Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Impossible Burden of Legalism

The Impossible Burden of Legalism
Galatians 3:10-14

It was July 2, 1505. A young man was running outdoors, caught in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. The thunder was booming, the rain was pouring, and the lightning was closing in. The young man began to panic and run faster to find refuge. Suddenly, a large flash of light came shockingly close. And young Martin Luther was thrown to the ground in a fearful panic. St. Anne I will become a monk! St. Anne I will become a monk, became Luther’s plea with God for rescue. He bartered with God. God, if you save me from this thunderstorm I will become a monk. Luther was plagued with an awful sense of the holiness and majesty of God. It scared him. The righteousness of God so scared a young Luther that when once asked whether or not he loved God, Luther replied, “Love him…sometimes I hate him”. Luther could not get away from his horrible feeling of guilt.

Luther soon took his vows and became a monk. In fact he became a wonderful monk. As Luther later commented, "I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work." Yet, in all of this Martin Luther never found relief from the justice of God. Luther knew himself to be sinful. He knew God to be righteous. He was tormented by places in Scripture that spoke of the “righteousness of God”. No matter how much Luther did he never seemed to be accepted by God, forgiven by God, and certainly he never seemed to be justified by God. And in fact at this point he probably was not. Luther was struggling with something that every one of us can struggle with at times…legalism. Luther was trying to gain favor with God by his own personal performance. And like Luther, as long as we are legalist we will never find the peace with God that our hearts so desire.

Legalism might be a foreign word to some of you. You may be wondering what in the world is legalism? It sounds like a character off Lord of the Rings. Or maybe it’s a nasty plague that old people get. Legalism is not a nasty plague that old people get. It’s a nasty plague that all peoples get. Legalism is “seeking to achieve forgiveness from God, justification before God, and acceptance by God through our obedience to God.” Legalism is self-salvation.

Legalism happens whenever we are like a young Martin Luther. Whenever God gives us the grace to see our fallenness in light of his holiness it causes us to seek atonement, forgiveness, justification, peace with God, righteousness, and the like. This is why Luther became a monk. He was trying to make up for his sins. He was trying to find righteousness through his personal performance.

Perhaps that sounds like people are only legalist before they become Christians. It is true that all false religions have legalism as their root. But that is not primarily what we are addressing tonight. Tonight we are concerned with those that are Christians that have become legalist. All of you that are trusting in Christ know that it is by grace alone through faith alone that you are saved. You know that your works add nothing to your salvation. At least you know that in theory. But what do you do whenever you sin? What about the sins that you commit after your conversion? What happens when you mess up as a Christian? Does Jesus somehow have to die for those sins again? What about that sin that is still plaguing you? Does it make you not accepted by God? How do you make God smile as a Christian? What are you to “do” now that you are saved? Your answer to all of these questions will determine whether or not you are struggling with legalism.

But legalism can be subtle. Legalism is anytime that we try to struggle my character into God’s work of grace. It is whenever we attempt to substitute our good works for the finished work of Christ. Who of us has not struggled with this? Who of us does not feel a little more holy when we are fervent about Bible reading? Who of us does not feel more accepted by God because we shared the gospel, or gave money to the church, or helped a kid, or prayed, or fasted, or read Scripture, or read a book, or wrote a book, or counseled a friend. Who of us is not daily tempted to struggle with smuggling our character into God’s work of grace. Furthermore, who of us does not attempt to atone for our mistakes by special acts of performance?

Just yesterday morning I said something kind of jerky and got to feeling really bad for it. It was not anything to horribly bad, but it was rooted in pride and it came out horribly wrong. I was guilty. I did not act appropriately to a dear man that is my elder and it was over something really stupid. As the Holy Spirit bruised my heart I had a couple of options. I could tell this dear brother that I am sorry for my tone, that I had sinned against him and the Lord, and ask for his forgiveness. Or, I could try to be really nice within the next few minutes and atone for my mistake and, you know, try to make up for it. I wish I could tell you I had chosen the former, but I did not. I chose to “make up for it”. I chose self-atonement, over banking on the mercy of Christ and asking for this dear brother’s forgiveness.

So, what’s the big deal about legalism? You might be wondering why I am so concerned with such a thing. Why is legalism, even like what I just mentioned even something worth talking about? Listen to what Tom Schreiner says of legalism and perhaps that will give you a hint of why it is so important:

Legalism has its origin in self-worship. If people are justified through their obedience to the law then they merit praise, honor, and glory. Legalism in other words means the glory goes to people rather than God. The desire to obey the Law though it appears commendable is actually an insidious way to try to gain recognition before God.

