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the gospel gap
At first I was impressed. Phil was not only familiar with Scripture and systematic theology, he also owned an extensive library of biblical commentaries by the "who's who" of theological writers. There were few places I could go in Scripture and few theological references I could make that were new to Phil. Yet there was something dramatically wrong. If you were to turn from Phil's library and watch the video of his life, you would see a very different man.
Phil always seemed to be pointing out something wrong around him, yet he was successful at very little himself. He had the theological dexterity of a gymnast, but he lived like a relational paraplegic. His marriage to Ellie had been tumultuous from day one. He seemed completely unable to diagnose or correct the unending stream of problems that had sucked the oxygen out of this relationship. His relationships with his grown children were distant at best, and he always seemed to be embroiled in some drama with his extended family. He was never satisfied in his career, and he had been involved in four churches in three decades. The time he spent dealing with his own problems left little time for ministry to others.
The problem was that few seemed to know the "video" Phil. He and Ellie never fought publicly, never separated, and never considered divorce. They were faithful in church attendance and in giving. In Sunday school classes and Bible studies, Phil came across as knowledgeable and committed. Yet at home he was easily irritated and often explosive. Most of his free time was spent on the computer. He and Ellie rarely talked beyond the level of plans for the day, and even then his responses toward her were harsh and impatient. Terms like love, grace, and joy did not characterize Phil's life.
Ellie carried around a frustration with the church because she felt like no one really "got" Phil. He wasn't physically abusive, he wasn't addicted to substances or pornography, and he wasn't about to forsake his family, so he flew under the radar of pastoral care. Knowing how many people looked up to Phil, Ellie struggled every time he was asked to lead a Bible study or teach a theology class. She did everything she knew to resist becoming bitter and cynical, but she was beginning to lose the battle. Some days Ellie would find herself at the kitchen table, lost in daydreams of a life without Phil.
Finally, Ellie told Phil she could not go on like this any longer. She knew she needed help, and she asked him to come along for counseling. At first, Phil angrily refused, but he eventually agreed to give it a try. During our first time together, I let them spend most of the time talking. There was something strange about their story, but I couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't until I was driving home that it hit me: They had given me an extensive history, yet there was little or no reference to God. Here was a theological man and his believing wife, yet their life story was utterly godless!
Phil and Ellie had a huge gap in their understanding of the gospel. It was as if they were attempting to live with a gaping hole in the middle of their house. They walked around it every day. Things would fall into it, and the hole would get bigger, but they didn't seem aware that it was there. They didn't realize that other houses didn't have a hole, and that those that did needed to be renovated or demolished. Phil even had a "hole repair manual" that he had read thoroughly, but it hadn't led him to fix his. Ellie suffered from the dust, smell, and heat that drifted up from the hole, but she had no idea what to do about them. This was their Christianity.
I wish I could say that Phil and Ellie are alone, but I am convinced that there are many Phils and Ellies among us. Often there is a vast gap in our grasp of the gospel. It subverts our identity as Christians and our understanding of the present work of God. This gap undermines every relationship in our lives, every decision we make, and every attempt to minister to others. Yet we live blindly, as if the hole were not there.
Understanding the Gap
Second Peter 1:3—9 describes this gap better than any other passage.
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
Let's look at the symptoms of the gap. In verse 9, Peter points out that there are people who know the Lord, but whose lives fail to produce the expected fruit of faith. Their lives are not characterized by peaceful, loving relationships, a sweet, natural, day-by-day worship of the Lord, a wholesome and balanced relationship to material things, and ongoing spiritual growth. Instead, these believers leave a trail of broken relationships, a knowledgeable but impersonal walk with God, a struggle with material things, and a definite lack of personal growth. Something is wrong with this harvest; it contradicts the faith that is supposed to be its source.
