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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Remedy of the Gospel

I preached the sermon below as the second part of a series entitled Intervention @ Collide on April 6th.


The text I chose for this week is Ephesians 1:3-14- this passage to be the back drop for what we are going to be first talking about tonight, and the main text for what we talk about lastly.

Last week Scott taught the Doctrine of Human Depravity and Original Sin, how we aren’t sinners because we sin, but we sin because we are sinners, and carry the curse of the fall of Adam in our flesh to the degree that, as fallen humans, it is impossible to generate even one righteous act out of our own ability. This week, we will be looking at the Remedy to our fallen-ness. We will recap the subject of sin, and see how that points us to the true Remedy, the Remedy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that heals us from our sin, reunites us to our Creator, and ultimately will result in a new nature where the effects of sin are dead in the past, absent from our memories, and eternally expunged from our flesh. We will therefore be examining what Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City calls, the “Moral Performance Narrative vs. Grace Narrative.” In that, I will show often times our sinfulness infiltrates our desires to do good and we accept a partial-Gospel or the Gospel plus something, and how then these errors lead us to frustration and away from Christ, rather than to him. What I want you to come away with tonight is that it is impossible in every sense and instance to please God out of your own effort, and that the Remedy for you is not found in a religious process or system, but the Remedy is one that is applied by God to you as a free gift, to the praise of his glory. So not only must we have an accurate picture of ourselves, and our inability to heal ourselves, but we must also have an accurate picture of God and his Gospel, the story of his Grace that invaded our world with the true Remedy.

Original Sin and Total Depravity
Romans 3:23 tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. How far do we fall short? Previously in Romans 3 Paul described it this way that “None is righteous no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” See, the fallen-ness of man is complete, it is all encompassing and it is total.

The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith puts this way, that “from this original corruption, by which we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, does proceed all actual transgressions”. More simply put, we sin because we are sinners, and by nature everything we do of ourselves (that is key) is blasphemous, even our best efforts. We are utterly without ability. It’s not the committing of sins that makes us sinners, rather we are sinners and all we do is sin, even those things we (subjectively) see as good deeds.

Continuing on the topic of human inability the Westminster Confession states that “Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has completely lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man (that is a person not born again by the power of God through the Gospel), being altogether averse from that good and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or prepare himself for it.” In other words, as Paul writes in Romans 3 “No one seeks God” because in our sin, we can’t and we won’t.

The doctrine of original sin and total depravity means that our rebellion against God is total, everything we do in this rebellion is sin, and our inability to submit to God or change ourselves permeates every aspect of our being. We are spiritually dead, and there is no treatment we can undergo or ointment we can apply that will change that.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of accepting the reality that our condition is this bad. How often do we overlook God’s righteousness when we accept the idea that people are basically good, or that some people are basically good (those who try), or that at least I am basically good? See, if we think of ourselves, or people in general, as basically good or even less than totally at odds with God, our grasp of who God is and the work of God in redemption will be defective and we end up believing in a false Gospel. But if we are humbled under this terrible truth of our total depravity, we will be in a position to see and appreciate the glory and wonder of the work of God. It is purposeful rejection original sin and total depravity, or the ignorance of it, is the starting point of the moral performance narrative that keeps us enslaved to sin.



The Moral Performance Narrative
A narrative is simply a sequence of events that construct what we call a story. In the case of a Moral Performance narrative we are talking about a type of story characterized by the theme of human goodness and moral performance. It takes on many different forms and characters, but at its core is the idea that one comes to God through moral effort and personal expense. In other words it is the idea that God is pleased with us when we try to be moral, follow laws, or attempt to be good.

When it comes down to it we see that the moral performance narrative is really the story of all religion. Religion is centered on humanity changing itself, performing- doing something- that moves it out of the category of damned, into the category of saved. Or, in some of the more optimistic religions, ties great rewards (like 70 virgins) to certain acts (like sacrificing oneself for jihad).

The foundation of religion is human ability in some form or another- and it becomes formulaic- insert good act for variable A, add to variable B, Holy water, and C= God’s favor. In the converse- insert bad act for variable A, add to variable B, beer, and C= God’s punishment. The Gospel stands in opposition to this.

