January 29, 2013

A whole Bible for the careful Christian

by Steve Meister

Who wants to quibble with the “Gospel-Centered” movement? Certainly, the deck is already stacked in favor of the guy whose position is described as being centered on the Gospel! Yet, with all the real and true good coming from many organizations, conferences, teachers, pastors, and churches who might be aligned with this more recent call to be centered on the Gospel, I nonetheless remain charitably concerned. Concerned, that is, that “Gospel-centered” really means “Gospel-reductionist.”

gospel-centeredKevin DeYoung hit the nail on the head, for me, in his rejoinder to a recent (and somewhat disconcerting review) to his new book, The Hole in Our Holiness:     

God counsels us in a hundred different ways and exchanges a thousand different truths for our lies. Let’s not think a “failure to believe the gospel” (which usually refers to our acceptance in justification) is the only final diagnosis for every malady. My concern with Ortlund’s concern is that many Christians have become hesitant to employ the full arsenal of Scriptural threats, warnings, promises, examples, and commands for fear that unless we explicitly say something about our deep down gospel issues we aren’t really dealing with the ultimate problem and we aren’t emphasizing grace as clearly as we ought. Surely there is more than one way to skin a sinful cat.

Read The Hole in Our Holiness: A Friendly Rejoinder. Along with winsomely working-in cat skinning, DeYoung is right on point. God gave us His Word, from Moses to Malachi, through Matthew all the way to Revelation, because we need it’s full counsel (e.g., Acts 20:272 Tim 3:16-17). Maybe it’s just because I am the weirdo pastor who preaches consecutive expositions through Malachi, Micah, and Ezekiel. But I do not believe that God was just padding the Book for publishers by giving us the Minor Prophets!

To be more frank, my concern with the “Gospel-centered” spirit of recent years is that it seems to reduce the Christian life to the doctrine of justification. Now, Luther was right – the standing and falling of the Church is on that precise article – but it is not the only doctrine; it is a sparkling jewel of an ornate setting of grace, not a solitary stone.

Could it be that “Gospel-centered” is simply a way for us to smuggle antinomian or libertine spirits across the threshold of our churches with the right language? It would make sense, no one really ever outright declares, “I’m a libertine!” This is no rebuke to anyone in particular, just a personal observation. When Christians are only concerned with not being legalistic (a dastardly and dangerous error!), it may be a sign that they are not concerned enough with the obedience that comes from faith.

In his commentary on Malachi – one of those weapons in the Scriptural arsenal – Baruch Maoz writes:

In our days, there are those who view loyalty to God and a strict observance of moral standards a mournful way of life. We often hear careful Christians, whose conscience is sensitive and who long to fear God more, being told, ‘Don’t be so dour!’

People have lost sight of the joy that comes from a cleansed conscience and of the pleasure that is the product of God’s embrace.

(Maoz, Malachi: A Prophet in Times of Despair [Crossbooks, 2011], p. 126).

I have encountered the cry of “Dour!” over personal convictions for the Lord’s honor, not a few times. Let’s be sure – whatever our battle cry – that we do not confuse “careful Christianity” with legalism. The Gospel is a call to believe in the Savior who died on our behalf that we might repent of our sin and be brought to the Father in worship and obedience (e.g., 2 Cor 5:9-10Titus 2:11-141 John 2:15-17).

And not because we are trying to earn our Father’s favor – which is rightly denounced as legalism – but because we already have it. In the glory of the Gospel of God’s grace, we have nothing to earn, so we fear Him, we obey Him, we refuse the world, and we walk carefully.

Steve Meister

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Steve is the associate pastor of River City Grace Church, in Sacramento, CA.
  • Bob

    Steve, this is well put. I share your concern that “gospel-centered” can mean for some simply the reiteration of the doctrine of justification over and over. Certainly that doctrine is of great importance, but I think we go too far in centralizing a particular doctrine and calling that being “gospel-centered.” I’m not for discarding the term altogether, though. I’m for every Christian understanding what the good news is all about. The question needs to be mulled over: what does the Bible mean by “gospel”?

    • Agreed, Bob. No need to jettison that entirely or refuse to call our
      people to be Gospel-centered, as long as we’re including all of that
      which is centered upon it.

      For one “Gospel-centered holiness” proof-text, I like to point to 2 Cor 7:1, “Since we have these promises,beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”

      We have these promises (of God’s favor, 6:16-18), so let us cleanse! We
      work hard at holiness becuase we have God’s favor, not because we are
      trying to earn it.

