Featuring excerpts from The Joy of Following Jesus by J. Oswald Sanders

Paul says, “It is my constant ambition to please Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:9) Or “I make it a point of honor to please Christ.” My heart leaps in response! Yes, me too! I want to please the Lord in all I do!

Recently, J. Oswald Sanders inspired me along these lines. You may not know about this great man of God. He was the director of Overseas Missionary Fellowship (originally knows as the China Inland Mission) in the 1950’s and 1960’s and he was a tireless speaker and writer who traveled the world for Christ. He wrote a number of best-selling books including Spiritual Leadership.

Because of his great insights on serving Christ in Spiritual Leadership I read his book on The Joy of Following Jesus. What a treasure! It’s now on my shelf of the classics of Christian devotion that are precious to me. (Here are the other books on that shelf: “Reading Classic Devotional Books.”) Interestingly, he gave his book a different title. In 1990, two years before he passed on all the way into the Lord’s presence, he published his book as Shoe-Leather Commitment. 

The two titles go together. His message to us is that when we walk out our faith in Christ in the world around us we experience the greatest joy. His inspiring book features short chapters filled with principles from the Bible and illustrations from the lives of the Lord’s great ones. I was especially moved by his eighth chapter on “The Disciple’s Ambition.” I’ve carefully re-read his whole book, but especially that chapter.

J. Oswald Sanders’ theme in The Joy of Following Jesus is best expressed in his opening to his chapter on “The Disciple’s Ambition”:

It is the responsibility [and great opportunity] of the disciple to be the best he or she can be for God. To please Him is a most worthy aim. He wants us to realize the full purpose of our creation; He does not want us to be content with bland mediocrity. Many fail to achieve anything significant for God or man because they lack a dominating ambition. No great task was ever achieved without the complete abandonment to it that a worthy ambition inspires. (p 63)

What is a Disciple of Christ?

Sanders’ point is that the delight of our lives is in being a disciple of Christ who is ambitious to please God in all that we do.

But what is a disciple? A disciple is an apprentice of a master. In Sanders’ words a disciple of the Lord is “a learner or pupil who accepts the teaching of Christ, not only in belief but also in lifestyle.” (p. 8) In other words, we follow Jesus with “shoe-leather commitment” to love the people around us for his sake.

“The first word of our Lord’s first recorded sermon under the New Covenant is ‘blessed.’ [It’s] the keynote of His kingdom.” (p. 11) Sanders explains that “blessed” can be translated as “O the bliss!”

What is the good news of Jesus? I think we might put Jesus’ invitation this way: “Oh the bliss of bringing your life to me in the Kingdom of God — even in your troubles the happiness of heaven will come over you.”

Am I finding my great joy in being a disciple of Jesus? In difficult times do I celebrate God’s goodness and lovingkindness? Is it the master ambition of my life to please my Lord by looking to love the people around me for his sake?

Sanders laments, “When the lives of many Christians are put alongside the lifestyle Jesus prescribed for disciples, and demonstrated Himself, there is a vast discrepancy. It is one thing to master the biblical principles of discipleship, but quite another to transfer those principles into shoe leather…

“Today one may be regarded as a Christian even if there are few, if any, signs of progress in discipleship. It was not so in the early church.” (p. 8)

Sanders exhorts us to put our shoe leather into loving our neighbors as the Lord loves us and thereby experience the greatest blessing of life. “The discovery that happiness is a by-product of holiness has been a joyous revelation to many. We should therefore ‘follow after holiness.’ God is eager to satisfy all the holy aspirations of His children. ‘They will be filled.’” (p. 14) (Hebrews 12:14; Matthew 5:6)

“Contrary to expectation, taking our cross and following Christ is not a joyless experience, as the saintly Samuel Rutherford [a Scottish Presbyterian pastor in the 1600’s] knew: ‘He [or she] who looks at the white side of the Christ’s cross, and takes it up handsomely, will find it just such a burden as wings are to a bird.” (p. 22).

Imagine a bird feeling weighed down by wings! Yet we may drag our feet on the cross-walk with Christ, reluctant to deny ourselves worldly comforts, and so miss out on the eternal blessings of a life that soars on the wings of the Lord into heavenly realms.

The Test of Ambition

Sanders tells a story of student in Britain who took a course in optometry and brashly proclaimed, “One day I am going to be King George’s optometrist!” His friend laughed with skepticism, “O, yes?”

You know what? That student actually did become King George’s optometrist!

Sanders concludes, “He was in the grip of a master ambition and that channeled his life in a single direction, and he reached his goal.

“We should do well to ask ourselves if we have any such clearly defined ambition.”

We might think that ambition is compulsive and unloving. But that’s not necessarily the case. To be ambitious is to have a strong desire and determination to achieve something and to work hard until you succeed.

The key question is whether our ambition is right? Do we have worthy goals? “Are we making the most of our lives? Are we exercising our maximum influence for our Lord?”

“Paul asserts that ‘to aspire to leadership is an honorable ambition’ (1 Timothy 3:1, NEB). Of course, in this connection the motivation would be the determining factor. Too many disciples are content with the status quo and cherish no ambition to improve their spiritual condition and fulfill a more useful ministry.”

