Ambition. I mean the godly kind. It’s an undiscussed casualty of the pandemic and the ensuing debates over politics and power. People seem less motivated; more ambivalent. As for the church, well, there’s just a way we are wired that makes ambition seem slimy.
This whole thing has me concerned. It has consequences. If we lose ambition, churches remain unplanted, ministries stagnate, and entrepreneurs don’t fight to make dreams happen. If the church sees ambition as a threat to humility, we undermine aspirations. The church declines.
To toss some fuel on the embers, I started this blog called Tenacious Tuesdays. May it serve you by inciting your imagination for godly ambition that glorifies God!
In 1929, professor of theology J. Gresham Machen parted ways with Princeton Theological Seminary as it embraced the theological liberalism of the day. He, along with some friends, founded my alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
Eight years later as Dr. Machen lay dying, he dictated a telegram to his longtime friend John Murray, professor of systematic theology at Westminster. Short and simple, Machen said, “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.”
When I read that story, this thought popped into my mind. Why would a dying theologian, with an expansive intellect that could access innumerable doctrinal truths in that moment, look specifically to the obedience of Christ as a source of hope?
The answer, I found, was quite spectacular. Because Christ’s obedience on earth makes all the difference in life and death.
One Man’s Obedience
In Romans 3, Paul makes a sweeping statement–we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). The entire book of Romans is a theological tour de force celebrating the what and why of God’s answer to that problem. Drawing from the Old Testament, Paul helps us see the broader storyline of God’s intention to slay his Son to save sinners.
In the early chapters of Romans, Paul lays out the reality of why we have fallen short of God’s glory. He also explores why we’re unable to solve the problem ourselves. Chapter 5 provides a fascinating angle on God’s solution through a contrast between Adam, our selfishly ambitious forefather, and Jesus, the humble Messiah.
“For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (v. 19).
By one man’s obedience . . . many will be made righteous. What does Paul mean? Paul is making a comparison, setting up Christ’s perfect obedience against Adam’s disobedience. But why is this comparison of obedience report cards so important to Paul?
When we think about Christ’s obedience, we often think first of his death. Certainly, Christ’s obedience culminates at the cross. John Piper once called the crucifixion, “the crowning act of his obedience.” His willingness to pray, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42), and then to carry that conviction through the agony at Golgotha is—well, it’s utterly incomprehensible.
But Christ’s obedience also included a life in which he obeyed all of God’s law, in all things, at all times. Jesus didn’t just string together a run of a few perfect days. Nope. For Jesus, every single day of his entire life was perfect. No slander or stealing. No ranting or road rage. No passive-aggressive withdrawal. It was a life without sin. Our Savior lived in perfect alignment with the will and law of God.
Just think about that for a second. From his birth in a stable through the rugged world of carpentry, it was thirty-three years of perfect obedience. Not just good intentions. Hold actions—every day.
Guys much smarter than me have labeled this “the active obedience of Christ.” It’s funny, but we frequently talk about his substitutionary death. But the active obedience of Christ expands our mind to another astounding feature of the gospel: his substitutionary life. Jerry Bridges once said:
For the most part, Jesus’ life of perfect obedience has been seen only as a necessary precondition to His death. The truth is, however, Jesus not only died for us, He also lived for us. That is, all that Christ did in both His life and death, He did in our place as our substitute. (Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life, 34)
What Christ’s Obedience Means for Today
Not only is Christ’s death good news, his perfect life is good news. When we repent and follow Jesus, two things happen. First, he washes away the guilt of our sin. All the debt that we owed because we are sinners, is paid in full by his substitutionary sacrifice for us.
But then, something else happens… something genuinely amazing. The perfect life he lived, obeying the law of God completely at every moment, gets imputed to us. The righteousness of his own life stored up over a lifetime is downloaded into our account. Our guilt is expiated; Christ’s righteousness covers us.
What does that mean for us today? When God looks at us, our heavenly Father no longer sees us in our lies, or lusts, or those things that have shamed us from the past. He doesn’t see us as sinners who need to have our acceptance card stamped or our churches grow in impressive ways. The record of Christ’s perfect obedience is dripping off of our souls because of what Christ accomplished. And when God looks upon us, that’s why he sees. That’s all he sees.
Do you know what this means as you face the challenges of today? It means you don’t have to obey to win God’s approval. The gospel announces you already have it. So now we get to go out into the world and obey him. Not to win his approval but from the security of possessing it.
Now that you know God’s approval of you has been resolved by his perfect life and substitutionary death, you can get up. Go out. And attempt great things for God’s glory. And when we go to draw our last breath, we too can find faith in what Machen saw: the active obedience of Christ. There’s no hope without it.
Tenacious Tuesday Questions
In what ways do you try to earn God’s favor by doing things for him? In what ways do you think about yourself that paralyze your ambition? Sealed by the security of his approval, what ambition is God calling you to express for his glory?
Lord God, thank you for the perfect life of Christ. Though formerly I was aligned with sinful Adam, yet now I know that Christ, the perfect Adam, is my head and that I am a new creation in him, no longer bearing the weight of guilt, but set free by his perfect life and death to now live for your glory.