Future Grace for Finishing the Task

Part 2

International Missions Week | Ridgecrest, North Carolina


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

What I said last night, in essence, was that if we’re going to share in God’s heart for the nations, we have to share in God’s heart for God. And we have to experience that as good news. And it’s joy to experience the supremacy of God in the heart of God. And thirdly, we need to experience the life that is a life of holiness that overflows from this joy in God and his supremacy. So that’s the outline. We’ve moved into it, but we only got briefly into that second passion: passion for the supremacy of God.

I unfolded texts from the Bible to try to persuade you that God’s heart for God runs from eternity to eternity. And that the ultimate reason that he has created the universe and has fulfilled his redemptive purposes, or is fulfilling them, is to display his glory for the enjoyment of his people being gathered from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Then we only got a beginning into this second point — namely, that that’s got to feel like good news to you: that God is supreme in the heart of God should be your joy. And yet, it seems to many people like a selfish thing of God to do: to put himself forward as so glorious all the time, and to call attention to himself.

C.S. Lewis really stumbled over this. You may remember reading his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. And one of the biggest obstacles to his coming to believe in God was God’s vanity. As he read the Psalms, God was always commanding people to praise him. Those are his words. He said, “It sounded like an old woman seeking compliments.”

And then it dawned on him what I tried in the last five minutes last night to say. And I learned that basically first from C.S. Lewis, and then I began to see it all over the Bible — namely, that it isn’t vanity on God’s part to constantly call attention to his own glory; it is love. If I had to give you a quiz on last night’s session, I’d say: now explain how God’s radical self-centeredness and always calling attention to his glory is the most loving thing he can do. So let me just see if I can say it again quickly, and then give you a broader biblical foundation for it.

His Glory, Our Joy

My two-line explanation was: God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. And I gave some illustrations to try to help you feel the force of that: that God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest act of virtue. If you copy him in that, you’re a sinner. Don’t copy God by saying, “Oh, if God makes it his primary aim to exalt himself, I should make it my primary aim to exalt myself.” Wrong. Rather, if you really want to copy God who makes it his primary aim to exalt himself, make it your primary aim to exalt him. That’s the way you copy God.

Adam and Eve got that all mixed up at the very beginning. “You will be like God knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). And they should have said, “I’m already like God in that I’m designed to glorify God like he is designed to glorify God. Get out of here, Satan.” That’s what they should’ve said. But they fell for that half-truth that if you really want to copy God who exalts himself, you exalt yourself. And we’ve been doing it ever since; it’s the nature and essence of sin.

So we’ve got to experience the fact that God means to be glorified in all that he does. And this is good news because, in doing that, he holds up to us that which will satisfy our souls. If we will delight in him above all things, we will have infinite and eternal joy and satisfaction. So God is loving to lift himself up in our presence and commend himself to us for our enjoyment because he alone can satisfy the human soul. We’re made for God. We’re made to delight in God.

Obedience of Joy

Now, that’s kind of a logical argument for the pursuit of joy in God, but we need a biblical one; we need texts. I remember one time I was supposed to do a seminar with another leader in the evangelical world. So she wrote me and said, “I don’t like your title.” My title was something like “Pursuing Your Joy in Missions,” or something like that. She wrote back and said, “I don’t think we ought to say ‘pursue your joy.’ I think we ought to say ‘pursuing obedience in missions.’” Doesn’t that sounds like her? She’s in your face, kind of lay-your-life-down for Jesus, and I love it.

But when we were together, here is what I said to the people to explain. I said, “Now, here is the problem I have with that criticism of my title. It’s like saying we shouldn’t pursue apples, we should pursue fruit.” Don’t pursue joy, pursue obedience. Don’t pursue apples, pursue fruit. Here is what obedience is: obedience is doing what you’re told. Everybody agrees with that: obedience is doing what you’re told. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” That’s a command. So if obedience is doing what you’re told, you pursue delight in God, or you disobey. So don’t treat my pursuit of joy as something other than your pursuit of obedience. It’s just a piece of it. It’s just a piece of it, that’s all. And I don’t think people get that. So that’s why I’m always pushing it.

Together in Harmony

I grew up in a Southern Baptist church, White Oak Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Dear old Gene Lawrence is with Jesus now. He was pastor there for 36 years I think — an amazing thing. That’s why I’m hanging in there at year twenty, and hope to make it to thirty maybe. But one of the things I didn’t get there, and I didn’t get it from my folks as far as I could tell, is that the pursuit of joy and the pursuit of obedience are not at odds. This is the word of this mission. This is a word for you missionaries. When would come through and challenge us young people, I always got the impression that for me to do God’s will was always put over against my will. Do God’s will, deny your will.

Now there is a real big truth in that. Jesus said, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). So there is a sense in which me I have to put the cap on some kinds of pursuit. But there is another whole scope of Scripture that has a third alternative — namely, couldn’t it be that my will would be God’s will? And that the most satisfying, wonderfully fulfilling thing could be to follow him to the mission field? Do I have to be miserable all my life to be obedient? And that just wasn’t coming through to me, even if that was probably my fault. Sin and selfishness and lust and all those things were probably just making a big mess out of what people said. But I want to make it clear now, just in case anybody is in this room that has that category in your head that obedience is on one side and joy is on another, and they don’t overlap often.

