There is an excerpt from my book Gospel Amnesia over at The Gospel Coalition today.
This is revival—Hillsong Conference 2013 [HT: Dane Ortlund]
Sunday evening we were at a leadership training session at our church when the speaker said something that stuck with me. He pointed out our tendency toward selfishness, etc. and in so doing used the phrase, “It’s all about me.” Although I’ve heard that phrase countless times inside and outside of church over the years, on Sunday night it had a different nuance and my mind filled with some of the thoughts I have written in Gospel Amnesia.
A good tell–tale sign that we have forgotten, assumed or marginalized the gospel in conservative circles, is when we move toward a sanctification–centered theology. There is nothing wrong with desiring spiritual growth and maturity, but the bottom line truth is, that’s not what the Christian life is about. Sanctification or better yet, progressive sanctification, is an ancillary benefit to a life lived for the sake of Jesus Christ and a life centered around him.
Part of the problem of a sanctification–centered theology is that in spite of the fact that it looks like an honorable goal, it is actually selfish to the core. It is one of the best tools Satan can use to distract Christians. Sanctification–centered theology is a me–centered theology, it is replacing God and his gospel with me, my personal spiritual and physical welfare.
So what does a sanctification–centered theology look like? (a) My personal sanctification/godliness and that of my family is my number one priority and is the center of my thought life. (b) All decisions I make for myself or my family are centered around and tested by “will this make me more godly?” (c) A preoccupation with where I am in progressive sanctification. (d) The work and ministry I perform is all gauged by how it will affect my sanctification/spiritual maturity. (e) My doctrine will tend to focus on a strict “rightness,” including the rightness of my focus on rightness. And we can keep going, but these examples should suffice.
Someone might wonder, “well what’s wrong with those things, what’s wrong with desiring to be more godly?” A better question to ask is: What should be the ultimate desire and longing for a Christian? It is desiring God! It is desiring the person of Christ, not of his benefits—which is what sanctification is. Sanctification is a free gift of grace, it is the fruit of the Spirit, it is the beauty of being transformed more into the image of Christ. Christ is supreme, not sanctification. Because Christ is to be worshiped, not our glorified selves. A sanctification–centered theology is a worship of self. A gospel–centered/Christ–centered theology is the worship of the living God.
This morning, my first book, Gospel Amnesia: Forgetting the Goodness of the News is being released in ebook format. You can go to GCD Books and buy it right now.
I don’t know what other authors go through but it has been a stressful time for me the last 4–5 days. My gifts wage war against my fears and my fears fight back with a vengeance that looks and feels more like spiritual warfare than your ordinary fear of failure. From my earliest convictions that I should write this book, like Moses, I told the Lord that I would not “go up” unless he went with me. I have no need of celebrity or notoriety. But I do have an unquenchable need to love and obey the calling of my Heavenly Father. And so yes, I had one of those conversations with God, where I just plain out told him that unless he was in it, there was no way I was going to do this.
The internet is a funny place, it can be a source of blessing or a black hole for time and babble. I’ve done some thinking about my place in the category of writing, especially in the Christian genre, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to see what I don’t want. I am also convicted that this process is not me crafting myself into the image of the thinker–writer–theologian–philosopher that I have in my head, but God forming and crafting me into the image of Christ and raising for himself a daughter. As I have struggled to understand this calling and where I go from here and which writing projects to tackle next, the Lord consistently brings to mind who he is, what he has done and my need to be attentive to the work of the Holy Spirit.
I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self–control. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace… But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness…
2 Timothy 1:6–9, 2:16
I think about the real and practical work of keeping a home, raising children, serving God alongside my husband, serving in my local church, helping those who are theologically hungry, studying, thinking and writing. And then I think about the Holy Spirit. I think about all the times when I thought it was my “duty” to do his job. With each step deeper into the gospel comes a respect and awe for the person of the Holy Spirit. His work becoming more palpable. My soul finds much peace and rest in this knowledge. It allows me to see who I am, in light of eternity.
My short answer to those wrestling with that question is: Please read Gospel Amnesia. Not because I want to sell my book, but because one of my hopes and prayers for Gospel Amnesia (to be released Jan.15th) is that it would further this discussion along. The theology is by no means exhaustive, it is only the beginning of the discussions I hope we can all have.
I lived for many years believing that God will love me more if I did X, Y, and Z. I was theologically convinced that God’s love for me depended upon my obedience. When I obeyed him I expected he would be pleased with me and bless me and when I disobeyed I expected him to be angry, displeased and in judgment of me. But you can’t fight reality, and theology will always break down when it can’t be supported by reality.
