Why We Need the Two Journeys
April 11, 2018 | Richard Mounce
It is near impossible to overestimate the importance of Scripture for the life of the church. The Bible is God’s gracious word to believers - a gift that ultimately focuses on the supreme worth of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures preserve for us, in Peter’s words, God’s “precious and very great promises.” These promises center on Jesus and assure us of salvation through his blood, and they are sufficient to sustain our faith to the end.
Yet the Scriptures preserve not just promises but also examples of men and women who lived by these promises - and it beckons us to learn from them and imitate their faith (Heb. 11). Paul is one such example, and there is perhaps no one more worthy of our imitation. Paul’s letters are without a doubt - to use the phrase of his opponents in Corinth - “weighty and strong.” His theology packs a punch, and we must receive it as a gracious blow to our sinful hearts. Centuries of Christians, however, have also noticed that it is Paul’s entire ethos - his example of single minded zeal for Christ and the gospel - that makes his life a worthy pattern for our own (1 Cor. 4:16; 1 Cor. 11:1).
There are many comprehensive works on Paul that are worth studying, but a brief summary of two important aspects of his life might help us follow him as he followed Christ. What was Paul all about? Two main things, seen in two different passages:
“For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” - Philippians 3:3-11
“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to youanything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” - Acts 20:18-24
In Philippians 3, Paul recounts the radical transformation that took place in his life after meeting Jesus. Before Christ, his religious pedigree was impeccable - he had gained the right to boast in his flesh. After Christ, everything had to go. He didn’t just think a little less of his religious accomplishments, he repudiated them. Why? After the damascus road experience, Paul came to realize the beauty of Christ and His righteousness and the grotesque nature of his own self-righteousness. God’s promises and law in the Old Testament were fulfilled in Christ - in his perfect life, sacrificial death, and vindicating resurrection - and Paul saw clearly how this reality reduced his own righteousness to “rubbish.” Christ opened his eyes; he was a new man with a new heart. Yet his incredible zeal remained, only now it was directed elsewhere: he wanted to know Christ. Paul’s imagination and affections were wrapped up in seeking out the “unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph 3:8).
In Acts 20, we see another life-encompassing goal for Paul. In this chapter he recounts the pattern of his ministry as an Apostle of Christ. His short speech is loaded with pastoral wisdom, but notice specifically what he lists as the supreme goal of his life and ministry: to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:24). Paul’s entire life was taken up with proclaiming the good news about Jesus. He lived to teach and preach the gospel.
So what was Paul all about? Knowing Christ or preaching Christ? The answer, of course, is both. They are distinct but inseparable. Many have recognized this pattern in Paul (and in the NT in general), and labeled it differently. Some say it is the difference between the great commandment (Love God with all your heart) and the great commission (Go, make disciples). Others say it is the difference between being disciples and making disciples. There are several helpful ways to distinguish them.
Here is another: Paul’s two passions are two different journeys. There is the internal journey of sanctification or growth in Christlikeness (I want to know Him!), and the external journey of gospel advance to the ends of the earth (Testifying to the gospel of the grace of God). One is concerned with growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Peter 3:18); the other is concerned with the church increasing in numbers (Acts 16:5). Paul used this concept of a journey (applying the same greek word in both verses) in Philippians 1 when he spoke of “progress and joy in the faith” (Phil 1:25), and “the advance of the gospel” (Phil. 1:12).
The idea of two journeys is helpful because it recognizes a tension at the heart of the biblical story. Our salvation in Christ is real and secure, yet we are left on the earth with indwelling sin and external opposition to the gospel. Theologians call this the already-not-yet nature of our salvation. Salvation in Christ has been inaugurated but not fully consummated. There is work left to do - not to earn our salvation but to work it out (Phil 2), and to share it with others so that they too may be saved. Christ saves us and calls us to a specific task: good works (Tit. 2:15, Eph. 2:10). And like the Apostle Paul, our good works are both internal (knowing Christ more and putting sin to death) and external (sharing the gospel, baptizing, teaching everything Jesus commanded).
None of this is novel, however there can be confusion about the relationship between the two journeys. Consider three points that may help clarify the proper relationship between the internal and external journeys:
1) God is glorified in both journeys
Paul endured many hardships in ministry for a specific goal: so that “as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” God was glorified as more and more people repented of their sin and trusted in Christ. The fundamental human sin of failing to give thanks to God (Romans 1) was reversed through Paul’s preaching ministry. This was worth the immense time and effort it took from him.
