The God of the Christian Leader

Sanders Christian Foundation | South Hamilton, Massachusetts

That was a really powerful time for me with the Lord in the last few minutes. And I thank you very much for worshiping with me. Worship is the feast of Christian Hedonism. And we’ll talk more about your responsibilities in spreading the banquet table at that feast Sunday after Sunday. But it is the essence of life for me. There are no higher times in the week than when I meet with my people on Sunday morning and enjoy God together. And music is right at the heart of it. I love most contemporary worship songs and I love great old hymns, and I’ve tried to keep the generations in my church together on these things. I’m glad I’m 45 years old because I’m right in the middle — a child of my times in both ways. I love to have my feet in history, and I love what God’s doing today around the world.

Ministry Heartache

I feel like the Lord wants me to warn you of something before I get into the heart of the matter. And that is that though we’re going to talk about desiring God and enjoying God and hedonism, you really need to know that I speak out of a context of a lot of heartache — just like you do. Nobody pastors a church without tears. And for whatever reason, these have been really hard weeks. Everywhere I go, that seems to be the case. Satan is alive and well. Sin is deep and, there’s a lot of brokenness and woundedness and rebellion in the world.

And at our church, we have had some of the most stressful tensions from the upper end of the age bracket and the lower end of the age bracket. You have days when you it’s your day off. My day off is Thursday. When you get up and you’re supposed to really be refreshed and happy today. It’s a free day to do things and you walk into your study and you sit down at your desk, and you just start to cry for absolutely no reason except a thousand reasons. You kind of look at yourself and the tears are running down your cheek and you say, “Come on, this is the day off. You do this on Monday or some other day. This is your day off. This is not supposed to happen. What’s the deal?” And there’s no particular reason except a hundred stresses on your life, and the twisting right up to the breaking point with so many people whom you’d love to be able to wave a wand over and make well.

And so you need to know that one of the misconceptions of Christian Hedonism is that it’s a glib thing, is that it’s a light, frivolous, superficial thing, even though I’ve made every effort possible in the book and in my talks to try to communicate that, most of our joys, just like Paul said, are in tribulation and in suffering. And so that’s a warning not to misunderstand any of the high points of this day.

Torching the Glacier

Let me put my talk in eschatological context. I have a lot of open ends in my eschatology, so God can do whatever he wants to do, regardless of whatever I say he might do. The text I want to put in context with is Matthew 24:11–12.

Many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.

So, one of the things to anticipate as the days draw nigh is that the love, passion, zeal, fervor, savor of many is going to go cold. The Matthew 24:14, says, however,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

And as I read those two verses back to back, it seems to me that it sure is not cold people who are going to get that job done. It’s going to be red-hot people who will accept the sacrifices among Muslim peoples, Buddhist peoples, and Hindu peoples, and tribal peoples to get that job done. And therefore, the eschatology that I see is that there’s going to be a lot of cooling and there’s going to be a lot of heating going on at the end. There’s going to be a red-hot remnant at the end, and I’m on an end-times mission today to help you be part of that. That’s my job. That’s the way I see it: an end-time mission to gather an ever-enlarging remnant of red-hot people for God, and overcome the settling awful cooling that moves in on churches, and maybe moved in on New England and needs to be overcome.

A verse that has meant much to me in this eschatological context is Hebrews 10:24–25:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Now, why is that? Why all the more this mutual exhortation to love as you see the day of judgment drawing near? Well, it’s because of Matthew 24:12. “the love of many will grow cold.” So, you put Hebrews 11:24 together with Matthew 24:12, and you get a mandate in your ministry to say, let us be about this business. This is war. Every morning I have to become a Christian all over again. I am cold; I am dead. This morning I woke up and as I lay in bed, I prayed for my sons. They’re an hour behind me and my wife and I said, “Lord, cause them to wake up hopeful, cause them to wake up wanting you, desiring you, longing for you, with you on their minds, not first the radio or WCCO or even KTIS, the Christian station, but you Lord. You put it there because if they wake up and all they think about is the world and school and the broken door on the car that my wife ripped off the other day at the gas station, if that’s all they think about, then they’re going to be in the grip of this glacier.”

