Can We Make The Gospel Simple?

Richard W. O'Ffill

Have you ever wondered why a minister preaches a particular sermon? Sometimes the reason may be obvious, but other times you might think, "I wonder why he decided to talk about that?" I decided that in this series of sermons that is entitled "Contending for the Faith" I would try to tell you why I chose each of the sermons that are in the series.

I must tell you right off that the sermons that I preach almost always are an attempt to answer a particular issue that I see or a particular question that has come to my own heart.

The sermon that you are about to hear now arose out of what I perceive to be an increasing tendency to simplify the gospel, and on a whole, the Christian life. Is the gospel simple? Are we making the Christian life too difficult? This sermon then is an attempt to come to grips with that question.

Is living a Christian life simple or complicated? Maybe I shouldn't even ask it that way. Maybe I should ask if living the Christian life is easy or hard. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn't ask that question either. Have you noticed that some of our Christian friends put more emphasis on what is supposed to happen to the Christian after he dies than on what the Christian life is all about? Maybe they really don't, but it sure sounds like it, because they will often ask you where would you go if you died tonight. It seems to me the question should be, "If Jesus were to come in the clouds of heaven today, would you be ready to meet him?"

I remember a county fair that I went to one time. A local evangelical church had an exhibit there. One of the things in the exhibit was a window you looked into and the sign above it said, "Where will you be when you look like this?" and then when you looked into the window, there was a casket with a mirror in it. You can see why I think that for some people the Christian life is more about when we are dead than when we are alive.

Sometimes we speak of a particular event as being a "hands-on" event. You know what I mean. Well, it seems to me that in many places these days the matter of Christian living is getting to be less and less a hands-on event and more and more a hands-off event.

We are into this thing these days about not judging each other. And it is true, we shouldn't. We should not judge each other, they say, because being a Christian is a personal matter. You have heard that, haven't you? A personal matter? I guess I am not sure what they mean by that. If being a Christian is a personal matter, does that mean that it is left up to each person to make up the rules as they go along?

I guess I shouldn't have said "rules." For many people these days, rules have no place in the Christian life.

These days many are saying that all that really matters is that we have a relationship with Jesus, and some even add, have a relationship with Jesus and let the Holy Spirit lead.

I can see why this makes sense to so many people. It cuts away, as they say, a lot of unnecessary details and peripherals.

Now, if you don't mind, I am going to try to flesh out both of those concepts. It is going to be challenging. If we can validate that the Christian life is simply to have a relationship with Jesus and let the Spirit lead, just think how environmentally friendly that is going to be? Instead of having to cut down all those trees to make paper in order to produce the huge amounts of books and magazines and other literature, a person could simply write down the little one-liner on the back of their business card, and pass it around when opportunity presented itself. It would go simply like this, "Have a relationship with Jesus and let the Spirit lead."

I can see it now--the evangelist stands up, and instead of preaching a long sermon with all the slides and movies and computers, he just says, "Have a relationship with Jesus and let the Spirit lead," and then he sits down. We could save radio and TV time and all the rest. In fact, the gospel could be preached in little sound bites all day long. It could go something like this--"Have you considered being saved? If you have, remember all you have to do is have a relationship with Jesus and let the Spirit lead."

By now you are probably thinking, "Pastor O'Ffill, stop it right now! What in the world are you trying to do? Where are you coming from?" or "OK, OK! Get to the point!"

Maybe, too, some of you are thinking, "Who do you think that you are? What is wrong with having a relationship with Jesus? Are you saying that we shouldn't let the Spirit lead?"

Stay with me now, folks; we are on the same side. Of course, I believe in having a relationship with Jesus, and I want with all my heart for the Holy Spirit to lead in my life.

You see, I am just concerned that in our enthusiasm to simplify what the Christian life is all about, we could possibility understate it to the point of misleading someone, including ourselves. If we were in the past somehow overstating the gospel, we could now go to the other extreme if we are not careful.

You know what I mean. To just say, have a relationship with the Lord and let the Spirit lead would be almost like saying that in order to drive a car all that you have to do is turn on the key.

Here we go now. Try to stay with me.

