If you haven’t picked up Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way by J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, you need to pick it up. It’s available right now on kindle for just $1.99. In the chapter on “The Gospel as of First Importance,” Packer and Parrett address the need for a “fully dressed” Gospel. They write:
Sadly, even tragically, evangelicals have sometimes been guilty of preaching and teaching a Gospel that is not, shall we say, “fully dressed.” They may have focused properly on the central features of God’s atoning work on the cross, faithfully preached Christ crucified for sinners, celebrated the resurrection as proof that Christ’s self-offering for our sins has been accepted, and urged hearers to be reconciled to God. In other words, they have been right about the essence of the gospel; the key facts have been there in what they have said. But at the same time they have missed some of the critical implications and applications of the Gospel for daily living.
[...] When we fail to conduct ourselves “in step with the truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:14), we are in serious error. We are to live in such a way as to make the teaching about God our Savior attractive to our neighbors (Titus 2:10) and to win their respect by responsible and godly living (1 Thess. 4:11-12). Thus our preaching and teaching of the Gospel–that is, our ministries and catechesis–must include teaching the godly manner of living that accords with sound doctrines of the Gospel (Titus 2:1).
[...] The Gospel is to be adorned by both sound doctrine and godly living. To set the Gospel before parishioners and public without these is to preach an unclothed Gospel.
Our salvation does not end at new birth. We are taught by Scripture to say not only that we have been saved (Eph. 2:8) but also that we shall be saved (Rom. 5:9-10; 13:11; 1 Pet. 1:5) and even now are being saved (Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Pet. 1:9). What is the power that saves us? It is the power of the Spirit at work in and through the Gospel (Rom. 1:16) to change lives. We need both a fully orbed doctrine of salvation and a “fully clothed” presentation of the Gospel. But we have often fallen short on both counts.
Packer and Parrett go on to show how older evangelicals have gotten the essence of the Gospel correct by neglecting the implications and applications of the Gospel (undressed Gospel). Consequently, newer evangelicals have stressed the implications and applications of the Gospel but neglected the essence of the Gospel, or even worse, sometimes substituted them for the essence of the Gospel. What we need is a robust understanding of the essence of the Gospel that is fully dressed with all the implications and applications of the Gospel for every aspect of life.
If you believe in the centrality of the gospel, you know that the good news of Jesus Christ is not just the door to the Christian faith, but it is the entire house. It is not only the entrance point but the pathway on which we walk our entire Christian life. Therefore, the journey of the Christian experience is growing more and more in the gospel.
There has been some discussion and even debate as to whether all the talk about the power and centrality of the gospel is neglecting the power and necessity of being filled with the Spirit. Are we talking about the gospel to the neglect of the Spirit’s working in our lives? Are we substituting the gospel for the Spirit when explaining how we operate as Christians in the world? I think those are valid questions, and I want to briefly attempt to answer the question in this post.
I am convinced that the overarching purpose of the Holy Spirit in the world is to magnify Jesus Christ. One of the most fundamental ways to know if you are filled with the Spirit is whether Jesus is being magnified and glorified in your life. That’s what the Spirit does. Jesus is magnified in the Gospel–because it is all about who He is and what He has done for sinners. Therefore, it stands to reason that the Spirit’s magnification of Jesus will be through sinners reveling more and more in the glorious gospel of our Lord.
That’s the logic I see in Scripture, but how does it work out practically?
God’s gospel is robustly Trinitarian. God the Father administrates salvation; God the Son accomplishes salvation; God the Spirit applies salvation. In His application of the gospel, the Holy Spirit brings us a true understanding of and genuine experience in the grace of Jesus Christ. Without the Spirit’s application, the gospel would not only be theoretical but our treatment would be at best superficial.
In 2007, Tim Keller penned an excellent (lesser known) article entitled “Talking about Idolatry in a Postmodern Age“. There has been a considerable amount of material published about idolatry, including articles, books, and sermons from various evangelical leaders. Perhaps none have been more helpful in helping to shed light on functional idolatry than Tim Keller.
