This sermon is part of the sermon series "True North". See series.
True North Backstory
One reason I enjoyed preaching the sermons in this series was the contrast between a "head" message and a "heart" message.
The message on Scripture was a head message—didactic. We asked folks for questions about barriers to taking the Bible as authoritative, and there were so many good ones I had to rewrite the sermon on Thursday.
N.T. Wright's notion of the biblical story as a play with five acts was extremely helpful.
This enabled me to demonstrate how the nature of a story carries authority, and what it means to read the Bible literally.
The message on grace alone was aimed at the heart. One question I always try to keep in mind is, What are people talking about this week? That week, people were talking about the deaths of Steve Jobs and Al Davis. So the message was simple: How successful, tough, talented, attractive do you have to be? The stories of
high "bar-setters" helped set the stage for grace.
I recently saw an advertisement for a product that was marketed as "must-have." Companies use this language to advertise their latest and greatest products. There are must-have clothes, must-have shoes, must-have accessories, and must-have apps for your smart phone.
But must-haves extend beyond the world of merchandise. People have must-haves about other people. Employers have must-have lists for new and potential employees. Graduates have must-have lists for potential jobs. And of course, the most infamous must-have list comes from the world of dating. Men have must-haves about women, and women have must-haves about men. I recently read about the top three must-haves women look for in men: slightly shorter than average height, small build, and a pastor. It's true. You can do the research.
Must-haves are essentials. Must-haves are non-negotiables. Our relationship with Jesus includes must-haves, essentials, non-negotiables.
We are in the second week of a series called True North. In this series, we are talking about the core beliefs of our faith, what is essential to our identity as Christians. These core beliefs are the essentials, the non-negotiables, the must-haves of our faith.
During the Protestant Reformation, these core beliefs were described as the five solas. Sola is the Latin word for alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The Bible alone has the unique authority to speak about these things. All of this is done to the glory of God alone. This week we will discuss the phrase solus Christus (Christ alone), which means we are saved in and through and by Jesus Christ alone.
This belief extends back to the Gospels and to the early church. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." The early church took this to heart. In the Book of Acts, Peter was testifying before the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish court in Jerusalem. They interrogated Peter about a man whose legs he had healed. They wanted to know how this miracle happened, how this man was saved. Peter answered: "It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed." He then went on to say, "Salvation is found in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved."
That is solus Christus—salvation in Christ alone, healing through Christ alone, redemption through Christ alone, the kingdom of heaven coming to earth through Christ alone. This has been a core, must-have confession for the church's entire history.
Now, I know this statement is offensive in our culture today. The claim that Jesus is the only way of salvation sounds arrogant or narrow-minded. Unfortunately, Christians can be arrogant and narrow-minded. We can make wrong judgments about others without truly knowing them. We can be self-righteous. But the church has not confessed salvation in Christ alone for 2,000 years in order to be smug, arrogant, or narrow-minded. We confess this belief because we know who Jesus is. Jesus is unique. So today I want to walk through some "only Jesus" statements to remind us why Jesus is unlike any other religious teacher or leader in human history.
Jesus is the only God-man
First, only Jesus is fully God and fully human. We confess him to be the Second Person in the Trinity. Therefore, he is not just another teacher or prophet. Some people held that belief in the first century, and some people believe that today. But he is unlike any other teacher or prophet: he is God in the flesh—fully God and fully man. This, then, tells us something incredible about God: God understands us and our condition. The fact that he became man in the person of Jesus Christ tells us he cares deeply for us.
Sometimes we think God is far away, too busy to care about our day-to-day lives. But Jesus reminds us that is a lie. God loves us enough to have become a human. He had a real body. He had real feelings. He had parents. He experienced real pain. He faced real hardship. He didn't live a human life from a distance. He drew close. He moved into the neighborhood. He became one of us.
Some of you have been in long-distance relationships in the past. I once tried a long-distance relationship. We dated, I freaked out, and so I moved a long distance away. Thus we had a long-distance relationship. But our God does not do long-distance relationships. He has come close to us in the person of Jesus, and there is no other God like this. Only Jesus is fully God and fully man. Because he is both God and man, he is close to you and me.
Only Jesus led a perfect human life
Secondly, only Jesus led a sinless life. He did not gossip. He was not greedy. He did not curse his neighbor. He did not cheat or deceive or take advantage of other people. Therefore, only Jesus can deal with our sin.
I know sin is not a popular word in our world, but we see its reality and affect all the time, every day. We all notice that the world is not as it should be. G. K. Chesterton said, "Sin is the only theological concept that can be 100 percent proven. Just look around." Sin is why parents run out of patience with their kids. It is why people act promiscuously to deal with loneliness. The list could go on and on. No matter how hard we try, no matter how many good deeds we do, no matter how much we try to modify our behavior, we cannot fix our sinful hearts.
