Gospel Centred Teaching by Trevin Wax.
New Testament scholar Mike Bird offers an intriguing introduction to his new book, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Zondervan, 2013):
(HT: Justin Taylor)
I marvel when someone says, “I have no regrets.” That’s not me; I have plenty. Perhaps my biggest regret, outside of not spending more time with my kids when they were growing up and not discovering Irish whiskey sooner, is that for much of my 30 years of ordained ministry I have not preached “the gospel.” By-and-large I have been a nice man standing in front of nice people, telling them that God calls them to be nicer. And just about none of it was life-changing.
I have come to see that there are really just two ways to preach: one is the gospel, the other is get-better messages. The first is based on God’s goodness; the second on self-improvement. Gospel preaching presupposes that, even though we deserve punishment for our sins, Jesus Christ suffered the punishment in our place on the cross. Get-better sermons, on the other hand, is moralistic advice in which a preacher mounts a pulpit to scold the people for not doing more or getting better (F Allison).
For more years than I care to think I preached get-better messages. I cringe thinking about my old sermons. I regret the lost opportunities of those messages that pounded home the idea that we just need to be better, try harder, pray and give more, read the Bible every day, attend church every week, and be nicer. It was plain ole Phariseeism, works-righteousness under the guise of preaching – “an easy-listening version of salvation by self-help” (M Horton). Those who came were vaguely entertained, I think, because I am a fairly entertaining personality (so they tell me on their way out of church), but they left mostly feeling beat up and like they don’t measure up. Instead of relieving guilt, get-better sermons reinforced guilt and our inadequacies. They didn’t touch people where they need most. “Whenever you feel comforted or elated or absolved as ‘fresh as a foal in new mowed hay,’ then you know you are hearing the gospel” (P Zahl).
My conversion to gospel preaching was gradual. I don’t remember what the initial catalyst was, except that people weren’t getting better with sermons on discipline and how to improve your marriage. Those moralistic sermons doled out plenty of advice about what to do, but it totally missed what God has done for us in his Son. Christ came, not to help religious people get better, but to help sinners realize that forgiveness and salvation is outside themselves: in Jesus Christ.
St. Paul, in Romans, explains the gospel as God’s power and God’s righteousness (1:16, 17). This is exactly opposite of repairing your nature by a determined will. It is what God has done for us when we couldn’t do it ourselves. He fulfilled the law. He took upon himself our sins. He burst the bonds of death to give us new life. When this message of one-way love – God’s love without strings attached – love when we are not lovely – reaches our hearts, it causes our spirits to come alive to God and it fills us with meaning and purpose. The gospel speaks to our heart’s deepest need.
When you get to church to find out that the preacher is in the third of a 10-sermon series on “10 steps to cure depression” get up and run out of there as fast as your depressed legs can take you. It’s self-help, not the gospel. Chalk it up to a well meaning preacher who hasn’t yet realized that our real hope is in God, in the sufficiency of his work on the cross and in the salvation that is not found in get-better sermons.
The apostle Paul summed up his whole ministry as existing “to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). That single-minded goal is the heartbeat of the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible. Produced out of the conviction that the Bible is a unified message of God’s grace culminating in Jesus, it is a significant new tool to help readers see Christ in all the Bible, and grace for all of life. The Gospel Transformation Bible features all-new book introductions and gospel-illuminating notes written by a team of over 50 outstanding pastors and scholars. This specially prepared material outlines passage-by-passage God’s redemptive purposes of grace that echo all through Scripture and culminate in Christ. The notes not only explain but also apply the text in a grace-centered way. Focusing on heart transformation rather than mere behavior modification, their points of application emphasize the Hows and Whys of practical application to daily living–in short, how the gospel transforms us from the inside out. The Gospel Transformation Bible is available in a wide variety of print and digital formats. Moreover, every print edition comes with free access to the Online Gospel Transformation Bible, hosted at ESVBible.org. The Gospel Transformation Bible will equip both new and seasoned believers with a gospel-centered reading of Scripture, enabling God’s people to see that the message of the Bible is a unified one–”to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”
From Bryan Chapell’s introduction:
Faithful application typically answers four questions:
- What to do?
- Where to do it?
- Why to do it? and
- How to do it?
Previous application-focused study Bibles have emphasized the first two of these questions.
The Gospel Transformation Bible, while not ignoring the first two questions, seeks to be a primary resource for the latter two. Contributors’ notes indicate how the unfolding gospel truths in any given passage of Scripture motivate and enable believers to honor their Savior from the heart—in short, how grace transforms them.
