“Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was a #1 pop hit in the late 1980s. And why not? Everyone wants to be happy! Those who are not happy do everything within their power to stifle their feelings of discontent. Many go the way of materialism. Some pour themselves into climbing the career ladder. Others numb their senses and emotions with alcohol or drugs. Still others step outside the boundary of marriage and misuse and abuse God’s gift of sexual intimacy. Sadly, it is not only unbelievers who engage in these activities, but also the blood-bought members of the body of Christ. Such behaviors lead a watching world to conclude that Christians are “hypocrites” who are “no different from everybody else.
I believe that the Christian who does not experience true happiness (joy) on a regular basis simply does not understand the Gospel’s declaration of what Jesus has already done for us. So . . . what is this Gospel message that leads to a life marked by joy? It is this:
1. I must understand that I have “missed the mark” (the Bible’s description of sin).
2. I must recognize that I have amassed a staggering debt to God that I can never repay.
3. I must accept that my great debt has been paid in full by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Make no mistake: we are all great sinners in need of a great Savior–and that is what we have in Jesus Christ. Jesus “hit the mark” perfectly by living a sinless life, a life that He willingly laid down by His sacrificial death on the cross. He lived the life we could not live and died the death we could never die; in so doing, He paid our monstrous sin debt to God.
Those who have internalized this glorious truth know the joy the Bible describes in Psalm 32:1–”Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).
Only the Christian can know and experience true joy because only the Christian has been forgiven for his or her sins! The sole, stark reason for all the emptiness and unhappiness in the world today is that so many of us are not right with God. Sin (the original Hebrew and Greek words used in Scripture mean “to miss the mark”) separates the sinner from God and imprisons his heart in a dungeon of despair.
At this point, some of you are thinking: “Tommy, I still miss the mark. I am not only a sinner by nature; I am a sinner by habit. And I haven’t yet broken all of those habits!” True! Christians who have been redeemed from their sin debt still miss the mark every day, both intentionally and unintentionally. Who among us cannot see the misery we have caused others by our sins? Have any of us loved God with all our heart for even a single day? But the Christian who truly understands the Gospel understands that his debt was paid in full on Golgotha’s hill when Jesus was nailed to that dirty tree. When Jesus cried, “It is finished!” He was telling all those who trust in Him that their sins–all their sins, past, present, and even those still to come–were paid for in full.
Every time you “miss the mark,” you experience broken fellowship with God as a consequence of your sin. But our heavenly Father has provided a remedy for that ruptured relationship: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). In that forgiveness, you once again experience the joy of the Lord.
The acronym JOY (Jesus Owns You) is the key to living a life that is marked by joy. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers,” Scripture assures us, “not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). Because you were blood-bought by Jesus on the cross, you are assured that your entire sin debt has been paid in full by the One who owns you.
You need never fear that God is coming after you to make you pay for “missing the mark” no matter how badly you missed it or how often. God will not exact a pound of flesh from you when Jesus allowed His flesh to be pierced on your behalf. This is the gospel. This is joy. This is the happiness the world desperately seeks in everything except Jesus.
For those of you who are struggling with a past littered with bad habits and bad sins, hear me now. Every past sin has been fully paid for by Christ and His atoning work on the cross. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ, when God looks at you, He only sees Jesus and His perfect life of obedience and love. Let this truth empower you to treat the past as a lesson. Learn from your past, don’t live in it! The Apostle Paul explained, “One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Was there any greater sinner in all of sacred Scripture than Paul, when he was still known as Saul?
I think not! If anyone had reason to be mired in misery by a past marked by gross and grievous sin, it was Paul. He held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Paul readily admitted that before he trusted in Christ “I imprisoned and beat those who believed in [Jesus]. And when the blood of Stephen [Christ’s witness] was being shed, I myself was standing by and approving and watching over the garments of those who killed him” (Acts 22:19-20).
So, how could Paul possibly say he had forgotten what lay behind? Why was he not paralyzed by regret? He understood the gospel. He understood that Jesus paid for his sins–all of his sins.
Paul could, by God’s grace, put his past behind him and strain toward his promised future in Christ because he knew who he was. He knew, by faith, that Jesus had made him His own and he confessed this truth powerfully in Acts 27:23 when he spoke of “the God to whom I belong and whom I worship.” That is the truth that empowers us to pick ourselves up every time we fall. Fall seven times . . . get up eight.
Let me close with a remarkable passage from Zechariah, a book of Old Testament prophecy that many believers have not explored thoroughly. Zechariah 3:1-4 describes a vision of heaven as dramatic as any courtroom drama:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.”
This could just as easily be a picture of you or me standing before the Lord. Satan, the accuser, thrusts our sins, past and present, in our face. “How could you possibly be a Christian?” he hisses.
“Look at what you’ve done! Why, you’re filthy with sin!” But the Lord Jesus Christ raises a nail-scarred hand and the serpent immediately falls silent. “I rebuke you, Satan,” the Lamb of God says sternly. “I have plucked Tommy from the fire of condemnation. I paid his debt; He is mine!” Satan slinks away without another word, and Jesus turns to me. “I have removed all your filth, dear one,” He says, His voice now tender and kind. “See, I have clothed you with pure robes of righteousness.”
Isaiah wrote, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Beloved in the Lord, your worst days are not beyond the reach of God’s grace. You belong to God; He has clothed you with the pure robes of Christ’s righteousness. And God will never let you go no matter what you do!
The JOY of the Lord is your strength. It is the strength to confess by your words and your witness that you are not your own, you were bought at a great price by the only One who could pay you.
God chose you, changed you, and is conforming you at this very moment into the likeness of his precious Son, Jesus Christ. The joy you experience in this life will always be in direct proportion to your understanding that you belong to Jesus. NEVER FORGET THAT AMEN!
Rev. Tommy Boland is the men’s minister and sports minister at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. He also teaches adult Sunday school. For more information, including Bible study resource materials, please e-mail [email protected] or visit www.tommyboland.wordpress.com.