The following in a lightly edited transcript.
What I would like to happen by God’s grace through his Spirit and his word is for you to see perhaps more clearly than you have before and feel with greater intensity than you may have before the truth that the gospel is the apex or the supreme expression of the grace of God. By gospel, I mean the events of the death and the resurrection of Jesus for sinners. That is the supreme expression of the grace of God and the grace of God is the supreme expression of the glory of God, and the display and communication of the glory of God in the world is the supreme purpose of God in all of history and all that he does for the everlasting enjoyment of his people. That’s the sequence I want you to grasp. Gospel, grace, glory, joy.
The Gospel: Jesus Crucified and Risen
At the center of the gospel is Christ crucified for sinners. One of the ways that the gospel assumes its centrality in our own ministry and life is for it to assume a centrality in history for us so that our efforts to, in our little tinny individual life or family life or work life or city life, would try to make and see Christ as central and that we would open our eyes and see from eternity to eternity that he is central. In the middle of everything from the Middle East to Ebola, to family crises to political collapse — everything — Christ is absolutely supreme and central. We need to find ourselves caught up out of ourselves into something majestic, something way, way bigger than me or this church or this city or this state or this nation or this little world — so much bigger.
I want to talk about the centrality of Christ and the gospel in history for the sake of its centrality in my ministry and your ministry. By ministry, think parenting, job, coaching a Little League team. This is what I do. My life is a service, my life is laid down for his glory, all of life is ministry, so don’t limit that word when you hear me talk about gospel-centered or Christ-centered ministry.
Let me create a picture for you by distinguishing what I mean by “center.” If I say center, a lot of you probably would think circle with a center. That’s not in my mind. I have preached a sermon that life is like the solar system, the gospel is like the sun, its massive brightness makes everything beautiful and its gravity holds everything in place in life. I love that sermon. That’s not this sermon. I’m thinking about a line, not a circle. And the line stretches to eternity past and the line stretches to eternity future. It’s the line of reality. It’s the line of history, and it goes back forever and forward forever. And I’m saying that at the center or middle of this line of history is Christ crucified and risen.
Now I want to just put Bible on that for you so you feel the force of what I mean. This is no small thing. We Christians are not into a tribal religion. We have our little view of things and the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the seculars, the New Agers, and everybody else has their little view of things. We enjoy ours. They enjoy theirs. This is not the way Christians think. This is a line of reality that everybody is on. All reality is on this line and Jesus is at center of it, exalted at the center and the gospel is at the center of it because the greatest expression of the grace of God, of the glory of God for the enjoyment of all his people of all time is the cross of Christ in the gospel: Jesus crucified and risen.
Everything on this line passed before the gospel. Before Christ came, everything was designed to lead toward and prepare for the gospel, including everything that was going on in God’s mind in eternity. Everything after the cross and the resurrection — this gospel event is at the center — is made possible by the cross. This is the way it is if you view it as something happening for the sake of the glory of God in the people of God for their everlasting joy, which is why it exists. Everything happening in the world today, according to God’s design and purposes, can only happen because Jesus died and rose again.
So, we have two exegetical tasks: (1) Where do you see in the Bible that everything before Christ is going there? (2) Where do you see in the Bible that everything coming after Christ was made possible by that? If you could feel that with me, then Christ would become bigger for you. He would be more majestic, more glorious, more central, and greater in every way for your little life, and your little life just might be caught up into something very significant.
Everything Before the Cross
Let’s start with the first task: “before the cross.” Ephesians 1:4–6:
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love, he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.
The beginning of verse 6 says that election, predestination, adoption is to something. It’s going somewhere. There’s a reason. There’s a purpose. Why did God elect? Why did God predestine? Why does God adopt? Answer: to the praise of the glory of his grace — grace. I know your version may have “to the praise of his glorious grace” and makes an adjective out of glory, that’s ok, but literally, it’s to the praise of the glory of his grace.
Grace is what’s being praised and what’s amazing about Grace is that it’s the most glorious aspect of God’s spillover to grace is the apex, the supreme expression of glory, and we’re praising it so it is for our joy, because you don’t praise which you don’t enjoy. If you try to praise which you don’t enjoy, there’s a name for that, hypocrisy. Praise is the overflow of joy in the greatness of God’s grace. To the praise of the glory of his grace is why all that was happening, why there was election, why there was predestination, why is adopted sinners into his divine family, so that his glorious grace would be enjoyed forever and the joy would spillover in praise. That’s pretty clear, I think, from verse 4 through 6, and the question is this. What does that have to do with the gospel? What does that have to do with Jesus because in the last minute I didn’t mention him.
