The Open Profession of Faith
In October 1805 during the Napoleonic wars the Battle of Trafalgar took place. It would prove to be a decisive naval engagement. Victory in this conflict gave the recently formed United Kingdom control of the seas and thus the threat of a French invasion was eliminated; Britain was safe from conquest.
Just before the battle commenced Admiral Lord Nelson ordered a signal to be sent to the other ships in the fleet. Nelson was to die in the ensuing battle but the content of his message lives on in English folklore:
"England expects that every man will do his duty."
The words had been designed to encourage and strengthen the resolve of his men going into battle and the battle was duly won.
Centuries earlier Jesus announced his own expectation concerning the way in which his followers would publicly acknowledge their faith and trust in him. They too would need courage and strength for they too would find themselves in hostile and dangerous circumstances.
In preparing his followers for what was to come and for the challenges they face in the discipleship Jesus spoke to them clearly about:
the rewards associated with an open profession of faith
the consequences of failure to do so
the hostile context in which such profession would have to be made
Jesus then concluded what he had to say by contrasting the failure of individual actions with the failure of a settled disposition.
Private or Public
Jesus had been warning his followers about the sins and dangers of hypocrisy. Religious hypocrisy focused on the outward and the external while ignoring what was in a man’s heart. And we have seen that such an approach is totally unacceptable to God.
There is however another extreme that also needs to be avoided. It is the view that since true religion is all about the heart religion all that really matters is making sure that the heart is right.
Jesus makes it very clear in these verses that such a conclusion is seriously flawed. The internal and the external are to go hand in hand – we are to be hearers and doers! But don’t be surprised when you find yourself under pressure to keep quiet about your commitment to Jesus Christ – the world is very happy with a religion that can be confined to the private domain and silenced on the public.
The reason hypocrisy is condemned is not that outward behaviour is wrong per se but because there is no reality in the heart that correspondents to it.
Jesus has just told his followers not to be afraid of men but to trust God who is good (12:4-7) and now he goes on to explain just what such trust will look like in practice. Reality is the heart is crucial but when it is there outward, open confession is not only not wrong but commendable and necessary!
The apostle Paul, following Jesus’ lead here, wrote to the Romans putting it like this:
Rom.10:9-10 "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved."
Rewards and Consequences
Those who wish to treat religion and religious conviction as a purely private and personal matter find themselves out of line with Jesus. He quite clearly did not think that it was sufficient to insist that if the heart was right then that was all that really mattered.
Jesus spoke about his followers acknowledging him, confessing him. It is clear that he expected every genuine follower to do his duty and to do this publicly in the presence of men.
Men were not to be feared but God was.
And to encourage and to strengthen the resolve of his followers to do just this Jesus pledged that he would acknowledge all those who declared openly for him and he would do so in the very presence of God!
Lk.12:8 "And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God,"
This is a promise that the risen and ascended Lord Jesus confirmed in addressing the church in Sardis recorded in the Book of Revelation:
Rev.3:5 "The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels."
What wonderful assurances these are!
Do you want to be acknowledged by Jesus then open allegiance is called for!
Now this does not mean that we are saved by our making a profession of some kind before men. Salvation is always of grace and is always due to what Jesus has done on behalf of repenting sinners. Open confession merely proclaims the reality of what has taken place when Jesus does in fact save a man or a woman. Salvation is not some small add-on to a person’s life; it is a fundamental and all-embracing transformation of that entire life. Open public confession can be understood as one of those works that flow from faith and which indicate the genuineness of the reality of it.
Before we move on to think about the alternative which is the denial of Christ before men we must consider just is meant by making a public acknowledgement of him.
This is what it means: I won’t try to hide my allegiance to and love for Jesus but I will openly recognise and affirm that:
Jesus Christ is my Lord and Master
I am totally dependent upon him for my salvation
I am bound to him in every proper manner
Such a profession should not be understood to be restricted to a one-off but rather to an on-going commitment to Christ in every circumstance of life.
