Controlled by a Holy Ambition

North Central University Chapel | Minneapolis

Thank you so much for being here and for inviting me. I can tell you how much I feel at home here. I love that song. Thank you, Jeff. That was really, really powerful. I’m aware that the most immediate tension-producing event was the Soulforce event yesterday. Some of our folks came over. Daniel, one of our youth ministers, came over with a bunch of our teenagers to just talk where they could. I don’t know if you know, but emotionally inside of me, I’m sort of trembling with the Trayvon Martin case in Florida, wondering how explosive that’s going to become. This is the young black man who was shot with a glass of tea in his hand and some candy.

That’s a little bit of the national and neighborhood tension that we meet in, and here’s the relation to my missions message. Here, whenever something like this happens, you and I operate out of an incredible wealth of gospel blessing. We’ve got something to say into these situations. There are peoples all over the world — several thousand of them — with zero gospel, zero missionaries, no engagement, and no church. And if things explosive and tense and horrible happen there, nobody brings the gospel to bear on that crisis. That’s what missions is about — trying to turn that situation around for the glory of Jesus. Let me pray that God would help us in this now.

Controlled by a Holy Ambition

My goal is to persuade you that having a holy ambition is a good thing, and then to be used by God through his word from the book of Romans to bring clarity and intensity to that ambition. That’s where we’re going. If you have a Bible and you want to go with me, you could turn to Romans 15:18–24. I’ll read those verses:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience — by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God — so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,

     “Those who have never been told of him will see,
     and those who have never heard will understand.

This is the reason why I have so often been hindered from coming to you. But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you, I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you …

There, you can see the goer and the sender. Paul is saying, “I don’t want you all to go with me. I want some of you to support me as I go.” You see that in the statement:

I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you, once I have enjoyed your company for a while.

Focus your attention for just a moment on Romans 15:20. It says, “Thus I make it my ambition.” That’s where I’m getting the title for this talk — A Holy Ambition. He says:

Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation …

Paul was controlled by a holy ambition, and the reason I say he was controlled by it is what Romans 15:22 says:

This is the reason (referring back to the ambition) why I have so often been hindered from coming to you.

Then he says in Romans 15:23:

I have longed for many years to come to you …

Well, if you long to go to somebody and you don’t go, you’re being controlled, either inwardly or outwardly by something that’s keeping you from doing what you long to do that’s good to do. Then he says, “What’s controlling me, what’s hindering me from coming to you is that I have an ambition to preach the gospel where it hasn’t been named from Jerusalem to Illyricum (Albania), and I’m not done.” It was holding him where he was while he was moving through that part of the world and he wasn’t free to leave. His ambition to do his calling to minister the gospel where it hadn’t been named was still happening as he moved up from Jerusalem through Syria, across Turkey, down through Greece, and up toward Albania; he wasn’t done yet. And now, evidently he’s done.

Romans 15:24 says, “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.” So he’s freed to move by now a holy ambition that is evidently not going away, but the focus of it is shifting to Spain.

Crystallizing Your Calling

Now, what I want to happen here is that yours crystallizes, and they’re not the same. Every one of you will have a slightly different holy ambition. May God use this exposition to crystallize, clarify, and solidify your holy ambition. I’m calling it holy because the goal is holy and the origin is holy. The goal is to preach Christ where he’s not being named so that people will awaken to faith, become obedient, and then magnify Christ; that’s holy in the world. “Hallowed be thy name” is what we want to happen in the world. It happens through people falling in love with Christ and considering him as infinitely valuable and reverencing and hallowing his name all over the world. The origin of that ambition was the call of God on his life. So I’m calling it and yours a holy ambition.

It’s not about self-exaltation; it’s about Christ’s exaltation. I just finished this book about three days ago called Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement. It’s a biography that has 160 pages with another 60 pages of the footnotes. It’s a really scholarly type biography, but riveting in its exposition, to me anyway, of this man’s life. I love biographies. John Stott died last July, and I hope his name is familiar to you all. He was a great model to me. When I was in college, I read Men Made New, a little yellow book on Romans 5–8, and it just blew me away about what exposition could be as I would read it as a person your age. Everybody has his heroes. This is one of mine. So I want to read this to you. It’s called Godly Ambition and at the end, Allister Chapman explains why he titled it this way. He quotes from Stott’s exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, so I’ll read you one paragraph from Stott in this book:

Ambitions for God, if they are to be worthy, can never be modest. There is something inherently inappropriate about cherishing small ambitions for God. How can we ever be content that he should acquire just a little more honor in the world? No, once we are clear that God is King, then we long to see him crowned with glory and honor and accorded his true place, which is the supreme place. We become ambitious for the spread of his kingdom and righteousness everywhere.

