Changing Britain - Contending for Truth
02/12/2007 at 6.30pm
John 18; Romans 1-2
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
This is the last of our sermon series on discipleship – ie, on learning to live for Jesus as Lord. We began this series looking at our personal relationship with the Lord Jesus and saw that discipleship involves trusting in Christ and obeying God’s Word. And in our church mission statement, we sum that up as ‘godly living’. We then put our relationship with the Lord in the context of the church and the world and looked at telling the world about him and serving the church – which we sum up as ‘church growth’. But although telling the world about Christ is the most important and loving thing we can do for it, there’s more that God wants us to do. So last week we looked at caring for needs; and this week we’re looking at contending for truth – which we sum up as ‘Changing Britain’.
So let me start with three examples of ‘contending for truth’:
Example no.1: You work for a business. The company can only secure an order by promising that it’ll be delivered by a certain date. But you and all your colleagues know that that deadline is impossible – and that to promise it would be a lie. And you have to be in a meeting where your boss intends to promise it and will expect you to back him up if asked. What do you do?
Example no.2: This time you’re a school governor. And there’s a governors’ meeting coming up for which the main agenda-item is the recommendation that the school nurse be authorised to give out condoms in the school. And you know by word of mouth that the majority of the other governors are in favour. What do you do?
Example no.3: this time, you’re a CYFA member. You’re in an RE lesson and the teacher just asserts that the Gospels were written far too long after the events to be regarded as historically reliable, and that they simply reflect the beliefs and biases of the first Christians, rather than the facts. What do you do?
The answer is: we contend for truth. (And I looked up the word ‘contend’ in the dictionary and it said, ‘to strive in opposition, to engage in conflict, to argue, to dispute.’) Now my three examples are each slightly different. In no.1, you’re being expected to lie – actually to do something wrong yourself. In no.2, you’re not under pressure to do something directly wrong yourself, but to allow wrongdoing – to facilitate it, to co-operate with it. And in those two examples, unless we contend, we will do wrong of some sort. No.3 in the classroom is different in that we wouldn’t do any active wrong by saying nothing. But there is at least an opportunity to contend, which we can either take or miss. So tonight we’re asking what God’s Word has to say about contending for truth, and we’re going to look at three things:
1.UNDERSTANDING WHAT’S GOING ON SPIRITUALLY, UNDER THE SURFACE OF THESE SITUATIONS
2.UNDERSTANDING WHY WE NEED TO CONTEND
3.UNDERSTANDING HOW WE’RE TO CONTEND.
Firstly, UNDERSTANDING WHAT’S GOING ON SPIRITUALLY, UNDER THE SURFACE
Would you turn first in the Bibles to John 3.19:
“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world...” (John 3.19)So John is talking there about Jesus – who called himself ‘the light of the world’. And light is the Bible picture for God revealing the truth about himself. So that when Jesus said, ‘I am the truth’, he was really saying the same thing. He was saying ‘I am the ultimate source of truth in this universe – about God, about what the human race is here for, about what’s good and what’s evil.’ So when God the Son became man, when the truth became visible, what happened? Look again at John 3, 19:
“19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” (John 3.19-20)And notice that word ‘will’ – ‘will not come into the light’ – which describes what we’re all like by nature, before we come to Christ. Because by nature, our wills don’t want Jesus to be Lord of our lives. And so our wills then say to our minds, ‘Can’t you come up with some way of denying this truth, or suppressing it, so that we can just go on living as we want?’ And at a human level, that’s what took Jesus to the cross. People understood his claims with their minds. But their wills didn’t want him to be Lord. So they got rid of him by crucifying him. Or so they thought. Because of course his resurrection shows that you can reject him, but you can’t get rid of him – or, ultimately, avoid meeting him.
