Religion to Relationship

It is a common phrase among evangelicals to say that “Christianity is not about religion, but relationship”. I have probably said this a lot! It is said often to those outside of the church. I sympathize with the heart behind the statement. The intention behind the phrase is to communicate that Christianity is not about coldly following a bunch of rules (what we call “religion”); it is about you walking closely with God (“relationship”).

The phrase rightly communicates that Christianity is not a deistic religion, meaning, a religion that says God has long since peaced-out, leaving us and our world to run like clockwork as we obey the rules He left us. The phrase helps communicate that God is a personal God, involved in His creation, desirous to be in real, close, intimate relationship with us.

With that being said, I do not think this phrase rightly gets at how good the good news of Jesus really is. I think it can be helpful given a lot of explanation. For instance, “religion” is not necessarily a bad word. Also, “relationship” can simply equal obedience to God’s Law, which is not the gospel.

The good news of the Bible is not that God has thrown out His demands (“cold rules to follow”; what we call “religion”) and replaced them with a warmer, lighter expectation to just simply walk with Him in a personal relationship. Before you cry heresy, hear me out, I’m trying to give you really, really good news, from the Bible.

Let me cut to the heart of the matter by asking you a question. If Christianity is all about you walking in close relationship to God, how are you doing at that? Are you in prayerful connection with God “without ceasing” (see 1 Thess. 5:17)? Are you walking “humbly with your God” (see Micah 6:8)? Do you love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength (see Mark 12:30)?

Now, you may say “yes” to some of that and “no” to some of that. But, you may add, that God does not expect perfection from you. That’s religion! He just expects a relationship.

While that sounds better, it really isn’t at all. In this whole expectation of relationship God still demands perfection. Jesus never said, “Love God partially and imperfectly.” Jesus never said, “Be better.” Jesus said things like, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:30). Jesus said things like, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The question is, how are you doing with that?

To say that God has thrown away His old rules with the simple expectation that you would “just walk with Him” is not good news for me. I know just how far short I fall of the standard of “walk in close relationship with God”. I do not pray without ceasing, I do not love God with everything in me, and I do not walk humbly with God. In short, I am a sinner.

To tell a sinner, like me, or like you, that the good news is that you should just walk with God is simply saying the good news is that you would stop being a sinner. Righteous people walk with God in perfect love and trust; sinners, like you and me, don’t. So the answer is not, “walk with God”. That is my very problem! I fail at that every day! The shift from religion to relationship isn’t helping!

Well, the good news of the Bible is better than that. The good news is that Jesus, in your place, walked with God perfectly. He loved God with everything in Him, He prayed without ceasing, He walked humbly with His Father. In short, He was perfect. And He was perfect, as a man, to give you and me His record of righteousness.

God has not thrown away or lightened His demands. He has simply fulfilled them for you in Jesus Christ, who died for you and me, and who rose from the dead to be our very life.

Rest easy in God’s grace. Enjoy the peace God has made with you in Jesus. By faith, you are now friends; He calls you family.

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Answering Radical-less Christianity

I graduated from a private Christian high school where 99% of the students were professing Christians. Somewhere along the way I concluded that many of them were not living their Christianity as they ought to be. They were calling themselves Christians but so much fruit was lacking in their lives. I had the answer for that kind of “Christian”.

I knew the answer was getting closer to Jesus, getting more serious about the faith, and getting more serious about doing good works. I had the chance to speak briefly at chapel one day and this was my message. I subtly, or abruptly, accused many of taking advantage of grace, making it cheap, because it was not costing them anything. By the way, I was doing just fine, thank you very much.

I had no conscious intention to communicate that forgiveness was earned, merited, or purchased. But in my attempt to motivate people to do what Christians are supposed to do I think I completely butchered the Christian message. In my attempt to show them what “real” Christianity was I may have butchered what Christianity is.

