Devotional Podcast #27: “Closer to the Heart”

What is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ? It can’t be something that we do, as so many preachers—especially Methodist preachers—believe. In this episode I explain why, and why it matters. 

Devotional Text: Mark 1:1-5; Matthew 3:7-10

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s July 28, 2018, and this is episode number 27 in my ongoing series of devotional podcasts. You’re listening right now to the song “Closer to the Heart,” by the Canadian rock band and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Rush. I recorded this version of the song from their 1981 live album, Exit… Stage Left. 

This song is the theme of today’s episode because of something I heard at a conference I attended last week on St. Simons Island—a conference for United Methodist pastors. One of the speakers—a clergy leader in our denomination—said something that got under my skin—and I have no interest in naming this person because, after all, what she said could have been said by hundreds or thousands of my fellow Methodist clergy, and no one would think twice because the idea is so pervasive! In fact, when she said it, there was, if I recall, applause and Amens all around this large conference room full of people—so what do I know, right?

Anyway, she said the following: “The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people.” 

The heart of the gospel is to be the incarnation of Christ to other people. 

To which I would say, “I hope not! For the sake of my own soul, if no one else’s, I hope not!” And I want to tell you why…

But before I do, please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting for a moment that we who are Christians—we who are members of the Body of Christ—should not try to embody… or bear witness to… or, if you insist, be the incarnation of Jesus Christ for other people, as the Spirit enables us. 

By all means, God calls us to show the world who Jesus is—by obeying him, surrendering our lives to him, submitting to his will and his Word… Indeed, what does the Westminster Shorter Catechism say is the “chief end of man”? To glorify God and enjoy him forever. I was at a meeting just this week with the principal of an elementary school at which our church does all kinds of volunteer work. And I was deeply moved listening to this principal express his gratitude for the work of our church. No school, he said, could begin to pay for all the good work that we do there. In his long career, he said he’s never seen a church be so generous with its time, talent, and resources!

And I thought, “This is exactly what we should do! This is the definition of ‘glorifying God’ and his Son Jesus.” Because although “glorify” isn’t a word we use much anymore, to glorify God, or to glorify Christ, is to make him look great through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Everything we do in life ought to be for God’s glory! What does Paul say? “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24).

But even doing these good works—by which, as my clergy colleague would say, we are the “incarnation Jesus Christ to others”—is not the heart of the gospel. 

So let’s move “closer to the heart.” That’s what this podcast episode is about. I want to move closer to the heart first by reading from Mark 1:1-5 and then read a portion from Matthew’s parallel account in Matthew 3:7-10:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

And then from Matthew 3:

But when he [that is, John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Mark says that his book is the beginning of what? The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The word “gospel” in Greek is euangelion, from which we derive the English word evangelism. It literally means good news. Good news… in which case the gospel isn’t mainly good advice, or life lessons, or helpful instructions on how to live—or even how to grow closer to God. It also isn’t a new set of commandments or laws or rules or principles to follow or live by. It’s news. Pastor and author Tim Keller makes the following distinction:

Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.

However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers… The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.[1]

Does that make sense? If so, I hope you’ll see why I reject my fellow clergy’s understanding of the “heart of the gospel”—which, again, according to her, is “to be the incarnation of Christ to others”—because it emphasizes the wrong thing. It places the emphasis not on God and what he’s done through his Son Jesus to defeat our mortal enemies of sin, Satan, and death; it places the emphasis on what we do.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the conference’s worship leader performed a song—I think he wrote it—which also emphasized the wrong thing. The song said “it’s not enough” to do the typical things that churches do in the face of large-scale suffering, or a crisis, or a tragedy, or great injustice. In one line, for example, he sang, “It’s not enough to send your thoughts and prayers.” In another he sang, “It’s not enough to pay apportionments.” (Apportionments are the money that each local United Methodist congregation is required to give back to the denomination, which is used for mission work, lobbying, disaster relief, among other things.) His point was, it’s not enough to simply write a check. We have to become active—or even activists—if we’re really going to be faithful to Jesus. In the chorus he sang, “We’ve got to pray [stomp stomp] with our feet”—by which he meant, “We need to get outside the walls of the church; we need to roll up our sleeves; we need to get out there and go to work!”

I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 9. Matthew says that Jesus goes through all the towns and villages around Galilee teaching, preaching, and healing the sick. Verse 36: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore…” Therefore what? If the song is right, Jesus should say, “Pray with your feet. Go out in the harvest fields and get to work!” But that’s not what Jesus says. He says, “therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” By the worship leader’s logic, surely Jesus wouldn’t have offered that particular counsel.

