A Most Important Message

The rediscovery of the life and writings of Lilias Trotter is, in my view, one of the most exciting things to happen in the church in years. For those who have never heard of her, Lilias Trotter was a British artist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who gave up the possibility of fame and fortune to serve God as a missionary to the Muslims for nearly 40 years. The significance of her sacrifice is intensified by the magnitude of her potential: prominent Victorian painter and critic John Ruskin, who met her and greatly admired her work–indeed, she singlehandedly reformed his view on women and the visual arts–believed that if she were to be his pupil she could become the greatest artist of her time. Turning her back on the prospect of enormous fame, however, she instead lived a life of glorious, all-out devotion to the kingdom of Christ. In the process, she left behind a splendid collection of devotional writings and divinely-directed artwork. In her writings one finds a message of unparalleled urgency for the church today.

That message is of absolute devotion to Christ–what Lilias believed was the great calling of all people. For Lilias, this devotion meant, simply, giving as much of one’s affection, energy, and time to Christ and his kingdom as one could. As she puts it in her essay “Focused”: “Gathered up, focused lives, intent on one aim–Christ–these are the lives on which God can concentrate blessedness. It is “all for all” by a law as unvarying as any law that governs the material universe.” This includes giving up even the innocent or good things in life: “Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen good harmless worlds at once–art, music, social science, games, motoring, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the “good” hiding the “best’ even more effectually than it could be hidden by downright frivolity with its smothered heart-ache at its own emptiness.”

These are powerful words, but they are words that the evangelical church continues to push to the side. As I seek to explain and develop in my book Consumed by God, this call to absolute devotion is, just as Lilias understood it, part and parcel of the gospel itself; to miss it is to miss the fundamental call of Christ to repentance, discipleship, and the narrow road, the only pathway to eternal life. It also forms the heart of the New Testament’s message to believers–the call to live “for one thing,” as the Apostle Paul puts it in Philippians.

There are some today who profess agreement with this principle, but when it comes to exactly what it means there is a strange ambivalence. Others seem to have equated devotion to Christ with involvement in missions or evangelism, but even though many who have longed for single-minded devotion have given their lives to such a cause, just as Lilias did, it is a mistake, I believe, to draw such a conclusion. Only those who are specially called and equipped by the Spirit of God are to be on the “front lines” in the work of missions. Indeed, missions today, I can say from first-hand experience, suffers greatly from an overabundance of ill-equipped workers. One man or woman divinely placed and prepared is truly worth a thousand.

No, this devotion must consist of something else, something more universal. It may not include personal involvement on the front lines of missions, but it will include involvement with Christ and his kingdom nonetheless; and it all begins with the heart. Loving God certainly means finding in him all of our affection and delight, but this must lead to “dying to self,” as Christ commanded us–or else it is empty or meaningless. All personal ambition–all desire for power, recognition, self-fulfillment, etc.–must be surrendered entirely; this is the fundamental message of Christ’s call to discipleship. Loving Christ, in its fullness, means making his desires and interests our own–living out his very life. This is what it means to follow him. As Lilias puts it: “Narrow as Christ’s life was narrow, this is our aim; narrow as regards self-seeking, broad as the love of God to all around.”

The result of such a narrowing will be the greatest and most significant of all realities on earth–the outpouring of the Spirit of God in the soul. As Lilias puts in once again: “And in the narrowing and focusing, the channel will be prepared for God’s power–like the stream hemmed between the rock-beds, that wells up in a spring–like the burning glass that gathers the rays into an intensity that will kindle fire. It is worth while to let God see what He can do with these lives of ours, when “to live is Christ.”

The crucial message for the church today is essentially two-fold. There is first a call or command: absolute devotion to Christ. There is then a promise–or, better yet, a “law,” or principle, as Lilias thought of it: The greater amount of sacrifice for Christ a person makes, the greater will be the outpouring of the Spirit in their lives. Both of these truths, so long esteemed and proclaimed in the church, have been gradually lost, and are largely absent in the church in our times. Yet if we could only reclaim them, the church may once again recover the power and influence in the world it has known in days gone by, to the glory of God.