Commanded to Be Happy

And I just want to say that the Bible commands you to be happy. So here are my texts. I said we need more biblical foundation on this second point.

  • Psalm 100:1–2: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” Serve the Lord with gladness. Do you hear it? That’s a command. If you’re not experiencing it, that’s one of the reasons you’re here, to get fixed, to get healed, to get awakened. I know the ministry is hard and there are seasons of great pain, but we’re called even in that to rejoice, are we not?

  • Romans 5:3–5: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” It won’t put you to shame. The Bible says, “Rejoice in tribulation.”

  • Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”

  • Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

  • Matthew 5:12: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

  • Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

  • 1 Corinthians 13:6: Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.” If you’re a loving person, you rejoice in the truth.”

  • Philippians 3:1: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.” Rejoice in the Lord.

  • Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” He’s in prison as he writes that, or at least custody in Rome.

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:16: “Rejoice always.”

And you know, I remember one time reading in C.S. Lewis, and he quoted Jeremy Taylor: “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy,” which I thought was kind of a clever thing to say. “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” But I wondered, Is that biblical? Is there any Bible verse that talks like that? That’s clever, but is it biblical? And then I found it. I found it in Deuteronomy 28:47:

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 whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.

God threatens terrible things if we will not rejoice in the ministry in him. You see, one of the reasons I write what I write, I preach what I preach, I try to live what I live, is that this is serious. Joy is serious business. Somehow or other I got the message along the way that joy is icing on the cake of gut-wrenching willpower: do your duty religion. And joy is icing. If the icing is missing, you still got the cake. And I don’t see it that way anymore after texts like that.

There are too many texts that demonstrate joy is fundamental. God is too glorified in it. Hearts need it so badly. This is not icing; this is cake we’re talking about here. Indeed, it’s meat, we’re talking about here. It’s foundation we’re talking about. So that’s the end, basically, of my second passion. Passion number one was a passion for the supremacy of God. Passion number two is a passion for joy.

Passion for Holiness

And what I’m after, remember, is a kind of life, which I’m going to call living by faith in future grace, a kind of life that satisfies all three of the passions that I’m talking about right now: (1) passion for the supremacy of God, (2) passion for joy, and what we’re going to shift over to now, (3) a passion for holiness.

A passion for holiness — why is this so important? Holiness in living your life on the mission field at home, seeking for holiness in the churches that you plant, wherever you plant them. Why is this a third crucial thing? And the reason it is so crucial is because without holiness, we will not see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14, “Pursue peace and holiness without which we will not see the Lord.” There is a necessity.

You need to listen very carefully in these next few minutes because we’re on the brink of some very grave theological errors that people commit with regard to faith and works, holiness and trust. What I’m going to argue now for the next few minutes is that there is a holiness, there is a change of life, there is a Christlikeness in measure — far from perfection. I am not a perfectionist. I think that’s unbiblical. Nobody in this life ever becomes perfect. We will become perfect in the last day, at the last trumpet, if you live till Jesus comes. You will be changed in the twinkling of an eye, and you will be perfect. Or if you die, you will become one of those whom Hebrews calls “spirits of the righteous made perfect” — but not now (Hebrews 12:23).

But I am saying there is a measure of holiness, there is a growth in grace, there is a Christlikeness, which you need to be growing in or you won’t go to heaven. And that makes it important. Missions is all about gathering of people who will be with us celebrating God in heaven forever and ever, or on the new heavens in the new earth. So let me give you texts now to undergird this third observation about holiness being essential. And then I’ll pose for you the theological problem I have created with regard to justification by faith alone, apart from works of the law. And we will wrestle to get a solution.

Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” Here is another one: Galatians 6:8 says, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” Now stop right there. I’m going to read some more, but get that. How shall you reap eternal life? By sowing to the Spirit and not to the flesh. Verse 9. “Let us not grow weary of doing good.” That’s a definition of sowing to the Spirit. “For in due season, we will reap.” Reap what? It just said so in verse 8: “reap eternal life.” “In due season, we shall reap [eternal life] if we do not give up.”

Do you see the conditionality of eternal life? I know these jars you because I’ve read the “Baptist Faith and Message.” It’s good, and I agree with every line in it. And it is clear as a bell. I went online to read it again last night just to make sure. I wanted to see what the position was on this whole issue of perseverance. And it’s good, but it makes it very clear: once you are born of God, and once you have saving faith, and once you’re a child of God, you’re going to make it home. These texts in many people’s ears don’t sound that way. They sound so conditional, and they are.

But the question is going to be: Does God undertake for all of his children to see by his mighty power that they fulfill the measure of the condition they need to make it to glory so that they are absolutely secure in the sovereign working of God in their lives? Not in any other way like, “I prayed a prayer when I was six years old, and therefore I’m going to have it no matter what I do.” That kind of thinking should not be Southern Baptist thinking, which I fear it is because you don’t know your documents as well as you should. Just like it is the thinking of most other evangelicals in America.

