The Gospel Off-Centered, Part 4
At the beginning of this series I explained the core of my concerns with so much of today’s “gospel-centered” talk. The label has been swiftly adopted and proudly worn by most everyone in the contemporary reformed movement. And given their strident defense of the gospel’s cardinal tenet—justification by faith alone—it’s no stretch to see why the label is fitting. But I still maintain that a lot of people talkin’ bout ‘gospel-centered’ ain’t truly gospel-centered. The gospel delivered clear-cut in Scripture has both justifying and sanctifying power! If today’s grace-wielding enthusiasts were wholly centered on the redemptive work of Christ, there’d be a swing away from worldliness so drastic as to prompt the astonishment of all!
In other words, wherever God’s people get truly lost in the wonder of Christ’s grace their lives become centered on Christ’s holiness. Honoring the righteousness and purity of the Master becomes our highest love and daily ambition (2 Corinthians 5:9). And the sinful world around us is caused to both wonder and fear (Acts 5:11,13). Saving grace never leaves us comfortable in old grave clothes. It schools us in holiness, teaching us how to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12). Gospel-centered people set their minds on things above “where Christ is” (Colossians 3:1). We begin to manifest the Savior’s heart and character. We not only love Jesus, but we love holiness and hate sin. In fact, our passion to honor Him may even wander out of balance into mild pietism from time to time. What gospel-grace never produces is contempt for Scripture’s commands and indifference toward worldliness.
Tragically, what we frequently see among the all-about-grace crowd is strong resistance to striving against sin and being set apart unto holiness. How can that be when the same gospel that liberates us from condemnation calls us to appropriate its power in our battle with sin (Romans 6:11-12)? Grace produces new inclinations and power to live a holy life (Romans 8:1-13). Why are so many reveling in grace-born freedom while belittling the transforming power it guarantees? I believe it’s because scores of newly reformed believers are attracted to a concept of ‘grace’ that makes little or no demand on their will or lifestyle. There’s plenty of high-octane grace-talk but a tragic disregard for the grace-walk so clearly defined in Scripture. We are “predestined to be conformed” to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). A gospel-centered life is word-centered, faith-centered, and therefore holiness-centered.
A Holiness-Centered Life
My old inclinations were always worldly, always of fleshly things, and wholly without the divine influence of God’s Spirit. Even on my best day, morally speaking, I could only produce more sin, more guilt, and greater condemnation. But now, in Christ, I have a miraculous new inclination that leads me toward holy desires and godly fruit (Romans 7:6). Christians are identified as those who walk “according to the Spirit,” meaning His grace and power are coursing through our spiritual veins. Apart from the Spirit’s presence and influence we were jailed in a life dominated by everything that is without holy desires. We were consumed with core corruptions of the mind and affections.
Our old life was driven by self-preservation (hedonism, deceit, blame-shifting), self-exaltation (boasting, condescension, prejudice, hatred), and self-justification (hypocrisy, unforgiveness, self-righteousness). And our emotions were dominated by responses of fear, anger, and despair. Such is the folly of trusting in ourselves rather than God. We lusted for satisfaction through the things of this world, indulging in sinful pleasures of the mind and behavior at the expense of righteousness and serving others. And we fed the lust for power and self-glory rather than ascribing to God the glory which is His alone. The result is “death” (Romans 8:6)—death, not only in the ultimate sense (cf. 6:21,23; 7:5,10-11,13) but death also in the temporal sense (no power over sin, relief from guilt, liberty of conscience, or relationship with the Creator).
Gloriously, however, the Spirit has set us free from the dominance of these things! Christians have a totally new miraculous reasoning and dawning life pattern. The Spirit’s power changes everything. He affects everything. His “life and peace” explode into the regenerate person’s inner man. Therefore, the Christian has the moral capacity now to live in the realm of “life” rather than the realm of “death.” We are called to live every day under the dominion of redemptive power in Christ. We are no longer to be controlled by the things of the flesh and the death they produce. As we grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ, we are an “aroma of life to life” and no longer an “aroma of death to death” (2 Cor 2:16).
So what’s begun to change on a tangible level since we’ve come to know our Savior through faith?
Thoughts (mind, motivations, affections/desires):
- Self-preservation gives way to trusting in God’s preserving work on our behalf…(hedonism gives way to finding fulfillment in Christ and obedience to His will; deceit gives way to Honesty before God & men; hiding weakness gives way to passion to grow/teachability; blameshifting gives way to confession & repentance);
- Self-exaltation gives way to humility and self-sacrifice (boasting gives way to praising others; condescension gives way to serving others; prejudice & hatred gives way to unconditionally loving others);
- Self-justification gives way to brokenness and gratitude for redemption (minimizing sin gives way to hating what God hates; unforgiveness gives way to free mercy for all; religious pretense gives way to genuine worship in spirit & truth)
Emotions (experienced in response to surroundings):
- Sinful Fear gives way to the settled rest of being secure in God’s perfect love;
- Sinful anger is replaced by humble submission to God’s will in the spirit of gentleness;
- Sinful despair is swallowed up in exultation even the severest of trials, knowing that we’ve been forgiven and our guilt is gone;
In Romans 8:7-9, Paul speaks of our new moral disposition:
“Because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
We were “hostile toward God.” The “self” is by nature an enemy of God because apart from salvation the sinner only desires to rule himself. He honors himself, lives for himself, makes choices for himself, pleases himself, all for the ultimate satisfaction of himself. You might be thinking: “But ‘God-fearing,’ religious people are trying to please God all the time, they’re trying to be sacrificial, trying to love others more than themselves, trying to do good things. How can God not be pleased with that?’” Because even an attempt to be “good” has a motive, and if that motive is not purely and only to honor and glorify God as He reveals and deserves, then such acts offend His honor and cannot be pleasing to Him (Heb 11:6). The unbeliever is incapable, on his own, of reversing his desire for autonomy and bringing himself by faith under holy standards of God’s truth and loving them (Jeremiah 13:23; 1 Corinthians 2:14).
But Christians are not bound by the flesh, but we’ve become those whose minds are “set on the things of the Spirit.” As you and I pour the truth into our minds and strive to throw off old lusts while yielding our wills to God in faith, the Spirit empowers us from within in new, godly ways of thinking. Deep, biblical convictions are established and strengthened, and our life-patterns increasingly become transformed. This is the difference between what we were and what we are now as we walk according to the Spirit. Simply stated: no one can claim to be gospel-centered who is not also appropriating the power of the gospel in holy striving. Remember, it IS GOD who is at work in our humble and faith-filled effort (Philippians 2:12-13).