We Pray

(1 Chronicles 29:10-19; Romans 8:12-27)

I upgraded my cell phone this week. There were a number of reasons for that, but the biggest one is that the phone I picked up two years ago recently started disappearing calls. I don’t mean just dropping calls, where at least the phone would have some awareness that it did something wrong; it was more that the phone, in mid-call, would suddenly revert to a completely inert state. I’d look at the thing and you could almost hear it saying, “What—was I supposed to be doing something?” So, I got a new phone, because when you have that happen four or five times in the course of a single conversation, it gets old pretty quickly, and there’s too much opportunity for information to be lost.

Not too many years ago, that last paragraph would have been completely unintelligible; but the cell phone has radically changed our culture’s experience of the world. Before Sara and I got married, we spent most of a year and a half apart; my last semester at Hope, she was in Europe. We talked once during that entire time, though we found other ways to communicate as well. By contrast, I remember the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes telling a story maybe five years ago about his daughter, a student at Georgetown who spent a semester studying in Rome. That semester, a friend of hers did the same in Budapest; they both had cell phones, of course, so they could randomly call each other up and set up an impromptu date for lunch the next day in Vienna. Ten years before, even if I could have afforded to call Sara, I would have had no way to get hold of her; now, for the vast majority of Americans, “Of course you can reach me—I’ll have my cell.” Doesn’t matter where, when, why—we’re connected, we’re online, we’re accessible.

This is far from true everywhere in the world, of course; but where it is, it’s a staggering change in human society. And yet—classically human—many Americans al-ready take it for granted. People get bent out of shape because the camera on their phone isn’t good enough—really, how silly is that? The main point of the thing is to be able to talk to people, not to be able to ignore them while you amuse yourself. But when we have to struggle to communicate with others, when we have to work to hear their voice and be heard by them, to know and to be known, we value it more. The problem with cheap communication is it cheapens communication.

The same thing, I think, bedevils our prayer life. We’re accustomed to the idea that of course we can always pray—of course God is always online, though we might wonder sometimes if he’s wandered away from his phone; in our culture, even people who don’t have a relationship with God, don’t really want to, and in fact don’t even particularly believe in him still have the idea of prayer, and in fact may pray rather often in some vague way. We take it for granted, as if in fact it’s perfectly natural that we should be able to pray, and to do so whenever, wherever, and however we want.

Before Jesus sent us his Holy Spirit, that idea would have been completely unintelligible. It wouldn’t even have been nonsense, because you have to be able to grasp an idea before you can call it nonsense—it would have been unfathomable. You don’t just go up and talk to a god, even a minor one—you might get blasted. You certainly, from a Jewish point of view, didn’t do that to the Lord of creation. You had to make sacrifices to atone for your sin, you had to purify yourself, and then you had to approach God through the proper channels and in the proper forms. When the temple was destroyed and that was no longer possible, they adapted because they had to—but very carefully, and only with the greatest of respect.

What we too often fail to understand—and we talked about this some when we were going through Hebrews—is that we still need an intermediary when we pray, someone to approach God on our behalf; what has changed is that, by the work of Jesus Christ, God is now his own intermediary. It is Jesus who is our great high priest, who presents our prayers to the Father, and it is his Holy Spirit who brings them to Jesus. It is only in the Holy Spirit, and by his presence and work, that we pray at all.

Yes, whatever we say to anyone, God knows what we say before we say it; but it’s only by the Holy Spirit that our words, our thoughts, the movements of our hearts become prayers. If we address our words to him but our minds and hearts are full only of ourselves, then we aren’t praying, even if we call it prayer; and by the same token, God can choose to answer us even when we don’t think we’re speaking to him. It’s all in his hands.

The key here is, Christian prayer is a work of the Holy Spirit, first, last, and at every point in between. It’s not by our power, but his; it is by our will, but also fully by his; and it’s not by our wisdom, but by his leading. It is the Spirit of God who inspires us to pray, and who enables us to pray, and who teaches us to pray. This is important, because Christian prayer is not natural, and it isn’t easy; as we see in Romans 8, Christian prayer is rooted in surrender, in allowing the Holy Spirit to lead us and move through us—it is in fact an expression of the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives.

