Monday, January 24, 2011

The Gospel Defined Part 1

With great sadness, I have come to realize that the term “gospel-centered” doesn't mean the same thing to everybody. It's the new buzz word in conservative evangelicalism. Yet, like so many good words before it (gospel, Christian, grace, love, etc.), our imprecise use of the term threatens to undermine its true meaning altogether. I contribute to the overuse of the term gospel-centered as much as anyone, so I think it's high time I define what I mean by it. So what is this gospel in which I am centering myself?

I grew up learning short pithy sayings that “summed up” the gospel. I took classes so I could walk someone through the “Romans' Road.” I learned a 5 part flip chart complete with illustrations promoted by an evangelist at a camp where I worked. Now, looking back, I realize that most of that time, I could only articulate a PART of the gospel. Each method focused on the universal nature of our debt (all have sinned and come short of the glory of God) and Christ's payment of my sins on the cross. They focused on the value of Christ's DEATH for me. But they didn't focus on the value of His LIFE. Over the years, I have come to understand that the good news of Christ is not just that, through Jesus, my debt to God is canceled. No—God did not JUST bring my account up to zero, but He also lavished His grace on me, crediting to my account Christ's righteousness (Isaiah 61:10, 2 Cor. 5:21).

I have benefitted greatly from Christ's death, the penal substitution. But oh the benefits to me from His LIFE, this imputed righteousness. Christ's righteousness is in my account now. And that is every bit as precious as the erasure of my sin. Think of an inmate deserving the long sentence he received. Then, by the mercy of the judge and sacrifice of another, the inmate's sentence is paid in full. He gets to walk out of jail a free man. Yet, he's broke. Sure, he's grateful that he no longer has a debt to society, but he faces a long, daunting road. He can't even buy lunch. He can't pay a taxi to take him home (if he even has one). If he doesn't have someone outside who's watching out for him, he can't even pay for a hotel room for the night. He's set up for failure. He's set up to return to a life of crime. His only hope is to pull himself up from the bootstraps. But pitfalls surround him, and he has virtually no safety structure to keep him from utterly failing. And so is the very great difference between a view of the gospel that ends with penal substitution and one that also strongly embraces imputed righteousness.

Paul teaches this view of the gospel in Ephesians. He starts off with a bang – in Christ, you are blessed with EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING. And he goes through them all, praying at the end of Ephesians 1 that we'd really come to understand this inheritance in our accounts and power at work on our behalf. Then he gets into the fact that we were dead in our sins, by nature deserving of God's wrath, alienated from God. I think Paul understands, under the Spirit's inspiration, that we NEED to know our bank account is full and that we have resources. Just being spared death does not prepare you for life.

God didn't bring me just to dead even. But now, in Christ, I have an abundant surplus in my account because God sees me wearing Christ's robe of righteousness. I AM RIGHTEOUS! And not by works of my own. God has lavished this righteousness to my account fully by His mercy and grace, and I can REST in it.

This doesn't mean I don't wrestle over how to show grace to my children or to stamp down my own selfishness. There remains a long list of actions and attitudes in my life I long to change. But in the midst, I can rest. I don't have to change myself. Christ's finished work is complete on my behalf. And I have His life of love and good works credited to me.

"Run, John, run. The law commands, but gives neither feet nor hands. Better news the Gospel brings; It bids me fly and gives me wings." John Bunyun

Now, in Christ, I am empowered to do battle with sin, to put to death the old man and live like the new creation I am. I am the inmate set free from my well-deserved sentence who has the bank account and resources of the daughter of the king. I have RESOURCES for every need that comes my way. When I am provoked to anger with my children, I have spiritual resources. When I am tempted with gluttony, lust, selfishness, or gossip, I am fully equipped for battle. As John Bunyan said, I can fly, and I do it with Christ's wings. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is the power at work in me!

Be wary of the “gospel-centered” teacher whose gospel ends at penal substitution, for they have nothing for life after salvation except pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. The gospel becomes the source of OBLIGATION instead of the source of EQUIPPING. You're exhorted to stop gossiping or sleeping around or overeating because it makes the gospel look bad. That's gospel obligation that misses completely the value and power of imputed righteousness. The true gospel doesn't obligate you to do good. No, it EQUIPS you to do good. There is a profound difference. That battle with your weight, the temptation to gossip, anger with your children—the gospel equips you to do battle with sin with the very same power that raised Christ from the dead. You have a lavish spiritual bank account, and this is integral to the very good news of all Christ's life and death has accomplished for you.


  1. After hearing much teaching in the "gospel centered" arena, I found myself asking the question: why does some of the teaching I am hearing seem to imply that my sanctification will be a result of my own efforts? Certainly I am saved by grace from death, but you are so right... we are saved into a glorious life by grace!! Jesus sends his Spirit to dwell in us and he gives us power (not of us) but from him and he will transform us.