But Paul was just as concerned with believers after their conversion. This can be demonstrated in may places, but consider the book of Galatians. The situation in galatia had Paul - to use a modern phrase - pretty worked up. Why? Galatians 4:19 gives a reason: “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” Paul is in anguish because the judaizers are preaching - and the galatian Christians receiving - a counterfeit gospel that is causing their relationship with Christ to suffer. Their knowledge of Christ and love for him has been hindered, and Paul is not indifferent, or even just upset - he is in anguish. Paul had a passion for gospel advance, yet it was equalled by his desire to see the church grow into Christian maturity.
2) There is an inseparable link between the two journeys
In other words, it is not possible to genuinely advance in one while remaining stagnant in the other. Effective teaching, evangelism, and missions draws strength from a deep love for Christ
and the gospel. Likewise, when we are engaged in the external journey of gospel advance, God shows us more and more how valuable Christ is and how knowing him is worth the suffering that accompanies it. This does not necessarily imply a rigid 1:1 ratio where every gain in one area corresponds to an equal gain in the other, but it does mean that in time each journey will directly affect the other - for good or ill. The New Testament, and especially the life of Paul, weaves these two journeys together seamlessly, and we must not tear them apart. Then why make distinctions? The final point will clarify why distinctions can be helpful.
3) There is a proper order between the two journeys
When we consider the nature of the two journeys, some differences stand out:
The internal journey is primary and eternal. Knowledge of Christ is the miraculous regenerating gift that begins our salvation (2 Cor. 4:6), and knowing him is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3). This is a relationship that will never end, and Scripture gives no indication we will ever stop growing in our knowledge of Christ or affection for him.
The external journey is secondary and temporary (though not less urgent): teaching, evangelism, discipleship, and missions are callings all Christians receive from God on the basis of his mercy (2 Cor. 4:1), but they will end one day either at our death or the return of Christ.
The Bible also teaches that the internal journey is the power for the external journey. Paul reasons: “For the love of Christ controls us” (2 Cor 5:14). We love others because he first loved us, thus experiencing this love is the basis for our outreach. This does not mean we cannot not grow in our love for Christ by sharing the gospel, for there is in practice a dynamic where one fuels the other. Yet we can see the theological principle by asking a question of each: Why do you share the gospel? Answer: ‘Because I love Christ, and I want you to know him.’ But if we ask: Why do you love Christ? We don’t respond by saying, ‘because I love to share the gospel.’ We love him because of who he is and what he has done. Love is the foundation, gospel outreach is the fruit.
Finally, the nature of the two journeys means one is external and more visible; the other internal and less visible. This can lead to certain problems we will address below.
There are problems that perennially arise from not understanding importance of both the internal and external Journeys, as well as the proper order between them. One important feature of the Journeys is simple but tough to swallow: the journeys are hard - there are many obstacles and adversaries along the way. Perhaps the most famous Christian book apart from the Bible - Pilgrim's Progress - shows how difficult and long the journey is to the the Celestial City. There is a reason John Bunyan's allegory has resonated with so many people: it takes endurance and strength to follow Christ.
More specifically, it takes faith. When faith becomes weak our love for Christ grows cold, and we get sidetracked or even derailed on the journeys. We are left going through the motions, often retaining the forms of loving obedience but lacking the power that makes them genuine and effective.
This was a constant problem for Israel. Man, God tells Samuel, “looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7). When Israel went astray in their hearts, they often kept the sacrificial system running strong, and they paid excellent lip service to God. But God was having none of it: “this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” (Isa 29:13). God called on them to repent of their vain worship and turn their hearts to him - this is the primary and essential duty of man.
This recurring issue for Israel is instructive for the two journeys. When faith weakens, when love for Christ grows cold, when our hearts stray after idols, we often retain the external forms of Christianity to assuage our conscience, while emptying them of their power. Sunday gatherings continue, the preacher still gets up there and speaks, and we still fill our schedules with religious activities. But what about our love for Christ? Do we, like Paul, want to know him above all else?
Liberal christianity is the most visible form of this reality, because it is so blatantly hollow. But even conservative, Bible believing churches fall in this area. For some, the regular pattern of going to church remains, but the heart is always elsewhere. Christianity becomes a placeholder in our lives, but only as a means to assure ourselves that we can chase after idols and still be safe if heaven and hell exists. Jeremiah railed against this type of religion:
“Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’... Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?” - Jeremiah 7:4-10
These churches eventually shrivel and die, because love for Christ has long been lost.
