You Can Please God

Often in counseling, when asked specifically about how a counselee pleased God in a given week, he or she will say something like, “Well, I read my Bible every day, but I’m sure I just did it to be smart and impress my friends.” Or, “I shared the gospel with my neighbor, but after reflecting on it, I think I just did it out of duty, not out of a delight in God.” As a pastor and biblical counselor I appreciate the emphasis on the heart, and certainly don’t want to encourage outward obedience from a heart not directed towards God’s glory. My concern, however, with these types of responses is that they are often coming from an overemphasis on depravity and a corresponding underemphasis on our union with Christ. 

As believers, we want to hold biblical truths together and not allow one to trump the other. If we overemphasize depravity to the neglect of what Christ has accomplished for us, it results in a false humility that presents Christ as a weak savior. In our carelessness, we can begin to think of Christ only as the one who justified us legally (Rom 3:21-26) but not as the one who has overthrown the ruling power of indwelling sin (Romans 6:1-14).

In Christ, it is possible to please God

It is far better to hold to the totality of Scripture and affirm that, sinful though we are, we can please God in Christ. This is exactly what we’ve been commanded to do. Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please [Christ].” In context, the mention of “home or away” by Paul is a reference to his being in heaven with Christ or remaining on this earth. Paul asserts then that whether he is on earth or dies and enters the presence of the Lord, he exists for the good pleasure of God. Like the Apostle Paul, even as we await our future glorification, we can please Christ. 

We do readily admit, however, that we cannot do this in our strength, but only in the power which God supplies. The author of Hebrews takes up this theme in his benediction: “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Heb 13:20-21 emphasis mine). It is not hard to spot the active work of “the God of peace” in our works pleasing unto him. It is God who “equip(s) you with everything good” to do his will. It is God “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight.” Further, our doing of God’s will is “through Jesus Christ” to his glory. In Christ, we can live, think, and act in ways that accord with God’s will and therefore please him. So what about the sinful desires of the flesh? 

Beware the Flesh

We don’t want to get out of balance in the other direction and disregard the maze of desires that is a sinful heart. We are warned in Scripture about the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13) as well as our inability to decipher the intentions of our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Even the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7 that he does the very sinful acts he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do the righteous acts he wants to do. We should certainly heed these warnings and be suspicious of our motives. However, the Bible does not assume that we can never please God even if we can usually point to a hidden motive lurking in our hearts.

What Do We Make of Mixed Motives?

How then are we to reconcile the truth that we are empowered to please God and that our motives are often amiss when we do the very things God is calling us to do? Not surprisingly, the answer is found in the work of Christ as our perfect representative and substitute. Our good works are acceptable and pleasing to God not because they are without mixed motive, but because Christ obeyed as our representative with nothing less than perfect motives. The Apostle Peter makes this point: “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The spiritual sacrifices that Peter mentions are good works offered up to God. Notice that these spiritual sacrifices, or good works, are a delight to God because they come through Christ. It is Christ that makes our God-pleasing efforts acceptable, not the fact they are without any admixture of weakness, frailty, or impure motive. The English Puritan John Owen states it well:

“Believers obey Christ as the one whom our obedience is accepted by God. Believers know all their duties are weak, imperfect, and unable to abide in God’s presence. Therefore they look to Christ as the one who bears the iniquity of their holy things, who adds incense to their prayers, gathers out all the weeds from their duties and makes them acceptable to God.” 

Ultimately, we can please God because Christ takes our imperfect efforts and makes them acceptable to God. Holding these truths in tension we are free to exercise real humility. We will neither denigrate the Savior by being so introspective that we deny his sanctifying work in us, nor will we take credit for our good works or be afraid to admit that our striving after godliness is often mixed with weakness and imperfection. Instead, we make it our aim to please Christ and insofar as we do that, we recognize that it is only due to God’s grace, the work of Christ, and the sanctification of the Spirit (Philippians 2:12-13).

Works Cited

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 5:9 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.


John Owen, Communion with God (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991).

Jesus Our Shepherd

“On some high moor, across which at night hyenas howl, when you meet him, sleepless, far-sighted, weather-beaten, armed, leaning on his staff, and looking out over his scattered sheep, every one on his heart, you understand why the shepherd of Judea sprang to the front in his people’s history; why they gave his name to their king, and made him the symbol of providence; why Christ took him as the type of self-sacrifice.”

