What is Gospel-centered ministry, really...

(Tim) What does it mean for a church planter to tell us he's "Gospel-centered?" Well, it means he's reading all the Acts 29 and Redeemer stuff. You can't stand in succession without talking the talk. But assuming "Gospel-centered" is a good thing, what does it actually mean?

Let's have the Apostle Paul define it:

And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

If a church planter is Gospel-centered, he's determined to "know nothing among (his flock) except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." Now two things, here.

First, the Apostle Paul is specific about the "nothing" he's determined not to know. He doesn't know superiority of speech or wisdom; he doesn't know strength, but weakness; he doesn't know confidence, but fear; he doesn't know how to cop a suave posture, but he trembles...

he doesn't know persuasive words of wisdom, but only the demonstration of the Holy Spirit and His power.

And why has he chosen this path of weakness, fear, and trembling as he hangs on the power of the Holy Spirit?

So that no one's faith would rest on him, but instead on the power of God.

In other words, if we communicate our strength and courage and erudition and confidence and hipness and cultural engagement and entrepreneurial moxie, we've destroyed the Gospel. When people leave our gatherings, they carry us rather than the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What they depend upon and talk and write about is us; not the Cross of Jesus Christ. To put it bluntly, they're not at all Gospel-centered.

"But hey," you say, "it's all about God. It's all about the Cross!"

Really? Well then, let's move on to the second thing.

To know the Cross in its Holy Spirit power is to present four things, three of which are almost always missing from Gospel-centered men and the talks they give. Here's Buchanan on those four things:

...conscience continually prompts men to (ask)—'How shall man be just with God?' or, 'How can God be just,' and yet 'justify the ungodly?' That great problem may seldom occur to those that are habitually unmindful of God, and of their relation to Him; and should it be suggested to their minds, it will probably be lightly dismissed, as long as they cherish slight views of sin, and have little or no sense of their solemn responsibilities and prospects as subjects of the righteous government of God. Some vague opinion in regard to His general mercy, or some undefined purpose to propitiate His favour by future repentance and amendment of life, before they are brought face to face with the awful realities of death, and judgment, and eternity, may suffice, in the meantime, as an answer to the accusing voice of conscience, and as an opiate to allay its forebodings and fears. But minds in this state never grapple with any of the real difficulties of the problem, and can scarcely be said to have the slightest apprehension of its true meaning. They overlook all the most momentous conditions which are involved in it, and on which its right solution depends.

Now watch, here. Buchanan is about to present those four momentous conditions that must form the structure of any true Gospel-centered preaching. Any man seeking right standing with God or eternal life must come to know and love these four essentials for a right solution to man's pain-wracked conscience.

The Gospel of Christ alone has presented that problem in all its magnitude, and in its just proportions; and the Gospel of Christ alone has offered a solution of it, based on a full view of the Attributes of God,—of the unalterable requirements of His Law,—of the principles and ends of His Moral Government,—and of the state, character, and prospects of man, as a dying yet immortal being, chargeable with past guilt, and still depraved by inherent sin.

It lays a deep foundation for the doctrine of a sinner's pardon and acceptance with God, by revealing, in the first instance, the infinite holiness of God, His intense hatred of sin, His inflexible justice in punishing it,—the spiritual nature, the supreme authority, and unchangeable character of His law, as being, like Himself, 'holy, and just, and good,'— the principles and ends of His Moral Government, as a scheme which is designed and fitted to glorify His great Name, by manifesting, in their actual exercise, all the moral perfections of His nature, and making Himself known to His intelligent subjects as He really is,—the fallen, guilty, and depraved state of man, as a sinner, subject to condemnation, and utterly unable to save himself, while he is passing on, with the swiftness of time itself, to a state of strict and eternal retribution; and it is not till after it has revealed these great truths, which might seem to render his salvation hopeless, that it reveals a method of Grace and Redemption by which God Himself has solved the problem; and announces the stupendous fact, that He gave up His own Son,—to become incarnate, to assume the burden of our sins, to endure the punishment which these sins deserved, 'to shed His own precious blood for their expiation,—and all this that the Grace and the Justice of God might be made manifest, in their actual exercise, in the Cross of Christ...

