What Are You Looking For?

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, November 2nd 2016
Nov/Dec 2016

There are all sorts of ways we turn the conversation back to ourselves, especially in this selfie generation. We’ve always been self-obsessed; we just have better gear for it now. We can express ourselves, publicize ourselves, and project our own uniqueness to the rest of the world. We can update our Facebook profile and tweet our ephemeral gems to anyone and everyone who will listen. Even if it’s the story of the “nowhere man making nowhere plans for nobody,” it’s my story, not anyone else’s—other people are merely supporting actors in our life movie.

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis writes,

The characteristic of lost souls is ‘their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves’. Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a provenance or appendage of himself. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish—to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there and what he finds there is hell.

We’ve always been self-obsessed, but how does that look today? How does the problem manifest itself now, and what’s the solution? It’s not an incredibly groundbreaking diagnosis, but the problem is that our fixation on ourselves takes our eyes off of Christ. The solution, then, is to think about what it means to fix our eyes on Christ. Tragically, religion and spirituality provide a whole toolbox for avoiding Jesus. It’s a tragicomic irony that the religion section of the average bookstore offers more alternatives to fixing our eyes on Jesus Christ than any other area. Sadly, it’s also the case with many churches. There are two ways, particularly prominent in our own culture, in which we look away from Christ. The first is looking within, at Jesus in my heart—it’s not a public faith but a personal inward hunch. It’s not susceptible to reason and evidence; it’s an experience.

A personal experience of Christ is certainly part of the good news of the gospel. Sometimes we can go too far in criticizing the subjectivistic dilution of biblical faith, undermining the whole notion that Jesus Christ does indwell us by his Holy Spirit. The Spirit isn’t opposed to the body—he doesn’t despise the physical or external; rather, he is the one who ties us to Jesus Christ and is the down payment on our bodily resurrection from the dead. For a lot of people, however, the gospel is simply inviting Jesus into their hearts. This assumes that the greatest problem we face in our lives is that Jesus is not in our hearts. Have you ever talked to people about this and said, “So I would like to ask you to invite Jesus into your heart. The good news is that you can invite Jesus into your heart.” Ostensibly, the problem is that he’s not there—asking him into your heart is the solution.

A Strong and Perfect Plea Me!

Even in traditional evangelical piety we can make the gospel all about something that happens inside of us, such as “inviting Jesus into your heart.” It is wonderfully true that “through his Spirit” Christ dwells “in your hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16–17). Indeed, the indwelling presence of the Spirit as the deposit guaranteeing our adoption and final redemption is part of the gospel’s good news. Paul makes that point clearly in Romans 8. Yet it makes no sense by itself, which is why the apostle spends the first three chapters on the problem (the whole world guilty in Adam, under the condemnation of the law) followed by four chapters on the solution—namely, Christ’s active obedience, propitiatory atonement, and justifying resurrection; election, the new birth, sanctification, and glorification. Strictly speaking, the gospel is not “what happened to me when Jesus came into my heart,” but rather the announcement of what happened to Jesus: “He was delivered over for our sins and was raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Because of this good news about what happened outside of us, we are transformed from the inside out.

We don’t want to downplay the reality of the New Testament teaching that we have a personal relationship with Jesus. “In the last days I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and they will know me from the greatest to the least.” There is a sense in which in the new covenant, we have a personal relationship with Jesus that was not experienced to that degree in the Old Testament, even by the great prophets. We should revel in that; it is a remarkable truth. But when we turn the gospel in its core into something that happens within us, it’s hard for us to continually look to Christ through all the vicissitudes of our earthly lives as the author and finisher of our faith. We may acknowledge him as the author, but it’s not long before we turn somewhere else (usually within ourselves) to find the answer. The gospel’s stability rests not on the fact that I have a relationship with Jesus (the experience of which waxes and wanes), but that he has a relationship with us that cannot change because it is grounded in a gracious election and redemption already accomplished by Christ.

Then there are those on the margins of Christianity; those who invite Jesus into their hearts, not knowing anything else about the gospel. These are the “nones” (rhymes with “nuns”) who say, “I’m not religious but spiritual, growing exponentially year by year now.” For them, religion is about doctrines, creeds, rituals, and rules that people fight over, whereas spirituality is an inner light that is universal and eternal and binds us altogether. “Follow your heart; believe in yourself” is the mantra of twenty-first-century culture.

