The Key To True Success

The Key to True Success

2 Corinthians 5.16-21

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re talking about true success today. In financial terms, Bill Gates comes to mind first. His personal net worth soared above $100 billion before last year’s economic downturn, when it dropped to a mere $55 billion. He could buy every single major league team in football, baseball, basketball and hockey for only 35% of his net worth—but he still couldn’t buy the Rangers any pitching. Is such wealth the key to true success?

Bill Gross is the highest-paid money manager in the world. But he tells Fortune magazine, “climbing to the top means very little. Getting there doesn’t matter. The ultimate victory is staying there.” Later in the article he says, “My desire isn’t to make money. I have more money than I know what to do with. My desire is to win—and win forever.” Is such business victory the key to true success?

What is success? To some it’s financial, to others vocational. Still others measure success by popularity, or family happiness, or health.

How does God measure success? We need to know, for his is the only judgment which is eternal. And the One who created us knows what kind of success will most fulfill our lives and his purpose for us.

What is his key to our true success? The answer may surprise you.

Know your identity in Christ

To give you God’s answer, I need to unfold some truths this morning, layer upon layer. I’ll need you to work with me. No wandering thoughts. A Sunday school teacher asked her class of children why we are quiet in church; one little girl said, “Because people are sleeping.” Don’t do that. Think with me for a few minutes.

The first step to true success with God is to know our identity in Christ. Paul states this identity clearly: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (v. 17).

How is this possible? We still look the same, and unfortunately many of us still act in the same ways. How can trusting in Christ make us a “new creation”?

Here’s how.

At the Passover in Egypt, the people put the lamb’s blood at the top and on the sides of their doorposts. Then God’s angel “passed over” them, because of the blood.

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest brought the blood of sacrifice into the Holy of Holies to present before God. Then God passed over the sins of the people because of the blood.

Now Hebrews 9:12 says that when Jesus died “he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption” for us. His blood paid for our sins and purchased our salvation.

And so Jesus’ shed blood on the cross enables God to “pass over” our sins, to forgive them, to accept us as his holy children. But how does this forgiveness make us a “new creation”? What of our sin nature? We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners. This is our very nature. What can change our sin nature into God’s new creation?

Here’s the mystery, the fact most Christians never discover. One of the most important verses in all God’s word is Romans 6:6: “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”

If you have asked Jesus Christ to be your Savior and Lord, in that decision God identified you with his Son. He put the person you were before Christ on the cross with him. If I put a piece of paper in my Bible, it is included with it. It goes wherever my Bible goes. When I typed my sermon into my laptop computer, it became part of the laptop. It goes with the laptop.

When you asked Christ into your life, Christ actually brought you into his life. He made you part of himself. The person you were before that decision “died,” and you were “born again” as one with him.

This is why Paul testifies, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

In God’s eyes, you and I do not exist. Our sins have been forgiven because Jesus’ blood covered them. Our sin nature has been replaced with his divine nature. And so we are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” We are God’s children, with his genetics, his character, his nature as ours.

This is our identity in Christ. The first step to true success with God is understanding it.

Choose the life of Christ

But we still sin, don’t we? Lies white and black, failures small and large, sins private and public. Why? Because we don’t choose the Christ life. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago my Jeep needed some work done, but the mechanic couldn’t fix it until I gave him the keys. So long as I tried to solve the problem myself, he couldn’t. Last week my laptop needed some work, but our church technician couldn’t fix it until I gave it to him. My efforts weren’t solving the problem, and they were only hindering his.

So long as we try to please God in our own ability, to resist sin in our own strength, to grow in faith and serve God in ministry with our own gifts and hard work, we actually prevent his doing his work in and through us.

Instead, we choose the Christ life. Listen to two crucial sentences: “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires” (Romans 6:11-12).


The Power For True Success

The Power for True Success

Colossians 1:21-29

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend recently sent me a Peanuts cartoon, in which Snoopy is typing a letter. It says, “Dear IRS, I am writing to you to cancel my subscription. Please remove my name from your mailing list.” If only it were that easy.

