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What Is Gospel-Centered Ministry?

The following is a lightly edited transcript; please check against audio/video recording before quoting.


Don read from 1 Corinthians 15 to say, “Here’s what the gospel is.” I’m here to try to talk to you about this: what does ministry shaped by the gospel–profoundly shaped by the gospel–look like?

1 Peter. You know, Peter was not writing to the same situation Paul was writing to the Corinthians. Paul was writing into a situation where there was a doctrinal fraction, fractiousness, and divisions, and party spirit, and so on. And, of course, Peter, you know, was speaking to a persecuted church and a church which was both passively and actively persecuted, actively persecuted. Passively, they were actually being beset by a culture around them. They weren’t sure how to relate to very different values. Of course, you can ever divide doctrinal from practical issues. I would say, however, that Peter is less interested than Paul in 1 Corinthians to expound the content of the gospel as to constantly refer to its features. Instead, Peter shows how the gospel should shape the way in which we live, the way in which we minister, and the way in which the church should operate as a community.

When I was looking through 1 Peter 1 and 2, I found seven features that I think Peter uses to describe the gospel that then he boots off of during the rest of the Epistle to us to say, “If that’s the case, then here’s the implication for ministry.” I knew about Don’s talk before I was putting my own talk together, so there’s resonance. Everything in these seven points have already been explicated by Don. I’m just going to draw the ministry implications. But I’m going to read a nice, long section, too. I’d like to read 1 Peter 1:1–12 and then I’ll jump and read 1 Peter 1:22–2:12, pretty long. But I think Chapters 1 and 2 are remarkable at giving you all the features of the gospel and then helping us understand its ministry implication. So, we start.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ,

To God’s elect, exiles scattered throughout the provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,

“All people are like grass,
    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
    a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
    will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

“The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and,

“A stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

I hate to do what I’m about to do, which is a flyover. I hate to go by some of these verses. These verses verses are deep wells as we know. I know at least three or four men of God who have probably based their entire lives on one or two of these verses that I went by. I thought of Edmund Clowney and 1 Peter 2:9, and so forth. Nevertheless, we’re here for an overview. And therefore, I would suggest to you that Peter shows us in these two chapters that there are seven features of the gospel we have to tease out into ministry. Here they are. I’ll say them again so you can write them down. I mean, as I go along, I’ll say them so you can get them but the Gospel is historical, doxological, Christocentrical, personal, cultural, to quote Don Carson, “Massively transformational,” and wonderful. Each one has a ministry implication, which I believe will take us about six minutes each or something like that.

1. The Gospel is Historical

You see this in the fact that the word “gospel” shows up twice, and “gospel” means “good news.” And then you even see it spelled out a little bit when it says we were “born again into a living hope through faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:3).

Why do we say the gospel is “good news”? Some years ago, I heard a tape series, I’m sure it was never put into print, by David Martyn Lloyd Jones, an evening sermon series on 1 Corinthians 15. And he made a distinction extremely clarifying very much in line with what Don has already told us about how the gospel is based on historical events in a way that other religions just aren’t. He said there’s a big difference between advice and news. The Gospel, he would say, is good news, not good advice. And here’s what he said about that. He said, “Advice is counsel about something to do, and it hasn’t happened yet, but you can do it.” He says, “News is a report about something that has happened yet. You can’t do anything about. It’s been done for you, and all you can do is respond to it.”

Now think this out. Here’s a king, and he goes into a battle against an invading army to defend his land. If the king defeats the invading army, he sends back to the capital city messengers, angeloi, very happy angeloi, okay? He sends back “good newsers,” and what they come back with is a report. They come back and they say, “The enemy has been defeated. It’s all happened. It’s all been done. Therefore respond with joy. Go about your lives, conduct your lives in this peace which has been achieved for you.”

But if he doesn’t defeat the invading army, and the invading army breaks through, the king sends back military advisors and swordsmen over here, marksmen over here, and the horsemen over here. The idea then is that we’re going to have to fight for our lives.

Dr. Lloyd Jones said that every other religion sends military advisors to people. Every other religion says, “You know, if you want your salvation, you’re going to have to fight for your life.” Every every other religion is sending advice and saying, “Now, here are the rights, and here’s the rituals, and here’s the transformation of consciousness, and here are the laws and the regulations.” What they’re saying is essentially, “Swordsmen over here, marksmen over here, horsemen over here, fight for your life.”

But the Church sends heralds. We send messengers, not military advisors. And isn’t that clarifying! It’s just incredibly clarifying. And it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do about it. My goodness. Both messengers and military advisors get an enormous response. But one is a response of joy and one is the response of fear. And all other religions give advice, and they drive everything you’re doing on fear.

All other religions give advice, and they drive everything you’re doing on fear.

