Learning and Living the God-centered life

One Biblical Doctrine at a time…
Jun 2011

Open Letter to North American Churches

This open letter is from Rev. Fletcher Matandika Pastor, NewWestminster Chapel NewWestminster, British Columbia, Canada

My main goal in writing this letter is to highlight what I consider to be the central problem that I have observed and experienced in the North AmericanChurch, which is the lack of the faithful preaching of the Word of God. Article 29 of The Belgic Confession ofFaith identifies this as the first mark of a true church.The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q & A 89) clearly states, “The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (emphasis mine).

The pure and unadulterated gospel of God’s grace is a nonnegotiable priority for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sadly, something other than the pure gospel of God’s salvation for sinners has taken center stage in the pulpits of North America to the extent that some churches have become what the Westminster Confession of Faith rightly describes as “the synagogues of Satan” (WCF 25.5). In many church circles, people do not want to hear about their fallen state because of sin and their need for faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, leading to repentance unto salvation. These important truths are not always discussed, explained, or applied in the pulpits of America.

I have been to a number of churches where from the moment you walk in, you have no idea what’s going on. You go there expecting to worship and meet with the Living God, but you come out dejected and wondering if it was all worth it—sometimes feeling as if you had just participated in some evil practice (like pagan worship). The moment the preacher opens his mouth, I have often caught myself reaching for a “seatbelt,” not knowing where he was going to take me—many times not preaching from a text of Scripture but building the “sermon” around a movie clip, a newspaper article, or a story of his own making. It’s like riding on the dirty and bumpy roads in Malawi in a jeep that has neither shocks nor brakes. It’s very frightening and uncomfortable to say the least—and it’s pretty sickening.What’s worse though is hearing people’s remarks after hearing such a “sermon,” such as “Wasn’t that a great sermon?” and how“so and so” is a great preacher. The people sitting in the pews are just gobbling up garbage and junk (which is pollution for the soul) as their level of biblical knowledge and doctrine is so low—almost nonexistent for many of them. They can teach their kids to sing songs such as “Jesus Loves Me This I Know,” but they have no clue what that really means. I have been brought to tears, mourning for the lost opportunity for so many who need to hear “Thus saith the Lord”—a prophetic word from the mouth of God through the preacher to sinners who are at odds with him because of their sin.

If you would like to read the entire article then CLICK ON THIS LINK.

Bert’s comments:
This article is powerful and hard hitting against the soft and watered down preaching that has invaded the pulpits in many of our churches today. In the past 13 years I have had the privilege and joy to teach in both mega churches and small churches. I am sad to report that Rev. Fletcher Matandika has correctly stated the problem today in the American church. The first step in this solution will be for those in leadership, pastors and elders to admit this problem does exist in the church and get back to gospel-centered preaching.

Do people in the church today understand justification?

Most people in the pew are simply not acquainted with the doctrine of justification. Often, it is not a part of the diet of preaching and church life, much less a dominant theme in the Christian subculture. With either stern rigor or happy tips for better living, “fundamentalists” and “progressives” alike smother the gospel in moralism, through constant exhortations to personal transformation that keep the sheep looking to themselves rather than looking outside of themselves to Christ…

The average feature article in [Christian magazines] or Christian best-seller’s is concerned with “good works”-trends in spirituality, social activism, church growth, and discipleship.

However, it’s pretty clear that justification is simply not on the radar. Even where it is not outright rejected, it is often ignored. Perhaps the forgiveness of sins and justification are appropriate for “getting saved,” but then comes the real business of Christian living-as if there could be any genuine holiness of life that did not arise out of a perpetual confidence that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). - Michael Horton

Evidences of Salvation

This blog article from Am I Really a Christian? by Mike McKinley

How do you know if you’re really a Christian? This can be a dangerous question if taken the wrong way, so you have to check your intentions (not asking as a means to judge others or to beat yourself up for an area in which you think you fall short).
At the same time there’s a concerning trend:

There are far too many people who think that they are Christians, but aren’t actually in Christ.

