The third day of the conference ended on a very challenging and encouraging note. As usual, Piper (as one college student in the guys’ bathroom put it), “dropped a bomb on everyone,” (to which there were then subsequent chuckles from the older generation in the bathroom hearing a younger guy put it in such a way).John Piper was the first of two speakers to take the stage that day (which ended at noon). His message was entitled (not terribly surprising 🙂 ), The Supremacy of Christ and Radical Christian Sacrifice. The primary text he used for his sermon was Hebrews 13:13 (though of course he walked us through several passages in Hebrews to bring us up to that point). The main thrust of his message was centered upon how the whole point of the book of Hebrews is to this end: giving ourselves away for the glory of God and the proclamation of the Gospel, and specifically how suffering fits into this, which has a great reward: Christ. The question posed that Piper sought to answer from Scripture was, how does the Gospel create radical Christian sacrifice?
The short answer from Hebrews (shown to be abundantly clear) is fixing your gaze, everyday, upon the final Great Reward that, for example, Moses sought after. As Hebrews 11:26 says, “[Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” What is this Great Reward? It is the blessing R.C. Sproul spoke of so eloquently in the fifth session, laid out in Scripture in Numbers 6:24-26: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” It is the enjoyment of the person and work of Christ forever, as laid out so plainly in Revelation in many places. That enjoyment does not start then. We enjoy it now and then it is perfected and never-ending when we go to be with Him. And it is the only way to be joyfully willing to radically give up our comforts for the sake of others’ souls and the glory of Christ.
In the panel discussion, the question was asked what that may look like for various people. Piper’s answer was that it could be in the form of “going outside the camp to bear the reproach of Christ” in loving on and witnessing to neighbors, giving up some things to invest in your wife’s and your children’s joy in Christ, investing more in studying the Scriptures and theology, or getting out of the study more to pursue people with self-sacrificial love. So the question is, what is outside the camp for you? Convicting, because I can make a laundry list of things. Piper made clear that Christ isn’t sitting there in the camp telling you to go out and bear His reproach while He sits there and gives you no strength, direction, or wisdom, hoping that by some miracle of your own doing, you can just bear it. Rather, He Himself is outside the camp bearing reproach saying, “Come to me, I’m out here bearing reproach in the inner city, in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your church even! And I will give you what you need for joyful acceptance in suffering itself.”
To sum up, the essence of his message was that the way to go about becoming a person who radically sacrifices for the sake of Christ is to consider His reproach that you bear (your discomfort, whatever that looks like for you) greater wealth than the treasures of the American dream, or success, or even the mere accumulation of knowledge, because our reward surpasses all understanding and is in heaven. And that reward is the unending joy of Christ Himself. May we constantly be looking to that reward for the sake of His name, His kingdom, and laboring to bring people into it.
The final and most encouraging message of all (and yet at the same time convicting, driving you to the cross for mercy and joy) was from C.J. Mahaney, entitled, Sustaining a Pastors Soul. And while I’m merely a volunteer in student ministries at Christ Chapel, the things said apply equally to me as a lay minister. And even more than that, these truth-principles apply to all those who are not serving in teaching as well. C.J. spoke from Philippians 1:3-8 on the joy Paul displays and how that joy is not just something he worked up in himself, but how that joy is inseparably connected to theological understanding of Christ and His work to reconcile us to God. If you lack joy, it is because your understanding of the Gospel is either lacking in some way or it has not moved from your head to your heart as they way it should. C.J. shows this in how Paul unfolds the affectionate opening of his letter.
Paul makes his prayer with joy (verse 4) because of the Philippians partnership in the Gospel with him. And then after this statement, Paul makes clear that he is so joyful because he is, “sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” His joy in their partnership and knowing theologically how God worked in their salvation is absolutely inseparable. They are interdependent. You cannot have one without the other. There will be no joy without spiritual knowledge. And knowledge itself, if it does not move to your heart in love for Christ and others is a knowledge that merely puffs up. The more you know of God personally in communion with Him and also how He works in your salvation theologically, the more you will be certain that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Your confidence in Christ will rest in His sure promises.
One of the greatest convicting things for me in particular was the point on how grumbling, bitterness, anger, and an overall disposition of complaint is a lack of joy and an active opposition to the sovereign hand of God moving upon you to mold and shape you in His image of humility and eternal joy in God. To highlight this point, he gave an example that struck at my own personal issues in this area, which I’ll get to in a minute. My own struggle is not so much in the larger trials that happen. It seems the Lord has blessed me supernaturally in that area to deal with difficult, large, personal calamities when they come. Praise Him for His work and may He always continue to move in me when those things happen (and they will)!
My struggle though with sinning in this area comes in the little trials. I wake up and the small things eat away at my joy throughout the day. They then start to add up and take their toll, leaving me dry and unfulfilled. It is a constant battle and struggle for me to rely through faith upon the finished work of Christ to bring me joy in Himself instead of my circumstances. And this is where C.J.’s example struck me. He illustrated by talking about his journey from the hotel lobby to his room. He walked to the door, inserted the card, and, “red light”. He did it again, “red light”. Another time. He finally sat there and thought to himself (paraphrase), “God, I see no reason for this … this makes no sense. Why are doing this to me? I mean I’m in Your service doing Your work, have a lot of work to get done, and this? Really? I see no point to this.” In essence, “I know more than You, God, I am wiser than you, God. Therefore, this should not be happening. Explain this to me if You would.” Arrogance and pride flowing from our mouths that should in turn be justly, eternally struck for the way we talk back to Him. May the Lord have mercy on me for my error and its frequency.
And I began thinking about what he was saying with all of this because it sounded familiar and I quickly realized these are things I read in John Owen’s three classic treatments entitled, Overcoming Sin and Temptation. C.J. just brought those truths to bear on my own heart in a personal way and I realized how many times during my day, I’m a bitter, joyless person who is not pursuing Christ in what I’m doing. I’ve been here before, but the Holy Spirit awakened it afresh in my soul. My heart is so quick to slide away from the glory of the grace of Christ into self-pity and frustration at what I think God should be doing for me instead of what He knows is best for me. I say I believe in sovereignty intellectually, but if it really moved to my heart, Christ-humility would ensue.
Do we believe that He knows better? If so, why do we complain? Because we disregard His sovereignty and His love toward us in that sovereignty. Does his sovereignty not include all of the small little things that are really just minor inconveniences? We sin greatly in setting ourselves up as the final authority over against God. How desperately wicked and sick is our condition. My condition is not uncommon though it seems. Many guys I know (in particular) struggle with this very thing. God demands that we be joyful in the Scriptures. It is imperative that we find joy. But finding joy either in what we think we can provide ourselves (religiosity) or what the world provides (paganism) instead of Christ alone is slandering and dishonoring to the name of Christ and His work on our behalf to do exactly that for us: bring us joy beyond imagination by the experience of Himself. May we fall on our faces for our infinite affront against God.
This message really made me see the need (in a starker way) to consistently and frequently be pursuing joy in light of the work of the Gospel to bring me to Himself, considering all of the ways and manners and actions God undertook to make it so. From His eternal election, to His justification of His people at the cross, to bringing about our regeneration through that work, to conforming us more into the image of the Savior, to our final glorification at death or His return at the end of the age, it is these truths that we must massage into our hearts that our joy in Christ may be our souls’ final feast (as David Phillips used to say). Run after Him to experience His love, and thus joy, in prayer and communion resulting from what we now know about Him.
Mahaney’s message was a great bookend to the whole conference, in that it moved us toward the goal of studying and practicing correct theology in our lives: enjoying (and thus in that, glorifying) God forever, the primary aim for which God created us.