More gospel-centered than thou

‘Tis strange how self righteousness thrives at the foot of the cross.  “Tis not surprising where the devil plays.

I am no blog-monger nor tweet afficionado, but it seems there is a web-buzzing about “Gospel” these days.  It’s all about justification and sanctification (is there a hole in our holiness?), about law and grace, about gospel motivation, about depravity and regeneration, about feeding on our justification and the danger of self-righteousness.

I read all this and wonder. I wonder if, from my limited perspective, we are experiencing the work of the devil.  I wonder if Satan, the master of jiu jitsu of the soul, is not doing what he always does — pushing us to extremes.  I wonder if he is not going about stirring up strife between people who are gospel-focused, and pushing them to think they are the most consistent, the most careful, the most grace motivated.  I wonder if he is not at work to make us think we are “more gospel centered than thou.”  Really.

Let me be clear.  I am grateful for the working of God to renew Gospel focus across so many denominations and churches.  It was just not so 30 years ago.  The Gospel was the entry message for the Christian life, and after that, it was all law.  I preached that way for the first ten years of ministry, until God sent a messenger to correct me.  Now it seems every day a new book is published applying the Gospel to another area of life!

But, in all this debating about Gospel motivation, have we been drawn into something that is a rat’s nest?

So, let me ask some questions:

First, are we making the Scriptures harder to understand than they are?

The writers of the NT were pastors of churches.  They were neck deep in real life with real people.  They said what they said as simply as they said it to people just like us. They do not need my help to explain what they really meant.

The God who inspired the authors of Scripture to write the very words he intended, knew exactly what he was doing when he put indicatives AND imperatives in Scripture, when he used words like “fight,” and “strive,” and “put to death” in the New Testament.  He knew what “therefore” meant too.

When I read how Scripture is being manhandled, how it is being forced into a system of theology, I think we are dishonoring the God of Scripture.  Manhandled? Yes!  Strive does not mean strive, “add to” does not mean “add to”, labor is really rest, put to death is really faith?

The strong commands of the NT do not need to die the death of endless qualifications. The apostles knew what they were doing They state the indicatives of God’s riches in Christ and then call people to act upon them.  They do not state the indicatives and then restate them and then make sure the reader really got them by asking them if the indicatives are functioning in their hearts . . .

Years ago, when I was caught up in a form of perfectionism known as the Higher Life theology, God set me free with the simplicity and clarity of Scripture, cited by J C Ryle in his introduction to Holiness. I was so caught up with getting my “reckoning myself dead to sin” right that I missed the rest of the New Testament.

Second, I ask, are we confusing the internal function of the Gospel with the objective truth of the Gospel?

I preached Galatians last year.  It was a book of rich Gospel application.  I focused week after week on the functional Gospel, on the dangers of self righteousness.

Toward the middle of the book I realized Paul is not warring over the function of the Gospel in our hearts.  We is warring over a change in the message.  He is dealing with objective statements.  He says that those who change the message are damned.  He does not say that those who fail to have the Gospel function in their lives are accursed.

There is a vast difference between changing the message and applying the message. Those who change the message bring damnation.  But applying the message is a work of a lifetime, by the Spirit in us.  Galatians is about objective truth. They lost the Gospel.  Corinthians is about functional truth. They missed how it changes life.  Let’s not mix them.

Third, have we created both a new law and a perfectionism?

What I read on one side of this debate is pretty much advocating an endless monitoring of the state of my heart.  Am I resting in Christ’s work for me?  Am I feeding on my justification?

This seems to be a new legalism, an internal one.  It is getting the functional Gospel right in my heart.  I dare not do anything until I do so.

“Oh my, I obeyed, but I did so with a trace of self-righteousness.  I need to make sure that does not happen again!”

“Dear me, I sought to please God but there was some self-sufficiency in that obedience, and I must repent and try to get it right next time.”

This paralyzes people.  I think it is contrary to the apostolic method.