We have a genuine love and concern for those in the church who may assume salvation is by association. Are we depending on church attendance, family background, and good intentions?

Genuine faith shows evidence of regeneration. Scripture gives us five criteria by which you can evaluate faith. If these things are present in your life, they are indications that you are truly being transformed by a vibrant and real faith.
  • Belief in true doctrine. You aren’t a Christian if you simply like Jesus. Lots of people like Jesus. Gandhi wrote fondly of Jesus’ gentleness, the Dalai Lama applauded him as “enlightened,” and most people enjoy seeing his face around Christmastime sprinkled somewhere in the commercial jungle. To be a genuine Christian, you must have sincere faith in Christ and his atoning work on the cross. That must be the central drive of your life.

  • Hatred of sin in your life. All Christians struggle with sin. But if you have real faith, you will not enjoy your sins, but work to stamp them out. We all sin, Christians and non-Christians alike. The difference lies in the the effort and desire to improve ourselves and sin less vs. allowing sinful practices to be the enjoyable, ongoing trajectory of our lives.

  • Perseverance over time. You’re not a Christian if you don’t persevere in your faith and endure through the spiritually dark times. God is certainly there to sustain you, but you are also responsible for making the conscious, and sometimes painful, effort to endure in the faith.

  • Love for other people. Genuine Christians have care and concern for other people. This includes brothers and sisters in the faith, the poor and downtrodden, and, hard as it is, your enemies.

  • Freedom from love of the world. You aren’t a Christian if the things of this world are more valuable to you than your faith in God. Prosperity is not inherently bad, and it can be evidence of obedience and wisdom. But it is tremendously easy for those with wealth to rely on money more than God. Money has an uncanny power of numbing peoples’ need for the Lord. Only God can meet your greatest needs.

The consequence of spiritual amnesia

One reason we don’t grow in ordinary, grateful obedience as we should is that we’ve got amnesia; we’ve forgotten that we are cleansed from our sins. In other words, ongoing failure in sanctification (the slow process of change into Christlikeness) is the direct result of failing to remember God’s love for us in the gospel. If we lack the comfort and assurance that his love and cleansing are meant to supply, our failures will handcuff us to yesterday’s sins, and we won’t have faith or courage to fight against them, or the love for God that’s meant to empower this war. If we fail to remember our justification, redemption, and reconciliation, we’ll struggle in our sanctification.

- Elyse Fitzpatrick - Because He Loves Me

How the gospel is spoiled

You may spoil the gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eyes of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to faith—Jesus Christ—and to substitute another object in His place—and the mischief is done.

You may spoil the gospel by addition. You have only to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done.

You may spoil the gospel by disproportion. You have only to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done.

Lastly, but not least, you may completely spoil the gospel by confused and contradictory directions. Confused and disorderly statements about Christianity are almost as bad as no statement at all. Religion of this sort is not evangelical.

- J.C. Ryle

Behind the Scenes

There are lots of illustrations that I like to use when teaching Bible Doctrine. Over the course of 3 years I would normally run an illustration by Nancy to see how it would hit her. If she responded with favor I used it on Sunday but if she didn’t get it or thought it was off then I would give it the nix. As some of you remember I really wanted to get across the picture of unconditional grace. I said this is the type of grace that is counter-intuitive and messes up your hair. So I came upon what I thought would be a great illustration.
However this one never made it off the cutting room floor so to speak. When Nancy saw this she simply said No, that is not how you want to illustrate radical unconditional grace. So here is a behind the scenes look at one illustration that was nixed.

Gospel Centered Parenting

A few weeks ago, Elyse Fitzpatrick and Scott Anderson talked about Elyse’s ministry, biblical counseling, and gospel-centered parenting on DG Live, based off of her new book Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus.

