A significant portion of the western church is in the grips of an identity crisis. This is evidenced by our fragmentation over non-truth issues, posturing among the sheep for the definitive expression of relevant faith, and the plethora of nifty programs and offerings by which we seek to identify ourselves in the name of reaching the world. Most of us seek biblical justification for our particular outlook and practice. Yet Scripture does not have a nose of wax. Unless pastors and elders understand something of the breadth of the Bible and are submissive to its covenantal nature, its historical-redemptive flow, its theological unity, and its exegetical proclamation, proof-texting, elementary mistakes, hobbyhorses, and silliness, if not outright abandonment of historical Christianity, will dominate. Sadly, many are held captive to such movements. Without a steady diet of the strong meat of the word, one loses the ability to discern truth from error, cannot distinguish the appearance of truth from its reality, and will gradually develop distaste for Scripture’s pressing calls, exclusive claims, and penetrating demands for self-examination, self-abandonment, and Christ-centeredness. The promise of “doing something,” appearing relevant, and feeling fulfilled are the three canons of truth in today’s church environment. These canons are wholly subjective and evidence of the fundamental identity crisis: we no longer have a sense of what Christ Jesus has promised to do, is doing, and has commanded us to do to keep in step with his Spirit. For we are his; we do not belong to ourselves, individually or corporately. Lacking appreciation and commitment to the identity he has given and revealed to us in his word, that he died to give us and reigns to sustain in us, we are easy targets for a mid-life spiritual crisis and artificial makeovers, both of which only mask our weakness and give us a false sense of spiritual fulfillment.
Considering the flow of history, we are in the “age of the Holy Spirit.” His outpouring was the hope of God’s people throughout the old era (Num. 11:29; Joel 2:28-32). When the desire of the ages came, our Lord Jesus Christ, his climactic address focused upon the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, so closely does he associate himself with the Holy Spirit that his dwelling with us is promised in terms of the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence (John 14:16-18). He will guide the church, especially the apostles as his authoritative mouthpieces, into all the truth (John 16:13). The Holy Spirit’s chief work is to bear witness to Jesus Christ in the hearts of God’s elect, thus enabling them, according to their station and calling, to bear witness to him (John 15:26-27). When he comes, Jesus says, he will convict the world of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8-11). His presence in the church will enable her to be fruitful, to do great works, even, remarkably, greater works than Jesus did while on the earth (John 14:12) – not in terms of those works that he alone can do and that attest to his divine person and mediatorial authority, but of gathering his sheep into the church, , discipling the nations, and attaining the three great blessings of our Savior’s wondrous prayer in John 17: preservation from the wiles of the devil (v. 15), sanctification in the truth (v. 17), and unity of the faith (v. 21).
Then, he came. At Pentecost, the new era, the era extending between Christ’s ascension and final return at the consummation of the ages, the Holy Spirit was poured out. The meaning of this is defined by the text of Scripture: “Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which you now see and hear” (Acts 2:33). The outpouring of the Spirit, therefore, was the singular confirmation of our Savior’s exaltation and enthronement, that he is glorified and reigns, that sin, Satan, and death are defeated, and that he is now empowering his church through all subsequent ages to extend the boundaries of his reign through the salvation of sinners, holiness of life, and soundness of doctrine. The Spirit’s outpouring changed everything. Weak disciples became insuperable apostles. The Spirit overcame four millennia of Gentile idolatry, moral perversion, and spiritual blindness within a generation. Christians were made from men who had formerly been perverse, darkened in their understanding, and enemies of God. Congregations were planted in Satan’s former citadels. These greater works, moreover, were promised, in both the Old and New Testaments, to continue, though not at the same pace as in the first flush of the Spirit’s powerful testimony to the newly enthroned Jesus of Nazareth, until all the families of the nations worship the Lord, until the nations are discipled and obedient to the faith (Gen. 12:1-3; Ps. 22:27-28; Isa. 2:2-4; Matt. 28:18-20; Rom. 1:5; 16:16).
We do well to ask whether or not we are pursuing and experiencing these divinely revealed “greater works,” these fundamental works of the Holy Spirit. It is true that God works on his schedule, not ours. It is also true that our age manifests a general apostasy not only from God but also from any concern with truth and morality based upon more than personal whim. We are a jaundiced people, part of an artificial system of manipulated economies, suburban dormitory life, and passivity-creating entertainment. Statist tyranny marches in step with our moral cowardice, fearful obsession with personal and family survival, and indifference toward the kind of living and praying, believing and worshipping, that would open the door for the King of glory to march into our midst again, purifying us and making us ready for every good work. Yes, yes, all of this is quite true, and since it is so, many of us are content with bare survival, making the most of a bad time, and simply endeavoring to keep ourselves unspotted from the world, which, of course, is necessary in every age (James 1:27).
