Today we are beginning a five-week series walking through the biblical realities that are driving our existence as a church. Last week, Lyndon introduced our church mission statement to you all. I hope you were able to be here for that. The mission statement is an identity statement. It's answering several questions, such as, "Who are we?" "Why are we here?" "What purpose does God have for us?" The statement is this: "Shaped by the gospel, and for God's glory, we are a family of disciple-making worshipers."
Last week we gave a handout that took each piece of this statement and fleshed it out a bit more and provided scripture references that serve as foundations for each word included in the statement. Hopefully you were able to get that and read through it. If not, that handout is available in the lobby on the desk, so you can pick one up there. The statement itself is short and relatively simple so that it can be memorable. But that handout further fleshes it out, and then this sermon series is meant to do the same.
Today I get to kick off this series by covering this first part of the statement, "Shaped by the Gospel." And to do that, I want us to look at one of the richest explanations of the gospel contained in Scripture. That is, Ephesians 2:1-10. Let me read it for us.
Ephesians 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
That is the gospel. We see in these words the universal problem of sin, the lavish love of God for sinners, the amazing hope, and the changed lives that that love inspires. J.I. Packer said that the gospel can be summed up in three simple words: "God saves sinners." The gospel is a story of God saving sinners.
We, as humans, we love stories, don't we, whether in movies, books, or whatever other form they take. And our love of stories should be no surprise to us, because our God, our Creator and Designer, is a storytelling God. Part of being made in His image is that we are storytelling people. Stories inspire us. They captivate us. They shape us. Our hearts and minds and lives are shaped in so many ways by the stories we are told and the stories we tell. At their best, they can help us understand life better, understand reality more fully. As we hear stories of oppression and injustice, they can fill us with compassion and move us to action. As we hear stories of love and sacrifice, we can get a fuller understanding of the perfect love of our God, who is love.
Stories of all kinds can shape us. That can be a bad thing, and in many cases is a bad thing, because stories can lead us away from God, away from truth. But the shaping of stories can also be a very good thing when it is moving us toward God, toward truth.
As Christians, and as a church, there is one primary story that is to shape our lives the most and that is the story of the gospel. We are to be shaped by the gospel. Meaning, the way we view ourselves, God, other people, and everything, all of it should be viewed through the lens of the gospel.
In a moment we're going to see exactly how the gospel shapes us, from Ephesians 2, but first I want to address why being shaped by the gospel matters. Why start out the mission statement this way? What is really at stake here, if we are or aren't shaped by the gospel?
To answer those questions, we need to first understand something about ourselves, which is that all of us can live in one of two ways. Either we can live in a mode of self-dependence, or we live in a mode of Christ-dependence. Now what's the difference between the two? Self-dependence is living as though our right standing before God is dependent on us. Meaning, we are right with God, loved by God, accepted by God depending on how Christ-like we are (not how Christ-like Christ was). Self-dependence is living like we're right with God, loved by God, accepted by God depending on how obedient we are (not how obedient Christ was). This way of living is anti-gospel. It's anti-gospel yet it's a way of living that we can so easily default to when the gospel is not continuously shaping us.
What motivates our Christian living? Is it self-dependence which says that I need to obey so God will accept, love, and cherish me? Or is it Christ-dependence, is it the gospel, which says that in Christ, God accepts, loves, and cherishes me, period?
Tim Keller warns us: "Though these [two] systems of motivation and purpose have utterly different lineages, on the surface they may look like twins. Two people basing their lives on these two systems may sit right beside each other in church. Both strive to obey the law of God, to pray, to give generously, and to be good family members. Yet they do so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, and resulting in radically different kinds of inner personal character." He concludes, "Even the [person] operating out of the gospel will naturally drift into [self-dependence] unless constantly challenged and renewed."
What he's saying is that despite self-dependence and Christ-dependence being so different at their core, self-dependence can be a very deceptive counterfeit for Christ-dependence. And it's a counterfeit we can easily be prone to.
We need to be shaped by the gospel, to be Christ-dependent, because the alternative is a form of religious obedience that, at best, can steal a believer's joy and hinder true heart change. And at worst, it can lead someone to believe their whole life long that they were following Christ, but after death they'll learn that was never the case. He will say to them, "Depart from me, I never knew you."