As we all know, the dictionary is the official book that tells us the definitions for words. I don't need to tell you though that although the dictionary is a list of words with their usual meanings, the dictionary is not always up to date. This is because words can take on new meanings at a particular time. The new meaning may not be reflected until a new edition of the dictionary comes out.

I can remember when the word "cool" meant cool. Remember? Cool was about the temperature of the air or of something. It could feel cool outside or a person's forehead could feel cool or I might say, "Could you turn up the furnace? I feel cool."

But cool is not just cool anymore; cool is, well... cool is cool!

You must also be aware that words express concepts. A concept is the transfer of information or ideas from one person to another. If a concept is to be accurately conveyed from one person to another, it is necessary not only to use the right words, but also make sure that both parties understand the words the same way.

You may have never thought of this before, but if you want to defeat a particular concept, the best way to do it is to change the meaning of the words that are being used to convey the concept. Then when the other party tries to explain their point of view, those who hear him are not able to understand what he is talking about, or though they think they do, they really don't.

One of the most effective ways that the Devil has used to wash out the gospel has been to take over the vocabulary that used to be used to explain religious truth. He has taken these words and given them a new meaning, so that a person could actually be thinking that they were hearing the gospel preached and be missing the point entirely.

This being the case, especially in this generation, words that used to be used to describe specific concepts are now being used in completely new contexts and frames of reference.

So we now have a tremendous challenge in communicating the gospel as it was originally transmitted by God to the prophets.

I think that you can see what I am leading up to. You can understand then that if we are going to agree that the Christian life is about having a relationship with Jesus and letting the Spirit lead, we had better make sure that we are understanding the concept as God meant for it to be understood.

The word "relationship" has got to be defined. What do we mean when we say relationship?

Jesus Himself told us that having a relationship with Him was a life and death matter. He told us that there would be a large group who thought they had a relationship with Him. Maybe they had a relationship with Him, but something must have been wrong. Remember the text, Matt 7:21-23:

"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity."

Let me clear up something real important right now, and that is that a person will be saved or lost not based on God's relationship to them, but always on their relationship to Him.

We must understand that salvation is not about God's attitude toward sinners, but sinners' attitude toward God. God never changes. He is unitary in his being. He is never more merciful one day than He is the next. Even before sin came He was merciful, gracious, and forgiving. Sin didn't change what God was and is. Sin changed what Lucifer was, and it has completely changed our race. Sin is not a problem of God's bad attitude toward sinners, but the persistent sinner's bad attitude toward God.

Because this is true, the plan of salvation simply revealed the way God has always been and always will be, and not only that, but the full revelation and acceptance of the character of God is the way that the sinner is brought back into a right relationship with Him.

When we say then that being a Christian is about having a relationship with Jesus, we are absolutely right, provided that we understand that the relationship that we are talking about is the one that we had before sin came and not the one that came afterward.

You must have heard by now that the essence of sin is selfishness. We were created to be first God-centered and then to serve others. Don't ask me how; it is actually a mystery, but sin is just the opposite. It is making me the center of my life, and uses everybody else, including God, to make me happen.

This is why we must not just toss the word "relationship" around lightly. The word relationship in the context of the nineties--where everything is about self--can never be used on its own to describe the Christian life, because a selfish person will always be into relationships for selfish reasons. Now I am not saying that a selfish person can't do anything right, but even the good things that a selfish person does, they do for the wrong reasons.

Years ago I heard someone say that if the Devil cured someone of an incurable disease it would be an evil act, because everything that the Devil does he does for the wrong reasons. Can't you see what I mean?

The way that I know that we can't trust ourselves when we say, "All that matters is to have a relationship with Jesus," is by what is happening to our marriages.

Marriage is about what is supposed to be a committed relationship between a man and a woman, and look what is happening to marriage these days.

The intimate sexual relationship between a man and a woman is supposed to represent a committed relationship, because from the union of male and female comes the procreation of the race and the commitment to raise the children that are produced.

I don't need to tell you that in this selfish generation, sexual relations, most of the time between a man and a woman, have nothing to do with a committed relationship. Two out of three of the couples who are getting married these days were living together before they were married. After marriage, 75% of them will divorce. Adultery and fornication in a selfish society are not even considered moral issues.