Self-worship is extremely offensive to God. He is very passionate about his glory and when I, even as I am a Christian, go about trying to atone for myself it is a big giant slap in the face to the work of Jesus Christ. As C.J. Mahaney says, “Legalism is the height of arrogance. It couldn’t be any more serious or offensive to God…God is not indifferent to us when we are seeking through our obedience to obligate him to justify, forgive, and accept us.”

It has been my experience that all of us at one time or another struggle with either legalism or licentiousness. One is gripped by fear at the holiness of God and attempts self-atonement. The other could care less about the holiness of God and pursues self-fulfillment. Both are deadly.

So how do you know if you are a legalist? Well, you might be a legalist if:

You focus more on your own failure than on Christ’s atonement

What happens whenever you sin after you are saved? How do you feel about those sins? Has Christ taken them? Does the guilt of your failure plague you? Is the guilt of sexual sin something you cannot seem to get over? Have you had a period of your life that was exceedingly sinful and your focus seems to always go back there? Are you more aware of the fact that you are sinful or the fact that Christ has provided atonement for that very fact?Brothers and sisters, I may need to ask your forgiveness. It is quite possible that because I so desire for you to experience the joy of the Cross and the beauty of the atonement that I spend some time lingering over our sinfulness. Sometimes I preach hard. I may need to ask your forgiveness because perhaps on the teeter-totter of preaching I have put far too much weight on our sinfulness and far too little on the absolute completeness of Christ’s atonement. If this is the case I pray that you might forgive me. If you struggle, with focusing on your own failure more than on Christ’s atonement then you might be a legalist.
You rely more on godly practices than the Cross

Can you see how subtle this deception is? Godly practices are good. It is good to read your Bibles. It is good to pray. It is good to have Christian fellowship. It is good to go to church. It is good to keep a journal. It is good to engage in evangelism. It is good to memorize Scripture. It is good to start a Bible study. All of these things are good. But if we are relying on them to define our relationship with Christ then we are in serious dangerous of being legalistic. If I came up to you and ask, “How is your relationship with God”? And you immediately went to analyzing how well you are doing in these godly practices, then you might be in danger of legalism.

You feel condemned, insecure, worthless, and/or anxious

Legalism at its root is a misunderstanding or rejection of the atonement. We all do it at times. We all wonder whether or not we really are saved. Is God really going to save me just through the blood of Christ? Surely I have to do something. It cannot be merely grace alone through faith alone; we feel as if we have to add something to it. And when we fall into this trap we are going to constantly feel condemned, insecure, worthless, and/or anxious. Why? It is because you never can do enough. You cannot atone for your own sins.

You have a constant desire to protect and extend your reputation

If your acceptance is based on your performance, then because of your unrelenting desire for acceptance you will be ever passionate about preserving your reputation. How others see you will communicate far more than it should. They will begin carrying the message of God. If others are pleased with you; if others see you as good; if others view you as a good Christian, then certainly it must be so. Whenever that is attacked you feel that you must protect your reputation. Even if it is not attacked but your reputation is not extending to the nations as you feel it should, you will be adamant about extending it. You will start fishing for compliments. You will do whatever you can to make sure that people see you in a positive light. This is a sign of a legalistic spirit. Your identity is wrapped up in your performance and not in the Cross of Christ.

You are mortally wounded if someone offers criticism no matter how true or false

We all hate criticism. But if your identity is wrapped in your performance then you will become mortally wounded if someone offers criticism. This is something that the Lord has had to grow in my life. As a minister some people really like you, and some people can not stand you. It’s tough when people are overtly critical. It’s tough when they are being ignorant in their criticism and falsely accusing you of things. But it’s probably tougher when they are critical and right. If my identity is wrapped into my performance then I will be mortally wounded by criticism. But my identity is found in Jesus then I can agree with their criticism. I can listen to the good and filter out the bad.

