Happy New Year! Normally at Living Hope we love going through entire books of the Bible from the pulpit. But for the next few months, since we are entering a new season with a new denomination and trying to get settled as a church, I felt like we should focus this season on what we are about as a church. This series is called “Life. Community. Mission: Our Gospel DNA.”
These words are straight from our retreat in 2014 (if you remember) and they encapsulate pretty much all that we as a church is about. This is our DNA and identity. It’s not original with us. You can probably find every other church with the same words, but how it is fleshed out in our church is what we will be looking at the next few months.
Notice the word Gospel. It’s a buzzword around these parts and in Christendom. You can find Gospel-centered everything. But it is more than just a word or trend or hashtag. It is what really influences everything. So really it is the GOSPEL…and how it informs our LIFE, the GOSPEL…and how it shapes COMMUNITY and the GOSPEL…and how it fuels us for mission. This will be the outline of the series and Lord willing, it should lead us into Easter.
If you are a believer in Christ, this means there was a time in your life when you repented from your sins and believed on Christ as your Savior and Lord. You understand that the Gospel has saved you. There is no other way you could have come to know Christ without understanding the Gospel in your head and have it move into your heart.
But how does that same Gospel that you understood for salvation impact your sanctification now or how you see all of life? That’s what we mean by Gospel-centrality. Gospel-centrality has affected all of our ministries and is the fuel for all that we do. This is why I believe the next two weeks will be critical for you to be here to get a grasp of the foundation of all of the philosophy of ministry done here at Living Hope. What is Gospel-Centrality? First:
- What Gospel-centrality is NOT
When we say we are a Gospel-centered church, we don’t mean:
- We are just about outreach
Some people think that being Gospel-centric, it means that we all about doing outreach and sharing the Gospel with non-believers. Do we want non-believers to hear the Gospel? Absolutely! Are we about outreach? Yes! We need to continue to grow in this, in fact. But that’s not all that we mean. We also don’t mean that Gospel-centrality is just
- Sermon closing add-on
I had to read a book in seminary called “Cross-centered preaching” and I missed the point because I thought that meant at the end of the sermon, no matter what you are preaching about, you say something like, “If you don’t know Jesus, believe the Gospel and be saved. Jesus loves you and died for you. Come and talk to one of us.” It’s like a little tagline added at the end. But that’s not what we mean, either.
We also don’t mean:
- c) Obedience is not important
Jesus died for you and loved you and you just sit back and do what you want. He did it all, so you don’t have to do anything. We are not against grace-driven effort. We are against earning our acceptance, but not against effort because we are accepted. Gospel-centrality is after the motivation to obey. You don’t mow your dad’s lawn and ask him if you can be his kid. You mow the lawn because you are his kid. One says, “I obey, therefore God accepts me,” while the other says, “I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.”
- What is Gospel-Centrality?
Gospel centrality is a continual rediscovery of the Gospel. Look at the passage in Eph. 1. This is one of Paul’s prayers for the churches. It is for believers. It is convoluted and we can’t get to all of it, but the heart of this prayer for believers is that God and the weight of who He is (Father of glory) will give them insight in such a way they can practically apply it in their lives (wisdom), in the knowledge of Him, meaning the purpose of this is to know God better.
But this is not just by getting head knowledge. Look at v.18. It is heart knowledge that he is after. It is experiential knowledge. He wants God to throw upon the curtains, let the light shine into their hearts in such a way they taste and know Him and thus receive all that is theirs in Christ already…all the riches of knowing Him, which includes hope and power. Wait, don’t they know Christ? Absolutely, but what they need is a deeper experience of what they know.
Look at all the prayers of Paul in Eph. 1, Phil. 1 or Colossians 1. Have you ever noticed that when Paul is praying from the bottom of his heart for the people, he rarely mentions their circumstances? That’s very striking, because we know from these letters his people, the people in Philippi and Colossae and all, suffered a great deal. They had many dangers bearing down on them. They were losing their homes. They were dying from diseases. They were suffering oppression at the hand of tyrants.
Yet, in every one of Paul’s prayers, you never see him praying for a better emperor, or protection from marauding armies, or for their daily bread. You never see that. This doesn’t mean it’s wrong to pray for those things. Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread and Paul does tell us to pray for a government and world peace in 1 Tim. 2.
