When people ask, “How can I live the Christian life? How can I have strength to obey God’s law?,” I tell them to trust in Christ, believe the Gospel. Inevitably, questions arise, such as, “What do you mean trust in Christ, believe the Gospel? What does that really look like?”
Let me offer four brief words of encouragement that hopefully will shed some light on what it looks like to keep the Gospel central in your daily life.
First, keeping the Gospel central allows believers to be honest with themselves and God.
In other words, keeping the Gospel centeral in our lives produces genuine confession of our sin (1 John 1:9). With the assurance of total forgiveness through Christ (e.g., Rom. 5:1), we have no reason to conceal our sins anymore.
We don’t have to rationalize it, deny it or excuse it.
We can call sin exactly what it is and confess it regardless of how ugly and shameful it may be. Why? Because we know that we have an advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous (1 John 2:1).
Walter Marshall offers this helpful insight, “You have to believe in God’s forgiving and accepting grace if you are ever going to sincerely confess your sins…A pardon will much sooner open your mouth to a real confession of sin than the words, “Confess or be hanged,” or “Confess or be condemned.” If you want to truly confess your sins, first believe the gospel! Believe that “God is faithful and just to forgive your sins” through Christ (1 John 1:9),” (pp. 109-110).
Second, the Gospel frees us from a performance, duty-driven mentality.
Keeping the Gospel central helps us to consciously renounce any confidence in our own goodness/performance or lack of performance as a means of meriting or losing God’s favor on our lives.
Keeping the Gospel central frees us from a sense of slavish duty and legal obligation. The Christian life is no longer: “Do and Live. Or, “Do or else be damned.” Rather, it is now, “Live, and Do.”
The Gospel has a powerful moral influence upon the believer.
In 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul writes, “…Christ’s love compels us.” Notice, what didn’t motivate Paul. Paul was not motivated by thoughts such as, “I ought to do this or that” or fear of punishment, or feelings of guilt for not doing something. Rather, the driving force in Paul’s life was his constant, daily, heartfelt awareness of the Gospel (cf., Gal. 2:20; Philip. 3:12).
Again, Marshall writes, “Have faith first, and your apprehension of God’s love for your soul will sweetly draw and compel you to love God and His service. ‘We love Him because He first loved us,’ (1 John 4:19). You cannot love God before you understand his love for you. You must perceive His love if you are going to love Him. If you look upon God as someone who is against you, who hates you, and who condemns you, your own innate self-love will breed hatred and rebellion against Him…The first right and holy thoughts you can have of God are thoughts of His grace and mercy to your soul in Christ…Get these thoughts first by believing in Christ, and they will produce in you love to God. You will think all kinds of good thoughts about him!…You will see God as just and merciful, and you will extend His grace to others.” (p. 108 )
Performance-based discipleship (i.e., law-driven sanctification) plagues a large portion of Evangelical churches and believers today. Evangelicals commonly think that the gospel is for unbelievers and only applies to evangelism (i.e., what we preach to get people “saved.”). The Gospel is viewed as the way into the Christian life and duty/obedience is understood as the way on in the Christian life.
As a result, the Gospel is put on the shelf and believers move on to the duties of discipleship. This common misconception is based on a misunderstanding both of the Gospel and of the discipling process.
Paul addressed this error in the book of Galatians when he wrote in 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Here, Paul is asking, “Are you trying to be perfected by your own sinful efforts (i.e., performance/obedience/law keeping)?” What Paul is saying here is that the Christian life progresses and finishes exactly the way it starts.
The way into the Christian life is also the way on in the Christian life.
In his Commentary on Galatians, Philip Graham Ryken, commenting on Gal. 3:3, writes,
“From start to finish, the whole Christian life is by grace through faith. A new life in Christ commences with faith, continues by faith, and will be completed through faith. To put this another way, the gospel is for Christians just as much as it is for non-Christians. We never advance beyond the good news of the cross and the empty tomb…Therefore, the Christian always looks back to the gospel and never to the law (i.e., performance) as the basis for his righteousness before God…There is no such thing as performance-based Christianity…Justification is a doctrine for the whole Christian life from start to finish. It is not simply a doctrine for coming to Christ in the first place…Justification is a doctrine to live by each and every moment.” (pp. 90-92)
In The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Walter Marshall writes, “…we are not sanctified by any of our endeavors to work holiness in ourselves, but rather by faith in Christ’s death and resurrection even the same whereby we are justified.” (p. 123 in the original, p. 231 in the update)
In Romans 6, Paul teaches that we are sanctified just like we are justified, by faith in Christ alone! Union with Christ by faith is necessary and sufficient for both our justification and our sanctification. Believers cannot rely on their own abilities for either justification or sanctification. Our good works will never commend us to God because as the Heidelberg Catechsim states, “…Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin,” (HC, Q. 62).