“At the center of history is Christ crucified and risen.”
Grace, glory, praise, joy, purpose of election, purpose of predestination, purpose of adoption, Jesus, gospel. Let’s see the answer with three specific phrases in verses 4–6. Verse 4: “Even as God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” Election is before the foundation of the world, the choosing of a people for himself is in relation to Jesus. God elects sinners before the foundation of the world, which is why they must be elect in Jesus because they’re going to praise the glory of grace and grace means they’re getting lots of good things, and they don’t deserve any of them. That’s what grace means.
God is electing sinners for everlasting joy. You can’t do that. A holy God cannot do that. That’s evil unless there’s gospel, unless there’s Christ, unless there’s the death, unless there’s the substitute, unless there is the propitiation, unless there’s the redemption, and all that’s in him. There’s my first clue. This is all related to the gospel, this is all related to Christ crucified. “Even as God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.”
Verse 5: “In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ.” Predestination of the chosen unto grace and glory is through Jesus Christ. It had to be through Jesus Christ. Predestination of sinners unto glory would be wicked if there were no Christ through whom they could be justified. They are chosen, now they’re predestined through Jesus Christ.
Look at the end of verse 6: “To the praise of the glory of his grace with which he blessed us in the beloved.” We’re getting grace to the praise of the glory of his grace with which he blessed us. Grace upon grace is coming to us. How so? With which he blessed us in the beloved. We’ve seen it three times now. We’ve seen in the beloved in verse 6, we’ve seen in him in verse 4, and we’ve seen through Jesus Christ in verse 5.
My summary conclusion from those verses is that God’s eternal purpose — I say eternal because it says he chose this before the foundation of the world, there’s no universe yet, just God and God’s thinking of you and your sin, your fallenness and he chooses you through Jesus Christ in him in the beloved — God’s eternal purpose for creation and for history is that it flow to the gospel. It’s all planned. We’ve already been chosen for grace as sinners in Christ. Christ must come and everything must prepare for that because that’s the way the whole thing has been designed. That’s my first text that shows things are leading up to it from eternity are pointing there, preparing for that at the center.
Grace Before the Ages Began
Now, let’s go to two other passages to confirm what we’ve seen. The first one I’ll look at with you in 2 Timothy 1:9: “God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”
We are saved. How so? By works, by things we do to show ourselves worthy. No, but because of his purpose and grace. It’s not by works. It’s grace. If it were not by grace, it’d be by works. If it’s by works, it’s not by grace (Romans 11:5). But here, it’s God’s own purpose and grace, and then he says this off-the-charts thing that hardly anybody ever says: this grace that comes to us in our need for justification, our need for righteousness, our need for forgiveness was given to us in Christ before the universe existed.
It makes something significant out of you. He gave you grace before there were years, and he did it specifically in relation to Jesus Christ. Confirmation that at the center of created reality here flowing on this line of history is Jesus Christ planned from eternity to die and rise again to display grace to people who’ve been chosen who are sinners and need grace. It’s all the plan. That’s the plan. It’s the reason for it all.
Isis is not the reason. Ebola is not the reason. Politics is not the reason. That’s not the point of the story. You’re the point of the story — Christ exalted in his people who are praising the glory of grace is the point of a story.
The Book of the Life of the Lamb
In the book of Revelation 13:8, we get this strange verse. The beast is on the horizon, the antichrist. Revelation 13:8: “And all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” Everyone? No, not everyone, he gives an exception who won’t be worshiping the beast. “Everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.”
This is just off-the-charts better than any movie thriller. You just have to believe it, you just have to see it — not play with it or skim over it off to breakfast. The beast is coming. The antichrist is coming, and everybody’s going to bow down except one group of people. People whose names are in a book written before the universe existed. Why won’t they be bowing down? Because that’s what it means to be in the book. To be in the book is to be protected from the beast. You don’t get your name in the book by not worshiping the beast. You don’t worship the beast because your name is in the book. You don’t put your name in the book.
