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Gospel

Why Being Gospel-Centered Isn’t Trendy

thorramsey No Comments
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This last weekend I watched an interview with three younger evangelicals (I think) who were discussing the future of evangelicalism. One of the panelists commented on this trend of gospel-centered speak and how much the term gospel-centric and gospel-centered and gospel-this and gospel-that dominate large swaths of evangelical culture today with their gospel-police and gospel websites and gospel-rightness. He said it in a way that made me a little self-conscious about using the term gospel-centered. For me, it was a little like listening to someone make fun of your mother for being a stay-at-home mom. You can’t expect to make fun of someone’s mother without getting punched in the blog.

Maybe being accustomed to gospel-centeredness as a commonplace theological viewpoint has tarnished his younger evangelical mind. So, let me be the older evangelical who laments about the days when I had to walk to school in a whiteout blizzard before the invention of feet.

The term gospel-centered didn’t exist when I became a Christian. Well, it existed but I had never heard of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and little did he know that his viewpoint would one day be trendy. Oh, the shame!

The trajectory of my Christian beginning went from Campus Crusade to Keith Green to Charles Finney. And it was in the writings of the 18th century revivalist Charles G. Finney where I crash landed for years. Without having a deep understanding of the theology of the gospel, Finney mesmerized me with his colossal intellect and grossly bad theology. Though, being ungrounded in gospel-centered thinking, I didn’t recognize his grossly bad theology. Walking in Finney’s theology, my relationship with Christ was only as secure as my own sinlessness. It’s hard to live a joyous Christian life when you’re going to hell every three seconds. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It was more like every half-second.

Most authors I encountered who were critical of Finney didn’t seem familiar with the actual source material. It was my impression they hadn’t actually read Finney in detail but were only regurgitating some professor’s take on Finney. This wasn’t enough to shake his influence from my life. You must understand that Finney’s thinking works brilliantly as a kind of Christian philosophy. Of course, it fails horribly as a biblical theology, but when you’re not grounded in the gospel you are not wont to recognize this, especially as a young believer.

Fast forward to when I am only a youngish evangelical and part of a church planting team. Not yet completely free of Finney’s thinking, the growing influence of this gospel-centered thing started informing our church plant as we started reading between the lines and turned away from best-selling evangelical progressives. For a sermon series on the American dream, I read this book by this guy named Michael Horton. His book was Christless Christianity and in that book I could tell that he had interacted with Finney himself. Not only did his gospel-centered speak put a nail in Finney’s coffin, but it took me to the brink of Reformed theology and this whole gospel-centered camp. R.C. Sproul picked it up from there with his little book What is Reformed Theology?

After a two year journey, I embraced Reformed theology and it was like a second conversion for me. Truly, I walked around with a joy that was impossible with Finney’s theology of holding onto your salvation with your personal righteousness. God accepted me because of Christ. God loved me because of Christ. God was for me because of Christ. The gospel wasn’t the starting point, it was the entire road. (One of those gospel-centered guys said that.)

Gospel-centeredness saved my Christian life! Being gospel-centered informs my entire ministry now. It informs my marriage and my parenting and everything I do. God speaks to me of his gospel everyday and I am thankful, thankful, thankful, because I know what it’s like trying to gain his acceptance apart from the gospel. I not only want to talk about the gospel and contemplate the gospel — I want to live in the gospel, right in the very center of it.

Gospel-centered speak isn’t trendy. It’s vital.

It’s life and godliness.

I don’t care if it’s trendy or passé. It’s a fashion I’m wearing the rest of my life.

So, my younger evangelical friends, just be careful how you speak about my mother. She’s the one who dressed me.

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The Right Attitude About Hell

thorramsey No Comments
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Below is an article that I wrote for The Gospel Coalition:

I’m going out on a limb here, but I would bet (if only there were a biblical precedent) that the readership of this site doesn’t need to be convinced that eternal damnation is a longstanding biblical doctrine, that there will be a separation of the sheep and the goats, that people who don’t repent and believe will suffer a Christ-less eternity. But if we are truly convinced of the reality of hell, how should that affect our preaching? How should that affect the tone of our witness as Christians?

