Here in the south, we have this old saying that’s supposed to help you if you should ever find yourself in a situation where you need to pick up a snake.
Yellow and black will kill Jack. Black on yellow will be kind to a fellow.
No wait. That’s wrong. Here’s how it goes.
Yellow and black is a good friendly snake that loves Jack. Black on yellow means don’t walk away or even say hello.
No that can’t be it either. You’ll figure it out. Good luck and may God have mercy on your soul.
There are other sayings here in the south. Some are spoken while others are quietly believed. But all of these sayings are dangerous. Much more dangerous than any snake bite.
These religious myths have been around for a while. 2000 years ago, a preacher named John addressed them head on. In the Bible Belt, the land that I love and where I live, we need to hear John’s words again so that we won’t believe another old myth that could kill us.
“I am a good person.”
I don’t kill. I don’t cheat on my wife. I pay my taxes. I give money to Lottie Moon. I take my hat off when they sing the national anthem before Monster Jam. I am a good person.
Pharisees thought that they were good too. They paid tithes, not simply off of their income, but even from their spice rack. When’s the last time you tithed your fennel seed? They prayed. They fasted. They were good people. Or so it seemed.
John saw through all of that and into the heart.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Matthew 3:7-8 (ESV)
As far as morality and even spirituality goes, the Pharisees would put us to shame. And what does that get them? John calls them, “a brood of vipers” and tells them to, “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
At first glance, the Pharisees did bear fruit. They tithed their spices, remember? But their alleged fruit bearing wasn’t the result of repentant love of God. It was a means to win the approval of both God and man. These were not good people. They needed a Savior.
The same is true of us. There is no amount of money that we can give away to make us good. Only Christ can do that.
On your own, you are not a good person. But Jesus is. And that is enough for you.
“I come from a Christian family.”
The following verse is not in the Bible.
And Jesus said unto the man, “Verily, you are a sinner but I hear that your grandfather was a pastor. That’s good enough. Enter into Paradise.”
In fact, John says quite the opposite to the religious elite who thought that having Abraham in their family tree was enough to make them right with God.
“And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Matthew 3:9 (ESV)
Jesus does not need you. Or your grandfather, the pastor. You both need him. The Pharisees forgot that and we can too. While a Christian family is a beautiful thing, we must remember that salvation is by grace through faith, not by genetics through family ties.
“Joining the church saves me.”
Somewhere in our religious history, we’ve convinced ourselves that walking an aisle and joining a church while continuing to live in rebellion to Christ can save us. But an atheist can walk an aisle and join some churches, even while staying an atheist. Have you ever heard of Ray Stevens? Even a squirrel can walk an aisle.
The mark of a true Christian is not his t-shirts, bumper stickers, voting record, aisle walking or church membership. It is his fruit. At the top of the list of that fruit is love. If you don’t love other people, it doesn’t matter how many churches you have joined, you don’t belong to God (1 John 4:7-8). Sadly, some of the most hateful, racist comments I’ve ever heard have been by church people.
John’s warning to the Pharisees standing by the river Jordan, applies just as much to us today.
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Matthew 3:10 (ESV)
“I’ve made my peace with God.”
In the Bible Belt, you’ll hear that one a lot just before a funeral. “He’s made his peace with God.” Usually what that means is that the person has finally decided that he likes God and wouldn’t mind moving into his pearly mansion after he dies. No mention of repentance, faith, sin or even Jesus. Just peace with God.
Here’s something better to consider.
Has God made peace with you?
Many people in the south, and I’m sure all over the world, think that they are living in peace with God while continuing to live as his enemies.
Peace with God doesn’t come by a change of mind or behavior. It can only come through Jesus (Romans 5:1). Without repenting and believing in his gospel, there is no peace with God.
John, in his own bold style, was kind enough to give that warning to his critics.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Matthew 3:11 (ESV)
“It’s all going to work out in the end.”
We’ve all had the math teacher who gave us two extra points so that we could pass tenth grade Algebra. Okay, maybe that was just me. But you’ve gotten your free passes. Maybe it was a warning instead of a ticket. Whatever the specifics, you’ve gotten the easy way out before. Surely God wouldn’t be any different, would he?
Hell wasn’t invented by a sweaty Baptist preacher in a bad suit somewhere back in the 1950s. Jesus talked about it a lot. But before Jesus ministry officially began, John gave his own warning.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12 (ESV)
People have tried to get around it for centuries but there is no mistaking the facts. Hell is real. We deserve to be there. Jesus came to rescue us from what we deserve. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!
If there’s one thing that Christians in the Bible Belt love, it’s a good sermon on hell. Say something in a sermon about hell being a real place and you’re sure to get a few amens. But here’s the thing. As much as we check all of the right boxes when it comes to hell, we often live as though it were a figment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination.
The greatest threat to the doctrine of hell does not come from the Ivy League skeptics or the hipster, feel-good pastors who don’t think that it’s cool but from Christians who believe rightly but act as though it’s all a lie. If we really believe that hell is real, we will remember that for our friends and family who do not know Jesus, it will not all work out in the end.
When I was a kid, I heard Hank Williams Jr. sing, “If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I don’t want to go. If heaven ain’t a lot like Dixie, I just as soon stay home.”
For many, heaven is our idea of paradise, whatever that may be. But remember, Adam and Eve’s idea of paradise is what got us all into this fallen world. Thankfully, heaven is much more than our idea of perfection. It is God’s idea of perfection.
I love living in the south. But there’s a better home awaiting. And none of us will get there because we joined a church, were good people, made peace with God on our own terms or had a grandfather that was a pastor.
Jesus is our only hope.
Anything else is just another myth.