Chapel / Redeemer Seminary
Jon Marq Toombs
21 April 2016
My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:19-20)
I thought about calling this message A Christomorphic Life, but since mayonnaise is the biggest word I know, I decided to go with A Christ-shaped Desire instead.
As many of you know I came to Redeemer Seminary in 2009. In those days the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement was trending and Neo-Calvinism was all the rage. Various Coalitions and Networks sprang up over night and Conferences soon followed. Many young men were recruited, shaped, and trained for church planting. Church planting was for men; Church revitalization was for wimps. Talk of real biblical manhood was thick as smog in the air. It wasn’t long until some church plant networks began to look and feel like fraternities; some churches smelled like fight clubs, and some church planters acted like tough, edgy, foul-mouthed, jerks. They yelled at their audiences and boasted of high body counts left in their wake (in the name of Jesus’ mission). Such actions were justified by fan-boys who said, “God once spoke through the mouth of an ass, perhaps he is doing so again.” We critics agreed — but only in part. Copy-cat pastors appeared in cities all over the place. Mega-multi-site churches were born. More people meant more money. Mo’ money mo’ problems. Scandals erupted and one by one leaders were toppled and shattered, or just crashed and burned out. Many “real men” were reduced to dust and ashes.
Now, Redeemer Seminary had nothing to do with that, nor did the Redeemer our Savior. I only mention it to establish a context — and to establish a contrast.
In the midst of all that YRR noise, some of us heard a different voice — like the sound of a gentle whisper — coming from the lecterns and podiums of a small and quiet seminary in Dallas. What you are about to hear is based on some things I learned while sitting where you now sit.
By now most of you have learned that every gospel messenger must find his or her own voice. That means you must learn to speak and act according to the gifts God gives you, not according to the gifts he gives others. You must be you.
In the movie Dead Poets Society, a passionate “Captain” Keating says to his students:
“You must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all…Break out! Dare to strike out and find new ground!”
You must find your own voice. But you must not let your voice be ordinary — or mono-tone — you must find different ways to use your voice.
Here’s what I mean:
In the text under consideration, notice that Paul portrays himself as a parent speaking to his children.
Since he is a man, we expect him to talk like a father. Instead, he talks like a mother.
It’s not the only time he does such a thing. In another letter he says, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7)
Paul portrays himself as a mother giving birth and nursing babes.
Although he was a real manly man, about as rough and rowdy as they come, he was not a chauvinist jerk. He was a true man in Christ — not ashamed to get in touch with his maternal side and express himself with a motherly voice.
So, Paul spoke to his children in his motherly voice, but notice that it was the voice of a mother in the anguish of childbirth. Why?
He looks at the plight of his children and feels the intense pressure of labor pains, the shocking jolts of contractions in his heart.
As some of you know by experience, there is nothing more beautiful and terrible than a woman in labor. Beautiful, because she is bringing a life into the world. Terrible, because she is suffering so much to do so.
That’s how Paul describes himself, and the way he feels about his children.
He labored to bring the gospel to them — and he labored to give birth to them spiritually. But now he fears that he might have become their enemy by telling them truth — and that he might have labored over them in vain.
Anyone who has little children knows this kind of anguish. My wife and I have four children and we are learning that the initial anguish of childbirth continues long after the children are born. In some ways, it feels even more intense. Why? We want our children to embrace and experience what we believe is right and good for them, but they do not always want the same things that we want.
When Paul sees how much his children are struggling to hold fast to the gospel of grace, he feels a deep sense of anguish in his heart—that anguish can only be described as the sharp pangs of childbirth.
You might have heard that actress Doris Roberts passed away this week at the age of 90. She is best known for her role as Marie Barone, the pushy, nosey, over-bearing mother on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond. She was always shifting between coddling Raymond and criticizing everyone else. She was one of the most passive-aggressive mothers you ever saw. But she assured everyone that everything she said and did came from love. Perhaps it did, but she had a strange way of showing it.
Now, when I say find your motherly voice, I don’t mean find the voice of Marie Barone, I mean find the voice of “Mother” Paul.
To get his point across to his little children, he speaks with the tone of a concerned and perplexed mother. Not just here, but throughout the letter.
Listen to some things he says to his little children in his motherly tone.
When he sees his children hanging out and flirting with troublemakers he says (in a shocked tone),
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7 ESV)
And when he sees his children trying to get right with God by their own performance he counsels them (in a sympathetic tone),
“We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15-16 ESV)
When he sees some of his children mesmerized by and fascinated with moral therapeutic deism he calls them out (in a angry / frustrated tone),
“O foolish [children]! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you one thing: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-4 ESV)
When he sees some of his children struggling with an identity crisis he reminds them (in a soothing / comforting tone),
“You are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27 ESV) … And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6 ESV)
When he sees some of his children turning back to worldly ideas and idols he expresses his deep concern and frustration (in a frantic, exasperated tone):
“[Oh] now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how [in the world] can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world — whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” (Galatians 4:9-11 ESV)
When he sees some of his children turning away from the grace of Christ and turning to other gospels which are no gospel at all, he comes out swinging (in a defensive, fighting mad tone).
“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? (Tell me who did this to you!) This persuasion is not from him who calls you…I wish those who unsettle you would go emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:6-12 ESV)
As you can hear, a motherly voice can come across in a variety of tones: calm, soothing, frantic, angry, frustrated, shrill, critical, etc.
Now Paul was a good mother to his little children, and they were still rebellious, unruly, and going astray.
So seeing his children in such deep trouble was enough to make a grown man cry like a woman in childbirth.
Like a mother who loves her children no matter what, he is in pain for them, but he does not desert them; he is perplexed about them, but he does not despair.
