Getting at the Heart of God-Focused Ministry, Session 1

North Hills Community Church

Taylors, SC


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

My goal is that you would want to build a God-centered ministry and a God-centered life because God is a God-centered God. That’s my aim tonight: that you would long, more than you’ve ever longed, to build a God-centered life and a God-centered ministry because you have seen afresh that God is a God-centered God.

Four Reasons We Need a God-Centered Life

There are reasons for why I think this is urgent. Let me give you several.

1. What We Really Desire

We sang a song yesterday at our worship service based on Psalm 73. The music was written by Jon Bloom, one of my associates, and the words were written by King David.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
     And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
     but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25–26)

Now there’s a line in there that is inscrutable to most Christians, and all the more inscrutable to unbelievers: “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” Does anybody believe that? Can anybody with any authenticity say that in this room? “There is nothing — no wife, no child, no health, no life, no job, no pizza, no sex — that I desire besides you.” What does that mean? What could that possibly mean?

Saint Augustine got at it like this. He said it in a prayer in his Confessions. “He loves thee too little, O God, who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake.” “He loves thee too little, who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake.” Here’s the way David Livingstone, the missionary, put it. It’s written on his birthplace in a stained glass window in Scotland. I have a picture of it that somebody just sent me recently. It came from his journal. “I will not value anything I have or possess except in relationship to the kingdom of Christ.”

So, now test yourself. This is one evidence of our God-centeredness, or lack of it: whether we can say these things and mean them. Do you find yourself writing that kind of thing in your journal? Do you find yourself praying that way? If not, you have a long way to go to be where David was when he wrote that Psalm, don’t you? “Whom have I in heaven but God? There’s nothing on earth that I desire besides God. And if there is any desire that I have for anything other than God, it must be a desire that is there because of God.” That’s God-centeredness. That’s radical saturation with God. How are you doing?

2. What We Teach Our Kids

Here’s my second reason for thinking we’re in need of this truth: children’s curriculum. It is so unbelievably weak across the country. What we teach our children is absolutely pathetic. One of the illustrations Sally Michael (she writes curriculum for our church; she and her husband are our ministers for parenting and children’s discipleship) loves to say, “What do you typically read in children’s curriculum concerning the feeding of the five thousand?” What you typically read is: the point of the story is share your lunch. That’s bad theology and bad exegesis — especially bad exegesis. It’s good morals, which is not what we need in America. We need Christ — mighty to save and able to feed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.

This is about a triumphant, glorious, sovereign, Christ and our children need to tremble before this Christ. What happens after the feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6? They get in a boat and leave Jesus behind. They start out into the sea and a storm comes up. “Oh dear, we’re in a storm. Here comes Jesus, walking on the water!” This is not about sharing your lunch here. He’s walking on the water, and they see him. “It’s a ghost!” It’s not a ghost. He gets into the boat and they’re terrified. He lifts his hands, and he says, “Be still.” And there is a great calm.

And you know what the text says? Do you know what Mark says? “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51–52). And we say, the point is: share your lunch. And we lead our children out of insight along with the disciples. The whole point is he’s a mighty Christ. He walks on water. He speaks to waves. He speaks to wind. He can push jets aside on September 11. And we’re so afraid of it. We’re afraid of this Christ. We won’t speak of him. So, children’s curriculum makes me think there’s some needs here in the American church.

3. How We Respond to Tragedy

Here’s a third pointer: the absolutely, pathetic response of the American church to September 11. Here’s my bottom line: I want to give people hope. Romans 15:4: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Everything in the Bible is written to give hope — everything! We want a hope-filled people.

If you protect God from his sovereignty, you remove people’s hope. And it doesn’t matter what their immediate emotional responses to that are. If you try to rescue God from his might and power and purpose, you undermine people’s hope. Because who’s to say this God could do anything good for you, rescue you in any way, bring you sovereignly to glory if he cannot manage the affairs of a crisis like that.

You are very perplexed aren’t you, what I’m going to preach. What in the world does this guy believe? You know what Jesus’ response to it was? He told us; it was clear as day. And his response was so radically God-centered, it must have taken the breath of the disciples away, as my sermon following it did... for some. In Luke 13, Jesus gets a report. Here’s a reporter now. Here’s a reporter in Jesus’s face with a microphone: “Okay, Rabbi, okay teacher of the law, okay representative of God, what do you have to say about Pilate slitting the throats of the Galileans and mingling their blood with their sacrifices? Tell us, tell us something about that God representative. And what about the eighteen people on whom the tower in Siloam fell? Tell us something. And he looks into the eyes of this newscaster and says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Period — end of conversation.