At the time, I probably would have summed up what I thought Christians should be doing as (1) being obedient in important areas, (2) having daily quiet times, (3) praying more, and (4) sharing the gospel more (according to God’s Law we should be perfect; I was dumbing it down, ironically). All in all, we should be more serious about Christianity. And I thought the way to get people more serious was to tell them to get more serious…or else. I was really strategic, apparently.

However, it was not just a message to get more serious. It was a message that if you were not more serious, or not evidently getting more serious (again, whatever that meant in my head), then you were taking advantage of grace; you were living in “cheap grace”. The idea was that if your response to grace was poor, inadequate, or not what it could be, then you were taking advantage of grace and maybe, quite possibly, sort of, did not really have grace, or something; not the real grace of God anyways. You had “cheap grace” because it didn’t cost you anything.

I was not saying you should earn grace, but that maybe you should, um, get the real stuff (I guess?). And to do that you had to get more serious about grace.

Ok, that may be confusing; I’m confused too. It is confusing because it is not just that I preached more of God’s Law at the time (summed up biblically as love God and neighbor perfectly; a beautiful law, I must say). It was that I began to mix and mingle God’s commandments with His free gift of grace.

The reality I seemed to be buying into was that if you did not respond radically to God’s grace, you were taking advantage of it, and thus not really receiving it, or maybe forfeiting it. What I was tragically missing, at least on a practical level, was that whether you are a “radical” Christian or a bum of a Christian, grace is free for you. Your radical-for-Jesus life doesn’t earn grace (and by the way, compare yourself to “be perfect” and you will find that you are not radical) and your radical-less life does not lose grace. Grace has nothing to do with you, except that it is given to you for free.

God’s grace does not cost you a dime; it is not cheap, it is absolutely free. That is why Jesus came, to pay the infinite price on the cross you could never pay. God puts no qualifiers on who gets grace; those who find they are unqualified are qualified. It is free for all who believe in Jesus.

The idea that some are “taking advantage of grace” is silly. I take advantage of grace every day! I have to! God gives me grace for my advantage, so that I do not pay the price for my sins. I will get away with all of my sin, because Jesus paid the price for it. No, this does not make me want to sin more. And yes, I do respond poorly to grace. I still sin! So do you. But there is plenty of grace in Jesus for that.

The minute we begin qualifying God’s free gift of grace in Jesus with how well we respond to it with our obedience, radical living, sanctification, and love for God and neighbor we have lost sight of God’s grace entirely. We have made it available for purchase. We have thought up some new, false, empty grace that is received by works, not faith; based on us, not Jesus.

Maybe what all of us bum Christians need is not more, “Try harder or else…” but “You have failed and Jesus did it all perfectly for you. It’s been taken care of.” Our faith can be so weak as we miserably fail to believe this good news perfectly, so we need to hear it incessantly. We are way worse than we think but Jesus is way more gracious than we could ever fathom in our wildest dreams.

“Holy Ghost” Review

*As a preface to this review, I was not able to finish “Holy Ghost” during its free premiere because I paused it and when I returned, the free showing was over. I saw around 60+ minutes of the film. While that means I missed some of the film, I do not believe anything could have happened to change what the first hour or so communicated. If it did, let me know.

In case you have not seen the documentary “Holy Ghost”, it is a documentary about the Holy Spirit. It follows a number of men as they travel around the world, meet random people, pray and talk with them. There are also clips of interviews with different people scattered throughout the film. While it is about the Holy Spirit, the film is almost equally about evangelism. The vast majority of the film is about the Spirit encountering (i.e. touching, blessing, meeting, healing, etc.) unbelievers, usually on the streets at random times. Therefore, I will comment on the documentary as one about the present work of the Spirit and evangelism.

As a film concerning evangelism, I would expect to hear a lot about the person and work of Jesus. Evangelism is about communicating the good news that Jesus, God in the flesh, died and rose for sinners. In fact, as a film about the Holy Spirit, who serves to make much of Jesus (John 16:14), again I would expect to hear a lot about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Spirit testifies to the gospel.