This is scary stuff. You either discover it’s there by loving God and believing in Jesus, or you discover it’s not there by being a worldly person and rejecting Jesus. My point here is this: The book has a name. It’s called the Book of the Life of the Lamb who was slain. That’s the name of the book before the universe existed, which means there’s going to be a slain lamb, which means there’s going to be sin, a fall, a plan of redemption centering on the lamb. Jesus is awesome.
When I talk about gospel-centered history or Christ-centered history, gospel-centered life, I mean at the center of history is Christ incarnate, God-man, sinless — he didn’t die for his own sins, he died for the sins of others — and he finished the great work that was planned from eternity, purchased infinite grace for God’s people, rose triumphant over sin and hell and death and Satan, ascended, and reigns today. At that point, everything beforehand came to its consummation.
Everything Now Made Possible by Christ
I said that not only was everything before Christ prepared for and lead to him, planning for him, and him specifically dying and him rising so that grace could pour to sinners who were chosen in him before the foundation of the world. I also said that everything flowing in history after Christ is made possible because of that. Then I qualified it by saying everything understood as purposed or designed to bless God’s people.
I’m thinking of beheadings by Isis in Syria or Iraq are on the line —they’re part of the divine design. Ebola is on the line, moral collapse of American culture is on the line, everything is on the line. I’m saying all of that is possible in its divine design to bless God’s people only because of Christ. That’s what I’m saying, that’s where we’re going.
Pleasing in His Sight
Now let’s see if it’s in the Bible. I’m going to start with Hebrews 13:20–21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Everything you do in life that has any spiritual value at all that pleases God. Everything you do that pleases God is only possible because God is at work in you. He may equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight. That’s how you are able to do things that please God. God is working in you that which is pleasing in his sight. Everything we do in ministry, everything we do in life, everything anybody does in life that spiritually pleases God is possible because God almighty and infinitely holy is at work in us to bring those God-pleasing things about.
Here’s the catch. I’m a sinner and even though I am born of God and the Holy Spirit inhabits my life, there is remaining corruption in me and I do things every day in attitude especially and sometimes in word and in deed that are displeasing to the Lord and off-putting to a holy God. So can he show up and do anything that would make anything pleasing to him? Of course, the answer is grace. He treats me better than I deserve. He comes to me with grace “through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:21). He will equip you with everything good that you may do his will working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. How does he do that for sinners? Answer: through Jesus Christ.
“The entire life of faith is secured by Christ when he purchased it by the blood of the eternal covenant.”
He couldn’t do that for me apart from Jesus Christ. He couldn’t do that with me apart from the gospel. How do I know that when he says “through Jesus Christ” he has in mind the atoning work of Jesus Christ? My answer to that is the connection between verses 20 and 21. In verse 20, it says that Jesus shed the blood of the eternal covenant and thus equips us with everything good to do his will working in us that which is pleasing in his sight through Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ at least includes the work of Christ to shed the blood of the eternal covenant. What’s the blood of the eternal covenant? That would be the new covenant. Jesus lifted up the cup at the Last Supper and he said this cup is the new covenant in my blood (Luke 22:20).
This is what Hebrews is talking about. Jesus secures an eternal covenant for my people, and he does it by shedding his own blood. What is the new covenant? “I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes” (Ezekiel 36:26–27). That is, “I will work in you what is pleasing in my sight.” This means every single thing that you do and that everyone does that is pleasing to God is only possible because of the center of history. Jesus died shed the blood of the eternal covenant through which God the Holy One can move into sinners’ lives and make them do good things pleasing to him. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 1:6). Therefore, he moves them to believe. Everything we do that’s pleasing to God is owing to the gospel — owing to the death of Jesus.
All God’s Promises — “Yes” in Christ
Second Corinthians 1:20 is one of the most precious assurances concerning the promises of God in all the Bible. It says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.” “All the promises of God find their Yes in him,” which means the entire life of faith is secured by Christ when he purchased it by the blood of the eternal covenant, the new covenant, in which all the promises flow to all those who are in him.
