An Introduction to the Centrality of the Gospel
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the very “food” of the Church. The Gospel, or as Paul describes it at times, the “word of grace,” or “word of truth” is the sphere in which the church operates. It is her life breath and atmosphere. For it is by the Gospel that the Church worships, progresses in her knowledge of God, wars against her soul’s enemies, maintains purity, pursues unity, and fulfills her mission to the world.
The Gospel is “our canon within the canon.” It was the Apostle Paul who said, “For I determined, while among you, to be unconscious of everything but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
Those who disbelieve the Gospel are literally at war with who God is. They show themselves hostile to God’s self-revelation; and consequently hostile to the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:3-6; Rom 1:18-20). The only way to know God, and therefore to be saved, is to become a friend of the cross (for the Gospel of the cross reveals the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Christ – 2 Cor 4:6).
True believers literally love the way God has saved them. They love the truth and feed upon it; they “preach the Gospel to themselves.” They cherish Christ as revealed in the Gospel. They meditate upon the word of God’s grace, marveling at God’s wisdom in the cross. Therefore the Gospel is their constant meeting place with God; for it is the revealer of the heart of God toward us (1 Jn 4:9, 10).
Our boldness to draw near to God in prayer and the confidence that we are heard is because the Father has graciously called us to meet Him at the altar of the slain Lamb of God.
The Gospel is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:30). Oh how the Gospel towers over the human intellect. Consider that God has taken man’s salvation into His own hands -- for the love of God and the wisdom of God have carved out a hiding place for believing sinners by means of the justice of God in the cross – so that by the sovereign calling of God the sinner may take refuge in the mercy of God from the wrath of God.
The fruits and dividends of preaching the Gospel to ourselves are immense. It will greatly help us keep a godly perspective that focuses our attention upon the cross of Christ. It will enable us to understand our life in the world and our identity in Christ. It will give us a vantage point by which we interpret everything; for the cross puts all things in true relation to each other. It will fill us with peace, hope, and joy in believing. It will cause us to live upon Christ by faith. In a word; it will exert a sanctifying force upon us.
I. Ongoing faith in the Gospel is the source of our spiritual renewal.
As Luther said, the fiends of sin and guilt are always beating up the believer and assaulting his conscience. How the saint needs to see that Christ was given for his sins. Renewal by means of the Gospel is our constant need.
Those who are willing to continually drink deeply from the well of the “word of grace” (the Gospel) are never bored with God. On the contrary, they are renewed by fresh views of God – views that produce awe, adoration, wonder, fear, and amazement. That’s why the Gospel is central to worship. For it is by the Gospel that God exalts, preserves, makes known, and glorifies His holy character in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). The saint is renewed and transformed as He continues to behold God in Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
By nature even saved men are prone to live by sight and sense. Like silt settling to the bottom of a lake, our thoughts find the lowest common denominator and eventually return to a temporal value system and a system of legal working. Only the Gospel can renew us, and lift us to another “dimension” by which we live grace-based, “God-ward” lives.
Just as gravity causes water to flow downward so that it eventually finds the bottomland, the swamp, and the stagnant slough, so also the old nature tugs at the saint, pulling him away from faith living. It takes energy and a plan to move pure water uphill to the water tower at the hilltop. So also, feeding on grace is a matter of intentionality.
In order to rebound from spiritual declension, one must assess the spiritual malnutrition in his own soul. He must stir himself past the carnal apathy that has left him contented with spiritual dryness and a lukewarm disposition toward Christ. (Christ as He is revealed in the Gospel answers all of our spiritual hunger. We must keep feeding upon Him and not upon the dry husks offered to us by the world.)
The believer must take seriously the fact that Christ sharpens His rod of discipline to chasten believers who exhibit more complacency than zeal. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; be zealous therefore, and repent (Rev 3:19).
The believer is frequently confronted by the gap that exists between what the N.T. requires of him, and what his actual obedience consists of. The true believer is always to be about the business of closing the gap by ongoing repentance. But, his efforts to close the gap must be by means of evangelical repentance, not legal repentance.
Evangelical repentance is grounded upon the fact of our union with Christ. Evangelical repentance looks to Christ as our completeness, our entire eligibility for God’s acceptance and favor, and for our right-standing with God and for our qualification to be sons of God in the kingdom of God.
Our efforts in pursuing holiness MUST flow from grace motives that stimulate evangelical repentance. Ongoing repentance for the true believer flows from his foundation of union with Christ. (Every single sub-Christian cult practices the opposite – they all practice legal repentance; which is an effort, though religion and moral effort, to measure up and be approved and accepted by God so as to win His favor.)
Paul guarded against all forms of legalism; he consistently anchored N.T. commands upon the foundation of the gospel truths of grace and redemption. His arguments for obedience were soundly developed from the believer’s union with Christ.
