Self-help Salvation (and other lies demons love)

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on July 21, 2019.

“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation” Matthew 12:43–45.

Jesus’ earthly ministry consisted primarily of teaching and healing. He taught along the road, in fields, and on mountains. He taught in homes, synagogues, and the temple. He taught using hyperbole, parables, and even confrontation. The living Word delivered the Word of God in every Word that He spoke.

Jesus healed the blind, the lame, and the sick. He also exorcised demons. Every miracle that He worked was a sign from God validating Jesus’ authority and confirming His teaching. Always connected, Jesus’ teaching was reinforced in His miracles. The blind may receive their sight but are they spiritually blind? The deaf may hear but are they effectually called? The lame may walk but are they on the path of righteousness? The demon-oppressed may be liberated but are they a home for evil?

Therefore, Jesus’ miracles should not be considered unattached from His teaching. It was the Jewish leaders who demanded, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you” (Matt. 12:38), but a sign conveys nothing to the unbelieving heart. In fact, Jesus said that an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign in and of itself (Matt. 12:39). So, Jesus uses the example of miraculous healing, an exorcism, to confront their unbelief.

As captivating as the story is of a wandering demon, a tidied soul, and the occupancy of a myriad of demons, the point is not really about demon possession. We do not look to this passage as a treatise on demonology, nor is it a guide for engaging demonic forces in spiritual warfare. The story is a supernatural tragedy, in which the evil generation who witnessed the earthly ministry of Christ denied Him. The individual soul is named Israel, who witnesses her Messiah but denies Him and His works, but it is not only a story for yesterday but there is also a warning for today. Jesus was not merely a good teacher or a great prophet or a miracle worker; He is the Son of God, Christ the Lord, and He has been revealed to us through the Word of God by the Holy Spirit that we may believe. An evil generation may be condemned, but a Christian merits nothing more.  Simply put: we are sinners saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. 

As simple as this is, the world, like the scribes and Pharisees, wants nothing to do with the Lord Jesus, and this is, well, just fine with the devil. He may encourage an entire society defined by their worship, but he will do all that he can to insure that they miss the true object of their worship. The Apostle Peter writes to the church, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look (1 Peter 1:10–12). So glorious is the grace of the gospel revealed in the Scriptures that angels long to look upon it. May we then assume that the fallen angels despise it, longing to hide it? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ such good news that the demons of hell rail against it?

What happens when a demon is exorcised from a human soul? Jesus says, “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none.” The soul is emptied of the unclean spirit but emptied for what? Emptied for renovation, a Spring cleaning of the soul? Is the cleaned and empty soul merely a temporary vacancy awaiting evil? Who in their right mind wants to be a bed and breakfast for demons? The human defense is self-reformation. Better get to work! Declutter, sweep the floor, get organized. You can be a better person today than you were yesterday if you only do better and try harder. What are you doing to insure you’re not on the highway to hell? Perhaps I should ask: What is your personal testimony? All the while, evil waits for an empty house to throw a party, greatly appreciating the efforts of your self-merited reformation.

Self-merited Reformation

Written upon every human heart is the moral law of God. No one is exempt: Every man, woman, and child carry with them the righteous decrees of God (Rom. 1:32). Whether acknowledged or not, the universal standard is innate. Given the Fall, our human depravity is both inherited and realized; no son of Adam can, no one will, keep the moral law perfectly. Therefore, we seek to become a law unto ourselves, either trying to re-define the moral law, substituting something else for it, or attempting to achieve it. But these are all simply attempts of self-merited reformation.

Such people become what Martin Luther calls “merit mongers,” those who continue “in their wicked opinions and doting dreams…[deserving] grace by their own works and merit.” Rather than hear the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ, merit mongers defend their error even violating their own conscience (Luther’s Commentary of Galatians, pg. 119). The merit monger believes that no one deserves heaven more, because he earned it.

Such a performance view of salvation is dangerously subtle. Rather than blatant wickedness, the devil wants your best: sweep those floors with the broom of self-merit. The enemy wants you to emphasize your independence and your free will, so that he may emphasize his power. As a result, many see themselves as autonomous victims, always striving but never achieving. And hell rejoices to have another soul swept clean and in order, prepared for a lifetime of slavery.

