The Centrality of Jesus Christ
By Pastor Coalt Robinson
I ran across a paper by Donny Cho who is the Senior Pastor at Metro Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia and was very intrigued by what he had to say about the centrality of Jesus in the Gospel. Listen to how he frames his discussion (which lasts some 27 pages by the way): “Too many times the message from the Sunday pulpit that is passed off as gospel is either a “set of principles on living the Christian life” (spinning back to legalism / moralism / religiosity) or “warm inspirations to get through the week” (spinning you toward hedonism / relativism / license living). The Gospel we are to have must save us from hedonism and legalism. What kind of gospel does that?” Pastor Cho goes on to illustrate this by listing several Sunday School or Conference tract topics such as “5 Steps to Knowing the Will of God” or “7 Steps to more Fulfilling Prayer life” along with simply, “Who is Jesus.” Pastor Cho says that most of us will opt for the class on the 5 steps to knowing the will of God or the 7 Steps to a more fulfilling prayer life because we see those as more fulfilling — they are not basic like the, Who is Jesus class. The fact is, a class on Jesus is seen as basic — we already know Him. The same could be said of a Bible study — some may want to learn how to evangelize and others how to pray more effectively while another might suggest that we get back to the basics and study one of the gospels. When one suggests a book of the Bible we often hear another say that they have already done that, “I have already studied the book of Mark, I’d like to move on to a topic that will really benefit us.” I think the point that pastor Cho is making is that we, as Christians, have been conditioned from the pulpit toward hedonism on one side and legalism on the other, and for him, this isn’t the true gospel because the gospel must save us from these extremes.
If Cho is correct — that we have a tendency toward these two different extremes, then we ought to be able to recognize it. We must recognize teaching that is gospel centered compared to teaching that lends itself to legalism on one side or hedonism on the other. First of all, I am not convinced that one can tell if a sermon or Sunday school class is gospel centered based on the title of it. For instance, a class entitled, “Who is Jesus” may lend itself to legalism where “5 Steps to knowing the Will of God” may be very gospel centered in its approach to the subject. Having said that, it is important to realize when we achieve things by following a set of guidelines this often breeds legalism. Think about the title of this blog at twoofus.org entitled, “10 Things You Can do to Have a healthy Marriage”. The title seems to indicate that for one to have a healthy marriage they need to follow this list of “things”. Now there is nothing wrong with the article in and of itself, in fact, there are some very good things in it, just as there would be with all of the Studies that Cho lists in his paper. On the other hand if we look at this list and think that in order to have a good marriage we must tick all of these items off then we boarder on legalism. At this point someone might say that there is quite a difference between a blog and a sermon, and the answer to that would be yes and no. Consider the similarities between the blog we mentioned earlier and this sermon at sermoncentral.com entitled “Six Steps to a Good Marriage”. I am not arguing that there is nothing good in the sermon but just the opposite — the sermon has some great points such as, we ought to marry the right person and be willing to give in, but I have the same complaint. The title as well as the points in the sermon seem to indicate that if you follow the steps indicated, like being considerate and not going to bed mad that one will have a good marriage as if there is a list of six items that we are to tick off in order to make marriage work. Here is the problem with messages that lend themselves toward legalism — they keep Christ out of them. Christian living is more about checking off a list then it is about the gospel — it is more about list checking then it is about total dependance on Christ Jesus. I think this was some of Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders of his day — they were so concerned with the items in the Law that they missed Jesus. Is the Law bad? Certainly not but when it is treated as a list to be checked off to achieve holiness and a right status before God — it becomes a legalistic gospel which is no gospel at all.
The same could be said for, what Cho, calls “warm inspirations to get us through the week” — these are messages that do not push us toward Christ but instead lend themselves more toward hedonism or relativism. These are sermons, as Cho says, “take the work of Christ so that we can live life for ourselves, not wanting to do anything really with a life in Christ.” In other words a message that says, for instance, Christ purchased our freedom therefore we are to live free — live as the people God created us to be. Very often we hear messages like this, and while there is truth, the problem is that the thrust of the message points us away from Christ and not to Him. Based on what Christ has done you are free to be you — what does that mean? Free to drink several beers with your buddies? Free to be a Christian and a homosexual? We need to be clear what freedom in Christ means. Yes, Christ set us free but he also gave us a freedom in which we couldn’t do while in bondage to sin — namely to be obedient to Him.
