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Is Your Church Gospel-Driven?

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 228

A Basic Issue
 
Is your Church driven by the Law or the Gospel?
 
This issue is a basic issue for Christian Churches and leaders desiring a healthier congregational life. Indeed, the degree to which any congregation is driven by Law or Gospel is directly related to the degree of true, God-pleasing, congregational health.
 
What's The Difference?
From a doctrinal perspective, the differences between Law and Gospel are as different as night and day.
 
In the narrow sense Scripture indicates that the Law is always that which condemns. Every time one hears the Law it always points to what one must do (or not do) to get a blessing or avoid a curse. Since there is "no one perfect, no, not one," the clear, unmitigated result of the Law is that it points fingers at the sinner. In face of judgment and retribution, the Law gives birth to fear, guilt, hopelessness and despair. Ultimately, it stares the sinner in the face saying, "You are guilty. You are not good enough. You are worthy of death."
 
In contrast, the Gospel always directs the sinner away from his or her own doings and offers them to Christ's forgiveness. Instead of showing one's sins, it shows one's Savior. Instead of promising guilt, judgment and death it promises grace, justification, and eternal life. The Gospel, unlike the Law, is not the result of one's own work, merit, achievement or worthiness.  It is, as St. Paul said in Ephesians 2:8 ff. given to sinners purely and exclusively by grace.
 
The Differences...In A Broader Sense
 
The narrower delineation between Law and Gospel however gives way to a broader and more pervasive understanding of the struggle between legalism and evangelicalism. As one gains a greater understanding of the essence of Law and Gospel and their mutually exclusive nature, one begins to see that Law and Gospel are evidenced in our lives and in and outside of our congregations.
 
Which is more dominant? Perhaps the following table can help identify what dynamics are most present in your church.
Law-Driven Gospel-Driven
Man-centered ("Anthropocentric") Christ-Centered ("Christocentric")
Legalistic Evangelistic
Judgmental Encouraging
Accusing and destroying Forgiving and healing
Perfectionistic Creative
Motivates by duty, "should"'s, "ought to"'s, "have to"'s, etc. Motivates by opportunities to love
Bound by tradition Passion to innovate
Fear of "surprises" Energized by the unexpected
A place for everything and everything in its place Fluidity of policies and procedures
Must do it "right" Just do it
Territorial And restrictive Open and expansive
authority-centered Authority-centered
Dependent on rules, procedures, Bureaucracy Trusts individuals to make a positive difference for the clearly-defined and agreed upon mission and objectives
Melancholy Celebrative
Manipulative Inviting
Demands conformity to the organization Invites discovering one's God-given uniqueness for His Church
The organization is the most important thing The individual is the most important
Don't talk, trust or feel Share freely with others in the warm, caring, trusting fellowship of the Body of Christ
Organizational Conformity Personal Growth
Avoid risks Trustingly moves out in faith

Seeks small, controllable
goals when necessary

BHAG-driven

Characterized by fear, guilt, lack of self-esteem, power struggles

Characterized by the bold confidence of being totally in God's grace
Centered on organizational needs Centered on God's calling
Meets the budget Driven to fill people's needs
"Forgives"...without forgetting Forgives and forgets
Uncertainty of God's presence Absolute confidence of God's unlimited power and presence
"Love" is conditional and is given and withheld at whim Reflects God's unconditional love
Looks to the past to guide the future Looks to God's Word and will to direct the present and guide the future
Unrealistic expectations of
immediate results
Focus on ongoing process of renewal
Failure is final Failure is an opportunity to rejoice in forgiveness and move forward in faith
People who experience
failure are failures
God's grace knows no failures that can't be forgiven and used as opportunties to build His Church
Complains that the pastor doesn't preach enough Law Just can't get enough of God's great news of affirming Gospel!
Enforces institutional needs Celebrates entrepreneurship
Closed mind, system and faith Open to renewal, ideas, experimentation
Slavery Freedom
Leaders do it right Leaders do the right things
Seeks to control outcomes Passionate outputs are freely placed into God's will and outcome
Driven by numbers, statistics Driven by the possibility to change lives
Unable to examine themselves and make appropriate changes Propelled by a life of daily confession and absolution
Desperately looking for
"The" instant magical fix
Understands that renewal begins in their own hearts and relationship with God.
Looking for the easy ways out of discipleship Take up the cross of discipleship and joyfully follows wherever Christ leads--no matter what the cost
Defensive, excuse seeking able to open themselves to God's scrutiny for the purpose of experiencing an even greater action of grace in their lives
Seeks scapegoats, victims Lives a constant process of personal transformation and renewal in Grace
Seeks glory, recognition, praise for self Gives glory, recognition and
praise to God
God is held captive God rules!
God is reinvented to man's image God is worshiped as God
Changed only by pain, conflict and schism Resurrected and renewed by the ongoing renewal of Grace
Self-destructive Continually driven toward transformation to the likeness of Christ.
Goal is death Goal is life
And the list goes on and on and on...

