Christomorphic Aspiration

Sovereign Grace Conference / The Saints’ Chapel
Jon Marq Toombs

26 June 2016
Galatians 4:19-20

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May the grace and peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

It is a joy and delight to be with all tonight. I want to thank Pastor Wren for his friendship in the gospel of grace and the kind invitation he extended to give me room to proclaim the good news in this place. Also, I want to thank you all for receiving me as one of your own.

As you may or may not know, I am a newly ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). While I wish that you all would become what I am, I want to put you at ease. My goal tonight is not to persuade you to become presbyterians, but to proclaim the gospel of God’s grace so that the Holy Spirit might help you become truer and better followers of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

While my goal is not to persuade you to become presbyterians, I would be remiss if I did not share with you one thing about my denomination.

Last week the PCA held its annual General Assembly, which is a gathering of teaching and ruling elders from across the nation. My fathers and brothers made an important decision that I wish to share with you now. Not only is it relevant to my sermon text, it is also relevant to the gospel, and our mission and fellowship in Christ.

This is what your PCA brothers stated:

Be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10); and

Be it further resolved, that this General Assembly does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of past failures to love brothers and sisters from minority cultures in accordance with what the Gospel requires, as well as failures to lovingly confront our brothers and sisters concerning racial sins and personal bigotry, and failing to “learn to do good, seek justice and correct oppression” (Isaiah 1:17); and

Be it further resolved, that this General Assembly praises and recommits itself to the gospel task of racial reconciliation, diligently seeking effective courses of action to further that goal, with humility, sincerity and zeal, for the glory of God and the furtherance of the Gospel. [See RAANetwork Response below]

Brothers and sisters, while many of us were not alive when our denominational forefathers committed those terrible sins, we acknowledge that they were wrong.

So, I want to apologize on their behalf, ask your forgiveness and prayers, and commit myself to apply the gospel of grace in life to any and all people, regardless of the color of their skin, the contents of their bank account, or the caliber of their education.

Like some of you, I have felt the sting of racism and the shame of prejudice in my own life due to the brown color of my skin. [Not from the PCA, but others.] But I believe (as you do) that nothing breaks down the hostility of racism and builds up the community of grace like the power of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

That’s what we have come together to hear tonight, so let’s do that now.

Our sermon text for tonight is Galatians 4:19-20. If you are willing and able, I invite you to stand for the reading of God’s Holy Word.

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)

The Word of the Lord. May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word, and all the Church says: Amen!

I thought about calling this message A Christomorphic Aspiration, but since mayonnaise is the biggest word I know, I decided to go with A Christ-shaped Desire instead.

As we ease into the text of Galatians I want to tell you a story. I embraced the doctrines of grace at the turn of the millennium.

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.

It wasn’t long before 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 of those “real men” were reduced to dust and ashes.

Now, I only mention that to establish a context — and 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 of unknown professors and pulpits of unpopular pastors.

By now most of you have learned that every gospel messenger must find his 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 as a man in Christ.

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-chromatic — you must find different ways to use your voice.

Here’s what I mean:

In the sermon 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, perhaps with a strong, booming voice.

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)

So 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 Calvinist — 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.

I know that makes some of you pastors nervous, yet here it is in black and white. As Pastor Wren told me over donuts and coffee, “I gotta preach what’s right here in the book.”

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 in Galatia 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 — the Lord’s church.

He labored to bring the gospel to them personally — and he labored to give birth to them spiritually. But now (in context) 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 true gospel of grace, he feels a deep sense of anguish in his heart—and that anguish can only be described as the sharp pangs of childbirth.

Now, when I say you need to find your motherly voice, I don’t mean you need to find the voice of Marie Barone or Madea. I mean find the voice of “Mother” Paul.

Here’s how you do it.

