Because we are so naturally prone to look at ourselves and our performance more than we do to Christ and his performance, we need constant reminders of the gospel.
If we’re supposed to preach the gospel to ourselves everyday—what’s the actual content of that message? What is it exactly that I need to keep reminding myself of?
If God has saved you—if he’s given you the faith to believe, and you’re now a Christian, if you’ve transferred trust from your own accomplishments and abilities to Christ’s accomplishment on behalf of sinners—then here’s the good news. In the phraseology of Colossians 1, it’s simply this: You’ve already been qualified, you’ve already been delivered, you’ve already been transferred, you’ve already been redeemed, you’ve already been forgiven.
It’s been widely accepted that in the original language of Greek, Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence. Paul becomes so overwhelmed by the sheer greatness and immensity and size and sweetness of God’s amazing grace that he doesn’t even take a breath. He writes in a state of controlled ecstasy. And at the heart of his elation is the idea of “union with Christ.” We have been blessed, he writes, “in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (1:3): we’ve been chosen (v. 4), graced (v. 6), redeemed (v. 7), reconciled (v. 10), destined (v. 11), and sealed forever (v. 13). The everything we need and long for, Paul says, we already possess if we are in Christ. He has already sweepingly secured all that our hearts deeply crave.
We no longer need to rely, therefore, on the position, the prosperity, the promotions, the preeminence, the power, the praise, the passing pleasures, or the popularity that we’ve so desperately pursued for so long.
Day by day, what we must do practically can be experienced only as we come to a deeper understanding of what we are positionally—a deeper understanding of what’s already ours in Christ.
I used to think that growing as a Christian meant I had to somehow go out and obtain the qualities and attitudes I was lacking. To really mature, I needed to find a way to get more joy, more patience, more faithfulness, and so on.
Then I came to the shattering realization that this isn’t what the Bible teaches, and it isn’t the gospel. What the Bible teaches is that we mature as we come to a greater realization of what we already have in Christ. The gospel, in fact, transforms us precisely because it’s not itself a message about our internal transformation, but Christ’s external substitution. We desperately need an Advocate, Mediator, and Friend. But what we need most is a Substitute. Someone who has done for us and secured for us what we could never do and secure for ourselves.
The hard work of Christian growth, therefore, is to think less of me and my performance and more of Jesus and his performance for me. Ironically, when we focus mostly on our need to get better, we actually get worse. We become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with my effort over God’s effort for me makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective.
You could state it this way: Sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification-receiving Christ’s words, “It is finished” into new and deeper parts of our being every day, into our rebellious regions of unbelief. It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day. Or as Martin Luther so aptly put it in his Lectures on Romans, “To progress is always to begin again.” Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.
In her book Because He Loves Me, Elyse Fitzpatrick writes about how important remembrance is in Christian growth:
One reason we don’t grow in ordinary, grateful obedience as we should is that we’ve got amnesia; we’ve forgotten that we are cleansed from our sins. In other words, ongoing failure in sanctification (the slow process of change into Christlikeness) is the direct result of failing to remember God’s love for us in the gospel. If we lack the comfort and assurance that his love and cleansing are meant to supply, our failures will handcuff us to yesterday’s sins, and we won’t have faith or courage to fight against them or the love for God that’s meant to empower this war. If we fail to remember our justification, redemption, and reconciliation, we’ll struggle in our sanctification.
Christian growth, in other words, does not happen first by behaving better, but believing better-believing in bigger, deeper, brighter ways what Christ has already secured for sinners.
Preach that to yourself everyday, and you’ll increasingly experience the scandalous freedom that Jesus paid so dearly to secure for you.