When you hear the gospel, when you hear a message that it’s all been done for you–it’s a historical event that’s happened and your salvation has been accomplished for you–what do you want to do? You want to obey the Ten Commandments, you want to pray, and you want to please the one who did this for you. If, on the other hand, you send military advisors to say “You’re gonna have to live a really, really good life if you’re going to get to heaven,” what do you do? You want to pray. You want to obey the Ten Commandments. Looks the same, doesn’t it? But that similarity exists for two radically different reasons. One response is out of joy. The other response is out of fear. In the short run, they look alike. But in the long run, fear leads to burnout, self-righteousness, guilt, and all sorts of problems. Isn’t that fascinating?

Now, having said that, what’s the ministry implication? The ministry implication is this: the significance of declarative preaching,

The significance of proclamation declarative preaching, is irreplaceably central to gospel ministry. Declarative preaching is irreplaceably central. Why? If basically we were sending people how-to, if we were saying, “Here’s how to live in the right way.” If that’s the primary message, I’m not sure words are always necessarily the best thing to send. For a how-to, you want to send a model.

If I was teaching–and I never have–an advanced seminar on preaching, I would make everybody read C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words. It’s amazing because we’re wordsmiths, and he shows you how important it is to craft your words properly. The last chapter is called “At the Fringe of Language.” And he says, “Language can’t do everything.” And one of the things he says is language cannot actually describe complex operations. He says, “For example, don’t ask somebody, ‘Please tell me how to tie a tie.'” No, you just show them. You know, if you listen to somebody describe how to tie a tie, you’ll be totally lost. On the other hand, when it comes to describing how did…to explain to somebody that Joshua Chamberlain, without ammunition, charged down Little Round Top in an incredible risky adventure at the height of the Battle of Gettysburg, and as a result changed the course of history. You don’t show people that necessarily, you tell them that. This is something that happened. You describe it. You tell them that. If you’re going to give them how-to’s very often, what you want is modeling, and dialogue, and action-reflection, and so forth. Therefore, if you believe that the gospel is good news, preaching, declarative preaching, verbally proclaiming will always be irreplaceably central to what we do. If you really think that, basically, the gospel is good advice on how to live a life that sort of changes people and connects to God, if you really lost your grip on the grace, I think preaching then becomes one where dialogue would be more important, or stories and reflection, or modeling. Otherwise, you really would believe then what some people proclaim the gospel, “Use words if necessary.” You’ve probably heard that, and that shows, I think, that they don’t quite understand what the gospel is about.

2. The Gospel is Doxological

The purpose of the gospel is not merely forgiveness of individuals, but to bring people to full flourishing through glorious worship. Now, where do you see that? Karen Jobes in her comments here in 1 Peter points out what I guess almost any commentator would point out, but I like the way she titled it. 1 Peter 1:3–12 was one sentence in Greek. But she points out, therefore, that there’s the main clause, and everything else in that paragraph are subordinate clauses to the main clause. What’s the main clause? “Praise be to the God and Father our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, she entitles that section–and that’s what I liked about it–”Doxology as the Basis for the Entire Christian Life.” Because everything in there, even the new birth, is to the praise of the glory of God. Now, why is that so important? Here’s why it’s important.

One of the life-changing things for me, especially one of my ministry-changing experiences was to read Martin Luther’s Larger Catechism some years ago. In the Larger Catechism he lays out his understanding of the Ten Commandments. And when he gets the first commandment, he basically says this, he says, “The first commandment is first because he thinks all the other commandments are, in a sense, based on it.” Or another way to put it is, if you break any of Commandments 2–10, it’s because you’ve already broken, or you are in the process of breaking commandment one. Think about this; Martin Luther essentially says, “You don’t lie, which of course, is a breaking of the commandment, unless you’ve already made something more than God your functional Savior, your greatest joy.” I mean, why do you lie? You lie either because the approval of other people is more important than God’s or because money is more important than the security you have in God. So you wouldn’t lie unless you were already first making something more important in your life than God, something more important and more fundamental to your meaning in life or to your happiness, to your joy.

And then Luther went one step further and said, “Underneath every sin is idolatry in general. And underneath idolatry, in general, is always some form of works righteousness, in particular, some kind of self-salvation project.” Because whenever you make something more important in God, that thing is essentially a savior of yours. So he says, get this, Martin Luther essentially says, “The first commandment is you’ve got to believe the gospel. You can’t look to anything else for your justification.” Leave it to Martin Luther to do that, of course. But he says, “The first commandment is that you’ve got to believe the gospel, and you can’t look to anything else for your justification, and that is the basis for all the other sins and things that happen to go wrong in your life.”

