This talk was given by Chris Green at an evening service at St James Muswell Hill in February 2016.
Heavenly Father, please would you open your Word tonight. Please would you help us to understand what’s in it. And please would you let your Book read us. Please would you go inside our hearts, show us what is there and help us understand you better. Amen.
So tonight I want to think about a very particular question: how can you be sure you’re a Christian? How can you be sure you’re a Christian? It’s a question which every true Christian has asked at some stage or other. Lots of people ask it at lots of time. And people who are very new Christians ask it very often. They ask questions like, “Is it supposed to feel different? I mean, what’s it supposed to feel like, being a Christian?” Some people, when they become Christians, feel really excited, and they feel a sense of love, and joy, and peace, and they think that’s normal, and then after a few weeks, when it dies away, they think, “Well, was it real?” Other people, when they become Christians, feel nothing at all! And they think, “Well, was it real?” Other people are troubled not so much by what they feel as what they do. They’ve had something going on, a real difficulty in their life, and they become dedicated to the Lord Jesus and they say, “From now on, I’m going to be a different person.” And the next day, they find themselves back in their old habits again. And they say, “Well, I don’t know, I thought I was supposed to be a new person. How come I still do those old things all overall again? Was it real, becoming a Christian?”
Now oftentimes when I’m talking to people, the right way to turn when you ask those kinds of questions is to turn outwards. And we think quite often about Jesus and his death for us. We think how it was a historical event and we look at evidence for that. We think about what it means, Jesus saying he died for us to put us right with God. And those are objective things a wobbly Christian looks at very often and says, “Okay, I’m sure, Jesus lived and died and rose again for me.”
But sometimes it’s helpful not to look outside but to look inside. Not to look at objective stuff but subjective stuff. What’s it supposed to be like, being a Christian? What’s it supposed to feel like? And how can I know, or was it just indigestion? Those kinds of questions. Well, [when] I was a very new Christian, this kind of thing troubled me quite a lot, before and after I became a Christian. And maybe it was because I was and am slightly introverted these kinds of things go round and round in my head. Maybe you’re a bit like that as well. And the person I spoke to said, “Well, I can’t really help you. It’s a leap of faith. You’ve just got to jump out into the dark.” And I thought then, and I think now – what a really unhelpful answer. Because how am I supposed to know what’s there in the dark? Am I just going to keep falling forever? How do I know?
Now, tonight I want to look at a story where there’s a person who meets Jesus and is changed by Jesus. And we’re going to see some outside changes but some inside changes as well. There are five truths in this story, which if you find them in your life they are rock solid guarantees that you’re a Christian. Whether it’s a good day or a bad day, a bright day or a blue day, an up day or a down day, if you’ve got these five marks in you – they’re like the five fingers of a hand, grasping you. And you might think, because I’m talking about stuff that’s inside you, you might think that I’m going to say these are about you having a firm grip on God. Actually, they’re about God having a firm grip on you. So will you join me on p. 1333?
So here’s my aim this evening. That if you’re a Christian, you will see and identify those five marks in you and you will know for certain that you’re a Christian. And if you look inside and you don’t find those five marks, then we need to have a conversation. Okay?
So here’s the first mark. Here’s the first mark from this story: I know that I’m a sinner.
So that might seem to you like a strange place to start. After all, in our time and day, what people want, they say, is to be affirmed. They want to be valued. People need lifting up, not taking down. They need to be down the light within, not the darkness within. But make no mistake, the way to start the Christian life and to be certain – the way to the good news about Jesus – is to go through the very bad news. So let’s unpack it.
Jesus says at the end, doesn’t he, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Now, the words “sin” /“sinner” are not words we use very often today. There’s a risk we might misunderstand them. And some people even complain to Jesus, don’t they? “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” They grumble about it, that Jesus is hanging around with the wrong sort of people. Now someone suggested to me this week that I’d chosen this reading with today in mind. Because today is – for those of you who don’t pay tax – today is the day when we have to get all our tax in. Today is tax deadline day. So this is a good day to be nasty about tax collectors. And in fact, Mr Haynes – Patrick – who’s been leading our sung worship this evening – stand up! This is what one of them looks like!
