, but it covers the entire Christian life. The order is crucial. You must know it before you can grow in it. And you must grow in it before you show it to others. Know it, grow it on the inside, show it on the outside. But knowing coming first. Too many Christians skip right to the “Showing” part and wonder why it doesn’t work. We must know what God has said, take time to grow it into our lives, and then we will be prepared to show it to others.
We must go “Back to Basics” because …
10. We owe it to the world, to ourselves, and to our God.
When John Stott finished the message he meant to deliver at Urbana 03, he summed it up by calling his hearers to become “radical nonconformists” for the sake of the gospel. We need Christians who will stand out because they don’t “go with the flow.” Romans 12:2 tells us not to be conformed to the world. We must not let the world squeeze us into its mold. But that’s not all that verse says. It also tells us how to be “radical nonconformists.” We are transformed by the renewing of our minds. That’s another way of saying that spiritual growth begins in the mind as we learn the truth of God. First we know, and that knowing “renews” our mind. Then we grow as we are “transformed” by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Then we are ready to show the world who Jesus is.
Only one question is left. How will we work out this “Back to Basics” theme this year? The most important thing begins next Sunday when I start preaching through the Apostles’ Creed. Many of you grew up in churches where the creed was recited every Sunday. But have you ever taken time to study it carefully? It’s the oldest Christian creed and it is the most widely accepted. I’m going to preach through it because it offers a broad outline of all the major areas of Christian doctrine. We’re going to take it slowly, phrase by phrase, and even word by word. You know how it begins: “I believe in God the Father Almighty.” Next Sunday I’m preaching on just two words: “I believe.”
A Place to Begin
In light of what I’ve said in this sermon, there are three things you can do:
1. Make Sure of Your Relationship to Jesus Christ.
It all begins here. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). It is very possible to talk about Jesus and not be a Christian. It’s also possible to be a church member and not be saved. It is very possible to be a church member and know all the right answers and still be lost because you have never made the decision to trust Jesus Christ—and him alone—for your salvation. Make sure you are trusting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
2. Ground Yourself and Your Family in the Word of God.
If we don’t give our children something to believe, there are people out there who will. Too many parents think that sports and hobbies will protect their children as long as a little Sunday religion is thrown in for good measure. That might have worked 50 years ago. It won’t work in 2004. Our kids are in a battle every day. The best thing we can do is to make sure our homes reflect genuine spiritual reality. That means grounding our children daily in the Word of God.
3. Be Bold About Your Faith.
Never be ashamed of Jesus. You can change your world if you will be bold and winsome in the way you present Christ. Stand up for Jesus—and do it with a smile, not a frown. That’s a winning combination.
And pray. In light of our “Back to Basics” theme, here is a simple way to pray: Pray that you will know so you can grow so you can show the world who Jesus is.
The moral and spiritual confusion of these days offers an incredible opportunity to the church of Jesus Christ. If the people of this generation do not find God’s truth, they will believe Satan’s lie. After all, a starving dog will eat whatever you put in front of him. Something has to fill the void within. And that means we have a great opportunity. It’s not enough to simply protect our children. It’s not enough to learn what is true and what is false. We have an obligation that goes beyond these four walls and beyond our own family. God has made us debtors to the whole world. It won’t be enough in the Last Day to say, “But Lord, I took care of my own family. We all made it. See, we’re all here.” The Lord will say back to us, “My child, what did you do for your friends and neighbors? What about that man who came to your door? What about your sister, your daddy, your boss, your pals at work? What about them? Why aren’t they here with you? Did you even try to tell them about me?”
We live in the greatest days of human history. It may well be that we are the final generation before the return of Christ. That would explain why Satan has made such an energetic effort to spread his lies. Last week Billy Graham said in his syndicated column that there is a battle going on between God and Satan. But where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. The very fact that we live in such spiritual darkness means that when the light shines, it really shines. Don’t be discouraged by the difficulty of the task. Let us instead be encouraged by the opportunities of this hour. Our task to is to go “Back to Basics” this year so we will truly know what we believe. It’s going to be a great year as we journey through the great doctrines of the Bible. I can’t wait to see what God is going to do. Amen.