There’s this easy-believism that says, “Walk the aisle, sign a card, join the church — safe, home-free.” Not so. No. James 2:17: “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” That’s clear. That’s clear. Second Thessalonians 2:13: “But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” Notice that he has chosen you for salvation through sanctification. Salvation through — not around, but through — sanctification. You know what sanctification is? Becoming holy, becoming like Jesus. We are saved to pass through it, not around it.

Anybody that’s in your church, who’s on a detour around it, you should speak warnings to such people. You don’t condemn them, you don’t decide anybody’s final salvation, but you speak warnings. You tell them: “Look, if you keep walking in this way of disobedience and blatant unbelief, or behavior that looks like unbelief, you have no warrant to believe that your profession of faith was real.” That’s the way you talk to them. You don’t decide. They may be backsliding, they may not be. You don’t know that. And therefore, you don’t assume it. I don’t. I warn them; I say, “Look, you keep sleeping with her, you won’t get out of that relationship, you have no warrant to believe that you belong to God. I don’t care what decisions you made in your past. You need to repent and get right with God so that assurance could become yours again. Right now, you can’t have any assurance living like that.”

In Romans 8:13, Paul is speaking to the church. Paul always speaks with the judgment of charity toward the church. He knows the church is a mixed group. My church is mixed, every one of your churches is mixed. There are unbelievers who are on the rolls in my church and unbelievers who are on the rolls in your church. Let’s just agree with that. We don’t need to get all bent out of shape, “Oh, you mean they’re unbelievers that we welcome?” Of course there are. We try to baptize believers, it’s the only kind of people that ought to be baptized, but we make mistakes and people pull the wool over our eyes, and over their own eyes sometimes. “If you are living according to the flesh,” he’s talking to the church here. So here’s Paul talking to a church in Rome. He says, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die.” And he didn’t mean physical death because everybody does that. He meant: “go to hell. “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” So there’s a holiness that we don’t produce on our own, but by the Spirit — it’s called living by the Spirit, walking by the Spirit, bearing the fruits of the Spirit — and if you do that, you will live.

One more text, and then we’ll wrestle with the problem. First John 1:7 says, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Now we’re talking walking here. This is living a Christian life, walking in the light. So, on what condition does the blood of Jesus cleanse us from all sin? If we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.

Now, just to make sure you don’t misunderstand John’s theology at that point. In 1 John 1:9 he says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So walking in the light doesn’t mean sinless perfection, does it? It can’t in the context. Walking in the light means having the light of God so powerfully on you and around you that when you do sin, you recognize it as sin, you hate what you’ve done, you repent of it, you confess it, and you enjoy the forgiveness that was bought for you at Calvary. That’s the rhythm of the Christian life. None of us is perfect. We sin every day. But the truly born of God hate their sin. They repent of their sin. They ask for forgiveness for their sin, and they enjoy ongoing fellowship with God in that way.

Faith That Works

So what I’ve done is, on this third point of the passion for holiness, laid out a few texts, and there are many, many more, which show that holiness, or Christlikeness, is a necessity, if we would make it to heaven. Now let’s pose the problem. And you all believe this; I believe it: salvation is by grace through faith not of works lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8–9 says,

By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So we all agree here now that we got saved not by works, performances, deeds, but by faith alone.

  • Romans 3:28: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
  • Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So it’s clear. The strong, deep, evangelical, Baptist, historic Protestant conviction that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works lest anyone should boast — it’s clear; we believe that.

And now we have these other texts over here that say there is a holiness without which you’re not going to go to heaven. And there is a living by the flesh, which, if church member does, you will die. And there is a sowing to the Spirit which will reap eternal life. And there is a sowing to the flesh which will reap corruption. And if you don’t grow weary in doing good, you will reap eternal life. And if you do grow weary in doing good and forsake goodness and faith, you’ll go to hell. That’s another group of texts. And they’re not contradictory. And the way they get solved is not by saying none of these texts have to do with the eternal life. Clearly they do. I mean, we could develop a whole hour on that to try to protect you against a whole wing of theology that tries to do that with text. It won’t work. It just won’t work. But I’ll leave that to the side and hope that you’re not there. If you’re there, I hope you leave there and get over here.

There is another way to put these texts together: salvation by faith alone apart from work of the law and the necessity for obedience. Now the reason I looked up the Baptist Faith and Message to see whether or not this particular paragraph of the Westminster Confession was there is because I wanted to quote that instead of a presbyterian confession in this group. It wasn’t there. But the essence is there. I just can’t get the sentence I want. Those who understand the Baptist Faith and Message will know that what I’m about to read from the eleventh paragraph of the Westminster Confession is in perfect harmony with the Baptist Faith and Message. Let me read it to you. This is the way that Protestants, let’s just be broadly evangelical Protestants for a moment, and ask, How has it been solved for five hundred years? Not a modern fandangoed way to solve this problem, but how has it been solved by five hundred years of faithful Protestant thinking? And here’s one way of saying it:

Those whom God effectually calls he also justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous, not for anything wrought in them or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone.

So Christ’s righteousness is the ground of our acceptance with God, not our righteousness.

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification. Yet faith is not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces and is not dead faith, but worketh by love.