In this little article, Keller draws from Martin Luther’s Treatise on Good Works to make an insightful relationship of the law to the gospel. Keller via Luther makes the case that by breaking any of commandments two through nine necessarily includes breaking the first commandment. In other words, the command “have no other gods before me” is violated when idolatry is functionally manifested in violating any of the other commands. Here’s the pertinent excerpt from Keller’s article where he explains this insight:
No one grasped this better than Martin Luther, who ties the Old Testament and New Testament together remarkably in his exposition of the Ten Commandments. Luther saw how the Old Testament law against idols and the New Testament emphasis on justification by faith alone are essentially the same. He said that the Ten Commandments begin with two commandments against idolatry. It is because the fundamental problem in law-breaking is always idolatry. In other words, we never break the other commandments without first breaking the law against idolatry. Luther understood that the first commandment is really all about justification by faith, and to fail to believe in justification by faith is idolatry, which is the root of all that displeases God.
All those who do not at all times trust God and do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in His favor, grace and good-will, but seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep this [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, obedience, patience, and chastity of all the saints combined. For the chief work is not present, without which all the others are nothing but mere sham, show and pretense, with nothing back of them… If we doubt or do not believe that God is gracious to us and is pleased with us, or if we presumptuously expect to please Him only through and after our works, then it is all pure deception, outwardly honoring God, but inwardly setting up self as a false [savior]…. (Part X. XI) Excerpts from Martin Luther, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520).
Here Luther says that failure to believe that God accepts us fully in Christ—and to look to something else for our salvation—is a failure to keep the first commandment; namely, having no other gods before him. To try to earn your own salvation through works-righteousness is breaking the first commandment. Then he says that we cannot truly keep any of the other laws unless we keep the first law—against idolatry and works-righteousness. Thus beneath any particular sin is this sin of rejecting Christ-salvation and indulging in self-salvation.
For example, letʼs say a person cheats on his income tax form. Why does he do that? Well, you say, because he is a sinner. Yes, but why does his sin take this form? Lutherʼs answer would be that the man only cheated because he was making money and possessions—and the status or comfort from having more of them—more important than God and his favor. Or letʼs say a person lies to a friend rather than lose face over something she has done. In that case the underlying sin is making human approval or your reputation more important than the righteousness you have in Christ.
The Bible, then, does not consider idolatry to be one sin among many (and a rare sin found only among primitive people). Rather, all our failures to trust God wholly or to live rightly are at root idolatry—something we make more important than God. There is always a reason for a sin. Under our sins are idolatrous desires. (emphasis mine)
When I contemplated the relationship of justification by faith with functional idolatry, it helped me explore the ways I seek to find self-justification through violation of the law of God. As Keller noted, there is a reason why we lie. It is because we find greater comfort in believing falsehood rather than being exposed by the truth. When we are justified by faith in Christ alone, we are freed to be a people who love truth and are willing to live exposed to the truth of God’s Word (Heb. 4:12-13).
There is a reason why we steal. It is because we do not trust in God’s provision for our lives and value the stuff of others (going from I like to I want to I must have at all cost) to the point of making them our own. When we are justified by faith in Christ alone, we are freed to be a people who no longer steal but work with our own hands to provide for others in need (Eph. 4:28). Where self-salvation led to depriving others of their belongings because of functional idolatry, the salvation Jesus brings leads to generosity for others because you value Jesus more than anything else in this world.
This kind of elaboration can extend throughout God’s law. I think Luther and Keller are right. When we break God’s law, functional idolatry has taken place. No only have we outwardly violated God’s revealed will, but inwardly (the sin beneath the sin) we manifest a life under our rule (instead of God’s) and justification for living for self-salvation and satisfaction. When we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, we turn from idolatry in repentance and faith in ways that the gospel fuels obedience in every way idolatry fueled our disobedience.
