Four Essentials to Finishing Well
Desiring God 2007 National Conference
Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints
This message appears as a chapter in Stand.
As we think of the endurance of the saints, of enduring to the end and finishing well, there is no better example in Scripture than that of the apostle Paul. As he sat chained in a Roman prison, anticipating an imminent execution, he wrote to Timothy:
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6–8)
Paul was confident he had endured to the end and had finished well. Sadly, however, just a few sentences later he had to write of one of his coworkers: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).
Here were two men who had ministered together — Paul and Demas — mentor and mentoree. One endured and finished the race and looked forward to the crown of righteousness. The other man peeled off, deserted his mentor, and was never heard from again. We don’t know what finally happened to Demas. We don’t know whether he ever repented or not, but the Scripture ends with the fact that “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me.” In Philemon 24 Paul calls Demas a fellow worker along with Mark and Aristarchus and Luke. Demas was apparently a promising young man with a promising future; yet as far as we know he did not make it to the end.
This is a sobering thought because many readers of this book are young, committed followers of Jesus Christ. In God’s gracious providence you have many years ahead of you, and you expect to finish the race, to stand firm, to endure to the end. But there was a time when Demas also thought that way. He didn’t initially join Paul’s team with the intention that he would later desert Paul when the going got tough. No, he undoubtedly expected to also stand firm and finish well.
This is a sobering thought even for those of us who are older because, as the famous baseball player Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” So we cannot presume that even at our age we will finish well. We never finish until the day we die. And so all of us, young or old, need to heed the warning that comes to us from the example of Demas.
Four Essential Elements for Finishing Well
Over the last few years I have given a lot of thought to how one finishes well. Although a number of things could be said, I have come to the conclusion that there are four fundamental actions we can take to help us finish well. There may be other issues that are important, but I believe these four are fundamental. They are:
- daily time of focused personal communion with God
- daily appropriation of the gospel
- daily commitment to God as a living sacrifice
- firm belief in the sovereignty and love of God
Now these four essentials are viewed from our perspective; that is, these are things we must and should do or believe. But standing over all of them is the grace of God. The same apostle who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” also said in another context, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Paul attributed all of his endurance, all of his faithfulness, to the grace of God. And so as we look at our responsibility, keep in mind that we are enabled to fulfill that responsibility only by the grace of God
Now the grace of God is often misunderstood. I think one of the most common misunderstandings of the grace of God is, “God’s cutting me some slack. Grace is God’s letting me get away with a few things.” That’s the furthest thought from the grace of God. The grace of God comes to us through Jesus Christ as a result of his sinless life and sin-bearing death for us, but that grace is more than just God’s kindness and benevolent feeling toward us. The grace of God is dynamic. The grace of God is God in action for our good.
And so when the apostle Paul said, “By the grace of God I am what I am,” he was speaking about the empowering of the Holy Spirit that God in his grace supplies to each of us as we seek to live for him. So keep in mind as we look at our responsibilities that we can carry out those responsibilities only by the grace of God. In the words of John Newton in his beloved hymn “Amazing Grace,” “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” At the end of the day when all is said and done, we attribute our faithfulness to the grace of God. So as we consider these four essentials, keep in mind that we practice them only by his grace. Now let’s look at them one by one.
A Daily Time of Focused Communion with God
The first essential is a daily time of focused personal communion with God. Many readers are familiar with the old classic Practicing the Presence of God, and that is an excellent habit to cultivate. But the foundation of that has to be a time of focused personal communion with God, and it needs to be daily. Demas didn’t just wake up one day and make a 90-degree turn. That doesn’t happen. Demas drifted little by little toward the attractions of the world. And if you and I do not practice this daily focused time of communion with God, we will find ourselves also drifting in the wrong direction.
In my Navy days before we had global positioning satellites we used a sexton to get our navigational position twice each day. At dawn and at dusk we would “shoot the stars” and get a position. And invariably after having done that, we had to make a minor course correction. Obviously if we didn’t do that, not only daily but in our case twice a day, we would soon find that we were way off course.
