Category Archives: New Testament Studies
Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair”
A Classic Article by Dr. David Powlison
One of the great questions facing Christians in the social sciences and helping professions is this one: How do we legitimately and meaningfully connect the conceptual stock of the Bible and Christian tradition with the technical terminologies and observational riches of the behavioral sciences? Within this perennial question, two particular sub-questions have long intrigued and perplexed me.
One sort of question is a Bible relevancy question. Why is idolatry so important in the Bible? Idolatry is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Scriptures.1 So what? Is the problem of idolatry even relevant today, except on certain mission fields where worshipers still bow to images?
The second kind of question is a counseling question, a “psychology” question. How do we make sense of the myriad significant factors that shape and determine human behavior? In particular, can we ever make satisfying sense of the fact that people are simultaneously inner-directed and socially-shaped?
These questions-and their answers-eventually intertwined. That intertwining has been fruitful both in my personal life and in my counseling of troubled people.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF INDIVIDUAL MOTIVATION TO SOCIOLOGICAL CONDITIONING
The relevance of massive chunks of Scripture hangs on our understanding of idolatry. But let me focus the question through a particular verse in the New Testament which long troubled me. The last line of 1 John woos, then commands us: “Beloved children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). In a 105-verse treatise on living in vital fellowship with Jesus, the Son of God, how on earth does that unexpected command merit being the final word? Is it perhaps a scribal emendation? Is it an awkwardfaux pas by a writer who typically weaves dense and orderly tapestries of meaning with simple, repetitive language? Is it a culture-bound, practical application tacked onto the end of one of the most timeless and heaven-dwelling epistles? Each of these alternatives misses the integrity and power of John’s final words.
Instead, John’s last line properly leaves us with that most basic question which God continually poses to each human heart. Has something or someone besides Jesus the Christ taken title to your heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight? It is a question bearing on the immediate motivation for one’s behavior, thoughts, and feelings. In the Bible’s conceptualization, the motivation question is the lordship question. Who or what “rules” my behavior, the Lord or a substitute? The undesirable answers to this question—answers which inform our understanding of the “idolatry” we are to avoid—are most graphically presented in 1 John 2:15-17, 3:7-10, 4:1-6, and 5:19. It is striking how these verses portray a confluence of the “sociological,” the “psychological,” and the “demonological” perspectives on idolatrous motivation.2
The inwardness of motivation is captured by the inordinate and proud “desires of the flesh” (1 John 2:16), our inertial self-centeredness, the wants, hopes, fears, expectations, “needs” that crowd our hearts. The externality of motivation is captured by “the world” (1 John 2:15-17,4:1-6), all that invites, models, reinforces, and conditions us into such inertia, teaching us lies. The “demonological” dimension of motivation is the Devil’s behavior-determining lordship (1 John 3:7-10,5:19), standing as a ruler over his kingdom of flesh and world. In contrast, to “keep yourself from idols” is to live with a whole heart of faith in Jesus. It is to be controlled by all that lies behind the address “beloved children” (see especially 1 John 3:1-3,4:7-5:12). The alternative to Jesus, the swarm of alternatives, whether approached through the lens of flesh, world, or the Evil One, is idolatry.
An Internal Problem
The notion of idolatry most often emerges in discussions of the worship of actual physical images, the creation of false gods. But the Scriptures develop the idolatry theme in at least two major directions pertinent to my discussion here. First, the Bible internalizes the problem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God.3 “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members. The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters.
If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift.4 Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings. The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.5
A Social Problem
Second, the Bible treats idolatry as a central feature of the social context, “the world,” which shapes and molds us. The world is a “Vanity Fair,” as John Bunyan strikingly phrased it in Pilgrim’s Progress.6Bunyan’s entire book, and the Vanity Fair section in particular, can be seen as portraying the interaction of powerful, enticing, and intimidating social shapers of behavior with the self-determining tendencies of Christian’s own heart. Will Christian serve the Living God or any of a fluid multitude of idols crafted by his wife, neighbors, acquaintances, enemies, fellow members of idolatrous human society…and, ultimately, his own heart?7
That idolatries are both generated from within and insinuated from without has provocative implications for contemporary counseling questions. Of course, the Bible does not tackle our contemporary issues in psychological jargon or using our observational data.8 Yet, for example, the Bible lacks the rich particulars of what psychologists today might describe as a “dysfunctional family or marital system” only because it does not put those particular pieces of human behavior and mutual influence under the microscope. The “lack” is only in specific application. The biblical categories do comprehend how individuals in a family system—or any other size or kind of social grouping—work and influence one another for good or ill. For example, the life patterns often labeled “codependency” are more precisely and penetratingly understood as instances of “co-idolatry.” In the case of a “co-idolatrous relationship,” then, two people’s typical idol patterns reinforce and compete with each other. They fit together in an uncanny way, creating massively destructive feedback loops.
The classic alcoholic husband and rescuing wife are enslaved within an idol system whose components complement each other all too well. There are many possible configurations to this common pattern of false gods. In one typical configuration, the idol constellation in the husband’s use of alcohol might combine a ruling and enslaving love of pleasure, the escapist pursuit of a false savior from the pains and frustrations in his life, playing the angry and self-righteous judge of his wife’s clinging and dependent ways, the self-crucifying of his periodic remorse, a trust in man which seeks personal validation through acceptance by his bar companions, and so forth.
The idol pattern in the wife’s rescuing behavior might combine playing the martyred savior of her husband and family, playing the proud and self-righteous judge of her husband’s iniquity, a trust in man which overvalues the opinions of her friends, a fear of man which generates an inordinate desire for a male’s love and affection as crucial to her survival, and so forth. Each of their idols (and consequent behavior, thoughts, and emotions) is “logical” within the idol system, the miniature Vanity Fair of allurements and threats within which both live. Their idols sometimes are modeled, taught, and encouraged by the other person(s) involved: her nagging and his anger mirror and magnify each other; his bar buddies and her girl friends reinforce their respective self-righteousness and self-pity. The idols sometimes are reactive and compensatory to the other person: he reacts to her nagging with drinking, and she reacts to his drinking by trying to rescue and to change him. Vanity Fair is an ever so tempting…hell on earth.
Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character, as can be seen in the vignette above: Judge, savior, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth. Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings: “if only…then….” For example, the wife’s “enabling” behavior expresses an idolatrous playing of the savior. This idol promises and warns her, “If only you can give the right thing and can make it all better, then your husband will change. But if you don’t cover for him, then disaster will occur.” Because both the promises and warnings are lies, service to each idol results in a hangover of misery and accursedness. Idols lie, enslave, and murder. They are continually insinuated by the one who was a liar, slave master and murderer from the beginning. They are under the immediate wrath of God who frequently does not allow such things to work well in His world.9
The simple picture of idolatry—a worshiper prostrated before a figure of wood, metal or stone—is powerfully extended by the Bible. Idolatry becomes a concept with which to comprehend the intricacies of both individual motivation and social conditioning. The idols of the heart lead us to defect from God in many ways. They manifest and express themselves everywhere, down to the minute details of both inner and outer life. Such idols of the heart fit hand in glove with the wares offered in the Vanity Fair of social life. The invitations and the threats of our social existence beguile us towards defection into idolatries. These themes provide a foundational perspective on the “bad news” that pervades the Bible.
In sum, behavioral sins are always portrayed in the Bible as “motivated” or ruled by a “god” or “gods.” The problem in human motivation—the question of practical covenantal allegiance, God or any of the substitutes—is frequently and usefully portrayed as the problem of idolatry. Idolatry is a problem both rooted deeply in the human heart and powerfully impinging on us from our social environment.
This brings us squarely to the second kind of question mentioned at the outset. This second question is a counseling question. How on earth do we put together the following three things? First, people are responsible for their behavioral sins. Whether called sin, personal problems, or dysfunctional living, people are responsible for the destructive things which they think, feel and do.10 If I am violent or fearful, that is my problem.
Second, people with problems come from families or marriages or sub-cultures where the other people involved also have problems. People suffer and are victimized and misguided by the destructive things other people think, want, fear, value, feel, and do. These may be subtle environmental influences: social shaping via modeling of attitudes and the like. These may be acutely traumatic influences: loss or victimization. My problems are often embedded in a tight feedback loop with your problems. If you attack me, I tend to strike back or withdraw in fear. Your problem shapes my problems.
Third, behavior is motivated from the inside by complex, life-driving patterns of thoughts, desires, fears, views of the world, and the like, of which a person may be almost wholly unaware. We may be quite profoundly self-deceived about what pilots and propels us. My behavioral violence or avoidance manifests patterns of expectation that own me. “You might hurt me…so I’d better keep my distance or attack first.” My behavior is a strategy which expresses my motives: my trusts, my wants, my fears, my “felt needs.” Such motives range along a spectrum from the consciously calculating to the blindly compulsive.
How are we—and those we counsel—simultaneously socially conditioned, self-deceived, and responsible for our behavior without any factor cancelling out the others?! That is the question of the social and behavioral sciences (and it is the place they all fail when they excise God). It is also the question that any Christian counselor must attempt to answer both in theory and practice in a way that reflects Christ’s mind. The Bible’s view of man—both individual and social life—alone holds these things together.
A Three-Way Tension
Motives are simply what move us, the causes of or inducements to action, both the causal “spring” of life and the telic “goal” of life.11 The notion of motivation captures the inward-drivenness and goal-oriented nature of human life in its most important and troublesome features. All psychologies grapple with these issues. But no psychology has conceptual resources adequate to make sense of the interface between responsible behavior, a shaping social milieu, and a heart which is both self-deceived and life-determining.
Here are some examples. Moralism—the working psychology of the proverbial man on the street—sticks with responsible behavior. Complex causalities are muted in toto. Behavioral psychologies see both drives and rewards but cast their lot with the milieu, taking drives as untransformable givens. Both responsible behavior and a semi-conscious but renewable heart are muted. Humanistic psychologies see the interplay of inner desire/need with external fulfillment or frustration but cast their final vote for human self-determination. Both responsible behavior and the power of extrinsic forces are muted. Ego psychologies see the twisted conflict between heart’s desire and well-internalized social contingencies. But the present milieu and responsible behavior are muted. It is hard to keep three seemingly simple elements together.
Unity ‘with Respect to God’
The Bible—the voice of the Maker of humankind, in other words!—speaks to the same set of issues with a uniquely unified vision. There is no question that we are morally responsible: our works or fruit count. There is no question that fruit comes from an inner root to which we are often blind. “Idols of the heart,” “desires of the flesh,” “fear of man,” “love of money,” “chasing after…,” “earthly-minded,” “pride,” and a host of other word pictures capture well the biblical view of inner drives experienced as deceptively self-evident needs or goals. There is also no question that we are powerfully constrained by social forces around us. The “world,” “Vanity Fair,” “the counsel of the wicked,” “false prophets,” “temptation and trial,” and the like capture something of the influences upon us. Other people model and purvey false laws or false standards, things which misdefine value and stigma, blessedness and accursedness, the way of life, and the way of death. They sin against us. God quite comfortably juxtaposes these three simple things which tend to fly apart in human formulations. I am responsible for my sins: “Johnny is a bad boy.” My will is in bondage: “Johnny can’t help it.” I am deceived and led about by others: “Johnny got in with a bad crowd.” How can these be simultaneously true?
The answer, which all the psychologies and sociologies miss, is actually quite simple. Human motivation is always “with respect to God.” The social and behavioral sciences miss this “intentionality,” because they themselves are idolatrously motivated. In a massive irony, they build into their charter and methodology a blindness to the essential nature of their subject matter.
Human motivation is intrinsic neither to the individual nor to human society. Human motivation is never strictly psychological or psycho-social or psycho-social-somatic. It is not strictly either psychodynamic or sociological or biological or any combination of these. These terms are at best metaphors for components in a unitary phenomenon which is essentially religious or covenantal. Motivation is always God-relational. Thus human motivation is not essentially the sort of unitary species-wide phenomenon that the human sciences pursue. It is encountered and observed in actual life as an intrinsically binary phenomenon: faith or idolatry. The only unitary point in human motives is the old theological construct: human beings are worshiping creatures, willy-nilly. Seeing this, the Bible’s view alone can unify the seemingly contradictory elements in the explanation of behavior.
The deep question of motivation is not “What is motivating me?” The final question is,“Who is the master of this pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior?” In the biblical view, we are religious, inevitably bound to one god or another. People do not have needs. We have masters, lords, gods, be they oneself, other people, valued objects, Satan. The metaphor of an idolatrous heart and society capture the fact that human motivation bears an automatic relationship to God: Who, other than the true God, is my god? Let me give two examples, one dear to the heart of behaviorists and the other dear to the heart of humanistic psychologists.
Hunger as Idolatry
When a “hunger drive” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am actually engaging in religious behavior. I—”the flesh”—have become my own god, and food has become the object of my will, desires, and fears. The Bible observes the same mass of motives which the behavioral sciences see as a “primary drive.” Something biological is certainly going on. Something psychological, and even sociological, is going on. But the Bible’s conceptualization differs radically. I am not “hunger¬driven.” I am “hunger-driven-rather-than-God-driven.”
We are meant to relate to food by thankfully eating what we know we have received and by sharing generously. I am an active idolater when normal hunger pangs are the wellspring of problem behavior and attitudes. Normal desires tend to become inordinate and enslaving. The various visible sins which can attend such an idolatry—gluttony, anxiety, thanklessness, food obsessions and “eating disorders,” irritability when dinner is delayed, angling to get the bigger piece of pie, miserliness, eating to feel good, and the like—make perfect sense as outworkings of the idol that constrains my heart.12 Problem behavior roots in the heart and has to do with God.
The idolatries inhabiting our relations with food, however, are as social as they are biological or psychological. Perhaps my father modeled identical attitudes. Perhaps my mother used food to get love and to quell anxiety. Perhaps they went through the Great Depression and experienced severe privation, which has left its mark on them and made food a particular object of anxiety. Perhaps food has always been my family’s drug of choice. Perhaps food is the medium through which love, happiness, anger and power are expressed. Perhaps I am bombarded with provocative food advertisements. The variations and permutations are endless.
Membership in the society of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam ensures that we will each be a food idolater in one way or another.13 Membership in American consumer society shapes that idolatry into typical forms. A complex system of idolatrous values can be attached to food. For example, we characteristically lust for a great variety of foodstuffs. Food plays a role in the images of beauty and strength which we serve, in desires for health and fears of death. Food—the quantities and types prepared, the modes of preparation and consumption—is a register of social status. Membership in a famished Ethiopian society would have shaped the generic idolatry into different typical forms. Membership in the micro-society of my family further particularizes the style of food idolatry: for example, perhaps in our family system hunger legitimized irritability, and eating was salvific, delivering us from destroying our family with anger. Yet in all these levels of social participation, my individuality is not lost. I put my own idiosyncratic stamp on food idolatry. For example, perhaps I am peculiarly enslaved to Fritos when tense and peculiarly nervous about whether red food dyes are carcinogenic!
Security as Idolatry
Behaviorists speak of “drives” and tend to “lower” the focus to the ways we are most similar to animals. Humanists and existentialists, on the other hand, speak of “needs” and tend to “raise” the focus to uniquely human social and existential goals. But the same critique applies. When a “need for security” propels my life or a segment of my life, I am again engaging in religious behavior. Rather than serving the true God, the god I serve is the approval and respect of people, either myself or others. I am an idolater. I am not “motivated by a need for security.” I am “motivated by a lust for security rather than ruled by God.” Or, since desire and fear are complementary perspectives on human motivation, “I fear man” instead of “I fear and trust God.” Need theories, like drive theories, can never comprehend the “rather than God,” which is always built into the issue of human motivation. They can never comprehend the fundamental idolatry issue, which sees that the things which typically drive us really exist as inordinate desires of the flesh that are direct alternatives to submitting to the desires of the Spirit.
Our lusts for security, of course, are tutored as well as spontaneous. “Vanity Fair” operates as effectively here as it does with our hunger. Powerful and persuasive people woo and intimidate us that we might trust or fear them. In convicting us of our false trusts and acknowledging the potency of the pressures on us, the Scriptures again offer us the liberating alternative of knowing the Lord.14
Idols: A Secondary Development?
When the conceptual structures of humanistic psychology are “baptized” by Christians, the fundamental “rather than God” at the bottom of human motivation continues to be missed. For example, many Christian counselors absolutize a need or yearning for love. As observant human beings, they accurately see that fallen and cursed people are driven to seek stability, love, acceptance, and affirmation, and that we look for such blessings in empty idols. As committed Christians they often want to lead people to trust Jesus Christ rather than their idols. But they improperly insert an a priori and unitary relational need, an in-built yearning or empty love tank as underpinning the heart’s subsequent divide between faith and idolatry.
They baptize this “need,” describing it as God-created. Idolatry becomes an improper way to meet a legitimate need, and our failure to love others becomes a product of unmet needs. The Gospel of Christ is redefined as the proper way to meet this need. In this theory then, idolatry is only a secondary development: our idols are wrong ways to meet legitimate needs. Repentance from idolatry is thus also secondary, being instrumental to the satisfaction of needs. Such satisfaction is construed to be the primary content of God’s good news in Christ. Biblically, however, idolatry is the primary motivational factor. We fail to love people because we are idolaters who love neither God nor neighbor. We become objectively insecure because we abide under God’s curse and because other people are just as self-centered as we are. We create and experience estrangement from both God and other people. The love of God teaches us to repent of our “need for love,” seeing it as a lust, receiving merciful real love, and beginning to learn how to love rather than being consumed with getting love.
Humans lust after all sorts of good things and false gods—including love—in attempting to escape the rule of God. The love-need psychologies do not dethrone the inner sanctum of our heart’s idolatry. Structurally, the logic of love-need systems is analogous to the “health and wealth” false gospels. Jesus gives you what you deeply yearn for without challenging those yearnings.
It is no surprise that, for good or ill, love-need psychology only rings the bells of certain kinds of counselees, who are particularly attuned to the wavelength of what we might call the intimacy idols. Such theories lack appeal and effectiveness “cross-culturally” to people and places where the reigning idols are not intimacy idols but, for example, power, status, sensual pleasure, success, or money. A love-need system must interpret such idols reductionistically, as displacements or compensatory versions of the “real need” which motivates people.
The Bible is simpler. Any one of the idols may have an independent hold on the human heart. Idols may reduce to one another in part: for example, a man with an intractable pornography and lust problem may be significantly helped by repentantly realizing that his lust expresses a tantrum over a frustrated desire to be married, a desire which he has never recognized as idolatrous. Idols can be compounded on top of idols. But sexual lust has its own valid primary existence as an idol as well. A biblical understanding of the idolatry motif explains why need models seem plausible and also thoroughly remakes the model. In biblical reality— in reality, in other words!—there is no such thing as that neutral, normal and a priori love need at the root of human motivation.
The biblical theme of idolatry provides a penetrating tool for understanding both the springs of and the inducements to sinful behavior. The causes of particular sins, whether “biological drives,” “psychodynamic forces from within,” “socio-cultural conditioning from without,” or “demonic temptation and attack” can be truly comprehended through the lens of idolatry. Such comprehension plows the field for Christian counseling to become Christian in deed as well as name, to become ministry of the many-faceted good news of Jesus Christ.
CASE STUDY AND ANALYSIS
Using a case study of a hurt-angry-fearful person, this article will now explore in greater detail the relationship between “world” and “heart” in the production of complex and dysfunctional behaviors, emotional responses, cognitive processes, and attitudes.