That’s a counterintuitive thing to say, because our natural understanding of prayer is that it’s all about getting what we want—asking for what we want, and sending thank-you notes when we get it. Sure, as Christians, we come to understand that prayer is a conversation, that it’s about talking with God—but talking about what? Most people, you follow that up, it eventually comes down to getting what we want.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with telling God what we want—that’s important—and being grateful when he blesses us is important as well; but that’s not what prayer is about. That’s part of why the Holy Spirit has to teach us, because we don’t know what we ought to be praying for, or why. Naturally, we’re motivated by delight in the pleasures of this world, and the desire to avoid its pains. That’s not unreasonable, but it shouldn’t be first. The Spirit teaches us first to delight in God, and to seek to please him, and focuses our minds and hearts on Jesus Christ; and in the process, he turns our hearts from wanting what we want for ourselves to wanting what God wants for us and the world.

The Holy Spirit gives us the desire for God, which motivates us to pray—not because we think we ought to, not because we want God to give us something or do something for us, but because we want God, and we want to please him. He teaches us to pray in the reality that we have been made children of God and heirs of his glory, and that the glory and freedom that are ours in Christ are worth far more than whatever suffering we endure along the way; and though it can be hard to live by faith and hope in what we don’t see, the Spirit teaches us to live in hope, and to pray in hope, trusting that our hope in Christ is firmer and more certain than anything we do see now, even though it requires patience.

We Are Built Up

(Psalm 68:17-20, 32-35; 1 Corinthians 12:4-20, Ephesians 4:1-16)

I spent a little time last week talking about revival, which isn’t easy for me; it’s much easier to spend a lot of time on the subject, which is no doubt why I’ve been thinking about it all week. One thing that occurred to me is that if revival does come—and I pray for it—it won’t look like what we expect. It won’t just be a matter of people being more moral, and it won’t just be more people coming to church. Both of those things will happen, but that won’t be all; and our churches will not be the same except with more people. As Peter says, judgment begins with the household of God. Before God brings revival through us, he’s going to revive us; before he exalts us by working through us for the salvation of many, he’s going to humble us, so that we know that it’s all by his grace, not something we’ve earned by our own wonderfulness and good work.

Revival is a great rupture of the routine, because it is a great work of God. I do not say “the ordinary,” as if to imply that God doesn’t value ordinary people or times or things; but an ordinary faith isn’t necessarily—and shouldn’t be—a routine faith. We all have the tendency to slide into a routine faith, a faith of the routine, even a faith in the routine, when things are going well enough; we get into a mode where sure, we know we have some areas where we need to improve and some things we wish were different, but in general, we feel like we’re pretty good people, with a pretty good handle on life. When you can look around and figure—as the late Rich Mullins put it in one of his songs—that by the standards ’round here, we ain’t doin’ that awful, it’s easy to start to think that God doesn’t have anything big left to do with us—just routine maintenance to keep us running well, and the occasional upgrade to improve the experience.

As we said last week, though, that’s just not the case, because God is on about something much bigger than just approving the life we’re already living, or even giving us a better version of the life we have; he’s about transforming us, growing us out of this life and setting us free from ourselves, giving us new life, making us the people we were created to be. He’s doing more than just blessing us as individuals, or even transforming us as individuals—he’s saving us as a people, blessing each of us so that we can bless each other, building up each of us so that we build each other up, so that we are built up together into his body, his temple, the place where his Holy Spirit lives.

This is what Paul’s on about in these passages, and it’s why in Ephesians he does what he does with Psalm 68. We talked about this a while back, the oddity that Psalm 68:18 says that God received gifts, while the quotation of that verse in Ephesians 4:8 says he gave gifts; the key, as you may remember, is that this psalm celebrates God as warrior king, and in the ancient world, victorious kings would give away some of the spoils to their supporters. They plundered their enemies not simply to enrich themselves but to reward and strengthen their friends—something we see clearly in this psalm. In verse 12, the psalmist observes, “The women at home divide the spoil”; and in verse 35, God is praised because “he gives power and strength to his people.” Thus the gifts Christ gives his people are precisely those gifts he has taken from his enemies. The one who des-cended from heaven to the earth, Paul says, has now ascended back to heaven in victory, showering on his people the gifts he received.