You and I also need that daily course correction, and we do this as we have this focused time with God. Demas was in love with this present world. Each of us, whether believer or unbeliever, is in love with something. Demas was in love with the world. The apostle John said, “Do not love the world” (1 John 2:15). But we cannot just “not love the world” and have a vacuum in our hearts. In order to not love the world we have to love God. And our time of daily focused communion with God is a time when that love of God and his love for us is refreshed in our hearts.
Consider the words of the psalmist. In Psalm 63:1 he says, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” Notice the intensity of those words, Earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you. This is far more than just a daily Bible reading and going over a few prayer requests, our “quiet time” or our “morning devotions” or something like that. While I’m not negating those terms, keep in mind the fact that the purpose of that quiet time is not just to read a chapter in the Bible and go over a few prayer requests.
Rather it should be a time of personal communion with God. Obviously we need a plan. We don’t just open our Bible and point our finger at a passage of Scripture and say, this is my passage for today. But communion with God is far, far more than a plan. Communion with God is meeting with him. It is asking God to speak to us. It is speaking to him as we read his Word, as we interact with his Word in prayer, as we pray over what God is saying to us in his Word.
Psalm 42:1–2 says something similar: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?”
Or again David in Psalm 27:4 said: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” The beauty of the Lord is not a physical beauty. It’s the beauty of his attributes. It’s the beauty of the cross. It’s the beauty of what he has done for us in Christ. And the psalmist said, I just want to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord; I want to have communion with God. This is what the focused time is all about. All of these Scriptures speak of an intense desire to have that personal communion with God.
Now it’s helpful to have a plan, but the plan must direct you to God himself. Do we spend time with God or do we just read a chapter in the Bible? Spending time with God certainly involves the reading of a chapter or three verses or three chapters or whatever. But the object of that is to meet with God, to have God speak to us and to respond to him. As I open my Bible each day, I ask, “Lord, may I today spend time with you. Would you speak to me from your Word? Would you encourage me? Would you teach me? Would you rebuke me if I need it? Lord, whatever you see that I need today, I come to spend time with you.” Then as I begin to read the passage I respond to God over what I’m reading. I pray back to him whatever is appropriate in that passage.
If you read through the Psalms, you will notice that in most of them the psalmist is either speaking to God or speaking about God. But usually he is speaking to God. Sometimes he’s rejoicing, and sometimes he’s lamenting. He says, for example, “O God, why do you hide your face from me?” (compare with Psalm 88:4). He is interacting with God. This is what we want to do. And as we daily seek to have that personal communion with God, God will give us that navigational fix, so to speak, and he will show us what course corrections we need to make in our lives so that we do not drift off course. And so if you and I are going to endure to the end, we must make it a practice — a discipline, if you please — to have that focused, daily communion with God.
“Do we spend time with God or do we just read a chapter of the Bible?”
In 1988 my first wife was dying of cancer after a long illness. One morning as I was struggling with the reality of her approaching death, there came to my mind, “Psalm 116:15, ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.’” With that came the realization that God himself had an interest in what was happening to my wife. For me I would be losing my sweetheart, but for God, it would be the homecoming of one of his children.
I thought of the time when our fifteen-year-old son went on an eleven-week summer missions program and how we eagerly anticipated his coming home. I realized that as incredible as it seems, God eagerly awaits the homecoming of his children. And then there came to mind a part of Psalm 16:11, “in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” As I prayed over that Scripture, I realized that very soon Eleanor would experience the incredible joy of actually being in the very presence of God.
As I continued to pray back to God, I said something like, “Father, you will gain one of your children coming home, and Eleanor will gain being in your presence forevermore, but what about me?” Quickly there came to mind words from 1 Thessalonians 4:13 in the King James Version, “ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.”
With that assurance from God and his Word, I was able to emotionally release her. Two weeks later she died. In the aftermath of her death I sorrowed, but not as one who has no hope. Meanwhile I was comforted by the assurance that God had joyously welcomed one of his children home and that she was enjoying his presence forevermore.
