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The Importance of Confession-Full Sermon Transcript

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PASTOR: MATT DENNINGS

SCRIPTURE READING

Philippians 3:12-16

12 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. 13 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, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

INTRO

Well, good morning. My name is Matt, I’m the Pastor for Equipping here at Emmaus, and this morning we are continuing our series in Philippians. And, last week, if you didn’t catch it, we turned a corner, kind of heading into the final part of Philippians. And, we saw that in this final part of Philippians, Paul is turning his attention to how we experience and know life in Jesus Christ.

And, so, last week in verses 1-11 of chapter 3, we saw Paul’s desire to what he says, he describes as gaining Christ, to be found in Christ, to know Christ. It’s Paul’s way of saying, I want to tangibly experience life in Christ. And, of course, as good church people, last week, we should say amen when we hear that, right? Yet, today, in verses 12-16, Paul says, before I go any further, let me clarify something. He says in verse 12, and I’m paraphrasing here, he says, listen, I haven’t obtained this life fully. The it, in verse 12, is pointing back to verses 8-11, when Paul describes as being found in Christ, in knowing Christ, in living in Christ, and Paul is saying, before I go any further, listen, I haven’t obtained this life fully. I’m not a finished product, I am not perfect.

In other words, Paul says, left to myself, even though I desire to live in Christ, I find over and over again, I fall short of that. And yet, Paul says, the reason why he keeps fighting, pressing, training, is because Jesus Christ has made him his own. And so, therefore, he has this hope that as he presses forward, he will find this life.

Now, as I’ve meditated on this text, I’ve thought, often, why does Paul say this? Why does he go here? Because, this is a bit of an aside from his main argument here. And, part of why I wonder this, is because it’s somewhat repetitive in the language of what he’s just said, one, and two, as I think of that, I think, why do I need to hear this? Why do I need to hear these words from Paul? And, I realize, because even though Paul says that he lives and fights past this reality that day to day, he falls short of the glory of God, that day to day he sins, day to day he fails, the hope that he has in the midst of that is the fact that he belongs to Jesus Christ.

And, I realize when thinking through that phrase, that practically I often live, not as if I belong to Christ, but as if I belong to my failure, as if I belong to my sin, as if I belong to my shortcoming. Like Paul, I desire to live out verses 1-11, to be found in Christ, to have this life in Christ, to know Christ. Yet, like Paul, I also know what it’s like to fall short of that desire. And so, instead of living with this sense that I belong to Christ, I feel more and more like I belong to my sin. Anyone else know what that’s like?  I’m not sure if I’m just alone here, doing a monologue.

Today, we’ll call this tension, the human tension, the human tension that we live with. The universally experienced tension between who we long to be, and we really are, if we’re honest. Like Paul, if we are to know Christ, we have to deal with this tension that we all have deep down. Because, often, it seems like, as Christians, the only way that we can grow, the only way that we can progress, the only way that we can kind of ascend, however you want to describe it, that we can go on deeper into our faith when we live with this nagging reality that, do I really belong to Christ, or do I really belong to my sin?

It seems that the only options on the table, are to either live hypocritically and to pretend that I have it all together, or on the other hand to live hopelessly, and to just give up altogether. But, what Paul says in these five verses unlocks a third way, a better way, a gospel way, a way of hope found in Jesus Christ, that we can live with confidence that we belong not to our sin, but belong to Jesus Christ, wholly.

So, what we’ll look at first is the human tension, we’ll unpack it a little bit further, then the mistaken ways of resolving that tension that we often turn to, and then, lastly, the gospel key to resolving that tension, between who we desire to be, and who we find ourselves to be. But first, let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the truths found in this text. We thank you that here, we see Paul saying things like us, when we’re honest with ourselves, that we have not obtained, fully, this life that we desire. That, we cannot, in and of ourselves, perfect ourselves, but underneath all of this, we belong to Jesus. Lord, we thank you for this truth. Help us to grasp this and the importance of it, and to bring it home to our hearts, so this isn’t just a mere intellectual exercise, but that we would walk away from here knowing that we are your beloved children, if we are in Christ Jesus. And, it is in his name that we pray, amen.