Lilias Trotter left behind an enormous legacy–but mostly by Heaven’s standard of measure. She never gave up her artwork–every painting she produced proclaimed the beauty and glory of God–but she cared nothing for recognition from the world, or even for the maximizing of her earthly abilities. On the contrary, her one desire was to maximize her potential to glorify Christ and be useful in his kingdom. To accomplish this, she gave up everything, embracing total obscurity during her entire earthly life. Nevertheless, her life, writings, and work still speak, and the message they contain may very well be the most urgent of our times. May God help the church once again to hear it and repent.

Missions as Ministry

One of my main concerns with evangelicalism today is its failure to appreciate missions as ministry, and its primary participants as ministers. Many leaders of the New Calvinist movement in particular, whose doctrine may be Reformed (it’s often hard to say), but whose understanding of ecclesiastical policy and practice is (apparently) still reforming, speak often and loudly about getting more and more Christians to the mission field. Now I certainly do not wish to pour frigid doctrinal waters on anyone’s passion to get more involved in witnessing and evangelizing, or in foreign missions, for certainly all Christians are to be engaged in such; but it is clear in the Word of God, if one takes the time to study it out, that there is a crucial difference between our Lord’s call to his disciples and his call to everyone else–a difference not in devotion, but in vocation. There is a difference as well between those scattered by persecution who went about preaching the word, and the divinely-called and Spirit-appointed ministry of church planting engaged in by the Apostle Paul. The difference here is the same as that between pastor and pew. The difference is one of ministry, of being divinely called, divinely prepared, divinely gifted, and divinely empowered for a particular task in the kingdom of God. The fact of the matter is that the principal work of missions, Biblically-speaking, is not to be carried out by normal or all Christians; it is to be carried out by those Biblically called and prepared for such. “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul,” the Holy Spirit says in Acts 13:2, “for the work to which I have called them.”

Certainly there are nuances here. Some may be called to the principal work of missions, which is concerned with church-planting, while others may justifiably be called, again following Biblical principle and practice, to come alongside and help them, even for a short time. And certainly all Christians are to be actively involved in evangelism wherever God has placed them. We don’t want to so guard such things, as so many in Reformed circles are prone to do, that much of the good that could be done in a variety of missions-related settings is lost. What I am contending is simply this: The work of missions, properly understood, is a God-appointed ministry set aside for those called, prepared, and empowered by the Spirit (and sanctioned by the church) for this purpose.

Now I do not doubt that many in the New Calvinism movement understand this principle to some degree, but the question is how seriously they take it; it seems, frankly, that they do not take it seriously enough. The last thing we need is more unprepared, uncalled, and unempowered Christians on the mission field. The church desperately needs to think more carefully through this erroneous trend. I know from practical experience, having gone to the mission field terribly unfit, that such will not only do little good, it will quite possibly lead to great harm. I have seen as well that one man divinely prepared and placed is worth a thousand who are not so.

The need is indeed great, but the laborers for the work of missions must be raised by God himself, through the one divinely-appointed means–the means of prayer (Matthew 9:37-38). And here, perhaps, is where the real problem lies, here at the foundation. For as I mentioned above, Christian leaders today talk of many things, but prayer occupies a tragically small part of their message. This New Calvinist movement may very well continue to be a mile wide and an inch deep (as it often appears to be) until God continues to mold and fashion its priorities. Until the church today spends hours and hours in slow and painstaking prayer, depending on God for every leading, and waiting until the answers come from him, the results we see, in our own country or abroad, will continue this dangerous trend–this trend of shallow Christianity, this trend of reckless doctrine and careless practice, this powerless, still too unholy, and largely ineffectual tide of youthful exuberance we call the new movement; this movement that is yet to know anything, I am afraid, of real sacrifice or spiritual warfare, of battles with real supernatural forces won or lost on the efficacy of prayer.