I never experienced the various stages of grief that so many people go through after the death of a loved one. I never became angry at God or experienced days of depression. Within a week or so I was able to resume my normal responsibilities in my work. All of this because years before I had established the practice of a daily time of personal communion with God.
I should warn against the possibility of becoming legalistic about our time of communion with God. That is, we do not earn blessings from God because we have this time, nor do we forfeit his blessing on a day we miss it. God does not bless because we spend time with him, but he often blesses through that time, as he did when my wife was approaching death.
Nor should we expect to always have God speak to us through his Word in such a dramatic fashion as I experienced that day. As with the navigational course corrections aboard ship, God’s spiritual course corrections in our lives are usually incremental and not especially dramatic. But they are necessary.
A Daily Appropriation of the Gospel
The second essential is a daily appropriation of the gospel. I have put personal communion with God first to highlight its priority because that’s the absolute basic essential. But in actual practice I put my daily appropriation of the gospel first. That is, I begin my time with God by reviewing and appropriating to myself the gospel. Since the gospel is only for sinners, I come to Christ as a still practicing sinner. In fact, I usually use the words of that tax collector in the temple when he cried out, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). God has been merciful, and I’m quick to acknowledge his mercy in my life, but I say to him that I come in the attitude of that tax collector. “I need your mercy. I am still a practicing sinner. Even my very best deeds are sinful in your sight, and I am an object of your mercy and your grace.”
It’s important that we come, first of all, by appropriating the gospel because it’s through Christ that we have access to God the Father. Paul says in Ephesians 2:18, “For through him we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father.” We cannot come directly to God. We must always come through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. But God not only allows us to come; he invites us to come. The writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19–22). And so as we appropriate the gospel it gives us the confidence to come into the very presence of God to have communion with him. So we need to learn to live by the gospel every day of our lives.
In the early years of my Christian life and even in my early ministry I regarded the gospel as a message for the unbeliever. Now that I was a Christian I personally no longer needed the gospel except as a message to share with unbelievers. But I learned the hard way many years ago that I need the gospel every day of my life.
At the time I was serving overseas, and I was single and lonely. Additionally I was struggling with some interpersonal relationship issues. Every Monday night I led a Bible study at an American Air Force base about an hour’s drive from where I lived. And every Monday night as I drove home, Satan would attack me with accusations of my sin. Out of desperation I began to resort to the gospel. To use an expression I learned years later, I began to “preach the gospel to myself.” And I subsequently learned that I continued to need the gospel every day of my life. That is why I list this practice as one of the four essential elements.
Consider Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20. The apostle writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The context of this verse is the subject of justification. In verses 15–17 Paul speaks of our being justified four times. He says we’re not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, and he keeps repeating that thought. And then in verse 21 he says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
Clearly in this entire passage, verses 15–21, he is talking about the subject of justification. He is going to get to sanctification later, but that’s not in this context. The reason I make a point of that is because I want to call your attention particularly to the last sentence of verse 20. “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Remember, in the context Paul is speaking about justification, not sanctification.
Now this raises an apparent problem or question. That is, we know that justification is a point-in-time past event. At the time you trusted Christ you were at that precise moment declared righteous by God. You were justified. That’s why Paul in Romans 5:1 can speak of justification in the past tense when he says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And yet here in this passage he speaks of it in the present tense. “The life that I now live in the flesh,” today. The life that I live today, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So if justification is a point-in-time event that happened in our past, why does Paul speak of it in the present tense? The life that I now live today I live by faith in the Son of God.
The answer to that question is one of the most important truths we can learn about the gospel. For the apostle Paul, justification was not only a past event; it was also a present reality. This is where so many Christians miss it. They can look back to the day that they trusted Christ. And if you press them on that they will say, “Yes, I was justified at that time.” But today they seek to live their lives as if it depends upon them. In their mind they have reverted to a performance relationship with God. And so the thinking is, if I had my quiet time and if I haven’t had any lustful thoughts and these kind of things, then I expect God to bless me today. We want to pay our own way. We want to earn God’s blessings.
