The Gospel Off-Centered, Part 3
So far, I’ve said that a claim to gospel-centeredness is an empty boast if it isn’t marked by an increasing devotion to the word of God. To be gospel-centered is to be word-centered. If you even mildly scoff at Scripture’s precision and authority, you can’t talk of loving the gospel! If you’d rather live in gospel-generalities than explore “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” revealed in Christ, you’ve totally missed the bull’s eye. You may be truly saved by grace, but God will not rest until He’s taught you to love His instruments and crucibles of grace. Many newly reformed brothers and sisters will parrot books and theologies because the ‘gospel-centered’ verbiage captures their thrilling discovery of grace. What’s sad is how many are swinging hard away from pursuing the fruit which saving grace promises.
Conferences on gospel-grace and passion for Christ are standing room only. But conferences on separation from the world (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) and obedience to the commands of Christ (Matthew 28:20; John 14:15,23-24;15:10; Rom 2:7) not so much. How can that be the case? If gospel-centeredness is our banner, then shouldn’t Christ’s every word be our most precious treasure? We can’t be selective, seeing only the emphasis we want to see (or ‘feel is right’) in Scripture. And the current trend of defanging the force of Greek imperatives is not healthy. People are trying to redefine biblical commands as “delightful invitations” or “gentle urgings,” and this just won’t do. After all, what are commands but expressions of the will of Christ?! I can assure you, Jesus is in perfect harmony with His divine will. He can do no less than love what He wills. Therefore, do you love the will of Christ? Is He worthy of your ardent submission to it? No one is truly gospel-centered who simultaneously loathes to “observe all that He commanded” (Matthew 28:20).
There is a second mark of a truly gospel-centered life:
2. A Faith-Centered Life
It’s surprising to me that when talking about spiritual growth so many in the current gospel-centered movement don’t use the term “faith.” Regarding justification it is frequently and accurately applied yet all but disappears as soon as sanctification is brought up. It’s trendy now to speak of “delighting in God, “hungering for beauty,” contemplating grace,” or being “passion-driven.” I’m not against casting our relationship with Christ in aesthetic motifs provided we understand them in light of clearer New Testament terms for spiritual growth, namely walking “by faith” (Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:1,6). And though you’ll never hear the hyper-grace crowd outright deny the centrality of faith, it is often ignored or merely an unspoken backdrop to more emotion-oriented terms.
There is a sharp gravitation today away from terms like “duty” and “submission.” Spiritual growth is increasingly viewed as driven by emotional affections rather than truth-grounded faith. And this aligns with our cultures trajectory toward the experiential and subjective. So many today live by what they sense and feel, as though truth is not primarily about knowing Scripture and responding in obedience but learning how to ‘sense’ God in our lives. Do I ‘sense’ His presence and His love? How do I ‘feel’ about my walk with the Lord? Am I experiencing a vibrant spiritual joy and delight in the Lord? The most intense gospel battlefront today, many would say, is not striving in the Spirit to kill sin by faith in God’s word (Romans 8:13). Their greater concern seems to be that we not fall into a passionless Christianity devoid of emotional affection for Christ. Are they raising a legitimate red flag? In cases where people’s lips praise Christ while their hearts are far from Him, the answer is yes. Heartless orthodoxy is a prime weapon of hell, persuading the fool that he’s wise and the religious that he’s authentic. We must always ferociously guard against it.
But when speaking of sanctification, should we be leaving out the Bible’s more common terminology of “walking by faith,” “being controlled by the Spirit,” and “hoping in God?” Is there danger in reducing spiritual change primarily to talk of the presence or absence of emotions? And perhaps more to the heart of my uneasiness could the contemporary emphasis on aesthetics lead to an equally hellish problem: a people full of passionate desire but false faith!? I’m all for rejecting the heatless light of the Pharisees, but neither am I interested in the lightless heat of Gerizim. The Father seeks worshippers “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:4).
Jonathan Edwards, whom some consider the father of Christian Hedonism, was very alert to the danger of nurturing a faithless dependence upon feelings and aesthetics:
A natural principle of self-love may be the foundation of great affections towards God and Christ, without seeing anything of the beauty and glory of the divine nature. There is a certain gratitude that is a mere natural thing. Gratitude is one of the natural affections,…and there is a gratitude that arises from self-love, very much in the same manner that anger does. Anger in men is an affection excited against, or in opposition to, another for something in him that crosses self-love; gratitude is an affection one has towards another, for loving or gratifying him, or for something in him that suits self-love. And there may be a kind of gratitude without any true or proper love;…Of this gratitude Christ declares, (Luke vi.) “Sinners love those that love them; even the publicans, who were some of the most carnal and profligate sort of men” (Matt. v. 46.).