And what were those gifts? Us. Ephesians doesn’t say, “Jesus gave special tal-ents to individuals”—rather, it says, “Jesus gave people, who have particular talents and skills, to his church.” The focus isn’t on individuals, but on his body. Christ came down to live among us, to die on the cross for our sins, to rise from the dead in victory over sin and death, and to ascend back to heaven in glory, where he now intercedes for us before the throne of grace; and in his victory he won us as the spoils, and from his place before the throne he now gives each of us as gifts to his people.

In laying this out, Paul specifically highlights those who have been given to the church in various leadership roles, but note the purpose he names for such people: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Too often, churches are defined by their pastors, denominations by their leaders, and both by their structures; but Paul says no, the purpose of those leaders (and thus, logically, those structures) is to serve the people of God, such that his saints—that’s all of us—are well-trained and -equipped to do the work of the ministry of the church. He’s not exalting leaders here; he’s reminding us of our place.

Now, if Ephesians is clearly community-oriented in what it has to say about spiritual gifts, 1 Corinthians might seem to be more individualistic—the Holy Spirit gives some people the gift of prophecy, and some the gift of faith, and to some words of wisdom, and so on; but in truth, the same point is in view here: the Holy Spirit gives us various gifts for the building up of the body of Christ, so that we will be able by the Spirit of God to do the work he has given us to do and play the part he has called us to play in the greater work of the whole people of God.

In other words, the Spirit hasn’t given us gifts in order to enrich us and strengthen us as individuals, or because he wants us to have the life we want. His purposes aren’t focused on us, but through us, to build up the whole body of Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit in us is designed to enrich and strengthen the people of God to carry out the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ in our community and our world. Our gifts are not intended for us to use to serve ourselves, to bless ourselves, but to serve and bless others.

To say this cuts across the grain of our culture, which is narcissistic in its view of religion and faith as it is in everything else; the great idol of our culture, I think, is happiness, as it worships in many forms a god who aims to please and just wants us all to be happy. As such, it’s easy for us to see the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as being primarily for us as individuals—to give me salvation, to boost my self-esteem, to make my life richer and more fulfilling—and it’s easy for churches to attract people by preaching that message; but that’s not the message Paul gives us here, because that’s not what God is on about in our lives. God is giving us something better.

Now, this is good news, but it’s not always the way we understand or present the good news. I appreciate the intent behind the old line “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” but that’s not exactly on point. Truer to say that God has a wonderful plan to redeem the world and reconcile it to himself, and because he loves you he has included you in his plan, which will not always feel wonderful to you personally. This is a challenge to our egos, because it requires us to take second place in our own lives, to accept that our lives are not first and foremost for us and our purposes. At the same time, though, there’s also comfort in this, in a couple ways.

First, when we come up against times when we feel inadequate, when we aren’t overcoming the challenges we face, when we’re confronted with the areas in our lives where we just aren’t good enough or strong enough, that doesn’t mean we’re disqualified or that God can’t use us. The truth is, none of us is intended to be enough on our own; we need each other, because God made us that way. Our weaknesses and un-gifted areas are as much a part of his design as our strengths and our gifts. Understand this, because this is important, and God did it deliberately: he took all the gifts and strengths that are necessary for us to grow to maturity in Christ, as individuals and as a people, and he mixed them up and gave some of them to each of us—and then he gave each of us as gifts, to the church and to each other. He designed us and prepared us to work together, to live together, to be fitted together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each of us has strong areas that stick out, and weak areas where we have holes; I am strong where you are weak, and you are strong where I am weak, and we fit together such that our strong areas fill in the weak areas of others, while others’ strengths fill in our weaknesses.

Second, we each have something important to contribute. The gifts we have, whether we or others consider them great or small, are the gifts God has given us by his Spirit to fit us for the work he has given us—and he’s given us that work because he values it, and because he values us. The world might not think that what we can do matters, but God does; the church might not honor our contribution, but God does.

We Are Being Transformed

(Ezekiel 36:22-28; Romans 12:1-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-13)

One of my interests in history—it’s not exactly my specialty, but it’s related—is the history of revival, and particularly in the Anglo-American context from the Reformation forward. The core of my interest is my desire to see revival on a grand scale happen here in America as we know it, and to be one of the people through whom the Holy Spirit works to bring it about, but I do have more purely historical interest in the subject as well. In particular, as one who has tended to focus on the history of ideas, and in particular how theology drives history and is affected by it in turn, it’s fascinating to study the interplay of revivals with the politics of their time.

The Reformation, of course, is an example of a revival that was thoroughly snarled in power politics right from the beginning, with considerable negative consequences; but even beyond the Reformation, the great periods of revival we see in the history of this country and of England have not been merely religious events—they have had significant effects on our political history.

If you look at the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and ’40s, you can see that it had a lot to do with creating and shaping the democratic, egalitarian ideas that would drive the American Revolution; it also did much to weave connections between the 13 colonies and inspire a sense of an American national identity. The Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s revitalized the new nation and immensely strengthened society on the frontier, which I think was critical in bringing the US through the war of 1812, as well as playing a significant role in the rise of the abolitionist movement. The “prayer meeting revival” that began in New York City in 1857 (in a time of financial crisis much like our own, actually) transformed America’s cities, especially in the North—just before the greatest political crisis in this nation’s history, the secession of the South.

Now, there are a lot of wrong ways to take this. I’m not saying that revivals are about political situations or exist for political purposes, and still less that the church should desire revival as a means to achieving a political agenda. But in our time when we’re debating nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan and seeing governments all across the Muslim world challenged and even toppled by popular protests, as well as ongoing struggles in pseudo-democracies like Zimbabwe and Honduras, I believe there’s a political lesson illustrated here that we need to bear firmly in mind: political renewal will not happen without spiritual revival. It just won’t—it never has. Except for the rise of Greek democracy and the Roman Republic, I honestly cannot think of a revolutionary political change for the better that has taken place apart from a Judeo-Christian revival; and given the importance of Greece and Rome for the growth of the early church, I think we may well see the work of the Holy Spirit there, too, preparing the ground.

You see, the critical reality is that politics won’t save us, because our problems cannot be controlled by human laws; they are too deep, too subtle, and too devious. Good works won’t save us, because our problems cannot be solved by human effort; I realize we talk about people picking themselves up by their own bootstraps, but have you ever tried it? Problems do not solve themselves, and we are the problem; as Walt Kelly had Pogo say, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We cannot fix ourselves, and in fact, we can’t be fixed at all. We need something more: we need to be transformed.

This is the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. We are in Christ, we have been made new; now he is at work in us making us new from the inside out, making us what we already are. We have been removed from the authority of this realm of sin and death and transferred into the realm of righteousness and life, the kingdom of God, under the lordship of Jesus Christ—if you were here a couple years ago when we explored Colossians, you remember Paul saying that there; but we are still in this world, and it still influences us, as do the habits and patterns we’ve learned from it. And so Paul says, “Don’t conform to this world”—J. B. Phillips famously rendered this, “Don’t let this world squeeze you into its mold,” but that doesn’t go far enough; the world pressures us, but we often go along with it. Don’t squeeze yourself into its mold, don’t let it file you down to fit, don’t give away those things for which it has no use. Don’t try to fit in with the world around you, and don’t let anyone else convince you that you should.

Instead, Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Not “transform yourself,” which would make easy sense even if a hard command; he commands us, “Be transformed.” This is obviously not something we can do; it is the Holy Spirit who renews our minds, who changes our perceptions and our understanding and our desires. It is the Spirit of God who teaches us to see the will of God, and to understand that his will is good and well-pleasing and perfect. In our sinful human minds, we don’t see his will as any of those things, much of the time; the Spirit shows us better, helping us to see that in truth it is God’s will that is good, God’s plans that are well-pleasing, God’s desires that are perfect, not our own. He teaches us to see the world and ourselves in the way that God sees things, and to want what God wants rather than what we naturally want; and this change in our understanding and desires changes our behavior, moving us to live our lives as an offering to God, to live as his worshipers in everything we do by seeking to honor him in everything we do.

So what does Paul mean in commanding us to be transformed? Well, it’s what we talked about a couple weeks ago, from another angle: we cannot and do not do the work of saving ourselves, nor of transforming ourselves, but we do have the work to do of letting go and letting the Holy Spirit renew our minds and transform our lives. Pride resists being told that we don’t know what’s best for us, it resists learning to want different things; we need to kill our pride, to accept that death. Letting go and letting God, letting the Spirit work, means letting ourselves be God’s, whatever he may do with us, wherever he may take us, whatever he may cause us to be and to do. It is the work of active surrender, of deliberately and intentionally giving ourselves over to God and his will.

We Hear God’s Word

(Isaiah 55:6-13; 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5)

One of the most unfortunate theological terms out there is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. “Perspicuity” basically means “clarity,” which is ironic, because that isn’t clear at all; the only advantage to the big word is that it makes you sound theological. The bad thing is, if you use big words like that without being careful, it’s easy to get snagged on the big word and lose track of the details; and here, that’s a real problem.

You see, the first people who unloaded this one on me were arguing that this doctrine means that everything in Scripture is clear, that all you have to do is just read it and it’s obvious what it says. And you know, that just put my back up, because it’s so clearly not true. I’ve been studying the Bible a while now, I’ve learned from some brilliant men and women, and there are things that I just don’t know what they mean and I don’t think anyone else really does either. Even granting human sinfulness, if everything in the Bible were perfectly clear all on its own, we’d have a lot fewer arguments in the church.

What I discovered later is that the classic doctrine of the clarity of Scripture—let’s just call it that, shall we?—is much more intelligent than that, and it has two parts. First, for example, take the Westminster Confession, one of the founding doctrinal standards of the Presbyterian tradition, which basically says this: not all Scriptures are equally obvious, nor does everyone understand them equally well, but those things which are essential for our salvation are so clearly stated and explained in Scripture that anyone who’s willing to read carefully and thoughtfully can understand them. God created everything and everyone, he is Lord over everything, and he doesn’t share his authority. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and there is no way to be saved apart from him. On such matters, Scripture speaks far too clearly to be accidentally misunderstood; only willful misreading can confuse the issues.

But again, granting human sinfulness, that’s not enough; and granting the power and character of God, it doesn’t need to be. The Scriptures are not simply a book written by a bunch of really wise folk—wise for their time anyway, who need to be corrected at points where we just know better; the Scriptures are the word of God, inspired (which is to say, breathed into people) by the Spirit of God to accomplish the purposes of God. It is the Holy Spirit who instigated and shaped and perfected the books of the Bible—not dictating them to their human authors, but working through their personalities and characters to express the universal truth of God—and this is why we affirm them as the word of God, not just for us but for everyone. And it is the Holy Spirit who continues to speak through these words today, which is why we affirm their enduring power for salvation.

This is important to understand, and it’s a little tricky. When we declare the authority of Scripture, we aren’t just talking about words on a page—or on a screen, or carved in stone, or whatever. I’ve had a lot of folks ask me lately, “How can anyone who calls themselves a Christian believe something so obviously contradictory to Scripture?” The answer, I think, is that they mostly regard it as words on a page, as arbitrary squiggles of black ink—and words on a page, be they yesterday’s newspaper or the U. S. Constitution, are to some extent under your control. You can ignore them, you can argue with them, you can make up your mind for yourself what they mean, because they have no independent existence. They can’t argue back unless you let them. You are the authority; they are for your use as you see fit.

Scripture, however, is different. Scripture is inspired by God—not just was, is: he spoke it, and he continues to speak it. The authority of Scripture is not rooted in tradition or in who believes it or in the power of any human being to compel anyone to do anything, it is the authority of God whose voice speaks endlessly through it. To affirm the authority of Scripture truly is not to say, this is a book that we value, that has good rules for living, even that contains great truth; rather, to affirm the authority of Scripture is to acknowledge and bow before the authority of God in Scripture. It is to affirm that these are the words he has spoken to his people for all ages, through which he continues to speak in perfect truth, and thus that they are the necessary measure of everything else.

Now, as we say that, we need to say a few other things. First, this is not to say that the Holy Spirit only speaks through Scripture; Psalm 19 reminds us that he speaks through his creation as well, and as the Spirit fills each of us, he speaks truth through us to each other. If it were not so, I wouldn’t dare to be up here. But it is to say that the Spirit will never say anything which contradicts what he has already said, and the Scriptures are the only absolute word of God; anything else we may think is from God needs to be tested and corrected against their perfect witness, and anything which they contradict cannot be from God.

That said, second, the authority here is God, not us. The word of God is authoritative, but our own interpretations aren’t—they’re just our best efforts; sometimes, when we see a conflict, it may be that our understanding of Scripture is in error and needs to be corrected. In seeking to know and teach the truth of God, we must always proceed humbly, remembering that we are sinners like everyone else.

Third, this is why we can know God: because he has gone to considerable lengths to tell us and show us who he is and what he’s on about. It’s not about our smartness or anything else about us, it’s all his doing. If he hadn’t taken the initiative, it would be impossible for us to know anything at all about him with certainty; what we can know about him, we can know because he told us, and we can know him because he introduced himself to us. Our whole faith rests, as a practical matter, on this: that the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical authors to speak his truth and continues to use them to guide us into all truth today. Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Which means, it should be noted, that we must always remember that the purpose of the Scriptures is to point us to God; we may say we believe in them in that we believe that they are his word, his true and faithful witness to himself, but we don’t believe in the Bible in the same way that we believe in God—our faith is in him alone. It’s like my glasses. I’ve been trying to get back in the habit of wearing my contacts more, but these do fine: with them on, I can see you. If I take them off, I have some idea what I’m seeing, but none of it’s clear. Now, if I stand here and look at my glasses, I can study them—I can look at their design, how they’re put together, where the screws are, how they bend; I can see if the nosepads are loose, and that the lenses need cleaning again—but while that may give me interesting information about my glasses, it doesn’t help me see you. If I study my glasses, but I never put them on and look through them, they won’t do me any good at all.

In the same way, study of the Bible that’s all about the Bible and not about Jesus, faith that’s focused on the Bible and not on Christ, won’t do us any good at all—or anyone else, either. It is God who is their power, God who is their point, God who is their purpose: God the Father who spoke the word and created all things, Jesus Christ his Son, the Word made flesh, God with us—God for us—God one of us, and his Holy Spirit who inspired the written word by which we know all these things are true. The point of the Bible is that by the Holy Spirit, God is in every word in every line on every page. If we lose sight of that, we lose sight—period.

We Are One With Christ

(Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:9-17, Galatians 2:17-21)

I said last week, briefly, that it’s only by the Holy Spirit that we see Jesus. The eyes of the world don’t see him, because we do not see everything obviously subject to him—we see a lot in this world that doesn’t look anything at all like Jesus, and a lot of people thumbing their noses at him; most of the time, he doesn’t make himself all that obvious. Most of the time, it takes the eyes of faith, seeing with the vision of the Spirit of God, to see Jesus present and at work in this world. That’s one reason why we understand that our salvation comes to us wholly by God’s work as his free gift, that even our faith is a gift from God through Jesus Christ, because it takes the work of his Holy Spirit in our lives to make that faith possible.

The Spirit’s work doesn’t stop there, however; nor is it just about miracles and speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit isn’t just for Pentecostals and charismatics; we reserved, decently-and-in-order Presbyterians live by the Spirit, and need to live by the Spirit, just as much as our chandelier-swinging brethren, whether we speak in tongues or not. I will admit, I think a few words of prophecy and the like would do most Presbyterian churches a world of good, but that’s not really the point here; the point is that living by the Spirit is the fundamental reality of our life as Christians. That’s why we’re going to spend the next several weeks talking about the Holy Spirit and his work, because it’s only by the Spirit of God that we are able to follow Christ at all. Without him, we’re nothing more than a pile of dry white bones in a dead brown land.

You see, while we tend to think of being Christian as a matter of living up to certain standards of behavior, doing good things and not sinning, that isn’t the heart of the matter. Indeed, matters of the heart are the heart of the matter—God cares about our behavior, but he cares more about the heart attitudes and thoughts that drive our behavior. We do not have a faith that can be defined on a checklist of “do this” and “don’t do that”; that’s religion, but it’s not the gospel—and it’s not enough for God, because that sort of religion leaves the heart untouched, and the sins hidden there to fester.