The apostle Paul didn’t do that. Paul looked outside himself and saw himself clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He saw himself declared righteous. We say to a person who trusts Christ, “You have been justified. You’ve been declared righteous. Your sins have been forgiven. You stand before God today clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” And then we can point to eternity and say, “When you go to be with the Lord forever, you will still stand clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” Even though we will have left our sinful nature behind, even though we will be righteous people made perfect, as the writer of Hebrews says (Hebrews 12:23), we will for all eternity stand in the righteousness of Christ. That never changes.
But what about from the time of our conversion until the time we go to be with the Lord? For most Christians it’s a performance relationship. That is why we need a daily appropriation of the gospel, because it is our nature to drift toward a performance relationship. Going back to those days of crossing the Pacific Ocean and getting those navigational positions twice a day, if we did not get those we would drift slowly off course. And if you do not daily appropriate the gospel, you will drift toward a performance relationship with God.
And when you do that, you lead yourself in one of two directions. If you have a very superficial view of sin in your life — that is, if you think of sin in terms of the big gross sins that society outside of us commits — then you will tend toward religious pride because you’re not doing those things. But if you are conscientious and if you’re seeing some of these “respectable” sins, such as gossip and pride, jealousy and envy and a critical spirit and these kind of things, if you’re seeing those in your life and you do not live by the gospel, that can lead you to despair. And so oftentimes people in this second category just kind of slack off because they can’t handle the tension. They can’t handle the difference between what they know they should be and what they honestly see themselves to be. And what resolves that tension is the gospel, which reminds us that our sins are forgiven and that we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
At the same time, that which keeps us from spiritual pride is the gospel, because again the gospel is only for sinners. But we are all sinners, still practicing sinners, even though we’ve been delivered from the guilt and the dominion of sin. Yes, that’s true. And we are now called saints, separated ones. But we still sin in thought, word, deed, and most of all in motive because we often do the right thing for a wrong reason or for a mixed reason. We want to please God, but we want to look good in the process. And so we come to the Lord and we say, “Lord, I come still a practicing sinner, but I look to Jesus Christ and his shed blood and his perfect obedience, his righteous life that has been credited to me. And I see myself standing before you clothed in his righteousness.”
That will get you out of bed in the morning. That will get you excited about the Christian life, when you see yourself daily clothed in his righteousness. And that will keep you from loving the world. You can’t love the gospel and love the world at the same time. So a daily appropriation of the gospel will keep you from getting off course.
About a hundred years ago a great theologian by the name of B.B. Warfield, who was a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote these words: “There is nothing in us or done by us at any stage of our earthly development because of which we are acceptable to God.” Warfield is saying there is nothing that we do in ourselves that makes us acceptable to God. He continues: “We must always be accepted for Christ’s sake, or we cannot ever be accepted at all.”
Then he continues, and this is important: “This is not true of us only when we believe. It is just as true after we have believed. It will continue to be true as long as we live. Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievement in Christian behavior may be” (Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, [Baker, 1931; reprint 1991], 7:113). What he is saying is that it doesn’t matter how sanctified we become. It doesn’t matter how much we grow in the Christian life. He says it is always on Christ’s blood and righteousness alone that we can rest.
One of the sins I struggle with frequently is the sin of anxiety; not anxiety in general, but anxiety over delayed luggage on airplane trips. I have had so many bad experiences with my luggage not arriving with me on the same flight that I no longer assume my bag will arrive with me. Every time I go to the baggage claim area I have to pray against the sin of anxiety.
A few years ago, after two back-to-back really bad experiences, I said to my wife, “I have to confess I’m just an anxious person.” The next morning in my time with God I was reading in Matthew 8. Part of that chapter is the account of Jesus and the disciples caught in a great storm on the Sea of Galilee. In verse 24 the text says that a great storm arose, “so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he [that is, Jesus] was asleep.” I was arrested by the statement that Jesus was asleep in the midst of this raging storm while the disciples were terrified.
Justification is not merely a past event but a present reality.