Like a mother dealing with her troubled children, Paul will continue to feel labor pains until, until, until — they do what he wants and he gets his way, right? No!
He will feel sharp birth pangs until he sees real changes in his children. Not changes in their worship style; not changes in their mission statement; not even changes in their moral life. But deep changes in their hearts from the inside out.
Sadly, many pastors, ministers, and church planters labor only to form the church in their own image and likeness. Such ministers are only satisfied if their people attend all the services, believe all the right doctrines, contribute all their tithes, devote themselves to good works, engage in mission, ad nauseam.
But Paul describes himself as mother laboring in the anguish of childbirth “until Christ is formed in you.”
They were already baptized into Christ, but Christ was not yet born in them. They were already clothed with Christ, but Christ was not yet clothed in them from the inside out. They were already being shaped by Christ, but Christ was not yet shaped in them.
The main point to grasp here is this: More than anything in the world, Paul wanted Christ to be formed in his children, and shaped in the church under his care.
I must confess that I too have felt such anguish in my heart for the church under my care — at times for the wrong reasons.
When I started pastoring the church I now serve, I wanted the church to become Truly Reformed: to embrace Reformed theology, Reformed soteriology, Reformed liturgy. And I anguished over this for the first two or three years — until (by God’s grace) I realized that Reformed is good but it’s not good enough. [Note: I should point out that this realization co-incided with my coming to Redeemer Seminary.] The reason Reformed is not good enough is because it is not Christ. It points to Christ, but it is not Christ.
You probably know this already, but it is possible to be Reformed in the image of Calvin or Cranmer, and still not be conformed to the image of Christ.
Paul wants his children to be Christ-shaped as he has been Christ-shaped by faith in Jesus Christ: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20 ESV)
So, How does Paul’s pastoral desire for the church become reality? How does his maternal dream for his children come true?
At first glance, he seems to say that his presence will bring about some kind of change. “If only I could be with you, I could change my tone with you — I could fend off the troublemakers and fight for you and make sure you make good decisions. If only I were there, I could fight your battles and micromanage your life and spiritual formation.”
But the rest of the letter shows what he really believes will bring about the kind of Christomorphic, Christ-shaped life he desires. Not his own presence, but the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Calvin says, “This is a remarkable passage for illustrating the efficacy of Christian ministry…when a minister is contrasted with God, he is nothing, and can do nothing, and is utterly useless; but, because the Holy Spirit works efficaciously by means of him, he comes to be regarded and praised as an agent. Still, it is not what he can do in himself, or apart from God, but what God does by him” that truly matters.
In other words, God works by means of broken human ministers like Paul and like you.
So when Paul sees that his children are not yet conformed to the image of Christ — and that Christ is not yet formed in them — what does he do?
He engages them like a loving and caring mother. He preaches the gospel to them, writes letters to them, and urges them to walk by the Spirit, and not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16 ESV); to take up the cross and keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:24-25 ESV)
He teaches them that the works of the flesh de-form their heart, mind, and life, but the grace of the Holy Spirit re-forms them from the inside out and transforms in the image of Christ.
He expresses his personal love and sheds tears for them, but after all is said and done, he acknowledges that not even his labor pains can cause Christ to be formed in his children.
Only the Spirit can form their inward parts; and knit them together in their mother’s womb. And if and when Christ is formed in them, they will praise God, for in Christ they shall be fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 139:13-14 ESV)
Finally, perhaps the last thing Paul said in his motherly voice is this (in a resigned, guilt-inducing tone):
“From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”
Who can argue against any mother who plays this trump card? I don’t how many times way wife has said something like this to our children:
“I bear on my body the stretch marks of pregnancy, labor, and C-sections. I gave up my body for you. I laid down my life for yours. The least you can do is load the dishwasher.”
Perhaps “Mother” Paul had something like that in mind. After all, he endured many hardships in his labor and delivery of the gospel.
The bottom line is that Paul was a true man of God — and he was one tough mother.
I perceive that some of you are feeling perplexed about all this, as if finding your motherly voice might make you weaker. Yes, it will make you weaker in some ways, but since God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it will make you stronger in other ways. So I encourage you to find your motherly voice because you and your church will need it sooner or later.
Now, on the table in front of you is a can of play-doh. Think of it as a church, a community, or a context in which you will serve after seminary. Pull off the lid and take it out. Take a moment or two and do your best to form the image of Christ in it.
Some of you have soft dough that is easy to shape. Some of you have dry dough that crumbles when you try to shape it. Some of you have hard dough that is hard to shape — if you can shape it at all. That’s real life in gospel ministry: You never know what kind of people you will be called to love and serve.
Notice: whether soft or hard none of you can shape or form Christ in the dough. And if you cannot do it in play-doh, how much less will you be able to do it in real people?!
It is fitting that Paul said, “I am perplexed about you.”
When you finally graduate from seminary, get ordained for gospel ministry, and receive a call to a church, there will come a time when you will feel perplexed about someone or something. You will look at the children around you and be at a loss, and not know what to do or where to turn. You will have no way forward, and feel at your wits’ end.
In that moment the question you must ask is this: What do I want for these little children under my care? What is the one, irreducible, non-negotiable thing that I am laboring for among these people? And what (if anything) will I do to help them?
The sooner you confess that you cannot shape Christ in them, the better off you’ll be. The sooner you confess that only the Spirit can shape Christ in them (with or without you) the better off they’ll be.
At the end of all things, the only thing that counts for anything is a new creation – that is, a Christian who has been conformed to Christ by faith; and a community in which Christ has been shaped in love. No matter how many or few, that is all that matters. And for that we must labor and strive in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them. (Galatians 6:15-16 ESV)
Benediction: May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Galatians 6:11-18 ESV)