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How to Know whether you're down or out

John 15:1-17

I will never forget the first hospital visit I made as a pastor.  I was the youth pastor at a church in Wisconsin and one of our most active church members was quite ill and was not expected to live.  The Sr. Pastor asked me to go over and visit him and told me, “This probably will be an easier visit than you might think, Greg.  ‘Bill’ is a faithful Christian and I think you will find he will encourage you.” 

     But, after I had read some Scripture to him that day, Bill said to me, “Pastor Greg, could I talk to you about something that is a heavy burden for me?  I don’t know who else to talk to about it.  As much as church has been at the center of my life, I’m not sure I’m ready to meet God.”  He went on to tell me that he had prayed the prescribed prayer for salvation his Sunday school teacher had led him in when he was a young boy.  He had gone forward after a sermon at a camp when he was in high school too -- and prayed to receive Jesus again just to make sure he was saved.  But, I remember Bill telling me that the two things that plagued him were 1) that there was hidden sin in his life that he could never overcome, and 2) he had often experienced doubt, mostly because he not had any clear and undeniable personal encounters with God –not the kind that he had heard others speak about.  I’ll tell you this:  Bill’s heart was troubled.  He was afraid.

     Now that I have been a pastor for so long, I must tell you honestly that I have had a number of conversations with people like the one I had with Bill that day.  On the other side, I also have had many very different meetings in hospitals, like the one I had with my father just before Christmas.  My father was sure of his relationship to God.  He walked and talked with God every day and was ready to meet the Lord. The last words my Dad said to me came through his doctor.  She said, “Your Dad said to tell Greg that I know the Lord -- and he is calling me home.”  Is it possible actually to have that kind of certainty?

     In the Gospel of John, it’s very clear to me that Jesus intended for us to have the kind of confidence in our relationship to God that my Father had.  John tells us that this is why he wrote the book in John 20:31: These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  Then John built on that in his first letter:  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).

     Today, I want to ask this question: How do we know that we are eternally alive to God?  This is a part of what Jesus takes up in John 15:1-17.  And you’ll notice that Jesus didn’t talk about this in the way we often do in evangelical churches.  He didn’t say, “You can know you are spiritually alive if you prayed a certain prayer back sometime in your past.”  That would be like someone saying you are physically alive if you have a birth certificate.  No, Jesus talked in different terms of how we know we belong to God. Make note of this up front:  Jesus is not speaking in these verses about how we are saved – but how we know we are saved.

Back to the vineyard to get the setting(I’ll show here a Judean vineyard.)

     On this last day of his life, Jesus probably stopped alongside a vineyard to talk with his disciples about important matters they needed to know when he was gone.  To grasp the significance of this, you should know that a vine and vineyard had special significance in the Hebrew Scriptures.  The vineyard was the way God had repeatedly described Israel as his people in the OT.  In other words, to say you are a part of God’s vineyard is like us saying we’re a part of God’s family.  Those in the vineyard viewed themselves as being there by virtue of their bloodline, i.e., through a biological relationship to Abraham.  Jesus is saying that the people of Israel were the specially chosen people of God through whom the savior of the world was to come.  But, as we saw in John 14:6, now that the Messiah, i.e., Jesus, has come, people come into “God’s vineyard”, through Jesus.  There is no other way, Jesus insisted.  “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

     So, here, Jesus is declaring, “I am the vine connecting you to the Father.”  By that, he meant that all who believe in him enter in to the eternal family of God.  But -- already one man who had seemed to be intimately connected to Jesus by faith had gone out to betray him.  And Jesus had said that Judas Iscariot, perhaps the disciples most trusted by the other disciples, was not clean – Judas was not even saved. Judas was a person considered by everyone to be a Christian but he was not.  Judas was not organically connected to Jesus so he was fit only to be “thrown into the fire and burned (15:6).” The 11 remaining disciples must have thought, “What about us?  Maybe we aren’t real Christians either!” Jesus told them in 13:10 and again in 15:3, “No, you are clean.  You are connected to the Father through me.”

     But real-life difficulties would soon hit these believers.  Peter would deny Jesus and fail.  Thomas would doubt.  Were they still Christians?  How could people ever know that they truly are right with God in this world when they (and we) have to live by faith and no longer have Jesus by sight?  Jesus points us to several evidences of genuine spiritual life, evidences that should be growing in all of us.  What are they?

