Living the Gospel That You Preach

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

If you have your Bibles turned to Psalm 27, or your iPad or your iPhone or your regrettable off-brand device.

The Phone Call No Parents Wants

Well, it was the call we received that no parent ever wants to get. My wife, Luella, is a very level person emotionally and spiritually. I need that. I’m a passionate guy. I go up and down. Luella is steady. I was about six hours away from Philadelphia where we live. I got a call from Luella. I could tell by the quiver in her voice, the shake in her voice, that something serious had taken place. She said, “You’ve got to get back to Philadelphia as fast as you can.” She said that our daughter Nicole had been in a terrible accident.

She had been walking down the street in Philadelphia after getting off of work, and a drunk, unlicensed driver driving a huge SUV lost control of the vehicle, careened up on the sidewalk, and crushed her against a wall. She had massive injuries. The doctors told us if it had happened in the suburbs, she wouldn’t have made it to the hospital. She had 11 breaks of her pelvis alone, and it shattered the whole center part of her skeleton. I’ll never forget walking into that hospital room and seeing the broken body of my daughter being sustained by machines.

I did what any father who has any love inside of them would do, I fell apart. I couldn’t think of what to do, but to get up on that bed next to her and put my cheek next to her. I didn’t know whether she was conscious or not. I didn’t know whether she could hear me or not. I said, “Nicole, you’re not alone. This is dad. I’m with you and God is with you too.” A tear coursed down her cheek, and I knew that she could hear me.

That kicked in four years of travail. For the first three months, I did not enter my office because Nicole was in such remarkable pain there was nowhere that she could be that wasn’t just horrendously painful. We literally had to sit with our hands on her, reassuring her. It was very hard. One weekend in the hospital, they kept upping her medication hoping to relieve her, and they overdosed her and had to revive her. It was enough that the injuries were so significant, but she lost everything. She didn’t even get justice because the Philadelphia Police Department, just to get this case through the court, pled it down from a drunk driving case to a reckless driving case. There was no justice for Nicole at all.

Living the Gospel We Preach

Now I want to think with you, what does it actually look like to live in light of the gospel, to live the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, to live the gospel that you preach? What does it look like to live that between the already and the not-yet, knowing that God for his glory and our good has chosen for us to remain in this world that is not functioning the way God intended for it to function? This is not the way it’s supposed to be. Drunk people are not supposed to wreck people’s lives. But that’s the world we live in. What does it mean to live in light of the gospel? What are the actions? What are the disciplines? What’s the functional street-level theology there? What does that actually look like?

Now, my dear wife Luella tells me that I leave crowds in utter trauma because I don’t finish Nicole’s story, so I want to do that. By God’s grace, Nicole is doing very well and probably if you saw her, you wouldn’t know that she had sustained the level of injuries that she sustained.

Now, I want to take you to Psalm 27 because it is a psalm of trouble. But it’s more than a psalm of trouble. It’s very instructive in terms of this question: what does it mean to live in light of the person and work of the redeemer in the midst of the normal, incapable trouble of life and ministry in the fallen world? Because you won’t escape it. It’s a choice of your redeemer to leave you in this broken world for his glory and for your good. Well, let me read Psalm 27:1–14. Then I’ll say some historical comments about it and we’ll launch in:

The Lord is my light and my salvation;
     whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
     of whom shall I be afraid?

When evildoers assail me
     to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
     it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
     my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
     yet I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
     that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
     all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
     and to inquire in his temple.

For he will hide me in his shelter
     in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
     he will lift me high upon a rock.

And now my head shall be lifted up
     above my enemies all around me,
and I will offer in his tent
     sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
     be gracious to me and answer me!
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
     “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”
     Hide not your face from me.
Turn not your servant away in anger,
     O you who have been my help.
Cast me not off; forsake me not,
     O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
     but the Lord will take me in.

Teach me your way, O Lord,
     and lead me on a level path
     because of my enemies.
Give me not up to the will of my adversaries;
     for false witnesses have risen against me,
     and they breathe out violence.

I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord
     in the land of the living!
Wait for the Lord;
     be strong, and let your heart take courage;
     wait for the Lord!

The Occasion of the Psalm

The scholars say that this psalm was penned in one of two situations in the life of David, either in that situation where David was being pursued by Saul because Saul was ravenously jealous of David and wanted to do him harm, although David has been a loyal servant to Saul and had done nothing wrong. The wrong of David is that he was God’s anointed and the power of God is on him. It’s a picture of personal injustice as hard as it gets.