Jesus was not your ordinary teacher. He never said anything we expect him to say — ever. He was always blowing people apart. He was absolutely uncategorizable; no boxes fit Jesus, which is one of the reasons I believe in him so deeply. But let me ask you, Where did that come from? “Unless you repent, you will perish.” Where did that come from? Here’s where it came from: there’s a massive theology under it. And the theology goes like this: Everybody, without exception, deserved to have been in the World Trade Center. Everybody should have been there and died. That’s the assumption. A few of us got spared on September 11 for no reason. You do not deserve another breath tonight. Every breath you take is a free gift from God. If you make it to the end of this service, you should be on your face when you get home: “I was given life tonight!”

In other words, there’s a changed order in where the amazement should fall. Radically man-centered American people are amazed when anything bad happens to us. And God is called to account: “Where are you?” Jesus is amazed when good things happen to us. Where’s the problem of pleasure in America? Everybody harps on the problem of pain. Where’s the problem of pleasure?

We were having a staff meeting when 9/11 happened, a Tuesday morning. And as we heard and listened and put the radio in the middle of the table, and wept and prayed and wept and prayed and shook, we made a plan. “We’ll have three services. We’ll have one tonight, we’ll have one tomorrow night, we’ll have one Sunday. We’ll put a new banner on the roof that says, “Christ, When All Is Shaking.” And that’s going to happen just like this, and we’ll be ready to go because our people are going to need us big time right now.

And we said, “Here’s the banner that’s going to fly over these three services: a service of sorrow, self-humbling, and steady hope in our King and Savior, Jesus Christ. And our first service was all sorrow. And our second service was all self-humbling — not Muslim humbling, self-humbling. I’m the issue here. I should have perished. I should get on my face. I should repent. I shouldn’t be naming any group, like Jerry Falwell did and then apologized the next day. None of that name calling, none of that finger-pointing, except right here: Piper, on his face, Wednesday night with my church. O God, have mercy on me!

And then, Sunday morning there is hope. And it isn’t because God loses control. There’s no hope in that message. And we were ready for it then. There were other things we did too.

But here’s my point: the reason we can’t say to the radio guy who calls us from ABC or to whomever, the reason we can’t say, “The issue here is whether you repent or not” is because we don’t have a God-centered passion and view of the universe. We are as saturated with man-centeredness and our concerns and our welfare and our rights as everybody else is. That’s my third observation for why I think this is so necessary.

4. Where We Place Our Pride

And here’s the last one, a related one. And here I’ll have to be careful too, although I’m really not being very careful. But test yourself on this. The question I want to ask is: How come a flag goes up for America when we’re so dishonored? No flags go up when the outrage of the universe happens and God is dishonored every day of our lives in this country — and Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Canada, Mexico, China, Australia. Where’s the divine patriotism in the church that Jesus is King of the nations, Jesus is Lord of the universe, Jesus is Master of the whole Middle East? Our allegiance to him is ten thousand times stronger and greater than our allegiance to America. We are exiles and aliens on planet earth and in America. Where is something comparable to what we have seen in the church for Christ?

I have no problems with patriotism because it is rooted in “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). And what is God’s? Everything. And once you have rendered to God everything, you’re in a position to render little Caesar the little bit that he gets. And until you render to God what is God’s, you’re rendering to Cesar what is his will be out of portion to what God should get in your life. And I do not think, as I look at the flags and I watch my people, I do not think there is something proportionable in their lives to what they are feeling right now in their patriotic zeal concerning Jesus.

I don’t think most Americans feel like exile’s here, frankly. I really don’t. I think we’ve cultivated a kind of “America equals Christianity” thing to just about give Osama Bin Laden a right to say what he says. We’ve just about given a sense that pro-America and pro-Christ are just about interchangeable. Just measure our enthusiasms, not our words Who care about words? It’s affections we’re talking about. It’s a dynamic of life. And it’s a tragedy that the Muslim world sees America as Christian. It’s a tragedy. It’s anything but Christian.

We export filth all over the world. That’s what they see. They see it on television. They see it in concerts. And we say we’re a Christian nation, under God, and they draw their conclusions. What else would you draw? The church needs to be way more counter-cultural than it is — way more counter-cultural. So, I’ll risk here telling you what I did on the Sunday morning after 9/11. We went straight for God on Sunday morning. We have three services. A lady comes up to me after the second service. And bless her heart. I know this lady. I love this lady. And you should know that sing those great, God-exalting songs, songs like “It Is Well.” And she came and she said to me, “Couldn’t we sing one patriotic song?” I looked her right in the eye, and I said, “No.”

