Several weeks ago I wrote a post about the importance of teaching the depth of man's depravity and sin before our regeneration for a proper recognition of the gospel. Today, I want to switch gears a little bit and look at another oft-neglected or under-emphasized piece of the beautiful work that is the gospel.
What I fear occurs is that after our salvation, we neglect the gospel, almost as if it were simply a means to save me from hell and then send me off to hear some "practical" sermons. And what this does is cause us to neglect the most central tenet of our Christian faith: the centrality of Jesus. We treat Him as if He were a means to an end, not the end itself.
Sure, salvation is great. But the gospel and the depth of its meaning cannot stop there. We treat the gospel as if it ends at the tomb. Jesus died, paid for our sin, then was buried. Thank Him for paying the penalty for our sin, and let's all listen to a lecture on how to be non-rebellious teens, choose hymns, and do courtship!
No! Wrong! Incorrect! That's exactly what we do in the church today, and I think many of us have seen it, even if we haven't detected it as false. Jesus is no longer our source of life, our Hope, our Savior, and our Guide. He is no longer the central focus of our entire saved existence. He's now been reduced in our estimation to a means to get me to heaven, while we focus on the "practical" side of Scripture.
Sure there's a practical side to the Bible. But it only works when approached with the attitude of one enthralled with the gospel and Jesus Christ. Instead, we want Jesus for heaven and the Bible to make all my problems go away, more as a spiritual encyclopedia to answer my questions than as a guide to know Jesus.
Instead, we should approach the Bible as the means God uses to reveal Himself to undeserving mankind. When we put the gospel out of our minds while we work on ourselves and listen to "practical"sermons (How to have a successful marriage, How to handle money God's way, How to...), we miss the big picture. We forget the "God has done" gospel for the "You must do" gospel.
Is there a Christian way to handle money? Absolutely, but I think Jesus would rather have a relationship with you than watch you have one with Dave Ramsey. In order to truly know Christ, we must constantly rehearse the story of Jesus in our minds.
Unless we constantly rehearse what Jesus did, does our practical insight do any good?What happens then is the emphasis revolves around us, more of a consumeristic approach. What do I like in a church, what suites me best, what practical areas do I need help in? And the church follows the trap. In order to get more people in, the church in many cases ceases to even mention Christ and gospel and instead wants to focus on the "relevant" topics of the day: money management, marriage, etc.
But here's the problem: we could teach on all those things without Jesus Christ. We don't Jesus to manage money well; just ask Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. We don't need Jesus for a good marriage; there's countless strong, unsaved marriages out there. When we remove Jesus from our churches, the church ceases to be a tool of Jesus Christ, and instead becomes simply a morality seminar.
We've all seen it in churches. I personally drive by a church quite frequently whose motto is proudly displayed on the sign, "We read from the Bible and sing from a hymnbook." Is it a bad omen if your church's motto doesn't even bother to mention Jesus? Go back to what I just said: you can read the Bible and sing from a hymnbook all day long without Jesus. You don't need a Savior for that; you need a motivational speaker, a life coach.
And that's what I fear many churches have become: simply a motivational speaker, a life coach from behind a pulpit. Lakewood Church, pastored by Joel Osteen, is one of the most popular churches in America. Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against Osteen, but I think this shows exactly what I'm talking about when I say "motivational speaker".
Here's an interesting tidbit from his book Becoming a Better You, "“At the start of each new day, remind yourself: “I am talented. I am
creative. I am greatly favored by God. I am equipped. I am well able. I
will see my dreams come to pass.” Declare those statements by faith and
before long, you will begin to see them in reality.” Here's another, not-so-biblical one, "“Who told you that something was wrong with you?” (I'm getting these off the internet, so I'm not positive as to the context of that last one. I hope it doesn't actually mean what it looks like it means.)
Does anybody see what I'm saying here? No longer is the church to proclaim man's inept failure to pacify a holy God; no longer does the church proclaim God's incredible gift to mankind; we're left with statements to repeat to yourself in front of a mirror. And at the end of the day, I think we all realize that I, of myself, am empty. I'm not that talented, I'm not well able, I'm not amazing, and I'm certainly not overly creative. Any gift I possess is directly from God, and by his mercy.
Instead, we have the "life coach gospel" that calls to our practical side. But the very piece of this gospel that calls to my practical side neglects my spiritual side. How on earth can repeating slogans in front of a mirror promote a relationship with Christ? But it's simply a more liberal take with the same problems many more fundamental churches struggle with. Fundamentalists do it too. We simply do it differently. We do indeed confront your own ineptitude before God (at least a version of it); many times we do indeed present the basics of the gospel; but as soon as you're saved, the gospel is tossed out the window in favor of human effort and achievement.
You can still be saved and be working for the wrong reasons. Good advice, even Biblical good advice, is not the focus of Christianity. Instead, the focus of our faith is on the person and work of Jesus Christ. When we neglect these in order to instead focus on personal moral achievement, we miss the basis of what following Christ means.
Absolutely following Christ is practical, not just head-knowledge. But the correct way to go about the practical side of Christ is to look at it through the lenses of His atoning work in my life and with His strength to fix it. The problem comes through good, sound, practical teaching, where Christ is not mentioned. And before you claim that that doesn't happen, I have personally sat through weeks of preaching where Jesus name was mentioned probably four times the entire day at church; not just one service, but multiple services in a row where all emphasis was upon us, and our job, and our role.
That's why it's called "Christianity" with "Christ" in it. He's the central theme. In the Scripture, do we see Paul coming to the churches with simply advice and rules? Very rarely. He almost always would prelude it and pepper within it references to Jesus Christ and the gospel.
For example, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it." Practical advice, right? "Husbands, love your wives". Instantly, though, Paul turns it back around to emphasis being on Christ himself. Why do you love your wife? Because Jesus himself loved you enough to save you. How should you love your wife? Even as Christ loves the church, and sacrificed his own life for it.
The simple command, "Husbands, love your wives" is motivational, life-coach gospel. "Do this, and you will have a happy, successful marriage." But look. Unbelievers tell husbands to love their wives; that's not unique to Christianity. What instead should be unique to Christianity is the depth of love a husband has for his wife, grounded not in good advice, but instead in the truth of God's own redemptive love in his own life. Paul didn't stop at motivation, good life advice. He wound up back at the gospel, back at the centrality of Christ in everything.
So, application time. When we read our Bibles, when we pray, it's not supposed to be about us. Reading the Scripture is not about fixing all my problems (although that can be an awesome side effect); it's about knowing Jesus. This is how He reveals himself to mankind. Listen for God's voice; don't just read Scripture for answers to your problems. Watch God reveal himself, listen for Him. True, act on the practical Scriptures, but do it through your relationship with Christ, with the focus on Him, with the glory for Him.
The reason we do these practical things is because of what God has done for us. It's done with the remembrance of Jesus' own sacrifice in mind. And the result is, once again, it's all about Jesus. It's all about Him.