Or maybe it was written in that moment when David was hiding out from his own son Absalom because Absalom wanted his throne. The hearts of Israel had been turned toward Absalom, and if you’re in a monarchy and you’re going to take a person’s throne, that person’s going to have to die. There’s this poignant moment in this story where the report comes that Absalom in fact has died. David is the father, he doesn’t celebrate. There’s really going to be no good into this story, and rather than celebrating at the announcement, he crumbles as a father and he says, “Absalom, my son. My son, Absalom.”

Now, what you have is an account of a psalm in which we see two poignant difficult moments. What does it look like to live the faith, to live the gospel in that kind of situation? What does that actually look like?

Street-Level Theology

Well, if you notice, you can look there, this psalm of trouble doesn’t begin with trouble. The psalm of trouble actually begins with theology and let me say this, living in light of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ in times of difficulty begins with crisp, sound, clear scriptural theology. Preach theology to yourself. Don’t try to figure out what you don’t ever have the ability to figure out. Let’s just say it, God’s secret will is called his secret will because it’s secret. Rest is not found in your understanding because there’s so little that you will ever understand.

Rest is not found in trying to manufacture enough control to control the circumstances that you would otherwise be afraid of. Rest is not found in surrounding yourself with allies. Rest is not found in all of that kind of thing. Rest is found in the sound theology of the word of God. Be a theologian where the rubber meets the road in everyday life and ministry.

Let theology form your ministry emotions. Let theology form your ministry decisions. Let theology form your ministry of joy. Let theology form your ministry motivation. Let theology form your ministry.

It’s scary how at some intellectual level we can be such good theologians and be such poor theologians at street level. Enough. What does David say? The Lord is light. The Lord is salvation. The Lord is stronghold. What does light mean in Scripture? It’s a metaphor of what, in its grandest biggest whitest form? Well, light is a picture of everything that’s pure and everything that’s right and everything that’s just and everything that’s holy. This world is ruled by one who is holy and just and right and true and faithful. Justice will win in moments where it seems like what you’re facing is so incredibly unjust.

It’s in moments where it seems like the surrounding world is so corrupt, in moments where you wonder, “Is there holiness to be found anywhere, even in your own heart?” Oh, you better know where that is to be found and you better know who you serve. The Lord is salvation. What does salvation mean? In its biggest broadest form, its deliverance from evil — evil that is external, evil that is internal. The one who rules the universe hates what is evil and will defeat what is evil. There will be a day when we’ll all be invited to the one funeral we actually want to attend, the funeral of sin and death because sin and death will die, and we will live forever and ever and ever where what is holy reigns.

The Lord is stronghold. The picture of a fortified city, a place to run and hide under attack. There is refuge for the people of God. There’s a stronghold in moments of trouble. There is a place to run. There is a place to hide. The Lord is light. The Lord is salvation. The Lord is stronghold.

The Power of a Possessive Pronoun

Now, I’m probably about to confuse you, but hear what I’m going to say. What I’ve just given you is bad theology. Are you confused? Because I’ve left out a word in what David said. Did you catch it? Can you tell me the word that I left out? Say it.

You see, the theology of the word of God is not just meant to define and explain for you who God is and what he’s doing. The theology of the word of God properly understood is meant to massively redefine your identity as a child of God. Enough of abstract, distant, cold, intellectual theology. The theology of Scripture is never meant to be an end in itself. The theology of Scripture is meant to be a means to an end, and the end is a radically transformed life.

Now, here’s what is being said. This, again, is glory beyond the ability of me to wrap my brain around it and to express in words. By glorious, unearned, unachieved, undeserved grace I have been personally connected to this one who is light. I’ve been personally connected to this one who is salvation. I’ve been personally connected to this one who is a stronghold. He is light and salvation and a stronghold for me. Little Paul Tripp, born in unremarkable Toledo, Ohio, never able to achieve this mercy has been bestowed this mercy. What glory is that? Ten million years until eternity, I’ll still be singing of that glory. That’s good theology. It’s meant to tell you who you are, and so redefine your ministry self-concept.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, the hope of your ministry doesn’t happen to be you. If that’s a shock to you, write it down. Your wife already knows it. The hope of your ministry is not the degree of your theological understanding or the degree of your biblical literacy. Those are wonderful, wonderful things, but hope is a person and his name is Jesus, and he has become to you — through his life lived on your behalf, his death died on your behalf, and his resurrection conquering sin and death — light and salvation and stronghold.

It’s incredibly important as you’re facing ministry in a fallen world, the place where ministry is needed, that you’re rooting your hope in gospel theology, not an abstract sort of biblical intellectualism, but gospel theology that’s connecting you by means of the mercy of Jesus to what the theology is describing. Is that making sense to you? That’s a huge difference.

When Evildoers Assail Me

Now, if that’s not radical enough in this psalm, where this psalm is its most radical is the juxtaposition between Psalm 27:2–3 and Psalm 27:4. It says:

When evildoers assail me
     to eat up my flesh,
my adversaries and foes,
     it is they who stumble and fall.