If Elyse’s name sounds familiar to any of you that is good. One of her books is on our summer reading list - “Because He Loves Me.”

Why do we need more gospel centered preaching, teaching and books?

1. Because the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor 15:3). In describing his ministry—a ministry that communicated “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)—Paul described it as testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

2. Because you’re going to roll out of bed tomorrow a functional Pharisee. The instincts beneath your instincts, the impulses way down deep inside you, are law, not gospel. A good night’s sleep, not a heretical sermon, is all it takes to forget the gospel of grace.

3. Because the gospel is disputed and debated today. What is the gospel? What are the implications of the gospel? What is the relationship between the gospel and the kingdom of God? How does the gospel relate to growth in godliness? What is the connection between the gospel and community? These questions need answers from different people, with different voices and different backgrounds, who love the same gospel.

4. Because the church is always one generation away from losing the gospel. Every generation must rediscover the glories of free grace for itself.

5. Because for every book exulting in or explaining or defending the gospel, a hundred more roll off the press which, wittingly or unwittingly, distract us from that which is of first importance.

6. Because the gospel is the central message of the entire Bible. Jesus said that even Moses was writing, ultimately, about him (John 5:46). The last verse of the Bible sums up the core message of the Bible: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev. 22:21).

The gospel is the scandalous news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our disobedience cannot dent God’s approval of us and our obedience cannot help God’s approval of us, as we look in trusting faith to Christ. And the priority of this gospel, the functional need of the gospel, the contesting of the gospel, the retaining of the gospel, the constant sidelining of the gospel, and the unified biblical testimony to the gospel all unite to say—yes, we need more books on this gospel.

from Dane Ortlund’s blog site

False Doctrine

Let us be on our guard against false doctrine. Unsound faith will never be the mother of really sound practice, and in these latter days, departures from the faith abound.

See then that your loins be girded about with truth, and be very jealous of receiving anything which cannot be proved by the Bible. Do not think for a moment that false doctrine will meet you face to face, saying, “I am false doctrine, and I want to come into your heart.” Satan does not go to work in that way. He dresses up false doctrine like Jezebel — he paints her face and attires her hair, and tries to make her like truth.

Do not think that those who preach error will never preach anything that is true. Error would do little harm if that was the case. No! Error will come before you mingled with much that is sound and scriptural .~ J.C. Ryle

Who is the subject of the gospel story? Hint: It isn't you

"The gospel is unintelligible to most people today, especially in the West, because their own particular stories are remote from the story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation that is narrated in the Bible. Our focus is introspective and narrow, confided to our own immediate knowledge, experience, and intuition. Trying desperately to get others, including God, to make us happy, we cannot seem to catch a glimpse of the real story that gives us a meaningful role."

— Michael Horton (Gospel-Driven Life, The: Being Good News People in a Bad News World)

If you would like to hear Dr. Horton discuss what should comprise the gospel story and what should not then CLICK ON THIS LINK.

Accountability Groups...Does this work?

In the last 6 weeks of the “Learning and Living the God-centered Life” I focused on the Doctrine of Salvation. In the final two weeks I concentrated on the study of unconditional grace. I said it then and I will say it again, this kind of grace is disruptive, counter-intuitive, and it messes up your hair. It is not taught nor understood in many evangelical churches. Over the years how many times have you heard and been encouraged to become part of an accountability group? But what if I told you that all that tends to do is put people under more law and not grace. Many of you would respond “what, have you lost your Biblical mind?” Of course we need accountability, because if we don’t have it we are going to just sin like crazy and live without constraints. When is the last time you read Romans 6? Is that the strategy of the apostle Paul when he leaves Romans 5? He is talking about grace is such crazy terms that apparently his objectors thought “Paul if your idea of grace is right, then we should sin more and more so the grace of God will show up and be revealed.” So you start to read Romans 6 thinking maybe Paul is going to get a little balance in his teaching and go back to the law. But instead he in the first 5 verses goes further and further into the grace of the gospel. Do you see how counter-intuitive that is to our logical minds?