I’m not a pacifist. I’m praying that right now in Afghanistan, it would be focused, just, effective and short. And that as many non-criminals be spared as possible. God did not give the sword to the government in vain. So I’m not a pacifist. But I’m a Christian ten thousand times before I’m an American. America is going to go off the scene of history, folks. It’s going to go off the scene of history, either by the return of Jesus, or by some other group replacing it. You think that’s going to phase King Jesus? Not in the least.

God-Centered Universe

Well, what’s the message if that was the introduction? All that was to say why I think you should leave here, when we’re done with this conference, with a passion for a God-centered life and a God-centered ministry. That’s why I think it’s an issue. Now I need to give you Bible. You need Bible. You don’t need Piper. You need Bible put under this. Is there biblical warrant for talking this way and saying that this is a need? Well, there is. There’s lots of Bible. So, we’re going to do mainly Bible now. I’m going to take a full hour here tonight. So, if you’re not used to that, neither am I. It feels so good to have it. My people won’t give it to me, and you don’t have a choice. Well, you do: you could get up and leave.

Display and Admiration

Why did God create the universe? Why did he redeem mankind? Why is he coming again in glory? What’s the why of it all? Oh, we’ve got to get this question right. Why does history exist? Why did he bring the universe into being, with its billions of galaxies; choose a little speck called planet earth; send his all-mighty, infinitely valuable Son onto this planet; suffer the worst, excruciating death imaginable?

No, I don’t think it was an accident that that cross showed up that you’ve all seen pictures of in the newspaper in the World Trade Center rubble. That was incredible. I wouldn’t presume to interpret that. I just say, take your breath and wonder. Did God carve that thing in such perfect proportion out of the tons of steel and plant it where he did? Why? I don’t know. I’m just trembling. Because Jesus is the center of the universe. And the crucifixion is the center of history.

Now, why? What’s it all about? I’m going to give you a thesis statement. Then, we’ll go to the Bible and see if I can support it. God created everything. He does everything in order to display and get admiration for his glory. For the display and admiration of his glory is why he does everything. Now, I choose those two words carefully: display and admiration. Do you know the difference between those two words? One is objective reality outside of me: display — revelation, demonstration. And the other is subjective response inside of me: admiration — exultation, admiring, cherishing, treasuring, delighting, worshiping. And God does everything he does to objectively display his magnificence and subjectively win back from humanity admiration.

Infinite Energy

And it doesn’t take a lot of thought to realize how utterly God-centered that goal is. If you had a goal like that — to display your glory and get admiration from people — you’d be admirable to nobody. Very few people admire God for this too. They don’t believe it. They don’t even let themself say the word that God is God-centered. They fail the quiz. Here are the questions in the quiz:

  1. Who is the most God-centered person in the universe? Answer: God is the most God-centered person in the universe.
  2. Who is uppermost in God’s affections? Answer: God is uppermost in God’s affections.
  3. Is God an idolater? Answer: no, he worships nobody above God.
  4. What is the ultimate energy of the universe? Answer: the energy of worship inside the Trinity of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father, mediated by the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit — exploding in the spillover of his glory for the admiration of his creatures.

That’s the origin of energy. Once there was no physical energy, there was no matter, there was no time, there was no space — just God. That’s all there was: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, eternally existing in infinitely happy, energetic worship. And it spilled over: “Let there be light.” And there was light. “Let there be man and woman to know me, love me, admire me, reflect me.” That’s what it’s all about: it’s all about God. He did it for his glory. And there are other questions in that quiz that people fail as well. But I’ll spare you now and move to the Bible; otherwise, I won’t make the headway I need.

All to His Glory

Here’s the way I want to do it. What I want to do is persuade you that God is God-centered, and it’s the foundation of your God-centered ministry. And having my dad here prompts me to acknowledge him. I usually allude to my father at this point in a message like this. People sometimes ask me, “Where did you learn to talk like this? This is not an ordinary way of talking.” I say, “Well, I grew up in a home where Daddy didn’t always talk like this either. But more than any other text, perhaps after Romans 8:28, Daddy would say, “Johnny, whatever you do, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

I can’t blame him for this message tonight. He may be sitting their squirming like crazy, saying, “Oh, why did he say that?” Don’t blame him for that. But blame him for God-centeredness. Whether I get it right or not, that’s my problem — not his. But that he sowed the seed year after year after year, and signed off letters, and telephone calls, and family devotions with, “Johnny, whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.”