The Gospel always pushes us to Christ. Whether it be some act of Christian living such as our prayer life or our marriage — the true gospel always pushes us to Christ and is not a checklist of dos and don’ts. The gospel is our our life in Christ not from Christ. Paul, in Romans 1 says that he is “set apart for the Gospel” (verse 1) and that this gospel concerns the Son (verse 3) — make no mistake that Jesus is central to the gospel. For Paul everything went back to Jesus — He is the center of the Christian’s life therefore all of our teaching and instruction ought to be gospel centered and Christ exalting.
One of the things that Americans seem to hold dear is freedom. All the way back in 1789 it was clear that Americans stood for and respected freedom. It was in that year that Congress approved the Bill of Rights or the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press or the right to assemble… When we think of the Bill of Rights we think of freedom, but the Bill of Rights does not just tell us that we are free and certainly does not tell us that we are free to do anything we wish. In the First Amendment we see that we are free to exercise religion and we are free to speak our mind and make our opinion known — no matter how ridiculous. We have the freedom to assemble but within certain bounds — it must be peaceable. When it comes to the Second Amendment we see that we are free to keep and bear arms (A freedom for which I am very thankful) — there is no wonder when we think of America and more specifically the Bill of Rights that we think of freedoms — freedoms that those in other countries do not have.
When we think of freedoms that we gain from the Bill of Rights or the freedom that we have by virtue of living in the United States of America we often or should think of that freedom in terms of what we are able to do without fear of punishment — like bear arms or assemble peaceably. We are free to gather as Christians in Washington DC in support of life — we saw this not long ago in our country — thousands of people gathered together in our nations capital standing together for life peacefully protesting the practice of abortion — even when abortion is legal in our country. On the other end of the spectrum, June is a month in which we see a lot of LGBT parades and gatherings and in our country people are free to gather and celebrate together. Those in the LGBT community just like many Christians are very thankful for the Bill of Rights — not only for the freedom to assemble but for the freedom to express ourselves.
Often when we see the flag we are thankful for the freedoms that we have in the United States — we think of the people who gave their lives in order for people to have the freedom to speak freely and and assemble for whatever cause moves them. Often when we walk into church and we look around we are thankful for the freedom we have to assemble together because in some other countries around the world that freedom does not exist. I thank God for this: that I have the freedom to attend Bethel Church, to worship with this family without the fear of handcuffs — I think it is right to be thankful for that freedom — to recognize those who have fought and lost their lives for that freedom. My point in bringing up the Bill of Rights is that when we think of freedom we also usually think of freedom in terms of what we are able to do in light of that freedom. The Bill of Rights gives us the freedom to keep and bear arms for example.
Now having said this, there are many who speak of freedom without indicating what that freedom means. I think of the Lee Greenwood Song, “God Bless the U.S.A.”, “And I’m proud to be an American Where at least I know I’m free and I won’t forget the men who died who gave that right to me.” Of course what Greenwood says isn’t wrong he just does’t specify what freedom he is singing about — is it the freedom to bear arms or assemble or speak his mind? It is obvious though that he doesn’t mean that Americans are free to do whatever they want to do — just use that as an excuse when you are pulled over for driving 40mph over the speed limit in a school zone.
I think this is what we have done in the Christian faith — we have started to say that we are free in Christ without indicating what we are free to do in light of that freedom. I would also suggest that, for many of us, that we walk into the worship service and see the cross and our minds are immediately overwhelmed with thoughts of thanksgiving and gratitude toward our country and military for the freedom bestowed on us by virtue of the Bill of Rights and those who fought to protect it. I wonder if we have muddled what it means to be free in Christ with what it means to be protected by the Bill of Rights. I can wonder that because there are many who come into church and see the cross and think of the freedom given to us by our government not what it means to be free in Christ.
