One of the most encouraging outcomes of the recent gathering of Southern Baptists in Orlando is the adoption of a resolution on the centrality of the gospel. While some Southern Baptists–including academics and pastors–have scoffed at the idea that we need to recover the gospel in our day, this resolution, together with language in the GCR Task Force report, recognizes that we do have a need to recover the gospel and to see it restored to its proper priority in the church. What God has done for sinners in His Son, Jesus Christ, is not only good news for unbelievers, it is good news for Christians, as well. Believers need the gospel just as much as unbelievers.
The gospel is not only how we get into a right relationship with God. It is how we live in that relationship. It not only brings us to God, it keeps us in God. It is not only the threshold to the house of salvation, it is the whole house. The Christian life does not begin with faith in Christ and then progress on techniques and principles. It begins with faith, continues in faith and will end in faith when, upon our seeing Him, our faith will become sight.
That is why I am so encouraged by the SBC resolution. It recognizes this explicitly in the third “resolved” that
we encourage churches in preaching, teaching, and discipleship to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, showing them how to find peace with God, and to proclaim the gospel to believers, that through the renewing of our minds we might continually be transformed by the gospel; (emphasis added)
It is the assurance of a crucified, risen Savior that sets a believer free to keep repenting and believing–to keep growing–the rest of his life. I do not need to hide my sin or try to justify it or whitewash it in any sense, because Jesus has died for it! He forgives and in Him, I am forgiven. This fact also sets me free from the self-defeating effort of trying to avoid or refute any criticism that comes my way.
What can possibly be said about me that is worse than what God Himself has already said? The Scripture is quite clear about the condition of every man, woman and child outside of Christ. Read Romans 3:10-18 to see how God has written everyone’s resume.
Even more, have you ever stopped to consider what Jesus’ death on the cross says about you? Everyone who is trusting in Christ needs to understand and remember this. The cross is God’s public (very public!) declaration that I am such a wicked, evil person that it took the very death of His only begotten Son to save me! My sins are so great that nothing less than the blood of the God-man could rescue me. No matter how harshly or unjustly I may be criticized the truth is always far worse than the charge.
This truth is incredibly practical for spiritual growth and health. When someone is feeling so overwhelmed by his sin and failures that he is tempted to despair, what should we tell him? That he is not so bad? That he has done a lot of good things as well as bad? No. We need to tell him the truth. The way that I have often put it is like this, “The truth is, you are far worse than you know and your sin is greater than you can ever conceive….But the good news is that this is exactly why Jesus died on the cross. Your sin and failures do not disqualify you from salvation. They are precisely the reason you need to be saved. This is why Jesus came. As you trust Him, you can be sure that every last one of your sins has been paid for. You are free.”
No matter what accusations come against me, and no matter their source (the devil, enemies, my own conscience) they can never charge me with more than I have already been charged with by God in the death of Jesus on the cross. So my sin, rather than being an excuse to keep me from seeking God’s grace and mercy should spur me to run to Him. He already knows and He gave up Jesus to rescue me from it.
But not only does the cross criticize me, it also justifies me through the complete payment for every last one of my sins! By His stripes we are healed. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:33-34). God has judged me, condemned me and justified me all in Jesus Christ. That means that I am free. I do not have to pretend to be something I am not. I do not have repudiate every criticism brought against me, nor do I have to be crushed by it. God has already criticized and justified me through the person and work of His Son (for an excellent article on this read Alfred Poirier’s “The Cross and Criticism” here).
This truth is both liberating and empowering to believers. It frees us from the accusations that the devil constantly makes against us. John Bunyan illustrates how this work in my favorite scene from Pilgrim’s Progress. When Apollyon first meets Christian he entices him to turn back and return to his old life. When Christian refuses, the devil then begins to make accusations against him, reminding him of his real sins and failures. Christian’s response is brilliant and is exactly what every Christian ought to remember when faced with his failures and sins. He does not try to argue with Satan. He does not try to justify or make excuses for his sin. Rather, he simply responds with this gospel-motivated truth: “All this is true and much more, which you have left out. But the Prince whom I serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive.”
Mark Altrogge poetically expresses this in his song, “I Look Up,” when he writes,
I will trust in the righteousness given to me, by Jesus my Savior and Friend.
When a Christian stumbles, or even when he falls profoundly, what he needs is what he has always needed–the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ who shed His blood for real sinners. Any attempt to mitigate our sin, to doll it up with euphemisms or to downplay it in any way, cuts us off from the only remedy that we have. No one needs a Savior for “misstatements” or “mistakes” or “unfortunate choices.” But we all need a Savior for dishonesty, blasphemy, thievery, adultery and every other sin.
The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is a real Savior for real sinners who commit real sins. If we to reduce our sin to some lower-grade personality disorder or mistake, then we inevitably remove ourselves from the foundation of the gospel by trusting in our own ability to patch things up.
When politicians do this we call it spin. When Christians do it, we must call it what it is, sin–the sin of unbelief. To sin and then downplay it in hopes of making it appear less than it really is is to compound the initial sin with the sin of unbelief, and that is a failure to live by the grace of God in the gospel.
The gospel sets believers free to do more than merely apologize. It sets us free to repent and make restitution. Consider the way that Paul spells this out as he commends the repentance of Corinthian Christians in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11,
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
Paul could tell that the Corinthians’ sorrow was godly and their repentance was real because of the fruit that it produced. Such fruit only grows on a tree that is firmly grounded in the grace of a crucified, risen Savior. I am hopeful that the SBC is reorienting to such ground. As we do, we can look forward to a fresh wind of gospel-inspired-humility and gospel-inspired-boldness blowing across our denominational life. This in turn will lead to the gospel message that we preach being authenticated by the gospel lives that we lead, providing a powerful testimony to a gospel-needy world.