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Gospel-Centered Ambition

John 15 is a glorious passage. It depicts our Savior as the life-giving, fruit-giving, joy-giving Vine (vv. 1, 5, 11). It urges us to be vitally connected to Him and warns us that we can do nothing without Him (vv. 4-5)—a simultaneously terrifying and hope-giving thought. It contrasts true Christians with false (vv. 2, 6). It challenges us with basic Christian duties: we must know and obey Christ’s Word and to respond to it with prayer (vv. 7, 10, 16). It commands us to respond to Christ’s voluntary and vicarious death by loving one another (vv. 12-17). All the while, it points us repeatedly to the concept of spiritual fruit (vv. 2, 4, 5, 8, 16).

I’ve especially been struck by the gospel-centered ambition of the passage—that whereas every genuine Christian bears spiritual fruit (v. 2a), God works in us that we might bear “more fruit” (v. 2b), and Christ longs that we might bear “much fruit” (vv. 5, 8). I love that. Fruit…more fruit…much fruit, all for God’s glory. There is inherent in the life of the Christian and the church what I call a content ambition, or perhaps an ambitious contentment. We are to rejoice in our current circumstances, whatever they may be (Philippians 4:11-13). We’re content. But we’re never spiritually satisfied. We are ever striving for more–to progress in Christlikeness, to evidence more fruit of the Spirit, to be more faithful in prayer, more effective in evangelism, more useful for our Savior. Christians have an insatiable appetite for God’s greater glory, or at least we should.

I’ll close by quoting men who have described this gospel-centered ambition more eloquently than I can. Grace!

“Beloved, there is the ambition and hope before us of doing something in the way of glorifying God by bringing forth the fruits of holiness, peace, and love…. We are not condemned to inaction; we are not denied the joy of service, the superior blessedness of giving and of doing: the Lord hath chosen us and ordained us to go and bring forth fruit, fruit that shall  remain. This is the aspiration which rises in our soul; the Lord grant that we may see it take actual form in our lives.” (C. H. Spurgeon, preaching on John 15)

“We need an ambition that won’t rest until more people are reached, more churches planted, more marriages helped, more art created, more enterprises started, more disciples made. We need an ambition that lives joyfully today but wants more for God and more from God tomorrow.” (Dave Harvey, Rescuing Ambition, 209)

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Note to Self: “You Are a New Creation.”

I love the gospel. But sometimes I forget part of it, and I don’t think I’m alone. I meditate often on the new standing that is mine in Christ. Through no merit of my own, I’m counted righteous by faith in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). I am clothed in Jesus’ righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). I approach God in Jesus’ name (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24). I am treated by God as His beloved Son, just as Christ was treated by God as a loathsome sinner, in my stead (2 Corinthians 5:21). I have access to God in spite of myself because of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19-22). The truths and implications of the doctrine of justification are precious.

However, my salvation includes more than justification, and I’m prone to forget it. I’m tempted to think of soteriology and the gospel strictly in terms of my new legal standing. But I’m not only a sinner clothed in Christ’s righteousness. I’m also a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Yes, I’ve been justified (giving me a new standing), but I’ve also been regenerated (giving me a new nature). I’m not the same person I was before Christ, now pardoned. I’m different. I’ve been born again (John 3:7-9; Titus 3:5). I’ve been united with Christ—spiritually, not only forensically (Colossians 1:27; Galatians 2:20). I’ve been made a partaker of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4)—given God’s DNA, if you will (1 John 3:9)—and it changes the way I live. I’ve been indwelt (1 Corinthians 6:19) and am being enabled (Galatians 5:16; Ephesians 5:18) and changed (2 Corinthians 3:18) by the Holy Spirit. So I’m not only forgiven for sin; I’m freed from it (Romans 6:1-14). In this sense, then, contrary to the great song, I’m not only a sinner saved by grace, though I’m certainly that. I’m also a saint; a child of God; a new creation; a partaker of the divine nature—still by grace.

Christian, rejoice in your justification. But don’t forget that it’s only part of the miracle that happened when you trusted Christ. You don’t approach God merely as a groveling sinner. You approach Him as a beloved son, radically changed through the power of the gospel.

Grace!

Is Jay Adams right?

Jay Adams’ critique of the “gospel-centered” focus of the last decade or so is extremely interesting, in part because he’s such a respected teacher of the Scriptures. He especially dismisses the idea that the Christian needs to “preach the gospel to himself every day.” Rather than responding in this initial post, I’m going to ask for thoughtful feedback in the comments section, where I’ll also chime in. So…

Do you think recent gospel-centeredness is more sizzle than steak?

(HT: Ryan Shanahan)

Sanctification PowerPoint PDF

With the help of my 14-year-old secretary/daughter, I produced a PowerPoint presentation for last Sunday’s message on New Testament sanctification. The message distinguishes between justification and progressive (not definitive) sanctification in a way that many found to be helpful. Hopefully it will make sense without my verbal explanations. Here’s the core of the presentation as a PDF, followed below by two slides contrasting religion’s false view of justification and sanctification with the gospel’s. Thank God for grace.

