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Total Freedom

Surrendering to Christ is not easy, but it leads to freedom and life.

From the editor:

Here's another great sermon from one of our featured preachers, John Ortberg. This is actually John's message from Palm Sunday (2009). Though it might strike you as a little odd for us to run this sermon "out of season," we think you'll find a lot of great ideas for your own preaching. The topic at hand is much bigger than Palm Sunday: surrendering control of our lives to God. That's an issue that is always in season.

Introductory remarks from John Ortberg:

This message came from a conversation with a seeker, a pilot who had been thinking about Christianity a long time but had one area of his life where he had a hard time obeying God. He finally talked about this as an issue of who is in the driver's seat.

It was an image that lent itself naturally to the topic of surrender. I had a few chairs and a steering wheel on the platform to help reinforce the image.

It fell on a Palm Sunday. Teaching on annual holidays can be something of a challenge; this felt like it fit the occasion but also was fresh enough to give it a sense of urgency. The notion of wanting Jesus to be king—but really desiring my own agenda—is one of the primary themes of both the triumphal entry as well as my own life.

Also, this is the kind of message that faces much resistance at the level of the will. I find it helpful, in teaching, to think about both the cognitive and emotional and volitional aspects of the message. If the message is going to place high demands in one of those spheres, I try not to make it difficult in another one. In other words, since this message had to overcome much volitional resistance (who wants to surrender?), I wanted to make it a relatively simple message; not one that would require a lot of didactic word in addition to a strong call to submit the will.

The material in AA's blue book was the one borderline call in this regard. I found it such a brilliant exposition of the way the mind works that I wanted our congregation to receive it. But I knew it was abstract enough that it could lose folks. I think it was worth including—but if you go through the sermon you can decide for yourself.


When it was time to take our first child home from the hospital, we put her in the car seat in the back of the car, and then I got in the front seat to drive. She was so small even the baby seat was way too big. We had to prop her up with towels and blankets, and she looked so fragile to me that, no kidding, I drove home from North Ridge to Pasadena on the 210 Freeway going 35 miles per hour in the right-hand lane with the hazard lights flashing the whole time.

That first day, when your kid is in the car with you, is a scary day. Does anybody want to know what the next really scary day is with your kid in the car? It's when they turn 16, and now you're handing over the keys. Now they're moving from the passenger seat, from the ride-along seat, into the driver's seat. That's a scary moment.

One of our kids didn't have her permit yet, but I told her she was going to drive home from a convenience store about six blocks from where our house used to be. It was through a residential neighborhood. She didn't want to do it. I said, "You'll be fine." She pulled out of the parking lot of this convenience store going two miles an hour because she was so scared. She turned the wheel as hard to the right as she could, but then she kind of got paralyzed, froze up, and wouldn't straighten the wheel out. So she ran into the curb going two miles an hour with this look of horror on her face and yelling, "The curb, the curb, the curb!" It was like a slow-motion accident.

Whoever is driving is the one in control.

It is a big moment in your life when you hand someone else the keys. Up until now, I've been driving. I choose the destination. I choose the route. I choose the speed. You're in the drive-along seat. But if we are to change seats, if you're going to drive, I have to trust you. It's all about control. Whoever is in this seat is the person in control.

In my neighborhood the streets are all circuitous. And no matter where I'm going, even if it's three blocks away, someone in my family will critique the route I take. As soon as we start going, I hear, "Why are you going this way? This is the long way. We shouldn't go this way; we ought to go the other way." I have to tell them, "This car is my car. These keys are my keys. This way is my way." Everybody in my family wants to sit in the driver's seat.

Here's why I bring this up. This week, we remember Palm Sunday. This is the day Jesus came riding into Jerusalem. He came into town on—does anybody remember what his mode of transportation was? It was a donkey. Not an impressive way to come. It was like coming into town in a Pinto.

Everybody was cheering for him, but they all had an agenda for him. Hosanna! Jesus, come and take care of me. Come and heal me. Come and deliver me. Come on in and overthrow the Romans. Come on in and take back the temple. Come on in and get rid of the foreigners. Come on in and rearrange the circumstances of my life the way I want them to be. We'll all shout "hosanna!" if you do what we want you to do. We're glad to have you in the car, Jesus; just remember, it's our car. These keys are our keys. The way is our way, but you're welcome to be in the car.