April 15 is not America’s favorite day. We give over $750 billion to the Internal Revenue Service every year. Why do we do it? What are we afraid of? An IRS agent is just a person. He or she cannot really hurt us. But the agency which employs that agent is another matter. It is the power which uses the agent, which works through that person, that we respect. And appropriately so.

Last week we discovered God’s key to true success: we choose the Christ nature in us, as we stay surrendered and close to Jesus. Then Jesus reproduces his life, his purity, his character, his joy in us.

But we need help. If you sought to obey this teaching this week, as I hope you did, you discovered that you cannot do it in your own ability. The good news is, the help we need can be ours this morning. Let’s learn how.

Know the source of your worth (21-22, 27)

My first youth minister gave me the best single piece of advice I’ve ever received: “Know the source of your personal worth.” Know why you matter, why you are valuable, your identity and significance. Here is the source of your personal worth.

Verse 21 describes each of us “B.C.,” before Christ: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” We were completely separated from God, enemies of the Almighty. Our “evil behavior” showed that this was true. We sinned because we were sinners.

“But now”—two glorious words—”he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (v. 22).

We are “reconciled” to God—the word means to be made right and righteous with God. Jesus’ death, his blood shed on the cross, paid the penalty for our sins.

Now he “presents” us before God, as a defense attorney before the Judge. And how does he present us? “Holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Now we are “holy,” sacred. We are “without blemish,” completely innocent. We are “free from accusation,” completely innocent of all charges, set free.

This is not how the world sees us, or how we see ourselves. But this is true “in his sight.” It is how God sees us.

When we asked Christ to save us, God identified us with Jesus on the cross. He included the person we were before Christ in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:6 teaches, “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” Paul proclaimed it boldly: “I have been crucified with Christ … Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Now Jesus lives his life through me. Now I can experience and give to others his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Now Paul’s testimony is mine: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Christ in me is the source of my personal worth, my identity. No other source of worth delivers what it promises. I can testify personally that it’s so. I’ve tried performance, but there’s always more to do so I’m never at peace. I’ve tried perfectionism for much of my life, but I cannot achieve it and so am constantly frustrated. I’ve tried possessions, but there’s always more to own. I’ve tried popularity, but people are fickle and there’s always someone else to impress.

I’ve tried Christian performance and perfectionism, but I fail. Nothing satisfies my soul, for God made me with a Christ-shaped emptiness in my heart. Only Jesus can fill me. His nature alone gives me significance and satisfaction, value and joy.

We must know the source of our personal worth before it can be ours.

Choose the Spirit over the self (23-29)

Then we must choose this worth, this identity. We can have God’s power living through us, but we must choose for it to be so. It is as though there are two switches in our soul, side by side. One is labeled “Spirit,” and the other, “self.” And we alone can decide which power we will use. How do we choose the power of the Spirit?

First, “continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel” (v. 23). We must daily choose to believe that the “old self” has been crucified. We must daily choose to believe that Christ is now living in and through our lives. We must daily refuse to be “moved from the hope” that it is true.

Second, we submit ourselves every day to God’s purpose for our lives.

Submission is not a popular word these days. “Pull your own strings,” “Look out for number one,” the bestsellers advise us. We’re afraid of submitting to God—afraid of what he’ll do with our lives, afraid we’ll have to quit doing what we like and start doing what we don’t.

But Paul’s experience was just the opposite. Even though God’s purpose for his life led him into great suffering, he can say: “I rejoice in what was suffered for you” (v. 24). He found great joy in submission to God’s perfect plan for his life. So will we.

Third, we give our best to this purpose. Oswald Chambers said it well: “My utmost for his highest.”

Paul said it this way: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ” (v. 28). God called him to this work, and he used his every gift and ability to its utmost to fulfill this purpose. But only to fulfill this purpose.


The Price Of True Success

The Price of True Success

Galatians 2:11-21

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend taped a cartoon to my study door this week. It pictures a very frazzled-looking man, sitting next to an excited woman, with a huge stack of money on the table in front of them. The sign at the table says, “Criticize the Pastor: $5.” The woman says to the man, “We paid off the sanctuary. Wanna shoot for a new education wing?”