I am a fallen woman. A sinner. And so invariably I would sin, sometimes it was little sins and sometimes it was big sins, but I didn’t stop sinning after I became a Christian. What happens logically if you live under the paradigm I held, but continued to sin and thus be displeasing to God? You live under a constant battle between finding things you can do so that you can please God, so that he will love you while constantly fighting despair because you know you are consistently falling short. It is a losing battle. Even given all my outward conformity and good works, I was hopeless because I could never do enough to earn constant love from him. It is hell.
There is an important distinction here. I am not talking about classic works–righteousness. I never believed that I could actually earn my salvation. As a Calvinist I firmly believed that God’s salvation was a gracious and unmerited gift by faith alone through the finished work of Christ alone. I’ve had many theological errors but one of them was believing that I can earn more love from God by being obedient to his commands.
We all have errors in our thinking. I understand that those in teaching positions have a greater burden. What I believe Pastor Tchividjian is trying to do is remedial help for Christians like me who have spent years raking our souls over coals. My husband and I have never walked away from listening to Tchividjian thinking: “Oh good, now I can just let it all go, I don’t need to love and obey God.” It’s more like: “Wow! Lord, you really love me?” with many tears flowing.
My heart is very burdened over this. Maybe Pastor Tchividjian needs more clarity and distinction. I hear what Dr. Murray is saying as well, and I’m thinking about it. I’m grateful for open debate, done with humility and the recognition that none of us are as precise as we think we are. One thing I see in this theological debate is a head collision between the heirs of Luther and the heirs of Calvin (more on this another time). I was greatly benefited just last night from Justin Taylor’s post on the distinction between our union in Christ and communion with Christ. Finally, one of the most eye-opening and balancing sermons on the relationship between loving God and obeying him is John Piper’s If Anyone Loves Me He Will Obey My Word on John 14:15–24. I discuss some of these issues in Gospel Amnesia.
The picture I have chosen for this post is one of the Reformers in Geneva. My sincere prayer is that we can talk about these very important issues that affect our every day Christian life, but without mockery, spiritual pride or a critical spirit—holding all things with grace and humility.
Last week my friend Jen Wilkin wrote a good and wise post over at TGC titled How to Guard Sabbath for Your Children. I say it was good and wise, because it was. I know Jen enough to know that Jesus is her center and that she has a heart for parents to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. There’s a lot of kindred spiritedness between us. She is my sister in Christ and I respect her work and the role God has given her to play in the Church. I say all this so that it’s clear where I’m coming from. What I’m about to say has to do with my own heart, not with Jen. As a matter of fact, she’s getting a preview copy of this post.
Although I had many idols during the years I had gospel amnesia, one of my worst was “how to be a godly parent.” Another was the Sabbath. I struggled with Jen’s article last week not so much because of what she wrote but because she touched some areas in my soul that are still raw. They are areas that Jesus is still healing. They are areas that I specifically pray for balance in, desiring to kill any urge to pendulum swing.
I used to be a very strict Sabbatarian. As in if I had people over on Sunday and ran out of propane for the grill, my husband would go out to buy some, but only if we thought we could justify it with the “ox is in a ditch” rule (Matthew 12:11; Ex. 23:4,5; Deut. 22:4). We used to celebrate the Sabbath from sundown Saturday evenings to sundown Sunday evenings, with a Sabbath meal and all. I no longer hold to the law of the Sabbath theologically. One of the best books I read in 2012 is Tom Schreiner’s 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law. It set me free from my bondage and allowed me to see Christ for who he is, the fulfillment of the entire law. At some point I also went from identifying Sunday as the “Sabbath” to the “Lord’s day.” One day I hope to read From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation edited by D.A. Carson. I say this only to help the reader understand why my soul is still sensitive to Sabbath requirements, even though in reality we still keep Sunday as a day for church, rest, family and ministry. So although in practice we may look like Sabbatarians, our heart knows that when Christ said “it is finished” everything was finished. We don’t keep Sabbath anymore. Christ is our Sabbath. We get to spend our Sundays loving Jesus, loving each other, and loving our neighbors. We also don’t believe anymore that it’s a sin to go to the store, or to take the kids to In–n–Out.
Now, for the main point of this post: the idolatry of “how to be a godly parent.” Since I discuss it at length in Gospel Amnesia I will keep this to just a couple of points. One of my biggest idols was the desire to be a godly parent. I know it may sound paradoxical. After all, which Christian parent doesn’t want to be a “godly parent.” And besides, aren’t we commanded to be godly parents?
