Tuesday, September 02, 2014

An Unconfessing Faith? (John 12:42-43)


In our culture, we have a simple way to identify that someone is married. Typically, it is shown by the wearing of a single, solid band on the ring finger of the left hand. However, it is not the ring but the relationship that makes them married. You can wear a ring and not be married, and a married person doesn’t become unmarried if he or she removes the ring. But, it is commonly understood that a married person wants to have some way of making it known to others that he or she is in a committed, covenant relationship with another person, whether it is by a ring or any other indication.

How do we know that a person has faith in Jesus Christ? Is it because they wear a cross on their necklace? Is it because they are a member of a church, or have been baptized? Certainly a Christian may wear Christian jewelry, but so can a non-Christian. A Christian may be, and should be, both baptized and a member of the church. But unfortunately, there are many non-Christians who have been baptized and become members of churches. Someone said to me recently, “Just because I go to McDonalds, that doesn’t make me a hamburger.” Similarly, just because a person goes to church, or even joins a church, doesn’t mean that he or she is a Christian, and it does not make a person a Christian; nor does baptism. If a person is not a follower of Jesus, being baptized doesn’t make him or her a Christian, it just makes them wet! But, we do understand that when a person is a follower of Christ, he or she seeks some demonstrable way to make his or her faith known to others. We call this confessing or professing the faith. Now, it is true, there are some who make professions of faith who do not genuinely follow Christ. But, all who are followers of Christ will make some public expression of their faith in Him.

In the text we have read today, we run up against a bit of an oddity. We find a group of people who are called rulers (meaning that they are part of the ruling council of the Jews), and we might be somewhat surprised by what we read about these rulers here in the text. After the previous context, which indicated that Jesus had been wholesale rejected by a vast majority of the people of His day, we find here that many of these rulers believed in Him. That sounds like a pleasant surprise, doesn’t it? The next word however indicates that there is a malfunction with their belief in Him. What’s the next word? “BUT.” That word indicates a contrast. They believed in Him, BUT. When you see something like that in the text, it is a red alert. It means that the thing has turned in a different direction. They believed in Him, BUT “they were not confessing Him.” They were not making any attempt to publicly and openly identify themselves as a follower of Jesus. They have an unconfessing faith, and this is a problem.

So, what we need to do here is examine why an unconfessing faith is a problem, look at what causes this problem, and how to fix it.

I. The problem of an unconfessing faith.

I am very proud of my wedding ring. It is the only piece of jewelry I have ever worn. Well, there was that brief bit in college when I wore an earring, but let’s not talk about that. My wedding ring announces to the world that I am happily married to a wonderful woman. But my wedding ring is also an irreplaceable family heirloom. It belonged to my grandfather. For that very sentimental reason, I have chosen to not wear my ring when I travel overseas. If it were to be lost or stolen (which is not uncommon), it would simply be irreplaceable. In fact, on one mission trip, Donia and I awkwardly learned that this ring doesn’t have the same sort of meaning in some other cultures anyway. Therefore, I no longer wear it when I go overseas, and Donia is perfectly fine with that. But, what if I told her on our wedding day, “I have absolutely no intention of ever wearing a wedding ring.” She might suspect that there was a disconnect in my commitment to her. That’s a problem, isn’t it? It is also a problem when someone claims to believe in Christ, but is unwilling to make an open confession of faith.

Let’s consider a few key passages of Scripture on this matter. Not surprisingly, we find perhaps the strongest words on this subject coming from the Lord Jesus Himself. In Luke 12, we find Jesus surrounded by so many thousands of people that the Bible says that they were literally “stepping on one another.” But in the midst of that great multitude, Jesus spoke privately to His disciples about the necessity of publicly identifying with Him. As long as one is immersed in a crowd with relative anonymity, it is easy to blend in with His true followers. But Jesus told His disciples, “I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God” (12:8-9). So, get that … if you confess Him before men, if you will openly say that you belong to Him on earth, He will openly say that you belong to Him in heaven. That’s a wonderful promise of our security in Christ. But He also said that if you deny Him before men, if you deny that you belong to Him on earth, He will deny in heaven that you ever belonged to Him. That is an alarming promise, just as true as the other one.

