Monday, July 27, 2009

The Gospel and Its Fruit

I’ve been rereading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000). Here is a quote.

“We are saved and made into the image of Christ not by our efforts to imitate him. Such an idea reduces the gospel to ethical effort. We recognize that the gospel tells us of the absolutely unique work of Christ, both in his living and his dying, by which we are saved through faith. We cannot imitate or live the gospel event as such. We can only believe it. We cannot work our way to heaven by moral endeavor. We can only depend on the finished work of Christ for us. We cannot command other people to live or do the gospel. We must proclaim the message of what God has done for them in the gospel. We follow the New Testament in calling on people to live out the implications of the gospel, but we cannot urge people to actually live the gospel, for that was the unique work of Christ. This distinction between the gospel and its fruit in our lives is crucial” (page 4).

When I was younger, I was troubled by the kind of evangelism that depended upon salesmanship and persuasion. The Holy Spirit may work through human persuasion, of course, but the Spirit may also work through quiet, encouraging preaching as well. Paul himself, after all, did not consider himself a particularly good speaker, but he boasted of the Spirit’s work among his churches. If a preacher proclaims the truth of the gospel, she has been faithful, and the Spirit moves among the people as God wills.

However, would a preacher be considered faithful from a human point of view if she does not have results to report? Paul cautioned that a person could make “a good showing in the flesh” and yet fail the gospel (Gal. 6:12).

In recent years I’ve also been troubled by the pressures which pastors face to motivate, train, and implement volunteers. “[T]o equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12) is the text around which many pastoral leadership guides are based. An important goal of pastors should be the empowerment of the laity to serve and help one another.

An excellent goal! So is leading people to Christ. But too much emphasis on “empowering the laity” can lead to works-righteous preaching, “moral endeavor,” and a terrible failure to convey “the finished work of Christ for us.” Pastors can become too focused in their preaching on getting people to “step up” to serve. My fear is that people will hear the gospel message as the exact opposite of what pastors want to communicate: the gospel is the things we do, the committees on which we serve, our own goodness. In motivating people to give and serve more, pastors may actually help people (in Goldsworthy’s words) “live reasonably decent but gospelless lives” (p. 151).

Balancing human efforts with the principle of sola gratia is trickly; one wants to avoid Pelagianism (or, as Hauerwas would quip, practical atheism) in our churches, but nor does one want to stop challenging people to embrace discipleship. Goldsworthy suggests, among other things, “to institute a training program for all church members engaged in any kind of teaching or pastoral ministry. At the heart of such a program must be a basic course on the unity of the Bible as shown in biblical theology” (p. 151). He argues that the leaders of our churches should be regular Bible readers able to articulate the gospel message, and not just decent people willing to volunteer.

Something to pray about for our congregations and pastors!

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