Maybe it's a bit much digesting Buchanan, so here's the summary. If man is to believe the Gospel, he must know it. And if man is to know the Gospel, it's not enough for him to have slight thoughts of God's attributes, God's Moral Law, judgment, Heaven and Hell, and intimate thoughts of God's love and mercy, and Jesus' love and mercy and grace. Notice how Buchanan proceeds; the order is as important as the content.

Any Gospel-centered shepherding or preaching will start with the attributes of God. All of them in all their horror and beauty. And seeing the attributes of God will leave us trembling at the foot of Mt. Sinai where we receive God's Moral Law, which reveals even more clearly many of God's attributes, His perfections. So we start with the character, the attributes, the perfections of the Only True God. And this is no "God is for the city" vision. We're not close to that, yet.

Then, we move to God's Law. First, His attributes; second, His Law. We preach the Law in all its brutal severity, trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead the souls under our care through that horror, to grace. But we trust so much in that horror, that we refuse to hop over it. Gospel-centered preaching never neglects the Schoolmaster that alone leads us to the Cross of Jesus Christ.

First, the attributes of God. Second, the Law of God. And third, the coming judgment and the horrors of Hell prepared for all who have violated God's attributes and Law. Again, only those who trust in the power of the Holy Spirit rather than themselves, their contextualization and entrepreneurial moxie, will preach and teach and counsel God's holiness and justice, His Law, and His coming throne of judgment driving every man to the eternity of Hell torments.

Then Buchanan says this:

...and it is not till after it has revealed these [first three] great truths, which might seem to render his salvation hopeless, that [Gospel-centered preaching] reveals a method of Grace and Redemption by which God Himself has solved the problem...

Only when the first three truths have been firmly lodged in the hearts of the precious souls giving themselves to our care, will we give them the fourth great truth: that God in His great mercy and grace, has sent His Son to bear His wrath and justice for all who believe on Him. And those who believe will be justified freely by His grace, hearing a "not guilty" verdict at the Throne of God and being welcomed into His Holy Heaven.

How do we know if the souls under our care have been brought to the fourth through the first three Gospel truths?

Because of their attitude, their posture, and their words. They tremble. They cry out. They melt in tears. They fall on their faces. They turn red in the face and charge, fully intending to kill us.

Look across Scripture's Apostolic preaching (which is true Gospel-centered preaching) and see the response to the clear presentation of God's character, Law, judgment and Hell, and the Cross. When Stephen finished his Gospel-centered ministry, we read: "But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse" (Acts 7:57).

The Apostle Peter finishes his sermon on the Day of Pentecost with these words: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ--this Jesus whom you crucified."

And the souls under his ministry and care responded: "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'"

To which the Apostle Peter responded: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.”

But Peter didn't stop his Gospel-centered ministry quite yet. He continued in the same theme and direction he'd been going for quite some time already: "And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation!'"

So, was the Apostle Peter perfectly contextualized for the city of Jerusalem when he cried these words out to the assembled throng? Would any of us have thought he was Gospel-centered and "for his own city?"

It's almost laughable, isn't it?

But what happened? Was there fruit; and if so, how much? "So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls" (Acts 2:36-41).

Read the Apostle Paul's sermons--for instance, his sermon to the Areopagus in Athens--and you'll see these same four themes.

So we learn two things about Gospel-centered preaching and ministry.

First, that people leave it with little thoughts of us and large thoughts of God. Their recollection of us will be that we are simple, trembling, direct, basic, afraid, but clinging to the power of the Holy Spirit.

And second, our hearers' large thoughts of God are disciplined in four--not one or two or even three--directions: God's character; God's Law; man's eternal damnation fast approaching as his life quickly passes and he comes ever more closely to the Judgment seat of God and Hell; and then (and only then) God's mercy in the Person and work of Jesus Christ Who was made a sin offering for sinful man that all who flee to Him might be saved.

May God give us a truly Gospel-centered ministry, weak and foolishly trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit so we never skip over the holiness of God's character, Law, and Judgment.


Excellent post. It can be summarized by one sentence:

"When Stephen finished his Gospel-centered ministry, we read: "But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse" (Acts 7:57)."

At that point, I'm sure some people were saying that Stephen was noble and brave, but not prudent--- he'd gotten himself killed without advancing the Gospel one little bit. But God used this murder to convict Paul, and thus to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles--- quite apart from leaving us a martyr to respect and doing who knows what other good. Stephen didn't have to calculate all that, though-- he just did God's will and let the chips fall as God willed.

