The Lord's Day Morning
September 17, 2006
“Church Membership (1):
Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Romans–first in chapter three, then we're going to go back to chapter two, and then forward to chapter five as we look at three short passages which are really simply texts that capture in summary form teaching that is found not simply all through Paul's writings or all through the New Testament, but all through the Scriptures.
This morning we're beginning a series the five questions of church membership. And church membership matters. The Lord Jesus has promised in Matthew 18 that He would be there where two or three are gathered in His name. It's a promise given especially to the gathered church, the local church, in its specific expression. When the Apostle Paul in I Timothy 3:15,16 says that the church is the household, or family, of God, the assembly of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth, it's especially the local church, the gathered church, which he has in mind as he says those things.
And so membership really does matter, because when we are saved, we are not only united to Christ, we are united to all who are united to Christ. And we're not just united to all in some generic abstract way…that we are in some emotional or sentimental way connected with Christians around the world. We are especially settled into local congregations where God wants us to be discipled, even as we heard from Matthew 28 today. When Jesus says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…” Jesus is telling His disciples that the place where He wants discipleship done is the place where baptism is done, and that's the local church. And so God doesn't save us as Lone Rangers, He saves us into a family where we're nurtured and built up in the faith.
And just like in our homes we have to live out the gospel, so also in the church we have to live out the gospel. In our homes we have to live out the gospel because we're still sinners, and husbands sin against wives and wives sin against husbands, and children sin against parents and parents against their children, and what do we have to do? We have to forgive and be forgiven, and you can't do that the way God intends it to be done apart from the gospel, apart from the local church. We break one another's hearts. We disappoint one another.
I have a drawer full of letters and communications over the last ten years. These have been ten blessed years for me, but let me tell you I keep every letter that I've received where I've blown it, and somebody has loved me enough to tell me that I've blown it. I keep it, and every once in a while I go back and I remind myself, “Ligon, you blew it. And that brother, that sister, loved you enough to say, ‘Ligon, you blew it!’ and by God's grace you repented of it.” And I want to remind myself of that, because we let one another down. We sin against one another, and that requires the gospel to be at work both so that we recognize that we need to be forgiven and so that we can forgive when we need to forgive. And God wants the gospel lived out in the home and in the church, and that's why these five questions of membership are so important.
The very first question of membership, which all of you who are communing members (that is, members who participate in coming to the Lord's Table) all of you have answered this question, and it goes like this:
“Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?”
Now that question is a very biblical question. In fact, one of my goals today is to show you that all it is is a summary of truth that you can find all throughout the Bible, but I can't think of better summaries than those the Apostle Paul gives us here, first in Romans 3:23, then in Romans 2:1,2; and then in Romans 5:6, 8. So let's pray and then read God's word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Teach us to behold wonderful truth from Your Law. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Romans 3:23:
“…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Then turn back with me to Romans 2:1,2:
“Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.”
And then forward to Romans 5:6, 8:
“…For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
The Apostle Paul in these brief verses has set before us three truths: We are sinners; we are justly condemned by God for our sins; and, we are without hope apart from God's mercy. And it is those three truths which are said to us in capsule form in the first question of membership:
“Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure and without hope, save in His sovereign mercy?”
And I'd like to look at those three things with you very briefly this morning because it is vital to understand. All true Christians acknowledge these three things. The very beginning of our journey with Christ is in the acknowledgement of these things. The very beginning of our understanding and embrace of the gospel is found in these things. There are many things that are unnecessary in life: these things are not unnecessary. They are necessary and essential; they are vital for life here and hereafter, and so it behooves us to spend some time reflecting on them.
I. All true Christians acknowledge that they are sinners
First, if you’ll look in Romans 3:23, you’ll see this truth: We are sinners. The first truth that is encapsulated in the first question of membership, “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God?” is this very truth, and all true Christians acknowledge that they are sinners.
Now, this is an unpopular teaching. Do you know it is one of the few truths of Scriptures that can be empirically verified? People don't like this truth, but there is no mistaking this truth. People are sinners. We sin. I sin. You sin. And we see the consequences of sin everywhere. It is absolutely undeniable. You have to go into reality break in order to deny the reality of our sin, but it's never been a popular doctrine. In the Bible, when the prophets preached to Israel that they were sinful and they needed to turn to Christ, did Israel like that message? Wouldn't they have liked something a little more upbeat, positive and encouraging? Yes! They killed prophets for preaching that message. When John the Baptist went to Herod and called him a sinner, do you think that Herod liked that sermon? No! He hated it! And he eventually took John's head. When Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees – the spiritual leaders of His day – sinners, do you think they liked that message? No. They hung Him on a cross. This message has never ever been a popular message, but it's true. It's inescapably true, and the rest of the gospel doesn't make sense until you understand this point.
