According to an article in yesterday's edition of "The New York Times," Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is supremely confident that if there's a God, he's going to heaven when he dies:
Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter.
But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”
The message of the gospel tells a different story. Rather than amassing a record and presenting it to God in order for Him to welcome us into heaven, Jesus amasses for us the only record God will accept (2 Cor 5:21). Every attempt to pad our resume with the good things we've done is reprehensible to the Father, flying in the face of the reality of the human condition (Rom 3:10) and spurning the precious gift of his Son for our salvation (Gal 2:21),
And yet, how often do we who confess to believe the gospel fall into a similar trap? We may not base our justification on our good works, but we so often smuggle into our justification our progress in sanctification in order to feel acceptable to God.
Before we (rightly) decry Mr. Bloomberg as seriously misguided, we need to grab a hold of the plank of our own waywardness and admit that at ground zero in our Christian lives, we subtly look for something apart from Jesus' finished work to find our own sense of "It's not even close."
So let us all repent. You and me and the former mayor. And then let's all rest in the good news that the only person for whom "it's not even close" has given himself to us forever.
I had a tremendous opportunity to share what God is doing here in the Twin Cities through this post at The Gospel Coalition.
Hope you're encouraged!
A phenomenal word from J. I. Packer's classic, Knowing God:
There is tremendous relief in knowing that [the Father's] love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion Him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench His determination to bless me....[F]or some unfathomable reason, He wants me as His friend, and desires to be my friend, and has given His Son to die for me in order to realize this purpose.
The Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, had this to say about Derek Jeter, who announced that he would retire at the end of the 2014 season:
In 21-plus years in which I have served as Commissioner, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter.
What a commendation!
Of course, every Christian is an ambassador, too: "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor 5:20).
May each of us strive for the commendation of being no finer ambassador for the Christian faith: "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt 25:21).
Here's a vision of seven characteristics we're aiming to develop in our church's students in Grades 7-12:
- They have a working knowledge of the essentials of the gospel, the contents of the Bible, the basics of theology, and the nature of the Christian life.
- They have a maturing personal relationship with Jesus as evidenced by a rich life of private worship (prayer and meditation on Scripture).
- They are critical Christian thinkers, running all the areas of human knowledge and enquiry through the grid of a Reformed worldview.
- They have maturing relationships with the members of their immediate family, relating to their parents more and more as brothers and sisters in Christ and seeking to love their siblings well, pointing them to the cross.
- They have a growing concern for their friends who aren’t yet Christians and with humble boldness and joy actively seek to share the gospel with them.
- They serve in the local church in ways that complement rather than conflict with the realities of student life.
- They are just plain fun to be around because the gospel has made them normal, engaging, interesting, and interested in other people’s lives.
Paraphrasing the Puritan, John Owen from his book, A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace, Sinclair Ferguson says,
There are actually only ever two pastoral problems you will ever encounter. The first is this: persuading those who are under the dominion of sin that they are under the dominion of sin. That's the task of evangelism. And [second], persuading those who are no longer under the dominion of sin that they are no longer under the dominion of sin because they're Christ's.
I've been a pastor almost 19 years, and for 15 of those years I had been deeply troubled by the truth that I believed I needed the pastorate to stay on the straight and narrow. I'm such a weak person that I felt I couldn't survive as a Christian outside of the work of the local church.
My trouble over this came from remarks by men I respect to the effect that if my spiritual life would be weakened apart from pastoral ministry, I should reconsider whether or not I had been called to the office. But then I heard 1 Tim 4:16 with fresh ears:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.
What this means is that every pastor - not only me, but every pastor - is saved by his pastoring. What a relief! The fact that the Lord has called me to this work means that I need this work for my sanctification. It's one of the many reasons it's so important. We aren't just saving our hearers; we're saving ourselves.
The same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their foremen, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as in the past; let them go and gather straw for themselves" (Exod 5:6-7).
But wait a second! Didn't God say that he was going to rescue his people from the Egyptians? Yes, he did:
The LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exod 3:7-8).
What happens in Exodus 5 doesn't seem as if the Israelites’ redemption is moving forward; it seems like it’s moving backward. But it’s not. This is how God is going to rescue them – by hardening Pharaoh’s heart and multiplying his miracles in the land of Egypt.
This is very instructive for us. We ask the Lord to rescue us and because of what Jesus has done, our daily rescue is certain. But often (can I say often?) the Lord’s rescue is not the rescue of relief, but the rescue of refinement, as Paul Tripp would say. It's God's stormy grace.
At the heart of Christianity is an exchange of records.
You bring your record to God (complete with all your sin and failure and guilt and shame and regret, along with your morality and religiosity), and in exchange, God gives you Jesus’ flawless record in its place, which is all yours simply by trusting in Christ alone. This is the only ground of acceptance with God. Either you bring him Christ’s record or you are rejected forever.
Martin Luther has famously called this “a wonderful exchange”:
[T]his is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: [where], by a wonderful exchange, our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s: and the righteousness of Christ is ours. He has imparted that [righteousness to] us, that he might clothe us with it, and fill us with it: and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them….[N]ow, the righteousness of Christ is…ours objectively…and so, our sins are…Christ’s objectively….For in the same manner [that] he grieved and suffered in our sins...we rejoice and glory in his righteousness.
This marvelous paragraph contains at least six truths:
- Your sins are no longer yours. They don’t even belong to you any more. They belong to Christ. And not just yesterday’s sins; tomorrow’s, too.
- Jesus’ righteousness is yours. Your record is Jesus’ record credited in your name. He has imparted it to you. Given it to you as a gift, something you didn’t lift a finger for. So it’s not just that your sins aren’t yours any more; it’s that what IS yours is Christ’s perfectly lived life! And he’s given you his life in a certain way…
- You are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness. It covers you completely. It’s wrapped around you like a blanket.
- You are filled with Jesus’ righteousness. It’s not only outside of you, covering you completely, but it’s also inside of you, filling up your entire life.
- The wonderful exchange is objective. Your sin is Christ’s objectively. His righteousness is yours objectively, which means that it’s true whether you feel it or not. You may have woken up this morning suspicious of yourself, condemning yourself, “Who are you to go to church today?” “You’re hung over.” Or, “You just had a knock-down-drag-out with your wife.” Or, “You just told your daughter you wish she’d never been born.” So you wonder: “Can God accept me? Will he?” And you wonder because your behavior makes you feel so unacceptable. What do you do with this? You remember that the wonderful exchange is objective. Therefore, it doesn’t matter whether or not or how much you feel accepted, you’re objectively accepted because your sin isn’t yours any more. It’s Christ’s. Objectively! And his righteousness is yours, too. The only righteousness that God does accept is objectively yours. And so…
- Your celebration over what God has done for you can be as high as Jesus’ sadness was low when he suffered and died for your sins. The truth of the wonderful exchange leads to celebration. And no wonder. Nothing is more worth celebrating than the wonderful exchange of the gospel.
Resolutions are not evil, but they do have the flavor of an exercise in self-effort: "This year's going to be different. I'm going to take the spiritual bull by the horns and git-r-done!" So for me, a prayer request rather than a resolution seems in order. For 2014 it's this:
Heavenly Father, let me not seek to comfort myself from feelings of rejection and/or isolation by anything or anyone other than Jesus Christ. Amen.
What's yours? Write it down. Grab a friend to join you in prayer. Then sit back in 2014 and witness the Lord move in your life to do exceeding abundantly beyond all you can ask or imagine (Eph 3:20-21).