G. K. Chesterton was insightful about the spiritual culture in England—the men who really believed in themselves were all in lunatic asylums:

When Jones talks about worshipping the God within, he ultimately means that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon; I don’t care, anything, rather than the inner light. Let Jones worship cats or crocodiles if he can find any in his street, but not the God within. Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards but to look outwards to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian is that a man isn’t left alone with some inner light, but definitely recognizes an outer light fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.¹

J. Gresham Machen wrote, “What I need first of all is not an exhortation but a gospel, not directions for saving myself but knowledge of how God has saved me.”² Have you any good news? That is the only question I ask of you. Exhortations can encourage, but they don’t ultimately help. We might think that going inward will insulate us from the wrath to come, but at the end of the day all we find there is hell, not heaven.

He’s Got the Whole World in His My Hands

The second way we look away from Jesus is by looking not within ourselves but without ourselves—specifically, to those in need. There’s truth in this as well. Scripture does call us to look outside of ourselves to neighbors in need. Many of those who emphasize that exhortation were raised in the looking-within camp; they’re reacting against the narcissistic spirituality of their forebears and want to make the world a better place. They want to be less selfish and self-preoccupied. They’re right that Jesus didn’t come just to save souls; he came literally to save the world—he came to save people and their bodies. But instead of looking to Christ to return, instead of longing for his appearing, it’s almost as if he would ruin things if he came too soon. We have a lot of programs, and we plan big concerts and conferences, and it would kind of be a pity if he came right now. It’s certainly true that we’re called to follow Christ’s example of sacrificial love and humility, but we need to remember that we’re saved by the works of Jesus Christ alone.

Thomas à Kempis, the fourteenth-century Dutch canon who was part of the Brethren of the Common Life (a lay spirituality movement that emphasized personal piety over doctrine), wrote a rather popular book on the subject, The Imitation of Christ. But he could never have imagined the day when Christians would talk about being the gospel. This is how one evangelical church website puts it:

Jesus gave his life away, and invites us to do the same. Have you ever considered that what you enjoy doing might be a way God wants to use you to bless the world? From reading to a child to drilling a water well, God is already present and active and invites us to join him in his redeeming work in the world. Let [our church] help you live out your passion.

The website lists opportunities to defeat poverty and build Africa’s infrastructure. To be clear, it’s not the motive or intent I criticize here—it’s quite true that we ought to use whatever gifts we possess for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor, and this church is right to encourage Christians to seek avenues through which to channel their talents for the benefit of others. It’s not their desire that’s problematic but the language they use to articulate it.

We find this same kind of language across the board; language that describes us as active collaborators in Christ’s redemptive work, rather than passive receivers of his gift. That’s what marks the difference between the gospel and no gospel at all. We have to hear the Lord address us regularly from his word—he has to call us out of the mess of the story we’re writing about ourselves, whether it’s about our inner spirituality or “living out” our spirituality. We tend to think we’re a lot like Jesus—living on the edge of banal daily life, doing extraordinary and countercultural things for him and his kingdom. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Come contribute to my victory.” He says, “I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world, you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have already overcome the world” (John 16:33).

It’s liberating to know we don’t carry the burden of salvation on our weak and faltering shoulders. We can build a well in Africa or help our neighbor fix his carburetor. In Luke 12, Jesus doesn’t say, “Fear not, little flock, for you are co-redeemer. Let’s go do it together.” No, he says, “Fear not little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” Consider the force of that statement: What makes the Father happy is to give you a kingdom as his dearly beloved child in Jesus Christ. We can live lives of sacrificial love and service, not because we’re redeeming, but in response to the redemption we have in him.

Servants of All

If we don’t find heaven by looking at the divine within, and we don’t bring heaven down by living lives patterned after the divine example, then what do we do with our salvation? How does the redemption of our hearts and minds through our union with Christ benefit anyone?

People are looking for the right things; they’re just looking in the wrong places. They want transformation and a renewed creation; they rightly want the wonderful things that are the effects of the gospel. The trouble is that they’re confusing their own story with Christ’s. The apostle Paul says in Romans 6 that the dead-end character in my life movie actually dies in this scene and is born again as a character in the story of Jesus. It’s good news that we aren’t the good news. Jesus is not Mini-Me; his nearness terrified Peter, who said, “Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). When we understand that Jesus is God who took on flesh to save those who rebelled against him, only then can we understand what it means to call him a “friend of sinners.”