I have this image in my mind that, at the end of the age, there’s a glacier moving, a satanic cooling glacier that’s moving out over the church in the world. And as I see my job in Minneapolis and here today, my job is to so burn and light a fire in people. Do you know what happens if a glacier moves in on the villages and there’s a fire? It just kind of melts and spreads around. You have this hole in the glacier, and there’s just fire going up. And I don’t see any reason why Minneapolis couldn’t be one of those holes in the ice-cold glacier.

So, this Saturday night, there’s a metro-wide prayer for the Twin Cities, and I’ll be a part of that, and we’ll pray for five thousand people to be there on fire praying for God. And so my end-time vision for my church and your churches is that we don’t capitulate. You don’t get a pessimistic notion that it’s all going to be “Laodicean” at the end anyway. And so, what’s the use? You just kind of hang on by your fingernails, and maybe you’ll at least make it. That’s not the way it needs to be in my judgment because it’s not a lukewarm remnant that’s going to finish the Great Commission; it’s a red-hot remnant, and it is going to get finished, and therefore, you can be a part of it. And I want to help you be a part of it. I want to be a part of it.

So, let me try to give you my outline here. It goes something like this. We have three sessions together, three hours together, plus the question and answer time.

  • The first hour I would call “God’s Passion for God.”
  • The second hour I would call “Your Passion for God.”
  • The third hour I would call “Your Passion for Others’ Passion for God.”

Or here’s another way to outline it:

  • “The God of the Christian Leader” for this hour.
  • Second hour: “The Worship of the Christian Leader.”
  • And the third hour, “The Labor of the Christian Leader.”

God’s Passion for God

I believe with all my heart that we must be a people who root our passion for God in God’s passion for God. And it just isn’t happening as I see the scene. It’s a rare, rare church or denomination or seminary or school that talks much these days about God’s passion for his own glory. It’s just a rare thing. And in my judgment, it is the main point of the Bible. It’s the main theme of the Bible: God’s God-centeredness. So that’s what I want to try to demonstrate to you because it’s the foundation for everything. Unless you are gripped with God’s zeal for God, your zeal for God will be on a shaky foundation. But if I can convince you that the heartbeat of the universe, the meaning of creation, the meaning of redemption, the meaning of the end and the beginning, is that God has an awesome heart for God that’s indescribably great, then I think your zeal for God and your zeal for others’ zeal for God will have a foundation under it that nobody will ever pull.

We don’t talk much about this probably because we’re more familiar with our duties than with God’s designs. We all know why we exist. We can quote the catechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever,” but not many people ask, “What’s the chief end of God?” We know why we exist. Do we know why God exists? Would we deny to God the ultimate goal of worship? Would you deny to him what is the peak of your own pleasures — namely, worship? And if you wouldn’t, then what will God worship? And the answer is himself: his Son, the Father, and that worship is the Holy Spirit in person. That’s my understanding of the Trinity in a nutshell.

I have four sons. If you were to ask my sons, “What does your father live for? What makes him tick?” And they said, “I don’t know,” I would be disappointed. If you went further and said, “What drives him? What’s his passion? What is the goal of his life? What’s at the center?” And they said, “I don’t care,” I would not only be hurt, I’d be angry. And yet, I think if you went through our churches and asked that about our Father, “What’s your heavenly Father’s goal? What makes him tick? What drives him? What’s at the center?” You’d either get no answer or you’d get a very man-centered answer from most of our people.

Recounting Creation and Redemption

So, I want to try to take you through some texts. We’re going to do a history of creation and redemption in less than an hour here. My goal in showing you these texts is to confirm the God-centeredness of God or that God is central in his own affection so that the goal of God is to display his glory for the enjoyment of his people from every tongue and tribe and people and nation forever and ever. God is God-centered.

In the Beginning

Let me just start at creation and quote some texts to you and then deal with some of them in more detail. Why did God create you and the world?

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)

So, my answer to the question of why God created the world is that he created it as a spillover of his exuberance for his own glory.

A Chosen Race

Why did he choose Israel? Why did he do that? Why that particular way of redemptive working?

I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen. (Jeremiah 13:11)

That’s a real clear answer to why God elected Israel: that they might be for him, fame, praise, name, glory. That’s why Israel exists, and they will fulfill their call one day. I mean, ungodliness will be banished from Jacob and the broken off branches will be grafted in and we will all be one stock and our destiny will be the glory of the Lord (Romans 11:17–32).