Peter's words describe Phil and Ellie. They were "ineffective and unproductive" in many ways. The scars of conflict had so crippled their respect for each other that there was little trust or spontaneous affection left between them. They did not get along with their neighbors and left three churches badly. There was little tenderness or affection in their worship of God. Their Christianity seemed more an ideology than a worship-driven relationship, and God's practical call on their lives was more a duty to be performed than a joy to be pursued. It wasn't surprising that Phil and Ellie struggled with debt. Physical things had replaced spiritual things long ago. More than anything else, they seemed stuck. If you had recorded their complaints against each other ten years ago, the tape could have been seamlessly inserted into any of the arguments they had today. Why are many Christians "ineffective and unproductive"? Peter provides the diagnosis in verse 9: they are nearsighted and blind, having forgotten that they have been cleansed from their past sins. They are blind to the power and hope of the gospel for today. What does this mean?
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a "then-now-then" gospel (see figure 1.1) First, there is the "then" of the past. When I embrace Christ by faith, my sins are completely forgiven, and I stand before God as righteous. There is also the "then" of the future, the promise of eternity with the Lord, free of sin and struggle. The church has done fairly well explaining these two "thens" of the gospel, but it has tended to understate or misunderstand the "now" benefits of the work of Christ. What difference does the gospel make in the here and now? How does it help me as a father, a husband, a worker, and a member of the body of Christ? How does it help me respond to difficulty and make decisions? How does it give me meaning, purpose, and identity? How does it motivate my ministry to others?
It is in the here and now that many of us experience a gospel blindness. Our sight is dimmed by the tyranny of the urgent, by the siren call of success, by the seductive beauty of physical things, by our inability to admit our own problems, and by the casual relationships within the body of Christ that we mistakenly call fellowship. This blindness is often encouraged by preaching that fails to take the gospel to the specific challenges people face. People need to see that the gospel belongs in their workplace, their kitchen, their school, their bedroom, their backyard, and their van. They need to see the way the gospel makes a connection between what they are doing and what God is doing. They need to understand that their life stories are being lived out within God's larger story so that they can learn to live each day with a gospel mentality.
Three Kinds of Blindness
The "here and now" hole in the middle of our lives produces three fundamental forms of spiritual blindness. First, there is the blindness of identity. Many Christians do not have a gospel perspective on who they are. For example, Phil was a good theologian, but his personal identity was more rooted in knowledge and achievement than in the gospel. This lack of gospel identity shows up in two ways. First, many Christians underestimate the presence and power of indwelling sin. They don't see how easily entrapped they are in this world full of snares (see Gal. 6:1). They don't grasp the comprehensive nature of the war that is always raging within the heart of every believer (see Rom. 7). They're not aware of how prone they are to run after God replacements. They fail to see that their greatest problems exist within them, not outside them.
My work with teenagers has convinced me that one of the main reasons teenagers are not excited by the gospel is that they do not think they need it. Many parents have successfully raised self-righteous little Pharisees. When they look at themselves, they do not see a sinner in desperate need, so they are not grateful for a Savior. Sadly, the same is true of many of their parents.
Many believers also fail to see the other side of their gospel identity: their identity in Christ. Christ not only gives me forgiveness and a new future, but a whole new identity as well! I am now a child of God, with all of the rights and privileges that this title bestows. This is important because each of us lives out of some sense of identity, and our gospel identity amnesia will always lead to some form of identity replacement. That is, if who I am in Christ does not shape the way I think about myself and the things I face, then I will live out of some other identity.
Often in our blindness, we take on our problems as identities. While divorce, depression, and single parenthood are significant human experiences, they are not identities. Our work is not our identity, though it is an important part of how God intends us to live. For too many of us, our sense of identity is more rooted in our performance than it is in God's grace. It is wonderful to be successful at what God has called you to do, but when you use your success to define who you are, you will always have a distorted perspective.
Second, a "here and now" gap in the gospel also causes us to be blind to God's provision. As Peter states, in Christ we have been given "everything we need for life and godliness." Why does he use two words here, both "life" and "godliness"? The second word is meant to qualify the first. If Peter had simply said that God has given us everything we need for life, it would be easy to add the word eternal before it. This is how this passage is often interpreted. We find it much easier to embrace the gospel's promise of life after death than we do its promise of life before death! But when Peter says that God has given us everything we need for "godliness," we know that he is talking about life now. Godliness is a God-honoring life from the time I come to Christ until the time I go home to be with him.