    I've also pondered how often we try to carry out our "mission" apart from continual reliance on the power of God to work in people's lives. Our mission to love people and share Jesus' love with them should be bathed in prayer for God's intervention in their lives. How often is it not?

  2. One of the things I find helpful is to consider that penal substitutionary atonement can at most be part of the Gospel. As you put it, it is one aspect that does not explain other aspects. It reveals why we have a debt to Christ but does not consider the self-giving motive of Christ to adopt us into the family of God. Certain atonement theories have become so popular in liberal theology a conservative Protestant wishes to reject them for no other reason than mere guilty by association. And in the hands of a pastor who does not believe there is even the possibility of penal substitutionary atonement, yes, Christ dying to serve as our example gives us God the Son who died to set an example we cannot possibly emulate. If however Christ died as our substitue AND example then his death becomes an example we can follow because in His rising from the dead we are promised that as we share in His death we have the promise of sharing in His life.

    One of the risks of intra-Christian debate about atonement theories as defining who is or isn't "gospel centered" is that we forget what Francis Schaeffer once told us, that we live in a post-Christian society. Within in Christendom were competing claims of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches worked out in bloody and blunt ways in regional politics and through nationalized churches, yes, those differences on the atonement mattered in different ways. But this is because, at the risk of oversimplifying things, Christians in the East and West were seeing the hidden political and social ramifications of favoring certain atonement theories. That has not gone away and never will but in a "post-Christian" society what this means is that it is even more dangerous for Christians to cherry pick their favorite atonement theory and speak as though that somehow summed up the whole Gospel. The unresponsiveness of many in the world will not show merely that the worldly are worldly, it may also show us how our truncation of the Gospel to our chief cultural or social concerns fails to address the issues that in a fuller GOspelw ould reveal the Gospel to be good news to THEM as well as for us.

  3. Thank you for this post. After hearing the gospel of penal substitution for many years (without an emphases on the fullness of the Gospel), I was quite shocked with awe and wonder as God brought various passages of Scripture to mind to remind me of things was for God so LOVED the world, He gave his son, that my identity is now in Christ, that I do have that lavish spiritual bank account. Good to have my thoughts drawn to this again.

  4. Wow, Wendy. This was such a helpful post, and exactly what I needed right now.

  5. Thanks, Bina! That makes me happy. :-) Karen and Sarah, I appreciate your feedback as well.

    WtH, you have once again caused me to think. I'll be rereading your thoughts a few times, I think.

  6. Keren, I apologize for misspelling your name. :-)

  7. Thank you for your blog Wendy. This is a really helpful clarification :-)
    When I look around me at many Christian friends who seem to be stressed and worn out trying to 'make' disciples and evangelise (sorry for the spelling I'm British!) could this be the case? Do you think we are often so focussed on our rescue that we struggle to live each day and each opportunity in the strength that God supplies?
    I am a very poor disciple of my God and King, but I often rejoice at the clean conscience I can have because of Jesus' righteousness. I know many Christians though who seem unable to rest and this is so unfruitful in practice as well as heartbreaking to see!

  8. Teaching Evangelism at BJU, I was challenged to spend at least a third of the semester on what is going on inside...IOW, if my life is not genuinely gospel centered as seen above, I will not approach evangelism correctly. When I taught it as an evening class, I wanted to name it "Evangelism, Inside Out"...but someone decided to nix it. Maybe it sounded too fringe-y. :)

  9. Great post! If Christ had not risen, our faith is useless and we are still in our sins! (1 Cor. 15:17) Glory to God, our Savior lives and He has granted to us LIFE in His name!

  10. Great post. As I was reading this I thought of Romans 8, specifically vvs.29-30,37
    He foreknew, he predestined, he called, he justified, and he glorified. Because of that we are MORE THAN CONQUERORS through him who loved us. Praise him for his righteousness.

  11. Elyse Fitzpatrick's book "Because He Loves Me" takes what you've written so well here and extends it even further. I give away at least a couple copies a year.

    IOW - she agrees with you, and so do I. :)

  12. What a wonderful and profound post. I cannot help but believe that the Lord led me at just this time, on just this day to read these words. Thank you for being His vessel.

  13. Hi Wendy, I'm know I'm late to the party, but your post is very insightful and encouraging, thank you.

    I think what you identify is a weakness in the Reformed understanding of justification and sanctification as being primarily about "innocence" and "holiness" which leads to this huge emphasis on penal substitutionary atonement as being "the gospel". I think those words are in fact about "rightouesness" which is, as you say, more than just an absence of wrong-doing. I'm even beginning to think whether we use the words justification and sanctification biblically at all.


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