“What Is Essential?” No. 1

Texts: Acts 16:25-33 and Romans 10:8-10.

This is one of several sermons on the “One Essential” and the “Eight Essentials” (Note 1:) of the Moravian Faith. Recently a lot of people have been asking the question, “What is and what is not essential to our salvation?” There is an objective answer to that question, and a subjective answer to that question. In the not too distant future, I will be dealing with the objective answer to that question. This morning—and next Sunday, I will dealing with the subjective answer to this question. The Philippian jailer was interested the subjective answer to that question when he said to Paul, “What must I do to be saved?”

In answer to that question, Paul said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

There are four steps in this very specific scenario of salvation as it relates to the Philippian jailer: 1) the Jailer has an interest in salvation because of what he has seen and heard in the disciples. 2) Paul speaks “the Word of the Lord” to him. 3) The Philippian jailer believes. 4) The Philippian jailer does something. He submits to baptism. (Note 2:)

In Romans chapter 10:8-10, St. Paul addresses the issue of personal salvation for anyone who hears the gospel. He writes:

8 The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); 9 because, if you confess with your lips that ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.

Rightly understood the steps in this scenario are virtually identical to the steps in the Philippian jailer’s scenario. 1) Interest in the gospel is assumed. 2) The word of the Lord is shared. This word always includes a proclamation of the Risen Christ. 3) The person believes the good news. 4) The person does something. In this case he or she makes the confession that “Jesus is Lord.” I think it is interesting that even though, in Romans 6, Paul assumes that baptism is very much a part of the normal Christian life, in Romans 10 he does not call for baptism, but for confession. I do not think confession is a type of baptism; but I do think that baptism is a type of confession.

In either case, one who hears the gospel, and receives it, immediately goes public. There is no such thing as being a disciple of Jesus in Secret. Either the secrecy destroys the discipleship, or the discipleship destroys the secrecy. Thus we read in John 19:38 that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple in secret, for fear of the Jews. Joseph’s discipleship destroyed the secrecy; else his name would not be among the most prominent names in all four gospels!

If someone came to me today and said, “What must I do to be saved?” I would answer exactly as Paul did. “If you confess with your lips that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I am quite sure that the early Moravians would have said the same, and would still do. Luke of Prague said that the one essential for personal salvation was “a heart relationship with the Triune God, that issues in faith, love, and hope.” This phrase still appears in “The Unity Book of Order.” I am going to deal with the first part of it this week, and the second part of it next week.

I think it is in perfect harmony with the theology of St. Paul.

Though Paul does not use the word ‘Trinity,’ he everywhere assumes that the One God has revealed himself with three “persona” or “faces.” According to St. Paul, God the Father is the Creator who sent the Son into a sinful world to save us from sin and give us a future and a hope. God the Son came into the world, became one of us, freely died for our sins, rose again for our justification. God the Holy Spirit came into the world to convince us of sin and righteousness (very clear in the 4th Gospel), to seal us as God’s property, meaning that no other can lay claim to us (Ephesians 1:13), to witness to our adoption as God’s children (Romans 8:16, etc.), and to serve as the guarantee of our inheritance until we receive possession of it. (Ephesians 1:14) (Note 3:)

Likewise, the early Moravians spoke of a heart relationship with God, and St. Paul spoke of belief that centers in the heart. And in the Bible, the heart is not just an organ that pumps blood, nor is it simply the seat of the emotions, as we seem to imply every St. Valentine’s Day. Rather the heart stands for the totality of a human being, and it is the seat of the Mind, the Emotions and the Will.

