The Gospel for Real Devotions

Seminar — 2014 National Conference

Look at the Book: Reading the Bible for Yourself

I’d like to greet each one of you individually, but I can hardly even see you. I trust that there will be opportunities during these days to meet some of you.

I’m going to get right into the subject: The Gospel for Real Devotions. And in introducing this subject, I want to go back about 35 years when just after the book The Pursuit of Holiness had been published. My name was beginning to get out among pastors and Christian leaders, and I began to get invitations to speak at churches and so forth.

On a given weekend, I was to leave on Friday to a church in Alabama, and I would speak Friday night and then some on Saturday and then Sunday morning and then fly home Sunday afternoon or evening. There was a storm coming into Denver that was due in on the next day and there was a likelihood that a number of flights would either be delayed or canceled.

So I decided that I would go to Denver on Thursday and stand by and seek to get a flight to Atlanta to get ahead of the storm. So I went to Denver, and I went to the airport and asked to be put on standby. This was before the days of progressive elite status and so forth, and so you’re just right at the end of the line. All afternoon from about 2:00 until 8:00 p.m., I waited to see whether or not I would get a seat on a plane to Atlanta. I finally got the last seat at about 8:00 p.m. that evening. During that time, I was sinning. I was sinning with anxiety. That is a sin because it means that we’re not trusting God for the circumstances that we’re in at that time.

Not only was I anxious, but I was making myself a bit of a pest and going to the passenger agent for the airline from time to time and asking, “Am I going to get on the next flight?” and so forth. And from 2:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. there were probably four or five flights going to Atlanta, and I was a continual pest, saying, “Am I going to get on this flight?” I arrived at Atlanta at about midnight, I went to a hotel room, and I was very much convicted of my sin of anxiety and making myself a pest. And here I am going the next day to speak on the subject of The Pursuit of Holiness. I did not feel very holy at that time. So I thought to myself, “I need something from the Word.” And this was before the days that I had learned to preach the gospel to myself.

I didn’t just open my Bible and put my thumb on it, but I prayed, “Lord, would you show me something from the Scriptures?” The thought came to my mind to begin to read the book of Colossians. I started at chapter one, verse one. And it wasn’t until I came to Colossians 2:13 in the particular version that I was reading at that time, where it said, “He forgave us all our sin.” And immediately I had the assurance that my sins of anxiety and making a pest of myself had been forgiven because of Christ’s work on the cross. So I went to sleep, had a reasonably good night’s sleep, went the next day and spoke on The Pursuit of Holiness because I knew that my sins had been forgiven. And dear friends, this is why we need the gospel every day.

The Gospel for Believers

The gospel is not just for the unbeliever in coming to Christ, which is what I thought, of course, for many years, but the gospel is for every one of us every day because we are still practicing sinners, saved sinners to be sure, but still practicing sinners every day of our lives in thought, word, deed, and motive. So I discovered by experience that I needed the gospel every day.

As I began to study some of the older writers going all the way back to the days of Reformation, I discovered that’s what they were teaching — that we needed the gospel every day. And in fact, they taught that the gospel practiced every day provides the foundation for our sanctification. It keeps us from becoming legalistic in our approach to sanctification. It keeps us wanting to obey God out of gratitude for what he has done and for the promises that he has given. We need the gospel every day.

So how does the gospel fit into our devotions? Now, devotions goes by two or three names. Devotions are very popular, probably the most popular name. Some people call it the quiet time. I have my own special name which is not copyrighted, but it speaks to me and it’s time alone with God, because that reminds me daily that the purpose of my devotions is not just to read a chapter or two in the Bible and go over a prayer list, but it’s to actually seek to spend time God in his word and in prayer. And that’s the purpose of our devotions.

So the question is, where does the gospel fit into our practice of devotions? I mentioned a few minutes ago that we need the gospel because we’re all still practicing sinners. And so, in instituting the engagement with the gospel in my life each day, I start with the fact that I am still a practicing sinner. Again, let me emphasize, a saved sinner, but still sinning every day in thought, word, deed, and motive.