It is only through the Gospel (i.e,. Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness) that we are made right with God.
The Gospel is the root of all true obedience to God (cf., Rom. 1:5; 16:26) and thus the reason why the Gospel must always be the central focus of the believer’s daily life.
Believers progress in their sanctification by constantly looking back to their justification! You will never progress in holiness and grow in your Christian life unless or until you are assured of your justification. And it is through the Gospel that you are daily reminded of this truth.
Consider how how Martin Luther exhorted and comforted the afflicted, weary, struggling Christian,
“Because of this faith in Christ, God seeth not my doubting of His good will towards me, my distrust, heaviness of spirit, and other sins which are yet in me. For as long as I live in the flesh, sin is truly in me. But because I am covered under the shadow of Christ’s wings, as is the chicken under the wing of the hen, and dwell without any fear under that most ample and large heaven of the forgiveness of sins, which is spread over me, God covereth and pardoneth the remnant of sin in me: that is to say, because of that faith wherewith I began to lay hold upon Christ, He accepteth my imperfect righteousness even for perfect righteousness, and counteth my sin for no sin, which notwithstanding is sin indeed.
So we shroud ourselves under the covering of Christ’s flesh, who is our “cloudy pillar for the day, and our pillar of fire for the night.” (Exod. xiii. 21), lest God should see our sin. And although we see it, and for the same do feel the terrors of conscience, yet flying unto Christ, our mediator and reconciler (through whom we are made perfect) we are sure and safe: for as all things are in Him, so through Him we have all things, who also doth supply whatsoever is wanting in us. When we believe this, God winketh at the sins and remnants of sin yet sticking to our flesh, and so covereth them, as if they were no sin. Because, saith He, thou believest in My Son, although thou has many sins, yet they shall be forgiven thee, until thou be clean delivered from them by death.” (Commenatry on Galatians, pp. 129-130)
Third, the Gospel breaks the crippling power of false guilt and assures our troubled consciences before God.
Only the Gospel has the power to extinguish the flaming fires of a troubled, guilt-laden conscience.
Whenever you are troubled by an acute awareness of your sins and faults, you must remind yourself of the Gospel and from it be confirmed in the assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which you have in Christ.
John Calvin, discussing assurance and a troubled conscience writes,
“Now if we ask in what way the conscience can be made quiet before God, we shall find the only way to be that unmerited righteousness be conferred upon us as a gift of God…we profit nothing in discussing righteousness unless we establish a righteousness so steadfast that it can support our soul in the judgment of God…For no one can ever confidently trust in it [one’s obedience] because no one will ever come to be really convinced in his own mind that he has satisfied the law, as surely no one ever fully satisfies it through works…” (Institutes, III. XIII. IV.)
This is where the sacraments play such a vital role in the believers growth and sanctification. Calvin writes, “We have determined, therefore, that sacraments are truly named the testimonies of God’s grace and are like seals (i.e., a guarantee by God that God’s Gospel promise is presently true for all who believe, so a seal says, “Yes, it really is true for you….” to the believer) of the good will that He feels toward us, which by attesting that good will to us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith.” (Institutes, IV. XIV. VII.)
This is why the believer’s faith is increased in the sacraments. The sacraments, as Augustine called them, are a “visible word,” (i.e., a way of preaching the Gospel visibly to the believer).
Christ has instituted the holy sacraments (i.e., baptism and the Lord’s Supper) so that we may see and understand more clearly that the promise of the Gospel is indeed for us and thus be strengthened and assured in our faith.
The Holy Spirit produces faith in our hearts through the preaching of the Gospel (not practical tips, steps to a victorious Christian life, 40 days of purpose, etc…). And, the Holy Spirit confirms the Gospel to us through our use of the Sacraments. The sacraments are signs and seals for us to see and understand more clearly the promise of the Gospel (i.e., that God has and will forgive our sins, give us eternal life by grace alone on account of Christ’s one sacrifice on the Cross, HC, Q. 65-66).
The Word and the Sacraments are designed by God to focus the believer’s faith on the finished work of Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation (HC, Q. 67). They are given by God in both the OT and NT to lead men by the hand to Christ. So, the sacraments play an indispensable role in the growth and assurance (i.e., sanctification) of a Christian.
Sadly, very few Evangelical churches and believers (and even Reformed Presbyterians) in our time are fully devoted to the central role of the sacraments. Dr. R. Scott Clark has an excellent, must read article on this very topic (The Evangelical Fall from the Means of Grace).
