God Guarantees Our Salvation
1 Peter 1:3-5
August 8, 2004
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Peter 1:3-5 ESV).
I have two aims for this sermon: 1) That you should praise God that you have been born again by God’s mercy, and 2) that you will understand why this matters so much at this particular moment in history. It’s easy to see the first aim in the words of verse 3 where Peter explicitly praises God “who has caused us to be born again.” We can set this off in two statements:
God has done something—”caused us to be born again.”
We should do something—declare “Blessed be God” or “Praise the Lord!”
As John Piper points out in his sermon on this text (“God’s Great Mercy and Our New Birth,” October 10, 1993), Peter could have written in the fashion of a bored and boring college professor: “Today I would like to lecture on five topics—God’s mercy, our new birth, the resurrection of Jesus, our inheritance in heaven, and our security in Christ. Please take out your notebook and your syllabus, and let’s begin with Point #1.” But he didn’t do that. Peter begins his letter with an explosive statement of praise: “Blessed be God” or “Praise the Lord” or, as one translation puts it, “What a God we have!”
From the Heart to the Heart
The way he begins his letter says something crucial about how we should present spiritual truth. Biblical preaching always touches the head and the heart. It is never enough for a preacher to say, “Well, at least I covered those four verses today.” We must also convey the truth from the heart to the heart. This applies both to the way I preach and to the way you listen. I must not be content with merely imparting facts, and you must not be content simply to gain biblical knowledge. The real goal of our time together is life transformation through God’s Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. We should not be satisfied with anything less. My favorite definition of preaching comes from Phillips Brooks who called preaching the impartation of truth through human personality. That’s excellent because it means that before I share the truth with others, it must first impact my own life. Truth that comes through human personality has the ring of authenticity about it. It’s not that human personality changes the truth, but truth that transforms human personality. So here are three questions for you to ask of the person who preaches to you:
1) Are you telling me the truth?
2) Does it matter to you?
3) Why should it matter to me?
The first is vital because preaching based on anything other than the truth of Scripture is dangerous and misleading. The second question reminds us that truth ought to matter deeply to those who claim to know it and share it. Third, the preacher ought to make clear why his hearers should care about the truth he proclaims. In verse 3 Peter is declaring, “This matters!” This text is far more than a dry recital of biblical doctrine. It’s a call to praise God because of what he has done for us.
Two More Questions
And this touches how we should listen to a sermon. Here are two questions to ask yourself every time you hear a sermon:
1) Do I want to know what God says?
2) Am I willing to be changed by the truth I hear?
Peter begins by saying “Blessed be God” because the truth has profoundly changed his life. So here’s the bottom line: If at the end of this message, you are not praising God, then we have both failed somewhere along the line. Either I have failed to tell you the truth in the right manner, or you have failed to hear what God is saying.
A few weeks ago I watched a video of Edith Schaeffer who is now 90 years old. In a slow, clear voice, she said, “Truth matters.” She’s right, of course, and if you’ve read anything by Francis or Edith Schaeffer, you know that truth matters because it is the foundation of all of life. God’s truth is always much more than storing up intellectual information. While speaking at Mount Hermon Conference Center this week, I met a lady who showed me a notebook filled with 34 years of sermon notes from various speakers she had heard. “Here are the notes from 1983, and these are from 1987,” she said as she flipped through the pages of her handwritten notebook. There were sermons by world-famous preachers, and sermons by preachers whose names I did not recognize. In a way, it was a remarkable achievement, and I congratulated her on her diligence. It is a personal treasure worth passing along to her children someday. But I wanted to ask her this question, “How is your life different for hearing all that great preaching?” Taking notes is wonderful and ought to be encouraged, but the end result of all Bible teaching is the transformation of the mind Paul talks about in Romans 12:2. Sometimes people will say to me, “Pastor Ray, I have all your books.” I smile when I hear that because almost no one has all my books. I don’t even have copies of all my books. But it doesn’t matter anyway. You could have the collected works of Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Spurgeon, and a dozen other giants of the faith, and if you want to put my books down in the corner of the basement, that’s fine with me. But the real question is not, “Do you own those books?” but rather “Have you read them and have they changed you at all?” It’s not mere knowledge that we’re after—it’s a life so transformed that it cannot help but declare “Blessed be God” and “Praise the Lord!” and “What a God we have!”