All of you’ve heard 1 Corinthians 10:31. Everybody in this room probably knows that verse by heart and wouldn’t call it into question for a minute. And you yawn and go out and live man-centered ways. Why? You’ve never been shocked out of your britches by the God-centeredness of God. That’s what landed on me in seminary in 1968–69, reading Johnathan Edwards, studying the unity of the Bible, reading the book of Romans, as though for the first time, through the eyes of a God-centered man. I began to see that there’s a foundation for 1 Corinthians 10:31 in God. It’s not just a duty toward God; it’s God’s design for God.

He talks this way because he really wants you to praise him. But if you want somebody to praise you, you are vain. So, when I began to see that underneath the command from God that I glorify God is a very uncomfortable assumption, it changed everything. And I’m just trying to change everything for you; that’s all. I just want everything in your life to be changed. I’d like your world to be turned upside down tonight. I’d like you to walk out of here with your brain fried with the God-centeredness of God. Now, that’s not going to happen if I leave it here and don’t give you Bible. So, here we go, we have twenty minutes. Here we go.

Six Glorious Works — and Why God Did Them

The way we’ll do it is by taking six of the most glorious works of God he has ever performed. There are others, but I’m going to take six. They all rhyme with each other if you can tolerate the big, fat theological syllables. I’ll list them, and then I’ll come back to them.

  1. Predestination
  2. Creation
  3. Incarnation
  4. Propitiation
  5. Sanctification
  6. Consummation

My question is: Why did God do those glorious things for us? Why did he do them? What’s the motive? What’s the goal? What’s the driving force from the God-head for those six glorious acts?

1. Predestination

[God] chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace. (Ephesians 1:4–6)

So in that long chain of why he did what he did, it terminates on the praise of the glory of his grace: eis epainon doxēs tēs charitos autou. And I mention the Greek because it occurs two other times in the same fourteen-verse sentence of Ephesians 1. That was verse 6. The second one is in verse 12: “so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.” Verse 14: “[The Holy Spirit] is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” There’s just no doubt about why he predestined us to be his children in love: that we might praise his glory.

You’ve got to figure out a way to describe this divine vanity as love. Have you ever worked on that problem? C.S. Lewis sure worked on it. He stumbled on it big time: all the Psalms telling us, by the Spirit of God, to praise God. He said it sounded like an old woman trying to get compliments. He was twenty-nine years old and didn’t want to believe it. He really wrestled with what’s got to be wrestled with. This, at the human level, would be vanity: “I’m doing everything I do to get you to praise me.” This is the love of God, and if you can’t put that together, you’ve got to quit work and come tomorrow. Take a day off or something. Or maybe I can do it tomorrow night. I will do it tomorrow night. If you have to work tomorrow, I promise to give you that answer tomorrow night, at least as I understand it.

So that’s number one: predestination. The goal of predestination is that God does it unto the praise of his glorious grace. This is a God-centered goal.

2. Creation

Why were you created? Why was the universe created? Why did God create everything?

Bring my sons from afar
     and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
     whom I created for my glory,
     whom I formed and made. (Isaiah 43:6–7.)

There’s no doubt why you exist: you were created for his glory. That is a very, very, very ambiguous statement. The word glorify is so worn out in our theological jargon that we need some help here, because you can understand the phrase “for God’s glory” in an absolutely blasphemous way. The word glorify could be exchanged with beautify. Why are these flowers here? Answer: to beautify a sterile platform. It would just be blank otherwise, just green and black speakers. So the flowers are put here to improve the beauty.

So now if you treat the word glorify or beautify that way, you blaspheme God. You can’t improve on the beauty of God. Who do you think you are, right? We don’t mean that when we say glorify. We don’t mean add to the glory of God, improve upon the glory of God, or get God to be a little more pretty, handsome, acceptable. None of that. That’s not what we mean. He didn’t come for that purpose. We mean: display the glory of God, magnify the glory of God. It’s the difference between a telescope and a microscope. Those both magnify. A microscope takes little things and makes them look bigger than they are. If you try to do that with God, you blaspheme. He’s not little, and you can’t make him look bigger than he is. Telescopes are designed to take things that look little to the world, and cause them to look like what they really are — namely, magnificent. And that’s the way we’re supposed to magnify God.