You seem to have little to no success in your struggle with sin

This one is kind of dangerous. If you are deep in legalism you probably think that you are doing an amazing job in your Christian walk. Sometimes outwardly you are successful. So, this one is dangerous because you could be the biggest legalist here, but you’ve been doing it for so long like the Pharisees that you think your dealing with sin. Nonetheless, this point stands. It may not be those outward sins that everyone would see…remember a legalist will always protect his reputation. But those inward struggles. Coveting. Lust. Pride. Gossip. Slander. Those things that only a few people, if any, ever see. How are you do in your battle with these things? The Law can never rescue you from these things. If you are a legalist you will frequently blow these.

You have very little joy in Christ

Failures you usually are not joyful. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Legalism is void of the Spirit of God. You will not have little joy in Christ if your identity and acceptance is based on your performance.

After hearing this list you are wondering what you need to do to change so that you can start reflecting these things.

You probably think that every week at youth group is a message telling you how you need to change and what to do to be more accepted by God. It’s not. Every week at youth group, hopefully, is about the beauty and glory of Christ. Every week should be about the gospel and the Cross-centeredness of our lives. But the legalist does not hear that. Even as we speak of being more Cross-centered you are wondering, “How do I do that”. So you put it in your list of things to do and work on—be more Cross-centered. Friends the Cross of Christ and living under that is not something you add to your list. If you have a list at all this IS your list. This IS your battle.

If you have a couple of these things present in your life, which I am certain and some point or another all of us do, then you might be a legalist. What do you do if you are found to be a legalist? I want to turn to Galatians 3:10-14 and look at three principles in battling legalism.

Principles of Legalism

Now, before we begin reading this section you need to know the historical situation for the Galatians. These are not stupid people. These are good solid Christian believers, or at least they were. Then a group of Jewish Christians came to Galatia and started to teach the Christians there that those who were not circumcised in accordance with the Law of Moses could not be saved. The purpose of this letter was obviously, then, to refute the Judaizers’ false gospel—a gospel in which these Jewish Christians felt that circumcision was essential to salvation—and to remind the Galatians of the real basis of their salvation. What was the problem of these Jewish Christians? Legalism. The entire book of Galatians confronts the issue of legalism. And we see the crux of Paul’s argument in these 4 verses.


I. The law demands our total compliance

Listen to verse 10 and feel the truth of that on your life. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”. All who rely on works of the law…rely on the works of the law for what? Acceptance, Justification, Forgiveness. Every legalist is doing just this, relying on works of the law (my good things, my godly disciplines, and my Christian performance) to gain acceptance from God. So if you answered yes to those questions earlier, then you are in this text. While you are relying on works of the Law you are under a curse.

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them”. So, do you want to be accepted by God based on your performance? Do you want to pursue justification by what you do? Do you want to require God to forgive you based on all the good things you do? Remember I am not primarily talking to unbelievers here. This is often a question of what you do with the sin that you commit after you come to Christ. This is how you battle sin as a believer. This is how you view your relationship with God as His child. Paul is saying if your answer to sin is “works of the Law” then you are under a curse. If your hope for justification is personal performance then you are under a curse. Because as soon as you think you get one thing down, you are going to break another. You will remain under a curse. Why? It is because the law demands total compliance.

Believer, you cannot have total compliance. Unbeliever, you cannot have total compliance. As soon as you mess up once the entire weight of the law comes to crush you. You are condemned. You stand before God without hope of forgiveness. You stand before God with nothing to merit justification; you are guilty before a holy God. He will not forgive you based upon what you do. He will not justify you based upon your performance. Never. No way. Believer, God’s acceptance of you is not based on your performance. He will never accept you because of your performance. The law demands total compliance. You cannot do that. Based on your personal performance you stand before God without an ounce of hope.

II. The law displays our total corruption

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the Law.” What does the Law display about us? What can we learn about our hearts based upon the Law? Turn with me to Romans 7:7-12. What Paul is saying here is that the Law is good and holy and righteous. But when married to a sinful human it produces, or rather exposes, the unrighteousness of man. What can the Law not do? Produce righteousness. What does the Law do? Expose our total corruption.
I am sure you’ve experienced this. I even did a little experiment on this a few days ago with my little cousin. He was playing with this really cool little truck. I was trying to play with him, but he’s a typical selfish 3-year old. So, I thought I’d experiment on him. I took out a pencil, which obviously paled in coolness comparison to his awesome truck. As I took my pencil out, I told him that he could not have it. I put the Law down. I started playing with my pencil and really enjoying it. Guess what happened. As I was flailing my pencil through the air as an airplane he put down his awesome truck and through a fit because I would not give him this amazing flying pencil. What was happening? Once the Law came and told his heart no, and I began stoking the fires of his desire in his heart, he had to have what he couldn’t get. Which is what? Coveting! What brought that about? The Law that I had laid down for him. This is what Paul is saying here. The Law exposes our corrupt hearts.

