I’m pretty sure we all know what it feels like. We’re tired and stressed. We’re too busy and are not enjoying the work. In fact, nothing is fun. We’ve been prioritising serving the Lord Jesus – we’ve taken on all that’s been asked of us, and more besides. But we’re still not doing enough. It isn’t making us happy. We don’t feel secure in God’s love. Our assurance is shaken – are we really Christians at all? That’s what life begins to look like if we’re saved by what we do. It is stressful, lonely and depressing. And most of us have been there – the place where we’re saved by
This is an issue that I really struggle with. In my
The problem is that this mindset is so ingrained in us that we must spend a good while examining it and seeing how false it really
The Saved-by-Ministry Life
It’s as easy as ABC. When saved by ministry we become Active, Brittle and Cold. Active because we need business to be saved, so that ministry easily crowds out
We are asked to do a chore or talk or something, and we need that activity for the ‘ministry points’ it earns us (because that’s how we’re saved, right?) so we squash other things to fit it in. Often this makes us too busy to do the most important things in life, such as prioritise our time with the Lord (which isn’t seen, so scores very few ‘ministry points’ at all) or rest time, which is God’s gift to refresh us. We’re just too active.
Most of us struggle to receive negative feedback – and that continues throughout the Christian life. But when we’re saved by ministry we’re brittle because a good talk makes us the next John Stott / John Piper / Mark Driscoll / Becca Manley Pippert (in our own heads) and that guarantees us a front-row seat in Glory, whereas a bad talk makes us question whether we’re really converted at all. We all know that horrible feeling when the person giving feedback says ‘lets have a look at the passage together’ – which means we got it all totally wrong. Our heads and hearts drop right down into the depths – and you could draw a chart of our spiritual lives by plotting the marks out of 10 we discern ourselves to have scored in feedback sessions. We’re brittle.
When we’re cold there’s almost no enjoyment at all. People are problems, service is drudgery, and our diaries are a pain. It is hard to get out of bed, and we wonder why we’re bothering anyway. That’s because there’s no joy in and love for God – which should be the driving forces for all that we do.
If you want to know how I came up with this ABC it was very simple – I just looked at my own heart while reflecting on the Bible. I don’t write as an expert in winning this battle, but as one who has to keep learning to fight it. Because such ways of thinking are so ingrained in so many of us, we need to see how opposed to the true gospel of grace this
Turning to brittleness, we must remember that sensitivity is not wrong in itself, and that it can be pride to ignore others’ opinions. It is entirely right that we listen carefully to the opinions and feedback of the leaders God puts over us, and take our Christian friends’ advice seriously. Such sensitivity is not wrong, it displays wisdom. But we must remember that our actions do not make us Christians, and do not define our status before God. We are justified by faith alone. Eph 2:8-9 are key verses: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast” (NIV). We stand justified in God’s courtroom wholly and simply on the basis of Jesus Christ’s completed work on the cross. When we are brittle, we are denying the gospel – or at least failing to understand it.
This brings us to the issue of coldness, which is more obviously sinful. We must not think that God desires loveless actions. God wants our hearts. Jesus says the greatest commandment is that we love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (Mark 12:30). This is cashed out in loving our neighbour as ourselves – but there’s no liberty to put the second commandment first. God does not want our activity without our hearts, he wants heartfelt action. Remember 1Corinthians 13, which reminds us that we can have the eloquence to captivate thousands, or speak the angels’ language, or have the hugest theological brain, or move mountains in prayer, or even be a martyr and yet still be a nothing if we have not love. I cannot remember where I came across this, but in contrast to Descartes’ motto of ‘I think therefore I am’ Paul says: if you love, then you are; if you do not love, then you are not – you are a nothing, a non-being. I say this bluntly so that we can all be sobered by it – and thus turn to God.
