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The Super Bowl of the soul

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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Topical Scripture: Galatians 3.26-4.7

Last year’s Super Bowl was watched by 127.5 million people, and the game the year before by 130,754,000. The ten most watched programs of all time are nine Super Bowls and the women’s skating final of the 1994 Winter Olympics, oddly enough. Companies will pay $2.3 million per ad for this weekend’s game.

Now, answer quickly: who won last year’s Super Bowl? Who lost? By how much?

Can you name the last ten Super Bowl Most Valuable Players? Did you know that Ottis Anderson, Mark Rypien, Larry Brown, and Desmond Howard are on the list?

Which do you remember more, the players or the commercials? If I never hear “Whassup?” again it will be too soon.

Super Bowl fame is fleeting, indeed. Our worth is not our work, no matter how visible and famous it is.

We’re exploring personal issues in light of God’s great commandments and great commission, his priorities and purpose for our lives. We began by discussing self-esteem problems and praying Jabez’s prayer of audacious blessing. Let’s continue by tackling the whole issue of worth vs. work, of finding our identity in our performance, our vocations, our work.

Today God wants to convince you that you are not what you do. Let’s see why, and why that fact matters so much to our lives.

Legalism then

In every great movement, there comes a crisis point—a fork in the road, a crisis which determines what the future will be, a “Super Bowl” which decides everything. In the recent presidential election, it was Florida. In Texas history, it was the Alamo and San Jacinto. In World War II, it was Normandy.

Always, there is this crisis point which determines the future.

The Christian “Super Bowl” came early in our faith history, but the game is still being played today.

The problem is known to scholars as the Judaizers. In brief, the question was, how are we to reconcile Christianity and Judaism?

So long as only Jews were becoming Christians, there was no problem. But when Paul began preaching the gospel to the hated Gentiles, they came to Christ without first becoming Jews. And this was a big problem. This seemed a denial of the very heritage of the Jewish faith, and of all that is holy and right.

So the “Judaizers” proposed this simple solution: Gentiles can become Christians, if they will first become Jews.

A Gentile would become a Jewish proselyte and be circumcised as proof of his conversion. Then he would receive Christian baptism. In this way he would keep the Jewish law as a precondition to receiving Christian salvation.

As a result, they argued, Gentiles around the world would affirm the historic achievements and heritage of Judaism and build a bridge to its followers. What could be wrong with this?

It was this very idea which had now taken hold in the churches of Galatia. Paul founded churches in modern-day mainland Turkey, on his first missionary journey. There were now Gentile converts in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and other towns all over this part of the world.

And the Judaizers followed Paul into these churches and said, “It’s wonderful that you have become Christians. But you’ve left out the necessary first step. You must become Jews, then you can become Christians. You must be circumcised and keep the law, then you can come to Jesus by grace.”

What if they had won the day?

Christianity would have become just another branch of Judaism, like Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox today. We would be keeping Jewish rituals today, not practicing Christian worship.

And even more important, the whole idea of salvation by grace through faith would be lost. The gospel is clear: “whosoever believes in Jesus shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16); “For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

If we must do the works of Judaism to be saved, we lose our free salvation in Jesus. If we must do religious works, we no longer have a religion of grace. We are saved by what we do, not by what Jesus has done. We become what we do. And as Paul says, then “Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21).

But the Galatian Christians had fallen for this heresy. Nothing less than the future of the Christian idea and movement was at stake. This was the “Super Bowl” of ancient Christianity. Thus our vivid, tempestuous letter to the churches of Galatia—probably the first New Testament letter ever to be written. And with it came God’s solution to work-based worth, a solution which still works today.

Legalism now

Could I suggest to you that we need that solution still? That we are plagued by an identity of works, of self-sufficiency and self-justification, a way of life which says that we are what we do, our worth is our work?

Let’s see if this is so for us today.

The Minirth-Meier clinic calls drivenness to perform “the most prominent emotional illness of the 1990s.” Their book, We Are Driven, defines the problem this way: “Drivenness is an insatiable drive to do more and be more. It’s a drive that may be masked by charitable and positive motives, but in reality originates in deep, perhaps even unconscious, feelings of inadequacy and shame” (p. 6). Their picture for such drivenness is telling: riding a bike without a chain.

Do any of these words describe you: uptight, stressed, anxious, achieving, driven, perfectionistic, performance-centered? They’ve all described me in the past. I know the feeling.

