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Trust Your Savior, Not Your Efforts

By Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship
This is the last post in a three part series on fighting sin. Read about knowing your sin (part one) and fighting your sin (part two).

Discipleship isn’t just a program.

This is the best part of discipleship. Trusting our Savior makes discipleship personal. Discipleship isn’t a program or a one-on-one meeting. It is fundamentally a trusting relationship with Jesus based on his gospel of grace. When we trust in his promises, we cut through religious performance and spiritual license, leading to soul-sweetening obedience.

When we trust Jesus, we displace rules from the center of our discipleship and replace it with his gospel. The fight against sin will fade once and for all, but we will trust our Savior forever. Why not begin closing the gap now? He is utterly trustworthy—the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). All God’s promises are “Yes” and “Amen” in him (2 Cor. 1:20). The trouble, of course, is that we are adept at displacing the gospel from our discipleship and replacing it with rules.

Have you replaced Jesus with your own efforts?

For many of us, discipleship is moral, not personal. We depersonalize the gospel by removing Jesus and replacing him with our own efforts. When the Spirit is a forgotten god, trusting Jesus becomes a fading proposition. He is present in name only. Jesus becomes an idea we believe, not a person we trust. Consequently, religious affection and the power of the Spirit leak out. Doubt and cynicism roll in. And our discipleship devolves into dutiful performance.

Instead of trusting Jesus’s finished work, we begin to rely on our own work to overcome sin. Eventually, frustration, despair, and anger set it. Before we know it, we will swing to the religious right or the rebellious left, trusting our own performance or the deceptive rush of spiritual license. Everyone trusts something or someone; the gospel reminds us that only one person is worthy of our trust.

Jonathan Dodson serves as a pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas. He has written articles in numerous blogs and journals such as The Resurgence, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, and Boundless.

Fight Your Sin

By Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship

Yesterday we posted the first of three in a series on fighting sin. Check out the post on the importance of knowing your sin. Once we know our sin, the challenge is to actually fight it.

Know that victory over sin has already been won.

Before we address fighting sin, it is worthwhile to point out that the victory over sin has already been won in Christ. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through his own death and resurrection and is making all things new, even us. Paul explains Jesus’s victory over sin and its implications for us in Romans 6:6-11:

  • The power of sin has been rendered powerless, as we are no longer enslaved to it but to Christ!
  • However, disciples will continue to battle sin until our final reunion with Christ. This is why Paul exhorts us to “consider” ourselves dead to sin and alive in Jesus.
  • The time between the cross and the return of Christ will be filled with battles against sin, but in these battles we possess a new life which enables us to defeat sin through Christ’s decisive victory.
  • The fight of faith is a fight to be our new, authentic selves in Christ, free from sin and alive to God in righteousness. Knowing our sin, we fight against it by fighting to be who we already are in Christ.

Why Fight?

Fighting your sin is a tenacity to put sin to death, which arises from our life in Christ. Unfortunately, many disciples do not walk in their newness of life but in old patterns of sin. Perhaps this lackadaisical approach to sin is because we value Jesus’s atonement for our guilt and the penalty of sin, but at a heart level fail to value and understand how his atonement has also freed us from the power of sin? Or perhaps our indifference to fighting sin springs from a false belief that God accepts us just as we are, not as who we will be? Why fight if we are already accepted?

However, if we are accepted not as we are but as we are in Christ, we have every reason to fight—from our new identity. The truth is, persistent, unrepentant sin can disqualify us from the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19–21; Eph. 5:5; Heb. 3:7–13). God does not accept us as we are. He accepts us as we are in Christ. In him, we are new creation (2 Cor. 5:16; Gal. 6:15), and new creatures live transformed (not perfect) lives. As recipients of God’s grace, we are compelled to follow Jesus in all of life. We will fight to find Jesus sweeter, richer, deeper, and more satisfying than anything else in the world. Disciples contend with their sin because they love their Savior.