Jesus understood this when he said that we are to love God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength. (Mark 12:30) The heart comes first because we are to love God holistically. Then we are to love God with all the soul. In scripture the soul is the seat of the emotions. (Genesis 34:3, 1st Samuel 18:1) That means we are to love what God loves, especially those for whom Christ died, including our enemies. And we hate what God hates, including the injustices of this world. “What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Then we are to love God with all the mind, or intellectually. Moravians are called upon to do this when we sing, “May we all science and all truth, with eager minds explore, lead us alike in age and youth, Thy (God’s) wisdom to adore.” And we are to love God with all the strength, that is volitionally, with all the strength of our bodies and our wills. Faith Requires Action. As Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”

St. Paul said, “If you confess with your lips, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

The early Moravians rightly understood that the one thing that is Essential to Salvation is a heart relationship with the triune God, who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Moravians are not alone in this understanding. Billy Graham understood it when he invited people simply to believe the gospel and walk down the aisle to make a public profession of faith in him. Billy Graham does not even insist on baptism. He leaves that detail to the local churches, and he sends people back to the church they are closest to. The late E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist Missionary and Evangelist, understood it, too. He said that when he went to India he found himself defending a long line that stretched from Genesis to Revelation, up and down behind that line defending this, and defending that, and he felt that the main thing was being left out, Jesus Christ. He said that there were countless points of question about the Christian faith. He said when we decide what we believe about any or all of those points of question, we don’t really decide anything at all, for God decided those things long ago. But when we decide for or against Jesus Christ, then we make a real decision, a decision that will affect us in all of life, and, even after death.”

Jones used to point out that the earliest confession of the Early Church was found in Romans 10:9: “Jesus is Lord.” That is just one thing, he said, the essential thing. He proposed that we Christians should spread this message by adopting a one-finger salute, which means, “Jesus is Lord.” I wish we could do that, and that it would quickly catch on, and the world would understand it. On many occasions I have been greeted by the world with a different kind of one finger salute. I remember driving my little VW diesel from Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Princeton, New Jersey during the gas crisis of 1978. I drove off the Jersey Turnpike, and saw a long line of cars in line for gasoline, dozens. I drove past them all, pulled up to the diesel pump and filled up. As I left, almost all of them gave me the one-finger salute of the world. How nice it would be to receive a different one finger salute from time to time, a one finger salute that means, “Jesus is Lord.”

There are many differences among Christians. I wish we could at least unite around this one thing. The constant quarrels that we Christians pick with one another do more to put people off the gospel than to draw people to the gospel. Jones saw this in India. I see it, too. I shall never forget the first time it really hit me. When I was in seminary, I went into a Pawn Shop and asked to see a typewriter that was in the window of the shop. It was an Olympia. The sales clerk asked me what I wanted it for. I told him I was a student at the Methodist Seminary. Instead of showing me the typewriter, he started an argument over theology. He said, “You and I cannot walk together. The Bible says that two cannot walk together unless they agree, and you are a Methodist, and I am an __________ and he defined himself.” I started to tell him that I did not want to walk anywhere with him, that I just wanted to buy a typewriter. Before I could, his boss, the owner of the shop, said, “You Christians, you make me laugh. You cannot even agree with one another, and you want us Jews to join you!”

As I look back over that exchange, I understand what Jesus meant when he prayed, “Father, may all my followers be one, that the world might know that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)

Let me point out just a few of the advantages of holding to the One Essential of Salvation.

1. The simplicity of the One Essential means that we don’t need to have a Ph.D. in Bible or Theology in order to be a Christian. We don’t have to put our lives on hold, and study all the points of questions, and make decisions about those before we decide to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of our Lives. As Paul said, “If you confess with you lips, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

2. The simplicity of the One Essential means that we can witness more effectively, and bring people to the point of decision more easily. I once listened as a young man told an audience that he had almost led his Chinese friend to faith in Christ. He said that the only barrier that remained was his friend’s long held belief in evolution, which he had learned as a child. I challenged him, asking why he would lay an additional burden on his friend as a perquisite to his faith. In the New Testament, Christ is the stone that will make men stumble, the rock that will make them fall. There is no other. I once shared my faith with a young geologist. He said, “I would like to be a Christian, but I am not sure the church wants me. I have seen the evidence of evolution in the earth’s core.” I said, “Yes, but what do you think of Jesus Christ?” It is how we answer that question that defines us before God. Our task is simply to witness to Christ; God can sort out the rest.