Amen! from this A29 pastor

What's been interesting to see, in view of this discussion, is the way in which one Gospel approach that's used a lot here, inverts Buchanan's order. What it does, is start off by talking about Jesus, a lot; and then goes into explaining why Jesus had to die. So, instead of Attributes - law - judgement - Christ, the pattern becomes: Christ - Attributes - Law - Judgement.

Not sure that this actually cuts the ice, though I'll have a change later in the year to find out more. Even C.S. Lewis managed better than this (Book I of Mere Christianity).

I agree with you in terms of preaching the Gospel - the Gospel cannot be divorced from sin, judgment, and hell. On the other hand, I find it ironic that you criticize contextualization and yet cite Paul's sermon at the Areopagus. His entire discourse there is based on the specific polytheism and idolatry of the Athenians. In fact, one could make a case that it is his most contextualized sermon.


You are correct about Stephen, but it should be noted that accepting martyrdom isn't always the best option. Jesus fled when His life was in danger on multiple occasions, and even avoided preaching in Jerusalem for much of His ministry. The same is true of Paul, who fled or avoided preaching to certain people groups and cities who rejected him. We should never shy away from truth, but that doesn't mean we should run headlong into martyrdom or ostracism.

Jake, I quite agree. It is as bad, or worse, to seek martyrdom as to flee from it, without guidance from the Holy Spirit.

"Contextualization" is a term of art, I think. Using it to mean "adapting to the context", I think Stephen contextualized his sermon too. He chose his words carefully, knowing his audience and knowing they'd feel that sermon more keenly than any other he might give. But I bet a lot of people use "contextualize" to mean "adapting to the context so as to cause the minimum offense", which is quite another matter from adapting to the context so as to cause the maximum offense.

>>But I bet a lot of people use "contextualize" to mean "adapting to the context so as to cause the minimum offense"

Precisely, dear brother.


Tim, your post reminded me of chapter 13 of J.I. Packer's book, "Knowing God," on the Grace of God.

Packer wonders why so many people in churches, though they profess to believe in grace, show no evidence of such. Talk to them about the church's air conditioning system or the church accounts and they're right with you. Talk to them of grace and they give you a look of "deferential blankness."

Why is this so? Packer mentions there are four truths that the doctrine of grace presupposes and if these truths "are not acknowledged and felt in one's heart, clear faith in God's grace becomes impossible." What are they? Note the similarity with Buchanan's four truths.

1. The moral ill-desert of man. Despite what man considers to be his "little peccadilloes," he holds to the "pagan" idea that he is basically good and never considers that he is actually a fallen, law-breaking rebel.

2. The retributive justice of God. Man exercises tolerance towards all sorts of evil and, in our "pagan way," we assume that God must do the same. It never occurs to him that God, in His goodness, and has created "a moral world in which retribution is as basic a fact as breathing." Those who do wrong have "no natural hope of anything from God but retributive judgment." And unless we feel this truth, we can "never share the biblical faith in divine grace."

3. The spiritual impotence of man. We hold to the essential tenet of "pagan religion" that we can repair our own relationship with God. Before we can really believe in God's grace, we must "bow to" the truth so well expressed by Toplady: "Not the labours of my hands, Can fulfill Thy law's demands. Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears for ever flow, All for sin could not atone, Thou must save and Thou alone."

4. The sovereign freedom of God. Old-time "paganism" had the idea that God needed us and our service and gifts. "Modern paganism" has the similar idea that God is obliged to help us out of our predicament. Nope. God is in no way dependent on us and is not "bound to show us favour." "Nobody forces His hand," and "only when it is seen that what decides each man's destiny is whether or not God resolves to save him from his sins, and that this is a decision which God need not make in any single case, can one begin to grasp the biblical view of grace."

All quotes from Packer 1973: pages 116-120.

“If a church planter is Gospel-centered, he's determined to ‘know nothing among (his flock) except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.’”

…plus the evils of abortion?

Sorry, Tim, but much as I appreciate your points against the hip New Calvinists here I am afraid you may not see how there are other ways to be irrelevantly relevant. To rail against abortion as a preacher is to meet the felt needs of a certain socio-political demographic. Some might even wonder if, like the Acts29 guys are trying to get the hipster culturalists, you’re trying to capture the Secularist & Atheist lifers.

>>To rail against abortion as a preacher is to meet the felt needs of a certain socio-political demographic.