In Romans 1:1, Paul declares himself to be owned by Jesus Christ — he calls himself a slave and in that he means that his freedom from the bondage of sin and death is found only in giving his life to another master. Freedom for Paul wasn’t an abstract freedom — it was a freedom that defined him. Paul couldn’t speak of himself or give himself any credibility without speaking of Jesus Christ. Listen to this first verse again, “Paul, a servant (doulos) of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” Paul here introduces himself to the Romans in three ways and in each way he highlights the sovereign work of Christ Jesus in his life — in setting him free — in calling him to be an apostle and setting him apart for the gospel. How are we to be truly free? How can we experience true freedom? Recognize with Paul that freedom is found only in Jesus Christ — meaning that it is in Him and Him alone that we are free to live in obedience to Him. We were once held captive to sin and by nature and choice objects of God’s wrath — but now we are free from that — free from wrath — free from the penalty and power of sin. Oh that we would see the cross and be overwhelmed and flooded with gratitude that we are free in Christ — free to serve — free to live— free to tell — and free from wrath!
There is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
On Page seven of the book Slave: the hidden truth about your identity in Christ, John MacArthur is telling of the early martyrs of the Christian faith and writes this: “The Young man said nothing else as he stood before the Roman governor, his life hanging in the balance. His accusers pressed him again, hoping to trip him up or force him to recant. But once more he answered with the same short phrase. ‘I am a Christian’”. When this young man said that he was a Christian it had a very specific meaning. The man did not have to clarify what he meant by being a christian — he just simply answered his accusers with the phrase: “I am a Christian.”
In our world, very much unlike the first couple hundred years of the existence of the Christian faith, the phrase, “I am a Christian” carries a variety of meanings. For some the claim to be Christian is cultural or traditional. Perhaps one was raised in the “Bible belt” or in an area of the country that has a rich Christian tradition — for many to be a Christian is to be more associated with culture or tradition then the Christ of the Scriptures. For others being a Christian is about moral values and politics — it is more about defending that what they believe is moral than embracing the Christ of the Bible. For others being a Christian is about a past religious experience that really has no bearing on the present. Some might associate being a Christian with a general belief in Jesus and some might call themselves a Christian meaning that they desire to be a person with high moral standards. There are many people who fall in one of these or a combination of these categories. The fact is, that today calling one’s self a Christian carries a wide range of meanings that really render the term inadequate in a variety of situations without more explanation.
Another concern when it comes to the term ‘Christian’ in our world is that many who claim that label for themselves have little or no idea what they are claiming. The term has lost a great deal of its meaning over the years. The martyrs in the early church were crystal clear about what being a Christian meant — in fact they were so sure of it's meaning and sure that others understood it, that they were willing to die for being a Christian.
When it comes to being a Christian the Bible uses a great many terms to identify the followers of Jesus, like children of God, sheep, or members of His body. After going through these, John MacArthur says this, “Yet, the Bible uses one metaphor more frequently then any of these. It is a word picture that you might not expect, but it is absolutely critical for understanding what it means to follow Jesus. It is the image of a slave.” The image of slave makes one thing very clear that really places a dagger in the heart of many contemporary ways people understand what it means to be a Christian. Many today believe that being a Christian is primarily about us. Think of it this way, many expressions of the gospel are like a puzzle with a great number of pieces that represent your life and some people have a picture that is still in a lot of pieces and others have almost put their together but everyone has one thing in common — the puzzle cannot be finished without Jesus Christ. Jesus is the piece of the puzzle that we all need to complete us — to fulfill our ambitions and make our dreams come true. The problem with this, and John MacArthur says it well is that, “True Christianity is not about adding Jesus to my life. Instead, it is about devoting myself completely to Him—submitting wholly to His will and seeking to please Him above all else. It demands dying to self and following the Master, no matter the cost. In other words, to be a Christian is to be Christ’s slave.”
