What is the single most important thing you can do to grow into God’s image? Do you remember when the apostle Paul wrote about believers being “filled with all the fullness of God”? Is that even allowable? It’s an inspired description, so it must be. But how does that happen? What is the process? We’re naturally too weak to do it on our own, therefore Paul prayed for the Ephesian believers that they:
may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:18–19, ESV)
The single most important and humanly impossible need is for us to know the love of Christ. It’s not that we need to love Him more, though we will. It’s not that we need to obey for 70 years or by strength 80, though He may enable us to do that. We will be deified–filled up with all God’s fullness–as we come to have His love wrapped around our heads.
John Bunyan wrote an entire book on these two verses, The Saint’s Knowledge of Christ’s Love, recently published under the title, All Loves Excelling. Near the end he asked,
Couldst thou (sinner) if thou hadst been allowed, thyself express what thou wouldst have expressed, the greatness of the love thou wantest, with words that could have suited thee better? (Knowledge, 37)
In other words, could you have imagined, let alone asked for, a better love than Christ’s? Satan hates for you to know this goodness. He hates for us to come to the Lord’s Table set with the symbols of Christ’s love spent for us, the body and the blood of Jesus. Christian, remember His death on the cross, His burial, and His resurrection three days later. Abide in His love. Come, eat and drink it represented in this communion meal. It fills you with all God’s fullness.
Even though we do the same thing around the same time in our service every Sunday morning, those who benefit most from our time of confession are probably those who are most surprised. I’m not talking about visitors. In one sense those of us who participate regularly should be more surprised each successive week that we have more sin to confess.
We are Calvinists so we have a hold on the petal of total depravity, even the one-pointers. We believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We believe that even when God regenerates us He doesn’t sanctify away all our sinful practice instantly but progressively. We believe that a Christian who says that he has no sin makes God a liar. So how can I say that there is a place for surprise when we come to see our sin?
We are surprised because we also believe the gospel. We believe that God saves sinners and that means we are dead to sin–in reality. Believing the gospel means that we’ve been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life–right now. Believing means that God has granted to us all things pertaining to life and godliness–for the present. Believing means that God set the seal of His Spirit on us to make us more holy–before heaven.
We are likely to be surprised by an exhortation that exposes another sin to confess because we believe that the gospel has taken root in our lives. Our optimism, our hope in the gospel, motivates better confession.
G.K. Chesterton observed that only optimists reform anything. Cynics and pessimists see evil and, well, they knew it would be. Optimists are still startled by injustice. “What?! That’s not right! That doesn’t belong!” Anyone can rail against unrighteousness. Only a man with gospel hope will want better.
The pessimist resents evil solely because it is a grievance. The optimist resents it also, because it is an anomaly; a contradiction to his conception of the course of things. (All Things Considered, 53).
We are not naive about sin, and certainly not sentimental towards it. We acknowledge that we are sinners being saved but we also acknowledge that the power of gospel overcomes the power of our sin. God calls us to mortify our sins, put them to death. He also calls us to believe that sin will in fact be put to death and stay dead, even as we confess it and repent.
What would our lives be like without the gospel? Only those who believe the gospel could come close to answering the question because those without the gospel live as self-deceiving slaves to darkness. They don’t know what they’re missing. Believing the gospel puts us in a better position to try not to miss all that it gives us.
Without the gospel we would be “having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). We would have no idea where we came from or for what purpose we exist. We would have no peace, isolated from blessing in Christ and from righteous community. We would be gathering and collecting only to give to others. We would be busy dying for no good reason.
With the gospel we have the first-fruits of eternal life, peace with God and participation in His Triune joy. With the gospel we care about fellow image-bearers who hurt in soul and body. We know that it’s right to care for the health of the sick without filching the work of the well to pay for it. With the gospel we know why governments go crazy, why education and vocation matter forever, why dinner around the table with your family won’t burn. With the gospel we can look around and enjoy all the fruit of the Vine (John 15:5).