The reason I read this is due to the fact that I’m 66 and I have probably one more year at Bethlehem, overlapping with a new person soon, Lord willing. And then I’m more free than ever. I feel like I’m 18 all over again, or 22, or whatever that juncture is. Stott finished at All Souls Church as a pastor in 1975 and I wanted to see how he did it.

What he shifted to was to be a world Christian of an unusual kind, caring more about third world pastors and about British pastors. So I have these rumblings inside of me, like, “Okay, I want a fresh, new, holy ambition. What will it be?” I feel like I need to go into Arabia with my wife for a year or so, and just find out what it is. I was saying to some folks the other day that my dad died at 86 and he had Alzheimers increasing the last five years of his life. I heard my dad preach when he was about 77 and it was really powerful, and then he didn’t know my name in the last months. So somewhere between 76 and 86 I’m probably not going to be useful anymore. But if I could be useful until 77, I have 10 more years. So I’m not just talking to you, okay? This is about discovery at whatever stage in life we are.

The Deception of Adolescence

Now, you face a unique challenge because I’m going to read to you how weird you guys are. I mean your generation of those who are 18 to 30. There were about five books published on you in the last six years, under various names of adultolescence and that sort of thing. You get to know where I’m going here. I’m preaching this to help you not be that, okay? So here’s a quote from Christian Smith, a sociologist at University of Notre Dame. He’s writing about you, based on those six books. It will help if you don’t know a little history here. The term teenager didn’t always exist. Did you know that? It’s a new word. Here’s what he says:

Teenager and adolescence, as representing distinct stages in life for very much of the 20th century, are inventions of the 20th century brought into being by changes in mass education, child labor laws, urbanization, suburbanization, mass consumerism, and media. Similarly, a new distinct and important stage in life situated between the teenage years and full fledged adulthood has emerged in our culture in recent decades, reshaping the meaning of self, youth, relationships, and life commitments, as well as a variety of behaviors and dispositions among the young. What has emerged from this situation has variously been labeled extended adolescence (you stay in adolescence until you’re 30), youthhood, adultolescence, young adulthood, 20-somethings, and emerging adulthood …

I’ll just read you his list. This is his take regarding those five or six books being reviewed by Smith. This is his take on what characterizes the millions of you that exist:

In one way this group can be defined by identity exploration, instability, focus on self, feeling in the limbo, in transition, in-between, sense of possibilities, opportunities, and unparalleled hope. These of course are often accompanied with transience, confusion, anxiety, self-obsession, melodrama, conflict, and disappointment.

My aim here is to wave a big flag over this assembly and plead with you at the front end of your twenties — probably most of you right around that area — that you just skip this stage.

I’ve only had one daughter and four sons, so I’m just learning about little girls. She’s 16 now, but little girls normally — I’m talking about 2 or three year-olds — like dolls. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s a good thing. But it’s not a good thing to be playing with dolls when you’re 23. You grow from a good thing to a good thing, from a good thing to a better thing. At 12, you get to take care of real babies in the nursery, and then at 18–22 you dream about forming an organization to care for AIDS babies, babies with no mommy and daddy, and you could lead a movement. That’s what it is to grow up.

Little boys, they don’t like dolls, they like guns, balls, trucks, and dirt. I’m really speaking from my own experience. However, to turn guns, like a Matt Dillon gun, or a Lucas McCain gun, into video games for 12 or 13 years is insane. It’s insane. Why didn’t I hear a man say, “Amen.” Can I hear a man say, “Amen”? So you grow up and you can skip the video game season and go straight to real life. Wield the sword of the Spirit for mighty deeds in Christ. Drive a truck load of love to the needy. Kick Satan’s rear end for Jesus.

Now the question is, if you’re going to grow up and skip that adultolescence nonsense, where does the holy ambition identification and intensification come from? Right now, if I were to send you out to find it, where would I send you? What would I tell you to do? That’s what I want to look for in the text again.

Where Do Holy Ambitions Come From?

I think the answer to that question comes in the link between Romans 15:20–21, which says:

Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation …

That’s the end of verse 20, and then here comes verse 21 where he quotes Isaiah 52:15:

but as it is written,
     “Those who have never been told of him will see,
     and those who have never heard will understand.”

Now that may not strike you as amazing, but here’s why it strikes me as amazing. Paul is giving an account of the origin of his ambition to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named, and to give that account, he says, “As it is written.” He quotes Isaiah. You know what I would expect him to do? Talk about the Damascus road. Good grief. If I had experienced what Paul experienced on the Damascus road, I would never stop telling that story: “I was walking down the road or riding on my donkey and a light shone. I fell off and I couldn’t see for three days. The creator of the universe spoke to me and called me and said, ‘I’m sending you to the nations to deliver them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.’” That’s his call for goodness’ sake. Why is he quoting Isaiah? That means that troubles me. It’s really a puzzle to me, and it’s so wonderful. Let me give you what my take on that is.

