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The Gospel as the Power of God

The Gospel as the Power of God

We are excited to have Ray Cortese join us at Southwood for our Express Grace Conference this month. The following is an excerpt from a sermon Ray preached at the 2015 Liberate Conference. You can watch the full sermon at https://vimeo.com/122003691.


“I am not ashamed of the Gospel; it is the Power of God.” It is a terrible thing to lack power. It is a terrible thing to be powerless. It’s a terrible thing for a church; it’s a terrible thing for a denomination; it’s a terrible thing for a nation. But, it’s a terrible thing for a dad. Your daughter has bulimia, and you can’t do anything to reverse the course of her ailment and her decline. It’s a terrible thing to be a dad and to not have power. It’s a terrible thing to see your son go off to college and deny the faith and his life plunge in an entirely different direction. Reject his upbringing. Powerless. And you can’t do anything about it. You haven’t got any power. It’s a terrible thing to be a husband and be without power. Particularly if you are a pastor and your wife doesn’t like that you are a minister, and your wife doesn’t like the church, and your wife doesn’t like you. Powerless. … And this realization in my life led me to a bit of a crisis. After pastoring 10 years, church members came to me struggling, and they said, “I’m trying hard, but I’m not getting anywhere. My life isn’t changing. I go to all the Bible studies, I’m in small groups, in the women’s study, read my Bible, have quiet times, but I hate myself, I’m angry, I’m distant from my spouse. If there is newness in Christ, I’m not experiencing it. What do I do, pastor?”

This provoked a crisis because I couldn’t help them. “Try harder. Be more committed.” Well, they are already exhausted; they were already running hard. All I could offer was, “Pray more? I don’t know.” But what really provoked the crisis was the realization that I wasn’t being transformed either, and I was the pastor. I was distant from God, I didn’t love my neighbors, my marriage was unhappy, I was aloof with people. …

So, what changed me? This is what changed me. There is a righteousness that comes from God—that I might be found in him, not possessing a righteousness of my own, that God produces the righteousness, not me, that my relationship with God was not dependent on my performance, but on Jesus’ performance, on Jesus’ finished work. And this had a profound effect on me. It changed my preaching, it changed my leadership, it changed my parenting, it changed my relationship with God, it changed my marriage. Listen, I came to believe that the Gospel has the power to change those who are the most resistant to it. And the most resistant to the power of the Gospel are the pastors. ...This is about the power of the Gospel to change even the most dysfunctional person, the pastor, and the most dysfunctional organization, the church.

I have come to learn—and I’ve been doing this over 30 years as a pastor—that very few Christians get the gospel. We know that non-Christians don’t get the gospel. I’ve come to learn—and it was a surprise to me—that very few Christians get the gospel. And when you are in leadership, whether you are a parent. a coach, or a teacher, you are in ministry. When you fail to get the gospel, you will have a destructive effect on people. I know that, I did. And I see it happening with other people, too. I can recount numbers of people that were thoroughly versed in the Bible, but their failure to get the gospel made them destructive in other people’s lives…

What do I mean by that? I mean that we don’t believe that Christ is our righteousness. We don’t believe that. I’ll give you some examples. Most preaching and most Christian books are not about what Christ has done; they are about what we are supposed to do…

We give assent to salvation by faith alone. You don’t have to be in the church for five minutes and you get that. You don’t want to stand before God and say, “I’ve lived a good life, I qualify … I merit your favor.” … We think we have merit. How else do you explain our self-dependency, our pride, our inability to see our sin, our coldness toward God, our anxiety and our inability to love other people? … We think we have merit. It colors the way we respond to everyone. Churches think they have merit. Churches have their own sense of righteousness, don’t they? … “We are the mission church; we care about the world.” Other churches, “we are the church that preaches the pure, unadulterated Word of God.” Or today, “we are the authentic church. We are real.” Or what many of us are gifted at, “we are the grace church. We are the gospel church.” …

There is only one thing you need to get Jesus. And that is need. The only thing you need is need. And we lack that. We have merit. We believe we have merit. It is very hard for us to understand that no merit means no merit. Where do we get off looking down our nose at anyone? We have no merit. We are saved by the grace of Jesus Christ ALONE. …

A little girl came to me at a high school camp. She was all excited and said to me, “Pastor, pastor, pastor … I’ve got it. I have been living my life to please me. I get up in the morning and think about what to do that day to please me. But I’m sold out to Jesus now, so now I’m going to get up in the morning and think how can I live my life so that I will please God?” And I had to say, “Sweetheart, that isn’t it.” My job isn’t to take younger brothers in the parable of the prodigal son and turn them into older brothers. I said, “No, you don’t have it all. I’ll leave you with more demons than you started with if I let you walk out of here with that idea. You are right. To wake up everyday to live to please yourself is a dead end life, but if you wake up every day trying to please God, you have just entered the moralist morass of evangelical North American Christianity. Every day you wake up and believe that God is pleased with you because of the work of Jesus Christ on your behalf, and you live in the freedom and security of that.”

This is what I mean, we don’t get the gospel. We don’t understand the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and what it would mean to live out of that. I’ve got to say, it isn’t something you just get. Because when I go to bed at night and lay my head on pillow, I believe that God is nuts about me because of the work of Jesus that covers me. But when I wake up in the morning and my feet hit the floor, I go forth to validate myself, I have to be productive, and immediately upon waking up I am thinking about what I have to check off my list to get done or I’m worthless. I go to bed filled with grace, but it leaks when I sleep. …

You know what it is to get the gospel? You know what it is to get the finished work of Christ because of what Christ accomplished on your behalf covered with his righteousness? You have a dad; he’s nuts about you.

Deep in our hearts we long for one thing: the affection of our father. I was a Christian since I was a little child, even with what I have told you. And I knew God was the truth and I knew his Word was truth and that I needed to follow. I knew I was going to walk down this path of the world and follow God. He was about 30 steps in front of me and I could only see his back, but he was the way, the truth and the life and I was going to follow him.

But as I understood the finish work of Christ, I realized it wasn’t the picture of the kind of relationship the father wanted with me. This was a father that kisses his kids. It was like with my grandkids, I don’t walk 30 feet in front of them, I hold their hand. And what do I do when we are walking? … I’ll point something out, I’ll pick them up and throw them in the air, and catch them, I’ll make them laugh. We have a grand time. I would die for those kids. You’ve got a dad, and he did die for you. He is crazy about you. You have experienced the kiss of his affection. You might even say, “I don’t believe in grace anymore, I know it. I’ve tasted it.” Have you?

I am not ashamed of the gospel. It has the power to transform the most dysfunctional and the most resistant to a person that can say, “Jesus, I am resting, resting in the joy of what thou art; I am finding out the greatness of thy loving heart.”


Ray Cortese is a native of Miami, Florida, and a 1983 graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He has been the Pastor of Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church, located in Lecanto, Florida (70 miles north of Tampa) since it began 30 years ago.  He is married to Diane and they have four grown children and several grandchildren.