That’s not the point. Paul goes straight for what they need. And what do they need? That they might rediscover with a heart understanding of the riches they already have in Christ. Why? Because good circumstances is not what is going to make you in a big-hearted, caring, humble, loving and great person in Christ. What makes you great is how you process all circumstances.
This concept of Gospel-centrality was introduced to me around three or four years ago and I have not been the same since then. First, let me share a little bit of my journey. I came to Christ at 17. I grew up in the church and I was very religious, but I did not have a relationship with Christ. When I came to Christ, it was dramatic, intense and completely life-transforming. I was in tears with my family and we gave our lives to Christ.
About three-four years ago, something happened that changed my life again. It was like I was born again…again. I was listening to a good message on marriage at a men’s conference. At the end, the preacher gave good application on how to be a good husband. He gave several applications. My marriage was struggling and it was like God was speaking to me. So I went home and tried to apply the message. Two days later I was the same person. I started beating myself up. Why couldn’t I apply this? I must be a bad Christian!
Around the same time, I was also introduced to the ministry of Tim Keller, who is a pastor out in NYC. I was listening to a message by him. He wasn’t necessarily dynamic. I was skeptical because he was a Presbyterian and I had this notion of old men reading systematic theology books from the pulpit. But the topic was marriage. At the end, he said, “Do you know why you are a bad spouse?” My ears perked up. “You don’t realize the spousal love of Christ for you.” He went on talking about the cross, the sinfulness of our sin, but the graciousness of grace. I was brought down low to hell and the lifted up to Heaven all at the same time. He had no application and he ended.
I was in my office bawling like a baby. Good thing no one else was around. My whole face was leaking. I didn’t know why I was crying like that. I went home with a sparkle in my eye, a spring in my step and heart just filled with His love. And I was automatically doing the things the other preacher had told me to do. Before I felt like I was a new car, but then it had no gas. This time, I felt someone filled up my tank to full. I felt like I “woke up” spiritually. Pastor Jared Wilson calls it “gospel wakefulness.” He defines it this way: “…to treasure Christ more greatly and savor His power more sweetly.” That’s really all what Gospel-centrality is.
Before I memorized Eph. 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” But now this was heart knowledge. He is an incredible spouse to me when I am the spouse from hell to Him.
It did not mean our marriage was perfect now. But now I knew the basic foundations of why I struggle and what I need to go back to. Since then, I am continually rediscovering the Gospel and my life has really changed. Before I understood coming to Christ for salvation through repentance of our nothingness, Christ completely saving us by grace and giving us eternal life. I thought that truth was for unbelievers.
Believers have to now work hard to obey God and His commands. It is not accurate to think “the gospel” is what saves non-Christians, and then, what matures Christians is trying hard to live according to Biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our mind, heart and life by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on.
When I rediscovered the Gospel again and again, I realized what I need continually is to see that the gospel is not simply the entry point into the Christian life but that it is also the foundation and power that shapes all we do as followers of Jesus Christ, both in our daily lives and in our experience as the corporate body of Christ. The Good News of Jesus Christ is not only the fire that ignites the Christian life, it’s the fuel that keeps Christians going and growing each day. We never get “beyond the gospel.” We always grow deeper into the depths of the gospel.
The gospel is not the first ‘step’ in a ‘stairway’ of truths, rather, it is more like the ‘hub’ in a ‘wheel’ of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s, but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.
Therefore, the gospel is not what God requires. The gospel is what God provides! The gospel is not an imperative, demanding things you must do. The gospel is an indicative, declaring things that God has done. Look at all of Paul’s letters. He spends so many chapters highlighting the indicative, declaring things that God has done before telling you what to do, the imperatives. He doesn’t assume you know the indicatives. So every sin is not just a behavioral problem, but a belief problem—unbelief of the Gospel. I don’t really believe the sinfulness of sin and/or the graciousness of grace. Every disobedience of the imperative is an unbelief of the indicative.
We can never exhaust this gospel. It is a multi-faceted diamond! But how do grow towards gospel-centrality?
III. How do we grow towards Gospel-Centrality?
If I asked you, “What is the gospel?” We can talk about this in a lot of theological terms of justification, atonement, etc. and say Sunday school answers of “Jesus died for our sins and was raised the 3rd day.” We have said it so much, but we lost the functional meaning of it in our lives. So I want to use it the way the late Presbyterian minister Jack Miller put it this way:
“Cheer up! You are a worse sinner than you ever imagined.” Cheer up! You are more loved than you ever dared hope.”