And earlier in his works he expressed that “There are two sorts of hypocrites: one such as are deceived with their outward morality and external religion;…and the other, such as are deceived with false discoveries and elevations; who often cry down works, and men’s own righteousness, and talk much of free grace; but at the same time make a righteousness of their discoveries…, and exalt themselves to heaven with them.”
Is it far-fetched to imagine that reformed evangelicals, in their embryonic joy over sovereign grace, might be swinging the pendulum beyond Scripture’s balance on how to live the Christian life? If there’s truly no cause for concern, why are we endlessly inventing novel ways of expressing Christian experience and avoiding the Bible’s clearest terms for describing our walk with Christ? I know of more than one church that has grievously and unnecessarily divided over these issues. Their pulpits suddenly began casting Scripture’s commands in a negative light while serving up only high-strung sermons on spiritual affection. Where in today’s gospel-centered churches do we find frequent expositions of the Bible’s countless texts on “striving according to the power that works within me,” “submitting to God,” “the obedience of faith,” “denying ourselves,” etc? These biblical terms and concepts are getting more and more neglected in favor of the language of emotional passion.
But a truly gospel-centered life is a faith-centered life, practiced at all points of the sanctification spectrum. We should not allow God’s terminology to fall into disuse, and must evaluate ‘new models’ and explanations very carefully. While I wouldn’t associate all talk of emotions with a wrong understanding true faith, I believe it’s confusing and often dangerous when the Bible’s clear language for progressive sanctification is replaced by aesthetic motifs. People today speak of spiritual transformation as if it were grounded in emotional sensations rather than “God’s word, which performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thess 2:13). It’s an extremely dangerous trend when people define and evaluate spiritual realities by sense and emotion instead of Scripture. As one puritan put it, “This were to have the sun to follow the clock.”
So what does a faith-centered life look like?
I like the word “entrustment.” It goes way beyond gaining knowledge or mental assent. To entrust yourself to someone involves placing yourself at the complete disposal of their promises and character. The Apostle Peter said that Jesus offered Himself as our supreme model for this kind of faith: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Peter 2:21-23). Our Savior ‘entrusted’ Himself to God on the basis of His Father’s righteous justice in all things. The result was a willingness to “hand Himself over” to the sovereign purposes of God. That’s the essence of genuine faith.
According to Hebrews 11:1, “faith is the evidence of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Not long ago a man said to me that he’s always assumed that faith—if it was real—had to be somehow “felt” or “emotionally experienced.” He went on to explain that he didn’t think he could truly “obey” until certain emotional sensations came with his submission to Christ. There are many today living under the same confusion. Yet Hebrews 11:1 defines faith without any reference to how we feel. It’s rooted in spiritual “hope” and “conviction,” despite what we are experiencing. When we entrust our lives to the character and truth of Christ in spite of what’s going on inside and around us, the fruit is obedience to His will. Not that we’re totally unaffected by our surroundings and emotions. But real faith is the “evidence of things hoped for,” not things sensed.
True faith in God produces, not some fragile wish or inward focus on experience, but unshakeable hope, anvil-hard convictions, and Spirit-empowered strength over the world, the flesh, and Satan’s schemes (Hebrews 11:3-40). One of my favorite 17th century pastors, Thomas Brooks, eloquently discouraged that practice: “’We walk by faith and not by sight.’ And, verily, he who makes emotion and carnal reason a judge of his condition, will be happy and miserable, blessed and cursed, saved and lost, many times in a day, yea, in an hour.” Trusting God despite the heart’s fears and subjective conclusions is the essence of faith. I appreciate J.I. Packer’s two-fold description that faith is both creed and confidence. It’s grounded in God’s word alone and expressed in unflinching conviction. The Scriptures teach that believing is seeing, and not the other way around (John 20:29; Romans 8:24-25; Galatians 2:20; Second Corinthians 5:7). Faith is real entrustment to Christ and loving submission to His commands. It is the “conviction of things not seen” (or in this case “not felt”—Hebrews 11:1).
Dying to self
Jesus said that the Christian life is all about denying ourselves in order to follow Him (Matthew 16:24). Each moment of genuine faith is an act of self-denial. To believe the word of Christ is to starve the old dead guy’s appetites that still run around inside us, demanding that we feed them. Our permanent union with Christ gives us new spiritual inclinations and power (Romans 8:2-14), but we sometimes want to satisfy ourselves more than honor the Master who bought us. When our flesh entices us to grab temporary pleasures, courageous faith should go into action. That’s what Moses did! Hebrews 11:24-26 says: “By faith Moses,…refused to be called the son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking for the reward.” Did you catch that?! In faith he chose God’s will rather than the “passing pleasures of sin” because heavenly riches were greater than what’s found on earth.