Taking the counsel of Luther, we can discover specific ways to apply the gospel to our lives and grow in repentance and faith. When we cry, “I believe; Lord, help my unbelief!” God’s law shows us the various ways we are prone to functional idolatry and where can turn with fresh repentance and faith to all that God has given us in Christ.
Over the past several weeks my fellow pastor, Tom Ascol, has been preaching on the law and gospel while working expositionally through the book of Exodus. Yesterday’s message was on the lawful use of the law, and it was excellent. Anyone who wants to understand the relationship of the law and gospel should download that sermon. Very clearly and simply stated (I will try to post a link when it is available online).
One of the things that struck me in Tom’s message was the necessity to have a high view of the law for there to be a true gospel-centered culture in the church. The law represents the character and desires of God, and the higher we appraise the law of God, the higher our awareness is of His holiness, righteousness, justice, and all other excellencies inherent to His divine nature. We have a glorious God who graciously have us self-revelation so we would know what He is like, what He wants from us, and how we can live in a way that pleases Him. A high view of the law will bring draw this out.
Additionally, a high view of the law will expose the sinfulness and seriousness of sin. The law was never meant to make us righteous in the sight of God (legalism) but to cause us to look for an alien righteousness found in Christ’s life. That is why repentance is necessary to salvation – it is essentially looking away from ourselves, our attempts of being right in the eyes, our performances according to man-made laws to offer self-atonement. Not only that, but the right preaching of the law causes every mouth to be stopped (Rom. 3:19) as sinners realize there is no defense for our lives of lawless rebellion to the God who has rights over us as Creator. That’s the seriousness of sin, in that we have sinned against God, the one with whom we stand in judgment. According to Romans 7:7-12, we would not know sin apart from the law. The sinfulness of sin is exposed and even aggravated when there is a high view of the law (“through the commandment [sin] became sinful beyond measure”).
Together then, a high view of the law gives us a truer and deeper understanding of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man. God is always more holy than we can perceive him to be, and we are always more sinful that we perceive ourselves to be. On the contrary, a low view of the law obscures beauty and brilliance of God’s holiness and gives damning comfort and false security to the sinner.
A low view of the law produces legalism, because the bar is so low that sinner’s feel justified in attempting to be made righteous by keeping it. A low view of the law also encourages sinners to substitute their own laws for the law of God, making self-righteous standards to live by, and judging others when they fail to live up to their own laws. Therefore, a low view of the law is the breeding ground for moralism where God is an utility to our self-righteous ends of moral justification (i.e., God helped me, not God rescued me).
A high view of the law leads Christ-centered, grace abounding salvation. With a clear view of God’s holiness and man’s sinfulness, there is a deep recognition and awareness of our need of reconciliation and redemption that can only come through the law-fulfilling life and sin-substituting death of Jesus Christ. You diminish the holy character of God and sinful nature of man, then the cross of Christ is depreciated and the gospel is cheapened. When there is a high view of the law, there is a corresponding high need for God to do for you what you are incapable of doing yourself–being made right in the eyes of God through grace.
If your desire is to be a part of a church that is saturated with gospel-loving, Jesus-treasuring, cross-exulting Christians, then it is incumbent that there be a high view of the law. A low view of the law leads to gospel substitutes. A high view of the law leads to gospel enjoyment and celebration. Don’t miss the relationship of law and gospel!
Yesterday morning, Dr. Tom Nettles preached on Melchizedek from Hebrews 7 at Grace, pointing out the significance of his name and offices. As a type of Christ, Melchizedek functioned as prophet (blessing Abraham), priest (of the Most High God), and king (of Salem). The offices of Christ and his role as mediator of the New Covenant is one of the richest topics for sustained meditation and gospel enjoyment.
But today, I thought about the spiritual perverseness of substituting myself in the role of being prophet, priest, and king of my own life. I know that sounds crazy, but if we are honest with ourselves, we are more prone to this manner of forgetting the gospel than we realize.
