A few months ago the Girl Guides changed the oath that girls are expected to make upon joining. Rather than promising to serve God and country instead the girl guides now promise to be “true to myself and develop my beliefs”. It probably wasn't the intent of the girl guide organisation but they have unwittingly provided a devastating critique of Western secular society.
We live in the age of Me, an age where morality is determined, not by any objective standard, but by the fickle reason of our egos. All that matter is being true to "myself". We see this in the issue of transgender individuals insisting that biological gender is second place to the decision of Me to be the gender Me wants. We see this in the issue of abortion where Me chooses to rid Myself of an unnecessary inconvenience rather than valuing the life of Another. We see this in society's attitude to sex where the only moral consideration is the consent of two Mes. We see this in the consumer society where Me has to appear better, richer, cooler than anyone else. And we see this in the greed and selfishness which typifies so much of human existence – Me gets what Me wants over the opinions and actions of any other.
When did narcissism become such a sure decider of right and wrong? Yet listening to the moral debates that are had by our society reveals that the only factor under consideration seem to be doing what Me wants as long as it doesn't harm another. But we are deluding ourselves if we think that such a compromise is possible. The wants of Me will inevitably conflict with the wants of another Me. The desires of Me will eventually only be fulfilled at the expense of another.
As Jesus dies on the cross, a criminal is dying next to him. Jesus turns to him and says: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23v43). This is a remarkable statement considering the bleak predicament of the thief. And it begs the question: how can this dying thief be promised paradise? How can he get to heaven?
Let's say we were in the position to judge his case. Perhaps we might start with all the good he has done in his life; do his good deeds outweigh his bad? That might make him worthy of salvation. But no, the punishment for crucifixion is reserved for the worst of criminals – at the very least he is likely to be guilty of murder. His life is altogether worthless. But how about the rest of his life? Could he not reform his ways and seek to redeem himself with suitable acts of charity? Ah, but, he's dying on a cross and will be dead within a day. He's in no position to do good, no position to do anything but die, his deeds are complete, nothing can change the balance on the scales. Hang on though, many people think they will get to heaven because they have been baptised once. But alas, he has not been sprinkled with water or dunked underneath. There's no hope for him there.
Indeed, this thief is not rich, powerful or intelligent (he was caught after all) and has no friends to help him or priest to bless him or even anyone to pray for him. He has nothing and has done nothing worthy of salvation and can do nothing to make him worthy. We know as well that he even insulted the very man who is now promising him heaven (Matthew 27v44 records both criminals insulting Jesus). The last hours of this man's life would seem to be hopeless but then we have the promise of Jesus that this thief would join Jesus in paradise that very day.
This would beg two questions: how can such a salvation be promised and who is Jesus to make the promise? The answer to both those questions can be found in the one answer. If we go back a few verses and get the whole scene we can learn more:
This question does come with an admittedly large number of assumptions behind it. It assumes, for instance, that you will die this very night which is a hopefully unlikely event. But considering that death will one day take you then it is not so much an assumption as a jump ahead in time to that day when death will come. Another assumption the question makes is the existence of God and the need to defend yourself before him. We'll get to these momentarily. Suffice to say, this question is of no small significance and deserves sober reflection for the matters it touches upon are of eternal importance.
There can be nothing more important that our standing before our Creator. So many people think about God the wrong way round. They ask themselves: "What do I think of God?" when a far more vital question is: "What does God think of me?" It may be that you are perfectly happy with the idea that God exists. But what does God think of your existence and life before him?
The question above helps to get us to consider these issues. It is, I hope, a useful question to ponder. For death has a way of stripping us of all illusions and delusions and focusing our minds away from trivial matters and onto weightier ones. Naked we enter the world and naked we depart. Wealth, talent and success just isn't going to be of any use in death for we take nothing with us.
There’s a wonderful story I heard a few weeks ago about some minister somewhere giving a sermon on how Calvinism was wrong and terrible and not at all biblical and that it was all about free will and God gives us all a choice (a truth I fundamentally agree with but it is not the whole truth). He ranted and raved about this for some time and then as he drew his sermon to a close he started to pray and he prayed in particular that God would convict his Calvinist brothers and sisters of the error of their ways and lead them to the truth.
Well, huh, so much for my free will! And it serves to illustrate the point I want to make which is that functionally everyone prays as a Calvinist. As Spurgeon said: “We do not pray because we doubt but because we believe.” And in prayers we cannot help but express a belief in God’s sovereignty over the will of man. Specifically, we cannot help but express a belief that unless God is at work no one will come to Christ, second that if he works no one can resist him and third that he has the power to keep us following Christ to the end.
In saying that I’m going to sideline for a moment and deal with prayers for things other than conversion. When we face difficult conversations, hard situations or the need for something or other then we pray to God to provide, to help us, to deliver us and to bring good from evil. In other words we express our firm belief that nothing can stand against the sovereignty of God. We uphold as an article of faith Proverbs 21v1: “The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” We do not pray as though God has no say over the will of man. Have you ever heard a Christian pray: “Lord, I am facing a difficult conversation but as you have let us have free will and are not in control over that then I know I cannot ask you to do anything to help me.”?
On the surface it may seem a strange statement: how can one spread the good news of Jesus Christ dying for the sins of the world wrong? Well, obviously you could start sprouting heresy and that would be a problem but let’s say that what you’re saying is theologically correct then is it still possible to be going about things the wrong way?
My answer would be yes and sadly I would have to go further and say that the church today, as a general rule, has lost the plot when it comes to spreading the gospel. I realized this the other year at the CU carol service after I regretted bringing my non-Christian friend along because while what he heard was technically speaking completely true he didn’t hear what he needed to hear because the speaker didn’t tell him what he should have told him. My friend heard a lot about Jesus and how he died for us and how much Jesus loved him and how much Jesus wanted him to be saved which is all good and right and true and also entirely useless.
My friend currently thinks he does not need to be saved because his family religion and general good works will save him. This, I imagine, puts him into a similar situation to a lot of people today. So telling him about how much Jesus loved him only served to reinforce his self-righteousness. What my friend needed to hear because he is unwilling to admit it is how much of a wretched, miserable, filthy, vile, corrupted sinner he is standing before a perfect holy God. He needed to be told of Hell, judgement and the dangers of not repenting, he needed to be told that his desperate need was for Jesus.
This example serves well to illustrate the failure of a lot of modern evangelism: