As Pastor Al Martin noted, the inescapable repetitive theme of Scripture from cover to cover is sin and grace. As pastors, we have the often unappreciated task, but awesome privilege of persuading folks that God loves people by His active confrontation of their sin.
By His Word, His Spirit, and His ministers, God continually brings people to the crossroads of repentance. We are heralds of a message that is always timely: Repent, confess, mortify sin – experience renewed cleansing and restoration. Delight in God again, find new wonder and gratitude as you commune with Him; have the joy of your salvation restored. Experience joyful integration (as the Psalmists) when you come out of hiding and walk in the light again; living a sin-judged life of transparency before God.
But how do most of our parishioners live in the private world of their spiritual lives? What lies behind the guarded shutters of their souls? Beneath their quiet desperation and patterns of spiritual defeat is a fear that if their rebellion, and weakness, and failure were to come into the full light of God’s gaze, they would be devastated.
As a result, they shore up the little hovel that conceals their depravity with self-protective strategies to defend against judgment. Beneath that stiff upper lip is a proud, but fearful spirit that won’t take the “risk” of running to the atonement one more time.
The flesh works overtime to shield itself from any feelings of condemnation, shame, diminishment, and failure. Chutzpah becomes the rule of the day – the posture that is maintained says, “I have it all together.” Prickly defenses are employed to keep others from drawing too close. Personal brokenness is kept at arm’s length as a repugnant thing too filled with weakness to be considered beneficial.
When Mike Horton wrote the book, Putting the Amazing back in Grace, he was addressing a pervasive problem – it’s all too common for believers to lose their wonder and awe of God’s grace. Why does this happen?
Amazement at God’s grace is a function of being conversant with our ill desert and ruin by reason of sin. The greater our apprehension of our need for Christ, the more we will marvel at God’s grace. The reverse is also true – without a deep awareness of our ill desert and ruin by sin, we will unintentionally devalue divine grace.
It’s needful, but humbling to wake each day with the intent of facing our utter dependency upon Christ. The alternative is choosing to be managers of our own depravity. When we lose our amazement at God’s grace, it’s generally because we have drifted into a lifestyle of managing our own dereliction and depravity with something other than the grace of God in Christ.
The Apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:27 that, “You have clothed yourselves with Christ.” When believers lose their wonder at God’s grace, it’s often because they have been seeking toclothe their souls with something other than Christ.
The behavior of the self-deceived Laodiceans of Revelation 3:14-22 typifies the universal tendency of seeking a counterfeit clothing of the soul. They boasted that were rich, wealthy, in need of nothing. What a shock it must have been when Christ the Lord, with eyes like a flame of fire, peered into their hearts and declared them to be wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
There is a certain specter of horror that rises up at the prospect that the bulk of the professing Church today may see itself far differently than Christ the Lord does. The mindset of the Laodiceans was the polar opposite of utter dependency upon Christ. Their boast was in things which they imagined would clothe their souls. As a result, not a small part of their blindness involved abject ignorance of their desperate need of divine grace. The mirror of God’s Word alone can keep us from self-deception in this matter.
How does God deal with our sinful tendency to seek “clothing” for our souls in things other than Christ our completeness (Col 2:10)? The answer is that God through His Spirit and His Word exalts Christ in all of His offices (Prophet, Priest, and King; Logos, Lawgiver, Loving Redeemer, Lion of Judah). The Father displays His Son to the saints so that they will come to understand that in all of His offices, Christ ever lives to represent us and bring us to God. The Father convinces us that apart from Christ we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
The safest place for the believer is to be constantly undergoing a “grace awakening.” Welcome views of personal sin, of your depravity, dereliction and utter dependency – let them drive you to Christ. Invite the Sunrise from on high to shine upon your life. Ask Him to show you where you are building with wood, hay, and stubble. (Yes there is some pain involved; but it is primarily to our pride. Oh how fortifying this is to spiritual health to be scraped down to bedrock so that we are motivated anew to build upon Christ alone.)
The theme of sin and grace runs through Scripture like a continuous scarlet thread – the invitation has continued for thousands of years: apart from God’s grace solution in substitutionary atonement, there is nothing to clothe the nakedness of your souls but worthless fig leaves that cannot hide moral deformity from God’s sight.