3. The simplicity of the One Essential means that no one is beyond the scope of God’s saving power. Suppose, if you will, that a man was dying. Suppose that he has broken God’s law, and man’s. Suppose he has hurt himself, and others, bringing many a hardship to many a life. Now suppose he is sorry for what he has done, and wants to embrace God, and know God’s forgiveness. If we are justified only by works of the Law, that is, if we are justified before God only when the good in our lives far outweighs the bad, then he is a hopeless case. He does not have enough time to amend his ways and make up for all the harm he has done. We can only say to him:

“Well, it is too late. You should have remembered your Creator in the days of your youth. You should have listened to his Word, and lived by it. Shoulda, woulda, coulda! Now it is too late for you.”

Thankfully, as Christians, we know that no one will be justified by works of the law (Romans 3:20), but rather by one’s relationship to Jesus Christ. (Romans 3:24-26; Romans 10:10). As St. Paul says, “If you confess with your lips, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And, “for no one who believes in him will be put to shame.” So, too, some of you will think of the conversation that Jesus had from his cross with the dying thief. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is not all just theory for me. I was once summoned to the bed of a dying man. He could say very little, but a nurse told me that he had asked for a hospital chaplain. When I entered the room, physicians surrounded him. They parted before me, as the waters of the Red Sea had once parted before the children of Israel. I was awed. I was a young man, a recent seminary graduate, not yet ordained, and this was heady stuff. I was keenly aware of my audience. I wanted to earn their respect and trust; but, more than anything, I wanted to be responsive to the man who had summoned me. I knelt by the man’s bed, and took his hand. I could see that he could no longer speak. So I said, “I am a chaplain. I understand that you have some regrets about your life, and that you would like to accept the offer of friendship made to us by Jesus Christ. If that is so, just squeeze my hand.” He did squeeze my hand, and several people witnessed it. I then prayed that God would forgive his sins, and accept him as a disciple of Jesus Christ. I also prayed for his healing. He did recover for a little while, but he soon had a terrible stroke, and could no longer communicate. He was never baptized, but he did make his confession in public, before me and before those doctors. I think he made a real decision, and I trust that God will honor it.

On another occasion, I took one of the Elders of our church to the home of a man who was dying with cancer. He did not have long to live. He had made a profession of faith, and he wished to be baptized. I baptized him with water from a bowl supplied by his wife. Afterward, he asked his son to bring out a small canon, which I think was called a Whiz-Bang. It fired a harmless charge, but made lots and lots of noise. At the man’s direction, his son took the canon on to the back porch and fired it off in celebration. I will tell you now, that when they heard that canon, all his near neighbors knew that that something had happened. Something had happened, he had made a decision that would affect all of his life, in this world, and in the next.

Finis

Note 1: In 1957 the Moravian Church adopted “The Ground of the Unity” as our official doctrinal statement. The Eight Essentials are still valuable, for they represent the preaching of the Early Church, and serve as a wonderful guide to understanding basic, fundamental New Testament Theology.

Note 2: Between the jailer’s belief and baptism there is an intermediate step. The jailer dresses the wounds of Paul and Silas. In the context of Acts, this might be seen as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 11, Cornelius and the members of his household speak in tongues and manifest one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit even before baptism. In Acts 15, the Philippian jailer performs an act of kindness and manifests one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit even before baptism.

Note 3: Ephesians certainly belongs to the Pauline Corpus, even though some think it may have achieved its final form at the hands of another. Not surprising. Paul used an amanuensis even for the Epistle to the Romans: “I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Rom. 16:22

About the author:

The Rev. Dr. Worth Green is the Senior Pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church.. Follow him on Twitter / Facebook.