Our goal is to make plain the imperatives of God’s Word, while undermining the human reflex to base God’s affection on human performance. Contributors have therefore indicated how the indicatives of the gospel (i.e., the status and privileges believers have by virtue of God’s grace alone) provide motivation and power for God’s people to honor him from the heart.
(Via Justin Taylor)
This post by Erik Raymond highlights a principle that must be applied to all our affinities and allegiances:
“Recently I was able to sit on a panel for a discussion among some local church planters. One of the questions was, “What are you most concerned about with the gospel-centered movement?”
Before expressing any concern I want to be clear: I am very encouraged by the recovery of the center, the gospel, among many, particularly younger evangelicals. This is essential for us at this hour.
At the same time I have a cause for concern. My chief concern is not primarily a matter of theology but hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation).
It appears that the gospel-centered movement is very good at buying books, reading blogs and listening to sermons. We excel at catching John Piper’s passion for a God-saturated, joy-effusing, expository exultation (not to mention his penchant for hyphenated descriptors). We buy in to Tim Keller’s Center Church model. We can likewise read Calvin, Luther, Edwards, Spurgeon, Owen and the rest. We have theological comprehension.
But how did we get there? Did we simply read the right books, listen to the right sermons or go to the right conferences? Do we even know how to come to these conclusions on our own? Can we see the Solas arise out of the Bible before they pop off of Calvin’s Institutes? It’s one thing to have been able to say you have been to a nice restaurant in a particular city with some friends, but if you don’t know how to get there yourself then you’ll never be able to eat that food again, much less take someone else out to enjoy the same experiences. My fear is that too many have been piling into the RC Sproul theological minivan to go eat a feast but never learned how to actually find their way to the meal.
The danger here should be obvious. Without a hermeneutical base to undergird our theological conclusions we are susceptible to losing what we have. If we are just fan-boys then we may follow a new theological band someday. If we are just fan-boys then we can’t train a new generation to discover these truths themselves.
What is needed more than simply a theological system is a hermeneutic. If the gospel-centered movement is not built upon a consistent, biblical hermeneutic then we will lose this thing as fast as we seem to have received it. Without a hermeneutic movements become memories.”
From the TGC13 Faith at Work Post-Conference:
Keller’s book is Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work.
(HT: Justin Taylor)
This is great stuff by Edwards. In the 11th lecture of Charity and Its Fruit, Edwards convincingly declares that men’s practice will be according to their convictions. That is, if a man truly believes something, he will act on it and if he does not act on it, it seems that he is not really and entirely convinced of that truth.
Nowhere is this more true than in man’s dealings with the gospel. Gospel-truth is efficacious truth; if you believe it sincerely, your life is changed and this results in a change in the manner in which you live your life.
If a man hears important news that concerns himself, and we do not see that he alters at all for it in his practice, we at once conclude that he does not give heed to it as true; for we know the nature of man is such, that he will govern his actions by what he believes and is convinced of. And so if men are really convinced of the truth of the things they are told in the gospel, about an eternal world, and the everlasting salvation that Christ has purchased for all that will accept it, it will influence their practice. They will regulate their behaviour according to such a belief, and will act in such a manner as will tend to their obtaining this eternal salvation. If men are convinced of the certain truth of the promises of the gospel, which promise eternal riches, and honours, and pleasures, and if they really believe that those are immensely more valuable than all the riches, and honours, and pleasures of the world, they will, for these, forsake the things of the world, and, if need be, sell all and follow Christ. If they are fully convinced of the truth of the promise, that Christ will indeed bestow all these things upon his people, and if all this appears real to them, it will have influence on their practice, and it will induce them to live accordingly. Their practice will be according to their convictions.
Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The doctrines of grace create a culture of grace, as Jesus himself touches us through his truths. Without the doctrines, the culture alone is fragile. Without the culture, the doctrines alone appear pointless. For example:
The doctrine of regeneration creates a culture of humility (Ephesians 2:1-9).
The doctrine of justification creates a culture of inclusion (Galatians 2:11-16).
The doctrine of reconciliation creates a culture of peace (Ephesians 2:14-16).
The doctrine of sanctification creates a culture of life (Romans 6:20-23).
The doctrine of glorification creates a culture of hope (Romans 5:2).
The doctrine of God creates a culture of honesty (1 John 1:5-10). And what could be more basic than that?
If we want this culture to thrive, we can’t take doctrinal short cuts. If we want this doctrine to be credible, we can’t disregard the culture. But churches where the doctrine and culture converge bear living witness to the power of Jesus.
Churches that do not exude humility, inclusion, peace, life, hope and honesty — even if they have gospel doctrine on paper, they lack that doctrine at a functional level, where it counts in the lives of actual people. Churches that are haughty, exclusivistic, contentious, exhausted, past-oriented and in denial are revealing a gospel deficit.