Without that connection, Christians are left with free-floating exhortations that have the hollow echo of “be-good, and try harder.” A discipleship approach, or ministry pattern, of attempting to improve the Christian life by right attitudes and behavior modification falls woefully short of the grace-based pattern set by the Apostle.
If the precepts we teach are disconnected from the word of grace, the struggling believer is frequently left with the impression that his Christian life is a non-stop effort to measure up. To keep our sanctificationgospel-driven, the exposition of biblical principles must be joined to a glorious exhibition of the majesty of the Savior who loves the redeemed to the uttermost.
The Apostle Paul’s controlling burden for his converts was that they would be granted (by the Holy Spirit) a “spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ” (Eph 1:17ff.). This prayer request for his converts involved a Spirit-imparted understanding of the doctrines of God’s sovereign grace and calling in a way that would penetrate their hope and affections.
The Christian life is a life of walking worthy of our calling (Eph 4:1). The first three chapters of Ephesians set forth the infinite riches and glory of our calling. The believer who understands, and highly esteems his calling by the Gospel of grace is in the best position to obey his Lord from right motives. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18a).
Our sanctification progresses as our knowledge of God increases. We mature in the knowledge of Godas we keep on considering the Lord’s saving work toward us as it is spelled out in the Gospel of God’s grace (Eph 1:15-23; Phil 3:8-12).
When the saints are awakened to the all-pervasive spiritual reality that they owe their life, their future, their sonship, their status, and their favor with God in Christ solely to the unobligated sovereign mercy of God, it has a life-transforming and renewing effect. (The Holy Spirit keeps renewing us by ongoing faith in the Gospel of God’s grace given to us in Christ.)
II. Ongoing faith in the Gospel produces a passion for God’s glory.
Once the saint begins to understand (by means of a spirit of wisdom and revelation, not just academically, but in his deepest affections) that God’s sovereign mercy is not just how God is taking poor sinners to heaven, but it is the very center of God’s plan to glorify Himself – then the saint begins to see things from a different perspective; a perspective which we could designate the Divine View Point (DVP).
(A believer operating from DVP takes to heart the message of Ephesians one; God’s glory is exalted in the entire salvation of the sinner. God is lavishing grace on the sinner for His Name’s sake! Ez 36:22, 23.)
When the believer is stuck in patterns of spiritual defeat, it is frequently because he had not lifted his eyes above his own struggles. Unbelief keeps us focused upon our own circumstances and performance. As long as the saint is stranded in a Human View Point (HVP) perspective, he has little incentive to exercise passion for the glory of God.
By contrast, living by Divine View Point produces a kind of “grace awakening;” it elevates our thinking to live in compliance with Colossians 3:1-3.
“If this be so; if you were raised with Christ, if you were translated into heaven, what follows? Why you must realize the change. All your aims must center in heaven where reigns the Christ who has thus exalted you, enthroned you on God’s right hand. All your thoughts must abide in heaven, not on the earth. For I say it once again, you have nothing to do with mundane things: you died, died once for all to the world: you are living another life” (Expanded paraphrase of Col 3:1-3 -- J. B. Lightfoot’s Commentary, p. 208).
In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the believing sinner discovers to his utter astonishment that God has planned from all eternity to join His matchless glory to the unending blessedness and welfare of the believing sinner. (God’s glory is forever joined to His plan to make you glorious in Christ.)
In response to such infinite grace Calvin says, now let us fall down before the majesty of our good God, with acknowledgement of our sins, praying Him to make us perceive them more and more. And may He enliven us with the doctrine of the Gospel that we may see our own sins and shamefulness and be ashamed of ourselves, and also behold the righteousness which has been shown us in our Lord Jesus Christ, and lean upon it with the endeavor to be fashioned thereafter, so that daily we may come nearer and nearer to it, until we cleave thoroughly to it (Calvin’s Sermons on Ephesians, pp. 445, 446).
By God’s design, the glorious effect of grace – namely to be taken up and “intoxicated” with God (hungering and panting after Him and delighting in communion with Him) is the prerequisite for selfless ministry to others (including a zeal for evangelism – genuine ministry is the overflow of worship).
The Gospel of grace alone can make us leave our comfort zones on behalf of the needs of others. Grace alone can move us past self-protection. Transforming grace is what is needed in order for us to be lifted out of self concern and to be taken up with God. Apart from Divine View Point, our tendency is to settle into a relational life characterized by personal interests, independence, guarded privacy, prickly defenses, and cherished masks.
The saint “stranded” in the HVP perspective of things tends to operate from the carnal vantage point of self concern. His vantage point turns upon his self-ordered world of personal peace, protection, and prosperity. (EX. When God had extended Hezekiah’s life, the Judean king had settled into an HVP mindset of personal peace and prosperity – don’t let trouble or the troubled near my door.)
His truncated “keyhole” vision of things has no picture window to see what God is doing in the world. In spiritual practice he lives in a dingy hut, contenting himself with the “bread and water” of carnal security and comfort. Though seated in the heavenlies, he doesn’t stir himself to see past the tiny walls of his little stick hovel of HVP.