Paul reminds people of the objective truth of the Gospel.  Then he calls them to act upon it.  He does not call them to endlessly work on making sure they are getting the function of the Gospel correct before they do anything.

Putting the last two ideas together, I can begin the day with words like these: “I believe my righteousness is in Christ and his work, and his work alone.  Nothing can change that.  God is at work in me too, to make me like his Son.”  Then I go into the day.  Perhaps I remind myself of these things along the way.  But I live based on objective affirmation of faith, not the quality of my resting in Christ.

Fourth, have we changed the “involuntary” working of God into a voluntary and conscious activity of the believer. Have we allowed our therapeutic, self-aware, constantly-checking-out-the-state-of-our-heart culture to shape our doctrine?

Involuntary functions in the body just happen.  They happen because I am alive. While I am alive, my heart beats, I breathe, my kidneys function, and digestive juices are secreted so I am nourished from food. I do not have to think about them.

What a burden it would be if we began to give attention to even a few of these involuntary activities of the body!  It would paralyze us.

I think there are “involuntary” works of God in the believer.  The fruit of regeneration is a delight in Christ, a desire to please God, and a grief at sin.  It is not sinless fruit, but it is fruit.  I was dead, and now I am alive. This is the fruit of new life.  Isn’t that what Paul says to the Thessalonians?

When I was a new Christian I read my Bible very simply.  It told me about my God and Savior.  It told me what it looked like to please him.  I still have that Bible and can see where I underlined those things.

When I saw a promise of God I rejoiced.  When I saw a command of God I was glad to know what it looked like to please him.  I sinned and confessed and believed 1 John 1:9 was true.

It was involuntary.  I read and rejoiced in those great indicatives.  I rejoiced because I was a new creature.  Because of the new birth, I fed on my justification.

I saw the commands, the “therefore’s,” and ran to keep them, confessed when i disobeyed them, and ran again. I was alive in Christ.

I do not want to be overly simple, but I do want to accent the profound change that takes place in the new birth.  I do not want to minimize the realities of ongoing sin and temptation, nor do I want to minimize the powerful working of God in me.

Sometimes I read stuff on “the Gospel and having it function in our lives” and it makes sense.  Sometimes it sounds like exhorting people to make sure their livers are working.

I think there is a simple reason the apostles speak of the indicatives of grace, and move on to imperatives and therefore’s without hesitation.  They do so because they are speaking to people recreated in Christ,  in whom the Spirit of God is at work. People like that reads the indicatives, rejoices in them, and are ready to respond without delay.

We need reminders of the indicatives.  But we also need application of them in obedience.  The Spirit is at work in us, whether we are conscious of His work or not.  He does his work as we let the clutch out.  His work shows up in details.  It is his work, and he will complete it.

Let’s remind ourselves of the Gospel and get on with life, one day at a time.

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34 comments on “More gospel-centered than thou

  1. BeckyP says:

    Thank you, Mark, for this post. Much needed. I, for one, am really glad to hear you say these things, because I’ve been a little lost in the Gospel fog the last couple of years and had pretty much relegated figuring out applying the Gospel (at least, applying it as completely as some people seem to be able to do) to a far corner of my brain. After much effort of trying to understand the over-application of seeing Jesus, or “applying the Gospel” to even the oil change for my car, much less my self-righteousness and self-sufficiency, I had concluded I just missing some gene that helped me understand what everyone was talking about. This is refreshing. Yes, get on with life, living fully alive in the freedom He gives us in our souls.

  2. James says:

    Thankful for the article. I do wonder if Mark is “guilty” of his own version of “being more gospel centered than thou” in his observation and correction to it. Not that what he said is not true though.

  3. Kent Haley says:

    Good post. The type of thinking you mention does indeed paralyze people. I have been a victim of the paralysis myself, and it becomes almost impossible to do anything because we’re worried about our own motives. Its interesting how the reformed “God-centered” movement has almost been turned on its head.Thinking about and acknowledging our own helplessness has become the new work required for the evangelical. Perhaps a return to the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (as N.T. Wright ,Scot McKnight and others have advocated) rather than a system of salvation would cure some of this.
    Thanks.