However, in “Holy Ghost” you do not hear much about Jesus. Jesus’ name is mentioned a lot, but beyond mentioning His name, not much is said about Him or His work, namely His cross. The good news that Jesus came, died for our sins, and rose from the dead was communicated only 2 times that I marked in the 60+ minutes of the film I watched.

Now, you may quickly wonder, “Is this blogger dude just arguing about semantics? Did they preach the gospel, just not in the way he would like it to be preached?” The clearest I can be about what I am saying is that in almost every interaction I saw, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was not mentioned at all; the gospel simply was not communicated or announced, period. Most of the interactions were not distinctly Christian whatsoever. The name of Jesus may or may not have been used, but I learned next to nothing about who Jesus is, what He did, and whether or not I need to believe in him.

This alone shows this film to be in serious error. However, there is another question to ask: if these “evangelists” were not sharing the gospel the vast majority of the time, what message were they sharing? I do not want to misrepresent what I believe the filmmakers were going for, so I will do my best to sum up what I believe to be the message of the film (one that they would agree with).

I think the message of “Holy Ghost” is that God is a personal God, who wants a relationship with people, and meets people by His Spirit. The Spirit usually and consistently encounters people in physical and/or emotional ways, and these physical and/or emotional encounters are signs of His love.

(Let’s be clear, I believe God is personal, wants right relationship with people, and meets us by His Spirit. However, people of many different religions can also believe that. That is not distinctly Christian. It is not enough to classify as the gospel. It is too vague).

Let me compare the message of the film with the Bible. The problem the Bible says we have is sin and guilt; the message of the film is that our problem is that we have not encountered the Spirit in a supernatural way, so as to know God loves us and wants a daily, personal relationship with us. Sin and guilt are rarely mentioned in “Holy Ghost”; even when it is mentioned, which is maybe 2-3 times, it is hardly, or not at all, explained. Compare that to sermons in Acts, or the fact that Paul spends the first 2 or so chapters in Romans unpacking sin and guilt, bringing it up again and again throughout Romans.

Now, the reason to communicate about sin and guilt is to communicate the good news of the Bible! The good news is the Bible announces a solution for our sin and guilt: the righteous life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ; not our obedience, Spirit-filled walk with God, or anything in us. Compare that to the film.

The solution the film offers to the problem they communicate is a supernatural encounter with the Spirit, accompanied by a vague message about being loved by God, or Jesus. The “gospel” given in the film is to begin walking or living in the Spirit (again, there were about 2 times I heard the gospel preached. Although, even then I think I could argue that both times it was slightly to heavily overshadowed by the message of “be touched by the Spirit”; that will be hard to explain on a blog though).

Wait, am I saying we should not walk by the Spirit, as Paul says in the New Testament? Of course not! What I am saying is that your hope, as a guilty sinner, is not that you would start living in right relationship with God. That is your very problem! You and I have refused to do that and could never do it perfectly. You and I have rebelled against God, rather than trusting, loving, and obeying Him. We need a Savior to do that for us; Jesus. Yet, the overwhelming message of the film is that what you need now is the Spirit’s power to begin walking with God and obeying Him (Todd White, somewhat randomly, emphasized that very point in his intro at the premiere of the film).

How is this good news? Living in the Spirit won’t wash away your sin and guilt; a random encounter with the Spirit, or a miracle, will not put you at peace with God. Only the bloody death of the Son of God can do that; and it is received not through a healing-miracle, or a special “word from God,” or a tingling in your hands; it is received through faith when someone hears the word of the gospel. Yet this message is almost entirely absent from the film (at least in the 60+ minutes I watched).

Rather than emphatically pointing people to the cross of Jesus, the sure sign of God’s love for the world (John 3:16; Rom. 5:6-8), people were pointed to sensations they felt while being prayed for; and rather than using those supposed miracles to affirm the gospel, they simply told people God loves them, but nothing about how God has loved them in Jesus, at the cross; or why Jesus came to die.