The Mortification of Sin

In my discipleship, the writings of John Owen continue to be tremendously helpful. Owen’s books, Of the Mortification of Sin and On Temptation, are classics on the subject of fighting sin. Owen articulates the purpose for his writing on the subject: “That mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; so that the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.” Mortification is that tenacious disposition of the heart that longs to defeat sin out of love for Jesus. Notice that Owen sets mortification of sin in its rightful place, not as an end in itself, but as a means to making much of the gospel of Christ. Owen keeps the gospel, not fighting, central to discipleship, while retaining an appropriate tenacity in fighting our relentless foe. He writes: “Be killing sin lest it be killing you.” Paul issues similar injunctions:

  • “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” (Col. 3:5–6)
  • “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:13)
  • “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:12–13)

Sin is no light-hearted matter. It is crouching at our door and we must master it (Gen. 4:7). It is dangerous to not fight sin. It is a sobering fight that must not cease. Fight your sin means a habitual weakening of the flesh through constant fighting and contending in the Spirit for sweet victory over sin. It should be regular and progressive, not occasional and instant. Fighting is not an end in itself or a way to make us more presentable to God. We fight because we have been made presentable in Christ and want to escape deceit of any kind. We fight for belief in his gospel the truest and best news on earth—that Jesus has defeated our sin, death, and evil, through his own death and resurrection, and is making all things new, even us. Until all things are new, we will continue to fight the good fight of faith.

Fighting is ultimately about life, not death—about joy, not sorrow. It is about the gospel, not good works. We don’t fight for acceptance; we fight from our acceptance. We don’t contend against sin to forge an identity but because we have received a new identity in Christ. Perfection is not the goal; persevering faith is.

Jonathan Dodson serves as a pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas. He has written articles in numerous blogs and journals such as The Resurgence, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, and Boundless.

Know Your Sin

By Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship

In Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Jonathan Dodson calls Christians to fight their sin. To put them to death. He recommends not going solo, but helping one another in small communities that he coins fight clubs. Fighting sin requires effort and strategy. The first of the three part strategy he proposes is to know your sin. We can know our sin by asking three questions: What, When, and Why?

What sins?

Before we can fight our sin, we must know what sins are currently present in our lives. An unknown opponent is difficult to defeat. Knowing our sin requires familiarity with our particular temptations, areas where we are prone to sin. These temptations and sins may be visible or invisible, as obvious as anger or as subtle as self-pity. Begin by prayerfully reflecting on your life. Remember, you are God’s child, not his project. He knows you and loves you enough to show you your sin. Talk to him about your struggles; ask him to reveal your sins and convict you of them (Ps. 139:23–24; John 16:8).

Another way to get at the what is to ask your fight club partners point out sins they see in your life. Very often, we fail to see our own weaknesses. A loving community can help us by holding up the mirror of God’s Word so that we can see ourselves more clearly. While community is helpful, the Word is powerful, sharper than any sword, dividing between things visible and invisible, judging the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). Use God’s Word as a mirror to expose sin and as a sword to convict. Reading through James with my fight club recently helped us grasp our deep need for wisdom embracing God’s grace agenda to change us in trial and suffering. Minister to one another with God’s Word, not mere opinion. You can know your sin by praying, discussing, and reading the Word in community with a humble, teachable heart.

When are you tempted to sin?

Once you have identified the what, it is important to consider the when. When are you tempted to sin? If we don’t think about the when, sin will sneak up on us. Consider the circumstances that surround your sin, where and when you find yourself tempted. Identify your sins and the circumstances of temptation. For example:

  • Do you find yourself tempted to vanity or self-pity when lingering in front of the mirror?
  • Does sexual lust or despair creep in on late, lonely nights watching TV?
  • Are you prone to pride when you succeed or receive a compliment?
  • Are you easily angered in traffic or while waiting in line?

Why do you sin?

Finally, the critical question to ask in knowing our sin is why? The why question is important because it gets to the motivation behind our sin; it addresses the heart. No one ever sins out of duty. We all sin because we want to, because our hearts long for something. If we don’t address the motivational issues behind our sin, we will only treat it superficially, adjusting our behavior, not our hearts. God doesn’t want mere behavioral adjustment; he wants affectionate obedience!

To uncover your motivation, ask yourself why you gravitate to certain sins.

  • What do you believe they will do for you?
  • What is your heart longing for?
  • What are you desiring or valuing most when you sin in a particular area?

