"Fear, lest, by forgetting what you are by nature, you also forget the need that you have of continual pardon, support, and supplies from the Spirit of grace, and so grow proud of your own abilities, or of what you have received from God, and fall into condemnation ... Fear, and that will make you little in your own eyes, keep you humble, put you upon crying to God for protection, and upon lying at his footstool for mercy; that will also make you have low thoughts of your own parts, your own doings and cause you to prefer your brother before yourself. And so you will walk in humiliation and be continually under the teachings of God, and under His conduct in your way, God will teach the humble. "The meek will He guide in judgment, and the meek will He teach His way." - Psalm 25:9 (John Bunyan - The Fear of God, page 96)
When the Lord opened my heart to the gospel in December of 1985, He set me on a radical new course, having delivered me from a wild life which was characterized by various anti-social behaviors, selfishness, drugs, crime, and the occult. Out of the most unlikely place, as I was reading the Scripture, the Lord revealed to me my lost condition: that I was without hope save in the mercy of Jesus Christ alone. In a moment, the Holy Spirit graciously united me to Christ, adopted me into God’s family, turning me from my idols to serve the Living and True God. I reflect back with awe as I consider that during the honeymoon period of my newly granted life in Christ, how the Lord actually poured out on me an extraordinary grace to overcome some of my previous bad habits and gave me a remarkable heart for prayer, especially for the lost. With zeal and great affection my greatest desire was to follow and obey the Lord. He stirred my heart to pray for a couple hours each morning as I arose, knowing that I must call down blessing from God if I was to have any power to live effectively during this age. And the result was much fruitfulness and effective personal and corporate ministry to the glory of God.
Well one day in His great wisdom … and for His sovereign good purposes, God decided to remove part of that extraordinary initial grace. I don’t know if you have had a similar experience but the first years after conversion I felt invincible, that all sins were there to be overcome and souls were there to be harvested. There was a zeal that felt as if I would never fall, yet one day, perhaps due to my great personal and ministry success, and God wanting to show me what was really dormant in my heart, allowed a subtle pride began to creep in. Even though I knew intellectually that my conversion and newfound devotion were all a gift from God, there was self-righteousness which entered my heart in my daily life. I began to believe the lie which presumed that it was my own zeal, my own prayers and my own obedience which kept me in good standing with God. As a result, Christ’s finished work became increasingly minimized by my own efforts and activism. The result was fruitlessness and sin. And when I fell into sin I would hold in the guilt because I considered repentance as something more related to what people do at the beginning of their Christian life. I feared to look at myself in the mirror of God’s word and so hesitated to acknowledge my weakness. Christians were not supposed to be like this, especially me. Pride kept me from recognizing how largely dependant I still needed to be on Christ every day. Being in a far away land I was not able to access good teaching or shepherding, and my understanding became distorted by my sin. A moralistic strain became somewhat more evident in my Christian walk. I had become too reliant on my successful walk in the past and forgot, that all I had was wholly of the Lord, a gift from Christ and not something self-generated.
To my surprise, this forgetfulness, though evil on my part, was in God’s plan and He used for good. Over an extended period, since I am a slow learner, He again took me back showed me the basics that He was God, and I was not. As the majesty of God grew larger in my eyes, there was an increasingly uneasy sense that, even as a Christian I fell woefully short of obeying God’s clear commands to love Him with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength and my neighbor as myself. In light of God’s holy law I saw myself as, not getting better, but increasingly aware of my own sinfulness. But as it turns out, while this “classroom” revealed my own corrupt heart yet it was for my own benefit so the Lord could shine a light on once dark recesses of my being which were not previously exposed. I learned from this that inwardly, as we grow in grace, the greatness of God (and what Christ has done for us) increases in our hearts, while we become less. In fact it is normal that as we grow in the Lord our sense of our own sinfulness and ill-deserving lives may often even become more apparent. However, at the same time, this is in the Lord's plan and He uses it to make us simultaneously more dependent on Christ. And thanks be to God, that in Christ, God does not treat us as our sins justly deserve … and that is something we need to remind ourselves, and praise Him for, daily.
Ichabod S. Spencer once said, "To cut off the sinner from all reliance upon himself, his merits and his powers; and throw him, naked and helpless, into the hands of the Holy Spirit to lead him to Christ in faith; should be the one great aim of the ministry.” So the way God works in us through the gospel is that as the Holy Spirit broods over us prior to redeeming us, and works repentance and faith in us by confronting our self-righteousness and spiritual blindness such that our heart recognizes that we have no hope unless we throw ourselves entirely on Christ’s mercy alone. With a heart renewed by the Holy Spirit we then repent of known evil and, just as important, of trusting in any and all good works. When the Lord opens our heart to the gospel and unites us to Christ through faith, the Spirit of God is said to seal us for the day or redemption, thus guaranteeing our inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:13, 4:30). To many Christians the gospel ends there as a one time event. It is often seen as some past experience having happened at the time of conversion before we graduate on to “higher” truths. But, may I suggest that this most foundational understanding of the gospel is also the basis of our ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ? While our ultimate redemption is as certain as Christ is risen, he still reminds us as Christians that apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). I intend to show this to scripturally be the case in the next few paragraphs.