It shows us our sin. It displays for us how wicked we actually are. If you do not believe me then take all 10 Commandments and try to do those 100% with the right heart 24 hours a day for a week. Keep track of how often you break them. Be constantly aware of these things. If you do this, and you are honest you will fill a notebook with your transgression. That is what the Law does it displays our corruption. One problem. It can not save. It is evident (that’s the fruit of your little experiment) that no one is justified (made right with God) by the Law. The Law cannot make you right with God.

III. The gospel delivers to our account total credit

You stand total guilty before God in your flesh by works of the Law. You have no hope of justification. Based on your performance you have no hope of acceptance, ever. If your forgiveness is based on your acts of righteousness then you should never expect forgiveness, it will not happen. So, what hope then do you have? The Law is not good news. The Law means and brings condemnation. The Law leads to the good news. The Law leads to the gospel, the good news. What is the good news?
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”. Oh did you catch that? Just in case you missed it look at Romans 8:3 it says it wonderful as well. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh”. What is the good news? The good news is that our justification, our acceptance, our forgiveness is based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. The gospel delivers to our account total credit. The gospel imparts to us unrighteous God-hating sinners the complete and total righteousness of Jesus Christ on our behalf. The gospel imparts the righteousness of God to our account. It gives us total credit. The gospel justifies us. The gospel makes us righteous. The gospel cleanses us. The gospel forgives us. The gospel brings about our acceptance.

Oh, you who would live by the Law listen! You, who are downtrodden; those of you that feel the impossible weight and burden of legalism, listen. The Cross of Christ is absolutely complete. In the closing moments let me explain to you the opposite of legalism; justification by grace alone through faith alone.

What is justification? Listen to this. Justification means being made right with God. It means you are accepted by God. It means you are forgiven by God. It means you have peace with God. It means God is your Father. It means you are in Christ. It means you are clean. That is what justification is, but you must know a little more about the beauty of justification.

Justification is immediate and complete upon conversion. You will never be more justified than you are right now, nor more justified you were at the moment of your conversion. 10 years ago when you trusted Christ or 3 days ago, you are just as justified as you ever will be. You cannot add to it, nor can you delete from it. It is complete. It was immediate. It is not a process and it is not gradual. You are not justified by degrees. It is complete and total at conversion.

I was recently listening to a sermon by C.J. Mahaney on this topic and one thing he said hit me hard. He had us think about a few godly saints that we admire. Edwards, Newton, Piper, McCheyne, Spurgeon…your pastor, your youth pastor, your good buddy that seems super-spiritual. Your mom. Your dad. Martin Luther. The apostle Paul. John. Moses. Noah. Matthew. Mark. Luke. You name them. No one in history is more justified than you are at present. The weakest believer and the strongest saint are alike equally justified.

Tonight you are either wholly justified or wholly condemned in the sight of God. There is no middle ground. You are either totally covered by the blood of Jesus or you are not at all. Why? Why is all of this true? Are you justified based on your performance? Are all of those true because of what you do or even something that you have done? No! Every one of those is true because of the Cross of Jesus Christ. It is complete. It is finished. The work of Christ is done.

I am not really certain how to close this. I could preach for hours on justification by faith alone. I could show you numerous Scriptures and preach entire sermons on the complete work of Jesus Christ. For times sake I will end where I began; with the struggle of a German monk. How did Luther find peace?

He came to realize one thing. As he was plagued with his own sinfulness and struggling with Romans 1:17, suddenly he began to heed the context. And he realized what it was actually saying. Rather than saying that we must produce righteousness (or in other words rather than being a legalist) the text is actually saying that the righteousness of God is an “alien righteousness”. It is something outside of us that comes to us from another source. It is the righteousness of Christ Jesus given to us. As Luther would later summarize, “I am not good and righteous; but Christ is”.