A lot of people find Jesus handy to have in the car as long as he's in the ride-along seat, because something may come up where they require his services. Jesus, I have a health problem, and I need some help. There's something going on at work, and I'd like it to be different. I'm feeling some anxiety, and I would like your peace of mind. I'm feeling a little sad; I would like some of your hope. I'm facing death one day; I want to make sure I'm getting into heaven. I want you in the car, but I'm not so sure I want you driving.

If Jesus is driving, I'm not in charge of my life anymore. If he's driving, I'm not in charge of my wallet anymore. If I put him in control then it's no longer a matter of giving some money now and then when I'm feeling generous or when more of it is coming into my life. Now, it's his wallet. It's scary.

If Jesus is driving, I'm not in charge of my ego anymore. I no longer have the right to satisfy every self-centered ambition. No, it's his agenda. It's his life. Now, I'm not in charge of my mouth anymore. I don't get to gossip, flatter, cajole, deceive, rage, intimidate, manipulate, exaggerate. I get out of the driver's seat and hand the keys over to him. I'm fully engaged. In fact, I'm more alive than I've ever been before, but it's not my life anymore. It's his life.

Who's driving your life?

So here's the question on this lovely Palm Sunday when King Jesus gets celebrated once again: Who's driving your life? Have you ever surrendered it? Is Jesus just in the car? Be honest now. Is he just doing a ride-along or is he driving? Have you ever said to him, "All right, Lord, I am now giving you the keys of my life"? Jesus is clear about this. There is no way for a human being to come to God that does not involve surrender.

We find statements in Jesus' teaching like this one from Matthew: "Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it" (Matt. 10:39). Or Jesus puts it this way another time: "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds" (John 12:24). Or he puts it another way: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24).

Surrender is not the same thing as being passive. Part of God's will for your life is that you be active, make choices, be creative, that you initiate and take responsibility. It is not at all the same thing as passivity. It does not mean being a doormat. It doesn't mean that you allow other people to walk all over you. It doesn't mean that you accept circumstances fatalistically. In fact, if you fully surrender your life, if you become a holy, devoted follower of Jesus, often it will require courage in fighting the status quo.

It does not mean that you cease to use your mind, ask questions, or think critically. It is not a crutch for weak people who cannot handle life. Surrender is the glad and voluntary acknowledgement that there is a God and it is not me. His purposes are wiser than my purposes, and his desires are better than my desires. Jesus does not come to rearrange the outside of my life the way I want it to be. He comes to rearrange the inside of my life the way God wants it to be. In surrender, I let go of my life.

It's a kind of Copernican revolution of the soul, where I am no longer at the center of the universe. I say to him, "I yield. I let go. I will do what you say, whatever it is. I will obey your Word. I am not driving my life anymore." That's what we're talking about today, and I know, this is a hard word.

Surrendering to Christ is not easy, but it leads to freedom and life.

In our culture, when spirituality gets discussed certain messages from the Bible can get named in any venue, through any medium, like popular culture, and everybody likes hearing them. Like, no matter how much you mess up, God still loves you. Everybody likes that message. They will download that one. I like doing that message. Or, you get busy and exhausted, you work so hard, you run so fast; God wants you to be rested. God wants you to be refreshed. Everybody likes that message.

You need to surrender. You are sinful and stubborn and stiff-necked. It's not the whole truth about you, but it is the truth about you. You are self-centered and self-promoting, often in secret ways. Your desires will often be self-serving, and even your ability to perceive your brokenness, your sin, will be blinded by self-deception. You need to bend the knee. You need to submit your heart. You need to confess your sin. You need to surrender your life to God. Is everybody excited about that message?

I'll tell you one person who doesn't want to hear that. Me. I'll give you a personal example. I grew up with this need to think of myself as a leader. That was the word for me. To think of myself as stronger and more popular and more confident than I was. I used to run for class president, because when you hear grown-up leaders talk they say stuff like, "Even back when I was in high school I was class president." So I would think up good slogans, and I would try hard, and I always lost. The truth was, I was more introverted and bookish and insecure than I ever wanted anybody to think or wanted to let myself think.