It is my opinion that much of what calls itself “evangelical Christianity” in America today is not Christianity at all, but a folk religion, wherein beliefs, superstitions and rituals are codified and passed from generation to generation, creating a cultural religion. This folk Christianity is focused more on reforming the morality of the cultural then it is on preserving and teaching the theology of the Gospel. It treats the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as an entry point into a religion of law keeping and moral performance, rather than as the sum total of Christian religion. Unfortunately, because it has lost track of true Christian doctrine, it has put too much stock in the ability of human beings and weighs people down entrapping them in the moral performance narrative. If we would look around at our culture, we see that the effort to reform the morality of the culture has not worked, for it cannot and will not, and in fact has resulted in more cultural evil then it started with. The chasm between the secular culture and the Christian culture is widening, and on one side the secular is becoming more outlandish in their sin and on the other side it seems the Christians are becoming more judgmental, condemning and irrelevant. But the reality is that both are obeying the moral performance narrative, just at opposite ends of the spectrum. The secular person says that being judgmental is the worst of all evils and in an attempt to not be judgmental further poisons his own environment with wickedness. The folk Christian says that being a morally pure culture is the greatest of goods and further alienates him self from the culture he wishes to change, effectively accelerating its demise.

The Apostle Paul speaks to this in Romans 7, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment deceived me and through it killed me.” It is this truth from Paul that underscores the Moral Performance Narrative. At the root of the Moral Performance Narrative is pride, the belief of personal ability, or self-righteousness. Paul says that sin seized an opportunity through the law-- it elevated Paul’s own sense of self-righteousness and led him deeper into condemnation, discovering that the law did not give him life, the freedom from sin, but rather brought only death, revealing the depth of his sinful nature.

Variations on the Moral Performance Narrative
The Moral Performance Narrative wants to cure the disease, but only treats the symptoms, leaving the sinner in bondage to sin, and leading him further into darkness. So I want to examine briefly a few specific variations of the moral performance narrative that masquerade as remedies to our condition, but in true effect are the equivalents to fixing a decapitated head with duct tape. And in every case these errors reflect on too high a view of our selves, and to low a view of Christ and the Gospel, by supplanting Christ’s work on the cross with our own works, or exchanging the purposes of God’s plan with our own purpose and plan.

Legalism (law following as the way to God)
Legalism in one way or another puts a person in the drivers seat of salvation, by requiring strict adherence to moral code for the completion of salvation. Legalism is always the product and producer of human pride. It stems from prideful self pity, producing despair, or prideful self-exaltation of ability, resulting in self-righteousness and judgment. It is a blasphemy that erodes the need for the Gospel and denies the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for our salvation. If our Christian life is characterized by striving to keep laws, believing it will gain us anything, we turn our back to the truth that Jesus Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf, a glorious fact that we can add nothing to.

Debtors Ethic (paying back God)
This is the mindset that adds to the Gospel an incredible weight of obligation that paints the picture of the Christian life as the ongoing effort to pay back God for salvation. It asks the question, “God has done so much for you, what are you going to do for him?” The problem with such a mentality is it rejects entirely what God has done for you and strips the free gift that is Grace of the “free” part, making the offer of the Gospel more like the offer of a home mortgage loan. John Piper wrote in his outstanding book Future Grace that “Good deeds do not pay back grace; they borrow more grace.” Ephesians 2:10 says that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand that we should walk in them.” Did you catch that? The reality is, if we have been made new in Christ, we walk in good works that flow from grace, not as a response too grace.

Moral Therapy (changing your lifestyle to receive God’s favor)
A therapeutic effect is defined as “a consequence of a medical treatment, of any kind, the results of which are judged to be desirable and beneficial.” Moral therapy is when we attempt to “clean up” our lifestyle, behavior or whatever with the addition of good works and/or the suppression of sinful actions, hoping to bring about a result that is desirable or beneficial.
Maybe our life falls on tough times or maybe we discover something we really want and we think- I need to pray more, read my Bible more, quit partying and God will make things easier on me or give me want I want. It can appear incredibly self-centered or completely altruistic (self-sacrificing), but no matter what, it in essence, is bargaining with God. What it does is it takes things other then God- financial prosperity, health, relationships, family, escape from hell, self-esteem, successful church, esteem from others, freedom from guilt and places this thing as the object of our desire, and displaces God from the center of our affections (if he was ever there) and makes something else the object of our desire. It is the dark exchange written of Romans 1:25 when the truth of the God is exchanged for lie and the creature is served rather than the creator. Moral therapy sees God as a means to an end, rather than as the end- and that is blasphemy in opposition to the Gospel.

Believing that moral performance can undo wickedness, improve your life, pay back God, or satisfy God’s requirements is to not believe the Gospel, but to perpetuate folk religion. God is not (just) the means to our happiness, he is the end of our happiness. All of these errors are subtle and they’ve manipulated all of our consciences at one time or another. But, if we are truly to honor God, and find our true Remedy in him, we must root them out, and we do so with the Gospel plus nothing, minus nothing.