Two Kinds of Lust: Lessons from The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I just finished reading Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’d read Les Miserables a few years ago, and I was amazed at Hugo’s ability to reflect the suffering and sinfulness of humanity. Reading The Hunchback only increased my admiration for his talents. Hugo’s theology was pretty graceless, but he definitely had a handle on the doctrine of human depravity.

Besides the gripping plot, what most captured my attention in the book was the continual focus on lust. As I understand it, there are two basic kinds of lust in the book: sensual lust (represented by the soldier Phoebus de Chateaupers and the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, Claude Frollo) and emotional lust (represented by the gypsy Esmeralda).

Sensual desire is what we typically think of when we hear the word lust. Although Phoebus and Frollo are opposites in many ways, both are driven by base desires for Esmeralda. There are differences, and they reflect accurately the carnal longings of humanity. Phoebus wants instant gratification. His thoughts of Esmeralda are shallow and fleeting. He wants to use her the way he has used countless other women. In fact, comically and disgustingly, he can’t even get her name right (Similar…er, Esmenarda…er, whatever) even as he promises her undying fidelity if she’ll give herself to him. Frollo’s lust is more enduring. It’s seething, consuming, relentless, and it destroys him.

More difficult to read, however, and more tragic, was the lust of Esmeralda, the teen heroine of the story. She was chaste, and indeed, protective of her purity. But she was undone by an emotional lust. She so longed to be loved that she convinced herself that the buffoon Phoebus cared for her. She was blind to his carnal desires, his fickleness, his selfishness, all because she longed for his affection. And eventually her emotional lust brought her to the verge of succumbing to his sensual lust, if only to avoid losing him (whom she never had).

Esmeralda’s dropping her guard to gain Phoebus’ heart is, frankly, a rather provocative scene, and I urge you to read it cautiously if at all. But it is a powerful depiction of reality. And as a father of four daughters, it’s both infuriating and terrifying. While it is certainly true that men have emotional longings and women physical, I think Hugo was on to something in the way he ascribed heart lust especially to ladies. How many young girls sacrifice their purity not to their own physical desires but to their longings for affection? And how many manipulative “Phoebus'” are all too ready to exploit their insecurities? (Aside to fellow dads; here’s a bit of counsel on the heels of last week’s: If you don’t meet your daughters’ needs for affection, some teen punk will, or will at least promise to.) I’ll often comment to my wife (typically with her hearty agreement) that girls are dumb. They believe a man is in love with them, or will be if they succumb to his pressure; or that a player has miraculously changed now that he’s met them; or that a liar is suddenly sincere and trustworthy; or that one who cheated with them will never cheat on them. And all this despite evidence that screams that he merely wants to use them to gratify himself. He wants sex. They want affection.  As we’ve discussed in another post, temptation appeals to the heart and ego, not just the body (Proverbs 7:15). And it ultimately leaves all of them disappointed.

The solutions to these lusts are the same as the solutions to every other sin: cleansing through the blood of Christ and contentment with the person of Christ. Those who are ruled by sensual desires need to understand the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to break those powers, not just to forgive them. Scripture teaches that there is deliverance through faith in Christ, so that you won’t always be what you once were (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). (Note: Once you’ve run to Christ as your only hope of salvation, these resources will be of help to you in your pursuit of sexual purity, I believe.)

And those ruled by emotional desires need to find their fulfillment in the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone can satisfy. They need to learn to say that there is nothing on earth they desire besides Him (Psalm 73:25). That with Him as their Shepherd, they lack nothing (Psalm 23:1). That Christ is enough. That satisfaction is a key to sanctification.

Hugo nails the lust problem. But sadly, he doesn’t provide an answer. His book ends with despair. But the Scriptures go beyond depicting the ravaging power of lust. They provide the solution in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I commend it to you.

Joel Owen Preaches on the Road to Catastrophic Failure

Joel OwenJoel Owen of Cambridge Bible Church in Cambridge, Ohio is one of the most faithful pastors of my acquaintance. He’s a humble, loving, biblically-saturated man. I’m blessed to have him as a friend.

Joel recently preached at the Men’s Retreat at Peniel Bible Camp, the theme for which was cultivating moral purity. I wasn’t able to attend this year, but I just benefitted very much from the message during an hour on my stationary bike. (Joel almost made me forget how bad I felt. Almost.) It focuses on the process of catastrophic failure as demonstrated in the life of Peter. You can find the message here. (After going to the site, click the “download” link in the upper right corner of the screen.) I commend it to you.

Borrowing Brains: Sexual Purity for Young Adults

I’m preparing to minister to college students on the topic of sexual purity. If you were me, (a) what biblical principles would you prioritize (especially realizing that only so much can be said during a limited amount of time), and (b) what miscellaneous advice (in addition to full sermons) would you pass on to them—perhaps specific to guys, girls, etc. What do you think Christian young people must know about the topic of sexual purity?

Thanks in advance!