What True Presbyterians Believe: Sola Gratia
For four generations now, members of my family have served in the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. For nearly forty years now, I have given my life to the service of Christ through the Presbyterian Church. I love the Presbyterian Church. However, over the last 15 years particularly, many within the Presbyterian Church have begun to devalue and diminish the great beliefs upon which the Presbyterian Church was built. I am not one of them. Therefore, over these next several weeks, I wish to focus upon the core beliefs, the essential tenets of our great Presbyterian/Reformed faith in the hope that you will join me in standing firm for “What True Presbyterians Believe. ” Today I focus upon Sola Gratia — Grace alone.
The Bible is a treasure chest of great stories, and one of them is found in Acts 16…
Paul and Silas were busy proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the city of Philippi. As is always the case when the Gospel is truly preached, peoples’ lives were being changed, and they were being drawn to faith in Jesus Christ. However, also as is always the case, whenever the Gospel is truly preached, there were some who opposed Christianity, and they had Paul and Silas thrown into prison. There the two men were chained by both arms and legs, but let me tell you that, while you may shackle the bodies of those who love the Lord, you can never shackle their spirits. So the Bible says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.” Suddenly, we are told there was a great rumbling earthquake, not at all uncommon in that part of the world. The walls of the prison quivered. The cell doors flew open. The shackles were shaken loose. The prisoners were free. The Roman jailer awoke with a start and quickly surveyed the scene. Supposing that his prisoners had escaped and fearing the expected wrath of his superiors, in his despair he prepared to kill himself. Out of the darkness, Paul then cried, “Do not harm yourself for we are all here.” At that point this Roman jailer realized that he was in the presence of a power far beyond himself. He then said to Paul, “Sir, what must I do to be saved?” The answer was immediately forthcoming, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” But what does it really mean to believe in the Lord Jesus?
John G. Peyton was a great missionary to the New Hebrides Islands in the Pacific Ocean. He was attempting to translate the Gospel of John into the language of the people who lived on those islands, but he encountered a significant road block. He could not find a word in their language which corresponded to our word “belief’ or “believe.” So he set aside his translation project, waiting until the right word would come. A few months later, it happened. One day a native workman, taking a break from his labor, walked into Peyton’s office, flopped down in a chair, put his feet on another chair, and in his native tongue, said to Dr. Peyton, “I am resting my entire weight upon these two chairs.” The statement hit John Peyton like a bolt out of the blue. Here was the solution to his translation problem. You see, in the language of those people the phrase, “I am resting my entire weight upon,” is actually one word. That is the word John Peyton then used to translate our word “believe.” For example, in Peyton’s translation John 3:16 reads, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever rests his entire weight upon Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John Peyton understood that believing is not simply an intellectual exercise, not something exclusively of the mind. Furthermore, it is not just an emotional matter, not simply a warm fuzzy feeling in the heart. It is instead a profound sense of dependence. It is a deep and earnest trust. It is quite literally resting the entire weight of your life upon Jesus. I think that is what Paul was saying to this Roman jailer, “If you rest the entire weight of your life upon Jesus, then you will be saved.” That is exactly what true Presbyterians have always believed. Permit me, please to try to spell that out a bit more precisely.
To rest the entire weight of your life upon Jesus is to trust completely that Jesus was who He said He was.
Our Presbyterian Confessions of Faith make that belief absolutely clear and central. The Westminster Confession of Faith: “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the Manhood, were inseparably joined together in One person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which Person is very God and very Man, yet One Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” That is what true Presbyterians believe. However, a Presbyterian minister recently hired by our denomination to advise our denominational staff on what is being called “cultural proficiency” actually denies this basic Presbyterian belief and seeks to replace it with beliefs found in the Baha’i Faith. No wonder the Presbyterian Church is losing members like water through a sieve!
I don’t think there are any reputable scholars in the world today who would dispute the historical fact of Jesus. It is an almost universally held position that Jesus lived, that He was born in a Middle Eastern village, that He was educated in a synagogue school, that He was a carpenter by trade, that He knew what it was to be tired, hungry, happy and sad, and that, in the end, He died a terrible death. These historical details of the life of Jesus are really quite beyond debate. However, believing in Jesus, resting the entire weight of your life upon Jesus, is more than an acceptance of some historical facts. Believing in Jesus is trusting completely that Jesus was speaking the absolute truth when He said who He was. He said, “I am the Son of God.”