He goes so far, even though he couldn’t have done it, but he would today if he was here, to imply that underneath everything from eating disorders to racism is a self-salvation project, a failure to believe the gospel, and some form of idolatry.” You’ve either made an idol of thinness, and you’re thinking, that’s how I’m really going to be happy in life. Or you have made an idol of your race and your blood, and you’re thinking, I feel good about myself because I feel better than those people or that race over there. And if that’s the case, you may say, “I believe in God. I believe in this, I believe in that,” but your heart’s imagination is captured. Your heart is essentially adoring and doting on something more than God, and the only way anybody ever gets changed is through worship.

The only way anybody ever gets changed is through worship.

Some years ago, I was talking to a young 15-year-old girl in the youth group at my church in Virginia, and she was really struggling. And I remember this. She sat down at one point, and she said this. She was really upset, she was really depressed, and I was trying to comfort her, you know, as a minister does. And she says, “Look, I understand this. I’m a Christian. I’m clothed in the righteousness of Christ. I have a guaranteed place for me in heaven and new heavens and new earth. I’m the delight of the Father.” But then she says, “What good is that when the boys at high school just won’t even look at you?” She was absolutely honest. She said, “It doesn’t comfort me.” Was she even a Christian? Of course, she was a Christian as far as I can tell. If I look back on it, she looks back on it, there have been changes. Here’s the point: the boys were on video, but God was on audio.

I don’t know if you’ve ever had video and audio happening at the same time. You know which one wins? Now, the fact is that we have a subscription up here, “I believe in gospel. I believe in Jesus. I believe that Jesus died for me,” and that sort of thing. You know, Jonathan Edwards would say, basically, “If you say, ‘I know that Jesus died for my sins, and though he was rich, he became poor, that through his poverty, we might become rich, and therefore I should be generous to others,’ but you’re not being generous toward others, the answer is not, ‘Try harder.’ The answer is, ‘You’re not worshipping Jesus Christ.'” You say you believe that he did that, you don’t really believe it. It’s on audio, not on video. You’ve got to worship. You’ve got to get a sense on the heart of what happened. And this is, of course, where you’re getting Edwards. This is where Edwards is so important.

The answer is not, ‘Try harder.’ The answer is, ‘You’re not worshipping Jesus Christ.’

Here’s my ministry implication. I get this right from Edwards, and I’ll read you a couple of quotes. Jonathan Edwards would say that the ultimate purpose of preaching is not just to make the truth clear, but to make it real. Of course, for it to be real, it’s got to be clear. They’re often confused. I think, especially in the circles that many of you work in because we’re so afraid of the spirit of the age, we’re so afraid of subjectivism, and we believe in objective truth, therefore our expository messages are probably too cognitive. Jonathan Edwards did not tell stories, and he was incredibly rational. But he was also unbelievably vivid. He was incredibly logical, and precise, and clear because he knew that unless the truth is clear, it will never be real. It must be crystal clear. It’s got to be amazingly clear, but it also has to be vivid. And I don’t think this is going to be very easy. I see the narrative preaching approach where you tell stories which works kind of superficially on people’s emotions, and you have a kind of expository message approach that I think tends to be more of a Bible commentary and works more on the head. But the heart is not the emotions, but it’s certainly not just the intellect. The heart is the core commitments of the life–what captures the imagination. And, therefore, preaching has to be gripping. That doesn’t happen by only raising your voice. That doesn’t make it more gripping. I tried it for at least three years, and it just didn’t happen.

The ultimate purpose of preaching is not just to make the truth clear, but to make it real.

 

What I love about Edwards is how incredibly rational he is and logical, incredibly persuasive he is and yet, at the same time, he uses images. You go into his sermons and there’s sun, there’s moon, there’s stars, there’s mountains, there’s dandelions. It’s just astounding. And the reason he understood that is if you just tell stories that tweak the emotions, it’s like putting dynamite on the face of the rock, and it blows up, and it just shears off the face, and doesn’t really change the life. On the other hand, if you sort of bore down into the rock with the truth all the way through, that doesn’t change the heart. But if you bore down with the truth and put dynamite in there, if you are able to preach Christ vividly, and if you’re able to preach the truth practically, and you’re able to preach it out of it, obviously change your own life and heart–which isn’t the easiest thing by any means to maintain. When there’s an explosion, then it really changes people’s lives. I just don’t think we’ve got the right end of the stick in general, either in the movement of people who are working toward telling stories because they want to get people emotionally or working toward giving people the truth because they want to be sure people are doctrinally sound.

The doctor, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones was also not a touchy-feely type. This is what he says based on what based on his understanding of what Edwards taught. He says, “The first and primary object of preaching is not to give information. It is [as Jonathan Edwards says] to produce an impression.” This is the Doctor now:

It is the impression at the time that matters, even more than what you can remember subsequently. Edwards, in my opinion, has the true notion of preaching. It is not primarily to impart information. And while you’re writing your notes, you may be missing something of the impact of the Spirit. As preachers, we must not forget this. We should tell our people to read books themselves at home and take their notes on the books at home. The business of preaching is to make such knowledge live.