This is my greatest problem with the documentary. Most of it is not distinctly Christian or biblical. But I have yet to mention the film’s dealings with the Holy Spirit, what they believe about the Spirit, or the supposed miracles performed, which is actually why the documentary was made; to teach us about the Holy Spirit.

The big idea in the film is that the Holy Spirit is incredibly active and is very eager to be evidently active in our lives. The activity of the Spirit in the movie is by and large the giving of prophetic words from God and miracles. The miracles performed dealt a lot with physical sensations, maybe tingling in hands and arms; and random other healings of physical problems.

Let me affirm that the Trinity is not, “Father, Son, and Holy Bible”. I have never met anyone who thinks that. Without the Spirit’s powerful work in the world, we are toast. The Spirit gives us new life (John 3:1-15), faith (Eph. 2:1-9), and repentance (Acts 5:31), not to mention the transformation he brings in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23) and all the amazing things He can do.

With that, here are my concerns about the film’s message about the Holy Spirit:

When performing the supposed miracles, you will find that it is as if the Spirit is at the mercy of the one praying. Even though the film communicates the great eagerness of the Spirit to speak and perform miracles, He seems rather hesitant in the film. I find in more charismatic circles that while the activity of the Spirit is emphasized, people are told they have the ability, explicitly or implicitly, to block His work; they can “miss” Him easily.

For instance, many “words” received are vague or not as detailed as they could easily be. I always wonder why God doesn’t just straight up tell these people, “This dude has a metal plate in his wrist from breaking it skateboarding.” Rather, the “word” is often vague, like, “metal,” in which the person is asked if they have metal in their bodies.

Also, rather than performing miracles immediately, like Jesus and the apostles did in the Bible (ex. Acts 3:1-9 and/or John 9:1-7), the miracles sometimes took a while. The one praying had to repeat over and over again for God to “double it” or do it (whatever “it” was) “more”. “Double it, double it, double it. “More God, more, more, more.” This kind of praying is not in the Bible. One man even told God that he gave him “permission” to work in another person’s life. Is the Spirit so eager to work that He is waiting on my permission to do stuff? That sounds insane.

This idea that the Spirit has put the ball in our courts to unleash, release, or unlock His power is just self-dependent, subtle, and surprising legalism. The Holy Spirit works not because I earn Him or unlock Him, but simply because He wants to. No permission needed.

Lastly, as a documentary, it simply was not honest in many of its assessments. Often, the “miracles” performed were nothing more than people feeling a tingling sensation in their hands and/or body. But is that a miracle? (Right now, hold out your hands, focus on them, think about how they feel. Feel that?). At one point some of the evangelists ran in to an owner of a bar at her bar. They chalked this up to the Spirit’s guidance. But how many times have you run in to the owner or manager of a bar? Is that the Spirit leading you? Are you willing to put that on camera and promote it to the world as a miracle? Apparently they were and that makes me distrust them.

I’m not claiming anyone in this film is intentionally lying; however, I think they themselves are fooled by the “miracles” they are performing. If you want to learn more about false miracles, go here.

If you made it to the end of this, you need to know I believe there is far more grace in Christ than sin, wonkiness, weirdness, or unbiblical(ness) in this movie, and the lives of those endorsing it and involved in it. I just wish they proclaimed it. All the errors I mentioned are no match for God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

I hope the film makers and those promoting this film repent and rest in Jesus’ grace, found in the word of the gospel. I want them to repent of ignoring and, intentionally or unintentionally, twisting God’s Word. I want them to proclaim the gospel of the Bible, and not a “gospel” of Spirit-encounters or Spirit-filled living. There is no snark in this: I’m thankful God will not wait for their permission or mine. He is better than that.

Give Me (Light) Law or I Die!

