Last week I received a letter from my friend Ana. The first part of her first question read:
In the Reformed/Gospel-centered movement, the focus seems to be on how sinful and wicked and powerless we all are and how comforted and relieved we should be when we look to the cross. It seems like the answer to most problems is to look to the cross more. I don’t even know exactly what that means. For me, it encouraged a miserable cycle of wallowing in how awful I am and basing the Christian life on the feelings I get when I think of Jesus dying for me.
Here is my reply:
Thank you for this—you’ve put into words something that has concerned me for years. I’ve written about various aspects of it, but your letter pulls several of those concepts together.
I’m going to break your paragraph down so that parts of it have become the headings for this blog post. I’m also linking to other blog posts that enlarge on what I’m saying here, which I hope you’ll read, because they’re part of my answer to your concerns on this extremely important topic.
The Gospel-centered movement
I came into the “Reformed/Gospel-centered movement” in 2007, unaware of anything regarding any sort of movement. I remember listening to my first CJ Mahaney sermon that same year, from a CD a friend lent me, in which Mahaney said that [whatever it was he was talking about] was because of the gospel.
I appreciated this, because I loved thinking about all of life being for the sake of the gospel, which of course had a non-elusive definition to me, as being the good news of the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and seating of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the salvation of souls and the transformation of lives. It didn’t cross my mind that others who taught using the term might be using it differently.
As time went on and I heard “the gospel” used more and more with what seemed to me like less and less clarity, I began to wonder what people meant when they talked about it. I wrote this post in 2010, observing how for some reason “the gospel” in many cases seemed to be replacing Jesus Christ Himself.
The focus on how sinful and wicked we all are
Yes, I also observed how much emphasis CJ Mahaney and others put on the utter vile wretched sinfulness of . . . those who had been redeemed by the Spirit of God. This disturbed me for several years before I finally wrote this post and several others refuting this claim.
“Look to the cross more”
I also observed that their focus was on “the cross.” Hardly ever the Resurrection, which was supremely puzzling to me.
And certainly not the Ascension and Seating. Whoever talks about those, unless you happen to be studying through Ephesians or Hebrews? (And usually the barest mention even then.)
And I noticed again that sometimes these speakers and leaders would talk about “the cross” when they should have been talking about Jesus Christ Himself.
Glorying in the cross according to Galatians 6:14
In my puzzlement trying to understand why the focus on “the cross,” I figured people had taken Galatians 6:14 out of balance.
But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.
But both common sense and a study of the Scriptures would show that this doesn’t mean we should preach the cross only and glory in nothing else. Paul himself even gloried in the souls who were coming to Christ through his ministry (Romans 15:17, 1 Thessalonians 2:20).
The reason Paul wrote this Galatians passage with this extreme wording about the cross was that the preaching of the cross (the most ignominious device for public execution) was a reproach, a point of mocking, making Christians a laughingstock. Paul vigorously pushed back with, “Nay! His death on the cross is how Jesus Christ secured forgiveness of sins for those who trust in Him! I’ll not only preach it, I will glory in preaching it!”
But it has seemed in recent years that some Christians haven’t understood the context and as a result have focused on “the cross” almost the way the Catholics of the Middle Ages focused on “the cross.”
Basing the Christian life on the feelings [emotions] I get (comfort and relief) when I think of Jesus dying for me
What I’ve observed over the past decade and more has been what you describe. Urging Christians to focus on our own sinfulness (as CJ Mahaney said, “Staying close to the doctrine of sin”). Urging us to “look to the cross more,” to try to meditate more on the fact that we’re forgiven.
The “comfort and relief” you mention are to be based on the gratefulness you’ll be flooded with as you meditate on “the cross.” (This will mean that when anyone asks you how you’re doing, you’ll always say “better than I deserve,” because you deserve hell.)
And then that gratefulness is supposed to motivate you to good works.
Now, of course, gratitude is a wonderful and important thing. And God gave us an absolutely incredible gift by giving us His Son, for which we are supremely grateful.
This is why it took several years before I could put words to what bothered me about this teaching. The result was this blog post here.
The “miserable cycle”
You mention feelings of comfort and relief. But this teaching is actually designed to produce a Christian life that is of a cyclical nature, so those feelings of comfort and relief are supposed to be relatively short-lived. You are supposed to go back to feeling yourself to be a wretched sinner, and if you don’t, then that means you’re arrogant and self-righteous.