In the magnificent first chapter of Romans we find Paul making this bold declaration: “I am eager to preach gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (1:15-16). Like Paul, one who is not ashamed of the Gospel is eager to make it known. Don’t be dismayed or deterred by his word “preach” there. He’s not saying you all have to prepare a sermon and stand in a pulpit this week. What we translate as “preach the gospel” is one Greek word, euaggelisasthai (from which we get the word evangelism). It means “proclaim the good news.” Paul is not ashamed to be known as a Gospel-man, because this is the Gospel that has saved him, and this is the Gospel that alone is able to save anyone! The Gospel is nothing to ashamed of, but instead we should be eager to be openly identified with this good news of Jesus Christ.

Then coming to Romans 10:9-10, we have this declaration which aptly sums up all that we are trying to say here about believing and confessing. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Those two things cannot be separated. We have no righteousness apart from salvation, and we have no salvation apart from the imputation of Christ’s righteousness upon us. You can’t have one or the other; they go together always and inseparably. So, if you believe in your heart, you will confess with your mouth, otherwise, the Word of God says, you are not and cannot be saved!

That’s a big problem. Some of us will want to sympathize with these Jewish rulers who are described as believing but not confessing. It is always comforting to find someone in the Bible to whom we can relate, and maybe someone reads John 12:42 and says, “Yes! These are my people! They believe, they just like to keep quiet about it. They aren’t confessing.” That is nothing to boast of. That is a problem! Is it possible that someone could be saved by an unconfessing faith? Look, I’m not God, so I don’t get to decide, apart from what God has declared in His Word. And what God has declared in His Word that believing and confessing have to go together in order to have salvation and righteousness, and Jesus Himself said that He will confess in heaven the one who confesses Him on earth, and deny in heaven the one who denies Him on earth. Don’t point to these guys and say, “Well, what about them? They believed but they didn’t confess.” They are not put forth as a positive example! They are put forth as a warning to us! They are not examples of true, saving faith. They are, rather, examples of “inadequate, irresolute, even spurious faith.”[1] Can a person be saved by an unconfessing faith? This text does not answer that question for us. But based on other texts that are very clear, why on earth would you want to take that chance? If you believe, confess it! If you do not confess, then do you really believe? Do not be ashamed of the Gospel. Do not be ashamed or afraid to make it known that you believe in Jesus and belong to Him by faith.

Now, having identified this as a serious problem, we need to consider why the problem is so prevalent. Why are there so many, both here in our text, and all around us in the world, who have some measure of faith, but are unwilling to confess their faith in Jesus?

II. The cause of an unconfessing faith

As many of you know, I came to know the Lord during youth camp at Fort Caswell, and two years later, at the same place, I surrendered to the calling to ministry. I look forward to every opportunity to go back there, because to me, Fort Caswell is holy ground. I even have a t-shirt that says across the front in big letters, “CASWELL.” One day I was wearing it in Wal-Mart while doing some grocery shopping, and a person came up to me and said, “Are you from Caswell County?” I just kept walking and said, “No.” A few moments later, I was just overcome with guilt about how curtly I had dismissed the question, when I could have taken the opportunity to share my testimony about how Jesus had changed my life at that place. I really blew it! I’m sure we’ve all had those situations when a critical moment passes by and we are filled with regret as our minds are flooded with what we should have said or done. Why do we so often not say or do the right thing, or even think of it until the moment has passed? For me, on that day, I know why. I had my mind on getting out of Wal-Mart as quickly as I could. I was there to get my groceries and get back home as fast as possible. In that moment, like too many others unfortunately, I had misplaced affections. I loved myself, my own agenda, and my own comfort zones far more than I loved that person, their eternal destiny, the Gospel, and even the Lord Jesus. I think that’s true for most of us more often than we would like to admit. We have misplaced affections. Whether it is for a moment, when we fail to take the opportunity to confess our faith in Jesus, or if it is a besetting problem that silences us perpetually, misplaced affections is the cause of all occurrences unconfessing faith, including that which we find in our text.