What God offers us, then, is not a set of rules or principles to follow, but a person to follow—Jesus Christ; and rather than leaving us to follow in our own strength, he gives us his strength. Indeed, he goes farther than that: he gives us his life. We have been united with Christ in his death, and in his resurrection—in his crucifixion, the people we used to be were crucified; in his resurrection, we were raised again to new life, in the life of Christ. Christ is in us, and we are in Christ; this is how we live, this is why we live. This is our salvation, and it’s how our salvation becomes real in our everyday lives, as we are transformed from the inside out. This is, incidentally, why we affirm that salvation is not a thing that we can lose; yes, we can resist this ongoing work of divine transformation in our lives, but it’s beyond our power to undo.

Now, obviously, to say that Christ is in you is not to say that if we were to cut you open, there would be a little Jesus in there somewhere. A number of folks in this congregation have had open-heart surgery since I got here, and the doctors haven’t found Jesus in any of them. Similarly, to say that we are in Christ is not to make a physical statement, since he’s in heaven and we’re here. This is a spiritual reality, the Holy Spirit’s work in us. It doesn’t mean that our individuality vanishes, that who we are disappears into Jesus like a drop of water into the ocean; but it means that our identity changes, and the source of our identity. We don’t define ourselves, and we don’t determine who we are; our identity, our whole being, comes from Jesus through his Spirit, who moves through us like our blood, bringing us life and carrying away the works of sin and death.

When I say that this is our salvation—that this is the Spirit’s saving work in us—I’m not exaggerating; the importance of understanding this cannot be overstated. The Christian counselor and writer Dr. David Powlison put it best, I think, when he wrote,

The Gospel is better than unconditional love. The Gospel says, “God accepts you just as Christ is. God has ‘contraconditional’ love for you.” Christ bears the curse you deserve. Christ is fully pleasing to the Father and gives you His own perfect goodness. Christ reigns in power, making you the Father’s child and coming close to you to begin to change what is unacceptable to God about you. God never accepts me “as I am.” He accepts me “as I am in Jesus Christ.” The center of gravity is different. The true Gospel does not allow God’s love to be sucked into the vortex of the soul’s lust for acceptability and worth in and of itself. Rather, it radically decenters people—what the Bible calls “fear of the Lord” and “faith”—to look outside ourselves.

God accepts us in Christ, he accepts us as Christ is, and his Spirit bonds us to Christ and begins the work of setting us free from our false selves to be who we already are in Christ, and who Christ is in us. He sets us free from the desperate hunger and thirst that sin can never satisfy; in their place, he gives us the living water and the bread of life. He sets us free from our slavery to our desires, from the need to satisfy the demands of pride and wrath and lust that drives us to cling desperately to things and desires that can’t give us life, that only exhaust our energy and hollow out our souls; he gives us the ability to open our hands and stop striving, to stop hanging on and let ourselves fall into his care. We don’t have to make it all happen, we don’t have to make it all good enough, we don’t have to make it all work; he’s done that all for us. We don’t have to earn anything, because we’ve already been given everything.

Does this mean, then, that there’s no work for us to do? No; but it means that the work before us is different than we usually imagine. As emotionally and spiritually exhausting as our striving can be, it’s our default mode, and turning away from it is harder than it sounds. Our egos want to define salvation on our own terms and earn it by our own efforts, because then we can take credit and demand applause from God and others; giving that up is no easy task. As my friend Jared Wilson says,

it takes conscious effort to orient our stubborn selves around the gospel. Our flesh yearns for works, for the merits of self-righteousness, so it’s hard work to make ourselves rest in the finished work of Christ. It is a daily work, the labor of crucifying the flesh, taking up the cross, and faithfully following he who has finished the labor.

Our task is that of accepting and trusting that the life Christ has for us is truly ours by his Holy Spirit in us, and is truly better than anything we can come up with for ourselves, and thus to let go of anything in our lives that interferes with that—remembering that we aren’t the judge of that, he is—and let him clear it away.