Salvation is No Possibility

by Jason Micheli

Length: 25:35

Acts 4.1-12  (click to see Scripture text)

April 25, 2021

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The headline grabbed me, and I flagged the article and saved it in my sermon files. Three years ago, during the winter olympics, the Washington Post headline asked, “She killed 115 people before the last Korean Olympics. Now she wonders: ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’” 

     The Post article tells the story of Kim Hyon-hui, a former North Korean spy, who, thirty years ago, boarded South Korean Flight 858 and got off in Baghdad during a layover, having left a bomb, disguised as a Panasonic radio, in the overhead bin. 

     All one hundred and fifteen passengers and crew were killed when the plane exploded over the Andaman Sea. Kim Hyon-hui was twenty-six at the time. 

     Recruited by the Party as a student, she received physical and ideological training for ten years before she was given orders to disrupt the Winter Olympics in South Korea by blowing up a plane full of energy workers on their way home to Seoul to visit their husbands and their wives and their children. 

     The cyanide cigarette she bit into when she was caught didn’t work, and she woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed with machine guns pointed at her. Kim Hyon- hui attempted suicide again during her interrogation, and a year later a South Korean judge sentenced her to die. 

     But she didn’t die. 

     Today she’s a sixty year old mother of two teenage girls. She’s married to the agent who first apprehended her, but she’s never escaped the guilt and the shame of her trespass. She escaped execution and, as she puts it, “escaped the wrath of the South Korean people when she offered them her repentance” but she still wonders if she’ll escape the wrath of God. 

   Kim Hyon-hui lives an ordinary life, cooking and cleaning, raising her kids, and going on on hikes — relaxing, short hikes, unlike like the mandatory sixty-mile treks she’d taken when training as a spy. And, in addition to the cooking and the cleaning and the hiking and the child-rearing, Kim Hyon-hui goes to church. 

She’s a Christian. 

This executioner of the innocent, this victimizer with blood on her hands, this ungodly criminal who committed this unconscionable deed— she’s a Christian, sort of. 

John Wesley would call her an almost Christian.

John Wesley said an Almost Christian is someone who believes the scriptures and creeds of the faith are true, someone who generally loves God and serves their neighbor while an Altogether Christian, Wesley says, possesses “sure trust and confidence” in God’s saving love for them “through the merits of Jesus Christ.”  

When Kim Hyon-hui was arrested, she says, the first part of her life was ending, and she remembers never considering there would be a second part. Herself the victim of brainwashing and communist conditioning, Kim Hyon-hui was pardoned by the South Korean president for her crimes, yet she remains haunted by an exceptional instance of a question that confronts us all: “Can my sins be pardoned?”

     “They probably won’t be,” she confessed to the reporter, “My sins probably won’t be forgiven. By God.”

     The headline is what grabbed me. 

     It could’ve been a different story, still with a similar headline. 

     The headline could’ve read: 

“He knelt on top of George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds. Now he wonders, ‘Can my sins be pardoned?’” 

     The headline could’ve read:

“They watched, apathetic, as two thousand died in mass shootings since Columbine and they did nothing. Now Americans wonder: ‘Can our sins be pardoned?’” 

————————

She may attend church, but evidently Kim Hyon-hui has never sat under a preacher like Peter. 

According to Peter— or rather, according to the deus dixit, the word the Holy Spirit places on Peter’s lips— the grace of God, the entire remission of your sins and the reckoning of Christ’s perfect righteousness as your own personal possession to take before a Holy God, salvation is not a possibility for which we hope. Salvation is an assurance to which we cling. 

Salvation is not an outcome about which we speculate. 

Salvation is a certainty we anticipate. 

When it comes to the matter of God saving sinners— in their sins— it’s not a maybe. Maybe God will forgive me and save me, but, look at what I’ve done, who are we to say, maybe God won’t. 

No, it’s not a maybe. It’s a must. “There is salvation in no one else,” Peter preaches today, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

Here in the Book of Acts, Peter and John have gone up to the temple to pray. They do so, Luke notes, at the ninth hour, three o’clock in the afternoon. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, the ninth hour was the appointed time for the daily sacrifices prescribed by the Law. So, in other words, Peter’s sermon announcing what God must do for sinners by grace alone comes against the backdrop of sinners performing the works of the Law, doing what the Law demands they do in order that God might justify them.  

As they pass the Beautiful Gate into the temple, a beggar, lame since birth, appeals to Peter and John for alms. Instead of replying like I do, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash on me,” Peter says to the crippled panhandler, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!” And immediately the man born lame leaps in the air to praise God. 

Luke reports that the beggar’s friends carried him to the Beautiful Gate every morning to hold out his hands to those who passed by. The beggar born lame was a daily fixture at the temple so folks took notice when he began jumping up and down giving thanks to God. 