It is an endless task to answer what our lives would be like without the gospel. The Father sent His Son to die and rise and change everything with Him. We cannot hold all the fruit of His work in our hands but we can be thankful that we can’t. We will never complete our thank you note to God but, as we eat and drink the symbols of our life together in gratitude, He is glorified.
At our Life to Life leaders’ meeting last Wednesday we discussed how discussions are going at our different Life to Life groups. In order to know how they are going it’s necessary to know where they are supposed to be going, and that leads me to make a couple comments.
The goal of Life to Life groups is not transparency, though we cannot get to the goal without it. What is “transparency”? Let’s say that transparency is speaking and behaving in a way that matches reality. Transparency hates lying and posing. Transparency requires honesty and refuses to hide. No man redeems himself by keeping his sin in the shade regardless of what our reticence says otherwise.
One stock objection to being transparent in a group setting is that if you tell the truth about your problems, your problems might hear you. By that I mean, if you are having a hard time with your spouse or your kids or your co-leader, transparency will run them over in the disrespect bus.
But before we can answer that concern, we should remember what the goal of the meeting is in the first place. The goal is not transparency, the goal is obedience. And whose obedience? There’s the bus we really need to catch.
We don’t meet together at L2L (or elsewhere) to hear about the sin of your neighbor and pow-wow about how we might get him to change, the big jerk. He may really have problems that need addressing, but what we want first is our own obedience. I may flutter my Kindness Cape around since I’m not criticizing others, but I’m still missing the point if I’m not confessing the mess in my heart.
That’s one reason why our time of confession every Lord’s day is so important. God does not want our transparency only, nor does He call us to confess the sin of our neighbor that’s making our lives so damn hard. He wants our obedience and He sees under every pose and blame and tight lip and lie. He also forgives every one who confesses and forsakes his sin; He’s faithful to do it.
Is it necessary for Christians to bear fruit? Are we required to love God and others, obey God, have joy in God, and witness for God? Yes, we are required, but we are not capable, not on our own. This is why the good news really is so good.
God does not get glory simply because He talks about transforming us and certainly not because He talks about us transforming ourselves. He goes ahead and transforms us. He commands that we obey Him and then, as Augustine prayed, God gives what He commands. He wants more fruit, much fruit, abiding fruit. But He does not put us on the table and say, “Grow roots.” He does not lift us up in the air and say, “Produce fruit!” He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
We know His commands and we know the first step is to believe in Him. Then He requires, He summons us, to remain in the vine. Christ doesn’t expect great works without giving great grace. He doesn’t wait until we are full to feed us. He doesn’t graft us in when we’ve produced our quota of fruit. He demands that we bear fruit by derivative. All of it flows out of our communion with Him.
Paul exhorted the Colossians, “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving” (Colossians 2:6–7, ESV). We have been taught, we have received Christ, and so we are rooted in Him for a fruitful, thankful walk.
I have never met a runner convinced that he would race faster if only he could carry a heavier bag. Runners run better by dropping weight, not by picking it up, just as a Trans Am loaded down with a year’s worth of college accumulation doesn’t get better gas mileage. Switching illustration fields, rose bushes never trimmed never bloom as much as they could.
Often we ignore these realities in our souls. We stubbornly cling to beloved burdens and sin that makes running that much harder.
We pile on worldly mindsets and wonder why we can’t get up to spiritual speed. We defend every branch of interest we have, even the dead ends and judge the emptiness of our branches as a sign that spring just hasn’t arrived.
God does not accept or make excuses for our fruitlessness. He calls us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so that we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). He calls us “put off [our] old self, which belongs to [our] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). And “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).
“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). If God didn’t love us, then He would let us hold on to things that keep us from true life and more fruit. Let us not despise His correction but receive it for our good as sons.
I don’t remember where I read it recently, but someone described the scene at the temple in a way I hadn’t considered before. There was an almost constant killing of sacrificial animals. More than any other color, red must have stained the mental image for any onlooker. There was blood dripping from tables, blood sprinkled on the altar, blood spotting the priests’ garments and fingers and knives.