Now, by the way, I don’t mind if people are taking notes in the first part of my sermon. But if they’re still taking notes at the end of my sermon, I don’t think I made it. I don’t think I made it home. And here’s one more thing. Thomas Chalmers puts it like this in his famous sermon, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” He says,

It is seldom that any of our tastes are made to disappear by a mere process of natural extinction. At least, it is very seldom, that this is done through the instrumentality of reasoning. It may be done by excessive pampering – but it is almost never done by the mere force of mental determination. But what cannot be destroyed, may be dispossessed and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its, power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.

Now, here’s the example.

The youth ceases to idolize pleasure, but it is because the idol of wealth has become the stronger and gotten the ascendancy.

So he becomes disciplined. But the love of money might actually cease to have mastery over his heart if it is drawn more to ideology and politics. Now, he is lorded over by a level of power, and of moral superiority instead of wealth.

There is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered; but as to its desire for having some one object or other, this is unconquerable.

The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one. This is terrific:

It is not enough to hold out to the world’s eye the mirror of its own imperfections. It is not enough to come forth with a demonstration, however pathetic, of the evanescent character of all its enjoyments. It is not enough to travel the walk of experience along with you, and speak to your own conscience and your own recollection, of the deceitfulness of the heart, and the deceitfulness of all that the heart is set upon.

Let us not cease then to ply the only instrument of powerful and positive operation, to do away from you the love of the world. Let us try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of Him who is greater than the world.

3. The Gospel is Christocentrical

As Don pointed out, in a certain sense, the gospel is just Jesus. What is the gospel? It’s who Jesus is and what he did for us. The gospel is Jesus. You see this also in 1 Peter 1:10, where it says (and we’ll get back to this again),

Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.

What is the gospel? It’s who Jesus is and what he did for us. The gospel is Jesus.

Now, what’s intriguing to me is this, when you read in Luke and Acts, how Jesus, in those 40 days, got his disciples together. 40 days before he ascended and after he was raised, what was he doing? I’m sure he was doing more than what we’re told, but in Luke 24, from what I can tell, he was giving them a hermeneutics seminar. This gives a number of New Testament professors a great deal of hope. If even Jesus felt that running an advanced seminar on hermeneutics was a good idea in those 40 days, maybe it’s a good idea to be doing it too. Basically, he was saying, “Everything in the Old Testament is about me.” That’s what he was doing. That’s what he says in Luke 24. He says it to Cleopus and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus. In the upper room, he says, “The reason you didn’t understand what I was about was you didn’t realize that everything in the prophets and the Psalms and the law was pointing to me.” It’s intriguing we see that in Luke. It’s intriguing that here in Peter, you’ve got an echo of that.

You know, Peter was in on that seminar, and here’s Peter saying, “Concerning this salvation,” that is the salvation of the gospel of Christ, “the prophets had the Holy Spirit in them pointing toward Jesus.” It’s an echo of what happened there. Peter’s saying what Jesus said, and that is, everything–every text in the Old Testament–points to Jesus.

Now, my ministry implication is this: the basic subject of every sermon ought to be Jesus. It doesn’t matter what passage, doesn’t matter whether it’s the Old or New Testament, it’s got to be about Jesus. And by the way, before you say, “Oh, so this is about an Old Testament hermeneutics.” No. My friend, Sinclair Ferguson, said most evangelical ministers don’t preach Christ. Not only don’t they preach Christ in the Old Testament, but most of them don’t preach Christ in the New Testament. I’ll get to back to that in a second. I know this is something of an intramural debate, and I’ve got to be careful here. I don’t want to be a party guy. I don’t want to say, “I follow Chapell. Or, I follow Goldsworthy.” And you know there are people who say, “You preach everything in the Bible pointing to Jesus,” and there are other good men who just don’t think that’s right. Some think that you shouldn’t preach Christ from Jacob wrestling with God, and you should preach about wrestling with God in prayer, or suffering, or something like that. I believe that those good and sincere men are wrong on the basis of reading the Bible and understanding hermeneutics and so on.

Most evangelical ministers don’t preach Christ. Not only don’t they preach Christ in the Old Testament, but most of them don’t preach Christ in the New Testament.

Part of this realization goes back to something I learned some years ago when I sat down with my wife (you know what it’s like on the way home after the sermon). At first you’re hoping she’ll say, “Great sermon, honey.” And then she doesn’t say anything, so you fear the worst. And I remember one day, we really got into it. And I said, “Well, let me ask you a question. How often do you think it was a great sermon? I mean, how many weeks out of the month?” And she said, “No more than one in four or five.”

