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Pastor Roberts' Story of Weakness and Need

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I grew up in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.  My family attended a local church on a periodic basis.  I thought about God the way I thought about school.  Perform well and you'll be accepted.  Give to God a record of righteousness, and He’ll give you His favor.  After any given Sunday worship service, I would commit myself (again) to being righteous.  I would pay close attention to my words and actions and try to behave in a more disciplined manner.

Yet, the reality was that - try as I might - I wasn't very righteous.  I had deep problems with self-centeredness, disrespect of authority, and compulsive lying.  I was in constant conflict with my siblings, parents, and classmates.  This stemmed from the pride and vanity of my heart, and also from my family system.  I come a family system which appears successful professionally and publicly, but is broken privately and interpersonally.  My father has one sister and my mom has three sisters.  Among my parents and four aunts, there have been thirteen marriages and ten divorces.  

All this raw self-centeredness and relational conflict elicited a sense of foreboding: if God accepted me on the basis of my righteousness, then I wouldn't make the grade.

I lived under this shadow for years until someone finally explained the meaning of the Gospel (i.e. the good news about Jesus Christ.) The Gospel is that we're not able to fix ourselves or be righteous in our own strength.  But God, in love for us, sent His Son Jesus Christ to live the life we should have lived, and die the death we deserved.  Righteousness isn't something we give to God; it is something He gives to us.  Eternal life isn't something we achieve; it is something we receive as a free gift through faith in Christ.  This is seen in scriptures such as:

Romans 3:22-25 There is no distinction: everyone has sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

It’s hard for me to overstate how astonishing this message was to me.  The Gospel was completely the opposite to religion as I understood it.

This truth changed everything.  Whereas before I obeyed God out of what I stood to gain or lose, I now had gained everything through Christ and could lose none of it.  I now found in myself a genuine love and gratitude toward God which became my new motivation for obedience.  In a remarkable way, I began to actually change. 

For example, I found that I had a new motive to tell the truth.  It no longer was about fearing God’s displeasure; Jesus had borne the penalty my sin deserved on the cross.  Speaking the truth was now about loving God in response to His love for me.  Similar to this, I had a new motive to love and obey my parents.  It wasn’t about them, it was about honoring the One who gave Himself for me. 

Through all these years it’s been a journey to understand more deeply God's love through Christ, and also to experience God's love through answered prayer.  I've stumbled and struggled in many ways, yet Jesus has blessed me far more than I could ever imagine.  

If you share in the sense of foreboding that I experienced, then please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to talk with you.

with love,

Matthew Roberts

Pastor, Christ Presbyterian Church    

Posted by Matthew Roberts with

a righteousness achieved versus a righteousness received

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Growing up, my family attended a church in our community on a periodic basis.  My memories of the church were of fun games and pleasant friends.  However, the Bible was an enigma and Jesus Christ a faint distant figure.

I thought about God the way I thought about school.  Do your best and you'll be accepted.  Give God your righteousness, and He'll give you His love.  After any given Sunday worship service, I would commit myself (again) to being righteous.  I would pay close attention to my words and actions and try to behave in a more disciplined manner.

Yet, the reality was that - try as a might - I wasn't very righteous.  I would squabble with my siblings over trivial things.  I would break my parents' rules in sneaky ways.  This elicited a sense of foreboding: if God accepted me on the basis of my righteousness, then I wouldn't make the grade.

As a teen, I attended a summer camp which held weekly chapel services.  Most of the messages were about moral self-improvement.  However, one chapel speaker lucidly explained the Gospel.  The Gospel, as he explained, is that we're not able to fix ourselves or be righteous in our own strength.  But God, in love for us, sent His Son Jesus Christ to live the life we should have lived, and die the death that we deserved.  Righteousness isn't something we give to God; it is something He gives to us.  Eternal life isn't something we achieve; it is something we receive as a free gift through faith in Christ.  

This changed everything.  Whereas before I obeyed God out of fear, I now had nothing to fear.  Jesus had borne the wrath my sin deserved on the cross.  I now found in myself a genuine love and gratitude toward God which became my new motivation for obedience.  In a remarkable way, I began to actually change.

One example of how I began to change from the inside out is this.  I had a large case of 1990s alternative music.  Though no one every said this directly, I was internally convicted that the music fostered dark thoughts and self-pity.  I never spoke to an adult about this, but one particular Wednesday morning, I threw all the CDs into the trash receptacle behind our house.  This action did stem from a fear of God's displeasure, but a sincere desire to honor Him in response to His love toward me shown in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, for me the public high school was about one thing: being cool.  I was very controlled by the approval or disapproval of my peers.  In my high school there was a group of Christians that prayed in front of the library every morning.  For over two years, I observed the group from a distance.  However, I was internally convicted that through I privately believed in Jesus, I needed to make it public.  It was in my third year that I finally joined with the group in prayer.  I remember one of my friends walking by and jeering, "Roberts, who are you talking to?"  Yet, I was no longer controlled by his disapproval.  I was free.  

I've come to see that the way I first related to God - giving to God my righteousness - is the default setting for the human heart.  This posture puts us in control; it makes God our debtor.  Yet, it also elicits deep anxiety because we know that we're not the people that we should be, no matter how hard we try.

On the contrary, the Gospel is at first troubling because it makes us dependent - we have to rely on God showing us undeserved mercy.  Yet, it produces deep joy and peace because we know that we're loved and accepted though Jesus Christ.

How do you relate to God?  Is it on the basis of giving to God your righteousness, or is it on the basis of God giving you His righteousness?  Is eternal life something you achieve, or is it something you receive as a free gift?  

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