My prayer and hope is that the leaders of the New Calvinism movement will one day come to understand this principle personally–that God is preparing many such leaders for the real work of missions, and that one day they themselves will be called by God to leave their worlds of comfort and success for the infinitely more difficult work of giving one’s life and soul to the breaking of hard, hard ground. Even practically speaking, we cannot send new converts, short-termers, college students, or businessmen to the front lines to do this work; what a laughable strategy. We must send the best of us–the most mature, most gifted, most Spirit-anointed, and most battle-ready and battle-hardened, who are prepared not merely to give their lives, but to give what is far less glorious but often much harder–a lifetime of soul-draining service. I am presently waiting on God to make me such a person, and to return me to the front lines if He so wills; until then, may we as Christians take up that other work of missions, the work to which the vast majority of us are called–the work of prayer. And then, in a prevailing atmosphere of “ministering to the Lord and fasting,” may God show us whom he wills to set aside to that most serious of all callings, the work of the ministry.

On Pursuing Diversity in the Church

One of the most frequently-discussed questions in the past few years has been whether or not churches should intentionally pursue diversity. In short, my answer is yes. My reason is that in the Bible unity is just that important; Christians should separate from other believers only for geographical reasons or when the essentials of the gospel are compromised.

Is this practically possible? It doesn’t appear so today; such issues as baptism make it seem as if pursuing unity is not only impractical, but unwise. When, say, a Presbyterian and a Baptist both believe strongly in their different modes of baptism, can the two share the same church? Perhaps not; but then again, perhaps they ought to try. There is, after all, “one baptism.” This much is certain: such theological disagreements highlight nothing good about the present state of the church.

Some would argue that just as different theological stances make practical unity impossible, so do cultural or even racial issues. But this should not be. The New Testament takes a clear and unambiguous stand against cultural and racial segregation: “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Unity with diversity is one of the great victories of the cross. All Christians must seek to live and worship in harmony with one another whenever possible.

We don’t want to make diversity the mission, as some have; the mission is the love and truth of Christ to all corners of the world, prioritizing the needy and those who have never heard. But to see churches content not to pursue diversity is a genuine shame. Particularly here in the United States, where blacks and whites have been divided for so long, the issue needs to be taken up with renewed energy and sincerely pursued. To not do so, as many have pointed out, is to fail to take seriously the Bible’s commands to unity, and is nothing more than another manifestation of self, of which the modern church, sadly, has far too much.

The Grace of Love

This post and the one preceding it (“The Problem of Immorality”) were written many years ago, as I was preparing the very first editions of Consumed by God. I thought I would repost them here; their subject matter, of course, is timeless, and will only get more relevant in our culture as time goes on.

A sure sign of a life under the control of the Spirit of God is real growth in the grace of love. Now of course we could mention all of the fruits of the Spirit as being evidences of genuine Christianity; but love, as we know, is the crowning grace of all, as I Corinthians 13:13 tells us.

True love to others is described so fully, clearly, and simply in this chapter that it would be foolish to attempt to define it further. The only thing to remind ourselves of, perhaps, is that the all-consuming, all-encompassing love to which we are called in the Bible is to be manifested at all times to all people—even toward our enemies (Matthew 5:43ff).

And yet the sad truth is that for the most part we cannot even love our fellow church members or fellow Christians. There is precious little real unity in the church of God at large, or even within local churches in various places. Do we not need to consider why this is the case, and strive to repent?  Did not our Lord Jesus give us a “new commandment” before his death upon the cross, instructing us to “love one another,” even as he had loved us (John 13:34-35)?  Did he not say that by this all men would know that we were his disciples? 