Using the examples above, we may sin because we desire worth, companionship, peace, confidence, or convenience. These longings are not inherently bad; however, when they are associated with a lie they become deadly. Consider these examples of how good things can be twisted by lies into sinful motivations:

  • Vanity: If you perform beautifully, then you have worth.
  • Lust: If you find sexual intimacy on the Internet, then you won’t be lonely or stressed.
  • Pride: If you received more compliments, then you would be more confident.
  • Anger: If you get angry, you can get your way.

Many of our sins can be traced back to a deep belief in a lie. These false promises of acceptance, approval, satisfaction, self-worth, beauty, and significance motivate our sin. If we are to discover true acceptance, approval, satisfaction, self-worth, beauty, and significance, we need the ability to expose those lies. Cultivate a habit of looking beneath your sin to expose the lie underneath it. Once we understand why we sin, the false promise we believe, we can replace it with a better why, a better promise. If we don’t address the why question, we will inevitably become religious or rebellious disciples who just try harder or give up trying altogether.

Jonathan Dodson serves as a pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas. He has written articles in numerous blogs and journals such as The Resurgence, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, and Boundless.

Video: Justin Taylor and Jonathan Dodson on “Gospel-Centered Discipleship”

The terms “disciple” and “gospel-centered” are thrown around often in Christian circles these days, but what do they really mean? Join Justin Taylor and Jonathan Dodson as they discuss Dodson’s book Gospel-Centered Discipleship and discuss these oft-used terms. You can watch the whole conversation below or jump ahead to these highlights:

0:10 – In an ideal world, if Gospel-Centered Discipleship accomplished exactly what you wanted it to accomplish, how would churches, disciple-makers and disciples look different?

2:31 – What does it mean to be a disciple?

5:08 – So many people are using the term “gospel-centered” that it can seem like a buzz word or a fad. Why did you choose to use this phrase in the title of your book?

7:44 – You talk about not only sharing your faith but also your failures. Looking back at the last ten years of discipling others, how has your disciple-making changed? What are the differences? Where did you drop the ball?

11:35 – How are “Fight Clubs” different from the typical accountability partner or accountability group?

14:50 – Justin Taylor: “I had a hard time putting the book down, and I hope other people not only pick it up but read it and then apply it.”

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Treasured Words on the Altar of the Urgent

What goes through your mind as it hits the pillow each night? Are you able to say with Job, “I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread” (Job 23:12), or is our closed Bible on the altar of the urgent?

If we’re honest with ourselves, often, in the craziness of life, instead of treasuring and applying more Scripture to a heart that needs it we shy away from time in the Word.

In the prelude of For the Love of God, D.A. Carson offers the following observation:

The challenge [of reading our Bibles] has become increasingly severe in recent years, owing to several factors. All of us must confront the regular sins of laziness or lack of discipline, sins of the flesh, and of the pride of life. But there are additional pressures. The sheer pace of life affords us many excuses for sacrificing the important on the altar of the urgent. The constant sensory input from all sides is gently addictive—we become used to being entertained and diverted, and it is difficult to carve out the space and silence necessary for serious and thoughtful reading of Scripture. More seriously yet, the rising biblical illiteracy in Western culture means that the Bible is increasingly a closed book, even to many Christians. As the culture drifts away from its former rootedness in a Judeo-Christian understanding of God, history, truth, right and wrong, purpose, judgment, forgiveness, and community, so the Bible seems stranger and stranger. For precisely the same reason, it becomes all the more urgent to read it and reread it, so that at least confessing Christians preserve the heritage and outlook of a mind shaped and informed by holy Scripture.

This, then, ought to be our response: we are to read systematically and repeatedly from the Word of God so that we might rejoice in Scripture. When we do, we remove God’s Word from the altar of the urgent and rightly call its contents, “treasured.”

If you’re struggling to get into the word, here are some ideas to give you the jump start you may need to dive back in:

  • It’s not to late to start up on a Bible reading plan. (You can even have them sent directly to your email or synced with your iCal).
  • Gather a group of friends from church and start reading the Bible out loud together.
  • Find a prayer partner and pray through Scripture together on a weekly basis.
  • Read through some of the Old Testament narratives. Sometimes the narrative genre is a bit easier to jump into.

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