Free from Pharaoh

Why did he rescue these people in Egypt, these rebels and idolaters?

Thus says the Lord God: On the day when I chose Israel, I swore to the offspring of the house of Jacob, making myself known to them in the land of Egypt; I swore to them, saying, I am the Lord your God. On that day I swore to them that I would bring them out of the land of Egypt into a land that I had searched out for them, a land flowing with milk and honey, the most glorious of all lands. And I said to them, “Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” But they rebelled against me and were not willing to listen to me. None of them cast away the detestable things their eyes feasted on, nor did they forsake the idols of Egypt. Then I said I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt. But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt. (Ezekiel 20:5–9)

They don’t deserve to be delivered. He did not deliver them because they deserve to be delivered. We see the same thing in Psalm 106:6–8:

Both we and our fathers have sinned;
    we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
    did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
    but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
    that he might make known his mighty power.

So the exodus clearly was for this purpose: that his name might be made known. God saved his people for his own sake. Now, that’s a theme that we’re going to find running right through the Bible. God saves people for God’s sake. What about sparing them in the wilderness? Why did he do that? They were so rebellious, they murmured and grumbled. And according to Ezekiel 20:14, God says,

I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations, in whose sight I had brought them out.

The Lord Will Not Forsake His People

One of the most important texts for me in unfolding the nature of grace and the God-centeredness of God — which are almost synonymous for me, by the way — is 1 Samuel 12:19–23. You know the situation. The people have asked for a king to be like the other nations. Samuel is deeply grieved, and God says, “Look, they’re not rejecting you. They’re rejecting me. Go ahead, give them the king.” And then Samuel rebukes them. Then this little transaction happens.

All the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil.”

That’s crazy. That’s crazy logic. You get the connection? That make any sense to you? “Fear not; you have done all this evil.” You’re supposed to say, “Fear not; you are righteous. Fear not; you have not done evil.” What’s this “fear not; you have done all this evil” logic? What’s that? That’s gospel. You look out over your people and you say, “Fear not; you have done all this evil.” That’s gospel, but that’s unjust. What’s the foundation to make such a thing holy? That’s unholy to talk like that. If a judge in Minneapolis has a rapist in front of him, and he says, “You have done all this evil; no problem, see you later,” we would all take him off the bench. This is not good. This is the great biblical problem of justification and of grace. So, what’s the foundation? What’s the solution?

Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. (1 Samuel 12:20–22)

Now right here is the very heart of the Bible, the heart of the gospel and the heart of God. The good news that God forgives sinners is rooted in God’s commitment to God. And unless you grasp God’s radical, deep, ultimate commitment for his great name’s sake, you won’t have any foundation for this crazy logic. Now you can live a long time without foundations, but over the long haul, something goes askew in the church when the foundations of the gospel are missing, and they are missing all over the place in America today. The God-centered foundation of the gospel — namely, he’s not going to give up on these sinful people, not because they’re so valuable, but because his name is so valuable — that’s the radical note that isn’t struck often enough in my judgment around American evangelicalism.

So we don’t pray often, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great” (Psalm 25:11). Isn’t the logic there strange? “Pardon my guilt.” Why? “Because it’s so great.” That’s why you should pardon it. And that would make no sense whatsoever if this weren’t there: “for your name’s sake, O Lord.” You see the same thing with God’s leadership. “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:3). God saves for his name’s sake. He pardons for his name’s sake. He leads for his name’s sake.

Good News for God’s Sake

Why did God bring the people back from Babylon? I mean, they tested him to the limit and he sent them into exile for seventy years. This is probably the most God-centered couple of verses in the Bible here, and it’s explaining the logic of God’s remitting judgment and unremitting mercy to his people. Isaiah 48:9–11 says,

For my name’s sake I defer my anger;     for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,     that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;     I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,     for how should my name be profaned?     My glory I will not give to another.

Now, what you have to feel here is very hard for our people to catch on to. I’ve been eleven years at my church, and many of my people still have trouble catching on to this. Now when you hear these strong words, “For my sake, for my glory, for my holiness, I do this,” they feel like, “Oh, he’s against me; he doesn’t like me” or “Oh, this is not good news,” when in fact, it’s the foundation of good news in this text. “I defer my anger” — that means “I put my anger away, I embrace you, I will be merciful toward you — “for my sake.”