Clearly, Peter learned a few things from Jesus. Peter understands that miracles are just front-loaded sermon illustrations so, to the astonished onlookers, Peter starts to preach. Don’t look at us, Peter preaches, we didn’t do anything. Jesus Christ did this. The name of Jesus Christ did this. His name itself has made this man strong. You crucified him, but God gave him back, raising him from the dead. 

Just as quickly as the beggar leapt into the air, this word of resurrection begets resistance. With the people stirred up by the apostle’s preaching, the powers-that-be swing into action to protect the status quo— the same powers-that-be that tried to shut Jesus up with a cross. “Those on top,” Willie Jennings writes, “look down on a crucified God who actually sits above them.” By the time they throw the apostles in jail for the night, five thousand had already received and believed the Gospel. 

They’ll do to you just as they do to me, Jesus had warned his disciples. True to his word, the next morning Peter and John are hauled before the Sanhedrin, the very same brood of vipers that got Good Friday going. They hope to stick Jesus’s apostles with the same charge of blasphemy with which they dispatched him, “By what power, or by what name did you do this?” 

By whose authority do you forgive the sins of others?

But Peter seems not to notice he’s attending a trial. Even though he’s bound in chains and smells like lock-up and stands accused, arraigned before judges, Peter looks at this ungodly gaggle of priests and scribes and elders and Peter sees a church. 

So Peter preaches. 

And notice who else Luke says is there in this congregation. 

He’s one of the few Luke singles out by name: Caiaphas, the high priest. 

After Jesus summoned the four-days-dead-Lazarus from the tomb, Caiaphas is the one who invited the Pharisees and the Sadducees to his palace to plot Jesus’s death. “Look, he’s going to incite the people. It’s better for one innocent man to die than for the whole nation to perish,” Caiaphas reasoned in a cold, calculating move of political expediency. 

In the dark early hours of Good Friday, Caiaphas is the one who conducted the sham trial, tearing his robe and crying blasphemy before sending Jesus to be beaten and mocked. 

When Pontius Pilate presents Christ to the passover crowd— a crowd Caiaphas has already whipped up to demand the blood of Jesus instead of Barabbas— and asks the crowd, “Shall I crucify your king?” it’s Caiaphas who revels in the most fundamental violation of the first Jewish Law, “We have no king but Caesar.” 

Caiaphas has blood on his hands and broken commandments at his feet. 

More than anyone, Caiaphas is to blame for the death of the Author of Life. 

And when Caiaphas comes to church that morning, what word does the Holy Spirit put in the preacher’s mouth for Caiaphas? 

“Rulers of the people and elders, Jesus Christ, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, but it has become the cornerstone of what God’s doing. There is salvation in no one else but Jesus Christ, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Peter doesn’t say Jesus is the name by which we can be saved or might be saved or may be saved. Rather, the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of the preacher, declares that those who call upon the name of Jesus Christ must be saved. 

    ———————-

“Can my sins be pardoned? Probably not.” Kim Hyon-hui told the Washington Post. 

Probably not? Probably not!?Look, I get the offense, I really do, but obviously that’s her shame speaking, that’s her abiding unbelief talking, because she’s not speaking Christian. 

Because no matter what she’s done, if she has called upon the name of Christ Jesus our Lord, then, according to the Holy Spirit, the Lord must save her. 

Must. 

In the Greek, it’s δεῖ. 

Literally, “it is necessary.” 

It’s the word Jesus uses as a little boy, when he tells his flustered parents who thought he’d gotten lost, “Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 

δεῖ.

It’s the word Jesus uses when the crowds at Simon’s house try to keep him from leaving them, “I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also.” 

δεῖ.

And it’s the same word Jesus uses again and again to speak of his cross, “The Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” 

The same must that applied to Christ and his cross now applies to sinners and our salvation. In the name of Jesus, people MUST be saved. As Daniel Emery Price notes, the construction of the sentence doesn’t even sound right. It’s intentionally incorrect grammar in service of gloriously correct theology. 

In the name of Jesus, salvation is not a possibility. 

It’s a must not a maybe.

δεῖ.

It MUST happen! 

It is NECESSARY. 

In taking the sin of the world to himself and gifting that world his righteousness, it’s as though God has trapped himself in his promises and in the work of His Son. 

Not accidentally but intentionally. 

Those who cry out in the name of Jesus for salvation will be saved. 

You need no merit of your own. You only need a mouth. 

Those who cry out in the name of Jesus for salvation will be saved. 

All of them. 

God MUST save them. 

In Jesus Christ, God has given himself no other options but the gracious one. 

Salvation is not a possibility outside of Jesus. 

And salvation is not a possibility inside of Christ either. 

It’s a certainty.

The good news the Holy Spirit puts in Peter’s mouth is that in Jesus Christ, God has given himself no way out of saving you. 

