Sunday Notes: Gospel-Driven Resolutions

(Delivered in Sunday School)

Since the start of the new year, the topic of our Sunday School discussion has been resolutions.  Pastor Rick gave a couple of messages that really got to the heart of our lack of resolution-keeping: sin.  They also encouraged us to make God-centered resolutions.

Because it is hard to talk about godly resolutions without talking about the Great Resolver, I was tasked with introducing Johnathan Edwards and the Puritans.  We could only briefly note what made them so committed to godly living.

These kinds of messages are good, but they don't get to issues like motivation, desire, and power.  How is a Christian able to pursue holiness?

We will not be talking a lot about New Year's resolutions today.  However, hopefully this message will give you a better framework upon which you can construct your resolutions.

The plan is to skip through the book of Galatians like a stone on a pond.  We don't have time to dig into the book, but after this message, come back to it this week to consider its truths.  To begin, let's give the context of Paul's writing.

Trouble at Galatia
Paul is very unhappy in this letter:

  • He avoids his standard greeting.
  • He gives no thanks for the Galatian churches in this letter.
  • He uses very harsh words against the false teachers he warns are influencing the Galatians (words like damnation and castration come to mind—1:7, 9; 5:10, 12; 6:17)
  • He writes the epistle in “large letters” (6:11), which some suggest may be a reflection of his anger.

The issue: Galatians 1:6–7.  Paul is going to use his experiences to demonstrate just how the Galatians are turning to another (read: “false”) Gospel.

The Question

  • In Old Testament Israel, how could Gentiles join the covenant community?  Through circumcision.
  • How, then, shall Gentiles join the New Covenant?  Through a circumcision that is not of flesh, a circumcision of the heart.  

We are within the first couple of decades of the church. Everything was going fine in these early days as long as Jewish converts were coming to Christ.  Soon though, God was calling in the Gentile converts. How the Apostles answered this question would have ramifications on future Jewish converts as well.

The Question Further Considered

  • How should Gentiles partaking in the Old Covenant live?  They could not retain their Gentile distinctiveness, but had to conform to Jewish culture and dietary laws. 
  • Is it kosher for New Testament Gentile believers to dine at a fine Southern BBQ? (pun intended!)  For some Christians even today, this question remains.  Is it a sin to eat a ham sandwich?  Gentiles were never under the Mosaic Covenant, and their conversion is to the New Covenant, not the Old.
  • How about Jewish believers?  Peter was dining with Gentiles in this letter.

Now, what does this have to do with the Gospel?

Paul records here in chapter 2 that he had to confront Peter in the presence of all of the people. Why?  The Gospel has implications on your life outside of conversion. Paul talks about Gospel conduct (2:14).  Legalistic living is outside of the Gospel of Christ, and we are going to make the connection from here to present-day questions of holy living, including that of having a resolved life for the glory of God.

The material today is going to be fast and plentiful. I’ve provided you notes because I know that this is going to be a hard trek for some and you may need a week to ponder it. I encourage that, in fact, and some of what we discuss today I hope will become part of your daily meditation for the rest of your lives. How’s that for a New Year’s Resolution?

Milton Vincent writes of his experience as a believer serving Christ outside of the power of the Gospel in a chapter entitled "Surprised by the Gospel" (A Gospel Primer, Focus Publications, p. 93).  He writes,
Driving home from work one day, my mind came back to the Lord after I had allowed my thoughts to drift for about ten minutes. I was instantly concerned about what I might have been thinking about in the previous ten minutes. “Have I been thinking anything sinful?” I asked myself. “If so, then God would be angry at me for letting my thoughts wander so. Or maybe I wasn’t even thinking sinful thoughts, but perhaps God is upset with me because I wasn’t thinking on Him instead.
My mind began to agitate, and I winced under the Lord’s gaze. “Lord, are we OK?” I asked. “Have I thought any thoughts that have offended You? Do I need to make anything right in order to restore our relationship?
I anxiously retraced my thoughts from the previous ten minutes. I felt I needed to do this in order to know the countenance of God towards me at that moment. If He was angry, then I had to get back into His good graces.
A felling of nausea began to seep over me, and years of pent-up frustration seemed to coalesce in that one moment. “Surely, relating to God can’t be this difficult!” my heart screamed. “Why is it so hard to stay in His good graces? I can’t keep track of every thought in order to make sure that He stays favorably disposed toward me! This isn’t possible!
He tried to sing a hymn about resting in Jesus and finding joy in Him, but Vincent’s experience was too far removed from that of the hymnwriter. When he got home, he grabbed his Bible, sat in the middle of the floor, and read Romans 5 aloud. That chapter saved his life. He discovered in a new way that he was justified, under God’s favor.

