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Homeward Bound: You Can’t Take The Sheep From The Shepherd!

Ephesians 1:3-10

Today is Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, and, therefore, I would like to talk to you about one of the key doctrines, one of the key beliefs our Presbyterian tradition has given us. Let me warn you here at the outset that we’re going to jump into deep water today, but I think it will be worth it…

The town of St. Andrews, Scotland is known far and wide for its golf, for its woolens, and for the movie Chariots of Fire—but it is also known for some other things not quite so pleasant. St. Andrews is the most beautiful town in Scotland—but some terribly ugly things have happened there. You see, for many years, St. Andrews was the religious capital of Scotland. Within the boundaries of that lovely place much blood was shed and that blood was used, figuratively speaking, to write the basic beliefs of our Presbyterian faith.

During the years before the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland had become very corrupt. A Scotsman named Patrick Hamilton set out to cleanse and correct the church. He was invited to come to St. Andrews to debate the issues of his concern with the Cardinal of Scotland, a man named James Beaton. When Hamilton arrived, Beaton had him arrested, and several days later had him burned at the stake. It was a particularly awful death. You see, in those days when they burned someone at the stake, they tied little bags of gunpowder around the victim’s neck so that when the flames reached a certain height, they would be put out of their misery more immediately. The day they burned Patrick Hamilton was a rainy day. The gunpowder got wet, and so his death was slow and excruciating to the extreme. The place where he was burned is marked on the sidewalk at St. Andrews to this day.

Later, a man named George Wishart took up Patrick Hamilton’s cause. By this time, James Beaton’s nephew, a man named David Beaton, had become the Cardinal of Scotland. He invited Wishart to come to St. Andrews to meet with him—and he did to George Wishart what his uncle had done to Patrick Hamilton. He had him burned at the stake, only he moved the site of the execution thirty yards away from where Hamilton had been put to death. Why? Because he wanted to sit in his castle window and have an unobstructed view of the whole sorry spectacle.

The death of George Wishart set off an uprising in Scotland, and a group of Wishart’s followers broke into the castle at St. Andrews, captured Cardinal Beaton, killed him, and hanged his body out of the same window from which the Cardinal had watched George Wishart die. As I said, St. Andrews is a lovely town, but some very ugly things have happened there.

Ultimately, the group who had attacked the castle and killed the cardinal were arrested by the military authorities. One of the group was a young man named John Knox. For his involvement in the rebellion he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life as a galley slave on a merchant ship. Some years later, somehow—we don’t know how—but somehow, John Knox escaped from his slavery and fled to Switzerland. There he came under the influence of John Calvin and learned from his teachings. Later, John Knox returned to Scotland, won Scotland to the Protestant faith, and formulated the great beliefs of our Presbyterian heritage. Perhaps the best known and least understood of these beliefs is the doctrine of predestination. Today, I would ask you to consider with me the delineation of that doctrine, the debates surrounding that doctrine, and the declaration flowing out of that doctrine. Take them one at a time…

The delineation of the doctrine.

Back in those days, the Roman Catholic Church taught that salvation came primarily through the church—that if you fulfilled the rules and regulations of the church, then God would dispense through the church His love and His grace. Therefore, if you held fast to the church then you could gain Heaven and God’s reward would be yours. Now the Protestant Reformation denied that to be true. Going back to the Scriptures, the Reformers demonstrated that there is none of us good enough to earn our way into Heaven, that even adherence to the dictates of the church is not sufficient to remove the stain of evil in our lives. The Scriptures say: “None is righteous, no, not one.” The Scriptures say: “Our righteousness is nothing more than filthy rags.” So the Reformers taught that no one can do enough good deeds to gain access to Heaven. Furthermore, they taught that since the church was composed of sinful people that the church could not hold the power of God to save. So the Reformers adopted the belief that the only way we can get to Heaven is by the direct action of God—not by our own action, not by the church’s action, but by the action of God. God, and God alone, can save us.