You need both. Truth and grace. But we tend to slide from one side to the other. Growing towards Gospel-centrality is coming back to believing both. First, we are worse than we think we are. Paul writes, “I am the least of all the apostles.” But then at the end of his life, he says, “I am the chief of all sinners.” What happened to Paul? The older he got as a Christian, the more sinful he saw himself to be. We probably only see 2% or less of our sins (and less than 1% of God’s grace for that matter). People get saved and often we see external things get stopped, but there are lots of underlying sin.
If you are seeing more of your sin, you are growing in grace. I am not excusing sinful behavior. Paul is clear that we don’t deliberately sin so that we can abound in grace. But as you fight against your flesh, growing in grace is seeing that you are worse than you thought (and growing to see you are more loved than you ever imagined—at the same time!).
But if you just stay here, you end up with religion or moralism. If you just see the first side of the coin, you can end up in moralism. Moralism is the view that you are acceptable (to God, the world, others, yourself) through your attainments. I obey so I am accepted. If I don’t obey, then I am not accepted. And so when you fail, you beat yourself up. “I stink!” and “God hates me!” and “Why do I stink so bad?” Why? Because everything they do is based on what they are doing or not doing and not on what God has done.
It is ironic to realize that inferiority and superiority complexes have the very same root. Whether the moralist ends up smug and superior or crushed and guilty just depends on how high the standards are and on a person’s natural advantages (such as family, intelligence, looks, willpower). Moralistic people can be deeply religious—but there is no transforming joy or power. You have comparative righteousness. At least I am in church this week unlike Billy Bob who’s sleeping in.
You are your own Savior. Moralists, despite all the emphasis on traditional standards, are in the end self-centered and individualistic, because they have set themselves up as their own Savior. But though religious persons may be extremely penitent and sorry for their sins, they see sins as simply the failure to live up to standards by which they are saving themselves. They do not see sin as the deeper self-righteousness and self-centeredness through which they are trying to live lives independent of God. So when they go to Jesus for forgiveness, they only as a way to “cover over the gaps” in their project of self-salvation.
But the Gospel tells you that you are worse than you thought. No one can keep all the rules. So you start repenting not just of the bad things, but the reasons you did the good things. You repent of self-righteousness. This brings humility.
A pastor friend of mine was sharing this story. A long list of his sins were detailed in an email that another good friend sent him. He was hurt. He forwarded the email to his mentor with the subject, “Can you believe this?” The mentor replied, “Yes I can believe it. Imagine if your friend knew more about you. How long would this email be then? Isn’t God gracious?” What?!
When I am criticized, I am furious or devastated because it is critical that I think of myself as a “good person.” Threats to that self-image must be destroyed at all costs. But see, I am worse than I think I am and how people think I am. I should be the biggest sinner I know!
But the Gospel frees me so that when I am criticized, I can take it. I struggle, but it is not critical for me to think of myself as a “good person.” My identity is not built on my record or my performance, but on God’s love for me in Christ. And you don’t need to defend yourself. “Thank you for sharing that because actually you only saw a small part of the iceberg of my sin. Jesus saw and took all of it. No one can criticize me more than the cross has.” That’s humility. When someone fails your expectations, you are not surprised. There is faster forgiveness because you have not kept your standards either.
Moralists need to see that our sins are worse than we thought. I can’t keep my standards and they are not even high enough for God. If we stopped there, we would be crushed to the bottom. The first part cries, “I am a great Savior. But the second part says, “But Christ is a greater Savior and we are loved to the skies.”
But if you just emphasize the latter, you get relativism. Relativism is just emphasizing the other side: “You are more loved than you ever dared hope.” God loves me and makes no demands. Just accept God’s love and do as you please. But this is dangerous too, because you are rejoicing without repentance. You can’t rejoice over good news without repenting over the bad news. Moralists get mad at the relativists because they seem to glorify grace and not care about obedience.
If you lean the other way, you don’t see the sinfulness of sin, but just the graciousness of grace. Sin then leads to license and lawlessness. God loves me loses it power because you have forgotten the cost of our sin that brings His love. Listen to Spurgeon:
Let us [hate] the sin which brought such agony upon our beloved Lord. What an accursed thing is sin, which crucified the Lord Jesus! O sirs, if I had a dear brother who had been murdered, what would you think of me if I valued the knife which had been crimsoned with his blood? —if I made a friend of the murderer, and daily consorted with the assassin, who drove the dagger into my brother’s heart? Surely I, too, must be an accomplice in the crime! Sin murdered Christ; will you be a friend to it? Sin pierced the heart of the Incarnate God; can you love it?…O my hearers, if you did but know yourselves, and know the love of Christ, you would each one vow that you would harbour sin no longer.