Now, this doctrine has been denied from time to time over the course of history. About 125 years ago, the liberal branch of Christianity began to attack vehemently this doctrine in the church. In fact, one of the great defenders of the faith, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, a professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote a series of three articles called Miserable Sinner Christianity in the Hands of the Rationalists. Now, you see, it's a play on words from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But he was saying that the very idea that we are sinners who need to be forgiven was an idea that was being radically pilloried and mocked and denied and rejected by liberal rationalistic Christianity, and Warfield put on a brilliant defense of this as biblical truth.
But of course it's not just liberal Christianity that doesn't like this truth. Many people who call themselves evangelicals today don't like this truth. The most popular TV preacher today…the most popular TV preacher today makes a point of saying that he doesn't like to talk about sin, because he would rather talk about something positive. He’d rather talk about something encouraging.1 When the president of the National Association of Evangelicals was interviewed by a mainstream media person who is in a liberal mainline denomination, even that TV interviewer who was a member of a liberal mainline denomination said to this evangelical, “You know, I've been here for a week and I haven't heard sin mentioned. Do you guys believe in sin?” And here was the response: “Oh, yeah, we believe in sin, but we don't talk about it much around here. We want to talk about how people can make their lives better and realize their potential. We don't like to talk about sin much.”2
So it's not just one branch of Christianity that doesn't like this particular message. Nobody likes this message. But it's true. Have you ever been in a room where there was a great truth there hovering like an elephant, and nobody wanted to admit it, but it was controlling everything in the room? Well, that's just like this message. Nobody wants to hear this message, but it's true, and it's essential that we grasp it in order to embrace the gospel.
It's so funny…for 125 years we've been attacking sin, and then a very famous scholar writes a book called Whatever Happened to Sin?3 What do you think happened to sin? We've been protesting against it for 100 years! We finally got rid of it! (At least, we thought we had.) And we see it all around us. And until this truth about ourselves is admitted, the gospel does not make sense.
Think of it, friends: What was the very first word that Jesus ever spoke in His public ministry? “Repent.” What was the very first word that John the Baptist ever spoke in his public ministry? “Repent.” When Peter was asked by the gathered multitude at Pentecost after he had preached that barnburner of a sermon, “Brothers, what shall we do?” what was the first word that came out of his mouth? “Repent.” You see, the gateway into the embrace of the fullness of God's mercy in the gospel is the recognition that we have a problem, and we are the problem. We’re sinners.
You remember the famous essay in which people were asked to write into the Times London to give their own statement about what was wrong with the world today. Various people pontificated on different matters about what was wrong with the world today, and the famous English writer, G. K. Chesterton, wrote in what is still, I think, reputed to be the shortest letter to the editor ever submitted to the Times London for the editorial pages, and it simply said this:
He got it. Sin is the problem.
Now let me very quickly say that Christians are not saying to non-Christians, “You’re bad, we're not. You've got a problem; we’d like to help you fix it.” This is not like “Hey, I'm from the government and I'm here to help you.” You know – “I see you've got a problem over there and I'd like to come help you fix your problem.” No. Christians are saying, “Look, we are beggars who have found bread, because we have been and are in the same situation that you are. We have this enormous struggle, and the struggle is sin. And we love you so much that we want to tell you the One who saved us from our sin, but we're not people who have ‘arrived’…who have our act together…and now we're here to help. We’re sinners in need of grace, telling other sinners who need grace where they can find that grace.”
But let me say also that this is not just a truth that we learn at the beginning of the Christian life, and then we move on. You never move on from the reality of sin and the need for grace. You never move on from that reality until the day that God perfects you in glory, because Christians continue to sin.
What does John say? When the TV preacher tells you “I didn't stop sinning until I learned that I wasn't a sinner, and if somebody is telling you, Christian, that you’re a sinner, that's a lie”… well, what does I John 1:8 say to that particular teaching if you hear it from a TV preacher? It says that:“Those who say that they have no sin are deceived, and the truth is not in them.”
Now those words were spoken not to non-Christians, but to Christians. Sin continues to be an important reality that we deal with in the life of the local church; and I want to say this very loudly and clearly, because this is a transformingly important truth.
First of all, this is important because so often I see the spectacle of Christians that are surprised by the power and impact of other professing Christians’ sins against them, and they think this couldn't be happening in the Christian church. ‘It couldn't be happening in my family and my church, that someone could sin like this.’ My friends! Have you read the New Testament lately? Name me a church in which the powerful extraordinary manifestation of the Holy Spirit was seen in full. The church in Corinth–they spoke in tongues, they prophesied, they had words of knowledge, dreams, visions, they had miraculous healings, and what else was going on in Corinth? Well, the Apostle Paul says, for instance, there were people in the church that were suing one another. And there was one man who was a church member who was having an affair with his step-mother, and the church wasn't doing anything about it. In other words, that church was a pluperfect mess! And yet, Christians are surprised when they find out that other Christians are big sinners.