Wally is a 33-year-old man.15 He has been married to Ellen for eight years. They have two children. He is a highly committed Christian. He works for his church half time as an administrator and building overseer and half time in a diaconal ministry of mercy among inner city poor. He and his wife sought counseling after an explosion in their often-simmering marriage. He became enraged and beat her up. Then he ran away, threatening never to come back. He reappeared three days later, full of guilt, remorse, and a global sense of failure.
The current marital problems are exacerbated versions of long-standing problems: anger, inability to deeply reconcile, threats of violence alternating with threats of suicide, depression, workaholism alternating with escapism, a pattern of moderate drinking when under stress, generally poor communication, use of pornography, and loneliness. Wally has no close friends.
Several years ago Wally became involved sexually with a woman he was working with diaconally: “I know it was wrong, but I just felt so bad for her and how rough she’d had it that I found myself trying to comfort her physically.” He broke it off, and Ellen forgave him; but both acknowledge there has been a residue of guilt and mistrust.
He oscillates between “the flame-thrower and the deep freeze.” On the one hand he can be abrasive, manipulative, angry, and unforgiving. On the other hand he withdraws, feels hurt, anxious, guilty, and afraid of people. He oscillates between anger at Ellen’s “bossiness, nagging, controlling me, not supporting me or listening to me” and depression at his own sins. Her patterns and his create a feedback system in which each tends to bring out and reinforce the worst in the other.
Wally grew up in a secular, Jewish, working class family. He was born when his father was 52 years old and his mother, 42. By dint of hard work, long hours, and scraping by, they bought a house in a relatively affluent WASP suburb shortly after Wally was born. Wally’s father was a critical man, impossible to please. “If I got all A’s with one B, it was ‘What’s this?’ If I mowed and raked the lawn, it was ‘You missed a spot behind the garage.’”
After his retirement at age 70, Wally’s father became “much more mellow; and, with my having become a Christian and trying to forgive him, our relationship wasn’t half bad the last five years of his life.” His mother was “well-meaning, nice, but ineffective, totally intimidated by my Dad.” Wally had been a bit of a “weirdo” in high school: “I never matched up to the bourgeois values. I was too smart, too uncoordinated, too ugly, too shy, too awkward, and too poor to cut it in school.”
Wally became a Christian during his first year in college and immediately gravitated towards work with the poor and downcast. “I have little sympathy for rich, suburban Christians; but I love the poor, the single parents, the ex-addicts, the psychiatric patients, the ex-cons, the orphans and widows, the handicapped, the losers.” His Christian commitment is intense and life-dominating. He loves Jesus Christ. He believes the Gospel. He desires to share Christ with others. He knows what his behavioral sins are, but he feels trapped. “I just react instinctively. Then I feel guilty. You know the pattern!”
Financially, Wally and Ellen are not well off. They are not extravagant spenders, but they face continual financial decisions: Dental work for the children? Should we buy a house? Should we take a vacation or work side jobs to earn a little extra money? How many hours a week should Ellen try to work outside the home? Can we really afford to tithe? Should we accede to the kids’ desire for a VCR? They live month to month, and the bill cycle periodically creates quite a bit of stress.
How are Christian counselors to understand Wally in order to help him?
“Vanity Fair”: The Sociology of Idolatry
Idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God’s definitions. They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g., lust for money), other people (“I need to please my critical father”), or myself (e.g., self-trusting pursuit of my personal agenda). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of value and stigma. Idols promise blessing and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail against the law: “If you get a large enough IRA, you will be secure. If I can get certain people to like and respect me, then my life is valid.” There are numerous idolatrous values which influenced Wally and continue to pressure him: beguiling him, frightening him, controlling him, constraining him, enslaving him.
His father’s perfectionistic demands were one of the prominent idols impressed into Wally’s personal history: “You must please me in whatever way I determine.” Wally believed his father’s sinful, lying demand. “Fear of man” describes the phenomenon from the psychological side of the equation, a particular “idol of the heart.” “Oppression” and “injustice” describe his father’s powerful demands on the sociological side. We see the dominion of a father whose leadership style was that of a tyrant-king, not that of a servant-king promoting the well-being of his son.16 In essence, he lied, bullied, enslaved, and condemned. “I can remember lying on my bed while my Dad went on and on lecturing me, ranting and raving.” Wally was conditioned to be very concerned with what significant people thought of him. At the same time Wally bought the idol. He is simultaneously a victim and guilty. He was abused by powerful idols operative within his family system. He also instinctively both bought into those idols and produced his own competitive idols.
Relationships are rarely static. There were various sides and various phases to Wally’s relationship with his father’s critical opinion. At times Wally temporarily succeeded in pleasing his father and felt good about himself. At other times he failed in his father’s eyes, earning only scorn for being “a spaz, girlishly emotional.” At other times he obsessively, almost maniacally, strived to please his father. He once spent a summer, with dismal results, trying to learn to dribble a basketball in a way that did not “look like a six-year-old girl.” Some of the classic “low self-esteem” symptom patterns were established in this crucible.
At other times Wally rebelled against his father and his father’s implacable demands. He pitted his will against his father. Being highly intelligent, he was formidable and creative as a rebel. In his teens he succeeded in driving his father half crazy by setting up contrary value systems (serving contrary idols): rock music, bizarre dress and hairstyle, left-wing politics, marijuana use. One idol—”I need to please my father”—led into another—”I’ll do what I want and set myself in opposition to my father.”17
There are even elements in Wally’s conversion to Christianity which might be construed as part of this tendency to define himself in opposition to his father’s secular, ethnic Jewish, upwardly mobile culture. His Christianity could be used at times to torment his father. Idols are fluid. The rebellious stance ultimately became Wally’s predominant long-term commitment and undergirds a certain low-grade resentment he still feels at the memory of his father, now five years dead. But rebellion is not unmixed. It can be tinctured with regrets, a sense of failure, or even with merciful and gentle tendencies. “Sometimes I think I have really come to peace with my father—an honest, merciful peace that Christ has painstakingly wrought in me. At other times I know I lose it and react like the wounded and proud animal I once was.”
Wally’s father was not static either. In his later years he mellowed considerably. Wally’s Christian faith and his father’s evolution into a gentler man combined to bring a fair measure of kindness and forgiveness into the relationship. It became peaceable but never warm. Idols have a history, a “shelf life.”18 Vanity Fair evolves. A demanding father became a less demanding father who eventually promulgated a friendlier idol: he wanted to bask in the warmth of “family” and retirement. Our hearts also evolve. A youth with a compulsion to please became a young man who half wanted to please and half rebelled. The young man became a middle-aged man driven and haunted by some of the same patterns of contradictory compulsions, even after his earthly father’s death. Wally both lusts after the approval and respect of people and yet rebels and isolates himself in his pride.
We become infested with idols. The idolatrous patterns in Wally’s relationship with his father manifest in other relationships. Wally has had ongoing problems with authority figures in school, the military, work, and the church. He has had the same sorts of problems with his wife, friends, and even his children. Naturally, he brings this same pattern into the counseling relationship, with all the challenges that creates for building trust and a working relationship. He continues to manifest a typical stew of associated problems: a slavish desire to be approved, a deep suspicion that he won’t be approved, a stubborn independency.
We have attended in some detail to the way in which his father’s demandingness constituted an idol system which staked out a claim in Wally’s affections. We will give less detail to other influences, though each might be explored in equal detail. His mother’s passivity in the face of conflict set a model for him which still frequently colors his relationship to Ellen. The “bourgeois values” of his high school peer culture—dating, athletics, scoring sexually, looks, clothes, money, “cool”—also marked him out as a failure and fueled both his rebellion and his sense of shameful inadequacy. He bought the bourgeois values and failed against them. He rebelled against those values and bought the alternative values of the drug culture, in which he succeeded. He rebelled against both straights and druggies and isolated himself as a world of one, which sometimes worked and sometimes failed. All these things happened, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively.
Even the counterculture values of his “radical Christian” subculture can be understood in part as an idolatrous narrowing of the Christian life in reaction to the opposite idolatrous equation of Christianity with the American Dream. Certain biblical goods are magnified to the exclusion of other biblical goods. In various ways Wally continues to play out a three-fold theme. First, he typically rebels against certain dominant “successful people” cultures. Second, he finds his validity in the affirmation of a “down-and-out” subculture. Third, all the while he acts in idiosyncratic pride to create his own culture-of-one in which he plays king, and his opinions on anything from the dinner to eschatology are self-evident truth.
“Who can understand the heart of man?!” And who can understand the world that negotiates with that heart?! Wally and the myriad forces which impinge on him elude exhaustive, rational analysis. Yet we can describe enough of what goes on in his complex heart and complex world to minister helpfully to him. And the Wally we meet today is only today’s Wally, not the Wally of some prior point in his personal history. Biblical counsel, the mind of Christ about Wally’s life, can be given. Wisdom, the nourishing and honeyed tongue, can make satisfying and convicting sense of things, and Wally can learn to live, think, and act with such wisdom.
Many other idol systems and sub-systems impinge on Wally. Some are the same players Bunyan described in his Vanity Fair: cultural attitudes, values, fears, and opportunities which circle around money, sex, food, power, success, or comfort. Certain gentle-faced idols—the mass media, professional sports, and the alcohol industry—woo him with temporary compensations and false, escapist saviors from the pressures generated by his slavery to the harsh, terrifying idols which enslave and whip him along at other times: “I must perform. I must prove myself. Everyone I respect must like me. What if I fail?”
Some of the other idol systems which daily impact on Wally are found within the marital system and the family system. Ellen’s and the children’s values and desires provoke and persuade Wally in various ways. If Ellen worries about money, if the children get swept up with complaining when they do not get what they want, if Ellen nags Wally with expectations of moralistic behavioral change, Wally is variously worried, angry, compliant, depressed, defensive, full of denial, or whatever else, depending on how he interfaces with the particular micro-society that is constraining him.19
This way of exploring “What rules me?” is “sociological.” False gods are highly catching! With good reason both Old and New Testaments abound with warnings against participating in pagan cultures and associating with idolaters, fools, false teachers, angry people, and the like. Our enemies not only hurt us, they also tempt us to be like them. False voices are not figments which the individual soul hallucinates. “World” complements “flesh” to constitute monolithic evil: the manufacture of idols instead of worship of the true God.
If we would help people have eyes and ears for God, we must know well which alternative gods clamor for their attention. These forces and shaping influences neither determine nor excuse our sins. But they do nurture, channel, and exacerbate our sinfulness in particular directions. They are often atmospheric, invisible, unconscious influences. Conscious repentance begins to thrive where I see both my own distortions and the distortions impinging upon me from others. Both tempt me, and I must battle both.
Scripture is sensitive to sociological forces without compromising human responsibility. But, of course, idols are also “in here” in our hearts, determining the course of our lives. In the discussion above, Wally’s heart response to his environment—idols of the heart—continually intruded. The two are impossible to disentangle absolutely. But in the next section I will look in greater detail at the more psychological dimension of idolatry.
Idols of the Heart: the Psychology of Idolatry
At the simplest level Wally both imbibed the idols to which he was exposed and creatively fabricated his own. He has variously succeeded, failed, or rebelled against various value systems. But in each case he nurtures and serves numerous unbiblical values. His life implicitly validates many lies. His heart is deeply divided between the true God and idols. Is he a Christian? Yes. But the ongoing work of renewal must engage him genuinely over the particular patterns of idolatry that functionally substitute for faith in Christ. There has been a measure of genuine fruit in his life. But there has been a measure of bending the true God to the agenda of the flesh.
Idols are rarely solitary. Our lives become infested with them. Wally is psychologically controlled by a lush variety of false gods. For example, he typically oscillates between “pride” and the “fear of man.”20Pride or “playing god” generates one set of sins: anger, manipulation, compulsions to control people and circumstances, a “Type A personality,” rebellion against parents and the bourgeois. The fear of man or “making others into god” generates another set: self-consciousness, fears, depression, failure, anxiety, withdrawal, a gnawing sense of inferiority, chameleon behavior. They work hand in hand to produce his “perfectionism,” both in its anxious and its demanding aspects: “My performance in your eyes. Your performance in my eyes.”
Many other gods wait in the wings, playing occasional bit parts in the drama of Wally’s life. At times Wally’s god is a lust for escapist comfort from the pressure cooker he creates. Alcohol abuse, TV watching, video games and pornography provide fleeting escape. At times he is owned by a desire to “help” people. He becomes obsessed with his ministry, angry at any who hinder it, prone to become messianic (and even adulterous), justifying any doubtful actions on his part by reference to the supreme value of “my ministry.” Of course, this is only a sampler. Any of scores of particular lesser gods can appear in the temple of his heart depending on traffic conditions, the weather, how his wife treats him, how his children do in school, etc.
The real Wally is irreducibly complex! Even as I portray Wally in broad strokes, it is clear that his life emerges from an ever-shifting mosaic of false loyalties. This noted, are there hierarchies of idols or prepotent idols of unusual significance in Wally’s case? Yes, there are. Wally’s life may well play out typical, oft-repeated themes. He is a “type” in a loose sense, though he can never be reduced to a rigid diagnostic type because of the myriads of fluid idols which constrain him. Certain idols strike me as predominant in Wally. “Pride” (I play god) and “fear of man” (I install you as god) are crucial. One finds variations on the themes of “I want my way” and “How do I perform in your eyes?” endlessly repeated in Wally’s life. Demand and fear take turns in the spotlight. Other typically dominant idols—sexual pleasure, money, etc.—certainly have their say in Wally’s life but have a more low-grade, nagging quality, which in a different counselee might be greatly intensified.
It is striking how biblical categories—the idol motif, in this case—stay close to the concrete details of life and do not speculate abstract typologies. The bedrock similarities between people tend to be brought into view. In our psychologized culture we are used to definitive analyses of Wally and others according to a typology. He is a type-A person. He is a Pleaser. He is a Controller. He is a combination of melancholic and choleric temperaments. He is a typical ACOA or member of a dysfunctional family. His root sin is anger. His problem is low self-esteem. In DSM-III categories he is a…, and so forth. Such statements tend to pass for significant knowledge. In fact, they are not explanations for anything but are simply ways of describing common clusters of symptoms.
Given the prevalence of this mode of typing people, it might be expected that we could say something like, “His root idol is….” But the data on idolatry does not generally support such reductionistic understandings of the human heart.21 At best we can make the softer claim, “His most characteristic idol is…usually…but at other times…!” For purely heuristic purposes it may be useful to notice that one person is particularly attuned to the intimacy idols, another to avoidance idols, another to power idols, another to comfort idols, another to pleasure idols, another to religiosity idols, and so forth. A person’s style of sin—”characteristic flesh” in Richard Lovelace’s graphic term22—may tend to cluster habitually around particular predominant idols.
But sin is creative as well as habitual! We should not forget that the reductionism the Bible consistently offers is not a typology that distinguishes people from each other but is a summary comment that highlights our commonalities: all have turned aside from God, “each to his own way,” “doing what was right in his own eyes.”23 Under this master categorization the temple teems with potential shapes for idols and false gods. The rampant and proliferating desires (plural) of the flesh contend with the Spirit and clamor for our faith and obedience. Typologies are pseudo-explanations. They are descriptive, not analytical, though as conceptual tools for various psychologies and psychotherapies they pretend to explanatory power. At best, typologies describe “syndromes,” patterns of fruit and life experience that commonly occur together.24 Current typologies are not helpful for exposing the real issues in the lives of real people. At best they are redundant of good description and intimate knowledge of a particular individual. At worst, they are bearers of misleading conceptual freight, for they duck the idolatry issues.
How do we explain the fact that all of us are not exactly like Wally though we share the same generic set of idolatrous tendencies?: the numerous forms of pride and the fear of man; obsession with sensual pleasures; preoccupation with money; tendencies towards self-trust regarding our opinions, agendas, abilities; the creation of false views of God based on our life experience and desires; desire to be intrinsically righteous, worthy, and esteemable; and the like. Jay Adams has perceptively commented on the commonality inhering within individual styles of sin:
Sin, then, in all of its dimensions, clearly is the problem with which the Christian counselor must grapple. It is the secondary dimensions—the variations on the common themes—that make counseling so difficult. While all men are born sinners and engage in the same sinful practices and dodges, each develops his own styles of sinning. The styles (combinations of sins and dodges) are peculiar to each individual; but beneath them are the common themes. It is the counselor’s work to discover these commonalities beneath the individualities.25
‘Neighborhoods’ in Vanity Fair
How do individual styles develop? Certainly particular “neighborhoods” in Vanity Fair can empower different idols. It doesn’t surprise us that Wally’s demanding and unpleasable father can be correlated with a particular form of the “fear of man” as a significant idol in Wally’s heart. Yet because of the continual interplay of idol-making heart with idol-offering milieu, another child might grow up with very accepting parents, and the “fear of man” would be similarly empowered as a lust never to be rejected or fail. Our idols both covet what we do not have and hold on for dear life to what we do have.
Many of the nuances of our idolatries are socially shaped by the opportunities and values that surround us. For example, it is unsurprising that more people will become homosexuals (or adulterers, or pornographers, or whatever) in a culture that makes certain forms of sexual sin available, legitimate, or normal. For example, Wally grew up in a family moderately obsessed with academic and professional achievement. His next door neighbor might have grown up in a family obsessed with escapist pleasure, and he might have been nurtured to live for “Miller Time” and televised sports. The generic idols in every heart may bear different fruit in different people. For example, Baal is no threat to produce “religious” forms of idolatry today, but Mormonism is such a threat.
Much of the variation among us is simply empowered by the “accidents” of life experience: tragedies or smooth sailing, handicaps or health, riches or poverty, New York City or Iowa or Uganda, a high school or a graduate school education, first-born or eighth-born, male or female, born in 1500 B.C. or 1720 or 1920 or 1960, and the like. Much individual variation is due to hereditary and temperamental differences: kinds of intelligence, physical coordination and capabilities, variation in talents and abilities, metabolic and hormonal differences, and so forth. In the last analysis, idiosyncratic choice from among the opportunities and options one encounters accounts for the nearly infinite range for individuality within the “commonalities” that biblical categories discern in us.
The diagnostic categories which pierce to the commonalities are categories such as “idolatry versus faith,” which we are using here. These alone can embrace both the fluidities and relative stabilities of Wally’s world, flesh, and devil—and can embrace the true God who has saved Wally. They apply toevery person in a way which is simple, but never simplistic, accounting for all the complexities. For all our differences, the Bible speaks to every one of us.
OTHER DIAGNOSTIC PERSPECTIVES AND THE GOSPEL: MULTIPERSPECTIVAL INTERPRETATION
As we have indicated, Wally’s mass of behaviors, attitudes, cognitions, value judgments, emotions, influences, et al. can be understood right down to the details utilizing the biblical notion of idolatry. The disorder in Wally’s life is produced by the interplay between particular idols of his heart and particular idols of his social environment. Sins occur at the confluence of disoriented heart motives and disoriented socio-cultural systems of all sizes. The intention of this essay has been to explore some of the dense connections between flesh and world. But there are other ways of approaching these things which are important to recognize.
