Summary: God creates both Christians and saints by establishing us in the faith of the gospel.
It was over two years ago when I first contacted Robert about serving as your pastor. He returned to me a document, The Church of the Covenant Core Values, the first sentence of which reads: “We are a Gospel-driven Church.” About that conviction, the session notes: “We believe that the gospel is not simply the door of entry to the Christian life, but that the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ must be preached both to believers and unbelievers as the key to justification and sanctification. We believe that when the gospel is preached in its fullness and comprehensiveness, with clarity, we will see that we are much worse sinners than we ever dared to dream, but that God’s grace is much greater than we ever dared to hope. We believe that this is exactly where God wants us to be.”
Those are critical statements, undermining the false view that we mature in the Christian life differently than we enter it. Because my sinful heart likes to deny the gospel, I am always tempted to live as if godliness were the Spirit’s duty and my work. That is precisely backward. It is the duty of every person to believe the good news of Jesus Christ—but it is the Spirit’s work of new birth which creates and enables such faith. Likewise, it is the duty of every Christian to put to death sinful desires—but it is God’s work of union with Christ and spiritual transformation which creates true righteousness and holiness.
In our study of “The Dynamic Church,” this really is the dynamic that undergirds all else. It is first in our core values and could have been first in this series. But we do better to think of this as the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the reminder I seek to preach to myself everyday and to you every Sunday. The gospel is not something we outgrow, like baby food for new Christians; it is more like the amino acids that form all healthy foods—milk and steak.
Probably the most famous Christian in the world is the Apostle Paul, and he preached gospel-driven sanctification in every sermon and letter. We read it today from his message to the Colossians. [Read Colossians 2.6-15. Pray.]
One Sunday morning Helen and I attended the town’s largest evangelical church. We were surprised that the worship program announced a sermon on the Eighth Commandment. I was not expecting a growing, contemporary church to preach so clearly on the ten commandments.
I must be careful of being mean or overly critical, but I think I can fairly summarize the message as: “The Bible says, ‘Do not steal,’ because stealing is very bad. Here are many Bible references which prove this.” [The pastor then ranged throughout the Bible to give clear examples of stealing and to show that God is against theft. He even quoted Malachi 3, noting that failing to tithe was robbing God. He concluded by saying,] “So do not steal, for it will get you into big trouble, with society, but especially with God. It may look good, but in the end it leads to death.”
What intrigued me was not the preaching of the law, though I did not expect that at an evangelical mega-church. Two things intrigued me.
First, the sermon failed to address the power and pervasiveness of sin. The Bible certainly says, “Do not steal,” and the killing of the flesh is my duty. But my inability to obey on my own was never mentioned. Listen to Romans 7: “For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7.14-20). Stacking up Bible reminders of the prohibition against stealing does not overcome sin’s power.
Sin is also pervasive — it infects more than my outward behaviors. The pastor well described the record of debt owed by those who pocket office supplies, fudge on their taxes, fail to correct the waiter’s mistake in their favor, and refuse to give to the Lord’s work. Such stealing is wrong. But he never spoke to the machinations of the heart which grabs glory from God by eyeing my honor in everything that I do. He never exposed my desire to steal created by my envy of my neighbor and anger over the prosperity of the wicked. This is why our catechism reminds us that sanctification is not perfect in any believer in this life because of the remnants of sin which remain in every part of us, and the continuous sinful cravings of the flesh against the spirit, through which even our “best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God” (See Westminster Larger Catechism #77 and 78).