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  • Adam Schell

Justification & Sanctification

Failing at Faith

Last Sunday at Melbourne Heights, we started a new series of sermons called “Failing at Faith.” And even though you’ve probably never heard a pastor put it this way before, there are times when we all feel like we’re failing at faith. And we all have times when we feel like we’re failing at faith because a lot of us have been followers of Jesus – we’ve been Christians – for years if not decades of our lives. We go to church whenever we can, and when we can’t we watch church online. Our bookshelves are lined with books written by Beth Moore and Max Lucado. We subscribe to devotional emails. We wear Christian t-shirts and have pillows on our couches that have Bible verses cross-stitched into them. We don’t hesitate to drop our loose change into the red kettles whenever the Salvation Army is collecting and we try to pause whenever one of our friends on Facebook asks for prayer. In short, we try really hard to be good Christians. 

But no matter how hard we try, it feels like we haven’t done enough. We know there are still commandments that we struggle to keep and things that Jesus teaches us that we’d rather ignore. We know that we could always read our Bibles more often and that we could spend more time in prayer each day. We know that we could do a better job of sharing our faith with others and that we could probably afford to give a little more to the church.

And when it seems like no matter how hard you try it’s never enough, you feel like a failure. So, yes, there are times when we feel like we’re failing at faith.

There are times when we feel like we’re failing at faith.

But there are two very distinct areas of our faith where we can feel like we’re failing that we need to spend some time talking about today. And this is where I’m going to break one of the cardinal rules of preaching. This is a rule that I learned from my preaching professors in college and seminary, and it’s a rule I try to follow every week.

It’s a rule that Thomas Long, who’s a preaching professor and has taught at such prestigious universities as Princeton and Columbia, explains like this: The beginning of a sermon has the job of pricking the ears of the hearers. It serves the same purpose as a drumroll or a trumpet fanfare; it is meant to provoke curious interest about what comes next. Or, as one of my colleagues in ministry has put it, “We are simply trying to get people to listen to what we have to say.”

And this means that one of the cardinal rules of preaching is that the beginning of a sermon is supposed to grab people’s attention. But what I’m about to do is probably going to have the opposite effect on you. Instead of grabbing your attention and pulling you to the edge of your seat, what I’m about to do is more likely to make you want to lean back in your seat and take a nap.

So what am I going to do? I’m going to have to introduce you to some theological terms. And let’s just be honest here, nobody’s ears perk up when they hear the preacher use words like doctrine or dogma. Nobody gets excited when the preacher starts talking about hermeneutics or homiletics. Nobody ends up on the edge of their seat when the preacher brings up the Nicene Creed or pneumatology.

But even though talking about theological terms may not be the most exciting way to start a sermon, sometimes I just have to do it. And today is one of those days. Today I need to introduce you to the terms justification and sanctification. And I need to do this because we can feel like we’re failing when it comes to our justification as followers of Jesus or we can feel like we’re failing when it comes to our sanctification as followers of Jesus.

So what do these two words – justification and sanctification – mean? Well, let’s start with sanctification. And I’ve got a big, fancy book in my office called Essential Theological Terms that explains that sanctification is the process whereby God, through grace cooperating with the believer, makes the sinner just and therefore able to abide in God’s presence. And it’s that kind of definition that makes all of our eyes glaze over whenever the preacher starts using theological terms.

So let’s try again. And this time, I want to remind you that theology isn’t just a subject that’s taught inside the hallowed halls of places like Princeton and Columbia. Theology is something that we all talk about every time we talk about God. So with that in mind, I would say that sanctification is how we become more like Jesus.

Sanctification is how we become more like Jesus.

And let’s just be honest here, if being sanctified means that we’re becoming more like Jesus, it’s easy to feel like we’re failing in this area of faith. I mean, it’s not hard to look at our lives and realize that we don’t always act like Jesus. 

But what about the word justification? What does the word justification mean? Well, again I could quote from the book Essential Theological Terms and tell you that the word justification originates in courts of law, where it means to render a verdict in favor of the accused, who is thereby declared to be blameless. But, once again, that definition is kinda confusing. So it’s a lot more helpful to say that justification is how we’re saved.

Justification is how we’re saved.

And this is where we have to be really careful when we start feeling like we’re failing at faith. Because when we start feeling like we’re failing at being justified, we start wondering if we’re actually saved. And, sadly, we’ve probably all felt this way at one time or another.

I mean, I know I have. Now, I became a Christian – and I committed my life to following Jesus – when I was seven years old. But you know what? The first time I caught myself telling my parents a little white lie after I was baptized, I wondered if I was actually saved. A few years later, when I was part of the youth group, and my youth minister and all my Sunday School teachers talked about how important it was to have a quiet time each day, I wondered if I was actually saved because I struggled to read the Bible most of the time. Whenever the preacher in the church I grew up in preached one of those sermons about evangelism, I felt convicted that I hadn’t told anyone I went to school with about my relationship with God…and I wondered if I was actually saved.

But is that how salvation actually works? Does our behavior determine if we’re really saved?