Actually, not so much. Patrick is doing a law-abiding, regulated profession. (Got my fingers crossed behind my back!) He needs to do this. We want him to do this. It’s a good thing to pay our taxes – the Bible says so. But tax collectors in New Testament times were rather different. The Romans were occupying Israel and as they did anywhere in their Empire, they could impose tax on anything. Buying, selling, earning – they could impose tax. And they would allow local tax collectors to collect that tax and to cream off a certain percentage on the way. So you would negotiate, you would haggle with your tax collector. But you would be certain that, as well as passing on the tax you should pay to the Romans, a certain amount would be going into his back pocket as well. These people were greedy, they were criminals and they abused people. Not physically, but emotionally. That’s who tax collectors were. Not a nice bunch of people at all.
And sinners – well, that’s an even bigger category. Sin in the Bible is a whole range of things that the Bible says God says is wrong. Lying. Swearing. God says that any sex outside heterosexual marriage [is wrong]. Injustice. Stealing. There’s a long list of things that God says is wrong. And they all go in this bucket called sin. So Jesus is hanging out with the wrong crowd. Tax collectors, and sinners. And yet Jesus says that’s exactly what he intended to do, verse 32. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” And that’s really good news for us, because one of the things that gives people trouble about whether they’ve become Christians or not, they think, “Did Jesus really know what someone like me is like? Would Jesus really love someone who’s as horrible as me on the inside?” And Jesus says here, “Oh yes. Yes, yes. And worse than that.”
Well, look closely. And I want you to think about this, because it’s really important. Jesus doesn’t talk here about “sins” does he? He’s talking about “sinners”. He’s not talking about stuff we do. He’s talking about who we are. And this is the really bad news. What we want to hear is that we’re basically good people who do bad things, and Jesus forgives the bad things we do. And this is why so many people who come to churches never settle down as Christians because they want to hear that message. But when you crack open the Bible, you hear that that is not the message. Jesus says something else, and it’s a really important truth. It’s the foundation. Look with me again, verse 31. “It’s not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus says that we are spiritually sick.
Think for a moment. You spot one morning that you are covered with little red spots. And the doctor says, “Yes, you’ve got chickenpox.” She’s worked it out from the fact that you’ve got little red spots. You’d be very cross if she just started putting plasters on your spots, wouldn’t you? You’d want her to treat the chickenpox, not the spots. It’s the chickenpox that’s given you the spots, not the spots that have given you the chickenpox. In the same way, it’s not our sins that make us sinners. It’s the fact that we are sinners that mean we sin. It’s a really deep problem. Let me say that again, because it’s a really important truth. Your sins do not make you a sinner. They prove it. Your sins don’t make you a sinner. But the fact that you are a sinner means that you sin. It’s a much deeper problem. But, it matches reality, I think. Your temper flares, from absolutely nowhere. Where did that come from? Your mind wanders one day and suddenly it’s in a very nasty place. And you will know that trying to control your temper – trying to control your imagination – is impossible. Why? Because it’s a deeper issue than just your temper or just imagination. It’s our human condition. It’s what we’re like. We’re sinners. That’s the first truth. You might think it’s a very odd thing to start with, but you need to know the bad news to get through to the good news. That’s the first truth every true Christian knows.
Here’s the second truth – the second finger to hold on to.
A Christian knows that I’ve repented. I’ve repented. That’s another Bible term. Let me explain it. It’s Jesus’ word – you can see it in verse 32: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Let me explain it, and I think it’s best to explain it in terms of this story. Look at the beginning of it. Jesus goes out, and he sees “a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” Now, think about that. He’s sitting there at this – well, I imagine it looks a bit like the welcome desk where Gaz is at the back. Somewhere where there’s a table and you collect the money and he’s got his books or his sheets of paper or whatever where’s taking records – he’s got all his stuff, he’s got his money, he’s got his records, he’s got his accounts – he’s got everything. He’s surrounded by the fact, by the proofs that he’s a tax collectors. And Jesus says, “Get up and follow me.” It’s a very simple idea, repentance. Leave what you’re doing which is wrong and start following Jesus. (Repeated.)
Now, like I’m saying, you’ve got to bring God into the picture, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Sin isn’t just bad stuff – it’s bad stuff because God says it’s bad stuff and it makes him angry. And repentance isn’t just cleaning up my act. If it was cleaning up my act, verse 27 could read, “After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. Levi had second thoughts and found an honest profession doing something else.” No – he gets up. He leaves everything and follows Jesus. So – do you know that you’ve repented and are following Jesus? It’s really important to be clear. Now that doesn’t mean that you’ve sorted everything out. Far from it. But it means that life is different. You see, if you become a Christian and, I don’t know, you’ve got a real problem with your temper, and two days after you’ve become a Christian it flares up again, you will say, “Have I become a Christian? Have I repented?” The question is what you do next. The person who’s repented goes back to Jesus and says, “Thank you that you died to cover the fact that I do things like that. Please help me to be more like you.” Turn away from the thing which is wrong and you follow Jesus. You don’t just try and clean up your act. See the difference? If you focus on just trying to clean up your act, you will never clean up your act for God. Never, ever, ever. But if you focus on following on Jesus who died for you and rose from the dead for you, you will not focus on cleaning up your act, you’ll focus on following him.