If you asked me, “Hey, Collin, what would you preach, if it was up to you, to offend the fewest people?” Left to my own thinking, I would answer you by saying that I would just give people really good news, all of the time. Who does not want good news? When you tell someone you have good news and bad news, asking which they want first, the idea is that they only want good news, but must deal with the bad at some point.

I would think that preaching that offers the best news imaginable could not possibly offend people; it could not possibly stir up controversy. In fact, answering the opposite question, if I wanted to offend the most people, I would spend all my time telling people what to do (we don’t naturally like authority), and then, on top of that (which is already offensive), I would tell them they are failures.

This just makes sense to me. Good news = easy ministry. Commands and judgment = offense and controversy.

Yet, in some significant sense, I find the opposite to be true in ministry. The very thing I thought people would just love to hear, often times, rubs them the wrong way. It rubs me the wrong way! The very thing I thought we would not want to hear, well, is not always all that bad to us, or offensive. This is what I mean: as a Bible preacher, part of my job is telling people, including myself even as I preach, what they ought to be doing. We ought to be doing God’s will. Yet, I know that as a Bible preacher part of my job is to tell people, including myself, that we are failing miserably; for we all have sinned (see Rom. 3:23).

This is what I thought as a preacher I would be most nervous to talk to people about. This is the part of my message I thought would be most offensive to people. But I find that I do not get very nervous to talk about this, nor do I think that people are most offended by this.

I find that most people readily accept that they are not perfect; and if God’s Law demands perfection, they logically conclude they have not met His standards. I’m not saying this is always the case, or that most people I meet experience Spirit-wrought conviction leading to repentance. I’m also not saying this bad news is not at all offensive. It is. But what I am saying is that there is a logic here that a lot of people simply “get”.

I think it is the next part that I get most nervous (and most excited) to preach that causes the most offense. It is the next part of my message week in and week out that ruffles feathers and startles hearts, including mine. It is the part of the message in which I turn to tell people that there is nothing we can do about our sinful, guilty state and yet wonder of wonders, God has taken care of it all for us in Jesus, on the cross.

In case that seems weird, listen to Paul in Galatians 1:10, “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ (emphasis mine). Paul says if he were trying to win the approval of others or people-please in ministry, he would not preach the message of Christ. The message of Christ is that we are “…not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…” (Gal. 2:16). Yet, that is what he says is offensive.

How is this stuff offensive? This is good news! This is the best news! This seems so backwards.

I know, I know. It does to me too. But here is why the cross is offensive: we do not like being told there is nothing we can contribute to our salvation. Being told we failed is one thing, but being told we can’t make up for our failures is a whole-nother shebang. The American way is not perfection, but rising from the ashes, picking ourselves up again; that is our glory. We fail, but we always fix it.

But God does not offer us this glory. God’s message is not that we have failed but we can make up for it. God’s message is that we have failed and that He made up for it. The only thing we contribute is the failure. I find that in ministry it is this gospel of free grace for sinners that shakes us. We question, “Is this too good to be true?” This is what I get most nervous to say, wondering how many are going to question the message of Christ.

But screw it. It is all we have. It is the message of Scripture. I live to tell people about the scandalous grace of God, come down to us in the God-man, Jesus Christ, dead on a cross, risen from the grave, for you, and for me. All glory be to God alone.

The Law Won’t Save You

It would seem one of our great faults in American churches, and one of the greatest faults in my personal thinking, has been believing the Law has the power to change me. On top of that, my natural reasoning says that once the Law changes me, then I will be acceptable to God. I naturally reason that God gave us the Law to change us.

This simply is not biblical. When we hear the commands of God, we act as though we can fulfill them, as though we can please God, win over His favor, work our way into His love and grace. We act like this is the ultimate point.

But this is not why the Law was given. The Law of God was given to show us how far short we have come, and will always come, to being righteous (Gal. 3:21-22). Think about it this way: think about someone you love.