So turn over now to John 18. Jesus is in the process of being rejected by the Jewish leadership. They want him dead; but they don’t have the legal right to put him to death; so they need to accuse him to the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate on a charge that carries the death penalty – like treason. So they accuse him of claiming to be king of the Jews – ie, a rival king to the Roman Emperor. So look at John 18.33:
“33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" 34 "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" 35 "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" 36 Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place." [By which he means, ‘My rule is not merely human and local like yours. My rule extends over the entire universe including you.’ Only Pilate doesn’t realise that.]37 "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18.33-37)So we can only be on one of two sides. As the Lord Jesus said elsewhere,
‘He who is not with me is against me.’ (Luke 11.23)No-one is neutral in these situations we’re talking about tonight. And if we’re disciples, on Christ’s side, we’ll find ourselves having to contend for truth with everyone else who isn’t. And here in John 18 is a remarkable snapshot of someone having the opportunity to side with the Truth: here’s Pilate shuttling between the Truth in the person of Jesus, the prisoner inside his palace, and those who’ve rejected the truth in the form of the Jewish leadership outside the palace. And in this extraordinary moment, God gives Pilate the opportunity to side with the Truth: ‘Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,’ says Jesus – which is an implicit appeal to do so. But Pilate decides against, v38:
38 "What is truth?" (John 18.38)And those weary, cynical, intellectually lazy words have rung down the ages – and are still ringing around our culture where so many call themselves relativists and say there is no truth. But, like relativists today, Pilate knows that there really is such a thing as truth. He just doesn’t want it, because it’s inconvenient, because it demands thought and commitment and courage and conflict and cost. Whereas Pilate just wants control and a quiet life – which so many around us today also want. And if the price is that the truth is suppressed, that the truth is crucified, then so be it. That’s what’s going on under the surface in these situations.
But we need to understand one more thing about what’s going on under the surface. So would you turn on to Romans 1.18:
“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness [Now so far, that’s repeating what we’ve already seen. But look at what Paul adds next:] 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1.18-21)I.e. deep down, everyone out there who’s suppressing the truth about God knows that God is really there. So when you say the word ‘God’ to Richard Dawkins, who calls himself an atheist, he knows exactly who you’re talking about. He knows deep down that God is not just an idea, but that God really is there. And now look over to Romans 1.32. After a list of sinful behaviour that’s typical of fallen society, Paul writes:
“32 Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Romans 1.32)I.e. deep down, everyone who’s suppressing the truth about what’s good and what’s evil knows what’s good and what’s evil. So the boss who’s bracing himself to lie for the company can rationalise it in his mind but deep down he knows that it is evil. How? Because of his conscience. Just glance over to Romans 2.15, which says:
“15 since they [that is, everyone out there, however anti-Christian they are] show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness...” (Romans 2.15)
I think it was C.S.Lewis who said that conscience is ‘God’s witness planted in the rebel soul’, and that’s a brilliant description.
Now the point of those Romans verses is this: we should always assume that, deep down, people know the truth for which we’re contending, however much they deny it and argue against it. We’re always to assume that, deep down, they know God is there, and that they know there is such a thing as truth, and that they know there is right and wrong. And we’re to assume that they know those things because the Bible says they do.
Second, UNDERSTANDING WHY WE NEED TO CONTEND
And for this, I’d like us to turn back to John 18.37:
“37 "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me." (John 18.37)Think back to those three examples I began with: no.1, the worker under pressure to lie for the company; no.2, the school governor under pressure to allow the handing out of condoms; no.3, the student hearing the teacher misrepresent Christianity. Why do we need to contend for truth in those situations? What’s at stake? Well, pondering John 18, v37, three things, at least:
Our integrity is at stake. Jesus says, ‘Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ And by implication (having listened to Jesus through the Bible) such a person also says the truth and acts in line with the truth. Turning that round the other way, if we don’t say the truth and act in line with the truth we’re behaving as if we weren’t on the Lord Jesus’ side. Now sadly those of us who profess to be disciples do act inconsistently like that. But every time we do, it damages our integrity and our enjoyment of our relationship with the Lord. And if, habitually, we don’t say the truth or act in line with the truth – i.e. if habitually we don’t contend for the truth – then by Jesus’ definition in v37, we’re not really on his side at all.
Next, Others’ opportunity is at stake. By which I mean their opportunity to hear something of the truth. So in John 18.37, Pilate gets this extraordinary moment of opportunity as Jesus speaks to him something of the truth. And if we don’t contend for the truth, we’ll be failing to enable others to hear something of it, giving that opportunity, however implicitly, to acknowledge it and move nearer to being committed to it.