I call your attention, however, to the grand fact that however low we have sunk, however many psychoses we have developed in response to the struggles of trying to survive in our particular culture, with its thirst for things, distraction, and the income to pursue them, these are nothing but Satan’s smokescreens to prevent us from remembering and believing that this is the age of Jesus Christ, of his Spirit. Ours is a God-created faith of power, not of mere words (1 Thess. 1:5); of love, not fear (2 Tim. 1:7; 1 John 4:18); truth, not delusion (2 Thess. 2:11-12). Moreover, the early believers lived in an age similar to our own: rampant idolatry and entrenched unbelief, crusading statism, and agnosticism toward the claims of truth. What made the difference?
I hearken back to one of the most important descriptions our Savior ever gave of the Holy Spirit. Recapturing its splendor would soon rescue us from our self-inflicted identity crisis, from our fear, from our juvenile spirituality. It would again form the church into God’s true city, set on a hill with an unavoidable light streaming from its heights. We would proclaim a message that could not be so easily spurned, and like the early believers, would either evoke faith or hatred, conversion or opposition. “And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8). Following the apostles through the Roman world, you will find nothing of what we find a great deal of today: therapy preaching. The apostles were not concerned to make men feel better, even believers, about their circumstances. They did not encourage men to find answers within themselves. They did not seek a point of contact with the unbelieving world, making the transition with anecdotes, stories, and other dramatic displays. They preached sin – talk about a church departure program. But why? Why did Peter preach so strongly against sin to the first audience of the new covenant era? Or Paul before the Athenians, and everywhere else he went? Or, even in their letters, why did the apostles write to the churches with such force to warn them against various sins, exhort them to holiness, and motivate it all with a reminder that Jesus Christ is the judge, before whose seat we must all stand (Rom. 14:10)? It was because they understood that man’s fundamental crisis, against which even believers must be continually warned, is sin – not how I can prosper in my business in economic downturns, or how I can feel better about myself or my circumstances, or any such drivel. No, the Lord Jesus Christ draws men to himself as the Spirit convicts and reproves their sin.
Why sin? Sin, not lack of money, is the root of all our worry and fear. Sin, not unruly children, is the source of all our misery. Sin, not bad health, is what ruins us. Sin, which is breaking God’s commandments (1 John 5:3), separates us from God. Unless I am confronted by God’s claims upon my life, I will always misjudge my true predicament. It is not that I am a man, with some sort of irresolvable conflict between flesh and spirit. It is not that nature is against me, or that living among other men I cannot exercise my will and freedom as I would like. No, I have rebelled against God. My rebellion may take the form of selfishness, base lust, a God-complex, or any number of other forms. I cannot make even one step, however, toward God, toward peace, hope, and righteousness, unless the fundamental cancer of my soul is confronted and rooted out. This is the reason much of today’s preaching and spiritual literature is ineffectual. It explains away, masks, or treats the cancer of with blithe spiritualisms. I am a victim. I could not do otherwise. My feelings and desires are normal, just stymied by everyone else and requiring less rules and more encouragement to pursue them. Everything must be changed but me. The Spirit says otherwise, and unless our preaching, our inmost thoughts, and our practice recognize this great truth, we are out of step with him. We may change our circumstances, our leaders, our job, or our church, but we take the cancer wherever we go. The grass is green until I walk on it; it turns brown under my feet.
But if we deal with sin, honestly looking at ourselves in the light of the Spirit’s word, evaluating our responses to our circumstances, to our spouse, to our children, to our personal finances by the infallible wisdom of God, then we begin to see ourselves honestly. What appeared righteousness itself before will then be exposed as uttermost folly and corruption. Only then am I in a position to look to Jesus Christ as my only Savior. Without preaching of the law and of sin, of my duty toward God and man, as well as of my utter inability to do it, we cannot expect the Spirit to work. He is not silly-putty, putting himself in our hands to do with him and his precious truth what we wish, what we think will really be relevant and attractive to lost men. Lost men do not like to be confronted with sin; believers sometimes fare little better.
Righteousness is what God requires of us. Righteousness is what we do not have unless we have Christ. Proclaiming sin in terms of God’s word leads men to see what God actually requires. And, O, how far short we have fallen! Righteousness is not defined by accepted standards of morality. Righteousness is not the standards of living and conventions of men. God alone is righteous, and he loves righteousness. His righteousness is revealed in his word, which he has exalted above his own name (Ps. 138:2). He loves his word as he loves himself. Though we have trampled upon it, he will not lower his standards. The reason the church today is so irrelevant – and it truly is, at least in the west – has nothing to do with the “tone” of our services, or outdated music, or non-hip preachers, or lack of outreach to the poor. It has everything to do with the fact that we do not proclaim God – his law, his holiness, his majesty. We are supposed to feel uncomfortable in his presence (Isa. 6; Rev. 1). He is righteousness itself, before whom all the best men who have ever lived, taken together, are utterly impure. Confronting men with God’s righteousness is the Spirit’s great work, for by this he casts down all delusions of self-righteousness, salvation by personal improvement, and peace by circumstance manipulation. When the Spirit opens our eyes to see something of his righteousness, he graciously leads us to Jesus Christ that we may be righteous in him; that by his inner work of renewal resulting in a living union with him, we may be empowered to pursue righteousness in life (Rom. 6). Fail to preach God’s righteousness – preach lowest common denominator standards, preach principles by which to make men feel better, preach “peace, peace” to sinners – and you are sure to be abandoned by the Holy Spirit. Men may flock to you, but a crowded auditorium without the Holy Spirit is nothing but a glorious edifice raise to human vanity.
