Today we begin our series on Gospel Identity, or Gospel ID. The gospel, and our gospel identity is what drives everything that we do. Before we dive into the power of gospel to not only save us, but to create in us new hearts more and more as we apply it to our hearts, I want to commend to you this study by Tim Keller called Gospel in Life. Tim Keller is incredibly talented, intelligent, and has a deep understanding of the gospel and how our identities, our self-images, are deeply tied to our faith our lack of faith in the gospel. If I could have flown him in today, I would have, but instead I’ve relied heavily upon his teachings by plagiarizing and adapting them for this particular message. Again I encourage you either personally or as a life group to consider this study, which is a great way to dive deeper into this material.
We’ll look at different passages today, most of which are on the notes page in your bulletin but the foundational verse is the first part of Romans 1:16 where Paul writes “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation…” When you stop and think about what is being said in this passage, it’s amazing. The gospel is the power of God. The verse isn’t “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it brings the power of God, or it results in the power of God, or it causes the power of God – it IS the Power of God. The Gospel is God’s power in verbal form. The degree to which we get it, the degree to which we have faith in the gospel, it releases the power of God in our lives. The degree to which we get the gospel wrong, or we don’t fully embrace the gospel is the degree to which we are robbed of its power.
For those who think that the gospel is just “Jesus died for my sin” and they say “Yeah I get that, now let’s get on to something more advanced”, listen to the apostle Peter in 1 Peter 1:12:
“It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves [and the they in this passage is referring to the prophets of the Old Testament that foresaw and spoke of the coming good news, the gospel] but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.”
Later in this same chapter, verse 20, Peter writes that Christ “was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake” (1 Peter 1:20). Angels, who back with the prophets of the Old Testament, who before the foundation of the world, have been looking at the gospel and they aren’t tired of it yet. Angels, by the way, have an IQ way higher than you and I and yet they “long to look into these things” because the Gospel is the power of God.
Often, even though we understand the gospel enough, the principle, to get converted – the actual way our heart works, isn’t immediately changed. Though we have a new identity, we are saved we don’t immediately begin living according to it. For every one of your problems, your falleness, there’s an aspect, an application, a reflection of the gospel with your problem’s name written on it. In fact, every Sin, every problem we face, is a Failure to Believe or have Faith in the Gospel. All deadness, divisiveness, pride, in the Church and in our lives is due to the fact because at some level we are failing to believe in the gospel. Let me give you some examples.
The first is a problem, a sin, that many of us, myself included struggle with and that is breaking the ninth commandment. We don’t always tell the truth. You’ve done this before, you get a text from Chris Bowers, one of our field deacons, asking for help with moving a family down the street, and you text back “I’d love to but can’t right now” when you really could go help. Liar. Or you don’t text back at all implying that you’re so busy you didn’t even get the message, though you did. Liar. We don’t tell the truth: “I don’t want to do that” because we want to keep up the image, our self-image, that we are basically good people. We don’t tell the truth because we don’t want the people we lie to, like Chris, to think poorly of us.
Now the real problem, isn’t that we lie. It isn’t that we broke the 9th Commandment. It’s that we broke the first – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Whenever we have a bad surface behavior, ultimately it’s a deeper failure to trust in God, in the Gospel, as our salvation, as our fulfillment, as the foundation for our self-image. The real problem when we lie is we are making something else our salvation, our hope, our meaning. I’m only tempted to lie when I’m not getting the thing I really, really need in that moment: human approval. If I utterly believed the Gospel: that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I’m ok because of what Jesus thinks. If I actually believed that fully, there’d be no incentive to ever lie again. If I’m ever tempted to lie it’s because there’s a sin beneath the sin which is always unbelief in the gospel .
Another example Tim Keller gives is when two different women around the same time came to him. Both had teenage sons who were getting into trouble, doing badly in school and acting out and both had fathers who were completely remote and distant from the family. The moms came in for counseling and said “It’s one thing to ignore me, but now my husband is ruining my son’s life too.” So the pastor said “Forgive your husband. You’re a Christian, that what Christian’s do.” Each women asked in response “How do I forgive?” So he gave them a little book on forgiveness.