At one point, she said, “You know, all your sermons are great. They’re rational, they’re biblical, they’re exegetical, and they show me how I should live, and they show me what I should believe. But every so often, suddenly, at the end, Jesus shows up. And when Jesus shows up, suddenly it stops being a lecture and becomes a sermon to me. Because when you say, ‘This is what you ought to do; this is what you ought to do; this is what you ought to do,’ I know. I know. Now, I’m a little clear on it. I’m a little more guilty about it. Good. That’s fine. But sometimes you get to the place where you say, ‘This is what you need to do, but you really probably can’t do it. But there’s one who did. And because he did it on our behalf and in our place, if we believe in him, we will begin to be able to do it too, but only to the degree that we understand what he did for us.’ You know, that’s different. One time out of four or five, your lecture becomes a sermon when Jesus shows up. I want to do that. I have hope, and I begin to see how I can do it.”

Your lecture becomes a sermon when Jesus shows up.

I didn’t really understand what she was saying at the time, but now I do. Here’s the thing: your preaching will never be doxological, and it won’t even be central unless it’s Christocentric. Here’s why. Why aren’t people generous? (It’s hard to see how lust in peoples’ hearts is doing from week to week, but you do know about their generosity from week to week.) Are they just being sinners?

Let’s go back to Martin Luther. Let’s go back to the Catechism. If you’re not being generous, then there’s something else going on. You are saying that your status and your security are based on money, and these are very important to you. Perhaps you need to be able to buy certain clothes and move in certain circles and go certain places, human approval, security. There are idols underneath the lack of generosity. The money is more than just money, it’s security, it’s significance, it’s status. You’ve got to do something to make that money just money, then they’ll give it away. How do you do that? You have to show Jesus Christ as their true wealth. You have to show them what their idols are. You must get to Jesus. If you don’t get there, you’re going to find that you’re just wailing on people’s wills.

Sinclair Ferguson wrote a book that is almost impossible to find because it was put out as a little pamphlet by the Proc Trust in the UK, but the name of it is Preaching Christ from the Old Testament. This is what he says, “Most preachers, not only don’t preach Christ from the Old Testament, but they don’t preach it from the New Testament.” Later he says, “The preacher has looked into the text, even in the New Testament, principally to find himself and his congregation not to find Christ.” You can even do that in the New Testament, even in the Gospels. He goes on to say that, “The [self-oriented] sermon therefore is consequently about the people in the Gospels instead of about the Christ, who is that gospel. The more fundamental issue is this question, what is the Bible really about? Is the Bible basically about me and what I must do, or is it basically about Jesus and what he has done? Is the Bible basically about the objective and the indicative?” That’s why he says you do have to be careful. Hermeneutics is important. You can’t just find Jesus and every little twig. There needs to be a way in which you are following the trajectory of the text, no matter what that text is, to Jesus. You have to show how Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of that particular trajectory of the text. You have to be responsible, and yet, as Sinclair says, it’s more like an instinct. It’s not so much just right hermeneutics principles, it’s an instinct. Do you believe the Bible is basically about you or basically about him? Is David and Goliath basically about you and how you can be like David? Or is the story basically about Jesus, the one who really took on the only giants that can really kill us and whose victory is imputed to us. Who’s it really about? That’s the fundamental question. And when that happens, then you start to read the Bible anew.

  • Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden, a much tougher garden, and whose obedience is imputed to us.
  • Jesus is the true and better Abel, who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out, not for our condemnation, but for our acquittal.
  • Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answered the call of God to leave all the comfortable and familiar and go into the void, not knowing whither he went.
  • Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount, but was truly sacrificed for us all. What God said to Abraham, “Now I know you love me because you did not withhold your son–your only son whom you love–from me.” Now we, at the foot of the cross, can say to God, “Now we know that you love me because you did not withhold your Son–your only Son whom you love–from me.”
  • Jesus is the true and better Jacob, who wrestled and took the blow of justice we deserve so we, like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace that wake us up and discipline us.
  • Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who sits at the right hand of the King and forgives those who betrayed and sold him and uses his power to save them.
  • Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people in the Lord and who mediates a New Covenant.
  • Jesus is the true and better rock of Moses, who when struck with a rod of God’s justice now gives us water in the desert.
  • Jesus is the true and better Job, who became a truly innocent suffer and now intercedes for and saves his stupid friends. (Is that a type? That’s not typology; it’s an instinct.)
  • Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory becomes his people’s victory, though they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.
  • Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but lost the ultimate heavenly one, who didn’t just risk his life but gave his life, who didn’t just say, “If I perish, I perish,” he says, “When I perish, I’ll perish for them to save my people.”
  • Jesus is the true and better Jonah, who was cast out into the storm so we could be brought in.
  • Jesus is the real Passover lamb.
  • Jesus is the true temple, the true prophet, the true priest, the true king, the true sacrifice, the true lamb, the true light, the true bread.

