Giving Thought to Gospel 'Math': Why Jesus + Nothing = Everything

The following are notes taken during the session.

This comes from 22 sermons on the book of Colossians in 2009. Everything I'm going to say is based in Colossians.

I grew up in churches where I believed the gospel was only for people outside the church. I saw it as synonymous with evangelism. But evangelism is only a part of the gospel. The gospel is for Christians. It doesn't just ignite the Christian life. It is the fuel that keeps Christians going each and every day.

Some think that once we're saved and justified by the gospel, we should move on to deeper theological matters. But the truth is that we don't move on from the gospel, we move further into the gospel. All of the Christian life, and all of the Bible is about Jesus. I count myself as one who is on mission with other men to help the church recognize again the power of the gospel.

This topic addresses 3 issues that are important to grasp if we are to see a revival in the church regarding the gospel:

  1. Motivation
  2. Identity
  3. Idolatry

1) Motivation

For all the talk of the gospel we hear in the church today, there is still some fear and trepidation regarding the radical nature of grace. There is still talk about two equal dangers Christians must avoid: legalism and lawlessness. Too much focus on grace leads to lawlessness, so in order to remain balanced, we need to keep some grace and some law.

Framing the issue this way prevents us from really understanding the gospel of grace for all of its radical depth and beauty. It's more theologically accurate to say there is one primary enemy of the gospel, mainly legalism. But it comes in two forms: some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves via rules. This si front door legalism, which was can easily detect.

But some people avoid the gospel and try to save themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want. This is back door legalism, less obvious.

So there are two laws that keep us from Christ. A law that tries to keep the rules to stay free from Christ, and a law that tries to find freedom from Christ by becoming a law unto yourself. Either way, you're still trying to save yourself. You're still legalistic.

So in my opinion it is a huge mistake to frame the issue as two ditches, one on each side. There aren't two ways to fall off the Christian life. It's one way, with two forms. The biggest lie about grace is that it is dangerous and therefore needs to be kept in check. The devil does not want us to believe in the radical nature of grace. The biggest lie he wants us to believe is that grace is dangerous, unruly, and that we need to balance it out with a healthy dose of law.

Believing this violates gospel advancement. This "Yes grace, but..." is the kind of disposition that keeps moralism swirling around in our hearts.

At times every parent or pastor faces the problem of children or congregants who are acting out, in various ways and for various reasons. And all too often they conclude that the best way to deal with it is to give more rules. The goal is that we want licentious people to take God seriously and obey his commands. But the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God's radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners.

The irony of gospel growth is that those who end up obeying more are those who increasingly realize that their standing with God is not based on their obedience but on Christ's. Those who end up performing better are those who understand that their standing isn't based on their performance but on Christ's.

We see people acting up, and our instinctive action is to drop the hammer. But we make a huge mistake when we believe that the thing that is going to transform the human heart is more rules and standards. The only way the change happens is when the sinner gets a taste deep down in their heart of the radical grace of God through Jesus.

This means people need to hear less about what we need to do for God and hear more about what he has done for us.

Imperatives minus indicatives = impossibility. When we give commands without saying what God has done for us, we create impossibly scenarios for people to live a long obedience in the same direction. And if you are powered by any engine smaller than the gospel, you're train is eventually going to conk out.

Long term, sustained, gospel-motivated obedience can only come from faith in what Christ has already done, not fear in what we must do. Any other kind is unsustainable.

The Bible is clear that God is not concerned with any kind of obedience. He wants a certain kind. Just consider Cain and Abel. Both offered sacrifices, but God only received one. Work done by any obedience other than the gospel is not acceptable to God. It does not honor, glorify or show his worth. God doesn't want that kind of obedience. God wants obedience that is motivated by love for what he has done for us.

That's the way it is in parenting. I can get my kids to obey me for fear of what the consequences are, but that won't last in the long run. In order to win true obedience, I have to go deeper than fear or guilt.

2) Identity

The world spends a lot of money trying to tempt us to locate our identity in someone or something smaller than Jesus. We are strongly tempted to tie it to human approval, or personal accomplishments. But the gospel liberates us by showing us that our identity is not located in someone we must become or something we must do. It locates it in Christ.

We don't need to spend our lives trying the earn the approval and acceptance and affection of other people. Most of us are enslaved to that pursuit. We need to get those things from Christ through the gospel. That is what we are looking for in a thousand things apart from Jesus.

Rediscovering the gospel enabled me to see that, because Jesus was strong for me, I was free to be weak. Because Jesus won for me, I was free to lose. And it is only when you are free to lose that you are free to live with unbounded courage and risk and sacrifice.

Life cannot beat a man who doesn't care if he loses. When you are afraid to lose, circumstances will kill your joy and make you slave. But if you are in Christ, your identity is secure and you are free to give everything you have. You have nothing to prove or protect.

3) Idolatry

The greatest threats to gospel advancement are not the idols outside the church but those inside the church. We spend so much time trying to identify idols in the culture, but the most dangerous ones are those in the church.

Joylessness in suffering happens not because of bad circumstances but because of idolatry. Idolatry is very subtle. It infects even our spiritual issues.

The idolatry issue and the identity issue are interconnected, because the idolatry issue involves us looking to other things—idols—to give us what we want. It's "Jesus and . . ." It's not just a non-Christian problem. It's a serious Christian problem too, and the gospel is the answer to it.

What is the one thing or the main thing that, if you lost it or had to part with it, would devastate you? What is your non-negotiable? Who or what are you depending on most to make you feel that life is worth living? If it's anything other than Jesus, it's your idol. Doesn't mean it's a bad thing. It could be your children or your wife. But it's a good thing that goes wrong because we make it an ultimate thing.

The pain you may be experiencing is God trying to open your grasp on the good things you have fallen more in love with than him.

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