The first thing we must realize is that we cannot truly love others, until we truly love God. In other words, if the Spirit of God has not done a real and deep work of grace within us, turning our hearts away from ourselves and toward God, then we have no chance of loving our fellow man—even our loved ones or fellow church members. Real growth in this area comes only through growth in the area of our love to God. For without Spirit-empowered love to God, our love to others will never develop—or will be a sham.

Real, biblical love to others is an outgrowth of the working of the Spirit in a person’s life. As idols and self-centered desires are overturned, and the soul is turned in love to God, real, Christ-like love for all men will be a sure and certain fruit. To put it succinctly, we will fulfill the second great commandment only to the degree that we fulfill the first.

So a crucial initial question is this: do we really understand this latter point? Or are we trying to love others with no real way to do so? In other words, are we trying to love others in the flesh? Are we seeking to perform a Spirit-wrought duty without the Spirit?

Once we truly seek God and his Spirit, and begin to see the evidence of his working in our lives, then we need to get about the business of tearing down sinful barriers and working out the real and difficult grace of genuine love. Over and over again the apostle John lists this grace as the grand sign of genuine Christianity (John 2:9ff; John 3:10ff; etc.)  So where are we failing in our lives?

Perhaps we are failing in the area of loving believers whose doctrine is not exactly like our own. Now we should never sacrifice what we believe to be vital truths; but that is indeed the question, is it not? Don’t we behave as if some doctrines are vital when in reality their validity in the Word of God is somewhat suspect? Don’t we often pretend that there are not in fact two ways to view an issue we hold dear? Don’t we often hold onto our own views out of sinful self-will, and doesn’t this impair our fellowship, and genuine love, to other believers?  Isn’t this what is happening presently in the church at large?

Every Christian must ask himself whether in fact he is withholding real love and fellowship from a brother or local church out of genuine doctrinal conviction or out of selfish pride. If the Spirit of God were to do a true work of grace in our hearts, I believe the things that we have held to so tenaciously for years would suddenly lose their apparent vast significance, in the light of the greater significance of the unity of the body of Christ.

Now no doubt, again, there is a great need for doctrinal purity in our day. But still the question remains: which truths are vital enough to impair fellowship?  And though there may be genuine debate over this issue, again I say, we desperately need to reexamine it. For true love is as absent in the church today as anything, and the glory of God suffers greatly.

And what about love towards those outside of Christ? There can be no question from the Word of God that when the Spirit takes over a man’s life, love will pour out from him for all men. He will be like the Savior, whose love and compassion for all men is displayed on virtually every page of the gospel accounts.

He will have an interest in, and a true affection for, all people, even his enemies. His whole being will hurt, and his heart will rend, for the lost, dying, poor, needy, and helpless, as did the Savior’s, time and again. And he will have a special love and affection for his brothers and sisters in Christ; his heart will be joined with theirs in true unity by the unbreakable bond of the Spirit.

Do we have any evidence of this love in our lives? Are we living for ourselves, or for God and others? What compassion do we have for the lost, dying, poor, and needy of the world? What love do we feel toward those who have never heard the gospel? What concern do we have for the perishing? What affection do we feel for our enemies, even the enemies of God—who are blinded and held captive by the devil, to do his will?  Do we have any real feelings for such people?  Any real affection? Any real pity or emotion at all? Do our lives hold any evidence of this?

And all of this is not to mention the glorious spirit of love which should rule us at all times, in all of our daily relationships. Do we truly know anything of the great love that I Corinthians 13 speaks of? Only by the Spirit can we know this grace. Only by his power, by living and walking in his grace, can we take no wrong into account, be delivered from envy or pride, bear and believe all things, and walk in patience and kindness at all times. For these are a true miracle of the Spirit.

The Spirit of God is a being who feels; he is consumed by real affections and emotions, and the grand sum of these is love—love to God and love to man, who has been created in God’s image. As God the Father himself is called “love” (I John 4:8), so the Spirit burns and moves in the grace of love. And thus we cannot say we know God unless we have love for others (I John 2:9ff; etc.). 

