Christmas is nearly here. It’s a great season to reflect on our anointed King who entered into human history — fully God, fully man, God with us. He came for us. Jesus came, not to be served, but to serve — to serve us. Which means Christmas fundamentally highlights our neediness. But what are we needy for? That’s the million-dollar question of Christmas. Pastor John answered the question in his 2003 Christmas sermon titled “If the Root Is Holy, the Branches Are Holy.” Here’s what he said, building from Romans 11:13–14.
A Savior Is Born
One of the follies of trying to turn the gospel into a way of meeting felt needs in twenty-first century America is that the three main needs that the gospel meets are felt by almost nobody.
“The three main needs that the gospel meets are felt by almost nobody.”
Right here in our text, there’s an explosive word at the center of the gospel. It’s the word save or saved: “Now I am speaking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle to the Gentiles, I magnify my ministry in order somehow to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Romans 11:13–14).
The loud, joyful, glorious word at the center of the gospel is saved. It’s what Christmas is all about, right? “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that shall be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior” (Luke 2:10–11). We need to be saved. “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Right at the center of the meaning of Christmas and the meaning of the gospel is saved.
Is saved one of the felt needs in America in the twenty-first century? Do people wake up in the morning saying, “I need to be saved”? Do they go to bed at night saying, “I need to be saved”? Well, it depends, right?
It depends on what you mean by saved. Saved from what? We could be saved from financial difficulty — that would help. So the meaning of saved in the Bible is not obvious. Is that a felt need in America, to be saved?
Let’s clarify the three main things that the gospel does in saving. If you want to go with me and see them, turn to chapter five of the book of Romans. I don’t want to fill up this word saved with just my evangelical jargon or my history as a born-again Christian. I want to get it right from the Bible. I want to know what the Bible means by saved.
Saved from God’s Wrath
Let’s start at Romans 5:9: “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” There’s need number one met in Jesus.
The wrath of God is our biggest problem. If it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t need the gospel. I need to be rescued from the just and holy anger of God against me. That’s my main need. Salvation from the anger and wrath of omnipotent God against me.
Saved for Joy
Let’s keep reading: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:10–11).
“The loud, joyful, glorious word at the center of the gospel is ‘saved.’ It’s what Christmas is all about.”
We are saved from the wrath of God and saved for joy in God forevermore. One of the deepest needs every human soul has, and they do not know it, is to be happy in something bigger than anything this world can offer. Everybody knows they want to be happy. Hardly anybody knows where it’s to be found, and what they’re designed for, and what that deep craving is all about in their hearts. It’s all about God.
They try to fix it with money and sex and television and leisure and success, power, family, health, exercise — anything — and it’s all about God. This text says we’re reconciled after the wrath is taken care of. We’re reconciled in order that we might rejoice in God.
Saved from Sin’s Poison
I’ll just go back to Matthew 1:21 that I quoted a minute ago: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” — not simply the consequences of sin and wrath, but the poison of sin and the distorting, contaminating, idolatrous, ugliness of sin that ruins everything in life and makes me love stuff more than I love God.
I need to be cleansed of all of that, not just freed from its consequences. I need the disease to be taken away, not just a rescue from the consequences of its death and wrath.
Those are the three things the gospel is designed to do.
- The gospel saves me from the wrath of God.
- The gospel cleanses me from the idolatrous, poisonous, all-distorting sin that makes me love other things more than God.
- The gospel opens access into, by reconciliation, a sweet, deep, ever-increasing, all-satisfying joy in my Maker forever.
There is not a word here about being saved from poverty. There is not a word about being saved from sickness. Not a word about being saved from terrorism. Not a word about being saved from obscurity. Not a word about being saved from rejection from men. Not a word about being saved from having your daughter kidnapped and killed.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe if you trust Jesus, many things in your lives go better. They just might not, because it’s not guaranteed. That’s not part of the gospel. Eventually, everything goes better: new bodies, fellowship with Jesus, all sin taken away, justice reigning in the earth. That’s coming.
But between now and the coming of Jesus or our death, the gospel guarantees three things: my sin being progressively cleansed away, my guilt and the wrath of God being totally taken away, and an ever-increasing intimacy with God, my Father, so that my soul is satisfied in him when everything else around my soul gives way.
Hardest Thing in the World
Are those three things felt as needs by American twenty-first century people? Not most of them.
“The wrath of God is our biggest problem. If it didn’t exist, we wouldn’t need the gospel.”
Most of them have God in their back pocket, not with flaming fire over their head in anger. Most of them love their sin, not hate it, fear it, and run from it. Most of them have plenty of delights, but not in God. They’re not getting up and going to bed seeking any solution to these three problems, which is why the preaching of the gospel is hard work. It is impossible work.
If my job were to meet felt needs, I would not need the Holy Spirit. I know what your felt needs are, and I can make you feel really good by stroking them. You all are vain. If I tell you that you look really nice this morning, you’ll like me, and you’ll come back to this church, and probably give. Everybody wants to be seen as smart and intelligent. If I tell you you’re smart and intelligent, we’d grow a big church.
It’s easy to meet felt needs. It takes no God, no Holy Spirit, no gospel. What’s the hardest thing in the world is to wake the dead, open the eyes of the blind, give ears to the spiritually deaf, give legs of faith to the lame. I can’t do that. Do you wonder why I pray before I preach? If God doesn’t do something right now, I’m just batting my lips.