There’s no doubt about why you were created, why you have the personality, the hair, the weight, the family you do. You are who you are — absolutely unique on planet earth — in order to refract, in a unique way, the splendor of God through your life, like a telescope helps the world see how magnificent he is. So how are you doing? Do you get up in the morning and say, “How can I so live, how can I so speak, how can I so sacrifice and suffer so that people see the all-satisfying beauty and worth of my King?” That’s why you were made: to be a telescope of God’s glory.

3. Incarnation

Christ became a servant to the circumcised [that is, he became a Jew] to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. (Romans 15:8–9)

He became a servant to the circumcision, he became a man born under the law, born of woman, a rabbi, a Messiah, a crucified Savior. Why? So that the nations — Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, nominal Christian, secular agnostic Americans — might glorify him for his mercy. Notice the order between mercy and glory. Mercy is penultimate, glory is ultimate; God is ultimate; man is penultimate. This is why Americans cannot fathom the biblical message. It is foolishness, because until God becomes central, sin against God cannot be a capital offense. And therefore, we think that all the bad things that happen to me, I do not deserve — least of all, everlasting burning. It’s unintelligible; therefore, the cross is unintelligible.

In America, do you know what the cross is inside most evangelical churches? It’s an echo of my value. “Look what he paid for me.” It’s not that. It’s an echo of the value of the righteousness of God, which had been called into question by God’s justifying the ungodly. That leads us to number four.

4. Propitiation

God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:25–26)

Propitiation means an appeasement of his wrath. He put his Son between us and his wrath to absorb that wrath, so that now the sluice gates are open to all his mercy, and his only demeanor toward us is kindness in Christ Jesus — even if we suffer, which I’ll talk about tomorrow night.

There is no more important paragraph in the Bible than Romans 3:21–26 — not a one. And if we could help American Christians understand this, we would have done a great service. Do you hear the problem that the cross is designed to solve? It’s the injustice of forgiveness. What American loses sleep at night over the injustice of God’s forgiving them? If it were not unjust for God to forgive us, he wouldn’t have killed his Son to be able to do it. And that is not an overstatement to say he killed his son because Isaiah 53:10 says, “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.” It was the good pleasure of God to bruise him. Those are Isaiah’s words — not mine.

He took the life of his Son because it is absolutely unthinkable to justify the ungodly. Proverbs 17:15 says it’s an abomination for a judge to justify the wicked. And Romans 4:5 says, “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” My only hope with God is that he will justify the ungodly, and thus be an unjust judge. Any courtroom judge in Greenville County that looks a rapist and a murder in the face and says, “That’s all right, you can go. I’ll just let it go.” Everybody would cry out, “You can’t do that! You cannot do that!” And that’s exactly what he did for you on the cross. How can he do it?

But my point is: Who’s wrestling with that? We think it ought to come to us, and we think “God, you’ve got to give an account if you don’t treat me nice.” He doesn’t owe you another day of life. Death is never doing any person wrong vertically, but it is horizontally. It was murderous, wicked sin that happened on 9/11. It should be punished with everlasting burning — and it will be for some. But God did no wrong, because he owes nobody anything — nothing. That is very hard for Americans to believe. They think God owes them plenty. You can’t understand the cross if you’re not God-centered. You will smash it, mush it, wreck it, and turn it into an echo of your own excellence. “I’m a diamond in the rough; look what he paid.” That’s wicked.

5. Sanctification

[It is my prayer that you may be] filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:11)

So in answer to Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, he moves into their lives by the Holy Spirit. And he fills them with fruits of righteousness: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness — all to the glory of the praise of God. Sanctification is all about the glory of God.

6. Consummation

Those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus . . . will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed. (2 Thessalonians 1:8–9)

Why is he coming? Jesus is coming back to be marveled at. That’s why he’s coming. He’s coming to be marveled at. And the big question for you tonight as I close is whether you resent that: Do you resent that Christ-centered motive of Christ to come back? You ask Jesus, “Why are you coming?” And he says, “I’m coming to be marveled at. I’m coming to be marveled at.”

Here’s the question ringing in most people’s minds: Whatever happened to the God that I thought I knew in John 3:16? Whatever happened to love? Whatever happened to his pursuing me with goodness and mercy all of my days? Whatever happened to working everything together for my good?

And I’ll try to help you here. But I hope there’s enough biblical rootedness in this room that you are not unwilling to say, “God does everything he does — from predestination, to creation, to incarnation, to propitiation, to sanctification, to consummation — for his glory. That’s why he does everything he does.”