Trouble is—  not just you. 

God has given himself no way out of saving any sinner who calls upon the name of Jesus. 

This is what the Apostle Paul means when he writes to the Corinthians that the word of the cross is foolish and offensive to those who are perishing. God’s unconditional, unmerited, one-way love is for the ungodly as much as it’s for the good. 

The promise of the Gospel is the same when Caiaphas comes to church as it is for you.   

———————-

    In 1942 a group of Christians in America wrote to the theologian Karl Barth, whom the Nazis had exiled to Switzerland, asking him a series of questions about how churches should do ministry amidst the war. 

Their third question asked, “Should church bodies and pastors actively support the prosecution of the war by preaching about the issues involved? Or, should they confine their activities to the timeless “spiritual” truths?” 

Before first noting that “timeless spiritual truths” is a pagan concept not a biblical one, Karl Barth responded by writing:

“Scripture does not demand of preachers of the Gospel (nor is it needed) that they proclaim from the pulpit again what is already being sufficiently stated by the newspapers far better than the preachers could state it. Unhappy preachers, and above all, unhappy parishes, where that is the case. 

What, then, shall they preach?

The Word of the reconciliation of the world with God through Jesus Christ and nothing else. But this is in its full scope! When they preach about the sole sovereignty of Jesus Christ, His triumph over the powers and principalities, about the impossibility of serving two masters, and about God’s grace for sinners and justification of the ungodly…[when preachers preach the Gospel] they are inevitably preaching, through a simple, strict interpretation of the biblical texts (and as a rule without naming persons and things specifically) against Hitler and Mussolini and fascism; against anti-Semitism, against the idolization of politics, against militarism, and against all lies and injustice.” 

In other words— 

Preachers don’t need to drag politics into the pulpit. 

Proclaim the God who in Jesus Christ God has given himself no way out of saving sinners who do not deserve it, and the Gospel will apply itself to current events. 

How else do you explain Peter? 

Peter’s worse than me. Peter literally preaches the same sermon over and over and over again in the Book of Acts. Peter never once drags politics into the pulpit with him, but from the get-go the politicians and powers-that-be try to shut this preacher up who never preaches anything but the God who has given himself no way out of saving the sinners who call upon him. 

Preachers don’t need to drag politics into the pulpit, Barth said, the Gospel is already inherently political because grace begins exactly where we we think it should end. 

Preach grace straight up, Barth taught, and, in no time, it will start to unsettle the world we’ve carefully arranged according to our notions of right and wrong, good and evil, merit and demerit. 

———————-

One of my friends, a member of my former church, spends half his year in Florida. He coaches cross-country at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. 

     He was on a group text thread with his runners as they fled the school shooting in 2018. 

     He messaged me that night to give me the names of his kids who were still in surgery and asked me to add them to the prayer list. 

“Pray for Maddie. She has a collapsed lung. She was shot in the arm and the leg and the back. Her ribs are shattered. I’m not in denial or shock. I’m not depressed. I’m just angry. I’m just really, really angry, and I’m angry at the thought that Nikolas Cruz could be forgiven for what he did. If this is blasphemy so be it: Right now, GOD’S GRACE OFFENDS ME.”

———————-

He’s right. It is offensive. It is outrageous. 

God MUST save ANYONE who calls upon the name of Jesus Christ. 

     After following the trial of George Floyd’s murder these past few weeks, it sticks in my craw too. I’m right there with you. To think God’s given himself no escape clause, no fine print, no extenuating conditions to saving someone like Derek Chauvin…if he but calls on the name of Christ Jesus, it’s offensive. 

     If God’s grace for sinners seems awful instead of amazing, I’m right there with you. 

The Gospel is more inclusive than I want to be too. 

     I get it. I’m right there with you. It’s just, we should notice where we are in our indignation.  We’re standing outside the party our Father’s decided to throw for our rotten, wretch of a brother. 

————————

     In the name of Jesus, salvation is a MUST not a maybe.

God has given himself no way out of saving any sinner who calls upon the name of Jesus. 

That the Holy Spirit has the same exact sermon for someone like Caiaphus as for you,  it’s offensive, I know. 

     And not to take the edge off of it, but I wonder if maybe the offense is also the antidote. 

     In a different interview, Kim Hyon-hui reflects on how overwhelmed she felt by the gratuitous (her word) pardon she received from the people of South Korea:

“As a spy in North Korea, I was brainwashed. I was a robot. The only thing that might have been powerful enough to prevent me from committing my trespass would have been to know the possibility of such a pardon.”

Maybe the possibility of a pardon so gratuitous it offends— maybe that’s the only antidote powerful enough to stop us in our tracks.

After all, a salvation so offensively broad as to include Caiaphus means there can be no mistaking that it also includes you. 

 

 

   

    

     

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