The following article from the Resurgence Website and very thought provoking as we think through the gospel of grace.


Remembrance vs Spiritual Surveillance

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in “accountability groups” where there has been little to no attention given to the gospel whatsoever. There’s no reminder of what Christ has done for our sin–"cleansing us from its guilt and power"–and the resources that are already ours by virtue of our union with him. These groups produce a “do more, try harder” moralism that robs us of the joy and freedom Jesus paid dearly to secure for us.

When the goal becomes conquering our sin instead of soaking in the conquest of our Savior, we actually begin to shrink spiritually. Sinclair Ferguson rightly points this out:

Those who have almost forgotten about their own spirituality because their focus is so exclusively on their union with Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished are those who are growing and exhibiting fruitfulness. Historically speaking, whenever the piety of a particular group is focused on OUR spirituality, that piety will eventually exhaust itself on its own resources. Only when our piety forgets about us and focuses on Jesus Christ will our piety be nourished by the ongoing resources the Spirit brings to us from the source of all true piety, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Sin: An Identity Crisis

The Puritans used to say that far too many Christians live beneath the level of their privileges. Therefore, I need to be told by those around me that every time I sin I’m momentarily suffering from an identity crisis: forgetting who I actually belong to, what I really want at my remade core, and all that is already mine in Christ. The only way to deal with remaining sin long-term is to develop a distaste for it in light of the glorious riches we already possess in Christ. I need my real friends to remind me of this–every day. Please tell me again and again that God doesn’t love me more when I obey or less when I disobey. Knowing this actually enlarges my heart for God and therefore shrinks my hunger for sin. So, don’t let me forget it. My life depends on it!

The only way to deal with remaining sin long-term is to develop a distaste for it in light of the glorious riches we already possess in Christ.

Believing Deeper, Not Behaving Better

Christian growth, in other words, does not happen first by behaving better, but believing better–believing in bigger, deeper, brighter ways what Christ has already secured for sinners. I need my family and friends to remind me of this all the time.

The bottom line is this, Christian: because of Christ’s work on your behalf, God does not dwell on your sin the way you do. So, relax and rejoice…and you’ll actually start to get better. The irony, of course, is that it’s only when we stop obsessing over our own need to be holy and focus instead on the beauty of Christ’s holiness, that we actually become more holy! Not to mention, we start to become a lot easier to live with!

Will someone please keep reminding me of this?

Preaching the Gospel

A gospel challenge from Greg Stier

How could you preach a sermon without sharing the message of the free grace offered to us through the costly death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

To preach a sermon without giving the gospel is like telling a joke without giving the punchline, baking a pizza without any cheeze or drinking decaffeinated coffee…pointless.

  • There is no theological truth you will ever preach that is deeper than the gospel.
  • There is no action point you can give that is more practical than the gospel.
  • There is no story you could tell that is more dramatic than the gospel.

I could guilt trip you out (it may be someone’s last chance to hear the gospel before they die, etc) but I’d rather grace-trip you out. So let me give that a try.

The gospel is the best news in the world. We have been saved from hell (later) and hopelessness (now) through the shed blood of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We should be so stinkin’ excited about that reality that we can’t help but shout it from the mountaintops every single day and tie it into our sermons every single Sunday.

If you won the lottery you’d tell somebody. If you found the cure to cancer you’d tell everybody. This is way better than both put together and multiplied by a zillion!

The disciples couldn’t stop giving it in every sermon. Check out these verses in Acts 4:18-20, “Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John replied, ‘Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’”

The disciples couldn’t help bringing it up, not just in every sermon, but every conversation between every sermon. The Sanhedrin couldn’t threaten it out of them or beat it out of them…

“…when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” Acts 5:40-42

Let us be like the disciples. Let us preach the gospel so much and so often that even the most ardent and obstinate church council couldn’t threaten it out of us if they tried.