Law And Gospel Are Totally Different!!!

Though the list of differences is virtually endless, the means and results are always the same. Law-driven churches use guilt and fear-related motivations to get results. Gospel-driven churches call upon higher values of grace, love and God's will and calling to go where God leads them.
 
The mutually-exclusive, contradictory nature of the Law and Gospel is also a source of great pain. Ultimately driven by Satan, any individual, leader, church or para-church organization under the demonic clutch of the Law is doomed to self-destruction. Some of the most telling marks of this self-destructive tendency include...
What You Can Do
 
1) The most critical thing a pastor of a Law-dominated congregation can do is to take a "Law and Gospel Inventory" of a congregation. The problem with our churches, as one nineteenth century American theologian claimed, was not because of a lack of the Holy Spirit. The problem was that they didn't understand the pervasive impact of Law and Gospel in all that they did. Most importantly, they did not recognize and repent of the clutch that sin held on them and their churches.
 
2) Don't mis-interpret Gospel-domination as "license." License is simply lawlessness. Both legalism and anomia are Law-driven. Both work in a way contrary to the Gospel. Scripture indicates that the Gospel works in the heart of believers in such a way that they desire to respond with obedience. Psalm 1 speaks of this phenomenon indicating that the end results is "Whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." "Prosperity" is the fruit of the Gospel-driven life.
"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.  But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." 
                                            Psalm 1:1-2 (KJV)
Certainly many other Scriptures speak against confusing the freedom of the Gospel with lawlessness. Romans 6:1-1 is perhaps most familiar.
"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)
3) Don't expect any single magical program to change the pervasiveness of legalism in a congregation. Programs may engender some immediate, short-term or surface results. Unfortunately, the "We need another program" and "Let's have the pastor fix it" mentalities tend to be reinforced and perpetuated by success and failure. It's a vicious cycle of continually trying to magically have it all. 
 
4) Some congregations may be so deeply ingrained in legalism that they think the Gospel is the Law! In such environments the leaders need to have at least three characteristics.
 First, they must be able to stand and stand firm in the Gospel no matter what the price.
 
Second, they must be able to persevere in their Gospel-driven lives and leadership.
 
Third, when all else fails they must be able to take the sandals off their feet without guilt, remorse, undeserved feelings of failure, or loss of Gospel-driven vigor
5) In congregations plagued with legalism perhaps the best approach is to reverse the polarity with a regular overdose of the Gospel. Emphasize the essential elements of the Gospel. Emphasize the Gospel from a positive perspective. Bombard the hearers with a relentless barrage of God's limitless forgiveness, God's promises, God's working and the like.
 
Counter-attack legalism with an equally compelling proclamation of what the Gospel is by describing what it is not. It is not characterized by fear, it is not driven by guilt, it is not based on one's self-esteem, it is not based on one's perceived value, it does not hold grudges, it does not seek power and control, it does not deprive us of love, creativity, and innovation. Above everything else, it does not deprive us of eternal life. Indeed, it gives it to us in Jesus Christ.
 
6) Evaluate your own preaching, leadership and lifestyle. Is it Law-driven or Gospel-driven. Of course, everyone's own evaluation is, "Oh, that's easy! I'm Gospel-driven!" Don't be so sure.
 
Pastors, like congregations, often cannot see their own captivity to legalism. Like King David and so many others, sometimes we need a discerning Christian outsider to point it out. The first step away from legalism and toward a Gospel-driven life is allowing our legalistic failings to be shown for what they are.
 
The next step is even more painful. But it is where the growth is. Having been shown clear examples legalism in their lives, leaders need to be able avoid the classic legalistic defenses of blaming, targeting, scapegoating, and slandering the loving brother or sister who evangelically points out this legalism.
 
Find a qualified, trusted one in the ministry who is not too close to make an objective evaluation of your preaching, your ministry style, and your overall balance of Law and Gospel in your ministry.
 
Ministry Health Institute's "Gospel-Dominated" preaching workshop is but one resource. Individuals successfully completing it consistently remark on how they didn't realize how Law-driven their sermons were. As the Gospel dominates their preaching, they find greater joy in preaching...and greater joy in ministry as they themselves become even more centered on the unmerited, unconditional grace of Jesus Christ.
 
7) Expect a response to the Gospel proclamation. Whatever the response may be will be uncertain. One thing's for sure. It will be Biblical. It may be the remarkable remorse of a King David, the immediate shocking transformation of St. Paul. On the other hand, it might be an outright response like that of the Pharisees and others eager to "taste blood" (metaphorically speaking, of course!).
 
Most likely, however, is that the response will be shaped over time. Those who have "ears to hear" will hear. Others will remain questioning, indifferent, aloof or undecided. Still others may become fearful of the work of God in their hearts. These will flee, fight, or antagonize.
 