That is the answer to legalism. I am not good and righteous; but Christ is. Luther began to bank wholly and completely on the Cross of Christ. There he found that forgiveness from God. In the Cross. Totally completely in the Cross. There he found acceptance by God. In the work of Christ. Totally and completely the work and righteousness of Christ imparted to the young monk. There he found justification before God. By faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on this Cross. And there it still is to be found today. At the Cross. That is where your acceptance is. That is where your forgiveness was bought. That is where your justification was accomplished.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Gospel Is Meant to Be Enjoyed

There are many diverse people in here this evening. Some are men, some are women. Some have brown hair, some have blonde, some have no clue what their natural hair color is anymore. The complexion of your skin is different. Your talents are different. Your likes are different. Your dislikes are different. Some of you are passionate about God; some of you perhaps are not. You all have many different desires. Yet at the core of each heart you hold at least one thing in common—you seek happiness.

In the 1600’s a man by the name of Blaise Pascal wrote: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

By taking a close look at our hearts we can see that this is the motivation for every action that we take. It can easily be shown that Pascal’s statement is true of human nature. But is it right? Is it morally acceptable? Is God pleased with our search for happiness? Is this author correct, when he says: “…for the Christian happiness is never a goal to be pursued? It is always an unexpected surprise of a life of service.” Or, is C.S. Lewis correct? “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can.” One man says it is your duty to pursue joy the other man says you should never pursue it. Which one is closer to God’s Word?

Is Joy a Duty?

Is joy something that comes as a by-product of righteous living and should never be pursued or is joy something that must be actively pursued as a means of Christian duty?

Before we consult the Scriptures let me briefly clarify. The key issue is whether or not joy should be pursued. There is one sense in which the first statement is most definitely biblical and that is not being challenged by either side—joy is a by-product of holiness and is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We see this clearly from Galatians 5. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit. But should we pursue things like joy or do they just “grow” as a result of our righteous living. We could even ask this question with higher stakes: is joy actually a duty that we must have in our lives?

I am going to submit to you tonight that pursuing our joy is not only an acceptable Christian discipline but it is foundational to our living out the gospel. It is commanded. What I am offering to you tonight is this; if the gospel be any gospel at all then it MUST be enjoyed. The gospel by its very nature makes joy mandatory. In other words the gospel by its very nature makes joy not optional.

John Piper helps us summarize this theme in Scripture beautifully:

It goes back to Moses, who wrote the first books of the Bible and threatened terrible things if we would not be happy: "Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a glad heart . . . therefore you shall serve your enemies" (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
. . . and to the Israelite king David, who called God his "exceeding joy" (Psalm 43:4); and said, "Serve the Lord with gladness" (Psalm 100:2) and "Delight yourself in the Lord" (Psalm 37:4); and who prayed, "Satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that we may . . . be glad all our days" (Psalm 90:14); and who promised that complete and lasting pleasure is found in God alone: "In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever" (Psalm 16:11).
. . . and to Jesus, who said, "Blessed are you when people insult you . . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great" (Matthew 5:11-12); and who said, "I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full" (John 15:11); and who endured the cross "for the joy set before Him" (Hebrews 12:2); and who promised that, in the end, faithful servants would hear the words, "Enter into the joy of your master" (Matthew 25:21).
. . . and to James the brother of Jesus, who said, "Consider it all joy . . . when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2).
. . . and to the apostle Paul, who was "sorrowful yet always rejoicing" (2 Corinthians 6:10); and who described the ministry of his team as being "workers with you for your joy" (2 Corinthians 1:24); and who commanded Christians to "rejoice in the Lord always" (Philippians 4:4); and even to "exult in . . . tribulations" (Romans 5:3).
. . . and to the apostle Peter, who said, "To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation" (1 Peter 4:13).

A text that does not prove our point but rather models it is 1 Peter 1:8-9. “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

The experience of the believers in 1 Peter 1:8-9 is not an exception. They are not “super-Christians”. This is not some higher level of Christian-living that they have attained to. They have not discovered the “Secret to the Christian Life”. They did not hear a sermon on the 5 Key’s to Abundant Living. It has far deeper roots. Their experience of “inexpressible joy” should be ours.

The believers that Peter is writing to are facing intense persecution. Peter had seen Jesus with his own eyes. Certainly his tangible experiences with Jesus were very sustaining in Peter’s battle with all that is hostile to the gospel. Yet these believers, as Peter notes, had not seen Jesus. He was not tangible. Their experience with Jesus was just like ours. We too have never physically seen him. You have to imagine the astonishment with which Peter is saying these words. You have not even seen him…and you love him. I saw him and I rejected him. You are not even seeing him now…and you believe in him. Furthermore as you do these things you are rejoicing with a joy that is inexpressible. And this joy is holy. It is filled with glory. And you, O scattered exiles, are receiving the outcome of your vibrant faith—the salvation of your very souls. You, dear believers, are experiencing first hand Psalm 16:11, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures evermore.” You, beloved, are tasting of the beauties of this great God. You are experiencing these pleasures evermore.

