Luke 9:25 “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”
This great question is recorded three times in the New Testament. In both other places the reference is to forfeiting the soul. In Matthew 16 and verse 26 the question is phrased in the future tense, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Look to your entire future, on to the grave and beyond, what good will come from anything in the future if you should lose your soul? In Mark 8 and verse 36 the question is phrased in the present tense, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” Think today, where are you, possessing much of value in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God have you forfeited your soul? You can see how important this question is.
1. WHAT IT MEANS THAT MAN IS A SOUL AS WELL AS A BODY.
Our text talks of losing or forfeiting your very self. What is your ‘self’? What is your ‘soul’? Man is body, of course, and our bodies are not prisons in which the soul is a captive. Out bodies were designed by God and he pronounced them ‘very good.’ The Son of God took a body, and our bodies are to be presented to God as living sacrifices and as temples of the Holy Spirit, but man is more than body, he is soul, that is, he has a unique personality. We talk of this dimension of men and women using different words, the spirit, the intellect, the seat of a person’s emotions, the will, the mind, the inner man, the heart, the soul . . . The very fact that there are many such terms used to describe this dimension shows how conscious we are of it. Man is not a mere body, and so it is that aspect of a person that Jesus is referring to when he speaks in our text about “his very self.” In other words, we are all something more than body; the most important part of us is that immaterial part of man which is spoken of by Jesus as ‘his soul.’ You can have marvelous health, eat well, have a personal dietician and personal trainer, and so you survive to good old age, yet what of your soul, or your spirit, or your mind, or your heart? I am speaking of the inner man.
It is evident from Scripture that that dimension can exist without the body. For example Jesus told the dying thief who trusted in him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” although they both knew that their physical bodies were soon going to die and be buried. Again, when Stephen was being stoned to death he cried, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Or again, Paul does not fear death for he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” He tells the church in Corinth, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Jesus warns his disciples not to fear men who can simply destroy the body, but to fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
So what is it that distinguishes the soul or the spirit of man? What is man’s very self? What is the inner man that can be renewed day by day? What I have chosen to do is to give you four illustrations of what man’s soul is. This is not a comprehensive description of the soul; it is not a definition of the soul, but I hope it will be suggestive of the kind of answer a Christian would make to the question ‘What is the inner man?’
i] Firstly, being a soul means that a man knows. Men and women have a mind and a conscience which animals don’t have. A polar bear will devour its own cub if it’s hungry, and that act would not be condemned by us as evil. We would not shoot it for killing its cub because a polar bear has no knowledge that that is wrong. It thinks in terms of its instinct to survive. We are very different; we know that if we should kill and eat our own children then that would be a reprehensible action. Rather a father might lay down his life for his child. I am saying that because we are souls we all have a knowledge of right and wrong, and a knowledge of ourselves, and of one another. Does an elephant know who or what he is? A distant echo of our full knowledge perhaps. I know what is man’s chief end in life. An elephant would not have that knowledge. I know who I am, a creature made in the image of God.
Yes, a great deal of true knowledge has been lost by the fall of my father Adam. Man’s intellect has been disordered. Man is often mistaken as to matters of fact, origin, purpose and destiny. Man is fallacious in his reasoning, but he is still a rational being; he is capable of investigation, of forensic science, of deliberation, of maintaining the rule of law. He may not be a follower of Jesus Christ but still be competent scientist, or a moving dramatist or a brilliant reporter, as worthy of credit in his own field as those politicians of whom Paul wrote, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” The theory of relativity is not invalid simply because Einstein was an agnostic Jew.
I am saying that because man is a soul then each person in our small town has knowledge. He knows the rudiments of the moral law. He knows the wrongfulness of pornography, of drunkenness, of stealing, of betrayal, and of cowardice. The people who lived in Rome at the time of Paul knew that even as they were practicing their perversions that those who did such things were worthy of death. They still did them. Marshall Goering could weep at the Nuremburg trials and confess the Nazis had done wrong, but they had continued performing such perversities for a decade. Felix was not uncomprehending or blasé when Paul reasoned with him of righteousness, self-control and judgment to come. He trembled because his conscience told him Paul was right. He knew! His tragedy was how to stop doing what was wrong and do what was right.