So the solution of the Westminster Confession is that faith alone justifies, but the faith which justifies is never alone, but always works by love. But it isn’t the working that justifies. The faith justifies. Let me say it like this: One thing unites you to Jesus Christ who is your righteousness and your acceptance before God. One thing — and one thing alone — unites you to Jesus, who is your righteousness. And the answer to that one thing is: faith. However, the faith, which unites you to Jesus, who is the ground of your acceptance, is the kind of thing — this faith is the kind of thing — which is living and active and works by love, so that the working or the loving is the evidence of the reality of the faith which alone unites you to Jesus, who is your righteousness before God. That’s my solution.

Why Faith Works Through Love

But what I want to develop for you in unfolding a life called living by faith in future grace, is an explanation that goes beyond what was made explicit in the Westminster Confession. And it is this: Why is faith the sort of thing that necessarily loves people, and thus changes lives and does missions? Why? And that answer is not given in the Westminster Confession. In fact, not many people pose the question. Most people who are thoughtful Protestants, and have learned how to relate faith and works in this biblical way, believe that faith alone justifies, gives us a right standing with God in Christ, and faith is the sort of thing that produces love and works. Faith without works is dead faith. So living faith works. Most people say that, they know that. I hope we’re on the same page there.

But not many people go a step further and pose the question: Why? Why is it that faith does that? And I think we will be mightily helped by answering that question, Why? And not only will we be helped to lead lives of holiness, and thus make it to glory with deep assurance that we are Christ’s, but we will find joy abounding, and God will, therefore, get more glory, if we understand why it is that face produces the works of love.

Let me give a summary answer to why it is that faith produces love or holiness or missions, and then we’re going to step back in the next hour, after we come back from the break, and I’ll give you eight biblical foundations, or eight things that have to be solved or shown from Scripture, to make this work. Here’s my explanation for why faith does this: Faith is, in itself, being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. It is a contentment in the promises of God to work for us and be for us all that we need in the future. And when faith is that future-oriented, and that shot-through with satisfaction — satisfied in all that God is and will be for us; future-oriented and satisfaction in what God promises to be for us — it, by that nature, is a superior satisfaction over all that sin offers. And thus, it breaks the power of sin in your life.

Because did you know nobody sins out of duty? Nobody gets up in the morning and says, “Well, I really don’t want to, but it’s my duty, and so today I’ll do some bad things.” Nobody sins like that. The only reason people sin is because sin makes promises that things will go better if we sin — at least better in the short run. A little drink, little drug, little lie, little mean-spirited word to get the upper hand in the argument, it’ll feel good — little short-term promises. Sin has power to the degree that sin’s promises are compelling in your life. Sin has power over you to the degree that the promises it makes to you has power in your life, and are compelling in your life. So how do you break the compelling promises of sin in your life? Answer: with the power of a superior promise — faith in the power of a superior promise.

So if I could persuade you here, and it would go down deep into your heart, that faith in future grace — faith in all that God promises to be and do for you in the future — is a superior promise, and a superior treasure, and a superior satisfaction, and a superior delight, to everything that Satan beckons you with, and sin beckons you, I would give you a power by which you would break the power of sin in your life. And my argument is: that’s what faith is. And therefore, faith cannot coexist with faith in the promises of sin.

You’re either going to believe the promises of sin when it beckons you to just, “Tell a little lie about the honorarium you got, John, because nobody knows about honoraria, and Uncle Sam could never catch you if you didn’t report this on your income tax. So you got a hundred dollars for that wedding. Goodness, it’ll never be missed. Just pocket the money, put it in the bank. Don’t write it down on a little piece of paper and put it in an envelope called “tax to report” at the end of the year because nobody will ever know. And you’ll have another hundred dollars with which to do what you want to do.” That’s the way sin talks.

Now, how are you going to defeat that? You could try to defeat it all your life with duty, “I’m supposed to do right, I’m supposed to tell the truth.” But it might be more powerful to say, “Sin, shut your mouth because God promises to meet all my needs. And if I follow him, if I sow to the Spirit and rely upon him, and not rely upon you and your promises and your ways to get money and to meet my needs, but rely upon him and his ways to meet my needs, I’m not going to obey you.” Then sin becomes like water off a duck’s back because you have a superior promise. God whispers in your ear, “John, I’m for you. I will meet all your needs according to my riches in glory in Christ Jesus. You don’t have to listen to that. It’s a lie. Believe me, trust me, trust my future grace on your behalf.” And at that moment, if you believe him, the power of sin is broken. Sin’s power is broken by the superior satisfaction promised to you by God. And that’s why faith in future grace will break sin’s power in your life.

Now we at least have before us a summary of the three passions that I mentioned: (1) a passion for the supremacy of God, (2) a passion for joy, and (3) a passion for holiness. Now this third one is the life of holiness, the life of love, that I want to live. And I believe it’s the life of living by faith in future grace because that’s going to produce the holiness, produce the joy, and give the glory to God. And so I want to unpack it biblically. I want to probe and dig into the biblical tentacles and roots that feed this life. And I have about eight points of investigation that need to be wrestled with biblically, in order to understand what it means to live by faith in future grace.

1. Faith must be seen.

Now if this is true — if living by faith in future grace is the key to breaking the power of sin, and living a life of love and holiness, and rejoicing and giving glory to God, and reaching the nations, and having a heart for the nations that is God’s heart — if all that is true, then we have to see that faith is the great worker. Faith is the worker in the Christian life.

