Two weeks ago, I accepted an offer to be an intern with Reformed University Fellowship at my soon-to-be alma mater, Christopher Newport University. I’m honored and eager to participate in a ministry that has helped me so much through my last four years at college. Some consider a calling to vocational ministry to be a burden. If it is a burden, it is certainly one I find similar to the burden Christ offers each of us: light and easy to carry. Few children grow up to find employment in the job they had dreamt of having in elementary school. Fewer find themselves in that field directly after completing undergrad. I’ve somehow managed to realize a dream I’ve had since I was eleven years old. Praise be to God!
I had the pleasure of delivering the message at RUF’s large group tonight after it was announced that I would be CNU’s first RUF intern. My two greatest passions are preaching and writing. I’m blessed that these necessarily go hand-in-hand, at least for me. When I construct sermons or Bible study lessons or anything of the sort, I tend to write out in prose exactly what I’d like to say. I then take that essay, form an outline, and memorize the core message of the work. I realize how backwards that may sound, but for me, for now, it’s a system that works. I’d like to share that essay—a first draft, of sorts—off of which I based my first ever legitimate sermon. If I can, I might upload a recording of the actual sermon. Until then, I hope you enjoy my writing.
(The recording is up on YouTube! Click here for the sermon or keep reading if that’s what you prefer)
At RUF, we like to say that “It’s okay to be not okay.” That’s something I’ve grown up hearing; my youth pastor used to say this all the time. I’d like to break it down a little bit and think it through.
A few weeks ago, I was writing a personal statement for a seminary I was applying for. At the time, a lot of things in life seemed to be up in the air. My dad was a week or so out from major surgery to remove his entire colon; a sudden and drastic response to an unexpected diagnosis of cancer just two months prior. I was still processing a recent break-up. The semester was starting to pick up and due dates were looming. I had to let a potential employer know if I was accepting their job offer or not by Friday. It was Monday night, and my heart was restless. On a whim, maybe in a panic, I decided to apply for seminary.
The personal statement really got me thinking. Here’s the prompt.
“Please type a comprehensive account of your conversion, your relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, your understanding of and commitment to historic Christian doctrine (e.g. as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed), and your ministry experience in or outside the church (under 1400 words)”
When I look at this prompt, I see two mutually exclusive commands: “type a comprehensive account” and “under 1400 words.” I can easily do one or the other, but not both simultaneously. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you already know that brevity is not one of my talents. When I have to say something important within a word limit, I have to step away from my writing and think deeply about what I want to say. I try to make every word count. So, that’s what I did. I put my laptop down and tried to process my relationship with our Savior. As I thought and prayed, two concepts—well, they’re not concepts, they’re realities—lingered in my mind: sin and sanctification.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you probably have a working idea of what these two realities are. What is sin? Put very simply, it is the reality that things are not perfect. Things are messed up. I was experiencing sin in a few different ways when I sat down to write my personal statement. First, the world is a mess. There are things that are just evil and wrong and hurtful that aren’t any one person’s fault. My dad’s cancer wasn’t the result of him being dishonest or hurting someone. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but it’s still messed up. My break up reminded me that people are a mess. I’m going to be open with y’all, the break up was totally fair. It was mutually agreed upon and we both knew it was the right thing to do. I have no hard feelings on her. But the break up still hurt. I was reminded of how much pain people can cause each other. Finally, I’m messed up. I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety and addiction for about ten years now. In the midst of all the other stuff I was going through, I had to fight my mind to not slip back into old destructive ways. I was keenly aware of how riddled with sin I am. I am a total mess.
Now, conceptually, I’m alright with the sin of the world and other people’s sin. I’m not okay with that sin. It still breaks my heart, but I understand and I’m at peace with the fact that God is making all things new, that Jesus is reconciling the world to Himself, that one day there will be no more sin. I trust Him with that. In due time, it’ll all work out. I have a much harder time being at peace with my own sin in that way. I think a lot of that has come from my misunderstanding of what the Christian life is.
If I’m honest with myself, I’m not okay with being not okay. Don’t get me wrong. In one sense, this is holy. An essential aspect of the Christian life is growing to hate your own sin. The Holy Spirit gives us a desire to do the will of our Lord, and when we sin against God, we grieve. But there’s another way that not being okay with being not okay is evil and wrong. Instead of hating my sin, I tend to hate myself for sinning at all. I expect myself to be perfect—sinless—right now. Whenever I feel I’ve sinned, I’m thrown into despair. That’s wrong. Here’s why.
If you’ve got a bible with you, go ahead and flip to Hebrews 12. We’ll be looking at verses 1-2.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
There’s a lot to work with in these two verses. All I want to focus on is a part of verse 2, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. A lot of people think it’s Paul, so for the sake of convenience, I’m going to act like Paul wrote it. It makes sense here because Paul frequently uses a race as an analogy in his writing. There are three basic components to a race: a starting point, a finish line, and the path or racetrack. The author of Hebrews here is gently exhorting his readers to know where they are in the race and understand the value in their journey.