The current rediscovery of the gospel as doctrine is good, very good. But a completely new discovery of the gospel as culture — the gospel embodied in community — will be infinitely better, filled with a divine power such as we have not yet seen.
Is there any reason not to go there? Is the status quo all that great? Doesn’t the gospel itself call for a new kind of community?
“The gospel shows us that our spiritual problem lies not only in failing to obey God, but also in relying on our obedience to make us fully acceptable to God, ourselves and others.
Every kind of character flaw comes from this natural impulse to be our own savior through our performance and achievement. On the one hand, proud and disdainful personalities come from basing your identity on your performance and thinking you are succeeding. But on the other hand, discouraged and self-loathing personalities also come from basing your identity on your performance and thinking you are failing.
Belief in the gospel is not just the way to enter the kingdom of God; it is the way to address every obstacle and grow in every aspect. The gospel is not just the “ABCs” but the “A-to-Z” of the Christian life.
The gospel is the way that anything is renewed and transformed by Christ — whether a heart, a relationship, a church, or a community. All our problems come from a lack of orientation to the gospel. Put positively, the gospel transforms our hearts, our thinking and our approach to absolutely everything.”
— Tim Keller
Paul’s Letter to the Galatians: Living in Line with the Truth of the Gospel
(New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2003), 2
(HT: Of First Importance)
Matt Harmon’s helpful concluding thoughts to his series on the Minor Prophets:
Two Key Concepts
- The Covenantal Context. After discussing things like author, date and historical context we quickly moved to what we called the covenantal context. We did this because the respective covenants were the governing structure of how God interacts with his people throughout the Old Testament. So in looking at each Minor Prophet, we paid careful attention to how they drew upon the Abrahamic (Gen 12:1-3), Mosaic (Exod 19-24), and Davidic (2 Sam 7) covenants.
- Initial & Final Fulfillment. Although we tend to think of the relationship between promise and fulfillment as a simple one-to-one correspondence, we have seen that in the Minor Prophets that is often not the case. The various promises made in the Minor Prophets often have an initial fulfillment in an event in the near future of the prophet while at the same time having a final fulfillment in the distant future. Nowhere was this clearer than in our discussion of the Day of the LORD. Each of the various “Days of the LORD” are only an initial fulfillment of the final Day of the LORD at the end of human history.
Four Key Themes
Although there were a number of themes that we could have highlighted, the following four were particularly important in light of their prominence in the New Testament:
- Temple. As we have seen the rebuilt temple was puny compared to Solomon’s original temple, as well as the temple prophesied in Ezekiel 40–48. But God reassured his people that this rebuilt temple was a sort of “down payment’ on the fulfillment of his promises (Zech 4:8-11). In perhaps the last OT book written, God warns his people of his impending visit to his temple (Malachi 3:1-4). That promise finds its fulfillment in the NT. John the Baptist is identified as the messenger sent to prepare the way of the LORD (Mark 1:2-4). He prepares the people for the incarnate Christ to visit his temple (Mark 11:15-18). Of course, we have also talked in here about the fact that the NT identifies Jesus as the true temple of God (John 2:13-22), and we as the church are God’s eschatological temple (Eph 2:11-22; 1 Pet 2:4-10).
- Torah. Although the promise of the Law being written on his people’s hearts is found in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, we do see a related promise in Micah 4:1-8. The Law of the LORD will go out from Zion and rule over a restored people of God. To properly understand this promise we have to combine it with the promise of the gift of the Spirit in Joel 2:28-32. It is the giving of the Spirit that enables God’s people to obey God’s Law. The promise of the gift of the Spirit is fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. He enables God’s people to live in step with God’s Law.
- Turf. As we noted above, God promises to restore his people to the land in several places (Hosea 2:21–3:5). This promise is rooted in the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants. Building upon hints in the Minor Prophets this promise of restoration to the land is expanded into the hope of a new creation. In the NT this hope is most clearly articulated in Romans 4:13, where Paul claims that God promised that Abraham would inherit the world, and Revelation 21–22, where the new heavens and earth are described.