Is the message that we preach, and the story that shapes our lives, the message of the gospel, of Christ-dependence? Or is it a message that says Christianity is about being obedient, living Christ-like? Those things are so important! They are crucial elements of Christianity. But if the things we do become in any way more important to us than the things Christ has done on our behalf, then we have lost the gospel. When you lose the gospel, you lose the power for true, joyful change in a person's life. Trying to obey, without the firm foundation of the gospel anchoring you, Christ-dependence anchoring you, is a hopeless endeavor. It's a heavy burden none of us have the strength to carry.
That's why this is so important. That's why, in our mission statement, before we get into living for God's glory, living as a family, as disciple-makers, and worshipers, we first have to get that we are to be shaped by the gospel. In all these things, in everything we do, the gospel must shape us.
Now, from Ephesians 2, I want us to see three ways that the gospel shapes us.
How does the gospel shape us?
- It humbles us.
- It gives us safety.
- It moves us to love and action.
First, it humbles us. Verses 1-3 of Ephesians 2 show us that we are not who we like to believe we are. They show us the fruit of our self-dependence. When we do things our way, when it's up to us, this is what we get:
Dead in our sins Following the course of this world Following the devil Living by the sinful passions of our flesh Children of wrath
Apart from God, is this how you think of yourself? This is who we are, all of us, apart from grace, apart from what God has done in us. We are like the rest of mankind – rebels against God, haters of God. We can’t take credit for anything good in us, it’s all of grace. This is a humbling reality. If we really believe it's true, then being aware of our sinfulness will humble us before God and humble us before other people.
We may read this passage and quickly excuse ourselves, saying: "But I'm not like that anymore!" And praise God that's true! But it's not true because of you. It's true because Jesus Christ has rescued you. It says in verse 5, and again in verse 8, "By grace you have been saved." Salvation is a gift of grace to all who would receive it.
Our being saved by grace speaks, of course, of being saved from the wrath of God that we deserve. But it also speaks of us being saved from ourselves. Gospel-shaped people are those who realize that they need to be saved from themselves. We can’t trust ourselves. We make terrible rulers, terrible lords of our lives. And we make terrible saviors. We cannot save ourselves. Verse 8 says: "by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."
The gospel humbles us. And it also, number 2, gives us safety.
Most of us are familiar, I think, with the experience of trying to earn someone's acceptance, approval, love. Can you think of someone in your life that you have had to try pleasing or try proving yourself to, someone whose love wasn't given freely, but instead it had to be earned? And I don't mean a one-time earning, I mean constantly. Constantly you have to please them, prove yourself to them.
There is a level of anxiety, of discomfort in that kind of relationship. It's strenuous dealing with someone whose love is largely conditional. It makes you uneasy because you never quite know if you're doing enough. So your relationship with that person is dominated not by love, but by fear. You never quite feel safe around them except perhaps in those fleeting moments when they're happy with you. Otherwise, you're walking on eggshells.
Our relationship with God is not in any way to be like that. The gospel message is that we were all those terrible things the first three verses describe, but still, God would not turn His love away from us.
Ephesians 2:4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
In spite of who we were God loved us. In His love, in His embrace, we are safe. We're secure. God's love for His people is a settled matter. It's not conditional. It's not dependent on us. We are secure. Now, that security doesn't mean life will be easy, that hard things won't come. But when they come, then because of the gospel, we know that God has our backs, that He's for us, not against us. Jesus went to the cross; He bore the greatest suffering imaginable to save us. He'll never abandon us.
Verse 6 says God raised us with Christ, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places. I love how that verse is written in past tense. He did this. It's done. And so what's real and true, for us, is that our standing is secure, just as Christ's is, not because of us, because of Him, by faith in Him.