How did he know God’s promises were better? Instead of believing the lies propagated by pagan culture, the flesh, or Satan’s temptations, he believed the character of the One who spoke those promises. In a word: Moses died to himself. And it wasn’t an easy choice. He was enticed with everything most people only dream about. With a simple nod to his flesh, Moses would’ve enjoyed power, riches, sensual pleasure round-the-clock, and insulation from much of life’s afflictions. In fact, Hebrews 11:27 says: “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen.” To the unbeliever, that’s a strange way to describe someone’s motives. How does anybody “see” what can’t be seen? But that’s precisely what drives the self-denial of Christian obedience. Taking up our cross means believing God regardless of other outward or inward enticements. True faith doesn’t wait for anything that can be seen, felt, or aesthetically generated. Indeed, that’s the very definition of self-denying faith it simply rests on the righteous character of God. As puritan pastor Richard Sibbes once declared: “Obedience is most direct when there is nothing else to sweeten the action.”
We’re all familiar with those profound words of Jesus in the Garden on the night of His betrayal. Under the terrifying prospect of having His righteous heart and life counted as sinful and worthy of divine wrath, Jesus strained for hours to yield His will to that dark moment. It wasn’t that He didn’t fully delight in obedience or didn’t truly desire eternal rewards over earthly comfort. His mind and affections were always truth-filled, humble, and wholly submissive. The intense struggle in the Garden was caused by a combination of the ferocity of Hell’s temptations to flee, Jesus’ own repulsion at the reality of having a foreign guilt counted against Him, and the frailty of His human will. He was “troubled” in His soul as the divine will collided with the temptation to run for His life! He knew His Father’s character was unimpeachable. He fully understood that drinking this cup would accomplish the redemptive “joy set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2). But our Lord needed to act on what He knew. His humble submission was an act of obedient faith and a yielded will. The two always go together.
Let’s be clear. Faith is not some passive ‘yielding,’ where we try to deactivate our will and drift on the currents of sense and whim. That’s an old and disastrous trick of the Keswick movement—people who thought that by deeply pondering Christ’s person and work they could “let go and let God” do everything for them. Inevitably, some of them went so far as to teach that obedience is “not us behaving like Christ, but Christ behaving through us.” In other words, we shouldn’t willingly and actively obey, they said, but instead should passively let go and expect God to do the obeying for us. If that sounds eerily similar to what many are claiming today, that’s because it is. There’s no denying that the contemporary emphasis on what Christ has done for us is leaving many confused about whether t0 willingly submit to His will for us. But there’s really no need for the confusion. According to Scripture, spiritual transformation and withstanding temptation involve both.
We’ve been saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). In Christ, we’re no longer condemned nor under the dominating power of sin (Romans 6:4-11; 8:12). Our eternity is secure (Romans 8:28-30), God is “willing and working” in us for His pleasure (Philippians 2:13), and He most certainly will “complete the work He began” (Philippians 1:6). Anytime we give in to sin, don the old grave clothes, and experience in our conscience the Spirit’s conviction and displeasure we’re reminded of our eternal confidence rooted in the passages above. Hallelujah! But with each failure also comes a piercing reminder of our need to trust God and more aggressively obey His will. God is “working” in us, but He promises to accomplish it by means of commands we’re called to willingly obey.
Telling our conscience to “shut up” because our sin was paid for is to miss the point. Saving faith in Christ doesn’t silence the conscience but liberates it from eternal guilt and spiritually sensitizes it to the truth. A believer’s conscience intimately knows the truth of being free from the pangs of condemnation, but it also knows the truth of desiring to be conformed to the image of Christ. A guilty conscience doesn’t make a mature Christian cower in fear of judgment (1 John 4:18). Instead, it clarifies God’s holy desires, prompts a godly sorrow, cultivates greater hatred for sin, bids true repentance, and calls us to more humble faith and self-denial. These are all divine works of growth in grace and promised in the gospel. This is the heart and soul of the faith-centered life. I fear that some today are vigorously pursuing, not a daily clean conscience through obedient faith, but a temporarily relieved one. A gospel-centered life is one of trusting the power of the gospel, and living by Christ’s resolve: “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. I (London: William Ball, 1839) 275.
 Ibid, 258.
 Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae Legis (London, 1646), 363. As quoted by Ernest Kevan, The Grace of Law (Grand Rapids, MI.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), 196.