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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Title:Bad Vines Can Be Salvaged
Text:Colossians 1:21-23 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Running the race

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

TH 660 - O God Beyond All Praising 
TH 259 - Hark! The Voice of Love and Mercy
Psalter 383 - The Lord Our Maker
Psalter 255 - Adoration and Submission

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

In the history of viticulture, or winemaking, there have been some very serious disasters. In the late 1800s, the Californian grape industry suffered a severe pest infestation. All their grapes were lost. Many growers had introduced European varieties of grape vines into the vineyards. There was a desire for wines from grapes like Cabernet, Merlot, Chianti, Riesling, etc. But these vines were susceptible to phylloxera - a kind of bug. These insects would attack the vine roots, which would lead to stunted growth or complete destruction of the vines. This led to no grapes, no juice, and no wine. 

But it was discovered that winemakers could graft these European branches onto the native Californian vines. The Californian species was resistant to these insects. So after doing this, the wine industry was rescued. Soon after, grape growers all over the world were doing this. It was the goto and fool proof solution. How do you prevent vine rot? Take bad vines and graft them to immune vines and roots. Then the vines will bear fruit.

And this is a picture of the Christian life. We need Christ to grow. Without being engrafted to him, we can’t be rescued from the rot and decay of sin; and we certainly cannot grow. We need Christ. This has been Paul’s thrust so far because false teachers in Colossae were downplaying Christ - saying he was not so important. And we, as I’ve said, can often be like functional Gnostics. Haven’t you, in your Christian life, performed Christian service, even worship, without Christ as foremost in your mind? Haven’t you prayed, without actually relying on Christ? We all have. But we need him. Without him, we are nothing.

In today’s text, we want to see who we were, and what we have become because of Christ. In short, we were bad vines from bad roots, but Christ took us, and salvaged us. And as long as we abide in him, we are accepted. There are 3 propositions from this passage. Firstly, before Christ we were bad vines. Secondly, because of Christ, we are saved/salvaged. Thirdly, but salvation and acceptance are conditional.

Firstly, before Christ we were bad vines. Verse 21 says, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works.” Before Christ saved us, we were aliens, enemies, and wicked people. And this description was very insulting to the Jews. To the Jews, the word “alien” was a great insult. To call someone an alien or stranger means that person is cut-off from God. So to the Jewish believers at Colossae, this was unthinkable - how could they ever be separated from God? Surely not us! But Paul labeled all of them aliens. Ephesians 2:12-13 says it clearer. “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”  Before we were Christians, we were bad vines - rotting, having no hope, cut off from life.

Verse 21 also says we were enemies in our minds toward God by wicked works.  To the Gentiles, the word “enemy” was an insult; and enemies in your mind was worse. The Greeks were proud of their open-mindedness – the Athenians even had an altar to the unknown god. So to say they were hateful in the mind was insulting. But Paul was not wrong. You see their closed mindedness in Ephesus. When people there were drawn away from Diana to worship Christ alone, the Greeks became hostile. It’s all okay when Christianity is just one of the religions. But when we claim exclusivity as the only true religion, we’re attacked - no matter how respectful and sensitive we are to others. That’s what you see today - talk to people about philosophy, and they’ll be tolerant. Talk to them about Christ and salvation, and they’ll be hostile. There is an increasing wave of hostility, even in our country.

But the reason why we were hostile to God is because we loved our sin. It’s by our wicked works that we are enemies. John 3:19-20 speaks clearly of that hatred.  “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.” Man by nature hates God because he loves his sin. That’s why people hate the gospel - because part of the gospel is accepting we are sinners. What were we like before Christ? We were bad, rotten, fruitless vines, hostile toward God. We were cut off.

But despite their sins, Christ saved the Colossians. Because of Christ, we’re saved. That’s the second point. Notice the words in verses 21-22 - “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” The language here speaks of how incredible this was. It’s one thing to reconcile two people who have a minor disagreement. It’s entirely something else to take two mortal enemies and make them friends. But God reconciled his enemies, he brought them near to himself by putting Christ to death. Ephesians 2:13 illustrates this – “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

When Adam and Eve sinned, they were rejected and pushed far from the garden. The people at Shinar built the tower of Babel; Got scattered them across the earth and confused their languages. The first generation of Israel refused to believe God. He littered their dead bodies in the wilderness. He refused to let them enter the Promised Land.