This is, I believe, what the early Christian Martyrs understood being a Christian to be — following Christ at all cost — seeking to please him above all else. When the Roman government said that being a Christian was illegal and punishable by death — these Christians gladly chose death because obedience to their master was far more important than life. Today this is not the case, and I believe that it is our task as the church to begin to restore meaning to the word ‘Christian’. The obvious question that follows a statement such as that is: How do we as the church go about restoring meaning to the word ‘Christian’? For our church — I would suggest that it begins with understanding what it means to be a Christian ourselves. What does it mean to be a Christian farmer? What does it mean to be a Christian Father? What does it mean for me to be a Christian? I think we need to deal with questions such as these for ourselves, and by doing that we will intern give meaning to the word Christian. One way we will start dealing with these questions is by working our way through the book of Romans. Even in the first verse of the epistle we see how Paul describes himself. Paul introduces himself to the Romans as a servant (doulos) or slave of Christ Jesus. Paul understood what it meant to be a Christian and he understood Christ Jesus to be his master — he was completely devoted to Jesus and longed above all else to please him by doing His will. If that is what it means to be a Christian — it has tremendous ramifications for our lives doesn’t it? Paul — we learn at the onset of Romans was crystal clear on what being a Christian means — are we?
The above question can be understood in at least two ways. First, it could be understood in such a way that the reader deems the “tithe” to be an archaic and antiquated principle that people simply do not practice anymore. A second way of looking at this question is in terms of obligation – one could rephrase the question to: Are we still obligated to tithe? The simple answer to that question is: No, we are not obligate to tithe. Of course things are not that simple because as soon as we say that we are not obligated to tithe then a host of other questions are raised, such as: How much am I obligated to give then? We will get to that a little later, but for now we need to understand that the concept of tithing is an Old Testament requirement of the Law in which the Israelites would give ten percent of their crops and/or livestock to the tabernacle or temple. Leviticus 27:30 states, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.” Some see the tithe in the Old Testament as a method of taxing the people to provide for the needs of the poor, and the temple worship. When we think of taxes, we think of taxes placed on different items, for instance there is a sales tax and a tax on gasoline as well as your income taxes. The Old Testament tithe system was similar in that there were multiple tithes – one for the Levites, one to take care of the temple and the feasts, and then another for those who didn’t enough food and clothing. Some have said that the figure was actually more around 23 percent in the Old Testament when one started adding up one’s multiple tithing responsibility. In the Old Testament one was under the Law and therefore was obligated to tithe as the law required.
In the New Testament we see the believer placed on a new foundation – they are no longer obligated to tithe. Look at Romans 7:6, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” Notice here that the law held us captive and the Christian is set free from its captivity. We are released from the law. So does that mean that we are not obligated to give? That is a tricky question isn’t it? Some want to keep the language of the tithe in the church and want to treat it as mandatory for the Christian so that people will give. It takes money to run a church or a ministry – a fact we know well if we listen to any radio or TV ministries. Here is the problem with that kind of thinking: we shouldn’t want Christians to give out of a sense of obligation – that is what we have been freed from. Now anytime someone speaks in language of liberation we must ask the question: What are we now free to do that we could not do before? We want to know if we are still obligated to tithe and we just want a “yes” or “no” answer. But the Bible doesn’t give us an out here, the Bible is very clear, “we are released from the law,” we are set free. As soon as we add that qualification to our answer we must ask the question: What are we now free to do? And the answer, that I believe is clear, is to give as the Spirit of God leads you. Romans 7:6 makes this clear, we were released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit. You see the New Testament doesn’t wipe out the obligation to give, it wipes out the legalism associated with it. Look at the example of the church in Philippi and how they supported the Apostle Paul. In 2 Corinthians 8:3 Paul describes their giving to his cause, “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord.” The Philippians people acted, not as the Law directed them, but as the Spirit led them. Paul again speaks of giving in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, “The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” There is a great return in giving, in fact, Paul treats it more like an investment in the eternal kingdom. We look for good investments. We are very careful about where and what we put our money into because we want to make sure there is a good return on that investment. Here Paul seems to be saying that those who give generously to Kingdom work will receive a great return on that investment. We don’t give toward investments out of compulsion – but we give what we have determined in our heart to give. And if the investment is a sure thing, we will give generously and cheerfully.