Understand, this was not the realization of a new believer. At this point in Vincent’s journey, he is serving at Grace Community Church as John MacArthur’s right-hand-man. This is not the time to be wondering about issues like justification, right? Vincent is not experiencing new birth at this moment in his story, but he is beginning to understand something about his new birth that he never considered.

 I’ve selected a few of Vincent’s thoughts he presented in a chapter called "A Gospel Narrative: Prose Version."  (pp. 62–63).
28 In justifying me, God declared me innocent of my sins and pronounced me righteous with the very righteousness of Jesus.
See Romans 5:8.  It is vital to remember that we have a righteous standing before God, and that standing is so because the blood and righteousness of Christ covers us.
29 God also allowed His future and present wrath against me to be completely propitiated by Jesus, who bore it upon Himself while on the cross.
He gives 1 John 2:2 as evidence of this wonderful truth.  It is easy for us, as Evangelical Christians, to believe that all of the sins we have done has been paid for on the cross.  But sometimes we forget about the sins we will do tomorrow.  How do we deal with our sins then?

It is tempting for some of us to say that this is basic Christian teaching and brush it off in favor of deeper theological discussions.  However, no matter how many years we walk in the Christian life, we continue to sin.  Indeed, failing to deal with these questions in a biblical manner is sin itself.  If we don't comfort ourselves in the sufficiency of Christ's finished work, our tendency will be to pay some kind of penance for our own sins.  God will not accept such attempts to win His favor; trust in Christ.  

30 Consequently, God now has only love, compassion, and deepest affection for me, and this love is without any admixture of wrath whatsoever.
He doesn't provide a verse for this one, but Romans 8:1 comes to mind as one possibility.
31 God always looks upon me and treats me with gracious favor, always working all things together for my ultimate and eternal good.
He gives us Romans 8:28, that famous verse we need to keep tucked away for times of trials or tribulation.

Let's skip to page 65.  This isn't because the next few aren't any good, but we simply lack the time to go through the whole book.  Buy it.
41—I don’t deserve any of this, even on my best day; but this is my salvation, and herein I stand. Thank you, Jesus.
1 Peter 5:12, 1 Corinthians 16:13, and Colossians 1:23.

How does knowing the Gospel help Vincent out of an endless cycle of sin and confession under the watchful eye of an angry and jealous God?

The Gospel
Though we are unworthy and wretched, deserving of Hell, separated from God in hateful rebellion against Him, Christ died in our place, was buried, and raised again to make constant intercession for us, giving us gifts like faith, salvation, and the Holy Spirit that we may be in constant communion and fellowship with Him, enjoying and glorifying Him forever.

The “good news” of the Gospel, for us, is that He provides us everything that we need. He is the provider, we are the recipients.  Think to images of God as a shepherd, such as in Psalm 23.  We are the sheep of His pasture.

Or, think to Christ humbling Himself to the lowest of servants.  He removed his shirt, put on an apron, and bent over to wash the feet of his disciples.  The Lord of the universe was washing the day's dirt from each of His Apostles, even the one who would betray Him.  Can we blame Peter for objecting to this?  But we to have to sit back and accept Christ's service for us, all the time knowing that we are filthy and unfit for such mercy and grace.