As I grew up, it was like trying to be somebody I wasn't, trying to grab something I couldn't, and it would make me more defensive and hidden and unhappy and driven and inauthentic in ways I didn't even know. To make matters worse, I ended up at a church in Chicago with the most remarkable leadership culture I had ever seen. They put on leadership summits that literally scores of thousands of people around the country would get exposed to. Even the person I ended up marrying was one of those people who used to run for office in school all the time and win. She didn't even have a good slogan. Do you want to know what her slogan was? Don't be fancy, vote for Nancy. I'm not making that up.

So I was surrounded by this. About 12 years ago, I went through 6 months of internal emptiness and pain and depression like I had not experienced before. It culminated in a moment that I will never forget. I sat in the basement of our house in Hoffman Estates. I was talking to God, and it was a sad time. Then I said to him, "All right, God, I will give up my need to be a leader." No kidding, out of I don't know where came this volcano of emotion like I had never experienced. Not just a tear or two, but wrenching sobs. I felt so sad it felt like I was going to die.

All I knew was, I had been holding on to something, and it was messing up my life. There was no life in it. There was no joy in it. I said, "God, I will let go of this need to be this person. It has been my dream for so long. I don't know what's left. I don't know who I will be, but I will trust you. I will try to do the best I can at whatever it is you give me to do. I will let it go. God, in this area of my life, this is so hard. I feel like it is killing me, but all right, you drive."

It is strange to look back on that, because that was 12 years ago. To see what I was dying to was nothing. It was a false self. It was this illusion of misplaced pride and ego and junk. Of course, I still have a lot of surrendering to do, but one of the things I am learning is on the other side of death is freedom and life.

One of many ironies is that I'm now in a position where leadership is a fair amount of what I do, and I'm finding myself energized by it and growing more through it, praying and depending on God and learning in ways that I never did before. But there is not this weight attached to it. There is not this need attached to it. I'm not on the line with it. There's this kind of freedom in it.

We cannot will ourselves to victory; we must surrender our will.

This gets deeply to the issue of surrender. I cannot surrender to God unless I trust he has my best interest at his heart. I can't do it otherwise. Jesus has a lot to say about death to self, but it is always the death of a lesser self, of a false self, so that a better and nobler self can come to life. It's always death to desires and behaviors that would end up killing me anyhow, so that I can come alive and thrive as the person God wants me to be.

Life works better when Jesus is driving. Here's why: You receive power through surrender that you cannot obtain any other way. You receive freedom through submission that you will otherwise never know.

A lot of you are familiar with the 12 steps of AA. The 12 steps lay out a way of life that is the greatest single vehicle to freedom for addicts, for people enslaved in habit and desire, that the world has ever known. AA is for people who find it impossible to stop drinking. This is what's so interesting to me. In which of the 12 steps does it say, "Now try really hard not to drink"? Does anybody know which of the 12 steps says that? None of them. None of them even say, "Now decide that you're not going to drink anymore." The most powerful tool against the most powerful addiction in the world never asks people to decide to stop doing what they have to stop doing. They do not try to mobilize their will. They've tried that before. They surrender their will.

Step one, we realize we were powerless. Our lives were unmanageable. When I'm driving, I'm going to mess it up. Step two, I came to believe a power greater than myself could restore me. Then this is step three, this is our step today. This is a killer. We made a decision to turn our will and life over to the care of God.

Have you done that? It's a strange thing. Try to overcome your problem, your junk, your whatever it is by your own will, and it will beat you. Surrender your will, as scary as that is, and then another kind of life becomes possible. Surrender. We think of that word as defeat; that's loss. It turns out to be the only way to win, the only way to victory, the only way to life. Not just with alcohol, but with addictions, habits, and brokenness—sin in general.

I want to take this a level deeper. Why does the will fail? I will tell you why. Your will fails because your mind is crazy, and it will mess you up. This is from the Blue Book, which is the guidebook of AA. It's a profound reflection of the way the mind works and why we need a power greater than ourselves. When it comes to drinking, the Blue Book says, "we ought to ask this question: Why is it that I can't stop? I say and I feel in certain moments in my life, 'Never again. I know that way is death.' I say never again, but I do it again. Why do I do it again when it violates everything I think I believe and value?"

