Archives For Gospel

In their blog this week The Gospel Coalition commemorated John Piper’s famous 2000 Passion Conference message “Don’t Waste Your Life” (aka, the “seashells” talk). It not only fixed Piper’s influence in the hearts of the 40,000 twenty-somethings gathered in Memphis on that afternoon in May but also became, as the blog notes, “formative for a generation.” For many, Dr. Piper’s words were prophetic, arresting, and spoke to them in the deepest of ways. I call that kind of a message a life message. It’s the kind of message that ruins you for all the right reasons and boldly changes the trajectory of your life.

It got me thinking about my own life message. I heard a talk (also a conference message) that spoke to me in the deepest of ways. It was one of those rare moments when you read or hear something by someone who puts into words what you believed but couldn’t put into words yourself. You just can’t quite formulate it yet. It was like an essential code in the back of your mind (and the middle of your heart) always frustratingly suspended on the verge of being broken. But the second someone finally deciphered it and you beheld its long-awaited clarity in all its glory, it became the Aha! moment where you shouted, “That’s what I believe!”

My “seashells” message was given by Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan. This was before he had written his bestselling books or attained national notoriety. It was 2007. A friend of mine in NYC encouraged me to listen to “this Tim Keller guy” whenever I had the chance, so when I came across a video of his address to the newly minted Gospel Coalition in May of that same year with a message entitled, “Gospel-Centered Ministry,” I thought it something I needed to hear. I settled into my office, closed the door, and watched his 55-minute address.

I was spellbound almost from the word ‘go.’ Dr. Keller’s struggles in church paralleled mine. Yet his answer to those struggles was exactly what I’d thought but couldn’t put into words: a theology of gospel-centrality. My growing angst in ministry had finally found the answer. Indeed, as I heard him eloquently speak about not only what the gospel is but how it should intersect all ministry, especially the pulpit (as he also was a preaching pastor), I kept saying aloud, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Although his address wasn’t significantly animated or charismatic like John Piper’s message, I was continuously moved to tears throughout it.

Finally, I had the clarity I was looking for. The code was deciphered in my head and heart. It was such a “moment” for me I watched it again. Another 55 minutes of me nodding my head, dabbing tears from eyes, and saying in my heart, “This is what I believe!” In author Jared Wilson’s parlance, I was experiencing a gospel awakening.1

The grace in it all was Keller’s ability to not only put into words what I couldn’t about gospel-centered ministry but to provide a framework and paradigm for it as well. Now that I had it (or better yet, it had me), I was dangerous because I knew what this meant. I knew this would define me, my ministry, and the local church I served. There was no turning back. I wanted to know everything I could from those who sought to keep the gospel central to ministry. In short, I was ruined.

I read a lot, studied a ton, and even chose my doctoral work based on a seminary that would deepen me in gospel-centered ministry. I began to dialogue with those who were way ahead of me. I couldn’t get enough! I even called up Redeemer and asked for their discipleship materials, and our executive staff spent weeks working through them.2 Needless to say, gospel-centrality would be a defining mark of CCCC. Indeed, ten years later, it has. In a survey a few years ago of our staff and small group leadership, when asked what makes CCCC “CCCC,” at the very top of the list was our commitment to the centrality of the gospel in all things.

So, for all my Passion friends who were marked by God through Piper’s words, Keller’s did the same for me with this message3:

I’ve sinned and I am so confused. And I am a wicked child. I’m am devil’s son. I walk a crooked mile. I wish I could be you. If I could’ve kept on the straight and narrow.
Wicked Child by Radiohead

Over my brief sabbatical I had the opportunity to read several books, one of which was Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works. I’d previously read several stories from it (e.g., Revelation, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Life You Save May Be Your Own), but thought my break would grant me the chance to continue reading one of America’s most distinctive and distinguished authors. O’Connor, a devout Catholic from Georgia, wrote during the 1950-60’s in a style described as Southern Gothic. Think Cormac McCarthy meets Marilynne Robinson. There’s going to be some beautiful prose, amazing philosophical/theological content, and someone’s probably going to die (in a shocking way). Interesting to say the least.

