Keeping You and Jesus Together
‘We’ve a story to tell to the nations.’ So how does it go? We need to think about that. Barna has his statistics, and it looks like a lot of us struggle in just knowing what that story is. Is it what you once heard the evangelist say, that you’re a hell-deserving sinner and that Jesus took your place bearing God’s wrath, so that you don’t have to live in fear? Well, that has to stay as a big piece of the story. When the Holy Spirit pushes me to face up to my motives, I see my glaring self-centred idolatry, and I’m so glad that Jesus takes away that deep guilt. But you know, most of the time I’m thinking of my Jesus in a different way. He’s my friend, always there, giving me his love and his power and his presence. He’s ‘Jesus Christ the Mediator,’ the one through whom a grand variety of gifts and blessings come. He loves me and always will. ‘What a friend we have in Jesus.’
We’ve learned so much about ‘union with Christ,’ from John Murray and Richard Gaffin and Sinclair Ferguson. That’s another way of saying that no matter how many different glorious ways there are of celebrating how the Lord saves us, they all come through that intimate presence of Jesus himself with us. ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.’
I’m thinking about Puritan sermons. They aren’t totally enjoyable. Didn’t they know any ordinary words, or did everyone talk that way back then? They are long; maybe there were no roasts in the oven then? But they know about ‘application.’ What belongs in a sermon? First is the amazing ‘fact’ in the text: Christ is risen, as a sample. Then comes what that means for you: Satan is defeated. Then what? Should the preacher just quit, maybe saying, may the Lord bless this to your hearts? But that’s where the Puritans didn’t just peter out, but where they really got into your life and about what you’re struggling with right now.
Is it that temptation that just won’t go away? How can Christ’s victory over Satan the liar help you? Is it that you’re so tired, without energy to get done what you need to get done? How can Christ’s power work in your life? And so on. I once saw 14 different applications in a New Jersey Puritan sermon, and that’s too many. But those preachers knew where their people struggled, and they helped in putting the gospel of Jesus and those struggles together.
So here’s my idea for ‘your story,’ the one you should and can tell to the nations down the block. Do the Puritan thing yourself. What’s so terribly hard in your life right now? What in the world does Jesus have to do with that? When you’ve worked that through, or started to, then you’ve got your story. It might be about forgiveness – but it might not be. How many ways can you work with the gospel story?
Forgiveness goes with what Jesus did in propitiation for your sins, passed on to you by the Spirit in justification. God is holy and we sin against him, so they will always be on the table, but are they always at the top of the list? American revivals featured stress on God’s judgment and hell, and not until people really got that were they given the Good News of the gospel. A lot of repentance had to be there before faith could work. I doubt that’s really biblical. Don’t we turn away from sin (repentance) toward Jesus Christ (faith), as two sides of the same work of the Spirit in our hearts? Isn’t the most basic sin after all rejecting Jesus? Remember the story of the landlord trying to collect the rent. The first rent collectors, the prophets, got beaten up, but the final one, the Son, was killed. Sin escalated all the way up to killing God’s Beloved. Repentance has to include that big one, repenting for indifference to Jesus, doesn’t it? If that’s how it is, then there’s more to justification than the fumes of hell. Your story will always have this in it, that you’re through with excusing yourself. Now you face your guilt, and you’ll always be grateful that Jesus took it for you.
But there’s more to be thankful for. Abraham found his identity as friend of God, and that’s your identity too. That’s another side to God’s grace, the reconciliation that Jesus does for you, given to you in the Spirit’s adoption. We’ve been thinking that over. That Confession of 1967 of the big Presbyterian church thought it could stress reconciliation by deliberately leaving out propitiation. Now that was just frothy sentimental religion without the hard reality of the cross of Christ. We have to do better than that. But how? Even among us evangelicals that keeps being a problem. Some are not happy with with those of us who see the grace of Jesus always and everywhere. They think we’re leaving out God’s holiness and our serious calling to obey him. I suppose that can happen. But if you know yourself as a child of God, to me it seems unnatural to explore what other reasons you might have for following Jesus besides feasting on the intimate love he has for you. Isn’t that after all the best reason for following Jesus, that you know he loves you and you can trust him?
I think we can work at putting that into our Puritan package. The Good News is the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives. Does he seem long ago and far off? An old story that has little to do with where you are right now? Things he has done for you, and not Jesus himself? Now work with that, in your loneliness, in your indifference, in your heart’s attraction to the Christless culture in which you live, in your missing compassion for your good friends who are so happy without Jesus. That work will take prayer. It will take working with your friends who know Jesus, and with your church. That Christless indifference comes from ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’ and only persistent trust in the love of Jesus can bring victory.
To help you work with that struggle, I commend with all my heart those Jerry Bridges books. To get a grip on how we got that way, trying to have a gospel without the presence of Jesus, try Tim Trumper’s book with the weird title, When History Teaches Us Nothing. Why be content with the gifts without the Giver? Well, that is worth repeating, like daily, don’t you think?
Know yourself and know Jesus; know Jesus and know yourself. Did Calvin say that first? No, of course not – God I Am has always said that, loudly and clearly. For revival to happen, it must begin with us, in that way.
D. Clair Davis is a former professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia and now Professor and Chaplain, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas.
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