Evidence #1:  Faith in the present tense: True believers abide in Jesus by faith.

     Abide in me… (15:4).  The evidence of true faith is not so much, “Did you once believe years ago?” as it is, “Are you a believer in Jesus?”  And, I imagine you know that “belief” in the Bible is not merely intellectual assent.  No, in the Bible, what we believe is demonstrated by how we live.  Judas showed what he believed by leaving Jesus.  People thought that Judas was a believer but he went away and “into the dark” (13:30).  In 1 John 2:19, there was a group of people once in the church but who had left the faith.  John said, “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

     Mark it down: A true believer believes in Jesus.  People alive to God remain in the faith.  You can tell the real McCoy because he sticks.  This does not mean that believers never fail and that we never have doubts. Peter failed – but he returned.  Thomas doubted but returned.  John would declare in 1 John 1:8-9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Jesus says in John 15, “The person organically connected to me abides – he remains.”

     Let me plunge briefly but directly into the question in this that has divided Christians for centuries:  Can a person who, at one point, is truly alive to God through faith in Jesus lose eternal life?  One impressive list of those who have gone before us – like Augustine, Calvin, John Knox and John Piper – would insist, “No!  Salvation is God’s work and he will bring his work to completion.”  Another impressive group of believers including Arminius, Wesley, Asbury and E. Stanley Jones – would insist, “Yes.  A person can, as Hebrews says, ‘Taste of the goodness of the Word of God and then fall away…’”

     I cannot solve that problem to anyone’s satisfaction in the moments we have here today – and our LAC Statement of Faith is crafted in such a way that we welcome believers in Jesus who are in both lists.  But I will say this:  No matter what your theological persuasion may be about this question, all Christians say that true believers believe in Jesus.  If you do not believe now (in the present tense), you are not a believer.  You are not abiding.  You are not alive to God through an organic relationship with Jesus.  The only practical part of the theological disagreement is whether you ever believed.  And we can have good debates about that.

     So, my question to you today is this: Are you a believer?  Are you a follower of Jesus?  True believers believe – in the present tense.  We abide in Jesus and allow his presence to further his transforming work.

Evidence #2:  Transforming Lives: True believers begin to look and act like Jesus.

Whoever abides in me and I in him bears much fruit (15:5).

     We see here that, according to Jesus’ own words, when we follow him we do not simply commit ourselves to a set of religious beliefs.  We invite Jesus to come in and absolutely transform the entirety of our lives.  The Christian faith is a radical redirecting of every thought, attitude and action from self-direction and self-serving to self-surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. Jesus said it is like the relationship of a branch to the vine – all the nutrients and direction come from Jesus.  Our lives begin to bear fruit that look like the way that Jesus’ life bore fruit – because Jesus is at work in and through us.

     What is that fruit?  I spoke about that at some length last week but, in brief: The fruit Jesus produces in us is anything that specifically results from Jesus’ work in and through us.  Jesus says in v. 8 that the fruit is what glorifies God, i.e., people will see us and will begin to see that the words we speak, the attitudes we have, and the actions we engage in are different because we’re no longer living for ourselves but for him who died for us and rose again.

     Let me tell you this:  One of the surest evidences that Jesus is present and at work in your life is that you will begin to long to keep Jesus’ commands.  I know this makes no sense to our world but it is true.  The world thinks that freedom is being liberated from commands.  Jesus says we will long to know his commands and to keep his commands just as Jesus kept the Father’s commands.  “As I keep my Father’s commands and abide in his love, keep my commands and abide in my live (15:10).”

     To illustrate this, let me remind you of a story of when I was in college.  There was a young man on our floor I’ll call “Mike” who apparently had never embraced the value of good hygiene:  He never showered -- rarely shaved -- never seemed to change clothes.  We told him forcefully to clean up.  We sometimes took him and threw him – clothes and all – into the shower.  We mocked him about his messiness hoping that shame or guilt would get him to clean up.  One time, we put our money together and sent him a box of soap, shampoo, deodorant, clean underwear, etc. On the evening after the package had arrived, we had a floor meeting and in comes Mike excited about his package.  But, he said, “Guys, I got this great box of stuff.  But I never use it and I know you do!”  And he began handing all the things out to us!  We finally gave up hope.

