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Today we begin our community study Re-Formed: In the Hands of the Potter. Over the next six weeks we’ll be looking at key theological ideas and foundations that connect the Trinity church of today with our roots and heritage formed during the 16th century Reformation led by figures like Martin Luther and John Calvin. During the 16th century, in addition to the widespread use of the printing press, there was an academic movement which laid the foundations for both the Renaissance and the Reformation which was called “ad fontes” or to the fountain or to the source. There was a desire on the part of philosophers and academics to return to the ancient Greek philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and the wisdom of the Greco-Roman world and as a result the Renaissance took hold. At the same time, in the religious community there was a desire to return to the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the New and Old Testaments respectively. When devout Catholics like Martin Luther read the bible in their original languages, they found that there was a disconnect between the practices of the 16th century Catholic Church and what Scripture clearly teaches. Let me take an aside to make sure I’m clear that the Catholic Church has changed dramatically since the 16th century, indeed after the Reformation there was a Counter-Reformation within the Catholic Church and many other reform movements so that the Catholic Church of today is not the Catholic Church of the 16th Century. That said, convicted by Scripture, Martin Luther and many others called for the church of the 16th Century to Reform. To look at itself not as an infallible institution that did not need to change, but rather as an institution made up of people, even the pope, who are as Scripture describes, fatally flawed and in need of constant reformation by the hands of God. Where the Catholic church of the time taught that salvation was gained by a combination of faith and works, the early Reformers, and protestant churches today teach that salvation is through faith alone, which is a gift from God and works are a fruit, or an outgrowth of that faith, not a pre-requisite to salvation. Our passage for today, Ephesians 2:8-10 says “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Now before we address that it is by grace we have been saved we need to understand why it is we need to be saved and why our works don’t contribute to our salvation. The reason we need a savior, that we need salvation, is because we are fatally flawed. This was something that Luther and the Reformers were keenly aware of, that we are by our nature sinners and our works do not contribute to our salvation. Today we live in a society and a culture that currently teaches quite the opposite. The world teaches that we are fundamentally fine. Before I became a pastor I was a high school teacher. I taught science and math, but in my last years of teaching I managed to weasel my way into the bible department of a small private Christian school and one of the courses I taught was called “Worldview.” In this course we examined the history of dominant worldviews in the Western world starting with Christian Theism in the Middle Ages and moving to Modernism and Materialism during the Renaissance, through Nihlism and Existentialism and finally to the Postmodern world in which we find ourselves today. The goal was to teach students to recognize where culture was affecting their worldview and also give to them a foundation for speaking to those with worldviews that differ from their own. And the one area where the postmodern culture had crept into these high school students thinking the most, was in the area of whether or not we as humans are fatally flawed, whether are not deep down inside we are essentially good or evil. Now remember, this is a private Christian school and most of these kids have been raised in the church in bible believing households their entire lives and they would say I believe in the bible, I believe in Jesus, I believe in God, but I don’t believe that deep down inside we are flawed. I believe that deep down inside everyone is good. You can’t blame them either because it’s the constant message from the world, that deep down inside everything is fundamentally fine. We just made it through the holiday season and one of the movies I watched is called Fred Claus.
Maybe you’ve seen this one, but it’s a story about Santa Claus’ older brother who is kind of the black sheep in the family. Santa Claus is trying to find a place for Fred in his Christmas operation and eventually tries Fred out at marking kids naughty and nice. During one scene Fred has an argument with his brother Santa Claus and makes the case that there is no one who should be on the naughty list. There are people who are misunderstood, who have bad backgrounds and circumstances, but ultimately everyone is deep down on the nice list. So this is what the kids in my Worldview class thought. And as we had conversations we found that this one thought, like leaven in bread, spreads throughout their worldview and cracks up the biblical foundations on which rest our essential beliefs. If we believe that we are all fundamentally fine, then we have no need for a savior. Because if deep down inside everyone is good, then what need do we really have for a savior? If deep down inside everyone is good and their actions are just products of their culture and things they’ve been taught, then what imperative is there to really need to preach the gospel, the good news to the ends of the earth? If there is no bad news, if we aren’t really fatally flawed, then the good news isn’t really all that good is it? It’s just a suggestion not a need.
Well, like the early Reformers, we need to go back to the fountain, the revelation of God, God’s Word in order to know what reality is. God’s Word teaches that we are fatally flawed. We read in Romans 3:9-11 “We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God” and then later in the popular verse Romans 3:23 “ all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Scripture is very clear that we are fatally flawed, that we are born in total depravity, as sinners. Anyone with children knows that they don’t come out good. They may come out innocent, not aware, acting without knowing, but that don’t come out with selfless loving natures. Children, in their own way, say feed me now, change me now, give me what I want right now and if you don’t I’m going to make your life a living hell. There’s no just a second let me finish the T.V. show, or just a second let me open my eyes after 2 hours of sleep, it’s I want and I want now! When Sophia was younger we tried to teach her some sign language and one of the first things she learned say was “I want” and she would do the sign by patting her hand on her chest. It started out nice, “I want, but if you didn’t act she’d get louder and bang her chest harder until she was yelling “I want” and hitting herself as hard as she could. Again, I love Sophia dearly, but we are not born with a good nature. When was the last time you had to tell your children “You say thank you way too often” or “You’ve been sharing way too much lately, you need to cut it back”? We are born broken ourselves and in a fallen world. Scripture attests to this and our experience attests to this. When we tell ourselves that deep down inside we’re good, we lose sight of what we really need, namely salvation through Jesus Christ, we think we can do it on our own.