The way I live the Christian life is by moving from one moment to the next. Sitting there, I know I’m going to preach in a few minutes. Before that, I’m going to sing. How will I sing? How will I sing so that’s pleasing to God? How will I preach so it is pleasing to God? Then we’ll go to lunch, and then I’ll go to the airport and get on a plane. I’m going to sit beside somebody, and then I’ll meet my wife at home, and then I just walk from thing to thing in my life and at every moment the question that’s being posed to me is: What promise are you trusting God to fulfill now?
If you live like that, I think that’s what living by faith means. I trust promises that between now and the end of this sermon, grace will show up in fulfillment of a promise to sustain me so that I don’t say anything stupid or wrong, or maybe both, or drop dead or blaspheme God. How do I know that won’t happen? I’m trusting God for a promise. The way we tried to raise our kids was that we had a main verse that we sent them off with wherever they went. If they went to camp in the summer, if they went on a mission trip, if they went off to college, if it was the first day of school in the 6th grade and they’re getting on the bus and they’re nervous, if they’re graduating and going into 9th grade from 8th grade, we had verses, we had a verse in particular.
Our family verse, if you ask any of my children what was the dominant send away verse it would be Isaiah 41:10: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Believe that Carston, believe that Benjamin, believe that Abraham, believe that Talitha, believe that Barnabas as you go to first grade. He will help you, he will be with you. I tried to teach my kids that every step of their life was the trusting of God to do something good for them. It’s going to show up. He’s going to give sustaining grace. He made promises to that effect, and so you hold onto a promise at every moment.
Now I’m saying on the basis of 2nd Corinthians 1:20. Every one of those promises was bought by the blood of Jesus, which means of course that when you’re trusting a promise, you’re trusting Jesus. When you’re trusting Jesus, you’re trusting the crucified Jesus who loved you and gave himself for you and rose triumphant over anything that could cause that promise not to come true. This is really big that Christ crucified and pouring out the blood of the covenant to secure the promises of God for us becomes then the center of our life. To be gospel-centered, cross-centered, Christ-centered means at every moment I am trusting a promise that he bought 2,000 years ago.
God Did Not Spare His Own Son
Romans 8:32 may be my favorite verse in the Bible: “He who did not spare his own Son. . . .” let’s pause there and let these words have their proper effect — “not spare.” When you say he didn’t spare, what does that imply? It implies this was hard for God, this was a cost for God. He didn’t spare. When you hear the words, “his own Son,” it’s not just Son, but his own Son.
“He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up. . . .” What does that mean? To the cross — that means torture. That means to watch your son be lacerated, driven through with nails and spikes, thrust through with a sword, beard plucked out, spit on his face — God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.
If he did that, as the text says, “how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” You hear a little logic there? That’s called a fortiori reasoning — from the greater to the lesser. The greater is: Will God put forward his Son to be treated like that and die? If the answer is yes, then the question, “Will he give us all things?” is a piece of cake. That’s the nature of the argument. If he didn’t spare his own Son, how much more, how easy it will be for the omnipotent God to give us everything? That’s where I get the idea that everything from the cross on everything flows from the cross. Ebola, Isis, moral collapse, because it says all things, or which in another verse that says the same thing. Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
How can that be? These are sinners, they don’t deserve that. How can that be? Answer: the gospel. Christ died to do that kind of sovereign manipulation of the universe for the good of his people. This is heavy. You’re saying the “all things” there really includes evils and death and disease and cultural collapse? That doesn’t look like what it means? That’s not good news. I don’t want that, thank you very much. Why would you even go there? Why wouldn’t you think it means something else?
I’m stuck with the word “all,” but I understand that things have their limits. It’s similar to, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). In the context that’s what you eat and what you drink and what you wear. Of course, it raises the question: Do Christians always get what they need to eat? Do Christians always get what they need to wear? In what sense does God commit himself in the death of Christ to giving you all things?
If I were a prosperity preacher, I probably would make much of that in a worldly way. Get the cars you want, the clothes you want, the health you want, and the job you want. Is that what it means? I think since both the verses that are making the difference for me, Romans 8:28; 8:32, it’d be good to get our answer from chapter 8. So, Romans 8:35:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril.
Famine means not enough food. Nakedness means not enough clothes. Sword means they cut your head off dead. Paul’s head came off. So, what shall separate us from the love of Christ? Any of those? You might stop at verse 35 and say, of course, those things will separate us from the love of God because God didn’t allow that to happen to us. God doesn’t let us have tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, and sword. That’s why they don’t separate us from the love of God because he’s sovereign and he bought good things for us and therefore they will happen to Christians.
