I am astonished that you are so quickly…turning to a different gospel. Gal 1:6.
The gospel has in today’s culture been rendered inaccessible by a combination of Biblical illiteracy, legalism and idolatry. The gospel needs to be recovered. It’s of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4). It’s God’s power for salvation (Rom 1:16) which immortal beings long to look into (1 Pet 1:12). And it’s as much for non-Christians as for Christians. But before getting to the heart of the gospel, it’s helpful to consider what it’s not.
The gospel gets eclipsed by legalistic, externalized religion. Legalism gives a busy behavior-based ‘to-do’ list to get right with God: new spiritual disciplines to master, new devotional techniques to develop, new doctrines to learn, more tithing, more mission trips, more fasting, more praying, more accountability, etc. Even the new, cool, emerging Christianity focuses on externals: ‘old legalism in grunge clothing’ — as Summit church pastor J.D. Greear aptly puts it — which insists you think and behave like Millennials.
When I don’t measure up to performance-based spirituality, I feel rejected, worthless and miserable. Legalism preached from the pulpit wrings out large offerings – great for bringing in the money but worthless in God’s sight. Threats and action steps – however subtly they’re sprinkled with verses – shame people into behaving a certain way; but in reality this is empty religion. Legalism turns me into an immaculately obedient Pharisee, always at prayer meetings, the first to sign up – yet self-focused, proud and judgmental. People acting right without loving right have neither heart nor spirit. Legalism quenches the Spirit – it’s the opposite of the gospel.
Sixteenth century theologian and reformer John Calvin called the human heart an ‘idol factory’, constantly attaching god-like weight to things we think essential for life and happiness. What is the one thing I hope for in my future? What do I most worry about losing? What one thing have I sacrificed most for? What do I most prize in life? Answers to these questions reveal my idols: my corner of the American Dream: plenty of money, a comfortable house and a great retirement. I serve Mammon, and pay God off. I check the right boxes: I tithe, volunteer and do the occasional mission trip — and live just as I please. In reality, I’m saying no to God and the gospel. As with legalism, so too with idolatry – it’s a religious façade. (1 Cor 13:1-3).
If I’m honest with myself I know I am in a helpless predicament. I drift into legalism. I lapse into idolatry. I fear: failure, mediocrity, being discovered, becoming a laughingstock. I hide my shortcomings, exaggerate my accomplishments, and bend the truth. So who am I functionally worshiping – God or me? My problem is my twisted and distorted heart to which these sins come as instinctively as breathing. That is my depravity — a radical, pervasive corruption as a consequence of my fallen nature. I’m wayward and rebellious at heart, and helpless to fix it (Ro 7:21-24).
That’s why the gospel is such good news! The God of the universe has reconciled us to Himself, His Son Jesus having died as a substitute for our sins. All who repent and believe have eternal life in Him (John 3:16). It’s what 4th century theologian, St. Athanasius, described as the great exchange: Christ became my sin so that I could literally become His righteousness (2 Cor 5:21). On that basis salvation is complete. God accepts me and loves me as unconditionally and completely as he loves Christ. And with all the glory and splendor and power that raised Christ from the grave, He will appear again to take us home! We receive this extraordinary grace in simple repentance and faith. It’s a free gift. This is astoundingly good news!
The gospel changes everything
It’s one thing to know about the gospel; having it burst alive in one’s soul is another. Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards likened it to the difference between knowing honey is sweet and the sweetness of honey bursting alive in one’s mouth. The gospel, said Edwards, is like a supernatural light imparted by the Spirit of God. “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” said Methodist founder John Wesley of his conversion experience. The goodness and majesty of God explodes in the heart, spiritual eyes are opened; hard hearts burst alive with righteous, godly passions; and new creatures remade in God’s image are launched into gospel-saturated lives committed to God’s redemptive mission for the world! John Wesley’s warmed heart was the initial fuse that led to his covering 250,000 miles (the distance from here to the moon) preaching two or three times a day as he co-founded the Methodist movement. The sheer dynamism of the gospel is extraordinary!
Love at the heart
Where does such spiritual vitality come from? Divine love is at the heart of the gospel. The gospel alone has the power to melt hearts that love God and others. Divine love birthed in reborn spirits releases the Spirit-life that pours through God’s new creatures. The Great Commandment is an outflow from the gospel. So long as God’s people abide in Jesus – spending time with Him, making their home in His love, saturating themselves in His words and reflecting on the gospel — then His love will be the soil out of which all outworkings of the fruits of the Spirit will naturally grow. All of God’s promises find their “yes” in Christ! “Here am I – send me!” (Is 6:8) is the worshipful response of God’s grateful people. The joy of obedience comes from being saturated with the life-giving power of the gospel.
