Thursday, November 3, 2011

Justification by Vocabulary?

Matt Smethurst recently interviewed me for The Gospel Coalition on my new book Gospel Wakefulness. Here is an excerpt that has been making the rounds today:
Near the end of the book you ask, “Is gospel centrality just a trend?” What are some practical ways that we who champion gospel-centered theology and living can guard against this temptation to treasure the trend more than God himself?

Keep asking this question, for starters.

We need to also work at making sure the "gospel-centered" jargon doesn't become our badge of orthodoxy, that we don't shrink the church to the size of our tribe. I think when we trend that way, we have clearly made the gospel-centered movement more cherished than Christ and his body.

I also think we ought to take care that what we are seeing and doing are acts of worship, exulting in the gospel, which looks like—to borrow from Piper —"oh!" language, rather than merely recitations of the mechanics of salvation or rote theology. When Paul is outlining the workings of the gospel, he doesn't do so simply or a-theologically; he is nearly breathless. He ransacks his vocabulary to do some sense of justice to it, to revel in it. His sense of awe is palpable.
Matt's questions reflects a genuine concern. It's a good question, and we need to keep asking it and not get irritated by those sincerely challenging on this point.

Here is the portion of the book he is referencing in his question, which comes from the book's Conclusion:
I met a gospel-loving fellow once who said all the gospel talk in some of evangelicalism’s newer movements made him nervous. Like me, he grew up a product of 80s pop culture, and he said to me, “Do you remember The Smurfs? Do you remember how they used the word ‘smurfy’ for everything? If something was great, the Smurfs said it was smurfy. A beautiful sunrise wasn’t beautiful: it was smurfy. For every Smurf’s success, they would say he had done a smurfy job.” My friend said, “I feel like all the gospel-centered this and gospel-driven that is just our version of ‘smurfy.’”

Is “gospel-centered” like “smurfy”? Bill Streger cautions against making “the gospel” a word of utility—noun and verb and adjective rolled into one—lest we make “the gospel” an evangelical shibboleth. He says, “Learning to talk about the gospel can be the worst thing for your spiritual health.”* How so? Streger suggests that if we are gospel-centered in language only, we may delude ourselves, but we can’t fool God. He says he’s afraid many of us have just learned to mimic the popular lingo of what he calls “gospel hype.”

Is gospel centrality just a trend? Is “gospel wakefulness” just a buzzword? Perhaps. If so, we will end up standing before Jesus at the end of days, resting in justification by vocabulary.

I am more hopeful. Certainly there are some who preach the gospel or talk the talk of gospel centrality out of false motives, or ignorant ones. But as for me and many others I know well, we are learning to talk in new ways to reflect the new thing that has happened to us, the new thing that is happening to our churches (which is really just a returning to the old thing). To use the phrase “gospel wakefulness” could be an affectation. Or it could be how people talk when they know the gospel’s power intimately and have resolved to know nothing else. Maybe some of us can’t shut up about how the gospel affects this or implies that, because it’s the gospel that energizes us and interests us. Maybe it’s because we have found nothing else to come close in fascination.

* Bill Streger, “Gospel Hype,” message given at Lead 2010 conference in Auburn, Maine, October 8, 2010.

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