Why Honesty Is Key to Gospel-Centeredness
Paul puts it bluntly in Romans 3:22-23.
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
That’s so offensive to our well put-together ideas of ourselves, isn’t it? All have sinned (past tense) and fall short of the glory of God (present tense). We are all liable to divine judgment.
A proper understanding of sin is necessary for a proper understanding of the gospel. The gospel is good news, but it includes bad news. It tells us that without the Triune God’s intervention, we have no hope of heaven. We have no righteousness on our own.
The gospel makes us really honest people. We live in a country that likes to look good. From our dress to our cars to our homes, we’re all very Instagramable. But the gospel takes the filter off. It shows us for who we really are. And when it does, we have a choice to make. We can choose either to be impressive or to be known. What will we choose? In a gospel-centered church, where the risen Christ’s good news is ever-present, we can take a risk of being known. We can trust Jesus with our sin, and we can trust his people to help us find forgiveness and freedom. The gospel says we aren’t impressive, and that’s embarrassing. But the gospel also says we’re known deeper than we thought possible, and loved for Christ’s sake. When we step inside that circle of honesty with Jesus, we actually become far more impressive than the best of this world. We radiate with the glory of Jesus.
If we are to build and maintain gospel-centered churches, we must allow the gospel to make us honest people. Why? Because total honesty is the only way we grow. Only when we get honest with our sins and struggles will we find help and freedom and forgiveness. Don’t we all want that? Don’t we know deep down that we’re just not okay? If we’ll just admit that and come to Jesus, we will find in him a friend who understands. He is a faithful and merciful high priest in the service of God. He is for you even when you can’t be for yourself. He has covered your sins and failures by his blood. And all he’s asking us to do is walk out in his light, to trust him with all of our life, and to find cleansing by his blood.
It’s risky to live inside a gospel-centered church because it means we don’t set the rules. We can’t limit God. He can go to places in our heart that we’d be fine never entering. But what God wants for us is total renewal, and you can’t get there without him messing with you, opening you up, knocking you around a bit.
C.S. Lewis put it well.
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
When we allow God inside, we become new people. We stop comparing ourselves to others. We love to make comparisons and come out on top, don’t we? But God says there is no distinction between us and others. God sees not as we see. Before God, we all stand condemned. God sees not how we compare to another sinner. God sees how we compare to him. And before that holy standard, we all fail.
We think comparison makes us winners. But in God’s eyes, it proves we’re losers because it proves we’re self-justifiers, unwilling to trust his justification by Christ. We’re using others to make us feel better, to give ourselves a boost. That kind of attitude—which we’re all prone to—is a red flag that we’re not trusting the gospel. We’re not taking our sin seriously. We take some sin seriously, but only those we don’t struggle with.
The Devil loves for us to live like that—comparing ourselves to others, always coming out ahead. If he can get us to do that, he can keep us far from God and the gospel. One way we can fail to be a gospel-centered church is by failing to take our personal sins seriously. We can preach the gospel, teach the gospel, share the gospel, but if we fail to take our personal sins seriously, bringing them to the throne of grace for forgiveness, we will say we have a gospel-centered church that even the Devil himself can love. We will say we trust Christ while avoiding him.
But if we get honest with ourselves and stay honest with ourselves about our real need, about our real sin, about our real problem of unrighteousness in our self, we have a chance at maintaining and cultivating a gospel-centered church. God loves a humble people.
Ray Ortlund at Immanuel Church taught me that Isaiah 57:15 says God lives in two places: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit.” He’s way up high where we can’t go, and way down low where we can go. But he doesn’t live in the middle, where okayness is the status quo. A church filled with people who know they’re sinners is a place where God abides, where his gospel shines brighter than anything else. As pastor Tim Keller says, “The church is not a museum for pristine saints, but a hospital ward for broken sinners.”
Making ourselves feel better than others doesn’t free us. What frees us is letting Christ give us his righteousness. When God gathers a group of people and those people open their hearts before him and, by his grace, keep them open, nothing about anybody surprises us anymore. We realize we’re one before the cross of Christ—sinners in need of a savior.