First, anything can be an idol. I flesh that out in Gospel Amnesia so I won’t take the time to do it here. Second, we are not commanded to be godly parents. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and strength and to teach this love of God to our children. That is a huge philosophical shift from “be a godly parent.” These are two different religions! The first is Jesus’ direct command and has as its object God. We are to point our hearts to God and to teach our children how to point their hearts to God. The second has as its object ourselves and our children, seasoned with the adjective, “godly.” The object becomes how to rightly be a parent with the drive behind it as the welfare of our children, spiritual and otherwise. I spent years and years reading books and blog posts on how to be a more godly mom/parent. I can’t do it anymore, I just can’t. As a matter of fact I have no intention on buying not one more book on motherhood. The inspired Word of God which I open up every single day has been telling me for years what I need to do: Love Jesus and love my children. The issue is: Will my heart obey these commands from the Lord himself? I don’t need another motherhood book or blog post to tell me this.
So, this brings me back to Jen’s blog post. Jen’s post had wisdom which she was offering to other families. Wisdom is good. Brothers and sisters in Christ should be able to encourage one another with wisdom. I was a bit taken off guard by the way my heart responded to it. I bring this up because recovering legalists like me need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I want to be able to glean from discussions on parenthood without succumbing to extremes in either direction. There are people like me learning how to keep Jesus at center who are still tender in some areas. It’s not a matter of not wanting to be told what to do. It’s not a matter of whether or not I want to bake for my family and be wise about my children’s time. For me it’s about where my emphasis is. I spent way too many years overdosing on what I should be doing for my children. That’s what made me so anemic. My focus wasn’t Christ, my focus was my children and all the things those books and blog posts told me to do to be a godly mom. The only godly correction to this is Jesus. The correction is gospel-centeredness! That has to be the center of my thought life! Only internalizing the gospel will keep me from parochial extremes. Only by internalizing the gospel could I hope to be a parent that looks more and more like Jesus with each passing day.
Early on this year, I remember having one of those light bulb moments where some things became clearer. Reading Jonathan Dodson’s Unbelievable Gospel some months later crystallized some of those thoughts. I was convicted by the years I had spent proselytizing others toward lifestyle choices and church traditions, rather than evangelizing or sharpening brother and sisters through the gospel of Christ. This article: The Problem With Proselytizing was born out me of thinking through some of these issues. It is published over at GCD.
“You don’t need to have full-blown gospel amnesia like I did to despise other women, tear them down, and pass judgment on their choices. When we forget the gospel and turn away from the charity and grace we are called to have for one another we can turn into women who look sideways at each other.”
See the rest of my article published here at Domestic Kingdom.
In our every day life as an ordinary Christian family, I have the opportunity to watch my children exercise their faith in Jesus.
I realized lately, how during the years that I had gospel amnesia I had expectations of what I thought Christian maturity and faith looked like for my kids. When they did not manifest this (as they often did not), nor meet my expectations (as they often did not), I would panic. I would start thinking I was doing something wrong in my parenting and inevitably resort to a variety of “godly” parenting methods to get the desired result: to get them to “act Christian.”
Just like us, our children have ups and downs in their faith. Especially once they become old enough to articulate their faith, they go in and out of seasons (e.g. oscillating between strong faith and dedication to Christ, and a lack of trust in God’s goodness and providence). For my kids, when they are strong, I usually see them respond to certain situations with God-given wisdom or Bible verses, and a desire to pray. When they are having a low season, I usually see slumped and pout-y demeanor, an overall ungratefulness, and doubt in God’s goodness.
Sometimes their prayers are fervent and sincere and sometimes they would rather get to bed then sit through family worship. At times we find them responding to circumstances with godly wisdom on their lips while at other times they say their favorite part of church is sitting in the back. (Hmmm… I’m pretty sure most adults have experienced this sentiment also.)
One of the many lessons the Spirit is teaching me is how to have grace on all my children from the oldest to the youngest when their faith is small. Our modern term, “empathy,” biblically known as “compassion,” goes a long way with children. Gasping at a faithless remark and then promptly and harshly chastising the child for not having a more “Christian” response and attitude… not so much. I should have compassion or empathy for my children in their times of weak faith, because I have times of weak faith, and it’s time I stop pretending otherwise for my children.