Don’t miss this, friends. I did for years, and I still struggle with remembering this. What is the Christian life? When we think about Paul’s imagery and the three parts of a race, what is the Christian life? It’s not the finish line. It’s the path. Let me say that again. The Christian life is not the finish line, it’s the path that takes us there. This has a number of vitally important implications, but before we think about that, I want to further support and illustrate what I mean. Let’s look to Paul for a better explanation.
We’re going to look at three different passages from three letters Paul wrote. As we read, let’s not just focus on what the words can explicitly teach us. So often we can think of the Bible as merely a prescriptive work, like a prescription that tells us how to treat an illness. We can forget that the Bible is also descriptive—it was written in a larger historical context and tells a story in between the lines. We can learn from that story, too. Let’s look to Paul not just as someone who teaches us how to be a Christian, but lived the life himself as an example. Our first passage is Romans 7:7-11, 14-25. Let’s read verses 7-11…
What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead. I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.
Here, Paul is giving us a snapshot of his first realization of his own sinfulness. Paul struggled with coveting. When he read God’s law and learned about God’s perfect holy standards, Paul discovered himself to be riddled with sin. His discovery of how bad his sin was allowed him to marvel at how incredible God’s grace was to not only forgive him, but change him. In verses 14-18, Paul reflects on this new paradigm in his life. It’s one of conflict. He sees the war between his old self (his sinful nature) and his new self (the new creation Christ has made him). Read on.
For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not.
Do you see what Paul is saying? Though he desires to do good—to be perfect, to fulfill the Law, to follow God—he finds that he still sins. Paul explains this a bit more clearly in verses 21-23.
I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members.
See what Paul’s reaction to this reality is. It’s two-fold, and it’s exactly how we all ought to respond to ongoing sin.
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!…
Incredible. It’s so dramatic and yet it’s so authentic. Don’t forget who is saying this. Paul, the apostle Paul, the apostle of apostles, the greatest evangelist ever, is genuinely lamenting over being a “wretched man.” Incredible. Of all the people in the world, Paul should be the last one to be called wretched. Flip to Philippians 3 with me and we’ll see why. Right before the verses we’re going to read, Paul is warning people to not trust in their own ability to live perfect lives. Put simply, he says that no one is good enough to earn God’s favor, including himself. Let’s read…
If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I [have] far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.
This is Paul’s religious resume, and it is flawless. If anyone were to ever think they deserved or had earned God’s favor, it was Paul. And yet, he forsakes it. Read with me verses 7-8…
But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ…
This word that Paul uses, “rubbish,” is key to understanding the weight of Paul’s message. The word itself refers to human excrement. As I’ve heard it explained, this greek word’s crudeness would place it somewhere between “crap” and “s**t” to Paul’s original audience. It was meant to be provocative. Paul’s literally saying “All my accomplishments, all my qualifications, all my effort, was all BS. It was as good as feces. It’s both a useless and offensive offering to God.” Paul throws away his resume in exchange for what? For Christ. He continues in verses 9…
…[I] count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith…
Paul forfeits his own efforts to live perfectly and achieve salvation on his own so that he may be “found in Him,” in Jesus. Paul has realized his own sin and he clings to Christ. What next? Let’s keep reading. Verses 12-14…
Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul recognizes his sin, clings to Christ, and then “presses on.” He keeps going towards the goal. He pursues perfection even though he knows he’ll fail time and time again. Paul is aware that he will never be rid of his sinful nature so long as he lives. This brings us to our last passage: 2 Timothy 4:6-8. Paul writes this at the very end of his life. Soon he’ll be executed in Rome. This is his final instruction to one of his few remaining disciples and friends. He reflects on his life and looks forward to his future.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.
This melts my heart every time I read it. What do we need to see in these verses? He reaches the end! Paul’s run the race. He’s come to the finish line. He’ll soon taste death, and at last experience freedom from sin.
We must learn from Paul’s life. We have to recognize the depth of our sin. We must cling to Christ as our savior. We need to press on toward the finish line. The Christian life is not the finish line. As long as we live on this earth, until either we die or Jesus returns, we will be at war with our sin. Never make peace with it. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you find you’re not perfect yet. You’re not at the end, you’re running the race. That’s where God wants you to be. Sanctification is painfully slow. God intends it to be this way. It refines us. Keep pushing forward to the end.
So friends, congrats. You’ve arrived at the Christian life. You’re not at the end, but you’re where you’re supposed to be. Keep going. I’d like to close with a part of my answer to the question prompt on my seminary application.
I constantly feel the tension between the Spirit and the flesh warring within me. My sinful nature attempts to pull and derail me in any which way. Calvin was certainly right when he observed “the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” Yet, the tension is proof of the new self. I have no doubt that Christ has saved me finally, that I am one of God’s chosen beloved. Despite the whole of fallen creation assaulting me, my own sin nature included, because Christ is in me I am considered more than a conquerer. My Lord fights the battle with me, in me, and through me, and He will achieve victory. My relationship with Christ is rooted in my identity as the new self, a child of light and a son of God. Though my desires may be led astray for a time and my actions might serve the old self, nothing can separate me from God’s love. Furthermore, as I continue to walk with my Savior and grow in spiritual maturity, sanctification blossoms. Though I am far from perfect, by God’s grace, I am not who I was eight years ago. Sanctification is painfully slow but undeniably present.
This is true for me. It’s true for all believers. I hope it’s true for you.