If there were evangelical action figures (and there probably are — I just haven’t been to my local Christian bookstore lately), I would have a twelve-inch tall Martyn Lloyd-Jones displayed on my bookshelf, wooden pulpit to scale included, robes sold separately. Plastered on the wall in front of my desk is the next best thing, a customized Fathead filled with MLJ quotes, one of which says: “The Apostle Paul tells us himself that he preached with tears.” Lloyd-Jones believed in the urgency of preaching because hell is real. “Nothing can be so terribly urgent,” he reminds us. Or at least he reminds me every day of the week, because there it is — right in the middle of that Fathead poster!

It’s not that I need to be reminded of the reality of hell. I need to be reminded of tears. You see, I don’t come from a family of huggers. We’re Germanic. We might salute each other, but we’re not about to hug. I’ve never seen anyone from my dad’s side of the family cry and we’ve attended funerals together. Maybe it’s the goose-stepping pallbearers, the point is we are not exactly the ethnic tribe known for warm fuzzies. My relatives are more apt to bean bunnies over the head with shovels than wiggle their noses at them. Well, how else do you protect the vegetables in your garden? It’s just our way.

Is that an excuse though? Are tears cultural? They’re weepers, you know. They’re huggers. Is it okay if white Reformed preachers never weep publicly from the pulpit? Is it always simply emotionalism when preachers emote? If the two great cares of a preacher’s soul are the glory of God and the good of fellow sentient beings, then we should weep from the pulpit sometimes. If you never preach with tears, then you’re not preaching biblically, my brother. Or is that too much of a stretch?

Paul said that he “did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” (Acts 20:31) Sure, it made Thanksgiving dinner a little uncomfortable, but there you have it. When he saw people denying the one who gives them everything, a people who worshipped everything except the one from whom everything comes, he grieved. So should we.

The other fact that should evoke our emotion is that souls will be lost forever, something God himself does not take delight in. (Ez. 18:23) What an emotional burden to enter a pulpit with! There is no place in your sermon notes where you can write “cry here.” You can’t force tears. (And if you can, then you’re in the wrong business. Get an agent.) But if Paul admonished everyone with tears, shouldn’t we at least admonish a few with tears? People are bound for hell. Does that smack of emotionalism? Luke tells us in Acts that Paul served “the Lord with all humility and with tears.” And he never added, “but he was very emotional, you know.”

We cannot preach on God’s judgement without some deep sense of grief. Well, we can, but we shouldn’t. This is why hellfire and brimstone preaching developed a bad reputation to begin with — lack of tears. If we lack a deep sense of heartbreak when speaking about hell, we will sound callous.

Recently, I learned about a dear family member who has gone from model homeschool child to twenty-something on the far end of an anti-God worldview that confuses every category of life. It’s been a tragic journey to witness. So, when I walked the congregation through Paul’s progression of where idolatry leads in Romans chapter one, I had a lump in my throat. Up close and personal, there is a real flesh and bones loved one lost to this progression. “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (Phil. 3:18) I didn’t have to share the details of the story, but the Scripture drew out the emotional core of the tragedy in my voice. I wish I could say that this was my emotional core when speaking of judgement more often. There’s something else to weep over — my own personal failures when it comes to caring. I’m a long way from Paul’s emotional history.

Just look at Paul’s progression in Romans 8, beginning with no condemnation for those in Christ, climbing to the God who justifies, the Christ who died, more than that, who was raised, peaking with a gospel that promises (and I’m paraphrasing here) nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This epic rendition of the gospel is followed by his plea that if it were possible for him to be damned in place of his countrymen, he would do it. His heart is in anguish over them, but it’s not emotionalism in any sense. The gospel is his motivation to care to the point of tears.

All I’m suggesting here is that when we bring up such a weighty subject as the perdition of human beings, there are appropriate emotional qualities that should accompany it. When it comes to hell… our voices should crack.

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