Worship and Preaching
So we must always say that preaching and worship go together. I met a man at Mount Hermon, an older gentlemen, who said the way to end the debate over worship is to restructure our worship services this way (and here I am quoting him exactly): Have 15 minutes of “preliminaries” and then preach for 45-50 minutes. I chuckled when I heard that because that wouldn’t work in most churches. And I don’t agree with it anyway. For one thing, when the body comes together to worship, we need to sing, we need to pray, we need to share, and we need to read Holy Scripture together. Second, it’s wrong to call everything that happens before I preach the “preliminaries,” as if the music and prayer is the under card and my sermon is the main event. That’s not biblical. When we come together, it is not that we worship and then I preach, as if preaching were merely an intellectual exercise whereby I impart assorted nuggets from the biblical text. Everything we do from beginning to end is part of the worship service. We worship through singing the truth, and we worship through hearing the truth.
It is certainly possible to sing without worshipping, just as you can preach or listen to preaching without worshipping God. But that approach produces formalism or ritualism. It’s good to say, “I went to church.” That’s fine, but did you worship today? That’s the true question. It is dangerous to go to a worship service and not worship God when you are there. That produces cold, dead, dry, proud Pharisees who go through the motions and whose hearts are never touched and changed by the living God.
May God deliver us from handling great truth in a casual manner. William Temple, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave us this stirring definition of worship: “Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose.” Worship is the total response of who we are to all that God is. Seen in that light, worship is not really a “service” we attend, it’s the ongoing response of the heart to the revelation of God to us.
Why This Matters
At this point, I want to stop and ask myself a question. Perhaps someone is reading this and saying, “Are you making too much of just one phrase?” After all, everything to this point is really dealing with the first phrase of verse 3: “Blessed be God.” My answer is no, I’m not making too much of it because this is the way Peter begins his message so it must be extremely important. The note of praise is key to the whole book. We know that I Peter was written to persecuted believers scattered far and wide across Asia Minor. They were far from each other and far from Peter himself. They faced numerous “fiery trials” that were about to grow worse. I find it highly significant that Peter doesn’t begin by talking about their problems. He begins by talking about who God is and what he has done for them. God comes first! And when God comes first, his people instinctively praise his name. What a crucial insight this is. When we start with God, we see our problems in proper perspective, but when we start with our problems, it’s often hard to find God at all.
On Sunday morning, just as the first service was beginning, I was standing near the east entrance to the sanctuary when a woman came in. When I asked how she was doing, she told me about various difficulties in her life, her marriage, and with her children. But then she smiled and said, “I’m seeing God everywhere. Almost every day I’m having a God sighting.” To use a biblical phrase, her countenance was peaceful. She has discovered the secret that when God is in his proper place, you see the problems of life in their proper perspective. That’s why Peter begins with a burst of praise—not a statement of their problems.
God Did It!
And that brings us back again to Peter’s main point: Praise God who caused us to be born again! Everything else in verses 3-5 relates to that main idea. Let’s break down the text into five major statements:
1) We have experienced God’s mercy—v. 3a
2) We have been born again—v. 3b
3) We have a living hope—v. 3c
4) We have a guaranteed inheritance in heaven—v. 4
5) We are kept by God’s power—v. 5
Here’s another way to look at it:
Theme—Blessed be God who has done great things for us!
