The Gospel Gap

One of the books I’ve been reading lately is “How People Change” by Paul Tripp and Timothy Lane. Tripp and Lane are faculty members at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation in Glenside, PA. There is a link to the CCEF website on this blog. They are also both lecturers in practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. Tripp is the author of several outstanding books like “Age of Opportunity” and “Instruments in the Redeemers Hands.” In their work with CCEF and Westminster, Tripp and Lane are helping pave the way to restore God’s Word to its proper place in offering practical help to people.

Often times “Christian Counseling” is nothing more than humanistic psychology done by a professing Christian. For years pastors and counselors have lacked the training to bring the witness of Scripture to bear upon such issues as depression, anger, divorce, child-raising, abuse, addiction, etc. It is far deeper than simply quoting a verse to someone and sending them on their way. Rather, their approach to counseling seeks to apply the healing, correcting, encouraging, and instructing power of God’s Word to the complexity of the human mind and heart.

In “How People Change,” Lane and Tripp explore the biblical patterns for life change. They do not offer simple answers or legalistic patterns. Rather, the authors seek to explain how God is always at work in the lives of His people to affect deep and lasting change. This book is a great example of applied theology done well. Mark Dever writes about this book: “In sixteen short and well-illustrated chapters, the wonderful prospect of change for the good is held out for the reader. We are called to consider our circumstances and our responses to them, and beneath that to examine our hearts’ desires and to turn afresh to Christ’s cross.”

One of the most helpful aspects of the book is that from the very beginning, Lane and Tripp call attention to the central place that the Gospel holds for the life of every believer. The Gospel is not confined to some corner at the very beginning of the Christian life. Rather, the Gospel is the controlling reality of the Christian’s life.

In the first chapter, titled “The Gospel Gap,” the authors write, “Often there is a vast gap in our grasp of the gospel. It subverts our identity as Christians and our understanding of the present work of God. This gap undermines every relationship in our lives, every decision we make, and every attempt to minister to others. Yet we live blindly, as if the hole were not there.”

Appealing to I Peter 1:3-9 the authors point out that the lives of Christians are to be characterized by “peaceful, loving relationships, a sweet, natural, day-by-day worship of the Lord, a wholesome and balanced relationship to material things, and ongoing spiritual growth.” Unfortunately, many Christians “leave a trail of broken relationships, a knowledgeable but impersonal walk with God, a struggle with material things, and a definite lack of spiritual growth.”

According to Scripture a lack of deep and lasting change happens when a person is “nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from past sins” (I Pet. 1:9). This is “the Gospel Gap” to which the authors refer. When the Gospel is missing as the central and controlling reality of our lives we will inevitably replace it with something else. “The result is a Christianity that is mere externalism. Whenever we are missing the message of Christ’s indwelling work to progressively transform us, the hole will be filled by a Christian lifestyle that focuses more on externals than on the heart” (p. 8).

Specifically, the authors point to seven types of externalism that are common among Christians.

“Formalism allows me to retain control of my life, my time, and my agenda. Formalism is blind to the seriousness of my spiritual condition and my constant need for God’s grace to rescue me. Formalism reduces the gospel “to participation in the meetings and ministries of the church.”

“Legalism completely misses the fact that no one can satisfy God’s requirements.” It focuses almost entirely upon what we can do for God rather than drawing strength and encouragement from what God in Christ has already done for us. “Legalism ignores the depth of our inability to earn God’s favor. It forgets the need for our hearts to be transformed by God’s grace. Legalism is not just a reduction of the gospel; it is another gospel altogether [see Galatians], where salvation is earned by keeping the rules we have established.”

Too many Christians believe that the key for deep and lasting change will be a particular experience that they associate with God’s presence. This is why there are so many within the church who are “consumers of experience” rather than functioning members of the body of Christ. “The danger of mysticism is that it can become more a pursuit of experience than a pursuit of Christ. It reduces the gospel to dynamic emotional and spiritual experiences.”

There is no question that Christians ought to stand up for what is right. Indeed, there are issues in society to which the church must speak the truth. However, for many the Christian life is more about activism and political influence than a joyful walk with Christ. It is more about “turning America around” than the lasting pleasures of Christ-likeness. Activism can also easily turn into an ugly judgmentalism. “Whenever you believe that the evil outside you is greater than the evil inside you, a heartfelt pursuit of Christ will be replaced by a zealous fighting of the ‘evil’ around you…The gospel is reduced to participation in Christian causes.”

Christians ought to be students of the Word of God. In fact knowing and regularly meditating upon God’s Word is absolutely necessary for deep life change. However, we are guilty of “Biblicism” when we are known more for our knowledge of Scripture than our conformity to it. “In Biblicism, the gospel is reduced to a mastery of biblical content and theology.”

When the Gospel Gap is filled with “Psychology-ism” the real problems in life are redefined. “Rather than seeing our problem as moral and relational – the result of our willingness to worship and serve ourselves and the things of this world instead of worshipping and serving our Creator (Romans 1)” – the tendency of Psychology-ism “sees our problem as a whole catalog of unmet needs.” It is seeking Christ as therapist rather than as Savior.

One of the truly “gospel-ish” qualities of the body of Christ is the Communion of Saints. We are a people united in close fellowship through our common Lord. Through Christ we are called to community. We are called to be one. We are responsible to spur one another on toward love and good deeds. In fact, we cannot move toward Christ-likeness as we should without the fellowship of God’s people.

However, when Christ is removed from His rightful place of centrality and pre-eminence then even good and necessary things like fellowship become replacements for the Gospel. In this scheme, our dependence upon friends replaces our dependence upon Christ. The church becomes a spiritual social club. Like “psychology-ism” “social-ism” casts Christ and His church as “Need Meeter.”

In my next entry I will give an overview of “Five Gospel Perspectives” that give direction to the book.

Other excellent books from the men at CCEF:
by Ed Welch
Seeing with New Eyes by David Powlison

Speaking Truth in Love by David Powlison
Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul Tripp
War of Words by Paul Tripp