Its like this: Just as when the gospel saved us, as Christians the Word of God still comes to us in divine power so that our self-complacency is shattered and our self-righteousness renounced … the Holy Spirit still reminds us of our woeful, guilty, and lost condition without Christ and when, as our Father, He lovingly confronts the idols in our heart, so the Spirit again reveals to us our only hope to be the sufficiency of Christ to meet our desperate case … and a divinely given faith still causes us to lay hold of and rest upon Christ as our only hope for every situation we face. No amount of my own good works will make me more accepted with God. Christ is still all in all so I do good works not in order to be redeemed but because I am redeemed in Christ and must hold that ever before me, by God’s grace.
We all agree that the event of conversion did have a beginning at some point in the past, but I cannot emphasize this too much: the recognition of our spiritual helplessness and bankruptcy does not end at the time of our conversion. The means which God used to bring us to faith is much the same means he uses to sanctify us and strip us of our remaining idols as we grow into Christ’s likeness. This gospel is never something which a Christian graduates from because the gospel continues to be the central means of the Christians’ growth and relationship to God. A.W. Pink got it right when he said: “Just as the sinner's despair of any hope from himself is the first prerequisite of a sound conversion, so the loss of all confidence in himself is the first essential in the believer's growth in grace.” As the Spirit now enables us to abide in Christ, God continues to remove the functional idols from the Christians’ heart. Since we continue to be susceptible to sin, the ongoing characteristic in every encounter and situation in our Christian lives should be the gospel. The gospel for salvation and the gospel for loosening the grip we have on the idols which still captivate our hearts. Only as we exhibit real acknowledgement of our personal weaknesses daily will we begin to live redemptively on a daily basis. We then allow the world to see that we are about Christ, and not about ourselves or our moral programs. Christianity is not for those unwilling to constantly face their weaknesses for in them God’s power is most revealed in us (1 Cor 1:25, 15:43; 2 Cor 11:30, 12:5,9). But this is one of the hardest lessons to learn.
But what does this mean in an everyday practical way?
It means that since we have complete forgiveness in Christ we no longer need to fear approaching Christ when we fail. In fact, he encourages it. No more excuses or blaming others for our sin since we need no longer deny we are weak. Next is also means we recognize that our growth in grace is frustrated every time we have counterfeit hopes ... when we are trusting in something other than Jesus Christ, that is, letting some other idol capture our highest affection. These hopes or idols could be anything, including money, sex, being well-thought of, Christian activity and even theological knowledge. You see God is not simply repairing the house we already have, he wants to demolish it. It is a false gospel which says that you are ok and God just wants to improve you. No, God wants to remove all the false foundations and beams you have erected in your house and replace them entirely with new ones. The gospel is not about moral improvement but about making a new man. Our inability to grasp this means that we have a serious gap in our apprehension of the gospel. Our identity as Christians is subverted when the holes in our lives are filled with anything other than Christ. Our relationship to God and others suffer as a result.
I want you to take a close look with me at a passage in 2 Peter 1:3-8.
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.”
If you are going to take away anything from this article, take this away: The reason, Peter says, that your Christian life is ineffective and unfruitful and still laden with sin is not because you have not tried hard enough, but rather, that you have forgotten the gospel … forgotten what Christ has done for you. You have forgotten to apply the gospel to every situation.. The ramifications of this are profound. And take note, Peter also says that in the gospel He has provided everything we need for life and godliness NOW. This is why it is so essential for Christians to gather together every week to encourage one another and hear the pastor remind us what Christ has done, and is doing for us, through the Holy Spirit who unites us to Him. The people Peter describes in the above passage are nearsighted and blind to how the gospel applies today for them as Christians. That is why they do not grow in grace and exhibit the fruit of sanctification such as faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, and brotherly love in increasing measure. Instead of simply attempting to obey the commands with our sheer willpower, Peter says that it is our constant need to feed on Christ, forsaking our self-sufficiency that is the only means God has provided if we are to live God-glorifying lives. So the gospel is not only for our conversion but for our growth in grace as Christians. Do not underestimate your own tendency to sin and misapprehend the current benefits of the gospel available for you in Christ.
One of the biggest problems of preaching today is that it does not use the gospel to meet all the specific challenges we face in today’s world. The prevalent moralistic “how-to” sermons all but forsake Christ except in name. As a result, our identities get taken up by personal achievement and not the gospel … but the gospel strips us of these self-justifying illusions and gives all glory to Christ. We constantly are tempted to chase after Christ-replacements finding some other way to justify ourselves aside from Christ. But we must learn to distrust our own hearts because our natural blind tendency as Christians is not to view ourselves as desperate sinners, thus failing to see that we need an ongoing Savior. We must never see Jesus as Lord and not, at the same time, as Savior, even after conversion. The converse is also true, as Lord and Savior are inseparably intertwined as a package. Seeing Jesus only as Lord leads to judging ourselves by our morals, where we inevitably compare ourselves to others, and boasting or envy is usually the unintended consequence. Our personal virtue then functionally becomes a savior. But when we come to understand the gospel of free grace in Christ, as we should, then all pretence falls away because I see myself as I really am ... a sinner who justly deserves the wrath of God save for Christ's mercy alone. Only then will we rightly have true sympathies and union with the poor, the disenfranchised, the racist, the proud, and the criminal, because that's me, if left to myself. It is the grace of God ALONE that makes us to differ, and so what free grace does is that it makes it so that I can only point to Jesus and what He has done for me, for in the gospel there no longer anything I can point to in myself which makes me superior to others in light of God's majesty and holiness. Therefore a robust Calvinistic understanding of the sovereignty of God and the finished work of Jesus on our behalf would go a long way in recovering the gospel which is essentially lost in most modern evangelicalism.