Moralism is not the Gospel and neither is Relativism. The Gospel says something different:
|View||View of sin||Result||Assessment|
|Moralism||Your sins make you unacceptable. If you cannot shape up, then you need to ship out!
|Pride/self-righteousness (if you think you’ve succeeded)
Despair/self-hate (if you fail)
|Unbiblical—No room for the grace of the Gospel (Jesus lived and died for you—you are completely loved!).
|Relativism||Don’t worry about your sins. They’re not a big deal—You are OK no matter what because God forgives you regardless.||Cheapened sin/ungrateful
Unaware of own sinfulness
No passion to grow in Christ
|Unbiblical—No room for the truth of the Gospel (sin will ruin you, you need rescue from Jesus!).
|Gospel||I repent at the sinfulness of my sin, but rejoice in the love of God and graciousness of grace.
|Motivation to change because you are so deeply loved. You long to please the one who gave Himself for you!
Healing from sin—and an increased awareness that God’s commands are good for you!
|Biblical and life giving. (Cheer up! You are worse than you think. But God’s love for you is infinitely greater than you ever dared to hope!).
But if you really see the first and second part, your heart repents of sin and rejoices in His love and grace. If you have repentance without rejoicing, you fall into self-hating. If you have rejoicing without repentance, you fall into self-inflation and forgetting the cost of sin. The Gospel is a collision of both. Not only are you humble because you are worse than you thought, you are also confident because God is far more committed to you than you are to Him. You are utterly broken and utterly awed at the same time.
Not until you’re humbled down into the dust because he’s so holy he had to die for you, and not until you’re affirmed and valued into the sky because he loves you so much he was glad to die for you, will you be humbled out of the pride that makes you look down on other people, and affirmed out of the self-hatred that makes you look down on yourself. At the same time!
In other words, only when you see what it cost God to remove your sin will you finally have the death of all inferiority and the death of all superiority, and you’ll be able to have freedom.
What I want to do next week is to show you what this Gospel-centrality means practically. So please come back!
Jesus came to liberate us from the weight of having to make it on our own, from the demand to measure up. He came to emancipate us from the burden to get it all right, from the obligation to fix ourselves, find ourselves, and free ourselves. Jesus came to release us from the slavish need to be right, rewarded, regarded, and respected. Because Jesus came to set the captives free, life does not have to be a tireless effort to establish ourselves, justify ourselves, and validate ourselves.
Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. The gospel is not a moralistic “Do!” The gospel is a merciful “Done!” The gospel is not good advice – it’s good news! Ever had a candy bar stuck in the vending machine? You put your dollar in and the candy bar comes out and gets stuck? Then you try to put your hands up from the bottom, you are shaking it trying to get it to fall. This is our problem. The Gospel is comes out a little in our heads and doesn’t fall all the way down into our hearts. The rest of life is God trying to shake you until this truth falls into your heart.
As Tim Keller says,
“This creates a radical new dynamic for personal growth. It means that the more you see your own flaws and sins, the more precious, electrifying, and amazing God’s grace appears to you. But on the other hand, the more aware you are of God’s grace and acceptance in Christ, the more able you are to drop your denials and self-defenses and admit the true dimensions and character of your sin.”
Keller, T. J. (2013). Sermon, “Prayer for the Church,” Preached June 24, 1988. The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
Wilson, J. (2011). Gospel Wakefulness (24). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Keller, T. (2006, December 18). Quoted in We Never Get Beyond the Gospel. Retrieved January 3, 2015, from http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2006/12/18/we-never-get-beyond-gospel/.
Spurgeon, C. H. (1998). Lama Sabachthani? Spurgeon’s Sermons (electronic
ed., Vol. 36). Albany, OR: Ages Software.
http://www.greentreechurch.com/mediafiles/uploaded/w/0e2005011_we-believe-what-part-2.pdf Retrieved January 3, 2015.
Keller, T. (2013, January 22). Jesus and self-justification. Retrieved January 3, 2015, from https://rescuejesusnow.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/jesus-and-self-justification/.