Now, dear brothers and sisters, are we in the 21st century experiencing the gospel in this way? Can we say that 1 Peter is true of us? Are we enjoying the gospel? This text is not asking us whether or not we are happy. It is not begging of us even to be joyful for the sake of joy. Inexpressible joy is not the goal in this text. Enjoyment is not even the goal. This text is holding a mirror up to each of our faces and asking us, “are you enjoying Jesus Christ inexpressibly”? Is your relationship with Jesus so vibrant, so life altering, and so consuming that 1 Peter 1:8-9 looks like you? Could Peter sit back and place you in this text? Could he say: “Mike, I know that you have not seen Jesus, and I am amazed at the depth of your love for him. I know that cannot even see him now but you believe in him. And, oh, your belief is so profound that it shows itself in this inexpressible joy. I can see the glory of the Lord flowing through your life. Oh, how you enjoy the gospel.” Are we so Christ-centered and gospel-centered that it shows itself in inexpressible joy?

What is at stake?

That which we are suggesting here tonight is both a devastating and liberating doctrine. As John Piper notes, “It teaches that the value of God shines more brightly in the soul that finds deepest satisfaction in him. Therefore it is liberating because it endorses our inborn desire for joy. And it is devastating because it reveals that no one desires God with the passion he demands.”[1] If it is true that our joy is a duty then it takes on a certain type of seriousness.

I will let Piper continue:

When I saw the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied
in him, I was freed from the unbiblical bondage of fear that it was wrong to
pursue joy. What once had seemed like an inevitable but defective quest for the
satisfaction of my soul now became not just permitted but required. The glory of
God was at stake. This was almost too good to be true—that my quest for joy and
my duty to glorify God were not in conflict. Indeed they were one. Pursuing joy
in God was a nonnegotiable way of honoring God. It was essential. This was a
liberating discovery. It released the energies of my mind and heart to go hard
after all the soul-happiness that God is for me in Jesus.

But simultaneous with the liberation came the devastation. I was freed to pursue my fullest joy in God without guilt. Indeed, I was commanded to pursue it. Indifference to the pursuit of joy in God would be indifference to the glory of God, and that is sin.

Therefore, my quest took on a seriousness, an earnestness, a gravity that I never dreamed would be part of pursuing joy. And then, almost immediately, came the realization that my indwelling sin stands in the way of my full satisfaction in God. It opposes and perverts my pursuit of God. It opposes by making other things look more desirable than God. And it perverts by making me think I am pursuing joy in God when, in fact, I am in love with his gifts.[2]

The stakes, brothers and sisters, are very high. What is at stake in our pursuit of joy in God? Our very soul and the gospel itself is at stake. If the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, how can we possibly be said to “believe in Jesus” if we are not like the man who in his joy goes and sells all that he has to buy that field? If the greatest problem with our wicked heart is that we constantly run to sin and treasure what we should hate and hate what we should treasure, then can we accurately say that if this does not change we are legitimately regenerate? Faith is trusting in Jesus Christ and you will not do that if He is not a treasure.

Furthermore if we are not enjoying the Gospel then what are we communicating about its preciousness? We are communicating that it is not powerful enough to sustain our joy. We are communicating that Christ is not all that precious of a treasure.
But this all begs a question, and one that I would like to ask the apostle Peter. If gospel-centered joy is inexpressible how do I know if I have it? What does inexpressible joy look like? How do I know if I am enjoying the gospel or not?

What does enjoying the gospel look like?

The answer to this question is diverse and cannot be pinned down in a short period of time. I cannot give you a broad enough and complete enough definition. As we have seen exhorting us to enjoy the gospel is really an exhortation to enjoy God. Our enjoyment of God is inexhaustible so there is no way that I can exhaust for you in one sermon what will take a lifetime to enjoy. Nevertheless, I will attempt to put a few brush strokes on this beautiful portrait. I think 3 things will be true of us when we are enjoying the gospel. There are more than these and they could be put in much different (probably more accurate) ways. These 3 are the best and most “to the point” that I can come up with. They are thus:

Rather than living by lists you are held by love. (Colossians 2:16-23)
Rather than finding your identity in your performance you grow in finding your identity in Christ. (Galatians 2:20)
Rather than self-centeredness you increasingly become more Christ-centered. (Philippians 3:8-11)

We will probably deal with most of these individually in the next sermons so I hope to only briefly touch on them here.