I want to go further and say that because men are souls all men know that this world was made by an omnipotent and glorious God. They do; they understand that truth from the things around him which declare God’s handiwork. The sunsets over the Irish Sea and the circling flocks of starlings near the pier just before they roost for the night – such wonders declare to the people of our town “there’s the living Creator who made them and also you,” but men and women refuse to glorify God as their Creator, and so they are losing or forfeiting their very souls. They are clamping down on this truth in their unrighteousness. They have knowledge because they are souls. So they know from conscience and creation God’s being, his power, both the goodness and the wrath of God. That is part of the ineradicable mental equipment of every human soul, but they suppress and distort this knowledge. Their souls are saying, “We will not have this God rule over us.” They remind me of house-flies crawling over the surface of the Sistine Chapel unaware of the magnificent forms and colours that surround them. The unbelief of men and women who sit under a biblical ministry Sunday after Sunday is not due to their ignorance of the Christian message but to their disobedience and defiance. So being a soul means that men have knowledge.
ii] Secondly, being a soul means that a man is free. If you put food before an animal instinctively it will eat it. A bowl of water, and it will drink it. A mate, and it will copulate. Animals have no freedom, while man is free within his falleness. Of course he suffers from the bondage of the will. His unregenerate will tells him to reject Christ, ignore the Bible, never think of his eternal soul, dismiss any thoughts of prayer, never question what lies beyond death, and never to seek to know God for himself. Man, the slave to his lord, ‘Sin,’ resolutely chooses to obey his master. Paul says (Galatians 3:22), The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin. But you understand that man freely submits to sin. He makes a choice to do that. He is not programmed to respond at the touch of a button. He has not been computerized. He makes his own free decision to have nothing to do with his God. He is not a puppet; he does not act under some external compulsion. He is not being forced to say no to Jesus Christ. There is no absolute necessity to reject the gospel and every good and true reason to embrace it. His rejection is his own free choice as a person who is a soul.
You understand how important this is. It is not because of man’s animal ancestry that London teenagers knife one another. It is not some necessary stage in mankind’s development. It is not because of glandular reactions or other purely biological phenomena that man is violent. Christians are no friends of determinists. Christians do not parrot the words ‘whatever will be will be.’ Those are not Christian sentiments. I despise them. They are pure fatalism. Yes, all our lives as believers have been determined by the loving fore-ordination of our Father in heaven. That we should be here today, and reading these words is all of God’s mercy. We sing,
His decrees who formed the earth
Fixed my first and second birth;
Parents, native place, and time,
All appointed were by Him.
Times the tempter’s power to prove;
Times to taste the Saviour’s love;
All must come, and last, and end,
As shall please my heavenly Friend.
Plagues and deaths around me fly;
Till He bids, I cannot die;
Not a single shaft can hit,
Till the God of love sees fit. (John Ryland, 1753-1825)
However, worshipping my heavenly Father, the God of providence, who has done all that, is very different from saying that my life has been mapped out for me by fate, or bad luck, or karma, or remorseless factors in the environment over which I’ve got no control, such as the influences of my family, and my working conditions, and companions, and education, and media, and the political leaders that mapped out my society, and the European Enlightenment that have created its values. None of those factors came crashing into my life like a juggernaut. I freely allowed them to influence me. All of them together are not the reasons for men behaving abominably – lying, cheating, stealing, raping, murdering. I couldn’t say that all those influences made it impossible for me to stop sinning. No! I chose to act like that. I freely agreed to do those things. Everything is gone if we throw out man’s freedom. Morality is gone if everything is determined and we are mere puppets. We are not prisoners of fate. Hold fast to the doctrine of man’s freedom!
If you ignore it then you diminish man’s sense of responsibility. What a baleful effect that will have on crime and punishment. In Genesis three we are presented with man in the most perfect of environments and we see him falling into sin. Later on in Genesis 39 we are presented with young Joseph alone in Egypt, far from Christian company, meeting the seductions of a married woman and saying no. He overcame temptation and maintained his integrity in a very hostile environment. I am saying that your guilt and shame cannot be off loaded onto other factors when you plead, ‘The devil made me do it.’ That is thrown out of court. You cannot plead the pressures of your companions or your own personality or your political leaders or your genetic inheritance. It is possible for you to transcend all those pressures. You make the choice to lose or forfeit your very self. Your guilt is yours! You answer to God. To minimize that is to imperil the dignity of man. We refuse to stand before a man found guilty of a crime and say, “He should not to be punished. He couldn’t help it. What he needs is treatment. Inject him and brainwash him.” That is a gross insult. Yes, there are a tiny group of mentally deranged individuals who cannot even plead in a court of law, but the vast majority of law breakers are dignified men who when they are caught suffer just retribution. They have chosen to ruin their own lives and others, and we ask from the legal system that the offender receive precisely the punishment his crime deserves, and when he has served his sentence that he be freed again, his debt paid.