Religion has become a spiritual compartment characterized more by deadening duty than delight. Instead of glorying in an all-pervasive relationship with Christ that dominates exceptionally in his life, his heart is smothered in layers of guilt, obligation, and fear. He is like a prisoner in his grey castle of self.
The Gospel of grace is the cure. The kind of grace thinking enjoined by Paul is what is necessary to raise us from a state of spiritual lethargy to a pervasive consciousness of all that God is toward us in Christ. Only by a grace awakening can we be lifted out of carnal self concern to function from a DVP vantage point (Divine View Point) laid out by Paul in Ephesians 1-3.
And what a vantage point it is! Meditate for a moment upon God’s plan revealed in the Gospel. Consider what it means to be taken from dust to glory: “What is [God’s] goal? What does He aim at? . . . His ultimate objective is to bring [redeemed mankind] to a state in which they please Him entirely and praise Him adequately, a state in which He is all in all to them, and He and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – men rejoicing in the saving love of God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing in the responsive love of men, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel” (J. I. Packer,Knowing God, p. 81).
This is God’s glory and man’s glory bound up together in a setting in which the whole created order has been transformed (Packer, pp. 81-82).
Oh how the Church needs to feed on the grace of the Gospel. A passion for God’s glory in our lives is the blessed byproduct of walking through the gates of Ephesians chapters one through three, and (by the Spirit’s enablement) understanding what God is doing in the world – He is glorifying His grace, and He desires that the saints align their entire lives with His plan.
III. Ongoing faith in the Gospel produces a series of sanctifying “Grace Awakenings.”
The maturing saint has numerous “grace awakenings” as his Christian life progresses over time. The spiritual cycles of these awakenings bear a strong resemblance to one another. Every time, it is the Gospel order – first there is a withering and stunning view of our weakness, sin, pride, inadequacy, smallness, pettiness, unbelief, unmortified lusts, and frigid love for God. Exposure precedes clothing (as with Adam when he hid.) We become utterly disillusioned with our Christian lives.
Then, just when we are ready to write ourselves off as useless to God, as unfruitful and failures as Christians, then the Holy Spirit inspires us to exercise “mustard seed” faith in a passage of Scripture, or a promise from the Word.
Even a single line of living Scripture believed anew with struggling faith can be a staging area from which God can give us fresh revelations of His faithfulness (and from which He can do new things in our lives).
Amidst our self-loathing, the Holy Spirit “shows us the blood” yet again. We feed our faith again upon the grace of God in Christ. We fall at Lord’s feet and consent to be loved by Him for Christ’s sake alone. Suddenly duty becomes delight – we move all the way into renewed enjoyment of all that God is towards us in Christ.
It is through the lens of the Gospel that we see that we are God’s possession. Our identity as sons of God is drawn directly from the word of grace. To the degree that the saint defines himself by the Gospel, literally drawing his identity from what God says about him, to that degree his life will demonstrate eternal values.
By contrast, the saint adrift in the dwarfed faith of HVP tends to define himself primarily by temporal things. His job, his income, his possessions, his friends, his status, his hobbies, his appearance – all these define the HVP saint in his own mind, more than his holy, God-possessed status in Christ.
Preaching grace truths to ourselves regularly is not an option. Without a steady spiritual diet of the word of grace, of Christ and Him crucified, the lower nature will assert itself. Performing, pretending, and a passionless spirit will dominate our lives if we are not feeding upon Christ as He is revealed in the Gospel.
Here is the unbreakable truth, if your own identity in Christ, as defined by the Gospel, is your controlling identity, then you will see the Gospel as your life. The Gospel through Christ’s constraining love will animate you; it will determine how you see everything. It will mark out your value system.
“Grace-awakenings” have a sanctifying effect upon the Christian life. As Pastor Al Martin noted, the inescapable repetitive theme of Scripture from cover to cover is sin and grace. As pastors, we have the often unappreciated task, but awesome privilege of persuading folks that God loves people by His active confrontation of their sin.
By His Word, His Spirit, and His ministers, God continually brings people to the crossroads of repentance. We are heralds of a message that is always timely: Repent, confess, mortify sin – experience renewed cleansing and restoration. Delight in God again, find new wonder and gratitude as you commune with Him; have the joy of your salvation restored. Experience joyful integration (as the Psalmists) when you come out of hiding and walk in the light again; living a sin-judged life of transparency before God.
But how do most of our parishioners live in the private world of their spiritual lives? What lies behind the guarded shutters of their souls? Beneath their quiet desperation and patterns of spiritual defeat is a fear that if their rebellion, and weakness, and failure were to come into the full light of God’s gaze, they would be devastated.
As a result, they shore up the little hovel that conceals their depravity with self-protective strategies to defend against judgment. Beneath that stiff upper lip is a proud, but fearful spirit that won’t take the “risk” ofrunning to the atonement one more time.
