Feel Christ (with Russian Interpretation)

Samara Preachers Conference | Samara, Russia

It was very encouraging for me to see so many pastors and young men eager to preach the gospel in Germany. They came from all over Europe and they were very hungry to talk about spiritual things and to get into the word of God. So now to look out upon you is even more encouraging. So many young men are ready and eager to hear the word of God and to preach it. I promise that I will pray for you when I leave and intercede on your behalf that God would bless your churches and bless your land.

We have three sessions together and I will divide them up like this. We’ll focus on feeling and the emotions and satisfaction in the first session. Then we’ll focus this evening on the life of the mind and the role of thinking in the Christian life and in the ministry in particular. And then tomorrow we will see how those two streams — the affections and thinking — flow into the task of preaching. The way I would like to begin is that first, I would like to pray and then open for you for a few minutes my life mission statement.

Spreading a Passion for the Supremacy of God

First of all, let me give you the mission statement of my life and the mission statement of our church and our ministry. When you stay in a church long enough, your own personal mission statement and the church’s mission statement become one. I’ve been at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for almost 30 years, and about 15 years ago, we as a church formulated a mission statement and we did it in such a way that now I can say the reason I minister and the church’s mission statement are the same. And it goes like this: I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

Let me walk through that a piece at a time and show you how central the emotions are in that statement. A very key word in that statement is spread. I want my life to count for other people. To be a Christian is to be a man for others. So part of your reason for living should be to spread truth. But the next phrase is, “I exist to spread a passion. I don’t just exist to spread a persuasion, or a conviction, or a belief. Instead, what I want to happen in other people is a passion and a zeal and a joy.

I don’t want other people just to think another way, I want them to feel another way. So there is a focus now on what that passion is. I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God. Passion in and of itself means nothing. It has to have an object and a focus. The passion has to be awakened and caused by something real. And the greatest reality in the universe is God. What I want people to be gripped by and passionate for is the greatness and the glory and the supremacy of God. I would like your churches and my church to be very God-centered and God-exalting.

I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things. God relates to all of life, not just part of life. I don’t want a church full of people for whom their religion is a part of their life. I want a church full of people whose religion permeates all of life. I want them to bring God into relation to absolutely everything they do, think, and feel.

I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. This is a very global mission statement. I want all the people groups of the world to know about the supremacy of God. I don’t want my church just to care about itself or its own city. I want the people to be world Christians, to have the whole world on their hearts. And as difficult as ministry is, and as many burdens as there are locally, I hope you will want your churches to be churches that think and pray and act for the whole world. What we want to happen among all the nations is joy in the supremacy of God.

I exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. There can be no passion for God without Jesus Christ. We will find out tonight that if you have a zeal for God and it is not through Jesus Christ, it is not a zeal for the true God. We are all sinners and as sinners, we love ourselves and we love the world, but we don’t love God. Only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit can a true passion for God be awakened.

You can see that in that mission statement, passion and joy are very prominent, and I mean for them to be very prominent. I mean for a joy in God, a delight in God, a satisfaction in God to be central in the Christian faith. I don’t know how it is among your churches, but there are many churches in the United States who think about the emotions as very marginal or peripheral. They focus on decision and commitment. Whether you have any deep, strong passion for God doesn’t matter. But I’m arguing the opposite, namely that without a passion for God, a satisfaction in God, a deep joyful embrace of God, you’re not even a Christian.

So this first message is an effort to defend the centrality of those emotions in the Christian life. It has a huge effect on the way you preach if you believe this. If you are preaching only to change people’s ideas, you’ll preach one way. But if you are preaching not only to change their ideas, but to awaken passion and zeal and satisfaction in the glory of God, you’ll preach another way.

The Place of Emotions

Let me begin with four clarifying comments. First, let’s talk about the definition or the meaning of words like joy, passion, zeal, or emotion. When I use these words, I have in mind spiritual realities, not physical realities. If I use the word satisfaction, I mean a spiritual satisfaction in a spiritual reality, namely God, not a physical experience. So when I use terms like joy, fear, gratitude, desire, hate, anger, peace, loneliness, sorrow, regret, shame, or hope. All of those are affections or emotions, but they are not physical.