Then verse 36 says, “we are being killed all day long.” This is not potential, this is happening and my guess is that verse has been true for every day of history for 2,000 years. Somewhere some Christian is dying for the faith. We’re being killed all day long and then he answers. “No, in [not around, not instead of] all these things we are more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). That’s what I think he means back in Romans 8:32 when he says, “He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Will he not with him give us all things?” Meaning: he turns all things into a super triumph for you.
First Corinthians 3:21–23 says, “Let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Now we got enough verses to really make the problem big. Of course, we could draw in lots of others like we’re heirs with Christ of the world (Romans 8:17). The world includes death and Isis and Ebola and moral collapse. Has God blown it? “No. In all these things we are more than conquerors.” What does that mean? In death, you’re more than a conqueror. In beheading, you’re more than a conqueror. In disease, in your wife’s disease, you’re more than a conqueror. What does that mean?
This is a picture that helps us understand the meaning. I don’t know if this picture was in Paul’s mind, but I think the truth of the picture was in his mind. If you defeat these enemies, you defeat them, and they lie dead at your feet — you’re a conqueror. What would it be to be more than a conqueror at that moment? The sword is lying there, famine is lying there, nakedness is lying there, and peril and danger and tribulation, they’re all dead at your feet, and you’re the conqueror. What would more than a conqueror mean?
“Christ died so that you, a sinner, would get better than you deserve.”
More than a conqueror would mean they get up and serve you. You don’t just leave them dead on the battlefield, but you say, “You follow me and you’re serving me the rest of my life.” They do. That’s the point of all things. That’s what he died for. That’s why I say everything that flows from the cross includes everything, and everything is made the servant of God’s people. We will cease someday when history is written and the whole canvass is put before us. From eternity to eternity, with all the colors and all the billions and billions and billions of details of lives and movements in history, all on the canvass that God is painting, and this line of God’s people, God’s election, and God’s predestination, for the joy of the glory of God’s grace — all that’s flowing there. We will see how all the pieces serve that line and serve to make our eternity supremely happy.
Rely on His All-Satisfying Grace
Let me draw things to a close by giving just a few very practical ways I live this out that I can commend to you. What does it mean then to be Christ-centered or gospel-centered or cross-centered? There are people who could hear this sermon and be fascinated by its structure, write down, and not believe — not be changed by any of it. It’s theoretically interesting. I hope that doesn’t happen.
First, to be gospel-centered is to do everything you do in reliance upon blood-bought grace and blood-bought promises. You go out of here, you get to face issues and everyday life matters and you should be thinking, “How may I do this in reliance? I want to walk by faith.”
The Bible says, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). How do I live by faith in the next few hours? The answer is that you need to think: “He died and secured for me the absolute certainty of the fulfillment of a promise. I will hold to a promise and I will move into the day believing that promise is going to come true for me.” There are hundreds of promises in the Bible that you could hold on to.
Second, you do everything you do with a view to displaying the all-satisfying grace of God that he purchased for you. He died so that you, a sinner, would get better than you deserve. You shouldn’t think, “I’m just not deserving any of this.” Of course you’re not. That’s the whole point of grace, and so you want to display in your reliance and your obedience out of that reliance that you love grace. Grace is precious to me. I want grace to look great in my life. I want people to see and taste grace in my life. So when I meet my wife, one of my prayers and thoughts will be that I’m full of grace toward her.
I won’t have an attitude that says, “Poor me. I was so sick on this trip, and I kept blowing my nose, it was so embarrassing and I was coughing in the first hour.” Me, me, me, pity, pity, pity. I hope I don’t go there. I hope I say, “I was at church this morning and got a good rest last night. I want to know you. I want to bless you. Show me you. I want to be here for you.” That would be a sweet fulfillment of a promise of grace to radiate grace.
Finally, you should want to exist and now so that you show and draw attention to the glory of God the glory and value of Christ. I went from reliance upon promises and grace to display the beauty of grace to a treasuring of the one who purchased all the grace — Jesus Christ. He’s the center of history and when we grasp that in the biblical proportions, we will be enabled in fresh ways to live very practically in our little lives so that he is relied upon and his grace is shown to be great and he’s treasured above all things.