Now, what that requires of our people, however, is that they not turn the gospel into a means of their own self-exaltation. That’s what’s happened today. The gospel has been transformed into a buttressing of my own self-exaltation. If the gospel comes in the form of, “I love you, I will embrace you, I will accept you, I will cause you to inherit everlasting glory for my sake, not yours,” they hear that, they say, “No, I don’t want it to be that way. I want it to be for my sake. I want you to recognize something good in me. I want you to say something nice about me. Don’t just bless me.” There’s a profound skewing going on here of the gospel.

For His Father

Let’s move to the New Testament and ask the question, Is this motif of God’s God-centeredness underlying his mercy throughout the New Testament? In John 17:4, Jesus says in his prayer,

I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.

I think what that says is God sent Jesus to do a work that would glorify him. God sent Jesus so that God could be glorified. Romans 15:8–9 says,

Christ became a servant to the circumcised 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.

So now you put the whole logic together: Christ became a servant to the circumcised. He was born under the law in order that the Gentiles might glorify God. So why did God send Jesus? He sent Jesus so that God would get glory. It’s a God-centered purpose in the incarnation. Our people need to be able answer that as well as John 3:16. They need to understand there’s something deeper than John 3:16. There’s a foundation for his love for the world — namely, his love for his glory. And we haven’t done well at that, I think, in evangelicalism, trying to get that across to our people.

The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood. (John 7:18)

That was Jesus’s passion and Jesus’s mission.

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” (John 12:27–28)

So, Jesus came and died for the glory of his Father.

Earth-Shattering Paragraph

This text here, Romans 3, is the most important text in the Bible in my judgment. If you would ask me to pick a paragraph in the Bible that’s most important, it would be this one.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put 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. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

See what’s at stake here: there’s a conflict between those two things. Everybody has fallen short of the glory of God and have trampled the glory of God under their feet by their oblivion of God or their hatred of God or their rebellion against God or their neglect of God; we just trample his glory under our feet. God’s righteousness, by definition, is his unswerving commitment to uphold his glory. Therefore, if God tolerates that kind of glory-trampling, he is unjust. David, for example, kills Uriah, lies with Bathsheba, and Nathan says, “God has forgiven your sins” (2 Samuel 12:13). And every just power in the universe says, “No, you cannot let him off like that.” And Paul’s biggest theological problem was how to handle the forgiveness of God.

It’s exactly the opposite of the problem people have today because we’re so man-centered. Today, we have a problem with hell. Paul’s not having problem with hell. He had a problem with heaven and forgiveness. He couldn’t figure out a just God who would let anybody into heaven like David. And therefore, he had to find, in God’s way of thinking and doing, a foundation for justification in Romans 3:24. And he found it in the cross, which was a demonstration of righteousness. How so? God had passed over former sins like David’s. He just passed them over. Unjust; it’s unjust. It was to prove “his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).

And the way it demonstrates the righteousness of God is that Jesus lived for the glory of God. He died for the glory of God. Therefore, when he went to the cross, innocent, for the glory of God. God was demonstrating to the principalities and the powers and the world rulers of this present darkness and everybody else that he loves his glory. He will vindicate his glory. He will not sweep sin under the rug of the universe. He will punish it and condemn it and execute it that his name might be vindicated.

And he and the Son made a covenant to bring that to pass so that now when I pray, “Pardon my sin for it is great,” and I say with David, “for thy name’s sake,” I know whose name I mean. I mean Jesus’s name. That’s why, when I begin my prayers, “Hallowed be thy name,” and I end my prayers “in Jesus’s name,” I am very consciously saying the goal of the universe and everything in it is that God be hallowed and he be glorified. And the foundation of every benefit I get as a sinner is the name of Jesus, which vindicated the Father when he died. So, from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

Come to Be Glorified

One last one: Why is Jesus coming back? According to 2 Thessalonians 1:9–10:

They 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, because our testimony to you was believed.

Jesus is coming to be glorified. Jesus is coming to be marveled at. That’s why he’s coming. That’s why the world was created. That’s why Jesus was sent. That’s why Israel was chosen. That’s why Jesus is coming back. That’s why you exist. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

Why God Is Still Loving

When I teach these sorts of things in my church, in different churches and settings, there are great objections. The God-centeredness of God — that he does everything for his own glory —really jostles a lot of people, though I find it the very center of the Bible, the very heart of biblical religion.