This is what he writes, "We are unable at certain times to bring into our consciousness, with sufficient force, the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even one week ago." Again, this could be around drinking or any violation of values. "The certain consequences that follow taking a drink do not crowd into the mind to deter us. If these thoughts occur, they are hazy and readily replaced by the old thread-bare idea that this time, we can handle it ourselves."

We must surrender daily.

That's the way temptation always works. It is a form of temporary insanity. The only way to be free is to hand over the keys. I don't want to do it. Neither do you. Of course, the good news about surrender is, if you do it one time, you never have to worry about it ever again. Right? Or maybe not. Jesus put it like this: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me." What's the key word in that little sentence? Daily.

This day, we're in church. I love God. I want to follow God. But then, tomorrow's Monday. Then Tuesday. Then Wednesday. Paul puts it like this: "Offer your body as a living sacrifice." The idea is this continuous offering.

The idea of a sacrifice involves the sacrificial animal first being killed, and then the body would get placed on the altar, and then it would be consumed. Say you take a creature that's still alive, put it on the altar, and say, "Stay there until you're consumed." Then you light the fire. What is the creature going to do? It's going to get off the altar. Paul is saying, of your own volition, you crawl back on. You surrender. Day by day, moment by moment. It's going to feel like you're going to die. It's going to scare you, but it's the only way to life.

Has anybody here ever been mad at somebody? Ever had anger that was difficult to deal with? In the first church I worked at, somebody did something I was deeply angry about. This person treated me, I thought, unfairly, and did it in underhanded, sneaky ways. It was complicated, so I was not yet sure how to respond, but without trying, my mind, which goes insane, was filled with all kinds of thoughts about what a bad person this was. They're all bad, and I'm all good. My mind would feed, enjoy, and savor bad thoughts about this person. Has anybody here ever done something like that?

I didn't know what I should do, but thoughts would come, I knew from God, about what not to do: These are things, John, that you should not do. Number one, thou shalt not murder. Okay, I won't kill him. Number two, no violence. Okay, I won't have him beaten up. Number three, no gossip. Well, Lord, if I agree to no murder and no violence, couldn't we leave gossip on the table? You know, as a possibility?

Surrender is when I say, "All right God, I will seek to handle this in a way that honors you. I may not even know what that means right now, but I know certain things it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean gossiping, blasting, withdrawing, evading, deceiving. So okay God, I'll let go. You're driving. It's not my car."

If it's a hot issue like that one was for me with anger, where the hurt went deep, once I've surrendered it will be maybe five minutes before the revenge fantasies start coming back. Then I have to surrender again. Maybe I recognize them a little quicker. Maybe I yield a little sooner, but see, it's every day. We take up the cross moment by moment. Oh yeah, I surrender. God, I surrender. We're not passive, not saccharine, not a doormat. A lot of times it takes more courage, not less.

Surrender is almost never just an internal event. It's not just about feeling devoted. Usually, it involves external actions. You should know this: usually, they have a cost. Usually surrendering to God will have behavior that comes with a cost.

I was sitting in front of my computer at home not long ago, when (this is a tiny deal, almost embarrassing it's so trivial) somebody in my family asked if I had the phone number of a certain person. Now the truth was, I wasn't sure. I thought, It's probably in my cell phone. But the truth also was, I did not want to look. My cell phone was sitting over on the counter. I was at a table working on my computer. I did not want to take the 10 seconds to walk over to the counter to where my cell phone was and see if the number was there and then say it slowly enough for them to enter it into their cell phone. I didn't want to do that.

But I didn't want to tell them I didn't want to do that. I was busy. I was at my computer. I was writing this sermon about being wholly surrendered to God. So I just said to this person, "Nope. Sorry. Don't have it. Can't help you." Then this voice in my head—you know how this works—said, "You little pastor scumbag." That's not a direct quote, but that was the idea, and I had to stop. That's the choice point.

I had to look that person in the eye and say, "You know what? I didn't tell you the truth. I lied. The reason I lied was I just didn't want to take 10 seconds. I didn't want to be interrupted. I'm sorry." Of course, as is generally the case when that happens, they didn't call me a scumbag, and they know I'm capable of stuff way darker than that. They end up knowing me better and loving me more, and then there's freedom. Then there's life, and then I'm tilted a bit more toward God.