- Throne. In the aftermath of the devastation of exile, God kept alive the hope of a Davidic king. But when that royal dynasty never materialized after their return to the land, the hunger for a Son of David (Micah 5:2-5; Amos 9:11-15). Of course, in the NT it is obvious that Jesus is the promised Son of David who will rule over God’s people (Mark 10:46-52; Rom 1:2-4).
|Summary List of the Theological Big Idea for Each Minor Prophet|
|Hosea||God’s people must turn from their idolatrous pursuit of lovers who will not satisfy and return to the Lord, their true husband and redeemer.|
|Joel||In the coming day of God’s universal judgment, those who call on the name of Jesus Christ will be filled with His Spirit to enjoy the new creation with Him forever.|
|Amos||When the Day of the Lord comes, God will judge the sins of His people and reconstitute His people under a Davidic king to inhabit a new creation.|
|Obadiah||God will soon defeat the enemies of His people and establish His rule over His people forever.|
|Jonah||God’s extravagant compassion towards us should prompt us to be conduits of compassion to others.|
|Micah||Because our sin has been judged at the cross and we live in the last days, we must walk humbly with our truly unique God in heartfelt obedience.|
|Nahum||God will judge the wicked and restore His people to freedom through His ultimate Warrior-King, Jesus Christ.|
|Habakkuk||Even when we cannot trace God’s hand of justice or providence, we can patiently trust and rejoice in His character.|
|Zephaniah||Yahweh is a mighty warrior who brings judgment but saves the remnant who flee to him as their King.|
|Haggai||Yahweh will renew His presence among His people and re-establish His reign over His people by sending Jesus Christ as His Messianic King.|
|Zechariah||God’s people already participate in the restored Jerusalem through repentance and faith in Jesus as they await the consummation of God’s kingdom.|
|Malachi||God calls his people to repent of our apathy towards his proper worship and fear his name in anticipation of the great and fearful Day of the LORD.|
Only by looking to Jesus can our disfigured image be restored and our contemptuous disregard forgiven. When we look away from ourselves into the face of Christ, we behold “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). This gospel knowledge corrects our vision so that we not only behold but also become the image of the glory of God in Christ. True nobility and beauty converge in the image of Jesus.
It is a fundamental truth that we become what we behold. Children become like their parents; interns become like their mentors. If we behold the beauty of Christ, we become beautiful like Christ. While it is true that our first glance into the face of Christ restores our image (Rom. 5:1-2; 8:29-30), it is also true that we drift back into fashioning our own distorted image. We slip into our own distorted forms of masculinity and femininity. The gospel calls us back to look at Jesus over and over again. A disciple of Jesus is a person who so looks at Jesus that he or she actually begins to reflect his beauty in everyday life. The gospel gives us the eyes to Jesus as well as the power to look like him. It changes us into the image of his glory: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). This transformative vision comes from the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18) … gospel-centered disciples rely on the Spirit, who focuses our hearts’ attention on Jesus, where beholding him results in becoming like him. This goal is worth fighting for.
Gospel Centered Discipleship
(HT: Jude St.John)
There is, in the end, only two ways to read the Bible: is it basically about me or basically about Jesus? In other words, is it basically about what I must do, or basically about what he has done? If I read David and Goliath as basically giving me an example, then the story is really about me. I must summons up the faith and courage to fight the giants in my life. But if I read David and Goliath as basically showing me salvation through Jesus, then the story is really about him. Until I see that Jesus fought the real giants (sin, law, death) for me, I will never have the courage to be able to fight ordinary giants in life (suffering, disappointment, failure, criticism, hardship). For example how can I ever fight the ‘giant’ of failure, unless I have a deep security that God will not abandon me? If I see David as my example, the story will never help me fight the failure/giant. But if I see David/Jesus as my substitute, whose victory is imputed to me, then I can stand before the failure/giant. As another example, how can I ever fight the ‘giant’ of persecution or criticism? Unless I can see him forgiving me on the cross, I won’t be able to forgive others. Unless I see him as forgiving me for falling asleep on him (Matt.27:45) I won’t be able to stay awake for him.
In the Old Testament we are continually told that our good works are not enough, that God has made a provision. This provision is pointed to at every place in the Old Testament. We see it in the clothes God makes Adam and Eve in Genesis, to the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Tabernacle and the whole sacrificial system, to the innumerable references to a Messiah, a suffering servant, and so on.
Therefore, to say that the Bible is about Christ is to say that the main theme of the Bible is, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9).
Tim Keller, in his new book Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, writes about the triperspectival New Covenant nature of Christians united with Christ.
Jesus has all the powers and functions of ministry in himself. He ha a prophetic ministry, speaking the truth and applying it to men and women on behalf of God. Jesus was the ultimate prophet, for he revealed most clearly (both in his words and his life) God’s character, saving purposes, and will for our lives. Jesus also had a priestly ministry. While a prophet is an advocate for God before people, a priest is an advocate for the people before God’s presence, ministering with mercy and sympathy. Jesus was the ultimate priest, for he stood in or place and sacrificially bore our burdens and sin, and he now brings us into God’s presence. Finally, Jesus has a kingly ministry. He is the ultimate king, ordering the life of his people through his revealed law.