The fact that we’re in the midst of a stewardship emphasis and capital campaign makes the timing of my friend’s gift less than gracious, wouldn’t you say?

The Gallup organization recently released a poll showing that one-third of all Americans suffer from low self-image. There are no statistics for pastors, but our ratio must be even higher, with friends like mine. Gallup considers low self-image the chief psychological malady of our day.

We all struggle with this issue. Every one of us here this morning, and every person we drove past to get here, has something in their life of which they’re ashamed. A failure, a secret, a hidden pain. We try to compensate for our failure, to validate ourselves, to make ourselves acceptable. We are driven to perform, to possess, to be successful, so we can be people of worth. But we never quite succeed. It’s never enough.

Praise God, there’s another way. A way of living which fills us with joy, satisfaction, peace, and purpose. A way of living which is motivated by gratitude, not guilt; by grace, not works. Let’s discover it today.

The road of works

The Galatians were troubled by the same frustrations which plague us. Paul founded these churches on his first missionary journey, around A.D. 47. But he’s not far down the road before the Judaizers show up—Jewish Christians who are convinced that these Gentiles must become Jews before they can become Christians. They are urging these new believers in Galatia to live by the Jewish law to be right with God. “Saved by grace, but living by works” would be their motto.

Paul has seen this before. Before coming to Galatia on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch, the headquarters of the Gentile Christian church. One day Peter came up for a visit; he ate and stayed with the Gentiles, despite Jewish laws prohibiting such behavior. But when other Jewish Christians came to Antioch, Peter reverted back to his Jewish legalism. He wanted to impress them, to measure up, to be accepted. Even Barnabas, Paul’s mentor in the faith, did the same. Paul had to confront Peter, to insist on grace. If Peter was saved by grace, he must live by grace.

Apparently spiritual schizophrenia can afflict even leaders of the church, myself included. Saved by grace, living by works.

Now these Galatians are doing the same thing. Paul learns of this and writes back immediately. He is very clear: the road of works is a dead end. Listen to verse 16: “By observing the law no one will be justified.” None of us can be perfect morally. None of us can own enough or earn enough or succeed enough to satisfy our craving for value and acceptance. It cannot be done.

And living by works makes no sense theologically, either. Paul closes his argument with verse 21: “…if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” If we could live by works, we wouldn’t need Jesus. We wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit, or prayer, or the Bible, or worship, or the people of God.

But we try. We want so badly to be people of worth that we work so hard to earn what we already have. Let’s be honest—why do we care about success in life? About our jobs? Our appearance? The car we drive? The house we own? The school our children attend? Aren’t we all tempted in the same way? Saved by grace, living by works. Trying to make up for our sense of inadequacy, to be people of value, to be accepted and loved. Climbing up the road of works. But it’s a dead end.

The road of grace

The real tragedy of this struggle is that it’s so unnecessary. We don’t have to do this. There’s another road of life. Here’s the fact: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20).

Here’s how I’ve heard this verse interpreted over the years: we are bad people. We need to get rid of ourselves, to crucify ourselves. We must be broken, humbled people. We must get ourselves out of the way.

So every day we need to crucify ourselves with Christ. It’s hard work, but essential. This daily self-crucifixion is basic to the Christian life. We must all try hard to accomplish it.

But we can’t. Imagine trying to crucify yourself. You get the nails in your heels. You hold the nail in your left hand, while you hammer it with your right. Now what? You’re stuck. You can’t do it. Why? Because it’s already been done. Paul is clear: “I have been crucified with Christ.”

Paul uses the Greek tense for a completed event, a “done deal.” He has already been crucified with Jesus. Christ already lives in him. He already lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him. It’s already happened.

The day he made Jesus his Savior and Lord, Jesus made him a new person. When we trust in Christ we become a new creation—the old passes away, the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17). Not, I will be a new creation, or I’m trying to be, but I am. Right now.