Uniquely God

The main objection that I feel like I need to overcome is that there are texts in the Bible that teach that if you live that way, you’re not loving. For example, in 1 Corinthians 13:5, love “does not insist on its own way.” So, I’ve just told you that God does everything in the pursuit of his own glory. And so, conclusion: he’s not loving. Right? Now, that’s the biggest objection, I think, that needs to be overcome. There are emotional objections, but they’re not as profound as that one. An emotional objection might be like: “I’ve never heard that before and it doesn’t feel good when you say it.” But the more important objection is biblical. If I hear a biblical objection, I get real serious. And this is a serious objection — namely, the biblical way of love is a biblical way of self-denial and humbling and self-emptying, and so on. So I need to respond to that. And that’s what I want to do here as the latter part of the talk.

My answer is that God is unique in the universe. He’s the most glorious of all beings. He’s totally self-sufficient. Nobody can improve upon him at all. He’s the greatest being in the universe.

Greatest Gift

Now, here’s the question I want to ask: If God is loving as such a being, what would that love involve? Or what gift must he give to us if he is to be maximally loving to us? Now, my answer is that if he gave me the world and withheld himself from me, he would not be loving to me. He gave me all the money in the universe, all the sex, all the fame, all the power, whatever people are after today, if he gave me all that and did not give me the beholding and the enjoyment and the fellowship of himself, he would have withheld from me the greatest thing, and therefore ,not be maximally loving to me. So, my answer is for God to be loving, he must give to me himself. I see that especially in Psalm 16:11:

In your presence there is fullness of joy;
    at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

That’s what I want in life. I want fullness of joy — not half joy, not half-full, not three-quarters full, but full joy. And I want it to last forever — not eight hundred years, but forever. And so those are the two things I need: full and everlasting. And it’s God. So if God withholds himself from me, it’s not satisfying.

Consummation of Praise

The grand discovery that I made when I asked that question was made from C.S. Lewis, and then I began to see it in the Bible. The question Lewis asks and I ask is, What do you do when you receive that which is awesome, glorious, beautiful? And the answer is you praise it; that is, you say good things about it. You can’t stop talking about it. You walk out into a sunrise, and there’s something that just opens your mouth. “Look,” you say, “Look. Oh, look.” Now, if you’ve got somebody with you, you call their attention to it. We praise all kinds of things. If you live in Minneapolis when the Twins won the World Series, you learn a lot about human nature and the capacities for praise. I live five blocks from the dome. And you could hear the dome five blocks away. As those people all turned charismatics, went into their very non-Scandinavian mode of praise. It’s all there if people will admit it; it’s really there.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that praise is not just a response to the joy of receiving something wonderful, but is the consummation of that joy. Now, keep your thinking hats on here because I’m answering the question of whether or not God is loving in pursuing his own glory. This is a roundabout way of answering that question, but it’s all going to fit together. I’m going to read you a quote here that was so revolutionary for me. C.S. Lewis said that the praise or the words that come out of your mouth when you receive something like a newborn baby, “Oh, look cute. Isn’t he cute? Look at the fingers. There are five fingers.” When you just say things about your beloved or your child or the sunrise or a new book or God, you are not just tacking something on to a pleasure, you are completing the pleasure; you are bringing the pleasure to consummation. Let me read you the key quote. This is from his book, Reflections on the Psalms.

The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows in praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regard to the supremely Valuable what we delight to do, what indeed what we can’t help doing, about everything we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses, but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed.

That’s the key that I’m going to bank on here in a minute. I’ve used the analogy of the World Series. Suppose you’ve taken those 55,000 people, and at the last game with the Braves in Minneapolis, you were to, at the door, give them their program and say, “Tonight, be sure to have as much enjoyment as you possibly can. But there’s a new rule in the seventh game. No sound may come from your mouth. So, you enjoy it. Go ahead. Enjoy it to the full. No problem. We want maximum joy tonight in this room, but you may not make any noise whatsoever. No words and no comments about the Twins or anybody.”