Yes, yes; absolutely. And when you run across that demographic, would you do me the kindness of introducing us? I've yet to make their acguaintance--unless, that is, you're referring to men and women who have murdered their own children and finally hear the Spirit of God diagnose their sin as it is, holding out forgiveness for this evil, too.

That demographic I have met.


Thank you, Tim. This was an excellent summary of the gospel message, and the inherent offensiveness of it is something I need to be constantly reminded of in our age of "let's all go along to get along".


Perhaps you could comment on the relationship between the preaching you describe here (and Luke describes in Acts 2 - Acts 17, etc.) and the "apostles' instruction" of Acts 2? That is, is there a difference between preaching to those who you have no reason to suspect have heard the Gospel, repented, believed, and been baptized and those who HAVE heard, repented, believed, and been baptized?

Does Paul (or the author of Hebrews) presume something, namely, faith, covenantal relationship, etc., that translates into a different (perhaps wholly different) way of approaching one's listeners?

Ephesians, for example, seems to emphasize the obedience and new life of the Christian (which is visible and counter-cultural) but on the grounds of WHO THEY ALREADY ARE by virtue of having heard and believed and having been sealed (1:13). In short, there is no "altar call" message of "repent in believe" that we associate with "evangelistic" meetings, but a call to understand what God has done (before the foundation of the world and in space and time) and live differently because of it.

If I were preaching to a group of people each week, a sizable portion of whom I had no reason to believe had heard and responded in faith, then I might speak more like Paul in Acts 17 or Peter in Acts 2. If, by contrast, the group of folks in front of me had believed and were baptized, then might I choose to preach differently.

Perhaps you could distinguish how you see those things working out?


Dear Matt,

Note I titled the piece "What is Gospel-centered ministry, really...," going on to argue we must reclaim these four aspects that will always be present in the true proclamation of the Gospel. Of course, I'm not suggesting every sermon must open up these four doctrinal areas.

Whether there is other preaching and teaching that's properly not Gospel-centered is another (and good) question. In one sense, the answer must be "no." But in another sense--the one you've opened up--the answer might be "yes."

Keep in mind that any mention of the Cross at all in the New Testament world was utterly revolting and understood that way by the recipients of the New Testament letters. So what often looks to us like a glancing allusion to Christ's sacrifice was never prettified to them as it is universally today.

Finally, I would never in any church avoid preaching for regeneration, and this would particularly be true were I preaching to a church that believed in Covenant succession.


Now that's what I call a Plan for Renewal.

Dear Tim, thank you for this convicting post. I confess how readily I turn to a different, distorted gospel (not that there is another one) and place my faith in my own "perceived" knowledge instead of trusting the Holy Spirit which raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Thank you.


I'm interested in that last comment - "I'd never in any church avoid preaching for regeneration..."

I'm wondering what biblical grounds you'd have for that... within the epistles, let's say, themselves. And how this would be distinguished from run-of-the-mill decisionism/altar call preaching of the 19th century?

For example, I'm preaching this week on the "second great commandment" - Love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:38). If I intend to drive home 1) attributes of God (goodness - trinitarian love) as the model for our own thought/life/worship 2) the inescapability of God's command that we MUST love our neighbor and our enemies lest we be found guilty of the serial condemnations in, for example, 1 John 4:20 3) God's righteous anger and wrath rests on those who do not love their neighbors as "lawbreakers" of the first order and 4) our only hope to escape God's condemnation lies in Jesus' atoning death, satisfaction for sin, and promise to raise us to new life, etc.

If I preached in this way, the so-called "third use" of the law is noticeably absent, don't you think and the Westminster Divines wasted a lot of time spelling out what our duties to neighbors are. They took the time, it seems to me, to spell-out this "evangelical obedience" because they could and did approach saints as SAINTS... not a men and women who needed to question (again) whether they were regenerate or not. How would you ever get to the Reformed use of the law (which Lutheranism, at least in some forms, practically ignores) - this guide for conduct and belief - if one never has much assurance that one IS a believer.

Again and again, Paul appears to command evangelical obedience not mostly by preaching for regeneration but by, in some sense, assuming it (until he has reason NOT to) and saying... "Be what you are" (Col. 3:1-17 for example).

Is it "preaching the Gospel" to preach that one must refrain from sexual immorality and course speech... because you are saints (Eph. 5:3) OR must I walk through (at least in some way) a "basic" presentation of the Gospel outline by Buchanan in order to say much about a member of my congregation's (or the entire congregation's) behavior?