One thing I used to do a lot is get on them for their doubt. Now, I invite them to share their doubts with me and we talk through those thoughts (that includes the five year old). Even if in the end their heart struggle is not resolved, they are at least convinced that God allows us to struggle with him in our faith. They are not ashamed for wrestling with and for faith. Sometimes our children have doubts, questions and/or fears. I am trying not to rush in with quick “proof text” answers. Instead, I have had to think about how my heavenly Father responds to me when I am fearful and questioning.
My ultimate goal for them should be the same as the Lord’s ultimate vision for me—to be conformed to the image of Christ. This calls for suffering long with immaturity, failings, weaknesses, foolishness, sin and all their other flaws. It also means compassion when they have their seasons of small faith.
I love walking together with my children on this path of faith, always reminding them that we are disciples of Christ together, we are brothers and sisters in the household of God. I may be their mother and have certain temporary earthly authority, but my goal isn’t for them to always be looking to me, my job is to help them to look to Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith.
With all the talk on holiness lately while I’m still talking gospel, I’ve started to wonder if I’ve missed the boat. Lest I be misunderstood in my more recent emphasis on the grace of the gospel: I am not against holiness! It’s just that I spent large parts of my life pursuing holiness in ways that were foreign to the gospel—thinking I was beyond the gospel—and because I’ve traveled that road before and I have seen the difference gospel-centeredness has made in my own spirit, the topic still hits a sensitive spot for me.
There was a time when I said that I was tired of hearing about the gospel, that I wanted to move on to sanctification. I remember saying things like, “we can’t always just be talking about Jesus or justification; we have to move on to how we’re supposed to strive after holiness… justification is an event; sanctification is a process.” But you see, don’t you, the hole in that logic: I assumed that Jesus was merely the foundation, and that you can then move on to something else, holy living if you will. The problem with that is that we don’t get to “move on”: we live there. We live in Christ Jesus, we don’t move on from him. He is not the wedding, in which we say our vows, before we move on into married life, as if that were something different. He is the marriage.
For example, justification—central to, but not the limit of, the gospel—is not simply an event. It is a state of being; it goes on. Grammatically we use an adjective that describes our state of being, so we are not merely justified (past tense of “to justify”), we are justified (present tense of being). This justification is part and parcel with the gospel. It is not the only part of the gospel, but it is one we should never allow to shrink from view. It certainly is not something from which we should “move on.”
Before I go any further I think there is something really important that we miss sometimes—we are not a monolithic people. I don’t deny that there are some sections of the church that may be all “gospel-talk” with no “gospel-action.” I get that. I understand that we see worldly, “outside” culture creeping into the church and seducing Christians, turning them into a people who live no differently than the unsaved in the world. However, even if we were able to protect ourselves from outside culture, the same thing would still happen, because worldliness and sin are in us. And yes, falling into habits of sin that make us indistinguishable from the world would be particularly easy if Christians do not believe in standards of holiness or the ability to do what is at all pleasing to God.
However, living “like the world” is not the only problem that exists in Evangelical Christianity. Parts of the church also stumble into what becomes prideful or even competitive “sanctification,” which ultimately is just another way the world creeps into the church, and not from outside, but from within. An attitude of “moving on” from the gospel and focusing on holiness and sanctification would provide fertile soil for this error.
I think it’s important for pastors, theologians, thinkers and writers to remember that there are different battles in the churches across this land. There are those who live with excess “grace” and deficient law; there are those who live with excess law and deficient grace. There are none who live with excess gospel—that is, if the gospel is rightly understood—because the gospel contains a right picture of law and grace. The gospel contains every holy, gracious, obedient, self-sacrificial act of Christ in his earthly life and as he sits and rules on high. We are given those acts: forensically, to cleanse and justify us, imputedly, his righteousness becomes ours, and exemplarily, to teach and guide us. This is not separate from the gospel, or beyond the gospel, this is the gospel.
As Carson has said many times and in many places, the gospel is not just what “tips us into the kingdom and then we go on to holiness.” Rather all those areas of sanctification (e.g. disciple making, parenting, etc.) are all within the horizon of the gospel—it is the gospel that is the bigger category. Here’s an example Carson used in a recent video at Desiring God for their conference Act the Miracle: (Ephesians. 5) Husbands, love your wife as Christ loves the Church and gave himself for her. That is the gospel, it is the cross as Carson says. So when a husband is loving his wife self-sacrificially for her good, doing something holy, he is living out—”fleshing out”—the gospel, and hence his sanctification, his greater conformity to the image of Christ, is in actuality him living the gospel out every day.
Holiness is not unhinged from the gospel. It can’t be! It mustn’t be! Those who would detach holiness from the gospel, either to minimize it or elevate it, have stopped living within the horizon of the gospel.