Maybe you do, too.
I bet you can at least relate.
By nature, I think from my perspective. Often, more often than I'd usually like to admit, I pursue my agenda.
I like to do, what I like to do, when I like to do it, where I like to do it, how I like to do it, and with whomever I like to do it.
I think you do, too.
Sometimes we are good at hiding this self-centeredness. I believe that it is possible to have genuinely altruistic moments. Moments where we put others self-interest above our own well-being. Sometimes powerful emotions like love, hate, and disgust, can cause us to act contrary to our self-centered notions.
As Christians, we are given the gift of God's grace through His Son, Jesus Christ. We receive this gift when we repent of our self-centered ways and trust in Christ alone. In the noise that is "Christianity" - if you take the time to really listen - you will often hear a false gospel that appeals to the self-centered, invidualistic nature of human beings.
This false gospel appeals to the desires and felt-needs of the individual.
This false gospel elevates the person above what is appropriate.
This false gospel fails to mention or emphasize biblical repentance. A gospel without repentance is no gospel at all.
Don't take my word for it. Read what Jesus said in Luke 13:1-5. He boldly tells His hearers that unless they repent they will perish. It is related to unrepentant, fruitless individuals and ministries.
The prophet Isaiah declared that we all, like sheep, have gone astray. Each of us to our own way (see Isaiah 53:6a). This is a prophetic description of our own self-centeredness. We each go astray, each to our own way.
This sin of self-centered, self-willed, rebellion against God-centered living was put upon the Messiah as prophesied by Isaiah in the second half of that same verse: But the LORD caused the iniquity of us all / To fall on Him (Isaiah 53:6b).
To receive this gift of salvation, we must repent and believe the good news. We must stop living self-centered lives. Stop going astray, each to our own way. We must turn toward the living God and begin living God-centered lives.
This is the genuine gospel call. Paul was excited to see those who believed on Jesus for their salvation in Thessalonica do just this: For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)
Wrath from God is due towards our self-centeredness. To give people a gospel call without repentance is to encourage them to continue living self-centered lives that are not God centered. Even if they are God flavored.
This type of false conversion is an understandable response by a person who wants to continue living their own way but also wants to go to heaven when they die. Their lives are marked by professions of faith. Professions which are denied by their deeds and lifestyles.
We are not the first generation of Christ followers to deal with this. In fact, it has happened since the beginning.
They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed. (Titus 1:16)
For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (2 Timothy 3:2-5, underline added)
When I notice the self-centeredness in myself, as a follower of Christ, I don't need to try harder. That's the self-centered, American way of responding. This is sin. Once again going my own way. Albeit in a God flavored way.
Hopefully, everything above is basic to you. After all, these are the fundamentals of the faith. They are simply part of the foundational teaching of Christianity. Hebrews 6:1 makes this plain: Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God... (Hebrews 6:1).
The purpose of this post is to direct our attention to something else. Something less basic. More subtle. The affect of our self-centered nature on our theology.
Even Christians who understand biblical repentance still revert back to self-centered reading of the Scriptures. Self-centered consumption of Christian teaching. Seeking what they believe will best benefit themselves and their personal relationship with God.
The very terminology "personal relationship with God" emphasizes the self-centered and self-oriented emphasis of modern Christianity.
Don't get me wrong. One of the coolest truths of biblical Christianity is that individuals are redeemed to God through faith in Christ. I genuinely have a personal relationship with my Father, through Christ. I hope you do, too. However, to stop here is to be too narrow in our focus.
God is not primarily interested in redeeming individuals.
I have heard it preached that Jesus would have come and died if it was only for you. That is a powerful statement.
It is also false.
If Jesus came only for you, then He would be a failure. The entire mission of God - to redeem a people for Himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation - would be a failure, too.
This is self-centered, man-pleasing preaching at its finest. It appeals to the flesh. It makes the individual the major focus of the gospel. That's what we want to hear, if we are self-centered.
I've also heard it preached that people need to make Jesus Lord of their life.
That's biblical, right?
Actually, it's not. This, too, is influenced by consumerism and individualistic theology.
The truth is: you don't have the authority to make Jesus Lord of your life. God the Father has already done that.
"Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-- this Jesus whom you crucified." (Acts 2:36)
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name (Philippians 2:9)
and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. (Revelation 1:5)
You simply can't make Jesus Lord of your life. God has already made Jesus Lord and Christ. Ruler of the kings of the earth. Granted the Name which is above every name. And you think you get to make Him Lord of your life? Pretty self-centered. God has already made Jesus Lord of your - and everyone else's - life. You can acknowledge that now. Or you will acknowledge it later.
See how subtle it can be? Many hear self-centered preaching and think it is what the Bible teaches. But it doesn't.
When people fall for this, they think they have the authority to let Jesus rule over certain areas of their life, heart, and mind, while restricting Him from other areas. Okay, Jesus - I'll obey you here. I'll let you be Lord in this issue. But not this one. This one is off limits.
The genuine gospel is much bigger than the individual. It is a genuinely God-sized gospel. A genuinely God-sized gospel is wayyyyy bigger than the supposed "hole" in any one individuals heart.
The Bible reveals that God is interested in redeeming a people for Himself. This people is to be reconciled to Himself through Christ, from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Listen to how Paul describes his personal ministry from the risen Christ:
To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him. (Ephesians 3:8-12)
To really understand this, we have to take off our "ME-centered" glasses. Put on "God-centered" glasses. God gave a ministry to Paul. It was to proclaim the mystery which was previously hidden. Preaching this mystery is intended to bring to light the unfathomable riches of Christ and to reveal what God is really up to in this world that He has made.