I certainly don't question the need for preaching the Gospel a la Peter/Paul in Acts as they encounter unbelief in Jewish/Gentile circles... I do wonder whether they use the same method in dealing with established Christian communities.

Do I misunderstand you or Buchanan?

Thanks, Tim.



Didn't the prophets preach regeneration to the gathered congregation of Israel?

I agree wholeheartedly with Tim. The more a church has heard presumptive regeneration, the more it needs to hear "Ye must be born again." Witness the whole CRC.

Dear Matt,

Augustine said, "Many sheep without, many wolves within." From the founding of the Church, this has been the universal experience of pastors as we care for our flocks. Yes, the Epistles demonstrate a presumption that letters to believers are letters to believers. It's hard to imagine how they could have been written otherwise. "To those purporting to belong to Christ who are a part of that organization purporting to be a true church in Galatia?" It doesn't work.

But do the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles provide evidence that our Lord and His Apostles called the faith of those marked by the signs of the Covenant into question? The answer to that question is an emphatic, "Yes!" How long shall my list be? Think of those Christ contradicts, telling them their father is not God, but the Devil (John 8:38 & ff.). And if we want to let ourselves off the hook by dismissing Christ as our paradigm for pastoral care today under the rubric of His omniscience, let's move to the Apostolic warning given to Simon Magus in Acts 8. Or on to the many exhortations to baptized believers recorded in the Epistles carefully calculated to warn against and expose presumption--including the Letters to the Seven Churches (eg. Revelation 3:1-6).

So yes, we are to preach to our people normally addressing them as true believers. But we also must test ourselves to see if we are in the faith and call our flock to follow us in this discipline...

"Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you--unless indeed you fail the test" 2 Corinthians 13:5)? That one simple command is all we need to understand this aspect of our work.

And this isn't to mention the situation of most of us, that we regularly have men and women under our Lord's Day church preaching who make no claim to Christian faith. They matter, too, don't they?

How we handle this pastoral obligation is something each of us has to face before the Lord, week by week. And yes, it's not easy to fulfill this duty without furthering the error of overly-tender consciences who fail to stand in our Holy Faith, confident in the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ. Such weakness and fear are constants in ministry and must, also, receive our careful pastoral ministry. It's a serious error not to know this disease and guard against it within our flocks.

But I'm convinced a larger error among Reformed pastors today is that we never preach the fear of God, the Law of God, the Last Judgment, and the necessity of fleeing spiritual presumption by testing the sincerity of our faith. That's the error most of us need to repent of, and flee.

Here's an excerpt from Luther's "Instructions for Parish Visitors" I've found extremely helpful:


In regard to doctrine we observe especially this defect that, while some preach about the faith by which we are to be justified, It is still not clearly enough explained how one shall attain to this faith, and almost all omit one aspect of the Christian faith without which no one can understand what faith is or means. For Christ says in the last chapter of Luke [24:47] that we are to preach in his name repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Many now talk only about the forgiveness of sins and say little or nothing about repentance. There neither is forgiveness of sins without repentance nor can forgiveness of sins be understood with out repentance. It follows that If we preach the forgiveness of sins without repentance that the people Imagine that they have already obtained the forgiveness of sins, becoming thereby secure and without compunction of conscience. This would be a greater error and sin than all the errors hitherto prevailing. Surely we need to be concerned lest, as Christ says In Matt. 12 [:45] the last state becomes worse than the first.

Therefore we have instructed and admonished pastors that it is their duty to preach the whole gospel and not one portion without the other. For God says in Deut. 4 [:2]: “You shall not add to the word. . . nor take from it? There are preachers who now attack the pope because of what he has added to the Scriptures, which unfortunately is all too true. But when these do not preach repentance, they tear out a great part of Scripture. They have very little good to say about the eating of meat and the like, though they should not keep silent when they have an opportunity to defend Christian liberty against tyranny. What else is this than what Christ says in Matt. 23 [:24]: “Straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel?"

So we have admonished them to exhort the people diligently and frequently to repent and grieve over their sins and to fear the judgment of God. Nor are they to neglect the greatest and most important element of repentance, for both John and Christ condemned the Pharisees more severely for their hypocritical holiness than for ordinary sins. The preachers are to condemn the gross sins of the common man, but more rigorously demand repentance where there is false holiness....