Every believer, through the Holy Spirit, is to minister to others in these three ways as well.
1. The Bible refers to every believer as a prophet.
In Numbers 11:29, Moses states, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” and in Joel 2:28-29, this blessing is predicted for the messianic age. In Acts 2:16-21, Peter declares that in the church this prophecy is now fulfilled. Every believer is led by the Holy Spirit to discern the truth (1 John 2:20, 27). Each believer is directed to admonish with the word of Christ (Col. 3:16), as well as to instruct (Rom. 15:14) and encourage other believers (Heb. 3:13).
Christians are also called to witness to the truth before their nonbelieving friends and neighbors. In Acts 8:4, all of the Christians who “had been scattered” out of Jerusalem “preached the word wherever they went” . In 1 Thessalonians 1:8, Paul states that “the Lord’s message rang out” from the new converts all over Macedonia and Achaia. Paul exhorted the Corinthian Christians to imitate him in conducting all aspects of life in such a way that people come to salvation (1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:31-11:1). In Colossians 4:5-6, Paul tells all Christians to answer every nonbeliever with wisdom and grace, and in 1 Peter 3:15, Peter charges all believers to give cogent reasons for their faith to non-Christians.
Behind all these exhortations is the assumption that the word is dwelling richly in every Christian (Col. 3:16). It means that every believer must read, ponder, and love the Word of God, be able to interpret it properly, and be skillful in applying it to their own questions and needs and to those of the people around them.
2. The Bible calls every believer a priest.
Just as every believer is a prophet, understanding the word of God now that Jesus has come, so every believer is a priest, having access in the name of Christ, the great High Priest, to the presence of God (Heb. 4:14-16). Believers, then, have the priestly work of daily offering themselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2) and of offering the sacrifices of deeds of mercy and adoring worship to God (Hen. 13:15-16). The priesthood of all believers means not only that all are now active participants in joyful public worship (1 Cor. 14:26) but also that they have the priestly calling to “do good and to share with others” (Heb. 13:16). As prophets, Christians call neighbors to repent, but as priests they do so with sympathy and loving service to address their needs. This is why Jesus calls us to live such lives of goodness and service that outsiders will glorify God (Matt. 5;16).
3. The Bible calls every believer a king.
All believers rule and reign with Christ (Eph. 2:6) as kings and priests (Rev. 1:5-6). Although elders and leaders have the responsibility of church governance and discipline, the “kingship of all believers” means that believers have the right and responsibility to discipline one another. Christians are supposed to confess their sins not only to a minister but to one another, and they are called to pray for one another (Jas. 5:16). They are not to rely only on the discipline of elders but are to exhort each other so they don’t become hardened by their sin (Heb. 3:13). It is the responsibility of not only elders and ministers to discern sound doctrine; all believers must rely on the anointing the Spirit gives them to discern truth (1 John 2:20, 27).
The kingly general office is one of the reasons that many denominations have historically given the congregation the right to select its own leaders and officers, with the approval of the existing leaders (Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the power of governing the church rests in the people. Though pastors and teachers are uniquely called to build up the body into spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:11-13), every Christian is called to help build up the body into maturity by “speaking the truth in love” to one another (Eph. 4:15). The kingship of ever believer also means that every believer has the authority to fight and defeat the world, the flesh, and the devil (cf. Eph. 6:11-18; Jas 4:7; 1 John 2:27; 4:4; 5:4).
Summarizing Prophet, Priest, and King
All of these facets of ministry are brought together in 1 Peter 2:9. Here we are told that followers of Christ have been made kings and priests–”a royal priesthood”–that we “may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness,” which is the work of a prophet. The Spirit equips every believer to be a prophet who brings the truth, a priest who sympathetically serves, and a king who calls others into accountable love–even if he or she lacks specialized gifts for office or full-time ministry. This Spirit-equipped calling and gifting of every believer to be a prophet, priest, and king has been called the “general office.” This understanding of the general office helps prevent the church from becoming a top-down, conservative, innovation-allergic bureaucracy. It helps us understand the church as an energetic grassroots movement that produces life-changing and world-changing ministry–all without dependence on the control and planning of a hierarchy of leaders.
- Timothy Keller, Center Church: Doing Balanced Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 344-46.
“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32
The gospel is in these verses: “. . . as God in Christ forgave you.” The rest of it is how we are to be true to that gospel, how not to be a living denial of the very gospel we profess, how to be living proof of that sacred gospel.
Faithfulness to the gospel is more than signing a doctrinal statement. That’s a good thing to do. But faithfulness to the gospel is more. Far more.
