A Respectable Christianity
Christians can become too respectable.
We need to remember that the ministry of Jesus was marked by scandal.
He was born under the rumor of scandal, and only those who believed that He was the Son of God
accepted the truth that He was born of a virgin.
His preaching and teaching often offended.
He defied many of the foolish traditions which were designated as a religious duty.
Even members of His family thought that He was insane.
He kept company with sinners, so much that when His enemies wanted to slander Him,
they called Him a friend of sinners and a "winebibber and a glutton."
Jesus never compromised the gospel's demands in order to gain the approval of the rich and mighty.
His enemies finally decided to get of Him.
They charged Him with disturbing the peace; with being an impostor and a rabble-rouser.
They cursed Him, and stripped Him, and laughed at Him, and beat Him, and crucified Him.
They put him to open shame.
There was nothing respectable about that!
It was the scandal of the centuries, but there was something powerful about it.
The early followers of Jesus were not very respectable, either.
At first, they were ignored because they were uneducated, small in number, and an unimportant minority.
But when they began to turn the world upside down, they were hunted like wild animals,
driven to the catacombs, thrown into prison, beaten, mutilated, fed to lions, and killed.
They were not very respectable, but they were powerful!
Back through the years, many Christians were not very respectable.
The Wallensians fled to the Alps, John Huss was chained to a stake;
John Wycleffe witnessed of his faith while he was being burned to death.
Christianity caught on like fire in the hearts of men and women.
Thomas Painter was whipped for preaching his convictions.
William Screvin was arrested for worshiping God in his own house.
Samuel Harris was pulled from his pulpit in Virginia, and beaten by thugs for his courageous preaching.
Obadiah Holmes kept preaching to the people as his back was beaten bloody with vicious strokes.
There was nothing respectable about this.
But there was something wonderfully powerful about it!
Now contrast all of that with the comfortable and respectable Christianity which we practice today.
We are rich, and in many cases prominent, and most respectable;
but we are also weakened in our witness and power.
Our churches are impressive institutions.
They are more crowded, they have larger budgets, and they have the most magnificent buildings.
And all of this it is as it should be.
But in the midst of all this, do we make any difference to a world that needs Jesus?
Often, we are more tolerant than powerful.
We no longer turn the world upside down.
We no longer seem to be concerned for a lost world.
We have settled down into the ease of our environment.
We disturb no worldly condition, and we stab no one's conscience, and we are not winning
a world for Jesus.
Could it be that we have become too respectable?
Following the account of the uncompromising terms of Christian discipleship presented by Jesus.
Luke opened this section of his gospel by presenting a tragic study in contrast.
The publicans and sinners are continually drawing near to Jesus just as the Pharisees
and scribes murmur continually about it:
"This fellow receives sinners unto himself and, what is worse, he eats with them."
In their minds, nothing could be worse than that!
These respectable, unconcerned religionists who would not associate with sinners
in any way were shocked.
To them, this was the proof that Jesus was not the Son of God.
To them, He was an impostor, a winebibber, and a glutton.
In that setting, Jesus told unforgettable stories about the seeking, missionary heart of God.
He told about a shepherd who sought one sheep which had gone astray.
He told about a woman who sought a lost coin.
He told about a father who welcomed home a prodigal son from the far country.
In this setting, He revealed God's love for a lost world to which He sent His only Son
to seek and save that which was lost.
We must not miss the part of the parable which speaks of the elder brother
for this is the point that Jesus was applying to His listeners.
This is the point where respectable religion came under the stinging judgment of God.
If it is respectable, and if it is unconcerned for the lost religion then it weakens our witness.
That is what we discover.
Look at the elder prodigal and answer the question: "Is our Christianity too respectable?"
Our Christianity is too respectable if our words and actions are totally negative.
The Pharisees were captivated by a negative legalism.
It seemed that their "thou shalt nots" would never end.
But Jesus offered people a positive morality and a positive task.
The elder brother is the epitome of a negative spirit that is totally opposed to the spirit of the gospel.
The elder brother came in from the field where he had serving on the farm,
and was surprised to hear music and rejoicing.
Sounds like these always fall flat upon the ears of a Pharisee.
When he discovered the cause of such joy, he flew into a rage.
He found his father, and began to tell of all his good works and virtues.
It went something like this: "Lo, these many years have I serve thee.
From the time of my birth I have rendered bond service.
In these years of virtual slavery, never once did I transgress your commandments."
His self righteousness reveals its ugliness.
The negatives are everywhere.
"I never left home.
I never wasted your substance.
I never sinned.
I never lived with harlots in a far country.
I never ... I never..."
The son was negatively pure, but he was positively sinful because what he was not
was a great deal more than what he was.
We must always remember that Christianity is never a matter of what we are not.
We must be alerted to take notice of our own tendency to be negative.
A great many Christians feel that so long as we don't do some things or refrain from some things,
or reject the questionable, then, we are acceptable Christians.
This is not necessarily true.
Negative goodness may only conceal a proud, selfish heart.
Look at the pride which causes this prodigal son, no matter how obedient he was, to say,
"I have never at any time transgressed thy commandment."
This was not the spirit of Paul who confessed,
"Faithful is the saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world
to save sinners; of whom I am chief." (1 Timothy 1: 15, ASV)
There is no place for pride in the life of any Christian.
There is no place for self-righteous scorn for the sinner.
It is no wonder that Jesus says to the sinner, who knows his sin, and is sorry for it,
and desires to forsake it, "Son, thy sins be forgiven thee."
But to the self-righteous, who have no repentance for sin, Jesus says,
"You din of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?"
Pride is the most deadly of all sins.
Negative goodness covers a wicked heart.
The elder son had never committed the sins of the far country.
He was respectable, conservative, and proper.