So this is how it’s supposed to go:
1. You, as a blood-bought and redeemed child of God, meditate on what a wretched vile sinner you are. (Here is another post about another one of the passages used to promote this false teaching.)
2. For relief from your horror at your own inexhaustible well of sin, you meditate on “the cross.”
3. As you meditate on that, you are filled with gratefulness that Jesus would suffer that terrible death for such a depraved and wretched and worthless sinner as yourself.
4. This gratefulness then motivates you to good works, which in several significant cases I’ve observed of the “gospel-centered” preachers, the leaders want to determine for you instead of acknowledging that you can listen to and be led by the Holy Spirit yourself. (In preaching or counseling, the good works will often look like “try harder,” “submit more,” “serve the church,” “emphasize theology,” “go to church,” “give more,” “give up your rights,” “be transparent about your sin,” “die to yourself,” “suffer well,” “forgive and forget,” “obey your authorities,” “be loyal to your authorities,” “let the past be the past,” “refrain from gossip or slander or bearing false witness,” and many, many others that I’ve blogged about at one time or another.)
BUT the cycle continues, because:
5. The good works are done in the strength of the flesh. (I know this, because spiritual transformation and walking in the Holy Spirit and listening to His voice and acknowledging the spiritual battle coming from the enemy’s fiery darts are not part of that formula above.)
6. You get exhausted, because working for the Lord out of your own strength is always exhausting. The work feels futile or unsatisfying or too difficult.
7. You wonder “is this really all there is?” and then you feel guilty for being dissatisfied in the work you’re doing. Sometimes you might want to receive some sort of earthly reward for your work. Maybe you take your frustrations out on someone else, causing them pain.
8. Then you feel even more guilty.
9. You see that your emotions are “all over the place,” and so instead of ever being told to listen to your emotions to find out what’s going on inside, you’re told that you’re supposed to train your emotions to be “godly emotions,” as this blog post says. (The truth is that your emotions are telling you something important you need to know about yourself. Whether they’re based on truth or lies, they need to be heard and understood.)
10. You bemoan the wretched sinfulness of your heart, affirming the truth of what the preacher preached.
And this is only a very mild presentation of the most mild version of the problem. I didn’t even factor in the possibility of abusers being in charge of the cycle, who at every stage would be glad to (either harshly or gently) affirm what a vile wretch you are, and will be glad to ordain what the “good works” you do should look like, and will (either gently or harshly) point out your ungratefulness and dissatisfaction and failure to measure up. They will do this with varying degrees of finesse, depending on how skilled they are at their role of Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.
And I also didn’t mention the possibility of survivors of abuse being the recipients of the teaching that promotes the cycle, for most of whom the reactions to the various parts of the cycle can be more extreme.
It is truly a miserable cycle. . . .
But there is a better way.
The better way
The better way is why I started this blog, back in 2009. Though some of these understandings I’m describing here came years after I started writing this blog, my primary purpose then was to talk about the “other part” of the gospel—not just the change of destination, but the change of our entire lives, right here on earth, because of what Jesus accomplished for us.
* The change to being unafraid of your emotions, knowing that they are giving you an indication of what’s going on inside you, to be able to face them without guilt, which can better help you understand yourself and your past.
A new way of seeing
So I’ll rewrite your paragraph:
In your Christian life, your focus can be on how powerful and good our Lord Jesus Christ is, how He accomplished all your salvation, both in eternity and right now, having provided all you need to live and walk in victory now. The answer to many problems will be to look to Him, understanding that He has given you His Holy Spirit to commune with your own spirit about truth regarding who He is and who you are, and that He has equipped you to fight the inevitable spiritual battles, not only against your own sin (which He gladly frees you from), but against the evil in the world around you that is destroying lost souls. When you read the Scriptures, this “gospel” can be the overarching template in which everything fits. You can expect that the living water Jesus promised in John 7 will flow in and through you to others, in whatever way He leads. Knowing that you can live the Christian life without fear or guilt, asking God to continue to make changes in you, being willing to learn from your varied emotions, loving Him without fear that every turning aside is “idolatry,” and trusting Him to lead you step by step by His Holy Spirit, you can trust that He is empowering you to accomplish whatever good work He may call you to, because He is powerful, He is good, and He loves you.
And yes, this is truly “good news.” Almost too good to be true.