iii] Thirdly, being a soul means that man has an aesthetic sense, in other words, man has a sense of beauty; he can create and appreciate form and sound and can respond to it. I drive from Aberystwyth south to Aberaeon and in places the road goes along the cliff top. I can look across the fields of sheep and cows and beyond them to witness the sun setting over the Bay. I draw into a layby to watch that glory. We never see the animals all turning in silent wonder to gaze at the sun disappearing below the horizon with the sky quite magnificent in its different shades of scarlet. If the animals were transfixed by that sight, and bleated or lowed in wonder at the sunset, then we could never eat lamb again.
Man alone of all God’s creatures, has a sense of beauty because God has made him body and soul. Of course a sense of beauty can be a great temptation; that is how Satan tempted Eve, when she saw that the tree was pleasing to the eye (Gen. 3:6). An appreciation of beauty is a veritable powder keg. Man will justify murder on the basis of his sense of beauty, and yet every person possesses it. In the book of Exodus our attention is drawn to someone called Bezaleel whose gifts were especially in these areas, that God; “has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic craftsmanship” (Ex. 31:2).
We cannot ignore that aspect of human personality, for example in our evangelism, the design of our places of worship, our advertising leaflets and our websites. Of course God overrules the ugliness of our presentation as he does the errors of our doctrine but that justifies neither. What care is shown these days of competing Christian publishing houses in producing books. The dust-jackets are attractive, and the type face is large, and the margins are wide. We are not to be obsessed with these things, of course, but we are not to ignore them either. Hugh Miller said that the first essential of a book is that it be interesting enough to be read, and for judging a preacher that his sermons be sufficiently engaging that people will attentively listen to him. Without that all the merit of his orthodoxy and righteousness is of little avail.
But isn’t the history of our town a warning against the dangers of magnifying the aesthetic sense? This is a community which in 1859 was the centre for a great work of God in Wales. It is not such a community today. Other gods are worshipped today, but there is no redemption in the National Library of Wales; that is found only in Christ. There is no salvation in the Arts Centre. There is no birth from above at the University. There is no divine conversion through writing, sculpting, painting, composing and playing. They are not man’s chief end. We are not to live for those things. Culture is not our religion; the worst crime is not to be a philistine. How many are utterly blinded to Jesus Christ because of their obsession with beauty and form? We know that that attractiveness can obscure the evil of the content. A godless message can be received because the package in which it is offered is attractive. Much contemporary literature and television is basically degrading.
All works of art have a message and the nature of that message is an important factor in the evaluation of the work as a whole. In the parables and discourses of our Lord, in the poetry of Isaiah and David, in the narratives of Luke, in the epistles of Paul, beauty is the handmaid of truth. Goya’s genius proclaims the brutality of war. Shakespeare analyses the subtleties of the human heart. Pascal exposes the sophistries of the Jesuits. In Bunyan, Chalmers and Spurgeon art is wedded to the theology of the Reformation. But the prestigious prizes won in the annual competitions frequently proclaim tenets of ungodliness. The judges have applied aesthetic criteria alone, and so ungodliness gets rewarded. Novelists, dramatists and poets have consecrated their genius to the commendation of secularism, permissiveness, bohemian living, violence and despair. The beauty of the form is too often used to excuse the obscenity of the substance. For them it is enough that the work is well-written. It is irrelevant that it degrades. In this situation we must realize, first of all, how easily and how totally we (and our children) are influenced by what we see and read; we find it in the literature that we read for amusement or purely for pleasure; that may have the greatest and least suspected influence upon us. Hence it is that the influence of Mills and Boon, the soaps, and teenage magazines that require to be closely scrutinized. The prize winners have gained the world and lost their souls.
iv] Fourthly, being a soul means man has relationality, in other words, man’s capacity to experience close communion with other people. An animal does not have friendship; it has a herd instinct and a maternal instinct and perhaps loyalty to its mate, but not friendship. There have been great friendships in the world, like Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, and Coleridge and Wordsworth. One hears of the contemporary friendship of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in Los Angeles. In the church there have been friendships like David and Jonathan, Paul and Timothy, or William Cowper and Morley Unwin. How precious are our friends! Yesterday’s newspapers with their lonely hearts’ pages, showed us men and women searching for a companion. The first article of the Christian faith is that God is one, but the one God is not solitary. He is triune; there is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is reflected in the life of man. It is not good for a person to be alone. Take community away from him and he will be the most miserable of creatures. Of course people are affected by selfishness in each part of their beings but they are yet capable of deep natural affection. Husbands and wives are bound together in the commitment of total, permanent and exclusive love. Sacrifices are made for children. Obedience is rendered to parents. There are many super non-Christian marriages. There are some struggling Christian marriages. All men and women are made in the image of God and so we are built for other people.