This is one of the biggest and most important questions for us as people of faith. And that’s because there are plenty of people out there who believe that life is like one giant scoreboard where you get a point every time you do something good and you lose a point whenever you do something bad. And as long as you have more good points than bad points in your life, people think you’ll be okay. But is that how salvation actually works?

Well, fortunately for us, we don’t have to answer this big and important question on our own. And that’s because this is a question we see answered a lot in the section of the Bible we commonly refer to as the Epistles. And the Epistles are letters that leaders in the early church – like Paul – wrote to help some of the first Christians learn what it means to follow Jesus. And a lot of the first Christians wondered if they were doing it right. They wondered if they were actually saved.

So let me share with you a little of what we find in the Epistles about how we’re saved. In Romans 3:28, we’re told:

28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works…

Romans 3:28 (New Revised Standard Version)

In Galatians 2:16, we’re told:

16…we know that a person isn’t made righteous by the works of the Law but rather through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ…

Galatians 2:16 (Common English Bible)

And in Ephesians 2:8-9, we’re told:

8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. 

Ephesians 2:8-9 (Common English Bible)

So how are we saved? Are we saved because we’ve read the Bible the whole way through? Are we saved because we say our prayers before we eat every meal? Are we saved because we tell other people about Jesus, or because volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, or because we never miss a church service? No! 

All of these verses we just read make it clear, you are saved by your faith in Jesus…not by any works that you do.

You are saved by your faith in Jesus…not by any works that you do.

And it’s not just the Epistles that tell us this. Jesus is going to make the same point in a parable that he tells in Matthew 20. So if you’ve got a Bible close by or a Bible app on your phone go ahead and open it to Matthew 20. And, as you’re finding it, I just want to quickly remind you that the book of Matthew is essentially a biography of Jesus. So in the book of Matthew, you can read about Jesus’ birth and his baptism, his ministry and the miracles he performed, his crucifixion and his resurrection.

But in the passage we’re going to look at today, we’re going to find a particular parable that Jesus taught. And what is a parable? A parable is a short story with a point. So let’s take a look at Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20. We’ll start reading in verse 1. Here’s what Jesus says:

1 “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 After he agreed with the workers to pay them a denarion, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 “Then he went out around nine in the morning and saw others standing around the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.’ 5 And they went.

“Again around noon and then at three in the afternoon, he did the same thing. 6 Around five in the afternoon he went and found others standing around, and he said to them, ‘Why are you just standing around here doing nothing all day long?’

7 “‘Because nobody has hired us,’ they replied.

“He responded, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the workers and give them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and moving on finally to the first.’ 9 When those who were hired at five in the afternoon came, each one received a denarion. 10 Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarion. 11 When they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 ‘These who were hired last worked one hour, and they received the same pay as we did even though we had to work the whole day in the hot sun.’

13 “But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I did you no wrong. Didn’t I agree to pay you a denarion? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I want to give to this one who was hired last the same as I give to you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you resentful because I’m generous?’ 16 So those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”

Matthew 20:1-16 (Common English Bible)

Do you understand what Jesus is trying to teach us in this parable? Because in this parable Jesus takes everything that we think we know about how the world works and he turns it upside down. And that’s because we live in a world where we’re told we have to earn everything we want. But in this parable, everyone gets the exact same thing.

It doesn’t matter what time the landowner went out and hired each person to work out in his fields, they all got the exact same thing at the end of the day. The people who got hired on first thing in the morning and spent twelve-plus hours out sweating in the fields got paid the exact same thing as the people who got hired on an hour before the end of the day.

And when we hear this parable, it doesn’t sound fair. I mean how could the landowner pay people who barely had any time to put on a pair of work gloves the same amount he paid the people whose hands were covered in blisters after working the fields all day?

But when we start thinking this way, we miss the point of the story. Because the point of the story has absolutely nothing to do with what the workers earned that day. The point of the story is that none of the workers really earned a thing, because the landowner was the one who did the work. 

None of these employees pulled out the classified or logged onto Indeed trying to find this job. None of these employees were waiting in the fields for the landowner to wake up. No, the landowner is the one who went out and found all of them. And if the landowner hadn’t done the hard work of finding these workers, none of them would’ve ever made it to the field to begin with. None of them would’ve had the chance to earn that denarion, as the parable puts it.

And that’s how our salvation works. God’s the one who does the real work. God is the one who goes out and finds us and invites us to join him in the fields, and God is the one who gives us the gift of eternity when our work is done. So there’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation. 

Or as Paul puts it, “You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.”

So I want you to realize that even though we all have times when we feel like we’re failing as followers of Jesus, that does not mean that you aren’t saved or that you have not been justified. Instead what it means is that you still have work to do when it comes to being sanctified…we all do.

So next week, we’re going to start talking about some areas of our faith where we can feel like we’re failing. And we’re going to see what are faith really has to say about these areas where we sometimes struggle. But today, I want you to know that as long as you believe in Jesus and are committed to following him, you don’t have to wonder if you’re really saved.

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