The Grace Narrative
As the real solution to Romans 3:23 “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Paul writes Romans 3:24-25, “and are justified by his grace as a gift, through redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

The Grace narrative is the story in which God brings a people to himself by his effort and at his expense. The Grace Narrative is the true Remedy, the Remedy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that heals us from our sin, reunites us to our Creator, and ultimately will result in a new nature where the effects of sin are dead in the past, absent from our memories, and eternally expunged from our flesh. The Grace Narrative is not about us and what we must do, but about Jesus and what he has done.

Let’s read again Ephesians 1:3-14.

This passage of scripture is a death blow to the moral performance narrative. This is the Apostle Paul’s declaration of grace, wherein, all the effort and expenses paid are clearly carried out by God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and sinners such as our selves are only recipients.

You know what a preposition is? It’s a part of speech that shows position or location, either in space or in time- for example, over, under, above, in, out, before, after, through, beneath etc. In this passage of Scripture, every thing is described as the believer, the recipient of Grace, being in Christ, as the way one receives anything. This is the very core of the Grace Narrative.

v. 3 “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing”

v. 4 “chose us in him (Jesus) before the foundation of the world”

v. 5 “he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ”

v. 6 “he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Jesus)”

v. 7 “In him (Jesus) we have redemption through his blood”

v. 9 “according to his (the Father) purpose, which he set forth in Christ”

v. 10 “to unite all things in him (Jesus)”

v.11 “In him we have obtained an inheritance”

v. 13 “In him you also… were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.”


The Gospel is the working out of God’s plan in real events by which Jesus Christ accomplished something specific. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (v.7) God doesn’t look to us to satisfy his requirements, he looks to his son, who stood in our place. Jesus Christ stood in the place of sinners and bore God’s punishment for sin. Redeem means to get something back by exchanging something as a ransom. The basis of the Grace Narrative is that Christ’s redeeming ransom has accomplished something. It has purchased something. And it didn’t just purchase an opportunity, but purchased a people. Our redemption is by his blood and it is effective to secure the salvation of all God sent Him to save. Jesus’ sacrifice is over, finished, unrepeatable and successful, having accomplished His mission without human assistance. No one else can or needs to pay for sin; all attempts to do so are a rejection of Christ and His sacrifice.

But not only did Christ stand in our place, but we now stand in Jesus’ place. Having been made holy and blameless, the believer receives the blessings of God lavished upon us as God the Father lavishes them upon his own son- for we are in Jesus Christ. We are adopted children, and we receive full inheritance of every spiritual blessing. And the Holy Spirit is the guarantee to that inheritance- it is the proof of that the eternal glory we hope for is there, waiting for us. The believer’s entire life is by the Spirit. God the Spirit breathes life into sinners dead in their sins, opens the eyes, the ears and the mind to hear the beauty of the Gospel, and renews our mind to understand the mystery of the Son of God. By grace it gives us the gift of faith so that we might believe and the love of God so that we might seek God and love him. And finally in the day of future glory we will acquire full possession of our inheritance- we will inherit the fullness of our glorious wealth in Christ, imperishable bodies complete without a trace of sin or its effect.

Colosians 1:13 tells us that Christ “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” What the Gospel does, by the power of God, is literally removes us from the narrative of moral performance and it’s dire consequences, and places us in a totally different story, the grace narrative, wherein, independent from our abilities, self-generated faith, supposed goodness, efforts and religious schemes we are transferred into the kingdom of Jesus Christ, based entirely on the wisdom, love, grace and manifold perfections of all that God is for us in Jesus Christ, for the praise of his glory. This reality is implicit in Ephesians 2:8,9 where it says “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing (your faith); not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Which is why Paul says, “let he who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Our salvation rests not in our own hands, but in the Sovereign plan of the Lord, purposed in him so that Jesus Christ would be magnified and glorified in the laying down of his life for sinners.

Now, there is unbelief rooted in our hearts that challenges this- it seems to easy. Truthfully it is too supernatural- “can we really trust it to work like this” we wonder. We distrust the simple-ness of the Gospel and its humble nature because it requires complete reliance on a fiat miracle in our hearts; in doubt, we concoct complex works oriented schemes that revolve around our human effort- they make us feel good because we are trying so hard, they make us prideful if we believe we have succeeded as opposed to others. And in pursuit of experiential spirituality we leave the supernatural mystery of the Gospel behind. We must cling to the simple truth of the Gospel of Grace.

The Gospel of Grace, that Jesus Christ, God’s only son and the exact representation of his nature, left his estate in heaven, was born of the Virgin Mary, became flesh and dwelt among us. He knew what it was to feel pain and sorrow, joy and pleasure; he was tempted to sin and did not, he performed incredible miracles, healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on water; and he was delivered by his friend to his death. Jesus Christ the righteous one was crucified and died for sinners, and he rose again eternally triumphant over all of his enemies so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy. That is the Gospel. I invite you tonight, if you have never believed in this Gospel, to do so.

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