It is astonishing how much we can seem to achieve and yet fail. And, as ever, the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart. John Calvin summarises 1 Cor 13 as follows: ‘The main truth in this passage is this – that as love is the only rule of our actions, and the only means of regulating the right use of the gifts of God, nothing, in the absence of it, is approved of by God,
All of this is great news, as I hope you’ve noticed?
Unless we despair of ourselves, we may fail to change. I love the Matt Redman song which starts ‘Who O Lord could save themselves, their own soul could heal?’ It’s the same idea as Matt 5:3, where Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (NIV & ESV). My boss calls this healthy self-despair – the right despair that sends us in great confidence to God, our loving Father, trusting in Christ alone and not ourselves, asking for his mighty power to be at work in our lives. That is what can and will change our hearts.
The Saved-by-Grace Life
It’s as easy as JKL. We’re Joyful at our Redemption, Knowing God in Relationship, and cashing out our Love in Response.
Joyful at our Redemption
The primary joy inhibitors for most of us are either un-confessed & un-repented sins (which we thought about earlier) or our forgetting what we were and what we deserve. In that second case, meditating on Eph 2:1-3 is a real gift. We were dead in our sinful disobedience to God. We weren’t seriously ill, or under the weather, or being patient with a tickly cough. We were dead. Dead! So just as we’re pleased to get over a cough, pretty happy to no longer be under the weather, and really delighted to recover from serious illness, what is a proportionate reaction be to being brought to life? Extreme, deep, sustained joy! A preacher I once worked with used to regularly remind himself and us that we deserved being punished in hell right
Knowing God in Relationship
Biblically, redemption is not an end in itself. God saves us for a relationship. I worry that the recent and ongoing debates over Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Justification (which are vitally important and central to the gospel of grace and the character of God) have led to us forgetting that the purpose of atonement, propitiation, redemption and justification is
JI Packer warned of
Loving God is Cashed out in Response
Jesus himself said: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (KJV). All we do for God flows from our loving him. That love, as we saw earlier, is active love – all in response to what God has done for us.
Rom 12:1-2 are amongst the most beautiful verses in this stunning book. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (TNIV) All that we are to do is based on all that God has done. Many of us struggle to understand Romans, but Paul gives a summary of chapters 1–11 right here: “God’s mercy.” Our response is offering ourselves back to God, which is our true or acceptable worship. This worship is made possible by our changed-once-and-for-all
It is this gospel of grace that has changed our hearts. Col 3:1-4 is clear that we are now raised up with Christ, hidden in him and seated with him – and are called to set our minds and hearts there, where he is. That is Paul’s key motivation for the lists of things we’re to put off (
No doubt we are all familiar with much of what has been said so far. But the fact is that we all struggle with it – that’s why that talk on which this article is based has been requested so many times from the 9:38 website. So
The first problem is that we often doubt that we are saved. For some of us such doubts will be very serious and hard-fought. For
What should we do if we’re struggling with assurance? Look at the cross. At my lowest ebbs I like to come back to some of the purple passages of the Bible: Rom 3:21-26, Ps 22, Phil 2:5-11, Rom 8, Is 53, Rev 21-22 and so on. But here’s my bottom line: in John 19:30 the man who cannot lie said “it is finished” (NIV). My sin is paid for, my penalty is paid, my redemption is accomplished. Jesus cannot lie, and he says so at the pinnacle of his ministry. It is finished. I strongly recommend that we all memorise such verses, and learn to turn to the completed work of Jesus Christ alone as the basis for our assurance.
The problem we have with grace is that it is counter-intuitive and offensive. Really offensive. You’re part of a team each being paid £1,000 to complete a fortnight’s building work. 10 days in the foreman hires another few workers – and they’re also paid £1,000 each at the end of the job! They’re paid the same as you, but only worked three days! That’s really offensive, isn’t it? But it’s a biblical picture of God’s generous grace (Matt 20:1-16). Grace is being given what we don’t deserve – it is counter-intuitive and can seem offensive (depending on who you see yourself as in the story).
