How do I find my identity, my self-identity? Directly or indirectly, we get that essential question all the time in our inbox. Take, for example, this email from Nick, a listener and a former collegiate volleyball player. He gave his life to competitive sports in college, and he discovered, as every athlete eventually does, that his career would end. And it ended sooner than Nick expected. When it did, he fell into a season of darkness. He had failed to achieve his athletic goals. And he hadn’t prepared himself for the abrupt end — unprepared to be separated from the competition, from his school, and from his teammates. So how does a serious athlete like Nick find his self-identity now?
Well, self-identity was a theme in John Piper’s very first message in his famous sermon series on the book of Romans. Many of you know about that sermon series. Piper preached through all of Romans in 225 sermons over the course of eight years and eight months, spanning from the spring of 1998 to the end of 2006. All 225 of those rich messages are collected under the series title “The Greatest Letter Ever Written.” As we recently heard, Romans is a key to his own self-identity. And in sermon number one of his series, he started with verse 1 of Romans. That’s all he covered in the first sermon, to cover the apostle Paul’s identity and, from it, our own identity. Here he is, in 1998, reading that first verse.
“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Now, there are three phrases in Romans 1:1. We’ll look at them. And I want you to see the man, I want you to see his letter, and I want you to see his God. And just by way of application right off the bat, sometimes you read a verse, and even before the exposition comes, it says a word to you so personally that it sort of skips over the exposition.
Whose Are You?
And I just have a feeling that the word that just blurts itself out here isn’t who Paul is — it’s whose Paul is. You see that in those three phrases? “Servant,” bought by another; a “called one,” called by another; a “set-apart one,” set apart by another. There’s somebody else in this verse, right? It looks like Paul is what this verse is about. This verse is not about Paul. The one who bought him, the one who called him, the one who set him apart — there’s somebody lurking behind this man.
“The big question in life is not ‘Who am I?’ The big question in life is ‘Whose am I?’”
The big questions in life are not “Who am I?” The big question in life is “Whose am I?” You have got to answer that question. Whose are you? Whose are you? That’s the issue. In the twentieth century, we get all bent out of shape about self-identity and stuff. Who am I, and my worth, and my esteem, and my value, and all that — man. When you read the Bible, the huge issue is right relationship with God and to whom you belong, whose you are. So let that be the question hanging over this verse.
Servant of Christ
Phrase number one is “a servant of Christ Jesus.” Now, we religious types, who read the Bible for dozens of years, we’ve got to realize what a shocking phrase that is. We’ve got to decide here if this man’s crazy. Jesus Christ, according to Tacitus, a secular witness — as well as all the Christian witnesses, as well as Josephus — said, “Jesus died 25 years ago.” He’s dead. He’s not master of anybody. And Paul says, “He’s my master, and he’s alive. I am a slave to the living Christ Jesus.”
So you’ve got to decide now, at the beginning of this book, Are these the rantings of a madman who thinks people die and then pop up out of the grave three days later and then become masters of people? Is he a crazy man? Or did, possibly, that happen and that’s reality — and all the people in the world who ignore that or mock that are unreality? You have got to decide this. These are huge issues. Is he crazy to call himself the bondservant of Christ Jesus?
“You are owned by virtue of creation, and you are owned by virtue of purchase. You are doubly not your own.”
What does that mean to be the bondservant? It means he’s bought by Jesus, owned by Jesus, ruled by Jesus. I’ll show you where I get that. In 1 Corinthians 7:23, he says, “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.” So to be a slave of somebody is to have been bought by them. So he calls himself a slave or a bondservant of Christ, which means Christ bought him, and that’s what he says. “Christ bought me. And since he bought me, he owns me.” If you’re a Christian this morning, you are doubly owned by God. You are owned by virtue of creation, and you are owned by virtue of purchase. You are doubly not your own, doubly his. He owns you.
He can do with you as he pleases, which leads us to the third thing it means — namely, that he rules you, and that what you want to do is please him. Where do I get that? Galatians 1:10: “Am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man,” Paul says, “I would not be a servant of Christ.” If I were trying to please men, I would not be the bondservant of Christ. But I am the bondservant of Christ; therefore, I don’t give a rip about pleasing men unless my pleasing them might lead them to please my Master, which is what Romans 15 says. “Let us seek to please one another for edification, that we might glorify God through bringing others to him” (see Romans 15:1–7).
But what’s driving this man is a radical Christ-orientation because Christ bought him, owns him, and rules him now, and all of his thinking is, “How can I please him? How can I honor him? How can I magnify him?” And what we want to create at Bethlehem — and I know that the vast majority of you are with me on this — is a church of people who are radically oriented on pleasing Christ, honoring Christ, magnifying Christ, and letting the chips fall where they will instead of being what most people are — namely, second-handers. (I get that phrase from Ayn Rand, who wrote the novel Atlas Shrugged, who despised second-handers.)
That is people who have no vision and values of their own for which they live triumphantly and are always looking over their shoulder, wondering, “I wonder what they think about this,” and “I wonder what they think about this,” and “I wonder what they think about this.” And they live their whole lives second-handedly, always trying to get into other people’s good graces and be liked and stroked and praised and complimented and paid. It’s a horrible way to live. And Paul said, “I am owned by another. I have been bought, and I am ruled, and I have one person to please: Christ. And he has revealed his word in me, and that’s my life.” Let’s be like that.