One would think that sinners who have tasted God’s redeeming grace would be done with every sort of fig leaf covering. But such is not the case. The believers at Corinth had many kinds of fig leaves; boasting and ‘upsmanship,’ a party/sectarian spirit, materialism, ruthless self-assertion. The “grace garments” enjoined in Colossians 3:12-20 were all but missing from their corporate practice.
Paul placed all of the Corinthians’ carnal behaviors under the microscope of God’s wisdom in the cross and found each one of them to be symptomatic of the world’s wisdom; a wisdom antithetical to the cross of Christ (James 3:13-18).
The Apostle stated in his Corinthian letters that the message of the cross-centered life is the spiritual diet of the mature. But only those who are sick of the world’s wisdom are ready for this diet (1 Cor 2:15-3:3).
The diet of the spiritually mature produces substantial spiritual growth. The cross-centered believer increasingly perceives that his relationship with the Lord is the foundation for all of his other relationships.
Thus, the man or woman constrained by Christ’s love will have all of his relationships transformedbecause his motives will not be dominated by self-protection and self-enhancement (the flesh by natural instinct is committed to protection from judgment, criticism, diminishment, as well as to self-advancement). Instead of an agenda issuing from a self-directed life; the controlling, constraining love of Christ will equip the believer to love God and others (2 Cor 5:14).
If we are to excel in love and servanthood, honesty, realism, and heroism in dealing with personal sin are necessary. Only the man or woman who is constrained by Christ’s love and who lives a cross-centered life is capable of dealing with personal sin at the depth enjoined in Scripture – the depth commanded of the true disciple of Christ.
Attempts to clothe our own souls produce a host of masks, defenses, and personal agendas that keep us from being unhindered vessels of Christ’s love to the Body of Christ. As the Scotsman said, “There’s a stone in the pipe.”
Jesus said that His true disciples would not love their lives in this world. (The carnal love of one’s own life in this world includes all of the community-destroying, cherished, fleshly defense mechanisms employed to guard ourselves from others.)
The man who lives a sin-judged life by walking in the light will stand out amongst those who do not live in this way. Only the cross-centered life has the guaranteed power to transform our relationships (Phil 2:1-8; Rom 15:1-6).
The message of sin and grace is the starting place. 500 years ago Luther wrestled to the point of weariness with the problem of how a totally depraved person could be completely accepted by God. Once he had his salvific “epiphany” regarding the wonder of God’s justifying love – then Luther could exclaim with uncontainable joy that the believer is justified, yet a sinner.
This is precisely where our parishioners are still stuck. “Justified, yet a sinner” has never taken hold of them in a life-transforming manner. Therefore they cannot be heroic in dealing with personal sin and failure. Why? Because deferring judgment, defending against condemnation, and protecting from perceived criticism is still a higher priority than fellowship with God.
Only the person secure in Christ’s justifying love can face his sin with courage; only the individual who solidly appropriates the word of justification can afford to hear the worst things about self.
Apart from deep confidence in Christ’s justifying love -- judgment, condemnation, and criticism (perceived or real) make our defense mechanisms go ballistic. Figuratively speaking, we are ready to cut off, attack, or “kill” the person who brought our failure to light and made us feel diminished. This non-evangelical response to hearing about sin tears churches apart. The foolish, and frequently the immature, cannot tolerate admonishment; it is the wise man that welcomes correction and shows gratitude for it (Prov 9:8).
For this very reason, the saints are in constant need of taking the good word of justification into their souls. If the Gospel is not their “food,” the temptation will be overwhelming to manage their depravity by carnal methods (the world is more than happy to oblige our longing to clothe our souls – it has a thousand counterfeits and “scorecards” by which we may pronounce ourselves “O.K.”).
If we are not integrated or made whole by Christ’s righteousness imputed, then we will attempt to find our completeness in other things. The latter approach was indeed the state of the Laodicean church. In their self-deception, the Laodiceans imagined that they were in charge of their own value and completeness.
Self-deception must give way in order for the message of sin and grace to transform. In order for the message of sin and grace to take hold, the Body of Christ must determine to be examined by God’s Word through the Lord’s ministers.
Everything in us (except for the Spirit and the new nature energized by Him) opposes coming close enough to the light for exposure of sin to take place (Jn 3:19-21).