THE HUMAN TENSION

Well, the human tension. Paul puts his finger, again on a tension that is at the center of the Christian life, and human experience. But, there is a gap between who we long to be, and who we are. And, I think in some ways, we know this already. If I just bring up, hey, January 1st until now, how are you doing on that new diet, right? How are you doing on that new exercise routine, how are you doing on your finances? Right? We could go on and on, we know that this is a human reality. That, there are all these areas that, who we long to be, we desire to be, and honestly, we know we should be. But, then, we keep falling short of it. It could be ways that we parent, it could be ways that we interact with others. But, how often do we slow down to think about that dynamic in relation to our spiritual life and our growth?

We sense we should want to know God and live accordingly, and yet, while I feel I want it, I fail to obtain it, Paul says. I’m not already perfect, Paul says. It probably sounds like your journal entry, doesn’t it? God, I want to be patient with others, but they keep … being people. Right? God, I want to stop giving into temptation, but I give in. Here I go again. I’ve given in again. God, I want to start investing my time and energy into blank, whatever initiative, whatever good thing. But, but, but … And, there it is.

While we have these desires, then there is this, I desire this, but … And, if you go long enough in trying to live out this tension, what seems more true of us, is what comes after the but. But, I failed again, I’m a failure. But, I’ve fallen short again, I fall short. But, I blow up again. Yet, Paul says, the way we address the tension, is not by looking to something within ourselves. Rather, to the work of Jesus Christ. He says, Jesus has made me his own. Right after saying, I’ve not lived up to this, I have not perfected myself. And, remember, this is after verses 1-11, where he says, isn’t this great? We have this salvation in Jesus, and we can grab onto this, and we can live this way. And then, he comes to verse 12, and says, let’s just be honest for a moment. And, I want to clarify, this is not something that you are going to, in this life, 100% perfectly attain.

It reminds me of an old story of, there’s a Victorian age preacher in London named Charles Spurgeon, many of you may have heard of him, he’s called the Prince of Preachers. Isn’t that an amazing title? What, me? But, Charles Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, and he was at this conference, and this man came up to him, and he said, Charles Spurgeon was preaching on this fact that, of what it means to grow in holiness. And, this man said, no, no, no, we should reach perfection. And, it was this thing called the perfectionist movement. And, Spurgeon kind of debated with him for a minute, and he saw it wasn’t going anywhere.

And so, it was at this conference, and so, the next day, all the individuals are in this conference center, and they’re eating their breakfast. And, Spurgeon sneaks up behind the man, and he takes a cup of milk and just pours it over his head. And, the man jumps out of his seat, and all these expletives come out, and he starts yelling at Spurgeon. And, Spurgeon goes, there’s the old man! Right? And, what he’s drawing out there, is he’s saying, we have this reality that Christ has made us his own. And, we are not going to reach perfection this side of being fully perfected in Christ, and the new kingdom.

It’s God’s grace, given to us by Jesus Christ, that we receive by faith, and trust in that grace, that allows us to grow in holiness, that allows us to grow in Christ’s likeness. We relate to God as sinners who have been made holy, not by our work, but by his.

You know, it looks something like this. I like visuals, and so this is a chart we’ve used before in sermons, but it looks something like this, that the gospel tells us that no matter the depth of our sin, and the gap it creates between us and God, Jesus has bridged the gap in his life, death, and resurrection. And so, after we come to Christ at this time of conversion, what begins to happen, is God’s spirit works within us, he’s made us a new man, he’s made us a new creation. And so, now he’s doing this work. And, as we grow in our awareness of God’s holiness, and we grow in our awareness of our flesh and our sinfulness, our dependency on the cross enlarges, and Jesus gets bigger, Jesus gets better, Jesus gets more and more beautiful. We depend on the grace of God more and more, and we breathe it in, and we breathe it out like oxygen.

