March 1, 2015

‘Fessing Up

While superhero shows of various sorts have filled out my TV viewing card lately I went through a phase a few years ago where I really enjoyed watching police dramas (admittedly, most of the superhero shows on today are police dramas with superheroes). Certainly there is no shortage of them on TV even today. Of the many viewing options when I was going through this phase the one that was perhaps the flagship for the rest was Law and Order. It was the first show of its kind to be popular enough to generate a spin-off. In fact, it didn’t merely generate one spin off, but four: Law and Order: Trial by Jury (which didn’t make it), Law and Order: Los Angeles (which they tried to use to phrase out the original a few years ago but it didn’t make it either), Law and Order: Criminal Intent (which had a run of several seasons spaced across NBC and USA), and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (which is still going strong today in its 16th season). Now, I was always partial to the original Law and Order (especially when the cop duo was Jerry Orbach and Jesse Martin). The police work was always exciting and Sam Waterston’s final speeches to the jury were always gripping. As the show developed through its various spin-offs, though, it gradually shifted from being split evenly between “law” and “order” (the arrest of the presumed bad guy always came at the 30 minute mark in the original) to focusing mostly on the “law” part. It was Criminal Intent, however, that took this the furthest. It all but ignored the “order” part of the show. Most episodes ended with Vincent D’Onofrio as Detective Goren using some trick of the mind to get the guilty party to confess. The writers usually set it up really well. They slowly put piece after piece in place but always waited on a few key details until the pivotal moment when Goren rhetorically backed the murderer into a corner such that they had no other choice but to confess.

Dramatic confessions like these make for really good storytelling moments. They are so good, in fact, that the various police dramas on today rely almost exclusively on them. Have you ever wondered why this is? Why are these confession moments so powerful? Well, I think the answer to that question can be found by asking a different one: what is a confession? At the most basic level, a confession is an acknowledgement of truth. When a person genuinely confesses to something they are stepping away from the lie they had been trying to perpetuate and into the truth. Given that we were created by the God who is Truth, we were created to live in and with the truth. Unless we have successfully turned off our consciences, when we are made aware of a lie’s existence it leaves us uncomfortable until the truth can be restored. All good TV shows thrive on the creation and release of tension. Police dramas create tension with the focal-crime, they heighten the tension by letting us know (or think we know) who is guilty before the characters do, and they relieve the tension by landing with both feet on the truth usually by way of a confession from the guilty party. In this sense, confession is something we not only want to watch, but should be putting into practice ourselves. Anywhere we are living out of sync with the truth is a place where the power of confession can bring life and wholeness back to our fractured lives. This is basic for life. It is also basic for the Christian life.

This morning we are in the second part of our new series, The Heart of Christianity. The whole idea of this series is that in this season when people are more inclined to consider the worth of Christianity than at any other time of the year we are going to spend the next few weeks talking about some of the things that lie at the heart of the faith. If you want to do the whole Christian thing right, these are the things you need to know.

Last week we started things out not by talking about one of these essentials, but by distinguishing Christianity from every other religion in the world. What is it that makes Christianity stand apart? This was important to do from the outset so that we made sure we are focused on the right essentials and not running off into the weeds. And the thing that sets us apart is that unlike every other approach to getting right with whatever someone identifies as the relevant higher power, Christianity is not primarily concerned with following a set of rules. In fact, as we saw, the rules become the primary driving force for this process when we walk away from doing what’s right. When we walk away from what’s right, the rules are all that’s left.

Still, in spite of the fact that following the rules is not our chief goal, there are some practices that are essential if we want to get it right. And these are not rules by another name. Rather they are journey-helps that keep us pointed in the right direction. If we are to be going in the right direction, though, we have to start from the right place. A good start can serve us long past simply the beginning if we get it right. A good start, a strong foundation, can provide a launching pad for everything else we do on our journey. If our journey as Christians, then, is to be one of following Jesus, the start of this journey needs to begin with an acknowledgement of the truth that He is actually worth following. As we said before, the word we use to describe this kind of acknowledgement of the truth is “confession.” And as Paul writes in his letter to the believers in Rome, this confession is what leads to a right standing before God and with people, that is, to righteousness. If you want to enjoy the life that being rightly related to God brings, confession is the way to go. Life comes through confession. If you’ll grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Romans 10 you can see this with me.

