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God's gospel requires a response that has eternal consequences.

10. We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace. Amen.


We come today to the last article of our new statement of faith.  This final article brings the entire document to its fitting conclusion, for it calls us to a response.  It would be irresponsible to proclaim all of the wonders and mercies of God, point out the problem of our sin and spiritual death, and draw out all that God has done for us in Christ, without explaining clearly what one must do to be saved. For if you were to have tracked with us the whole way and learned only the essentials of the Christian faith, but never responded to Christ personally, then we – I – have failed in the task of preaching. 

The gospel is most definitely a proclamation of what God has done to rescue us, but it does not benefit us whether we want it to or not.  The declaration also contains within it a command – we must repent and believe the good news.  This is not a suggestion – it is not even really an invitation – it is indeed a command, as Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed [Jesus].”  We must repent and believe the good news of what God has done for us in Christ. 

We are to believe the gospel:  The essential response to which we are called is faith, as Romans 10:9 clearly states, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” What is faith?  What does it mean to have faith? 

1)    We understand the content of the gospel: there is content to our faith. It is not enough to simply believe strongly in something – we must believe in the right thing.  In Paul’s later letters he calls us to hold to “the faith”: the core set of doctrines that set us apart from other religions.  This is what we have been expounding this fall in this sermon series.  In this sense, faith involves knowledge – we must now who Christ is and what he has done before we can believe in him.  This is disputed in our day and age.  We accord people respect simply because they have strong faith in something.  The problem is, you can believe strongly in something and be dead wrong!

2)    We must assent to the truth of the gospel: We must not only understand the message, but also develop a conviction about the truth of the gospel.  Is there truly a God who created the universe – yes, I believe there is!  Am I really a hopeless sinner, guilty before a perfect God – you betcha!  Did God really become man? Did he really live among us?  Did he really die for my sin?  Did he really rise from the dead?  Yes!  I believe it!

3)    We must personally commit ourselves to the gospel: James 2:19 warns us that understanding and believing that something is true is not enough, for even the demons believe yet they are obviously not in right standing before God.  Faith, to be real, must pass from understanding, past conviction, to personal commitment.  Christian faith requires an element of trust, reliance and allegiance.  Do you understand the gospel?  Do you believe that it is true?  Will you base your life on it, entrust your soul to it, and commit your actions upon it?

Consider the analogy of marriage.  As you get to know the other person, you understand things about them.  You may even become convinced that they would be a good person to marry.  But at some point, you gotta buy that ring, get down on your knee, have the ceremony and commit.  You stand up before your friends and family and go all in.  That’s faith. 

So how do you get married to Jesus – how do you go all in?  Our statement of faith expounds on what this believing means in two ways.

1)    We are to Turn to God in Repentance: Believing in the Gospel means turning to God in repentance.  Repentance is not some other work that is done in addition to faith, as if it were some human work that merits God’s favour, rather it is an inherent part of what it means to believe in the gospel.  For this reason, when the apostles preached in the book of Acts and people yelled out, “What must we do to be saved” they often responded merely by commanding them to repent, for example, in Acts 38.  To repent unto salvation means that you recognize that you are a sinner and have violated God’s law.  Repentance is a turning toward God, so that you no longer desire to remain in a state of rebellion, but that you desire rescue from sin and reconciliation with God.  To use the marriage analogy again, if faith is the committing of yourself to your wife, repentance is the “forsaking all others” part of the vow.  You really can’t have one without the other. 

2)    We are to Receive the Lord Jesus Christ: This phrasing emphasizes the personal mature of faith.  We do not merely believe in truths, and we do not simply turn from sin, but we welcome a person into our lives and begin a life-long relationship with him.  When Jesus came into the world, many of his own people rejected him, but John writes in John 1:12, “but to all who did receive him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Jesus extends the same call to us as he did his first disciples, “follow me, walk with me, learn from me.”  We welcome him as King, as brother, as Lord and as friend.  We come to treasure this relationship above all others, even above our own lives.  Indeed, Paul says in Philippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” 

The second half of our statement of faith speaks of the eternal consequences of believing of rejecting the gospel. We spoke of heaven a little last week – that Jesus will come again someday and gather his people to be with him forever – not playing harps in the clouds, but to live with him on the new earth he is creating.  The best way to explain heaven is that it will be like here, but better.  It is the world that we long for when we complain about all that is wrong in the world. We will be raised bodily, for the world we will enter is real – as real, no, MORE real than this.  It is the world we were created for. 

