Picture the scene: You’re a young-ish preacher preparing for what may be something around your tenth sermon ever. You’ve been on a steady diet of Gospel Coalition, Together For the Gospel, and Acts 29 for a good couple of years at this point, and so you know that the Bible is not about you. Whatever happens in this upcoming message, you are determined that the main focal point should not be anyone who is present by any means other than the Holy Spirit. If you do, you’re terrified someone may stand up and shout something akin to, “You’re not DAVID!” and lead a mass exodus from the room, after which you’ll never preach again. Unfortunately, you’ve hit a snag: your text for the week is one of those awful bits in the Bible that talks about something practical. You know, like the second half of most of the epistles, or the bulk of the Torah, or most of the prophets, or significant portions of Jesus’ teaching.
“First Use of the Law”
At this point, you’re left with two options, one of which is to use the text as a “first use of the law case.” If you don’t know what that is off-hand, it means to use it by saying that this is God’s standard, this is how you’ve broken that standard, and this is how Jesus fulfilled the standard for you. And before you know it, you’re preaching Christ’s penal substitutionary death again for most of your time on stage. (Which, by the way, I give a hearty ‘Amen’ to, and which can be legitimately done, because the gospel is the foundation of all our practice as Christians.) However, the problem is that by the time you’ve done all that, you’ve not done a whole lot of unpacking what the hearer is practically supposed to do after all this. Of course, that is by design: you’ve been told not to insert yourself or anyone else into the story. One must not learn courage from Daniel, faith from Abraham, or boldness from David; perish the thought.
The other option is worse though: that would be to actually spend the time talking about the practical implications of the text, properly applying them to the hearer in today’s context in a way that would help them live their lives faithfully to Christ, trusting them to understand that this is done in a broad context of being Christ-centered and, yes, even gospel-centered, but in which your particular message would be mostly about the hearer. And the problem with doing this is that you would feel guilty for doing so because it’s verboten. Borderline heresy, one might say.
You choose option A, everyone says you preached the gospel well, but in reality they learned very little.
This may be a slightly hyperbolized version of events, but only very slightly, and I say that because that was almost exactly how I used to feel when preaching, and if I were a gambling man, I’d be willing to bet that there are plenty of others out there who felt the same way. A practical sermon was, in my mind, a poor one. Thankfully, over time I learned to just follow the text and not stress so much about fitting it into a particular paradigm, but I didn’t really have language for this until I recently hosted an interview with Joel Webbon, and he pointed out how limiting God’s law to merely its first use was so common in this movement.
Why It Fell Apart
On the face of things, there wouldn’t appear to be much wrong with using the law in this way, and many people heard the gospel through this kind of preaching and were saved. Praise God! It might be a tad out of balance, but hardly something likely to be the undoing of a movement. Well, that’s where you’d be wrong.
Fast forward to 2020; there’s no need to recap everything but you’ve got Covid, BLM, mask and vaccine mandates, etc – you remember, you were there. Anyway, here we have a key moment in time when the practical instructions of the Bible, God’s laws, become absolutely essential to how the church should respond. Startled and harassed bodies of believers across the world, under pressure to conform on all sides, actually needed to know what to do. They needed to know this in detail, with clarity and with conviction. And because of the lack of attention paid to God’s law, this gospel-centered movement didn’t have a great answer.
What ended up happening was that the movement took two basic responses: One was to almost entirely compromise on what God’s law actually says, essentially using a Biblical vocabulary to cover for Marxist terminology, and thereby baptize things like Critical Theory and Covid policy in order to introduce them to the church as a necessity for faithful Christian living. The other option was to not say much about anything, and those who followed this pathway, even if they technically agreed as to what God’s law said, essentially refused to use it as a means for instruction to the church, instead merely responding to these challenges by saying, “Just preach the gospel!”
Basically, one side ditched God’s law in all but name whilst the other would only use it for a small portion of its intended purpose. Both issues come back to the ironic problem with the gospel-centered movement, which was that it did not know how to use God’s law.
A Radical Thought
Rather than outlining how the decline of gospel-centered media, conferences, and books has aligned neatly with the events of 2020 (whilst the trajectory of those with a richer understanding of God’s law seemed to go in the exact opposite direction during that time period), let me instead make what may be a rather obvious, but apparently necessary point: maybe God actually intends His law to be obeyed.
Perhaps the reason God gave us the law was both to show us the standard we should have kept and have failed to keep, and to be the standard we actually try to keep as believers. No, not as a means to salvation, no, not in our own strength, but as justified saints, by the power of the Spirit, maybe He actually wants us to do some of the stuff He explicitly told us to do. And maybe, just maybe, that means we could talk about it in church from time to time, without feeling bad for doing so.
Gospel Of The Kingdom
With that in mind, it’s interesting that when you look at the words of Jesus, He seemed to engage in quite a lot of this forbidden kind of preaching that was about the hearer. Don’t get me wrong, He pointed to Himself plenty through the Scriptures, it’s not like that’s absent, but it’s interesting just how much of Jesus’ message was deeply practical in nature. Repeatedly, he gives detailed, clear instructions as to how people should actually live their lives, without putting said instructions to death by a thousand qualifications.
There are countless examples of this, but perhaps the most succinct is that Jesus’ message was summarized as being ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ rather than, say, ‘the gospel of personal salvation’. And the kingdom, though by no means less than personal salvation, is bigger than that one topic. Indeed, the gospel of the kingdom is big enough to include God’s law. I’ve heard Dr. Joe Boot neatly define the kingdom of God as, ‘the reign of God’ – however, being from a less educated province of the UK than he is (I’m Northern Irish) and therefore not fully understanding the implications of that phrase at first glance, I like to slightly oversimplify it by simply defining the kingdom of God as His blessings and His laws. When you have a king, you get the benefits of that King, and you get His commandments to you.
And this is what Jesus came to bring on earth: yes, the wonderful blessing of free salvation (among many other blessings), but also to establish His laws on earth. This is something the Bible makes explicitly clear as being part of Jesus’ message and mission. God does not only want us to see our shortcomings in light of the law and turn to Him for grace – again, yes and amen to this – but He also then wants us to strive to live in obedience, both individually and corporately, in accordance to His word. Thank goodness it stops there, and He doesn’t tell us to do crazy things like teach the nations of the world to obey His commandments or anything like that. Oh, no, wait…
Now, if this was a key part of Jesus’ message, then perhaps it should be part of ours. Perhaps it should be part of ours, particularly in times and seasons when the church is being perpetually lambasted over what that law means and whether or not the church will stand up by obeying this law or fall back in the name of being ‘gospel-centered’. Perhaps when the world sees the insanity of man’s laws apart from God on full display, teaching the law of God will be a light to the world once again. Perhaps avoiding doing so does not, in fact, advance the gospel, but truncates it, and perhaps that is why the gospel-centered movement ultimately failed. Let us not do the same.
NB – This article has been translated from actual English into American English for the benefit of the majority of the readership. However I ask the American readership to forgive me if I accidentally left a ‘u’ in ‘colour’ or called it ‘gospel-centred’ at some point. I also ask any UK readers to forgive me for selling my birthright for the sake of this article.