So, yes, we sin, we fail, we fall short of the glory of God. But, the gospel says something else about me comes after the but now. What is most true of us in Jesus Christ. Yes, I have done shameful things, yes, I have sinned. But, because of Jesus Christ, I am now a beloved child of God. What comes after the but now? I am a beloved child of God. The gospel gives us hope to press on, because there’s no sin we might commit, or become aware of, that God’s grace cannot cover. Neither height nor depth, Paul says. No matter how far down that arrow goes, the cross goes, and bridges us right back up to God’s holiness. By God’s grace, Christ makes us his own. We belong to him.

Now, this all sounds good, right? The question is, how do we live this? Okay, this sounds great theoretically. Pastor, how do I begin to enter into this, take hold of it, to live it? We’re going to go there. What I want to do first is – cause I think we know this better – which is, the mistaken ways that we attempt to resolve this very tension, this very gap between us and God. This very tension between who we desire to be, and who we find ourselves to be. So, the second point is looking at the mistaken ways of resolving the tension.

THE MISTAKEN WAYS OF RESOLVING THE TENSION

Paul ends this section, verses 12-16, with a very revealing statement. He says this, after saying all these things, he says …

Only let us hold true to what we have attained ...

So, he says all these things, that we are going to grow into Christ’s likeness, and after, he says, but only let us hold onto what we have attained. Hold those things true. Now, why does he have to say this? Well, I think if we’ve lived a little, we know exactly why he has to say this. He has to say it because we’re constantly trying to claim that we are where we are not yet. We’re constantly trying to claim that something is true of us, that frankly is not true of us yet. Rather than resolving the tension of our sin, that process of seeing the cross get bigger day by day in our life, we try to microwave it. Instead of God’s transformative grace, we try to do it quickly, and we resolve the tension of our sin by what comes naturally to us.

Let me illustrate this, because I think this will be helpful, before unpacking this further. In college, I made the regrettable decision of living in one house with 10 guys. And, one night … I’m a little bit of a neat freak, and 10 guys in a house is not a healthy place for a neat freak to live. And so, one night, though, I come down in the middle of the night, and I turn on the lights to the kitchen as I go in to get something, and there are cockroaches everywhere, everywhere. They’re having a little fiesta, right on my kitchen floors. The counter, everything, they’re everywhere.

So, I turn on the light, and what do they do? They … you know, they go and hide. So, I did what any sensible person does when they see that kind of infestation. I turned off the lights, and I tried to forget I ever saw it, right? And, I tried to go back to bed and had nightmares. In fact, even though I knew there was a hidden infestation, when people came over, I would actually … Because, I was actually insecure about it, when I cleaned the house, I would actually be standing in the kitchen talking, and I would actually bring up, like, isn’t it crazy how clean this house is with 10 guys? And they’d be like, yeah, this is amazing. Look at these countertops, right? And, this went on for about a year, until one morning somebody poured out a bowl of cereal and they got, you know, like, a special little prize in their cereal. And, I said, yeah, that’s been going on for a while.

Now, this illustrates more than probably why the CDC should not allow 10 20-year-old men to live together in one place, without supervision. But, it illustrates what we tend to do with our sin. At some point, you see, the light’s going to be turned on. And, I don’t know if you know that moment, but you see the infestation for what it is. And, of course, as soon as the light goes on, everything in you just kind of recoils and hides, right?

The light could come through a relationship. This is why it’s so tough that first year of marriage, right? Cause, you’ve been able to just kind of avoid it, and all of a sudden, now someone’s right there with you, and they’re like … did you know you have a massive infestation? Right? The light could come on through a circumstance that stirs up ungodly attitudes, just kind of, like, speak that comes out of you, that you’re like, where did that come from?

An illustration that we’ve use before, is that it’s like you have water that’s kind of all dirty. Like you have all this stuff polluting you, clouding you, this sin that’s in you. And, when life is kind of nice and stable, the water, if it sits there long enough, and it’s not disruptive, just kind of settles to the bottom. And, if you look at that water from the side, you go, wow … look how pure that person is, right? But, what happen when something comes along and bumps that table? All of a sudden, it stirs it all up. Something stirs your life, and it just makes a mess, and you go, where did this all come from?