The real problem with sin is that by definition you cannot fix it. We are part of the problem, and on our own we are stuck. Scott Dudley, who was a pastor here at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church for many years, put it this way: "The religion you choose will be based on the problem you think you have." If you think you are not smart enough, you will choose a religion of enlightenment. If you think you are not good enough, you will choose a religion of good deeds.
But if you think you are not smart enough or not good enough, there is nothing you could ever do on your own to be smart enough or good enough to relate to an eternal, holy God. So you have only one choice: Jesus. Only Jesus led a sinless life. Only Jesus is able to take away your sin. Only Jesus could take our sin and nail it to the cross. Only Jesus has dealt with what truly separates us from God.
Only Jesus has conquered death
Thirdly, only Jesus was raised from the dead. If you go back to the time of the first century, Jesus was not the only person whom people believed could be the Messiah, the one whom God would send to liberate Israel from Roman oppression. Scholars think there may have been five or six messiah candidates who lived within 100 years of Jesus' life. There were certain patterns to these messiah candidates. They all called people to deepen their practice of faith. They all believed God would restore Israel's freedom.
Can anyone guess what happened to all of those so-called messiah candidates? They all died. They ended up either being killed by the Roman government or by some rival faction. If your messiah was killed, you had two options: you could either join a local dead-messiah recovery group, or you could go find yourself a new and better messiah, because following a dead messiah meant you were following the wrong messiah. It was a contradiction in terms.
So when Jesus—the one whom many believed was the true Messiah—was arrested, convicted, executed, and buried, what do you think his followers thought? They thought they were following the wrong guy. If he's not the messiah, it does not matter that he modeled great compassion and sacrifice. When Jesus died, his disciples fled and hid. They were devastated. They lost their friend and they lost their hope.
But something remarkable happened, and we can read about it in the historical records. The same people who watched Jesus die began to gather together again, but they did not gather to tell old stories for old times' sake. They left their occupations, they sold their possessions, and they devoted the rest of their lives to one simple message: Jesus died on a cross, he was buried in a tomb, and on the third day he was raised to life. They even saw him and talked with him. They touched him and ate meals with him.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.
Paul is essentially saying: If you don't believe me, if you don't buy this, you can go talk to all these people who have seen him, who have talked to him.
Jesus was raised from the dead. He is not like the dead "messiahs" that came and went. He is the one and only resurrected Messiah. Thus Jesus is far different from any other religious leader in history.
Only Jesus is Lord
The fourth point: only Jesus is Lord. But what does that mean? After the resurrection, Jesus' followers began talking about him in a very particular way. They did not simply address him as Jesus; they called him Lord Jesus. You might wonder why that is significant. It is not simply a term of respect. Unlike their Roman neighbors, who were polytheistic, the Israelites worshiped the one true God—Yahweh. The Greek word they used to translate Yahweh, the name of God, was the word kurios, which means lord. And because they reserved all their worship for the one true God, Yahweh, it meant there could only be one person who could be called Lord. Only Yahweh could be called the Lord. There could only be one kurios.
When I was a kid, one of the games we used to play was a game called King of the Mountain. You would stand on a hill or a mound of dirt, and other kids would run up the hill or mound and try to push you off the top. If they could push you off the top, they would be king of the mountain. There can only be one king of the mountain, and the same is true for the word kurios. There is only one Lord—Yahweh. When Jesus walked out of the grave, his followers started calling him kurios, Lord.
Acts 4 says, "With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus." This is from the story of Stephen's life: "While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'" This is from Paul's life: "Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, 'Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.'" Paul addressed Jesus as Lord all throughout his letters.
Built into this one word is the previously unthinkable claim that Jesus is the one true God. He is Lord. He is kurios. He is Yahweh. When these early Christians called him Lord, it was not just a doctrinal statement; it was a statement about how they were going to live their lives. They were not just calling him God; they were giving him authority over their lives because they knew that only Jesus has the power to heal nations. Only Jesus has the power to restore marriages. Only Jesus has the power to free us from addiction. Only Jesus has the power to renew us from our brokenness. Only Jesus can be trusted as Lord of your life.
We all look to something or someone as lord, as kurios. We all trust our lives, our worth, our significance, and our success into the hands of something or someone. We all serve something as lord. Sometimes I struggle to trust Jesus with what matters most to me. Sure, I can worship him on Sunday and I can participate in church activity, but do I give him full control of my relationships? Do I give him full control of my work aspirations? Do I give him full control of my financial life? Is he the only Lord of my life? Only Jesus can be Lord of your life. Only Jesus can forgive you. Only he can restore you and lead you where you need to go. Only Jesus can be trusted as Lord.