As I pondered that scene the thought came to me, Jesus was asleep in the boat for me. By that I mean that all that Jesus did in both his sinless life and sin-bearing death, he did as our representative and substitute. His perfect obedience as well as his death was all on our behalf. In contrast to my sin of anxiety over missing luggage, Jesus was never anxious. In far more desperate circumstances than mine, he fully trusted his Heavenly Father. And I get the credit for it. By his death he paid for the sin and guilt of my anxiety. And by his perfect trust he clothed me with his righteousness.
So I left my time with God that morning not feeling guilty because of my persistent struggle with anxiety but feeling encouraged because I knew my sin was forgiven and instead I had been credited with perfect obedience (in this case, the perfect trust) of Jesus. So I went out into my day not only encouraged but determined that by his grace I would fight against my anxiety.
That’s what it means to live by the gospel. That’s why we need to appropriate the gospel every day of our lives, because God only accepts us for Christ’s sake. God sees us clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and he wants us to see ourselves clothed in the righteousness of Christ, so that we will come to him on that basis and seek to relate to him through the merit of the Lord Jesus Christ and not through our own works.
All of us in our sinful nature are prone to slide toward a works-based relationship with God. And even though I have been preaching this kind of message for many years, I can tell you honestly it is so easy to revert in that direction because of our sinful human nature. It is our sinful nature that thinks we must somehow earn God’s favor by our own hard work or our own faithfulness. Now we want to be faithful, we want to work hard, but not in order to earn God’s approval, but because we have God’s approval. And so a daily appropriation of the gospel is essential to enduring to the end.
A Daily Commitment to God as a Living Sacrifice
The third essential is a daily commitment to God as a living sacrifice. And for that I direct your attention to Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” As we daily reflect on the gospel and what God has done for us in Christ, this should lead us to present ourselves as daily, living sacrifices.
In using the word sacrifice Paul was obviously drawing from the Old Testament sacrificial system. Those sacrifices are set forth for us in the book of Leviticus, and all of them together portrayed the one great sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Whether or not Paul had in mind a particular sacrifice, one of them, I think, best helps us understand what Paul is saying when he says to present our bodies as living sacrifices. That is the burnt offering. I think the burnt offering helps us understand what Paul is saying because two things were unique about the burnt offering.
First, of all of the animal offerings, the burnt offering was the only one in which the entire animal was consumed upon the altar. With the others, only certain portions were burned on the altar, and the remaining portions were reserved for the priests or even in one case for the offerer and his family. But with the burnt offering the entire animal was consumed upon the altar. And for that reason it was called the whole burnt offering. And it signified not only atonement for sin but also consecration or dedication of the offerer to God.
Also, the priests on duty were to present a burnt offering twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, so that the fire would not go out upon the altar (compare with Leviticus 6:8–13). In other words, there was always a burnt offering being consumed upon the altar. And so for that reason it has been called a continual burnt offering. So there were two descriptive terms — a whole burnt offering and a continual burnt offering. And I think that you can readily see the application that can be drawn from that.
First of all, the whole burnt offering would signify that we are to consecrate our entire being, not only ourselves but all that we have. Everything about us we are to consecrate, to dedicate to God, to present to him as a sacrifice. Then the word continually (Leviticus 6:13; Hebrews 10:1) says to us that this must be repeated constantly. Just as we have a tendency to revert to a works-based relationship with God, we have a tendency to want to take back that which we have committed to God.
Often in a moment of high spiritual emotion we might sincerely and honestly say, “Lord, I give my whole being, my body, my mind, my service, my money, everything about me, Lord, I consecrate it all to you.” And then we go out and in a few weeks we’re confronted with some issue, and we tend to draw back, and we realize that we’re not as consecrated as we thought we were. Daily renewal of this consecration helps us to keep from doing that.
The second word that’s significant in Romans 12:1 is the word present. Paul says to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” Some translations use a different word, but whatever word is used, the idea is to give over to or to put at another’s disposal.