But because of Christ, we are welcomed, reconciled, brought near to God. To solve the problem of Adam, he gave a second Adam, to take us to a better Eden above. To solve the problem of Babel, the gift of tongues was given in Acts to gather God’s people; and today, out of every tongue, tribe, and nation, we find Christians. To solve the problem of unbelief, God gave his enemies faith. And through faith, God preserves us now and will bring us to the better Promised Land.

But not only are we reconciled, we are made acceptable by Christ. Verse 22 says that he reconciled us to present us holy and unblameable, and unreprovable in his sight. Holy, unblameable or blameless, and unreprovable, or without reproach. So what do these words mean? 

When the Israelites brought their sacrifices, they needed holy priests to make sacrifices for them. The animals they brought without blemish. And on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest laid his hand on a scapegoat, putting the sins of the nation on it, and drove it away from the city - so that the people would be without reproach - free from accusation. When these things happened, the people would be accepted by God.

So because of Christ, as Great High Priest, the spotless Lamb of God, the one sacrificed outside the city; God’s people would be made holy, without blemish, and free from accusation in God’s sight. We were bad vines, he grafted us into him, and made us good vines. It’s like bad vines - rotten. But they are salvaged, cleaned, the rot is cut away, and they are engrafted into good roots, so they would be good vines.

And the way God did this was by Christ’s death - we were reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, verse 22. In other words, we needed his suffering. Now, this might seem elementary to us. But remember the context - the Gnostics were saying that they needed to move beyond Christ - he wasn’t that important. The true key to being accepted by God was something more than Christ. So Paul emphasized Christ’s physical death. He showed that it was absolutely necessary for the work of acceptance. 

How do we apply this? What is the big picture here? The main theme is this - without Christ, we would still be bad vines. With Christ, we are good vines. There’s nothing that we ever need to be acceptable before God. If by Christ, we are already without blame, holy, and no one can accuse us; what else do we need?

Now, I’m going to speak as honestly according to the context. I’ve said it before - doctrine is not unimportant. Obedience to the laws of God are not unimportant. I came from a church tradition where our theological distinctives were frequently drummed into our heads - they almost became a source of pride and something we lorded over other Christian denominations. Even adherence to certain legalistic laws marked you out as better or more faithful as a Christian compared to others who didn’t keep them.

Now, to be clear - I’m not saying that we should abandon our confessions, doctrines, and principles. In fact, we should continue to teach them and be grounded in them. Neither am I saying we should not keep God’s laws - because we must. But never let us be functional Gnostics, where our knowledge leads to a belief that we are closer or more acceptable to God. Never let our obedience to God’s laws be a source of pride. But Christ must be the source of our sufficiency. He changes us from bad vines to good. Because he has so saved us, we love him, we seek to know him deeper, and yearn to please him. That is why, never forget that in our keeping of God’s laws, in studying Scripture, in serving in church - those are not the things that make us acceptable, it is Christ alone. 

And young people, children, remember that you have been given a great privilege of coming to church. While it is right that you keep the requirements of the covenant - to come to church, to be obedient - know this well - nothing you do will ever make you right with God except for Jesus. And you can’t do anything to make yourself right. You just have to cry out to him and trust him. You may not be very holy, very obedient, very spiritual - and you can’t be by your own power. Only Jesus can make you holy, obedient, and spiritual. If you’re struggling to make sense of this whole Christianity business - and you’re bitter in your heart because you have to keep all these rules - know this - not only can you not keep these rules perfectly, you can’t keep these rules perfectly. But Jesus has - and all you need to be right in God’s sight, is to trust in him. And out of a heart motivated by gratefulness, you will delight in a Christian life. Isn’t it a wonderful thought to know that there’s nothing you can do to make yourself right before God - only Christ can make you right?

But remember, thirdly, this reconciliation, this salvation, this reconciliation and acceptability before God are conditional. Verse 23 says, “If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven.”  There is a conditional clause. Christ has reconciled you through the death of his body, to present you holy, blameless, and without reproach in his sight, if indeed you continue in the faith! 