Notably absent has been attention to the equally dense connecting links between the Devil and both world and flesh in the production of Wally’s dysfunctional and sinful living. “Who rules me?” invites awareness of spiritual powers. Idols and demons go hand in hand in literal worship of false gods. Not surprisingly, the functional lordship of Satan is equally evident in the more subtle idolatries that enslave Wally. Does this mean that Wally is “demon-possessed” and the treatment of choice is exorcism? Decidedly not. But wherever we are problematically afraid or angry—to isolate two particular bad fruits—we are being formed into Satan’s image rather than Christ’s. The same modalities that fight world and flesh also fight the Devil. Intelligent faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is ultimately the answer. But awareness of the spiritual warfare occurring emphasizes the fact that Christian counseling is a ministry of prayer.26 Awareness of spiritual warfare also helps shake us out of the behavioral science mindset which tempts us to think about people psycho-socially, rather than with respect to God.
The Dark Lord’s stratagems are all intended to establish his lordship over people. Satan methodically disintegrates Wally’s relationships, leads him into gross sins, deceives his mind into highly distorted and selective perceptions, accuses him into despair, discourages him, ties his life into knots in every imaginable way, fans normal desires into inordinate and addictive desires and “needs,” and the like. This article has primarily attended to “world and flesh.” “Devil” completes the monolithic triad of biblical perspectives on the motivation of problem behavior.
Also notably absent has been detailed attention to the somatic influences on Wally. His problems are exacerbated by allergies, overtiredness, a diet with too much “junk food,” sexual frustration and a sedentary lifestyle. Close attention to patterns of irritability, marital tension, sexual lust, and depression would consistently reveal a plausible somatic component. The fact that monitoring caffeine and sugar intake, and getting more regular rest, sexual intercourse, and exercise moderates Wally’s symptoms also points to somatic influences. Somatic factors, at minimum, influence the “quantity” of Wally’s problems, though they do not create the “quality” of his problems. A tense irritability can flare into rage and cursing. A case of “the blues” can spiral into bleak despair. A tendency to ogle women can break out into purchasing Penthouse. Wally’s body variously exacerbates or moderates the intensity of his sins. It does not create new kinds of sins.
The Role of the Will
Also notably absent has been a discussion of the degree to which Wally’s behavior is willed and, hence, immediately controllable. As was stressed earlier, paying biblical attention to motives of heart and world is no ploy for cutting the force out of the Bible’s view of human responsibility. Wally chooses, even when he plunges down well-worn ruts where a fork in the road seems experientially nonexistent. Wally has made headway in self-discipline at various times in his life. He knows what is wrong and what is right. He is able to describe many times when he “bull-headedly chose wrong.” He can also tell of many times when he acted out of conscious faith in Christ to choose right.
Recognizing choice does not negate the power of world, flesh, and Devil. The more Wally grows to know himself and his environment, the more he consciously knows and experiences that he has always been making choices. One of the purposes of working with the idol motif (or with its more culturally accessible equivalents: the idolatrous desires, hopes, fears, expectations and goals which own people) is to expand the arena in which Wally is aware of the choices he has been making implicitly. Sanctification expands the arena of conscious choice and biblical self-control.
Also notably absent has been a discussion of the providence of God in bringing intense, transforming experiences. Wally’s conversion “dropped out of the sky” and gave him months of freedom from sins, joy in Christ, and growing love for people. He has had other “high times” as a Christian: times of greater vision, love, and liberty produced by a good sermon, at a retreat, or by some inexplicable opening of his heart to God in a moment of daily life.
But changes in Wally’s life—whether the product of victories in conscious spiritual warfare, of physiological alterations, of volitional commitment or of mountaintop experiences—seemingly “happen” at random. These four paradigms often provide the stuff with which Wally thinks about problems and change in his life. Wally has little sense of confidence that his life is moving in the direction of consistent, intelligent, desirable, whole-souled change. His life in general seems to be an unhappy chaos, with occasional and temporary moments of symptomatic relief. One of the goals of this essay is to describe several elements which can make change more consistent, internalized, self-conscious and genuinely transformative. In my experience the Wallys, both inside and outside the church, tend to be very blind to the things that move them. It is a curious but not uncommon phenomenon that a biblically literate person like Wally has no effective grasp on the idols of his own heart and the temptations of the particular Vanity Fair which surrounds him.27 Wally is all action, impulse, and emotion. He knows relatively little about what God sees going on in his heart and his world. The question, “What is God’s agenda in my life?” can often be answered with some confidence when I start to grasp the themes which play out in my life.
My analysis has been predominantly “psycho-social” (covenantally psycho-social!). A full biblical analysis of Wally’s problems would be a “psycho-social-spiritual-somatic-volitional-experiential” analysis.28 To understand the exact weight of each variable is, obviously, to quest after something which is—from a human point of view, the intentions of social scientists notwithstanding!—ultimately elusive. But the Bible’s answer is always powerfully applicable: turning from idols to the living God, renewal of mind and heart in the truth, activities captured in shorthand by the phrase “repentance and faith.”
The Lordship Question
There is some utility to teasing out these two strands of human motivation, while never forgetting that we are focusing only on several perspectives within a unified whole. The two I have concentrated on in this article— the heart and the social milieu—without question receive the bulk of the Bible’s attention. But the question of human motivation is ultimately the multiperspectival question of lordship, of faith in idols and false gods in tension with vital faith in the true God. This can be looked at through numerous lenses:
Lordship through the lens of our hearts: The grace-filled, “strait and narrow” will of the Spirit versus the rampant, idolatrous desires of my flesh.
Lordship through the lens of social influences: Social shaping by the Kingdom of God and the body of Christ versus imbibing the models and values of the kingdoms of our world (various micro-kingdoms of marital and family systems; on up through progressively larger kingdoms of peer relations; of neighborhood, school, and work place cultures; of ethnic group, socio-economic class, nationality, etc.).
Lordship through the lens of spiritual masters: The good King Jesus versus the tyrant Satan.
Lordship through the lens of somatic influences: living through bodily pains and frustrations in the hope of the resurrection versus immediate service to and preoccupation with my belly’s and body’s pains, pleasures, deprivations, and wants.
Lordship through the lens of volitional choices: Conscious faith in God’s promises and obedience to God’s will versus believing and choosing according to my spontaneous will, desires, and opinions, “the way that seems right to a man.”
Lordship through the lens of experiential providence: Learning to rejoice in God amid blessings and to repent and trust God amid sufferings versus growing presumptuous, proud, or self-satisfied when things go our way and depressed, angry, or afraid when life is painful, frustrating, or unsure.
Though this article has commented particularly on the interplay between the first two lenses, my intent throughout has been to expand our view of Wally, not to constrict it. Within the biblical conceptual framework we can bring into view all of Wally and his world. The notion of behavior as ruled lets us hold together seeming paradoxes. Wally is fully responsible for what he does. Wally’s inner life is full of kinks, distortions, and blind compulsions. Wally is continually being conditioned from without, tempted, tried, and deceived. Wally is also a Christian. The Spirit and the Word can work powerfully both to reorient him from the inside and to set him free from the control of what impinges on him.
Idolatry and the Ministry of the Gospel of Jesus Christ
In this article my attention has been heavily weighted towards the issue of diagnosis: How do we biblically understand people? But biblical diagnosis bridges immediately into biblical treatment. The understanding of people presented here enables the message of the Gospel to apply relevantly to the problems of troubled people.
One of the major challenges facing Christian counselors is how to apply the Gospel of the love of God incisively. There are many faulty, distorted, or inadequate ways to go about this. The Gospel is easily truncated and weakened when idols of the heart and Vanity Fair are unperceived or misperceived. But if we accurately comprehend the interweaving of responsible behavior, deceptive inner motives, and powerful external forces, then the riches of Christ become immediately relevant to people. What was once “head knowledge” and “dry doctrine” becomes filled with wisdom, rel-evancy, appeal, hope, delight, and life. People see that the Gospel is far richer than a ticket to heaven and rote forgiveness for oft-repeated behavioral sins.
How many Wallys—and Ellens—are stuck with a vague guilt over seemingly unshakable, destructive patterns? But when Wally sees his heart’s true need and his need for deliverance from enslaving powers-that-be, he then sees how exactly he really needs Christ. Christ powerfully meets people who are aware of their real need for help.29 We Christian counselors, both in our own lives and in our counseling, frequently do not get the Gospel straight, pointed, and applicable. I will consider two broad tendencies among Christians who seek to help their fellows: psychologizing and moralizing.
Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically have a genuine interest in the motivation that underlies problem behavior. Psychologically-oriented Christians attempt to deal with both the internal and external forces that prompt and structure behavior. The heart issues are typically misread, however. “Need” categories tend to replace biblical categories—idolatry, desires of the flesh, fear of man, etc.—which relate the heart immediately to God. Also, environmental issues such as a history of abuse, poor role models, and dysfunctional family patterns tend to be given more deterministic status than they have in the biblical view.
These views of inner and outer motivation fit hand-in-glove as an explanation for behavioral and emotional problems. “You feel horrible and act badly because your needs aren’t met because your family didn’t meet them.” The logic of therapy coheres with the logic of the diagnosis: “I accept you, and God really accepts you. Your needs can be met, and you can start to change how you feel and act.” Behavioral responsibility is muted, and the process of change becomes more a matter of need-meeting than conscious repentance/metanoia and renewal of mind unto Christ.
What is the Gospel?
What happens to the Gospel when idolatry themes are not grasped? “God loves you” typically becomes a tool to meet a need for self-esteem in people who feel like failures. The particular content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—”grace for sinners and deliverance for the sinned against”—is down-played or even twisted into “unconditional acceptance for the victims of others’ lack of acceptance.” Where “the Gospel” is shared, it comes across something like this: “God accepts you just as you are. God has unconditional love for you.” That is not the biblical Gospel, however. God’s love is not Rogerian unconditional positive regard writ large. A need theory of motivation—rather than an idolatry theory—bends the Gospel solution into “another gospel” which is essentially false.
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 themselves.
Christian counselors with a psychologizing drift typically are very concerned with ministering God’s love to people who view God as the latest and greatest critic whom they can never please. But their failure to conceptualize people’s problems in the terms this article has been exploring inevitably creates a tendency towards teaching a Liberal Gospel. The cross becomes simply a demonstration that God loves me. It loses its force as the substitutionary atonement by the perfect Lamb in my place, who invites my repentance for heart-pervading sin. “The wound of my people is healed lightly.”30
Christian counselors with moralistic tendencies face a different sort of problem. Where there is a moralizing drift to Christian counseling, Christ’s forgiveness is typically applied simply to behavioral sins. The content of the Gospel is usually more orthodox than the content of the psychologized Gospel, but the scope of application may be truncated. Those with psychologizing tendencies at least notice our inner complexities and outer sufferings, though they distort both systematically. In some ways the moralizing tendency represents an inadequate grip on the kinds of “bad news” this article has been exploring.
Moralistic Christianity does not usually evidence much interest in the pressures and sufferings of our social milieu. Counselors fear that such interest would necessarily feed those varieties of blame-shifting and accusation which spring up so readily in our hearts. Human responsibility would be compromised. But they do not see that understanding the evil that happens to me—the Vanity Fair that is swirling around my life—is a crucial part of my widening and deepening appreciation of Christ. Attendance to the forces that have pressured and shaped me—and are shaping me—for ill allows me to respond intelligently, responsibly, and mercifully. As psalm after psalm demonstrates, our sufferings are the context in which we experience the love of God, both to comfort us and to change us. We are comforted in our afflictions as we learn of God’s promises and power. We are changed in our afflictions as we learn to take refuge in God rather than in vain idols.
Moralizers are also weak on the inward side of motivation. Heart motives may be attended to in part via an awareness of “self” or “flesh.” But the solution is typically construed in all-or-nothing terms. Conversion, “Let go and let God,” and “total yieldedness” attempt to deal with motive problems through a single act of first-blessing or second-blessing housecleaning. The Gospel is for the beginning of the Christian life or a dramatic act of consecration. There is little sense of the patient process of inner renewal which someone like Wally—and each of us!—needs. Jesus says to take up our cross daily, dying to the false gods we fabricate, and learning to walk in fellowship with Him who is full of grace to help us. Receptivity to God’s love—”The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want”—is the absolutely necessary prerequisite for any sort of active obedience to God.31
I have looked at two common truncations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Both evidence an inadequate grasp of the deviance of our hearts and our corresponding vulnerability to external influences. People are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers.32 We wander through a busy town filled with other idol-makers, idol-buyers, and idol-sellers. We variously buy and sell, woo, agree, intimidate, manipulate, borrow, impose, attack, or flee. But there is a bigger Gospel. At the gates of Vanity Fair, Christian met a man who entreated him and his companion:
Let the Kingdom be always before you; and believe steadfastly concerning things that are invisible. Let nothing that is on this side of the other world get within you; and, above all, look well to your own hearts, and to the lusts thereof, for they are deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Set your faces like a flint; you have all power in heaven and earth on your side.33
Christian passed through Vanity Fair bloodied but purer in heart. He remembered, amid hard combat with world, flesh, and Devil, the Celestial City which was his destination, and the Lord Jesus who beckoned him to life.
The biblical Gospel delivers from both personal sin and situational tyrannies. The biblical notion of inner idolatries allows people to see their need for Christ as a merciful savior from large sins of both heart and behavior. The notion of socio-cultural-familial-ethnic idolatries allows people to see Christ as a powerful deliverer from false masters and false value systems which we tend to absorb automatically. Christ-ian counseling is counseling which exposes our motives—our hearts and our world—in such a way that the authentic Gospel is the only possible answer.
Article published on October 9, 2009 @ http://www.ccef.org/idols-heart-and-vanity-fair
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D. worked for four years in psychiatric hospitals, during which time he came to faith in Christ. He teaches at CCEF and edits The Journal of Biblical Counseling (soon to be re-launched online). He received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in the history of science and medicine, focusing on the history of psychiatry. He has a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and has been doing biblical counseling for over 30 years. He has written numerous articles on counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology. His books include Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, Power Encounters, and The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context. – See more at: http://www.ccef.org/biography/david-powlison#sthash.BgnGUHsy.dpuf
1 The “First Great Commandment,” like the first two or three commandments from the decalogue, contrasts fidelity to the Lord with infidelities. The open battle with idolatry appears vividly with the golden calf and reappears throughout Judges, Samuel, Kings, the prophets, and Psalms.
2 This confluence of the world, the flesh, and the devil is unsurprising, as it recurs throughout the Scriptures: see Ephesians 2:1-3 and James 4:1-7 for particularly condensed examples.
3 “Heart” is the most comprehensive biblical term for what determines our life direction, behavior, thoughts, etc. See Proverbs 4:23, Mark 7:21-23, Hebrews 4:12f, etc. The metaphor of “circumcision or uncircumcision of heart” is similar to “idols of the heart,” in that an external religious activity is employed to portray the inward motivational dynamics which the outward act reflects.
4 See such summary statements by Paul, Peter, John, and James as Galatians 5:16ff; Ephesians 2:3 & 4:22; 1 Peter 2:11 & 4:2; 1 John 2:16; James 1:14f, where epithumiai is the catch-all for what is wrong with us.
5 Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5.
6 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), pages 84-93.
7 I’m commenting here only on the impact of “negative” social influences, which both communicate their idols to us and provoke our hearts to produce idols. If you rage at me, I tend to learn from you something about the supreme importance of getting my own way, as well as a few tricks and techniques for accomplishing that. I also instinctively tend to generate compensatory idols in order to retaliate, to defend, or to escape. We tend to return evil for evil.
I could equally comment on the impact of “positive” social influences—both in Bunyan and in life—which communicate faith to us and tend to encourage faith in our hearts and repentance from idolatry. The biblical way to deal with “enemies,” returning good for evil, is both learned from others and a product of the heart.
8 Sociologists, anthropologists, and historians of psychiatry have described how most symptoms and all diagnostic labels are culture-bound. This is especially true with regard to functional problems (as opposed to the distinctly organic problems) which comprise the vast bulk of human misery and bad behavior. This relativizing observation means that diagnostic labels are not “scientific” and “objectively true.” Labels are occasionally useful heuristically if we recognize them for what they are: crude taxonomic orderings of observations. But labels are elements within schemas of value and interpretation. Because diagnostic categories are philosophically and theologically “loaded,” a Christian who seeks to be true to the Bible’s system of value and interpretation must generate biblical categories and must approach secular categories with extreme skepticism.
9 It is obvious that if idolatry is the problem of the “co-dependent,” then repentant faith in Christ is the solution. This stands in marked contrast to the solutions proffered in the co-dependency literature, whether secular or glossed with Christian phrases. That literature often perceptively describes the patterns of dysfunctional idols—addictions and dependencies— which curse and enslave people. The idols which enslave the rescuer or the compulsive drinker do not work very well for them.
The literature may even use “idolatry” as a metaphor, without meaning “idolatry against God, therefore repentance.” The solution, without exception, is to offer different and presumably more workable idols, rather than repentance unto the Bible’s Christ! Secularistic therapies teach people eufunctional idols, idols which do “work” for people and “bless” them with temporarily happy lives (Psalm 73).
So, for example, self-esteem is nurtured as the replacement for trying to please unpleasable others, rather than esteem for the Lamb who was slain for me, a sinner. Acceptance and love from new significant others, starting with the therapist, create successful versions of the fear of man and trust in man rather than teaching essential trust in God. Self-trust and self-confidence are boosted as I am taught to set expectations for myself to which I can attain. The fruit looks good but is fundamentally counterfeit. Believers in false gospels are sometimes allowed to flourish temporarily.
Therapy systems without repentance at their core leave the idol system intact. They simply rehabilitate and rebuild fundamental godlessness to function more successfully.
The Bible’s idolatry motif diagnoses the ultimately self-destructive basis on which happy, healthy, and confident people build their lives (eufunctional idols), just as perceptively as it diagnoses unhappy people, who are more obviously and immediately self-destructive (dysfunctional idols).
10 Terminology is, of course, not indifferent. “Personal problems” and “dysfunctional living” imply a primary responsibility only to oneself, family, and society. “Sin” implies a primary responsibility to God the Judge, with personal and social responsibilities entailed as secondary consequences.
11 The Bible’s mode of everyday observation is comfortable describing both the push and the pull of human motivation as complementary perspectives. Psychologies tend to throw their weight either towards drives or towards goals. Idolatry is a fertile and flexible conceptual category which stays close to the data of life, unlike the speculative abstractions of alternative and unbiblical explanations.
12 Matthew 4:1-4, 6:25-34, John 6, and Deuteronomy 8 are four passages, among many, which work out these themes in greater practical detail. Notice how the language of relating to God—love, trust, fear, hope, seek, serve, take refuge, etc.—can be applied to relating to food.
13 Matthew 6:32: “The nations run after these things.”
14 Proverbs 29:25; Jeremiah 17:5-8.
15 Resemblances between “Wally” and any actual human being are purely coincidental products of the essential similarities among all of us. The external details of this case study are fabricated of snippets and patterns from many different lives, altered in all the particulars of behavior, gender, age, background, etc.
Similarly, the analysis of idolatries derives from a biblical analysis of the generic human heart—my own heart included— rather than from any particular individuals. Wally is Everyman, idiosyncratically manifesting idolatrous human nature.
16 Mark 10:42-45.
17 John Calvin, in his remarkable discussion of the nature of man in the opening section of hisInstitutes, comments on the way that idols “boil up from within us.” It could equally be said that they boil up around us. There is always some object at hand for us to put our faith in.
18 I am indebted to Dick Keyes of L’Abri Fellowship for this felicitous phrase.
19 Where do we begin in counseling? Are there hierarchies of influence or “key” influential relationships to tackle? There may well be. In particular, is Wally’s relationship with his parents the key to effective counseling? Not necessarily, although psychodynamic psychology is strongly biased towards parent-child relationships. The Bible is not similarly biased (either for or against looking at relationships with parents).