And that’s why the third truth – I know I’m a sinner, I know I’ve repented – I know I’m forgiven. That’s the third story. We know the big story. We’re here in Luke 5 but by the end of the story, Jesus will have died, been brought back to life again and will have told his disciples to tell everybody across the world about him. And here’s a little tiny picture of what happens in every Christian’s life. Verse 29, you’ve got someone who’s in the wrong with God, and by the end of the story, they’re in the right with God. That’s what Jesus has done. That’s how Jesus moves things. It’s quite dramatic, and it’s true of anybody. You could say that the Christian story is like a movie or a book or a play with three acts. You can call those three acts “No Longer”, “Now” and “Not Yet”. So when I become a Christian, there are some things that are now true of me. I’m forgiven, I am a child of God. That is now true. And that means there’s stuff that’s no longer true. The things that I do no longer mean that I face God’s judgement. Isn’t that amazing? I no longer live my life for me; I live it for Jesus. I no longer feel as though my life has no purpose; I live it for Jesus’ plans. There’s stuff which is no longer true. Now there’s stuff which is not yet true. I haven’t yet got a completely new me who doesn’t want to do bad things. That’ll wait ’til I get my new body on Resurrection Day. That’s not yet true. But now there’s stuff which is no longer true. And that’s what it means to know that you’ve forgiven. Not that you feel forgiven – I think it’s quite hard to feel forgiven – some people do – but to know the story and say, “And this is where I belong in it. I’m a sinner, I’ve repented and therefore I’m forgiven.”
If you are looking for God to step into your life and say, “You know, you are basically lovable. You are a wonderful person. Let me affirm you.” If you are looking for God to say that to you, you will never have Christian assurance. You will always be restless. Why? Well, let me give you an example. I love my family. I do. They need to know it. It’s a good and right thing to do. What would it be like if Jesus said to me, “Way to go, Chris! You’re doing a great thing, I love it – just try harder, just try harder at loving your family, but you’re doing a really good thing.” Well, he doesn’t begin to deal with the problems in that. You see, if I try harder, I make my family a little idol. I start to worship them and not God. I find my identity in them, not in God – which is a bad thing, isn’t it? And then, like any idol, other than God, it will devour me. Do I give my family enough time? No! I become crippled by guilt. Could I ever give my family enough time? No! I become crippled by guilt. Am I perfect husband and dad? No! I become crippled by guilt. Do I resent them because they make me feel guilty? Yes! Do I blame them? Now, that may not be your idol. It may be your exam marks at school, or your fitness or your beauty or your money or a relationship. If you worship it, it will devour you. And if Jesus appeared in your life and said, “Way to go, I love you, just keep doing and do it better,” he’ll only make it worse. Instead Jesus says, “Stop it – turn round. Worship me and be forgiven.” That’s where it starts. And Jesus does not increase my guilt, he forgives me. He doesn’t devour me, he satisfies me. He doesn’t say try harder, he says, “I’ve done it for you.”
And that’s why the fourth mark – the fourth guaranteed mark that you’re a Christian – is that you are thankful. I’m a sinner, I’ve repented, I’m forgiven and so I am thankful. Look at Levi: “Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” You spot that? Jesus said in another place, “The person who thinks they’ve been forgiven a little loves me such a little.” But the person who’s been forgiven hugely loves him hugely. And that’s why this is such an important spiritual indicator. It’s why it allows you to deal with the darkest part of your heart and go right down deep. However bad you think you are, the Bible says you’re far worse than that. And God still forgives you because of the death of Jesus. Isn’t that powerful? Isn’t that wonderful? You can afford to go right into the darkest places because Jesus has been there before you, and loved you, and forgiven you. You can embrace the worst with confidence. There’s an old hymn which captures this – it’s wonderful. It says this: “Guilty, vile, and helpless we, / Spotless Lamb of God was he. / Full atonement – can it be? / Hallelujah, what a Saviour.” See, that person has moved from, I’m a sinner, to thankfulness. They can embrace the darkest part of them.