You can buy Jonathan Edwards’s new translation of the book Religious Affections. Everything I have to say is in that book. I’m very deeply influenced by Jonathan Edwards. And I am making this distinction between spiritual emotions and physical experiences based on what I learned in Edwards. Let me give you two reasons why it’s biblical to distinguish between spiritual emotions and physical experiences.

It is absolutely true that when you have a spiritual emotion, you often have physical experiences. The heart may beat faster or your palms may become sweaty. Your knees may knock together. You may get chill bumps on your arms. Most of the world thinks of that as the emotion. But here are the two reasons why it is biblical to distinguish spiritual emotions from those physical experiences.

The first reason is that God has spiritual emotions and he has no body. I just read a few days ago in Hosea where he says, “My compassion grows warm” (Hosea 11:8). I read in Jeremiah about the fierce anger of the Lord. So it is possible to have warm compassion and fierce anger and have no body. If God can have this full range of emotions, clearly, those emotions are not identical with bodily experiences.

And the second reason it’s biblical to make this distinction is that when you die and your soul goes to be with Christ in heaven, you will have wonderful emotions there with him. Your body will be decaying in the grave and your soul will be with Christ, and Paul says, that will be far better (Philippians 1:23). If it’s going to be far better to be with Christ in heaven without a body, I take that to mean I’m going to be very happy there. So my first clarifying comment is simply to say that in all of my talk about being satisfied in God or enjoying God or delighting in God, I don’t have in mind physical experiences. I have in mind spiritual emotions.

Right Knowing Serves Right Feeling

Here’s my second clarifying comment: Why do I emphasize the emotions over right doctrine or truth? One of the reasons is that right doctrine or right knowing is a means of awakening the more ultimate experience of joy. Consider the words of Jesus in John 8:32, a very well-known verse:

You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

Knowing the truth is not the goal. The truth does something to you. It sets you free. From what? In the context of John 8, the answer is very clear. It sets you free from sin. Now, what is sin? Is it simply doing wrong things? No, sin includes doing right things out of wrong motives. If we are going to be set free from sin, our emotions have to be changed. So you will know the truth and the truth will transform your emotions and thus, free you from sinning. So I do not make the pursuit of truth the ultimate goal. We will see tonight that the pursuit of truth and right thinking about truth is absolutely essential, but it is not the goal. We have heads in order that our hearts might be awakened to reality.

Right Behavior Comes from Right Emotions

Here’s a third clarification: Why do I emphasize affections and emotions over right behavior? Because there is no right behavior apart from right feeling. There is such a thing in the Bible and in your experience as hypocrisy. And what is hypocrisy? It’s doing all the right things, keeping the outside of life looking just the way it’s supposed to, but not coming from any reality, not coming from any deep emotional love for God. What makes right behavior right is that it comes from the right emotions. So I put passion over behavior first because behavior without a passion for God is hypocrisy. And because the Bible makes it very clear that if you do have a right heart, it will bear good fruit.

Let me try this to see if we can get some clarity here. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Many people read that verse and say, “Love is keeping the commandments.” That’s not what it means. It says, “If you love me, something will result from loving me, namely, keeping the commandments.” Loving Jesus and keeping his commandments are not the same thing. To water down love to mere behavior in response to Jesus devastates what love is.

Love is the thing that’s going on in my heart. I am seeing Jesus as beautiful and precious and desirable and I’m receiving him and embracing him and treasuring him. And because I am treasuring him and valuing him above all things, everything changes in my life. Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matthew 15:8). So they are saying the right things with their mouths, very right things. They are singing the songs in church and they may even be witnessing about Jesus with their lips, but their heart is far from him, and that’s what I mean by passion, satisfaction, or love.