It is this forgetting of the gospel which creates the empty hole in our hearts which tempts us to replace our identities with, or justify ourselves with some God-replacement. Our identity then becomes rooted in something other than God’s grace. The nature of our hearts are such that it will seek something to fill that hole if left void. Even as Christians we can become blind to our spiritual condition and daily need for Christ to rescue us. Nothing gives you standing before God, save Jesus Christ and Him alone: Not your performance; not your knowledge of the Bible; not your activism in confronting evil in society or others and not your acceptance with others. All of these can potentially become idols for us and will try to replace our dependence and sweet communion with Christ.
The greatest danger in the church today is not some societal immorality “out there” but in our misapprehension of the gospel. Because so many have not heard a clear gospel, the church itself is one of the greatest mission fields. I fear that a significant percentage of evangelicalism is now not much better off theologically than the semi-Pelagianism of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation: Recovering the gospel for Christians and non-Christians, therefore, must be our top priority. The gospel teaches that we are much worse off than many of us are willing to hear so we are tempted to subtly change the gospel that will, in some way, appeal to our self-righteousness.
Consider that as Christians whenever we become angry, covetous, and proud or break any of God’s commands it is because, at that moment, we fear and worship something else more than we do God. As an example: a woman grows in bitterness toward her husband who is not spending enough time with his young boy. She fears that her son will grow up receiving bad influences and go down the wrong road. She follows Christ but says the one thing she would not endure is if her son went down a bad path in life. If something like this happened, she might lose her faith in God. While it is right to have good intentions for our children, this woman is letting her son become an idol that replaces the true God. This person cannot be helped with mere psychological counseling. Her real problem is a "worship disorder". She must see that her justification comes from Christ and that He alone can fill that gap she has been filling with false gods.
The work of God in the Christian is to grow them in grace by the ongoing process of eliminating these gospel replacements. He does this by shining his light in the dark corners of our hearts, in places we hardly knew were dens of iniquity. Painful though it may be at the time, he does this for our good and our eternal felicity. Sin arises in our hearts when we replace fear of God with the fear of some created thing. In their book How People Change, Timothy Lane and Paul David Tripp write,
“While external conditions can be very influential in our lives and should not be ignored, the Bible says that they are only the occasion for sin, not the cause. Difficulties in life do not cause sin. Our background, relationships, situation, and physical condition only provide the opportunity for the thoughts, words, and actions to reveal whatever is already in our hearts. Our hearts are the ultimate cause of our responses, and where the true spiritual battle is fought … [while] we must never minimize our suffering - ours or anyone else’s … we must make the important distinction between the occasion for sin and the ultimate cause of sin. This will determine what you think the solution to the problem will be …The bible says that my real problem is not psychological (low self-esteem or unmet needs), social (bad relationships and influences), historical (my past), or physiological (my body). They are significant influences, but my real problem is spiritual (my straying heart and my need for Christ). I have replaced Christ with something else, and as a consequence, my hearts is hopeless and powerless. Its responses reflect its bondage to whatever it is serving instead of Christ. Ultimately my real problem is a worship disorder.”
It is when we set our hopes on something other than God to add meaning, hope and justification to our life that we fall into sin. So our growth in Christ is essentially the ongoing removal of deeply buried idols. Christ has redeemed us, is redeeming us and one day will consummate our redemption. Idols often begin as good things in an of themselves like work, leisure, marriage and children but become sin when we make them the highest good in our lives. According to Paul in the Epistle to the Romans it is when we take these good things of creation and let them take the place of God (Rom 1:23). Sinfulness is the inevitable result. Good things like respect, material goods and family become the object of worship and so we conclude that the true God cannot help and we must be in control. When our desires are not met we will use sinful ways to meet them … and understanding this opens up the opportunity to apply the gospel to every situation. Consider this; both hardship and blessings both help us to see the idols of our heart, our God replacements. Our responses to hardship and blessing show what we most value and give weight to. Our sin revels what we fear. But union and identity with Christ will override whatever struggle you may be going through at the moment. We are not merely to follow Christ’s example, which by itself would lead only to despair, but we must daily come to Him for the mercy and grace if we are to become like him.
“He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)
How People Change by Timothy S. Lane & Paul David Tripp
A Pastor's Sketches by Ichabod Spencer
The Fear of God by John Bunyan
The Reason for God by Tim Keller