Above all, God’s glory is at stake. In v37, Jesus says,
‘for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’Or elsewhere he says
‘to bring glory to my Father.’And as you read John’s Gospel you see Jesus as God’s Son so perfectly committed to his Father’s will that he isn’t swayed by the pressures of popularity or fear. And he so clearly ‘lives before an audience of one’, as someone put it, that people cannot help but be pointed to his Father as they watch him. And although his perfect commitment to his Father isn’t possible for us this side of heaven, to approximate to it and to glorify God in the same way is.
So that’s why we’re to contend for truth. Lastly:
Third, UNDERSTANDING HOW WE’RE TO CONTEND
And for this, I want us to think through each of the three examples I gave. These comments are not an exhaustive approach to handling these situations, but I hope they help with the main issues they throw at us.
So let’s go back to Example no.1: you’re under pressure to lie for the company. And that example stands for all the situations where we’re under pressure to say something untrue or act against the truth, directly, ourselves – another example would be the Christian gynaecologist under pressure to perform abortions. So, imagining ourselves under pressure to lie for the company, how are we to contend? The first thing to do is to pray for a way to avoid lying, knowing that that is certainly a prayer in line with God’s will. The next thing to do, when we see a situation like that coming, is to take it up with the person or people concerned as privately as possible. But what do we actually say? It seems to me that we need to get round to saying something like, ‘I actually think that’s wrong,’ or, ‘I actually think that’s morally wrong.’ And at its lowest, we need to aim to avoid being untruthful ourselves – e.g. to aim to be taken out of the meeting concerned, or not have our signature on the document concerned, etc. But at a higher level, we need to argue that operating that way isn’t good for business – because God’s truth doesn’t cease to apply in the business world. And God’s truth is that relationships only work based on integrity and trust. And however much you think in the short-term that untruth will work for you, in fact it won’t.
Now fear is a big factor in all this. I’m not going to say much about that because it’s already been said in the sermon on ‘Tell The World’ a few weeks ago. And we saw there from that passage in 1 Peter 3 that the way to overcome our fear of people is by our fear of the Lord – i.e. our desire to have the Lord’s approval and people’s disapproval, rather than the other way round. And fear of the Lord also includes the element of trusting that if we’re trying to do his will, he will look out for us and safeguard our interests. As he says in the OT,
‘Those who honour me, I will honour’ (1 Samuel 2.30).So, e.g. we can trust him to safeguard our jobs even if we have to do something that rocks the boat in our workplace. Alternatively, he can get us another one if they push us out of the boat. (And if it comes to that, as it has for some in our church family, it’s important to resist pressure to resign over a moral issue, but rather to place the responsibility of removing you on those who would be immoral.)
But it’s easy and understandable, to think about ‘worst-case scenarios’ focussed on ourselves rather than asking what the Lord could do through us in these situations. And by contending for truth, he may well use us to change the situation. And before we cynically think to ourselves, ‘Well, the culture of my company (or whatever) is unlikely to change’, we need to remember that lesson that their consciences are on our side. God has his ‘witness planted in each rebel soul’, as C.S.Lewis put it, and we need to feed it truth.
Then onto Example no.2: you’re the school governor under pressure to allow the handing out of condoms. And that example stands for all the situations where we’re under pressure not to say or do something wrong, directly ourselves, but to allow some wrongdoing, or to enable it, or co-operate with it, or facilitate it in some way. Another example of that would be an invitation to attend a civil partnership ceremony. But back to the school governor. God’s revealed truth is that sex is meant for marriage alone. And therefore handing out condoms to the unmarried is in some way to facilitate something against the truth. Now in addition to the usual need to pray and overcome fear, what are the issues here?