And so again I ask: what evidence is there in our lives of love to our fellow man? May God help us to repent where we need to and seek his Spirit’s help in this most vital of all areas.

The Problem of Immorality

A crucial evidence from the Word of God of a life in step with the Spirit is that a person is pure and holy in the area of his physical passions. Now we could talk about all of a person’s physical passions, including his most basic desire, which is for food; for certainly there is a lack of self-control in this area in our day, in all of our lives. But let us focus on perhaps the most serious and wide-spread problem regarding physical passion in our day—the problem of sexual sin.

Sexual immorality is endemic in our day, even in the church—and particularly among men. All of us have to admit that we have failed miserably in this area; some of us, perhaps even many of us, after we have been truly converted. It is a wonder indeed that God has not wiped out the entire church on account of this one sin, as he threatened to wipe out the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira (Revelation 2). May God indeed grant us repentance and a return to vital purity in this area of our lives. How desperately we need such in our day.

Surely we need not be reminded or convinced of God’s will in this area. As we all know, sexual passions are to be fulfilled and expressed only within the bounds of God-sanctioned marriage (Hebrews 13:4). Anything other is either the sin of fornication, or that of adultery. Furthermore, we are to avoid lust at all times; in other words, it is not true that within marriage anything goes. As I Thessalonians 4:4-5 tells us, our bodies (or wives in this verse) are to be maintained in “holiness and honor” at all times. We are never to leave off the godly grace of self-control, even in the fulfillment of God-ordained desires.

Now we could wish that all such sin was confined to the improper expression of passion within the bounds of marriage; tragically, however, this is not the case. Married professing Christian men, even pastors, admit by the hundreds today of habitual immorality—either in their thoughts, through looking at pornography, or through actual physical immorality. The church has even become infamous for this in the world, and its witness has been, in the eyes of many, irreparably damaged. What a tragic situation this is, for our Lord Jesus called us to absolute purity in this area, reminding us that in God’s eyes a man is guilty of serious sexual sin if he even looks upon a woman with lust in his heart (Matthew 5:28). How far we have fallen from such a standard! 

How shall we be recovered? We must first of all remember our Lord’s words that “if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (Matthew 5:27-30). Our Lord’s warning in this passage is sobering: if we do not overcome this sin in our lives, and obtain real, thorough purity in heart, mind, and life, then there is the possibility that we may not enter the kingdom of Heaven. It is just that simple. Thus it is better to actually lose an eye or hand, our Lord Jesus tells us, than to be cast whole-bodied into hell. Our Lord is in absolute earnest here; appeals to hyperbole in this passage, in my opinion, may be a bit misguided.

There is not enough Spirit-empowered eye-plucking or hand-severing in the church today. We must pray for heaven-sent, Holy Spirit-empowered fire to baptize our souls daily and consume us with God’s presence and grace. We must cultivate the Spirit in our lives, being careful not to sin and grieve him away; for as we have seen, only by his strength can the flesh be put to death.

We must open the Word of God and pray over it until God is so real, and the things of eternity so urgent, that all else fades away. In particular, we should meditate on verses that pertain to this issue, praying over them until the Holy Spirit burns them into our very souls. We must in fact do whatever it takes; we must as well lock arm-in-arm with our fellow brothers and sisters of the faith, that we may help each other. We must truly give our all to defeating this or any other sin.

The Spirit of God is holy; his first task, and his primary aim, we could say, is to make us holy—that is, to conform us to the character and will of God. Unless and until this happens, we cannot make any claim to have been born again, and we certainly cannot expect the Spirit to assist us in any work of God. May God grant the church repentance in this crucial area.

A Thought on Small Groups

Small groups in evangelical churches today seem as ubiquitous as children’s ministries or even worship services. They are usually “strongly encouraged” by church leaders–so strongly, in fact, that one is often made to feel guilty of serious failures in love if he neglects to join one. “Community” is the catchword; one cannot truly grow as a Christian, it is said, without being in community, which is where (it is claimed) discipleship truly happens; hence the necessity for small groups.