All the time in our lives there's this question: Who is driving?


Here are your three options. You can, if you want to, live with a rebellious heart toward God. "God, my car, my life, my keys, my way. I want nothing to do with you. I will live the way I want to live. You stay out of my life. I'm not going to talk to you. I'm not going to believe in you." You can live with a rebellious heart if you want to.

Probably a more live option for folks here today is to live with a divided heart. Jesus is in the car, but you're driving. "I'll keep this area, this pattern, this relationship under my control. I will hold onto this grudge. I will enjoy the pleasure I get from this habit. I will retain this secrecy. I know, God, you want full surrender, but I don't trust you." We keep that hazy even in our minds, and God is seeking for us to make it sharp and clear. Who's driving?

You should know this: if you live with a divided heart, it will be a miserable way to live. Sometimes you can keep a lack of a surrendered heart vague and fuzzy, but sometimes it will be vivid. It will block you from that sense of ease and life and freedom that is given to a surrendered heart. If you keep Jesus out of the driver's seat, it will gnaw at you. Only one thing gives real peace and real life, and that is (oddly enough) a surrendered heart. "I'll turn my life and my will, God, over to you. I know there's a cost. I will do that."

You lose a life, but you gain a life, and the life you gain is way better than the life you lose. It turns out that nothing you lose was worth keeping. In fact, none of it could ultimately be kept anyway. Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ." Those aren't just words. That really happened. I, my false self, my self-centered desires, my hiddenness in sin have been crucified. "God, with your help through Jesus, I'm going to die to that as best I can. I no longer live. That old false self no longer lives, but Christ lives in me. This life is so much better."

So here is the question: who's in the driver's seat? Have you fully surrendered your life to Jesus? Jesus will be relentless about this; he was in his day. A woman gets caught in adultery, and Jesus says, "I don't condemn you. Now go. Sin no more." Surrender your sexuality to me, your habits, your thoughts, your actions. If you need help with that, if you need to bring that into the light with some other people as part of your surrender, then you do that, whatever it takes. You surrender.

A lot of times it's around money. A rich, young ruler comes to Jesus, and Jesus knows this is a place where he needs to surrender. So he tells him, "I want you to surrender your wallet to me." He won't do it. Zacchaeus volunteers, "Half of everything I own, I'm going to give to the poor, and I'm going to pay back everybody I cheated four times over."

Maybe it's in your relationships. Has anybody here ever tried to control another person, like a spouse? You're sitting through this message thinking, "Boy, I hope the other person is really listening to this talk. I might get them this CD." No. "I give up control of that other person. I give up control over my future. I give up having to have my way."

Maybe it's a grudge, maybe it's an attitude, maybe it's a habit, or maybe it's a job. If you struggle with this, Jesus will help you, because he understands your struggle. He knelt down in a garden. The reason we have Easter next week comes down to this one man. Jesus knelt down in a garden and said, "God, I don't want this. I don't want the cross. I don't want the weight. I don't want the burden. I don't want the shame. I don't want the pain. I don't want the death. I don't want it. But not my will. Yours be done. Father, you drive. I'll pay the cost."

Have you ever done that? This is your day. Maybe you have yielded your life to God, but there is some area that you're clutching onto. Maybe you have never said to God, "God, it's not just that I believe in you, but I want you to drive. I want to surrender my life to you. I don't want to be in control anymore." Maybe you want to say to him, "Lord, my time, my money, my will, my future, my desires—I want to hand them to you. I want to surrender to you. I want you to be my leader. I want you to be my Lord."

Maybe to your best awareness you have done that before, but God is speaking to you today, and you know it. Maybe it's a habit. Maybe it's an attitude or a grudge. Maybe it's around money or possessions, and in your spirit you've been holding onto it. Would you surrender it? Would you let it go? This is your day to do that.

To see an outline of Ortberg's sermon, click here.

For your reflection:

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Whoever is driving is the one in control.

II. Who's driving your life?

III. Surrendering to Christ is not easy, but it leads to freedom and life.

IV. We cannot will ourselves to victory; we must surrender our will.

V. We must surrender daily.


We can either live with a rebellious heart toward God, with a divided heart, or with a heart surrendered to him.