I chose to read O’Connor’s first novel (1952), Wise Blood, about a spiritually disgruntled young man named Hazel Motes (“Haze”) on a mission to preach people away from thinking Christ must redeem them from their sins. His is an anti-gospel message proclaiming Jesus isn’t true, sin isn’t real, and, consequently, one’s felt need for redemption is illusory. Indeed, Haze views all the guilt of his past iniquities as simply a figment of his past religious upbringing, believing now he’s matured and evolved beyond those imaginary ideas and primitive hopes for salvation in Jesus. Haze believes his justification (if one even needs one) is his own success.

Haze’s confidence in his plan to save himself by himself is symbolized by the trust he places in his car, which is an old, broken-down Essex only costing $45. In young Mr. Motes’ estimation, the vehicle represents his self-salvation and freedom from the need for a Savior in Christ. As he confidently claims, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” 1 The Essex is not only symbolic of his newfound “faith” but becomes the locus for its propagation. It is his pulpit whereby he stands upon the hood preaching his anti-gospel to all who will hear, often rebuking the Christian faith saying “it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth.” 2 Throughout the novel, however, the Essex continually gives Haze problems. Sometimes it won’t start. It often sputters and coughs when it does drive. It even quits on him periodically. Nevertheless, for all its obvious problems, Haze believes his car, like his anti-redemption message, is unassailable.

The comical irony of Essex as Vehicle for Haze’s Quest to Rid the World of Their Need for a Savior comes to a head when Motes takes his car to a filling station for a tune up. A young attendant, after giving the Essex the once-over, delivers bad news telling Haze “there was a leak in the gas tank and two in the radiator and that the rear tire would probably last twenty miles if he went slow.” 3 Motes corrects the young boy saying, “Listen, this car is just beginning its life. A lightening bolt couldn’t stop it!” 4 Here is a mechanic who “sees things as they are,” his job depends upon what he can hold and touch – core tenets of Haze’s anti-religion – yet Haze, instead of complimenting the young boy on living by values Motes desires to share with the world, refuses to believe himself when it comes to his car. For Motes, his car represents his pulpit, his mission, his message. The gospel of being your own savior cannot fail!

Haze confidently flies down the road in his Essex but notices he is passing the same scenery again and again. O’Connor notes, “He had known all along that there was no more country but he didn’t know that there was not another city.” 5 Could it be that he is ultimately going nowhere? His next encounter confirms the answer. Soon a patrolman stops Haze and discovers the driver of the Essex doesn’t have a driver’s license. The officer asks a recalcitrant Mr. Motes to drive to an embankment with a 30-foot drop. After Haze exits the car, the patrolman pushes the vehicle over the edge. The Essex, being in obviously such poor condition, literally falls apart upon impact. The patrolman concludes with dark humor, “Them that don’t have a car, don’t need a license.” 6

It’s this moment of clarity where Haze realizes the failure of his quest – that the road to self-justification without the work of Jesus is a fool’s errand. Both his Essex and the “you-don’t-need-a-savior” faith it represents are destroyed. Both lie in ruins not because of what Haze couldn’t see, but what he refused to see. The reality was that both Haze’s car and his soul were in deep need of repair. None of us can escape the truth of Romans 1:18-20,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

No inspirational kind of self-talk or flat-out denial can erase the truth that sinners must be justified before a Holy God. Romans says it’s too clear to us, in us no matter how much we, like Hazel Motes, “suppress the truth.” We have a sin problem that must be taken care of and why, when the patrolman asks a very silent Haze, “Was you going anywhere?” Motes, realizing he can’t suppress that truth anymore, merely replies a defeated, “No.” 7 O’Connor wants us to realize that any plan for salvation that rests upon us (to any degree) is, like the Essex, incapable of getting us where we need to go. Our sin causes our lives to choke, sputter, and break down from achieving the self-justification we so desperately desire. To believe we can do it is to be blinded like Haze where it will only be a matter of time until we’re proven wrong. 8

For O’Connor, there isn’t another way to deal with our sins but through the shed blood of Christ. His life, freely given, in our place. The Cross becomes the confession of those who want to be justified before God. As Romans 3:23-25 says,

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This good news of grace in Christ feels scandalous to many because we want something to do with our own salvation. We’re offended by the fact that spiritually we appear so impotent in resolving our problem. But we are. Everyone walks the crooked mile. That’s why the grace God gives us in Jesus has been, is, and always will be our only hope. Anything else is just an old, broken-down Essex.

