I’ve mentioned Tim Keller here before. He’s an influential Christian leader known for his love for the city and winning cities for Christ – Christianity Today just did a cover story on him. For me, the thing I love about him is his focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ.
His most recent book is The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. To him, the heart of the Christian faith is a God who is “prodigal” defined as “recklessly extravagant”. While most of us see the son as prodigal because of his “recklessly extravagant” lifestyle, Tim prefers to see a God who is prodigal because of his “recklessly extravagant” grace. The focus of Christianity ought to be on our Father’s recklessly extravagant grace, not on man. The heart of Christianity is the love of the Father.
On page 115, he writes:
We habitually and instinctively look to other things besides God and his grace as our justification, hope, significance, and security. We believe the gospel at one level, but at deeper levels we do not. Human approval, professional success, power and influence, family and clan identity- all of these things serve as our heart’s ‘functional trust’ rather than what Christ has done, and as a result we continue to be driven to a great degree by fear, anger, and a lack of self-control. You cannot change such things through mere willpower, through learning Biblical principles and trying to carry them out. We can only change permanently as we take the gospel more deeply into our understanding and into our hearts. We must feed on the gospel, as it were, digesting it and making it part of ourselves. That is how we grow.
The last part of this quote relates to something I’ve been thinking a bit about occasionally since the first part of this post last year. Pastor Prince recently did a series on the High Priest’s garments and 2 Corinthians 3:18 was emphasized throughout. The reason he was teaching on the High Priest’s garments was because Jesus is our High Priest and focusing on Jesus, beholding Him and His glory, would transform us into His likeness. A constant refrain throughout the series was that we don’t get transformed through our willpower or efforts or “behaviour modification”, but through beholding the glory of Jesus Christ. This is not a very common view of how change occurs in the Christian church, yet this is something that Tim Keller seems to agree with above.
In most churches, change is seen to come mainly through doing things like reading the Bible more or praying more or fasting more. It comes through exerting more of one’s effort. If we face sin, we just have to try harder to overcome it. We have to change our lifestyle so we don’t succumb to sin. We have to resist sin with all our might. Now, unlike many pro-New Creation bloggers who tend to baulk at any hint of willpower being involved in change, I do think there’s a certain element of truth in the above and a certain role that the will and our efforts play in our transformation. I don’t think it’s true to say we just have to let go and let God. At least, not all the time. That’s because I clearly see in Scriptures Paul’s exhortation to do this or that. He does tell believers to stop doing this and start doing that. That is, I see Paul talking about behaviour modification and using one’s willpower and efforts – for how else are we to do this or stop doing that but through our willpower and efforts and changing our behaviour? So I think it’s an over-reaction to not see that our will and efforts have a part to play. On the other hand, I think there’s a great danger in taking our eyes away from the gospel and failing to see that the more we focus on the gospel, the more we’re changed and get the power to change.
So I don’t think it’s an either-or thing. Both meditating on the gospel and exerting our will to change are biblical and needed. But the power to change comes from the gospel. And this has not been emphasized enough in the church as a whole. Many of us have a worldview that leaves the gospel behind when we’re Christians. We assume that we don’t need to hear the gospel regularly because we’re already Christians. “Now that we’re Christians,” we think, “we can move on to other things. We don’t need to hear the gospel (i.e. the message of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection) all the time. The gospel is for unbelievers and well… occasionally for believers to remind us that we’re not saved by our efforts. But surely we shouldn’t always hear the gospel preached in the church and shouldn’t always study about the gospel in the Bible, should we!”
And there’s where I think the majority of the church has got it wrong. The emphasis of church has got to be on the gospel of Jesus Christ. The message that is heard in churches nowadays has to be totally saturated with the gospel message. That’s because the heart of Christianity is the Father’s love as shown in gospel of Jesus Christ, and it’s this message that saves us and gives us the power to live for God. Learning biblical principles, using our willpower and efforts are all good, but all that has to be firmly grounded in the message of the gospel and ought never to be the main emphasis of any church or discipleship program. There ought only to be one overwhelming emphasis: the gospel of Jesus Christ.
While I learned grace (for justification/salvation) first through other authors, New Creation church has furthered my understanding of the importance of making grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ the focus of our sanctification or the Christian life – in fact, the whole of Christianity. The gospel is not just for unbelievers. It’s for believers too. Whatever we get is because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And that’s why I’m not ashamed of attending a church that preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ in an overwhelming fashion. I think all churches should do this.
“Tim uses the gospel surgically on the heart. The gospel is what we need to come to faith and also what we need to grow”, it was said of Tim here. I think the exact same thing can be said of Pastor Prince.