Judgment? Yes, we must be motivated to see ourselves as sinners and to behold the majesty of God’s righteousness. None of us will come to this truth without irresistible external pressure, God-brought pressure through God-ordained means. We are seekers, yes, but not of God (Rom. 3:11). The pressure the Spirit exerts is pointing men to judgment, by which our Savior includes all the manifestations of God’s wrath that are revealed from heaven against ungodly men (Rom. 1:18ff.) and that has a specific culmination on the “day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Rom. 2:5), when all men shall stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Apostolic preaching of judgment contains both elements: historical judgments (Acts 2:40) and final judgment (Acts 17:31). Of course, we ridicule such preaching today, and it shows in everything from our lack of urgency in gospel proclamation, except in terms of finding personal fulfillment and building my favorite brand of “church,” to our lack of earnestness in pursuing God’s kingdom and gospel as our only pearl. The judgment of God puts life in perspective. If I do not repent of my sins, I will be judged: now and later. If I do not pursue his righteous standards, I will be judged: now and later. The preaching of judgment is really a proclamation of total accountability to God – not to myself and my priorities, feelings, and desires, to the expectations of others, whether or not they like me, feel comfortable around me, or accept me – but to God. The conviction of total accountability to God – based upon creation and now intensified through our Savior’s redeeming blood and reign at the Father’s right hand – is one of the great works of the Holy Spirit. If he is wisely and lovingly followed by the church, if we first imbibe this message as an irreplaceable aspect of the gospel of grace, it will embolden us, give us tremendous energy, for we must soon stand before Christ’s judgment seat, and make us unavoidably relevant to lost and dying men. They will know where we stand. This is no impediment to them joining with us. The flow of apostolic Christianity shows that it is exactly the message the Holy Spirit uses to constrain them to do so – to flee from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).
Jesus Christ, in his true glory and saving work, is savingly attractive to men only if they learn their true situation, and they can learn it nowhere else but from faithful churches that proclaim a full-orbed, apostolic gospel and a corps of energetic, Christ-loving believers. Who else can or will tell them that sin is the reason for their miseries, sense of alienation from God, moral spiral into more sin, and vague feelings of guilt? Who else will point out to them God’s righteousness is the only standard with which they need to be concerned? Who will tell them that all earthly judgments we experience are in fact judgment and will one day culminate in the day of wrath and judgment unless they repent? All other messages only consign men to deeper darkness and worse judgment: cure yourself, improve your circumstances, elevate your feelings, find God on your own terms. The Spirit rejects all such preaching. He generates and utilizes preaching and living that elevates the fundamental realities of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Therefore, we will either preach this message, Christ and him crucified, or we shall have more sin, less righteousness, and deeper judgment.
We have an identity crisis because we are embarrassed by God’s word. The Spirit’s work of true conviction makes us uncomfortable. To preach such a naked gospel would risk too much. It would not obtain scholarly approval. It would not offer therapy to jaundiced spiritual consumers who are afflicted with a variety of suburban psychoses. It would not make us feel better, at least in the short run, though such preaching alone gives any expectation of the summum bonum, the highest good, which is peace and fellowship with God, God all-in-all, man nothing but in him. It would definitively put an end to the current “man as God” movement that has permeated the church – no more fake smiles on glossy book covers promising you “your best” whatever, whenever you want it. It would put us all before the throne of God, which is the only safe place for us, which is the only center of the universe, from where alone all goodness, blessedness, and life are graciously given to sinners. It would humble us so that we would love our Savior, his gospel. Thus walking in his Spirit, we would then know his fructifying influence in other key areas: love, joy, and peace. Our mission trips would rise above site-seeing and personal spiritual adventures to forays into kingdom power: sin, righteousness, and judgment. Our service to the poor and needy would rise higher than humanitarianism and alleviation of personal guilt for our affluence, taking a more Christian form – as when Jesus, after healing various individuals, generally warned them to turn from sin lest worse things come upon them (John 5:14; 8:11).
Do we seek relevance? I know we want to be in the middle of things, shaping men and nations, used of God to take dominion of this earth for the Savior’s glory. To regain this influence, the church must abandon her pursuit of self-identity on her own terms and submit to the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We alone, the Bride of Christ, possess the keys of the kingdom, the message of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Looking back centuries from now, I pray future believers do not condemn us for not returning to the apostolic preaching of the cross at the exact moment in our particular culture when such preaching, believing, and living would not only legitimate our profession of the gospel but would also be the very spark that would expose the sins of our nation, bring it by God’s power before his righteousness throne, and end our cycle of judgment. Will we embrace this work of the Holy Spirit? Will we don the identity our Savior has purchased for us? Do not despair over our weakness, the weakness of the broader church, or the sinfulness of our nation. The Spirit cannot be overcome, for Jesus’ reign will not end until all the nations are before his feet, confessing that he is Lord, fleeing to him from sin, looking to him for righteousness, and clinging to him before the throne of God’s judgment.