The flesh works overtime to shield itself from any feelings of condemnation, shame, diminishment, and failure. Chutzpah becomes the rule of the day – the posture that is maintained says, “I have it all together.” Prickly defenses are employed to keep others from drawing too close. Personal brokenness is kept at arm’s length as a repugnant thing too filled with weakness to be considered beneficial.
What is needed is a grace awakening. When Mike Horton wrote the book, Putting the Amazing back in Grace, he was addressing a pervasive problem – it’s all too common for believers to lose their wonder and awe of God’s grace. Why does this happen?
Amazement at God’s grace is a function of being conversant with our ill desert and ruin by reason of sin. The greater our apprehension of our need for Christ, the more we will marvel at God’s grace. The reverse is also true – without a deep awareness of our ill desert and ruin by sin, we will unintentionally devalue divine grace.
It’s needful, but humbling to wake each day with the intent of facing our utter dependency upon Christ. The alternative is choosing to be managers of our own depravity. When we lose our amazement at God’s grace, it’s generally because we have drifted into a lifestyle of managing our own dereliction and depravity with something other than the grace of God in Christ. Preaching the Gospel of God’s grace to ourselves each day is the solution! Do you do the ‘book keeping’ of your soul and conscience by the Gospel?
IV. Ongoing faith in the Gospel shows us that sanctification is driven by relationshipmore than rules.
Historically, the Church has always found it a battle to keep the doctrines of justification and sanctification joined (and operating in their logical relation – especially as set forth in the Pauline epistles). Pietism separates the two cardinal doctrines; as does quietism. Legalism and antinomianism mitigate against their unity as well.
Of all the groups in church history, the Puritans seemed to have best understood the essential and practical relationship between justification and sanctification (many of the Reformers did as well, but they did not write on it as prolifically as the Puritans).
As servants of Christ, our anthropology ought to reflect an extremely keen insight into the hearts of our hearers. We’re preaching to people who carry in their bosoms the seeds of the Galatian error. We should never be shocked at how religious the flesh of man can be. We should always keep in mind how enormous our capacity is to forget the Gospel.
Orthodoxy can be a forum for the flesh. We are preaching to folks like ourselves who carry in their souls an internal enemy of God’s grace, even though they are believers!
Carnal sense has no trouble understanding moral obligation, ethical responsibility, duty, performance, reward, merit, production, and law, BUT, it requires the ongoing work of God’s Spirit to understand and live by the grace of the Gospel.
The flesh of man prefers a formal, manageable approach to religion. True religion always tends to degrade in the direction of heartless orthodoxy which is characterized by formalism and compartmentalization. (See essays: Orthodox Formalism and Thoughts on Church Renewal).
Only fresh acts of faith take us off of ourselves and dislodge self from being at the center (even Christians would rather do some work of service than do the work of believing – note Heb 4. Christ was witness to this propensity in hearers; a tendency to work rather than believe – Jn 6:27-29).
Due to this bent in all of us, the challenge is to keep before the brethren the union of justification and sanctification. And the fact that grace is not primarily a principle or a possession; grace is a relationship; it is relational.
God has made us His possession that we might know and enjoy Him and in so doing glorify Him – all flows from Christ, our “Source Person.” We are saved to commune with the Trinity and in so doing ultimately realize (that is be transformed into) our true identity in Christ.
Grace is a love relationship with our Heavenly Father through Christ our Lord in the power of the Spirit. Sanctification is the outworking of this love relationship. When the believer maintains his relationship with the Lord, he is living a “separated unto God,” or “sanctified” life. Thus sanctification involves caring for our relationship with God (David Peterson, Possessed by God).
Our relationship with God is manifested in our relationships with others. As John Piper says, “It is my greatest joy to experience the in-filling grace of God overflowing from me for the good of others.” The habitual consciousness of who God is toward us in Christ in all His mercy and love is a major part of our equipping to love the brethren (Col 3:12-13).
Through the word of grace, and union with Christ we are made “fit” to wear the garments of grace in order that we might serve the Body. The “garments of grace” are described especially in Ephesians 4-5 and in Colossians 3-4.
The language used by the Apostle in these chapters is “put on” (put on like a garment the character qualities of Christ). Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col 3:12b). Our practical sanctification is lived out as we wear the garments of grace in our relationships with believers.
In this way, others see that we have become partakers of Christ and of grace. The Gospel of grace provides the rationale for us to love sacrificially; to be spent on behalf of the brethren; to live for the edification of others.
The word of grace gives us the reasons why we are to identify ourselves completely with Christ’s purposes. The believer is a member of Christ’s Body; as such each member is to contribute his part to the maturation of the Body of Christ as a whole (Eph 4:15, 16).
Each member of Christ’s Body is to commit himself to the Great Commission which is not only directed at evangelism, but equally at discipleship. And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man that we present every man complete in Christ (Col 1:28).