I approach the gospel, first of all, acknowledging that I am still sinful in my daily life. I use the attitude of the tax collector, remember? Jesus gave the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple. The Pharisee was very proud of himself and the tax collector would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:9–14).

The little word “a” actually does not occur in the original. It’s just literally, “God, be merciful to me, sinner.” It’s like I would say, “God, be merciful to me, Jerry.”

I’ve actually adapted that prayer a little bit because I combine Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15 with the tax collector’s prayer. Paul refers to himself as “the foremost of sinners.” So I pray, “God, be merciful to me, the foremost of sinners.” And then I acknowledge that God has been merciful to me in bringing me into his kingdom and causing me to trust the Lord Jesus Christ as my Savior. I know that he has been merciful and I acknowledge that, but then I say, “But I need your mercy every day of my life.” And then, having acknowledged my need for the gospel, I go to the gospel. And the question is, how would you most succinctly explain the gospel? In answering that question, I’d like for you to turn with me to 2 Corinthians 5:21.

He Who Knew No Sin

If I were stranded on the proverbial desert island and could only have one book, obviously it would be the Bible. If I could only have one book of the Bible, it would be Romans. But if I could only have one verse of the Bible, it would be 2 Corinthians 5:21, because this verse is the most succinct, most compact description of the gospel anywhere in the Bible. Paul says:

For our sake he (that is, God) made him (that is, Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

I want to first of all look at that phrase, “who knew no sin.” Throughout the New Testament, in fact I’ve counted about eight different times, the writers testify to the absolute sinlessness of Christ. Here, Paul says, “He knew no sin.” The writer of Hebrews says, “He was tempted in all points as we are tempted, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). John and Peter chime in with similar verses in 1 Peter and 1 John.

In John 8:29, Jesus himself said, “I always do the things that please God.” His own self-awareness of himself was his perfect obedience. But probably the highest testimony of all was that which came from heaven, the voice of God, first at his baptism, and secondly, at the Mount of Transfiguration, sometime before his crucifixion. You know the words: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; Matthew 17:5). If there had been a single sin in the life of Christ, God could not have said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” God the Father testifies to the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Christ Made to Be Sin

Now, I’ve gone to that first, but I’m going to come back to it in a minute because that is very important in our understanding of the gospel.

But let’s look now, what did God do? Paul says, “He made him to be sin . . .” That doesn’t mean that God made Christ to be a sinner. That flies in the face of everything the New Testament teaches. But that is Paul’s way, at this time, of saying that God charged all of our sin to him, or that God laid our sin upon him. God made him to be sin. All the accumulated sin of all who will ever trust in him was laid upon Christ.

Isaiah puts it this way in Isaiah 53:6:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
     we have turned — every one — to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
     the iniquity of us all.

Peter says, “He himself bore our sins and his own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:14). As Jesus hung on the cross, and particularly during those awful hours of darkness from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., God had laid our sin upon Christ and God was judging our sin in the person of Christ. When Jesus prayed on the night in the garden, “Let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39), that cup is a metaphor for the wrath of God. And during those three horrible hours, Jesus was suffering the punishment for our sins. He was suffering the wrath of God in our place.

Now, we think of the terrible physical agony of having the nails driven through the hands and the feet and hanging suspended like this and being unable to breathe. But that was just the physical agony. The spiritual agony was infinitely greater than that as God laid upon him all of our sin. Notice it says, “God made him to be sin who knew no sin.”

The Great Exchange

The second part of the verse is, “So that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Basically, what Paul is saying here is that God charged our sin to Christ and credited his righteousness to us. When he says “in him” that means through our union with him we become the righteousness of God. That doesn’t mean we become righteous like God, but it’s Paul’s way of saying that God credited the perfect righteousness of Christ to us.

Now, go back a few minutes when I talked about the fact that he knew no sin, that he was perfectly righteous. It is that righteousness that is credited to us. So on the one hand, God takes our sin and charges it to Christ, and he takes his righteousness and credits it to us. Think of your life as having what I call a moral ledger sheet.

