I first wrote these thoughts out here two years ago. In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking through this more and more as I watch individuals and groups circle the wagons and self-justify rather than facing their problems head on when confronted about their sin. Every believer needs to understand this truth — using gospel language does not make you gospel-centered. You can say Jesus, gospel, and grace as much as you want in a sermon, book, or facebook update, but that does not mean you understand or live out practically the true meaning of any of it.
What is the difference? At first, I thought the difference centered around Calvinism and reformed doctrine. The churches in which I was raised and attended into adulthood were mostly Baptist (dispensational, KJV-only Baptist if you are familiar with those terms). When I discovered Martin Luther and the reformation, I thought that was the solution to the ills I had witnessed in gospel believing, though not gospel centered, churches growing up. But it doesn’t take long running in reformed circles to figure out that they (we) often aren’t any more gospel centered than the independent Baptist crowd. We might be able to articulate the doctrines of grace with greater eloquence (complete with Scripture references and Calvin/Luther quotes), but that just makes our distractions from gospel-centered living that much more troubling.
I now understand that a pastor or teacher can say gospel, grace, and Jesus in sermons, books, and facebook updates as much as he wants, but that doesn’t make them gospel centered. That doesn’t mean they understands grace. That doesn’t show an awareness of the fullness of whom Jesus is and what He came to live out before us.
The place I first noticed the disconnect in my own life between gospel language and gospel practice was in conflict — my sins against others and their sins against me. I either ran away in shame or rose up in self-justification when confronted with my sins against others. And I rose up in anger or ran away in fear of conflict when others sinned against me. The gospel equips me to face my failings head on, keeping short accounts with those I’ve wronged. It equips me to endure in grace for the long haul with others in their sin and failings. And when I think of all I want to do for Jesus, it counsels me to leave those gifts at the altar, and don’t do or say another thing in ministry until I’ve made things right with those I’ve wounded.
Matthew 5 23 <sup class="crossreference" value="(D)”>So if <sup class="crossreference" value="(E)”>you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
That’s a crucial lesson for any Christian teacher/author to learn. We love God and want to teach others to love Him too, but we must, we absolutely MUST leave that teaching gift at the altar and repair with those we’ve wronged first. That is foundational to gospel-centered teaching.
The gospel isn’t a word. It’s a paradigm-shifting lens through which we view everything else. It isn’t something we do to change ourselves. It’s something done for us, in which we dwell daily. The gospel changes everything. The gospel INFORMS everything. The gospel is the pair of glasses that sits on our nose as we leave Sunday service changing how we view ourselves, our marriage problems, our marriage successes, our disobedient children, our obedient children, the people we don’t want to be like, and the people we do want to be like.
The gospel enlightens us (I did not save myself). The gospel teaches us (Neither can they). The gospel inspires us (Love them unconditionally the way Christ loved me). The gospel gives us hope (They aren’t past repair). The gospel gives us power. (The same force that raised Christ from the dead is at work in me and them). The gospel changes everything.
The gospel keeps us from thinking too highly of ourselves. It keeps us from thinking too highly of others. It protects us from self-condemnation when we fail. It equips us to catch others when they do. It gives us hope that transcends car accidents and relationship failures. It gives perspective to painful hindsight of mistakes with our husband or children, coworker or roommate. It just simply changes EVERYTHING. But it won’t change everything until you learn to look at everything through the lens it provides. And that means more than throwing the words around, even in proper context.