Such radical identification with Christ and His purposes requires that our affections be captive to the grace of God in the Gospel (to be captivated with the Gospel of God’s grace is synonymous with having a DVP perspective). Only then does the believer gladly make the purposes of Christ his life’s direction.
Pastors in training face a whirlwind of seminary instruction that tends to leave them with a certain inference, namely that the Bible is a divinely inspired, inerrant “technical manual” from which they are to mine and exegete timeless principles.
The sheer volume of academic material to be covered in the seminary curriculum pushes spiritual life issues into the background. As a consequence, the following essentials are frequently neglected: the believer’s union with Christ, the doctrine of abiding in Christ, the spiritual nature of ministry, the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ, and the relationship between spiritual position and condition (definitive and “progressive” sanctification).
Without the Gospel of grace as our focus, there can be a tendency to preach principles and then recruit volunteers for ministry while the sense of obligation is weighing heavy. Our people can easily interpret our ministry activity and “orthodox output” as the very soul and heartbeat of the Christian life.
Indeed, this happened at the church of Ephesus (Rev 2). Productivity “ate up” devotion to Christ as the highest value. If we are to be faithful to the logical relationship between justification (the Gospel) and sanctification, then we will want to follow the pattern set by the Apostle Paul. An understanding of “who we are in Christ” and our devotion to Him will have to precede “what we do for Christ.”
The Gospel of God’s grace is our constant corrective; it keeps liberating us from the pressure to “measure up” in order to be loved and accepted by God. Preaching Christ in the Gospel of grace is the key to an “identity-based” ministry that puts who we are in Christ ahead of what we do for Christ.
As Christian workers we should personally master an understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification. It’s an area of study that eludes most laymen. Folks who have been church members for decades have difficulty explaining the relationship between these two doctrines of justification and sanctification; most cannot do it.
Those who are able to give the barest explanation of the relationship between the doctrines often do so without any mention of the dimension of life in Christ and union with Him.
It is the goal of this author to challenge every growing believer to be Gospel-centered. Consider keeping at least one book on your nightstand that deals with this topic of justification and sanctification and union with Christ. This author is increasingly convinced that Christian maturity is retarded because believers are not approaching sanctification and service as a function of faith in Christ and the Gospel (suggested bibliography at end of this paper).
When we preach the Gospel to ourselves daily, it keeps reminding us of the holy character of God, of the loving heart of God toward us in Christ, of who we are in ourselves as sinners, and of who we are in Christ. (The beauty of reckoning our union with Christ is a growing recognition of His Person. With that growing realization of Christ comes radical identification with Him in our life of discipleship.)
V. Ongoing faith in the Gospel allows us to reckon Christ’s righteousness imputed to our account.
Our carnal bent is to dress in fig leaves; or “the emperor has no clothes.” The Apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 3:27 that, “You have clothed yourselves with Christ.” When believers lose their wonder at God’s grace, it’s often because they have been seeking to clothe their souls with something other than Christ.
The behavior of the self-deceived Laodiceans of Revelation 3:14-22 typifies the universal tendency of seeking a counterfeit clothing of the soul. They boasted that were rich, wealthy, in need of nothing. What a shock it must have been when Christ the Lord, with eyes like a flame of fire, peered into their hearts and declared them to be wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
There is a certain specter of horror that rises up at the prospect that the bulk of the professing
Church today may see itself far differently than Christ the Lord does. The mindset of the Laodiceans was the polar opposite of utter dependency upon Christ. Their boast was in things which they imagined would clothe their souls. As a result, not a small part of their blindness involved abject ignorance of their desperate need of divine grace. The mirror of God’s Word alone can keep us from self-deception in this matter.
How does God deal with our sinful tendency to seek “clothing” for our souls in things other than Christ our completeness (Col 2:10)? The answer is that God through His Spirit and His Word exalts Christ in all of His offices (Prophet, Priest, and King; Logos, Lawgiver, Loving Redeemer, Lion of Judah). The Father displays His Son to the saints so that they will come to understand that in all of His offices, Christ ever lives to represent us and bring us to God. The Father convinces us that apart from Christ we are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.
The safest place for the believer is to be constantly undergoing a “grace awakening.” Welcome views of personal sin, of your depravity, dereliction and utter dependency – let them drive you to Christ. Invite the Sunrise from on high to shine upon your life. Ask Him to show you where you are building with wood, hay, and stubble.
When you consent to be clothed by Christ alone; you will find the exit to the “grey castle of self.” (Yes there is some pain involved; but it is primarily to our pride. Oh how fortifying this is to spiritual health to be scraped down to bedrock so that we are motivated anew to build upon Christ alone.)
The theme of sin and grace runs through Scripture like a continuous scarlet thread – the invitation has continued for thousands of years: apart from God’s grace solution in substitutionary atonement, there is nothing to clothe the nakedness of your souls but worthless fig leaves that cannot hide moral deformity from God’s sight.