G. A. Smith

Shepherding imagery abounds in both the Old and New Testaments. Many of Israel’s greatest leaders were shepherds (Moses and David). Israel’s spiritual leaders were criticized as poor shepherds for serving themselves instead of providing for the sheep (Ezekiel 34:1-10). In light of this failure, God himself promises to take up the shepherd staff and rescue the scattered flock (Ezekiel 34:11-24). In the New Testament, those who lead the church are called to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:4). 

Most importantly, the shepherd of ancient Israel provides the perfect metaphor for God’s involvement in the lives of his people. Like a shepherd leading his flock, God demonstrates care, provision, concern, protection, and guidance for his sheep (Psalm 23). As God in the flesh, Jesus willingly adopted and applied the title of “shepherd” to himself. We see this teased out several ways in the New Testament.

Jesus is the compassionate shepherd who longs to rescue his sheep

As Jesus traveled from city to city preaching and healing the afflicted, he drew quite a crowd. Matthew records Jesus’ response to the mass of people, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). The problem with a crowd being characterized as “sheep without a shepherd” is that sheep do not fare well without their shepherd. They are defenseless animals, vulnerable to attack unless the shepherd provides protection. Even in the absence of predators, sheep are still in danger as they need to be shown where to eat and drink. They are completely dependent on a shepherd for their care and safety. 

As Jesus peered at the crowd, he saw beyond the physical bodies that made up the assembly. He looked into the heart and saw a people that were in great spiritual danger. They were scattered, lost, and in need of rescue. To compound the matter, they lacked any resources in and of themselves to provide such a rescue. As a result, Jesus had compassion for them. This compassion moved him to act in ways that would characterize an ancient shepherd. He would act; he would act at great cost to himself; he would act on behalf of the sheep. 

Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep

In John 10 Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd. He is contrasting himself with a “hired hand” who has no real attachment to the sheep. The primary difference? “… the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep” (John 10:11) while the hired hand flees at the first sign of danger (see v. 12).

Shepherding can be a dangerous form of employment. Before David was king of Israel, he had to slay a bear in defense of his flock (1 Samuel 17:34-36). However, this type of danger was probably quite rare and a shepherd would never intentionally die. Jesus goes beyond the metaphor and points to himself as the one who doesn’t simply put his life at risk, but intentionally lays it down. D.A. Carson summarizes this point well, “Far from being accidental, Jesus’ death is precisely what qualifies him to be the good shepherd.” 

In Jesus, we see that the good shepherd is also the lamb slain in our place. Jesus bore the wrath of God so that we might be credited with his perfect obedience. We, who were once lost sheep, are rescued at the cost of the shepherd’s life. Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

Jesus is the great shepherd who cares for his sheep

The fundamental issue in the book of Hebrews is whether readers will remain faithful to Christ or return to the Law in a futile attempt to earn their salvation. In other words, believers are called to persevere in their faith. However, this is not something that a person can do in his or her power. That is why the author of Hebrews prays and asks God to produce good works in the reader through Jesus Christ. The author prays, “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20).

Jesus is not only able to save us from our sins, but he will keep us. He provides for us by bringing about in us something we could not achieve on our own. God the Father, through the great shepherd Son, gives us everything we need to do his will by working in us a desire and ability to glorify him. 

Jesus is the chief shepherd who is coming again in glory

1 Peter 5:1-4 is a reminder to local church pastors that they are not their own authority. They are not their own standard. Instead, pastors are to be servants of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. One of the motivations for pastors to shepherd well is the future reception of the “unfading crown of glory” when “the chief Shepherd appears” (1 Peter 5:4). Peter pushes pastors towards faithfulness by pointing them forward to the coming of Christ. Soon, Jesus will appear in glory and faithful shepherds will receive their full reward from him. 

This hope is not limited to pastors. Peter gave a similar encouragement at the beginning of his epistle, telling all believers, “… set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). The same shepherd that had compassion on the crowds, that laid his life down for the sheep, is returning to rule and reign in full authority. 

We can have real hope today as we anticipate the coming of Christ where he will complete the good work he began in us. We long for that day, knowing that “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

Credits

G. A. Smith Quoted by Timothy Laniak in Shepherds After My Own Heart, 57.

Photo by joseph d’mello on Unsplash

D A Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) 386.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 10:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

United to Christ and Free from Sin, but Still Sinning?