This truth is basic to the Christian life, but as Paul notes in that same letter, it is not how people have always thought. In fact, it is not how people have ever thought. Throughout human history—including the last 2,000 years—most people have considered getting right with God and enjoying the life that comes with such a standing as something we achieve after a lot of hard work. In v. 5 of chapter 10 Paul points out how most of the people in his audience (and most of the people you know today) think about getting right with God: keep the rules and righteousness is yours. Look at what he says: “For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them.” In other words, the person relying on some kind of rule-keeping to make them right with God is beholden to those rules. If you accept rules as a way to be right with God, you have to keep all of them or you aren’t right with God. His standard is sinless perfection regardless of the particular set of rules we choose to use to get there.

That’s a pretty burdensome system, no? Yet it was the system many in Paul’s audience had been living under for hundreds of years. It led some to embrace a flippant cynicism that saw them live however they wanted as long as they threw a bone to a lip-service of legal fidelity in full awareness of their inability to ever meet God’s standard, and others to embrace a hard legalism wherein they grew absolutely fixated on the laws to the point that they looked down on those who didn’t hold to their impossibly high standards (standards they did not themselves meet).

Well, the truth is that God had always understood the Law to be an impossible-to-meet standard. The people were never going to be able to keep it and He told them as much. So why give it? To point them to the importance, the necessity even, of faithfulness to Him as their only hope. Leading the people to this confession had been God’s purpose with the Law from the beginning. He told them as much through Moses. Look at this with me. Jump back to Deuteronomy 30:11. Near the end of Moses’ life after reviewing the essentials of the Law for the people he spoke these words of God to them: “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to the heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’” In Moses’ day, like ours, people figured that the way to be right with God or the gods was found in keeping some epic set of rules. The grander the better.   They eagerly signed up to follow charismatic leaders who could boast they were bringing the way to the gods from afar—down from heaven, across the sea. Only a select few could get anywhere near keeping these rules, but that actually played into the natural inclination of people to divide ourselves between those who can and those who can’t. The “can’ts” work their tails off to become one of the “cans” while the “cans” hold it over the heads of the “can’ts” and make the hurdles to reach them ever higher.

What Moses was saying was that God had something different in mind for His people. The One true God isn’t the kind of God who divides, but the kind of God who unites. As a result, the way of life He was setting in place for His people was something they were all capable of accomplishing…with His help. Look at this: “Btu the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” Now, through the sin-addled brains of the people they—and we—understood Moses to be saying we were capable of keeping the Law on our own. And indeed, taking this statement out of the context of the rest of Scripture would seem to suggest precisely this (which is why understanding the big story of Scripture is so important to getting details like this right).

When seen through the lens of Christ, though, things look a bit different. This is the perspective Paul brings to things in his words to the believers in Rome. Come back there with me now. He points back to exactly these words from Moses. Look at 10:6: “But the righteousness based on faith says, ‘Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?”’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘“Who will descend into the abyss?”’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)…”

Do you see what Paul does? Through the lens of Christ he put Moses’ words in their proper context. When Moses told the people that the word was near them, they naturally thought that meant they could do it in and of themselves. What God really meant—but which we weren’t able to fully understand until Jesus gave us a new lens through which to see things—was just what Paul says here. It is the word of faith that enables us to see the requirements of the Law met by which we can be right with God. And what is this word of faith? Look at v. 9: “…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Here we are again back to the idea of confession. Look what Paul says about this essential practice. This is incredible. It is our confession of Jesus’ Lordship that saves us. It is our confession flowing out of our belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (which is most fundamentally what makes Him Lord) that leads us to the life found in having a right standing before God. Life comes through confession.

