I recently had someone tell me that they would no longer be attending our church. For obvious reasons, this was discouraging news. Whenever it happens (this wasn’t the first time), it’s easy for me to begin down a rabbit hole of what ifs… What if I’d have said this? What if I had done this… What if… What if… What if…
The truth is, there are good reasons for leaving a church, and bad ones. Some people choose to leave for petty or consumeristic reasons. Their departing words typically begin with, “I didn’t like…” But sometimes people leave because God is calling them to something else, or because they cannot submit to the leadership of the elders. In such cases it is good for them to go (there’s an entire blog that needs to be written on this topic, but it is beside the point of this one).
On this occasion, what the person leaving stated to me as the reason for their departure both encouraged me and led me to take a cautious pause of evaluation. Among other things said, one of the points of frustration voiced was that we focused too much on just the gospel message. I’ll be honest, when they said that, a faint smile broke across my face, and I thought to myself, “What an encouraging criticism!”
We are a church that believes, as Tim Keller so aptly puts it that, “the gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A-Z of Christianity.” He explains,
“The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make progress in the kingdom. We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow and are renewed. It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier.”
If I’m going to be criticized for anything in my ministry, let it be for preaching the gospel too much!
“The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s
but the A-Z of Christianity.”
But as I’ve reflected further on this criticism, it has caused me to stop and try to listen to what's actually being said. Recently, author Paul Tripp released an article titled, “My Confession: Toward A More Balanced Gospel” in which he publicly repented of neglecting to give more attention to the fact that “we cannot celebrate the gospel of God’s grace without being a committed ambassador of the gospel of his justice as well.”
He states in the article that for too long he has been committed to proclaiming the good news of Christ’s sacrifice, but unwilling to make sacrifices for those different from himself, and he repents of “being an advocate of grace, but silent in the face of injustice.” In other words, Tripp had failed to see to how Christ’s sacrifice compels him to live in that same pattern of sacrifice. There was a disconnect in his outworking of the gospel. In the same piece that I quoted earlier, Tim Keller says, “The main problem…in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not ‘used' the gospel in and on all parts of our life.”
The more I’ve reflected on the critique that our church focuses too much on the gospel, the more I think what was really being expressed is that the gospel I preach is often too truncated. There was a longing from this person for a clear, plainly stated call to action in loving our neighbors, caring for the poor, and living holy lives: to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
The gospel must be worked over,
kneaded, and squeezed until it oozes
with love and bleeds faith into action.
Faithful, "gospel-centered" ministry is not only preaching and teaching the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it is also preaching the character of God expressed in the person of Jesus Christ. It is calling people to love God supremely and to love their neighbors sacrificially. The gospel must be worked over, kneaded, and squeezed until it oozes with love and bleeds faith into action. The gospel’s implications and applications must be preached just as faithfully as the gospel itself or the gospel I preach becomes anemic and aloof from real life.
On this front, I do not think that I have done an adequate job showing how the gospel leads the christian to live a life of holiness, sacrifice, and service, or how it compels us to love our neighbor as ourself. I’m afraid that much of my preaching has,, at times, turned into an overly simplistic, “Just believe the gospel!” This is an unhelpful approach and worthy of criticism.
James the brother of Jesus put it this way, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead" (James 2:14–17).
The Apostle John exhorts, “if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:17–18).
We dare not preach good works in a way that is untethered from the person and work of Jesus, but we also do not dare avoid preaching the good works Jesus called us to!
Let us not love in word or talk… Let’s not just talk and preach the gospel, but let us apply the good news to real life. In Keller’s words, let's “use the gospel in and on all parts of our life.” It must sink deeply into our souls and grow deep roots so that it produces the fruit of righteousness, love, and justice. This does not mean that we move past the gospel. It means that we move deeper into it. We dare not preach good works in a way that is untethered from the person and work of Jesus, but we also do not dare avoid preaching the good works Jesus called us to!
There are worse things to be criticized for than preaching the gospel too much, but I do not boast in that critique. I hear within it a call to BE about it, not just TALK about it. Yes and amen! Let’s be about the gospel.