I do not believe that in this case, as presented, Wally’s relationships with his father and mother are the most important ones to tackle now in counseling. Theoretically, we could tackle any troubled relationship in Wally’s life, and we would end up grappling with generically similar issues, the same idols and sins. My instincts in counseling would be to tackle vignettes involving Wally and Ellen or his children. That is where most of the hot patterns are being played out. His relationship with his father could come up as could other significant relationships where there are live issues. But for Wally to grow and be renewed, to repent intelligently, to be transformed both in heart and behavior, he does not necessarily need to look at the parental relationship.
20 And “there is no temptation which is not common to all men” (1 Corinthians 10:13). This pride/fear of man oscillation is run-of-the-mill human nature. It plays itself out in an endless variety of forms.
21 Of course, at specific points in time specific idols will need to be named and faced. Wise biblical counseling grapples with specifics. Jesus faces the rich, young ruler with his mammon worship. The parable of the sower faces people with their unbelief, their social conformity, their preoccupying riches, pleasure, and cares (all of which can be rephrased as expressions of the idol motif). In the Old Testament Elijah directly confronts Baal worship. For example, Wally will need to deal with his drive to perform in people’s eyes as the issue unfolds in counseling.
22 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of the Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), page 110.
23 Isaiah 53:6 and Judges 21:25.
24 The word “syndrome” ought to be stripped of its clinical pretensions to significant explanatory power. It is purely descriptive. It literally means, “things that tend to all run along together.”
25 Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual (U.S.A.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), Page 124f.
26 Acts 6:4 is a classic text defining ministry in terms of both truth and prayer. Ephesians 6:10-20 is a classic text on the mode of warfare: faith in all its elements and ways of expression defeats demonic powers. James 3:13-4:12 adds the note that repentance is crucial to the defeat of Satan.
27 The Bible indicates the reason for this by frequently describing our inordinate desires as “deceptive.” Satan is the arch-deceiver. We tend to conform to the atmospheric deceptions of our socio-cultural milieu. Our idols are so plausible and instinctive that a person can even describe them, without really seeing them as the crucial problem in his or her life.
28 There are doubtless any number of other ways of slicing the pie of human motivation. See Tim Keller’s “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” (The Journal of Pastoral Practice, 9:3 (1988), pages 11-44) for a stimulating portrayal of the multi-perspectival subtlety of a previous generation of Christian counselors.
29 Hebrews 4:12-16; Matthew 5:3-6; Luke 11:1-13; Matthew 11:28-30; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; indeed, the entire Bible! Christ’s forte is our acknowledged need in the face of compulsions from within and pressures from without.
30 Jeremiah 8:11(cf.23:16f).
31 Active love is the fruit of receptive faith. Psalm 23—like many portions of Scripture—is a pure promise to be drunk in. Other passages detail the transition from gift to gratitude, from root to fruit, from abiding to fruit-bearing, from faith to works (Galatians 5 and 1 John 4:7-5:12 are two of the most sustained expositions). Performance-oriented people like Wally, idol-driven people, rarely drink and eat of the life-giving bread of heaven.
32 We have not mentioned how Wally’s distorted system of interpretation and valuation affects—is “sold” to—his children, wife, friends, and parents. There is obviously a feedback loop of mutual effects, a vicious circle.
Conversely, as Wally is able to change both heart and behavior, he will create a gracious circle of positive effects in his family and church. We have emphasized the negative side of social shaping, but faith is just as catching as idolatry.
33 Bunyan, ibid., page 83.
An Expositional Sermon By James Montgomery Boice on Acts 3:1-26
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.
Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” – Acts 3:1–6
In chapter 3 of this study I pointed out that Acts is a transitional book. Acts comes between the Gospels and the Epistles. When we begin to read it, the Lord Jesus Christ is still here. The characters we come across are people who knew Jesus, those who in many cases had traveled with him during the days of his ministry. Most of them were witnesses of his resurrection. But then as we go on through the book, we come to people who did not have those experiences. Paul himself did not live with Christ during the days of his earthly ministry. And there are people like Timothy and Titus, Aquila, Priscilla, and Apollos, who had not even seen him. The flow of the book is from those early days in Jerusalem, when Jesus is still present, to Rome, which is where Acts ends. Acts is a transition in another way too. It is a transition from an age in which miracles were common to a time more closely resembling our own.
Better Than Gold
Luke described the early fellowship of believers by saying, “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (Acts 2:43). In Acts 2 Luke does not give us any indication as to what those miraculous signs may have been. But now, when we come to Acts 3, we have the account of at least one of them.
Why did Luke choose to chronicle this particular miracle? The answer is two-fold: (1) because it was the occasion for a second sermon of Peter’s, which Luke wants us to hear; and (2) because the miracle and sermon were the cause of the first persecution of the church.
Verse 1 tells us that Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer. We were told in chapter 2 that one of the things the early church did was gather in the temple courts to pray. In time God would cause a break with formal Judaism. But the break had not come yet. The apostles and other early believers were still Jews as well as being Christians, and they were continuing to take part in the worship that their people had enjoyed for centuries.
As Peter and John were doing this, they met a man who had been placed at the temple gate to beg from those who were entering. He was unable to walk. But he had friends, and they had put him in what was obviously a good position. They must have reasoned that it would be difficult for people to enter the temple, offer heartfelt worship to God, and then, as they left, utterly ignore a poor man who clearly needed help. Peter and John saw him and stopped. We are told that Peter fixed his attention on him and demanded that the man look at them.
That is what the man wanted. I can imagine that if his experience was that of most beggars, most people would simply have walked by. If you see somebody who is needy and you do not want to help, you try not to notice him. That is what most people would have been doing. So when Peter and John stopped, looked at him, and said, “Look at us,” the man must have looked up very hopefully, thinking that they were going to give him something. I do not know what they begged with in those days. But if he had owned a tin cup, I imagine he would have held the cup out to them, no doubt thinking, This is going to be a good day. These people are going to give me money.
Then Peter uttered the words that most of us know very well: “Silver or gold I do not have.…”
Can you visualize what must have happened at that moment? The man was expecting silver or gold. So when Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have…” his eyes must have dropped, and he must have put his cup down. But Peter went on, adding, “But what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v. 6).
Notice, first, that it was to Peter’s credit that he could utter both parts of that sentence. There is a story from the Renaissance period that I have come across in several different versions. It may or may not be true. In any case, the version I like best goes like this: St. Thomas Aquinas was in Rome. He was walking along the street with a cardinal. The cardinal noticed a beggar. Reaching in his pocket, he pulled out a silver coin and gave it to him. Then he turned to Aquinas, the great doctor of the church, and said, “Well, Thomas, fortunately we can no longer say, as Peter did, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’ ”
St. Thomas replied, “Yes, that is true. But neither can we say, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ ”
It has always been sadly true that people have used religion as a means of acquiring wealth. We see much of this today, particularly in the way some “ministries” are promoted on television. The heads of these ministries make a great deal of money. Peter was not one of these people. I suppose that in the early church there were people who kept the church’s money. Later on we find that there was a treasury. Perhaps Peter had learned something from Judas, who dipped into the common purse when he needed something. Peter apparently did not. So when he went up to the temple to pray, he said quite honestly, I do not have any money. His penniless state may even have been a factor in his being close enough to God that he could also say, “But I am going to give you what I have.”
When Peter reached down, he took that man by the hand. Luke, who perhaps was interested in this miracle from the point of view of a physician, records with particularly vivid language how strength flowed into the man so that his feet and ankles could now bear his weight. He was completely restored to health. And he was so exuberant in his new-found health that he leaped—“walking and jumping, and praising God.” The language itself literally leaps, just as he leaped. This was a great, great day. And the people who knew the man because they had gone in and out of that gate many times and had seen him often were filled with amazement and undoubtedly praised God also.
In the case of the man who had been born blind, whose story is told in John 9, the man’s appearance was so altered that the people questioned whether or not this was the same man. In the case of the man healed by Peter there was no doubt at all. Everyone understood at once what had happened. A miracle had taken place by the same power that had been displayed in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and at Pentecost.
Peter’s Second Sermon
At this point Peter began to preach his second sermon. When we compare Peter’s first sermon with this one, we find some differences. Yet there are similarities too, because regardless of the circumstances, Peter was trying to do the same thing here as on the earlier occasion: He was trying to point his listeners to Jesus as the Savior of the world. He also confronted them with their sin, appealed for their repentance, and gave reasons to repent and believe.
Just as in the sermon at Pentecost, this new sermon focuses on Jesus. I suppose it would have been possible for Peter to have focused on something else. He could have focused on the miracle itself. He could have said, “This is an important thing that has happened, and I want to make sure that you understand that this really is a miracle. Look at this man. Let’s all gather around and examine him.”
Peter’s sermon could have led into a testimony service. He could have said, “Now, brother, you have been healed. Here’s your chance to give a testimony. Stand up and tell everybody what Jesus has done for you.” A testimony like that might have focused on the man. The man could have said, “Let me tell you about my experience. Let me tell you how I first came to be part of what is going on here today.…” The man could have gotten quite a bit of personal attention out of that.
Instead, Peter said, “Men of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus” (vv. 12–13). Jesus! This is where the emphasis of the entire sermon lies.
In speaking about Jesus, Peter is inevitably biblical. I say inevitably because this sermon is not so obviously biblical as the previous one. When we were studying the sermon Peter gave at Pentecost, I pointed out that it focuses on three great texts (see chapter 5 of this study). The way Peter preached that sermon was to quote each text at length and then explain it. The fact that he is biblical is not so obvious in this second sermon—although at the end he does quote from Deuteronomy and Genesis. Nevertheless, Peter is biblical.
The biblical nature of the sermon is apparent in Peter’s choice of words. When Peter refers to Jesus as God’s “servant,” as he does in verse 13, he uses the word for servant that occurs in the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah 52:13–53:12, where the coming servant of God (52:13) is described as the one who would be “pierced for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities” (53:5). The concept of the “servant of the Lord” was well-known in Israel because of Isaiah 53 and other texts. So when Peter used “servant” and then went on to speak of “the Holy and Righteous One”—another title for the Christ that also appears in Isaiah—it is pretty clear that he was thinking of these chapters. He was teaching that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament Scriptures.
When Peter talked about Jesus, he had a number of important facts to mention. One is that Jesus was a real man. Earlier when he spoke to the paralyzed man, he referred to Jesus as “Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (v. 6). It was not some imaginary, philosophical Jesus that Peter was proclaiming. It was a Jesus they all knew, a Jesus who had lived in Nazareth and who had traveled about the country teaching and doing good. But notice: That Jesus was also the same Jesus who had died for sin and then had been raised from death by the power of God. Peter was not retreating into philosophy, nor was he de-supernaturalizing the gospel, as some modern Bible critics have done. He was preaching a biblical Jesus who was both the Son of God and fully man.
When you think about Christianity, do you think primarily about Jesus Christ? And do you understand who Jesus is by the words and doctrines of the Bible? There is a lot more that Christians talk about, of course. But properly understood, those other things all relate to Jesus in some measure. Without Jesus you do not have Christianity, and the Jesus of Christianity is the Bible’s Jesus. To be a Christian is to have a personal relationship with him. Therefore Peter was preaching about him in this sermon.
Grappling with Sin
Peter’s sermon is also direct in speaking about sin. Even more than in his earlier sermon Peter emphasizes the sin of the people in disowning Jesus and handing him over to Pilate to be crucified.
He does it in a personal way. Where Peter begins to talk about the sin of the people he uses the word “you” (the second person plural pronoun) four times. In the previous sermon he only used it in that way once: “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross” (Acts 2:23, italics mine). That is pretty blunt. But I suppose that as Peter reflected on it (and even got a little better with practice), he figured that when he got around to preaching a second time he would give that point emphasis. So now he says, “You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (vv. 13–15, italics mine).
Peter is saying this in the very city where the people had cried out against Jesus, saying, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” He is speaking to these same people, perhaps with the very same leaders who had urged them to cry out looking on, and he is saying, You did it; you crucified him. The verbs are powerful, too: “You handed him over to be killed. You disowned [him]. You killed the author of life” (italics mine).
From time to time when I am preaching I will say something about the death of Jesus and how the Jewish leaders handed him over to Pilate to be crucified. Whenever a study like that appears on the radio later, as many of my studies do, I get letters from people who object to my saying that Jews demanded the death of Jesus. That is understandable, of course, because it is a sensitive point in Judaism, and I usually answer by pointing out that the Gentiles in the person of Pilate were also guilty. We are all guilty of Jesus’ death, and if we had been there at the time, we might all have joined in the cries of those who demanded Jesus’ death. But I notice here that, sensitive as that point may be, it was certainly never any more sensitive than it was in this early day when Peter preached in Jerusalem. In spite of the sensitive nature of the issue, Peter did not allow people’s feelings to stand in the way of preaching clearly. He did not say “Jews” to the exclusion of others. He included Pilate in his “you.” He included the Romans. They had actually put him to death. But that was not what concerned Peter in this sermon. Peter’s “you” meant everybody, including the Jews and perhaps even the Jews particularly. He was not pulling his punches.
We need to realize that we are all to blame for the death of Christ in one way or another. Even though we were not there at the time Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified, it was our sins that took him there. And if Jesus were here today, we would spurn him today, just as the masses of Israel spurned him in Jerusalem long ago.
An Appeal for Repentance
Third, not only does Peter’s sermon point to Jesus and highlight the listeners’ sin—making it clear that the people of Jerusalem had something to repent of—but it also contains an appeal. This is because in the final analysis, Peter was not interested in merely condemning his hearers. On the contrary, he wanted them to repent of their sin and believe on Jesus.
He begins with the words “Now, brothers” (v. 17). He does not treat them as foreigners, aliens, or enemies. Indeed, how could he, since what he said earlier, “You disowned him… you disowned the Holy and Righteous One” (he repeated it), was the very thing Peter himself had done? Peter had denied Jesus on the night of his arrest. So he does not stand aloof now as he appeals to these people. He calls them brothers, saying, “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” Their ignorance did not make them guiltless. Nevertheless, they were not fully aware of what they were doing, and Peter was in exactly that category himself.
Where our English text has Peter encouraging his listeners to “turn to God” (v. 19), the Greek text actually says “flee to God.” That was probably intended to suggest a powerful image. In Israel there were cities set aside from other cities as “cities of refuge.” If an Israelite accidentally killed someone else, he could flee to one of these cities and there be protected from an avenger of blood, a relative of the deceased who might try to kill him in retaliation. These cities were not to protect real murderers. If somebody intentionally killed someone, well, he was to be tried and punished, as he should be. But if the killing was accidental—if it was what we would call “manslaughter” rather than “murder in the first degree”—then the killer could flee to the city and be protected there. He was to stay there until the high priest died. Then he could go home.
There is something like that idea in Peter’s sermon. Peter told the people that they were guilty of killing Jesus, but he taught that God would forgive their sin if they would repent of it and flee to the refuge that he has provided in Christ.
Peter tells them to “repent, then, and turn to God” (v. 19). These two things always go together. Sometimes we feel sorry for what we have done. But it is not enough merely to feel sorry. Sorrow is not repentance. Repentance is feeling sorry enough to quit, and quitting means turning from sin to Jesus Christ. When Peter tells the people, “Repent… and turn to God,” he makes the connection apparent and indicates exactly what we need to do.
Reasons to Repent and Believe
The fourth thing Peter does in this sermon is offer inducements to repent and believe on Jesus. The first is: “so that your sins may be wiped out” (v. 19), that is, so that you might be forgiven. Forgiveness is what people need, and the only place anyone will ever really find forgiveness is in Christ. A director of a large mental institution in England said to John Stott some years ago, “I could send half of my patients home tomorrow if only they could find forgiveness.”
Most people carry heavy loads of guilt. This may be true of you. You may not have not told anybody what you have done. You are afraid that if you told someone else, that person would reject you. Nevertheless, you remember what you have done, and you carry the guilt of your actions around with you day by day, week by week, and year by year. Your burden keeps you from being what you might otherwise be. Moreover, you do not find forgiveness in the world. The world is not capable of that. The world can judge you for your sin or pretend to overlook it. But it is not capable of forgiving it. On one occasion the Lord Jesus Christ said to a man, “Your sins are forgiven,” and the religious leaders who were standing by replied, “Who can forgive sins but God only?” They were absolutely right. They did not recognize that Jesus was God and therefore had the right to forgive sin. In that they were wrong. But their theology was right. Only God can forgive sin. That is why the world is so unsatisfactory in this respect. Peter is saying that God can forgive your sin; he can lift that great load of guilt. Clearly this is one great inducement to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ.
Peter has another inducement too. It is the “times of refreshing [that] come from the Lord” (v. 19). This may be understood in different ways. On the one hand, it probably concerns a future day of blessing when the Jewish people will turn to Christ in large numbers and a final age of national blessing will come. Paul talks about it in Romans 11. On the other hand, there are also “times of refreshing” for all God’s people even now.
Many of us go through much of life feeling pretty stale in what we do. We feel like the horse that eats hay and oats on Monday, oats and hay on Tuesday, hay and oats on Wednesday, and so on throughout the week. Many people find, especially if they are in an unrewarding job, that life is often quite dreary. And sometimes even their Christianity becomes stale. They say, “I’ve been coming to church every week. But somehow it just isn’t what it used to be. I feel so flat when I come.” Well, that happens. We all go through dry spells. Times like that do not necessarily mean that we are far from God. They only mean that we feel far from God. Sometimes the cause is bad health. Sometimes the cause is the weather. A few days of gloomy rain and cold sometimes plunge me into a dark night of the soul. What we are told here is that in Christ there will be times of refreshing.
Haven’t you known times when Jesus became so real and the gospel so vivid that your whole spirit, soul, and body were revived? If you want times of refreshing, times that make life really worth living so you can say, “Oh, it is good to be a Christian,” turn from sin and follow close to Jesus.
There is another inducement here also, in verse 26. After Peter gets through saying that all that has happened in Christ is a fulfillment of prophecy and that they ought to know it because it is clear in their Bibles (he quotes from Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19 and Genesis 22:18), he says, “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.” First to you! To whom? Well, to the Jews! But more than that, because it was not just to Jews generally that Peter was preaching on this occasion. Peter was preaching to Jews who had been instrumental in the death of Jesus. They handed him over to be killed, disowned him, asked that a murderer be released to them, and demanded that Jesus be crucified. It is to these people, the very ones who had been instrumental in the greatest crime in human history, that God now comes with the gospel of salvation. And he comes to them first. It is God’s way of saying, “I know what you have done, but I do not hold it over you. I love you anyway. It is precisely for people like you that I caused Jesus to die.”
You and I cannot say that God sent his servant to us first of all. Many have come to Christ before us in former ages of human history. But the principle is the same. Regardless of what you have done, the low self-image you may have, or the guilt you may carry, God proclaims his Son to you. And the reason the gospel is proclaimed to you is because God says it is for you that Jesus died.
About the Author
James Montgomery Boice, Th.D., (July 7, 1938 – June 15, 2000) was a Reformed theologian, Bible teacher, and pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia from 1968 until his death. He is heard on The Bible Study Hour radio broadcast and was a well-known author and speaker in evangelical and Reformed circles. He also served as Chairman of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy for over ten years and was a founding member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. James Boice was one of my favorite Bible teachers. Thankfully – many of his books and expositions of Scripture are still in print and more are becoming available. The sermon above was adapted from Chapter 7 in Acts: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997, 2006.
