You can never outgrow the gospel

lgcoverOne theme I’ve explored recently on this blog and in sermons is the relationship between justification—that part of salvation during which our sins are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us—and sanctification. When we evangelical Christians talk of being “saved,” we’re really talking about justification. Sanctification, by contrast, is that process of inner transformation that the Holy Spirit works within us.

With some embarrassment, I confess that early in my ministry I preached and taught that justification isn’t the main point of the Christian living: the main point is what happens after justification. Yes, we need to be justified, but we are justified in order to get on with it. And getting on with it, of course, was a self-improvement program that I wrongly called “sanctification.”

See, no matter how much I talked about sanctification being a work of the Spirit rather than something that I do, I could never live it out without becoming enslaved to the Law (after I had already been set free from it)—and with the Law came guilt and condemnation.

All that to say, I now believe that justification actually is the main point; it’s at the very center of the gospel, and it ought to be at the center of our lives. Every day we should be amazed all over again that our God, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” saw fit to send his Son to reconcile us to God through Christ’s atoning death on the cross.

To say the least, we Christians should not expect to reach a point at which we outgrow the gospel: as if we could say, “Sure, I needed to hear all the Billy Graham, just-as-I-am stuff back when I was 13—to get started in the Christian life—but I’ve moved on since then.”

I’m hardly the only one who’s fallen victim to this thinking. Isn’t this why so many Methodist pastors (or so I’ve heard) don’t preach the gospel anymore?

Nevertheless, once we decide, as I did about four years ago, that preaching the gospel is the main task of every sermon, it makes sermon preparation much more straightforward, which is not to say easy. It’s just that our work is cut out for us every week: our task is to find the gospel in every scripture passage, Old or New Testament, and preach it.

Does that message get old? Do only the unconverted need to hear it (assuming your congregation is made up exclusively of Christians)? If so, I haven’t noticed. Besides, we always have parts of our lives that resist the gospel and remain unconverted—that need to hear again and again the message of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

My point is, I haven’t “moved on” from an emphasis on justification. In fact, the movement of my Christian life over the past 30 years (granted, I was barely Christian for some of those years!) has been a circle: After formal theological education, preparation for ministry, ordination papers, board examinations, and five years of being a fully credentialed minister, I’m back where I started: a sinner amazed by God’s amazing grace.

It’s not a bad place to be, I promise.

The authors of Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) agree. The following is a lengthy excerpt from their book, but I think it’s worth it. Enjoy!

The first fruit of grace is also not a result of our efforts, which is in the optimistic 21st-century West, one of Christianity’s most counter-cultural ideas. If we are transformed, it is purely a doing of God. As Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Eastern Orthodox priest and author, wrote:

“It is, of course, possible to describe the changes that occur in the state of repentance as ‘progress,’ but this distorts the work that is taking place. In the words of Elder Sophrony, ‘The way down is the way up.’ The self-emptying of repentance is not the work of gradual improvement, a work of ‘getting better and better.’ It is a work of becoming ‘lesser and lesser.” We are not saved by moral progress, transformed by our efforts. It is not self-improvement.”

The Gospel is for sinners and remains for sinners, as long as we’re on the earth. The idea that salvation and moral progress thereafter are up to us is called ‘Pelagianism,’ and the Church condemned it long ago. The idea that salvation is partly up to us, and God does the sanctifying work, is called ‘Semipelagianism,’ and it was also condemned. The idea that God saves us and then the work of moral progress is up to us doesn’t really have a name, but it could be classified as a misguided Semipelagianism.[1] It is all up to God…

The Russian master Leo Tolstoy takes on sanctification in “Father Sergius,” a story about a brilliant and virtuous man living in isolation as a monk to mortify his sinful desires. When a beautiful, naked woman tries to seduce him, he righteously cuts off his hand (Mt 5:30) rather than sin, and she flees. Then, after seventeen years of immaculately virtuous living, the proud Sergius can no longer resist, and he has sex with a mentally impaired, underage girl. He flees into exile and lives a life of deep remorse and quiet service to others. Then he is arrested on the road for not having a passport and is deported to Siberia. In a monastic setting with every advantage, Sergius can do nothing in seventeen years because his pride remains intact, perhaps even fueled by his piety. Once his image of himself is destroyed, however, forgiveness becomes actual to him, and he is freed to serve others. The first fruit of the Gospel is humility.[2]

1. This third option describes the heresy that Methodists most often commit.

2. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 67-8.

4 thoughts on “You can never outgrow the gospel”

  1. Well, can I suggest, as I doubtless have before, that sanctification (if not indeed partially justification) is “mostly” God and “slightly” us? God provides us with everything we need for salvation and righteous living, “provides the cup and fills it,” but we still have to “take up and drink.” Which is not “nothing.” Thus, I am “enabled” to resist temptation, but I still have to “do” it. “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” “Put on the whole armor of God.” “Add this to that.” Not, “just sit still, and the Spirit will do all this for you.” I am not sure I find any scriptures for “let go and let God.” Every once in a great while in the OT we do find God saying, “You won’t have to fight in this battle,” to show that ultimately victory is his, but most of the time the army still has to get out and fight. I find that giving God “all the credit” might well equate to giving God “all the blame” for when we fall short. I don’t think we can “have it both ways.”

    1. You’re always forcing me think things through, Tom. Cut it out! 😉

      This reminds me to post the life preserver analogy again. Mark Galli used it in his book God Wins but I saw it again in this Law & Gospel book I’m reading: the point is when someone goes to the trouble to rescue us from drowning at sea by piloting a boat out to us, throwing us a life preserver, and hauling us to safety, we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for grabbing on to the life preserver. Instead, we say to the person rescuing us, “Thank you so much for saving me!” Did we do something to be saved? Well, yes. We grabbed on. But to place much emphasis on that is to miss the point!

      I think my main point of this post is that all of us are constantly in need of rescuing, whether we’re already justified or not. God is constantly having to extend grace to us because we’re constantly falling short of God’s glory; we’re constantly sinning. The good news is that the cross of God’s Son has made forgiveness and grace possible.

  2. Well said Brent. Thank you for this great piece. I had a church member say to me over and over, “when you’re preaching Jesus, you are always spot on. The other is good but when you’re talking about Jesus, you get real.” I think at the heart, it was this point of justification he was talking about.

    This seems almost contradictory to everything we’re being told and what so much of today’s preaching seems to get at. I’m preaching the Gospel of Luke this year. I’m finding I need to do it as much as my congregation needs it. It is similar to Michael Gorman’s “Cruciformity” – the shape of God’s love is, in its very nature, sacrificial, that is, in the form of the cross.

    Is this kind of a response to the movement to dismiss “penal-substitution theories?”

    1. Personally, my re-embrace of penal substitution and my reemphasis on preaching the gospel happened at the same time, so who knows?

      It started with an N.T. Wright essay I read on penal substitution. I know that. I probably blogged about that back in 2011 or so.

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