  • Tom Chantry

    Could it be that “Gospel-centered” is simply a way for us to smuggle
    antinomian or libertine spirits across the threshold of our churches
    with the right language?

    I think we need to start talking more about “functional antinomianism.” There are many people who can point to a doctrinal statement which denies antinomianism, but their manner of preaching, of speech, of church, and of life suggests that they function as though there were no law.

    • Thanks, Tom. I think you are right and (increasingly) have the same concern

  • Thanks for sharing, Steve. A needed and well-put message.

    We’ve probably all seen it: someone doesn’t like our practice of trying to live a holy life pleasing to the Lord, and BOOM!, they throw out the L-bomb, an accusation of “legalism”. And almost all of the time, they don’t even know what it really means.

    They seems to be a tendency for those same folks to talk about “gospel”, but redefine it to mean a grace that allows sin to abound.

    • Thanks Dave. Yes, I’m convinced that very few even know what legalism actually is or means – it’s a catch-all isn’t it? I’d like to address that at some point, Lord willing.

  • regschofield

    This could be a concern to watch for but I do believe it will balance itself out . I think many have heard , do more , surrender more etc.. for so long that we need the tonic of doctrine of justification to be preached loud and clear . In general , I have not heard from any solid preacher in this movement any idea that one can live as one pleases but that understanding the gospel and justification properly has clear implications to pursue holiness .

    • Thank you, I do hope you’re right (“it will balance itself out”). Perhaps, I am just trying to assist that balancing act. This is where our contexts – that is, what we have heard or have been hearing – do bear in the discussion. Thanks for the reminder.

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  • Jordan dayoub

    I cannot help to think; this is what happens when you present all revelation strictly in terms of Gospel or Law. Anything that isn’t viewed as explicitly Gospel is avoided as law, legalistic, or moralistic.

  • Michael

    Hi Steve. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Here are my thoughts: (1) Do you think by “gospel-centered” some (perhaps not all) mean to emphasize the gospel as the central focus and culmination of the entirety of Scripture? In other words, to be gospel-centered is not to neglect or avoid the minor prophets, but rather to place them within the redemptive theme of Scripture. (2) If gospel-centeredness functionally amounts to antinomianism or libertinism, then be all means we ought to be concerned (that, however, would be more self-centered than gospel-centered). On the other hand, if gospel-centeredness elevates the cross (Gal 6:14) and our crucified Savior (1 Cor 2:2), so that all of life, ministry, and our understanding of God’s Word are a fruit of the gospel then that is to be commended. (3) Lastly, when I think gospel-centered I don’t necessarily think justification-centered (though that is central to the gospel). Instead, I think of all the promises and realities that are mine in Christ. Obedience, therefore, is a fruit of the gospel, not in competition with it.

  • Spazzy McGee

    I was a Christian for decades, sitting under teaching that would be described as very Biblical, but was decidedly not Gospel-centered. For most of my Christian life the Gospel was distant and peripheral. Only when the Gospel was brought close and filled my view did holiness begin to characterize my walk. Suddenly I had a motive for obedience: love of Him who died for me. Sins that I had struggled with for years literally melted away. I no longer wanted to do them.

    So, pardon me, but this whole discussion from my perspective is much ado about nothing. Your concern is largely irrational, since you can’t, with the rare exception, accuse those who are making (too) much of the Gospel, of living sinful lives.

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  • ZZona

    What a comfort this article is (even 3 years after it was written!) in helping me finally to identify/put my finger on what has been troubling me. This nails it: “Concerned, that is, that “Gospel-centered” really means “Gospel-reductionist.”

    Of COURSE we are to be gospel-centered in all things, and yet somehow a scent of hyper-grace seems to creep in and something strangely lopsided begins to happen. I hear everything about grace and very little about repentance. And as you said, who wants to quibble with grace?! Praise God for His glorious grace. But something goes out of balance and it’s been challenging to identify, let alone correct. Thank you so much.

  • Curtis Smale

    Repentance from sin is NOT a requirement for Salvation, and nowhere in the Bible does it say that it is.

    • elainebitt

      Repentance is not necessary for salvation? Sir, without repentance there is no forgiveness, and without forgiveness from God, there is no salvation.

      It’s not in the bible, you say, huh?

      The list is not exaustive. (refer to the context of the passages)

      “When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” Acts 11: 18 .

      “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, ” Acts 3:19

      “but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. Acts 26:20

      “And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. ” Acts 2:38

      “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, ” Acts 17:30

      “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9

      “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” 2 Tim 2:25