Some years ago when our son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first child they had as their sole means of transportation a pickup truck. My wife and I realized they could not put an infant seat in that pickup. And though he is an engineer, our son was teaching part-time as a lecturer at the local university in order to have more time for ministry among the large Muslim population in the area. We knew they could not afford to buy another car, so we decided to give them one of our two cars. We drove that car to their city and took the title with us. When we got there, we signed the title over to our son and daughter-in-law. At that time the car legally became theirs. We presented it to them.
But not only did we legally transfer the title, we transferred it emotionally as well. That is, once we signed the title over to them, in our minds it was their car to do with as they pleased. We knew that in another year or so they would be leaving the USA to minister overseas. We knew that at that time they would sell the car and use the proceeds as part of their passage money. And it never occurred to us to think, When they sell that car we’ll get the money because, after all, it was our car. When we signed that title we not only made a legal transaction, we made an emotional transaction.
Now fast-forward a few years, and they were coming home on furlough for three months. Again Jane and I realized they were going to need a car while they were here. We had replaced the car that we had previously given them, so again we had two cars. And we decided that we would loan them one of our cars. It happened to be my car that was loaned. During those three months I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was happy that we could provide them with the car they needed. On the other hand, I missed my car since I had to always arrange with Jane to use hers.
Now God has not asked us to loan ourselves temporarily to him. He’s asked us to present ourselves to him as living sacrifices to use as he pleases. The fact is, objectively this has already taken place. The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:19–20, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” Paul wants us to affirm in our hearts and in our emotions what is true in reality, but he approaches it by way of an appeal. He does not say, “This is your duty to do.” He does not say, “You’re not your own; you don’t have a choice in the matter.” He says, “I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God.”
We see something similar in the short letter of Paul to Philemon. To review the story, Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus. At some point prior to this letter, Onesimus had deserted Philemon and had probably stolen from him in the process. He had made his way from what is now modern-day Turkey across Greece all the way to Italy, and there he encountered Paul in Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment. There Paul led him to Christ and discipled him. But Paul realized there was an issue. Onesimus needed to make things right with Philemon. So Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon, but he sent with him this letter.
The purpose of the letter was to ask Philemon to receive Onesimus, to forgive him for having run away and probably having stolen as well, and not only to forgive him but now to receive him as a brother. Now that’s quite a thing to ask, so this is the way Paul approaches it: “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (Philemon 8–9).
Paul could have said, “Philemon, you don’t really have a choice. It is your Christian duty to forgive and receive Onesimus.” But Paul didn’t approach Philemon that way. Instead he appealed “for love’s sake.” He wanted Philemon to desire to do what it was his duty to do. He did not want to coerce Philemon. And so he appealed to Philemon to do for love’s sake that which he should do in obedience to the command of God.
In the same way, the apostle Paul appeals to us. He says, “I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God.
Do you want to know what the mercy of God looks like? Read the first five verses of Ephesians 2. We were dead in trespasses and sins. We were absolutely helpless. We were not just sick — we were dead. We were slaves to the world and to Satan and to the passions of our flesh. And we were by nature objects of God’s wrath. That was our condition. That’s why we needed mercy. And then Paul says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us . . . made us alive together with Christ.” That’s mercy.
Do you see yourself today as an object of God’s mercy? Do you realize that apart from his mercy you would be headed for eternal damnation? That’s why Paul says, “I appeal to you . . . by the mercies of God.”
Presenting our bodies as living sacrifices is not something that we check off and say, “Well, I’ve done that; it’s my duty to do.” It should be a spontaneous response to our appropriation of the gospel. We are talking about communion with God. We are talking about being embraced by his love and his mercy and his grace. And we see that in the gospel. The apostle John said that God showed his love to us by sending his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10) — that is, to exhaust the wrath of God that you and I should have experienced. As we daily appropriate the gospel, we bask in his love, and genuinely basking in his love will lead us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. But that has to be renewed daily. We can’t live today on yesterday’s commitment.
The outworking of presenting our bodies as living sacrifices will be different for each of us. For some it might mean reducing one’s standard of living in order to be able to give more to God’s kingdom work. For our son, it meant taking a lower-paying job in order to have more time for ministry. For me at this time, it means being willing to continually give myself to the ministry God has given me.