The longing for communion shows itself in the fellowship of Christian believers who come together for mutual support and affection. That is why a division in a church destroys peace of mind, takes sleep away, ruins the lives of many in the congregation because we need the friendship of the family of faith. The loneliness of man is one of the basic characteristics that the Gospel addresses. In the world he finds competition, rivalry, prejudice and animosity. A man finds Christ and finds at the same time the fellowship of those who are also finders. The church is a healing community. Its ethos and influences should be ruthlessly sanctifying. The victims of a callous society should find acceptance, and love, and sympathy. To the Christian not only Christ is precious, the congregation, the body of Christ is precious too. But most of all we are made for communion with God. This was the original relationship, one of peace and love, but its disruption hasn’t destroyed man’s need for it. God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. “Come to me and I will give you rest,” says the Son of God.
So I have given you four illustrations, examples and consequences of being a soul. There are others; there is guilt; there is creativity; there is scientific knowledge, mathematics and physics, but for today consider these four characteristics. All of you have knowledge; you know yourselves, others, the truth, the living God, and your dying will not change that. You also have freedom, to give your life to some great end; to live for others, or to live for self and deny God. You have a sense of beauty to appreciate Paul’s great words, whatsoever things are true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, of good report, are virtuous and praiseworthy then let your mind think of these things – and you know what such things are. You have relationality; these are the most precious parts of you, your family and your friends, the people you admire and love, and your God. Those would be some of the characteristics that make a person a soul, quite different from animals, and insects, and fish, and reptiles. This is the core of who and what you are as men and women made by God. They reflect God’s handiwork and also his image. I have no idea how they fit into modern theories of psychology or physiology, but I am convinced that a deficiency in or distortion of any of those areas does lead to a terrible impoverishment of personhood. These are some of the wonderful privilege of being a soul as well as being a body, and they make us so very different from the lesser creation, what the Bible calls ‘living creatures.’ But because the same God made us all, man and beast, from the dust of the earth then there are bound to be parallels between animals and men because God does not spread diversity unnecessarily.
Now, as I have said, that soul which you are, that true self, will last beyond death. Death will temporarily separate body and soul, but in the great day of resurrection there will be a mighty reunion of a resurrection body and soul, just as it was with Jesus Christ, and mere death will not have changed who you are at all. On the third day the same Jesus rose again; body and soul were reunited. I am saying that death will not annihilate your soul. Annihilation is not a choice; it is not an option. Jesus could not opt for non-existence when he died. In him was life! He rose, and so will all of you. You remember in the story Jesus told of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar, how after death the soul of the rich man went to the place of woe while the soul of the beggar went to Abraham’s bosom. One soul was lost and forfeited, the other soul saved, but neither soul was snuffed out, so the Lord Jesus said, and that is my only authority for bring it to you. So I have spent most of our time in impressing upon you the fact that you are a soul, a never-dying soul, and that you cannot understand yourself and will not be fulfilled unless you grasp that fact.
2. IT IS POSSIBLE TO GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD AND LOSE OR FORFEIT YOUR VERY SELF.
I read a little article about media star Simon Cowell this week. Now what did I learn about him? I learned some superficial things, that he was fifty years old at the beginning of this month and that he is a star in the USA as well as in the UK. I also read these words of his, “In school I was thick and lazy, but I was ambitious. I only ever wanted to earn money.” Then the columnist told his readers that when he was in his thirties Simon Cowell sold his share in the S Record label to BMG for a reported 42 million pounds. So I now knew those inconsequential things about him, but I also know these great facts, that Simon Cowell has knowledge, that he has freedom, that he has a sense of beauty and he has relationality. I know that because every human soul has those crucial characteristics. More than that, I learn from Jesus Christ that a man can gain the whole world and lose or forfeit his very self. You can use your knowledge and freedom and sense of beauty and your people skills in personal relationships, and by them you can gain the whole world, but also you can lose yourself. Now I don’t know if Simon Cowell has done that because I only know about him from seeing him on TV and reading about him in this article, but I know that there are men and women have done this because Jesus spoke of them.