Guarantee—Resurrection of Christ
Goal—Inheritance in Heaven
Assurance—Kept by God’s Power
Result—Salvation Ready to be Revealed
What is the main point in all that Peter mentions? Verse 3 is very clear: God “who has caused us to be born again.” In our text Peter explains the great blessings that are ours through Jesus Christ. And he wraps it around one particular phrase—”new birth.” God has given us new birth and now we are new people. That’s what everyone wants—a new start, a fresh beginning. New birth. What a wonderful idea. And God has given it to us. Sometimes we talk about a “born-again” Christian but the adjective is unnecessary. There is no other kind of Christian. If you aren’t born again, you aren’t a Christian at all. To be “born again” means you receive the very life of God in your soul, and as a result, you become a brand-new person. The key word is “new.” Once you come to Christ, you are a “new creation” with a new hope, a new life, new confidence, new joy, and a new destiny.
God “Fathered” Us
Notice how Peter puts it: God “caused us” to be born again. That’s a very strong statement about God’s sovereign activity on our behalf. We did not cause ourselves to be born again. You didn’t “cause” your spiritual birth any more than you caused your physical birth. Peter looks at our new birth and he declares, “God did it!” If we do not exult in this truth it is because either we don’t understand it or we don’t believe it. Sometimes people want to take credit for their salvation by saying things like, “I had faith so God saved me.” But that’s not the way the Bible puts it. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” Even the faith to believe is a gift from God.
God gave birth to us. He “fathered” us by an act of his own will (John 1:13). He acted unilaterally on our behalf to rescue us while we were yet sinners and his enemies, estranged from him, going our own way, and rebelling against his holy decrees. He did not save us because he had to, but because he wanted to. Therefore, he alone gets the glory for our salvation.
How Do You Know You Were Born?
Let me ask a question that may help us grasp this truth. How do you know you were born? Ponder that for a moment. It’s not as easy to answer as you might think. You’re here so you must have been born, right? How else could you be here if you had not been born? But we can think of other answers:
§ “I have a birth certificate that proves I was born.” Those can be faked.
§ “I have pictures of me as a baby.” How do we know the pictures are really of you?
§ “I have a paper with my baby footprint on it.” Very cute, but your foot is a lot bigger now. How can we be sure it’s your footprint?
§ “I have an affidavit signed by seven people who witnessed my birth.” That’s impressive, but perhaps they’re all lying.
And so it goes. Once you discount the outward evidence, how do you prove you were really born? There’s really only one answer: “I’m alive, and my life proves I must have been born.” That’s really an unanswerable argument.
So let me ask a second question: How do you know you’ve been born again? The same principles apply. You can bring forth various proofs, such as baptism, walking the aisle, raising your hand, praying a prayer, joining the church, and so on. Those outward signs are not useless, but you could do all those things and still be unsaved. The only real answer is the same one I just mentioned: “I know I’m born again because I have the life of God in my soul.” Last Thursday at Mount Hermon, I was asked to give my testimony at a pancake breakfast at the top of the mountain. I enjoyed sharing my story because it’s been quite a while since I’ve talked about how I came to Christ. I told how I was raised in a Baptist church in Alabama, how I was baptized when I was nine years old and joined the church. But no one ever asked if I was truly saved. When I was 16, I encountered some college students at a youth retreat who truly knew the Lord. I immediately recognized that they had something I didn’t have. I had religion but they knew the Lord. I knew all the words and the verses, but they had the life of God and it showed. So I told the group last Thursday that after the retreat, I went home and got alone to think about all that had happened that weekend. And at 5:15 p.m., Sunday, June 21, 1969, while sitting on the steps outside my house, I prayed a very simple prayer, “Lord Jesus, if you are real, come into my heart.” And “something” happened. Though I didn’t hear angels sing and no outward miracles occurred, I was aware that “something” had happened to me. I had been born again by the Spirit of God. That one event radically changed the course of my life. Now for those who read these words, I should add that it doesn’t matter whether or not you can remember the time or the place or if you even can remember an event like that or not. But what matters is that you know that you have the life of God in your soul.
Thank You, Lord
We ought to say it this way:
Once I was blind, but now I can see.
Once I was lost, but now I am found.
Once I had no hope, but now I have a living hope.
Once I was guilty, but now I am forgiven.
Once I was an enemy, but God made me his friend.
Once I was a rebel, but now I am a servant of the living God.
Once I was dead, but now I am alive.
And God did it!
