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The price of true success

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Galatians 2:11-21

A friend taped a cartoon to my study door this week. It pictures a very frazzled-looking man, sitting next to an excited woman, with a huge stack of money on the table in front of them. The sign at the table says, “Criticize the Pastor: $5.” The woman says to the man, “We paid off the sanctuary. Wanna shoot for a new education wing?”

The fact that we’re in the midst of a stewardship emphasis and capital campaign makes the timing of my friend’s gift less than gracious, wouldn’t you say?

The Gallup organization recently released a poll showing that one-third of all Americans suffer from low self-image. There are no statistics for pastors, but our ratio must be even higher, with friends like mine. Gallup considers low self-image the chief psychological malady of our day.

We all struggle with this issue. Every one of us here this morning, and every person we drove past to get here, has something in their life of which they’re ashamed. A failure, a secret, a hidden pain. We try to compensate for our failure, to validate ourselves, to make ourselves acceptable. We are driven to perform, to possess, to be successful, so we can be people of worth. But we never quite succeed. It’s never enough.

Praise God, there’s another way. A way of living which fills us with joy, satisfaction, peace, and purpose. A way of living which is motivated by gratitude, not guilt; by grace, not works. Let’s discover it today.

The road of works

The Galatians were troubled by the same frustrations which plague us. Paul founded these churches on his first missionary journey, around A.D. 47. But he’s not far down the road before the Judaizers show up—Jewish Christians who are convinced that these Gentiles must become Jews before they can become Christians. They are urging these new believers in Galatia to live by the Jewish law to be right with God. “Saved by grace, but living by works” would be their motto.

Paul has seen this before. Before coming to Galatia on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch, the headquarters of the Gentile Christian church. One day Peter came up for a visit; he ate and stayed with the Gentiles, despite Jewish laws prohibiting such behavior. But when other Jewish Christians came to Antioch, Peter reverted back to his Jewish legalism. He wanted to impress them, to measure up, to be accepted. Even Barnabas, Paul’s mentor in the faith, did the same. Paul had to confront Peter, to insist on grace. If Peter was saved by grace, he must live by grace.

Apparently spiritual schizophrenia can afflict even leaders of the church, myself included. Saved by grace, living by works.

Now these Galatians are doing the same thing. Paul learns of this and writes back immediately. He is very clear: the road of works is a dead end. Listen to verse 16: “By observing the law no one will be justified.” None of us can be perfect morally. None of us can own enough or earn enough or succeed enough to satisfy our craving for value and acceptance. It cannot be done.

And living by works makes no sense theologically, either. Paul closes his argument with verse 21: “…if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” If we could live by works, we wouldn’t need Jesus. We wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit, or prayer, or the Bible, or worship, or the people of God.

But we try. We want so badly to be people of worth that we work so hard to earn what we already have. Let’s be honest—why do we care about success in life? About our jobs? Our appearance? The car we drive? The house we own? The school our children attend? Aren’t we all tempted in the same way? Saved by grace, living by works. Trying to make up for our sense of inadequacy, to be people of value, to be accepted and loved. Climbing up the road of works. But it’s a dead end.

The road of grace

The real tragedy of this struggle is that it’s so unnecessary. We don’t have to do this. There’s another road of life. Here’s the fact: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20).

Here’s how I’ve heard this verse interpreted over the years: we are bad people. We need to get rid of ourselves, to crucify ourselves. We must be broken, humbled people. We must get ourselves out of the way.

So every day we need to crucify ourselves with Christ. It’s hard work, but essential. This daily self-crucifixion is basic to the Christian life. We must all try hard to accomplish it.

But we can’t. Imagine trying to crucify yourself. You get the nails in your heels. You hold the nail in your left hand, while you hammer it with your right. Now what? You’re stuck. You can’t do it. Why? Because it’s already been done. Paul is clear: “I have been crucified with Christ.”

Paul uses the Greek tense for a completed event, a “done deal.” He has already been crucified with Jesus. Christ already lives in him. He already lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him. It’s already happened.

The day he made Jesus his Savior and Lord, Jesus made him a new person. When we trust in Christ we become a new creation—the old passes away, the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17). Not, I will be a new creation, or I’m trying to be, but I am. Right now.

The decision is not in verse 20, it’s in verse 21: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” I choose to be saved by grace and to live by grace. I choose to walk on the road of grace. This is a decision I must make every day.

We so easily spend our energy and lives trying to become what we already are—people of worth, value, and significance. If God says it’s true, it is. And he does.

The joyous life of surrender

Now we come to the stewardship question. If we are not to live by works but grace, not to try to become people of worth but believe that we are by the grace of God, then what do we do? Why do we live faithfully and obediently by the word of God? Why do we sacrifice our lives in service? Why surrender ourselves to the lordship of Jesus?

