SHEPHERDING YOUR PEOPLE TO THINK AND LIVE IN LINE WITH THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL
A local church is healthy to the degree that: (1) its pastor-teachers are able to accurately, effectively, and broadly bring the gospel to bear in the real lives of their people; and (2) its people have a deep personal understanding of and appreciation for the gospel, so as to be able to live in the good of the gospel daily. I call this the functional centrality of the gospel.
Critical to achieving this aim is making clear the connections between the gospel and its doctrinal and behavioral implications. We could call these connections “gospel truths” and “gospel conduct” respectively.
Imagine three concentric circles. In the center is the gospel itself, perhaps best represented by the words of 1Cor 15:3 – “Christ died for our sins.” This simple phrase speaks of the reality of our sin, the necessity of divine punishment, and the wonderful provision of salvation from divine wrath by God in Christ. Paul speaks of this “good news” as the matter of “first importance,” and we know well the priority he gives this message in his preaching and writing (cf. 1Cor 2:1-4). Hence, its centrality. But in order for it to have a functional centrality it must be connected to areas where people live their lives.
This brings us to our second circle, gospel truths. These are specific, concrete doctrinal implications of the gospel; or, as Paul puts it, “doctrine that conforms to (i.e., takes its shape from) the glorious gospel” (1 Tim 1:10-11). These gospel truths bring the gospel to bear particularly on the mind; they are useful in renewing the mind so that our thinking is more and more shaped by the truth of the gospel.
As we might expect, the book of Romans is especially saturated with these gospel truths. Let me give three examples:
(1) In Romans 5:1 Paul states, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice the logic of the verse. Something follows from the essential truth of the gospel. Our having peace with God is not the gospel itself, but is a powerful implication of the gospel—a “gospel truth.” And understanding this gospel truth is part of conforming one’s thinking to the glorious gospel.
(2) In Romans 8:1 we read, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Again, notice the argument. Paul is not here presenting the gospel itself but something that is true “now” because of the gospel. But the implication is stunning! When fully comprehended by a believer it will revolutionize their mental world and the gospel will function powerfully for them.
(3) Romans 8:32 is a favorite. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things.” Notice those words “also” and “along with him.” They speak of something that grows out of the gospel. When people see the connection between the truth of the gospel itself (“He did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all”) and this gospel truth concerning God’s gracious provision of all that we need for our sanctification (cf. vv. 28-29), the gospel will function for the strengthening of their daily trust in God’s provision.
But not only is the gospel to shape our thinking, there are massive behavioral implications of the gospel as well. The gospel is not only to renew our minds, but to inform our conduct too. The Scriptures provide many examples of this gospel informed living. In Gal 2:14 Paul rebukes Peter for conduct that was “not in line with the truth of the Gospel” and in Phil 1:27 he urges believers to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.” In other words, one of the ways the gospel must function is by informing specific behaviors. Thus, we should read our Bibles with an eye toward detecting these connections. So, for example, when Paul appeals to the Corinthians to “flee from sexual immorality” he explicitly bases his appeal on the gospel—“you are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1Cor 6:18-20). When he urges forgiveness he explicitly references the gospel as both motivation and model (Eph 4:32). When he tells husbands to love their wives he does so by linking his exhortation directly to the gospel (Eph 5:25). When he calls the Corinthians to an ongoing generosity he explicitly reminds them of God’s generosity in the gospel (2Cor 8:7,9; 9:12-13, 15). Many more examples could be given. Ultimately, all Christian behavior should flow out of the gospel; while working hard to avoid triteness, connections should be made to every area of life.
One of the greatest challenges and most important tasks of the pastor-teacher is to clearly show these connections so that people can specifically and intelligently bring the gospel to bear on both their thinking and conduct. Thus the gospel becomes functionally central to the individual Christian and to the local church.