  4. Judy Ford says:

    This is probably a bit above me. I encountered a Baptist minister a few years ago who had adopted a sort of all-roads-lead to Rome Christian philosophy. My head got messed up trying to understand his thinking in light of the gospel I had been taught. I began to research various points of view; found more contradictory information out there than I ever wanted. Seems to me nothing gets cleared up. This is not to say you shouldn’t present your point of view. It may also be the right one. I’ve read and heard so much that I can’t tell what’s going on. May God bless you in any case.

    • Judy:

      This is a discussion you may not be familiar with. So it seems above you. The point of Gospel renewal in recent years is that that whole Bible anticipates the coming of Jesus, God’s savior for all. People are seeing this in a new way, and reading their Bibles in light of this.

      I am simply noting that we seem to make it too complex for people who are seeking to see and to live in light of the Gospel.

      Peace,

      Mark

      • Judy Ford says:

        Thank you for responding so quickly. Since I am having problems with Christian articles/posts these days, might be a good idea to get down on my knees. My problems are my fault. We need people fighting for the gospel and presenting us with fresh view insights. IN CHRIST’S LOVE.

  5. Justin Garcia says:

    I really appreciate this reminder. I’ve always been a little bothered by the way in which the Puritans and some Reformed folks today focus on the “mortification of sin” as if it is the single and most important mission of the church. It’s good to just take the Scriptures for what they say most clearly and “do the first things” over just as Jesus reminded the Ephesian church. If being gospel-centered leads one to being more inward and focused on one’s own sin then this understanding of the Gospel has failed.

    I often think that we forget that the message of the gospel is more important than the messenger and when we focus too much on our sins it will always lead either to self-righteousness if successful and a morbid sense of worthlessness if failing (which I tend to do). That’s why I love Martin Luther’s Simul Justus et Peccator (at the same time both just and sinner). It reminds us that we are still sinful so that we will guard against self-righteousness and yet it also reminds us that we are totally righteous before God in Christ even now because we are covered in the righteousness of Christ.

    The pursuit of “personal holiness” when done apart from grace can lead to self righteousness. “Personal” = “Self” and “holiness” = “righteousness.” Hence self-righteousness if we are not careful to be reminded that our pursuit of holiness does not make us any holier because all (both the before and after) of our righteousness is derived from Christ and there is no holiness apart from being in Christ. So thank you for this post. I think the people who need to hear it most are most likely those who may be very critical of it. So thank you. And to Christ be all glory and praise!

    • Steve Martin says:

      Hang in there, friend.

      All roads do not lead to Rome (Christ). The road is narrow and the travelers are few.

      But trust in Him, and Him alone and He will not let you down.

  6. Amanda Cross says:

    I appreciate this post though the first part was a little difficult for me to understand. I really appreciated these statements:

    What I read on one side of this debate is pretty much advocating an endless monitoring of the state of my heart. Am I resting in Christ’s work for me? Am I feeding on my justification?

    What a burden it would be if we began to give attention to even a few of these involuntary activities of the body! It would paralyze us.
    I am participating in a course called The Cross Centered Mind at Setting Captives Free website. One thing that I came across recently in a lesson was the encouragement to look for the gospel in all of scripture. One lesson showed a similarity in the gospel to when God created the earth. It was interesting, but I’m not sure if we are meant to read scripture that way. I do believe the OT points to Christ, but should we really look for types and similarities in every word? Can we not just read it for what it says? I’m not a seminary student so I may be ignorant on that point. I think the reason there is much focus on the gospel and self evaluation is because of so many people getting tied up in strongholds and the fact that false conversions exist. I’ve also participated in the Steps to Freedom in Christ by Neil T. Anderson. There is a lot of evaluating self in this tool. I came to know the Lord, but found after several years, that I returned to some sin that had me in its’ clutches before I came to know the Lord. My freedom was found again in the gospel and in confession and repentance of sin. I do not want to return back that way again. I think that is where this comes from…a fear to return to sinful behavior after finding freedom again. We need to evaluate self, but we also need to find rest in God.