When asked what his style of preaching was Spurgeon responded, “I take my text and make a beeline for the cross.” May we do the same.

The Preachers primary responsibility

The job description of a preacher can be found in 2 Timothy 4:1-4

“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”


Summer Reading...May I suggest

From Resurgence Blog Site

Here is what others are saying about this book


Have we completely lost our way?

This video is back by popular demand. What is the basic strategy of church growth for the 21st Century American Church? If those within the church ask hard questions about these things should we consider them to be naysayers and out of line?

Read this quote about preaching in the church from Charles Spurgeon - The motto of all true servants of God must be, “We preach Christ; and him crucified.” A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching. Are we more concerned with how many people are coming rather than what those that are coming are actually feeding on?

In his book called Radical author David Platt writes the following about how many churches are seeking to grow:
First we need a good performance. In an entertainment driven culture, we need someone who can captivate the crowds. If we don’t have a charismatic communicator, we are doomed. So even if we have to show him on a video screen, we must have a good preacher. It is even better if he has an accomplished worship leader with a strong band at his side.

Next, we need a place to hold the crowds that will come, so we gather all our resources to build a multimillion-dollar facility to house the performance. We must make sure that all facets of the building are excellent and attractive. After all, that is what our culture expects. Honestly, that is what we expect.

Finally, once the crowds get there, we need to have something to keep them coming back. So we need to start programs, first class, top of the line programs - for kids, for youth, for families, for every age and stage. In order to have these programs, we need professionals to run them. That way, for example, parents can simply drop off their kids at the door, and the professionals can handle ministry for them.

I know this may sound oversimplified and exaggerated, but are these not the elements we think of when we consider growing, dynamic, successful churches in our day?

Are we suppose to make a decision for Jesus?

Basic Bible Doctrine

Here is a basic chart that might help just from a visual perspective.

Justification (something that has happened in the past)
Sanctification (something that is happening in the present)
Glorification (something that will happen in the future)

Differences between justification and sanctification

Justification refers to my status (righteousness)
Sanctification refers to my state (becoming what I already am)

Justification is about God's attitude toward me changing
Sanctification is about God changing me

Justification is about how God looks on me
Sanctification is about what He does in me

Justification is about Christ dying for my sins on the cross;
Sanctification is about Christ at work in me by the Holy Spirit transforming my life

Now specifically for justification

  • Justification takes place in the courtroom of God where He pronounces me right in the sight of His law or we could say declares me righteous.

  • Justification a declaration on the part of a righteous judge. When God says that your sins have been paid for they really have been paid for! The sins committed the most vile and wicked thoughts, words and acts that you have ever done are not floating in space that actually came down on and were absorbed by the Lord Jesus Christ and paid in full. Therefore when God looks in the book and sees paid in full that is actual and real.

  • Justification takes care of my condemnation in the eyes of the law.

Understanding our need for The Gospel

To Do List Christianity

Americans are the greatest self-doers in all the world. We live by the catch phrase “if it’s to be its up to me.” One key thing we all need to understand is that from the moment of birth we are hard wired to be legalists. You start to grow up and learn very early that how you feel about yourself is proportionate to how you perform in your roles. If you make an “A” in math then when you get home mom and dad give you an approval stoke and you feel good about yourself. Of course this principle of hard wiring works in the opposite direction when you fail to perform.

Therefore when I am approved of, liked and applauded for achieving to the level in which the bar has been set, I am free to feel good about me. But if I don’t meet expectations then I feel bad about myself. And we see that in all of our roles, whether it be in the role of a student, athlete, parent, teacher, father, daughter, mom, neighbor and the role list goes on and on. From the moment of birth till we die we acquire our various roles in life. We are told our performance requirements and as we set out to achieve to that level for approval from others, and to be happy with self. By the time we reach age 12 we are hardwired for a legalistic life. Now just step back from this information a minute and think about what you have just read.