Peter is saying that we cannot live properly in the present unless we understand the provision God has made for us. Many believers are blind to the fact that this provision runs deeper than the commands, principles, and promises of Scripture we normally associate with the pursuit of a godly life. It is even more fundamental than the conviction of the Holy Spirit or our legal forgiveness. God's provision for a godly life now is literally Christ himself! He has given us himself so that we can be like him.
Paul says in Galatians 2:20, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." Jesus is Emmanuel not only because he came to earth and lived with us, but because he actually lives within us now by his Spirit. His presence gives us everything we need to be who we are supposed to be and do what we are supposed to do.
Without an awareness of Christ's presence, we tend to live anxiously. We avoid hard things and are easily overwhelmed. But a clear sense of identity and provision gives us hope and courage to face the struggles and temptations that come our way.
A third form of blindness that a gospel gap produces is blindness to God's process. The New Testament is clear that our acceptance into the family of God is not the end of God's work in us, but the beginning. God has not called us to a life of "I have spiritually arrived" or "I am just waiting for heaven." Rather, he calls us to a life of constant work, constant growth, and constant confession and repentance. Making us holy is God's unwavering agenda until we are taken home to be with him. He will do whatever he needs to produce holiness in us. He wants us to be a community of joy, but he is willing to compromise our temporal happiness in order to increase our Christlikeness.
Any time we find ourselves in difficulty or trial, it is easy to think we have been forgotten or rejected by God. This is because we do not understand the present process. God is not working for our comfort and ease; he is working on our growth. At the very moment we are tempted to question his faithfulness, he is fulfilling his redemptive promises to us. After all, it's not like there are only some people who really need to change. Change is the norm for everyone, and God is always at work to complete this process in us.
What Fills the Gap?
There is one thing that physical and spiritual holes have in common: They don't stay empty for long. A hole in the sand will quickly fill with water. A hole in a field will accumulate sticks and leaves. Holes always seem to get filled.
Under the main staircase in our house is a large walk-in closet. It is the bane of my wife's existence. Every six months or so, Luella summons the courage to attack this closet. She empties it completely, sorting its contents and uncovering the floor for the first time in months. She always says that she wants us to try to keep the closet in this pristine condition. I don't oppose the idea since I like being able to walk into it, but the closet always seems to fill up again. Our children visit and leave artifacts of their new existence in the closet. Packages come in the mail, and the boxes seem to mysteriously wind up in the closet. All the "stuff" that has no home somehow finds its way there. And before long, the closet door can barely shut, and Luella has to attack it again.
The gospel gap in many of our lives doesn't stay empty either. If we do not live with a gospel-shaped, Christ-confident, and change-committed Christianity, that hole will get filled with other things. These things may seem plausible and even biblical, but they will be missing the identity-provision-process core that is meant to fill every believer.
I like the term Paul uses for these counterfeits in 2 Corinthians 10:5. He calls them "pretensions." Not every lie is a pretense. A pretense is a plausible lie. I could tell you that I was a female Olympic gymnast. That would be a lie, but it would not be a pretense because it would lack plausibility. But if I dressed in a suit and stood in front of an office with a briefcase and a set of architectural drawings, I could probably fool you into thinking I was a building contractor.
The most dangerous pretensions are those that masquerade as true Christianity but are missing the identity-provision-process core of the gospel. They have their roots in the truth, but they are incomplete. The result is a Christianity that is mere externalism. Whenever we are missing the message of Christ's indwelling work to progressively transform us, the hole will be filled by a Christian lifestyle that focuses more on externals than on the heart. I believe that a war for the heart of Christianity is raging all around us, seeking to draw us away from its true core toward the externals.
What sorts of Christian externals tend to fill the gospel gap? They are all things that are part of the normal Christian life; each tends to attract us at different times and in different ways. Look for yourself in these descriptions. Is it possible that you have a gap in your gospel and that it has been filled in ways you didn't realize?
Excerpted from how people change by Timothy S. Lane, Paul David Tripp. Copyright © 2008 Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp. Excerpted by permission of New Growth Press.
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Posted December 15, 2013
Posted March 31, 2011
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