Now, in the accounting profession, or anybody who’s doing bookkeeping, a ledger records all the financial activities of this company or whoever. Think of your life as having a moral ledger sheet on which is recorded every thought, word, deed, and motive that you have had since the day of your birth. It’s not a very pretty picture. That’s all of your accumulated sin. And God has taken that sin and he has, as it were, removed it from your ledger and he’s charged it to Christ. And Christ, in his infiniteness, has the ability to pay the penalty for all of us.

But then that leaves us with a clean but empty ledger. So God does something else. He takes the perfect righteousness of Christ and he puts that on our ledger so that now instead of having this dirty, filthy, sinful ledger, our ledger shows the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That’s the gospel, dear friends. He bore our sin on the cross that we might have his righteousness. And it’s both of these, it’s the bearing of our sin and it’s the crediting of our righteousness that comprises the work of Christ in his sinless life and his sin-bearing death.

The Gospel We Need

This is the gospel that we need to incorporate into our daily devotions. I’d like to suggest to you just a few verses of Scripture other than this one. This is sort of foundational, but there are other verses of Scripture that emphasize either the forgiveness of our sin or the crediting to us of his righteousness. For the forgiveness of our sin, my favorite is the one I’ve already quoted to you. Isaiah 53:6 says:

All we like sheep have gone astray;
     we have turned — everyone — to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
     the iniquity of us all.

The reason I like that verse is because it gives us the reason why God doesn’t charge our sin to us. He’s already laid it upon Christ. He’s already charged it to him. God does not just sweep our sin under some cosmic rug. He dealt with our sin by charging it to Christ and pouring out his wrath upon him. You and I will never be charged with our sin. The sins we’ve committed in the past, the sins we’ve committed today, and the sins we will continue to commit for the remainder of our lives, we will not be charged for a single one of those sins because they’ve already been charged to the Lord Jesus Christ. He bore our sins in his own body on the tree.

As Far as East Is to West

Let me just suggest to you a few other verses. Interestingly enough, so many of them occur in the Old Testament before we ever get to the gospel in the New Testament. But these are in anticipation of what God is going to do through Christ.

The first one is Psalm 103:12, which says:

As far as the east is from the west,
     so far does he remove our transgressions from us.

Now, if you were to get into an airplane today out at the airport and fly north, eventually you would fly over the North Pole and as soon as you fly over the North Pole, you’re headed south. But if you get in that same airplane and instead of going north, you go west, you’ll never fly east. So when the writer says, “as far as the east is from the west,” that’s a metaphor expressing the infinity of God’s forgiveness. God has removed our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. They will never meet. Our sins will never be charged against us.

The next one is Isaiah 1:18. This is one of my favorites when I really feel that I’ve sinned big time:

Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
     they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
     they shall become like wool.

I don’t know how many of you will remember in literature class way back in high school, you read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel titled The Scarlet Letter. You know that story, and if you don’t, you can ask your neighbor and explain it to you. This woman who had committed adultery was expecting a baby — and this is back in the pilgrim days when they were pretty tough on things like this — had to wear something the rest of her life, a lanyard with a great big scarlet A for “adulteress”.

Now, I do not know, but I suspect that Nathaniel Hawthorne got that title or the idea of that title from Isaiah 1:18, which says, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Forgiven for His Name’s Sake

Another one is Isaiah 43:25, which says:

I, I am he
     who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
     and I will not remember your sins.

Someone helpfully pointed out the difference between forgetting and not remembering. Forgetting is something that we all do. I do it a lot. I forget where I put my cell phone. I forget where I put my car keys. I forget all the time, and age doesn’t help. But that’s not what God is talking about. He’s not talking about forgetfulness. He’s talking about a choice, a decision not to remember. And God has made a decision: he will not remember your sin. Why? Because his justice has already been satisfied at the cross 2,000 years ago. And at the time that Isaiah wrote those words, it would be 700 years before the cross, but Jesus was the lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.

We look at Isaiah 1:18 and we say, “Well, that’s going to be possible because Christ is going to die on the cross 700 years later,” because we live in time. God does not live in time. Jesus was slain from before the foundation of the world. So when God said, “Come now and let us reason together. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool,” he at that time can envision Christ hanging on the cross, paying for those sins that he’s promised to cleanse from us.