For this simple reason: God can do far more with our lives and resources than we can. He can use our money, time, gifts and opportunities far more effectively than we can. I’d want Don Nelson to coach my sons’ basketball team, or Tiger Woods to teach me golf lessons, or Pete Sampras to be my tennis pro.

I’d want the best person to be in charge. Don’t we want the Lord of the universe, the omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving, gracious God of all that is to guide our future? To direct our lives? To empower and feed our souls?

A farmer was known for his generous giving. His friends could not understand how he could give away so much and still remain so prosperous. One day he explained: “I keep shoveling into God’s bin and God keeps shoveling into mine. But God has the bigger shovel.”

Cameron Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators, used to say: “Living from hand to mouth is not so bad when it’s God’s hand.”

We need the direction and provision God can only give to those who trust him, who surrender their lives to his care. And our souls need to give to the One who gives so much to us.

Harry Emerson Fosdick expresses the point well: “The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clear and cool, from Mount Hermon and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it, for the Sea of Galilee has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out again to fertilize the Jordan plain.

“But the Dead Sea, with the same water, makes horror. For the Dead Sea has no outlet. It gets to keep. That is the radical difference between selfish and unselfish people.

“We all want life’s enriching blessings. We ought to; they are divine benedictions. But some get to give, and they are like Galilee; while some get to keep, and they are like the brackish water that covers Sodom and Gomorrah.”

We need what God can give to those who are surrendered to him. We need to give to him in return. And we need him to use our lives more effectively than we could ever use them ourselves.

Dr. Robert Cade is a research physician at the University of Florida. In 1965 he was asked why football players lose so much weight during extended practices and games. The question led Dr. Cade to research in which he developed a drink designed to replenish the fluids lost during heavy exercise. He even named the drink after the Florida football team: “Gatorade.”

Last year, Gatorade generated sales of more than $530 million. Dr. Cade’s royalties have supplied him with a tremendous income. Yet he still lives in the same house in Gainesville, preferring to use his money to help others. He has supported Vietnamese boat people, paid the bills of many needy patients, funded research performed by himself and others, and currently underwrites the education of sixteen medical students.

When asked about his giving, Dr. Cates replied, “God has blessed me in all kinds of ways, including a big income. In the book of Deuteronomy God tells the Israelites a man should give as he is blessed. I think I am duty bound to do as He suggests.”

And God is doing so much more with his money and life than he could have done outside his Father’s will.

Conclusion

Today I want you to make a simple decision: resurrender your life to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Not out of guilt but gratitude. Not to be a person of worth, but because you are.

Realize that everything you have comes from his hand and grace. Your hard work is done with abilities and opportunities he has given you. There is no reason at all why you would be born in America and not Somalia, healthy and not hindered, loved and not abandoned. This day, your next breath, all come from his gracious provision. Admit that you are but a steward, a manager of a life which is not your own.

And yield it to the will of the only One who knows your very best. The only One who can see the future. The only One who has given his Son to die in your place, out of his love for you. The only One who can make your life truly significant. Surrender is not an obligation of religious duty, but a privilege of deep joy.

If the wisest, most loving, most powerful person in the world could guide your life, would that be good news? He can.

Years ago, a Sunday school in a Philadelphia church was overcrowded, as are many of our children’s departments today.

A sobbing little girl named Hattie May Wiatt stood outside, turned away because there was no room. The pastor saw her, took her inside and found a place for her. The child was so touched that she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship God.

Two years later, Hattie May died. As her body was being moved, a worn and crumpled purse was found. It looked as though it had been rummaged from a trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note in a child’s handwriting which said, “This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday school.” For two years the impoverished girl had saved this money.

When the pastor read the note, he knew instantly what he would do. During Hattie May’s memorial service, he carried her note and the cracked, red little purse to the pulpit. He told the story of her unselfish love, and challenged his members to get busy and raise enough money for a larger building.

A newspaper learned of the story and published it. A realtor read the story and sold the church very valuable land, for 57 cents. Church members made large donations. Checks came from far and wide. Within five years Hattie May’s gift had increased to $250,000, a huge sum at the turn of the century.

The next time you’re in Philadelphia, look up Temple Baptist Church, with a seating capacity of 3,300, and Temple University, where thousands of students are studying. Notice the Good Samaritan Hospital and a Sunday school building which houses hundreds each week, so large that no child will ever need to be left outside. In one of the rooms of the education building, see the picture of Hattie May Wiatt.

Wonder at what God did with her life. And wonder what he could do with yours.