In other words, Jesus was declaring himself to be both human and divine. That’s the reason why, in the Bible, you always see the humanity of Jesus and the divinity of Jesus placed side by side. For example, the Bible says that He was born in Bethlehem—that’s a human thing, but it also says that the angels sang at His birth—that’s a divine thing. It says that one day, He was thirsty, and He stopped to get a drink of water at a well—that’s a human thing. But then He said to the woman who happened to be at the well, “1 will give you water which will carry you to eternal life,”—that’s a divine thing. He was so exhausted on one occasion that He fell asleep in the back of a boat—that’s a human thing, but a few minutes later, He stood up in that boat and commanded a storm to be still—that’s a divine thing. He wept in sorrow at the tomb of His friend Lazarus—that’s a human thing, but then suddenly He wiped away His tears and cried out, “Lazarus, come forth,” and the Bible says that, “The dead man came out,”—that’s a divine thing. You see if you study the Bible honestly, you cannot miss the message: Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Therefore to believe in Jesus Christ, to rest the entire weight of your life upon Jesus Christ, is to trust that He was who He said He was, and what He said was this, “I and the Father are One. He, who has seen me, has seen the Father.”
And to rest your entire life upon Jesus is to trust completely that Jesus meant what He said He meant.
Once again the eloquence of our Presbyterian Confessions of Faith is unmatched. The Confession of 1967: “Jesus expressed the love of God in word and deed, and became a brother to all kinds of sinful men. But His complete obedience led Him into conflict with His people. His life and teaching judged their goodness, religious aspirations, and national hopes. Many rejected Him and demanded His death. In giving Himself freely for them, He took upon himself the judgment under which all men stand convicted. God raised Him from the dead, vindicating Him as Messiah and Lord. The victim of sin became victor, and won the victory over sin and death for all men.” Again, that is what true Presbyterians have always believed. Sad to say, too many people in the Presbyterian Church today are trying to manufacture their own belief. If you listen to the way they articulate their faith, and then analyze it, you began to realize that they have picked up a thought or two from Hinduism, folded in a concept from Buddhism, tossed in a couple of Christian principles, mixed it all together with a dollop of new-age ethereal fuzziness, and then declare that to be their belief system. How absurd! The fact is that it is nothing more than mushy, muddled thinking—which leads to mushy, muddled living.
It’s rather like the story of the little boy in Sunday school who was drawing a picture. The teacher asked him, “What are you drawing?” The little boy responded, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” The teacher said, “Well, no one knows what God looks like.” The little boy said, “Oh, but they will when I get finished.” You see, what happens when people try to paint their own picture of God is that God winds up looking just like they do. They build their faith on the flimsy foundation of their own personal experience rather than on the solid rock of Jesus Christ as revealed in Scripture. It is that very kind of misguided thinking which has helped to land the Presbyterian Church into its present moment of grave crisis. So many in our denomination are seeking to build their lives and their practice of the faith, not upon the solid foundation of Scripture, but rather upon the flimsy foundation of their own personal experience. But Presbyterians—true Presbyterians—know we do not build our faith on human experience, but rather we build it on the teachings delivered to us by Jesus himself. So to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is to trust completely that Jesus meant what He said He meant.
And then to rest your entire life upon Jesus is to trust completely that Jesus did what He said He came to do.
I do so love our great Presbyterian beliefs. Let these words find a home in your heart. The Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death? That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that He protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit His purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.” Isn’t that beautiful? We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ alone—but the grace that saves us is never alone. It is always accompanied by an overt and deliberate attempt on our part to live a holy life—to be “wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.” Some Presbyterians in our time seem to have forgotten that, and if that is not reversed then I would suggest that in a decade or so our branch of the Presbyterian family will cease to exist. But we as true Presbyterians know better. We believe absolutely that what Jesus came to do, He did.
Arthur Tennies tells a story which came out of the Korean War. A young man who was a misfit was inducted into the army, assigned to a platoon, and immediately became the brunt of all the jokes, the object of all the ridicule in that platoon. The drill sergeant in charge of that platoon tried for a while to help the young man, but he finally gave up believing that this poor fellow would ever make it. One day the other soldiers in that platoon decided to play a particularly cruel joke on this fellow. The sergeant was in on the joke. He called the platoon to gather around him, and he took a dummy grenade but said that it was a live grenade. Only this young misfit did not know the truth. The sergeant handed the grenade to one of the soldiers and said, “Pull the pin and throw it.” The soldier pulled the pin, pretended to fumble with the grenade, and then dropped it at the feet of this misfit young man. Instantly, the young man fell on the grenade, covering it with his own body. Seconds passed—no explosion. Suddenly the young man on the ground realized that it was all a joke. He was humiliated. He looked up in shame. But then he realized that the other soldiers were not laughing. When he clamored up to his feet, he was astonished when the sergeant walked over and embraced him. Never again did anyone laugh at that young man. Why? Because when the chips were down, he demonstrated that he was willing to die for the other soldiers in his platoon.
Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this: To lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus came to lay down His life for you and for me. He did what He came to do. By His grace, and by His grace alone, we are saved. In gratitude then for what He has done for us, I call us to embrace Him with our belief. I call us to commit ourselves wholly and completely to Him. I call us to be “wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.” I call us to rest the entire weight of our lives upon Him—not just for a year, or two, or ten but for a whole lifetime.