    • Thanks for these thoughts.

      First, I think the best way to read the Old Testament as a Christian is through the eyes of the New Testament writers. Paul and John speak of Christ as the Creator of Genesis 1 (John 1:1-3; Col 1:15-17). Paul speaks of our conversion being like God speaks light into the darkness (2 Cor 4:3-6). The best place to start with seeing Christ’s redemption in the OT is by finding how the passages are used in the NT.

      Second, I find another comment by Luther to be helpful. He defined sin as man curving in on himself. I think of it as the magnet of me. I turn every window through which I am to see into a mirror to look at myself. Even the doctrine of the death of Christ and the giving of the Spirit can be turned into another opportunity to look at myself. As long as it is about me, I am cool with it. The Gospel calls us to look away from ourselves. We received Christ, now we grow and walk in him (Col 2:6-7). There is a place for self-evaluation. The Bible is full of it. But I called to gaze at Christ with a glance to myself rather than gaze at myself with a glance at Christ.

      Thanks for commenting,

      Mark

      • Amanda Cross says:

        I appreciate the wisdom you shared here. I will think about both as I read the Bible and as I rest in His salvation.

  7. Catholic Mama says:

    Oh good grief. Just go to Confession — the Tribunal of Mercy. Amazing Grace. Great saints and Doctors of the Church have been preaching it for 2,000 years. Why reinvent the wheel? ;)

    • perhaps rather go to Christ, the mercy seat.

      • Steve Martin says:

        Amen.

        We have one Mediator and that is Christ and Christ alone.

        It’s good to confess to a pastor, priest, or whomever. But NOT a requirement. But the Lord would like to hear from…and He will tell you (has told us) “go your way and sin no more”.

  8. Judd Rumley says:

    Mark

    Thank you. Your article was right on. I appreciate your insights.

    I followed the links to Grace Church and was very impressed with the ministry in SD.

    I also downloaded your membership outlines as they were simple and profitable. In addition, your insight (Empowered by the Spirit) into the being indwelt by the Holy Spirit and filled by Him has reshaped my thinking.

    So all in all, keep up the great work. A young green bean pastor from TX (Go Cowboys) serving in CO (Go Broncos) has been very encouraged.

    Blessings

    Judd

  9. Bobby Kunkle says:

    Mark, thank you for sharing this reflection with the world via your blog. I am not one to usually tell people they are being used to directly answer my prayers, but you have been used to directly answer my prayers. Therefore, I thank God for using you in that way.

    I came across this post via Tim Challies’ blog. I am hip to being gospel-centered. What Christian isn’t?! But it has been interesting to see how recently the term, “gospel-centered,” has become more of a buzz word (like missional, relevant, relationship, etc.) and has lost its actual meaning. I think I have been guilty a number of times of both practicing and teaching an “endless constantly-checking-the-state-of-our-hearts” theology. I’m all about being gospel-centered – always focused on the glorious redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ – but when that becomes a never-ending question of “Was what I just did motivated by the gospel?” it is wrong and it drives a person crazy. CRAZY!

    Recently, my fiancée has been wrestling with the faith/works (grace/law) question. I refer to this as the “second-half-of-the-epistles debate.” I shared this blog post with her and it gave her great encouragement. I’ve been praying that God would help her to gain some clarity on this question. This article has been quite a blessing to her and myself.

  10. Neal says:

    I can understand the frustration with an abuse of a new term, “Gospel-centered,” but I can’t quite see where focusing on the Gospel is bad?