The false, flattering prophets of Jeremiah’s day were taken to task because they “heal[ed] the brokenness of the daughter of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ but there is no peace” (Jer 6:14; 8:11). John O. Anderson, author of The Cry of the Innocents, remarks that the most distinguishing trait of false prophets is that they refuse to warn God’s people.
If churches are in part “hospitals for the sin disease,” then dysfunctional churches are like hospitals in which an accurate diagnosis is eschewed – self-deception reigns, for the unspoken agreement is, we must always communicate, “I’m O.K., You’re O.K.”
Apart from the news of redemption in the cross, we tend to shoot the messenger. If the atonement is not our daily hiding place, we will have false refuges from judgment – and every false refuge has its social consequences (note how destructive the Corinthian “fig leaves” were to true community in that local church).
The man who walks in the light of the cross learns to take in the glorious word of justification in Christ as the “loudest verdict” in his conscience. Oh how liberating this is! Our people are overly critical, sensitive, self-protective, and walking on eggshells because the verdict of conscience is suspended upon the opinions of men instead of the verdict of Almighty God (Rom 8:32-34). (So many professing believers are virtually undefended against the accusations of the evil one who works to keep the consciences of the saints in a heavy, joyless, and defensive state.)
(The immature have yet to discover the spiritual diet of cross-centered living. Therefore they are far too dependent upon the praise, approval, judgment, criticism, and glory of man. This is one of the negative factors that “morphs” churches into social clubs that turn upon human recognition. So sensitive have church members become to the praise of man that every ministry effort and “performance” must be heaped with praise, applause and recognition –even though this moves them dangerously close to having their reward in full now. The glory of man and the glory of God have always been antithetical – John 12:42-43; 5:44)
The sin and grace theme is about God actively confronting our sin that we might be brought closer to Him who is the source of all life, light, love, and blessedness. The cross brings us down that we might be raised up to live in overflowing gratitude for the “exotic love” inherent in our sonship (1 Jn 3:1).
God’s answer to our excesses, and spiritual lassitude, and propensity for fig leaves is fresh apprehensions of Christ and His grace. Wonder of wonders, as John Owen states in his work,Communion with God, our depravity is a huge point of interface with God. As we take our sin to the Lord and take Christ for our righteousness again and again, we are having communion with the Lord. God is honored – He takes delight in our frequent appropriations of Christ for our entire righteousness.
How much this differs from the carnal conclusions of our fleshly minds. When we make efforts to clothe the nakedness of our souls, we always do so at the cost of leaving the cross at the entrance gate of our salvation. It becomes a distant memory instead of a daily reality for all of the needed “bookkeeping” of our consciences with its outstanding accounts and consciousness of guilt.
How do our parishioners live behind the doors of their souls? They tend to work 1000 times harder on their goals and all of the accompanying props and supports of ego than they do upon maintaining their relationship with the Lord.
If they only knew that what they are seeking (peace, joy, happiness, security, a non-accusing conscience, a sense of intense belonging) are byproducts of walking in close communion with the Lord – literally the dividends of the cross-centered life. (Let us not be afraid to preach the benefits of obedience. Paul spoke of the peace, joy, and hope that redound to the saint who lives a life of faith – Romans 15:13.)
Twenty-seven hundred years ago Jeremiah proclaimed that God’s covenant people had a preference for stagnant leaky cisterns instead of the pure, cool fountain of living water found in the Lord (Jer 2:13). Why this preference for the irrational and for false sources? What motivates us to attempt to slake our thirst on bile-colored pond scum instead of the artesian well of God’s love and presence?
The answer is that since the Fall in Eden, men have placed their confidence in what they can control and produce. (God Almighty, through Isaiah diagnosed this penchant for control when He read the hearts of the Jews who were ready to boast, “My idol did them” (Is 48:5). By contrast, the faith that pleases God is self-renouncing – it looks away from self (and self’s desire to control). It looks away from self as a source and instead looks to God’s character and covenant.
How we must get it into our heads and hearts that God desires to meet with us at the following juncture: God meets us at the cross when we deal with sin His way.
It’s true for the person just converted as well as the saint. When we begin to understand and practice this, then we will be better equipped to preach the vast theme of sin and grace to a needy people.