*THE FOUR GOSPELS
The four Gospels record the eternal being, human ancestry, birth, life, and ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Taken together they present not a biography but a Person.
The fact that the four Gospels present a Person rather than a complete biography indicates the spirit in which they should be approached. It is more important to see and know Him who these narratives reveal than to try to piece together a full account of His life from these inspired records (John 21:25, “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written”). For some reason God did not lead men to write a full biography of His Son. The years preceeding His ministry are passed over in a silence that is broken only once, as recorded in a few verses in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:40-52, “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him. Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man”). It is wise to respect the divine reticence.
Incomplete Story, Complete Revelation
But the four Gospels, though designedly incomplete as a story, are complete as revelation. We may not know everything that Jesus did, but we may know Him. In four great narratives, each of which in some respects supplements the other three, we have Jesus Christ Himself.
This is the essential respect in which these narratives differ from biography or portraiture. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). The believing student finds here the living Christ.
The Old Testament is the inspired introduction to the New Testament, and whoever comes to the study of the four Gospels with a mind saturated with the Old Testament foreview of Christ–His Person, work, and kingdom–will be greatly helped in understanding them. Old Testament quotation, allusion, and type are woven into the Gospels. The very first verse of the New Testament drives the reader back to the Old Testament; and the risen Christ took His disciples back to the Hebrew Scriptures for an explanation of His suffering and glory (Luke 24:27, 44, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself…Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”).
Therefore, in approaching the study of the Gospels the mind should be freed, as far as possible from presuppositions such as the Church is to be equated with the true Israel, and that the Old Testament promises to Israel and the foreview of the kingdom relate only to the Church. Interpretations are not true simply because they are familiar. It should not, therefore, be assumed that “the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:32) is synonymous with the Father’s throne (Revelation 3:21, “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne,” or that “the house of Jacob” (Luke 1:33) is the Church composed of both Jew and Gentile.
The mission of Jesus was initially to the Jews (Matthew 10:5-6; 15:23-25; John 1:11, “These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” …He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him”). He was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), and was “a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (Romans 15:8) and to fulfill the law that grace might abound. Therefore, a strong legal and Jewish coloring is to be expected up to the cross (Matthew 5:17-19; 10:5-6; 15:22-28; 23:2 & Mark 1:44, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven…These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly…“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat,…and said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” The Sermon on the Mount is closely related to law in the highest spiritual sense, for it demands as the condition of blessing, that perfect character which only grace through power creates (Matthew 5:3-9 and Galatians 5:22-23, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”
The doctrines of grace are developed in the Letters, not in the Gospels; but they are implicit in the Gospels, because they rest upon the death and resurrection of Christ and upon the great germinal truths he taught, truths of which the Letters are the unfolding. The Christ of the Gospels is the perfect manifestation of grace.
The Gospels do not develop the doctrine of the Church. The word “church” occurs in Matthew only. After His rejection as King and Savior by the Jews, our Lord, announcing a mystery until the moment “hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:3-10), said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It was therefore, yet future; but His personal ministry had gathered out the believers who were, on the Day of Pentecost, made by the baptism of the Spirit the first members of “the church, which is his body” (Ephesians 1:23 compare with 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
The Gospels present a group of Jewish disciples, associated on earth with a Messiah in humiliation. The Letters present a Church which is the body of Christ, made up of the regenerate who are associated with Him “in heavenly places,” co-heirs with Him of the Father, co-rulers with Him of the coming kingdom; and, as to the earth, although strangers and pilgrims, yet acting as His witnesses and the instruments for doing His will among men (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:3-14, 20-23; 2:4-6; 1 Peter 2:11).
The Gospels present Christ in His three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King.
As Prophet His ministry resembles that of the Old Testament prophets. But it is the nature and dignity of His Person that makes Him the unique Prophet. In former times God spoke through the prophets; now He speaks in the Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Old Testament prophet was a voice from God; the Son is God Himself (Deuteronomy 18:18-19).
The prophet in any dispensation is God’s messenger to His people, first, to establish truth; and second, when His people are in declension and apostasy, to call them back to truth. The prophet’s message, therefore, is usually one of rebuke and appeal. At times, however, as when his message of rebuke and appeal is not heeded, he becomes a foreteller of things to come. In this too, Christ is like the other prophets; most of His predictive ministry occurs after His rejection as King.
The sphere and character of Christ’s kingly office are defined in the Davidic Covenant (2 Samuel 7:16), as interpreted by the prophets and confirmed by the New Testament. Whereas the New Testament in no way abrogates or changes the Davidic Covenant or its interpretation, it adds details which were not in the original covenant. The Sermon on the Mount is an elaboration of the idea of righteousness as the predominant characteristic of the kingdom (Isaiah 11:2-5; Jeremiah 23:5-6; 33:14-16). The Old Testament prophet saw in one horizon, so to speak, the suffering and glory of the Messiah (1 Peter 1:10-11, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories”). The New Testament shows that His suffering and glory are separated by the present Church Age, and points forward to the Lord’s return as the time when the Davidic Covenant of blessing through power will be fulfilled (Luke 1:30-31; Acts 2:29-36; 15:14-17), just as the Abrahamic Covenant of blessing through suffering was fulfilled at His first coming (Acts 3:24-25; Galatians 3:6-14).
Christ is never called King of the Church. “The King” is indeed one of His divine titles, and the Church joins Israel in exalting “the King of ages, immortal, invisible” (Psalm 10:16; 1 Timothy 1:17). The Church is to reign under Him. The Holy Spirit is now calling out, not the subjects but the co-heirs and co-rulers of the kingdom (Romans 8:15-16; 1 Corinthians 6:2-3; 2 Timothy 2:11-12; Revelation 1:6; 3:21; 5:10).
Christ’s priestly office is the complement of His prophetic office. The prophet represents God to the people; the priest represents the people to God. Because the people are sinful he, the priest, must be a sacrificer; because they are needy, he must be a compassionate intercessor (Hebrews 5:1-2; 8:1-3). So Christ on the cross entered upon His high priestly work, offering Himself without blemish to God (Hebrews 9:14), as now He exercises on ever-living intercession for His people (Hebrews 7:25). John 17 provides the pattern of that continuing intercession.
In the Gospels, primary interpretation should be distinguished from moral application. Much in the Gospels that belongs in strict interpretation to the Jews or the kingdom is yet such a revelation of the mind of God and is so based on eternal principles as to have a moral application to the people of God, whatever their dispensational position. it is always true that the “pure in heart” are blessed because they “see God” and that “woe” is the portion of religious formalists whether under law or grace.
Special emphasis should be made to the things the four Gospels have in common.
(1) In all of them there is revealed one unique Person. The pen is a different pen, the incidents in which He is seen are sometimes different incidents, but He is always the same Christ.
(2) All the evangelists record the ministry of John the Baptist.
(3) All record the feeding of the 5,000.
(4) All record Christ’s offer of Himself as King, according to Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
(5) All record the betrayal by Judas; the denial by Peter.
(6) All record the trial and crucifixion of Christ.
(7) All record the bodily resurrection of Christ.
(8) All record events occurring during the forty days of the post-resurrection ministry of Christ–a ministry keyed to a new note of universality and of power.
(9) All point forward to His second coming.
And this record is so presented as to testify that the supreme business that brought Him into the world was His death and resurrection; that all that precedes these was preparation, and that from them flow all the blessings God ever has bestowed or ever will bestow upon humanity.
Since the first three Gospels contain so much material in common that they may be arranged as a synopsis, they are called the Synoptic Gospels. Careful readers of the New Testament will observe the similarities among and also the difference peculiar to these Gospels. That they contain dissimilarities is not surprising in view of the fact that each of these three Gospels is written for a particular purpose–Matthew to present Jesus as King, Mark to present Him as Servant, and Luke to present Him as Son of Man.
Matthew may have been the first Gospel written. It is thought that Mark’s account reflects, in its subject matter, Peter’s view of our Lord. That there were in existence many early accounts of the life and work of Christ is plain from Luke’s prologue to his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4).
As for John, this Gospel is in a class by itself. Probably written later than the Synoptics, it does not outline the life of our Lord but selects its material (including much that is not in the first three Gospels) in keeping with the writer’s declared aim of presenting Jesus as the Son of God (John 20:30-31).
Certain scholars have tried to trace the forms or patterns into which the earliest traditions about Christ were put for oral repetition. These forms are supposed to have provided material for the Gospels and are also thought to have been so thoroughly shaped by the needs of the early Church as to preclude a full historical basis for all the events recorded in the Gospels. In its effort to explain the difference in the Gospels, this critical view raises a question concerning the historical accuracy of the whole record. However, it fails to recognize evidence which supports the historicity of the Gospels. It may also be observed that selectivity of material does not necessarily mean distortion of fact, nor is the use of reliable tradition incompatible with the inspiration the Gospel records.
The important thing to keep in mind is the established fact that these Gospels are inspired historical documents of genuine authenticity and full integrity. Moreover, the believer in Christ knows in his own life the reality of the living Lord, who is so faithfully and yet so variously presented in the Synoptics and in John’s Gospel.
Sermon: Removing Idols of the Heart – Series: Growth in Christ, Part 1—October 22, 1989
We are in the middle of a series of studies of Christian growth, and eventually we’re going to be talking about the fruit of the Spirit here. We’re going to be looking at love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control. We’re going to be looking at all of those, but for these few weeks here we’re looking at how you can create a dynamic (a cycle) in your life that results in supernatural maturity and character change, and what we have been saying is there is a combustion cycle, you might say, a dynamic, a motor that needs to be going on in the heart of a Christian.
When that cycle is going there is growth, there is progress, and if there is no progress in your life, it’s because that cycle is not going. It’s a two-part cycle, and we have said that cycle is repentance and faith. Let’s again read the passage we’ve continually looked at, but we’re going to be looking at it in more detail in one aspect here tonight. We’ve been looking at it for a number of weeks, but we’re especially going to read Colossians 3, and I’m going to read verses 5–11, because it’s about repentance, and that’s what we’re looking at tonight.
5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. 7 You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. 8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
The Word of the Lord
A quick review, but an important review. Repentance. When Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Wittenberg door to start the Protestant Reformation (one of the watersheds in the history of the world), the first thesis was all of life is repentance. That is misunderstood by the Christian church today. I believe the average Christian believes repentance is something for the bad times. It’s something for when you have done something rather majorly wrong.
You slid back in the Christian life. Then you need these times of repentance, but otherwise a Christian is supposed to walk on (if he or she is doing it right) in a obedience and having victory over sin and over troubles and rising above things and not letting anything get to them and always rejoicing in the Lord, whatever that is. Repentance is not understood the way Martin Luther understood it, who after all was the first Protestant, and we probably better take this seriously. He might have understood more about evangelical religion than many of the rest of us.
You see, he was right, not us. The cycle by which you grow, the thing you must be doing daily, is moving from repentance to faith. You remember in Luke 7, Jesus was in the home of Simon, a respectable pillar of the community, and when he was there a woman of ill-repute came in and began to kiss Jesus’ feet and anoint them, and Simon thought to himself, “If this man knew the kind of woman she was, he wouldn’t be doing this.” Or he probably also thought this, although it’s not listed in the text, “If this man does know what kind of woman this is and he’s letting her kiss his feet, what’s going on here?”
Jesus turns to Simon, perceiving his heart, and he says, “Let me tell you a story.” Whenever Jesus says, “Let me tell you a story,” you’re in for trouble. He has you in a corner, all right. He says, “Simon, there were two debtors. A single man had two debtors, and one debtor owed the man 50 denarii …” I still don’t know exactly what that is in yen yet, but I’ll find out. “… and the other debtor owed the man 500. He forgave both.” He said, “Simon, which of the two will love him more?”
Simon said, “Well, the one who was forgiven 500 denarii.” Then he turned to Simon and said, “Simon, listen. Ever since I got here she has been kissing my feet. She loves me, Simon. You don’t,” and then he said, “Because she was forgiven much, she loves much.” The last line of the little parable is, “… he who has been forgiven little loves little.” Here is what he was saying: “The difference between you and her, Simon, is not that you are more moral and she is less, or that somehow, because we’ve changed our standards, she is more moral because she is more honest or authentic or something like that and you’re a hypocrite or a stuffed shirt. That’s not the point.
She has more love and joy in her life toward me because her repentance is deeper, because she knows the size of her debt.” Because of her repentance being deeper and deeper her joy and her love are getting greater and greater, because the dynamic was unleashed in her heart. It was going on, and it wasn’t in Simon’s heart. Simon kept repentance for the bad times. Simon says, “I’m a pretty good person. I move right along, and as a result, occasionally … Yes, I repented last January, remember, when I did this thing I shouldn’t have done, and I repented maybe the September before that.”
He’s like most of us. Repentance is for the bad times, and as a result this woman is way ahead of him. Her joy and her love are deeper because her repentance is deeper. You see, the dynamic goes like that. If you understand the gospel (that Jesus Christ has covered your sins and he actually is your Savior) that means God doesn’t accept you because of your efforts but because of what Jesus has done. You’re accepted in him. You’re loved in him. If you understand that, then when you see your sins more deeply and when you repent, that releases joy and love.
If, on the other hand, you don’t rest your life on the gospel … If you’re an atheist, or if you’re a criminal, or if you’re a very moral and religious person but you don’t rest your life on the gospel … All those people are in the same boat for the purposes of this discussion because they all basically rely not on Jesus Christ for their sense of self-worth and acceptance, but rather they rely on their own power and ability. If you’re like that, if you’re one of them, then a discovery of your sin and a discovery of your weakness is going to lead you to despair.
In other words, repentance leads to despair if you don’t understand the gospel, and repentance leads to joy and love and a burst of energy and growth if you do, because repentance leads to a greater appreciation and gratitude and thrill at what Jesus has done for us. That is the dynamic and as that’s moving along, you grow. See, it’s very misunderstood. That is how you grow, and that’s what we’re talking about. The reason I keep repeating it is because I know how many of us think about repentance, but, oh, be very careful.
If you find that to look at your sins and to get a deeper knowledge of your sins leads to despair, I have to begin to ask you on what basis do you believe God loves you? What is the basis? Is it your efforts? Is it your moral excellence? Is it coming up to your standards? If so, of course repentance is just going to push you down, but if on the other hand Jesus Christ is your Savior, then repentance is the beginning of that cycle, it gets the combustion cycle going, and that’s what we’re talking about and what we have been talking about.
Now one more thing. See, I’m trying to recap, because I know people are in an out. A lot of you weren’t here last week or the week before last, so I have to recap, but I’m trying to recap using new illustrations so even if you were here, you’re getting a chance to rethink it and rethink it so it becomes clearer. The other thing I have to recap is we have tried to talk about repentance using a different name. We’ve said repentance is identifying and removing the idols of the heart. Now the reason we’re doing that is because if you don’t understand the idols of the heart, you can still think of repentance as just basically stopping certain kinds of superficial, external behavioral sins.
As we reread the Scripture we see the things the Bible talks about such as greed or sexual immorality and so on are really idols, you see. For example, covetousness (greed) is called an idol. Real quickly, again, psychologically from our point of view, an idol is actually something you get your identity from. Now I used an illustration this morning in the morning service I can use again tonight. Rocky Balboa says he wants to go the distance. He’s going to go for it. Why? What is he going for?
He says in the most important line in the film, “If I can just go the distance, I’ll know I’m not a bum.” Now I would submit to you … I propose to you … that you have something just like Rocky does in your life you believe, and you talk to yourself about it, and you say, “If I can have that, if I can get that, then I’ll know I’m not a bum.” We all have some things. In some cases, it might be relationships. In some cases, it might be financial security or independence. In some cases, it might be achievement and status.
It’s different for everybody, but there are some things in your life you look at and you say, “If I have that, I won’t be a bum.” That’s what an idol is, because an idol is making something else besides Jesus Christ your life, and the only way you can tell if something is an idol usually is God sends a problem into your life, and you begin to see you can’t get to that thing. “I can’t get there.” When you can’t get to it, you begin to realize what really is running your life. Now that is the psychological way to look at an idol. It’s identifying with something saying, “That’s my life. Then I’ll know I’m not a bum.”
Theologically, what the Bible says is these are things you are making your righteousness. See, from God’s point of view, God says what you have done is you have gone about to patch up a righteousness of your own. Paul, for example, in Philippians, the book right before Colossians, talks about himself like this. He says, I was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
He says, “… I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from [my striving], but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Now what he is very clearly saying is he’s giving you a list of all the things that used to be his righteousness. He’s saying, “Look at my pedigree. Look at my family background. Look at my career accomplishments. Look at my intellectual attainments, but I count them all as loss.”
What he means is, “They used to be my righteousness. They were the things I relied on and said, ‘This is my honor. This is my glory. This is my dignity.’ ” He said in order to be a Christian he had to give up on that, and he said, “I count them as rubbish.” Some of you know (it depends on your translation) rubbish is a kind of nice word the translators use there because it might be offensive. He said, “I count them all as dung, excrement, bowel movement,” you see, because that had become his righteousness.
Now the fact is, though, when you become a Christian, though you say, “Now I know God accepts me only because of the righteousness of Christ” (that’s what the gospel is), you still have a big part of yourself the Bible calls the “old” man. You have the new man who says, “Only in Jesus Christ am I acceptable, and he is my righteousness. He is my honor. He is my glory.” On the other hand, you have the “old” man who says, “Are you kidding?” You know, like that little 16-year-old girl years ago I remember talking to down in Hopewell, Virginia, at that other church I invited you to today.
I remember sitting down with Debbie. She was 16 years old. She was five foot ten and weighed about 90 pounds, and she couldn’t get dates. She was always saying, “Nobody wants to ask me out.” In as gentle a way as I possibly could do it, I used to say … I mean, I took time doing this. I didn’t just throw this at her, but I gently reminded her since she was a Christian and she professed faith in Christ, we have so many great things in Christ. We have our adoption. We’re in the family. We have guidance. We have protection. We have all these things. We’re going to rule and reign with him forever.
You talk about that, and at one point she looked at me, and she said, “Well, what good is all that if you’re not popular?” You see, Debbie will mature because at some point she’ll realize you don’t say that to ministers, and a couple of years after that, she’ll realize you don’t even say that to yourself because you don’t want to believe you’re really that crass. You don’t want to believe you’re really that enslaved. You don’t want to believe you’re really that childish, but we are, you see, and we do have a little thing down there saying, “If I can just go here, I’ll know I’m not a bum.”
We do have a little thing down there saying, “If I don’t have this, then what good is everything else?” You see, that was Debbie’s righteousness. She was going about doing that. There was an “old” man (a part of her) still operating on the old basis. The job of the Christian in order to grow is to identify what those things are and to pull them out. Now, by the way, we’re not going to go into identifying. That’s what we did last week, but doing that is a process like this. You’re looking at yourself and you’re saying, “Why am I so angry? Why am I so worried? Why am I so depressed?”
Then you say, “Let me analyze this. What is actually driving me? What goals do I feel like I must have?” Here is a good question a counselor friend of mine wrote down and would give his counselees when they were trying to analyze themselves and understand themselves. He says ask yourself this: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust?” That’s a great word, functional trust. Everybody who is a Christian says, “Oh, I trust Jesus and nothing else,” and he says, “I don’t care about what you say and what you believe and what you appear to say. What is your heart functionally trusting? What does it actually trust? What does it really rely on?
