I’ve been preaching for twenty years and, to be honest, I’m so embarrassed by many of the sermons I preached early on. I wish I could go back and apologize to all the people who heard them. My primary concern at that time was to get people to do more, try harder, live radically for God, and change. The end result was stunted spiritual growth for our people because I was causing them to fix their eyes on themselves rather than on Christ.
Eugene Peterson has wisely said that “discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.” The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it’s terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes.
Ironically, I’ve discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get—I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our performance over Christ’s performance for us actually hinders spiritual growth because it makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective—the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. As J. C. Kromsigt said, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”
In those early early days, I was treating the Bible like it was a heaven-sent self-help manual. The fact is, that unless we go to the Bible to see Jesus and his work for us, even our devout Bible reading can become fuel for our own self-improvement plans, the place we go for the help we need to “conquer today’s challenges and take control of our lives.”
What I’ve learned since those days is that the Bible is not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with his rescue; our sin with his salvation; our failure with his favor; our guilt with his grace; our badness with his goodness.
So, if we read (or preach) the Bible asking first, “What would Jesus do?” instead of asking “What has Jesus done” we’ll miss the good news that alone can set us free. Evangelicals desperately need to recover the truth that the overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. This means that the Bible is not first a recipe book for Christian living, but a revelation book of Jesus who is the answer to our unchristian living.