GCI: Christmas Eve Sermon, 1994
Transformed by Truth, by Joseph Tkach
No one would deny that the gospel, the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, is the center of Christianity. But, it seems that Christians often get sidetracked. Unique doctrines, legalistic regulations, prophetic speculations, and personality cults seem to blur the central truths of the faith until some Christians act as if they are in a theological fog. God’s light doesn’t seem to be getting through the barriers they have erected.
God graciously brings renewal among His people that refocuses them on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith. Faith in Christ should always be our focus. As the leaders began to refocus the church on Christ, many members of our church doubted the changes. They thought all would soon return to the familiar ways of the past. The changes weren’t for real. Talk of change must be exaggerated. Things would get back to normal.
That all changed with a landmark sermon my dad gave on Christmas Eve 1994. This is often called “The New Covenant/Old Covenant” sermon, and it once and for all convinced the skeptics within our own church that the changes were for real and that they were permanent. In that sermon, my dad demonstrated such an obvious personal conviction about salvation by grace through faith that there could no longer be any question that he was behind the changes being made. He told the membership that we were no longer going to say that those who had to work on Saturday and couldn’t go to church that week were condemned to the lake of fire. He said that we were no longer going to teach triple tithing. He said so many astonishing things in his sermon that many of our older members—people who didn’t believe what was happening, who dismissed what was being written in The PIain Truth and in the member letters and in the ministerial letters, who turned a deaf ear to what my dad was saying on videotapes—could no longer maintain that the changes were part of a big conspiracy taking place behind my dad’s back. No, it was clear there was no conspiracy and that he was intimately involved.
As a result of that sermon, the largest of three main splinter groups broke off from us and began its own organization, the United Church of God. Even though some of their leaders had been planning a breakaway in secret meetings, the sermon gave them the catalyst they needed to make their break.
Until that Christmas Eve, a lot of our own people didn’t believe that the changes were real. After the sermon, however, there could be no doubt. We would pay the price.
On Christmas Eve 1994, my dad began the three-hour sermon by saying, “This is going to be a long afternoon.” His message would fundamentally change forever our denomination. As one writer later put it, my dad “had to show that it is not a sin to work on the Sabbath. This was the single most important decision in the history of the denomination.”1
My father knew he might touch off a firestorm with this sermon. Toward the end of his message he said: “Some people will rejoice about what I have said today, some will criticize. But I can’t let the potential for criticism prevent me from preaching and teaching about the New Covenant and new understanding we have in Jesus Christ.” Because my dad was dedicated to faithfully serving Jesus Christ by leading our church into truth, he plowed ahead. He gave this sermon several times in various locations around the country to maximize its impact and to minimize misunderstanding. In three hours he covered a wide assortment of topics. In some of his most
important remarks he:
- affirmed that the church is no longer bound to the Old Covenant but is in fact a New Covenant organism;
- insisted that salvation is by grace through faith and is not gained in the least through law keeping;
- declared that members who needed to work on Saturday to care for their families were not committing sin;
- proclaimed that tithing is not a requirement for salvation but is a voluntary action performed in service and love to God
In many ways an observer cannot grasp the importance of the sermon without reading it in its entirety. [To read the main text of his sermon, click here.] Yet how many readers would be willing to sift through sixty-two single-spaced pages of sermon transcripts? Allow me to reproduce just a few highlights from the message. I hope the reader appreciates that the excerpts that follow were spoken and are reproduced from the audio/video transcripts we have on file. These should be sufficient to gain an appreciation for the incalculable impact the sermon had on our church:
We were all in darkness and dungeons and blind and illiterate when it comes to understanding the plan for salvation. He, Christ, is the life for both Jews and Gentiles. He opens the eyes of the spiritually blind. And he brings freedom to those who have been enslaved by sin. And he is the covenant that God makes with His people. He is the basis for our relationship with God…. It is only through Him that we can receive promises of the new covenant….
We let our light shine so that our Father in heaven is glorified, He is worshiped, He is praised, and He is thanked…. Before it was, more or less, pray and pay. Don’t worry about anything else. All you were required to do was to send your tithes in, read the literature, and shut up. It goes beyond that….
Salvation is a gift, and it means that you cannot earn it in any way, shape, or form. And that was one of the major discussions that came from my relationship with Mr. Armstrong…. I began to explain what a new convert would have to go through before he was just invited to attend church for the first time. It was like going through an inquisition. Given the third degree. And you know, maybe it was sincere on the part of the ministry. But also they were doing what they were informed to do from headquarters. Mr. Armstrong said that was not his [intent]. And he went on to prove [it] to me. He said, “I baptized people who were still smoking. I baptized drunkards. I baptized, you know, everything you could think of. Even teenagers.” He said, “In other words, you’re saying that we were expecting people to perform and act like Christians before they could become a Christian?” I said, “I guess that’s it.” He said, “That’s the reason why I baptized these people, so that they would receive God’s Spirit and with it they would have the conviction and they would have the desire and inspiration to accomplish, to overcome some of those physical handicaps that we have….”
We are justified by faith. We are declared right with God by faith. We are saved on the basis of faith. Not on law keeping….