Relationships, situations, or it could just be, simply, that God’s spirit turns the lights on in your heart, and you see for the first time. And, when that happens, we feel the tension of our sin. We feel this human tension. We feel this tension between, this is not who I want to be, but yet, this is coming out of me, this is who I am. And, it’s a tension we want to escape, it’s a tension we want to avoid, it’s a tension that we desperately want to silence. Because, we are seeing what we are really like. And, frankly, we’re seeing what the Bible has already told us we are, that we’re sinners in need of grace.

But, seeing our sin, we tend to resolve the tension the way I solved my infestation problem. And, these are the two mistaken ways we tend to resolve sin. The first is pretending, and the other is by performing. And, they both cut us off from experiencing the power of God’s grace. And these, by the way, this is another chart – like the last one. These charts, by the way, come from a book called The Gospel Centered Life, it’s linked in the sermon notes. I’d highly recommend it, if you’d like, about an 8-week study, kind of going deeper into the gospel, again, the gospel centered life.

But, by pretending, here’s what I mean. When I turned off the lights and pretended my sin wasn’t there, and I pretended like it would go away, we also tend to hide our sin from God and others, by pretending everything is okay, by just pretending it’s all okay. It may look like lying, it probably means that there are habits of, kind of, avoiding and withdrawing, especially from other people who might hold you accountable, or who know you best … isolating yourself. Honestly, a sign, often, of pretending, is actually exhaustion. And, the reason for that is because, if you’re pretending, what we tend to have, is we tend to start living, almost, two lives.

There’s kind of, like, your good church life, I’m around Christian life. And then, there’s this other life, which you may actually, in your heart of hearts, feel like, here’s my real life. Here’s when I really am who I am. And, we tend to split those, because we’re pretending, and we’re dealing with that tension by separating them, and it’s exhausting. Because, what happens, is after a while, you’re constantly trying to remember, was I there, or was there … I’m trying to tell this story, where was I, what was I doing? And, it’s exhausting because you can never really remember, how was I acting, how should I act now, where was I, what was I doing? What was the story? Do I have it straight?

There’s a line that captures this by Mark Twain, that’s really well said. He says, “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Man, there’s no exhaustion in that. It just comes out. If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. But, when we pretend, the result is that we think by pressing on, and catch this, we often think that by pressing on, what Paul actually means here, is to pretend. Functionally, what we think, is Paul means to pretend. We could call this fake it until you make it spirituality. And, it leads to burnout. It leads to hopelessness, as if life in Christ is only available to the spiritual elite.

But, pretending we do not have sin will not solve our tension. It will not clear out the infestation, but rather it makes us feel more hopelessly like we belong to our sin. Now, the second way, we have pretending, and we also have performing.

And, by performing, I mean, like when I cleaned the counters, without cleaning the infestation. It’s performing for everyone. Everyone expects a clean house, and no bugs, and no filth, and so I’m trying to perform to live up to that expectation. And so, I constantly scrub the house, and do everything but deal with the actual cockroaches, because that was just nasty.

But, we tend to bury our sin in busyness, to impress God and others, as if by pressing on, again, Paul means to perform, to put on our best moral performance. If perform well enough, and busy enough, and if we meet everyone’s expectations, then we expect that that tension that we feel deep down, will go away. But, it doesn’t. And, often, we end up living as hypocrites and perpetuating a culture of hypocrisy. It starts a cycle. What happens, is, we feel like a hypocrite because we’re living one way, when we, in fact, know that we don’t actually measure up to this.

And, as we feel like a hypocrite, then we feel like we belong to our sin. And, because we feel like we belong to our sin, and we don’t belong to Christ, then that just furthers us into this constant habit of performing, because that’s all we know. And then, as we perform, we feel further like a hypocrite. And, on and on, the cycle goes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer captured this dynamic well, when happens in a community. He says, “Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So, we remain alone in our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. He who is alone with his sins is utterly alone.”