When I Am My Own Prophet
Jesus not only faithfully proclaims the truth, Jesus is the truth. Jesus not only gives us direct Word from God; Jesus is the Word made flesh. As the writer of Hebrews explains, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). Paul Tripp rightly notes that no one speaks to you more than you do; therefore, no one has more influence over your thoughts than you. Each and every day, we have the option to have Jesus as our Prophet, or we can speak things into our own lives in our self-salvation project.
When I am my own prophet, I am willing to believes half-truths or complete lies rather than the what God says about me in Christ. Is Christ words not enough? In the words of Joel Osteen, is it that I have to declare things over me, or is not what Jesus declares sufficient? If I am in Christ, I am to be defined by the Gospel word, having the good news as the most important and constant message that shapes my identity. When I am my own prophet, I foolishly substitute counterfeit messages that might comfort for the moment but cannot heal, pacify but cannot bring peace, help you cope but cannot save.
John Piper is off to Knoxville, TN for one year of writing. Here’s to hoping that might include some more poetry. This is one from earlier in 2012 that continues to be a blessing to me.
Is there a word to help us feel
the weight of Adam’s fall?
How heavy will this burden weigh,
(Spare not!) on those who fell?
O Lord, so great this forfeiture!
Was there sufficient reason?
Then whence could any traitor hope
before your burning face?
But surely that will cost beyond
our wage. How is it priced?
Entirely paid? By him? O God,
and is that gift for me?
I would receive this gift, O Lord!
How soon would you allow?
A couple weeks ago, I argued that a gospel-driven church will have gospel-centered expectations when it comes to the Word. It is not enough that the preacher’s sermon is Christ-centered. The congregation should be trained to be, too. That entails not only expectations but also application, which is what I want to address in this post.
Before I explain the difference between morality-based application and gospel-centered application, let me briefly mention substitutes for application in general. If we are not careful, we can allow substitutes that fall short of actual application of the Word. One of them is meeting a knowledge quotient. You can come for the purpose of intellectual satisfaction (new insights, profound interpretation, etc) and still not have the Word applied to your life. In this case, we are creating smarter sinners and not transformed saints. Another substitute is emotional experiences. You can have your heart-strings pulled and not have your heart transformed by truth. Mountain top experiences only mean you have to come back down to level ground at some time. Another substitute is sentimentalism. This is close to emotional experiences, but it is different in that the message “works” only if it fits in your sensibilities or self-imposed template.
Having mentioned substitutes, perhaps the greatest enemy of gospel-centered application of the Word is moralism. It is answering the “What?” question while completely ignoring the “Why?” question. It is going to the “How?” question with too many assumptions about the “Who?” question. Moralism leads to man-centered “rededication” as opposed to gospel-centered repentance and faith. One is driven on the performance of man; the other is driven upon the performance of Jesus. Just so that we can see the difference and highlight gospel-centered application, consider the following:
Yesterday in my disciple-making class, we focused on developing a relationships investment plan for the new year. We plan for a lot of things. There’s financial planning, educational planning, vacation planning, retirement planning, etc. But one of the most important plans you could make as a disciple of Jesus is planning your relationships.
Jesus planned his relationships. He entered into relationships with a specific group of people with a purpose in mind. Those relationships were meaningful and intentional. Those relationships also had a stewardship to them, meaning that the exchange (giving and receiving) of life would carry on into the lives of others. Just a cursory look, for example, in the life of the Apostle Paul you see how sweet and endearing his relationships were with the people of whom he invested his life.
Relationships is the interconnected superhighway for gospel advance. The stronger the relationships in gospel community, the greater the success of the mission. When relationships are not strong (or nonexistent), substitutes attempt to fill in, such as programs, events, or classes. I am not saying those are bad things in and of themselves, but they are inadequate replacements for life on life and handicap the mission of the church when they do.
When making your relational investment plan, I am not talking about adding a superstructure to your life and schedule. Rather, the goal is to integrate your life in the fabric of community so that your relational investments can be intentionally leveraged for gospel growth and missional advance. It is living skillfully (walking with wisdom as Paul puts it) and seeing all of life along as a classroom to make, mature, and multiply disciples of Jesus.