A friend of mine named Rebecca recently experienced an encounter with Jesus as Lord firsthand. Instead of telling her story to you, I have asked her to share it.
Rebecca: I did not grow up as a Christian. I grew up hearing and believing negative messages about Christians and Christianity. One of my biggest problems with Christianity was the idea of sin. It did not seem right to me that someone else could tell me what to do or that there was something wrong with me. I thought that if I considered myself a sinner, I would open my heart to guilt and shame. So I stayed away from Christianity.
A few years ago I started a new job and I began to be troubled by negative thoughts about myself. I had intrusive, compulsive thoughts that I was bad. It was as if I was recollecting something I had done previously that I thought was a mistake, even if it was only a minor mistake. So I sought help in several ways. One way was with a therapist, but it did not help me much. I also went to a workshop led by a Buddhist teacher, but I left midway through. It was not for me.
Ten months ago, when I was still searching for healing in that area of my life, I needed a ride to the airport. My friend and coworker offered to take me. She said she had already planned to go to church—Menlo Park Presbyterian Church—but that she could drive back to Palo Alto to pick me up and then take me to the airport in San Francisco. Since I love efficiency, I told her, "I'll just go to church with you. It's on the way."
I listened to a sermon online beforehand to make sure this place was not a cult. When I came, I was excited. At the airport afterwards, I talked to my mom on the phone about the sermon. I talked about it for half an hour, recounting everything that had been said and what I thought about the whole experience. Although I experienced some discomfort, it was a turning point in my life.
I started listening to more sermons online. I did not want to come here yet. At that time, the church was going through The Reason for God by Tim Keller. I was moved by how doubt seemed to be a part of faith, how a lot of my doubts were answered, and how I could use those doubts to strengthen my faith.
Shortly thereafter, I had an incredible experience. I was in the bathroom getting ready for work, and to my mind came a thought that I had done something wrong. I felt I was so bad. In that moment I thought, I'll try asking God for forgiveness. I felt peace and grace wash over me, and at that moment I finally realized I was a sinner and that I needed a Savior. I realized that by acknowledging those things I would gain peace and joy instead of guilt and shame.
So I started coming to church and I heard an announcement about baptism. I met with Linda Barker and prayed with her about getting baptized. Then I met with Scott and talked with him about it. I was baptized by Joanie Tankersley in the pool across the street, and ever since I have had incredible joy in my life.
In becoming a Christian, I have had to make some significant changes and sacrifices in my life. I have had the support of my small group that I formed through Sanctuary. I have had tremendous help and joy from the presence of Jesus and the Holy Spirit in my life. I am overjoyed to trust the Lord with my life.
Scott Scruggs: There is no one like Jesus. There is no one who can do what Jesus does. Some of us have been in or around the church for a long time. Some of you love the songs, you love the stories, and we know you especially love the sermons. But sometimes we lose sight of why we are here, why we came in the first place. We lose sight of what we need most: a relationship with Jesus. Rebecca's story reminds us that only Jesus can save us, heal us, and be the Lord of our lives.
Only Jesus can give you a relationship with God
The fifth point: only Jesus offers us a relationship with a loving God. Embedded in every other religion or way of life, every other philosophy, is some way of our finding God. But Jesus is not just your way to find God; he is God who has come to find you. He has come to find you today, no matter what you bring into this place, no matter what is going on in your life.
Jesus finds us in dark and messy places, like doubt and depression. He finds us in places filled with sin and shame. But Jesus is the one God who says, "I love you. I want to be with you so much that I'd rather die than lose you." That is why Jesus came. That is why he took the cross on his back. That is why he walked up that hill called Calvary and gave his life for you. He is the King of the mountain. There is only one King.
Sometimes people ask me, "How do you know that Jesus can really do all this? I need proof." I'll say, "You can't know for sure. You have to take a risk and trust him with your life."
Recently, I was at a friend's wedding. You could see incredible joy and excitement in the couple's eyes. They had dreamed about that day. They spent countless hours planning for that day. They forced their parents out of retirement in order to pay for that day. When it came time to take their vows, they said to each other, "I will love you for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health." But you know what? They could not prove what they promised. There is no way to prove that kind of love until you receive it and live in it. The only way to receive that is to take a risk and say yes to it. There is no way to prove that only Jesus is Lord until you receive him and give your life to him. The only way to receive him is to take a risk and say yes.
Jesus once said, "Behold I stand at the door and knock." If you will let him in, he will love you forever. My question for you is this: Will you let him in? He gave his life for you. Only Jesus is Lord, but only you can decide if he will be Lord of your life.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.