A few years ago now, Jess and I attended a conference that was focused on just providing a refreshing time of worship and stillness before the Lord. At that time, without even being fully aware of it, I had been worn out spiritually. My Christian walk had been less about Christ-dependence, abiding in Christ, and more just an assortment of good things that I needed to do – classes to teach, ministries to serve in, people to counsel. I was weary and heavy-laden, and, in the kindness of God, through the very first message of the conference, I was given the refreshment of the gospel, the cool drink of water that is the gospel. I realized how my life had been driven by self-dependence, by a need to measure up. And in the first message I heard the gospel of grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I so needed that. I needed that sense of safety that can only be found in the gospel. That sense of peace, of being unconditionally loved, that the gospel so richly provides.
People are different when they know that they're loved, when they know that they're safe. And that's what the gospel does for us. It gives us those assurances. We're shaped by the love, and security, that God provides. And out of those things, motivated by them, we are then moved. This is the third way the gospel shapes us: it moves us to love and action. We see in Ephesians 2:10 how good works, changed lives, are a part of the gospel too.
Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Living like Christ is a key part of being a Christian. But it's a key part that must never supersede all that's come beforehand. Our living like Christ must be rooted in an understanding that Christ already lived like Christ on our behalf. We're sinners, and we will continue to sin. But we are safe and secure because of Christ. Nothing can change our perfect standing before God. So we live lives of love, not to earn God's acceptance, but because we already have it in Jesus. Titus 2 gives us a good picture of what this looks like:
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives…
The gospel of grace trains us to renounce ungodliness. Tim Keller comments on this passage: “Paul is saying that if you want true change, you must let the gospel teach you...You must let the gospel sink down deeply until it changes your views and the structures of your motivation. You must be trained and discipled by the gospel.” The deeper we go into the gospel, day after day, week after week, then the more the gospel is able to teach us, disciple us, shape us. God changes our hearts through the gospel.
I don't know about you, but for me, far too often when I’m encountered with some biblical instruction, some commandments, then my heart can be hardened. Tell me to do something, and I don’t want to do it. Tell me not to do something, and I want to do it. That's not the Bible's fault, that's my fault as a sinner. But, it's true. And what I need to do in those moments is go back to the gospel. Remember that God's commandments are not burdensome. They are invitations to fullness of life, fullness of joy. And, Jesus Christ perfectly lived by them on my behalf. So even where I fail, my standing with God is unshaken. Grace is carrying me; the gospel is shaping me, as I'm moved to love and action.
Being shaped by the gospel is a battle. Our flesh is bent toward self-dependence. It relentlessly tries to take the weight of life off of Jesus' shoulders and place it on our own. This happens every day, which is why we need that refreshing drink of the gospel every day. So we can be humbled every day. So we can live with a sense of safety and security every day. And so we can be moved to love and action.
The gospel is not something we grow past, moving on to bigger and more important things. It's something we grow in. Something we abide in, dwell on, every day, letting it mold and shape us, letting it impact every area of our lives.
As we move forward in this sermon series, we'll see God's call for us to live for His glory, as a family, as disciple-makers, and as worshipers. And in seeing what kind of lives God calls us to live, then if we understand Scripture rightly, we will undoubtedly see ways that we fall short, that we fail. How will we respond to those failures? Will we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do better, be better? That is simply religious self-dependence.
What the gospel calls us to is that we confess our sin and weakness, our need for help, be honest about where we fail – and be humbled by those things. Then rejoice in the love and grace of God, rejoice in our Christ-dependence. Sit in awe of the warm smile of our Father, and the safety that comes from that. And then, out of the humility of that failure, out of the safety and security that comes from God's unceasing pleasure in us, we move forward again, in love and action. We move forward, for God's glory, as a family of disciple-making worshipers.
There's a quote I want to leave you with this morning. It's a quote that I think sums up well our conflict between being self-dependent and Christ-dependent. This is from a pastor named Ray Ortlund, he lives in Nashville. He said: “It is not our goal to be more amazing FOR Jesus. It is our goal to be more amazed BY Jesus.” Which of those goals is driving your life? Which of those is driving the life of our church? “It is not our goal to be more amazing FOR Jesus. It is our goal to be more amazed BY Jesus.”
Growing past the gospel is our greatest danger. But growing in the gospel is the path to our greatest joy. God's desire for us, His loving plan for us, is that we be a people who are shaped by the gospel.