When we recognize that we are fatally flawed, that’s a good thing because then how sweet the sound is the amazing grace we receive through Jesus Christ alone. When we recognize our fatal flaws, then we see our desperate need for Jesus as our Savior. There was a preacher during the 19th century, you may have head of him, named Dwight Moody. He tells a story about preaching at a prison and afterwards speaking to the inmates. He said that he was surprised about two things, one he was surprised that no had really listened to his sermon. The other thing was that when he spoke to the men afterwards he said that almost all of them said that they were innocent. It reminds of the movie Shawshank Redemption when Morgan Freeman’s character says to Tim Robbins character “Don’t you know we’re all innocent in here?” The majority in the prison the Moody preached at were deluding themselves, but one man, sobbing, said to Moody “I cannot bear the weight of the sin that is upon me” and Moody replied “Thank God for that.” Now why did he say that? Is it because Moody enjoys suffering? No, it’s because that man recognized his brokenness, his lostness, his total depravity, his fatal flaws and as a result was open to hearing the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, to being shaped and formed by the hands of God. You know this last weekend I got a phone call from someone I haven’t heard from in years. He was sobbing, he had been drunk for days, and he said to me “I can’t do it anymore.” Of course I didn’t rejoice for the state he was in, but I do dare to hope that in recognizing his fatal flaws, his lack of control, that he can come to believe that a power greater than himself can restore and redeem him.
This recognition of our fatal flaw, our total depravity, our fallen nature, leads us to accept that we cannot, on our own effect our own salvation. Because we are broken in our very nature we have to be saved from the inside out. The Old Testament describes our nature and our predicament by asking this question in Jeremiah 13:23 “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil?” We are enslaved to sin, we are dead in our trespasses. We cannot affect our own salvation any more than a leopard can will itself to change itself. It reminds me of fable pastor Benita told me once of the frog and the scorpion, perhaps you’ve heard this. There once was a scorpion and a frog. The scorpion needed to cross the river and so he asked the frog to carry him on his back across the river. The frog is afraid of being stung during the trip, but the scorpion argues that if it stung the frog, the frog would sink and the scorpion would drown. So the frog agrees and begins carrying the scorpion, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. As they both sink beneath the waves the frog asks “Why did you sting me?” and the scorpion responds “It’s my nature.”
Like the leopard, like the scorpion, sin is in our nature. If you hang around in this world long enough, we all realize this. All the other religions of the world teach that you can work hard enough and overcome the gap that exists between a holy God and ourselves, but Jesus teaches us that we have to be cleaned from the inside out. We have to be given a new heart, a new nature. Indeed this is impossible for us to do on our own, but “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:27). Our passage says “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith…a gift of God.” Salvation is a gift of God and could only be done by God because we can’t, in our slavery to our own natures, change ourselves, but in order to be truly saved we have to be saved from the inside out. In order to be changed to our deepest core, from our fatal flaws, we have to die. We have to die completely to our natures and receive a new nature, a new spirit, a new heart as a gift from God. Then as we have been recreated, from our new nature, our new spirit, flow our good works. I know the last time pastor Benita preached she gave the story of how our daughter, Sophia, was saved from death by a heart transplant, and if you missed that sermon I encourage you to go online and listen as it not only is a good message from pastor Benita but can help give you some insight into our lives. One of the amazing things to witness during that experience was the difference that a new heart made in Sophia’s life. Sophia was born with a broken heart, a heart that didn’t work and as a result she suffered externally from all sorts of other problems. She had no energy so she was always sleeping, her physical systems didn’t work because not enough blood was getting to them, she appeared weak and pale. She was on constant medication and treatment for a whole host of problems. The moment she returned from her surgery with her new heart, I mean the very moment we saw her for the first time, you could tell there was a difference. Sophia’s lips were a bright pink we’d never seen before, there was color throughout her body, and from that moment on she was like a new girl, the little girl she was meant to be. We would have been foolish if we tried to fix each and every one of the external problems, or denied that she was born with a broken heart, what she needed was a new heart. Her miracle paints a wonderful image for what God, through Jesus Christ does in us. Rather than, on our own, trying to will ourselves to change from the outside in through good works, we are given a new heart, and changed from the inside out. Ephesians 2:10 says “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” So we see that when we are created, born again, in Christ Jesus; we are God’s workmanship and out of our new natures come good works. We are justified by Christ alone, not by our works, and even though in this life we continue to struggle with our old selves we are sanctified, made holy and more into the image of Christ, by the power of His Spirit dwelling within us.
This is the ultimate good news and the ultimate hope for our community study. In addition to connecting to our Reformation heritage we want to recognize our fatal flaws, both individually and as a church, and be Re-formed, Re-shaped by God. Our theme and image for this study comes from Jeremiah 18. Jeremiah 18 says “This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Go down to the potter's house, and there I will give you my message." So I went down to the potter's house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: "O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?" declares the LORD. "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. "Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.' But they will reply, 'It's no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart.'" We must recognize that we are fatally flawed in our very natures, that we are marred clay. We turn ourselves over to God in repentance and faith, and our stubborn, evil hearts, are miraculously, through Jesus Christ replaced with hearts of flesh. We continue the struggle in this life and yet are comforted that we are in the hands of the master potter, who will shape us as seems best to him. We find this shape most clearly presented in Scripture through Jesus Christ and so each week we’ll continue to return to Scripture and to be shaped by God’s Word as individuals and as church by these foundations of our faith.