The Bible is not about you–that must become an instinct. And until that instinct shows up in your sermons, all you will present are lectures not sermons. It won’t be doxological, it won’t be central, because it isn’t Christocentric.

4. The Gospel is Individual

I will sheer down my next few points in time. Don actually already said this. In 1 Peter 1–2, we see a lot of reference to the “new birth.” What does the new birth mean? Think about the metaphor of the birth. This is another thing that Lloyd-Jones used to say in his evening messages is you can make yourself a Muslim or a Buddhist, you can make yourself an atheist, but you can’t make yourself a Christian. To become a Christian, you got to be converted. Notice, it’s a passive. You don’t convert yourself; you’re converted. Something happens to you. Through faith, you’re born again. You are confronted with your sin against the jealous and holy God, and you see the provision now. That’s individual conversion.

This is really important at this moment in our lives as Christians, especially in North America, but I’m sure other places as well. There’s an erosion of confidence in that “thing” I just said, which is the idea that we have sinned against the holy, jealous God, the wrath of God has to be satisfied, and Jesus Christ has stood in our place–substitutionary atonement. And when we believe in that, both his obedience and his suffering are imputed to us. That old historic gospel is, to some degree, in disrepute right now. A lot of people are saying, “We got to move away from it.” Why?

There’s an erosion of confidence in . . . the idea that we have sinned against the holy, jealous God, the wrath of God has to be satisfied, and Jesus Christ has stood in our place.

J. I. Packer in his little chapter on grace in Knowing God said that grace really isn’t the opposite of law, but you have to understand two things to understand grace. First of all, you have to understand how lost you are, how bad you are, how dire your condition is, and how big the debt is. Dr. Lloyd-Jones used to illustrate it along these lines: If you came to see me and said, “Hey, I was at your house the other day, and a bill came due, and you weren’t there and I paid it.” I really wouldn’t know quite how to respond. I need to know something about how big that bill what was. Was it a package with postage due, and you spent another couple bucks? I could say, “Well, thank you very much. That was very kind of you.” What if it’s that thing I was afraid of getting from the IRS about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes I owe, and you paid that? Until I know whether to say, “Thank you,” or they get down on my hands and knees and kiss his feet, I don’t know how to respond to him. I don’t know how happy to be. I don’t know how to respond to him until I know how big that debt was.

I don’t know how to respond to him until I know how big that debt was.

Now, if somebody says, “I believe Jesus died for me, he shed his blood for me, and I’ve given my life to Christ. I accepted him. I walked forward. I invited him into my life,” and you don’t see any change in that person’s life, you don’t see identity shifting, behavior-transforming joy, then what’s the problem? People often point to “easy-believism” as the problem. What’s “easy-believeism.” Well, it’s the idea that you’re just saved by grace–wait a minute. The problem is this person clearly doesn’t have any idea the size of the debt and, therefore, the size of the payment. They just have no idea of it, couldn’t have any idea of it. Jim Packer used to say it, to understand grace and for grace to be transforming, first, you have to understand the debt.

The second thing you have to understand besides the size of the debt is the magnitude of the provision. There are people who do understand that they’re pretty bad. They do understand how flawed they are. They do understand how far short they fall, but they aren’t convinced of the magnitude and the sufficiency and the freeness and the fullness of the provision. They may only believe that Jesus died the death we should have died and maybe they don’t also believe Jesus also lived the life we should have lived. See, if you only believe Jesus died the death we should have died, that is, he died for our sins, he paid our penalty, that sort of leaves you on your own. It clears the deck. It puts you in a right relationship with God, but now I’m going to have to live a pretty good life if I’m going to stay in that relationship. I better live a pretty good life and therefore in a certain sense, I’m still maintaining my salvation by works and there’s no joy in that. There’s no life-transforming joy in that. There’s no identity shifting behavior transforming joy in that. But if you realize he lived the life you should have lived and died the death you should have died, that not only were my sins put upon him, but his perfect righteousness and record was put on me so there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, there will be an explosion.

If you realize he lived the life you should have lived and died the death you should have died, that not only were my sins put upon him, but his perfect righteousness and record was put on me so there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, there will be an explosion.

Now, what we have today are two groups:

  1. The folks who don’t understand the size of the debt. And sure, they have their born again certificate, but they haven’t changed their lives a bit.
  2. The Pharisees who only see the burden of their guilt. And as a result, they’re withdrawn and they’re hostile and they’re moralistic and they’re legalistic.

