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.

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Who Cares About Your Obedience?

When people talk about the grace of God, it doesn’t seem to be an uncommon thing for qualifications, and maybe outright objections, to fly. Usually, the qualifications put on grace have to do with our obedience. “Yes, grace is true in the Bible, but we need to obey God.” Ever heard something like that? Is that true?

I think the heart from which we say stuff like this can be understandable. We don’t want to talk about the grace of God in a way that makes sin out to be, well, not sin anymore; something that doesn’t matter anymore; something that God doesn’t care about. In talking about grace, we want to maintain that some things are still sinful and we ought to avoid sin. Whether you are a Christian or not, sin remains what it is: sin. God’s commands don’t change. However, we often go further, if not in our words, then in our hearts, when we think and talk about obedience.

Slowly and subtly, we begin to think that obedience is necessary for salvation. We don’t actually believe that on paper. We maintain that we are saved by grace alone, but on a day to day basis, we buy into the lie that we must add to the cross of Jesus. We don’t trust that the cross of Jesus is enough to purchase us God’s total acceptance and love, so we must add to it our earnest commitment, radical surrender, and submission to the commands of God. Thus, we buy into the lie that God loves us because Jesus died for us and because we are submitted to God’s Law, God’s commands. This is not the biblical gospel. And this is not good news at all.

If I am saved by Jesus’ blood and my own righteousness, I have absolutely no assurance, no certainty, and no peace that I am really loved by God, and forever saved. If I am saved, in the tiniest bit, by my righteous surrender, commitment, submission, and obedience to the Law of God, I am hopeless. I am hopeless because when I look within myself, at my obedience to God, all I find is imperfection, sin, unworthiness, and guilt. I do not find, and neither will you find, perfect surrender, commitment, submission, and obedience. And that is what God requires; nothing less.

In fact, the very act of offering to God a “good work” to purchase His love and acceptance is in itself an act of sin. Is. “…all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment…” (Is. 64:6). Man, just when we thought we were doing good stuff, we are called sinners for it! But take heart, the gospel and grace of God for you and me is bigger still! Where our immorality abounds, grace abounds all the more. Where our religious arrogance abounds, grace abounds all the more.

In looking to yourself to find the perfect righteousness God requires, you are believing a false gospel. You are believing something the Bible never teaches, namely, that you can be saved by Jesus plus your own righteousness. For “…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law…” (Gal. 2:16). So, to do such a thing is actual sinful, thus adding to your sinfulness. Yikes.

So, as it concerns your salvation, justification, and righteousness before God, your good works mean absolutely nothing. Despair of them. Forget about them. Your heartfelt surrender, radical commitment, and willingness to obey earns you nothing. God doesn’t care. He doesn’t love you based on your performance, but on Another’s performance. He doesn’t accept you because of you and your works. He accepts you because of Jesus and his work, alone.

Everyday we wake up to this temptation to believe we must add to the work of Jesus. Martin Luther knew this weakness in himself and in us. He said, “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” In other words, we must hear constantly that God loves us because of Jesus, not because of anything in us. The good news is that God knows we are weak and he understands, and He sent Jesus to pay for all our sin. 

If you find you struggle to believe the gospel in all its radicality, join the club. By the way, guys like Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon, and John Calvin were in the club as well. May God, today, help you believe that you are far worse than you realize, and that God’s grace in Christ is far more powerful and abundant than you could ever dream. It is more than enough for you.

Now, as far as obedience and disobedience goes in the Christian life, God cares, but He will never punish you for your sin. He will never abandon you. He will never forsake you. Because He loves you, He will teach, correct, discipline, and guide you in righteous living, just like any good father would with His kids. But your sin will never make Him love you any less.

In short, I believe God’s commands are not optional now that you are in the grace of God. Here is a way to think of God’s commands as not-optional: God’s commands are not like a father suggesting that his child go play outside, but not demanding him to. “Hey little Timmy, its sunny out, you should consider going outside to play.” That is a suggestion. “Hey little Timmy, its sunny out, go play outside.” That is a command.