That’s what the scene looked like, but how did it smell? There must have been some corners where it smelled like decaying flesh, but mostly it smelled like a barbecue. The sacrifices of oxen or sheep or birds were prepared, put on the altar and burned. The burnt offering, of course, was consumed by fire. But in the peace offering, often the climactic sacrifice of worship, the meat was cooked and consumed by worshippers.
It was a meal of participation, a meal where God communicated by sharing the sacrifice with His people. It was called the peace offering because peace existed between the parties.
Jesus Christ is our peace offering and God invites us to share Him. His sacrifice was bloody, but also a sweet aroma to God and for us. The communion meal mixes peace and participation, sadness and sweetness, death and life. God blesses us as we share He has provided, accepted, and enabled us to enjoy. Now the joy of our love for Him and for each other should rise like pleasing smoke in His nostrils.
Who gets the most benefit/blessing when we confess our sins? In other words, who do we confess our sins for?
We do confess our sins for our good. Because of the gospel, when we confess our sins, God takes away the burden of our guilt; think of the progress Pilgrim made after his burden was removed. God also gives peace to disturbed consciences. And He restores fellowship to us who broke away. We get the benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation. We sinned, we get salvation, so we confess our sins for us, right?
Yes. We do not confess for sake of our neighbor’s vindication. We’re not concerned about satisfying his desire to hear us admit that we were wrong. But the one who gets the most benefit and blessing when we confess our sins is God.
He receives glory as the law-giver. How do we know what to confess? He defines disobedience and our acknowledgement of His standard is also an acknowledgment of His authority. As the earth glorifies the sun by orbiting around the sun, we glorify God by orienting ourselves around His Word.
He receives glory as the redeemer. Where else could we go to be delivered? Who else promises to deal with our sins? He defined the bad news and gives the good news. As a doctor gets credit for curing those who come to him, God gets glory for healing those who come to Him.
So our confession of sins is part of our worship not only a preparation for worship. It does deal with the hindrance between us and Him but, as we obey and focus and trust Him, He receives honor. Be glad to know that we confess our sins for God, and He is pleased to hear us.
We live by faith and “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). But because many of the things we believe are unseen by us does not mean that the same things were never seen by anyone. Our believing rests on the solid ground of those who heard, saw, and touched with their hands the word of life (1 John 1:1).
Paul told the Corinthians, “For I delivered to you what I also received,” followed by three successive components. First, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” Second, “that he was buried.” And third, “that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” There is no hidden message in this text, no deeper meaning.
Christ died, His body and soul were separated. He was buried, His body laid in the tomb. And He was raised again on Sunday. This does not mean that His Spirit rose in the heart of His disciples. It doesn’t mean that His fame rose throughout the nation. It means that His body and soul were reunited. It happened on the third day, the sort of detail that puts the resurrexit in space and time.
We believe the gospel and we live because He lives. As John wrote, “that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Our communion with Him is as real as His living, as real as the bread and the cup that remind us of the gospel. Let us eat, drink, and be merry as if it is real, because it is.
We are continuing to learn about the seriousness of our sin and the need to confess and forsake it. We are growing to hide it less and to deal with it more often, more quickly, and more thoroughly because we are tasting the glad fruit of fellowship.
We are not more prone to sin because grace abounds. We are not more indifferent to sin because we get frequent reminders of God’s forgiveness in the gospel. As we grow closer to God, as our love for Him warms, we are both less likely to sin and less interested in running away from the conviction when we do sin. Both steps of sanctification run on the path of fellowship. The union we have with Him draws us closer to Him and causes us to miss Him when we disobey.
A husband who blows up at his wife ought to feel like a heel and seek to make it right. A husband who blows up at his wife and doesn’t care about the relational rift is in great danger. It isn’t merely his anger that is the problem, though he should confess that sin. It’s what his anger does: it breaks fellowship. The disconnect between persons is worse than the rise in his blood pressure. If he is happy being isolated from his wife then he doesn’t know what a husband is for.
As Christians we don’t confess because we want heaven’s books to be accurate. We confess because that’s what God told us to do in order to get back what we walked away from.