Rather than living by lists you are held by love.

For this point we turn to Colossians 2:16-23. Colossians was written to confront a heresy. We do not know the specifics of the Colossian heresy. It is kind of like listening to one side of a phone conversation—you only get half the story. One thing that we can ascertain from Paul’s letter is that the false teachers were teaching asceticism. READ Colossians 2:16-23. They were apparently setting out a bunch of man-made rules and regulations that one must follow in order to be “more spiritual”. They were living by lists.
You cannot live by lists and be living in light of the gospel. If you are not enjoying the gospel then your life is going to be filled with a grand bunch of lists. On one lists you will have the things you must do to be a good friend. Another list will be how to be attractive to the opposite sex. Another list will include the things you need to do in your relationship with God. One list might include church duties. One list will be things you want to accomplish. Another list things you want to study. Lists, lists, lists.

Our adherence to these rules and lists carries a message. With each failure we feel rejected by the Lord. With each success we feel accepted. Some Christian young men have on their list--be sexually pure. Each time they look at a bad magazine, internet site, girl, television show, or have a lustful thought they are condemned by their list. We become defined by our list. The picture of our relationship with God is determined by how well we are at keeping our lists. If you are conquering these things then you feel as if you are progressing. If you are messing up on these lists then you feel as if the stern eye of God is beaming down on you, ready to zap you into hell at any second.

Not only do we define ourselves by lists but we also define others by their adherence to our lists as well. Perhaps on one of your lists is “do not cuss”. You’ve got this one mastered. And you notice that someone else has a little problem with the tongue. You figure that their relationship with God cannot be as vibrant as yours. It can go the other way too. You notice that someone seems to be achieving everything on your lists. You tried to hide your covetousness (because that’s on a list of course). You feel miserable because they seem to “get it” but you do not. Why can’t I get it? Your list defines you, and it defines other people.

If you are enjoying the gospel then your lists are much different. Rather than being a Colossian heretic you are a bold-believer in the Cross. Not all lists are bad by the way. There are lists in the New Testament. There are things that God desires out of His children. Holiness is demanded. The problem with lists is that they can never produce holiness. If you are enjoying grace you understand this. You do not try to establish your righteousness by lists. You know that your righteousness is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

You can see a great example of this in Luke 18:9-14. The Pharisee is a great list keeper. Listen to him rattle off his list: I am not an extortioner, I am not unjust, I certainly do not commit adultery, I am so much better at keeping my list than this dirty tax collector. Look at my adherence to this list. I fast twice a week. I give tithes of everything I get. Look at my list God! Look how holy I am.” I do not smoke. I do not cuss. I do not watch bad movies. I do not do any of these things God. And what’s more God, look at my church record. I have not missed a Sunday for years. I read my Bible every day. I pray at least 4 times a day. I witness as much as I can. Look at my list God. Look at how justified I am before you.

Now contrast this with the filthy, rotten, dirty, sin-laden tax collector. He cannot bear the thought of a holy God looking at him. He feels so unworthy of the gospel. He knows his sin. He has a list too. But his is ripped up. He’s stopped even trying to keep a list. He is confined to believing that he will never get it. He comes to understand that his only hope is not in list keeping. His only hope is that God might have mercy. So, broken-hearted and sinful he totters along to the temple; knowing that his only hope of justification is the mercy of God. And there he finds himself. Alone with God. Nothing to bring but his sin. He beats his breast, and cries out, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”

Which one went home justified; the one that is living by lists or the one that is held by the power of God’s undeserving love? The one that is enjoying grace looks more like the tax collector than the Pharisee.

Rather than finding your identity in your performance you grow in finding your identity in Christ.

Apart from the gospel we are doomed to finding our identities in our personal performance. This point is really an extension of the first. Indeed is the Pharisee not finding his identity in his performance? Yet this point is worded a little differently so as to expose a few varying flaws in those that do not enjoy grace.