God’s Glory and Our Joy

Here’s the fourth clarification: How does this emphasis on the emotions relate to the glory of God? Now the answer is what I have devoted most of my adult life to teaching, and it’s in this sentence: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is a life-revolutionizing discovery. I grew up in a home that was very solid and very Christian. My father taught me to value the glory of God above all things. But not until I was 22 years old did I ever hear anybody explain the relationship between my desire to be happy and my commitment to glorify God. There was always a perceived tension between the two, as if by trying to be happy, you’re putting yourself at the center and God is not being glorified.

I was very miserable for a long time because I could no more deny the reality of my desire to be happy than I could deny my existence. I think God has put in your heart a desire to be happy, the same way he has put a need for food in your body. And the question simply is, how does God get glory by that desire to be happy? And the answer is that when you are happy or satisfied or joyful in him above all things, he is mightily glorified.

One of the reasons our churches are so powerless is that people are trying to live the Christian life to the glory of God and they’re not at all emotionally in love with Christ. So the main point of this message is that God, or Jesus, is most glorified, shown to be most beautiful in me when I am emotionally most satisfied in him. If you believe this, it’ll change the way you relate to God powerfully. You will get up every morning and as you open your Bible and get on your knees, your main goal will be, “Oh God, satisfy my soul with yourself so that money and reputation mean nothing to me.” You won’t be asking, “Oh God, give me more willpower not to do what I really want to do.” You’ll be praying, “Kill my wrong wants. Make me want to do what I ought to do.” I don’t want willpower people in my church; I want people who are thrilled from the inside out with God Almighty.

Our Eager Expectation and Hope

Here’s where we’re going in our remaining 25 minutes or so. I’m going to give you a biblical argument for the sentence, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Then I’m going to apply it to your people’s lives, then I’m going to apply it to your pastoral work, then to your preaching, and then finally, to a few evangelical errors that are in the world today, if we have time.

Turn with me if you have a Bible to Philippians 1:20–21:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

This is one of the most important verses in my life because Philippians 1:20 states what Paul’s eager expectation and hope is. I wonder how your eager expectation and hope corresponds to his. Here’s what Paul says in Philippians 1:20:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be . . .

And then you could say “honored” or “magnified” or “glorified” in my body. This is his eager expectation, we could use the word zeal or longing or my word, passion. We could use the word passion and what is his passion?

I want Christ to be magnified, glorified. I want Christ to look great when I live. And then he gets specific and he says, “I want him to look great and glorious and strong and wise and powerful in my body whether I live or whether I die.” Now here’s my question: How will he look glorious in my body through my death? How must I die in order for Christ to look magnificent in my dying?

Paul says, “I want him to be magnified (or honored) in my body whether by life or death” (Philippians 1:20). And then the next verse begins with four very important words. Philippians 1:21 is going to explain or argue for how Christ can be great in my body, whether by living or dying. So just focus with me on the death part of this verse. Paul is saying, “I want you to look great, Lord Jesus, in my death, for to me to die is gain.” So do you see the way he’s arguing? Christ is going to be magnificent in my dying, if in my dying I lose everything on the earth and only get Christ and call it gain.

So I ask you, if you have the opportunity to trade your wife, children, ministry, health, money, future retirement, and everything else this earth offers and all you get in return is Jesus, will you call it gain? You will if you are most satisfied in him. These two verses clearly mean this. Christ will be magnified in my dying if in my dying I am so satisfied in Christ I can lose everything on the earth and call it gain.

So I hope that those two verses (Philippians 1:20–21) are sufficient to show that my main point in this message is solidly biblical. And you all know this is so obvious in your own experience. When you treasure something so highly, you will sell everything else to have it, everybody knows this is magnificent to you. Let’s turn from biblical evidence now to application for your people.

Full and Forever

It might be good in passing from one point to the other to point to one verse where God is explicitly said to be the satisfaction of our souls. I have in mind Psalms 16:11, which says:

You make known to me the path of life;
     in your presence there is fullness of joy;
     at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Notice two key words. It says, “In your presence is fullness of joy, and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Now, those are the two things I want from a pleasure. I want it to be full and I want it to last forever. If you offer me a joy or a pleasure or a satisfaction that lasts for 90 years and is 99 percent satisfying, I will say, “No, thank you.” The only kind of joy, the only kind of satisfaction I’m interested in is 100 percent full and never-ending. And it is found in one place only: God. It’s not found in alcohol, nor television, nor money, nor sex, nor reputation. So there’s my biblical evidence and now the application to your people.