But there is an alternative to openly declaring for Jesus and we see that in the next verse to which now we must turn.
Lk.12:9 "but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God."
In teaching about the urgency of discipleship Jesus said:
Mk.8:38 "whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
Indeed the seriousness of this whole matter is underscored elsewhere in Scripture and by a range of writers:
Paul warned that "if we deny him, he also will deny us" (2Tim.2:12)
Peter wrote about false teachers and said they would infiltrate the church secretly introducing destructive heresies. These men, "denied the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction." (2Pet.2:1)
John declared that "No one who denies the Son has the Father." Before adding that "Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also." (1Jn.2:23)
The denial of Christ can take several forms ranging all the way from active blasphemy against the Son of God to a simple refusal to declare for him. When Peter denied Christ he didn’t say anything overtly negative about him he just denied knowing him whereas some of the Scribes and Pharisees tried to make out that Jesus was in cahoots with Satan, in league with the devil.
A Little Clarification is Called For
We have just mentioned Peter and his infamous threefold denial of his Lord. However, as Bible readers know well, Peter was not rejected but restored by Jesus who recommissioned him. Does that mean that Jesus’ warnings about the perils of denying him are to seen as an empty threat, something said for effect but not representing anything more serious than that?
The answer is "No" the warning was and is serious but the following verses help us understand the type of denial that Jesus had in mind.
Don’t get me wrong, Peter’s denial was wrong and it should never have happened and I have no wish to try to excuse his behaviour but it evidently didn’t amount to the type of denial that Jesus was concerned about in the verses we’re thinking about.
Listen to how Jesus continued, it gives insights into just what denial is and isn’t:
Lk.8:10 "And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
Jesus knew that his followers were weak individuals and that they would be frequently confronted by a hostile opposition that would seek to intimidate an confuse his disciples. So here he explains that the simple utterance of a word against himself will not be sufficient to condemn a disciple – it is pardonable.
How gracious this is! We don’t need to be full of anxiety and worry if there are occasions when we slip and fail and act out of character or act badly due to ignorance or a failure to fully understand what is happening. Such errors are blights upon our character but are not the defining elements of a believer’s character.
Peter acted out of fear and did something totally out of character. It certainly was not some carefully premeditated plan or course of action – it was Judas who was guilty of that type of action but not Peter. Nor can we say that Peter’s denial was his regular, settled behaviour – it wasn’t and Peter was mortified by what he had done. Peter’s sorrow led him to repent and he enjoyed forgiveness. Judas showed no sign of true repentance and, experiencing only remorse, he ended his own life without receiving any pardon for what he had done.
And how comforting this should for us! We all know similar moments of weakness but one act of cowardice or frailty will not spell the end for us – we too can know the forgiveness that Peter and so many others down through history have experienced.
Thomas Cranmer (of prayer book fame) was one famous individual in the history of our own nation who knew what it was to crumble under long and sustained pressure only to be renewed and strengthened subsequently.
Fearful of dying Cranmer signed a recantation of his protestant faith. It was an outward gesture that was out of line with what he believed deep down in his heart of hearts. He signed because he thought he would thereby save his skin but it didn’t. Queen Mary was gunning for him due to the role he had played in Henry VIII’s divorce from her mother.
He was condemned to be burnt at the stake.
Prior to his execution Cranmer testified to his true faith openly regretting the weakness that had led him to suggest that he believed otherwise:
"I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth" he said "And I believe every word and sentence taught by our Saviour Jesus Christ, his apostles and prophets, in the New and Old Testament."
Then he added to the consternation of his enemies: "And as for the Pope, I refuse him as Christ’s enemy, and antichrist, with all his false doctrine."
When the fire which would consume him was lit Cranmer held the hand that had signed those documents recanting his true faith in the flames. It was a sign of the sincere regret he felt for ever having given way to the pressures and to denying his Lord.