After I preached this on Sunday morning, a dear lady who has been a Christian for many years thanked me and said that she has often struggled with doubts about her salvation. It helped her to know that you don’t need a time and a place. It is enough to say, “Jesus Christ has truly changed my life.” That’s what the new birth is all about.
Why does this matter so much? It directly impacts how you tell the story and who gets the glory. Many years ago we used to sing a chorus that goes like this:
Thank you, Lord, for saving my soul.
Thank you, Lord, for making me whole.
Thank you, Lord, for giving to me,
Thy great salvation so rich and free.
That’s good theology. Peter would sing it and then he would say “Amen!”
If you think you accomplished your own salvation, you will no doubt feel good about yourself. But if you think God caused you to be born again, your heart will be like Peter’s—bursting with praise. It’s the difference between a self-made faith and a God-created faith.
Love Lifted Me
When I got to this point in my sermon preparation, I began to hum an old gospel song. We sang it often when I was growing up, but it’s not even in our hymnals any more. Probably the young folks won’t know it, and the older folks will. It goes like this:
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
But the Master of the sea, heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Love lifted me! Love lifted me!
When nothing else could help
Love lifted me!
There is wonderful truth in those words. After the service on Sunday, a man thanked me for the sermon, and then he said, “I had forgotten what my life was like until this morning. I had forgotten how angry I was and what alcohol had done to my life. Thanks for the reminder of what God has done for me.” We all need that reminder from time to time, don’t we?
Everything else Peter says in these verses flows from this truth: God caused us to be born again. Therefore …
We have a living hope – v. 3.
We have a guaranteed inheritance – v. 4.
We are kept by God’s power – v. 5.
Let us then never boast in ourselves. If we do anything good, it is God who enabled us to do it. If we accomplish anything great, it is only by God’s help and God’s grace. Let our boasting be only in the Lord. “I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips” (Psalm 34:1).
Why It Matters Now
At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned that I had two aims: 1) That you should praise God that you have been born again by God’s mercy, and 2) that you will understand why this matters so much at this particular moment in history. The whole sermon up to this point has dealt with the first aim. But why does this matter so much at this particular moment? Remember that I Peter was written to Christians facing open hostility in the first century. Because they didn’t follow the status quo, they were mocked, ridiculed, harassed, marginalized, and some were imprisoned, and some were put to death. Peter’s message to them can be summarized this way:
My brothers and sisters, hard times are coming and are already here. Some of you are in the midst of fiery trials. More are on the way. Remember what God has done for you. He caused you to be born again. Your future is eternally secure because it rests on God himself. No one can take from you what God has given to you. If you know what God has done for you, everything else is just details.
Those words could have been written for the summer of 2004. Around the world there is a great and growing divide between men and women of faith and the secular powers-that-be. We are called to be salt and light in a world that does not understand us, often opposes us, and in some cases actively hates us. Hard times may be on the way for Christians in the West who have had an easy road compared to our brothers and sisters around the world. Here in Oak Park we plan to engage our community starting five weeks from today over the issue of marriage, the family, moral purity, same-sex marriage, the hope for change through the gospel, and love in the place of hatred. We have no illusions that this will win us the “Most Popular Church” award. But God has called us, and we move forward by faith, firmly committed to speaking his truth because it is the only hope for new life.
And for all who read these words, wherever you may be, now is the time to get your faith firmly planted in the right place. Now is the time to stand on the rock called God. Now is the time to put your faith into action. Don’t be surprised when hard times come. That’s what you signed up for when you became a Christian.
And cheer yourself with these words:
We have experienced God’s mercy.
We have been born again.
We have a living hope.
We have an inheritance in heaven.
We are kept by God’s power.
That ought to put some steel in your soul in the days ahead.
In the meantime, let all who read these words bless the Lord and praise his name. It may be that God is drawing you to himself. Do not resist, but run to the cross and be saved. Trust in Jesus as your Lord and Savior and all will be well. May God grant you faith to believe the gospel. And for all of us, no matter what may come, stand up and bless the Lord. Amen.