Think about why this is, though, because it’s important to understand. What happened to keeping the Law? Did following God’s rules (which even if they weren’t the whole of a relationship with Him were at least kind of important) suddenly become unimportant? No, and that’s the beauty of what Paul’s talking about here. God didn’t change His standard at all. He didn’t compromise His character because He loves us to much to do that. Keeping the Law is still what makes someone righteous. Yet then as now we were never possessed of the means to do this. As a result, God came Himself in the person of Jesus Christ and fulfilled the Law on our behalf. He then made Himself the perfect sacrifice for sin we needed for having broken the rules, gave His life up to be destroyed in our place, and returned from the grave dealing sin and death the killing blow they had long since deserved. In doing this, Jesus fulfilled the Law. He did what we never could to gain a right standing before the Father and now eagerly shares that standing with us if we will accept it. This is the truth we are acknowledging with our confession. When we confess this truth that Jesus is Lord we receive the gift of His right standing before God, His righteousness, and are rescued from the sin and brokenness that had theretofore defined our lives. To put that another way: we are saved from our sins. We are saved from death. We are saved from a life of meaninglessness and drudgery. We are saved from missing out on the chance to really live. Life comes through confession.

In v. 10 Paul basically repeats this idea to make sure we really get it: “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” The combination here is important lest we be tempted to think the verbal confession is all Paul has in mind here. That would be magic thinking: that we could say the right words and be saved. That’s not at all what Paul is getting at. When we confess with our mouths we are merely making verbal the belief that already resides in our heart, namely, that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and because of that everything He said is true. We are verbally acknowledging our internal acceptance of the truth. That being said, let’s not overlook just how important this verbal confession is. Words have power when they are spoken. Spoken words from our heavenly Father are what called creation into existence. We may not be able to do anything quite that dramatic with our words, but still we can speak realities into existence that were not there before. An apparently simple word can bring life and hope and meaning to a person’s life that were not otherwise there.

One of the things I have made a point of doing with Noah and will do with Josiah and Micah when they are old enough to understand it is to regularly verbally confess two important truths to him: that I love him and that I am proud of him. I tell him that any time he’s feeling scared or down on himself he can remember those two things and nothing else matters. The key here, though, is that I am confessing these things to him. I grew up with this. Many kids have parents—specifically dads—whose love is not really questioned, but is never verbally affirmed. My dad once shared with me that his dad was like this. As a result he made a point of telling me over and over as I grew up that he loved me. And still today, no matter what happens, I know my dad loves me because he said so and I can trust him. I couldn’t even begin to tell you all the ways that has given me the freedom to become who I am. My boys will grow up with the same knowledge. If you’re a parent and especially a dad, make sure your kids grow up with that too—it’s never too late to start, by the way. Life comes through confession.

In any event, when we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord we are verbally committing ourselves to this truth. We can lie about it, but then that wouldn’t be what Paul is talking about here. This confession is our formal entrance into the life of Christ. We are acknowledging our absolute inability to get right with God on our own and accepting as effectual the perfect rule-keeping Jesus did on our behalf. If you either haven’t or aren’t sure if you have made such a confession I urge you do so. Make it a part of your baptism pool party. There is incredible power in speaking the truth in such a way that we commit ourselves to living in it (especially when it’s public). There is the power of life. Life comes through confession.

But let’s not limit ourselves here to a one-time, salvific, verbal confession of Jesus’ lordship. Let’s broaden things out a little bit. Remember what a confession is: it is an acknowledgement of the truth. Acknowledging the truth that Jesus is Lord is important to do as an entrance point into the Christian faith, yes, but this is not a truth we merely acknowledge once and move on. This is a truth we are called to live in for the entirety of our lives. When we confess Jesus’ Lordship, remember, we are acknowledging the truth. Once a truth has been acknowledged there are two paths before us. We can continue living in light of that truth, or we can reject it, claim we were forced into it, assert we were lying when we said it, and walk away from it.

We see this happen sometimes today. A person will confess to a crime and then later recant his confession claiming coercion was involved or something like that. There are not a few people who at some point in life made a public confession of Jesus’ Lordship, perhaps were even baptized, and who later recant their confession. This kind of a recanting, though, doesn’t usually happen verbally. Usually it is entirely more subtle than that. They begin spending less and less time with their church community choosing other, new communities instead. These new communities may share some of the same values of the church, but usually they have lower or even contradictory moral standards and expectations. Gradually their behavior begins to reflect these new standards and they start living in ways that proclaim not the lordship of Christ, but of…something else…anything else, really. This gets hard for friends and family who are still connected to the church because we understand the implications of a life lived apart from God. That life doesn’t end well and we don’t even want to entertain the notion that someone we love might not be living it. So we make excuses and come up with all kinds of reasons for the fact that even though it doesn’t really look like it at all, they’re still on board with the confession they made that one time. Now look, my point here isn’t to question whether or not someone you know is really a Christian. My point is this: when someone is living a lifestyle that is totally out of sync with a confession they made at some point in the past it’s okay to ask whether or not it was genuine.