Dr. David Seamands, a Methodist missionary and counselor, has spent his life ministering to performance-driven people. He has identified typical symptoms. See if any of this sounds familiar: a continuous sense of guilt, condemnation, and the judgment and disapproval of God; a sense of worthlessness, with feelings of low self-esteem and recurring inward assaults of self-belittling and even self-despising; a sense of phoniness and unreality, a feeling of being an empty fake; negative emotions, especially anxiety and anger, which result in irrational fears, smoldering resentments, outbursts of rage, excessive mood swings and depression; and difficulties with interpersonal relationships, especially where intimacy is involved (Freedom from the Performance Trap, 16-9).

Why are we driven to such work-based worth?

We are driven to it by a low self-image which nearly always leads to work-based worth as our compensation for our sense of inadequacy. See how last week’s study is linked to this week’s issue?

We are driven by a culture which values self-reliance, individualism, and activism. Is your salary tied to your worth as an individual or your performance on the job? Is your societal value determined by your internal character or your external achievement?

And we are driven by churches which preach the gospel of success, self-reliance, and legalistic spirituality.

John Claypool is one of my favorite preachers, and a very perceptive observer as well. He describes his seminary as “a community of grades rather than a community of grace” (The Preaching Event, 67). We’ve all been to that institution, haven’t we?

How does one get recognized in a Baptist church? Does the regularity of your worship attendance, your willingness to teach or at least attend Sunday school, your financial contributions, or your service in committees and other ministries have anything to do with it? Everything to do with it?

Who doesn’t battle Christian legalism today?

But it’s never enough, is it? We cannot do enough to ever be done with doing.

I remember reading the Texas Monthly article on the Cowboys’ Super Bowl victory in 1992. What especially struck me was Troy Aikman’s response. He sat in front of his locker for hours, long after the other players had left for victory parties. And he asked himself over and over, “Is this all there is?”

Gratefully, it’s not.

Legalism solved

So, what’s the solution? There’s only one remedy to work-based identity: the grace found in Jesus Christ.

Look at the truth of Scripture: we are “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26). All of us, each of us. No matter our vocation, our success, our performance.

We have been “baptized into Christ” (v. 27), so we have no need to baptized first into Judaism. Faith in Christ is the only prerequisite.

Now the text is even clearer. The Jewish male’s prayer every morning was, “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” But in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. We are all “Abraham’s seed” and his heir. This is not something to earn—we have already received it. Every Christian—no exceptions.

How have we received this right?

Jesus has already redeemed us (4:5) by paying for our sins. He has given us “the full rights of sons.” Not slaves, sons. A slave must perform constantly to be part of the family; a son is born into the family, and is forever part of it. No matter what they do, my sons will always be my sons. No matter what I do, I will always be the child of God.

The Holy Spirit guarantees it. He now lives in us, making us God’s children (v. 6). He keeps us in the family of God.

As a result, we can refer to God the same way Jesus did: “Abba,” “Daddy” (in Aramaic). We are no longer slaves but sons, and heirs of God (v. 7). Every one of us.

Who are you? You are not what you do, but the child of God. What difference does this make?

Now we are free to work hard out of gratitude for God’s love, not to earn it.

Now we are free to worship God in church and across the week because we love God, not so he will love us.

Now we are free to give of our time, money, and abilities to the cause of Christ so that others can know his grace, not so we can earn that grace for ourselves.

Now we are free to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves, because we love ourselves as God loves us.

Conclusion

This issue is the Super Bowl of the soul. If we don’t win this, we don’t win anything that matters ultimately. I call you today to this conscious decision: we will choose not to base our worth on our works, our performance, our social standing or professional status. We will choose to see ourselves as God does: as his children, loved absolutely and unconditionally. No other choice will set you free from work-based worth and its drivenness, frustration, and unhappiness.

Make this decision today, then make it again tomorrow and every day this week.

A wealthy man who died without a will, so his estate went to auction. At the end of the day the auctioneer raised a framed photograph, a picture of the family’s only child, a son who had died years earlier in a drowning accident. No one bid on it.

When the auction was over, a maid who had worked at the estate for many years and loved that son asked if she might buy his picture for a dollar, all she had with her at the time. The auctioneer made the deal. She took the picture home, set it beside her bed, and noticed for the first time a bulge in the back. She opened the picture to discover the wealthy man’s single-sentence will: “I give my entire estate to the person who loves my son enough to value his picture.”

Do you love God’s Son?