To get his point across to his little children, Paul 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 with troublemakers and flirting with a different gospel, 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 —by their own legal works and moral deeds — 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 worldly philosophies 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, confused about about who they are and where they belong, feeling father-hunger, 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. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 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 dead idols and man-centered religion 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 Judaizers 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. A good pastor will learn to use them all.

Notice, Paul was a good mother to his little children, yet they were still rebellious, unruly, confused, and some were even going astray.

Seeing his children in such deep trouble was enough to make that 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 exactly what he wants and he gets his way, right? No!

He will feel sharp birth pangs until he sees real deep changes in his children. Not surface changes in their worship style; not cosmetic changes in their mission statement; not even outward changes in their moral life.

He will continue to feel the sharp contractions and labor pangs until he sees real 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 living, moving, existing in the tension of the already/not yet.

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 totally shaped in them.

More than anything in the world, Paul wanted Christ to be formed in his children; he wanted Christ to be 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 ten years ago, 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 something very important:

Reformed is good, but it’s not good enough.

The reason Reformed is not good enough is because Reformed is not the same as Redeemed. It points us to Christ in truer and better ways that non-Reformed traditions can, but it is not Christ.

You probably know this already, but it is possible to be Reformed in the wrong way. One can be Reformed in the image of Luther and Calvin, and still not be conformed to the image of our Lord and Christ Jesus.

Paul wants his children to be Christ-shaped just 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)

He wants the DNA of Jesus Christ to re-form and trans-form them from the inside out.

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 suggest 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. It’s not his own presence as their pastor, but the true 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, limited, finite, human ministers like Paul and you and me.

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 does not shame them, embarrass them, or belittle them.

He engages them like a loving and caring mother. He preaches the gospel to them, and writes letters to them, and urges them to walk by the Spirit, and not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16 ESV).

He pleads with them 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 makes himself vulnerable to them; he expresses his personal love and sheds tears for them. And after all is said and done, he acknowledges that not even his intense labor pains can cause Christ to be formed in his children, in his congregation.

Only the Holy 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.” (Gal. 6:17)

Who can argue against any mother who plays this trump card? I don’t how many times I have heard a mother say something like this to her 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. So the least you can do is stop fighting with your sister, or clean your room, or take out the trash, or cut the grass…”

Perhaps “Mother” Paul had something like that in mind.

After all, he endured many hardships for the congregation in his labor and delivery of the gospel.

The bottom line is that Paul was a true man of God — but we must admit that he was one tough mother.

I perceive that some of you are feeling perplexed about all this, as if finding your motherly voice might somehow make you weaker and less manly.

True, it will make you “weaker” in some ways, but since God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it will also make you stronger in other ways.

So I encourage you to find your motherly voice because you and your children and your church will need it sooner or later.

Now, I have in my hand a can of play-doh. Think of this playdoh as a church, a community, or a context in which you serve.

I’m going to pull off the lid and take it out and take a moment to form the image of Christ in it.

If you’ve ever played with play-doh, you know that sometimes it is soft and easy to shape. Sometimes it is dry and crumbles when you try to shape it. Sometimes it is hard to shape — if you can shape it at all. That’s a picture of real life in gospel ministry: You never know what kind of people you will be called to love and serve.

And here’s another real picture of gospel ministry: whether soft or hard, no matter how much I try, I cannot shape or form Christ in this dough.

And if I cannot re-form this play-doh in the image of Christ, how much less can I do it in my children or in my congregation?!

It is so fitting that Paul said, “I am perplexed about you.”

If it hasn’t happened already, 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 you will not always know what to do or where to turn. You will have no way forward, and you might 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, essential thing that I am laboring for among these people? And what (if anything) can I do to help them?

Paul’s answer was: My little children, I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

I hope and pray that is yours as well.

Now, 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.

As Paul says, 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 the Spirit and gospel; and a community in which Christ has been shaped in faith, hope, and 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)


Update: Reflections from a Black Presbyterian on the PCA’s Overture https://www.raanetwork.org/reflections-pcas-overture-racial-reconciliation/

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