If you are reading this it is likely because your experience with sin doesn’t make sense to you. This is the case for many of us. We read passages like Romans 6:18 (“and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”) and we are confused. We wonder how it is that we, who Christ has set free from sin, still have such strong urges to keep on sinning. Shouldn’t it be easy for those who have freedom from sin to stop sinning? The answer is, no, and Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, makes sense of our struggle.

Sin is a master

Paul speaks of sin as if it is a king or a master who cruelly reigns over people. He uses the words “dominion” (v. 9, 14) and “reign” (v. 12) to talk about sin’s power over people and likewise the words “slaves” (v. 20) and “enslaved” (v. 6) to talk about people’s experience living under the reign of sin.

We are born under sin’s enslavement and sin totally dominates us (v. 14). Being enslaved to sin does not mean that we are as sinful as we could be but it does mean that prior to personal salvation sin taints even our good and moral behavior. This imagery is important to consider if we want to understand why it is those of us who are free from sin still sin.

In Christ we have a new Master

The two most significant words in the New Testament are: in Christ.  Being in Christ is more than just letters added after our names signaling our credentials (i.e. MD, PhD, MA, MDiv), it is a transformation of who we once were. These words speak of the identity we take on at our personal salvation.

God miraculously brings us into Christ when we place our faith in Christ. When God brings us into Christ it marks a spiritual union with Christ. When Paul says we have been “baptized into Christ” (v.3) he means that we have been spiritually “united with Christ” (v.5). The result of this spiritual union is that we are made new creatures and old things pass away (2 Corinthians 5:17). To use the language of Romans 6:18 we have become “slaves of righteousness.” Before being in Christ our master was sin but in Christ we have a new master and that master is Jesus. No longer does sin totally dominate us. We now have the choice to not sin.

Why do we still struggle with sin?

For those of us in Christ we have a new master reigning over us and the claim of our old master, sin, has been broken. But why do we still desire to sin and participate in sin? The answer is that our old master, sin, is in a fight till the bitter end. We still feel the presence of sin long after its rule and reign has concluded because sin refuses to acknowledge defeat.

Even though you are in Christ (if you have placed your faith in Christ) sin is continuing to compete for the throne of your heart. Sin still gives orders for you to follow and is in a massive marketing campaign trying to convince you to submit yourself again to its cruel reign. Often times its commands, pleas, and promises are unfortunately successful and we sin.

My six year old daughter loves to play with putty. It molds and takes shape as she desires and commands. The thing about putty is that long after my daughter releases her grip it maintains the markings and impressions of her hands. The reign of sin is like this. Although sin’s powerful grip has been broken, we feel its impression, contours, and indents long after the fact.

Romans 6 and Juneteenth

Trip Barefield (Trip Lee) preached a sermon at Capitol Hill Baptist Church titled The Living Dead where he likens Paul’s message in Romans chapter 6 to something known as Juneteenth (do yourself a favor and go listen to his sermon). He explains that in January 1863 Abraham Lincoln brought into effect the Emancipation Proclamation formally ending slavery but that, sadly, the news of this freedom did not initially reach slaves in Texas. It was not until almost two and a half years later that slaves in Texas became aware of the status of freedom they already had. This day was June 19th, 1865 and became known as Juneteenth.

Paul is writing to believers set free from sin. Romans chapter 6 serves as an announcement of that Good News. What Paul knows is that in order for us to “consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” we must be reminded of who we are in Christ and what we are to be in Christ.

In Closing

As we look back again at the phrase in v. 18, “have become slaves of righteousness”, there are two observations I want to make in closing. First, becoming a slave of righteousness is an identity bestowed upon us immediately at our conversion. At the moment we place our faith in Christ we are “freed (lit. ‘justified’) from sin” (v. 7) and we have a new master reigning over us. Second, becoming a slave of righteousness is something we grow into throughout our lives in Christ. This becoming a slave of righteousness is a progressive work of God (Philippians 2:12-13) as you refuse to let sin “reign in your mortal body” and instead you “present” yourself as an instrument of righteousness to God (v. 13).

May God be gracious to us as we “so now present [our] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (v. 19).

Credits

Photo by Filip Zrnzević on Unsplash

The sermon titled The Living Dead by Trip Barefield can be found here.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 88 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.