Dead and dying churches are a real problem, but for our current context there may be a more insidious threat. It is the type of church that leaves the difficult but worthy journeys set out in Scripture for a more less dangerous, more immediately appealing way. Churches become focused almost exclusively on externals: budgets, numbers, baptisms, mission trips. This is what the church is primarily about, we tell ourselves. Entire church movements are focused almost exclusively on seeing conversions (or decisions) on Sunday mornings. Discipleship and Christian growth is downplayed because that is harder to discern - and just plain hard. External, visible growth becomes the only viable rule for measuring faithfulness - or rather success - of the church. .
This type of church may appeal to the senses, but it is built on the sinking sand of unbiblical, man-centered methods. Of course, in the Bible God is concerned with the externals, and conversion, missions, and giving play a prominent role in the New Testament. But the question is not whether we should do these things, but how? What is the pattern? And where does the power come from? Put another way: is this the Lord’s way?
Francis Schaeffer, in a brief but important sermon, warned that the central problem in our age was “the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, individually or corporately, tending to do do the Lord’s work in the power of the flesh rather than of the Spirit. The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.” We must, says Shaeffer, do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way.
So like Thomas, we must ask the Lord, “How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). In the sacred Scriptures, Paul shows us the way: we do the Lord’s work when realize our primary goal in life is not to accomplish things for Christ but to know him and love him above everything else. Let’s return again to Paul in Philippians 3. Paul not only claims to want to know Christ, but to “become like him.” Knowing Christ is transformative for the believer, and this glorifying effect (see 2 Cor 3:18) is a basic goal of salvation. C.S. Lewis says it this way:
The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose.
It is important to see that this purpose of the church is the catalyst for gospel advance. Here is Francis Schaeffer again: “There is no source of power for God’s people--for preaching or teaching or anything else--except Christ Himself. Apart from Christ, anything which seems to be spiritual is actually the power of the flesh.” When we become like Christ by the power of the Spirit, God works through us. This is the way.
For Churches, this means understanding that they exist first and foremost for worship - a vibrant, affectionate worship of the triune God - not evangelism or missions. John Piper says it this way: “Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate.”
This may seem counterintuitive to some. An objection might be: “Doesn’t the temporary nature of evangelism and missions make it more urgent and primary? We are already Christians, others are dying and going to hell. How is it loving to sit around in a holy huddle while others are without the gospel?” While this is a biblical sentiment, it does not account for the biblical pattern. Again, here is Francis Schaeffer: “Doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way is not a matter of being saved and then simply working hard.” He goes on to describe how the disciples were instructed by the resurrected Christ not to act but to wait - to wait for the Holy Spirit. This gets at the deeper spiritual reality: this really is the Lord’s work , he fills us with the Spirit so that what we do will be done “by the strength that God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11). God gets the glory when the internal journey of knowing Christ is what compels and empowers the external journey of gospel advance.
George Mueller expressed this truth in his own life: “The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day is to have my soul happy in the Lord.” Mueller’s external journey was extraordinary, but he understood what made it possible.
So how do we get this strength for God’s calling on our lives to run with endurance the internal and external journeys? Paul prays for this very thing in Ephesians 3:14-19:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Paul is praying for the internal journey of the Ephesian Christians. We know Christ through faith, and we need our faith strengthened so that we might understand this astonishing love of Christ, and be filled with “all the fullness of God.” It is not surprising, in keeping with the biblical pattern, that “the work of ministry” comes after this passage in Ephesians chapter 4.
This demonstrates the vital truth that churches - and especially elders, teachers, and leaders - must prioritize feeding the faith of the saints through the ministry of the Word. This sets the tone and direction for everything else the church does. When we gather to pray, sing, give, eat, serve and exhort one another, we do it based on Christ’s word. We know and love Christ by the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures. And since the entire Bible is a witness to Christ (Luke 24:27), this Word centered ministry must be exhaustive: in Matthew 28 Jesus commands us to teach disciples everything he commanded, and Paul in Acts 20 says that he is innocent of their blood because he did not shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God. The journeys are long and hard but the Scripture is a sufficient guide, for it keeps our eyes on Jesus.
Paul’s example in Scripture gives us a pattern for holistic Christian ministry: God calls us to the internal journey of knowing and conforming to Christ and the external journey of gospel advance to the ends of the earth. These journeys are both vital, and when they are undertaken “according the the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15), we can be sure that God will be faithful to bring them to completion.