Here is the whole question: “Has something besides Jesus Christ taken title to my heart’s functional trust, its functional preoccupation, loyalty, service, and delight?” You can do that when you find yourself getting extremely anxious and biting your nails down to the knuckle. When you find yourself very depressed or extremely angry, you say, “What is it out there that I’m not getting to and why is it driving me like this?” That’s if you’re failing. But what if you’re succeeding and you find yourself stretching and stretching and working harder and enjoying it less?
At a certain point, you need to ask yourself a similar question. You should say, “The desires I have for this achievement, as satisfying as they are, isn’t it possible what’s going on here is I’m trying to go about patching up a righteousness of my own? Isn’t this success actually my effort to do for myself what only Jesus Christ can do for me? Am I trying to patch up a righteousness of my own?” Now that is what repentance is, and as we said before, you realize the flesh (the “old” man) …
Talking about the word, flesh, when the Bible says, “kill the flesh” or “war against the flesh,” it’s not talking about your body. When the Bible talks about the flesh, it will say, “These are the works of the flesh,” and it will say gossip, envy, pride … things that have nothing to do with the body … because the word flesh does not mean the body, usually, in the Bible when it talks like that. Usually, when the Bible talks about the flesh versus the spirit, the flesh is Self. It’s the “old” man. It’s the side of you who still wants to go about making its own righteousness, wanting to live for its own glory.
The fact is your flesh can still operate when you become a Christian. It can still operate, absolutely. People who still have a need to dominate the discussion, the need to hold forth, the need for security, the need for love and approval … You come into the church (the kingdom) and you can still be dominated by the flesh even in all of your Christian activity. Oh, yeah. There are some people who have this deep need for certainty and control.
They come into the church, and every time they take a class on the Bible what they’re actually doing, instead of reading the Bible to say, “Ah, I need to get this into my life,” instead they’re saying, “Aha! Now I can spot heresy. Now I can spot people who are not accurate, who are not preaching the true Word of God. Now I can hit them. Now I can get them. Now I can tell them what’s wrong.” There are a lot of people, you see, who are very critical and love control and love to be always the right ones.
Before they were Christians, they were insufferable, and now that they’re Christians, they’re still insufferable because the flesh is continuing to dominate them. It’s still continuing to control them. It’s very, very important to see. Therefore, every one of us has an “old” man. Every one of us has a flesh. Every one of us has a way of going about patching up our own righteousness, and the only way in which we’re going to grow is to recognize the ways in which that happens and repent of it every day.
You’re going to see pride. You’re going to see selfishness. You’re going to see gossip and defense. By the way, I know one pastor who, when somebody says, “I really don’t see all this going on in my life,” he says, “Okay. I want you to really do a discipline for me. This week a) don’t gossip, b) don’t defend yourself, and c) don’t brag. Now watch yourself. Never, ever, ever gossip. In other words, say nothing bad about anybody else, never defend yourself, and don’t brag. You just try that for a week and just see how easy it is.”
If you start looking for that sort of thing, which is the flesh, you’re going to find it’s all over. Repentance. Now last week, after the service a couple of people came up and said, “You were specific enough about identifying it. You were specific enough about making me feel terrible. You did a wonderful job of that. I thought I was doing okay until you showed me these things, but please give me a very specific one-two-three step way of taking the things out. I mean, it’s nice to see them, but taking the things out.”
Okay. Let’s begin. I’ll be real specific, but on the other hand, it’s not that easy. Some of you get more frustrated than you ought to when you begin to see the things that are driving you, and you say, “I just can’t seem to purify my motives.” Some people say, “Now that you’ve helped me look at my motives, now that you’ve begun to help me see that, I begin to realize I can never purify my motives, and I start to feel discouraged, and I start to feel in despair.”
1. When you’re able to spot your problems like you are, half the battle is over
The only way your flesh can completely dominate you is if you are not aware of it at all. In a battle, for example, if the enemy is completely unknown to you (you don’t know where the enemy is or what their movements are at all) you’re going to get annihilated. If on the other hand, you can spot the enemy’s movements then you’re going to have a big fight. You might still lose on a given day, but at least you have a fighting chance.
In the same way, the only way you can be completely dominated by your flesh is if you don’t see it at all. If you know, because people have shown it to you and God has shown it to you, you need to control a group you’re in or if somebody has shown you that you’re extremely sensitive to what people think of you and you constantly get your feelings hurt … In other words, if you begin to get aware of your pride and the way in which your pride is shaped … Some of us, our pride (our Self, our flesh) takes the form of a need for domination and holding forth and telling everybody how they ought to live.
Others of us are just shy, self-conscious, or afraid of what people think and always getting our feelings hurt, which is just another form of self-centeredness. It’s just another form of pride. When you begin to see the form and see it for what it is, it no longer can ambush you the same way. On a given week you may fall prey to it, but if you’re able to name it, if you’re able to see it … In fact, anybody who comes and says, “Oh, I see all kinds of bad motives. I see all kinds of problems. I’m so discouraged,” I say, “You are not being really dominated by your flesh if you’re upset like that, if you can see the movement of it.
You have already basically engaged it. The most important part of the battle is actually over, and that is, you woke up.” You see, if the enemy is after you and you’re asleep, there won’t even be a battle. You’ll be dead, but if you’re awake, at least there will be a battle. If you feel the fight, that is a sign of life, and it’s a sign of growth, and it’s a sign God is working in you. The only people who are really losing are the people who have no struggle in their life at all, you see. Don’t be discouraged when you see the bad motives. That is a sign of life.
2. There are two basic parts to repenting of a sin
I began to tell you about the first one last week, but I’ll finish it and tell you the second part, too. First, you have to unmask it, and secondly, you have to take it to the cross. Unmasking it means make sure you stop doing little rationalizations, calling the sin by nice names, you see. Be ruthless with yourself. If you say, “Well, my feelings get hurt pretty easily, you mean you’re bitter. If you say, Well, I’m just very, very concerned,” you’re actually eaten up with anxiety.
You see, call it by its name, and recognize what is going on. We talked about that last week, and I just can’t go into it. The second part, which is what I really want to bring out, is the way in which you destroy the power of a sin is to take it to the cross, not to Mount Sinai. Take it to Mount Calvary, not to Mount Sinai. I’ll explain this for a minute. If you take a sin to Mount Sinai that means you’re thinking about the danger of it. You’re thinking about how it has messed up your life.
You’re thinking about all the punishments that are probably going to come down on you for it. That is not repentance; that is self-pity. Self-pity and repentance are two different things. I came to a place in my life where I realized 90 percent of what I thought I had been doing as repentance throughout most of my life was really just self-pity. The difference between self-pity and repentance is this: Self-pity is thinking about what a mess your sin got you into.
Self-pity is thinking about the consequences of it, what a wreck it’s made of you, how God will probably get me for it, or how my parents will probably get me for it, or how my boss will probably get me for it, or all the problems it will create in my life or already has created in my life. “Oh, Lord, how sorry I am this has happened. Oh, Lord, get this out of my life.” What you’re really doing is saying, “I hate the consequences of this sin,” but you haven’t learned to hate the sin. What is happening is instead of hating the sin, you’re hating the consequences of the sin, and you’re hating yourself for being so stupid.
Self-pity leads to continuing to love the sin so it still has power over you but hating yourself. Real repentance is when you say, “What has this sin done to God? What has it cost God? What does God feel about it?” Let me give you an interesting example of two guys who wrote 300 or 400 years ago. One man’s name is Stephen Charnock. Stephen Charnock tries to explain the difference between taking your sin to Mount Sinai, where you just look at the danger of it, and taking your sin to the cross, where you see what effect it’s had on God.
When you see what effect it has had on the loving God who died so you wouldn’t do it, who died for your holiness, when you begin to see that it melts you, and it makes you begin to hate the sin. It begins to lose its attractive power over you. Instead of making you hate yourself, you find you hate it, and so the idol begins to get crushed bit by bit. Listen carefully to Stephen Charnock, because he’s using old English. Charnock says there is a difference between a legalistic conviction of sin and an evangelical one.
“A legal conviction [of sin] ariseth from a consideration of God’s justice chiefly, an evangelical conviction [of sin] from a sense of God’s goodness.” Now hear this. “A legally convinced person cries out, ‘I have exasperated a power that is as the roaring of a lion … I have provoked one that is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth whose word can tear up the foundation of the world …’ But an evangelically convinced person cries, ‘I have incensed the goodness that is like the dropping of a dew. I have offended a God that had his hands stretched out to me as a friend. My heart must be made of marble. My heart must be made of iron to throw his blood in his face.’ ”
Now you see what he’s done. Don’t you see the difference? Let me tell you. I’m going to have to close. I’ll say one more thing. You unmask the sin. We talked about that last week. You take it to the cross. The way to destroy the power of a sin in your life is to take it to the cross where, you see, Jesus Christ died so you wouldn’t do it. Jesus Christ died out of a commitment to your holiness.
When you see that and realize this sin is an insult to him because it’s putting something as more important than him in your life, yes, that will make you feel bad, but it’s not a pathological kind of bad feeling. Instead, it actually frees you, because instead of making you hate yourself, it makes you say, “I don’t want this. I know what he wants for me. This thing I can do without,” and you’re free. You have to look and see what Jesus has done. You know, there is a place in the Bible where Jesus said to the people, “Fear not those who could destroy the body, but fear him who can destroy body and soul in hell.”
Just keep this in mind. He’s talking to his disciples, all of whom were going to die horrible deaths. Stay with me for one minute here. The people who were in front of him who he talked to, we know historically how they died. Some of them were crucified, which is a pretty terrible death. Some of them were ripped to pieces. You know, one of the things they used to do to Christians was to tie one hand and one leg to this horse and one hand and one leg to this horse and just let the horses go and rip them apart. Some of them were impaled while still alive on stakes and covered with pitch and lit as torches.
Some of them had little holes drilled in their skull while they were still alive and molten lead poured into them. Jesus knew what they were going to go through, and he has the audacity to say that’s a picnic compared to hell. He says, “Don’t be afraid of any of that stuff. What’s that? That’s a Sunday school picnic compared to hell.” Jesus talked more about hell than anybody else. You want to blame hell on Paul or somebody nasty like that, I’m sorry. Go take a look. Jesus Christ experienced not just one hell but all of our hells on the cross. All of them pressed down into three hours.
Why? So you could be holy. Now if you think about it like that … Do you know what I’m doing? I’m telling you how you have to preach to yourself, because when you’re saying, like Debbie, the little 16-year-old girl, “What good is all that if you’re not popular? What good is what he’s done if you’re not popular?” You have to look. I said, “You know, Debbie …” I couldn’t do this to her because it’s a pat answer. You have to give yourself pat answers. You can’t get them from anybody else.
She should have come to the cross and said, “Oh, Lord Jesus Christ, I see what you’ve done so I wouldn’t put anything before you, so I wouldn’t do anything but be holy, because only when I’m holy am I happy. You died so I wouldn’t do this. I drop it. I don’t even want to see it. It’s an ugly thing to me because of your beauty.” That is something you should be doing every day, and usually what I do is I find a verse that works on me. You know, verses get radioactive for a while. Last week, a particular verse that got radioactive for me was the verse in Psalm 32 where it says, “You are my hiding place. You fill my heart with songs of deliverance. Whenever I’m afraid I put my trust in you.”
I began to realize, “Wait a minute here. I find all kinds of things to hide in.” If some friend calls up from some other part of the country and says, “How are things going?” and I say, “Well, we’ve only had five weeks.” “How many people are coming?” I’m so glad he asked me that. I say, “Well, I don’t know, but probably something like …” He says, “That’s wonderful.” I’m so glad he said that. I find myself hiding in that, you see.
But then all day, all week I find myself hiding in things besides him. I begin to see my flesh creeping back in. I began to see myself, and what I have to do is I have to go back to the cross with it and say, “Listen. Nothing is worth what he is. There is nothing as valuable as what he is. I put that to death.” I have to do it. You can. It’s something that is done every day. He who is forgiven much loves much. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we ask you would help us to get ahold of some of these important truths and use them in our lives. What we ask, more than anything else, is you would enable us to see the difference between repentance and self-pity, between legalistic repentance and evangelical repentance.
Father, in many of our lives we have found we’ve stayed away from looking at our sins. We’ve stayed away from dealing with our idols because we just despair when we see them, yet we realize now what we need to do. We need to recognize what they are. We need to take those things to the cross. We need to leave them there.
We pray, Father, you would enable us to do these things, because it’s only then that we grow. We want to have ourselves growing in joy and in love like that woman, because her repentance grew as well. All of life is repentance. We see that now, because all of life is your love. Your love gives us the security for that. Now Father, lead us into this. Grant us repentance into the life, for we pray it in Jesus’ name, amen.
About the Preacher
Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for God, King’s Cross, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.
Sermon: The Joy of Jesus by Dr. Timothy Keller
Series: The Fruit of the Spirit—The Character of Christ—May 3, 1998 on John 16:19–24
I’m going to read from John 16:19–24.
19 Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? 20 I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21 A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.
22 So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. 23 In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 24 Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”
We’re doing a series here in the morning that has to do with character change, how we actually change. The premise is moral reformation is not the same thing as spiritual transformation. In moral reformation, you can make changes that aren’t the deep spiritual changes, the habits of the heart. One of my wife’s favorite authors is Judith Martin, “Miss Manners,” and she wrote a book called Miss Manners Rescues Civilization.
There’s one spot in there where she asks, “Where did manners come from?” Of course, she gives her learned opinion along the lines of, “Some caveman learned it paid to restrain and control his impulses through courtesy, manners, and customs. It was worth it to avoid living among people who were perpetually furious.”
Her whole idea is she says, “What are manners? Restraining your impulses, controlling your heart. Otherwise, you’ll just live amongst people who are perpetually furious.” That’s right. Moral reformation is fine. Over the years, people have been honest, people have been generous, and people have been self-controlled, simply so we don’t have to live amongst people who are perpetually furious with us.
But notice what she said. Moral reformation is restraining the heart. It’s controlling the heart. It’s sort of jury-rigging the heart. It’s not really changing the heart. What do I mean by jury-rigging? For example, you want self-control. You’re filled with fear. Use the fear to get self-control. “I’d better change, or people are going to find out.” Use the pride to get self-control. You see, out of self-interest, out of pride, out of fear, we can make these kinds of changes.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with them. In fact, the world would be a terrible place without them. But that’s not the same thing as changing the habits of the heart. That’s not the same thing as, instead of restraining the heart, changing the heart so that out of the heart flows, at least with increasing naturalness and freedom, love, joy, peace, patience, generosity, integrity, courage, humility, and self-control. The fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5.
What’s the difference? We’ve said moral reformation comes by looking at the rules and conforming, but spiritual transformation comes from looking at Jesus Christ and regenerating and transforming. Paul lays it down in 2 Corinthians 3:18. He says, “With unveiled faces we contemplate the glory of the Lord and are transformed from one degree of splendor to the next.”
Spiritual transformation does not come like moral reformation, restraining the heart by looking at the rules and conforming. Spiritual transformation comes from looking at Christ and being melted with spiritual understandings of his person and work. That’s the premise. Boy, that sounds so sweet, doesn’t it? That sounds so beautiful. What in the world does it mean? I know where you are. What does it mean?
That’s what we’re doing in this series. We’re looking at the character of Christ and how that character can come in and produce deep changes in our hearts. Today I want to look at something Jesus says: that he gives us joy. There is a joy Jesus gives. On the night before he died, not only in chapter 16 of John, but also in chapter 14 and in chapter 17, in this very last discourse, the last time Jesus had with his disciples before he died, he’s continually saying, “I have a joy to give you.”
I want to look at this joy. He tells us three things in this passage about this joy. He tells us about the promise of it. It’s real. He tells us something about the structure of it, and he tells us about the growth of it, how it comes. Let’s just take a look at that for a moment. The reality, the promise of this joy, then the structure of it (what it’s made of, it’s nature), and then how it comes to us, how it grows.
1. The promise of it
The reality of it. Here’s what he says. In this passage, Jesus Christ says, “If you come to meet me and you come to know me, you will have a joy that is deep and powerful and is now.” Essentially, he says here, “Joy is inevitable if you meet me.” Right here in the very beginning he talks about this “little while and little while.” Do you see this? Right at the top. He has already said, “In a little while you will grieve; then in a little while you will see me. I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn, and then in a little while your grief will be turned to joy.”
What is he talking about? Most commentators, though they think there may be some levels of meaning here, say basically he’s talking about the time between his death and his resurrection. He says, “I’m going to die, and you’re going to weep, but when you see me, when you meet me, the resurrected Lord, you’ll rejoice.” You will rejoice. He doesn’t say, “Some of you who are more emotional in temperament will rejoice.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you who have nicer lives will rejoice.” He says, “You all will rejoice.”
The reason it’s important to see what he’s saying here … He’s not saying, “You will see me at the second coming and rejoice.” He is not saying, “You will see me on the last day, you will see me when you die and go to heaven and rejoice.” He says, “When you see me resurrected you’ll rejoice.” Now why is that so important? Those of you who were here on Easter remember this, but those of you who weren’t here, don’t.
In a nutshell, why is it that Jesus Christ’s tomb was lost? Why is it that by AD 120 Christians weren’t even sure where it was anymore? Why is it, when the tomb of every prophet, every religious founder was always venerated …? It was a shrine. It was a place of pilgrimage. How could the Christians have lost the tomb of Jesus?
We said the reason would be that when you have your son, your son’s room, your son’s things, aren’t all that important. There’s nothing special about his room. There’s nothing special about his shoes, about his clothes, if you have your son. But if your son goes away, or your son leaves for a long time, or your son dies, suddenly those things become important.
The reason the tomb didn’t matter to them was that they had him. He wasn’t away. Real Christianity is to meet the risen Lord. It’s not just the apostles who have met the risen Lord. Anyone who’s a Christian doesn’t need to go to the tomb, because you have him. You don’t need a relic. You have him. You have a relationship. There’s a giving and taking of love.
Why is that so important? Because what Jesus is saying here is Christianity does not only promise this incredible joy in the sky, by and by. He doesn’t say, “You’ll see me in heaven and you’ll rejoice. You’ll see me on the last day and rejoice.” He says when you meet the risen Lord you rejoice. He says, “This is it. Everybody, you’ll have this joy. It will come. It has to come.”
In fact, the illustration of the woman … He says, “Joy is like a woman in labor; when her time has come, she has the child.” I’ve watched, very intimately, a woman have children three times, and I know one thing about labor and children. It will come. When it comes, it’s coming. There’s no stopping it. You don’t say, “Well honey, could you hold it until next week so we could have this trip?”
It will come. In fact, you can’t even say, “Honey, could you hold it for five minutes?” When Jesus Christ gives this woman in labor as the illustration of joy, what he is saying is, “If you actually meet me, you will have joy.” You will. It is inevitable. It has to be there. You’re not a Christian without this joy.
The Bible goes over and over. Listen. When I read this stuff, I got so convicted this last week. What the Bible says about joy … I guess, frankly, until I read it, at least in my mind and my heart and my head, I kind of had this idea that joy is optional. You know, “Some of us have harder lives than others. Joy is optional.” It can’t be. Joy will come. It’s like labor. It’s like birth. “When you see me you will rejoice.”
In the New Testament, the very first miracle of Jesus … Remember it? John 2, the wedding feast at Cana. What was the first miracle of Jesus? This is the beginning of his public ministry. When you begin your public ministry, you make sure you do the very thing that gives people the essence of what you’re about. Your first speech, your first ad, your first event … When you’re starting a campaign, you give them the essence.