And what’s the fifth finger – what’s the fifth truth? – the fifth mark that guarantees you’re a Christian? I’m different. I mean, look at Levi. He throws this huge party with loads of people. Twenty-four hours before this, he’d have had one question – well, two: “Is this deductible? And have I kept my receipts?” Those would have been the two questions. Now, he is stunningly generous, isn’t he? He’s a different person. He has changed. Look again at verse 29: “Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house … large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them.” Quite a different person. He hasn’t changed to make God forgive him. He’s changed because God has forgiven him. It belongs. You know, someone said about this business of changing as a Christian, “Yes, Jesus loves us where he finds us. But he loves us too much to leave us there.” And that’s why Christians change. They don’t stay the same.
Well, there you go – there’s our hand of God’s mark in you. And if you see those five marks, it’s absolutely drop-dead certain you’re a Christian. If you know you’re a sinner, if you know you’ve repented, know you’re forgiven, know you’re thankful and know that you’re changing. Those are the fingerprints of God in you.
There’s one last thing to say. Because there’s one more element; there’s one more part of the story. We skipped over them. Verse 30: “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’” Now let me explain who those Pharisees were. Pharisees were the religious people of their day. They were the good people – they were the people who kept the laws. They were the social and religious conservatives. They’re the group Jesus calls – and I would guess he would put inverted commas around it – “righteous”. They’re the good people. Now. They’re faced with the offer of God’s hand, this grasp from God. They’re offered it. What do they say? Will they say, when faced with Jesus, “I am a sinner”? Oh no. You see, they thought God loved them as they were. There may be occasional sins to confess – a sort of mopping up exercise – but a sinner who sins? Oh no. Would they say gladly, “I have repented”? Well no, of course not, because they didn’t think they needed to! They thought that God affirmed their lifestyle choice. Will they say, “I have been forgiven”? Well, no, because they thought they didn’t need the forgiveness. Instead, they’re judgemental and they’re condescending. Will they say, “I’m so thankful for what God has done for me”? No. They’re sour and they’re angry. And will they say, “I’m different now – my life has changed”? No, they said – and it was a prayer they said every day – “I am so pleased that God has made me this way.” At each point they’re refusing God’s grasp, you see? They want him to love and affirm him. And many people in churches, many people in St James – maybe you tonight – you suddenly realise you’re more like a Pharisee than a tax man. It’s awful, isn’t it? When you look at it, their idol is devouring them.
Here’s the good news. If you’re starting to realise that you’re looking like a Pharisee and that looks awful, that’s the first sign that you’re recognising that you’re a sinner. That’s the first step to recognising the bad news about yourself, which is the first step to hearing the good news. You’re saying, “I’m not healthy, I’m sick after all.” And that means you’ve started to feel the finger of God’s grace.
So how shall we pray tonight? Well, some of us here are Levis. We have a very simple journey. Maybe it lies behind us, maybe it lies ahead of us, maybe we’re here right now, but it’s a simple matter of turning from what is wrong and following Jesus. And those five little marks, they work every time. Some of us are a bit more knotty, like the Pharisees. It’s a bit harder for us, but it’s actually the same journey. We just have to realise that inside we are sick not healthy. That’s the beginning. And once you’ve realised that, the five fingers work just as they do for the worst tax man sitting in the front row seat. Shall we pray?
Heavenly Father, some of us see the story of Levi and we recognise it from our own lives. We know that at one stage we were running far from you, and we know that you told us to stop and to follow you. For some of us it’s a long time ago, and for some of us it may have been last week. And we ask that you’ll press deep on us these five marks. We pray that you’ll never stop letting us know that we’re sinners who are forgiven. We pray that that mark of repentance will stay with us for life. We pray that you will make us increasingly thankful and increasingly open to change to follow you.
Some of us here, Father, uncomfortably realise that we’re a little more like the Pharisees. And we look at other people and blame you for loving them and thinking we’re a bit more lovable than they are. Father, please would you show those of us who are Pharisees that we are sick at heart and need to repent.
And Father, some of us this evening are realising it right now, and we want to sit with Levi and say we’ll leave everything and follow you. And so Lord Jesus, for those of us who are in this position tonight, please would you help us to turn from what is wrong – to keep turning from what is wrong throughout our lives – to know the delight of being forgiven by you, to be overawed with thankfulness for what you’ve done, and to be willing to change, whatever it takes, for the rest of our lives.