I would like to digress here a moment a say something about abortion. The abortion battle, my friends, is not over babies. It is not a battle about whether we ought to kill babies just for the sake of killing babies. Nobody is going to vote to legalize killing babies just for the sake of killing babies.

The only reason people are willing to kill babies is because the issue is not babies; the issue is sex. If abortion had nothing to do with sex, it would never be legalized. Nobody would legalize murdering babies if storks brought babies. But you see, sex is the issue. People demand to have sex.

A baby may be seen by some as an unfortunate result of sex, but the focus in the nineties is not to stop sex, but to kill the child. What they are trying to say is not that they hate babies or a fetus or that they love murder; it is that they want their sex without having to be responsible for its consequences. They will murder the most innocent and the most defenseless among us, and they do that in the face of the strongest protection instinct that there is, which is motherhood.

Abortion is a stunning success, not for those who hate babies, but rather it is a success for those who want sex without any commitment.

The attitude toward sex that is held by many means that we have to accept fornication and adultery. It means in many quarters that we have to accept homosexuality. Illicit sex is now accepted as an expression of love. Everything is for sex. It has corrupted our culture to the core--the family, the home, and our commitment to God.

We have a whole society geared to take whatever it wants with no intention to give in return. If you don't like the consequences, kill it. Take sexual activities--take from one, then take from another. It is incredible, but the true meaning of love has almost been totally obscured.

This is why I insist, ladies and gentlemen, that in the present context to say that all that is necessary is to have a relationship with Jesus is a possibly a booby trap for our salvation.

If we are going to be honest with ourselves and with others, we must recognize that a selfish person cannot have a right relationship with Jesus no matter what they may pretend.

A relationship with Jesus must be built on the fact that the person has made a commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, and has actually purposed in their heart to love Him with all their heart, with all their strength, and with all their minds, and their neighbor as themselves.

When this is the case, selfishness as a life view is out the window, and then and only then will a person be able to safely trust in the relationship.

Allow me to get more specific. It is no more possible to separate a person's lifestyle from their relationship with Jesus than it is to separate your relationship with your spouse from the way you treat other members of the opposite sex.

It is impossible to have an open-ended relationship with Jesus and be saved. Just as open-ended marriage is no marriage at all, so a person whose life is not committed to be faithful to what Jesus is, is no right relationship with Him at all.

Those people who said, "Lord, Lord, we did all kinds of things in your name," and Jesus says to them, "I never knew you," were really confessing that they had an open-ended relationship with Him, and with all of the things they did in His name, they were only doing it for selfish reasons.

I know I am right, because for large numbers of people their so called "relationship" with Jesus is really not about Him, but about themselves--because all you hear about Jesus these days is about how He will meet your needs.

I have said it before, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the major part of what we are doing these days in the church is for our own benefit. The center of our worship is us. You can tell, because when we go to church, the issue is all about how to get God involved with us and our problems, our culture, our gender, or our support group.

Now I recognize that we have real needs. We talk a lot about meeting felt needs, but really we ought to differentiate between legitimate felt needs and illegitimate felt needs. Selfish people have selfish felt needs. Of course, trying to meet the needs of selfish people is like a dog chasing his tail. You can never meet the demands of a selfish heart.

Jesus created us with legitimate needs. Some are felt and others are, what you might say, just built in. Jesus established the church to meet legitimate felt and unfelt needs. A person who has a correct relationship with Jesus will come to church and receive, but a person who has a correct relationship with Jesus doesn't only come to receive, but also to give. A selfish person on the other hand will come to church to take. Can't you see the difference?

This generation is all hung up on itself. The Scripture said that the last generation would be that way. It said that the last days would be dangerous because people would love themselves.

It is not inconceivable that the church could gear itself up to minister to selfish people. It would be using all the right vocabulary. It would be as they say these days, "meeting the felt needs." But instead of preparing people to be saved, it would actually be setting them up to be lost.

This brings me to the next point, and that is this--that unless we have a relationship with Jesus that is based on the Word, it is very likely that the relationship will, although well-intentioned, end up being on a dead-end street.