What did Jesus do when he was trying to get across to people the essence of what he came for? He didn’t raise the dead. He didn’t walk on water. He didn’t heal the sick. He created 150 gallons of incredible wine to move a party to a new level. What was he saying? He was saying, “Have you heard of the myths of Dionysus? Have you heard of the legends of Bacchus and Dionysus? Have you heard about forests dancing and running with wine and dancing and joy? That’s kid stuff compared to what I’m bringing. I am Lord of the feast.” At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
What about the beginning of the church, the day of Pentecost? Jesus goes to heaven, the Spirit comes down, and the New Testament church is inaugurated. Everybody who saw them that day, everybody who saw the fullness of the Spirit … What did they say about them? “These people are drunk.” Yes. That’s Christianity. Not just the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not just the beginning of the church; the beginning of every Christian life. What does the Bible say about how to become a Christian? What does the Bible say about conversion?
Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, and he said, “You became followers of the Lord.” He’s talking to them about their conversion. “You became followers of the Lord, for you received the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.” Do you know what it means to become a Christian? Some of you say, “Well I guess I’m a Christian.” What’s a Christian? You say, “Well, to believe Jesus is the Son of God, to believe he died on the cross, to believe he rose from the dead.”
The devils believe that, and they’re still devils. What’s the difference between a devil and a Christian? The devils know he’s the Son of God. The devils know he died on the cross. The devils know he rose from the dead, but they have no joy in it. The difference between a Christian and a devil is only joy. At the very essence of faith there has to be a kernel of joy, or it’s not faith. Do you see?
The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a man who discovers a treasure buried in a field, and when he discovers it, he sells all he has and goes with joy. He sells all that he has and buys that field. The beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of the Christian life. What’s the kingdom of God? The kingdom of God, Jesus continually says, is a power that descends upon you and sends you out into the world to change the world, to do the will of God, on earth as it is in heaven.
What is that power? How do you know if you’re in the kingdom? Is it the way you dress? Is it the way you look? Is it the way you eat? Ask Saint Paul, and he’ll tell you. Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not meat or drink, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” When you’re right with God, a tidal wave of joy sends you out into the world to change it. That is the power of the Spirit.
Look at the gospel. Do you know what the word gospel means? Euangelion. It means literally the joy news. Jesus Christ is born. What do the angels say? “Behold, I bring glad tidings …” That’s the news. “… of great joy.” The word gospel means joy news. J.R.R. Tolkien in his famous essay “On Fairy-Stories” … Don’t you hate it when somebody says something is famous and you’ve never heard of it? You say, “What am I? Chopped liver?” I’m sorry. I don’t know if it’s famous, but it’s a great one.
J.R.R. Tolkien, in his great essay “On Fairy-Stories,” says there’s a kind of story … There are all kinds of stories, and they move us. He says there’s a kind of story (and he ought to know) that brings us unbelievable joy, whether it’s a movie, or a story we’re reading, or a story we see depicted on the stage, or a story we hear sung about. There are certain stories, he says, that bring us unbelievable joy.
He says these stories always have a certain kind of kernel to them. He says there’s always some incredible hopeless situation, and victory is snatched out of the jaws of defeat. But how? Always through someone who comes in, and whose weakness turns out to be strength, someone whose defeat turns out to be a victory. He says it’s those kinds of stories that just seem to bring us joy. He believed (and I think he’s right) … He called them eucatastrophes.
Do you know what the word eucatastrophe means? The joyful catastrophe, the tragedy that turns out to be a triumph, the sacrifice that turns out to bring joy, the weakness that ends up being strength, the defeat that ends up being victory. He said, however, there’s a Eucatastrophe of the eucatastrophes. There is a Story in all of the stories. He believes there’s a bass string to the human heart, and those stories can kind of make it reverberate a little bit but can’t pluck it. He says there’s only one story that can: the story of the gospel.
All of the other stories are based on that. From the ugly duckling who turns out to be a swan, to Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty who gives up all of her happiness to throw herself in the arms of this Beast and, because of her incredible sacrifice, gets a love and frees this person beyond anything she ever understood. Tolkien says the gospel story is the only story that will pluck that string so the whole heart never stops reverberating and vibrating with joy.
The reason it will reverberate is, of all of the great stories, this is not one more myth pointing to the great reality; this is the reality to which all of the other stories point. It happened. It really happened. There really is a Beauty who kisses the beast. There really is a Hercules who defeats the villain. There really is a hero. There really is Jesus. The word gospel means the joy news. Joy. It’s real. You have to have it. It has to be there.
Let me put it to you this way before I go on. Do you know this? Let me talk to two kinds of people. One of the great things about Redeemer is there are always two kinds of people. Actually, there are three. There are people who say, “I’m a Christian,” and there are people who say, “I’m not a Christian,” and then there are a lot of people who say, “I wish I knew what I was.” That’s it. You’re all there.
For those of you who are Christians, I want to ask a quick question. If this is true, if joy is what it’s all about, if it’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the church, and the beginning of Christianity in your heart, it it’s inevitable, if it’s not for the second coming but for now, how can you live with the moroseness that you do? How is it possible?
Remember when Elizabeth was carrying John the Baptist and Mary was carrying Jesus in the womb? Mary gets near Elizabeth, and suddenly she starts. Mary says to Elizabeth, “What happened?” She says, “At the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Psalm 96 says that when Jesus Christ comes back, the trees of the wood will sing for joy. If the trees, if babies in the womb, if anything getting near Jesus leaps for joy, why aren’t we?
Here’s what I have to suggest. When the Bible says, “Rejoice, and again I say rejoice,” when it commands your joy, it cannot be saying, “Force your feelings.” That’s impossible. You can’t anyway. I’ve had people say, “Is the Bible telling me to force my feelings?” The Bible is not going to say, “Two plus two is five.” It’s not going to tell you to do something that’s impossible. What it must mean is this joy is so inevitable that if it’s not flowing through your life, you must be doing something to stop it. You must be.
I know there are times of grief. Joy is like a tree. It doesn’t always blossom. The joy can be growing in wintertime, just like a tree can be growing in wintertime. Joy is not always in blossom time. But here’s what I want to know. What comparatively small thing are you doing to keep you from seeing what you have in Jesus? What comparatively small thing are you so upset about it’s keeping you from seeing what you have in Jesus? You must be doing something. We must be doing something, if all of the things the Bible says are true.
Secondly, for those of you who are not Christians, or you’re not sure you’re Christians, one of the things that keeps you from Christianity has always been … You say, “You know, religion would be good at some time in my life, but right now I’m not bald yet. I’m a size 8. Later on I may need something to help me deal with life. Right now Christianity is interesting, but I like to have fun.” Jesus Christ throws down the gauntlet to you, and I’m going to try too.
If Jesus could make himself visible, he would say, “Look, if you have a real objection, okay. Suffering and evil? That’s a real objection. The injustice done by the church in my name in history? That’s a real objection. But when you tell me, ‘I don’t want to become a Christian because I want to enjoy myself, I want to enjoy life,’ first, that means you don’t even know what you’re rejecting. That has no integrity. Secondly, how could you possibly turn later to something you mustn’t even know about now or you wouldn’t say such a thing? How can you turn to it later? You don’t even know what it is.”
If you know anything about Lord Byron’s history, you’ll know he tried exactly what you’re doing: to have fun. Somewhere near the end of his life, he said, “There’s not a joy the world can give like that it takes away.” He’s right. Christianity is not something that makes you philosophical. It’s joy now.
2. The structure of it
What is the structure of this joy? This joy is very, very different. In a way, Christian joy is like every other kind of joy. You rejoice in that which you find beautiful. What is something you find beautiful? You find beautiful something that doesn’t give you something else but is satisfying in itself, just for what it is.
Some of you might find this weird. When I can’t relax, or if I can’t get to sleep at night and I just want to really get peace … There is a high mountain pass in Northern Wales I have driven over three times in my life. When you get over the top of it, you go down into the most beautiful valley I’ve ever seen in my life. I think of that. I have a couple of pictures of it, but I also have a memory. I think about it.
Maybe you have places like that: a seashore … What gives you joy about that? What does it give you? All it gives you is itself. Joy and beauty … it’s the same thing. Keates said so. The only thing that can always give you joy is something you find beautiful not for what it gives you, but for what it is in itself. Why is the woman so happy that a child is born? Bad parents say, “Oh great, now I can have love in my life.”
If you have a child and the reason you rejoice is you say, “Finally, somebody will love me; somebody I’ll have a relationship with,” you’ll be a lousy parent. You’ll destroy that child, and the child will destroy you. Good parents rejoice in the child for what it is in itself, and as it grows up, you do everything you can just to let the child go off. You’re happy if your son or your daughter is happy. Why? Because that’s real joy. Real joy is you don’t want the thing to give you something else; you just find it beautiful for what it is in itself.
The structure of this joy is so incredibly different, because it tells us the spiritual joy Jesus gives is like the joy of a woman … Take a look. It says she’s in this incredible pain. She’s in this incredible labor. She’s beaten up like nobody can be beaten up. It says suddenly the child is born, and it says literally in the Greek, “She remembers her pain no more.” Notice it doesn’t say her pain is gone. I happen to know. I’ve watched this. When the child is born, her pain is not gone, but she remembers her pain no more.
What does the word remember mean? The Bible says when you become a Christian, God remembers your sin no more. Does that mean he’s not aware of the sin? Does that mean he says, “Did they ever sin?” No. He’s aware of the sin, but the sin doesn’t control the way in which he reacts to me. If he doesn’t remember my sins anymore because I’m in Christ, he’s not controlled by it. He doesn’t focus on it. It hasn’t captured his heart. Love has captured his heart.
Here’s what’s going on. Here’s this woman and she’s all beaten up, but the structure of her joy is not that she’s in denial. She’s not saying, “Well, doctor, I don’t feel a thing. I’m fine. Everything is fine.” She’s not saying that, but she’s furiously and lovingly and joyfully looking at the child, and she forgets her pain. It doesn’t mean she denies it. It doesn’t mean she’s not even hurting. It doesn’t control her. The pain can’t get her down anymore. Not when she has this.
The structure of Christian joy is that you’ve located your greatest joy and your greatest beauty in God. He gives you more joy, and you find him more beautiful than anything else in life. That’s the reason Jonathan Edwards, years ago, could say the difference between a religious person and a Christian is not that one is obedient and one is disobedient. Oh no. He says religious people and real Christians both obey God. They’re both committed to God. In fact, a religious person might look more obedient and committed.
The difference is that only the Christian is attracted to God. The religious person finds God useful, but the Christian finds God beautiful. What does that mean? It means the religious person will obey as long as God answers his prayers, but if God doesn’t answer his prayers, he says, “What good is it to be a Christian?” Some of you have done that. Some of you said years ago, “I worked my fingers to the bone, and I did all these incredible things, and I didn’t get into the law school I wanted to get into, and I’ve never had the career I wanted to do, so I walked away.”
What does that mean? It means your law career was the beauty. It was the satisfying thing. God was a means to an end. God was useful; he wasn’t beautiful to you, so you’ve never tried Christianity. You have a joy that is very different than Christian joy, because Christian joy coexists with suffering. Christian joy coexists with sorrow. She remembers her sorrow no more. It doesn’t mean she isn’t aware of it. It means it doesn’t control her anymore.
Worldly joy has to avoid suffering, worldly joy has to deny suffering, but Christian joy coexists and, in fact, is enhanced by it, because it shows you where true joy is going to be found. The structure of Christian joy is you’ve relocated your beauty, you’ve relocated your joy in God, and now circumstances can’t touch it.
This is, by the way, the reason why Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world. Christians should never be denying their own pain, and Christians should never be denying that the world is painful, and Christians should never be afraid of getting empathetically involved with people who are suffering. Why? Because you have a joy that coexists with that.
The world’s joy says, “I can’t admit how bad things are. I can’t admit how much I’m hurting. I can’t admit how bad the world is.” Christians should be the least sentimental people in the world, because they have a joy that coexists with sorrow. They have a joy that grows deeper … Just like the darker the night, the brighter the stars. Christian joy is like that. It gets brighter when things get darker. Everybody else’s joy just goes out. That’s the structure.
3. The growth of it
Up to now you’re saying, “Okay, that’s fascinating. This incredible joy, you rejoice even in suffering, and it’s a different structure and everything, but I can’t do that. I read these texts, ‘Rejoice, and again I say rejoice.’ I tried to be happy. I can’t do it.” Well, it’s not a matter of trying. When Jesus Christ tells us about this woman … Who is this woman?
The New International Version, the translation I read from, has done us a little bit of a disservice. The New International translation says she’s in all this incredible pain, she’s in all this labor, and then it says … Why? Why is she in all the pain? What does it say? “Because her time has come.” Gee, that’s unfortunate. Literally, the Greek says, “Because her hour has come.”
If you have ever read the gospel of John, you’ll know the word hour has a very technical meaning and has a very focused meaning. It has a very specific meaning. In 7:30; in 8:20; in 13:11; and in chapter 12, I can’t remember quite where; even in chapter 2 … Remember when Mary says, “They have no more wine,” Jesus turns and says, “Woman, it is not my hour”? What is the hour?
Do you know what the hour is in the gospel of John? “It was the sixth hour, and darkness took over, and Jesus Christ cried out, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” In those days before epidurals and anesthetics, every time a woman gave birth she was in incredible agony, and she was right on the verge of losing her life. Jesus Christ is saying two things to us here.
He is the one in labor, and the first thing he says is, “I went into labor, but the labor pains I endured were my hour.” They were far greater than any woman has ever endured, because they weren’t physical. The only way for a mother to give the baby the joy of life is to take away her own joy at that moment. She has to give away her joy and maybe even give away her life to bring life to the child.
Jesus Christ says, “I gave away a joy to bring joy to you, and the joy I lost and the pain I suffered was my hour. Do you want to know what I threw away for you? Go back and read Proverbs 8. When my Father and I were creating the universe, I danced before the Father, and we delighted in the human race, the men and women we were creating to take part in our joy. Because of your sin, I lost everything. I lost that.
Don’t you say, ‘Oh, how bad could it have been? It was only three hours.’ No, no, no. I suffered something you’ll never understand. That’s why I suffered it, so you wouldn’t understand it. I lost something you will never know. I went into labor. It was my hour. I lost something you will never know. I suffered something you’ll never know. I lost all the joy I had, a joy you never will know, so you could have joy.”
That’s the first thing he’s saying, but do you know the second thing he’s saying? It’s just about as astounding. Not only does the woman show us how Jesus suffered, but the woman shows us why Jesus did it. In Hebrews 12, it says, “For the joy that was set before him, he went to the cross, despising the shame.” For the joy that was set before him. How could that be? What joy was it? What does the woman see? The baby.
Do you know what this means? What did Jesus get out of it? What did Jesus get out of that incredible, infinite experience of agony and torment he went through? Did he get out of it a sense of accomplishment? He didn’t need that. He had that. Did he get out of it the admiration of the Father? He already had that. Did he get out of it self-esteem? He already had that. What didn’t he have? Us. What could he have gotten out of us? Nothing.
What does that mean? He located his joy in us. He wanted us just because we were beautiful to him. It tells us in Isaiah 53, “The results of his suffering he shall see and be satisfied.” He’ll look at us and say it was worth it. How could that be worth it? The only way would be if he has located his joy in us. He has linked his heart to us. He has made us his treasure. He has made us his beauty. The great philosophical minds of the world have noticed that.
Jonathan Edwards says, “… Christ has his delight, most truly and properly, in obtaining [our] salvation, not merely as a means [conducive to his joy and delight], but as what he [actually] rejoices and is satisfied in, most directly and properly. […] ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.’ […] ‘The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will [quiet thee with] his love, he will rejoice over thee with singing.’ ”
We are his jewels. We are his treasure. There it is. How can this joy grow? It’s very simple. Actually, in some ways this sets up next week’s sermon, so I hope you can come back. Next week’s sermon is about suffering. The fact is, if you just see somebody say, “Be joyful,” you’ll never do it, but if you see Jesus Christ did this and he made you his joy, that will change you.
If you see him locating his joy in you and making you the ultimate beauty of his life, that means you will be able to finally … It’ll melt you, and you’ll be able to put your joy in him. Then you’ll have that joy with that whole new structure. He’ll become the joy. He’ll become all you want. You just want him. You don’t say, “I want him plus law school.” You say, “I want him.” Then you’ll finally be happy. Then you’ll look at him.
When I look at that valley or when I listen to some great music, that’s what my eyes … Your senses are made for a certain sight. Your eyes are made for certain kinds of visual beauty, and your ears are made for certain kinds of auditory beauty, and your nose is made for olfactory beauty, but your soul is made for this. Do you see him doing it? Are you affected by it?
Don’t you see? This is how all the fruit are connected. You say, “Okay, so that’s how I get joy, but how do I get patience?” Rejoice in his patience for you. “Well okay, how do I get peace?” Rejoice in his wisdom. You’re fearfully and wonderfully made. If you know how to rejoice in what he did for you, at the moment you lack peace or lack patience or lack courage or lack humility or lack self-control … What is self-control? You want a kind of beauty. You want a kind of pleasure. Rejoice in him as the ultimate pleasure.
Let me end this way. For those of you who say, “I don’t know much about this joy,” I’ll tell you how it happens. You never have a birth without labor, and you never have a resurrection without death, and you will never get this incredible joy if you come just for happiness. If you come to Jesus for comfort, you’ll never get it. On the far side of repentance is comfort. On the far side of labor is a birth. On the far side of death is a resurrection. Therefore, you need repentance in order to have this incredible joy.
You say, “What do you mean by repentance?” It’s simply this. If you think Christianity is saving yourself, if you think Christianity is living a good life, if you think Christianity is trying your best to live like Jesus Christ, of course there’s no joy in your life. You’re trying to save yourself. You don’t have the joy of the Holy Ghost, and you never will. Your life is humorless. You’re trying real hard. If you’re willing to say, “I am a sinner, and I deserve to be lost, but look what he has done for me,” that will give you joy. Don’t you see that?
I never get a chance to say this. There are people in New York City I run into relatively often. They’re women who say, “I can’t relate to a Savior in Christianity who’s just a man. I can’t relate to a man. He’s a man. He doesn’t understand. I can’t relate to that, a male Savior. How can I get into Christianity?” Don’t you see? This is the only man who ever gave birth. What does that mean? Of course Jesus was male when he was on earth. Historically he was male. But don’t you see what this is saying?
Jesus is trying to say, “I’m not less than a man; I’m more. The problem is not that I don’t understand what it means to be a woman or what it means to give birth. The problem is you don’t understand my labor over you. That’s your whole problem.” To the degree you understand that, to that degree, even in sorrow, it’ll just push you more into the joy. Even in your troubles, it’ll push you more to the One who is the final and true joy. Do you see? Look to him and be radiant. Let’s pray.
Our Father, we pray that now, as we take the Lord’s Supper, your Son Jesus Christ would become real to us. Help us to see the brokenness being the broken body giving birth to us. The cup poured out is his heart and his lifeblood poured out for us. Help us, as we see him locating his joy in us, doing all this just for us, just because of his love for us, his delight in us, give us that delight in him that will give us that impervious joy that will help us to move out into the world and change the world, because the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking; it’s righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.
About the Preacher
Timothy Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Every Good Endeavor, Center Church, Galatians For You, The Meaning of Marriage, The Reason for God, King’s Cross, Counterfeit Gods, The Prodigal God, and Generous Justice.
The 25th Anniversary Sermon, Delivered at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia on May 23, 1993, by Dr. James Montgomery Boice
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus— 2 Timothy 3:14, 15.
