WHO CAN BE BELIEVED?
Sermon by Dr. Robert R. Ball
First presented September 5th, 1971
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“You will know them by their fruits”
Scripture: Matthew 7:13-20
Dr. Robert R. Ball
Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church
Houston, Texas September 5, 1971
What’s the truth about marijuana?
What’s the truth about Vietnam?
What’s the truth about sexual morality?
What’s the truth about National Banker’s Life stock manipulations?
What’s the truth about man and life and God?
A man used to feel he could know most of what he needed to know, but
suddenly the world got terribly complicated. Today we rely on experts if we want
to know the truth.
* Just to have and rear a child today you need an obstetrician, an
anesthesiologist, a pediatrician, a dermatologist, an orthodontist, an
opthamologist, a child psychologist; and, after all that, a psychologist for
* Then we discover that all the experts don’t agree. So five experts are called
in on the case and they vote. It comes out 3 to 2. Who can be believed?
It’s very confusing. Sometimes we wonder if we will ever know the truth. Some
people say, “Since no one seems to know, that must mean there just isn’t any
That may be how it seems but we can’t live that way. There are some
decisions that have to be made: to operate or not to operate; to spank or not to
spank; to turn on with drugs or not to turn on; to study or not to study; to obey or to
rebel; to trust or to doubt. We have to decide, but who can be believed?
Jesus Christ says he can be believed. He says he is the truth. He may be lying
or he may be a misguided mystic with a messianic complex. These are both
possibilities. I am persuaded that He is the truth. The church of Jesus Christ has
survived, and more than survived, through political and philosophical revolutions
that have cratered every other institution. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth have
changed the whole complexion and direction of the entire world. Through 2,000
years of human living and dying, who Jesus is and what he says have rung
authentic in the lives of millions: brilliant and uneducated, artistic and common,
rich and poor, black and white and brown and yellow. He rings authentic to me.
So I join with the Church in its witness to Jesus Christ as the truth – in a world
bleeding for someone who can be believed.
If Jesus Christ is the truth, then truth, finally, in not propositional but personal.
What I mean is, when God chose to reveal his truth to the world he did not do it
through statements in a book, but in person. The distinction is important.
Truth is not found by trying to “live by the book.” We keep trying because it
would be so much simpler that way. It would end a lot of painful frustration. We
could just read it in the book and then do it. If anyone ever questioned us, we
could just pull out the book and show them. We could prove everything. Life would
be clinically clean and surgically neat and completely impersonal.
How would you women like to have a husband who does everything he is
supposed to do? Before you jump at the offer, I must confess that I have no such
husband available. But I’m not at all sure you’d want him if I did. You disagreed
with him, you’d be wrong. It’s in the book! If your tastes or needs ever changed,
you’d be out of luck. It has to be the way the book says. Even if he agreed to
rewrite the book to allow for some things that didn’t used to be – like TV and drugs
and pollution and computers and trips to the moon – what about the things that will
come after them? Living by the book is a defense mechanism – designed to
protect us from truth rather than leading us to it. Anyway, whose book are you
going to use? Living by the book makes life COLD and STERILE and
ARBITRARY and HOPELESS.
If truth could be contained in words, then we would be satisfied when we get
people to say the words we want to hear; but even when they do, we aren’t.
* A wife wants to know and needs to hear her husband say “I love you,” but what
she really wants to know goes much deeper than words. “How do you really feel
* The Church is full of people who will recite orthodox creeds, but where are
those people when some loving and caring and sacrificing is needed?
* I am impressed when a doctor has a wall-full of degrees, but my real test
comes from knowing the kind of person he is. Does he care about me?
The truth that makes the difference, finally, is personal. It has to do with feelings
and loyalty and openness. Truth can’t be canned in propositions. So let’s quit
hiding behind the notion that truth can be wrapped up in the right words.
If Jesus is the truth, then the way of truth is agonizing and hard. Truth can’t be
had easily or superficially. Jesus makes this explicitly clear.
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the
way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who
enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way
is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
The Church customarily backs away from hard teachings. We have a great
fear of offending someone, especially if they have power or money. And not
without cause! The Church has often been threatened and intimidated. I have
received more than one letter saying, “Do what I want or the church will not get
one more cent of my money!”