This amazing wisdom of God is supposed to be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. All of this is in accordance with God's eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ. It is through Christ that we - all who have repented of their sin and put their faith in Him alone for salvation from the wrath that is to come - have boldness and confident access to our relationship with God.
Really let that sink in.
God has an eternal purpose. It is bound up in His eternal character. To think of this another way, this is related to answering the most important questions about meaning in all of existence: Why did God create the world at all? The answer is because it was His eternal purpose (before the world was made) to reconcile a people to Himself in Christ. Through those reconciled people to make known His amazing wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
When I resort back to self-centered living, my self-centered reading of the Bible will naturally lead to me focusing on my individual relationship with God. However, if I allow a God-centered reading to dominate, then I can see that God intends for me to emphasize my relationship with Him within the ministry of the church. A ministry to proclaim His excellencies and make His kingdom and gospel known.
God is reconciling a people to Himself through Christ. This completed work of the Messiah has disarmed the powers of the kingdom of darkness (Col 2:13-15) and made it possible for the captives of sin, death, and the devil to be set free in Christ. As a result, these who have been raised to spiritual life from spiritual death are now called to live God-centered lives. This means we are to live in accordance with God's eternal purpose.
This doesn't mean that I should live my life like everyone else in the world. Pursuing the various lusts and impulses of their flesh. Things like retirement, memories, or anything else from this fading world. It's not believing that I get a "go directly to heaven when I die" card even though the pursuit of the various lusts and impulses will result in judgment for those outside of Christ.
Your relationship with God is not about you.
Jesus did not die so that you could live however you want. So you could escape the condemnation that is due to you for your own sake. Following Jesus is so much more than "going to church." It's not moralism.
Following Jesus means being the church. Being the church means living in accordance with God's eternal purpose in Christ.
Our relationship with God is about declaring to the world, including the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, the manifold wisdom of a God who redeems sinners through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus in accordance with the Scriptures. We are reconciled to God through Christ. And we exist to make this awesome truth known.
It is no longer supposed to remain hidden. It is definitely not simply personal. It is profoundly personal and public at the same time.
It is meant to be declared boldly and publicly.
Are you a victim of self-centered theology? If so, repent. Let Christ live through you in accordance with His plan which He determined before the world was even made.
We can trust Him. This is truly life.
This also explains why Paul is able to boldly assert that God is able to do abundantly more than all we ask or think, through His power which is at work through the church. He does this just a few verses after declaring this eternal purpose of God in Ephesians 3:20-21.
It is also why it is so important to not stray from the leadership that Christ gave to ensure that His church grows up together in unity, maturity, love, and the knowledge of Him. Growing up together as we all speak the truth in love (see Ephesians 4:11-16).
Our local churches are dominated by pastors and teachers. Leaders who compete for the "sheep" who sit in different local churches all around the same city. In order to keep many of these "sheep" interested and attending, self-centered theology is emphasized. So people feel fed and satisfied. So they do not go looking for greener pastures.
By forsaking Jesus' design and leaving Evangelists out of the local church leadership we have de-emphasized the main truth. The thing that makes pretty much all of us uncomfortable. The fact that the church exists, each individual member, to proclaim the glory and grace of God which we have freely through Christ.
Until we repent of our man-made traditions - which elevate the "senior pastor" to the head of the church in direct rival of Christ Himself - and seek to honor Jesus' design of a plurality of elders in mutual submission to each other (with a genuine pastor/teacher and genuine evangelist to oversee the corresponding internal and external missions of the church), we will continue to walk in our own ways. Our own designs. We are nullifying the commandments of God with our man-made traditions.
Lord, help us by your grace we pray. Not because we deserve it, but for your Names' sake. For your Son and for your glory.
"This amazing wisdom of God is supposed to be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." What does it look like to make this known to "the rulers and authorities in heavenly places"?
Thanks for your great follow up question!
Paul refers to the "rulers and authorities" a few times throughout the book of Ephesians. I'll submit my thoughts to you for your prayerful consideration, and you can investigate the matter more deeply and let me know if you think I'm off in the weeds!
In Ephesians 1:18-23, Paul prays that the eyes of Christians would be opened to the hope of His calling, the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints (not ours, but His inheritance ... wow!), and the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These three things are in accordance with the strength of His might which were made evident at the raising and exaltation of Christ at the right hand of the Father, far above all rule and authority.
Christ's victory is powerful and complete. He is working in His people to continue magnifying this victory. That's why His power works toward believers, since we are His body.
Then, in Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul makes a stark contrast between our former life enslaved to the "prince of the power of the air" (which uses a cognate for "ruler" and the same word "authority" translated as "power" in the NASB) with our new life in Christ. The power of Christ has released us from slavery to these rulers and authorities.
As Paul puts it elsewhere: "For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-- all things have been created through Him and for Him." (Col 1:13-16 NASB)
It is after these two statements that Paul expressed God's eternal purpose in the Church (and Paul's personal ministry of preaching this truth), of God's manifold wisdom being made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places (Eph 3:8-10).
As people respond to the gospel with repentance and faith, they are transferred from darkness to light by the power and grace of God.
So, how do Christians make this reality known (which is your first question), and what does this look like (your second question)?
Paul addresses that directly in Ephesians 6:10-20. When we take up the full armor of God, clothing ourselves with the strength of His might, we are able to stand against the schemes of the devil instead of being enslaved to their schemes (as we were previously).
This living of the Christian life includes proclaiming the gospel in word and living the gospel life in deed. As we do this, God makes known continuously to the rulers and authorities that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, through the people who are called by His name our of darkness into marvelous light.
I hope this helps! Let me know your thoughts...