One would think that sinners who have tasted God’s redeeming grace would be done with every sort of fig leaf covering. But such is not the case. The believers at Corinth had many kinds of fig leaves; boasting and ‘upsmanship,’ a party/sectarian spirit, materialism, ruthless self-assertion. The “grace garments” enjoined in Colossians 3:12-20 were all but missing from their corporate practice.
Paul placed all of the Corinthians’ carnal behaviors under the microscope of God’s wisdom in the cross and found each one of them to be symptomatic of the world’s wisdom; a wisdom antithetical to the cross of Christ (James 3:13-18).
The Apostle stated in his Corinthian letters that the message of the cross-centered life is the spiritual diet of the mature. But only those who are sick of the world’s wisdom are ready for this diet (1 Cor 2:15-3:3).
The diet of the spiritually mature produces substantial spiritual growth. The cross-centered believer increasingly perceives that his relationship with the Lord is the foundation for all of his other relationships.
Thus, the man or woman constrained by Christ’s love will have all of his relationships transformed becausehis motives will not be dominated by self-protection and self-enhancement (the flesh by natural instinct is committed to protection from judgment, criticism, diminishment, as well as to self-advancement). Instead of an agenda issuing from a self-directed life; the controlling, constraining love of Christ will equip the believer to love God and others (2 Cor 5:14).
If we are to excel in love and servanthood; if we are to be characterized by honesty and realism; and by heroism in dealing with personal sin, we will have to be in that habit of preaching the Gospel to ourselves. Only the man or woman who is constrained by Christ’s love and who lives a cross-centered (Gospel-centered) life is capable of dealing with personal sin at the depth enjoined in Scripture – the depth commanded of the true disciple of Christ.
Any attempt to “manage” our depravity by a means other than the Gospel will produce destructive side effects. To seek to clothe our own souls by carnal strategies will tend to produce a host of masks, defenses, and personal agendas that keep us from being unhindered vessels of Christ’s love to the Body of Christ. As the Scotsman said, “There’s a stone in the pipe” – Christ’s love cannot freely pass through us to others.
Jesus said that His true disciples would not love their lives in this world (Jn 12:24-26). (The carnal love of one’s own life in this world includes all of the community-destroying, cherished, fleshly defense mechanisms employed to guard ourselves from others.)
The man who lives a sin-judged life by walking in the light will stand out amongst those who do not live in this way. Only the cross-centered life has the guaranteed power to transform our relationships (Phil 2:1-8; Rom 15:1-6).
The message of sin and grace is the starting place. 500 years ago Luther wrestled to the point of weariness with the problem of how a totally depraved person could be completely accepted by God. Once he had his salvific “epiphany” regarding the wonder of God’s justifying love – then Luther could exclaim with uncontainable joy that the believer is justified, yet a sinner.
This is precisely where our parishioners are still stuck. “Justified, yet a sinner” has never taken hold of them in a life-transforming manner. Therefore they cannot be heroic in dealing with personal sin and failure. Why? Because deferring judgment, defending against condemnation, and protecting from perceived criticism is still a higher priority than fellowship with God.
Only the person secure in Christ’s justifying love can face his sin with courage; only the individual who solidly appropriates the word of justification can afford to hear the worst things about self.
Apart from deep confidence in Christ’s justifying love -- judgment, condemnation, and criticism (perceived or real) make our defense mechanisms go ballistic. Figuratively speaking, we are ready to cut off, attack, or “kill” the person who brought our failure to light and made us feel diminished.
This non-evangelical response to hearing about our sin tears churches apart (Gal 5:15). The foolish, and frequently the immature, cannot tolerate admonishment; it is the wise man that welcomes correction and shows gratitude for it (Prov 9:8).
The man who works by carnal means at clothing his own soul, instead of living by faith in Christ, will fail at providing an adequate covering. His legal efforts are but an exercise in impotence; his response is usually “coveting of every kind,” – Rom 7:8.)
For this very reason, the saints are in constant need of taking the good word of justification into their souls. If the Gospel is not their “food,” the temptation will be overwhelming to manage their depravity by carnal methods (the world is more than happy to oblige our longing to clothe our souls – it has a thousand counterfeits and “scorecards” by which we may pronounce ourselves “O.K.”).
If we are not integrated or made whole by Christ’s righteousness imputed, then we will attempt to find our completeness in other things. The latter approach was indeed the state of the Laodicean church. In their self-deception, the Laodiceans imagined that they were in charge of their own value and completeness.
Self-deception must give way in order for the message of sin and grace to transform. In order for the message of sin and grace to take hold, the Body of Christ must determine to be examined by the proclamation of God’s Word through the Lord’s ministers.
Everything in us (except for the Spirit and the new nature energized by Him) opposes coming close enough to the light for exposure of sin to take place (Jn 3:19-21).
Apart from the news of redemption in the cross, we tend to shoot the messenger. If the atonement is not our daily hiding place, we will have false refuges from judgment – and every false refuge has its social consequences (note how destructive the Corinthian “fig leaves” were to true community in that local church).