On a morning like this it is a temptation to reminisce over the quarter century of ministry I have had at Tenth Presbyterian Church. And I would do it, except for the fact that others have been doing it all weekend and in a much more complimentary way than I could myself— at least if I were to be honest. I could reveal a lot of things that the others are not aware of, including the disappointments and failures. But that would spoil things, and it is not what this weekend is about. It is certainly not what a worship service such as this should accomplish.
I remember that when John, the author of Revelation, fell at the feet of the angel of God to worship him, the angel replied, “Do not do it! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God!” (Revelation 19:10). So I remind you and myself that this is what we are about this morning.
And I direct you to God’s Word.
Our text is 2 Timothy 3:14,15. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
The Priority of God’s Word
I want to talk about the most important thing that Tenth Presbyterian Church has stood for over the one hundred sixty-four years of its distinguished history, and that is the priority of the Bible as the Word of God. That priority has been both doctrinal and practical. It is doctrinal because we believe the Bible to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and it is practical because we believe the Bible must be the treasure most valued and attended to in the church’s life.
This has been a factor from the very beginning— from the days of Thomas A. McAuley, the first pastor (1829- 1833), and Henry Augustus Boardman, the first minister to serve a long pastorate (1833-1876). But it is best illustrated by an incident from the early days of the ministry of Donald Grey Barnhouse (1927-1960), who had a profound and personal influence on my own idea of what the ministry should be.
A week or two after Barnhouse became pastor of Tenth Church, he entered the pulpit one Sunday morning and opened the great pulpit Bible to a point near the middle, where he then placed his sermon notes, his Bible and a hymn book. As he looked down he noticed that the words on the pages of the Bible were part of a curse upon those nations that do not know God. It occurred to him that he would like to have before him a passage containing words of a great promise.
He opened the Bible to Isaiah 55:10, 11, which says, “As the rain and the snowcome down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
To his surprise he discovered that for decades his predecessors had apparently done the same thing. The edges of the Bible were worn in half circles curving inward from the bindings at that text, and the pages were torn and mended. As he later observed, those pages “containing the great fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah and the preceding page with the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s Lamb, give mute evidence that the men who have stood in the pulpit of Tenth Church for more than a century were men of the Living Word and the written Word.” (Donald Grey Barnhouse, “Isaiah 55:11” in Holding Forth the Word: 1927-1952. Manuscript Collection of the Tenth Presbyterian Church).
Later Barnhouse discovered that there was another section of the Bible that was similarly worn. It was the great psalm of the Bible, Psalm 119. Evidently, his predecessors, finding it difficult to keep their notes on the Isaiah pages, looked for another passage that would remind them of the power and priority of God’s Word.
Barnhouse told this story in a memorial booklet marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of his pastorate at Tenth Church, concluding this way: “It is my prayer that no man shall ever stand in this pulpit as long as time shall last who does not desire to have all that he does based upon this Book. For this Book does not contain the Word of God, it is the Word of God. And though we may preach the Word with all the stammering limitations of our human nature, the grace of God does the miracle of the ministry, and though human lips speak the divine Word, and the hearts of the people are refreshed. There is no other explanation for the continuing power of a church that is poorly located, that is without endowment, but which continues to draw men and women to the capacity of its seating arrangements, morning and evening, summer and winter, and which sends its sons and daughters by the score to preach the unsearchable riches of Christ throughout the world.” (Ibid).
The Inerrancy of God’s Word
About ten years into my pastorate, at the end of 1977 and the beginning of 1978, I helped start an organization that was also concerned with the priority of the Word of God but which focused its efforts on the important matter we perceived to be under attack at that time, namely, the Bible’s inerrancy. Our organization was called the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, and it had within it such outstanding evangelical leaders as Francis Schaeffer, J. I. Packer, A. Wetherell Johnson, R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Roger Nicole and many others. It had as its purpose the task of “elucidating, vindicating and applying the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as an essential element for the authority of Scripture and a necessity for the health of the church of God.”
In the 1970s the evangelical church was drifting from its roots, and professors in prominent evangelical institutions were teaching that the Bible contains errors of historical and scientific fact but that it does not matter that it does. We believed that it does matter and tackled this deviation head on.
We held three gatherings of prominent evangelical scholars to hammer out three documents of “affirmation and denial.” They became nearly creedal in some quarters. The first was on inerrancy itself (“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy”), the second on principles of interpretation (“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics”), and the third on application (“The Chicago Statement on the Application of the Bible to Contemporary Issues”). We also held two large lay conferences, the first in San Diego in the spring of 1982 and the second in Washington in the fall of 1988.
In the early days we were often asked why inerrancy was important since “it should be enough merely to believe that the Bible is trustworthy in areas of faith and morals.” But it is not that simple. To begin with, the Bible is an historical book and Christianity is an historical religion. So if the Bible errs in matters of historical fact, Christianity itself is affected. One hundred years of German “historical Jesus” research proved that. The scholars involved in this movement wanted to separate the Christ of faith from the Jesus of history, finding out who the true Jesus was. But as Albert Schweitzer proved in his classic study, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, all they succeeded in doing was making Jesus into the scholars’ own images. Rationalists produced a rationalist Jesus, socialists a socialistic Jesus, moralists a moralistic Jesus, and so on. The attempt to have Christianity without its historical base was a failure.
Besides, if part of the Bible is true and part is not, who is to tell us what the true parts are? There are only two answers to that question. Either we must make the decision ourselves, in which case the truth becomes subjective.
The thing that is true becomes merely what appeals to me. Or else, it is the scholar who tells us what we can believe and what we cannot believe. We argued that God has not left us either to our own whims or to the whims of scholars. He has given us a reliable book that we can read and understand ourselves.
The inerrancy of the Bible is what I wrestled with during my seminary years. It is not that I questioned it. Anyone who had been raised with the teaching of Donald Grey Barnhouse and others like him could hardly doubt that God has given us an inerrant revelation. My problem was that my teachers did not believe this, and much of what I was hearing in the classroom was meant to reveal the Bible’s errors so students would not depend on it too deeply. What was a student to do? The professors seemed to have all the facts. How were professors to be challenged when they argued that recent scholarship has shown that the old simplistic views about the Bible being inerrant are no longer valid and we have to admit that the Bible is filled with errors?
As I worked on this I discovered some interesting things. First, the problems imagined to be in the Bible were hardly new problems. For the most part they were known centuries ago, even by such ancient theologians as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome. They debated problems of apparent contradictions in their correspondence.
I also discovered that results of sound scholarship have not tended to uncover more and more problems, as my professors were suggesting, still less disclose more and more “errors.” Rather they have tended to resolve problems and show that what were once thought to be errors are not errors at all. Let me give some illustrations.
Second Kings 15:29 speaks of a king of Assyria named Tiglath-Pileser. He is said to have conquered the Israelites of the northern kingdom and to have taken many of them into captivity. A generation ago liberal scholars were saying that this king never existed, because they had no independent record of him, and that the fall of the northern kingdom to Assyria was mythology. But then archaeologists excavated Tiglath-Pileser’s capital city and found his name pressed into bricks which read: “I, Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria, . . . am a conqueror from the Great Sea which is in the country of Amurru as far as the Great Sea which is in the Nairi country,” that is, the Mediterranean. In other words, archaeologists have found evidence not only of Tiglath-Pileser’s existence, but even of the very campaign 2 Kings describes. The English reader can find accounts of these battles in James B. Prichard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.
Here is another example. A generation ago scholars were saying that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, because, so the argument went, writing was not known in Moses day. That seemed irrefutable at the time because, if writing was not known in Moses day, Moses could not have known how to write, and if Moses did not know how to write, he could not have written the Pentateuch. But in this case, it was the underlying premise that was wrong. As it turns out, not only was writing known in Moses day, there were actually many written languages. Today we know of at least six different languages from the very area of the world in which Moses led the Israelites for forty years.
My favorite example is a personal one. At the end of 1974 Time magazine ran a cover story entitled “How True Is the Bible?” It surveyed the liberal attacks on the Bible’s reliability and concluded, somewhat as I did after my study of what the evidence in this area has proved, that the credibility of the Bible has actually grown in recent decades. Time wrote,
The breadth, sophistication and diversity of all this biblical investigation are impressive, but it begs a question: Has it made the Bible more credible or less? Literalists who feel the ground move when a verse is challenged would have to say that credibility has suffered. Doubt has been sown, faith is in jeopardy. But believers who expect something else from the Bible may well conclude that its credibility has been enhanced. After more than two centuries of facing the heaviest scientific guns that could be brought to bear, the Bible has survived— and is perhaps the better for the siege. Even on the critics’ own terms— historical fact— the Scriptures seem more acceptable now than they did when the rationalists began the attack (Time, December 30, 1974, p. 41).
I found it interesting that the Bible was being defended by a secular magazine. But I said to myself, “I’m going to have to wait two weeks to see the letters that come in reaction to this, because I can’t believe that the liberal scholars will ignore it.” Sure enough. Two weeks later there were two strong letters from two of the most prominent critics: Martin Marty, a regular writer for the Christian Century, and Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. One of them ended— I do not remember which one— “The faith of your Bible believers is the opposite of biblical faith!”
I was offended. I said to myself, “That’s terribly unfair. Time has presented a balanced article. It hasn’t even claimed inerrancy, only historical reliability, and these men can’t even stand to have the Bible called reliable.” I got so angry, I had to stop and pray. I think the Lord answered me by saying, “Don’t worry about it. It’s not bothering me, why should it bother you. Go on and read the magazine.”
So I did. The letters were on page 38, and I read on to page 65, which turned out to be the section on science. On that page there was a report of an archeological expedition in the southern area of the Sinai Peninsula under the direction of a Jewish archeologist named Beno Rothenberg. He had been working at a place called “Solomon’s mines” because an ancient smelting operation had been there, and he wanted to find out if the area had really been worked by Jews, and who had begun it.
Rothenberg discovered that the area had been occupied by Jewish workmen at the time of Solomon. So it may truly have been where Solomon melted down his gold for the temple. But then he pushed back through the strata at the site and discovered that this ancient foundry had been developed originally by the Midianites. Midianites? Time knew that few of its readers would have any idea who the Midianites were. So the writer explained, “. . . the Midianites, a little-known people who dwelled in the area and are identified in Genesis as the first metal workers” (Time, January 13, 1975, p. 65).
At that point I began to understand why the Lord was urging me to go on and read the magazine. Because of all the places where that little bit of Bible verification could have appeared, it was in the very issue in which the liberal scholars were objecting, “The faith of your Bible believers is the opposite of biblical faith.”
The Holy Spirit really does have a sense of humor.
The Sufficiency of God’s Word
I want to say here, however, that important as I believe the matter of inerrancy is— and I do believe it. I believe churches will flounder and die if this is forgotten. Important as this is, I do not think it is the most critical issue about the Bible facing the American church today. The issue I would pinpoint today is the sufficiency of God’s Word.
I would ask the questions: Do we really believe that God has given us what we need in this book? Or do we think we have to supplement the Bible with other man-made things? Do we need sociological techniques to do evangelism? Do we need psychology and psychiatry for Christian growth? Do we need extra-biblical signs or miracles for guidance? Is the Bible’s teaching adequate for achieving social progress and reform?
The reason I believe this is important is that it is possible to believe that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and yet neglect it and effectually repudiate it just because we think that it is not great enough for today’s tasks and that other things need to be brought in to supplement the revelation. I think this is exactly what many evangelicals and evangelical churches are doing.
Have you ever realized that this is the point of each of the three great passages about Scripture that were read this morning. These three passages (Psalm 19, Matthew 4 and 2 Timothy 3) are probably the three most important passages in the Bible about the nature of the Word of God. The first contrasts it with God’s general revelation. The second shows how Jesus used the Bible to overcome temptation. The third is Paul’s advice to Timothy in view of the terrible times he saw coming. But notice. Each passage stresses that it is the Word of God alone that is sufficient for these challenges.
Psalm 19 speaks of the wonderful revelation of God in nature. But then it continues,
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statues of the Lord are trustworthy. making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned, and in keeping them there is great reward. (vv. 7-11)
The revelation of God in nature is wonderful, but it is limited. By contrast, the revelation of God in Scripture is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure, sure, precious, sweet and rewarding. By what language would it be possible for the psalmist more effectively to emphasize the complete and utter sufficiency of God’s Word?
In Matthew 4 we discover the sufficiency of the Word of God in times of temptation, for it was by quotations from Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:16 and 6:13 that Jesus withstood Satan. Jesus did not reason with Satan without Scripture. He did not resort to supernatural power or ask God for some special sign or intervention. He knew the Bible, stood on it and used it forcefully.
Second Timothy 3 is the same. Paul is warning his young protege against the terrible times coming in the last days. They will be days like ours, in which “people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” And if that is not terrible enough, they will be days in which these vices will be found even in the churches.
For they will be found among those “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (vv. 1-5).
What is Timothy to do when such days come? Surely Paul must have some secret new weapon, some unexpected trick for him to use. No, that is not what we find. Instead of something new, we find Paul recommending what Timothy has had all along— the Word of God— because the Bible is sufficient even for terrible times like these. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:12, 15).
Sufficient in All Areas
But it is not only that the Word of God is sufficient for all times, even times like ours. It is also sufficient in all areas, that is, it is able to do all we need it to do and are commissioned to do as Christians.
Let me list a few of these areas.
1. Evangelism. The Word of God is sufficient for evangelism. Indeed, it is the only thing that works in evangelism. Everything else— captivating music, personal testimonies, emotional appeals, even coming forward to make a commitment to Jesus Christ— all that is at best supplementary. And if it is used or depended upon apart from the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God, the “conversions” that result are spurious conversions, which is to say that those who respond do not actually become Christians. They become Christians in name only. The only way the Holy Spirit works to regenerate lost men and women is through the Word of God.
Peter said it: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
2. Sanctification. I have been preaching on the book of Romans for seven years. I have discovered many interesting things in that time. But the most significant for me has been Paul’s approach to sanctification, which is not at all what we would expect or what many people today desire. When we think of sanctification today, most of us think of either one of two things. Either we think of a method (“Here are three steps to sanctification; do this and you will be holy”), or else we think of an experience (“You need a second work of grace, a baptism of the Holy Spirit,” or something). Paul’s approach is to know the Bible and its teaching about what has been done for us by God in our salvation.
Paul makes this clear in the sixth chapter where he says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11). This is the first time in the letter that Paul tells his readers to do something, and what they are to do is “count” or “reckon upon” the fact that God has done an irreversible work in their lives as a result of which they have died to sin (the verb is in the past tense, an aorist) and have been made alive to God in Christ Jesus. The only way they can understand what has happened to them is to know the Bible, which teaches them what has happened. But then, because they know it, they are to go on with God, acting on the basis of what has been done. In other words, they cannot go back to being what they were before. They are new creatures in Christ. So the only thing they can do is get on with living the Christian life. There is no way for them to go but forward.
That is the Bible’s approach to sanctification, and it has nothing to do with either a method or an experience. It has everything to do with knowing and living by the sufficient Word of God.
3. Guidance. Not long ago we had Phillip D. Jensen, the minister of St. Matthias Church in Sydney, Australia, with us for the Philadelphia Conferences on Reformed Theology. It was his first time in the United States, and it was my privilege to introduce him to American Christians this way. Mr. Jensen has written a book called The Last Word on Guidance whose sole point is that this “last word on guidance” is the Bible. That is what God has given us to indicate how we are to live and what we are to do to please him. All we need is in the Bible. So if there is something we want or think we need that is not in the Bible— what job we should take, who we should marry, where we should live— it doesn’t matter what we do as long as we are obeying what God teaches about living a godly life.
That doesn’t mean that God does not have a detailed plan for our lives. He does. He has a detailed plan for all things, ordering “whatsoever comes to pass,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith has it. But it does mean that we do not have to know this plan in advance and, indeed, cannot. What we can know and need to know is what God has told us in the Bible.
4. Social reform. The final area in which we need to be reminded that the Word of God is sufficient is for social renewal and reform. We are very concerned about this today and rightly so, because we live in a declining culture and we want to see the lordship of Jesus acknowledged and justice and true righteousness prevail. We want to see the poor relieved of bitter want and suffering. How is this to happen? I want to suggest that what is needed is not more government programs or increased emphasis on social work, but first and above all the teaching and practice of the Word of God.
Geneva under Calvin: A Case Study
I want to close with this important example, what happened in Geneva, Switzerland, in the sixteenth century through the ministry of John Calvin. In August of 1535 the Council of Two Hundred, which governed Geneva, voted to reject Catholicism and align the city with the Protestant Reformation. They had very little idea what that meant. Up to this point the city had been notorious for its riots, gambling, indecent dancing, drunkenness, adultery and other vices. People would literally run around the streets naked, singing indecent songs and blaspheming God. The people expected this state of affairs to continue, even after they had become Protestants, and the Council did not know what to do. The Council passed regulation after regulation designed to restrain vice and remedy the situation. Nothing they tried worked. Public discipline and morals continued their decline.
Calvin came to Geneva in August of 1536, a year after the change. He was practically ignored. He was not even paid the first year. Besides, as everybody knows, his first attempts to preach proved so unpopular that he was dismissed by the Council in early 1538, and went to Strasbourg. Calvin was happy in Strasbourg and had no desire to go back. When the situation got so bad in Geneva that public opinion turned to him again in desperation, he told his friend William Farel, “I should prefer a hundred other deaths than this cross on which I should have to die a thousand times a day.”
Nevertheless, driven by a sense of duty, Calvin returned to Geneva on September 13, 1541.
Calvin had no weapon but the Word of God. From the very first his emphasis had been on Bible teaching, and he returned to it now, picking up his exposition of Scripture at precisely the place he had left it three and a half years earlier. He preached from the Word every day, and under the power of that preaching the city began to change. As the Genevan people acquired knowledge of God’s Word and allowed it to influence their behavior, their city became almost a New Jerusalem from which the gospel spread to the rest of Europe, Great Britain and the New World.
Moreover, this change made other changes possible. One student of this historical period wrote,
Cleanliness was practically unknown in towns of his generation and epidemics were common and numerous. He moved the Council to make permanent regulations for establishing sanitary conditions and supervision of markets. Beggars were prohibited from the streets, but a hospital and poorhouse were provided and well conducted. Calvin labored zealously for the education of all classes and established the famous Academy, whose influence reached all parts of Europe and even to the British Isles. He urged the council to introduce the cloth and silk industry and thus laid the foundation for the temporal wealth of Geneva. This industry . . . proved especially successful in Geneva because Calvin, through the gospel, created within the individual the love of work, honesty, thrift and cooperation. He taught that capital was not an evil thing, but the blessed result of honest labor and that it could be used for the welfare of mankind. Countries under the influence of Calvinism were invariably connected with growing industry and wealth…It is no mere coincidence that religious and political liberty arose in those countries where Calvinism had penetrated most deeply (Marcellus Kik, Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms. New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1963, p. 83. See pp. 71-85).
There has probably never been a clearer example of extensive moral and social reform than the transformation of Geneva under John Calvin, and it was accomplished almost entirely by the preaching of God’s Word.
I take you back to 2 Timothy. Paul encouraged Timothy to continue on the path of ministry he has been walking because “from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Why is the Bible able to do that? It is because it is “God-breathed.” That is, it is the very Word of God and therefore carries with it the authority and power of God. Yes, and it is useful too. It is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (vv. 14-17).
That is exactly it. That is what we need. It is what everybody needs. And only the Word of God is sufficient for it.