Go back into childhood, high school, college, beginning years on the job or last week. Think about the time you failed at performing and how bad you felt about yourself, or when you succeeded how good you felt about yourself. It happens all the time because we are hardwired from birth to feel good about self when we do good. It translates into the following statement - What you do is who you are.

Now enter the gospel into the life of the legalistic described above which is both me and you. It is totally counter-intuitive to our legalistic hardwiring. We try to obey Jesus to get His approval instead of knowing we have His approval which motivates us to obey. The church sets before the people hundreds and hundreds of activities to get involved with and to do in the calendar year. And the person in the pew feels that when they are involved and doing a lot of stuff, then they are approved by others (especially leadership) and can feel good about themselves. But if they aren’t engaged in activities that are visible to the corporate body, then they feel less than or discounted in their Christian walk. When people fail they become very despairing, which is one side of legalism and when people succeed, they become proud which is the other side. We many times in the mega church are defined by the things we are doing; community involvement, yard sales, feeding the homeless, and visiting the elderly rather than what Jesus has done by his death and resurrection. I hear much talk about various churches, pastors and projects but little to no talk about Christ crucified. We are fascinated by the doing but are unimpressed by what has been done on our behalf.

I read a survey years ago that was produced by Willow Creek Community. Most volunteers after 25 plus years of church service were either tired, frustrated or felt manipulated. Why do you suppose they were tired? It is because they went to work for Jesus and instead of taking on His yoke of grace they put on the yoke of the law. You can’t earn, merit or work for grace the only thing you can do in regard to grace is receive it. But the American church speaks more of the horizontal what you need to do, than the vertical what has already been done. Because American church goers love to do lists and they have a need to be told what to do. Hold on just one minute! Your salvation is by GRACE ALONE, through FAITH ALONE, in CHRIST ALONE. The gospel is nothing about what you can do for Christ but rather what Christ has done for you. The life you now live is placed directly under the banner “IT IS FINISHED!”

Maybe we should advocate that for a period of 3 months all activities of doing cease in the church. And for those 3 months we will learn from our pastors, elders and teachers how to rest in Christ through prayer and His word. In those 3 months we will readjust our categories from how much we need to do and think about what has already been done. We have a season in our church of teaching Christians how to receive grace. This is how the Bible speaks but unfortunately this it is not how most people within the church live.

In our men’s Bible study we are studying through the book of James. And I told the men on Tuesday night that we can dishonor God in our obedience. Didn’t Jesus say to the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8 “You honor Me with your lips but your heart is far from Me.” We can obey with a head that is intent on duty instead of a heart that is filled with delight. Have you read the verse “God loves a (what kind) of giver.” God loves a cheerful giver. And the very thing that makes that giver cheerful is what has been done for them by Christ at the cross.

Alan Redpath one of the great preachers in the 20th Century was quoted as saying “beware of the barrenness of a busy life.” So may I exhort you in the following statement; Be careful that you not fall into the dangerous roles of “to do list” Christianity.

Gospel Preaching is NOT

1. 5 Strategies in order to secure a happy marriage
2. 7 Steps to fulfill your full potential
3. 10 Things you can do to keep from having rebellious children
4. 8 Key Components to manage your finances

Hear this loud and clear. Jesus Christ the Son of God did not incarnate Himself, live for 33 years on planet earth, die on a cross, was buried and rose again then ascend to the right hand of God the Father so you can have kids that don’t rebel. Christ did not come so you can have a great marriage, manage your finances or improve your self image. Jesus came for the purpose of rescuing you from the wrath of God. And in doing so He pays the penalty of your sin - past, present and future and imputes His righteousness to your account so that you might know and enjoy God forever!

Gospel Preaching each and every Sunday should point us as a church to Jesus Christ the author and perfecter of our faith. And that is done by taking the church through the word of God, in order that the Spirit might empower the believers to see and savor Jesus. If the church, or if your church is not doing that consistently and continuously then you simply are not going to a gospel preaching church.