8) Persevere in the Gospel-proclamation. Any change dominated by legalism will only reinforce greater legalism. Like vultures and prey, legalism tends to mark out, surround, swoop and devour its prey. The kill is hardly ever "surgical." Instead, it's a painful piece-by-piece tearing apart of the living prey to death.
 
Jesus said the one who takes the sword shall die by it. The one who takes the sword of legalism will die by their sword of legalism. Swing the sword and it will be wielded against you. Count on it!
 
9) Learn Gospel responses. This does not mean to cave in. Nor does it mean to engage in avoidance or denial behaviors. These, too, are rooted in legalism. Gospel responses are not condemnatory, putting down, judging and based in anger and paranoia.
 
They are, however, rooted in a real desire to reach out and take appropriate ministry risks relative to all members. Maintain a confident evangelical leadership style. Patiently remain as approachable as possible to everyone. As long as people are members of the congregation you are their spiritual leader. Since you are their spiritual leader you will certainly continue your earnest prayer that God works in the hearts of even the most hostile antagonists.
 
If God answers your prayers and brings them to repentance, be sure that it wasn't you who shut the door through your unkind or unthinking words or actions. A daily reading and re-reading of Romans 12 may be the best way to keep your ministry properly focused.
 
10) Do not give up your healthy, scriptural boundaries at any price. In these situations follow the words of St. Paul.

"Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if
you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." 1 Timothy 4:16  (NIV)

11) Don't fall into the "Four Pitfalls of Power-Driven Ministry." Though often touted as being "of the Gospel" they are simply crass legalism gone woefully awry.

Four Pitfalls Of Power-Driven Ministry
* Avoiding accountability and communication with the congregation and denominational supervision because one has a "call;"
 
* Exalting the pastoral office to the point of exhibiting domineering, unbiblical and even unethical behaviors whether or not done under the guise of  a "Scriptural mandate," or "Biblical or historical proof texts," or "proper church discipline." Such actions are usually politically suicidal and ought not to be initiated without prior in-depth consultation with the appropriate denominational overseer;
 
* Describing ones ministry in such a  way so that evangelism, visitation, Christian hospitality are considered unnecessary as long as you preach on Sunday; and
 
* Elevating the pastoral office in such a manner that it avoids accountability, subjugates the appropriate exercise of power in the church, and voids the validity of God-pleasing lay ministry.
12) Learn to let the Word of God go and work as God wills (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11). Letting go of the outcomes of preaching the Word of God--Law and Gospel--can be difficult. Some pastors never do. Others learn it in the school of hard knocks. It's the fearful, uncertain part of the prophetic office.
 
But it's also the joyful part. Its where the surprises, the wonder, and the awe is. When preachers see the Spirit working and changing their lives and the lives of others, they get the  get the tingling, joyful and exhilarating feeling exclusive to those who preach the Gospel. They get the "Gospel rush."
 
Is There A Place For The Law?
 
Certainly there is. But it's not to dominate, intimidate or motivate in ways contrary to the nature of the Gospel. As the writings of the Major and Minor Prophets indicated, even in the most blatant situations of moral depravity the Gospel still predominated! Forgiveness and reconciliation, the hallmarks of the Gospel, were always the predominating intended objective of their preaching.
 
The issue is not whether or not the Law will be preached. It will. It should be. It dare not be. Like the Gospel, the Law is God's Word. It is that by which the Spirit's action brings about appropriate contrition and repentance which leads to the Gospel. The real issue, however, is whether the Gospel will pre-dominate preaching, worship, prayer and every aspect of personal, professional, and congregational life.
 
The Law, in a most simplistic sense, is an answer for directing one saved and driven by the Gospel who asks, "God, how can I serve you? How can I thank you? What is it that you would have me to do?"
 
As long as a believer's response of faith is driven by the spontaneous joy of the Gospel it is healthy. The moment the Gospel motivation is lost and it becomes mandatory, legislated and or tied to reward or punishment, it is Law dominated.

Let The Gospel Dominate Everything!!!

Are you ready to see what God can really do in your church? Are you strong and secure enough in your Christian faith to preach the Gospel "in and out of season?" Are you ready to see what happens when the dynamic power of the Gospel is turned loose in your congregation? Then let the Gospel dominate. Let it rule!
 
Its not a quick-fix. It's not magic. But it is where the joy is. It is the essence of our calling. So what's holding you back? Let the Good News of Gospel go forth wherever it may go and do whatever it is that God has desired for it.

"As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is My Word that goes out from My mouth:

It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

[As you preach the Gospel] You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

Instead of the thorn bush will grow the pine tree, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow. This will be for the Lord's renown [not yours], for an everlasting sign, which will not be destroyed."                                  Isaiah 55:10-12 (NIV)

Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:54 PM