If you think the Christian experience is supposed to be characterized by constant discouragement and infrequent victory over sin, your gospel is too small. It’s got a giant hole in it. Right in the middle. It’s a gospel that probably talks a long time about getting into heaven and out of hell or about something you share—or should share—with unbelievers. So, when someone comes along talking about being gospel-centered, you think they’ve got eternity or outreach on their minds, certainly not discipleship. If asked, you’d say the gospel is good news now for believers because of what it did for you back then (justification) and what it will do for you in the future, when you die or Jesus returns (glorification). You wouldn’t have much—anything—to say about sanctification. Again, I’d want to say, you’ve missed something absolutely central to the gospel—something profoundly hopeful. You’ve missed why the gospel is good news for you today, not simply yesterday or tomorrow.
What Is the Gospel?
The gospel is the good news that God sent Jesus to undo what Adam undid (see, e.g., Heb 2:5–9; 1 Cor 15:20–28; Rom 5:12–19): Jesus died and rose again for sinners, just as God promised (1 Cor 15:1–8). It is the good news that we can once more be truly human. No longer are we, like Adam, evicted from God’s presence and under his wrath. The garden—the kingdom—has been regained with a plus. It is the good news that we sons of the second Adam have been remade—not just considered to be remade (Rom 3:21–26)—but actually remade—not fully . . . yet (2 Cor 3:18)—but actually, truly. We’ve been re-born, made new, which is to say re-generated. We sons of the second Adam were remade, raised with him to new life. His resurrection guarantees our own (1 Pet 1:3; Eph 2:5–6; et al.). We are new creatures (2 Cor 5:17). Yes, this means something terribly important for the future (1 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 4:14). And, yes, it means we’ve got something we must share now with our unbelieving neighbors before its too late. However, for far too long we’ve missed what the gospel means for us now. We’ve missed why the gospel is good news for Christians today.
What Does the Gospel Mean for Christians Now?
First, if we have been given new life, if we’ve been raised with Christ, then we are no longer sin’s slaves (Rom 7:1–6; cf. 6:14; 8:2, 12). That old, awful, oppressive tyrant has been undone, unseated. And his boss, the Devil, has been defeated (Heb 2:14–16). In other words, the gospel is good news for us because it gives us the freedom not to sin. In fact, it’s even better news than this. That same power that crushed death and the Devil—that power that raised Christ from the dead—is now at work in us through God’s energizing Spirit (Eph 1:19–21).
Second, if we have been given new life, if we’ve been raised with Christ, we can do what we were made to do. We are able to do those things that honor our creator or—to say the very same thing—that bring us absolute joy. It’s even better news than this, though. If we’ve been given new life, we will do what we were made to do. We’ll never be perfect—in this life—but we will do those good works God planned for us in advance (Eph 2:10). We won’t go on sinning in the same patterns and with the same frequency (1 John 3:9). We will love God, others and overcome the world (1 John 5:2–5).
All this is possible because God lives in us guaranteeing and continually empowering our new life.
We must not believe the Devil’s big lie that says Christianity, with its virtue formation, is full of discouragment, too hard or impossible, and not for the “ordinary” Christian. One of our biggest problems as Christians is our failure to believe the true gospel and our tendency to believe a smaller, domesticated counterfeit.
So how does this true gospel make any difference today? Let me give two examples.
First, let’s suppose you struggle with anger. There is good news for you today. The gospel tells you that in spite of what your flesh—that not-yet fully redeemed part of you—or what the Devil is screaming out, you have the resources to outlast any temptation to lose your cool. And, despite the satisfaction Satan promises from an angry outburst or a well-placed fist, these are shallow buckets of satisfaction compared with the ocean of joy that comes from righteous, creator-honoring behavior, not least from the smile of your merciful God and your brother and savior, Jesus Christ. What’s more, the gospel also does something else to the Devil’s lie. It reminds you how much Jesus paid to give you the power not to blow your top.
Second, let’s suppose you struggle with lust. There is good news for you today. The gospel tells you that in spite of what your Devil-charged flesh says, you don’t have to give an inch to that paper giant of lust when he taunts and pushes against you. Or, to change metaphors, the gospel unclothes the temptress, leaving a wrinkled, warty, cynical, bitter old witch in her place. The gospel topples the idol of lust by reminding you that that way to joy is a blind alley, a cul-de-sac of disappointment. Nothing truly joyful will be found there—only a cruel slave master who desperately wants his property back. And the gospel reminds you that Jesus died so that you don’t have to be fooled by lust anymore. It cost Jesus his life to make this possible.
Some Advice for Gospel-Centered Living
Let me end by passing along a bit of advice for gospel-centered living. It’s not original to me. And it’s pretty simple, even if it’s not followed often enough. If the engine of the Christian experience is the good news that God has given you new life in Christ, then you need to preach this good news to yourself every day. Remind yourself about what God has done for you in Christ as often as you can. So, for example, when Satan tempts you to despair and preaches condemnation to your heart, remember that Jesus took your death sentence away; he made an end to all your sin. Besides preaching the gospel to yourself, fuel this practice with all the means of grace at your disposal: Bible reading, prayer, corporate worship, gospel-centered (and celebratory) music, and especially fellowship.
I want to end with a specific word about fellowship. If new life has been given to us, to Christians, we should expect to see evidence of this new life every day. Instead of this fact turning us inward in introspection (there is, of course, a place for this), let it also make us expect to see evidences of new life, evidences of grace, in others’ lives every day. One of the best, most faith-building, joy-producing things we can do for our brothers and sisters in Christ is to point out God’s work in their lives. Infuse courage into the soul of your spouse, your pastors, your small group by drawing attention to what you see God doing in their lives.
Of course, this isn’t all we’d want to say about sanctification or the gospel. And what’s been said is not anything new. After all, the true gospel’s been around for a while. In fact, take a look at any good systematic theology and you’ll see it talk about the relationship between Jesus’ resurrection and our regeneration and between our regeneration and sanctification. Still, and for a number of reasons, this aspect of the gospel has been often overlooked or, at the least, undervalued. As a result, we’ve missed out on a very central reason why the gospel has some very good news for us Christians today. So preach this gospel to yourself, and pass it along—for the good of the church and God’s glory.