I want to offer a brief and humble note of caution. The first thing to point out is obvious; it is surely a given that we should try as much as possible to conform our church practices to the Word of God. While debate has raged regarding the extent to which our churches should be modeled on the church as we see it in the book of Acts, surely our standard for church practice is the writings of Paul and the other apostles. So here’s the deal: There is no mention of small groups in the New Testament. Apparently they simply didn’t exist. There are no doubt reasons for this; one reason might be that most churches in the New Testament period were small enough to be “small groups” themselves; there was no need to break up into smaller community groups. Of course, this was not always true; the church in the early chapters of Acts, for example, was quite large, and there is no mention of small groups there. But the point here is that small groups are a post-biblical invention.

Does this mean that small groups are therefore wrong or inappropriate? Surely not; most churches and pastors who endorse them honestly believe they fill a need, especially in larger churches. It is true that in large churches it is easy for members to avoid social interaction (which seems to be the goal of many on Sunday mornings!) And church leaders have correctly noted that having no serious interaction with other fellow believers is not only dangerous, it does indeed run the risk of causing us to sinfully neglect our fellow believers. Small groups have done wonders for some; I even recently heard a fellow church member say that it is the single most important influence on his Christian walk, and that without it he would be lost.

So what then is the problem? The problem comes in when we try to make small groups into something they are not, nor ever could be: little churches. How so? Because the church is to be run by God-appointed, Spirit-anointed, church-approved pastors. These men, if they have been truly placed by the Spirit, are God’s shepherds over his church. It is their sole responsibility to care for the flock of God. They are to do this by teaching, by prayer, and by ongoing private counsel and input. My father was a pastor for 20 years before “retiring” to the mission field, and I watched him do this tirelessly and faithfully. Done right, it’s a beautiful thing to see.

In small groups, however, this job is often left to the small group leader–who could be literally anyone. In the church I attend, small groups may be led by anyone who attends another small group first for six months. That’s the only apparent qualification. I have been to small groups where actual heresy was taught by the small group leader. I have known small group leaders who were found out to be serial adulterers in the midst of adultery while leading small groups. And I have seen small group leaders get appointed to lead groups when in fact the leadership of the church barely knows who they are. In many churches small group leadership is a disaster.

Does this mean small groups should be abandoned? No, but it does underscore a vital issue: Small groups and small group leaders are not the people who are supposed to be shepherding the flock. Pastors are. And this takes us to a deeper problem: most churches insist on small groups precisely because they cannot shepherd the masses of people that have gathered in their churches.

Now we are onto something truly unbiblical. Though all Christians should grow to the point where they are to be able to “instruct each other” (Romans 15:14), the obvious fact is that not every Christian is at that point. Furthermore, even mature Christians are not pastors, unless they have gone through the process that we mentioned above–the process that is initiated and carried out by God himself, which leads to one being set aside for pastoral ministry. The incredibly serious calling and responsibility of pastoral work is not to be passed off to those uncalled and ungifted by the Spirit for that work.

A few practical suggestions come to mind. First, we need to stop calling small group leaders “little pastors” or other such titles (as is often the case). At best, they should be facilitators; those who start the meetings and get the conversation going. Second, perhaps the teaching element in small groups should be more carefully controlled; small group leaders should be encouraged to stay on script as much as possible, provided there is a teaching element to the small group meeting (and a script). Third, as an alternative to the previous suggestion, perhaps the current small-group model in many churches, which often does include a Bible-study or teaching time, should be amended in favor of more reflection and discussion (personal application of the sermon instead of additional teaching), more fellowship, and always, more prayer for each other’s specific needs–the latter element being the one that always seems to go missing.