The preachers are to proclaim and explain the Ten Commandments often and earnestly, yet not only the commandments but also how God will punish those who do not keep them and how he often has inflicted temporal punishment. For such examples are written In order to forewarn people, for instance, how the angels spoke to Abraham in Gen. 19 [:12f.], and told how God would punish Sodom and destroy it with the fire of hell. For they knew that he would tell it to his descendants so that they would learn to fear God.

So too they are to point out and condemn various specific vices. as adultery, drunkenness, envy, and hate, and how God has punished these, indicating that without doubt after this life he will punish still more severely if there is not improvement here.

The people are thus to be urged and exhorted to fear God, to repent and show contrition, lest their ease and life of false security be punished. Therefore Paul says In Rom. 3 [:20]: “Through the law comes (only) knowledge of sin.” True repentance is nothing but an acknowledgment of sin.

Then it is important that faith be preached. Whoever experiences grief and contrition over his sins should believe that his sins are forgiven, not on account of his merits, but on account of Christ.

When the contrite and fearful conscience experiences peace, comfort, and joy on hearing that his sins are forgiven because of Christ, then faith Is present—the faith that makes him righteous before God. We are to teach the people diligently that this faith cannot exist without earnest and true contrition and fear of God, as It is written in Psalm 110 Prov. 1 [:7], “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” And Isaiah says in the last chapter: "On whom does God look except on the trembling and contrite heart?"

This shall be proclaimed repeatedly, so that the people do not entertain false notions and think they have faith when they are far from having it. It shall be made clear that only If they have faith can they truly repent and grieve over their sins. Without repentance theirs is an imagined faith. True faith brings comfort and joy in God, and we do not feel such comfort and joy where there is no repentance or fearfulness, as Christ says in Matt. 11 [:5]: “The poor have good news preached to them.”

These two are the first elements of Christian life: Repentance or contrition and grief, and faith through which we receive the forgiveness of sins and are righteous before God. Both should grow and increase in us.on

-from "Luther's Works; Volume 40; Church and Ministry II"; Edited by Conrad Bergendoff; Muhlenberg Press; Philadelphia; 1958; "Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors"; pp. 274 ff.


So Luther commands the preaching of the Law as a method of awakening those without compunction of conscience. Where and when would Reformed pastors today do the same? I grieve to think how many would call it spiritual abuse.

There are few things more dangerous to a pastor's tenure than faithfulness in warning our congregation, those who have been marked by Baptism and the Lord's Supper, of their need to examine themselves to see if they are in the faith. Churches today are filled with church members rendered "without compunction of conscience" by unfaithful shepherds who coddled them through the neglect of God's Law and warnings, never leading them through true fear of God and repentance, to saving faith in the work of the Cross of Christ. I'm convinced that many, if not most, evangelicals (including, and maybe especially, those in Reformed churches) are in the precise situation Luther here describes: they have been given over to an error "worse than all those hitherto prevailing," an error worse than the Roman Catholic Church prior to the Reformation.

This is the true state of the Protestant church today. We have removed the fear of God and are left with congregations of souls enslaved to greed, adultery, imaged idolatry, rebellion, and gossip who yet remain entirely without compunction of conscience, eating at the Lord's Table with impunity, never obstructed and guarded from presumption by loving and faithful shepherds.

Yes, there's always a danger of too-tender consciences, and we must work to assure such godly souls of the certainty of God's call and work through Jesus Christ and His Holy Spirit. But such souls are exceptional in our wicked day when to be American and to be Christian are one and the same.


I think if we preached the fear of God and that believers will stand one day before his throne to give an account of their lives, that would make a big difference. If you teach the fear of the Lord, saved people will hopefully ponder their life and unsaved people may realize their need for the Savior as God directs. I know one of my shortcomings is the fear of God. I need that and it is something I am praying for in my life. I don't take sin seriously enough. Grace is dangerous without a measure of reverent fear of the LORD. We can presume upon His grace. I have not heard a sermon on hell in years

Tim - thanks. I'll follow-up with you offline.



I just wanted to thank you for this excellent post. I have passed it on to many others.

Tim Bayly, I couldn't agree more with your last comment in response to Matt. Extremely well put.

Dear Tim,

I am a frequent lurker, but I think this is my first BaylyBlog comment. I doubt you remember, but my old Hillsdale roomate, David Talcott, introduced us once a few years back.