The fruit of being made a child of God by the free, ridiculous grace of God, is an ever-changing heart, growing to love more and more the righteous living God calls us to. We learn to love the commands of God, because we see them as from our Father for our good. We make slow, slow beginnings in this process, but one day will forever be made perfect.

You Are Not Your Struggle

As Christians, we struggle daily with sin. We should seek to be honest about our sin, transparent with other trusted friends, and repentant. When we see this pattern of life in others, we affirm it as good and biblical. Because it is.

Yet there are times when we begin to make the mistake of identifying ourselves with the sin we so often struggle with. Our culture teaches us that what we do determines who we are. We see the sin that we do and determine that we are the sin we struggle with. We are a struggling sinner. However, the Bible teaches that who we are isn’t determined by what we do. When we listen to our culture, we begin to view ourselves, as Christians, in an unbiblical way. We see all of our sin struggles and determine that we are a struggling sinner in the sight of God. That is the ultimate way we see ourselves and how we think God and others ultimately see us.

We begin to be consumed with our sin struggles. They dominate our thinking. When it comes to our relationship with God, it is primarily marked by unending sadness that we daily sin against God, and the idea that all God really cares about is telling us to, “Stop it.” When it comes to our relationships with others, they revolve around us trying to be a better spouse/friend/family member. We are constantly confessing sin, never rejoicing in grace, and always upset that we are not a good person to be in a relationship with.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t grieve our sin, or seek to be a more loving spouse/friend/family member. What I am saying is that when that is your all-consuming daily reality, you are probably identifying yourself in an unbiblical way, rather than in a gospel way.

If we identity ourselves before God by saying, “I am a struggling sinner,” then that means we believe, in the sight of God, we are less than perfect. We have some righteousness, which has been given to us by Jesus. God sees that. But we still have some sin in us; our flesh. God also sees that. So, we believe God sees a person with a mixture of perfection and imperfection. But this is not the identity of someone in Christ.

In Christ, God sees you as perfect. If you have believed in Jesus, God sees no imperfections when he looks at you. Just as God sees no imperfections or sin in Jesus, He sees none in you. And He treats you accordingly. When you believed in Jesus, His perfect righteousness was imputed to you, or counted as yours by God.

You identity before God is perfect. Righteous. Without sin. Without imperfection. You are a pure, holy, sanctified saint in the sight of God. All because of Jesus’ righteousness given to you through faith, not your works.

“But what about my actual, real sin struggles?” Well, yes, they are real. God knows about them. But they don’t define you. Jesus defines you. Jesus’ perfection defines you. You no longer have to identify yourself with your sin. Yes, you own it as your responsibility, your struggle, and your sin to repent of. But before God, you own the truth that you have been counted as perfect in his sight. He doesn’t identify you with the sin you struggle with.

When you think about your sin struggles, you can now say with Paul, “So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Rom. 7:17). Amazing! Paul says, “My sin? It isn’t me doing it. It is sin dwelling within me. I am still attached to a sinful flesh and thus still struggle with sin.” Paul is not saying he doesn’t take responsibility for his sin. He is just saying his sin struggles don’t define him or his relationship with God. This seems to be Paul making a clear distinction between who he is in Christ, and what he struggles with. To Paul, those are two different things. Who he is in Christ transforms what he does, not the other way around.

What might Paul say about his identity?

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Cor. 5:17

I have been “washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Cor. 6:11

I am the “righteousness of God.” 2 Cor 5:21

Why So Serious?

In Mark 14:41 Jesus is on his way to his death and says the following words: “…The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Jesus says that he is about to be betrayed into the hands of sinners and they are going to murder him. However, Jesus’ death is going to be for the salvation and forgiveness of sinners. Sinners are going to be used by God to abuse the Son of God for the forgiveness of sins. Who is the winner in this picture? Sinners or Jesus?