As a side note here, I used to laugh quite a bit at our church in our previous city when small groups created names such as “Men’s Basketball Group,” Ladies’ Coffee Group,” “Bowling Group,” “Knitting Group,” etc. I bemoaned the fact that such “fellowship groups” seemed to omit things like Bible teaching. I now realize that such groups might have been a bit more on track than current small groups, as long as spiritual things and personal issues were discussed, and as long as prayer was prioritized in some way. The key point in this whole thing is not to get more teaching, but to get involved in each other’s lives and provide loving friendship and accountability. Another positive from the “fellowship group” model is that I think it unlikely for serious community and discipleship to occur when groups are composed of largely heterogeneous mixtures: male and female, old and young, married and single, etc. Much more honest conversation can occur if groups are founded on similar life experiences and stages.

Nevertheless, perhaps it’s time for large churches to realize they may have a serious problem. There are theologians who believe churches should never grow so large that pastors cannot adequately care for the flock; this seems to me to be biblically-sound reasoning. Churches cannot simply be preaching stations where people gather around a preferred preacher or personality. Perhaps pastors in such situations should even consider capping growth if their members cannot be adequately cared for. As always here, the relevant issues are not merely “technical” (doctrinal), but practical (spiritual). What is at stake is the growth of God’s people; that every Christian be presented “mature in Christ,” the great enterprise of which the Apostle Paul said, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:28-29). This goal, the full-orbed holiness of God’s people, is the great and central task of pastors, and it requires specific and genuine spiritual giftedness that non-pastors simply do not have, and which no small group can make up for when absent.

A Word on the Gospel-Centered Movement

One of the evangelical church’s recent movements–though it goes back a couple of decades now–is the “gospel-centered” movement, which, as its designation indicates, seeks to make the gospel central to the Christian life. On the face of it, the movement has much to commend itself; the gospel is obviously of paramount importance in the New Testament, so clearly we should talk about it a lot. However, in many such churches the gospel seems to be presented as everything, particularly when it comes to sanctification, the process by which Christians become more like God. It usually goes like this: If you want to become more like Jesus, simply reflect more on the gospel, and this will do the trick.

This should strike any thoughtful believer as a bit misguided. Reflecting or meditating on the gospel is obviously important, and many Christians, especially those in Reformed contexts, need to focus much more on the reality of their salvation in Christ and what he has accomplished and take consolation and assurance from it. Too often in Reformed contexts the emphasis for assurance is unconsciously put on our works; gospel-centered thinking is helpful, I believe, in addressing this problem.

Unfortunately, however, this is not all there is to it. The truth is that the Bible simply doesn’t present the process of sanctification in the way gospel-centered advocates often claim. In this post I want to examine two mistakes gospel-centered advocates often seem to make in this matter.

The first mistake is to equate reflecting on the gospel with gaining supernatural power. Logically speaking, of course, “x reflects on the gospel” and “x gains Holy Spirit power” are not even remotely equivalent propositions; perhaps the thought here is that they are two ways of referring to the same state of affairs. If this were the case, of course, we would need theological evidence to back up this somewhat unusual claim. In the Word of God, of course, “x gains Holy Spirit power” describes a real event; it is an actual occurrence. But then, so is “x reflects on the gospel.” How then could these things be thought of as the same event? On the one hand, we have a human mind reflecting on the facts of the gospel; on the other, we have a human soul/body being filled with a supernatural force from outside of itself. Clearly these two are not the same state of affairs.

Some gospel-centered preachers appear to get closer to the mark and present faith/gospel reflection as the means whereby we get more of the Spirit’s power. They claim that while these two truths are not the same, there is nevertheless a cause/effect relationship between them. For theological support, the book of Galatians, which discusses both faith and the role of the Holy Spirit, is often cited. But it seems here that gospel-centered advocates are making some rather dubious assumptions. While Galatians is clear that it is our initial act of faith in Christ that justifies us and is the occasion of the first experience of the Spirit in our lives, it would certainly be a theological non sequitur to say that continuing to reflect on the gospel gains for us increasing measures of the Spirit’s power. This is at best odd; at worst heretical. There is no theological relationship between our initial, justifying act of faith and subsequent reflection on the gospel. The initial act of faith that justifies us is a one-time event, as is our initial indwelling by the Spirit. This is basic Biblical theology.