Sadly, there are people today, even those who go by the name Christian, who are merely tidied souls for the devil, working to earn the love of God and so justify themselves before Him. Peter describes formerly-professed Christians, who reveal their true identity, as “waterless springs” (2 Peter 2:17), ironically the same term Jesus uses to describe the barren wasteland of the wandering demon. Having tasted the gospel and rejected it, they join the demonic assault against Christ. Apart from Christ, their self-merited reformation produces nothing more than an arrogant, boastful heart calling for others to join them in the muck and the mire of self-righteousness. They may look pretty and sound convincing promising your best life now but delivering hell tomorrow: Peter writes, “They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved” (2 Peter 2:19). The reality is that the self-merited reformation of the merit monger awaits the evil of self-warranted occupation.

Self-warranted Occupation

The unclean spirit’s plan is a sinister one: First, return to the same soul and evaluate the situation; having assessed the situation, and not to be thwarted, enlist reinforcements, not one or two or three but seven, the perfect number of evil, “more evil than itself.” The unassuming soul, swept clean and ordered, becomes a habitat of wickedness, and “the last state of that person is worse than the first.” But, if we replay the sequence of events, did you notice the condition of the person’s soul? It is swept clean and put in order and…empty. That which was once occupied by a demon is clean but vacant.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so an empty soul is unsustainable. And so, there is the attempt to fill it with anything and everything. In fact, this is the great occupation of mankind, filling the vacuum. Some fill it with work and striving after the wind (Eccl. 2:11). Some fill it with entertainment, amusing themselves to death. Some fill it with family, loving father or mother or son or daughter yet never loving the heavenly Father or the Son of God (Matt. 10:37). Some, such as the evil generation of Jesus’ day, fill it with religious activity, always seeking but never finding (2 Tim. 3:7). Yet, all the things of this world cannot satisfy the empty soul. The result of the world’s quest to fill the void is a self-warranted occupation of dissatisfaction, meaningless, perversion, or worse, the demonic.

This is the spiral of degradation that the Apostle Paul describes in Romans: From jaded thoughts to darkened hearts, seeking wisdom but finding folly, worshiping anything but actually nothing, desiring sex with the same sex, craving affirmation inside the echo chamber of this present darkness (Rom. 1:21-32), the soul cannot be satisfied with the treasures and trinkets of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But this is what self-help salvation receives for its self-merited reformation.

God declared through the Prophet Jeremiah, “For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jer. 2:13). Vessels created in the image of God, created for the Spirit of God, in sin are broken cisterns filled with nothing. But to a world full of broken cisterns Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38). Broken cisterns cannot hold water or fill themselves, but By God’s grace through faith in Christ our souls are filled by the flowing rivers of living water.

The human soul was created to be filled not by self-merited reformation but by the Holy Spirit. There is no room for the demonic where the Spirit of Christ resides, but the unbelieving soul is an open invitation for the hounds of hell. The soul not filled by the Spirit of Christ, the heart not surrendered to the lordship of Christ, the mind not captive to the Word of Christ is most susceptible to anything anti-Christ. And, apart from Christ there is no salvation but only condemnation.

Self-deserved Condemnation

Jesus said, “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it…” (Luke 17:33, KJV), yet mankind continues to pursue it with zeal. How devastating it will be when the self-help salvation workers arrive before the judgment seat of Christ, crying, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” To which Jesus will reply, not “Well done, good and faithful servant” but, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Luke 7:21-23). Self-help salvation results in self-deserved condemnation, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10).

The greatest need that we have is not a second chance at saving ourselves but a law-keeping savior. Apart from an act of God’s grace, we stand condemned with “this evil generation.” Please don’t think you have merited anything better. Like the evil generation of Jesus’ day the Apostle Paul explains, “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1-3).

But Jesus, the perfectly sinless, law-keeping Son of God has done what we could never do. He has merited our salvation in His sinless life, sacrificial death, and resurrection from the dead. Self-deserved condemnation is not the end of the story for all who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. The Christian’s testimony can never include a story of self-merited reformation but only the Christ-exalting gospel: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). As much as the demons love the lie of self-help salvation, they hate the gospel truth that “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

So beautiful is the truth of this good news that the prince of demons himself accuses us before God. Because our souls are uninhabitable for his minions, he hates us all the more. He accuses us for meriting nothing but our damnation, warranting nothing but his exaltation, and deserving nothing but our condemnation. But, as he hurls his devilish accusations, the Word of God declares, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set your free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:1-2). Such is the truth that demons hate, and such is the glory of every saint, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Such is the purpose of our assembled worship today. Oh Christian, rejoice anew in the gospel, gratefully praising God. Let us preach the gospel to ourselves daily, remembering that we are eternal recipients of grace. There is no self-help salvation, and so we look away from ourselves and to the perfect life, death, and resurrection of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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