Got someone in mind? Now, listen closely: Dislike them. I am telling you, no, commanding you, to dislike them.

Do you dislike them now? Of course not!

Does my command to “dislike him or her” affect your heart of love for them? Not at all. Commands do not provide the change necessary to obey. God does not look down on sinful people who don’t love him, thinking that His command to, “…love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’…” will give them a heart of love (Mk. 12:30-31). The Law of God simply has no power to do that, and is not designed to.

And even if it could, that would not help us sinners be acceptable to God! For God accepts only a perfect record, and all of our records are filled with sin and imperfection. No one is saved by works.

The function of the Law is not to show you that you are righteous, or give you righteousness. The function of the Law is to prove your sinfulness and utter inability to make things right with God. The Law shows you that if you will be righteous, it will be on the basis of someone else. And His name is Jesus.

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Let the Law that shows you all of your sin all of the time, the Law that drives you to despair, drive you right into the arms of your Savior, who loves you, forgives you, and died for you. Never go back to listen to the threats of the Law that say you are condemned for your sin, because through faith in Christ, you are safe.

Jesus as Our Example

About a week ago I posted a blog commenting on Galatians 2:17-21. I preached through those verses this past week at The Well (my church’s weekly college gathering), and as I studied it, my understanding of verse 17 changed.

Verse 17 is not as straightforward as the verses before and after it. This could be because Paul is intellectually brilliant, and the way he is making a counter-argument is, well, brilliant, and not easy to understand. But here is what he seems to be saying.

The false teachers in Galatia are saying that through the law we are saved. They are probably not saying Jesus’ death and resurrection is worthless, but rather we simply need to add to Jesus’ work our obedience to the law. “Jesus + our obedience = salvation” would be their equation.

But Paul has made clear, and makes clear again in verse 16 that we are saved solely by Jesus’ work, with no help of our own. We are saved by grace alone, not by grace plus obedience.

In verse 17, I think Paul turns the false teachers’ argument on its head; he works out its conclusion to its end, showing that it is ridiculous and blasphemous.

He says, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?”

With this “But if…” it is like Paul is saying, “But if it is true what you say…”. He goes on: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified by faith, we too are found to be sinners…” Here is what I think Paul just said, “But if it is true that in this life of trusting that Jesus is enough for us to be fully loved by God, fully justified, we are still found unjustified…”

Paul is using the word “sinners” not to mean people-who-sin, but rather he is using it as he used it just before in verse 15, when he distinguished between Jews and Gentile “sinners”. “Sinners” here refers to people who are still in their sin and guilt. He is looking from God’s perspective, who sees people as either innocent or guilt; saints or sinners; justified or unjustified.

Paul is restating the argument of the false teachers, who say that though Paul and the Galatian churches believe in Jesus, they are still unjustified before God; they are still in their sin and guilt, condemned by God. They must add obedience to the work of Jesus.

Now to the kicker. Paul works out this logic: “…is Jesus then a servant of sin?” This is a bit tricky to understand. I no longer think it means what it sounds like it means. I think Paul is speaking in the same terms he uses in 2 Corinthians 3:5-6.

In 2 Cor. 3:5-6 Paul says there are 2 kinds of ministers, using the same Greek word he uses for “servant” in Galatians. There are ministers (think preachers for simplicity) of the “letter”, meaning the Law of God. And there are ministers of the Spirit, referring to the Spirit who is given according to the preaching of the Gospel. There are ministers of the Law, and ministers of the Gospel.

Ministers of the Law leave people in their sin and guilt. Thus, they are ministers, or servants, of sin. Ministers of the gospel bring good news to those in their sin, news of grace and salvation. Thus, they are servants of salvation.

Do you see what Paul did?

Paul is saying, “When you say that even though we believe in Jesus, we are still unjustified, you make Jesus into a minister of the Law, and not of the Gospel of grace. You turn Jesus into a religious task-master, rather than a Savior. You make Jesus out to be Someone who walked around, telling guilty sinners that if they could just do better, follow His example, and obey God more, they would be acceptable to God. You turn Jesus into Someone who saves no one, for by works of the Law no one will be saved.”

