In frustration, the counselor asked, “What else can I do? I’ve been teaching gospel truths to my Christian counselee for at least half a dozen sessions and my counselee isn’t changing!”
A recent trend in U.S. Christianity has been an emphasis on “preaching the gospel to yourself.” The way to grow in godliness is to daily remind oneself of the good news (“gospel”) of Christ’s death and resurrection, of one’s forgiveness, justification, adoption, and other indicatives listing what God has done for us. We are encouraged to have “gospel-centered” lives, and do “gospel-centered” parenting and “gospel-centered” counseling. The premise is that if we grasp who we are in Christ we will naturally respond by living godly lives.
I am glad to see enthusiasm about exalting Christ and His work in redemption. We certainly need to know that in Christ we are positionally righteous, to know who we are and what we have in Christ. We ought to rejoice exceedingly in those blessings from God.
My concern is that, used without qualification, preaching the gospel to Christians creates confusion because it treats sanctification in the same way as justification, as the counselor cited at this article’s opening was doing. The two are different.
Justification is a legal declaration that the saved person, positioned in Christ, is credited with Christ’s righteousness. Sanctification is the process of growth in the practical application of that righteousness.
In justification, God does all of the work. In sanctification, we both work, God and us. In sanctification, the justified person participates with God by putting off sin and putting on good works in love by God’s grace.
Since we have to work, change is not automatic. The problem with relying only on preaching the gospel to oneself (or to another Christian) is that spiritual genetics don’t work like biological genetics. Just because we’re transformed from U. Duckling to G. Swan does not mean that we automatically, as a natural expression of a new genetic nature, shed our ducky ways.
Knowing gospel truths, like one’s identity in Christ, certainly helps us shed the old Duck. New believers need daily reminders of forgiveness and justification to encourage them, to remember that guilt is gone and they are now slaves of righteousness, to motivate to pursue living out their new nature and strengthen their faith. It may be needed for immature believers, for someone who is weighed down with guilt over a sin, or for those who are weak in the faith, e.g., legalistic types who need to stop working for what they already have in Christ. They may need daily review until they firmly believe God when He says that He has justified them (Rom 5:1-2) and that in Christ they are under no condemnation (Rom. 8:1).
But those who believe God about their justification surely do not need to stay only in the elementary doctrines. This is to continue on the bottle unable to eat solid meat (Heb. 5:12-13). Hebrews 6:1 says, “Therefore, leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity…” (That’s a command, by the way.)
I remember, as a young believer, being urged to rest in the Lord. Don’t worry so much about obedience and sin; just believe. I never could figure out how to obey without effort. And no wonder. That Keswick theology ran in direct opposition to Paul’s admonition to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). Back then, we had “Let go and let God.” This recent trend sounds a bit like Keswick redressed, “Let go and preach the gospel to yourself.”
Sanctification (growth in Christlikeness) by merely preaching the gospel to oneself is impossible because sanctification requires obedience. The Christian life is a race, not a recital. It requires hard work, not just a rehearsal of one’s of position. One must act, not just remember. What the counselor mentioned at the outset needs to do is exhort the counselee to exert effort. That counselee needs to get busy obeying God’s commands as though his growth depends upon it, while also trusting God for the grace to do so, realizing that it is only by God’s grace that he wants to grow or can.
Speaking of indicatives like justification, how about the indicative indicating that we’ve been made slaves of Christ, slaves of righteousness? Inherent in the word “slave” is the obligation to obey commands. Inherent in the indicative is an imperative.
Give thanks to God for what He has done, but don’t stop there. As slaves of Christ, you have commands to obey. Trusting God for the grace to do so, go to work putting off sins and putting on good deeds. It requires that you discipline yourself and self-denial is no mere glide in the pond. As we apply ourselves to the task, the Holy Spirit graces us with the desire and ability to obey.
Mature believers never outgrow the joy of the gospel and there are times to meditate upon it. But adherence to biblical indicatives never excuses neglect of the biblical imperatives. Let’s be Bible-centered, preaching the whole counsel of God to ourselves. Let’s be Christ-centered, focused on the Person, devoted to loving the Lord who provided the gospel. And let’s be diligent to obey the Lord our Master by the power of the Holy Spirit so as to glorify Him.