Here, my take is this. Paul knows that these folks he’s writing to, and now when I preach this text to you, are not going to have that duplicate experience. You might have an amazing experience of calling, but it probably isn’t going to measure up to Damascus. Therefore, if he keeps telling this story about the origin of his holy ambition, he’s just going to outclass everybody. He’s going to make you all feel like, “Well, I could never deserve a holy ambition if that’s the way you get it, because I’ve never seen that light. I’ve never been blinded. I never heard a voice out of heaven speaking that way. Good grief. I suppose one person in a million gets a holy ambition.” But if he wants to communicate to us, “No, no, no. When I fell off my horse, then went into town, then went away for three years to meet with God, all I did was read my Bible and say, ‘God, I have to rethink my whole life. I’m a Pharisee and I’ve missed everything. I just missed it, totally. I have to read my Bible and rethink everything from the ground up regarding the Lordship of Jesus.’”

That’s what he did, I think. And as he read, certain texts exploded for him that confirmed Damascus. They just exploded. That’s how it happens. It happened to me at your age, or maybe between 22 and 25. It happened this morning too. I’ll show how it keeps happening. I read Psalm 86 this morning in my devotions. You know what verse exploded off the page to me? Psalm 86:9, which says:

All the nations you have made shall come
and worship before you,
O Lord, and shall glorify your name.

Everything in me said, “Yes, that’s what I love. I love your supremacy. I love your kingship. I love your glory.” That happened to me at a point in time when I was a young man, and I have not been able to shake it to this day. If you read what I’ve written, that’s all I have to say, “God is great. Get in line.”

That will happen to you, though that might not be the verse. Another verse may just sear itself onto your conscience and you’ll never get away from it. You will never be able to leave it. You’ll be 18, and then it’ll be there when you’re 25, it’ll be when you’re 35, 45, and 55. It’ll have all kinds of different expressions, but something will take you in these days if you seek his face and you lay yourself open to the living Christ. As you read his written, inspired Word, he will move on you and something in this will become a word to you. I have a lot more confidence in this than I do to things I hear otherwise. I know that you’re Pentecostals, okay? I know that. You could call this a warning, but you know that warning, you don’t need me to belabor it. The Bible is the measure of all of this. I hope we agree with that.

This is where I feel like I’m on rock solid ground with my King. And if every time I’m reading through his word, the same kind of thing pushes it on me again and again and again, I say, “Okay, I have a holy ambition. I have a call on my life. I cannot explain why this is there, why it originated the way it was, and why ‘hallowed be thy name’ comes back to me as my favorite prayer over and over again. I don’t know. I don’t care to know. I just love it. I love to be laid hold on by the word and the living Christ.”

That’s what I want to happen to you, and the way to find it is to immerse yourself in this book with all humility and total availability to Christ — that you would not let him go until he gives you a holy ambition. The spring of 2012 would be a really good time to find it. It may take longer. Don’t presume upon God. You can’t make God do this. He does it when and how he pleases.

Global Strategy

There is a global strategy that God has in his plan for you all, and I want to make one more observation from the text about how all of you can fit into that global strategy. Let’s go back to verse Romans 15:19. It says:

From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ …

When I first began to think about this, I wanted to say, “That’s crazy.” Picture it now. Do you have the map in your mind? Which way are you looking? Here’s Jerusalem over here. Let’s do it this way. You have Jerusalem, Southern Palestine, Syria, Turkey, up into Greece, Macedonia, down into Acadia, Corinth, Athens, up the West Coast, and you arrive at Illyricum. And Paul says, “From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fulfilled the gospel.” And then to make it more outrageous, in Romans 15:23, he says, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.”

That’s a lot of regions. And guess what? There are tens of thousands of unbelievers there. How do I know that? Because he left Timothy in Ephesus and wrote him a letter and said, “Do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). I’m finished. I have no room for work.” What? Why don’t you come join Timothy and do the work of an evangelist here? Minneapolis is a needy place and you say, “I have no room for work in Minneapolis.” That’s what he said. What do you make of that? He said, “I’m going to Spain and I’m stopping in Rome so we can enjoy each other. They will strengthen me and maybe I can recruit some missionary support there.” And he’s going on to Spain.

Here’s my conclusion — when I say strategy, this is what I mean. In God’s economy of getting the job done, meaning that the lordship of Jesus would be acknowledged in every people group with a thriving church there that can do evangelism in its own culture and language, is that some of you — by all means not all of you with no second class citizens — would go to the hardest places in the world. Your president was saying, “You don’t have two alters here, right?” I’m just starting to catch onto this language. My language is that there’s Timothy-type missionaries, and there’s Paul-type missionaries. The Timothy type go from Lystra to Ephesus, plug in there, and give their lives to do evangelism around Ephesus. Paul says, “I’ve got no room for work there.” He’s another brand. His holy ambition is another brand of missionary. It’s not a better brand, but a different brand — a needed brand.