God is not defeated by the sin of sinners, but rather uses the sin of sinners to carry out the greatest feat in history: paying the price for sin and sinners so that sinners could be brought into a relationship with God. Amazing? If those who crucified Jesus thought they could defeat God, they would have taken themselves way too seriously and God way too lightly. The reality is, I think many Christians take themselves too seriously and God too lightly.

Often times, people in general take themselves way too seriously. I think people feel this subconsciously, and thus comedic sitcoms, comedic political shows (Stephen Colbert, John Stewart, etc.), and comedic talk shows (Conan O’ Brian, Jimmy Fallon, etc.) seem to dominate our entertainment interests.

I wonder if we struggle to strike a healthy balance concerning how to live with an appropriate amount of seriousness. Maybe we take our work life too serious and thus want to unwind in the evening, not caring or thinking too much about anything, including our marriages, kids, and ourselves. What should we take seriously? What shouldn’t we take seriously? Should we take the news seriously anymore? Should we take our marriage seriously? Church? God? Ah, whatever! Let’s just watch Stephen Colbert and fall asleep to Brian Regan.

The question of what to take seriously, and how seriously we should take it, seeps into our lives with Jesus. As Christians, I think often times we take ourselves too seriously. I think we take our good works too seriously and/or our bad works too seriously.

As Christians, we take our good works too seriously by believing that our good works keep us in right standing with God. We take our bad works too seriously by believing our bad works hurt our right standing with God. Both views are simply the product of taking ourselves too seriously, and our God too lightly.

Believing our good works bring us into a righteous, adopted relationship with God is thinking too seriously about ourselves and too lightly about God. It takes our good works way too seriously, as though they could earn God’s love, when they can’t. They’re just not good enough. And it takes God too lightly, as though a few good works can turn him into a pushover who does not deal with murder, adultery, lies, lust, and hate. God is just and will not overlook sin. That is serious. This viewpoint is what Jesus condemns in religious people who believe they do not need Jesus because they are good enough for God without him. To believe this is to reject the gospel and to reject Jesus. Do you think you don’t need grace? Seriously?

On the other side, believing our bad works will bring us out of our righteous, adopted relationship with God is also thinking too seriously about ourselves and too lightly of God. It takes our bad works too seriously, as though Jesus will kick us to the curb if we are not good enough. Jesus loves you despite all of your present flaws and sins. Also, it takes God too lightly, as though your sin will overpower his grace. I’ve heard it said, “There is more grace in God than sin in you.” God’s grace is simply more abundant than your sin. Do you think your bad works will make Jesus stop loving you, even though he has never loved you on the basis of your works any way? Seriously?

Now, let me make a note for those who are getting worried. Sin separates us from God. Our sin is so serious that we can’t make up for it with good works, and it is so serious that Jesus had to be slaughtered to bring us into a relationship with God. Our sin is dead serious. Grieving over the ways we disobey God is not taking sin too seriously, because we should do that. To enter into a relationship with Jesus, you must turn from your sin. And as Christians, we should daily repent of sin and enjoy the grace to continue walking with Jesus.

However, when you enter into a relationship with God through Jesus, your sin is no longer a threat to separate you. No matter how many times you may fall (sin) and get back up (repent and trust Jesus), you will not lose your righteous standing before God. Therefore, if you take your sin so seriously to the point of worrying that one day God is going to throw you to the curb, you are taking yourself too seriously. Yes, you must listen to the Bible’s warnings to not turn from Jesus and live a life dominated by sin. That is a mark of a non-Christian. However, as a Christian, you should not be afraid that maybe you have sinned one too many times, and now Jesus is done with you.

We would do well as Christians to stop taking ourselves so seriously in these regards. We think to highly of our works, good or bad. Our good works don’t make God love us any more than he does right now, and our bad works don’t make God love us any less than he does right now. God will never love you any more or any less than he does right now, and it has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with the perfect righteousness of Jesus that is yours, if you believe in him. Enjoy that reality today. Take Jesus, his grace and his commands seriously. Stop taking yourself so seriously.