Some of you this morning are in this place of just performing. Some of you, also, may be in the place of pretending. And, either way, what you sense right now is that there’s a me that feels like it needs to be acting in some certain way. And then, there’s the real me. And, you’re on the cusp of burn out, you’re on the cusp of hopelessness. If you’re performing as if everything’s okay, it will not solve the tension. It will not make the infestation go away. Rather, it will lead you deeper into hypocrisy, and deepen that sense that you belong to your sin.

Both pretending and performing fail to deal with the tension of our sin, and both, in the end, only make us feel like we belong to our sin. Because, both cut us off from the work of the cross. So, how do we resolve this tension? We’ve seen what it is, we’ve looked at the mistaken ways that we deal with it. So, what is the way that we deal with this tension? So, the third point, the gospel key to resolving the tension.

THE GOSPEL KEY TO RESOLVING THE TENSION

How do we resolve it? Honestly, sincerely. We see right under our noses, in verses 13-14, Paul says, 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 Jesus Christ. Paul says, I’m not going to pretend, I’m not going to perform, and act like I’ve perfected myself in some way.

And, think about that. This is a guy who’s an apostle. If anyone had the weight on his shoulders to try to live up to expectations, and to try to perform for other people, or try to just go through the motions and pretend, it would be Paul. People were constantly slandering him, saying, look, he’s not really an apostle, he’s just an imposter. Can you imagine if Paul had any little bit of a sense in himself that he was leaning into being an imposter, and not really living out the things that he was proclaiming?

Paul says, I’m not going there, and I’m not going back to the old ways of relating to God. For Paul, that was actually going back to the old system, the old covenant, the old way of relating to God. For us, that may be saying, I’m not going back to the old way of pretending and performing anymore. Instead, in verse 14, I’m going to press on toward the goal. What does that look like? Well, that first chart again. Pressing on, Paul is saying, saying, I’m going to do whatever it takes, in Jesus Christ, to know Christ.

Back in verse 11, he actually says, by any means, I will use anything that will help me, any means in any way, so that I may know Christ, and I may grow in this reality. And, that happens by doing whatever it takes to see the cross get bigger. Now, that, for Paul – and here’s the thing, don’t miss this – when he says, in verse 14, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ, doesn’t that almost, at first, seem a little vague? That’s kind of a weird English sentence, first, and second, what does this goal mean?

And, what he’s talking about, is like that first chart, that as he progresses in the Christian faith, if you mature, you are going to realize more and more and more the depth of your sin. You’re going to, then, as you realize the depth of your sin, realize how much holier than you ever knew before, God is. And so, what Paul is saying, when I’m pressing on, is I’m going to truly mature, which is, I’m going to see more and more and more how big and wide and deep is the cross, and how good God’s grace is. This is God’s will for you. This is the goal of Paul, that he would more and more and more see the beauty of what Christ as accomplished on his behalf, and live into that.

See, the ironic thing about being a mature Christian, is that it’s not about perfection. The ironic thing about becoming a mature Christian, that is coupled with an increased awareness that you are not fully mature, that there’s always more growth. For Paul, that straining forward to what lies ahead, is more and more of a sense that he belongs to Christ by grace. That, as he becomes more and more aware of how sinful he is, he simultaneously becomes more and more aware of how much love and grace he’s been given in the cross.

This is summed up well by a pastor in New York City named Tim Keller. He says, “The gospel is this, we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dare believe. Yet, at the very same time, we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.” Do you believe that? That’s what pressing on looks like. Putting aside pretending and performing, and looking straight at our sin, and then straight to Christ. So, how do we do that? We talked about what it is, how do we do that?

Well, the key that gospel provides for doing this, for pressing forward, is the discipline of confession, or the habit of confession. It’s something that we went over this morning in our liturgy. And, when we got the point of confession. If some of this is sounding familiar, it’s because it was right there in a nugget form during confession. Notice Paul confesses two things in this passage. First, Paul confesses that he is unable to save himself, or perfect himself. The gospel frees him to be honest. The second thing that he confesses, though, is Christ has made me his own. The gospel provides a way forward, a hope.