At the time of this writing, it is only a couple of weeks until my seventy-eighth birthday. Over the past dozen years I have flown over a million miles, I have delivered over a thousand messages, I have written several books and a number of articles for Christian magazines. I confess I often get weary of the continuous travel, the frequent writing deadlines, and the pressure of constant message preparations, and I sometimes begin to feel sorry for myself.
We never outgrow your desperate need for Christ.
How do I keep going? How do I keep from feeling sorry for myself? Each day as I appropriate the gospel for myself, I say to God, “I am your servant. Because of your mercy to me and your grace at work in me, I again present my body as a living sacrifice. If this means continual travel and continual time pressure, I accept that from you and thank you for the privilege of being in your ministry.”
In fact my life verse is Ephesians 3:8, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” I am not only a recipient of the grace of the gospel; I also have the privilege of teaching it to others. So through my appropriation of the gospel to myself, my “living sacrifice” becomes a privilege. I am constantly in awe that God would give me the privilege of teaching many Christians that the gospel is not just for unbelievers but for them to live by every day.
A Firm Belief in the Sovereignty and Love of God
The fourth essential is a firm belief in the sovereignty and love of God. This essential doesn’t have the word daily in it, but it must be practiced continually. Years ago M. Scott Peck wrote a book (The Road Less Traveled) that began with a three-word sentence: “Life is difficult.” Most people would agree with that. If you’ve lived very long you realize life is difficult, or at least it’s often difficult, and sometimes it’s even painful. And over time you will experience both difficulties and pain.
So if you want to endure to the end, if you want to stand firm in the face of life’s difficulties and pain, then you must have a firm belief in the sovereignty and the love of God. You must not only believe that God is in control of every event in his universe and specifically every event in your own life, but that God, in exercising that control, does so from his infinite love for you.
Many passages show us the sovereignty and love of God, but I have chosen Lamentations 3:37–38. “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” I’ve chosen this particular passage because verse 37 (“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?”) affirms God’s sovereignty over the actions of other people.
So much of life’s pain is caused by the sinful actions of other people. And if you do not believe that God is sovereign and in control of those actions, you will be tempted to become bitter. And if you become bitter, you begin to turn aside from God, and you will not stand firm. You will not endure if you let other people’s sinful actions cause you to become bitter. And one of the ways we can keep from becoming bitter is to realize that God is in sovereign control even over the sinful actions of other people.
Joseph is the classic illustration of this. Three times in Genesis 45 (especially verses 5–8), after Joseph had revealed himself to his brothers he told them that God had been in control all the way along. For example, “It was not you who sent me here, but God” (verse 8). And then in Genesis 50:20 he says, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Joseph believed in the sovereignty of God, even in the sinful actions of his brothers.
At one time I suffered a crushing and humiliating disappointment in my work situation. It certainly was not due to the sinful actions of other people, but it was due to their thoughtless and uncaring actions. This action occurred on a Thursday afternoon, and I was scheduled to speak at a weekend conference beginning Friday night. How could I possibly recover from the hurt and humiliation so as to be able to speak Friday evening?
On Friday morning I awakened with the words of Job in my mind, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1:21). In my time with God that morning I was able to say, “Lord, in times past you gave, but now you have taken it all away. I accept this as from you.” My turbulent emotions quieted down, and I was able to speak at the conference as if nothing had happened. And I never became at all bitter toward those other people. This was because I believed in the sovereign control of God in their actions.
Secondly, Lamentations 3:38 says to us, “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” That is, God is in sovereign control over the difficulties and the pain just as much as he is in control over what we would consider to be the good things, the blessings of this life. Now we should thank God for the good things of life. We are to be thankful people. But what about the bad things, the things that we would not choose to have in our lives?
Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “give thanks in all circumstances,” and then he adds, “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That is to say, it is the moral will of God that we give thanks in all circumstances. In 4:3 he said, “This is the will of God . . . that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Obviously that’s speaking of the moral will of God. And Paul uses this same phraseology in 5:18 where he says, “For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” It is the moral will of God that we give thanks in all circumstances.
