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.