Now think along with me. Although Jesus lived and walked as a human on this planet one time, He doesn't live here any more. But you may say, "He sent His Spirit; He still lives in our hearts." That is true indeed. But I don't need to tell you that there are more spirits around these days than the Holy Spirit. In fact, in the last days the Scriptures tell us that the evil spirits would imitate the Holy Spirit, and they would do it so well that just about everybody would fall for it.

You remember, the People's Republic of China was brought into existence by a man named Mao. He led the country for many years. Most of the people of China never saw him in person, but they knew him. He became a part of almost everyone's life through his writings.

I remember reading about Mao's writings. They were printed in what they called a "little red book." The people knew Mao intimately through his writings. He actually became an integral part of their lives through that little red book.

I think you can see where I am coming from. A person cannot have a relationship with Jesus without being into the Bible, and not only by reading the Bible, but actually letting it affect the way that you live.

This is why a person who truly has a relationship with Jesus will be a person who is striving to live as He lived and even think like He thought. You remember the text that says, "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus." In another place Jesus said, "If you love me keep my commandments," and in another place it says that a person who says that they love Jesus (these days we would say a person who says they have a relationship with Jesus) and doesn't obey him is lying.

Can't you begin to get the picture now? Do you understand what the real issues are?

You know, it is incredible. Almost everybody claims to have a relationship with Jesus these days. You remember there was a heavyweight boxing match a while back? They showed a picture of the winner in the paper. I don't remember his name, but he was wearing a cap that said "Jesus" on it. He was not ashamed to tell the press that the glory for him winning the fight went to Jesus.

I don't need to tell you that Jesus is now sought after on the football fields and basketball courts. Speaking of mixing the sacred with the profane!

I can just see a prizefighter saying to Jesus, "Lord, Lord, I knock the head off a lot of guys in your name," and Jesus might say, "Are you kidding?"

But we should not be surprised. A selfish generation is capable of anything!

Friends, we are in the last days. The spirits of devils are in the earth deceiving everyone from the top to the bottom.

Remember when I started out I told you that people are saying that all that matters is having a relationship with Jesus and let the Holy Spirit lead.

You are aware that the Holy Spirit is the one in the Trinity who actually--don't ask me how--keeps our hearts beating. He is the one that makes the birds sing and the flowers bloom.

Don't ask me how, but it is the Holy Spirit who is the one who actually transplants the mind of Christ into our minds. In other words, it is the Holy Spirit that makes the new birth happen.

Because the Holy Spirit is the one who makes salvation happen in our lives, and because He will be the One who does something special called the Latter Rain for those who will be alive when Jesus comes, one of the Devil's last deceptions before he actually appears as Jesus on this earth will be to appear to be doing the work of the Holy Spirit in people's hearts and lives. In other words, these days the Devil is actually simulating the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is not exactly a new idea with him. He did the same thing when Moses was trying to get Pharaoh to let Israel go. Remember that Pharaoh's magicians were able to duplicate three of the ten plagues plus turn their own rods into snakes.

The Devil will make a final push just before God makes His final push, and I don't need to tell you it is already happening.

The Holy Spirit for many has almost become a household word. There are huge numbers of Christians who talk more about the Holy Spirit than they do about Jesus. To them the Holy Spirit means power, and power appeals to the power hungry.

Have you noticed, by the way, that in recent years we are into the "gifts of the Spirit?" I am not complaining, but we had better be careful, because gifts are about getting, and getting can be about taking, and taking is what selfishness is all about.

I wish we were as anxious to manifest the fruit of the Spirit as we are to open the spiritual gifts package. The fruit of the Spirit is what gives us the assurance that we are being saved. The gifts of the Spirit can actually be bought on the black market. Can't you see how that could be?

Jesus said that He would send the Spirit, and the work of the Spirit would be to lead us into all truth. To convict us of sin and of judgment and of righteousness. I am afraid that what many people say is the Holy Spirit's leading or presence or what have you may not be the Holy Spirit at all.

Jesus said that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. A friend of mine was telling me not long ago that he was giving Bible studies to a young man, and the young man became convicted on the Sabbath. He went to his pastor and told him about it. The pastor listened, and then told the young man to let the Spirit lead.