The fact that Jesus refuses to be cast in our movie is good news for us. After Paul shows us that we’re saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and that we are free from the guilt of our sins, he asks the question he knows we’re going to ask: “Shall we sin that grace may abound?” (Rom. 6:1). Some would answer, “Sure, God likes to forgive, I like to sin, it’s a perfect relationship,” as though Christ is the answer to guilt but not the answer to the dominion of sin. Others would say, “Well, if you do sin, you lose your salvation.” But that’s not the apostle Paul’s answer: “God forbid, how shall those who have died with Christ say that they aren’t raised with Christ to walk in newness of life?” He brings us back to the triumphant indicative; he uses a verb tense to indicate that this is a past, completed event. Just as Christ’s death at Golgotha happened in the past, so has our death with him, and just as he lives, so do we.

We’re on the receiving end of his work, and there is a clear distinction between Redeemer and redeemed. Christ united himself to our humanity in the incarnation, and now the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ and gives us faith to cling to him. This is how our faith is fixed on Jesus Christ. Our story merges with his story, but his story (apart from the unique instance of the incarnation) never merges with ours. Even then, he didn’t assume our story; he assumed our nature. We’ve been transferred from Adam’s family into the family of Jesus Christ; we’ve been transferred from the age that is passing away and have been united to our head, Jesus Christ. John Murray writes,

We are not to suppose, however, that this transition means that sanctification can ever be divorced either in fact or in the development of its meaning from the justification on which it rests, and with which it is inseparably connected. If the mediation of Christ is always in the forefront in justification, it is likewise in sanctification.³

We have to turn to Christ not only when we wonder about the guilt of our sins, but also when we fret over the power of our sins, as we fight the daily fight in our Christian life. It’s so easy for us to look to Jesus when we feel guilty and look to him for justification. But when it comes to sanctification, we look inward and take our eyes off of Christ, or we look outward and say, “Now here are the ten ways I can redeem the world with Jesus.”

The creation of the world was awesome: “Let there be light, and there was light.” But there was no resistance to that light; there was nothing to clean up, just the nothingness before the generation. Think about what God does in justification and sanctification: “Let this sinner be declared righteous. Let this corrupt person be regenerated, body, mind, and soul by the powers of the age to come brought to him by the Holy Spirit through the gospel.” This is why Paul says, “You cannot live in sin.” He doesn’t say, “You’d better not sin; you’ll lose your salvation,” or, “Well, yeah, you can continually sin, kind of. As long as you have justification, you don’t need sanctification. You can be a carnal Christian; just accept Jesus your Savior, and if in five years you want to make Jesus Lord of your life as a separate act of commitment, then great!” If Christ is the answer to my guilt but does nothing to relieve the bondage and the power of my sins, then this is not good news. But the gospel is much greater than that: we don’t just die with Christ; we’re raised with him as well. What happened to Christ has to happen to me, and that’s why Paul essentially says, “I’m sorry, but I have more good news for you: For you have died and your life is hidden with God in Christ” (Col. 3:3). For you (and your role as the hero of your own movie, where Christ is your sidekick) have died. We died, and he’s written us into his script from the foundation of the world.

A friend of mine is a former chaplain at Duke University, and he told me a story about a young woman who said he wasn’t relevant.

“I’m all ears,” he answered her. “I’d love to hear how I could be more relevant.”

“Well,” she replied, “if you can just insert things that appeal to people like me, where we are.”

“And where are you?”

She then described her demographic profile—the one the marketing industry created for her and everyone else in the world: “I’m a white, single, twenty-something urbanite…”

“Oh, that’s where you are,” he responded. “So you’re lost. Are you baptized?”

“Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“If you’re baptized, then that’s where you are, that’s your location, that’s your identity.”

This is what Paul is telling us: we’ve died with our sin, with our need to identify ourselves by anything and everything apart from God. We’ve died and are united to Jesus Christ. He’s not just standing as a Savior external to us; he has united us to himself by the Holy Spirit. This doesn’t mean that we no longer sin, but that we should no longer be in bondage to sin. He loves us too much to save us from the penalty of sin but leave us under its cruel tyranny. There is no middle point between being dead and alive—we’re either dead in Adam or alive in Christ. Both antinomians and perfectionists misunderstand the gospel because they both want to be the stars of their own show.

