By Dr. David Warren
Assigned topics are tough for me to develop in preaching. I would rather be given the freedom to select my own subject and to develop it without any preconditions attached to it. My aversion may be simply a clue to my own stubbornness, but I have a feeling that many folks struggle with assigned topics for them to develop into a sermon.
Well, all pastors have an “assigned topic” that they must develop and present to others. Everyone expects pastors to be truly spiritual; it simply goes with the territory. Plumbers use wrenches, carpenters have hammers and saws, doctors employ instruments, and preachers have their own set of tools—including being good at spirituality and being able to help others toward spirituality as well. It’s an assigned (and assumed) topic!
Let’s think of true spirituality with the imagery of a baseball diamond in mind. Home plate, first, second and third bases come into view. The object of the game is to cross home plate and thus score more points than the opposing team. Getting to home plate is the goal. Before a player can legitimately do that, however, he must run around the three bases, making sure he actually touches each one. This is essentially how true spirituality works as well.
The goal of the Christian life (home plate) is Christlikeness. We “run the bases” with the goal of becoming progressively more like Christ. Paul assembled all of the necessary ingredients for true spirituality in two sentences when he said, “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17, 18). We are not pursuing Bible knowledge as an end in itself, nor are we developing habits of holiness to satisfy some religious code. Our goal is much more personal and intimate: to develop a relationship with Christ that results in us thinking, speaking, and acting as He did and would. To be like Jesus is the goal to which we aspire (see also Philippians 3:5–12).
To get to home plate, you have to run the bases. First base is communication. When we are saved, we enter into a personal relationship with Christ. He establishes an eternally secure relationship with us, yet we must cultivate it from our end. As Paul puts it, we are to be “beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord.” Where better to do that but in Scripture? When we read and study Scripture we see the Lord’s glory—His person, values, goals, actions, plans, desires. And by the power of the Spirit we gradually become more conformed to what we see.
Yet communication is always a two-way street and must be steady if any relationship is to grow. We must hear His Word (Scripture) and He must hear our words (prayer). Jesus put it this way: “If you abide in me and my words abide in you, whatever you will you may ask and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). On His final earthly night, Jesus was cluing in His disciples as to how they could remain in contact with Him: His words abiding in them and their words ascending to Him. He was about to go out of sight but would not be out of reach.
What we call a “quiet time” or “personal devotions” is really the first step, or “base,” toward Christlikeness. We are communicating with our unseen Savior and Friend. He speaks to us via His Word and we speak to Him via prayer. We are cultivating our personal relationship with Him through a flow of communication.
Second base is the Holy Spirit. When we are saved the Holy Spirit moves in and becomes a permanent resident within. Part of His task is to move us progressively forward toward Christlikeness. Paul says that we “are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Lord the Spirit.” We are being changed from deep within, not simply at an external level. Just as a caterpillar is metamorphosed (transformed) into a beautiful butterfly through a gradual process of deep internal change, so the believer is gradually being changed into the image of Christ through the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit!
True spirituality, then, is not self-reformation, not people pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It is, rather, saved people cooperating with and depending upon the Holy Spirit, Who resides within them. Yes, we are responsible to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) and to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). Negatively, we are not to “grieve the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:30), nor are we to “quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Only as we are in lock-step with the Spirit does the process of Christlikeness move forward.
Third base is liberty, or freedom. Taking our cue from Paul again, we understand that “where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Liberty from the law, liberty from sin, liberty to be, to do, to relate meaningfully, to serve, to grow. Liberty is the atmosphere in which Christlikeness grows. The atmosphere in which we do something is just as important as the something we do. Greenhouses create and maintain atmospheres conducive to plant growth. We have been placed in the atmosphere of liberty, which facilitates our growth into Christlikeness.
New Testament believers sometimes placed themselves into other atmospheres, which stunted their growth. Legalism, for one, stunted their growth because of its emphasis on religious rules (Galatians 5:1), and license, for another, stunted their growth because of its emphasis on one’s personal rights (Galatians 5:13). Only the New Testament atmosphere of liberty, with its emphasis on relationships, is conducive to growth into Christlikeness, for He Himself is the ultimate relational person.
Four relationships become paramount in the atmosphere of liberty. According to Romans 14:1–23 and 1 Corinthians 10:23–33, we believers are to be convinced of something for ourselves, to be confident about it before the Lord, considerate of other believers in our practice, and concerned for its effect on the lost. Those four relationships govern our lives, and we find liberty within that framework. Not rules, not rights, but relationships give guidance and spur growth.
In baseball we must be sure to touch all three bases before crossing home plate. Similarly, in the spiritual life we cannot afford to leave out any one of these three ingredients. In this divine-human cooperative called the spiritual life God will certainly do His part if we will do ours! Happy base running!