The Gospel Misunderstood
  • “False brethren” slipped in to spy out the liberty of believers. Their concern: the defilement of Gentiles like Titus, those who were of the uncircumcission (see 2:1–5).  Their argument seemed to be based on Scripture, but they did not understand of God's plans in the New Covenant.  Paul knew, and he would not stray from the path of the Gospel.
  • The other Apostles confirmed Paul and the Gospel of freedom (2:6–10).  They knew that he taught the doctrine of God.
  • However, Peter slipped back into his old ways when the Judaizers came to town, and Paul had to rebuke him (2:11–21?). 

Its easy to pick on Peter, but we should not do so unduly.  Paul made his mistakes, too:

  • Paul wanted to exclude Mark after a bad missionary experience, a conflict that resulted in Paul and Barnabas parting ways. Paul had to later admit that Mark was useful.
  • God clearly warned Paul not to go to Jerusalem or he would be arrested. Paul went and was arrested.
  • God still used these mistakes for His purposes!

I find comfort in the fact that the Apostles were human.  I say that because I believe the Scripture they wrote was fully inspired, so its tempting to see them as something otherworldly.  Yet, they made mistakes too, and God still used them mightily.

The Gospel includes death to the Law

  • Paul’s argument against Peter begins with salvation: they are justified by grace, not by the works of the Law (2:15–16).
  • He continues to note that working through the law is to rebuild what Christ tore down. Christ’s death would be in vain if we could work our way to Him (2:17–21)
  • V. 19—living unto God includes death to the Law.

We are not talking about antinomian, lawless living.  We are talking about holy living that does not come form our own energy.  Your sanctification does not come through laws and resolutions.

Having now discussed some of the core points of the Gospel, let's turn to sanctification.  One of the best books on sanctification (and I've read some reviews saying it is the best) is Walter Marshall's The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (Wipf and Stock Publishers).  While you're at Amazon buying the Primerbe sure to put this in your shopping cart as well.

The author was a Puritan who wrote the book in 1692.  Bruce McRae liked it so much that in 2005 he published a version of the book in updated English.  The original has also been republished if you want that.  I'm a simple guy, however, so the quotes below are from the newer English version.

(FYI: The chapters were called "directions" originally, but since the newer version has "chapters" we'll use that term.)

In a chapter chapter entitled "Receive the Comfort of the Gospel,"  Marshall writes (p. 117),
Even after you become a Christian by believing the gospel, your heart is still addicted to salvation by works. In your heart you still want to make the duties of the law come before the comforts of the gospel.
Even if you have become assured that your salvation does not depend upon your own works, you will still tend to make all of the comforts and blessings of the gospel depend upon your own works. You will find it hard to believe that you should get any blessing before you work for it. You will think this is as unreasonable as an employee getting a paycheck before he works, or a farmer getting crops before he plants and reaps!
We'll come back to Marshall in a minute.

Putting the cart before the horse

  • We do not obey God to wrangle blessings out of Him anymore than we would see law-keeping as a means of salvation.
  • Consider 2 The 2:16–17:  "Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word."
  • Again:
    • "Now may our Lord Jesus Christ... comfort your hearts."  God comforts us, and this comfort precedes good works.  The disciples sat at Christ's feet before He commissioned them.  They sat in the upper room before receiving the Holy Spirit.  I'm not advocating sitting around until you feel some mystical zap, but you must first seek to find comfort in the Gospel before you can expect to serve God out of a right spirit.
    • "Now may our Lord Jesus Christ... establish them in every good work and word." We do the works of God, but the reality is that Christ establishes us in what we need to do.
  • Let this be the matrix of your resolutions and service: God first provides you comfort, then He establishes you to good works.

Sanctify Your Own Self?

