Common to human existence is the constant experience of less than ideal circumstances. On any given day, all of us have some situation in our lives that is not what we want it to be. We may have a difficult boss or co-worker who is making our time at work miserable. We or a loved one may have a health problem that is causing us great stress. Perhaps we are struggling financially. Maybe there is an issue in our marriage that has us either disillusioned or desperate. Or there might be a strained relationship at church that makes our time there a strain.
What is the solution that we instinctively run to? We want to change our circumstances. We think that the problem is external to us, when in reality God has brought about those circumstances to show us what is in our heart, which is what really needs to change. Our less-than-ideal circumstances are gifts from God to show us where we need to grow in Christlikeness.
Last night, we had our introductory session for the new Wednesday night teaching series, How People Change. This series was written by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp to show how the gospel accomplishes change in our lives.
Paul Tripp teaches from 2 Pet 1:3-9 that God has given us in Jesus Christ the greatest gift imaginable. He has given us in Christ everything that we need in order to be transformed into His image. Yet, like a child who would rather play with the box than with the toy that came in it, we resort to minimizations of the gospel to make ourselves feel better rather than using true gospel resources to deal with the issues of our hearts. Tripp calls this “externalism”: being driven by Christian stuff, not by gospel change.
Externalism comes in a number of forms. First, there is formalism, where we make the Christian life all about church meetings and ministries. As long as our calendars are filled with Christian busyness, we feel like we are doing okay. Second, there is legalism, which entails focusing on keeping a list of rules. This is like being a Pharisee – you have everything together on the outside while you are a mess on the inside (Matt 23:27-28). Third, there is mysticism, where we focus on emotional, spiritual experiences. Here the goal is to stay emotionally whipped-up so that we feel close to the Lord. Fourth, activism. This is where we occupy ourselves with Christian causes. The Christian life becomes all about standing up for the unborn and for the sanctity of marriage.
A fifth form of externalism is biblicism, the mastery of the bible and theology. Here we focus on having right theology and going after those who don’t. Meanwhile, we are no more like Christ than when we started. Sixth, there is psychologism, where we look to Jesus as our heavenly psychologist who exists to heal our emotional pain. Our focus becomes how others have hurt us rather than how we have responded. Seventh is socialism, where the Christian life is all about having great relationships. Connecting with others becomes the ultimate goal.
Each of these things take some element of the Christian life and blow it out of proportion so that it eclipses the gospel in our lives. These forms of externalism allow self to be at the center so that we are consumers of the faith rather than being consumed by the faith. The problem is that most of us never consider that we are settling for a substitute gospel, when the real power for change is in the one biblical gospel. Further, we don’t know how to apply the gospel to our lives.
Most of us understand what the gospel means for our past – we have been forgiven for our sins – and our future – we have hope that we will spend eternity with Christ. But what about the here and now? What does the gospel mean for the present? What power does the gospel hold to help me live a godly life today? The How People Change series is all about how the gospel offers us hope here and now. This series may be one of the most practical series we will ever do here at Providence. Don’t settle for externalism. God has given us so much more in Christ.
Don’t think that because you missed the first week it is too late. We've only watched an introductory lesson. The main material starts next Wednesday night at 6:30 at Partners in Prime next door to the church. If you are interested in using the study guide that goes with the material, you can get it here, but it is not required. Hope to see you there!
Posted by Greg Birdwell