Faithfulness to the gospel is also treating one another as God in Christ has treated us. It is not that hard to sign a piece of paper or take a vow that we stand for the gospel. Again, that’s a good thing to do. But it is far more demanding to bear living witness to the gospel by denying the demands of Ego and treating one another with the grace God has shown us in Christ.
When the gospel actually sinks in, we change. Winning no longer matters. Getting in the last word no longer matters. Payback no longer matters. We now perceive such things as contemptible, compared with the display of God’s grace in Christ.
Unbelieving people are not impressed by our official positions on paper. They will not pay attention – nor should they – until they see the beauty of the gospel in our relationships.
Jonathan Edwards, observing his wife under the influence of the Holy Spirit, noted this about her:
“There were earnest longings that all God’s people might be clothed with humility and meekness, like the Lamb of God, and feel nothing in their hearts but love and compassion to all mankind; and great grief when anything to the contrary appeared in any of the children of God, as bitterness, fierceness of zeal, censoriousness, or reflecting uncharitably on others, or disputing with any appearance of heat of spirit.”
Jonathan Edwards, Works (Edinburgh, 1979), I:377.
“We live in the Age of the Counsellor It’s not much of a question any more whether people will get counselling at some time or other. The question is what kind of counselling they’ll get… Every (counselling method) has foundational beliefs about what is wrong with people and how they can be helped.
“…Gospel-centred counselling… is the process of one Christian coming alongside another with words of truth to encourage, admonish, comfort, and help – words drawn from Scripture, grounded in the gracious saving work of Jesus Christ, and presented in the context of relationship. The goal of this counselling is that the brother or sister in need of counsel would grow in his or her understanding of the gospel and how it applies to every area of life and then respond in grateful obedience in every circumstance, all to the building up of the church and for the glory of God.
“(The) gospel-centred paradigm is derived from the Bible…We derive our paradigm from the Bible because we distrust merely human diagnoses of what’s really wrong with us and because we recognize our utter powerlessness to effect deep change in anyone by our own efforts. Only God’s Word has the power to discern ‘the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12), and to illumine our darkened understanding (Psalm 36:9, John 8:12, 1 John 1:7)…
“Gospel-centred counselling seeks to answer the questions, ‘What is wrong with us?’ and ‘What can be done to help?’ by intentionally applying Scripture in a balanced way, recognizing both what the gospel declares about us and what it demands of us. Counselling that neglects the Scriptures when seeking to answer these questions always eventuates in a bloated self-opinion and an enslaving and futile self-focus. Counselling that neglects what the gospel says about us will eventuate in works-righteousness and its ultimate and inescapable fruit, either pride or despair, or a vacillation between the two. Counselling that neglects the obligation forced on us by the gospel always eventuates in complacent laziness, excuse-making, and loose… gospel-centred counselling…applies both gospel declarations and obligations to every problem we encounter.”
Elyse Fitzpatrick, “Counsel from the Cross”, pp. 91-93
(HT: Richard Bresson)
Joe Thorn (with American spelling):
At Redeemer Fellowship we talk a lot about being gospel-centered as a church, and we encourage gospel-centered living among our people. From time to time we get asked by our newcomers, “What exactly does that mean? What does it look like?” Here is a brief explanation.
Before we jump into gospel-centeredness we need to be clear about the gospel itself. In the simplest of terms the gospel is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that accomplishes redemption and restoration for all who believe and all of creation. In his life Jesus fulfilled the law and accomplished all righteousness on behalf of sinners who have broken God’s law at every point. In his death Jesus atones for our sins, satisfying the wrath of God and obtaining forgiveness for all who believe. In his resurrection Jesus’ victory over sin and death is the guarantee of our victory over the same in and through him. Jesus’ saving work not only redeems sinners, uniting them to God, but also assures the future restoration of all creation. This is the gospel, the “good news,” that God redeems a fallen world by his grace.
GOSPEL-CENTERED: THE BIG PICTURE
Therefore, to be gospel-centered means that that the gospel – and Jesus himself – is our greatest hope and boast, our deepest longing and joy, and our most passionate song and message. It means that the gospel is what defines us as Christians, unites us as brothers and sisters, changes us as sinner/saints and sends us as God’s people on mission. When we are gospel-centered the gospel is exalted above every other good thing in our lives and triumphs over every bad thing set against it.
THE GOSPEL-CENTERED LIFE
More specifically, the gospel-centered life is a life where a Christian experiences a growing personal reliance on the gospel that protects him from depending on his own religious performance and being seduced and overwhelmed by idols. The gospel centered life produces:
Confidence (Heb. 3:14; 4:16)
When the gospel is central in our lives we have confidence before God – not because of our achievements, but because of Christ’s atonement. We can approach God knowing that he receives us as his children. We do not allow our sins to anchor us to guilt and despair, but their very presence in our lives compels us to flee again and again to Christ for grace that restores our spirits and gives us strength.
