The Gospel Off-Centered, Part 5
One thing that’s particularly alarming about the current reformed movement is the haughty attitude with which many often champion their gospel-centeredness. Defeating our pride is a life-long battle, especially early on in our Christian life when the Spirit’s had little time to crush it. And unless a newborn Calvinist spends those early years aggressively putting self-importance to death, they will merely transfer worldly boasts to theological ones. In fact, many ‘gospel-centered’ novices today become overnight reformers with nothing but a domain name, a twitter feed, some Keller and Piper quotes, pithy humor, and a lot of digital moxie. And the sunniest news of all: there’s no proven spiritual maturity required! But in truth, this is bad news for the future of the church. The Bible repeatedly warns against using theological knowledge and giftedness to make ourselves prominent (1 Corinthians 3:3-4; 4:6,19; 8:1-3; 1 Timothy 3:6; 6:4). Gospel-centeredness, by definition, is Christ-centeredness. And where Christlikeness is increasing, pride is fleeing.
The first fruit of saving faith is genuine brokenness over our sin. In fact, that precise moment we believed in Christ alone for salvation was a grace-enabled summit of true humility. Pride was completely shattered the very second we rightly saw our desperate need for a Savior. God granted us repentance and faith, and in that moment we were truly gospel-centered. At its core, being “reformed” is not merely aligning with historic confessions or theological camps. Nor is it simply shedding old Arminian notions and learning to articulate the doctrines of grace. These may be important steps toward an orthodox understanding but without the death of self they just end up notches on the belt of personal significance. Why do many young Christians today—humbled by the grace of the cross—seem unaware of their utter lack of either grace or humility? In a day when godly character is urgently needed most in the pulpit and the pew, so many reformed wannabe’s are preoccupied with self-branding, out-of-school digital rants, and flouting the slightest caution about their lifestyle. Brutally honest but not unjust, J.I. Packer once wrote:
“We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-traveled leader, a native American (be it said), has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, as it blatantly is, to be 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep…. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle however do.”
Penned over twenty years ago, Packer’s analysis is even more impeaching today. What’s so astonishing is that most current well-known evangelical leaders have sounded no similar warnings at all. I can’t think of a recent bestseller from a “big name” that expounded the high standards in Scripture for the character of a pastor. And yet young men—some fresh out of seminary—fearlessly ascend the sacred desk with neither careful study of texts nor transformation of their own heart. Preaching has become more about theological musing, cleverly devised tales, and comedic-timing. And if a seasoned ministry-soldier—a spiritual General by all accounts—blogs or tweets a strong caution about our dangerous trajectory, he’s verbally assaulted as “too old school” and a spoiler of exciting ministry innovations.
Why does this new generation of believers seem so unconcerned that they are part of a growing subculture of the quick-to-speak-and-slow-to-hear? I believe there are many culprits, but a summary of two reasons will suffice, both of which eventually put the gospel off-center.
Rhetoric without Renewal
Pragmatic-driven preaching has conditioned young people to assume that communicating truth is exclusively about style and technique. Even in many reformed churches there’s lip-service given to content, but a speaker’s captivating manner is typically king. Rather than stick to the particulars and principles clearly rising from a passage of Scripture, preachers today will extemporaneously muse on a theological theme, almost appearing to make it up as they go. The ‘authority’ is tied to the talent and wit of the preacher rather than the rightly divided meaning of the inspired text. Tragically, audiences today are learning to focus on the speaker’s style and tweetable rhetoric.
Even in conservative churches, some pastors seem free to teach contradictory and often outlandish things with no biblical pushback from their fans. Apparently, if it “sounds biblically based” and invites a ton of retweets, no one is allowed to pour water on that flame by asking hard questions about interpretation. We’ve lost both our discernment and our nerve! Too many have become teachers, and too few are willing to keep them in line for fear of being reproached. This trend has only served to embolden the most frequent offenders. They scoff at theological critiques and work toward the removal of anyone in their church who won’t get in line. This is not shepherding “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). We can’t be gospel-centered when the Chief Shepherd’s heart is eclipsed in His church by those who “love to have the preeminence” (3 John 9).
It is every word of God exclusively that “performs its work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13). No one is saved or sanctified apart from Scripture (John 15:5; 17:17). And don’t imagine that affirming doctrinal statements, reciting confessions, joining coalitions, or ardently defending your pet theological truths equates to spiritual growth either. Such privileges amount to nothing without knowing what Scripture actually says, grasping what it truly means by what it says, and humbly submitting to the truth in genuine faith. In the minds of many today, the Bible is a book of theological themes to be declared, pondered and confessed but not a set of implications and demands to take to heart. Context and details of Bible verses—being minutiae—should be lightly mentioned on the way to the preacher’s inspiring words.
Oh, and then there’s the ever-vital “cool factor.” Evangelicalism has raised a generation of young people who follow what’s popular and culturally acceptable. Some even speak boldly of the authority of Scripture for ministry, but their lifestyle and choices are patterned after the latest fads. Tragically, this is the very opposite of gospel-centeredness. This is nothing but unvarnished love of preeminence and fear of man. If I have a fear, it’s that many pulpits and ministries today are filled with much self-assured theological rhetoric and very little word-centered clarity or true renewing power.