But what of those who do not believe in the gospel, what fate awaits them?  It is a subject I approach somewhat anxiously and reluctantly.  It would be easier for me to focus on the fate of the believer, but I found myself over the past few weeks thinking deeply of hell.  Our statement of faith describes the fate of the unbeliever as “condemnation and eternal conscious punishment”. Think of those words.  Eternal.  Conscious.  Punishment.  Let them penetrate you.  I know we live in a day of so many distractions.  Put your ipod touch down.  Stop texting for a second.  Eternal.  Conscious.  Punishment. Think of what we are saying.  God will assign the unbeliever to Eternal.  Conscious.  Punishment.  Hell. 

Hell has been a hot topic in the evangelical book world recently.  This book kicked it off: Rob Bell’s “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.” Released last March, the book has already ignited a firestorm of controversy and published responses. So this week I read Bell’s book and some of the responses (Chan’s “Erasing Hell”, compilation of Mohler, Keller and Packer “Is Hell for Real or Does Everyone Go to Heaven.” Now this is a sermon, not a book review, but I’d highly caution against reading Bell’s book, not because of his ideas – although I don’t agree with him – but because of his rhetoric (how he forms his argument).  He tends to be intentionally imprecise and crafts his arguments in ways that appeal to the emotions of the reader rather than careful study of the Word of God.  Yet the questions Bell raises are important questions and they do force us to wrestle with our understandings of God, his love, and his justice.  We ask the same question that Abraham asked God in regards to his decision to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah – shall not the judge of the earth do right?  God, we know that our fallen notions of justice will fall short of your true justice – yet it makes no sense to us that the God who tells us to love our enemies consigns his enemies to Eternal. Conscious. Torment.  This is the incongruity that lies behind the writing of Bell’s book and what we have to wrestle with today.

What does the Bible Say of Hell? There are three predominant pictures of Hell.

1)    Hell is destruction: “Enter by the narrow gate,” Jesus says in Matthew 7:13, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” Jesus understood his listeners to be already on the road to destruction.  “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world,” John 3:17 reveals, for “whoever does not believe is condemned already.”  Paul names the spiritual state of the unbeliever “spiritual death” in Ephesians 2, which makes sense of term John uses for hell in Revelation 20:6: the second death.   The New Testament makes it clear: we are all either dying to die or living to live.  So actually, Bell is right at this point: hell and heaven are present experiences as well as future destinations.  If you’re spiritually dead now, you will remain so in hell. 

2)    Hell is banishment:  In one of the most chilling passages in the New Testament, Jesus informs us that many will come on the day of judgment expecting to enter into the Lord’s kingdom because of the mighty works they did in his name. In Matthew 5:23 Jesus says to them, “I never knew you, depart from me, you workers of unrighteousness.” In many of Jesus parables of the kingdom, Jesus tells of the king evicting those who had not prepared themselves for his kingdom.  Paul tells of their fate “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might (2 Thess 1:9).  While many may feel that the pictures of destruction or punishment are the worst aspects of hell, this aspect of banishment will be worst of all. Philippians 2:10 states that one day every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.  Yet some will bow in joyful humility, greeting the Lord they served during their lives, and others will bow in humiliation and terror – recognizing the Lord they spurned before being cast from his presence.  That image of Christ will haunt them for eternity – that they were so close to their God, yet sent away. 

