I subscribe to a certain Christian publication that recently featured an old sermon from Oswald J. Smith. Smith was a Canadian pastor/church planter/author who is probably best known for founding The Peoples Church in Toronto and serving as the church’s pastor for almost thirty years. When he died in 1986, his close friend Billy Graham said of him, “There was no equal.”
I thought I’d incorporate a few selected quotes from Smith’s sermon into this post. As you read them, you’ll see what a powerful communicator Smith was. On the subject of salvation, he said:
You are not a sinner because you sin. You sin because you are a sinner. An apple tree is not an apple tree because it bears apples. It bears apples because it is an apple tree. If you were not a sinner, you would not sin. It is because you are a sinner that you do sin. Some people merely lop off the branches. They fail to recognize that the tree itself is bad. They pick off the sour apples, but next year there are more than ever.
It is not reformation that you need, but regeneration, a new life. Your old Adamic nature is bad throughout. You are a sinner and a sinner needs a Savior. God put it this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6)…..Note God’s comparison. He does not compare us to dogs or horses; they can find their way home again. He compares us to sheep. When a sheep is lost, it is lost. When it strays away, it can never find its way back. Someone must go out in search of it. The shepherd must find it and bring it home.
A knowledge of God’s salvation will not save you any more than a knowledge of food will save you from starvation. You must partake of it if you are to be saved. A knowledge of water will not quench your thirst: you must drink it. A knowledge of medicine will not cure you: you must take it. You may know all the teachings of the Bible and still be lost. A knowledge of God’s redemption and an understanding of His plan do not mean that you are a Christian. There must be a response on your part, a turning to God, an acceptance of His provision.
I especially like that last quote about how merely having a knowledge of salvation won’t save you. This, in my opinion, is the fatal flaw in what many professing (professing as opposed to authentic) Christians call their salvation. Oh, sure, they’ve heard the story of Jesus, and they even believe the facts of it. But they’ve never actually bowed the knee and submitted to Jesus as Savior. As Smith correctly described the situation, there has been no inner regeneration, no impartation of a new life by way of the indwelling Holy Spirit creating the new birth inside the person. Therefore, because of the lack of spiritual life, all the person’s attempts at church attendance, Bible study, prayer, repentance, etc. must be classified as attempts to produce salvation by works of reformation rather than as salvation’s fruits that will earn heavenly reward in the afterlife.
I pastor in a rural county of about 15,000 people. We are located in the mountains of western North Carolina, mountains that are part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. We are solidly in the “Bible belt” region of the United States, and we have a church on every corner and up every “holler” to prove it. As such, it’s hard to find anyone around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus. For that matter, it’s hard to find anyone who will look you straight in the eye and say, “I’m a lost sinner who has never accepted Jesus as my personal Savior.” Everybody in these parts has been to church at least a few times. Most people attended a local Bible school when they were young. Most have been baptized and have their name on a church roll somewhere in the county. But have their eternal destinies, daily lives, typical deeds, ingrained opinions, and obvious priorities been changed? Well, that’s another story, and in many cases the answer would have to be, “No.”
Look, I’m not trying to play eternal judge, jury, and executioner here, and I’m not trying to promote some kind of Christianized sinless perfection, either. For one thing, there really is such a thing as a babe in Christ (Hebrews 5:12-14), and babies don’t always do what they should do. For another, there really is such a thing as a carnal Christian (1 Corinthians 1:1-3), and carnal Christians definitely don’t always do what they should do. For yet another, there really is such a thing as a backslidden Christian (1 John 5:16), even one whose sinful behavior merits excommunication from the church congregation (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13). And frankly, I’ve always had difficulty differentiating the babes in Christ, the carnal Christians, and the backslidden Christians from the normal lost people. That’s why I leave that assignment to God.
What I’m saying, though, is that it is obvious that there are a whole lot of people walking around out there who honestly think they are Christians, when in reality they are not. I might not have an exact list of their names, but I don’t doubt for one second that such people exist. That’s why I would advise anyone, even the professing Christian, to take the apostle Paul’s advice by examining one’s self to see whether or not he or she is truly in the Christian faith (2 Corinthians 13:5; 1 Corinthians 11:28). If your salvation is genuine, it ought to be able to pass such an examination, and if it isn’t, that’s obviously something you need to recognize and take measures to fix right away.