Words That Changed the World
James C. Denison
We will begin in a rather strange way today. I need to ask you to stand to your feet, please. Now, would you please turn and face the back of the Sanctuary? Now, would you turn and face forward again? Now would you be seated? Why did you just do these strange things? Because of words. Because of the power of spoken words. Because words change the world.
They always have. Listen to these:
“The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of the Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire…Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands…Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
Who spoke those immortal words, rallying a nation and world to fight Hitler and win the freedom of billions?
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood…I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Who spoke those immortal words, calling a nation to civil rights and liberty and justice for all?
Today I offer you others, seven words which will change your world if you only believe them and choose to live in the light of their truth. Seven words which are the promise and power and hope of God Almighty for every fallen, struggling, discouraged soul on earth. Seven words which are your Maker’s gift to your soul today. Let’s believe them and claim them together.
Are you free?
Imagine being a Christ-follower living in the Rome of Paul’s day. Idols to the worship of Caesar stand at every corner of every street. Altars venerating Zeus and his pantheon of decadent pagan deities are at every side. 1,300,000 people are crowded into the largest city known to humanity, more than half of them slaves, most living in multi-storied tenements without running water or sanitation. According to Cicero, only 2,000 people in the entire city own property. History has never known a city more corrupt in its personal ethics. Unwanted children are thrown out with the trash and left to die. Every kind of sexual immorality is licensed.
Yet the Apostle can say to these Roman Christians, a struggling and often-despised minority, many of them slaves and former slaves: “though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted” (v. 17). You received the gospel of the living Lord Jesus and it transformed your lives.
With this staggering result: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (v. 18). “You have been set free from sin.” This is the past tense in Paul’s Greek, completed action, a “done deal.” This is the gift Christianity alone in all human history and world religion can give.
These words would change the world. They ushered in an era of grace, whereby we no longer needed to fear the irrational wrath of the gods or placate them with our rituals. They offered us an intimate, personal relationship with the living Lord of the universe. They promised us the forgiveness of our sins and the eternal salvation of our souls. They became the message which spanned the globe and sparked the greatest spiritual movement in human history. “You have been set free from sin.”
No other religion can make such an offer. Buddhists desperately seek to live by the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Noble Path, striving to cease their wrong desires and thus end their suffering. Hindus seek oneness with this fallen world and hope for release only through reincarnations to come and future reward for present works. Muslims are convinced that obedience to the Five Pillars of Islam is the only way to find peace in this world and reward in the one to come.
It was not much different for me when I became a Christian as a high school student. Go to Sunday school on Sunday morning, followed by church where you sing hymns and sit through a sermon. Put money in the plate, paying your spiritual bill just as you pay your electric bill. Come back for the same on Sunday night. Don’t forget Tuesday night visitation, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Saturday morning bus ministry and youth Bible study. Read your Bible and pray every morning, and be good all day long. “What you are is God’s gift to you–what you make of yourself is your gift to God.” Jesus saved your soul from hell–religion and morality are how you repay him.
Try harder to do better. Is it working? Josh McDowell’s latest book, The Last Christian Generation, documents that in the last 12 months, 93 percent of America’s non-Christian youth lied to a parent; 93 percent of America’s Christian youth did the same. 85 percent of America’s non-Christian youth lied to a teacher; 83 percent of America’s Christian youth did the same. 76 percent of America’s non-Christian youth cheated on a test; 74 percent of America’s Christian youth did the same (McDowell 17).
“You have been set free from sin.” Have you? Yes, Satan tempts us to be our own god. Yes, sin affects every part of our lives so that “total depravity” is very real for us. But God forgives every sin we confess to him, and remembers them no more (Isaiah 43:25). He has released us, for grace is greater than guilt. Now “you have been set free from sin.”
Will you choose freedom?
These words changed the world. When will they change yours? When you choose to be who you already are: “Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness” (v. 19).
“Offer” translates the Greek word for laying a sacrifice on an altar. “The parts of your body” describes every dimension of your life, every part of your being. You once chose to give them “in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness” before you chose to follow Jesus. “Now offer them in slavery to righteousness.” Now choose to enslave them to the holy God of the universe.
And what will happen? He will lead you to “holiness”: “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (v. 22).
You cannot make yourself holy, but God can. You cannot give yourself eternal life, but God can.
“Eternal life” has to do with quality, not just quantity–“the life that lasts forever,” beginning now. You can live in the intimate presence of God today, not just in heaven. You can worship him with unspeakable joy now, not just in paradise. You can experience his life-changing power now, not just in glory. You can live victorious over temptation and free from sin now, not just in eternity.
You see, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23). Sin pays a wage, the “death” you have earned. God gives by grace the “eternal life” we could never deserve–starting here, today, now.
But God the Savior can save only what you entrust to him. God the Great Physician can heal only what you put in his hands. God the Good Shepherd can lead you to green pastures and still waters only if you will follow. God the Bread of Life can feed your mind and nourish your soul only if you will receive what he offers. God the King of Kings and Lord of Lords can be your King only if you will be his subject.
“You have been set free from sin,” God promises. But you must leave the prison. You must stop trying to break down the bars which bind you, the chains which enslave you, the enemies who have captured and imprisoned you. Your key doesn’t open this lock. Your self-sufficient, self-reliant strength cannot overcome these enemies. There is only One liberator who can set you free. Only One who has defeated the warden of the prison, shattered its bars and broken its chains. Only One.
When he began his public ministry, that One came to his hometown synagogue to preach. He opened the scroll to the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2). Then he rolled up the scroll, returned it to the attendant, and said to the astonished congregation, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
“You have been set free from sin,” but only when Jesus sets you free. When last did you let him? When last did you “offer the parts of your body” to him? When last did you lay every part of your life on his altar? Your past failures and victories, your present problems and joys, your future fears and hopes?
What temptation have you not defeated? What guilt have you not purged? What hurt have you not forgiven? What chains are binding your soul? Name them and give them to him this morning. Believe that his grace is greater than all your sins. Believe that his power is greater than the enemy’s gravest temptations; that he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). And it will be so.
On June 26, 1963, President John F. Kennedy delivered another of the “words that changed the world.” Standing at the Berlin Wall, he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” “I am a Berliner,” and announced, “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.”
He could not know that some five years later, the government of East Berlin would rebuke his words by constructing what they intended as a masterpiece of Communist engineering and an eternal sign of their superiority over Kennedy’s rhetoric and vision. Their Fernsehturm or “television tower” would stand some 1,200 feet above the ground, the third-tallest building in Europe. It would show the world the greatness of the Communist achievement and vision.
But they did not know that when they unveiled their monstrous tower, the sun would strike what they built and reflect a giant cross over Communist East Berlin. Scandalized, they covered their tower with non-reflective paint, but on the next clear day the sun blazed its cross again and does so to this day.
And those Communist officials could not know that at that very place, beneath that cross, a demonstration would begin on November 4, 1989 which would lead to the collapse of their Berlin Wall five days later. Beginning within sight of the place where Mr. Kennedy stood on that fateful day.
And so President Kennedy’s message proved prophetic: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” His words changed the world. But his vision of freedom from enslavement was fulfilled under the cross of Jesus Christ. It still is.
“You have been set free from sin.” Are you?