And we look at these two groups of people and the evangelical world is filled with them. Both easy-believism and Phariseeism are really deadly. The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer explains that easy-believism was the reason Nazism could come into power. That’s pretty dangerous! But on the other hand, so you’ve got the people who don’t understand the provision and so they’re Pharisees and they’re legalists, they’re moralists and people who don’t understand the debt and the size of the payment and the size of the magnitude of their situation. Why? Why the easy believism? Why the moralism? Because they don’t understand the gospel, the old gospel, the historic gospel, the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through the work of Jesus Christ alone, double imputation, substitutionary atonement. They don’t get it. So, what’s the solution to all the easy-believism? Why is it we don’t have people living the lives they ought to live? Why do we see people over here culturally withdrawn and being negative and narrow?

Why the easy believism? Why the moralism? Because they don’t understand the gospel, the old gospel, the historic gospel, the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through the work of Jesus Christ alone, double imputation, substitutionary atonement.

The solution isn’t “let’s change the gospel.” No, that’s what’s been happening. And almost every month in evangelical publications, you know the publishing houses, you’ll see people who say the gospel is no longer, “You’re saved through the blood atonement of Jesus Christ, the peace and the wrath of God. The gospel is just the kingdom. The gospel is God is renewing the world and He’s going to reweave the world in peace and justice. And now you need to join this community and be agents for peace and justice. You need to change your life. You need to be a disciple. It’s both faith and obedience. That’s what connects you to God.”

I can’t imagine with that gospel that anybody’s ever going to write a hymn that goes like this,

My chains fell off.

My heart was free.

I rose, went forth,

And followed thee.

It’s just not going to happen. It’s actually another kind of legalism. The problem, the gospel is individualistic. It is. It does say you’re an individual sinner. You’ve opposed a holy God. You’ve personally offended him. Here’s the provision for it.

5. The Gospel is Cultural

Now, what do I mean by cultural? I’ll tell you right off the bat, the gospel creates a culture: it’s called the church. It’s not just an aggregation of saved individuals; it’s a culture. The gospel is so radically different in what it says about God, about you, and about your standing with God. It’s identity transforming, and every other religion, every other system basically motivates you through fear and pride to do the right thing. Only the gospel motivates you through the joy, the fear, and trembling joy. You know, the fear of God joy. But that doesn’t mean that now we’re a bunch of saved individuals meaning we all have this wonderful internal fulfillment. It means that when we get together, we want to do everything differently. We will do everything differently. The gospel is massively transformational and it creates a counterculture, but it also makes us as people relate to the culture around us.

The gospel is so radically different in what it says about God, about you, and about your standing with God.

And this comes out especially in 1 Peter 2. I’m going to be brief on this, but it’s crucial. Those of us who do believe in that individual gospel often miss the communal aspects of the gospel. And in 1 Peter 2:12, it says, “Live such good lives among the pagans that though they accuse you of wrongdoing, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” But right before it says, “Dear friends, I urge you as aliens and strangers.” That’s actually how the whole book was produced. In, 1 Peter 1:1 says, “Peter an apostle of Jesus Christ to God’s elect strangers in the world.” There’s been a lot of discussion about this. The word there for “strangers” or “aliens” or “sojourners” or “exiles” means neither a tourist who’s just passing through the world briefly, nor a citizen of the world either–somebody who’s going to be there a long time and yet your citizenship, your values belong to somewhere else. Peter makes an amazingly balanced statement:

  1. On the one hand, the gospel speaks to legalists who are afraid of being polluted by the culture and have a tendency to need to bolster their fragile sense of righteousness because they don’t see their righteousness in Christ by feeling superior to the sinners around them. The gospel says to legalists who are withdrawing from the culture, you need to engage.
  2. On the other hand, the gospel speaks to the secular, to the irreligious, to the liberal Christian who is over-accommodating and can’t believe in sin and the holiness of God and hell because those teachings offend people.

The gospel says that there are dangers on both sides, cultural accommodation and cultural withdrawal. Most of us as Christians today, think all the danger is on one of those sides. We tend to get together in groups of people all say that the main danger is cultural accommodation. On the other side, there are Christians who claim that main danger is cultural isolation and irrelevance. According to that verse, it doesn’t say, “Sometimes we’ll be persecuted and other times everybody will see your good deeds and glorify God.” It doesn’t say that. It says persecution and glorification will both be happening together.

The gospel says that there are dangers on both sides, cultural accommodation and cultural withdrawal.

People who withdraw from the world and just hate the world, nobody sees your good deeds. They don’t glorify God. You’re not involved with caring for the poor. You’re not engaged. On the other hand, people who accommodate the culture are never persecuted. How do we know the radical gospel is turning us into a counterculture for the common good? A counterculture that’s very distinct, very different from the society around us. But who shows the society we love them and care about them? We love our enemies because we’re saved by a man who died loving his enemies.