In his article, Dr. Clarks asks why Evangelicals and Reformed alike neglect the sacraments. He writes, “Why? It is because we have become practically anti-supernatural and simultaneously super-spiritual in our theology, so that we are, on the one hand, bored with God’s ordinary means of grace (the sacraments) and on the other hand have stopped believing that God can and does use those means to accomplish His purposes. That is to say, we are guilty of a sort of unbelief.”
Dr. Clark continues, “We have replaced the sacraments with spiritual exercises of our own making. A survey of virtually any evangelical bookstore finds dozens of books on spirituality, self-denial, church growth, and recovery from various addictions. Some of these contain useful advice; so did some of the medieval handbooks of spiritual direction. But few of them contain the Gospel, and almost none of them make any reference to the use of the Lord’s Supper as a means to Christian growth. Even Reformed churches that confess the Supper to be one of the two divinely instituted means of grace (media gratiae) normally serve the Supper only quarterly.”
In distinction to the typical Evangelical mindset toward the sacraments, Calvin, in the Institutes, discusses the great benefits that baptism has upon the believer’s Christian life. He writes, “…we are not to think that baptism was conferred upon us only for past time, so that for newly committed sins into which we fall after baptism we must seek new remedies of expiation in some other sacraments, as if the force of the former one were spent…Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins….For Christ’s purity has been offered us in it; his purity ever flourishes; it is defiled by no spots, but buries and cleanses away all our defilements.” (Institutes, IV. XIV. III.)
Calvin reveals four great Gospel benefits of baptism for the Christian’s sanctificaiton.
First, Calvin notes that baptism is given to sinners who groan, are wearied and oppressed by their sins. He writes that baptism is given to sinners, “…in order that they may have something to lift them up and comfort them, so as not to plunge into confusion and despair.” (Institutes, IV. XV. III.).
Second, Calvin shows how baptism is a sign of assurance of perpetual cleansing from sin which we have in Christ’s blood! (IV. XV. IV.) He writes, “Therefore, there is no doubt that all pious folk throughout life, whenever they are troubled by a consciousness of their faults, may venture to remind themselves of their baptism, that from it they may be confirmed in assurance of that sole and perpetual cleansing which we have in Christ’s blood.”
Third, Calvin reveals how baptism shows the believer his mortification in Christ and his new life in Him. He writes, “But he (i.e., Paul in Rom. 6) also takes hold of something far higher, namely, that through baptism Christ makes us sharers in his death, that we may be engrated in it (Rom. 6:5). And, just as the twig draws substance and nourishment from the root to which it is grafted, so those who receive baptism with right faith truly feel the effective working of Christ’s death in the mortification of their flesh, together with the working of his resurrection in the vivification of the Spirit (Rom. 6:8),” (Institutes IV. XV. V.).
Fourth, Calvin concludes by showing how baptism is to be seen as a token of our union with Christ. “Lastly, our faith receives from baptism the advantage of its sure testimony to us that we are not only engrafted into the death and life of Christ so united to Christ Himself that we become sharers in all His blessings. For he dedicated and sanctified baptism in his own body (Matt. 3:13) in order that He might have it in common iwth us as the firmest bond of the union and fellowship which He had deigned to form with us,” (Institutes IV. XV. VI).
Oh, that all believers today would discover the life-changing joy of the beneftis of their baptism and make use of this holy sacrament as the means by which to quiet their troubled consciences and to spur them on toward Christ!
Fourth, preaching the Gospel to ourselves daily gives us hope, joy and courage in the midst of our war with sin.
Here is the source of true happiness: The continual, daily reminder that God’s favor rests upon you!
“Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin,” (Rom. 4:8). “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom 5:1). “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 8:1). “In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved,” (Eph. 1:5-6).
His favor does not rest upon you because you are good enough or because your performance is good enough, but because you are “in Christ!”
Calvin notes, “Our righteoueness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches,” (Institutes, III. XI. XXIII.). Again, Calvin reminds us, “Though works are highly esteemed, they have their value from God’s approval rather than from their own worth,” (Institutes III. XI. XX.)
So, I ask, Do you feed your faith daily with the promises of the gospel? Do you believe that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation, which alone commends you before God? Or, do you function as if your performance (i.e., your obedience, your law keeping, your good works) is what commends you before God?
The gospel alone is the power that gives us victory over despair, pride, greed, jealousy, lust and a million other sinful vices. The gospel alone triumphs over every obstacle of sin in your life and brings you joy unspeakable and full of glory! So, stand in it, hold it fast, believe on it, feed on it, savor it, preach it to yourself every day! The gospel will save you. And it alone!
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”