Again, I’m not suggesting that getting to work is unimportant; only that praying—not with our feet, but the old-fashioned way, with actual words—is, according to Jesus, the most important work of all! Jesus also warns us that we can “pray with our feet” all we want; it doesn’t mean we’re doing God’s will. In fact, according to the red-letter words of Jesus, it doesn’t even mean we’re Christians. 

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

Did you hear that? “Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” These are not people who have insufficient good works to show for themselves; these are not people who could be accused of failing to “pray with their feet.” Indeed, by all outward appearances, they were being the “incarnation of Christ to others.” You may disagree, but suppose they said a prophetic word to you, or cast out a demon from you, or did a “mighty work”—a miracle—for you. Surely you would say that they were “incarnating Christ to others.” But Jesus says no… Despite all the good things they are doing in the world, they are going to hell. 

So whatever the “heart of the gospel” is, surely, surely, surely it would address that particular problem! The prospect of hell is the biggest problem any of us faces, right?

Besides, I wanted to say to this singer at the conference, “Yes, but, even if I heed your song’s advice and ‘pray with my feet’; and do everything the song tells me to do; and avoid doing everything that the song tells me to avoid doing—it still wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t be enough. Not according to the standards of our Lord, who tells us, after all, to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Or for that matter, that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and love your neighbor as you love yourself. I mean, when was the last time you accomplished that… and for how long? “Yes, I managed to do that for five seconds last Tuesday!” 

And who among us can find comfort in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25? Inasmuch as I do it unto the least of these—by feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison—how many more times have I failed to do these things?

To make matters worse, even when I “do it unto the least of these,” believe me… I rarely do it unselfconsciously. Contrary to Jesus’ warning in the Sermon on the Mount, when I do something good, you better believe my left hand will always know what my right hand is doing. I’m going to feel very proud about it. “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are… I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess,” I pray with my feet, I am the incarnation of Christ to others. 

And you might object: “Yes, but anyone who is truly being the ‘incarnation of Christ to others’ wouldn’t, by definition, be proud… wouldn’t be hypocritical… wouldn’t be pharisaical.”

To which I would say, “Yes, maybe so. But I am proud! I am hypocritical! I am a Pharisee. At least to some extent much of the time.” I’ve been a Christian for over 30 years! I’m the worst! You give me a law, even a perfectly good law like, “Thou shalt be the incarnation of Christ to others” and watch how quickly sin will kill my spirit through it—as Paul describes in Romans 7. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  In Romans 5, Paul even tells us that the law increases the trespass.

And, yes, I recognize that “thou shalt be the incarnation of Christ to others” isn’t the Law that Paul is describing—he’s describing the 613 laws of the Torah in the Old Testament—but it’s the same difference: Even if I managed to keep this law, or any other law, my sinful pride would undo the good of it; and if I failed to keep it, I would feel guilty. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

And I know what some of you are thinking: “Brent, you’re being too hard on yourself. Don’t have such low self-esteem!” Some of you want to say, “There, there… It’s not so bad. You’re not so bad.” 

But I am! And John the Baptist perfectly understands the extent of my problem: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?… Even now,” John said, “the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And Jesus, by the way, gave warnings at least as severe in his own teaching!

Too many preachers, not least of which my people—my fellow Methodist preachers—want to say, “There, there. It’s not so bad.” But according to John the Baptist, according to Jesus, there is no “there, there.” Things actually are as bad as they seem! Even worse! And the absolutely necessary first half of the gospel tells us this: There is wrath coming upon the world. Wrath is God’s justifiable anger toward our sin. We are separated from God. Indeed, according to Romans 5, our sin has made us enemies of God. The Bible—Old and New Testaments—warns about this wrath.

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
and all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.

This “cup,” as the Bible warns elsewhere, is the cup of God’s wrath. It is the very cup to which Jesus refers when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

You see, the psalmist’s words in Psalm 75 are true: “all the wicked of the earth shall drain [this cup of God’s wrath] down to the dregs.” That is really going to happen. And that’s a problem for us! Right? Because who… who… exactly are the “wicked of the earth”? You… and me. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. And “the wages of sin is death.” Romans 6:23. “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 130:3.

And that question is a rhetorical one: No one. No one could stand.

So… it sounds like we’re in trouble. The “wicked of the earth” shall suffer God’s wrath, and the wicked of the earth are us. The solution, therefore, is for us to… umnot be the wicked of the earth. And that’s impossible, as I’ve already described. Well, at least it’s impossible for us. But as Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

God became human in order to drink the cup of God’s wrath in our place. 

You may remember many years ago there was a controversy involving the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the largest Presbyterian denomination involving a dispute about the doctrine of God’s wrath. The Presbyterians had the good taste to want to include that great contemporary hymn, “In Christ Alone,” in their hymnal. But… there was the problem of that one little line: “Till on that cross as Jesus died,/ The wrath of God was satisfied.” What is this talk about God’s wrath? They pleaded with the hymn’s writers, Getty and Townend, “Can we please change that one little line: “How about, ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died,/ The love of God was magnified.”