Some of you are called to lay down your life in the hardest places of the world, where a language has to be learned, a culture has to be crossed, and all kinds of strategies of fitting in need to be done. You will give your life there in order to plant the gospel there, lift the flag for King Jesus, and see a movement for him by the power of the gospel. That’s what some of you will be called to. I call those Paul-type missionaries. And then of course, he said to the church in Rome, “I want you to send me on my way.” So we say at our church, there are three kinds of people — goers, senders, and disobedient. There isn’t a third kind. So, so all of you, as you engage in school, and then after school, you are either passionately going or passionately sending, because whether you’re a carpenter, or a nurse, or a homemaker, or whatever you are, a Christian heart burns that the gospel be known and Christ be exalted among all the peoples of the world.

The Need for Western Missionaries

Let me close like this. When you read what’s happening in the global South these days, with the astonishing shifting of the center of Christianity from Europe and from America down into South America, Africa, Asia, and millions that are more vibrantly coming to Christ than they are in Europe and here, one of the things you sometimes hear is, “God is raising up thousands of third world missionaries, from the Philippines, Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, and South Korea. These missionaries are going out. There are these indigenous evangelists in India, say, who are going hundreds of miles or 10 miles, and so you rich Westerners can just stay home and send us your money.”

Now, I do not want to oppose you sending money to indigenous missions if you have all the appropriate ways of guaranteeing its proper use in place, but I do not buy that argument. There is a place for you. Your skin, your hair, your language, your ability to learn another language, and your peculiar cultural place in Nepal, may have an advantage that an indigenous missionary in Nepal may himself not have. I’m just going to illustrate this with a closing email that I’m going to read to you, and then we’ll pray. There is a friend of mine, who sat in my house a few blocks from here, and he has a website called He’s probably in his mid thirties now, though he was saved when he was about your age, I think. Now he’s there in Western China. He addressed that issue in an email to me from his standpoint. It was very moving to me because of the risks he’s taking. So let me read it to you:

After spending my first three years as a Christian in the United States, I was involved in tons of personal evangelism. And now after having spent seven years living in some of the most gospel-deprived regions in the world, I am very frustrated by the amount of gospel preaching that takes place in the West compared to the complete ignorance of the gospel that exists all around me over here. Let me explain myself a little better. Although it seems that the laborers are so few, even in America, it is impossible to even compare the amount of gospel knowledge available to the average American with the utter lack of the gospel found in certain areas around the world.

I happen to live in one of those places. In brief, within a few hundred miles of where I am sitting right now, there are millions of Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Muslims scattered throughout tens of thousands of towns and villages. The vast majority of these people have never heard anything true about Christianity. And with the exception of just a handful, the villages have never, in the history of mankind, been graced by the presence of a minister of the gospel. The lack of the gospel in this place is overwhelming. And I truly believe that God will call more people out into these far flung corners of the world if only they have a chance to hear about the need and are shown how they can do something about it.

I simply want to encourage the Western Church to wake up and realize that dozens of regions around the world are still completely devoid of the gospel, and most of these places are difficult places for even native missionaries to work. It is going to take people like you and me (that is, Western cross-cultural missionaries) to be sent, to go learn these languages, and share the gospel with these people. For instance, the large number of Christians in China are primarily located in the eastern half of the country, and their culture is radically different from that of the Tibetans and the Chinese Muslims. Much of the time, the Western missionaries do a far better job reaching out to these minorities than do the Chinese, especially with the racism that exists in China and the recent wars that minorities have often fought against the ruling Chinese.

Now those are the kinds of dynamics no one can predict. God’s call on your life matters more than your analysis, like someone who says, “Oh, I don’t think a Westerner could possibly be of any use. Surely, a Chinese person ministering to Chinese Muslims would be way more effective.” And he is saying, “No, not here, not around me.” He continues:

I hope I have explained my burden. Please let me know if anybody has any thoughts, comments, or questions for the glory of God. We want to see more laborers raised up to reach the millions with the gospel.

So I close with this suggested prayer for you. I’ll say it and then I’ll pray it, okay? I want you to pray, “Lord, I won’t let you go until you give me a holy ambition for my life that’s big enough to correspond to the way you are and what you’ve made me to be in your calling. Forbid me that I should waste my life. I don’t even want to waste my student days. Show me your glory. Show me your passion for your glory. Draw me into it. I don’t want to be famous. I want to be faithful. As small as I feel, even in this student body or in this crowd, I want my life to count for something connected to you. Show me. Grant me this Spring a holy ambition.”