Notoriety without Responsibility
And if someone’s favorite preacher can become an American ministry-idol by opinionizing, then why, they conclude, can’t they do the same? Technology is the younger generation’s tool. They developed it. They alone have the cutting edge talent to take their notoriety to the next level. So why not develop a personal brand, gradually cultivate a digital audience, and publish their theological insights to the masses. It’s fast, easy, and requires no proven character, no theological testing and affirmation, and no public repentance for harmful errors perpetrated on the church. If you blog something out-of-school, you coolly whisper “Oops,” and move on to your next brilliant essay. No remedial training or character change required before you go public again. If you sharply rebuke a stalwart in one of your stellar pieces, your adoring peers will not only cheer but will defend your “right” to wander beyond your theological paygrade.
Beloved, this is not anything remotely associated with being gospel-centered. A gospel-centered life is word-centered, faith-centered, holiness-centered, and humility-centered.
A Humility-Centered Life
A life driven by the Sola’s of the gospel is a life completely self-depreciating. If this new generation of evangelicals were being used to do great things for Christ, we would see them vigorously fleeing the slightest whiff of self-glory. There would be fear, trembling, and a holy hesitation about shepherding God’s sheep. We’d observe a reluctance to offer spiritual counsel in areas of stubborn weakness not yet successfully challenged. And no doubt, there would be more time between blog posts, especially on matters which demand intense study and deep theological reflection. Instead, today’s generation is always rushing to “weigh in” on what’s currently trending, seemingly afraid that someone else’s post will be linked first and steal their brilliant-author/theologian trophy. These things ought not be this way! Truly gospel-centered people hate “even the garment polluted” by pride.
We’ve seen the young, restless, and reformed flood into the contemporary church, bringing their emotional fervor, greater interest in theological reading, strategies for outreach, and innovative philosophies of ministry. These are wonderful advances if authentic—if produced by the Holy Spirit. But if rooted in a love for preeminence they’re nothing but a mask of pretense. How do we know the difference? Here’s how the Apostle Paul answered that question in First Timothy 4:12:
“Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”
You see, many young Christians today want the freedom to be heard in theological and ministry forums, but they’ve chosen to demand it rather than earn it. But Paul tells his young apprentice, Timothy, that speaking ‘beyond your years’ isn’t something you stipulate. It comes gradually as others observe your conduct. When the church hears edifying speech from young believers, when they see patterns of exemplary conduct, humble love, robust faith, and moral purity, the church becomes less reluctant to pass the baton. God makes a person increasingly “useful to the Master” as they “abstain from wickedness” (2 Timothy 2:19-21). Has today’s younger generation advanced the church in holiness, wisdom, integrity, and stronger faith? Have there been fewer public scandals of integrity? Have local assemblies become more separate from the world? Are today’s aspiring young elders and pastors becoming renown for their humility and submissiveness to authority? Sadly, for all their passion and theological-sparring, this upcoming generation is at an all-time low on Paul’s list of exemplary qualities.
Where are the young, reverent, and reluctant of today? If you’re going to be greatly used of God, here are some contemporary resolutions for going from restless and proud to reverent and meek:
- Memorize the second half of 1 Timothy 4:12, and nurture each quality in your heart and conduct before you demand that older believers respect what you have to say or write.
- If you have a blog, count the number of issues you’ve addressed and compare that with the number you’ve deeply studied, implemented, and nurtured into maturity. Also (and this may be hard to face), count the number of principles you’ve touted to others but never been able to victoriously practice in your own life.
- If you know (and most do but rarely admit it) that you secretly love the sense of personal significance you get from your number of retweets, blog-hits, and digital “followers,” then wean yourself from the pride of it all. Stop tweeting and blogging until the idolatry of significance is killed and the preeminence of Christ floods more than your mouth and emotions during Sunday’s music. Let it flood your heart first.
- Never establish and flaunt lifestyle choices of a controversial nature, in the name of “the gospel,” before nurturing a blameless conscience and the sacrificial love enough to control them. Many young believers are simply unaware that their attitude is in direct defiance of Romans 14:13-23 and Galatians 5:13. This is merely pride and bondage cloaked as gospel-freedom.
- If your talent (writing or speaking) is in demand, remember that with privilege comes massive culpability (James 3:1; 1 Corinthians 4:2). Just because people retweet your spiritual insights doesn’t mean you’ve mastered them. Praise from others tests a man. For most of our Christian lives we’ll be explaining truths we have trouble consistently living. That reality alone is an astounding grace! Technology affords greater opportunity. It has no power to make us godly.
- Serve your local assembly in very obvious ways, and humbly submit to your leaders in the ministry (Hebrews 13:17). Don’t merely spend time with your age group, but find ways to sacrificially minister to needs across the generational spectrum. Make this a much higher priority than speaking to your digital audience.
And above all, remember that being gospel-centered means being humility-centered. One cannot exist without the other.