Jesus told of one man who did this very thing. The incident is not very far from the passage before us. It is found in Luke chapter 12: “And Jesus told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.” Then he said, “This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” ‘This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.’” (Lk. 12:16-21). Do you see this man’s energy? He had great knowledge of farming, and he made many free choices; no doubt he had a sense of beauty and relationality but all of those wonderful qualities he used for one end, to get more and more money and become richer and richer. He did not use them to love and serve and enjoy God more and more. He did not use them to serve and love his neighbour as himself. He focused all his qualities on one thing, getting rich and then taking it easy. He probably said something like Simon Cowell once said, “I only ever wanted to earn money,” and all the world said, “Yeah! Good on you! Go for it!” but God called him a fool. This landowner gained great riches, more than you or I can ever imagine, but he forfeited his very self. He made a bad bargain.
3. HOW CAN A MAN LOSE OR FORFEIT HIS VERY SELF?
He can take his knowledge and freedom and sense of beauty and relationality and he can do any or all of three fatal things with them – so says J.C.Ryle.
i] He can murder his very self by giving himself up to open sin, to fornication, and sexual sin, to breaking his marriage vows, and deceit, and theft, and violence, and blasphemy, and Sabbath-breaking. He uses his wonderful stature as a human being made in the image of God and with it he can serve sin! “Because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephs. 5:6).
ii] He can poison his very self by taking these wonderful graces and devoting them to following false prophets. The Lord Jesus spoke often enough of such people and warned us of men who are wolves in sheep’s clothing. I am speaking of the cults, and sacerdotalism, and eastern religions, and new age mysticism, and modernism, and the emergent church. A false religion is quite as ruinous as no religion at all. I am not interested in making people religious. Mankind’s religions have been its worse enemies.
iii] He can starve his very self to death by spending his life in indecision and trifling, content to sneer at the falls of those who profess to be Christians, flattering himself that he is no bigot, never taking a stand on such issues as God creating the world and also creating men and women in his image, redemption only by the person and work of Christ, the unborn child being a real person, that there is a heaven to win and a hell to avoid, never becoming serious about following Christ, and to dabble in all of that will mean he will lose his soul.
I tell you that it does not take too much trouble to lose your soul. Millions all around us have lost theirs. It wouldn’t be surprising knowing how careless you are about your soul that you are going to lose yours too, and then you have no one to blame but yourself. You know the place where those who have lost their souls go? Just one place, and that is hell. If what Jesus says is true. The lost soul goes to the place where the worm does not die and the fire in unquenchable – if what Jesus say is true. Where there is blackness, and darkness, wretchedness and despair for ever. The lost soul goes to hell, the only place for which it is fit since it is not fit for heaven. It goes to join all the other souls who loved everything more than God. “The wicked shall be turned into hell, with all the nations that forget God.”
4. ANYONE’S SOUL CAN BE SAVED.
i] Anyone’s soul can be saved because Christ has once died. The Lamb of God has come and has taken away not just Israel’s sin but the sin of the world. His crucifixion was a sacrifice and propitiation for the worst of sinners. It paid our enormous debt to God. It opened up the way to heaven to all believers. It provided a fountain where the foulest, deepest’ darkest stains can be removed. It procured peace with God. From Calvary he smiles and smiles for ever on all for whom Jesus died. Why lose your soul when Jesus has died?
ii] Anyone’s soul can be saved because Christ still lives. That same Jesus who once died for sinners, still lives at the right hand of God. He is the same very person that he was when he walked on earth. He lives to hear us when we labour and are heavy-laden. He is our great high priest in heaven, the friend of all who come to God by him. The friend of Matthew the tax collector and Mary Magdalene out of whom demons were cast is the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the same today and for ever and anyone’s soul can be saved because Christ still lives.
iii] Anyone’s soul can be saved because the promises of Christ’s gospel are full, free and unconditional. “He that believes on the Son shall not perish but have eternal life.” “He that comes to me I will in no wise cast out.” “Everyone who sees the Son and believes on him has everlasting life.” “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.” For whom were such words spoken? For the Jews only? No for the Gentiles too. Were they meant for people of ancient days? No. For us today too. For the whole world? Yes. For the rich only? No. For all, the poorest or worst person reading these words, for the vilest of the vile. When I read these words then I know that anyone may be saved if they come to God through his Son, Jesus Christ.
Then do not neglect your soul! Then come to Christ without delay! Then cleave to the Lord with all your heart.
25th October 2009 GEOFF THOMAS