The Reformers were familiar with this temptation to imitate Christ’s piety. Calvin directly addresses it when he writes that Christ is “called a re-deemer, but in a manner which implies that men also by their freewill redeem themselves from the bondage of sin and death. True, he’s called righteousness and salvation, but so that men still pursue salvation for themselves by the merit of their works.” Jesus is not a rung on our ladder; he is the ladder. Calvin says, “The situation which was truly hopeless had the very majesty of God descend to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him.” Jesus was not sent to help us attain righteousness but to be our righteousness himself. Calvin writes:

Let us know that the apostle does not here simply exhort us to imitate Christ, as though he said that his death is a pattern which all Christians are to follow, for no doubt he ascends higher to something greater, announcing a doctrine with which he connects in exhortation, and his doctrine is this, that the death of Christ is efficacious to destroy and demolish the depravity of our flesh and his resurrection to effect the renovation of our nature, and that by baptism, we are admitted into participation of this grace. The foundation being laid; Christians may very suitably be exhorted to strive to respond to their calling.

This is precisely what Paul does: he turns first to the gospel, to widen the aperture to show people how broad and wonderful the good news really is. He then shows us that we’re called to realize that something happened in history, in the past, but it is also so close I can actually be said to be in Jesus Christ, even as Jesus Christ is in God the Father. Our recognition doesn’t make the facts the facts; it embraces the facts and then lives in light of the facts. Paul makes it clear that this is a struggle. Any notion of sanctification as a “let go and let God” process doesn’t understand the Christian life. It is literally a fight to the death. The reason why the Christian life is so hard is because we can’t help but fight sin—not because we’re good but because we’re in Christ, because we’re new creatures. On the basis of God’s action, we’re called to action ourselves, but not because we’re completing Christ’s mission—because we must come to terms with Christ’s mission and work every day.

Simul Iustus et Peccator

Paul is saying here to stop letting sin bully you. Don’t grab the keys from your liberator and give them back to the prison warden; don’t go back to your cell and chain yourself up. “Sin shall not have dominion over you” (Rom. 6:14). He turns back from the imperative to the indicative again, to announce what is true: that sin shall not have dominion over us, since we are not under law but under grace. The gospel is the answer for both justification and sanctification; Christ’s death and resurrection are the double cure. When Paul says we are not under the law, he doesn’t mean the law is no longer applicable; rather, we have been put to death in relation to the law. “You also have died to the law through the body of Christ” (Rom. 7:4). The law is alive and well, but we have been put to death and made alive to Christ, so the law has a different relationship to us than it had before. The gospel answers the law’s condemnation, and takes on a sweetness the psalmist realized when he knew his sins were forgiven.

It is Christ who won this freedom for us; this is a gift of his saving passion. What this means is that the normal Christian life is very strange: if the bondage of sin has been broken, then we should be able to live free from sin, right? But, like Paul, we find ourselves doing the very thing we hate, feeling like the chief of sinners (Rom. 7:15; 1 Tim. 1:15). This is where the “carnal Christian” argument comes from—the idea that there are some believers who are justified but not regenerate and therefore not living a true Christian life. “Romans 6 Christians”—the ones who are genuinely regenerate—can live above all known sin because they’ve surrendered all to Jesus. This isn’t what Paul is saying.

Every true Christian is simultaneously in Romans 6 and Romans 7. Your average day is equally described by chapter 6 and by chapter 7. The great Scottish preacher, Alexander White, said, “As long as you’re under my charge, you’ll never leave Romans 7.” But we must remember this: As long as we’re Christians in this life, we never leave Romans 6; and we never leave Romans 8, longing for the resurrection, because the Holy Spirit has been given to us as a down payment. So where does this leave us? We are once again with Paul when he cries out and says, “Oh wretched man that I am.” If, in your reflection on your Christian life, you aren’t led to that conclusion, then something is wrong. At the same time, we are no longer dead in sins but are alive in Christ and therefore find obedience to him to be joyful. Yes, joyful! “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me,” Jesus said, “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:29). Our daily lives as Christians are characterized by living in Romans 6, recognizing the reality of Romans 7, and looking out of ourselves to thank God for our salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s how we fix our eyes on Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. Calvin offers a fitting summary of all of this in one of his most pregnant passages in the Institutes (2.16.19):

We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, then we are taught by the very name of Jesus that salvation is of him. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, then they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, then it lies in his dominion not ours; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth he was made like us in all respects that he might learn to feel our pain. If we seek redemption, then it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if abundant supply of all blessing, in his kingdom; if untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given him to judge. In short, since rich stores of every kind of good abound in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.

Michael S. Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

  1. G. K. Chesterton, "The Flag of the World," in Orthodoxy (repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008).
  2. J. Gresham Machen, The Christian Faith in the Modern World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967).
  3. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 212
Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, November 2nd 2016

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