What should we do when we forget
Two final issues: how does grace drive ministry? and what should we do if we are struggling right now?
How does grace drive ministry? We’ve seen that if we understand what God has done for us, we naturally turn to serve him. The difference between grateful response and trying to earn blessing is illustrated by these two very similar scenarios. Imagine you’re trying to get someone to give you £1,000,000 – what would you do? Try to please and serve them, make them happy, encourage them, and so on. It’d be hard work, stressful and potentially very demoralising. Now imagine someone gives you £1,000,000 – what would you do then? Surely the same things – but with a very different state of heart and mind. Still hard work – but in joy rather than stress and with pleasure as opposed to being demoralised. No difference in what is done. All the difference in the world in how it is done and how it feels – and that’s the biblical response to grace.
The other way grace drives ministry is through joy at God’s full sovereignty. We couldn’t have saved ourselves – it had to be God alone. And straight after Eph 2:8-9 we hear that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (NIV) The God who sovereignly saved us by his grace then sovereignly sends and leads us onwards – and we trust him, the God of all sovereign grace.
What if I am struggling right now?
- i) Focus on the completed work of Christ! Perhaps you could help yourself by memorising some key Bible verses to remind you of it (there
havebeen a number in this article). Or you could learn the words to songs like How Deep the Father’s Love and Before the Throne of God Above. Remember to pick God-centred verses and songs – when we need help with this we’re often focussing too much on ourselves already.
- ii) Remember that it is God who changes us, and that our job is to keep in step with the Spirit. Rest and relax in God’s once-for-all-time changing of your heart, and resolve to walk in his ways by his power. That might include confessing and repenting of sin. It will certainly include thanksgiving for all God has done for and in us.
- iii) Don’t struggle alone. Tell some key friends. If you’re in full-time gospel ministry, tell your boss. The main reason not to do so would be pride – so remember that God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble. Rejoice that God doesn’t ask us to fight the fight of faith alone, but gives us brothers and sisters to spur us on and encourage us. And if your reason not to tell your boss is that you don’t want to bother such a busy and important person, then remember that bosses are called to die for their teams as they serve them – and if you never tell them that sort of thing, you’re denying them the chance to serve you in the footsteps and pattern of the Lord Jesus.
- iv) Learn to recognise when you, or those you work with and for, motivate by wrong means. Ask yourself for whom you want to do things – do you seek approval from
God,or others? Ask who your colleagues are motivating you to impress. Discern when the saved-by-ministry mindset is coming into your ears, mind or heart – and fight at those times!
- v) Keep doing the simple things, and especially discern what things drain or refresh you. Often the world’s escapism (cinemas, parties, clubs, sports and so on) may not be the best refreshment for Christians. They can help us forget out problems – but do they deal with them? Read your Bible or some other great Christian literature. Have quality Christian friends round for dinner. Put on a great Christian CD (my current favourites include Come Weary Saints and Awaken the Dawn). Maintain evangelistic opportunities with close friends. Perhaps some just need to get out of the house – with those CDs or one of your favourite preachers in your iPod. For most of
usthe struggle is as much physical as mental – do some exercise and get some sleep! Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous – some of us just need a brisk walk in the fresh air, others more vigorous activities. These things may not sound spiritual – but they are God-given abilities, and are God-given for a reason. So let’s work out what habits and activities refresh us, and discipline ourselves to maintain them, for Jesus’ sake, and for those we serve for his sake.
The fight to be saved by grace and not ministry cuts right to the heart of the gospel, and contrasts massively with our natural human hearts, so it is a fight we have to engage with – whether as full-time Christian workers in the world or as full-time Christian workers for the church. It is a fight to live out what God has done for us. It is a fight to believe what is true. It is a fight to keep in step with the Spirit as he transforms us into the likeness of Christ. It is a fight we have to keep on fighting – confident in his victory, and knowing this (Phil 1:6) that he who has begun a good work in us will keep on bringing it to completion until the day of Jesus Christ.