But hidden beneath this veneer of negative goodness was a many seething sins of the spirit,
and now they have come to the surface.
The elder brother complained bitterly to his father.
With contempt, he rendered a merciless judgment on his brother who had returned from the far country.
He believed the worst, and said it in anger.
He accused his brother of wasting his father's money, as if the father had made no division.
This was a jealous tirade, and it might have been a reflection of what he might have done
had he been in his brother's place.
The descendants of the elder brother are alive today.
There are many who would never think of committing an immorality or using profanity, or getting drunk,
but do not hesitate to complain against God, and to pity themselves.
They are always ready to judge, and to use their tongues to destroy the character of another person.
Furthermore, there are many who are negatively and legalistically pure,
but make little positive contribution to the influence of the gospel on a lost world.
The lesson is inescapable.
Simply to be negative is not enough.
If we are to bring the world to Christ, we must be sure that we are abiding in Christ,
and not just being a people of superficial virtues only.
If we are not, we are only respectable Christians.
Our Christianity is too respectable, if we have no compassion.
The essence of godliness is love, for "he that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love."
(1 John 4: 8)
The elder brother had known the love of his father, but had no love or compassion in his heart.
When the younger brother was absent in body, the elder brother was absent in his compassion;
and this was tragically as bad.
He possessed every desirable attribute of his father, except one.
He did not have his father's heart.
He kept the letter of the Law, but broke the spirit of it.
Jesus was applying this to His hearers.
Their religion was respectable, but there was no love, and no compassion in it.
If God is not loved, then no service for Him is acceptable.
Everything about the spirit of the elder brother indicated that the service which he had rendered
to his father had been without love.
His attitude showed that his years of obedience had been years of rigid duty, and not of loving service.
He referred to it as slavery.
His spirit of anger toward his father revealed a selfish and jealous heart.
He had to be reminded of the blessings of the father's house, for he had utterly forgotten
that all that his father had was his.
He had obeyed the father, but because there had been no love in his obedience
he had broken the most important commandment of all.
He had violated the law of love.
The Christian who is too respectable forgets that love is the motivation for service to God.
We must remember the words of 1 Corinthians 13.
We see in this chapter the uselessness and the worthlessness of any spiritual service without love.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love,
I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge;
and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned,
and have not love, it profiteth me nothing."
The elder brother had no love for his brother or his father, and his service was empty.
Only love for the Father can make our best service acceptable to Him.
The Christian is too respectable who has no love for his lost brother.
If our friends, loved ones and neighbors who are lost in their sins are not loved,
then we have do not have the spirit of Christ.
The elder son's attitude toward his brother revealed the utter lack of compassion
in those respectable religionists who had accused Jesus of receiving sinners unto Himself.
The contempt of the elder brother was so evident in his conversation with his father.
He sneered as he said: "This thy son, thy precious son."
He refused to go in to welcome him home.
He stayed outside revealing the contrast of his heart to his father's heart.
It was the love of the father that watched the road every day praying that his son would come home.
It was his love that recognized the son, even at a great distance.
It was grace that caused his to run out to meet his son.
It was love that couldn't even wait for his son to finish his confession, but said immediately:
and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
- But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him;
And they began to be merry." (Luke 15:22-24)
- bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
- this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.
It was grace which said, "It is right for us to rejoice; for this thy brother who had been dead
and lost for a long time now lives and is found and once and for all."
But there was no grace or compassion in the elder brother's heart.
If he had really cared, he would've gone to the far country and searched for that son
because of the grieving of his father everyday.
The elder brother had been concerned only about himself and what was coming to him.
He had no welcome or compassion for a sinner.
The Pharisees and scribes should have gotten the point that Jesus was making.
While God cared so much for the souls of men, they went on with their correct, respectable way.
When sinners who needed their love so much, they didn't care.
And for Jesus who sought them and died for them, they had only contempt.
Are we like them or are we like Jesus?
We are respectable, but we're not taking the good news of the gospel to lost sinners.
We are shrewd and clever, but do we have any compassion for lost souls?
We shall never win the world to which God has sent us until we remember
that we have not been saved to conserve our own comfortable positions and institutions.
We shall never lead others to Jesus as long as we can be content with others
who are suffering in the misery of their sin.
As long as we feel sufficient while others are insufficient, and as long as we are assured
of our salvation and can feel satisfied while others are lost and dying without Jesus -- then,
our Christianity is too respectable.
Motivation to reach others for Christ is found in compassion, not mere tears.
It is a compassion that will cause us to get our hands dirty in the gutters of life
where there are men and women who need Jesus.
We must be willing to be involved with men and women who are in the darkest valleys
of human existence everywhere.
We must have a compassion that will take us to the ends of the earth or across the street
to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ.
Our compassion must know no barrier.
We must love even as Jesus did seeking to save lost men and women and boys and girls.
Some years ago on a sunny morning and airplane flew low down along the great river
in the jungles of South America.
The pilot gasped in horror as he saw a sight that he wished that he had not seen.
On the river banks below lay the mangled bodies of five young men, who had gone there
to take the gospel to the very savages who had murdered them.
Jim Elliott was one of those young man.
He lived with God.
His surrender was complete, and his dedication was absolute.
Listen to these words written by him in his various moments of surrender:
"God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn for Thee.
Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine.
I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus ..."
Father, take my life, yea, my blood if Thou wilt, and consume it with Thine enveloping fire ...
I would not save it, for it is not mind to save.
Have it, Lord, have it all."
Have we become too respectable?
If we have, we must remember that the forgiveness of God is is possible for the elder brother
just as it was for the prodigal.
To us God is saying, "All that I have is thine."
May our Christianity never be too respectable to receive it, to live it, and share it with a world
who desperately needs Jesus.
Sermon adapted by Dr. Harold L. White