Words like “humbling one’s self” or “sacrifice” are seldom heard anymore
except as slogans no one expects to be taken seriously. We have taken the word
“love” given to us by bleeding hands from the cross, and have made it mean
“nice” and “sweet” and “comfortable.” We have actually encouraged the idea that
there can be love in marriage without pain, love between parents and children
without responsibility, and love between races without “our side” having to make
any serious sacrifices. This isn’t truth.
We deny our Lord and do a disservice to others when we make it appear that
Christianity is a popular movement, that truth can be found down the path of least
* I have never known a person of real depth and wisdom who had not
endured some times of deprivation and disappointment and made
some lonely, tough decisions.
* I have never known a marriage that was genuine and vital that had not
faced up to some personal differences and made some painful
decision to forgive and forget.
* I have never known a church with an authentic word to speak and an
authentic love to give that had not been willing to risk its life for the
sake of Christ and in service for mankind.
The fellow with the quick smile and the hearty slap-on-the-back may be a
pleasant sort to have around, unless you really need help. Then you go to the
person who has been through some long nights of pain and questioning, and
faced them honestly – the person whose conviction that life is good and worth
living has been pounded out on the anvil of adversity. He’s the man you can
Truth, real truth, will not be found by going through the wide gate with the
crowd. Truth requires some lonely moments when a person stands face to face
with his God, makes a personal commitment, and accepts the disciplines that go
If Jesus Christ is the truth, then the final test of truth is the love it produces.
Whatever works for human dignity, for self-respect and respect for others, for
reconciliation between those who are separated – that is truth. Whatever makes
for division and depreciation of human beings – that is untruth. Who can be
believed? Jesus says,
“By their fruits you shall know them.”
Jesus was willing for his own claims to be tested by their fruits. John the
Baptist, in prison because his preaching had offended King Herod, heard about
the ministry of Jesus. So he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he were the
true Messiah. Instead of trying to snow John with a bunch of impressive logical
proofs, Jesus said,
“Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind
receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are
cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the
poor have good news preached to them.”
This is our final test of truth. “By their fruits you shall know them.”
This is our test of truth among politicians. Whose program results in making
human life more human? Who shows the greatest concern for those who are in
real need? Get behind the words they speak; look for the fruit they bear. Who is
grappling with the real issues of our day? Who seeks for a genuine, human
existence for all people? This is the test of truth.
This is our test of truth among religious groups. Who is willing to sacrifice his
own pleasure and prestige that the love of God in Christ may become real in the
lives of real human beings – the outcasts, the foreigner, those who are hungry for
hope? The love they share authenticates the theology they speak.
This is our test of truth within our own lives, and that may be the most difficult
task of all.
* Which of my warring ideas and impulses are true – and which of them are born
out of my confusion and my fear of weakness and my greed?
* Whatever makes for genuine self-respect and honest self-confidence and
increased understanding, for me and for others, those things are true.
* Whatever makes for jealousy and rivalry and hatred, putting other people
down in an effort to lift me up, those things violate the truth.
Truth is known by what it produces, which is not necessarily success by human
standards. The test of truth is love. Who can be believed? By their fruits you shall
C O N C L U S I O N
A member of this congregation met a woman at the tennis court. She had
never known her before. As they sat there having a coke, this new friend began to
pour out a heart full of pain and disappointment. After about an hour of
conversation, this hurting soul turned to the MDPC member and said, “You must
belong to that church over there where they really do believe in the love of God
and in loving everybody.”
I think that Christ would be pleased for his Church to be known in that way.
That’s how he was known, and he calls us to follow his steps down that path. It is a
narrow way, a way of sacrificial love, and it is the fullness of every possible joy.
When Christ sent his disciples out into the world, he was utterly realistic about
what they would find. “You will be like sheep among wolves,” he told them.
* But there is nowhere in the gospel the slightest hint of doubt as to what the
outcome of their dangerous mission would be. There is only the promise of joy.
* The power of evil is real, real enough to kill God’s own Son; but the power of
love is the truth, and it is that truth that rules the world forever.
Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong.
Yet the scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadows,
Keeping watch above his own.
Our world is pleading for someone who can be believed, That someone is
Christ. He is the truth. But they cannot believe him unless they are able to believe
us, his disciples. They will believe when they see us serving the truth in
committed, sacrificial love.
From the collection of
Pamela Mudd Conlan