And he [Mr. Armstrong] brought up another interesting point. Especially the comment when he said that there are Christians elsewhere in the world. “Oh, but if they don’t have the Sabbath as a sign, how can they be Christians?” Well, we don’t have the Sabbath as a sign, either. Does that mean I am minimizing the importance of the Sabbath? Absolutely not. Our sign is faith in Jesus Christ, and as a result we are baptized and receive the Holy Spirit….
When judgment day comes and the judge asks us why He should let us into His kingdom, how do you think we’re going to answer? “Oh, I have a perfect Sabbath attendance record. I have kept all of the laws flawlessly.” You say that, you made one big blunder, because you didn’t. And He will be quick to point it out to you. “I’ve interceded for you every day, you dummy.” I hope we don’t do that, because the judge could easily point out laws we haven’t [kept]. Where we have failed and sins that we have committed. And in some cases, not even repented of. We can’t say that we’re good enough to keep the law. All we can do is plead for mercy. I want that, I want that. We have faith in Christ that He died to redeem us from all sins. He died to rescue us from the penalty of the law, and that’s our only basis for salvation….
James, like Paul, warns us about a so-called faith that does not lead to obeying God. Paul is talking about real faith. The kind that includes repentance, total allegiance to Christ. A wholehearted willingness to obey Him. But even then he says, it is the faith that saves us and not the works. But we have works because we are saved….
That’s the spirit and the attitude of a real Christian. Not those that want to dig in their heels and say, “I don’t agree with it!” Well, you can do that with the Global Church of God if you want. If you want to go back to legalism, fine! I would wish that you wouldn’t. But if that’s the only way you need to learn—get your nose really rubbed into it—and you’ve not learned enough about legalism that you want to put it out of your life, well then, go ahead….
So under the New Covenant the tithe is voluntary—done out of love and allegiance to Jesus Christ, and isn’t that appropriate? Shouldn’t our giving be done out of the vision, the love of God in our hearts? That’s the way; that’s what separates the men from the boys….
Sometimes it seems as if the Sabbath was more important than human lives. Or the Sabbath was more important than expressing love and faith in Christ. We looked at the external instead of the internal. We meant well. But now we can change because God has led us to a deeper understanding of the covenant….
The Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant with Israel. Faith in Christ and the Spirit of God (if you are looking for a sign) is the sign between the servants of God today. It is not the sign of the New Covenant of the blood of Christ. The sign of the New Covenant is faith in Christ and the bread and wine, which are symbols of that covenant. Consequently, the Sabbath to be observed under the New Covenant differs from the way it was to be observed under the Old. The Lord of the Sabbath has come, and the reality has replaced the shadow. Colossians 3:17, the New Testament Sabbath. The Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God in Hebrews 4 is a new life in Christ. The life of faith in Him and the light of the Spirit. The way we observed the Sabbath in the past has been to apply the Old Covenant rules to the New Covenant Sabbath. Like oil and water. And thereby applying unnecessary burdens which, like I said earlier, the ministry did not have to experience….
No one is trying to water down the law of God or what God commands and expects of us. I’ve always said, we go above and beyond the call of duty. But we don’t impose hardships on people that God didn’t. Are we more righteous than God? Are we like the Pharisees which Christ took to task and said that if our righteousness doesn’t exceed theirs we will in no way inherit the kingdom of God?…
We should all welcome each other based on faith in Christ. That’s the important issue. The point is that we should not be sitting in judgment on others and how they observe the Sabbath. Some will be extra careful to be home by sundown [on Friday], while others will not….
The Sabbath is a shadow pointing us to the reality, who is Christ. That doesn’t mean that the Sabbath is done away with, but it means the Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ. It means that Christ is more important than the Sabbath. The Sabbath rest for Christians in Hebrews 4 is the new life in Christ. Not just a day of the week. And Paul tells us in Romans 14 that we should not be involved in arguments or disputes over days. Being Sabbath keepers does not make us more righteous than other Christians.
God respects our willingness to sacrifice to obey Him even though our understanding was incomplete. God doesn’t hold it against us. But now God has called on the church to grow deeper in understanding. To worship Christ and not the Sabbath. The Sabbath was not made to be worshiped; Christ is to be worshiped…. [click here for the full text]
When he finally began wrapping up his sermon three hours after he began, my dad reminded his listeners once more: “We are saved by faith, not by rules—and certainly not by judging one another. And I am sure this is going to cause a lot of questions, and that’s good. It shows you are thinking. And hopefully it is with a positive spirit and a positive attitude. I encourage you to study this topic…. I ask you to pray daily for [Christ] to continue to guide us into more truth and more understanding. I thank you for your loyalty and I thank you for your support and cooperation.” He declared he had simply done his best to make clear what God was teaching him and once more asked for rumors to be kept under control, “even though it will be a challenge, I’m sure.”
Boy, did he hit that one on the head.
The sermon was a turning point in the renewal of our church. We had begun examining our teachings and had made some changes. When my father made it clear that legalistic interpretations of Old Covenant regulations were not going to be the central focus of our ministry, he cleared away the fog that was clouding our view of Jesus Christ. The pilgrimage continued for me and for our church. We continued coming out of a theological sleep into the refreshing light of a clear focus on the gospel of grace and our relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ.
1. Michael Morrison, “Case Study: Doctrinal Change and Denominational Schism,” unpublished paper for Church Leadership and Administration class at the Graduate School of Theology, Azusa Pacific University, November 10, 1996, 4.
Author: Joseph Tkach