This balance is awfully hard to maintain. In Jeremiah 29, some of the exiles wanted to stay outside of Babylon and stay pure. The Babylonians wanted them to come into Babylon and lose their cultural identity, but God told them through Jeremiah, “I want you to do hardest thing possible. I don’t want you to stay out and be different. I don’t want you to go in and become like them. I want you to go deeply in and stay very different.”

And that’s exactly what 1 Peter is talking about. He calls them “exiles.” He knows that our relationship to the culture around here has to be the same relationship as that of the Jewish exiles in Babylon. We need to seek the welfare of the city. We need to care about that. We need to follow in the footsteps of the one who served his enemies and forgave his enemies and died for his enemies. At the same time, we’ve got to be telling people they’re going to hell.

By and large, the people who want to be prophetic don’t want to be priestly. The people who want to say, “You’re going to hell,” rarely sacrificially pour themselves out for their neighbors and say, “We’re going to love you and we’re going to serve you whether you believe like we do or not.” And the people who are serving like that are often afraid of talking about things like hell and wrath. I don’t know whether we can become a movement of people who understand what 1 Peter is saying, that the gospel creates a counterculture, but a culture that engages the community around us at the expense of persecution but also with effectiveness.

One of the things that I’ve found interesting about that particular verse is that New Yorkers love what the Bible says about reconciliation, forgiveness, and caring about the poor, and they hate what it says about sex and gender and family. But go to the Middle East, and they love what the Bible says about sex and gender and family, but the idea of forgiving people 70 times seven, turning the other cheek, and so on is ridiculous.

I think what 1 Peter 2:12 is trying to say is that in every single culture, if you actually live distinctively and in an engaged way, you will get persecution and you will get approval. It will always be different depending on the culture. You will attract people; you will influence people; you’ll be salt and light. At the same time, you’ll get punched in the mouth. If you’re only getting punched in the mouth or you’re only getting praised, you’re not living this gospel life because either you’re falling into legalism and withdrawal or you’re falling into accommodation.

If you’re only getting punched in the mouth or you’re only getting praised, you’re not living this gospel life because either you’re falling into legalism and withdrawal or you’re falling into accommodation.

6. The Gospel is Massively Transformational

I’m just trying to say the gospel creates a worldview. The gospel is the basis for a worldview that actually touches every area of life, the way you do business, the way you do art, the way you conduct your family life. Enough for that. Time’s getting pretty close to the end.

7. The Gospel is Wonderful

1 Peter 1:12 says,

It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

I’ve been thinking about that verse for about 20 years. Now, let’s think about this for a second. Angels are probably very smart people. I hope you don’t laugh at me when I say that one of the things I always thought it was interesting about the Tolkien mythology is you’ve got elves and you’ve got humans, and the humans and the elves are a lot alike, except the elves just don’t die. I always thought it was interesting how Arwen and Aragorn are discussing, “Who’s going to ride Frodo to safety?” And I remember Arwen says to Aragorn, “I’m the better rider.” And I thought to myself, Yes, she’s 4,000 years old. Of course, she’s going to ride better. She’s going to have a lot more practice. Angels are like us, except they don’t die. So, they know a lot. They know a whole lot. They never get tired of looking into the gospel. In fact, angels even “long” to look, you know what that original word is here for “long.” It’s epithumeo; it’s the word that’s often translated “lust.” Angels love looking into the gospel. They never get tired of it.

So, what does that mean? It means gospel ministry is endlessly creative. It means that gospel ministry is ever new. It means that you can preach the gospel, and you never have to be afraid of boring people. I don’t know quite what it means, honestly; I’m still thinking about it. I probably should have waited till I’ve figured out what it really meant before I preached on it, I suppose. But isn’t that amazing? That is amazing. The gospel is not the ABCs of Christianity, it’s the A to Z. It’s not just the elementary introductory truths, and then we get past that. No, the gospel is what drives everything that we do. The gospel is the solution to every spiritual problem. The gospel is what every theological category should really be expounding when we do our systematic theology. It should be very much at the heart of everything.

The gospel is not the ABCs of Christianity, it’s the A to Z.

If even angels long to look into it, then you should too.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank you for these few thoughts about how understanding the biblical gospel shapes the way in which we do things: how we preach, how we evangelize, and how we relate to the culture around us. These are just the beginnings of the sketch. We pray, Lord, that you would help us as a body of friends and a community of Christians–brothers, and sisters–be wise about how we can let the gospel shape us and engage with our culture rather than having the culture shape us and affect how we read the gospel. We want therefore to be gospel-shaped-people now. We don’t want to simply pick up the methods of gospel-shaped people in the past because we know that many of those methods wouldn’t be relevant. We ask though that you would help us be gospel-shaped people now because we believe it would glorify you. Help us to look into the gospel over and over again until we see what we need to see–what you want us to see. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.