Now, of course, sometimes, my friends, what we're finding out is that a person is not a true Christian. It will all depend on how they respond to their sin. If they attempt to evade their sin and belittle their sin, there is a sign that we're dealing with a false believer, someone who professes to be a believer in Christ and yet who does not possess the reality of the new birth.
And yet, there can be true Christians who grievously sin. Think of David, called a man after God's own heart. My friends, if any Christian in our church were to do this…it would certainly be on the front pages if they did what David did. Serious sin…and so, my friends, it's so important for us to recognize that in this church we will have the opportunity to forgive one another not for just tiny little itty bitty mistakes of judgment, but for big sins; and that shouldn't surprise us, because sin continues to be a haunting problem for the Christian throughout his life. But the flip side of that is this: that this church then becomes the place in which we can exercise the grace of forgiveness, because we realize we're sinners who've been forgiven, and not for itty bitty little petty discretions, no…Paul says it how? We've fallen short of the glory of God.
Now don't think of fallen short as “oh, we just missed it by that much!” That's not what Paul is saying. The Apostle Paul, when he says that you've fallen short of the glory of God, you realize what Paul is saying. Paul is saying that you have missed the point of life. It's not “just by that much….” You've missed the point of life. There are going to be men and women created in the image of God who stand before Him at the Last Day and they’re going to hear the words: ‘You have missed the point for which I made you.’ So my friends, sin is not just a trifling little problem, but it is in the context of those huge sins that we still commit even as redeemed believers that we have an opportunity as redeemed believers to forgive, because we've been forgiven; and the more we see God's mercy and grace to us, the more we are able to forgive even those big sins, and so the church becomes an arena in which we display the gospel in action as we forgive and as we have to receive forgiveness.
So here's Paul's message. Here's the message of that first question: ‘Cheer up! You’re worse than you think you are! Cheer up! Things are worse than you think they are!’ Now all of us do everything we can to avoid the impact of realizing the consequences of what we have done.
I am public enemy number one in this area. I hate to repent! I hate it. It is emotionally and psychologically jarring to me to be face to face in the mirror with what I've done and said, and its consequences.
But I know that I cannot deal with that sin by trying to pretend it away. I have to face it and recognize that I am sinful, and that I can't look somewhere else for somebody else to be the problem, or the cause, or the reason for what I've done. I'm responsible for what I do.
And that's where this question begins: Christians acknowledge themselves to be sinners. They don't deal with it by denial. They embrace that truth. As hard as it is to embrace that truth about themselves, they know that the way to the cross is not around sin, it's through sin. The way to the cross is not around sin. The way to salvation is not by saying OK, I'm just going to forget about that for a little while, and I'm going to think about something positive. No. The way to salvation, the way to the cross is through sin, realizing our sin. That's why the first announcements of the gospel from Jesus and John and Peter come with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
II. All true Christians acknowledge that they are rightly condemned
Now the second thing we’ll need to see, you’ll see it in Romans 2:1, 2, and that's simply this: Not only do Christians acknowledge that they’re sinners, they acknowledge that God's judgment against them is just. In other words, they acknowledge that they are rightly condemned by God. It's a fascinating passage here. For those of you who are attorneys, you would love to study these two verses, because Paul is drawing on typical Roman jurisprudence when he speaks in this passage. Look at what he says.
“Therefore, you have no excuse, every one of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”
The picture is of somebody standing in the courtroom and saying before the judge, “But…but…they did it! They sinned!” and then the judge looking down and saying, “As for your case, sir, you have no case.”
Paul uses a specific term in this passage. It's translated in your Bibles probably with the words without excuse or no excuse, and it's a term that comes out of a Roman court of law. It's a term when a defendant is standing before the judge, in the dock, and the judge says, “You know what? You have no case. You have no argument. You have nothing to say for yourself. You are flat wrong, and there is no mitigating circumstance, and there is no way that you can get out from under this just judgment.”
Many of you perhaps followed the case of Claude Allen. Claude Allen was the Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to our President, George W. Bush, and he is an evangelical Christian and a member of a dear friend's congregation in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Claude, about a year ago, began to steal things from the local Target store. He stole several thousand dollars worth of things. Eventually he was deeply convicted by this, and he resigned from his position without telling President Bush or the staff the reason for his resignation. He stated “personal reasons.” A few weeks later he was indicted by a jury, and he had to stand before the judge in light of his action. He counseled for many months with his pastor and with some godly lawyers, some lawyers in Washington, D.C…..some lawyers in Washington, D.C., who know many lawyers here in this church, in fact…and they talked with him about how he was going to approach this before the judge. You can imagine the tremendous embarrassment to him, to the President, to the administration. And very frankly, some of his lawyers did not want him to go in and fully admit everything that he did. Claude Allen, after many months of counseling, determined that he was ready to admit everything that he had done and enter a plea of guilty. He stood before the judge, he admitted everything that he did, he offered no mitigating circumstances…and the courtroom was breathless. Absolutely breathless. The judge said to him, “Sir, in all my years on the bench, I have never heard a confession like this.” The judge was exceedingly merciful to Claude in rendering the judgment which he made against him, but Claude stood before that judge and said, “I do not have an argument. I do not have an excuse for what I've done.” Although friends would have been quick to make excuses for Claude, Claude refused to make an excuse for himself.