Now, husband #1 was better and that wife was a far more active Christian but she was unable to forgive. Husband #2 was a far worse husband and that wife was not nearly as active in the church but she was able to forgive. Why? Well for the first mother, her son was her whole life. Sure she said and believed “Jesus is my salvation” and she was saved, but deep down in her heart she said “Here’s how you know if your life was a good life: your child loves you, he’s happy and he has a good life.” Being a good mother was a pseudo savior and so she couldn’t forgive, even though we are called to forgive, because she couldn’t see that the smile of her son was vastly more emotionally valuable and important to her than the smile of Jesus. This doesn’t mean she wasn’t saved. She believed it at one level but not at a deeper level and until she did she wasn’t going to be able to make any progress.
Let me give you one last example from the book of Galatians. Galatians is one of my favorite books in the bible. In seminary we translated it verse by verse, word by word from the original Greek. It’s a clear proclamation of the gospel of grace and yet interestingly it was written not to unbelievers who had never heard the gospel, but to Christians, to people who were losing their grasp on it, the meaning, and implication of the gospel in their lives. In Galatians chapter 2, Paul writes about this situation that he had with Peter. Peter and Paul have been eating and fellowshipping with the Greeks and this contingent of Jewish believers comes up from Jerusalem and Peter stops eating with the Greeks and separates himself from them. Paul calls Peter out on this but he doesn’t address the superficial behavior. Paul doesn’t say “Peter! You’re breaking the new no racism rule!” Instead he says it’s fundamentally about the Gospel. Galatians 2:14 says “I saw that they [Peter and the Jewish believers from Jerusalem] were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” What Paul’s driving at is that Peter was not letting his mind and his heart be shaped by the gospel.
There are sometimes that you just do things because it’s in the bible. It’s hard, I don’t want to do it, but I’m gonna do it. The prevailing wellspring of your life, however, cannot be this. The way to change is not behavioral modification, using a rubber band to snap yourself when you do something wrong, but to use the power of the gospel that changes the heart because fundamentally every sin is a failure to believe and apply the gospel.
(As an aside, since I preached this, a number of people, including spiritual leaders of our church, have approached me saying "Yes, but...Behavioral modification works!...It has it's place!...There are passages that say to be Holy!...etc..." There are sometimes these things are necessary, but again they CANNOT be the prevailing wellspring of your life! Not if you want GOSPEL change in your heart rather than outward conformity. They are effective - in behavioral control - but not in heart repentance. We are called to Holiness as an EFFECT of being transformed by grace and the gospel, not as the PRINCIPLE ACT.)
What are your reasons for obeying the rules? If it’s fear and pride, then it’s temporary and really you’re simply restraining your heart, not changing your heart. The Power of The Gospel Changes the Heart and allows for lasting self-change as we become more and more like Christ, living out our new identity in Him.
As we talk about our heart let’s look at the different modes our hearts can be in. You know how cameras have different modes that you can twist the nob. There’s portrait mode, action mode, auto mode, so on and so forth. If you’re like me you usually just leave it in on one mode because you don’t know what all these other modes really do or how they’re different. You can switch modes but there is a default mode and the same is true for our hearts. There are three modes that our hearts believe and act according to:
1. I obey therefore I am accepted by God
2. I don’t really have to obey anyone but myself
3. I’m accepted by God at infinite cost to Jesus Christ, therefore I obey.
The first mode is the religious mode, or moralism. It’s avoiding God by working very hard to be incredibly good so you feel that God owes you and you earn your own salvation. The second is the irreligious mode, avoiding God as savior and Lord, disregarding God’s law. The third is the gospel mode, trusting in God to save.
