THE GOAL OF THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
What is the goal of the Christian life? Why does God leave us in the world? There must be some clear reason why Jesus ascended into heaven without his disciples and why he continues to leave us in the world when we become his followers. Many would say that we are here to win as many other people to Christ as possible. Jesus leaves his people on the earth so that we can bring other people to him. Some of Jesus’ final statements to his disciples point us in that direction. In the Great Commission we hear him say, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19). In Acts 1:8 he tells his followers that they will “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Indeed, Paul describes his ministry as having a similar goal: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:23). It’s hard to argue that evangelism is anything less than a great and noble goal that every Christian should pursue. But is evangelism or missions the goal of the Christian life?
Now, it’s worth pointing out the fact that the Great Commission comes to us in the form of a command. Someone might argue that beneath and behind the task of evangelism is a more basic purpose: obedience. After all, sharing the Gospel, as important as it may be, is not the oly thing we are called to do in the world. God has given other commands to us. Indeed, we share the Gospel because we’re commanded to. Every believer is called to pursue greater obedience to God’s Word, which includes obeying the command to be Christ’s witnesses. Aiming at obedience will, some might say, result in even greater evangelistic efforts, because godly lives will give weight and authenticity to our witness.
Of course, for many Christians the language of “obedience” may feel as if we are being led along the path of the Pharisees. If obedience sounds too legalistic, we might say that the goal of the Christian life is love. After all, the two greatest commandments concern love for God and love for one’s neighbor: And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37–40) Paul and James both tell us that the whole law is summed up in one word: love. (Romans 13:8, 10; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8). This seems like an open and shut case for love as the ultimate goal of the Christian life.
In addition, the Bible actually tells us that outward conformity to God’s standards without proper motives is an affront to God. This is why Jesus found the religious leaders of his day lacking: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” (Matthew 15:7–9).’ All of our outward acts of obedience and seeming displays of love are meaningless if our hearts are pointing in the wrong direction. This seems to be Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount, as he consistently focuses upon the motives of the heart rather than on man’s outward obedience. Thus, one must not only avoid adultery, but lust (Matthew 5:27-28). Murder is still prohibited, but so is unrighteous anger (Matthew 5:21-22). All of these things indicate that our focus should shift from what we do for Christ, to why we act in obedience to him in the first place. The ultimate end of the Christian life should to be summarized by first focusing upon the heart rather than the hands.
However, while it is true to say that our highest calling is to love God with all our hearts, we can and should dig a little deeper. The Apostle Paul also tells us that the goal of all that we do should be the glory of God: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” (1 Corinthians 10:31–32). Indeed, in Isaiah God speaks of having made his people for his own glory (Isaiah 43:7). We cannot escape the centrality of glory language in the Bible. For instance, the essence of sin is a failure to honor God and a falling short of his glory (Romans 1:18ff; 3:23). God predestines, adopts, redeems, forgives, and seals a people for himself “to the praise of his glory,” (Ephesians 1:3-14). This is why the Westminster Confession of faith answers the question, “What is the chief end of man?” by saying, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
So, we can say that we evangelize because we love people or because we love God; or we might say that we want to bring God glory by proclaiming his name to the nations. In the same way, we might claim that we obey God’s Word because we want to please him and glorify him. In biblical Christianity, every outward action (good or bad) is to be assessed by our inward attitudes.
At the same time, true affections for God, or legitimate desires to love and glorify God are always united to external displays of love for God (and those made in his image). What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14–17) So, in answer to our initial question, we should say that the goal of the Christian life is to glorify by displaying our love for him in all that we do and say. Another way to describe this inward motive with outward effects is to say that we delight in God in our daily lives or that we rejoice in Jesus with joy-filled acts of love. Our desire should be that every action we take and every thought we have be an overflow of our joy in God. In this way God is greatly glorified and we find satisfaction and rest for our souls.
Jonathan Edwards has said, “The happiness of the creature consists of rejoicing in God, by which also God is exalted and magnified.” As John Piper is fond of saying, “God gets the glory, we get the joy.” Devotion to this kind of pursuit in our lives is what the Bible calls “holiness.” True holiness, we will see, consists of our being separated from satisfaction in the things of the world (sin) and set apart to satisfaction in Christ alone (glorifying God with our lives).