Notes:

  1. O’Connor, Collected Works, Library of America, 64.
  2. Ibid, 116.
  3. Ibid, 117.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid, 118.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”

I was struck this week by two passages from two different men who, through their writings, have helped tutor me on better seeing (and preaching) Jesus as the sum and substance of the Bible. Both statements I think are helpful rebukes for what often passes as preaching in Christian congregations in America. Indeed, I’m sure I’ve preached many a message that would rightfully fall under their wise critique. Nevertheless, I’ve endeavored to grow in reading and preaching the Scriptures in the same fashion as Jesus and his apostles. This has meant as much unlearning as learning. Frankly, I’d argue the apostles, based on their usage of the Old Testament in the New Testament (and their preaching of it), would have flunked both hermeneutics and homiletics classes in many a seminary. I was trained in the grammatical-historical tradition which has dominated evangelicalism. And while I believe it to be a solid part of the foundation for preaching, I’ve also come to trust that without a Christological understanding of the Scripture, messages can run the risk of being something less than Christian. How so? This is where the two passages on preaching give insight.

The first from Sidney Greidanus on preaching the Old Testament:

One ought not to overlook the fact that a Christian sermon on an Old Testament passage ought to be different from a sermon preached by a Jewish rabbi, for the Christian sermon will need to take as its context the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. In other words, Christian preachers take their stand in New Testament times, after the coming of the Messiah, and hence they will read an Old Testament passage in the light of the New Testament. 1

I was taught that a text cannot mean what it never meant. In other words, what is critical in understanding a passage is learning what the original audience understood about what was being written to them? Once again, while I believe this is an important part of hermeneutics, by itself it’s inadequate. Greidanus reminds the modern-day preacher that he stands on grand mountaintop of the New Testament revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – an apex from which he has the final and ultimate view of the smaller, preceding Old Testament peaks that have both informed and led him to this final summit. To visit those previous, lower hills must be done so in light of the grand, towering heights from which he now stands. Simply put, when referring to Old Testament passages, the New Covenant preacher knows more than the original Old Covenant audience and not only can but should preach those texts with that difference in mind. This use of progressive revelation most specifically centered in Jesus is what makes the preaching of the Old Testament uniquely Christian. All one needs to do is merely look at the teaching/preaching of Jesus and the apostles to reaffirm this truth Greidanus highlights.

The second passage is from Graeme Goldsworthy on preaching different topics:

Preaching predestination, or creation, or the new birth, or the baptism of the Spirit is not preaching the gospel. All these things are related to the gospel and are necessary for the working of the gospel, but they are not the essential message to be believed for salvation. Furthermore, unlike the gospel message, they do not directly address the matter of our justification and assurance of salvation. Only the message that another true and obedient human being has come on our behalf, that he has lived for us the kind of life we should live but can’t, that he has paid fully the penalty we deserve for the life we do live but shouldn’t — only this message can give assurance that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2

I would add to his initial list other preaching topics like family, marriage, work, and other sermon series that fill up our Sundays in churches around the nation. Goldsworthy rightly points out that while those areas are related to the gospel they are not the essential gospel message, which is God doing for us in Christ what we could not do for ourselves. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t preach on topics such as I or Goldsworthy have mentioned. Indeed, we should, but in a way that shows the gospel as central and not merely peripheral to those areas. Forgetting this may produce very moral, practical or religious sermons, but not uniquely Christian sermons. On the contrary, just because a preacher uses the Bible to support whatever topic he likes, if he consistently preaches those texts in a way that leaves the congregation thinking there is no need for the justifying work of the Cross in order for them to “make it happen” or “apply the truths” of the message, then that preaching most likely isn’t only sub-Christian but anti-Christian.

So, reading both men begs the question, “Is your preaching Christian?”

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • How does your use of the sermon text relate to the larger story of salvation history?
  • Which will your congregation think after hearing your sermon: “Me, myself, and I” or “What a wonderful Savior is Jesus”?
  • Who are you portraying as the hero of the biblical text and your sermon?
  • Why did Jesus need to die for what you’re going to preach this Sunday?

Notes:

  1. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 220
  2. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, 83-84