An illustration of grace
In the 1862 historical novel Les Misérables, French author Victor Hugo explores the nature of law and grace. In an unforgettable scene, the law catches up with runaway convict and thief Jean Valjean, who collides with surprising grace. “This man is my friend,” says the victim of Valjean’s theft, “And you forgot these,” he says, putting more valuables in Valjean’s bag. With no charge being laid, the police must release their captive. Valjean’s encounter with grace is powerfully transformational: Valjean is permanently and radically altered, his soul having tasted something from a completely different world. Valjean becomes a new man. Such is the transformational power of grace at a human level – how much more transformational at a divine level.
What about obedience? Obedience to commands is an essential part of the Christian life, but the power for transformation does not come from it. It comes from the heart-melting love and grace of the gospel; it’s an outflow from gospel conviction. The gospel produces audacious faith, a desire for holiness, and all the other graces that mark the Spirit-filled life. Not one iota of obedience earns any salvation. Relationship with Jesus depends not on my performance for Jesus, but on His performance for me. The work of salvation is finished (Jn 19:30). Obedience cannot save — but it is the inevitable outflow of authentic spiritual rebirth and a the essential mark of a living faith (Ja 2:26).
When our lives are not gospel-centered
Over the years, perhaps we’ve misunderstood the Bible as a book of pragmatic rules or formulas for successful living — which is lifeless moralism — or we’ve marginalized the gospel in some other way, having been blind to its real significance. If so, Cover-to-Cover is a great help.
In Cover-to-Cover Bible Survey, we trace the Scarlet Thread of Redemption from Genesis to Revelation. Already in Genesis 3:15 the gospel is clearly anticipated. It’s thrilling to see how the gospel weaves together every book of the Bible and points to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at the heart of the gospel. Keeping in mind God’s master-narrative – creation, fall, redemption and consummation – helps us consistently focus on the person and work of Jesus, the main character in the entire Bible. The gospel is of prime importance, says Paul (1 Cor 15:3-4): it’s central to God’s message. It expresses the heart of God.
At Village Schools we encourage journaling (writing) as a way to slow down from the busyness of life, and marinate in the Scriptures as an act of worship and transformation. As we do so, we recover the centrality of the gospel in our lives, come alive more fully to Jesus, and pray God’s truth deeper into our hearts so we can grow and bear fruit (Col 1:6).
- Let’s plead with God to open the eyes of our hearts, and fill us (Eph 1: 17-19; 3:16-20; 5:18). If we’re spiritually blind, we have no idea we’re missing out on anything at all. Let’s pray for spiritual sight, encourage one another on the journey, help each other seek Jesus in every part of Scripture, and listen for His voice.
- Let’s embrace our identity in the gospel, and preach the gospel to ourselves daily. As Martin Luther once said, We need the gospel every day because we forget the gospel every day. The gospel doesn’t just ignite the Christian life, it’s the fuel that keeps us going and growing (Col 1:6). Whatever spiritual challenges we have in life, the cure is the gospel. It speaks to every area of our lives and into every situation. Through Bible study and prayer, let’s ask the Holy Spirit to take God’s word deeper into our being to cure undiscovered regions of unbelief. Always begin again with the gospel: let’s abide in it, swim in it, make our home in it and see more and more of our life in it.
- Listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice. Both the Holy Spirit and Satan point out our sin, but in completely different ways for radically different purposes. Our Accuser deceives us into mistaking his voice as the voice of the Holy Spirit: “You’re terrible! You’re no good. What a miserable failure. You’re such a disappointment!” Satan’s is the voice that accuses and demoralizes. The Holy Spirit’s voice is utterly different: “I have made you my child. I have taken away all your sin. I love you fully, completely and unconditionally. Live that way!” He reminds us of our identity in Christ and encourages us to live accordingly. The Holy Spirit releases the Spirit-life in our heart (Gal 5:22-23). His is the voice that redeems, takes us deeper with Jesus, and frees us to live a life of abundance and joy!
The gospel is the key. It’s of first importance (1 Cor 15:3-4). May our lives, with God’s grace, always reflect this profoundly important truth.
- Greear, J. D. Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. B&H, 2011.
- Greear, J.D. Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart: How to know for sure you are saved. B&H, 2013.
- Smith, S. Everyday Prayers: 365 Days to a Gospel-Centered Faith. Baker, 2011.
(This post was written by Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations, Village Schools of the Bible.)