Consider a recent conversation with a new Christian who was a former “evangelical”:
“In the past two years that I have been a Christian I have noticed a disturbing contrast between my former evangelical churches and what I am generally hearing in our Bible classes. The Evangelicals have certainly missed the New Testament teachings on what is necessary to become a Christian and how to properly worship God, but what I’m seeing in most Christians is a confidence based on right doctrines to the neglect of truly knowing God and being impressed with his greatness, the beautiful nature of Jesus, and the magnitude of his grace toward us.”
My explanation went something like this:
Historically, Bible students have overreacted to false teaching. The tendency is to focus so narrowly on what is wrong that the result is to neglect principles of equal or even greater importance. Thus Jesus condemned the Pharisees for “neglecting the weightier matters of the Law” (Matt. 23:23) and “searching the scriptures” to find salvation, but not seeing Jesus (John 5:39). All of God’s words are important, but the scriptures are twisted to our destruction when they are not kept in balance and “weighted” properly.
When people realized the need to return to the apostles’ teaching on salvation and the nature of the church, there were naturally battles that were waged against various denominational teachings that had come out of Catholicism and the Reformation Movement. In many cases, fighting these battles caused Christians to conclude that being “right” on salvation, the purpose of the church, and worship was the key to going to heaven. This narrow focus resulted in missing the beauty of the purposes of God in our salvation that are especially expressed in the prophets. It also created a misplaced confidence in our salvation based on our ability to be right and do right. Paul told Timothy, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:14–15). How many missed the fact that the sacred writings (Old Testament) are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus? Who knew?
The Surpassing Value of Knowing Christ
In Philippians 3:1-11, Paul contrasted putting “confidence in the flesh” (3:3) – defined as having a “righteousness of my own that comes from the law” – with “the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Therefore, Paul stated, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ…having a righteousness from God that depends on faith…that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Notice the goal of knowing Christ is to have a righteousness that comes from God in order to attain to the resurrection. In other words, gaining Christ and knowing Christ is our salvation. Anything else is having “confidence in the flesh.”
For most of my life, I have noticed how Christians struggle with being assured of their own salvation. The reason for this is fairly straightforward. We lost the message of the grace of Jesus Christ and the confidence we have in Christ because we were primarily studying the Bible as a means of defeating false doctrines, finding answers to questions, and even looking for “to do” passages instead of discovering the message of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is a great communicator, revealing the “deep things of God” by an artistic method. The method by which he ordered his words and delivered his message is what brings us to know Christ. Instead, too many chop up his word into verse by verse topics or “hand-crafted” sermons while neglecting the Spirit’s method and message. Consider, is it even possible to come to know him by simply having the right doctrines and teachings? That was the same method of study used by the Pharisees, and they failed miserably. Once we discover the original message of the Spirit, we will easily see what is true and false in the doctrines of the world. But without discovering, and continuing to discover, the message of the Spirit in the way the Spirit revealed it, we will lose what we should have gained in Christ.
How We Come to “Know” Him
While knowing Christ includes understanding the difference between truth and error and the need to obey God’s commands (Ezek. 36:25-27), such is not the primary meaning of the surpassing value of knowing Christ. This “knowing” is the kind of intimate knowledge we desire to attain in marriage so that our love for one another is deeply appreciated and we desire to please each other. Our love for him is responsive. We love him because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). But to understand his love, we need to know him. He is our bridegroom with whom we expect to spend eternity. Therefore, to know him we need to adjust how we study the scriptures.
First, before looking at details, read from the “30,000 foot level.” In other words, look for key themes and threads that run through scripture revealing God’s purposes. Instead of reading the Old Testament as a history book, notice the bigger story of how God is revealing his character and his ultimate purpose in Christ and in us. For example, when man sinned, we immediately observe “curses” exacted by God: death, pain in childbearing/rearing, and the curse on the ground. However, when we come to Abraham, God promised blessings that reversed the curses. These blessings are fulfilled in Christ and in us. This principle becomes a thread that is repeated and expanded throughout scripture.
Second, look for pictures of the mercy of God. Of course, his mercy is not appreciated without observing his wrath toward sin. But too often we are captivated by his wrath while missing the thematic message of his steadfast love. Right in the middle of the Lord’s declaration of the Ten Commandments, he revealed his character when he said, “Showing steadfast love to thousands who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex.20:6). The Lord revealed the same words to Moses when Moses asked to see his glory (Ex. 34:5-6).
With this approach, we will naturally adjust how we teach others, and especially, how we teach our children. We need to teach God’s authority and his commands, but more importantly, we need to place the greater weight on being astonished at who God is and what he has done. When we truly know him, our confidence in the flesh (our own supposed goodness) will diminish while our assurance of “the righteousness from God” will increase.
Consider this question: would you be willing to stand before God and ask him to be “just” with you? Most would say, “No way!” However, John said, “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Because of God’s faithfulness to his promises through the cross, he is “just” to forgive us and cleanse us. When we truly know him, we will have confidence in his faithfulness, we will glory in Christ Jesus, but we will put no confidence in the flesh (Phil. 3:3).