Well, one issue in such situations is not seeing the issue. It could be, in this example, that a Christian knows that handing out condoms is against the truth, but he or she might be persuaded by the argument that it’s the lesser of two evils: ‘a certain number of people are going to have sex, anyway, so better that they have safe sex’ (so called). But research shows that handing out condoms actually increases the number of people being sexually active because it’s an implicit encouragement to be so. And since those involved don’t use contraceptives perfectly (and since contraceptives aren’t perfectly ‘safe’ even when used rightly), the net result is an increase not just in sexual activity but of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
Another issue in such situations is facing the question, ‘What right have I, as a Christian, to impose my Christian morality on other people?’ And that question comes out of the atmosphere of relativism that we breathe. Relativism says that no statement is universally true for everyone – e.g. the statement ‘Sex is meant for marriage alone.’ Relativism just sees every statement as the personal, subjective point of view of the individual or the group. So if you try to argue that someone else should adopt your point of view, you’re seen as arrogant, imposing your views on others. And if you try to argue that someone else’s point of view is untrue or immoral or empirically leads to negative consequences, you’re seen as intolerant. Those are the rules of the game of relativism. But to that it needs to be said that in this example, what you’d be saying about sex as the school governor on that committee is not just your personal, subjective opinion. It’s God’s revealed truth for human beings – and not just for Christian human beings, but all human beings. Marriage is good for you whether you’re a Christian or not, because it’s part of the inescapable order that God has created into this world. And sex outside marriage is bad for you whether you’re a Christian or not, because it’s going against the inescapable order that God has created into this world – which can’t be done without damage to ourselves and to others.
But then another issue, once we’ve got that far, is facing the question, ‘But how do I argue the Biblically true thing when none of the people I’m talking to accept the authority of the Bible?’ I think there are two things to say. One is: we should still say something like, ‘I think this is morally wrong,’ or, ‘As a Christian I think this is morally wrong.’ Otherwise we collapse into the world’s habit of calling things ‘inappropriate’ or ‘undesirable’ when the word we’re really suppressing is the word ‘wrong.’ And remember that as you say that word, however much they don’t want to hear it, their conscience is on your side. The other thing to say is: try to think of ways of arguing for the Biblical position using grounds that the non-Christian can’t dismiss just because they don’t accept the Bible. That’s one of the many things I’ve learned from David, as he quotes the findings of social science that Christians and non-Christians alike ought to accept, assuming of course that it’s reliable.
Finally, let’s revisit Example no.3: the CYFA member hearing the teacher misrepresent Christianity – and the various equivalent situations you can imagine yourself in. Now an obvious question here is: are we obliged to have to say something? After all, it is different from the other two situations – where, by not contending, we will do wrong of some sort – directly or indirectly. Are we obliged to say something in this kind of situation every time? I think the answer is: No. Certainly both with individual non-Christian people and with groups, there are times when it’s wiser not to say something. Now to unpack that comment would be another talk, which is not what you want at this time on a Sunday. But the point to underline about example no.3 is that it is a great opportunity to contend. I think there’s often the fear that we won’t know what to say if we do open our mouths – especially when there’s an alleged expert, like a teacher or lecturer, whom we feel could wipe the floor with us. I certainly felt like that trying to stand up to theology lecturers at university. But can I relieve us of the responsibility of thinking we’ve got to win the day with brilliant argument? For example, if all we can do is to ask a question, it serves a very powerful purpose. In example no.3, to ask, ‘Can you tell us why people think the gospels are unreliable, sir?’ would be a very helpful way of challenging what’s been said. If we can say a bit more, so much the better. But it doesn’t have to be much to make clear to others around us that the claim from the front should at least be questioned, and that there are alternative claims to be considered. So in this example, a Christian could ask, ‘Isn’t there another point of view, as well, sir?... Isn’t it a bit unfair not to mention it sir?’ The important thing is that those around us hear that the view from the front isn’t the only one and that there are clearly people who believe something else. And what you’re doing there is called ‘un-suppressing the truth’.
So, contend for truth. I hope that hasn’t sounded glib, or simplistic. I realise I’ve chosen reasonably clear-cut examples and that the fallen world we face tomorrow morning is often much less clear cut, and comes at you at a pace which calls for thinking on our feet – which isn’t easy. But the last thing I want to do is to encourage you to re-visit that sermon on Tell the Truth, earlier in this series, which included that verse from 1 Peter:
‘but do this with gentleness...’ (1 Peter 3.15).Because I’ve often come away from situations like this thinking, ‘I said the right thing in the wrong way.’ And we need to pray for wisdom to say the right thing in the right way so that, as far as it lies in our power, we don’t just win arguments, but people.
For more sermon transcripts visit http://www.church.org.uk