Here is another question that comes up frequently along with the subject of the tithe: How much am I obligated then to give to the church? Of course that question can be phrased in a variety of ways but people want to know what they are supposed to give to the church. We live in a time in history in which there are many ministries vying for your financial support. If we like to listen to a certain person on the radio, we are always reminded that it takes money for him to be on the radio. There are several local ministries in our community that exist because of the generous support of believers. To complicate this, there are countless people and ministries out there vying for your financial support who care more about the money then the ministry and these people and groups have made it very difficult for us to trust anyone. The fact is, I and a lot of you I am guessing, get at least one letter a day asking for money for their ministry. So the question quickly arises: If all of these people depend on support and I give to them then what is my obligation to the local church? This question is a little difficult in that we cannot point to a chapter and verse. The Bible, however, is very clear when it comes to the place of the church in God’s plan. All of these other ministries are an extension of the Local church and I can say that because they would not exist without the church. If the church ceased to exist, then so would every other ministry because the church is the seedbed of those ministries. Think about it this way, those involved in these other ministries attend and belong to local churches. This is where they are nourished and are equipped for ministry. The church, according to John Piper, “is unique and has a special place in God’s plan and, therefore, has a special claim on the giving of its people.” So how does what I have just said help us decide how to spread out our giving?
A good rule of thumb – not obligation – but rule of thumb is to begin our giving by giving to the local church because of it’s centrality and importance in God’s plan. John Piper suggests that we start by tithing to the local church, which makes a lot of sense. When we sit down and look at our budget and how we are going to give – it just makes sense to give ten percent off the top to the local church. At this point some might object and say well then if we give to other ministries we are giving more then ten percent – and I would say, “yes, that is exactly right.” Remember we are freed from the Law in order to give – not sparingly but generously – it is the greatest investment you could ever make because it has the greatest return! We start by giving to the local church because we recognize its centrality and importance in the plan of God and then we give above and beyond to other ministries. I heard it said that if we, in America, are not giving at least ten percent then we are most likely robbing God and perhaps that is true (Mal 1:6ff), but we do need to recognize that we are free to serve and give as the Spirit of God leads. God loves a cheerful giver.
We want to make it as convenient as possible for you to get a hold of the Bethel Church family so as part of our church directory project you can have the directory on your smart phone or tablet. The process is simple and secure. The first thing you will need to do is find the app - you will need to go to the app store that corresponds to your device (if you have an Android device you will go to Google Play and if you have an iPhone or iPad you will find the App Store). In the app store simply search for "instant church directory" and download that app to your phone. When the app is finished downloading you will need to launch it. It will ask you to put your email address in and click next. If your email is in our directory you will get a place to put in a password on the next screen. Check your email - find the password sent to you and put it in the app and click finish and you are good to go. If your email is not in our church directory yet - you will get a message saying something along those lines. If that happens simply send me an email here with your email address and I will put it in the directory. Also of you notice that your information in the directory is incomplete or inaccurate in any way - please let me know here and we will get it fixed right away.
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Reading this has been one of my favorite traditions of Advent in recent years - I like to listen to it read by Piper too! May Christ remain your treasure and joy this Christmas season!
All Homebuilders and their families are invited to a night of Christmas caroling, fun, fellowship, and pizza! THIS ACTIVITY DOES INCLUDE ALL CHILDREN IN HOMEBUILDERS’ FAMILIES!
WHEN: Sunday, December 22, 2013
WHERE: Meet at Violet Tschetter Nursing home lobby
TIME: 4:30 p.m.
We will carol at various nursing homes and individual homes before meeting at Godfather’s for pizza. Wear your festive attire! If you know of someone whom we should serenade, please bring their address.
Note: Homebuilders includes all young couples and adults with children, age 0 to 6th grade.
R.S.V.P. Darrel and Molly 352-0930
Mike and Clara 352-8329
This is a great additional recourse to some of the material we are talking about on Wednesday evenings. It is a message that sweeps through the entire Bible in about 60 minutes and gives a great "big picture" presentation of the Bible. Click here for the audio.
Pastor Coalt Robinson