God’s infinite grace is full and free, but it is bestowed within the context of conditions produced by God’s Spirit. In His mercy, God grants the ability to repent. The Spirit produces brokenness over personal sin – the convicted man is crushed in his spirit over his lusts and his hurtful sinful patterns of behavior. The cross alone can produce a Spirit-convicted man who desires to leverage himself upon God.
The cross brings the sinner low; it dashes to the ground all human strategies for managing depravity. The man brought low abandons all false refuges and hiding places from judgment; he comes clean and owns his guilt. He judges himself worthy of divine judgment. Only then (through this Spirit enabled conviction and repentance) does the “altar” of the cross become the sinner’s treasured everlasting meeting place with God (Heb 13:10ff.).
The Christian comes back to meet God there over and over again. By fresh acts of faith in the message of the cross, we are renewed and we are motivated to maintain our relationship with the Lord. The outcome of maintaining our relationship with the Lord is practical progress in sanctification (Rom 6:22-23).
The “grace” part of sin and grace tells us that the cross-centered life demands our full attention. It refuses to be peripheral; it cannot be compartmentalized nor formalized. Life as a living sacrificecalls for universal obedience – every area of life is to be characterized by ongoing conformity to God’s Word.
Cross-centered living calls for courage; a daring to draw near again and again in order to have the light of Christ and His work shine upon our affections, our identity, our behavior, and our relationships – there is a constant renewal of our determination to take refuge in Christ the covenant and hiding place.
The cross-centered life calls me to a path of radical identification with Christ in which the Word of God dominates exceptionally in every area of my life. The cross is inseparable from self-denial -- there are 10,000 places where God’s will cuts across my will. Those who take up the crossunderstand this intimately – they “feel” the ruggedness of the cross upon their flesh. What they would prefer to pamper and excuse, the cross condemns and slays.
Yielding to God’s Spirit involves ongoing mortification of sin (Rom 8:12-13; Col 3:5ff.). At these junctures of putting to death sin, we put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14). Our striving against sin is not merely moral exertion at work. The cross-centered saint puts on Christ by reckoning the entire sphere of grace, co-crucifixion, and sonship. He abides in this sphere, reckoning all that is his by union with Christ. This alone is the Christian’s “staging area” for his battle against sin.
Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ results in fellowship with Him. We gladly submit to His Meditorial Kingship – we say “yes” to the Spirit at those junctures where sin is to be mortified. The result is the Spirit’s filling and control; joy in the Lord; intimate fellowship with God.
The Church has many who walk at a determined distance from the cross. They walk so as to give the cross a wide berth. Those who do not take up the cross fail to cooperate with the purposes of God’s heart (Rom 8:28-29). As a consequence they do not have as their life goal to be presented complete in Christ (Col 1:28).
Is it not time to remind our people that it only those who are friends of the cross who are truly friends of God (Phil 3:17-21). The cross stands at the center of our relationship with the Holy One. The message of sin and grace is not only about our entrance into salvation. It is the message of God’s eternal purposes fulfilled in Christ (Rom 16:25-27). It is the message of how the God of all grace is taking defiled sinners from dust to glory.
What about the folks who sit under our preaching? Are the people under our ministry fed up yet with expressions of the world’s wisdom in their own lives? Are they disgusted with the mindset and behaviors that destroy love and unity? Are they finally fed up with the sins which work against the Spirit’s will for true community (see Rom 14-15). Do they as yet crave the diet of the mature? What is required in their lives in order to be consumed and intoxicated with the beauty of Christ?
As pastors, how will we cultivate a longing for the spiritual diet of the mature; how can we be a catalyst for that which induces hunger for the message of the cross-centered life? How does God take hold of a man so that he desires the cross, knowing it will pinch and pierce his flesh?
Certainly the message of sin and grace is the revealer of God to man. Through the Gospel we come to know the Holy One. We must learn to display Christ not only in His sinless life of infinite virtue made manifest, but we must also learn to display the perfections of His Saviorhood – a Saviorhood perfectly suited to the sinner’s every need (Heb 7:26-28); a Saviorhood that is co-extensive with the sinner’s ruin.
We are to be ever about the business of setting forth sin and grace and of displaying the Son of God. Apart from cross-centered living, the individual will attempt to clothe his own soul. God’s answer has been clearly given – let us set our course to emulate the Apostle Paul who said, “For I determined, while among you, to be unconscious of everything but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).