The believer who preaches the Gospel to himself each day will be equipped for heroism in dealing with personal sin. He will gladly make it his daily practice to consent to be clothed by Christ’s righteousness,and thereby live by faith in Christ. As a consequence, his relationships will be transformed.
VI. Ongoing faith in the Gospel lets God’s verdict about us become the “loudest voice in our conscience.”
The man who walks in the light of the cross learns to take in the glorious word of justification in Christ as the “loudest verdict” in his conscience. Oh how liberating this is! We’re all too often in a ‘grace-less’ mindset. When in that posture we tend to be overly critical, sensitive, self-protective, and walking on eggshells because the verdict of conscience is suspended upon the opinions of men instead of the verdict of Almighty God (Rom 8:32-34). (So many professing believers are virtually undefended against the accusations of the evil one who works to keep the consciences of the saints in a heavy, joyless, and defensive state.)
(The immature have yet to discover the spiritual diet of cross-centered living. Therefore they are far too dependent upon the praise, approval, judgment, criticism, and glory of man. This is one of the negative factors that “morphs” churches into social clubs that turn upon human recognition. So sensitive have church members become to the praise of man that every ministry effort and “performance” must be heaped with praise, applause and recognition –even though this moves them dangerously close to having their reward in full now. The glory of man and the glory of God have always been antithetical – John 12:42-43; 5:44)
The sin and grace theme concentrated in the Gospel is about God actively confronting our sin that we might be brought close to Him who is the source of all life, light, love, and blessedness. The cross brings us down that we might be raised up to live in overflowing gratitude for the “exotic love” inherent in our sonship (1 Jn 3:1).
God’s answer to our excesses, and spiritual lassitude, and propensity for fig leaves is fresh apprehensions of Christ and His grace. Wonder of wonders, as John Owen states in his work, Communion with God, our depravity is a huge point of interface with God. As we take our sin to the Lord and take Christ for our righteousness again and again, we are having communion with the Lord. God is honored – He takes delight in our frequent appropriations of Christ for our entire righteousness. (God’s verdict reckoned is communion with God realized.)
How much this differs from the carnal conclusions of our fleshly minds. When we make efforts to clothe the nakedness of our souls, we always do so at the cost of leaving the cross at the entrance gate of our salvation. It becomes a distant memory instead of a daily present reality for all the needed “bookkeeping” of our consciences with its outstanding accounts and consciousness of guilt.
VII. Ongoing faith in the Gospel provides the motivation to maintain our relationship with the Lord.
How do most believers live behind the doors of their souls? They tend to work 100 times harder on their goals and all of the accompanying props and supports of ego than they do upon maintaining their relationship with the Lord.
If they only knew that what they are seeking (peace, joy, happiness, security, a non-accusing conscience, a sense of intense belonging) are byproducts of walking in close communion with the Lord – literally the dividends of the cross-centered life. (Let us not be afraid to preach the benefits of obedience. Paul spoke of the peace, joy, and hope that redound to the saint who lives a life of faith – Romans 15:13.)
Twenty-seven hundred years ago Jeremiah proclaimed that God’s covenant people had a preference for stagnant leaky cisterns instead of the pure, cool fountain of living water found in the Lord (Jer 2:13). Why this preference for the irrational and for false sources? What motivates us to attempt to slake our thirst on bile-colored pond scum instead of the artesian well of God’s love and presence?
The answer is that since the Fall in Eden, men have placed their confidence in what they can control and produce. (God Almighty, through Isaiah diagnosed this penchant for control when He read the hearts of the Jews who were ready to boast, “My idol did them” (Is 48:5). By contrast, the faith that pleases God is self-renouncing – it looks away from self (and self’s desire to control). It looks away from self as a source and instead looks to God’s character, God’s heart, and God’s covenant with us; Christ Himself.
How we must get it into our heads and hearts that God desires to meet with us at the following juncture:God meets us at the cross when we deal with sin His way.
It’s true for the person just converted as well as the saint. When we begin to understand and practice this, then we will be better equipped to preach the vast Gospel theme of sin and grace to a needy people.
God’s infinite grace is full and free, but it is bestowed within the context of conditions produced by God’s Spirit. In His mercy, God grants the ability to repent. The Spirit produces brokenness over personal sin – the convicted man is crushed in his spirit over his lusts and his hurtful sinful patterns of behavior. The cross alone can produce a Spirit-convicted man who desires to leverage himself upon God.
The cross brings the sinner low; it dashes to the ground all human strategies for managing personal depravity. The man brought low abandons all false refuges and hiding places from judgment; he comes clean and owns his guilt. He judges himself worthy of divine judgment; he flees to the atonement. Only then (through this Spirit enabled conviction and repentance) does the “altar” of the cross become the sinner’s treasured everlasting meeting place with God (Heb 13:10ff.).