Death to Life

From the Resurgence Website

We Christians have a remarkable tendency to focus almost exclusively on the fruit of the problem.

We do this as parents with our children, pastors with our parishioners, husbands with wives, and wives with husbands. We do this with ourselves. The gospel, on the other hand, always addresses the root of the problem. And the root of the problem is not bad behavior. Bad behavior is the fruit of something deeper.

Your Death Is the Problem
Harold Senkbeil rightly identifies our real enemy: death. Sins are the fruit of a much deeper problem, a problem that only God can solve. Death is the root of the problem.

To focus on how I’m doing more than on what Christ has done is Christian narcissism.

All sinful behavior, even in Christians, can be traced back to the death that happened in Eden. To address behavior without addressing death is to perpetuate death. The Pharisees were masters of this and Jesus called them “white-washed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones” (Mt 23:27). Many of us are guilty of making this same mistake. We tend to think of the gospel as God’s program to make bad people good, not dead people alive. The fact is, Jesus came first to effect a mortal resurrection, not a moral reformation – as his own death and resurrection demonstrate.

To Die with Jesus Is to Live
The following excerpt is from Senkbeil’s excellent article in Justified: Modern Reformation Essays on the Doctrine of Justification:

Most people think that the human dilemma is that our lives are out of adjustment; we don’t meet God’s expectations. Salvation then becomes a matter of rearranging our priorities and adjusting our life-style to correspond with God’s will. In its crassest form, this error leads people to think they earn their own salvation. More often in today’s evangelical world, the error has a more subtle disguise: armed with forgiveness through Jesus, people are urged to practice the techniques and principles Christ gave to bring their life-style back into line.

It is certainly true that sinful lives are out of adjustment. We are all in need of the Spirit’s sanctifying power. But that comes only after our real problem is solved. Sins are just the symptom; our real dilemma is death.

God warned Adam and Eve that the knowledge of evil came with a high price tag: “. . . when you eat of (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Our first parents wanted to be like God and were willing to pay the price. And we are still paying the price: “the wages of sin is death . . .” (Rom. 6:23); “. . . in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22); “. . . You were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Eph. 2:1).

The real problem we all face is death. Physical death, to be sure. But ultimately and most horribly, spiritual death–being cut off from God forever. And everyone must die. You can either die alone or die in Jesus.

In his death, Jesus Christ swallowed up our death and rose again triumphantly to take all of the teeth out of the grave. In the promise of the resurrection, death loses its power. When we die with Jesus, we really live!

Daily Resurrection
Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life. Daily reformation is the fruit of daily resurrection. To get it the other way around (which we always do by default) is to miss the power and point of the gospel. In his book, God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis makes the obvious point that “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” Behavior (good or bad) is a second thing.

It's About What Christ Has Done, Not What We Are Doing
Preachers these days are expected to major in “Christian moral renovation.” They are expected to provide a practical “to-do” list, rather than announce, “It is finished.” They are expected to do something other than placarding before their congregations' eyes Christ’s finished work, preaching a full absolution solely on the basis of the complete righteousness of another. The irony is when preachers cave in to this pressure, moral renovation does not happen. To focus on how I’m doing more than on what Christ has done is Christian narcissism – the poison of self-absorption which undermines the power of the gospel in our lives. Martin Luther noted that “the sin underneath all our sins is the lie of the serpent that we cannot trust the love and grace of Christ and that we must take matters into our own hands.”

In the promise of the resurrection, death loses its power.

Moral renovation, in other words, is to refocus our eyes away from ourselves to that man’s obedience, to that man’s cross, to that man’s blood–to that man’s death and resurrection!

“In my place condemned he stood, and sealed my pardon with his blood–hallelujah, what a Savior!”
Learning daily to love this glorious exchange, to lean on its finishedness, and to live under its banner is what it means to be morally reformed!