The decision is not in verse 20, it’s in verse 21: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” I choose to be saved by grace and to live by grace. I choose to walk on the road of grace. This is a decision I must make every day.


The Vision Of True Success

The Vision of True Success

Acts 16:6-10

Dr. Jim Denison

Someone has observed, “Change is good unless it happens.” Well, it has happened. Sociologists say that 90% of all the change in human history has occurred in the last hundred years.

Much has been good. Life expectancy has increased from 46 to 74 years for men, and 48 to 79 for women. Deaths from tuberculosis and pneumonia, once common, are now rare. And in the future, our clothes will electronically monitor our health; appliances will notify repairmen of problems before they occur; we will touch the television screen to order the clothes the actor is wearing.

The future fascinates us. But it frightens us as well.

Will we have to fight terrorism for the next generation? Will conflict in the Middle East ever end? Will your job be phased out? Will your health be good? Will your children turn out well? Your grandchildren?

Our graduates wonder what their future holds. Will you attend the right school? Choose the right major? Develop the right relationships? Will your dreams be fulfilled? What should your dreams be?

My greatest personal fear is that I will not fulfill God’s purpose for my life. You share that fear. The most common question I’m ever asked is this: how can I know the will of God? This was the subject of my first sermon, 26 years ago. I could preach on this nearly every week and never exhaust either the issue or God’s answers.

Where in your life do you most need to know God’s will this morning? Let’s find God’s answer to that question, together.

Does God have a will for your life? (6-8)

First let’s ask, does God have a specific will for your life? Does he really care what we do with our days, our decisions, our problems?

We know that God has a general will for our lives. He wants us to make Christ our Savior, to receive eternal life. He wants us to obey his word, to live by his truth. Not to earn his love, for we have it already, but because his word is the best way to live. Most of us know this already.

But does God’s will extend to the specific issues and decisions we face every day? Does he have a plan for this sermon? For your response to it? For the way you’ll spend the rest of this day? For your day tomorrow? Let’s see.

In verse 6 we find Paul traveling through Asia Minor, returning to the same region where he had established the churches of Galatia during his first missionary journey. But this time the Holy Spirit will not let him evangelize further in the area, or plant new churches; he is “kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia.”

So in verse 7 Paul and his ministry team try to turn to the north and the east, to enter Bithynia on the northern coast of Turkey against the Black Sea, but “the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” They have traveled more than 300 miles, most of it on foot, without having opportunity to do what God called them to do. Imagine their confusion.

So in verse 8 they go “down to Troas,” to the sea coast, to this port city ten miles from ancient Troy, where the Trojan War was fought. And here God speaks to them. Here God calls them west to Macedonia and Europe. Here God reveals his will, a plan which would change forever the course of human history, as we’ll see. He had a will for them back in Asia, in Mysia, Bithynia, and now in Troas.

God had a specific will for their lives. He has one for ours.

Jesus summarized his life this way: “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38).

God has a will for us, and it is “good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2). He knows the plans he has for us—plans to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

He wants us to know his will for our lives: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you” (Psalm 32:8); “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it'” (Isaiah 30:21); “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48:17).

And God’s will is the best, most satisfying, most joyful way we can live: “Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:9-12).

When we live in God’s will, we live as we were meant to live. The most important thing a believer can do is to discover and live in God’s daily will. The only things you and I do which will stand for eternity are those things we do in the will of God. The only things we do which give our lives joy and meaning are those things we do in the will of God.

So, how do we know God’s will?

How do we know God’s will? (9-10)


When God Waits Until The Last Minute

When God Waits Until the Last Minute

Esther 5

Dr. Jim Denison

Thesis: God’s timing is always perfect

Persuade: to stay obedient to God’s word, even when you don’t see the results

“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” has a scene which illustrates the theme of this study. The swashbuckling archaeologist in his quest for the lost Ark of the Covenant is standing on a cliff overlooking a large chasm before him. There is a bridge he knows is there, but cannot see, which could take him across the chasm, or lead to his death if he misses. He faces the decision of taking a leap of faith or retreating. He decides to leap out, trusting a bridge he can’t see will hold him and lead to the Holy Grail.