There are many imperatives in Scripture that define our appropriate and fitting response to the Lord. Two of them that occur over and over again are fear and love. We know what these things are. They are natural affections. We all came into the world knowing how to fear and how to love. But God calls us to fear Him above all other fears, and to love Him beyond all earthly loves. Our affections are misplaced when we love anything more than we love God and when we fear anything more than we fear Him. And that is what we find going on here in the hearts of those in our text.

Notice that verse 42 says that they were not confessing Jesus “because of the Pharisees.” These were their peers, their fellow “rulers.” What was it about the Pharisees that caused these men to not confess Jesus? Well, they knew the hatred that the majority of the rulers had for Jesus, and they’d seen that expressed toward others who confessed faith in Jesus. In John 9, when a man whom Jesus had healed of congenital blindness confessed that Jesus had made him well, the Pharisees put that man out of the synagogue – they excommunicated him – and they threatened to do the same to his whole family. Seeing how they had treated that man, these rulers who had come to some measure of belief in Christ had to know that they were not exempt from the same treatment. And this slammed their mouths shut and kept them from testifying to their faith in Jesus.

They had misplaced affections. Verse 43 says that they were silenced by fear. “They were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” To be barred from the synagogue was a BIG DEAL for any Jew, and still would be today. But for these guys, it meant a loss of their position, their stature, their security, and their reputation. And these things were very important to them. Jesus had said to His disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love respectful greetings in the marketplaces, and chief seats in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets” (Lk 20:46). They liked all of that stuff. They were afraid to lose it. Their fear of losing these things was greater than their fear of the Lord. Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.” Because of the fear of their fellow religious leaders, these men were ensnared – they were trapped in an unconfessing faith. The great irony is that they thought they were exalted. But as the Proverb says, the Lord will exalt the one who trusts in Him. They could not experience that truer and greater exaltation because they were ensnared by the fear of losing their false position of pseudo-exaltation in their society. It was a misplaced fear.

They also had a misplaced love. Notice that they “were not confessing Him … for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Now, this is not a great choice of words in the translation. The thing they loved was not the approval of men. The Greek word is doxa. How should we translate this? Think of how it used in other passages. Here’s a good example: when the angels appeared to the shepherds to announce Christ’s birth, the doxa of the Lord shone around them, and they said “doxa to God in the highest.” What’s the word? It’s not “approval!” We don’t sing any Christmas songs that say, “Approval to God in the highest,” do we? No. The word is glory! They loved the glory that they received from their peers more than the glory that belongs to God. Now, that same Greek word for “glory” was just used a few verses before in verse 41. It says that Isaiah saw His glory (that is, He saw the glory of the Lord Jesus), and what did He do with it? He spoke of Him. This illustrates the folly of these men. The greatest prophet of Israel’s was unashamed to speak of His glory, and he did so thoroughly and beautifully! Who do these guys think they are that they would shrink from proclaiming the glory of Jesus, if they had really, truly believed in Him? They did not love His glory. They loved their own glory, the glory that they would lose in the eyes of others if they were to love His glory instead.

There is a single word that summarizes all of our misplaced affections when it comes to the Lord: idolatry. When we love anything more than we love the Lord Jesus, be it our possessions, our positions, our reputations or even our religious traditions, whatever it is, it is an idol in our lives. When we fear anything more than we fear God we have fallen into the snare of idolatry, for we have elevated the power of that thing to a higher place than we allow for the power of God in our lives. Cherishing any glory other than the glory of God is nothing but idolatry! And that is what lies at the root of all unconfessing belief: the idolatry that masks itself as a desire for personal security, prosperity, approval, and so many other cleverly-disguised things. Idols are only good for one thing – toppling. And that brings us to the cure for unconfessing belief.