Now, of course, that belief put them on the horns of a dilemma. As they looked about them, they saw some people who were obviously saved, who gloried in Christ and sought to serve Him in their lives. And they saw other people who were utterly committed to wrong, who cursed God and wanted nothing to do with Him. Now if you believe that you can get to Heaven only by God’s choice and God’s action—and that’s what the Reformers believed—and if you look around you and you see some people who are on the way and some people who are not, then the only logical conclusion you can draw is that this God who saves only saves some. Some people He lifts to glory; some people He permits to know eternal separation from Him.

Of course, that’s the doctrine of predestination—the belief that God pre-determines whether we shall go to Heaven or to hell. That’s what our Scots ancestors in the faith believed.

Next, the debate surrounding the doctrine.

Needless to say, this belief has been creating controversy for centuries now. Many sound objections to the doctrine have been raised. One objection is that it runs counter to the words we read in the Bible—words like “God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked”…or “God wants no one to perish.” If He wants no one to perish then why would He not save everyone? Another objection is that it cuts the nerve of moral effort. If it doesn’t make any difference what we do in so far as Heaven is concerned, then why bother trying to be good? If God has already decided one way or another, then our efforts do not matter. Still another objection is that it makes no sense to send out missionaries, sometimes at the sacrifice of their lives, in order to proclaim the Gospel to people whom God has already chosen either to lift homeward to Heaven or to let go in separation. Those are just a few of the objections raised. For those reasons, and more, the church across the years has debated the doctrine, fought over it, and even bled and died over it. But what our Presbyterian church has now come to recognize is that the doctrine is correct, that what our Scottish forebears taught is true, but they made one small yet terribly significant mistake—they applied the doctrine particularly rather than generally.

Now hang tight with me here and let me explain. We learn from the Bible that when God makes choices, He doesn’t make them for particular individuals but for people in general. For example, we are told that God chose Abraham. Why did He do that? For Abraham’s benefit? No. He said to Abraham: “In you all the families of the world shall be blessed.” Later, God chose His only begotten Son to come to the earth. Why? For the benefit of His Son? No. It was because He so loved the world that He sent His Son so that all who believe in Him shall have everlasting life. In the Bible God’s choices are always for the many and not for the one; and God’s choices are always expressions of His love. “God so loved the world…” Our text today puts it this way: “All who hope in Christ are destined to live to the praise of His glory.” Hear that please! All those who believe in Christ, on the basis of that belief, are predestined to Heaven.

I know that’s a rather obscure concept, so let me try to capture it all in a word picture. Picture a well, and we are at the bottom of it. We are there because of our sin and we can’t get out. The Roman Catholic Church used to teach that by doing good deeds we could climb up the side of the well and catch hold of the church and provided we don’t lose our grip, provided we don’t slip into evil, the church will lift us to Heaven. Then the Reformation Church came along to reverse that idea. They taught that we can’t do anything to save ourselves and the church can’t save us either. So God comes down into the well and He says: “I’m going to take hold of some of you and lift you to Heaven, but others of you I am going to let slip, and you won’t make it to Heaven.” But now we have gained more knowledge—remember please, God didn’t stop speaking to us when His book went to print—we gained greater knowledge of the Scriptures and we have learned that what actually happens is that we are at the bottom of the well and we cannot save ourselves. But God comes down into the well and says: “I will give to all of you enough of my grace to choose to let me take hold of your life in Jesus Christ. You can’t make that choice on your own, but I will help you to make it. And if you choose to be in Christ, then I will take hold of you and I will lift you home to Heaven. You don’t have to be afraid of losing your grip, because you are not hanging onto me—I am hanging onto you. And once you let me take hold of your life in Jesus Christ, I will not let you go!” That’s the real meaning of our Presbyterian belief in predestination—we don’t hang onto God, because we don’t have the strength to do it—but God hangs onto us.

Now, the declaration flowing from that doctrine.

This doctrine, you see, becomes the great doctrine of our assurance. For this belief declares that what God in His mercy has done, we cannot, even with our worse sins, undo! That’s what Jesus means when He says in the Gospels: “I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice and they come to me. And no one can take my sheep away from me. I will not lose a single one who has claimed my name!”

