Gospel-Centered Application of the Word

Tim Brister —  January 10, 2013 — 14 Comments

Eat this bookA 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:

Religion-based application focuses on what must I do first;
Gospel-centered application focuses on what Jesus has done first.

Religion-based application addresses only the fruit of our behavior;
Gospel-centered application strikes at the root of heart transformation.

Religion-based application says, “I must obey; therefore I’m accepted.”
Gospel-centered application says, “I’m accepted; therefore I gladly obey.”

Religion-based application explains that what you do defines who are you;
Gospel-centered application explains who you are defines what you do.

Religion-based application leads to emotional highs and lows based on shaky spiritual performances;
Gospel-centered application hitches your affections to your identity & acceptance in Christ.

Religion-based application has a philosophy of “try harder and do better”;
Gospel-centered application has a philosophy of “repent, believe, and repeat”.

Religion-based application says my problems are manageable and I can fit it;
Gospel-centered application says my sins are massive and only Jesus can fix it.

Religion-based application emphasizes my will power and assumed competency;
Gospel-centered application emphasizes God’s grace in my weakness and dependency.

Religion-based application takes ten looks at self and one look at Christ;
Gospel-centered application takes one look at self and takes ten looks at Christ.

Here’s the challenge. The default nature of man is to live on (a) religion-based application rather than (b) gospel-centered application. When I walked my disciple-making class through this, several of them confessed, “Tim, the (a) column is where I live, but I want to embrace the (b) column.” It was a great discussion and eye-opening time for us all. We cannot assume that simply because Christ is being proclaimed  from the pulpit that the people are trained to apply the Word in a gospel-centered manner. But a great starting point is recognizing the difference between the two, exposing counterfeits and substitutes, and pressing one another in gospel community to live in light of the gospel in a manner worthy of the gospel.

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  • This is great, Tim. Clear and helpful.

  • Robert I Masters

    This is a fallacy…your offering a straw man. Then you you burn that straw man down. I say let it burn. I am speaking here of religion. We kinda had this debate in the blogsphere before with the whole Bathke thing. I believe Kevin DeYoung had the best knowledge and application.

    2nd how does your defintion/discussion of moralism apply to a Christless world? This is why I believe the third use of the law requires “moralism” in that it reigns in sin.Not that it covers sin as Christ blood does but that it restrains evil. Iam I wrong here?

    • Robert,

      It is necessary to contrast Christianity from moralism or religion distinguish between grace-driven works and works-driven acceptance. I embrace the third use of the law as someone who believes that it is the same grace of God that saves and teaches us (see Titus 2 for example). Nowhere did I say in my blogposts there is not a place for the law in the Christian life. Nowhere did I say that sanctification does not require real effort of responsible born-again believers. What I am saying is that what we need throughout the Christian life, from beginning to end, is Christ-centered, gospel-fueled obedience to God.

  • Robert I Masters

    I ask this question …If I place the word Christian or the words true Christian in front of religion does that not invalidate that whole point of your list.That would indicate to me that the issue is between true and false religion not religion and the Gospel.

    • The issue is more than semantics. Certainly the word “religion” has different connotation as it did, say, 300 years ago. In my case, I am qualifying the term that I am using by explaining what it is and what it is not. On the basis of what I said and how I explained them (as opposed to what I did not say or what you assumed I said), I believe my points are valid.

  • Religion-based application has a philosophy of “try harder and do better”;
    Gospel-centered application has a philosophy of “repent, believe, and repeat”.

    Sounds cute but not too clear.

    Sounds like you are saying we need to re-wash in a philosophy of repeated repentance ?

    Christ’s blood did that once for all.

    I know you will explain that you didn’t mean that and then you’ll say what you did mean.

    Consider a way that make the crux of our redemption, Christ’s Gospel,clear and maybe avoid being cleaver in that single subject all together.

    Other than that you write well.

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  • May I have your permission to translate this wonderful essay into Chinese? Chinese churches in general are plagued with moralism in the pulpit as well as in congregational life.So you points are much needed in Chinese churches. Thanks.

    • Hey Luke! Thanks for the comment. Feel free to translate and use any of my blogposts for those whom you serve in China. I’m grateful to know that these articles could be used to be an encouragement to them!

      Grace and peace,

      Tim Brister

  • “Religion-based application explains that what you do defines who are you;
    Gospel-centered application explains who you are defines what you do.”

    Brilliantly put. This is one of the things I have learned a bit more about. Gospel centred isn’t about defining myself by my sin or my righteousness. It’s about surrendering both those things and allowing Jesus to make me who he needs me to be. This doesn’t mean I just sort of lay back and do nothing. It just means that I stop worshipping what I want people to see me as and find my sense of self in the transformational power of Jesus Christ. I hope that makes sense.

    Just a really long way of saying that I loved your post 😀

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