I think you and Matt Beatty are identifying two different weaknesses in the gospel-centered ("GC") rubric. As you say, obstruction to the Lord's Table is lacking in many of these churches. For some reason, the GC-crowd think that they can teach only a focus on the objective accomplishment of redemption without ever touching the subjective (not a pejorative) application of redemption. I believe they envision themselves as guarding their flock from the "Puritan error" of too-tender consciences doubting their salvation.

You (and Luther) are correct to admonish the Church not to offer a "forgiveness" without repentance that hardens the hearts of the people. That truly is a method prone to chasing one demon out and letting seven move in.

But on a differnt axis (and perhaps what Matt is getting at), I view the exhortation "Be what you are" to be, perhaps, the principle omission from the GC system. Where Tim Keller's gospel formulation--I am more wicked than I ever dared imagine but I am also more loved and accepted than I ever hoped--is the basis of GC preaching, the result is a fundamentally anti-regenerationist understanding of the Christian life. A believer is defined by his sin and his awareness of his need for justification. Godliness is thus defined exclusively as understanding the greatness of your sin and your need for the atonement offered in the Cross.

The attraction (conceit??) of GC homiletics is that the precise same message can be preached to the believer and the unbeliever. For Keller, et al., the unbeliever needs to have his sin and unbelief revealed and then flee to the free grace of the gospel and the believer needs to have his remaining sin and unbelief revealed and then again flee to free grace of the gospel. Thus, in Keller's Prodigal God, both sons are lost: the younger (unbeliever) and the older (believer); same problem, same remedy.

I believe this is deficient. In my understanding, pastors ought to preach that their believing congregants' old man has been crucified and therefore they "must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds." While this message should be periodically accompanied by the type of admonition to self-examination that you/Luther are advocating, the pudding's main them (to a congregation of folks that have displayed spirit-filled fruitfulness) should be the encouragement to "be what you are."

With gratitude for all that you do,

Keith Miller

>>both sons are lost: the younger (unbeliever) and the older (believer); same problem, same remedy...

Very helpful, Keith. My brother and I were talking earlier this week, though, and we believe what's taught is, actually, that the younger brother is saved and the elder brother lost--as in unregenerate. That's our take on it.

Whether what you're laying out here is what Matt is getting at is not clear to me.



I did oversimplify Prodigal God's concept of elder brothers. At times, Keller is certainly referring to churched-but-not-regenerate moralists who give American Christianity its bad name.

However, Keller also writes:


There is a big difference between an elder brother and a real, gospel-believing Christian. But there are also many genuine Christians who are elder brotherish... If you have not grasped the gospel fully and deeply, you will return to being condescending, condemning' anxious, insecure, joyless, and angry all the time.

(p. 69-70)


Here, at least, Keller is talking about "elder brotherishness" that is displayed by believers who do not "grasp the gospel fully and deeply." Thus, even the regenerate must be taught to repent of good works in order "to truly become Christians".


What must we do, then, to be saved? To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother. To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too. We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness-the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord. We must admit that we've put our ultimate hope and trust in things other than God, and that in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things.

It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord-lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness-that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.

(p. 76-77)

I now realize I misread your post. I agree with you and your brother, the teaching is

1) hedonistic sinnning + accept gospel = good

2) upstanding moral behavior + not accept gospel = bad

The second statement has a measure of truth, but isn't God's best (and his command) a third way?

3) accept gospel + upstanding moral behavior

>>To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you may remain just an elder brother. To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right.

Problem is, "contextualization" is constantly demonstrated to be making much of the good motivations and inclinations of unbelievers, while churched elder brothers are exposed as perverse in their motivations and needing the Gospel. So really, the message is that unbelievers are inclined to God and believers away from Him; believers need to be saved, while unbelievers to realize they're well on their way to God, already.



You have inaccurately portrayed Keller's message in The Prodigal God. Keller would say that the younger brother was completely lost before he turned to the father. Only when he turned to the father and relied completely on his grace and mercy was he "saved." Thus "hedonism + accept Gospel" is an invalid equation in his reasoning. Regeneration and Gospel acceptance go hand in hand - thus one cannot accept the Gospel and live a hedonistic lifestyle. The elder brother, in contrast, never places his faith in the father - he relies on his status and his upright behavior to save him. Keller rejects hedonism and moralism.