Now, it would be utterly ludicrous for one reason: The mouth and the expression is not a negligible tack on to the joy, which you can take or leave and the joy is all the same. It’s not true. The mouth and the expression of what’s happening is a consummation of the joy. And if you deny a person praise, if you deny a person the ability to express in some way what they are feeling, you deny them some of the feeling, some of the joy. Now that to me was a key that unlocked the nature of God’s love as a God-centered God.

God’s Glory, Our Joy

Let me see if I can put the pieces together for you here: God is the one being in all the universe for whom self-exaltation, or the pursuit of his own glory, is utterly essential to love. No other being may say this. Let me try to explain. If your maximum joy in the universe — that is the maximum experience of love — is to be given God, and yet God were not to pursue or were to be very indifferent to whether or not you gave any expression to glorifying him and honoring him and praising him and responding to himself as he gave himself to you, if he were indifferent to that expression of praise, he would be indifferent to the consummation of your joy, and therefore, indifferent to his love. He would not be a loving God.

Does that begin to make sense? Let me try to say it again: If God were to be indifferent to whether you praise him, he would be indifferent to the consummation of your enjoyment of him. To be indifferent to your consummation of joy in him is not to love you. If he would love you, he must want from you your maximum joy. And your maximum joy in the enjoyment of the greatest being in the universe comes to consummation in the expression of: “You are glorious, you are wonderful, you are awesome” — praise, which means he must seek your praise in order to be loving to you.

No other being in the universe, can you say that of. If I were to make that my goal, if I would say the way to make my church happy is to get them to praise me and enjoy me, I would simply be idolatrous; I would be taking God’s place. My job is to direct their attention to God. But God’s job is not to direct their attention to me or them or anybody, but to himself because he loves them. His love for his glory, his passion to see it lifted up and magnified, therefore, is the very foundation of his love to people. When I go back to 1 Corinthians 13:5 and see that love seeks not its own, I just say Paul does not have in his mind there, by a long shot, God’s love or pursuit of his own glory.

In the third talk this afternoon, I’m going to talk about what Paul does have in mind there because it has tremendous implications for the way we do our ministry.

Three Ways God’s Passion for Himself Impacts Us

Now, let me conclude by giving three implications of what I’ve said. And then point you to where we’re going in the next talk. I have three implications written down here.

1. God’s passion for God is very humbling to us.

It removes us from the center of his affections and the universe and puts himself at the center. And I’m very happy for God to be at the center of God’s affections, provided I can be somewhere nearby feeding on that fountain of love for himself. And I think God wants us to be humble. When I read the New Testament, it seems to me that, in God’s work among men, he wants us to be humbled and he wants us to be happy in him. He wants his name to be lifted up, and us to decrease. I decrease; he increases (John 3:30). God wants humble people.

And I don’t see humility or the humbling that I’m talking about here as at all against infinite happiness, but in fact, as a means to it. So, the first implication of what I’ve said is to get me out of the center of the universe, out of the center of God’s affections, and to get God at the center of the universe and God at the center of his affections.

2. God’s God-centeredness gives hope.

His righteousness — that is, his commitment to uphold the worth of what is infinitely worthy, namely, his glory, becomes the foundation of my salvation, my leading by him, my pardon, and gives me hope as a sinner that there’s a good rock-solid foundation for God saving me. I just jotted down three texts:

  • Psalm 143:11 says, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life!”

  • Psalm 23:3: “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” What confidence do we have as sinners that God would lead us? Answer: for his name’s sake. When I’m perplexed, like I am many times these days, about what to do in my church and whatnot, and I look, I cast about for some assurance that God would favor me with leading, this is right at the bottom of my assurance. “For his name’s sake, he leads me in paths of righteousness.” God’s name is at stake in John Piper’s leadership.

  • Psalm 29:11: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” My pardon hangs on his living for his name’s sake. If God were to surrender his passion for his name and his glory, that verse would vanish as a foundation for my hope for pardon.