  • Note the attitude of the Galatians, however. They sought to sanctify themselves by their own power (3:1–6).
  • We who start in the Spirit must serve in His empowerment.  We do not perfect ourselves by the flesh, whether if be from Commandment-keeping or from some other rule someone created for our good.  We cannot sanctify ourselves, and we can imagine what Paul might say to us if we try:
    • He might use the word “foolish” (v. 1)
    • He would remind us that it was by faith we believed the Gospel (vv. 2, 5, 6)
    • He would remind us that God was the supplier of our spiritual lives (vv. 1–3, 5)

It all begins with Christ and His love for you.  Marshall writes (p. 140):
In order to truly obey God, you must have the assurance of God’s love for you.
Think about all of the things you are called to do in your Christian life that absolutely must be based upon God’s love for you, and not upon legalism:
  • Rejoicing in the Lord always 
  • Having a hope that does not make you ashamed 
  • Acknowledging the Lord as your God and Savior 
  • Praying to the Lord as your Father in heaven 
  • Offering up your body and soul as an acceptable sacrifice to the Lord 
  • Casting all your cares, both body and soul, upon the Lord 
  • Having contentment and thanksgiving in every circumstance 
  • Boasting only in the Lord 
  • Triumphing in his praise 
  • Rejoicing in tribulation 
  • Putting on Christ in your baptism 
  • Receiving Christ’s body as broken for you, and his blood shed for you in the Lord’s Supper 
  • Committing your soul willingly to God as your redeemer, whenever he will be pleased to call for you 
  • Loving Christ’s second coming, and looking for it as the blessed hope
Desire to do the works of God?
The question of holy living was answered by Jesus in John 6:28–29.  Want to do the works of God?  Believe in Him and what He has done for you.  Trust in that.

Marshall gives us eight points for how we are to live by faith so that we may obey God (pp. 171—190).
First, even that even though you have received a new, holy nature through your faith in Christ, your natural state still remains to some degree… (and needs to be "put off," replaced with the new, Col 3:10–11) 
Second, give up the idea of purifying the flesh—your old natural man—from its sinful lusts and inclinations. (The mind does not and cannot submit to God [Rom 8:7], and Christ wants us to live by his indwelling life [Gal 2:20, 5:24–25])

Do not try to put to death your sinful lusts by trying to purge them out of your flesh…
Do not simply resolve to do the best you can. Resolve to do what Christ and the power of his Spirit will be please to work in you. …
Keep up your resolutions by the continual presence of Christ in you—just as light is maintained by the continual presence of the sun.
Third, do not try to gain the forgiveness of sins, the favor of God, a new holy nature, spiritual life, or happiness by any works of the moral law.
Fourth, do not try to live a holy life by motivating and compelling yourself to do it. Don’t ‘just do it.’
What will you be able to produce in your life if you try to live a godly life by your own strength and wisdom? Nothing but corruption … If you do not have any spiritual life in your soul, moral obligations and laws will only stir up your sin all the more! … (Romans 7:5, 8).
Fifth, stir yourself up to live a holy life because you are completely assured that you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 
Sixth, consider the privileges of your new state in Christ that will most enable your heart to love God, to renounce sin, and to obey God’s commandments with all of your heart. 
Seventh, in order to keep the law of God, continually meditate upon your new position in Christ. 
Eighth, if you desire to grow in grace and holiness, trust with assurance that God will enable you to do everything that is necessary for his glory and for your eternal salvation.
Again, we are not advocating some kind of mystical, Gnostic, Quietistic wobbly theology.  You will still have sinful desires in your life and your daily struggle will be to bring those into submission to Christ.  Galatians 5:16 does not say, "Live by the Spirit and you will not have the desires of the flesh."  However, if you live by the Spirit "you will not carry out the desire of the flesh."

A closing caution:
Ecclesiastes 7:16 says, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”  As you make your New Year's resolutions (or rather, refine them from because of the teaching of the last several weeks), remember that the goal of your resolutions is not be to make yourself more holy or religious.You must trust in Christ for these things.

Of course, the goal of your resolutions should be to better obey God in your daily life.  This obedience does not come from the flesh but from the power Christ provides you through the Gospel. As such, your resolutions are just as much an act of worship as they are a “putting on” of the new man.

Galatians 5:24–25—“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.

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