    A little [lot] of introspection is good for the Christian. Jesus calls us to come, repent, and obey. Come as you are, leave as a devoted follower, who will by definition, be a devoted follower of the LORD Jesus Christ–not merely and admirer.

    Perhaps what you’re missing from all these books, sermons, etc about the Gospel-centered life is the constant reminder to remember Jesus is our Advocate with the Father. But everything I’ve seen on the subject in the Puritan and Reformed blogosphere tries to include both a hard-lined message of the Person and the Work of Christ and a reminder to the disheartened sinners that Jesus’ work of Justification through Faith Alone also Sanctifies through Faith Alone.

    Also, the reason there is a multitude of books and sermons on the topic of “how to read your Bible” is because we now live in a society that has forgotten how to read our Bibles. We have post-modern skeptics who have become pastors and authors, teaching that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. We have another extreme of people who open the pages of their Bibles and begin over-spiritualizing a spiritual text. Those people find the most awkward interpretations of scripture. The reason so many authors are trying to refocus our attention to the Gospel-centered life is because, culturally, we have lost the focus of the Person and the Work of Christ. We need to be reminded to read the texts in the Bible for what they are: historical narrative, history, epistle, apocalyptic. We also need to be reminded that when Jesus says, “obey my commands” he doesn’t mean do whatever feels good and/or easy.

  11. Dave Wilson says:

    Very thought-provoking post Mark. In particular, your question “are we making the Scriptures harder to understand than they are?” really connected with me. We enjoy theologically rich preaching every Sunday. But there are times when I look at my teenagers and wonder if much is going over their heads.
    Also, you make a passing mention of A Hole In Our Holiness. I thought DeYoung did a good job of framing our pursuit of holiness against the backdrop of Gospel indicatives. Would you have a different perspective?
    Thanks,
    Dave

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I like Kevin’s book because he quote so many texts and explained the plain meaning. I think we can engage in theological debate with our Bibles closed. I guess I did that in this post!

      Mark

  12. Pastor Mark,

    I was specifically asked to look at your blog and give my opinion. I don’t go looking for blogs or posts on subjects. We probably agree a lot more than we will disagree. But the persons who posted this to me are very special to me so I will respond. I have been one who has been critical of late concerning some of this problem. I admit I am a pot stirrer here. It started a few years ago with Dr. Horton and some of his definitions concerning the Gospel and some of my interaction with Dr. R. Scott Clark. I moderate a theological forum where Dr. Clark participates. So I have a history here. This was my latest comments on this situation…

    http://rpcnacovenanter.wordpress.com/2012/12/07/depraved-christianity-might-be-antinomian-christianity-pt-3/

    This is my response for them.

    Hi
    I believe he is incorrect concerning how he views the books of Galatians and Corinthians. Both are corrective and encouragement books. Both point to the whole Gospel message and how to live it. Both are about a message deviation and getting the message correct. Both tell us to fall upon Christ for our eternal justification and both discuss how the law should be applied and how it is missapplied in the Church.

    Doesn’t this passage in Galatians sound very similar to the letter in 1 Corinthians?

    Gal 5:12 I would they were even cut off which trouble you.
    Gal 5:13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
    Gal 5:14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
    Gal 5:15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.
    Gal 5:16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
    Gal 5:17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
    Gal 5:18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
    Gal 5:19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
    Gal 5:20 Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
    Gal 5:21 Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
    Gal 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
    Gal 5:23 Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
    Gal 5:24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
    Gal 5:25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
    Gal 5:26 Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.

    As I have noted before this problem really has its roots in misunderstanding the Old and New Covenants. There is a dichotomizing of law and Gospel in the Gracious Covenants that are unbiblical. We should note the distinctions but they are a part of the two-fold grace of Christ in justification and sanctification. The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 7. 5,6 can be foundational in summarizing the problem when noting that the substance of the Old and New Covenant are the same. They both are administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Just because the Pharisees and Sadducees misapplied the law doesn’t mean that it isn’t apart of the Gospel or that the Gospel and law oppose each other as some teach. (at the same time I do admit that the we in the New Covenant can also turn it into a Covenant of Works as the Jews did in the Old Covenant). The misapplication of trying to be just before God by doing the law is what is wrong and that opposes the Gospel. Self justification is the problem. The remedy is falling upon Christ for salvation and finding our relationship reconciled to the Father through His obedience.