The false teachers make Jesus out to be merely our supreme example of morality, rather than our sovereign Savior.

If this is true of Jesus, this is horrifying news, because this means we are still under the Law, under guilt and condemnation. If we must follow Jesus’ example to be saved, is anyone following his example well enough? Is anyone like Jesus enough to be accepted by God?

This turns Jesus into a lifeguard who sees someone drowning 100 yards out in the ocean, and begins yelling, “Kick harder. Move your arms. Tread water. Don’t drown! (go this example from Tullian Tchividjian)”. Would that be helpful? Of course not! The lifeguard would be telling the drowning person to do things impossible for them to do. If Jesus only came to preach the Law, He would be telling us to do the impossible, to make ourselves acceptable to God.

If Jesus only partly died for our sins, only helps us some of the way, then he does not help at all! Imagine another lifeguard who goes out to the man drowning 100 yards out, and he swims him in 50 yards, and then says, “OK, I have helped save you some, now you must finish the job.” Is that helpful? Is that salvation? No! The guy will still die, just in a new location in the ocean.

If Jesus is only our moral example to follow, and/or only partly save us, then we will still die in our sin. There are only 2 options: either we are saved by works, or by the grace of Jesus. One saves, the other kills (see the next few verses about how the Law kills us).

Praise God, Jesus is not a minister of the Law.

Paul says, “Certainly not!” In my own words, “No freaking way is Jesus our moral example to follow so that we can save ourselves!” That would make Jesus’ whole life, death, and resurrection worthless. God forbid we would believe that. Jesus lived, died, and rose because we are not like Him. We are sinful and rebellious. We are disobedient and stubborn. We need a Savior, not swimming lessons. Praise God, Jesus is enough for you and for me to be accepted by God on Christ’s behalf.

Gospel-Centered vs. Gospel-Motivated

Our salvation and subsequent sanctification (growth in Christ-like character and good works) are connected, but entirely different. They cannot be mixed together or mingled. They are connected in that sanctification is totally dependent upon salvation, but in no way earns it, brings it about, merits it, and so forth. They are different in that salvation is completely distinct from, and not dependent upon sanctification in any way shape or form.

What I have learned over the past I’m-not-sure-how-long is that to be “gospel-centered” or “all about Jesus” does not mean “Jesus is our example, rather than Buddha, Joseph Smith, Muhammad, or Justin Bieber.” That is just another form of a self-salvation project; another religion, with Jesus as the central moral figure whom we must be like in order to make God love us. That is not Christianity, biblical, or the gospel.

If being “all about Jesus” means first and foremost that, “We are not like those religious people, we do good works motivated by Jesus’ cross,” at the very least, it still seems the emphasis is on our good works, our religious works, and possibly our ability to make God like us, all in the name of Jesus. It sounds like the gospel, but it isn’t. It is still about what you do, or how you can or have changed. And that is the result of the gospel, not the gospel itself; that is the subsequent sanctification that is the inevitable result of salvation.

Said positively, to be “all about Jesus” first and foremost means to recognize that you are not a good person and that Jesus is a good person for you. It should not mean, fundamentally, that Jesus is our new and better motivator to be religious. Fundamentally, it should mean Jesus stands in our place as the Righteous One, giving us His perfect record. Good works are not needed to have God’s love and friendship. We have it because of Jesus’ good works, His death and resurrection.

I think this distinction is key to understanding the whole Bible. Jesus primarily understood as our new and better motivator keeps us under God’s Law, trying to follow His example in order to earn God’s love. It turns the Bible into a rule book for religious people to save themselves. That is not biblical or Christian. Jesus primarily understood as Savior of bad people keeps the gospel the gospel: good news for bad people who need a righteousness given to them, not worked up within them.