III. The cure for an unconfessing belief.

There was a commercial many years ago for a laundry detergent that showed a guy getting grass stains all over his clothes. The ad called these “protein stains,” and it said that “protein gets out protein.” This detergent claimed to have “the protein power to cut clean through” those protein stains. So, if you need to deal with a protein stain, you need a stronger protein to deal with it. The same is true of our misplaced affections. They can only be treated by proper affections. If you have fears, you can cast them out with a greater fear. If you have inappropriate loves in your life, you can remove them with a greater love.

These men feared their fellow man more than they feared the Lord. What they need is a greater fear of the Lord. Jesus said in Luke 12, “My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body.” That sounds like odd advice, doesn’t it?  Don’t fear those who can kill you. But Jesus said you don’t have to be afraid of them, because, as He said, “after that,” after they kill your body, they “have no more that they can do.” The worst they can do is kill you. You might say, “Well, what else is there?” Jesus has an answer. He says, “I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” (Lk 12:4-5). Are you afraid to confess Him as your Lord because you fear that it will mean a loss of your reputation, your relationships, your possessions, your security, perhaps even your lives? You need to replace that fear with a greater fear – a fear of the One, the only One, who can confess you before His Father in heaven as His own, or deny You on the day of judgment and, in the words of Jesus, “cast you into hell.” Even if confessing Him leads to a lifetime of hardship and suffering, cut short even by a brutal death, what is that compared to an eternity of perishing in hell? Are our fears in proper order?  

They loved the glory that they had in the eyes of men more than they loved the glory of God. What did they need? A greater love! What is the greatest commandment? Jesus said it is this: “You shall love the Lord your God.” You say, “Oh but I do, in addition to my love for many other things.” But Jesus said that the great commandment is to love the Lord your God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Lk 10:27). All of your entire being – heart, soul, strength, and mind – is to be singularly devoted to loving Him! You might say, “Well if I only love Him, I can’t love anyone else.” Not true. The fact is that you cannot love anyone or anything else rightly until and unless you are singularly devoted to Him as the first and foremost love of your life. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk 14:26). Did He really just say that? Yes He did. But you say, “No, He didn’t mean that, because we aren’t supposed to hate anyone, and we are supposed to love others.” What Jesus is saying is that our love for Him must be so unrivaled, so unequaled in our affections, that our love for other people or other things must appear as hatred in comparison to the priority of loving Him. It means, if given a choice between Him and any other love – God forbid, the love of parents, the love of wife and children, and yes, even the love of our own lives – there must be a clear and distinct preference for Him above all else. There will be hard decisions to make at times in our lives: decisions that force us to choose between our own well-being, our friendships and family members, our achievements and successes, and our devotion to Him. Is your love for Him such that the choice, difficult though it may be, is an obvious one? A greater love for Him sets all other lesser loves in right perspective.

And, friends, when our fear of God casts out the fear of man, and when our love for Christ surpasses our love for all others, including our own selves, our unconfessing faith becomes a confessing one. It moves from the level of inadequate, irresolute, and spurious faith, to genuine, saving faith and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a faithful German pastor who was killed in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote to address the problem of unconfessing belief that was plaguing the German church in his day. He called the idea of an unconfessing faith that was unwilling to embrace the cost of discipleship, “Cheap Grace.” Listen to his words, which are so relevant to our own day and time:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. … Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. … Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son. … Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life.”[2]

Friends, the only way to experience such a costly grace is to receive it with a bold, confessing faith that is not ashamed to be identified openly with the One who identified with us in His incarnation and crucifixion, and who will identify with us when He confesses us before His Father on the day of judgment, and pleads the blood of His own wounds. He will confess us, but only if we have confessed Him. May God grant us all a confessing faith in the Lord Jesus, lest we be denied by Him when all is said and done.

[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Pillar, 1991), 450.
[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 43-45.

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