See, the discipline, the habit of confession, is simply going before God and confessing both of these truths. And, when I say a discipline or a habit, I mean, for me, this looks like early in the morning, I’m an early riser. For you, it might not be beginning of the day. Although, I think there is something about the beginning of the day that’s helpful. But, rising early and opening up God’s word, but taking out a piece of paper and writing down, and thinking before God, of what are … literally, I get specific … and, write down the specific things, the sins that, over the last day, have come out of me. And, I go before God and bring these before him, and I ask for his forgiveness. And, as I do so, I confess two things. I confess that I have sinned, and I also confess that I belong to Jesus Christ, that God has closed that gap.

Now, I should say this. You may think that such a habit, one, is maybe unhelpful or weird, I’ll just say it. Or, that it’s legalistic. And, one thing that I want to say in response to that, is I would like us to consider for a moment how often, throughout our day, we tell ourselves, or we confess to ourselves, things about ourselves, and things about God, without training ourselves to do that in a healthy way.

And so, when we sin, what do we do? Man, I remember, so often I would be like like, oh, stupid, stupid, when I did something. And, this comes out. And, the thing is, when I go [to confess], it’s like, yes, I can look at this. This is what I’ve done. But then, simultaneously, this is not who I’m called to be in Jesus Christ. And, there’s grace here, and I can begin to grow out of this sin, versus just beating ourselves up. And so, what I would ask you, is if you don’t have any kind of a habit of training your heart, and training your mind to point yourself to Jesus Christ in the midst of your sin, then plan some kind of a habit, plan some kind of a habit.

Let me ask you, though, do you slow down regularly, to specifically confess both your sin, and who you are in Christ, before God? Do you have a habit of simply doing those two things together? I guarantee it will transform your life. It will transform your walk with Christ. It’s an important question, because I think we live our lives so on the go, go, go, go, to the next thing, constantly downloading information in a digital world, that we forget what is actually true of us. That, we are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared hope, Keller says. Yet, at the very same time, we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.

I encourage you, this week, to pick up the Lent devotional or download it, if you have not already. In it, you will find, for this week, instructions for how to begin a habit of confession. There are scriptural passages you can go to there, Psalm 51, Psalm 139, that will help guide you in forming a habit of confession. And, I guarantee, knowing Christ has made you his own, despite knowing – and think of this, Christ made you his own full well knowing, Christ knows from age 34 right now, on March 17th, 2019, until whenever my life ends – Jesus is well aware of the sin that I will accrue to my account, put it that way. And yet, even in the midst of knowing those thing, he makes me his own. Knowing that truth will lead to a life that increasingly looks like Christ, because you will grow in your appreciation, your love, your longing, your dependence upon Jesus.

CONCLUSION

Let me recap. Every human being first lives with a tension, that because of sin, there’s a gap between who we long to be, and who we really are. Second, don’t fall into the trap of trying to resolve that tension by pretending and performing. It will only lead to hopelessness or hypocrisy. And then, finally, instead, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on by developing a discipline of confession, confessing your needs before God for his grace in Jesus Christ.

Emmaus, bring your sin into the light, and don’t pretend like it isn’t there, or try, by performance, to fix it. But, let the cross do its work. Let the cross, and the resurrection, and the indwelling power of God’s spirit, do its work. Something I haven’t unpacked, and I probably should have, is the power that God’s Spirit works in when we go before God’s Word. We acknowledge our sin and humility before the very presence of a holy God, especially when we’re going through scriptures, seeing these descriptions of a holy God. And, we’re just realizing, this is not me when I’m honest with myself, God’s spirit uses that to radically change us, to break free from living as if we belong to sin. We can begin living with confidence that mind, body, and soul, we belong wholly to Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the life that we have in Christ. Father, reveal to us where we are missing out on all we have in Jesus. Show us what we have gained in him, that we might belong to him as your beloved. Spirit of Christ, help us, help us, Spirit, to turn from ourselves through confession, to die to ourselves so we might turn to Christ, and live in light of the hope we have in him. It is in Christ’s name we pray, amen.