Into the Depths of the Sea

In Micah 7:19, God says:

He will again have compassion on us;
     he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
     into the depths of the sea.

The great saint, Corrie Ten Boom — some of you are old enough to remember her name — used to say on that verse, “And then God put up a sign saying, ‘No fishing allowed.’” God uses “far as the east is from the west,” and now he says, “I’ve cast your sins into the depths of the sea,” meaning, “I will remember them no more.”

The End of the Law for Righteousness

As we come into the New Testament, we see verses like Romans 4:7–8, where Paul says:

Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.

Why is it true? Because he’s already counted it against Christ. Here’s just a quick look at verses on Christ’s righteousness being imparted to us, or credited to us. I like Romans 10:3–4, if I can find it here. Paul, speaking of the Jews, his own people, says:

For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Now Christ is not the end of the law for our personal obedience, but he’s the end of the law for righteousness. There’s nothing more that we can do. We cannot add anything to the work of Christ. He is the end of the law for righteousness to all who believe.

Then, in Philippians 3:9, Paul gives his testimony. If you read Philippians chapter 3, he talks about his spiritual resume, if you please — his ancestry, his lineage, all that he did. And then he said, “But I count all of these things as loss. They’re just nothing. They’re trash. They’re garbage.” And then in Philippians 3:9, he says:

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

Now, I’ve messed up the quotation a little bit there, but that’s the essence. He said, “I want to be found in Christ not having a righteousness in my own, which is of the law through my personal obedience, but that which comes from God and is received by faith.”

You and I have to trust in Jesus Christ that not only has God forgiven us our sin, but that he’s also credited us with the perfect righteousness of Christ. That’s the gospel. And what we’re saying today when we say “the gospel for daily devotions” is that the practice of reviewing the gospel and applying the gospel to your life should be a daily practice. You should make it a part of your daily devotions. Just like your Bible reading and your prayer, the gospel should be a part of your daily devotions.

The Gospel in Daily Life

Sometimes I have my devotions first thing in the morning. But sometimes even as I get out of bed, before I go and make a cup of coffee and sit down for my devotions, I sit there on the side of the bed and I engage my mind in the gospel to prepare me for that day. And one of the reasons that we need to do that is because we live in a culture of performance. Whether it’s a Christian culture or a secular culture, it’s all performance.

You go to school and you’re graded. You go out for a sports team and you make the team based on your ability. You graduate from college or high school and go out into the workday world and you get performance reviews. It’s performance, performance, performance. If you can visualize a river called Performance, this river is going downstream. That’s performance. You’re in a rowboat, the rowboat of the gospel, and you’re seeking to row upstream. What happens if you take your oars out? You begin to go back to performance, do you not? You drift with the performance current. And so every day we have to dig the oars of our mind into the gospel and row against performance. It is a daily practice.

Or to use another illustration, the gospel is like the manna that God gave the children of Israel in the desert. It had to be gathered every day. The gospel has to be gathered and incorporated into your life every day because our natural drift is a performance relationship with God in which, when we’ve had a good day, we are quite pleased with ourselves and we think we’re worthy of the blessing of God. And then another day we’re very displeased with ourselves and we think, “I might as well go back to bed. God can’t possibly bless me.” It’s the gospel that keeps us having our faith, not in ourselves, but in him.

Some of you are familiar with the life of Martin Luther and how he was struggling as a monk to scour himself clean so that he would be acceptable to God. And he visualized God as this ogre in the sky, if you please, who had set to him an impossible process to fulfill and then would damn him for his failure. And one day his father to whom he was confessing said, “Martin, do you love God?” and Luther replied, “Love God? I hate God.” Why did he say that? Because he was totally relying on performance, and he realized that his performance was not good enough.

And then one day God opened his eyes and he saw that the gospel, which he thought God required of him, was actually the gospel that God gave to him through the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. I think Martin Luther was right on both counts. It is the righteousness which God requires, but he sent his Son to fulfill that. So now he gives to us what we could not acquire in ourselves. This is why we need to incorporate the gospel into our daily devotions. It is a daily thing, day after day after day.

was an author, speaker, and staff member of The Navigators.