Oh, this is so important! I have so many people who say to me in one way or another: “How can I be sure I am going to Heaven?” I encounter so many people at death who question their assurance of Heaven. My beloved, I not only want you to die being sure of Heaven, I want you to live—to live every day—being sure of Heaven as well. Here is the promise—write it on your hearts: You can’t take the sheep from the Shepherd!

Recently, I heard about a man who fought on the German side in the Second World War. He said: “While I was in that war, I never felt that our side would win it. It all came home to me one night during the Battle of the Bulge.” Of course that battle was a crucial one. Our allied forces were almost completely surrounded and cut off. If that had happened, then the course of the war would have been changed. Now this former German soldier because he could speak English was ordered to monitor the radio transmissions from the allied forces and report what he heard. He said: “Those soldiers who were in present danger of being entrapped and encircled were radioing their positions to their command centers. When they finished,” he said, “they began to tell jokes. They spent the rest of the night telling jokes. Suddenly, it dawned on me that they had such a commitment to their victory, such a certainty, such an assurance, that ultimately they would win, that in the midst of their desperate battle, they were telling jokes!”

That’s precisely our confidence as Christians. We may be entrapped by evil in the world. We may have yielded to some temptation in life. We may find ourselves unbelieving in some moment of crisis. We may be worried about our own faith—or lack of it. Or we may be worried about other people who seem to have wandered from the faith. Maybe we worry about someone who died in terrible pain and whose pain caused them to curse God. Maybe we worry about a child who grows like some wild shoot and seems to turn away from what we know they were taught and believed as a little one. Maybe we worry about someone who in the desperation of their despair took their own life—someone who stood in the church and was baptized and came to the Lord’s table and claimed the faith but who then in some cataclysm of heartache believed that the only thing left to do was to die, so they killed themselves. Maybe we worry about someone who faces one setback after another in life and who then says: “I want no part of a God who would let these things happen.” We may find ourselves confronting these kinds of situations, but this is still true—if those people ever in any way reached out to embrace Christ as Lord and Savior, if they in any way gave themselves to Jesus Christ, then no matter what happened to them later, their salvation is assured.

My beloved, I am not speaking to you today out of some dusty book of doctrine. I am speaking to you out of this Book. I am not speaking to you as some sterile theological scholar. I am speaking to you out of the desperate pain of my own heart. You see, just yesterday afternoon my wife, Trisha and I received a call from a couple who are among our dearest friends from the first church we served in Kilgore, Texas. They are both elders in the church. They both have an incredible faith. And we have loved them across the years. We have been fast friends for more than 25 years. We spend time with each other on vacations. Our children have grown up together. I have known and loved their children just as I have known and loved my own. Yesterday they called to tell us that their son, in his early twenties, had taken his own life. So, tomorrow morning we shall have to go to Texas to help our friends bury their son. On Tuesday morning when I stand in the pulpit of the church where I began my ministry in Jesus Christ, what am I going to say? I am going to say precisely what I’m saying to you right now. That sometimes, for whatever reason, sometimes Christians may lose their grip on God. But God never loses His grip on them. Christians, my beloved, are predestined to Heaven without fail!

So…

I want you to think about that. I beg you to mull it over in your mind and in your heart. I plead with you to remember it every day that you live. I call you to claim it in the moment that you die. From before the dawn of creation, God declared: “Those who have love for my Son will not be lost from my Son.” Once you are Christ’s, then always you are Christ’s! That’s why at the end of each service here, I invite you to embrace Jesus Christ in faith—and I do that with great urgency because I want you to know, I want you to be assured, I want you never to doubt, even when your ship comes in with broken mast and torn sails, even when sorrows fall upon you like heavy rain, even when troubles slash about you like lightning in a stormy sky, I want you to know that your eternal destiny is assured!

This is our most blessed assurance.

Never ever forget it!

You can’t take the sheep from the Shepherd!

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