The Christian comes back to meet God there over and over again. By fresh acts of faith in the message of the cross, we are renewed and we are motivated to maintain our relationship with the Lord. The outcome of maintaining our relationship with the Lord is practical progress in sanctification (Rom 6:22-23).
The “grace” part of our Gospel of sin and grace tells us that the cross-centered life demands our full attention. It refuses to be peripheral; it cannot be compartmentalized nor formalized. Life as a living sacrificecalls for universal obedience – every area of life is to be characterized by ongoing conformity to God’s Word.
Cross-centered living calls for courage; a daring to draw near again and again in order to have the light of Christ and His work shine upon our affections, our identity, our behavior, and our relationships – there is a constant renewal of our determination to take refuge in Christ the covenant and hiding place.
The cross-centered life calls me to a path of radical identification with Christ in which the Word of God dominates exceptionally in every area of my life. The cross is inseparable from self-denial -- there are 10,000 places where God’s will cuts across my will. Those who take up the cross understand this intimately – they “feel” the ruggedness of the cross upon their flesh. What they would prefer to pamper and excuse, the cross condemns and slays.
Yielding to God’s Spirit involves ongoing mortification of sin (Rom 8:12-13; Col 3:5ff.). At these junctures of putting to death sin, we put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14). Our striving against sin is not merely moral exertion at work. The cross-centered saint puts on Christ by reckoning Him as our entire sphere of grace. He abides in this sphere, reckoning all that is his by union with Christ. This alone is the Christian’s “staging area” for his battle against sin.
Our choice is the sea of “FUD,”(fear, uncertainty, doubt) or the “Sphere of Christ.” By virtue of our union with Christ we live in the sphere of Christ. He is our life, light, blessedness, comfort, joy, hope, covenant, sonship, enablement, acceptance, and completeness. But as with all positional truth, we only enjoy and experience the benefits by the exercise of our faith. Positional truth is not immediately experiential. It must be believed to be enjoyed and experienced.
Christ is our sphere. If we live without Him in view we will tend to operate on a treadmill of striving that oscillates between pride and despair. And without faith and reliance upon Him, we will tend to consult our feelings, our conscience, and our opinions which is how we become adrift on a sea of F.U.D. to begin with.
The saint is to live by faith alone. We appropriate by faith, enjoy by faith, grow, and serve by faith.
Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ (or reckoning ourselves in His sphere) results in fellowship with Him. We gladly submit to His Meditorial Kingship – we say “yes” to the Spirit at those junctures where sin is to be mortified. The result is the Spirit’s filling and control; joy in the Lord; intimate fellowship with God.
The Church has many who walk at a determined distance from the cross. They walk so as to give the cross a wide berth. Those who do not take up the cross fail to cooperate with the purposes of God’s heart (Rom 8:28-29). As a consequence they do not have as their life goal to be presented complete in Christ (Col 1:28).
Is it not time to remind our people that it only those who are friends of the cross who are truly friends of God (Phil 3:17-21). The cross stands at the center of our relationship with the Holy One. The message of sin and grace is not only about our entrance into salvation. It is the message of God’s eternal purposes fulfilled in Christ (Rom 16:25-27). It is the message of how the God of all grace is taking defiled sinners from dust to glory.
We are appointed by our Savior to care for brethren who are not yet fed up with expressions of the world’s wisdom in their own lives. They have yet to reach a point of disgust with their carnal mindsets and behaviors that destroy love and unity. We must continue to proclaim Christ crucified until they are finally fed up with the sins which work against the Spirit’s will for true community (see Rom 14-15).
We must preach Christ crucified until our listeners crave the diet of the mature. We must proclaim the Gospel of the cross until our hearers are consumed and intoxicated with the beauty of Christ.
How can we best cultivate a longing for the spiritual diet of the mature; how can we be a catalyst for that which induces hunger for the message of the cross-centered life? How does God take hold of a man so that he desires the cross, knowing it will pinch and pierce his flesh?
We must learn to display Christ not only in His sinless life of infinite virtue made manifest, but we must also learn to display the perfections of His Saviorhood – a Saviorhood perfectly suited to the sinner’s every need (Heb 7:26-28); a Saviorhood that is co-extensive with the sinner’s ruin.
Living by the Gospel of God’s grace produces the dynamics of grace in the life of the Christian. For the Gospel is our very food and nourishment, the Gospel is our weapon by which we overcome the world. The Gospel is the ‘glue’ that holds the saints together in the mystical Body of Christ. The Gospel is our divine window to knowing God. The Gospel lets God be God and we the creature. The Gospel produces devotion to Christ and every instinct of worship in the new creature.
Therefore, we are to be ever about the business of setting forth the Gospel of sin and grace and of displaying the Son of God. Apart from cross-centered living, the individual will attempt to clothe his own soul. God’s answer has been clearly given – let us set our course to emulate the Apostle Paul who said, “For I determined, while among you, to be unconscious of everything but Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).