Dom Cobb explains that “an idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.” So opens Christopher Nolan’s 2010 tour de force Inception. Those who know me well know that Inception is and remains my favorite film of all time. The intensity, the pacing, the score, the cinematography — I could wax eloquent for quite a while on all the elements of this cinematic masterpiece, but I won’t do that here. The fact of the matter is, I, too, have been incepted. An idea, a truth far more resilient than I’ve ever known or ever expected has come to consume me. My thoughts about life and reality, truth and grace, the present and the future have all been upended by this inescapable notion. And though I might try and avoid it, its pursuit of me is ineludible. Yes, I’ve been incepted by the gospel of ordinary grace.
Believe me, I never thought I would write something like that. After being awakened by God’s gospel of inexhaustible grace, a fire rose within me to share the same radical news that had radically changed me. I wanted people to know that I had found grace, that I had shook off the chains of works-religion, and was now living by sola gratia. I had just finished Tullian Tchividjian’s eye-opening book One Way Love, and I quickly gobbled up everything else written by him and the authors and works he referenced. I didn’t know it then, but I was jumping into the deep end of Reformed thought. All I knew was that I was adamant about preaching grace and nothing but grace (and still am by the way). This newfound confidence enabled me to bark at anyone who thought otherwise. I was going to be darn sure that no perceived Pharisee would stop me.
I think, though, that this youthful passion for the gospel was driven more by ego than true evangelism. The scales of Fundamentalism had fallen off but the lust for platforms had taken its place. I had been introduced to the gospel of inexhaustible grace, the good news of no-strings-attached love, and I immediately set about making sure everyone knew it. But laced in this proclamation of gospel-truth was layer upon layer of self-promotion. This is, perhaps, one of the deadliest and most dangerous fallacies in existence today. It’s also one of the most undetectable. It looks and sounds good when someone champions the name of Christ on social media. It appears very admirable to take on such a mission. But, as A. W. Tozer so eloquently and perceptively wrote, “Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.”1 It’s hard to diagnose, but I fear there are scores “Christian bloggers” who are out for nothing except the exaltation of their own name.
I think this stems from the fact that preaching the gospel seems to be the sweetest gig someone could land. Right? You speak on the weekends and in the middle of the week, but otherwise you get paid to read and study and write. And if you’re really good, really inspiring, you get invited to conferences and other churches to keep spreading this name, this message. (Whose name and message I often wonder, though.) I think the advent of evangelical conferences has lent itself to this understanding, although it’s a woefully misunderstood conclusion. Lost in this misguided idea about ministry is the fact that a minister’s job description isn’t just “preacher” and “speaker,” it’s first and foremost shepherd. And as the herder of wayward, reckless sheep (you and me), his job is never done. A pastor doesn’t clock-out. In fact, my dad (a pastor of over 20 years), and I’m sure countless other vocational ministers, will tell you that preaching is the easy part. For most, studying and writing and delivering sermons isn’t the “job,” it’s the counseling and correcting and fire extinguishing and shepherding. The primary work of a pastor is largely unseen. And so it should be.
Whenever you’re more drawn to church because of the messenger instead of the message, it’s not the Lord you’re worshiping, it’s a man. You’ve reduced the divine plan of redemption to a man’s eloquence, you’ve nullified the gospel and emptied the cross of its power. Such is the case Paul was making when he addressed a similar matter when writing to the Corinthians. (1 Cor 1:10–17; 3:1–9) And though the apostle’s primary intent was quelling divisions in the congregation, I can’t help but think another admonition of his is for the messenger to disappear within the message. In fact, he emphasizes this point by saying, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” (1 Cor 1:13) The point remains that preachers — and by association, you and I — aren’t called to elevate themselves, they’re called to exalt the crucified and risen Christ. Our mission is to be messengers, bringing the “good news from a distant land” to all thirsty, beggarly souls. (Prv 25:25) We’re to be his voices, his emissaries. We’re to be lost in Jesus’s shadow. And nothing upsets us more than not being noticed.
We’re a driven people. We want people to catch a glimpse of us, we want to be noticed. We take extra care in ensuring what we say is seen and shared. We’re motivated by lofty aspirations and dreams, and the world tells us to never relent chasing them down until they’re realized. We’re ambitious for ambition itself, each one of us feeding the inbred entrepreneurial spirit that’s always looking for the “next big thing.” We long to form movements, lead revivals, and start revolutions. But the fact of the matter is that no one ever led a revival by going out and looking for it, by making it happen. You can’t coerce revivals. You can’t force things to catch on. It’s only by remaining resolutely faithful in the mediocre, the mundane, and the often monotonous events of life that revivals ever come about, that revolutions are started, and movements pick up steam. And that’s the tough part of the Christian faith: remaining faithful in the repetitive and the unremarkable. For this, you need the gospel — the gospel of ordinary grace.
You see, the gospel inverts our instinctual notions about life and dreams by telling us to shake off our aspirations of religiosity, our ambition for ambition, and “to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.” (1 Thes 4:11 ESV) The message of the gospel calls us to have ambition and find virtue in the simple life. As Paul instructs Timothy to “aspire” or “study to live quietly,” he’s telling him to make it a point of honor to lead and live quietly. Be content and intent upon the duties of your specific calling. And that could look different for each of us. Some he will bless with ministry success, others he will test with hurdle after hurdle. Some he calls to be businessmen and plumbers and teachers and coaches and baristas and postmen. Regardless of your calling, the message is the same: live faithfully and quietly, mind your own affairs, and work hard.
The truest gospel reality is being content with where you are and who you are, knowing that God does the changing, the transforming, and the reforming. That’s his speciality. You don’t have to change the world. You just have to lead your family and love your neighbors well. And by the power of the gospel and the presence of the Spirit, you’re given the ability to do that. Our extraordinary God has seen fit to reveal his matchless grace in ordinary ways. And as we recognize the beauty of our own insignificance, the glory of the gospel and the majesty of the Kingdom take centerstage.
I never believed that my aspirations for ministry wouldn’t be realized. And maybe they will one day, but God’s having me wait, teaching me to be faithful, and schooling me in his glad tidings of peace and patience. God’s gospel is the message of gracious, quiet obscurity. You don’t have to make a name for yourself, you don’t have to chase after merit. Jesus has given you a new name, and he is your merit. As Solomon writes, “It is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord.” (Lam 3:26) “I am at rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him.” (Ps 62:1) I don’t need recognition or acclaim. I’ve been incepted by the gospel of ordinary grace. And for me, that’s enough.
A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God (Whitakers, NC: Positive Action For Christ, 2007), 38.