And that is precisely where the Christian is before God. The Christian says, “Lord God, I don't have an excuse for my sin. I don't have an argument; I don't have a mitigating circumstance. There's nobody else that I can blame. I am guilty.” You see, my friends, Christians understand that the problem is not “out there”–the problem is “in here.” The problem is not what somebody has done to us, the problem is us.
You see, that's the difference between Christianity and all other religions. All other religions say the problem is out there, and the solution is in here; but Christians know that the problem is not out there, it's in here, and therefore the solution can't be in me. It's got to be outside of me.
Who better could understand that but David, who did exactly what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 2:1,2? You remember the great story in II Samuel 12. David sees a beautiful woman naked, on the rooftop bathing. He lusts for her. He finds out who she is. He sends for her. He begins an adulterous affair with her. He finds out subsequently that she is married to one of his most loyal men. He then has that man killed to cover up his sin. And his friend, the prophet Nathan, comes to him and he says ‘David, let me tell you a story. There was a very, very rich man, and there was a man who was traveling, who came to receive hospitality in that rich man's house. Now, there was also a poor man who had only one lamb; but the rich man had everything. And when that visitor came and lodged in the rich man's house, you know what that rich man did? He took the poor man's one lamb, he slaughtered it, and he served it as food at the feast to his guest. What do you think that rich man deserves?’ And you remember what David said: ‘That man deserves to die!’ (Do you see David doing exactly what God says in Romans 2:1,2? “You who judge practice the same things yourself.”) And you remember what Nathan says: “David, you are the man.” And thank God, by the mercy of Christ, David does not attempt to avoid it, to evade it anymore. He says ‘Nathan, you’re right. I am that man. I deserve to die.’
That is exactly what the question of membership is asking: Do you acknowledge yourself to justly deserve God's displeasure? To say, ‘Lord, I don't have an argument. If You condemn me, I don't have an argument.’
III. All true Christians acknowledge that their only hope is in God's mercy
And that leads us to the last place, and you see it there in Romans 5:6,8, and you see it there in the final words of the question of membership: that we acknowledge ourselves to be without hope, except in God's sovereign mercy. Because you see, my friends, all Christians acknowledge themselves to be sinners; all Christians acknowledge themselves to be rightly condemned; but all true Christians also acknowledge that our only hope is in God's mercy.
If you had been David and you had just been approached, you had just been confronted by Nathan and you were trying to figure out a prayer to pray, what would you have prayed? You know what David prayed? “Lord God, forgive me, have mercy on me, because of Your lovingkindness.” In other words, David knew that there was no solution that he could offer for his sin. He couldn't fix his sin by turning over a new leaf. He had committed adultery with a woman. He could not take that back. He had had a child out of wedlock with that woman. He could not take that back. He had killed a man. He could not fix that! So the solution was not going to be in him, it was going to have to be outside of him; and that solution, the only solution that he could think of, was the mercy of God. (Right, David! Right! Exactly right!)
My friends, Paul says you’re helpless…you’re hopeless. You’re done for…except at the right time, while you were helpless, while you were done for, while you were a sinner under the just condemnation of God, stunningly…stunningly!…God gave His own Son to die for you, because He loved you that much….so that you wouldn't have to die for your sin.
You see, that's the word of the gospel. Here's the good word: ‘Cheer up, you’re worse than you thought. But God is more merciful than you ever dreamt, and He holds out a hope for you that isn't in you, it's outside of you. It comes from Him.’ And every Christian begins his journey with Christ and in the church right there: ‘Lord God, in me there is no hope; but outside of me in something that You have provided, there's more hope for my life than I've thought there was for years. There's a hope that can overwhelm everything that I have done, and give me new life. It doesn't come from me. It doesn't come from my trying, and it doesn't come from my deeds, and it doesn't come from my efforts, and it doesn't come from my turning over a new leaf. It comes from You. Because in me, apart from Christ there is no hope…but in You, there's all the hope I need.’
Lord God, grant that no one would leave this place today without seeing themselves and also seeing their only hope. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Let's sing the first three stanzas of Amazing Grace! And listen to the words…you know them by heart. Listen to the words you’re singing to God.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
3. Whatever Became of Sin? Karl Menninger, Hawthorn Books, 1973