    At the same time we shouldn’t think we are depraved. If we are complete in Christ we accept Romans 7 and 8 together. All things become new as it is mentioned in 2 Corinthians 5:17. We are touched with a new enabling as we are new creatures in Christ who are destined for a life long maturing process.

    Notice that these guys always attack some morbid constant examination of our faith. It is so crippling to life. That might be true for some people who don’t understand justification and sanctification as he notes he had a faulty view at one time.

    To answer his question that follows I would have to say “no” for the most part.

    He asks this question, “Have we allowed our therapeutic, self-aware, constantly-checking-out-the-state-of-our-heart culture to shape our doctrine?”

    But then again I am not from his area. But from what I know of California this isn’t a problem out there either. It really isn’t a problem in the Reformed Church as I know it. And I communicate with people from around the world.

    The culture I am familiar with doesn’t even recognize the law as God’s spoken truth. They give it no credence nor do they even care about it. If they do care about it it is only to discredit it. That is even true for those of us in the Reformed Church.

    I do admit most of the counseling ministries today are trying to alleviate the conscience from past sin for reconciliation purposes. That is good. Point them to Christ. Point them to what God says about our sin so that we may repent. If things are too overbearing give some them medicine to help alleviate so that recovery can start. The soul is even more complex than our bodies I imagine. You have to feed a starving person physically so that they can physically hear correctly. Sometimes that is necessary. But don’t diminish the problem by saying we are overly checking out the state of our heart. Luther did that because he didn’t understand justification. He didn’t understand sanctification. He didn’t understand Union with Christ. Orthodoxy leads to Orthopraxy. So give them the whole counsel of God.

    As another observation, sometimes it is just a plain spiritual attack from the Devil who is the accuser of the brethren. In that kind of case we need for Jesus to step in to deal with it in a special way. He is the Shepherd.

    I bet I have really confused everyone now. I better hold up right here.
    I am sorry if I misread you Pastor.
    Randy

    • Thanks for as thoughtful reply as you gave.

      Admittedly I am addressing a small niche of folks who have been drawn into gospel centrality. They are part of the following of many of the new books in this regard. They have been accused of antinomianism, but usually unfairly. They are very much into the idols of the heart model of sanctification.

      There are wide numbers of churches and people where I am that preach morality and self help as the way of the believer. I would interact with them differently. I am also aware of reformed folks who see the connection of law and grace quite well, and others not so much. This does not apply to them so much either.

      Without fully interacting with you, my point was fairly straightforward (and my subsequent post more do). The readers of the NT were able to get a pretty clear idea that Christ changes everything, and that living that out was a matter of discovery and application. It was difficult due to remaining sin, but it was not complex. The glory of the Gospel is it brings salvation in its fullness to illiterate peasants. If we make the way of the Christian so complex that we make it seem inaccessible to such, then we may have mutated the simplicity of the Gospel.

      I am all for study, hold a DMin, and 2 advanced theological degrees, still work with the original languages, etc. But those should help me serve the people of God in their daily walk of faith.

      Mark

  13. Thanks Pastor,

    As an old Navigator I couldn’t agree more. I remember memorizing passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:13, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 2:20, and the Bridge Illustration early in my walk with Christ. Those were the days. It was simple as the Gospel could be. It wasn’t a complicated dividing of terms back in the early 80′s. It all stemmed from the person and work of Christ. I just wish for it to be that simple again for others as it still is for me. The Gospel was all life and could even benefit the unregenerate just by hearing it.

  14. Aaron L says:

    This is so good. I have struggled with this very thing, especially the past couple years, and you’ve put to words what I could not. Thank you for writing this.

