I’ve recently been blogging about the ways in which we try and fail to live out the gospel. There are seven gospel substitutes, all focused on external behavior rather than internal transformation. They are Formalism (Volunteerism) and Legalism; Mysticism, Activism and Biblicism; Psychology-ism and Social-ism. Each of these contain elements of true Christian faith and practice, but they are poor substitutes for the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It would be silly of me to talk about how not to live the gospel without providing some perspective on how we actually do live out the gospel. Once again, I’m going to go back to Lane & Tripp’s excellent book How People Change, where they offer five gospel perspectives to counter those seven gospel substitutes. To put all five in one post would be overwhelming, so I’m going to break it up a bit. I’ll post the first two today and come back to the other three tomorrow.
1. The Extent and Gravity of Our Sin
The struggle to accept our exceeding sinfulness is everywhere in the church of Christ. We accept the doctrine of total depravity, but when we are approached about our own sin, we wrap our robes of self-righteousness around us and rise to our own defense.
Scripture challenges this self-righteousness with clarity and power. ‘The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time’ (Gen. 6:5), and ‘There is no one righteous, not even one’ (Rom. 3:10). The effects of sin twist every thought, motive, desire, words, and action. This disease has infected us all, and the consequences are severe.
Why is this perspective so essential? Only when you accept the bad news of the gospel does the good news make any sense. The grace, restoration, reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy, patience, power, healing, and hope of the gospel are for sinners. They are only meaningful to you if you admit that you have the disease and realize that it is terminal.
I’ve quoted from David Powlison before, but I’d like to do so again because this stuff is just so good.
Sin, in this popular misunderstanding, refers to matters of conscious volitional awareness of wrongdoing and the ability to do otherwise. This instinctive view of sin infects many Christians and almost all non‐Christians. It has a long legacy in the church under the label Pelagianism, one of the oldest and most instinctive heresies. The Bible’s view of sin certainly includes the high‐handed sins where evil approaches full volitional awareness. But sin also includes what we simply are, and the perverse ways we think, want, remember, and react.
Most sin is invisible to the sinner because it is simply how the sinner works, how the sinner perceives, wants and interprets things. Once we see sin for what it really is; madness and evil intentions in our hearts, absence of any fear of God, slavery to various passions (Eccl. 9:3; the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live); (Gen. 6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually); (Ps. 36:1 Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.); (Titus 3:3 3For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.) –then it becomes easier to see how sin is the immediate and specific problem all counseling deals with at every moment, not a general and remote problem. The core insanity of the human heart is that we violate the first great commandment. We will love anything, except God, unless our madness is checked by grace.
How quickly we forget that the only difference between people with Christ and people without Christ is Christ. Apart from Christ, there is no difference between Christians and nonChristians. This seems obvious; if only it were. All seven gospel substitutes fail to deal seriously with sin. But sin is precisely what the gospel deals with so decisively. Failing to take into account the extent and gravity of our sin is to deceive ourselves. Beginning at any other point than the depth of our sinfulness is to replace gospel Christianity with positivist humanism.
2. The Centrality of the Heart
The average Christian defines sin by talking about behavior. For example, what is the goal of most Christian parents? Is it not to get their children to do the right things? We set up all kinds of relational, motivational, and corrective structures to constrain and direct our children’s behavior. These structures are not without value, but if this is your only response to your child’s rebellion and sin, you will leave him defenseless against sin once he leaves home and the structures are no longer there.
Beneath the battle for behavior is another, more fundamental battle—the battle for the thoughts and motives of the heart. The heart is the real or essential you. All of the ways in which the Bible refers to the inner person (mind, emotions, spirit, soul, will, etc.) are summed up with this one term: heart. The heart is the steering wheel of every human being. Everything we do is shaped and controlled by what our hearts desire.
That is why the Bible is very clear that God wants our hearts. Only when God has your heart does he have you. As much as we are affected by our broken world and the sins of others against us, our greatest problem is the sin that resides in our hearts. That is why the message of the gospel is that God transforms our lives by transforming our hearts.
Lasting change always comes through the heart. This is one of Scripture’s most thoroughly developed themes, but many of us have missed its profound implications. We need a deeper understanding of Proverbs 4:23, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.’
Your heart is not simply your emotional center, it is the core of who you are: thoughts, desires, motives, emotions, your will, etc. This is the place at which change must happen because your heart drives your behavior. Any attempt to control or change external behavior (which is what the seven gospel substitutes attempt to do) will ultimately fail because lasting behavioral change will only come through heart transformation.
Tomorrow we’ll look at the final three gospel perspectives.