Now tell me. What if the young man doesn't choose to keep the Sabbath? Will that mean then that the Holy Spirit told the young man not to keep the Sabbath?

These days people all over the place are saying that God told me this or God told me that. I wish that He would tell me something! Please don't misunderstand me. I believe in the Spirit's leading, but I guess the question that I am asking myself is, where does the Word of God figure into all of this?

A former Pentecostal preacher told me that it used to make him wonder how unmarried couples living together would get the gift of tongues.

Don't you see what I am trying to say? So many people are claiming to be led of the Spirit these days, from a heavy weight fighter punching out the brains of his opponent to a person who is having an adulterous relationship with someone else's spouse and who says God wants them to be happy.

Help me, someone! Where is the Word of God in all of this? All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, (that is the Holy Spirit, folks), and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness. Jesus said He would send His Spirit to lead us into all truth, and that the Spirit would convict us of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.

Help me, somebody! How does all of this fit together with the little jingle, "All that matters is to have a relationship with Jesus and let the Holy Spirit lead?"

Can't we see that unless we root and ground ourselves firmly in the written Word of God, unless we go to the Word with a repentant spirit and a determination to obey its every precept, we are setting ourselves up to be mugged by the thief of souls?

Please don't ever forget it. No matter what they tell us, the Holy Spirit never works outside the context of the revealed Word of God. We must make no mistake in this matter. When I say that He doesn't work outside the context of the Word of God, I mean all of the Word, not just someone's favorite text. We are living in the times that were prophesied, that if possible the very elect would be deceived. It seems like more and more people are getting religious almost to the place where even the bad guys claim to have the Holy Spirit. We must not fall for this deception. Our only safety is the written Word of God. We are talking about the Bible, ladies and gentlemen.

These days it seems that many are finding their support in their support group. Be careful. The Scripture teaches us that our only safety is in the Word. "Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." Another text says, "Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth."

Some of you might be thinking, "But we are following the Word." Be careful. Many who claim to be following the Word are simply following their own words. They have interpreted the Bible to their own liking or they have taken a little here and a little there.

But then I am talking about the leading of the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth, and I guess the point that I am trying to make is that the Bible must never be left out of the loop in the search for truth. The Bible in this world of sin is the ultimate revelation of truth. Have we forgotten that without the Bible we wouldn't have known who Jesus is and that He is coming again and all the rest?

I hope that you can see where I am coming from. This thing about having a relationship with Jesus and letting the Spirit lead can be absolutely misleading. It can take us off the track rather than putting us on the right track.

I have said it so many times, but I must say it again. I am a little like the minister who preached his first sermon in his new church one day. The people congratulated him on it. He preached it again the following week. They told him that it was even better the second time.

He preached it again the next week. The people were beginning to wonder, and when he preached it the fourth time, the head elder said, "Pastor, we really love that sermon, but we are beginning to wonder if it is the only one you know."

The pastor answered that he intended to keep preaching it until the people put it into practice!

I guess that I am a little bit that way when I say so often that what we need is not a relationship with Jesus, but a commitment to Jesus. Life is about relationships. We have relationships with our friends, and we even have relationships with people we don't care for so much.

I don't mean to sound nitpicky, and I don't think I am. We would be much safer if, instead of saying that all that is important is to have a relationship with Jesus and let the Spirit lead, if we would say what is important is to have a commitment to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and then let the Spirit lead through the written Word.

Can't you see the difference?

I started out with the challenge of trying to make the Christian life simple. If we didn't live in this world of sin, it would be simple. Truth is simple; it is error that is complicated, and the enemy these days, contrary to the opinion of some, is not truth but error.

It is error that has us all confused. It is error that is messing up our lives. Our problem is not that we have too much of the old time religion; the problem is that we have too much love for the things of this world. Many are trying to throw out everything that is religious and just keep enough of what they think is sufficient to get by on.

No, I don't believe that we can make the gospel simple; clear, yes, but not simple. But you might say, "But Pastor O'Ffill, Jesus said that we needed to be like little children." True. Have you tried it? For we, who are selfish and who trust in ourselves, becoming a trusting little child again is far from being easy. I am sure that you know what I am talking about.

This is why Jesus calls on us to repent and to be born again.


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