  15. Jenn Grover says:

    Mark, thanks for writing this. People have looked at me like I was crazy when I told them that I thought “gospel” and “gospel-centered” were thrown around so much that they had lost their meaning to many folks. The “gospel” became the new formula for whatever your trouble. Do you need wisdom? Look for a gospel-centered approach (although, I thought we were supposed to pray.) Kids having trouble with peer pressure? Gospel-centered parenting is the cure. I could go on, but you get the point, it’s just our latest version of legalism and self-sufficiency.

    I have also taken issue with the term “gospel centered” because in our small family of churches, it was synonymous with “cross-centered” and there significant lack of teaching on the abundant life we have in Christ as Believers. I think the term “God-centered” would be far more biblical and communicate more accurately how we should view things.

    Thanks, again for writing this, it is meaningful that at least someone else gets it.

  16. Jeremy says:

    Thank you. This was really helpful and challenging. You rightly and graciously point out that we are in danger of saying, “thank you God that I am not like that Pharisee”. Thanks also for your helpful questions. For what it’s worth, I’d like to respond as someone who largely finds himself resonating with the gospel-centered movement.

    1: Are we making the Scriptures harder to understand than they are?

    “The writers of the NT were pastors of churches. They were neck deep in real life with real people. They said what they said as simply as they said it to people just like us. They do not need my help to explain what they really meant.”

    It’s such a good and healthy reminder for us to know that the apostles were pastors and were “neck deep in real life with real people” and that they don’t need our help to explain what they really meant. On the other hand, when you say that some are mishandling the Scriptures by claiming that “strive doesn’t mean strive, ‘add to’ does not mean ‘add to’, labor is really rest, put to death is really faith”, it seems that you’re referring to those who constantly appeal to gospel indicatives when teaching through these imperatives (though I could be mistaken). And yet the reasons for teaching biblical imperatives constantly in light of biblical indicatives are clear: As we all know too well, it is very possible to study the Bible in such a way that it creates a moralistic framework for biblical obedience. This is the default mode of the human heart. So if we know for certain (and we do) that our people will constantly struggle with reading imperatives in such a way that leads them to a task-driven Christianity, we have a responsibility to make as many appeals to the transforming grace of the gospel as are necessary. I certainly agree that we should not dismiss the hard work of obedience. But consistently speaking of these terms (“strive”, “add to”, “labor”, “put to death”) in light of the grace of the gospel is not a qualification. As you point out in the article, it’s a necessity. It doesn’t cause such commands to die—it makes them flourish. It doesn’t make Scripture harder to understand—it puts Scripture into its right and proper biblical framework.

    2: Are we confusing the internal function of the Gospel with the objective truth of the Gospel?

    This is helpful. We can’t afford to confuse these two. I think the qualifier I would want to make here is that we must also not separate them. Neither in Galatians nor Corinthians do I see Paul only dealing with the internal function of the gospel or the objective truth of the gospel. I think there are elements of both at work in both letters. For instance, yes, the Galatians have added to the gospel and much (perhaps most) of Paul’s appeal is that adding to the gospel brings damnation. But we also see that he is dealing with believers who are missing how the gospel changes their lives. Look at chapter 2, for instance. Paul arrives in Antioch to find Peter’s conduct “not in step with the truth of the gospel”. I think we would agree that Peter has the message of the gospel right—we know that to be the case from verses 1-10 when they all agree that they should not add anything to the gospel. And yet their conduct has not been fully shaped that objective truth.

    Paul does not say that he confronted them “when I saw that they got the message of the gospel wrong”, or “when I saw that they disobeyed commands”, but “when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.” I don’t think we can make the case the Paul is conflating the internal function of the gospel with the objective truth of the gospel. I do, however, think that he sees the two in some ways as being inextricably tied together.

    3: Have we created both a new law and a perfectionism?