We will be dealing with this point in full next time. For now I want to remind you of a few points we made in our recent sermon on Jonah. Jonathan McIntosh an elder at The Journey in St. Louis gives us 8 signs that help us see if the gospel has gone deeply. How can you tell if your identity is based on your performance or based upon Jesus—the gospel? You can tell that the gospel is not deep and you are living in the flesh whenever you:

1. are worried, anxious, or fearful
2. are insecure or paranoid (protect your identity)
3. cannot take criticism (your performance is attacked)
4. constantly explain or defend yourself (protect your reputation)
5. are consumed by thoughts of yourself and how others perceive you in conversations
6. fish for compliments
7. need to advance yourself—make your name great
8. are struggling with pleasure-related sins (escape when attacked)

Do these define you? If so then you can be assured that you are not enjoying the gospel. If we make these positive then you can see what a life that enjoys the gospel looks like. When you are enjoying the gospel you will not be constantly in knots worried about what people of think of you. You will not be plagued with anxious feelings or fear of being exposed. Instead you will rejoice in the freedom of the gospel. You will feel secure in the gospel. You will be able to relax. You will be bold with the gospel. When you are enjoying the gospel you will not feel the need to protect your identity. Therefore, you will not be constantly worried about what others think of you. You will be able to take criticism; in fact you will enjoy criticism. You will begin to see criticism as a way to grow in Christ. Instead of trying to protect your reputation you will be humble, gentle, and honest about your sin. The reputation you will be passionate about protecting is that of Jesus. Because you are no longer consumed by thoughts of yourself you will be available for others. You will actually listen to people. Also, because you are so enthralled with Jesus you will not be as tempted with pleasure related sins. You will be satisfied in Christ and money, power, sex, drugs, etc will no longer be appealing to you.

You will become less self-centered and more Christ-centered.

You can tell whether or not you are enjoying the gospel by the way that you are living your life. Is your time, money, thoughts, dreams swallowed up in self-centeredness? Are you living to make your name great? Again we will see this more fully in the coming weeks—for not it will be enough to say that when a man is living in light of the Cross then he treasures himself less and Jesus more. The more I grow the more I realize that I am just what Scripture says of me—a man of dust. I realize that I cannot please God. I realize that I am so unworthy of the gospel. I realize that my sin is numerous, devastating, and extremely offensive to a holy God. But I also realize something more about the Cross. It took it all. I have read this quote to you before but it fits here as well.

“If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly,  but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world]  we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness,  but, as Peter says,  we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world.  No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner.”[3]

Martin Luther is only saying what John Newton said in a more simplistic way some 200 years later. At the end of his life John Newton, who we will learn more about in the coming weeks, said this: “I have learned to great things in life. One, I am a great sinner. Two, Christ is a great Savior.

Do you see the Cross/Christ-centered focus in the life of these men? Do you see how these men are no longer so focused on themselves as if they are something great? No, they are swallowed up by the greatness of the gospel. The Cross, the gospel, is the center of their life. When we look more fully at this in the coming weeks we will also take a look at the life of Paul. He too was so consumed by the gospel that he no longer lived for himself but for Christ.

We have tried to briefly paint a picture of what it looks like to enjoy the gospel. We have shown that our enjoyment of God and His gospel is indeed a duty. We have also seen that the stakes are very high.

What Must I Do?

Now, perhaps you are realizing that your enjoyment of the gospel is not where it needs to be. Perhaps this is because you are not a child of God. I would venture to say that if you cannot look at your life and at least see some level of enjoyment of Jesus Christ. If you cannot at least see some element of trusting in the Cross over your righteous keeping of lists; if you cannot at least see some element of finding your identity in Christ instead of your performance; if you cannot at least say that there are part of your life that are Christ centered—then I really would have to question whether or not you have been born again. When the Holy Spirit makes a heart new he changes it. He changes our heart and our affections.

But sometimes as Christians we struggle with treasuring Jesus as we ought. In fact this will be our struggle until eternity. What then do we do to increase our enjoyment of the gospel? That is what we will be studying for the next few weeks in specifics. Christian, your general call is the same as that of the unbeliever. You must repent of not treasuring Christ and His gospel and you must run to the Cross. Trust in the Cross to cleanse you; Jesus will cleanse you of even this. If your soul is stricken by this I advice you to seek me out and we will continue to discuss this matter.

[1] Piper, John. When I Don’t Desire God. Pages 9-10.
[2] Ibid