Tim Bayly is also incorrect to say that Dr. Keller "makes much good" of the motivations of unbelievers - he does no such thing. His main point is that the motivation for both hedonism and moralism is self-centeredness. Both brothers are equally lost in Keller's view. The difference is the younger brother eventually repents while the elder brother does not. So he would not excuse the hedonism of the younger brother, he would only note that in this case the hedonist eventually turns from his sin while the moralist does not.


Did you read my 11:52 post? I believer it provides the context to my admittedly simplistic equations.

If I may ask you a question, what would you cite as the Biblical authority for the idea that regenerated Saints ought to repent for "the very roots of their righteousness"?


To make myself clear, I completely agree with you when you say:

>>Keller would say that the younger brother was completely lost before he turned to the father.

I agree with Zeke. The Prodigal God is an excellent book and I found it convicting and edifying. Here are a couple of links to an expanded discussion of the Gospel by Tim Keller. I think they would be helpful for this discussion:



This quote might help you Keith:

"2. The gospel is the good news of changed lives. Paul says to Christians, ‘your life is hid with “Christ in God’ (Col 3:3), and in numerous places he says that we are now ‘in on the one hand, that the Father accepts us in Christ and treats us as if we had done all that Jesus has done (cf. Col 3:2a). But this is also means Christ’s life comes into us by the Spirit and shapes us into a new kind of person. The gospel is not just a truth about us that we affirm with our minds, it is also a reality we must experience in our hearts and souls."

That's hardly "anti-regenerationist."

>>he does no such thing...

Actually, he does such thing...

>>Both brothers are equally lost in Keller's view...

Precisely, and this despite Christ's explicit statement:

"And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours...'" (Luke 15:31).


>>Actually, he does such thing..

Care to provide a quote? Reference? Citation? Any evidence at all?

>>Precisely, and this despite Christ's explicit statement:

"And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours...'" (Luke 15:31).

If that's true, then the elder brother must have been saved by works, right? Are you saying Christians are saved by some moral system? Is the Kingdom of God a birthright for some? That was the elder brother's view - is that your view?

Tim, thanks for posting that Luther quote. I have been talking to my daughter about the fear of God and that quote will help me better guide that discussion.


Thanks for your engagement.

The quote you drew from extendingthekingdom.com does appear to show Keller affirming that the Christian is a new creation. But he proceeds to illustrate how that functions. Instead of any call to the Christian to "be what you are," Keller calls on the Christian to allow "faith in the gospel [to restructure their] motivations."

For example, In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 Paul wants the people to give an offering to the poor... Paul vividly and unforgettably says, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). When he says ‘you know the grace’-—he uses a powerful image, bringing Jesus’ salvation into the realm of money and wealth and poverty. He moves them by a ‘spiritual recollection’ of the gospel. Paul is saying, ‘Think on his costly grace. Think on that grace until you are changed into generous people by the gospel in your hearts.’ So the solution to stinginess is a re-orientation to the generosity of Christ in the gospel, where he poured out his wealth for you. Now you don’t have to worry about money—the cross proves God’s care for you and gives you security. Now you don’t have to envy any one else’s money. Jesus’ love and salvation confers on you a remarkable status-—one that money cannot give you.

Paul does the same thing in Ephesians 5:25ff, where he urges husbands to be faithful to their lives. What is the point? What makes you a sexually faithful spouse, a generous--not avaricious--person, a good parent and/or child is not just redoubled effort to follow the example of Christ. Rather, it is deepening your understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes that understanding makes in your heart—the seat of your mind, will, and emotions. Faith in the gospel re-structures our motivations, our self-understanding and identity, and our view of the world. Behavioral compliance to rules without heart-change will be superficial and fleeting. The gospel changes your heart.

Thus, the method for how the Spirit shapes the believer into a new type of person is limited to "gospel recollection" and "reorientation" as the engine of that transformation. Nowhere is regeneration depicted as the implanting of a principle of new spiritual life and a radical change in the governing disposition of the soul.

Keller's omission is consistent with his belief that exactly the same message ought to be preached to both the believer and the unbeliever. Does this philosophy not inherently blur the line between the regenerate and the unregenerate? It certainly seems to exclude the preacher from exhorting his believing hearers to "be what you are." It is in this way that I find the appellation "anti-regenerationist" apt.

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