    I was really helped by this:

    “I can begin the day with words like these: ‘I believe my righteousness is in Christ and his work, and his work alone. Nothing can change that. God is at work in me too, to make me like his Son.’ Then I go into the day. Perhaps I remind myself of these things along the way. But I live based on objective affirmation of faith, not the quality of my resting in Christ.”

    Yes. We live based on objective affirmation of faith. And as I alluded to earlier, I think that we need to be careful not to become the “language police” and make sure that everything everyone says comes right out of the gospel-centered movement’s dictionary. There were obviously plenty of gospel-centered folks writing great books and pastoring healthy churches before it was cool to be gospel-centered.

    Having said that, we must not forget that the reason we lack the qualities of godliness, according to Peter, is because we are “so nearsighted that [we are] blind, having forgotten that [we were] cleansed from [our] former sins.” This doesn’t mean that our life is based on the quality of our resting in Christ, but our spiritual growth certainly seems to be based on our remembrance of the gospel and its application for our lives.

    4: Have we changed the ‘involuntary’ working of God into a voluntary and conscious activity of the believer?

    Thanks for this question. It helped me to put words to some confusion that I’ve been having as I’ve been processing the function of the gospel. There is no question that new creatures will in a sense be involuntarily drawn by Christ’s grace in that it will create new delights and desires in our hearts. I say “in a sense” because if rejoicing in the indicatives was always “involuntary” and not “a voluntary and conscious activity of the believer”, it seems odd to me that both Paul and Peter would go out of their way at times to tell individuals who have been made new by God (some of them even other apostles!) that their motivation seems to be based on self-righteousness instead of the cross. You rightly say, “We need reminders of the indicatives.” Why do we need reminders? Because in order for our hearts to be involuntarily stirred to joy, they need to hear the joyous news of the gospel over and over again. The intentional remembrance of this news seems to be (at least partly) a voluntary action.

    This was particularly helpful: “Sometimes I read stuff on ‘the Gospel and having it function in our lives’ and it makes sense. Sometimes it sounds like exhorting people to make sure their livers are working.” Absolutely. We can’t manufacture joy from the gospel. If we are a new creation, it will happen involuntarily. And you might have a liver that works involuntarily, but there are voluntary means that help insure that the involuntary functions of the liver work properly (being careful not to overeat or consume large amounts of alcohol, healthy diet, exercise, etc.). All of these things will lead to the liver doing what it was naturally designed to do involuntarily. Forgetting these things (or ignoring them) can be tragic for your liver. Similarly, the indicatives very well might involuntarily create in us a joy that leads to obedience if we have been truly made new, but we need to actively remember those indicatives in order for this involuntary function of joy to make us more like Christ.

    Thanks so much again for the good challenges. This really helped me process. Much appreciated.

    • This is a thoughtful discussion. Thanks for taking the time to do so.

      I concur, that the indicatives always come first, and that leads to imperatives. I am concerned that in our passion for the indicatives we simply rewrite the epistles so they conform to our understanding. I believe I am to take Scripture as it is and not suggest different words to God. I also believe I am take all of Scripture and not just Paul. James is as Gospel-based as Paul but comes at it entirely differently, as do Peter and John. I am for the clearest understanding possible. As a pastor I am also to help each person with their particular leanings.

      I read Galatians differently. They were changing their doctrinal statement in matters at the core of the Gospel. Peter’s actions did the same. His actions were the actions of an apostle, one entrusted with the Gospel. The Corinthians, from what we can tell, were not propagating a different message at its core, and do Paul does not anathematize.

      Good thoughts on how reminding ourselves of the indicatives stirs our new hearts to treasure them again.

      Glad you stopped by.

      Mark

  17. Meredith says:

    Thanks so much for this Mark. I read this post on my spiritual birthday, the day God saved me 22 years ago. It was so fitting to have you draw my attention back to what it was like being a babe in Christ. You’ve given me much to chew on. Thank you for being faithful to use your gifts to bless the church!

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