I was talking to some brothers here before that one of the frustrations in the Southern Baptist Convention (and it is not unique to Southern Baptists at all), is the people who walk the aisle, sign the card, seemingly get saved, and never darken the door of the church again, never act like they’ve experienced any revolution of life, and the frustration that is for pastors and mothers and fathers and others. What do you do with that? One of the reasons is that we have not been taught the nature of saving faith. What is it? Is it yes to doctrines? Is it walking an aisle? Is it praying a prayer? What is saving faith? It’s just not talked about very much. I want to say that one of the things it is is that faith is the worker. I’ll give you the text from which I’m getting this. First Thessalonians 1:2–3 says,

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

That little phrase work of faith means faith works. Faith is the sort of thing — and we need to figure out how and why — that works. It does things differently than before it existed. Another text with the same phrase work of faith is 2 Thessalonians 1:11:

To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power.

Here’s another text. In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul says,

But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.

Where does sanctification or holiness or Christlikeness or a transformed life or love come from? It comes from faith, sanctification by faith. We’re really good at saying justification by faith, and less good at saying sanctification by faith. When have you last heard a sermon on sanctification by faith? It is absolutely essential. I hope you’re picking that up. It is not icing on the cake. Sanctification is not icing. It is the path along which you go to heaven, and there’s no other path. Galatians 5:6 is the key text on faith as the great worker.

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

That’s one of the most important verses in the Bible. In other words, religious performances is not the way you get right with God: going to church, reading your Bible, getting baptized, having devotions, keeping your nose clean from lying and stealing and killing and adultery. That’s not the way you get right with God. “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision mean anything.” But what does mean everything? Answer: faith working through love. Now it isn’t love that counts for everything to get you right with God. It is faith, but it’s the sort of faith that works through love. Because James says faith that doesn’t work through love is dead, and dead faith doesn’t unite you to Jesus. If you’re not united to Jesus, you go to hell.

So faith unites you to Christ, but it’s the sort of faith that works through love. I’m using these words interchangeably: holiness, sanctification, a life of love, power against sin — all that is the transformed life. All of that is the fruit of faith. It isn’t the fruit that creates the tree. The tree is united to God in its root through faith. The fruit says: Is it united or isn’t it? Is it real or isn’t it? Is it alive or is it dead? So you see how essential sanctification is. Faith working through love counts for everything.

One more text on this first point is Galatians 2:20. I had it as a life verse once when I was a student in college. I had mononucleosis for three weeks — best three weeks of my life in one sense, because of how God met me and called me there, and utterly turned my life around. Solzhenitsyn and John Bunyan both said, “Bless you prison for you were my life.” I say bless you mononucleosis for you were my ministry. I was on a track in another direction and God just stopped me, turned me around, called me to the ministry when I was twenty years old at Wheaton College, lying in a hospital room with mononucleosis for three weeks, with a pancreas that was so swollen you could watch it pop when I breathed in and out. The chaplain, Welch, came in and he said, “John, do you have a life verse?” I said, “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.” Do you live by faith? That’s the life: living by faith is the life that evidences that you’re born of God. That your roots are in grace. That you’re united to Christ. I live by faith. The life is born of faith. Faith is the worker. That’s point one in my effort to unpack how living by faith and future grace transforms us.

2. Faith trusts in future grace.

I’ve been using this phrase. Now I need to explain it. Faith in future grace. We trust in grace. The faith that justifies is faith in grace, bought by Jesus and promised for the future. Let me give you verses that explain what I mean by future grace.

Waterfall of Grace

Now most of us are clear on past grace. We know that when Christ died, or shed his blood, it was by grace. Through grace, God gave his Son so that he might die, cover our sins, demonstrate a righteousness, so that if we by faith are in him, we will be accorded his righteousness, made right with God, cleansed of our sins, and ever accepted in the Beloved. That was all wrought by past grace at the cross. God’s grace overflowed in the sending of the Son to do all that. We know that; that’s past grace.

Now, I’m arguing that the faith that saves is faith not only in that, but in future grace, which is all one piece. The future grace of God that’s going to happen to me starting right now. Five more seconds of grace has just become past grace and I’m still alive. My heartbeat was a gift of grace. If my heart beats for the next thirty minutes of this message, it will be grace keeping me alive. If it has any blessing in your life in the next thirty minutes, that will be grace having come down and done a work in your life. There’s future grace: it’s just constantly going over the waterfall of the present into the past, with a great reservoir gathering to which we can look back with gratitude, and there’s a great river coming toward us in the future, and we need to trust that river.

Grace with You

Here are my texts from where I get that. The first one is 1 Corinthians 15:10. I love this verse:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

Now, think of this here you are facing the rest of your life, facing the ministry back in the field where you’re going to go, or facing the ministry in your church, or facing your job that you have to return to tomorrow maybe, or next week. How will you face it? How do you think about going back to work or going back to the mission field?