Devoted to Maximum Joy

Here’s the main shocking implication: If what I have said so far is true, your people should devote their whole lives to pursuing their maximum joy. Let me give you a series of biblical arguments just in brief for why that is so biblical and right. Argument number one, the Bible commands your people to pursue their joy. Philippians 4:4 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again, I say rejoice.” That’s not a suggestion, that’s a command.

Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” That’s not a suggestion. It’s a command. Psalm 110:1 says, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness.” That’s a command. Serve the Lord with gladness. That’s argument number one. All over the Bible, the pursuit of joy is commanded, not suggested.

Threats and Joyless Service

Argument number two: God threatens us with terrible things if we do not pursue our joy in him. Listen to Deuteronomy 28:47–48, and I’m going to just pick out a few phrases here. So the verse starts like this:

Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies . . .

That’s incredible. God threatens us with punishment if we do not serve him with gladness. So if you are trying to do the ministry or your people are trying to live the Christian life without a conscious pursuit of satisfaction in God, they are sinning.

The Nature of Faith

Argument number three: the nature of faith includes the pursuit of joy in God. Let me give you just one verse to show where I’m getting that. John 6:35 says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Now, notice the parallel structure between coming to him so as not to hunger and believing in him so as not to thirst. If you put those two beside each other — “Come to me so that you won’t hunger,” and “Believe in me so that you won’t thirst” — what you see is that the believing is being explained by the coming. So what would be your definition of faith on the basis of John 6:35? Here’s my definition of faith on the basis of that verse. Faith is not a physical but a spiritual coming to Jesus as the bread and as the water that will satisfy our souls. That’s what faith is. Hebrews 11:6 says:

Whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

If you try to come to God in faith and don’t see anything attractive, don’t see anything beautiful, don’t see anything satisfying in him, you’re not believing. When John said in John 1:12, “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God,” that receiving is a receiving of him as a treasure.

For the Benefit of Our Churches

Now I want to apply this to your pastoral work, not just to your people’s pursuit of joy. Let’s go to Hebrews 13:17. Now, at first glance, this verse appears to be only about how your people should respond to you, but this verse is profoundly about how you should serve them as well:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).

Now, you want your people to benefit from your ministry. You want them to get advantages and help from your ministry. If you didn’t care about whether your people benefited from your ministry, you would not love them. But the second half of this verse says, “If you don’t have joy in your ministry, you will not benefit your people,” which means if you don’t pursue your joy in ministry, you don’t love your people.

I grew up in an ethical atmosphere that said exactly the opposite. It said, “If you try to be happy in the ministry, if you think your own joy in the ministry is important, you’re not a loving person.” But this verse says, “If you are indifferent to your own joy, if you just groan in the ministry doing the will of God, you’re not loving your people.” So it is essential for pastoral work that you are deeply satisfied in God in your work. And of course, pastoral life is the hardest life in the world.

We will talk more later on how this whole issue of joy relates to suffering. Don’t think after 30 years in the pastoral ministry, I haven’t wept. I mainly weep. I’m surrounded by pain. I’m surrounded by lostness, broken marriages and kids breaking their parents’ hearts. But if that pain in the ministry makes you only groan, instead of saying with Paul, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), you’re not going to benefit your people.

I have one more point. For me, this verse governs my preaching. Second Corinthians 1:24 says:

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy . . .

Is that the definition of your ministry? Do you think, “Everything I do, especially my preaching, I am a worker for their joy”? And you believe in preaching about sin and calling people to be convicted for sin. But why do you want your people to stop sinning? Because sinning won’t make them fully and eternally happy. Sin is poison that tastes good. Your people need to feel you’re after their joy and you’re pursuing their joy, even when you’re convicting them of sin.