Intimacy (Heb. 7:25; 10:22; James 4:8)
When the gospel is central in our lives we have and maintain intimacy with God, not because of our religious performance, but because of Jesus’ priestly ministry. We know that Jesus is our mediator with God the Father and that he has made perfect peace for us through his sacrifice allowing us to draw near to God with the eager expectation of receiving grace, not judgment.
Transformation (2 Cor. 3:18; 1 Thess. 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:13)
When the gospel is central in our lives we experience spiritual transformation, not just moral improvement, and this change does not come about by our willpower, but by the power of the resurrection. Our hope for becoming what God designed and desires for us is not trying harder, but trusting more – relying on his truth and Spirit to sanctify us.
Community (Heb. 3:12, 13; 10:25; 2 Tim 3:16, 17)
When the gospel is central in our lives we long for and discover unity with other believers in the local church, not because of any cultural commonality, but because of our common faith and Savior. It is within this covenant community, if the community itself is gospel-centered, that we experience the kind of fellowship that comforts the afflicted, corrects the wayward, strengthens the weak, and encourages the disheartened.
THE GOSPEL-CENTERED CHURCH
A gospel-centered church is a church that is about Jesus above everything else. That sounds a little obvious, but when we talk about striving to be and maintain gospel-centrality as a church we are recognizing our tendency to focus on many other things (often good and important things) instead of Jesus. There are really only two options for local churches; they will be gospel-centered, or issue driven.
Issue-driven churches can be conservative or liberal, and come from any denominational tribe. A church can get the gospel “right” on paper and still not be gospel-centered in practice.
Some churches are driven by doctrinal purity. In the pursuit of the truth it is not uncommon for a church to be more about their theological heritage than the founder and perfecter of our faith. Some churches are driven by numbers. The desire to see as many people as possible trust in Christ can lead to a pragmatism that gives the nod to anything that results in more people in the front door. Some churches are driven by a desire to be culturally relevant, while other churches are focused on how culturally distinct they can remain. In both cases something other than the cross is capturing the attention of the congregation. Some churches are driven by social or spiritual works that, while good, begin to eclipse the point of all good works.
Gospel-centered churches do not forsake these things, but they are not driven by them. They are driven by a love for Jesus and his work on our behalf. Therefore gospel-centered churches are so focused on Jesus and the hope of redemption that they are passionate and articulate about their theology. Their desire to know and make known Jesus demands doctrinal precision and leads them to want and work toward as many people as possible repenting of sin and trusting in Christ. When the gospel is central in a church it leads them out into the world on mission, while preserving their counter-cultural character as the people of God. The gospel-centered church is driven by love (for God and others) and this leads to joyful obedience that points back to God.
In saying this I don’t want to suggest that we at Redeemer do not struggle with being issue driven. That temptation is always present, and it is why we work hard to maintain gospel-centrality by keeping the gospel always before us in our work and worship.
Helpful reading on maintaining gospel-centrality.
Gospel-Centered Life Curriculum by Bob Thune
Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Fight Clubs) by Jonathan Dodson
The Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney
The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges
A Gospel Primer for Christians by Milton Vincent
In his book on Acts, Alan Thompson notes five characteristics of apostolic evangelistic preaching (90-99). These five features serve as good models for all types of preaching, both then and now.
1. God-centered. The sermons in Acts begin with God. They announce the good news of what God has promised, what God has done, and what God will do. The preaching is not centered around the felt-needs of the audience, but around the mighty acts of God in history. The emphasis is on God’s initiative and how we are accountable to him.
2. Audience-conscious. While the preaching begins with God, it is not ignorant of those to whom the sermon is delivered. We see throughout Acts evidence of audience adaptation and sensitivity to what the audience already knows or doesn’t know. The sermons do not unfold as canned messages with a series of doctrinal propositions. The preaching is deeply theological, but not at the expense of be careful to communicate that theology in a way that is understandable. The core content stays the same, but the starting point and type of final appeal may change.
3. Christ-focused. Though God is often portrayed at the main actor in history, the preaching in Acts is relentlessly focused on Christ. The sermons highlight the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. They also explain the theological significance of these events. Christ is proclaimed as the climax of redemptive history and the good news for today’s sinners.