The way 1 Corinthians 15:10 works is: When I get there, grace is going to be there to meet me in the future. It’s going to be pouring down on me, so that as I speak of living my life, I say I worked harder than any of them, but it was not I. You can transfer this into the future now: “I’m going to work, I’m going to work harder than anybody, but it’s not going to be me, I’m not going to get into that trap again — no way. It’s not going to be me. It’s going to be restful me in the grace of God that is out there in the future, ready to meet me at every moment as I walk into the future, enabling me to do what I have to do, so that I can say, “Nevertheless, it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

Easy Yoke

I have an image in my mind of how I want to live my Christian life. It’s a little bit of an overstatement, but you’ll cut me some slack on that.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30)

Now missionary, believe that, would you please? My yoke is easy, and my burden is light, and I just said I’m going to work hard. It doesn’t sound like an easy yoke when I say it like that. Here’s my image: Do you know what a yoke is? Back in those days it was a big wooden thing that fit on the back of the oxen. It seems heavy and rubs their neck raw. Here’s Jesus coming saying, “I do invite you to take my yoke. But please understand: it’s light and its easy. Relax, missionary, it’s light.” So here’s my image: Jesus is the farmer. I am the oxen, and his yoke is his word. He puts it on me. Now picture a very old-fashioned plow. It’s got two handles. The thing that cuts in the ground, and then it’s fastened to the yolk on this big oxen.

He says, “OK, we’re going to do some plowing in Pakistan now.” He takes this thing, and I love to watch his arms do this. They’re like the arms of an MLB slugger. You look at his forearms, and they’re just as big as my thigh, and Jesus’s arms are like that. I wish somebody would paint this for me. He takes the handles, and he goes and lifts his oxen off the ground and pushes. That’s my image of what it’s like to come to Jesus heavy laden, but then receive rest. Now I know you don’t just hang around in the mission field. I know you don’t just hang around. You do put your feet on the ground and make some steps. But really, it’s something like that. It is. Faith in future grace is something like that. It’s an easy yoke. He promises to work for us. Here’s another text where I learned this idea of future grace.

Grace to You

I didn’t know this until about six years ago, and I checked it out. At the beginning of every one of Paul’s letters, without exception, you find the phrase “grace to you.” It has some variations like “grace and peace to you from God our Father.” But it’s always “grace to you” at the front of the letter. Then you get to the end of the letter, and without exception, every letter, it closes with grace be with you. It’s always “grace to you” at the beginning, and always “grace with you” at the end. I didn’t know that was there. I asked why: Why is it always “grace to you” at the beginning of the letter and always “grace be with you” at the end of the letter?

Here’s my effort at an answer. I don’t know if this is the right answer, but I’ll commend it to you. As he writes these letters, he intends for them to be read in a worship setting in a little gathering of believers in Rome, or Philippi, or Colossae, or Thessalonica. As they gather, he wants to speak to them. He’s the inspired apostle. Jesus is going to talk to them through Paul. As they begin to read, he says, as you’re gathered here, “grace to you” — meaning, grace is going to come upon you as I read this. This is the word of God: it’s going to grace you; it’s going to bless you. Future grace, in the next ten or twenty or thirty minutes, or whatever the reading is, is coming to you.

Then as he comes to the end of this thirty minutes of grace falling upon them through the word, it says now we’re coming to the end. We’re ready to finish reading. You’re going to go your way back to the slave master, or back to the marketplace, or back to an unbelieving husband, or wherever you’re going to go, grace be with you. It’s going to be with you. When you get back there, it’s going to be with you. Grace is not just back there at the cross. The cross bought future grace, so that as you leave here, there is no place in the future where you’re going to go where grace won’t meet you there and be sufficient for all your needs. That’s what I mean by future grace.

Flowing from the Future

Some people hear the term future grace and they think I mean when Jesus comes, the Second Coming. That’s true, that’s going to be massive grace as we’re changed in the twinkling of an eye and all our sins are gone forever, and we’ll be perfect; that’s grace. But I mean that five seconds from now, grace is going to meet me. There I still have a voice, my mind is still working pretty good, I don’t lose my place too often, and truth is coming out of my mouth I hope — this is all grace. My heart is beating, I can still move my hands and my fingers. This is amazing grace, and it keeps coming, it keeps coming, and it keeps coming to me, minute after minute, year after year, and how we should trust it, trust it. Here’s another verse: 2 Corinthians 9:8 says,

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

This is the future he’s talking about. All of you have some good deeds challenging you in the future, and some of them are really hard to do. You’ve got to confront somebody, you’ve got to talk to a kid. Maybe one of your kids is twenty-five years old and you haven’t seen him for three years. He’s not walking with the Lord, and you’ve got to talk to him, and this is not going to be easy. Can you do it? No. Can grace enable you to do it? Yes. Because it says God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency, you will have an abundance for every good deed. There is not one thing you have to do for which there is no grace to do it. Anything God wants you to do, he’ll give you the grace to do. If he doesn’t give you the grace to do it, he doesn’t want you to do it.

It’s grace, grace flowing from the future, and life, therefore, is one challenge to believe in it after another. Minute by minute, we are resting on future grace arriving from the heart of God to take care of us and meet our needs, and be for us what we need him to be. That’s the key to the Christian life. That’s what I mean by living by faith in future grace. That’s point number two of explanation.