Because here’s the deal, this confession Paul is talking about that saves us isn’t a one-and-done thing. We are not being called here simply to confess Jesus’ lordship and move on. We are being called to live confessional lives; lives that proclaim Jesus’ lordship every single day in every possible way. The reason for this is that the truth that Jesus is Lord isn’t incidental to our lives. It’s not like we have the “Jesus is Lord” part of our lives and the rest of our lives. When we are ready to acknowledge this foundational truth it is not simply added to our lives, it completely redefines them. It changes how we think about everything—our new automatic thought becomes “if Jesus is Lord, then…” It changes the patterns of our lives—worship and fellowship with other believers and serving the least, last, and lost of our culture become our primary activities. It changes the way we treat the people with whom we come into contact—looking down on people or making fun of them (even internally) because they look or think or act differently than you doesn’t happen anymore. It changes the way we use our stuff—we now look at everything we have (especially our money) as God’s stuff which we are charged to use to advance His kingdom. It changes the kind of media we consume and the attitude with which we consume it—there are some things we won’t watch or read or listen to anymore and we never just absorb information any longer; we evaluate it through the lens of Jesus’ Lordship. It changes our habits—habits which hurt ourselves or other people are given up. It changes the things we do when no one is watching—we become entirely consistent in all we think, say, and do. To say it again: it changes everything. It provides us a new filter for life through which we then filter all of our life. Our entire lives become one gigantic confession that Jesus is Lord. Anyone who sees us should be able to observe us for a while and think to themselves, “I don’t necessarily agree with her, but she thinks Jesus is Lord.” When we do this we will find ourselves living the life that is truly life. In this way life comes through confession.

And the thing is: unlike the various systems of rules people have always used to get right with God, this confessional life is absolutely available to everybody. Paul points this out in v. 11: “For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” Do you know where it says that? In the passage from Isaiah we looked at last week. This kind of confessional life has always been God’s plan for people because He is the God of all people, not just those who can keep the rules. All it takes is a confession. Life comes through confession.

Paul goes on: For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.” Look, it doesn’t matter what someone’s background is. There’s no such thing as the “right” kind of family or culture when it comes to living a confessional life. It doesn’t matter if someone comes out of a Hindu background or a Buddhist background or Jewish background or an atheist background or a Republican background or a Democrat background or a New Age background or a black background or a white background or a brown background or a gay background or a straight background. If an ISIS frontline fighter rolled up in here ready to make his life a confession of Jesus’ lordship he would be received and counted as a brother. There is but one Lord and if a person is ready to confess this truth with her whole life, she’s in. And why? Verse 13: “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” It makes no difference where you come from or what your background is. If you are ready to confess Jesus’ lordship and demonstrate that confession through your life, the life found in a right standing with God will be yours. Life comes through confession.

There’s just one more challenge here. In the various police dramas that angle toward the confession moment, that moment most often comes just before the credits role. There may be a story detail or two acting as a dénouement, but the story’s over when the confession happens. While Jesus Himself gave us the hope that a deathbed confession counts just as much as one that comes much earlier when He told the thief on the cross He would next see him in paradise, not many people have the luxury of hanging next to Jesus Himself in their final moments of life. Police dramas make for good TV viewing, but not so good life-living. Every moment we live in such a way that proclaims the lordship of something other than Jesus is a moment we are missing out on real life. We are missing out on real life because we are living in a fantasy world. We are enjoying a great plastic feast all the while a full Thanksgiving spread is just sitting there waiting to be enjoyed. Friends, don’t miss out on life any longer than you have to. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing the church thing. The question that matters is this: is your life a confession of Jesus’ lordship? If it’s not, make it one. Make it verbal. Make it public. Make it permanent. Life comes through confession. It’s time to start living.