Now of course, if I gave a pop quiz, I’m sure all of you, myself include would choose number three. This is what we believe, but does your heart? At the deepest level our hearts say: “if I’m good enough, if I’m kind enough, if I reach my standards and live up to them, then and only then am I valuable and significant. Is that the language of your heart? If it is, that’s the basic operating principle of religion. Christians who know the gospel in principle and who have been changed by it nevertheless, like the Galatians, continually revert to works-righteousness and self-salvation in a myriad of subtle and not so subtle ways. A basic insight of Martin Luther’s was that “religion” is the default mode of the human heart. Luther says that even after you are converted by the gospel, your heart will go back to operating on the religious principle unless you deliberately, repeatedly set it to gospel-mode. This then is the basic cause of our spiritual failures, uncontrolled emotions, conflict, lack of joy, and ministry ineffectiveness. We believe the gospel at one level, but at deeper levels we continue to operate as if we are saved by our works.
If you operating in religious mode, your heart’s default mode this how you try to effect change. You lie to someone, like we talked about earlier. You realize it, maybe somebody calls you on it. And you say “Bad Christian, Bad Christian…tell the truth!” You buy a bracelet that reminds you or an app that tells you ever 5 min “Tell the truth.” You’ll probably be good for 3 months and back it will come again. It doesn’t really change the heart. You decide to tell the truth out of fear (you’ll be punished or caught) or out of pride (you don’t want to be like those other awful liars) and this is inherently unstable because you lie for the same reasons (fear and pride) that you don’t lie (fear and pride) and you restrain the heart, you bully the heart, rather than change it and in the process you’ve nurtured the roots of sin within your moral life. In religious mode you bend the heart, like tying a tree down, but it will eventually spring back.
So how do we operate in Gospel mode so that our hearts are changed bit by bit as we believe more and more deeply in the gospel, fully embracing our new identities? How do I now actually make progress in self-control? How do I become less a liar?
Well, let’s look at Scripture for a practical example. “In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul wants the people to give an offering to the poor. But, he doesn’t put pressure directly on their will, saying, “I’m an apostle and this is your duty,” nor [does he put] pressure directly on their emotions, telling them stories about how much the poor are suffering and how much more they have than the sufferers. Instead, Paul vividly and unforgettably says, [in 2 Corinthians 8:9]“You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8: 9). Paul brings Jesus’ salvation into the realm of money and wealth and poverty. He reminds them of the gospel. Paul is saying, “Think of Jesus’ costly grace until you are changed into generous people by the gospel in your hearts.”
So the solution to stinginess is a reorientation to the generosity of Christ in the gospel, where he poured out his wealth for you. Because of the gospel you don’t have to worry about money: the cross proves God’s care for you and gives you security, if we believe it. Because of the gospel you don’t have to envy anyone else’s money: Jesus’ love and salvation confer on you a remarkable status and identity— one that money cannot give you.
What makes you a sexually faithful spouse, a generous— not avaricious—person, a good parent and/ or child is not just redoubled effort to follow the example of Christ. Rather, it is deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding makes in your heart—the seat of your mind, will, and emotions. Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding and identity, and our view of the world. It changes our hearts. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting.”
The way we set our heart to gospel mode, to be melted and shaped, we have to see what Jesus has done for us and move to “I do the right thing because how can I do this to the One who died for me.” If you know what he has done, then your motivation is you want Him.
Ultimately that’s the goal of the gospel, reconciliation as the power of the gospel brings us home.
Colossians 1:19-20 says “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
The point our faith isn’t to be as moral and as holy as possible but to come home, to be reconciled to God. If you’re listening to this sermon and thinking, this is how I’ll fix myself, this is how I’ll behave better so that I can be righteous, you’ve slipped back into heart default mode. Christianity isn’t a system, a religion, that’s chief goal is to make you better, holier, wealthier, happier, or more content. A Christian is a follower of Christ, the Son of God, because they are in love, we are in love with Dad. It’s bound to happen that we will grow in holiness, because you grow to resemble what we love. The by-product of loving Dad is you become more and more like His true Son but ultimately what we want is Him. The same way you fall madly and deeply in love with someone, when you do that with God through the power of the Gospel, then you’ve come home.
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” The Power of the Gospel saves us, and transforms our hearts. The power of the Gospel brings us home.
 For source material from which this sermon is adapted from, and at many times quoted, see Tim Keller’s study The Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything particularly Session 2 “Heart – Three Ways to live”. Also listen to “How the Gospel Changes Us” a sermon by Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church (http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/how-gospel-changes-us)