3. Faith is oriented toward the future.

Faith, therefore, is future-oriented. That’s obvious from what I’ve said, but let’s get texts under our feet for that. The second point was that grace is future, and now I’m telling you that the faith, which trusts in grace, is future-oriented. So many times, and this is one of our weaknesses in our churches, we teach faith as a backward-oriented thing.

Don’t misunderstand me though. The cross is certainly the most important event of history. There, all future grace was purchased, and therefore, we often need to look back. But right now, I’m stressing: we must look at the grace that is coming to us. It says in 1 Peter 1:13, “Hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” But there’s grace coming to us all the way along.

Here’s my text for defending the future orientation of faith: Hebrews 11:1 says,

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

That’s crystal clear, isn’t it? Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. Here comes a challenge to your mission or your ministry. Tomorrow it looks hard, or two years from now it looks hard. Maybe you’ve got a terminal illness in this room right now, and you’re in chemotherapy. The doctor is saying you have a fifty-fifty chance of not making it, or seventy-thirty. Faith is the assurance that God will be there every step of the way, and provide whatever you need in life and in death. Colossians 1:22–23 says,

He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard.

Now do you see the connection between continuing in the faith and not being moved from the hope of the gospel? Faith is in the hope of the gospel. Faith is the experience of hope in the gospel, that God is for you. If God is for us, who can be against us in the future? The faith that justifies, the faith that saves, is not just a backward-looking faith that believes in a fact about Jesus Christ doing something on the cross. It is faith in what he bought for us there.

If you don’t trust in what he bought for you there, you don’t trust in the price. What he bought for you there is future grace: that he will be for you forever and ever and ever. He’ll take care of you, he’ll provide for your needs. You trust in that. That’s saving faith. You trust in that. That’s saving faith. There’s not a saving faith that just looks back and signs a card about the doctrinal truth of the atonement. You dishonor the atonement if you don’t trust what the atonement bought, and it bought for you God’s being for you in the future graciously forever. We must trust that. That’s what I mean by the future orientation of faith. So that’s point number three.

4. Bygone grace empowers our trust in future grace.

What is the function, then, of bygone grace? We talk about future grace. And I’ve said there is bygone, or past, grace. What’s the function of it? I’ll give you a key verse for this to see how it functions. This is probably one of my top three favorite verses in the Bible. This is Romans 8:32:

He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all . . .

Stop. That’s past grace. Do you hear all those past tenses? “He who did not spare his own Son [past tense] but gave [past tense] him up for us all” — that’s done once for all. Then here’s the rest of the verse.

. . . how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

Do you see the logic of that verse? I love apostolic logic. It took me twenty-two years to learn that apostles argue. I used to read the Bible as a string of pearls. Here’s a pearl. Memorize it. Love it. Here’s another pearl. Memorize it. Love it. Here’s another pearl. Memorize it. Love it. And I never realized it’s a chain. It’s not just a string of pearls; it’s mighty brass chains. And that one verse links up to and supports and enables the next one to be true. And if you don’t see the link, you’re weaker in your faith.

So let’s get the logic here. “He who did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all . . .” There’s the foundation. Now the inference logically from it: he will most definitely, freely, with him, give us all things. That’s future grace. Everything you need was bought by God’s not sparing his Son but giving him up for us.

And so the function of past grace — and oh, I do believe in memory; I do believe in the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). Because if we forget the price, if we forget the glory of the grace of the once-for-all gift of the Son of God, and his act of righteousness, and his blood-shedding, in its infinite value, we won’t have any rock to stand on to believe that in the face of that torment and that torture and that suffering, he’s for me. And I want you to believe that he’s for you as you go back to your mission fields, and as you go back home. I want you to believe with all your might he is for you so that you can trust in future grace.

So yes, there’s a function for bygone grace. It’s a precious function. Memory is a precious thing. Let me give you another verse. Romans 5:9:

Therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

There’s that glorious, apostolic logic again, “Having now been justified by his blood, much more, into the future, shall we be saved by his life” So you get the idea.

So here’s a picture. I’ll just do a little drama for you here again. The answer to whether the Christian life should be future- or past-oriented is not either-or. You take a step back, a big one, two thousand years, and you stand in this grace of the cross and the blood-shedding and the perfect life of Jesus Christ. You stand there, but you don’t just look down. You take a turn, and you look into the future, and that’s where your life is going to be lived. Your life is lived no other place but from now and on into the future.

And on this foundation, you go with God, trusting what this bought for you in the future — namely, “I’m for you. I will work all things together for your good. No good thing will I withhold from those who walk uprightly. All things belong to those who are mine, whether Paul or Cephas or Apollos or life or death or the world or things present or things to come, all are yours. And you are Christ’s and Christ is God’s. Therefore, don’t boast in man. And don’t worry about what people think. You’re a child of the King, and he supplies you everything you need.”

You’ve got to believe that to be saved. Salvation is not by believing doctrinal facts alone; it’s by believing the God is for you this afternoon, and tomorrow, and in thirty years, and forty years, and four thousand years. He will always be for you.

