My friend Elyse Fitzpatrick has taught me a ton about the gospel. Through her many excellent books, she has taken me to gospel depths that have changed my life. During the most difficult year of my life (2009) Elyse provided gospel-drenched counsel and insight that, in a very real sense, saved me. Thanks Elyse!
This morning, as I was re-reading a portion of her book Because He Loves Me: How Christ Transforms Our Daily Life, I was recaptured by a truth that I preached just yesterday. In my sermon on Colossians 1:9-14, I said:
It's important to note that in these verses Paul doesn't pray for something the Colossian Christians don't have. Rather, he prays they will grow in their awareness and understanding of what they do have. Christian growth doesn't happen by working hard to get something you don't have. Christian growth happens by working hard to live in the reality of what you do have.
I used to think that when the Bible tells us to work out our salvation, it meant go out and get what you don't have—get more patience, get more strength, get more joy, get more love, and so on. But after reading the Bible more carefully I now understand that real gospel fruit happens, not as we "work harder" but only as we continually rediscover the gospel. You could put it this way: rediscovering the gospel is the hard work we're called to.
You see, the secret of the gospel is that we become more spiritually mature when we focus less on what we need to do for God and focus more on all that God has already done for us. The irony of the gospel is that we actually perform better as we grow in our understanding that our relationship with God is based on Christ's performance for us, not our performance for him.
With this same idea in mind, Elyse writes:
One reason we don't grow in ordinary, grateful obedience as we should is that we've got amnesia; we've forgotten that we are cleansed from our sins. In other words, ongoing failure in sanctification (the slow process of change into Christlikeness) is the direct result of failing to remember God's love for us in the gospel. If we lack the comfort and assurance that his love and cleansing are meant to supply, our failures will handcuff us to yesterday's sins, and we won't have faith or courage to fight against them, or the love for God that's meant to empower this war. If we fail to remember our justification, redemption, and reconciliation, we'll struggle in our sanctification.
I guess you could say that Christian growth does not happen first by behaving better, but believing better-believing in bigger, deeper, brighter ways what Christ has already secured for sinners.
I closed yesterday by saying:
Let me summarize what Paul is saying in this whole section (v.9-14): You will grow in your understanding of God's will, be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, increase in your knowledge of God, be strengthened with God's power which will produce joy filled patience and endurance (v.9-12a) as you come to a greater realization that you've already been qualified, delivered, transferred, redeemed, and forgiven (v.12b-14)
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