What Galatians does make clear is that it is our duty after we are initially in-dwelt by the Spirit to “walk by the Spirit.” What exactly this means is an important topic to explore, but as an initial point here it surely rises higher than simply reflecting on the gospel. For one thing, this idea is nowhere found in the Bible. Thus, if gospel-centered advocates preach such a thing, they are not preaching a clear Biblical directive; at best it would be an assumption or inference, and we all know what happens when we try to bend or stretch Biblical texts to fit our theological frameworks. But while it is interesting to note that for Paul in Galatians forgetting the true gospel is tantamount to forgetting the Spirit’s role–circumcision takes the focus off of Christ and the Holy Spirit by putting the focus on the flesh–we cannot thereby claim that remembering, recalling, or reflecting on the Gospel automatically recovers the Spirit, or some such thing. That’s not Paul’s point. His point is simply that if we have begun our Christian life in the Spirit, it makes sense to continue to walk by the Spirit; it is in fact imperative (Galatians 6:7-9).

So how do we “walk by the Spirit?” Thankfully, the Word of God is abundantly clear on one essential way to do this. “Watch and pray,” says Jesus, “That you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41). “How much more,” says Jesus in Luke 11:13, “will your heavenly father give the Spirit to them that ask him?” “For this reason I bow my knees before the father” says Paul in Ephesians 1, and then he goes on to describe how he is praying for greater experiences of spiritual knowledge, grace, and power in the Ephesians’ lives. Let us be perfectly clear: simply focusing on the facts of the gospel is not in itself spiritual power, nor does it automatically bring spiritual power. Only the Holy Spirit itself is spiritual power, and the Holy Spirit’s power comes to us uniquely through the means of prayer. Thus, a daily, prayerful struggle against sin and the spiritual forces of wickedness (Ephesians 6:18), in which we are actively depending on God and his spiritual power, is what the church desperately needs to bring into focus. But where is mention of it today?

Is prayer the only way to receive the Spirit? Surely not; the Spirit helps us many times, perhaps, when we are not even aware of it, and it is important to recall that the Word of God is called the “sword of the Spirit” in Ephesians. So focusing on anything written by God himself (the entire Word) is fuel for the Spirit’s fire, not simply the gospel message. But ultimately, and most importantly, the Spirit comes on those who watch and wait in believing prayer. Indeed, the Spirit’s power is actually foundational to everything, including believing the gospel itself! We can’t get around basic Biblical “anthropology”: without the Spirit, faith (or any good thing) is simply not possible, for we are people of flesh. This is why a daily dependence on God through prayer remains the message of the hour for the Christian church. There is indeed a cause/effect relationship between reflecting on the gospel and receiving spiritual power, but it may be more Biblically accurate to say that it is in some sense the opposite of what gospel-centered advocates claim! Only by daily, watchful prayer and the Holy Spirit’s power can we effectively reflect on and believe the gospel.

The gospel is a set of truths to be assented to and held with all one’s heart. But we dare not confuse it with the Holy Spirit itself, which enables us to believe it, both at conversion and throughout our lives. And we dare not reduce Spirit-empowered holy living to simply meditating on the gospel. The battle to walk by and be filled with the Spirit is the Christian’s great calling. And while we certainly don’t want to substitute that for faith, neither do we want to reverse it and substitute faith for walking by the Spirit. To do so would be a serious and dangerous oversimplification, for it would leave us without that most fundamental of all spiritual weapons, the weapon by which the truths of the Word of God (including the gospel!) are effectively wielded in our lives and others’: the weapon of prayer.