Jeremiah’s servant Baruch was ambitious, but the Lord had Jeremiah confront him, “Are you right to seek great things for yourself? No! Don’t do it.” (Jeremiah 45:5, paraphrased)

“The injunction was not a blanket prohibition of ambition,” Sanders continues. “The operative words are for yourself. Baruch was counseled to forswear self-centered ambition. Jesus made clear that an ambition to be great is not in itself necessarily sinful (Mark 10:43). It was ambition to be great from unworthy motives that He denigrated. God needs great people whose dominant ambition is to further the glory of God.” (pp. 63-64)

Holy ambition is to set aside all worldly desires to please the Lord. It’s to take all permissible desires, even all good things, and make them subservient to the most beneficial desire of honoring God (1 Corinthians 10:23). It’s to desire nothing but Christ. I call this living with passionate indifference to all things except the great passion of knowing Christ and helping others know him too (Philippians 3:8).

Examples of Godly Ambition

Of course, Jesus is our model of virtuous ambition. He shows us what it looks like for a human being to find great joy in being perfectly devoted to loving God and people. It begins with totally submitting yourself to serve God.

“Our Lord was gripped by a master ambition that integrated the whole of his life. It can be summarized in a single sentence: ‘I have come to do your will, O God’ (Hebrews 10:7). When at life’s end He offers His wonderful high-priestly prayer, He was able to report the complete achievement of this ambition: ‘I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do’ (John 17:4)…

“A study of the lives of men and women who have achieved great things for Christ and His church reveals that they have this in common: they cherished a master ambition.” (p. 67)

“Paul was a passionately ambitious man, even before his conversion. He could do nothing by halves. ‘I was exceedingly zealous,’ he declared. Always impatient of the confining status quo, he constantly strained towards new goals and horizons. There was in him a compulsion that [wouldn’t be denied].” (p. 65)

When he gave his life to Christ his ambition didn’t go away — it was channeled for God’s glory, it became a flame that leaped higher and higher! “Now he had a passion to exalt the name of Jesus and establish and edify His church… In later life Paul wrote: ‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known’ (Romans 15:20).” (p. 66)

“Paul’s ambition was fired by two powerful motives. First was the love of Christ, which ‘compelled’ him… (2 Corinthians 5:14). That was the love that had captured and broken his rebellious heart. Second… he said, ‘I owe something to all people…’ (Romans 1:14)… His ambition was funneled into a single channel — ‘This one thing I do’ (Philippians 3:13) — and it united his whole life.” (p. 66)

Count Nikolaus Zinzendorf founded the Moravian Church in the 1700’s with a revival of spirituality that featured 100 years of continuous 24-hour a day prayer! And he pioneered a world missions program when the sending of missionaries was rare. His little colony of three hundred members in Hernhut, Germany produced 296 missionaries around the world. “In twenty years they sent out more missionaries than evangelical churches had sent out in the two centuries up to that time.” (p. 155)

“David Brainerd, early missionary to the Indians of the United States, was so consumed with a passion for the glory of Christ in the salvation of souls that he claimed, ‘I cared not how or where I lived, or what hardships I endured, so that I could but gain souls for Christ.’

“Jonathan Edwards, noted [New England Puritan] revivalist and educator [in the 1700’s] , declared, ‘I will live [for Christ] with all my life while I live.’

“The founder of The Salvation Army, William Booth, [a British Methodist minister of the 19th Century] claimed: ‘So far as I know, God has had all there was of me.’” (p. 65)

Anyone Can Excel For Christ

Maybe you feel that you couldn’t be great for God? Maybe a life of exemplary devotion to the Lord seems out of reach to you?

J. Oswald Sanders means to encourage us all that we can be and do more for the sake of Christ than we think. “With all the resources of God at our disposal, we need not plead our weakness or inadequacy as an excuse for poor performance. The least promising among us may yet be used greatly by God.

“Thomas Scott, 1747-1821, was the dunce of his school. The teachers expected little of him, so why bother with him? But his brain and heart only needed to be awakened. One day some statement of a teacher penetrated his deepest being.

“Then and there he formed a resolute purpose, a master ambition. Although his progress was slow, the teachers noted a difference. He grew to be a strong and worthy man and succeeded the noted former slave-trader John Newton, composer of the hymn ‘Amazing Grace,’ as rector of the church at Aston Sandford. He also wrote a large and valuable commentary on the whole Bible, which had a great influence on his generation. So valuable was the work of this erstwhile dunce that the commentary is still available in America today.

“Other class members are all forgotten. The one of whom least was expected, and who labored under the greatest handicap, is the one whose name and influence endured. And all because he was gripped by a master ambition.” (pp. 67-68)

In closing, let’s once again draw inspiration and guidance from the Apostle Paul, our best example of a disciple of Christ who gave his all to love Christ and win every person that he could to rejoice in the Lord with him:

Be glad in God!

Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master firsthand, everything, I once thought I had going for me is insignificant — dog, dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him…

I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward — to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back.

So let’s keep focused on that goal, [let’s seek] everything God has for us…

[Let’s] celebrate God all day, every day. I mean revel in him!…

I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess… I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy…

I want you to experience the blessing that issues from generosity…

Receive and experience the amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, deep, deep within yourselves. (Philippians 3:1, 8, 13-14; 4:4, 10-12, 17, 23, MSG)


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