Though an army encamp against me,
     my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
     yet I will be confident.

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
     that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
     all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
     and to inquire in his temple.

Before I look at that, the radical sort of juxtaposition of these two things, I’m going to just reflect on this moment. I was sitting in my office with a pastor, I’ll call him Frank, and he was talking about difficulties in his ministry, difficulties that he’s found rather crushing and rather depressing and to be honest, he was facing hard things. I understood why they would be discouraging, but when he began, in ways I don’t think he even realized, to theologize about those, to talk about God in the midst of those, he described a God I didn’t know. He described a God who’s not in the Bible.

This was a pretty good Bible teacher, a fairly good pastor, but in this moment there was this dissonance, a disharmony in the way he talked about God, and it hit me as I was listening to him. He wasn’t just suffering the thing that he’s suffering, but he’s suffering the miserable personal theology that he’s brought to his suffering. Does that make sense? It wasn’t just the burden of the moment, it was burdensome. There are times when ministry is very burdensome. There are times when you would want your heart to go in a different direction, and it doesn’t seem to go in a different direction. It’s burdensome.

Our Burdens and Their Source of Relief

For about six years, I was the Sunday evening preacher at 10th Presbyterian Church, a church founded in 1829 that had been faithful to the gospel for all these years in Center City, Philadelphia. It was the pulpit of Barnhouse, Boysen, Reichen, and Tripp, and there was a particular elder at 10th Presbyterian Church who just did not get the glory that is my preaching, and he would email me and say he wanted to get together with me and talk about my preaching. “I’d love that.” That’s a lie. And he would put me through these, what I would describe as first year seminary student tutorials in preaching, this man who has never preached.

Now, I would like to say that that wasn’t burdensome to me, that I’ve got my identity rooted in Christ enough that I could bear the burden of that, but I would get up to preach and think, I’m the guy who writes about this stuff for Pete’s sake. Everybody’s head would be a normal size except for this man’s. It would be huge, and he had the eyes of the Mona Lisa, do you know what I mean? Wherever you move they look like they’re staring at you, and it felt like he had a big clipboard. “Not quite! You can do better than that!”

It was incredibly distracting. This is very humbling to admit. There’s one moment in preparation where I was preparing this point and the thought came into my brain. This is a thought that should not be in your brain. I thought, “This point will get him. When I’m done with this point, he’ll run forward at the sermon, bow down in front of me and say, ‘Oh, the glory!’” Now, that’s a mess. That’s an idolatrous preparation to preach. That’s preaching to win the respect of one man. It’s burdensome. And in those moments when you’re facing the external burdens and the internal burdens of the heart, it’s very, very important that you’re living out of this rich theology of awesome glory to which you’ve been connected by grace, because it alters the way you deal with those things.

This One Thing

Now, here’s the juxtaposition. I love that word. It says, “When evildoers assail me to eat up my flesh . . .” (Psalm 27:2). That’s a pretty picture, the picture of a ravenous wild animal chewing on you. Then he says, “Though an army encamped against me . . . though war arise against me . . .” (Psalm 27:3). Now let’s just think for a moment. If you have an army encamped against you to eat up your flesh, what would be the one thing you would desire? Be honest. How about weapons? That makes sense. You want weapons bigger than what they have. How about God just incinerating them? You think, “You’re God, you can handle it. It’s a little thing for you.” How about just sucking me out of this experience and dropping me somewhere else? That’s a view of prayer. There’s a lot of people who pray prayers like that. That’s all they want.

Now, those are sort of sensible reactions, but that’s not the reaction David has. He says, “In this moment, when evil is lined up against me with the purpose of destroying me, here’s what I want to do: I want to run to the temple to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.” What? Why would he say that? Either David is super spiritual way beyond anything that we can understand, or he’s crazy, or he’s onto something. Perhaps David is onto something that’s important for us all. He says, “This one thing I want to do in the darkest moments of my life; I want to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.”

What is it that David knows? Pastor, hear me say this. He knows that there exists in the universe One of grand and glorious beauty way more beautiful than any ugly thing you will ever face in your life. He’s beautiful in wisdom. He’s beautiful in power. He’s beautiful in sovereignty. He’s beautiful in faithfulness. He’s beautiful in patience. He’s beautiful in grace. He’s beautiful, he’s beautiful, he’s beautiful, he’s beautiful.

Your tough situation is not ultimate. Your tough situation is not determinative. This one of beauty is ultimate and he holds you in his hands by grace. And here’s the issue. You will only ever view the ugly difficulties of ministry properly when you look at him through the lens of the stunning beauty of your redeemer. You will only look at, understand, and evaluate appropriately the ugly things that you will face in ministry when you look at them through the lens of the stunning beauty of your redeemer.