Have you ever wondered why 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. ” Shouldn’t that say merciful instead of just? “He’s faithful and merciful to forgive us our sins”? Why did it say just? It says just because of Romans 3:25: Christ demonstrated the dikaiosunē of God, the righteousness of God when he died. Therefore, when God looks at me in my sin, sees me look away from my sin to his Son, beholds his justice vindicated in his Son, he says, “For that vindication of my justice, I will pardon this confessed sin.” And therefore, God’s zeal for his justice is the foundation for this forgiveness. First John 1:9 says that: “He is faithful and just.” I don’t just go to God for his mercy now when I plead my case. I plead the justice of God in my forgiveness. Because Christ has vindicated his elect by atoning for their sins, and there’s no double jeopardy. God’s glory has been magnified in the life of those who are God’s. And therefore, I plead God’s justice for my forgiveness: “Look to your Son. Be just in honoring the worth of your Son’s vindication of your glory. Don’t be an unjust God and heap scorn upon your Son.” That’s the ultimate rock-solid foundation of mercy.

3. The God-centeredness of God preserves radically free grace.

Let me see if I can just unpack that for a minute. It means this: God’s blessings on me are always owing to God’s commitment to God. Now, do you see how that’s gracious? That’s the freedom of grace. The opposite of grace is works in Paul’s vocabulary. But ultimately, if you analyze the texts on works, works are any claim to worth or distinctives that obligate God. If you say that all of the blessings that come to you are owing to God’s allegiance to God, you have declared the radical freedom of grace. If you say that there are blessings that come to me because of God’s commitment to me as me, apart from his being in me and working on me, you have obliterated grace. That’s happening a lot today.

And so I believe the God-centeredness of God preserves the glorious freedom of grace and my life hangs on grace being free because I don’t have enough in me to obligate God. The experience of grace is always a heartfelt gladness that God is central in God’s affections.

I recoil at the contemporary model of saying that the cross is an echo of my excellence, that I’m a real diamond in the rough, and God discovered me and paid his Son to get me. I really recoil at that. I think it inverts grace. Now, there’s a truth here. We’ve got to be real careful. I don’t want to overstate the case. God died for people and not horses, OK. Why? Because we’re in his image. We’re created unique, in his image, which means the meaning of the imago dei is right at the essence here.

And here’s my definition of the image of God. It’s kind of a functional definition. And it’s not the only one, I don’t think, but I think it is a right one. The image of God in me is that which gives me the capacity to glorify God consciously. That’s my definition of the imago dei. That which gives me the potential or the capacity to worship and glorify God consciously. Therefore, when God sees a horse and sees me, the essential difference he makes is that he sees in me a God-created capacity to glorify God uniquely. Horses glorify God. That’s why I put the word consciously in there. All creation glorifies God, but humans rationally and consciously can interact with and glorify God.

Therefore, if what is meant by self-esteem is a recognition that I’m unique in the universe as a human being, and that what makes me unique is a capacity to glorify God, and that what God is after in my redemption is the realization of the capacity to glorify him, I can live with it. But that’s a very God-centered way of describing the imago. It’s a God-centered way of describing self-esteem. And it’s a God-centered way of describing redemption. And if people make that effort to keep all of that together, then I can live with that.

So yes, we are not frogs and horses; we are humans. And I’m a great one for pro-life, and so I talk much about the value of those babies. But the value I have in mind is a value that is an image of God created by God for God. From God, to God, through God are all these things (Romans 11:36). And so when God dies for people and not horses, he is dying for those whom he ordained to give him glory.

Now, it’s very hard to boast or brag. Well, it isn’t hard; we do it pretty easily. I mean bragging comes real naturally. Let me use this analogy. There are people who brag about being Scandinavian or being black or being red or being yellow, and we try to cultivate that. Or we brag about being Southern or Northern, or about living in Atlanta instead of Minneapolis. There are people that brag about things over which they have zero control and nothing to do with. You had nothing to do with what color you are. Nothing to do with your ethnic background. And yet people find it easy to boast in that. That’s odd and irrational.

And therefore, I do find people able to boast in their being in the image of God. They had nothing to do with it. It’s all for God’s glory. They did not in one teeny-weeny millimeter of effort have anything to do with it. And yet I think there’s a kind of somebody that is coming through here that ought to be. God is somebody. And if there’s a way to say I am somebody — that is, I was created in God’s image, and now I have been graciously granted the capacity to fulfill that destiny by worshiping God, and therefore, I am somebody — if there’s a way to say that in a God-centered, God-exalting way, so be it.

I don’t tend to use the language of self-esteem at all. My counseling methods are all grace-esteem and God-esteem, not self-esteem. And I find them just as helpful and just as healing as the other, I think more so if you define healing as putting people into a God-centered capacity to flourish.