The Gospel in Three Directions
If you were to ask the average Christian, “How can you become more self-controlled, more upright—essentially, more in line with God’s will?” what would the answer be? Greater will power, perhaps. Or maybe more theological knowledge. Having accountability partners. Maintaining a consistent quiet time. The list goes on.
What if you asked the Apostle Paul? His answer would be clear: you change when you experience the grace of God. “The grace of God,” Paul says, “train[s] us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11–12). How does God’s grace do this? By focusing our attention in three directions:
The gospel points UPWARD, redirecting our worship.
Sin problems don’t start as sin problems. They start as worship problems. At the root of all sin, as the Apostle Paul explains, is the colossal mistake of “giving the glory of God to created things” (Romans 1:23). The Hebrew word for glory (kabod) carried the connotation of “weight.” The Greek word for glory (doxa) hints at ideas of majesty and beauty. Put the two together and you get a good idea of the problem: we gave a weightiness and a beauty to things more than we gave to God. As Matt Papa says in Look and Live, sin is simply worship misdirected.
To change sin at the heart level, which is where God wants to change it, he has to change what we worship. As Paul Tripp puts it, “If we worship our way into sin, we have to worship our way out.” The gospel, and the gospel alone, does that, redirecting our worship and reigniting our passions. It points us upward to a God who is better and more glorious and more satisfying than any of our pathetic idols.
The gospel points BACKWARD, restoring our gratefulness.
Every now and then, someone tries to identify one sin as the core sin, the one really bad guy that leads to everything else. I’ve seen people point the finger at pride, at lust, at envy. What I hardly ever hear is what Paul says in Romans 1:21: “They did not honor God as God or give thanks to him.” Thanklessness! Did I hear you right, Paul?
This may not seem obvious at first, but think about it. When you lack gratitude, not only do you rob someone of the glory that belongs to them; you also convince yourself that you could have gotten on fine without them. I’ve heard Tim Keller describe it like plagiarism. When you plagiarize, you steal credit that belongs to someone else. But that’s only half of the problem. The other half is that you also deceive others into thinking you’re someone you aren’t. If I were to find some lost C.S. Lewis book manuscript in a relative’s attic and publish it as my own, that may impress some folks. But when the publisher comes asking for more, I’m in a bind.
This is the situation thanklessness puts us in toward God. We rob his glory, which is bad enough. But then we also parade around as if we’re self-sufficient. We forget that every breath we have comes from God. And that thankless spirit leads to bitterness, pride, and a host of other sins.
The gospel gives us a reason to be thankful, eternally thankful. It transforms us by reminding us that as much as we’ve dishonored God, he still came for us. And as we reflect on what he did for us, it begins to change what we do today.
The gospel points FORWARD, raising our expectations.
In the gospel, we see what God is making us and the future he has for us. He puts in us a taste, a hunger, for the perfection he’s creating in us. My wife was at a conference recently with an older Christian leader. Reflecting on his life—and knowing he didn’t have many years left—he said, “What am I looking forward to? Sinlessness. I can almost taste it.” When this man looked forward to the future, he didn’t grow frustrated because his youth was gone. He trembled in anticipation of seeing his God face to face, of having all of the poison of sin once and for all taken away.
Is that what you’re excites you about heaven? If it is, you long for it and move toward that now. You work against injustice. You battle sin in your own life. You become eager to do good works (Titus 2:14), not because they save you, but because what God has shown you about the future is so beautiful that you can almost taste it.
In contrast, religion points INWARD, toward our failures.
The gospel points us upward to a God who gave himself for us, backward to the price he paid for our sin, and forward to what he’s making us into. Religion can point, too. But instead of point out toward what God has done, it points a finger at us, telling us to try harder.
As Tim Chester puts it, religion says you should not, while the gospel says you need not. Religion is constantly shouting, “You shouldn’t sleep with your boyfriend! You shouldn’t get drunk! You shouldn’t lose your temper!” That’s not good news to people struggling with those issues. That’s condemnation. But the gospel says, “You need not give yourself to your boyfriend, because God’s love will never fail you. You need not get drunk, because Jesus offers a more sure refuge. You need not lose your temper, because God is in control.”
Sin is always making promises it can’t keep. Religion doesn’t do anything to expose them; it just adds more false promises. But the gospel exposes every lie by showing us a God who is better. As Charles Spurgeon wrote, “When I thought God was hard, I found it easy to sin; but when I found God so kind, so good, so overflowing with compassion, I smote upon my breast to think that I could ever have rebelled against One who loved me so, and sought my good.”
For more on this, be sure to listen to the entire message here.