Never a Denial of Reality

You see, I love how honest the Bible is. The Bible is shockingly honest, and in fact there are stories in the Bible that are so tawdry if they were in a paperback book at your local drugstore, you wouldn’t buy them. But the Bible is gloriously hopeful at the same time. And here’s the point I’m making. Biblical faith, gospel living, never requires that you deny reality. If you have to deny reality in order to achieve peace, you may have momentary peace, but what you’re not doing is living the faith of the gospel.

I love the account of Abraham in Romans four that says everything Abraham had done and all the radical choices he made were based on this promise that there would be descendants that would be like the sand on the seashore. And here he was, an old man with an old wife and no son. And the Bible says that Abraham considered the “deadness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19). How’s that for specificity?

He didn’t deny reality. He didn’t play monkey games with what was real, but — this is amazing — he grew strong in faith as he was waiting because he was fully persuaded that the one who made the promise was faithful. Now, this tells you something about the disciplines of Abraham’s life. What it depicts is that although Abraham did not deny reality and he faced the harsh realities of that moment, those realities were not his meditation. God was his meditation. Does that make sense? So in the meantime, he grew strong in faith because the more he meditated on the glory of God, the more he became convinced that giving life to the womb of one old lady was an easy thing for a God of this glory.

Now, if you allow yourself to let “difficult” become your functional theology, to meditate on all the scary, fearful, what-ifs of those difficulties, the difficulties loom larger and larger. They seem more and more impossible, and they defeat your soul more and more. You’re not suffering difficulty, you are suffering miserable, anti-theology difficulty, because you’ve made what you don’t really understand — a story that’s being written and you’re not the author — the source of your meditation and it’s beating your soul apart. Instead, you should be saying, “I want to face those realities, I’m not going to deny that they exist, but I’m going to make my meditation this God of awesome, stunning beauty because it’s only when my heart is filled with the fullness of his beauty that I can look at those things in an appropriate way and not be defeated.”

That’s gospel living. It’s life formed and founded, not on the limited resources of your ability, not founded on the insufficient catalog of your understanding, but resting on the clearly revealed beauty of the One who’s called you and is with you and in you and for you.

That’s why David says, “I know what I’ve got to do, because this moment is theologically dangerous for me. It would be very easy for me to forget who God is. It would be very easy for me to be overwhelmed. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to run to the temple. I’m going to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. I want to remember, I want to know, and I want to be sure. I need to see beauty, I need to see beauty, I need to see beauty.”

I’m going to say it because I’m here to pastor you. Stop making ministry ugliness your meditation. Stop carrying it with you. Stop rehearsing it over and over again. It’s hurting you. Instead, gaze upon the beauty of the Lord.

Gaze, Remember, Rest, Act

I want to give you your homework because I want this to be practical and I want to capture what I’ve said to you in four words. I strongly encourage you to make four disciplines of your life. If you don’t have a good memory, get out something and write it down or get your keyboard on your electronic whatever ready.

Here we go. Here’s the first word: gaze. Brothers, I’m encouraging you, sisters, if you’re here, and challenging you to do this. Start every day, not so much in Bible study to deepen your theological knowledge — you can do that too — but with just gazing upon the beauty of the Lord. Just gaze. Just gaze upon the beauty of the Lord. If you don’t know where to do that or how to do that well, let me give you some passages. Isaiah 40 is a great passage. You can’t read Isaiah 40 enough. It’s a riff on the glory of God. Or you could go to the last few chapters of Job where God has the “and where were you” conversation that is just a mind-boggling picture of the glory of God. Or you could go to Ephesians 1 considering the sovereign redeemer. It’s a mind-boggling picture of God’s glory. Start every day gazing upon the beauty of the Lord. It will change your life.

The second thing is this: remember. As you gaze, remind yourself again that glorious grace has connected you to this beauty, that this beauty not only defines who God is, but it identifies who you are as his child. It gives you a new identity.

Gaze, remember, and third word is rest. Bask in it. Speak to your heart. Be a Psalm 42 pastor and say, “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why are you doing this to you? Look at who you’re serving. Look at what he’s become for you. Let it go and rest. Listen, rest is not passive. Rest is a spiritual activity. Rest.

Gaze, remember, rest, and the final word now is act. Act in faith and hope and courage, not because it’s easy, not because people affirm you, not because you know what’s coming next, not because you understand what you’re dealing with now, but because this One of glorious beauty has been connected to you by grace. Act with hope and courage. Gaze, remember, rest, and act. Live the glory that you preach where the rubber meets the road in everyday life. There is one of stunning beauty, way more beautiful than any ugly thing you’ll ever face in your ministry, and you have been connected to that one by grace. Praise God, praise God, praise God.