I think the current “gospel-centered” movement is one of the best things to happen to the church in a long time. The push for more expository preaching that grounds every imperative in the indicatives of the gospel–this is important. For too long the Church has preached a gospel of moralism, of legalism, of do-it-yourself lite Christianity.
However, if there is one concern I have with the movement, I might say that there is a danger of a pendulum swing. As a reactive measure against the idea that you must work really hard to earn God’s love (a frustrating and often false gospel), it seems we are saying that obedience has no connection to your day-to-day walk with God. I’m not sure this is either helpful for biblical. Let me explain.
I was recently listening to a message by J.D. Greear, lead pastor of Summit Church and author of several books including, Gospel. I love J.D.’s preaching, his clarity and his love for God and the gospel and missions. I’ve listened to several of his sermons that have really challenged and convicted me.
I was listening to a sermon he gave to the Southern Seminary Chapel entitled, “How Real Spiritual Growth Happens.” It’s a terrific message that I highly commend. But I left with a few questions. Particularly I wondered if we are not being clear enough about the distinction between God’s love and God’s favor.
J.D. was right in saying that humans are oriented toward works righteousness, that our default thinking is, “I’m messed up my life. God hates me now.” Or “I’ve had a really good week with the Lord. He loves me this week.” And so we guilt ourselves into what we are supposed to do for God rather than grounding our obedience in what God is, the radiance of His glory, and the radical nature of his sacrifice on our behalf. I agree with this.
What puzzled me a bit was J.D. talking about worship experience in church. There are Sundays, he says, when you walk into church and you’ve had a great week–you were faithful in your Bible reading, you were fervent in prayer, you shared Christ with others–and so you feel God’s love and glory wash over you. Then there are Sundays when you walk into church and you’ve had a rough week, you’ve had an argument with your spouse, you’re boss yelled at you for messing up the reports, you kicked the dog, etc. And you, while worshipping, start making promises to God, “I’ll get this right. I’ll do better.” You feel a bit of a disconnect from God. I’ve had these experiences all of my Christian life. J.D. says that this is the result of a faulty view of God’s love. We think he loves us more when we’ve had a great week and He’s mad at us when we’ve had a bad week.
This is often true, but I wonder if we’ve skipped over another reason for a bit of distance in our connection with God. Could it be that we enter worship with unconfessed sin? And the dissonance we experience is the result of a break in our relationship? Psalm 68:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” The Apostle John urges us in 1 John 1:8-10 to not ignore unconfessed sin, to rush to the Lord, prevail upon His grace, and find renewal in our relationship.
Sin breaks the relationship we have with God. It doesn’t negate God’s love. It doesn’t lessen God’s love. But it does cloud our view of God’s love and make us feel as if God loves us less even though He doesn’t. I think this is the difference between the love of God and the favor of God.
There is nothing you can do to earn the love of God. Obeying God faithfully for your whole life doesn’t earn you one more ounce of His love. He loves you and accepts you because of Christ. He has accepted the perfection and sacrifice of Christ for you and so you have nothing left to prove.
However, God does extend favor, I believe, to those who obey Him. All through the Scriptures you see the reward of God toward those who follow his precepts (Psalm 5:12; Psalm 90:17; Genesis 6:8; Proverbs 18:22). That doesn’t mean obedience helps you avoid trials and suffering–those too are often good gifts of God to shape our character. But you can safely and biblically say that those who obey the Lord will experience more blessing and favor than those who don’t.
I’m guessing J.D. Greear would agree with this and perhaps it was just his emphasis on law in that particular message. But I do think the gospel-centered movement would do well to further explain the purpose of the law, the need for obedience, and the importance of holiness. It doesn’t affect the way God loves us, but it does affect the way we view God’s love. Another way of stating this might be to say that when we sin, we have lost sight of the gospel and God’s glory and have chosen other idols to worship. Therefore we get the sense that God loves us less and we feel disconnected from Him because our view is clouded by the sin of idolatry.