How often have you heard the gospel equated with a positive change in a believer’s life? “I used to __________, but then I met Jesus and now I’m ___________.” It may be unintentional, but we make a serious mistake when we reduce the good news to its results, such as patience, sobriety and compassion, in the lives of those who have heard it. These are beautiful developments, and belief in the gospel does produce such fruit. But the results should not be confused with the gospel itself. The gospel is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself.
A narrative of improvement
Well-meaning Christians sometimes adopt a narrative of improvement that becomes a functional law for them through which they filter their experiences. The narrative can be as simple as “I was worse, but now I am better,” or as arbitrary as “I used to have a difficult relationship with my mother, but now it’s much easier.” Soon we wed our faith to these narratives, and when an experience or feeling doesn’t fit—for example, when we have a sudden outburst of anger at someone we thought we had forgiven, it disturbs our security or causes us to doubt.
If the narrative we’ve adopted says that in order for our relationship with God to be legitimate, our life has to get better, we twist the gospel into a moral improvement scheme. The Gospel is not “you must become like Jesus”; the Gospel is “Jesus became like you” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That’s not to say that “Jesus becoming like you” doesn’t change you. It does. But the Gospel is NOT our transformation. The Gospel is Christ’s substitution.
Law and Gospel
There’s a difference between “the Gospel” and our response to the Gospel. It’s an important distinction. Nothing about you or your life or the way you live is “the Gospel.” Which, by the way, is very good news. My life will exhibit the fruit of believing the Gospel, but the fruit is not the Gospel itself. And when we fail to make this distinction, we rob the good news of “Jesus for you” from its purity and power. In theological terms, it’s a mixing of Law and Gospel.
As I’ve said before, the failure to distinguish the Law and the Gospel always means the abandonment of the Gospel because the Law gets softened into “helpful tips for practical living” instead of God’s unwavering demand for absolute perfection, while the Gospel gets hardened into a set of moral and social demands we “must live out” instead of God’s unconditional declaration that “God justifies the ungodly.” As my friend and New Testament scholar Jono Linebaugh says, “God doesn’t serve mixed drinks. The divine cocktail is not Law mixed with Gospel. God serves two separate shots: Law then Gospel.”
Where you are
So, God is not interested in what you think you should be or feel. He is not interested in the narrative you construct for yourself, or that others construct for you (in fact, He often uses suffering and failure to deconstruct that narrative). Rather, He is interested in you — the you who suffers, the you who inflicts suffering on others, the you who hides, the you who has bad days (and good ones). And He meets you where you are. Jesus is not the man at the top of the stairs; He is the man at the bottom, the friend of sinners, the savior of those in need of one, which is all of us, all of the time.
Tullian Tchividjian is a South Florida native, senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a visiting professor at Knox Reformed Theological Seminary, and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. He is the founder of LIBERATE (liberatenet.org), a bestselling author, a contributing editor to Leadership Journal and a popular conference speaker. Follow Tullian on twitter at: @pastortullian