5. Faith is satisfaction in Jesus Christ.

This faith in future grace is an experience of satisfaction in all that God is for you in Jesus. Now the new element that I’m bringing in here is that faith is satisfaction. There’s something about faith that is not just mental assent and not just willing affirmation. This is what needs to be preached as people walk the aisles on Sunday morning, so that they don’t make shipwreck of their faith, and they don’t bring reproach upon Christ and make our churches look foolish with half our members unheard of.

We need to preach that faith is not simply a yes to doctrine in our heads, or a willed affirmation of truths, or the church covenant; but rather, it is also, and very deeply, an affectional reality, which I’m calling satisfaction. You can call it another thing if you want but let me show you where I’m getting this. In John 6:35, Jesus said,

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

In John’s theology, in the Gospel of John and the Epistles of John, coming to Jesus is synonymous with faith. But it’s a coming in a certain way. It doesn’t have to be a motion of the body, moving from one place to the next; it’s a coming of the soul. But how is it a coming of the soul? It’s the coming of the soul to drink, such that when it drinks, it thirsts no more. “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”

Here’s my definition of saving faith on the basis of that verse: saving faith is a coming to Jesus to drink all that he is for us, such that we don’t thirst anymore. Or to be very careful, lest I overstate it and sound perfectionistic: such that we have found the source of thirst-quenching satisfaction, so that whenever we do tend to look elsewhere for satisfaction, we recognize it as sin, and repent and return to the spring.

That’s what saves. Not just head knowledge. Not just walking an aisle or signing a card or joining a church. What saves is a heart that is changed so that it believes in this sense. It is a coming to Jesus such that we drink satisfaction from him and thirst no more from the springs of the world, or have become so addicted to the true source that when we temporarily do taste from the springs of the world, we say, “What was that? Why am I doing that? Yuck!” And repent and return to Jesus.

Here’s another verse to undergird this truth. In Philippians 3:8, Paul says,

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

So how do you gain Christ? Counting all other things but Christ as rubbish. Counting knowing Jesus as so valuable, so satisfying, so precious, such a treasure, that the rest of the world is rubbish. By this, you gain Christ. It says that: “That I may gain Christ, I count them as rubbish.” But verse 9 says,

[May I] be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

So if you took verse 9 and asked, How do you gain Christ? How do you get right with God? How do you go to heaven? How do you have peace with God? You’d say faith, and faith alone. Because faith apprehends the righteousness of Christ, who is our standing with God. So how do you put verse 8, which says you gain Christ by counting everything as rubbish, with verse 9, which says you have a right standing with God by faith? And the answer is you define faith as that which includes cherishing Christ, loving Christ, delighting in Christ, such that we do count the world as rubbish. That’s what’s got to happen in new birth.

New birth has got to happen. New birth really means something. New birth really is a miracle. The miraculous nature of the new birth in salvation needs to be stressed because you can’t make yourself new. A leopard can’t take his spots away. The dead can’t raise themselves from the dead. We need to be born of God. And when we’re born of God, faith is begotten. And when faith is begotten, it is of the nature that it counts Christ to treasure. And when we count him a treasure, everything else becomes rubbish and life changes. And it changes not because you add something to faith, but because you finally discovered what faith is. So that’s my fifth point: faith is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.

6. The Holy Spirit enables all obedience.

What’s the role of the Holy Spirit in this? You might say to me at this point, “I haven’t heard the Spirit yet. I mean, you talk as though faith does the work, as though faith produces the fruit. And I always thought the Holy Spirit produced these things. This is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.” And the answer to that he does. And I’ll just make the link for you. What’s the role of the Holy Spirit in living by faith in future grace? In Galatians 5:22–23, Paul says,

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

So let’s just take love. Where does love come from? The Spirit produces love. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit produces love. “So you’ve been saying all this time, Pastor John, that that faith produces love and faith in future grace produces love. And now you read here that the Spirit produces love.” Well, in the same book, in Galatians 5:6, it says,

In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

So now let’s take verse 22. It says the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love. And let’s take verse 6, which says the only thing that counts is faith working through love, and figure out: How do these fit together? Faith works through love, faith produces love, and the Spirit produces love. Which is it? Well, it’s both. How do they link up? And the answer is Galatians 3:5:

Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?

So now here we have all three: Spirit and faith and love — works of love, miracles woven together. So let me see if I can sum it up. Put verse Galatians 5:22, 5:6, and 3:5 together, and do theology. Everybody in this room is a theologian, if you want to read the Scripture whole. If you don’t care about reading the Scripture coherently, you don’t have to be a theologian. But if you care about these verses fitting together, you have to be a theologian, which simply means you just think a little bit.

The Holy Spirit produces love and faith produces love. Now Galatians 3:5 says he supplies the Holy Spirit not by works, but by faith, or by hearing with faith. So wouldn’t you then solve the problem by saying the Holy Spirit is received by faith, or channeled by faith, and that produces love? Faith, carrying the Spirit, or better perhaps, the Spirit carrying faith, produces love. So you’re not left to yourself when you hear that love is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. If you want to become a loving, holy, sin-defeating person, you’re not left to say, “OK, Spirit. Do it,” and hope that something happens. You’re told what you’re supposed to do; namely, trust future grace. And when you do that, it is the Spirit enabling you because peace comes by trusting and the peace is the power that breaks lovelessness in our lives.