Now, what does this mean? It seems to imply that your salvation is conditional on your perseverance. You can only remain saved if you continue to believe. Now, I won’t take the long route in explaining this. We know that once genuinely saved, always saved. We won’t lose our salvation. No man is able to pluck you out of the Father’s hand. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, not of good works. That’s very clear. And if we’re genuinely saved, we will continue to believe. 

However, a person who says he is saved may not actually be saved. Simply repeating the sinner’s prayer makes no one a Christian. Jesus will say to some professing Christians one day - depart from me, ye workers of iniquity, I never knew you. So the context helps us understand. There were false teachers - the Gnostics - and some were influenced by them. There were also covenant children in their midst - some who had yet to believe truly. There were unconverted people who thought they were Christians. And Paul didn’t know who they were. He was addressing the whole church. That’s why he told all of them to continue in the faith grounded and settled. Even Jesus said that in Matthew 24:13, “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.” True salvation is seen in continued belief. We all know the parable of the sower. In the stony and thorny soil, the seed set down roots and sprouted. Jesus said they received the gospel, even with joy. But because of hardship and persecution, because of the cares of the world, they stopped believing. Why? Because their faith was never genuine - it was a shallow and emotional faith. 1 John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” 

True faith is not only a sure knowledge, acceptance of the truth, but a firm confidence. That’s Heidelberg Q/A 21 - “What is true faith? Answer - True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in his Word. At the same time it is a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits. This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.” Simply knowing and agreeing that the gospel is good is not good enough - we must have confidence that Christ saves me. That he is enough.

And he told them to continue in this faith - not just any kind of faith - but a grounded and settled faith. The word grounded or founded refers to laying a foundation. So unlike the Gnostic faith, true faith is already established and founded. It was once for all delivered to the church (Jude 3). The foundations are the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). He stressed this because there are many new fangled teachings - not only in Paul’s day but today. We will explore these as we study Colossians. So Paul’s command was to continue in what they had already been taught.

But why must they continue? Because the danger of being moved was real. Verse 23 says don’t be moved away from the gospel. This is the only time this word is used in the New Testament. It’s an interesting word. It speaks about being caught up and moved away. This word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 32:30 - “How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight.” How can 2 make 10,000 flee? Impossible? No. Put a tiny cockroach in front of some people, and they run away. This tells us that there was an imminent danger. These new teachings were very alluring. As I said, in the coming weeks, we will explore some of these dangers. 

So the Colossians had remain firm in the gospel and to accept its exclusivity. Verse 23 says, “be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven.” In other words, Christ is exclusive. This is the gospel. What we’ve preached to you, is what we’ve preached everywhere else. Whoever has heard the gospel - whichever of God’s creation under heaven - that has heard us preaching, this is what you have heard. There’s no other message. The gospel is the same gospel that was preached from city to city. It’s the only message.

Remember Phylloxera? The bug that eats the roots? In international research from all over the world - this is the conclusion: “There is no way to eradicate phylloxera from an infested vineyard. It will eventually kill susceptible grapevines. The only way to stop an infestation in the long term is to replant the vineyard with vines grafted to a resistant rootstock.” Nothing can be done by sinners - no obedience to the law, no special knowledge, or mystical experience. The only thing that can salvage sinners and change them is Christ. He is exclusive. He is the way, the truth, and the life.

Nothing can make us more acceptable to God - not our level of knowledge, nor our service, nor our obedience, apart from Christ. These are all fruits of being engrafted in Christ. You should have them as you grow - but you will never have them if you don’t have Christ. To those who struggle if you’re ever acceptable enough to God - if you have Christ, you are. To those who don’t struggle at all - who is Christ to you? Have you been salvaged? Saved?

Sermon Outline:

Before Christ, You Were Bad Vines

    You were cut off

    You were hostile

    You were wicked

Because of Christ, You Are Saved

    You were reconciled

    You are acceptable

    You needed his suffering

Salvation and Acceptance Are Conditional

    You must continue

    You must be moved

    You must accept its exclusivity

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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