3)    Hell is punishment: The chief picture of hell is a place of punishment.  Jesus spoke of hell as punishment in Matthew 25:31-46.  This is the passage when he separates his sheep from goats, and he rewards his sheep for caring for the sick and the poor and the naked and he prisoners, saying that as they cared for them they actually were caring for Jesus.  He then condemns the goats for not caring for the same.  The passage climaxes in verse 46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  The idea of retribution is also found in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10.  Paul points to the persecution of the Thessalonian Christians as “evidence of the righteous judgment of God … since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you … inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”

As I studied, I recognized within myself an embarrassment of hell and noticed that it has been years since I heard a pastor really preach hell. Yet only a few generations ago, preachers boldly warned sinners of the terrible fate that awaited them should they die without giving their lives to Christ. One of the most famous sermons ever preached is Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in which he spoke of God’s authority and right to at any moment cast the sinner into hell and that wicked men can do nothing to save themselves, and apart from the grace of Christ all would be lost.  Edwards considered it just and right to frighten people with the fears of hell so that they may repent and turn to Christ, so long as what we are scaring them with is true and leads them to truth in Jesus.

Is Hell Fair?

We North Americans struggle with the conception of hell as punishment for a number of reasons. Albert Mohler suggests four currents of thought that make hell especially difficult to preach in our culture. Mohlers second point is that we no longer believe in punitive justice: the idea that if you do the crime, you do the time; eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Until the last 70 years or so, this was the foundation of criminal law. Yet many Western philosophers of law, having rejected universal moral standards, argued that justice is about restoration of the criminal rather than retribution.  Prison is to rehabilitate the criminal. Having rejected the concept of punishment as barbaric or unethical, we find it difficult to understand hell as punishment. Interestingly, there has in recent times been a shift back to punitive justice, but still in our popular psych there remains an aversion to punishment for more restorative forms of discipline. This makes hell seem unfair to us.  Additionally, the eternality of hell seems unfair.  How can a just God punish sins committed in time for eternity.

We do not Realize the full Extent of Our Sinfulness: Jonathan Edwards makes this point in “Sinners”: that we do not realize the full extent of our sinfulness because God graciously restrains us during our time on earth so that we do not commit all the sin that we would be want to do.  Romans 2:15 speaks of our conscience, which God gave us as an internal witness against ourselves to do right; Romans 13:1-7 points to the law of government, which was established by God established as a deterrent to sin.  The Word of the Lord itself, although may be ignored by an individual, nevertheless sets standards for morality and righteousness that impact the ethics of our age.  2 Thessalonians 2:7 speaks of the restraining ministry of the Spirit, which keeps people from following every wicked intention of their heart.  How many sins did you not commit, not because of your moral upstanding, but because you were restrained by one of these means of God’s grace?  Can you even image the places your heart would have taken you had God not placed those restraints in your life?

Second, We Do not Recognize Our Guilt in Killing Christ: “Ok then!” The rich man cried, “Pay me back the penalty of my sins – heap them on me and I’ll pay them in this fire.  I lived 60 years – 60 years in the fire should do.  120 years even. I’ll even pay back 3-4 times my sinful life.  What could I have possibly done to warrant eternity in this fire?”

“You fool!” Abraham cried.  “You still don’t get it do you? You are not in hell merely for the menial sins you committed in the flesh, and not merely because you are a sinner by nature.  You are in hell because when His son came to willingly offer you life by taking those sins you committed upon himself, you ignored him, ridiculed him, beat him, shamed him, forsook him, cursed him and killed him.  You committed a capital offense against an infinite God by killing his son!  As your sin laid on his shoulders, your hands drove the crown of thorns into his brow.  As your sin held him down on the wood, your hands drove the nails into his.  As your sin pinned him to the cross, your voice mocked him from below.  You can deny your personal responsibility for the actions of those physically present, but did you not have many occasions during your life when presented with the reality of the cross of Christ, mock and deny and put off and forsake.  Do you really think that if you were physically present on Golgotha that day you wouldn’t have shouted with the crowds, ‘Crucify him!”  Everything in your life testifies against you that you thought nothing of the Son of God – who died for you!  And so you are as guilty as the rest of them, having committed a capital sin against an infinite God, suffering eternal punishment fitting to the crime.   You know it is true – those same preachers who told you of the love of God also warned you of his wrath, you just chose to ignore their words.”

This is why God’s gospel requires a response: there are eternal consequences.  God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn it, for we already stood condemned, but to save it.