Has a squirrel got my car keys? On being gospel-centred

Here’s a piece I’ve posted at the GCM Collective website. In coming posts we’re going to be looking at some of the GCM distinctives. The first is this: “The gospel is the answer to every question”.

The story is told of a Sunday School teacher who asked her class, ‘What’s the animal with a long, bushy tail that lives in trees?’ One of her children answered, ‘Jesus. Though it sure sounds like a squirrel to me.’ The joke highlights the way the gospel of Jesus is the answer to every Sunday School question. In The Crowded House  we have inverted the joke. When a question gets raised, someone will say, ‘It’s a squirrel.’ It’s our shorthand way of saying that the gospel is the answer to every question.

Well perhaps not quite every question – as the Sunday School joke highlights. The gospel is not the answer to the question of where I left my car keys.

But the gospel is the answer to the important questions of life and church life. The point is, as Tim Keller famously puts it, the gospel is not the ABC of the Christian life – it is the A-to-Z. The gospel is not just how we become Christians, but how we live as Christians. The church is created by the gospel and for the gospel. The gospel shapes both the content and conduct of our mission. The gospel defines our ethics and our pastoral care.

Consider a couple of alternatives.

Plenty of Christians believe, or at least live as if, we become Christians through the gospel, but we grow as Christians by keeping some kind of law. Law says, ‘You should not get drunk.’ Now it’s true that people should not get drunk. But if that’s all you say then you’re not bringing people good news. You’re bringing condemnation to those who cannot control themselves or inducing pride in those who can – neither of which leads to a life that pleases God.

In contrast the gospel says, ‘You need not get drunk because God offers more than drink.’ We can say, ‘I have good news for you. You don’t need to turn to drink to dull the pain because God is a better comforter.’ Or we can say, ‘You don’t need to turn to drink to escape responsibility because God is a better refuge.’ These truths lead to a life of sobriety and reliance on God and praise to his name.

Or consider another example. Plenty of Christians believe the gospel is not sufficient for pastoral care. They are overawed by secular psychologies and think these provide the answers for ‘hard’ pastoral cases. Now there is plenty we can learn from the secular world and some therapies offer genuine relief to people. But only the gospel brings lasting change. We must remain convinced that God knows the human heart better than any psychologist and that his word ‘living and active’. It is ‘sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ (Hebrews 4:12) ‘The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.’ (Psalm 19:7) If we want to restore damaged souls then we need to apply the gospel. This doesn’t mean change is quick or easy. But it is the gospel that brings change and restores people to a right relationship with God.

But what about my car keys? The gospel may not tell me where I left them. But even here the gospel is relevant. If I’m getting agitated by my inability to find my keys, the gospel reminds me that God is my sovereign Father. Everything is under his control, even lost keys. This is his discipline to teach me patience. Life is not under my control, but I can be calm because life is under his control. Or maybe my agitation arises because I’m worried about what someone will think of my lateness. Again the gospel reminds me that God is the glorious one whom I should fear, not other people. My emotions don’t need to be controlled by other people’s opinions of me if I see them in divine perspective. God’s opinion is the one that matters.

So even lost car keys are a gospel issue.

For more on this see our books You Can Change and Total Church which are available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk and also Gospel-Centred Church and Gospel-Centred Life.

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10 thoughts on “Has a squirrel got my car keys? On being gospel-centred

  1. Dear Tim,

    The joke is known in the Netherlands as well and was even used at the National Synod of last weekend. A number of people I work with already know as well, that Jesus is the answer to every question I ask them. And they know that the question following that answer matters as well: Why is Jesus the answer to that question. I think your answer runs along the same lines.

    Maybe the answer to our lost car keys is also an exhortation or a promise: our lives need and will receive re-ordering by the Recreator, just as the Creator once created order in the chaos.

  2. Tim, may I push back just a little at something you wrote? You write above: “But it is the gospel that brings change and restores people to a right relationship with God.” I think it is more accurate to say it is God who does this. Nor do I think this is merely splitting hairs. Its is the personal relationship with God which brings change, not the concept, idea or philosophy of the Gospel (as marvelous as those things truly are). The “right relationship” is God’s movement alonside of us, wouldn’t you agree?

  3. Tim, this was a GREAT comment about the current culture and its compartmentalization of life and how the gospel intercedes in all areas whether we are paying attention or not. Very encouraging, very convicting, and I reposted on all my social networks to share the GREAT insight! Way to go!

  4. I’m glad Gods word is not a concept, idea, or philosophy. I’m glad that every word of God is true, & that God’s word is living and active and sharper than any two edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul &spirit, and of joints & marrow, and is a discernerof the thoughts & intents of the heart. HEB-4:12

  5. It’s a great Sunday School where Jesus really is the answer to every question. I’ve been trying to drive that home to the teenagers in church for a while. I think they’re getting it. And as with Pieter’s lot, they know that the second question will be ‘how so?’ We’ve been doing Heidelberg Catechism Q&A1 recently :) However, the recent ‘It’s a squirrel!’ answer turned out to be no great depth of pastoral insight, or Sunday School joke, but the sight of a… squirrel, under the tree outside.

  6. Tim we are having a great discussion on Total Church here:

    I love your stuff (so please read my positive comments if you go there!) but I’ve just posted some critiques of p94 of “gospel-centred church” and though it would be polite to let you know!

    I think the issue (and that’s why I’ve posted it here) is that on page 94/95 you make everything a gospel issue (and yes everything is a gospel issue) but when you make things a gospel issue and at the same time imply that a certain way of doing things is the right way (when some of them are matters of freedom) then you end up with a kind of unhelpful legalism…


  7. Hi Wayne

    Thanks for the comments. I agree with your comments. If you make being gospel-centered a new legalism then you’re not being gospel-centred! So it depends how you play out in practice.

    Here’s an example from yesterday. Someone asked me for advice on their use of money. I willing to give them advice, but not until I’d explored issues of identity with them and even then I emphasized that they were not under any obligation to follow my advice. The issue I focused on was how they saw themselves and what shopping offered them The issues we spent most time talking about were finding a sense of worth in being a child of God rather than in what you own and not fearing the opinion of other people. By the time we had worked through these issues my ‘advice’ was more diagnostic than anything else. So a gospel-centred approach to spending is to find identity in Christ and the example of generosity seen in the cross. It is not to follow set of rules about how much you should give.


  8. This is very timely, Tim.

    In pastoral work, my tendency is always to meet the presenting issue head on. The default position of my heart is law and legalism rather than gospel and grace. When someone is struggling, say, with his desire to be with a non-Christian girlfriend, I want to jump straight in with proof texting, rather than trying to show how the gospel meets the desire that he is trying to satisfy elsewhere.

    Thank you for such a helpful reminder, Tim.

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