4. Response-oriented. The preaching in Acts is not response-driven. That is, we never see messages crafted or delivered in such a way as to manipulate a desired response. But the preaching always called for a response. This is often the difference between faithful teaching and anointed preaching. The apostles not only taught about God and Christ, they peppered their preaching with promises and warnings. Specifically, they called people to faith in Christ and repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5. Boldness. The noun form of “boldness” is used five times in Acts and the verb form is used seven times (out of a total of nine in the NT). If there was one distinctive homiletical trademark of apostolic preaching it was boldness. In the context of much hostility, the apostles were often granted a unique freedom to preach Christ with exceptional clarity. In an age like ours with increasing opposition to Christianity and Christian claims, it is imperative that preachers reclaim this mantle of boldness. Preachers should not be obnoxious or obtuse, but we must question our approach to preaching if we are not willing “to be clear in the face of fear” (97).
…It will be helpful to assume that the book in question is meant to address the Christian life, falling under the broad categories of Christian Living or Spiritual Growth or something similar (I would have very different questions to ask of a general market book or of a Christian biography).
Here are five questions, plus a bonus, that I ask myself as I read.
Does It Draw Its Truth from Scripture?
First and foremost, a good book will have a heavy dependency upon Scripture. Whatever truth it seeks to teach will be ultimately drawn from God through the Bible rather than from any kind of human wisdom or experience. In the Bible God gives us the great privilege of seeing the world through his eyes and seeing life from his perspective. Therefore, whatever we teach about living the Christian life ought to depend heavily upon his wisdom.
This is the key difference between Randy Alcorn’s Heaven and Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven—the first is utterly dependent upon Scripture while the second ignores Scripture in favor of experience. It is the great difference between Kent Hughes’ Disciplines of a Godly Man and John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart—the first teaches manhood from Scripture while the other teaches it from human wisdom and experience. This is not to say that there is absolutely nothing right or good in 90 Minutes in Heaven and Wild at Heart; however, they are innately inferior because they do not consistent lead the reader back to God as he reveals himself in the Bible.
Is It Faithful to the Bible?
Of course not all books that attempt to draw truth from Scripture do it well, so the second criteria is that the books are consistently faithful to Scripture. There are many books that attempt to show what the Bible teaches but do a poor job of it. The authors do not handle the Bible faithfully or they look too narrowly, depending upon isolated verses rather than the grand sweep of Scripture. Consider The Purpose Driven Life, a book that contains a good deal of wisdom but which draws from Scripture haphazardly, and compare it to Sinclair Ferguson’sTaking the Christian Life Seriously. Both are guidebooks to life, but one is far more consistently faithful to Scripture than the other.
Does It Have a Gospel Focus?
Many books written by and for Christians teach how to live the Christian life under law instead of under grace. Instead of teaching true Christian living, they teach law and moralisms. A good book will be dependent upon the joy and freedom of living as those who have been set free from law and will ultimately point people to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ from which we gain the desire and ability and power to live this Christian life. Stephen Artberburn’sEvery Man’s Battle is grounded in morality, not gospel; it may be that following rules may help a man overcome an addiction to lust and pornography, but it is far better to point to the gospel, which is exactly what I attempted to do in Sexual Detox.
Does It Lead To Other Sound Teaching?
There are times when an author has good, wise or helpful things to say, but does so while depending upon teachers who do not consistently draw truth from Scripture and who are not consistently faithful to Scripture. I tend to hesitate to recommend the works of such authors. Books are not isolated literary islands, but are part of a wider, ongoing discussion; any book will inevitably lead its readers to the people who have influenced its author. By definition, if you identify with an author and love what she teaches, you will want to find out who has influenced her, perhaps not knowing when those influencers are unsound. Here I would list Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline, a book containing much that is useful, yet which shows a dependence upon the Roman Catholic mystical tradition that may prove unhelpful and even dangerous for those who go looking for his mentors.
Is It Well-Written?
The Lord is honored not only by our expression of ideas, but by the skillful expression of those ideas. For this reason, I place far more value on books that display literary merit over those that are purely utilitarian. When an author expresses profound truth through a skilled grasp of language, he has combined two very different skillsets and has glorified God in both of them. Here is part of the reason I value writers like Carl Trueman and Russell Moore, authors who combine powerful content with a powerful pen.
Let me add one bonus question; this is not a question that separates good books from bad, but it may separate a book that is worth reading now from one that is not.
Does It Advance a Discussion?
In general, a good book will not simply repeat what others have said before, but it will somehow advance the discussion, either by bringing truth to bear in a new way or by taking into account contemporary issues or emphases. For example, there have been many good books on marriage over the church’s history while marriage itself has not changed one bit. A contemporary book can be especially useful if it engages some of the underlying contemporary beliefs and assumptions on marriage that the church has absorbed from the culture around it. If a book does not advance a discussion, but simply restates truth that others have taught, you may do better to read the older book or to read on another topic.