So many sins can and have been forgiven – Jesus proves to be a wonderful Saviour of sinners!
The Bible records for us many of the sins that have been forgiven so that we might not lose heart imagining the worst:
David was forgiven though he orchestrated the murder of one of his own soldiers
Saul persecuted the church of Jesus Christ but was converted and transformed into its greatest missionary, the apostle Paul
Peter was forgiven his pride which led to him denying his Lord in a moment of weakness
The Samaritan woman was forgiven though she had lived a life of serial sexual immorality
Matthew the dishonest tax collector was forgiven his dishonest exploitation of his fellow countrymen
And the list could go on and on.
All sin can be forgiven even the awful sin of speaking against the Son of God whether through ignorance or weakness. You can be forgiven your sin too.
There is just one sin which, according to Jesus, will never be forgiven.
The Unforgiveable SIn
Over the years plenty of Christians have allowed themselves to be tormented by the thought that they have over-stepped the boundaries and have failed so dismally that they believe themselves to have committed this sin.
Some will fear that they have done so because at some stage in their life they have thought ill of the Holy Spirit and maybe spoken ill of him too. Others are paranoid that they might commit this sin by inadvertence, that in some unguarded moments words will fail from their lips which will damn their souls for all eternity. After all doesn’t Jesus say that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven?
But what we must understand is that Jesus is not more talking about one isolated incident, one sentence uttered that determines all for all time and eternity. As one out-of-character act of denial did not mean that Jesus would disown Peter so another-out-of-character word will not equate to "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit".
So what is the true nature of this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
It is the settled, determined rejection of known truth about the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit testifies to the life and ministry of the Saviour but this person refuses to pay it any heed. Knowing the truth he refuses to act upon it and refuses to allow the Spirit to lead him to Christ for salvation. This blasphemy against the Spirit says that what the Spirit says is unimportant and can safely be ignored and this not just once but repeatedly again an again through life.
But why is this sin unforgiveable? Does it mean that God is just being a bit pernickety, a bit picky and deliberately difficult to please?
Not a bit of it.
It is the very nature of this sin that it keeps the man or the woman guilty of it from ever coming to the place where forgiveness is to be found.
When you consistently refuse to heed the Spirit’s testimony about yourself, about Jesus and your need to come to him for salvation how on earth do you expect to be forgiven? This is the sin of deliberate resolute and repeated refusal – persisted in this sin will prevent you from ever being forgiven.
Now some of you may well be very tender souls and you may be aware of things in your life, particular failures etc., which worry you. The thought comes into your mind that maybe you are guilty of this sin against the Holy Spirit and you are discouraged and despondent. You might even be asking what hope there can possibly be for someone like you.
Well, let me tell you something. If you are worried that you have committed this sin and the thought disturbs and deeply saddens you then it is a good sign that you haven’t committed this sin. The person who is in this state (and it is a state and not an individual act that is in view) isn’t bothered at all. That person wants to reject and go on rejecting Jesus and the gospel message – but that isn’t you if you’re worried about it!
This serious unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit is not a sudden slip that catches you unawares and then damns your soul for ever – it is the result of an ongoing and developing hardness of heart. The Scriptures talk in progressive terms of grieving the Spirit, of resisting the Spirit and of quenching the Spirit.
So if you don’t want to ever be found guilty of this unforgiveable sin then don’t grieve the Spirit don’t resist him when he speaks to you of your sin, of the wonders of Christ and of your need of him and don’t pour cold water of his efforts to bring you to Jesus in repentance and faith. Don’t delay and put things off rather respond quickly and call upon Jesus to save you today!
A Final Word
Jesus knew that following him would be tough. Temptations would come to try to compromise in order to have a quiet life. The fear of opposition from the influential and the powerful in society would bring real pressures to bear – yet in the midst of the trials and tests the believer need not become unnecessarily anxious. The Holy Spirit could be relied upon to help and support supplying the words needed in every situation.
What a glorious thing it is to be a Christian.