How do we do this? We do it by faith. We don’t just grit our teeth and say, “Lord, I don’t feel thankful, but you said to give thanks, so I’m going to give you thanks even though I don’t feel thankful.” That’s not giving thanks. We do it by faith. We do it by trusting in the promises of God. We do it by faith in the words of God through Paul in Romans 8:28–29, where he says “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him.”
And then he defines the good in verse 29 as being conformed to the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what God is after. He wants to conform us to the likeness of Christ; so he brings or allows these various circumstances, circumstances that we ourselves would not choose. He brings them into our lives because he wants to use those circumstances in his way to conform us more and more to the likeness of Christ. And so by faith we can say, “Lord, I do not know what particular purpose you have in this difficulty or this pain, this trial. But you said that you will use it to conform me more and more to Jesus Christ, and for that I give you thanks.” So we give thanks by faith.
We also do it by faith in the promise that he will never leave us or forsake us. The writer of Hebrews quotes from the Old Testament when he says, “For he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (13:5). That word never is an absolute word. It doesn’t mean sometimes or most of the time; it means never. You can count on that. God, who cannot lie, has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you. I may allow or put you in this very difficult and painful situation, but I will not forsake you.” Then we can look ahead to Romans 8:38–39, a passage that we can summarize as saying that God has said that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from his love in Christ Jesus.
It’s possible that sometime in your life things will totally fall apart and you will feel that you have nothing left. Let me tell you, there are two things that God will never take away. God will never take away the gospel. In the most difficult days of your life you still stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Your sins are forgiven. Even your doubts are forgiven because Christ fully trusted the Father on your behalf.
And, second, God will never take away his promises. These two assurances will remain even if everything else is stripped away. If you were brought to the point of being like Job, this you can count on. You stand before God clothed in the righteousness of Christ. He will never, never take the gospel away from you. And you will always have his promise, “never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”
Conclusion: Persevering, Not Just Enduring, to the End
These are the four essentials. I’m sure there are other important considerations, but I believe these are fundamental. And so I would commend them to you:
- a daily time of focused communion with God,
- a daily appropriation of the gospel,
- a daily presenting yourself as a living sacrifice, and
- a continual firm belief in the sovereignty and the goodness of God.
Then finally I want to inject another word for our consideration in the subject of standing firm or enduring to the end. That’s the word perseverance. The word perseverance is very similar in meaning to the word endurance, and often we equate the two. But there can be a subtle difference. The word endure means to stand firm, and that is the theme of this book. We are to stand firm. We’re not to be carried about with every wind of doctrine theologically. We’re not to go off to this and that and the other. We’re to stand firm. But we need to do more than stand. We need to move forward.
When Paul says, “I have finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7), obviously he was talking about motion. And perseverance means to keep going in spite of obstacles. So when Paul says, “I have finished the race,” basically he was saying, “I have persevered.” We do need to stand firm, and Scripture over and over again exhorts us to stand firm. But remember, that’s more than just standing still. If we get that idea, we’ve missed the point. We must move forward. We must persevere. We must be like Paul and say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” May you and I be like the apostle Paul.
Our Father, again we come back to the realization that any of us could become a Demas, and it’s only by your grace that any of us stands firm. And so, Father, we acknowledge our total dependence upon you. We acknowledge our total indebtedness to you. And we give you thanks for your grace. But also, Father, we acknowledge our responsibility, and we pray that by your grace we will fulfill our responsibility, that we will practice these disciplines that will enable us to stand firm and to finish the race. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
More Messages from Desiring God 2007 National Conference
Getting Old to the Glory of God (John Piper)
Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry Pt. 1 (John MacArthur)
Certainties That Drive Enduring Ministry Pt. 2 (John MacArthur)
Today’s Decisions Determine Who You’ll Be Tomorrow (Randy Alcorn)
A Call for the Perseverance of the Saints (Helen Roseveare)