SANCTIFICATION AND SATISFACTION
But holiness does not come to us the moment we put our faith in Christ. The instant that we genuinely trust in Christ we are justified, or counted to be righteous and holy in God’s sight. But we are not yet actually righteous. We are not yet holy. We have been counted as righteous and then set on the path toward practical righteousness by God’s grace. We “have been saved,” (past tense) and God has prepared (present tense) good works for us to do (in the future) (Ephesians 2:8-10). We have been transferred from the Kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of God’s Son, but we must now be transformed from worldly people into people like King Jesus.
We call this lifelong process of transformation “sanctification” because by it God is setting us apart from sin and making us more holy. Our hearts are being renovated so that we are no longer satisfied by the things of the world, but by God himself. While our happiness once consisted of delight in people, places and possessions, now our happiness is (more and more) centered on Christ. Even the joy that we derive from people, places and possessions is being progressively transformed into joy in the Giver of all these good things.
FIGHTING FOR JOY
The flesh, however, will not go down without a fight. Our old sinful nature does not go quietly into the night. Perseverance in the pursuit of godliness is often a grueling race to the end. Take note of how interwoven a superior satisfaction in God and the struggle against sin and temptation in Jude are: But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh. (Jude 1:20–23) Jude commands us to “keep yourselves in the love of God.” To do that we must “build [ourselves] up in [our] most holy faith.” We have to learn to “hate even the garment stained by the flesh.” In other words, we are going to have to exert ourselves and strive for satisfaction in Christ. We have to chase after holiness and fight against sin.
Paul reflects upon that struggle in himself and his ultimate goal of knowing Christ in the face of possible death in Philippians:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 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— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:7–14)
The Apostle counts all things, good and bad, as a loss compared to the surpassing joy of knowing Christ. He is willing to suffer any loss – even death! – for the sake of Christ and experiencing the perfect union with him that will be found at the resurrection of the dead. Paul sees this as a goal worth pursuing with all his might. He presses on toward the goal, fighting with all that is within him “for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” All of Paul’s preaching, his travels, hardships, suffering, and persecution were for the sake of a greater joy set before him. In this, he is imitating his Lord:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
TOOLS FOR TREASURING CHRIST
If we are going to join Paul in this quest, we need to know that there is help at hand. We are not told to blindly enter the fray and hope for the best. God has given to us the tools that we need to fight for delight in God. We call these sanctifying implements “spiritual disciplines.” Spiritual disciplines are means of grace that God uses to cause us to persevere in trusting and treasuring Christ. Yes, they are disciplines. They help us to “run with endurance” and “press on toward the goal.” They enable us to fight more effectively because they strengthen our ability to savor Christ and make sin more and more distasteful to us. But let us not miss the adjective “spiritual” before the word “disciplines.” These are the means provided to us by the Spirit of God which he uses to sanctify us. In other words, the Holy Spirit within us uses these outward measures to change our hearts.
In this series of articles we are going to carefully consider some of these spiritual disciplines as means of grace that God has provided for our sanctification. We’ll focus upon the ways in which each spiritual discipline helps us to delight in God more fully and fight against the joy-killing “fleeting pleasures of sin,” (Hebrews 11:25). You will, hopefully, come to see spiritual disciplines as resources for rejoicing in God. We will learn how to read and meditate upon Scripture so that we see the beauty of Christ in God’s Word; we will learn how to draw near to God through fervent, effective prayer; we will see how we can fast in order to increase our hunger for God; we will discover how to treasure Christ in and with our earthly treasures; and we will learn how to pursue God together in the body of Christ. Before turning to these, we will strengthen our conviction that love for God is most truly expressed when we delight in him. Sin, we will see, is placing our happiness in anything other than God himself. The world, our own flesh, and the Devil are at work to offer us substitute sources of satisfaction and joy. This means that we need to be equipped to face these great enemies and fight for joy in God.