     Then, one evening we were in the student center and the elevator door opened.  Out came a guy who looked like Mike.  But, he was shaved.  His hair had been cut.  He had on clean clothes.  He smelled good!!  Amazingly, when he spoke, we discovered: It was Mike!  What had happened?  What changed his life?

     In a few moments, the elevator door opened again and then we understood.  Out walked Amy.  We learned that Mike had fallen in love with Amy – and apparently Amy with Mike.  But, she had told him – had commanded him – “If you want to go out with me, you have to clean up.”  And he did so.  Gladly!!

     We discovered that day that love transforms things in ways that guilt and shame never can.  When we love, we want to please the one we love.  And that is infinitely true in our relationship with Jesus.  When we know him and love him, we know it because we want to keep his commands.  And, because he and we know that we cannot do this on our own, he comes into us and gives us the power to do so.  You can know you are a true believer when you have a growing longing to live in ways that please Jesus and you find yourself beginning to have strength to obey him.

     If you think you’re a Christian but don’t love Him and you’re life is filled with sin rather than obedience to Him, you dare not think yourself safe and continue to sin.  You won’t want to displease him by sinning.  You’ll study his Word to discover how to live.  You’ll ask for his help to live for him.  And, like Mike did, you – and others -- will begin to see change.  Whereas once you got your thrills by experiencing impure things, you will want to be pure. You will see that he wants you to give witness to him and whereas once you would not – because it might mean people rejecting you – you find great joy anytime you find the courage to speak of him.  Whereas you once only thought about how other got ahead in business, now the first hope you have is that people will see how the way you do business is directed by Jesus.

     I could go on and on about this – but I hope you get the point.  You’ll know you are a true believer when you begin to see Jesus changing your life.  Oh, you will sometimes fail as did Peter and Thomas – but you will come back to Jesus and he will receive you.  You will long to please the One you love by keeping his commands.  Which brings us to the final evidence – pointing us to Jesus’ greatest command.

Evidence #3:  Deeping Love (the surest sign) – True believers grow in loving, as Jesus loved.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you (15:12).

     Have you ever noticed that the love of the same things often draws us together?  If you’re a sports fan, you are drawn to other sports fans.  If you love cars, you’re drawn to other car-lovers.  But when you love the One who loves you so much he gave his life for you, you will know it because you will love to be with those who also love him.  Jesus had said a few hours earlier in John 13 that the world will see it.  They will know we are his followers by our love for one another.  And in his first letter, John would say this even more forcefully: Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And Jesus has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:19-20).

     I know that we who are part of your eternal family are sometimes very difficult to love.  But it’s also clear to me that we were all quite unlovable in the eyes of Jesus because of our sin – and while we were sinners he loved us so much that he died for us (Rom. 5:8).  Jesus put it beautifully here:  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends and you are my friends… (John 15:13-14a).

     One of the surest signs that your relationship with Jesus is real is that you will love those who love Jesus.  You will want to worship with us – and will even give up some of your personal likes and dislikes to do so – just because you love us.  You will want to serve us and to serve with us. You will want others to become a part of God’s unexpected and eternal family through faith in the one we love.

     Let me close by telling you how I sought to counsel “Bill” when I was a 20-something year old pastor so long ago.    I said to him, “Bill, Jesus tells us that a sure sign that you belong to him is that you love your brothers and sisters in Christ.  All of us at our church have experienced your love for us.”  And he said, “I do love my church.”

     And, I said, even today, I see how deeply you long to please him.  You are troubled in your conscience and convicted by God’s Spirit about the sins that you know displease him.  You have confessed those sins and told me how much you long for his cleansing and transformation.”  He said, “I have.  I know that his death is enough to forgive me.  I want to live for him.”

     “Then,” I said, “I have but one question:  Do you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  Is Jesus your savior and Lord?"  And he said, “I do.  I do believe.”  And I reminded him, “God loves you so much Bill that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him – believes in him – shall not perish but have eternal life.  And Jesus said, ‘He who lives and believes in me, though he may die, will never die!’”

     We now go to communion to remember the one who loves us so much that he laid down his life for us…


To His glory,

Dr. Greg Waybright
Senior Pastor

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Greg Waybright • Copyright 2015, Lake Avenue Church