When the chasm comes for you and me, what will happen to us? Will there be a bridge to catch us? An objective, absolutely real bridge? Our culture says, no, that there’s no such thing as absolute truth, or an absolute bridge. Only your bridge and mine. No objective reality, no absolutes at all

But God’s word says otherwise.

One of my favorite faith statements is this song lyric: “When you can’t see God’s hand, trust his heart.” So often we can’t see his hand, and must simply trust that he is there. And when we trust his heart, we see his hand.

Maybe you’re at a place where it seems God’s hand is not with you. You’ve prayed without apparent answers. You’re hurting or lonely, without apparent relief. Your health is in decline; or your job is ending; or your marriage is struggling; or your children or grandchildren are in trouble. It seems that the heavens are silent, that God is asleep. What do you do then? How do we encourage people who are hurting in just these ways?

Let’s learn from Esther 5.

Obey the last word you heard from God (1-2)

Remember the situation: Queen Esther’s uncle/guardian Mordecai has refused to give Haman the idolatrous respect he craves, so he has arranged for the massacre of the entire Jewish population of 5th century B.C. Persia.

Esther is a Jew, though neither King Xerxes nor Haman yet know this fact. She, her maids, Mordecai, and all the Jews in the capital city of Susa have been in prayer and fasting three days, seeking God’s direction and protection.

Now God has clearly led Esther to go to the king uninvited. Unless he holds out to her the golden scepter in his hand, she will be instantly killed for such insubordinate disobedience. Her life, and the future of her people in Persia, hangs in the balance.

But she knows that God has led her to do this. She is stepping off the cliff, trusting God somehow to catch her. And he does.

When you’re up against it and it seems that there’s no answer or future, stay obedient to the last word you heard from God. The last time the Father clearly spoke to you or led you. Step out by such faith, and you enable your Father to answer in power.

In the Scriptures, we find other examples of such faith: Noah built the ark before it had ever rained; the Jews stepped into the Jordan before it stopped; Daniel prayed from within the lion’s den.

Why does God require such obedience of us? It’s not to merit his blessing, or to prove our faith. He wants us to receive what he wants to give, but cannot without our trust.

Indiana Jones couldn’t see the bridge until he stepped onto it. What’s the last word you heard from God? Stay faithful to it—there’s a bridge across the chasm just beneath your feet.

Never get ahead of God (3-8)

Now Esther has her audience with the king. If I had been Esther, I would immediately have blurted out the problem and my request for the salvation of my people. But, Esther knows better.

The king, who hardly knows Esther, must choose her over his most trusted advisor. He must choose a woman over a man. Remember the problem he had with Queen Vashti, and his resolve to “rule” the women of the nation.

Here’s the story:

“Then the king asked, ‘What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.’

“‘If it pleases the king,’ replied Esther, ‘let the king together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.’

“‘Bring Haman at once, the king said, ‘so that we may do what Esther asks.’ So the king and Haman went to the banquet Esther had prepared. As they were drinking wine, the king again asked Esther, ‘Now what is your petition? It will be given to you. And what is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.’

“Esther replied, ‘My petition and my request is this: If the king regards me with favor and if it pleases the king to grant my petition and fulfill my request, let the king and Haman come tomorrow to the banquet I will prepare for them. Then I will answer the king’s question.'”

Because she waits, preparing the way, the king cannot wait to hear her request and to grant it to her.

In Christian theology, we would say that Esther refused to get ahead of God. Somehow she knew what to do and the timing in which to do it. So will we. It’s not enough to know what to do in the crisis—we must also know when to do it. The Holy Spirit will guide our feet and their speed.

God’s timing is different from ours. Consider these biblical examples: Joseph in Egypt, so he could be 2nd in the nation; Moses for 40 years in the desert wilderness, so he could shepherd his people; Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, so God could save the jailer; John on Patmos, so he could receive the Revelation.