For many people, the new year brings plans of becoming a better person than we were the year before. This is not a wrong thing to desire. In fact, the idea of progressive sanctification, as we are conformed more to the image of Christ, is something that Christians should want. Please understand that this doesn’t mean that we are trying to earn our salvation. It simply means that we have been given a new heart that now longs for the things of Jesus. But, when it comes to a desire to grow spiritually, we can easily get off course. This often starts by getting off by the slightest degree and then, by the end of our journey, we don’t even know where we are anymore. This reminds me of the Mount Erebus disaster. There was a tourist flight to Antarctica that took off from New Zealand on November 28, 1979. This was a standard tour, offered many times before. However, on this day the coordinates had accidentally been changed be a mere 2 degrees. That might not seem like a big change but, by the time the plane was supposed to descend below the cloud cover, they were off course by 28 miles. As the airplane emerged from the clouds, the pilots realized that they were heading straight for the side of Mount Erebus. Sadly, they did not have enough time to correct their course and everyone onboard was killed that day. This is shockingly similar to how unbelief works in our lives. As we travel through life, learning and growing, there are things that consistently tell us that they will make us happier or healthier. Many of these are good things, and yet they can easily lead us off course by a degree or two. Ultimately, we end up on a destructive path.
Take, for instance, one of the oldest heresies to orthodox Christianity; Gnosticism. Gnosticism has taken many different forms over the years, but the main principle has remained constant. It involves the idea of a secret knowledge that unlocks different things. Some people believe that it unlocks a deeper salvation. Others believe it unlocks a greater gifting in this life. This ancient heresy is alive and well in our current culture, although it goes by a different name. The current manifestation is marketed as “Christian Living” or “Christian Self-help.” On the surface, these things seem like good ideas (they even use Christian language), but they promote things that are antithetical to the gospel. For example, the idea that you must self-actualize your reality is a common theme today. This suggests that you use positive thinking and declare yourself to be, for example, healthy or wealthy, and then you will be. Another way of saying this is that the only thing holding you back is your own negative thinking. But, here’s the problem with that. These efforts are “man-focused” and not “Christ-focused.” This type of belief is man-centered and, in the end, is nothing more that repackaged Gnosticism. Peddlers of this heresy claim that, if you have a special knowledge, you can live your best life.
We can also pick up world-views that feel Christian, but are not. Let me give you an example of this. If I told you that I try to live my life based on four principles: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Moderation, what would your first reaction be? Many people would agree that those are great principles for a person to live by, especially for Christians. But, being driven by those principles actually finds it root in the Ancient Greek Philosophy of Stoicism. It’s not that those are bad characteristics, it’s that fact that, when the characteristics become the goal, I’m now living from a man-centered perspective.
Although they only seem slightly off, both of these philosophies will lead us down a path of self-destruction. Because the lure of these heresies is to make our lives better, perhaps we should think about what will actually allow us to live our best life. The answer to that question is directly tied to the overall purpose of life. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” This directly refutes the notion that our chief end is our own happiness and glory. Psalm 73 gives us more evidence:
“Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73:23-26)
So, how do we keep from falling prey to destructive philosophies? The answer is to focus on Jesus more than ourselves. If all of our affection is turned towards Jesus, and the good news of the gospel, then we will remember how helpless we really are. If these philosophies tell us that we can help ourselves, the gospel reminds us that we are helpless to save ourselves. In the gospel, we find the truth that we were dead in our sin and could do nothing to save ourselves, and that Jesus Christ has done everything necessary for us to receive salvation. When we live out that reality, we are fulfilling our chief end — to glorify and enjoy God. This liberates us from the never-ending cycles of effort, failure, and shame that happen when we seek our own glory and comfort. It allows us to rest in the freedom that Jesus gives us, knowing that He has accomplished what we never could for ourselves.