Yes… love, love, love. That’s perfect! And it’s certainly true: Who could argue that God’s love wasn’t magnified on the cross? After all, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” But why would God have to demonstrate his love on the cross? How does the cross demonstrate God’s love? 

In a sermon illustration, Tim Keller asks us to imagine that a house is burning down. The family who lived there escaped the flames. Everyone is out of the house and doing O.K. Thank God! Then imagine a neighbor says to the family, “Let me demonstrate my love for you.” And then he runs into the burning house, which collapses on top of him… in flames. And the neighbor dies.

How would that demonstrate the man’s love for this family? Yet those well-meaning preachers who would deny that humanity is really in trouble—in other words, who tell us, “There, there, it’s not so bad”—that’s the kind of sense that they’re making of the cross!

No… the cross only makes sense if, getting back to the analogy, the burning house falls on top of the neighbor as a result of his rescuing—as a necessary condition for rescuing—the family that is trapped within the house. They live… but only because he dies.

See, I didn’t need the worship leader at that conference last week to tell me, “It’s not enough to do thus-and-such… You’re not doing enough… You need to also do these other things… and, by the way, be the incarnation of Christ to others while you’re at it.” I don’t need that! Because I already knew it! 

I know I’m not doing enough. I know I’m not loving well enough. I know I’m not living up to Christ’s standards, or even my own standards. It’s not enough! I’m not enough.

But here’s the good news… And this finally gets us much, much closer to the heart of the gospel: I don’t need to be enough… because Christ was enough for me. I don’t have to be enough because Christ was enough for me! And it’s only on the basis of Christ—his holiness, his righteousness, his success at resisting every temptation, his perfect obedience to his Father, his willingness to drink the cup of God’s wrath that I should have drunk—it’s only on the basis of Christ alone that I can stand before God with confidence, and without fear and guilt.

This, my friends, is the heart of the gospel! Let’s get closer to that! Let’s get closer to the heart of that good news! Let’s live our life closer to the heart! 

Because here’s what that looks like… I invite you to look at Luke 7:36-49. If you’re driving, please don’t do it now… But in this passage a prominent Pharisee named Simon invites Jesus to dinner at his house. And a woman—likely a prostitute who had repented, believed in Jesus, and had her sins forgiven—shows up and begins kissing his feet and anointing them with expensive perfume. And Simon thinks, in verse 39, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And beginning with v. 40, Jesus said,

“Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” ¶ “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”

Let’s notice a few things: Jesus does not deny for a moment that the prostitute truly is a sinner who needs forgiveness. Indeed, in the parable, he identifies her with the debtor who owes the larger debt—500 denarii, or about 20 months’ wages, an enormous sum. The other debtor, identified with Simon, owes 50—or two months’ wages—still a large sum, which, in either case, the debtor was unable to pay. So Jesus isn’t denying that the prostitute was a bigger sinner than Simon. But the point is that both of them, the prostitute and the Pharisee, are sinners whose debt to God they are helpless to repay! The difference is, Simon doesn’t recognize this… And therefore he offers very little to Jesus—no kiss, no oil for his head, no expression of gratitude whatsoever. But the woman, by contrast, recognizes first the enormity of her sin and therefore the extent of Christ’s forgiveness.

Is it difficult, therefore, for her to love and serve Jesus in this humble way? Of course not! It is her pleasure to do so! It is her joy to do so! She wouldn’t dream of not serving Jesus in this way! Why? Because she loves Jesus that much! According to her example, then, the secret of service to Christ is a passionate love for him, which is kindled out of gratitude for God’s mercy, which comes from a recognition of our utter sinfulness, and what our Lord has done to make our forgiveness possible.

So… am I not doing enough for Christ? Don’t guilt-trip me… Thanks to Jesus, my guilt is gone! I stand before God holy and righteous and perfect—not because of who I am and what I’ve done, but who Christ is and what he’s done for me on the cross. Tell me that story again… Remind me again… and again… and again of what Christ has done for me—a helpless sinner in need of God’s grace at every moment. That’s the heart of the gospel, and I am going to live my life getting closer to it! Because that makes me love Jesus more. And if I love him more—if I fall in love with him more—of course I’ll want to serve him more! It will be my pleasure to serve him! It is my joy to serve him! I wouldn’t think of not serving him.

What about you? Will you join me in getting closer to the heart?

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21.

3 thoughts on “Devotional Podcast #27: “Closer to the Heart””

  1. As the saying goes, “all other religions say DO, but Christianity says DONE ! “

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