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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Bonhoeffer on Christian pastoral care and secular psychology

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

In my final quote, Bonhoeffer contrasts what Christian pastoral care and secular psychology have to offer.

‘Only another Christian who is under the cross can hear my confession. It is not experience with life but experience of the cross that makes one suited to hear confession. The most experienced judge of character knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is. Psychological wisdom knows what need and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the ungodliness of the human being. And so it also does not know that human beings are ruined only by their sin and are healed only by forgiveness. The Christian alone knows this. In the presence of a psychologist I can only be sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner. The psychologist must first search my heart, and yet can never probe its innermost recesses. Another Christian recognizes just this: here comes a sinner like myself, a godless person who wants to confess and longs for God’s forgiveness. The psychologist views me as if there were no God. Another believer views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the cross of Jesus Christ. When we are so pitiful and incapable of hearing the confession of one another, it is not due to a lack of psychological knowledge, but a lack of love for the crucified Jesus Christ.’ (115)
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If we don’t confess to another we’re merely forgiving ourselves

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today’s quote offers what I think is a profound insight. I encourage you to ponder it, prayerfully searching your heart.

‘In confession there occurs a breakthrough to assurance. Why is it often easier for us to acknowledge our sins before God than before another believer? God is holy and without sin, a just judge of evil, and an enemy of all disobedience. But another Christian is sinful, as are we, knowing from personal experience the night of secret sin. Should we not find it easier to go to one another than to the holy God? But if that is not the case, we must ask ourselves whether we often have not been deluding ourselves about our confession of sin to God – whether we have not instead been confessing our sins to ourselves and also forgiving ourselves. And is not the reason for our innumerable relapses and for the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living from self-forgiveness and not from the real forgiveness of our sins? Self-forgiveness can never lead to the break with sin. This can only be accomplished by God’s own judging and pardoning Word. Who can give us the assurance that we are not dealing with ourselves but with the living God in the confession and the forgiveness of our sins? God gives us this assurance through one another.’ (113)

‘But it is precisely for the sake of this assurance that confession is about admitting concrete sins. People usually justify themselves by making a general acknowledgment of sin. But I experience the complete forlornness and corruption of human nature, insofar as I ever experience it at all, when I see my own specific sins.’ (113)

‘Does all this mean that confession to one another is a divine law? No, confession is not a law; rather, it is an offer of divine help for the sinner.’ (114)
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Bonhoeffer on the way confession creates community

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Bonhoeffer has a long section on confession, partly because he recognises that it is treated with suspicion by many Protestants. Today some quotes on the way confession reinforces community.

‘In confession there takes place a breakthrough to community. Sin wants to be alone with people. It takes them away from the community. The more lonely people become, the more destructive the power of sin over them. The more deeply they become entangled in it, the more unholy is their loneliness. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of what is left unsaid sin poisons the whole being of a person. This can happen in the midst of a pious community. In confession the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness and closed isolation of the heart. Sin must be brought into the light. What is unspoken is said openly and confessed. All that is secret and hidden comes to light. It is a hard struggle until the sin crosses one’s lips in confession. But God breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron (Ps. 107:16) Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of another Christian, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders, giving up all evil, giving the sinner’s heart to God and finding the forgiveness of all one’s sin in the community of Jesus Christ and other Christians. Sin that has been spoken and confessed has lost all of its power. It has been revealed and judged as sin. It can no longer tear apart the community.’ (110)

‘In this connection, we are talking exclusively about confession between two Christians. A confession of sin in the presence of all the members of the congregation is not required to restore one to community with the entire congregation. In the one other Christian to whom I confess my sins and by whom my sins are declared forgiven, I meet the whole congregation.’ (111)

‘In confession there occurs a breakthrough to the cross. The root of all my sin is pride.’ (111)

‘Confession in the presence of another believer is the most profound kind of humiliation. It hurts, makes one feel small; it deals a terrible blow to one’s pride.’ (111)

‘It is none other than Jesus Christ who openly suffered the shameful death of a sinner in our place, who was not ashamed to be crucified for us as an evildoer. And it is nothing else but our community with Jesus Christ that leads us to the disgraceful dying that comes in confession, so that we may truly share in this cross. The cross of Jesus Christ shatters all pride.’ (111)

‘In confession there occurs a breakthrough to new life. The break with the past is made when sin is hated, confessed, and forgiven. “Everything has become new” (2 Cor 5:17).’ (112)
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Bonhoeffer on giving and receiving rebuke

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today some quotes on giving and receiving rebuke.

‘The basis on which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner who, even given all one’s human renown, is forlorn and lost if not given hep. This does not mean that the others are being disparaged or dishonoured. Rather, we are paying them the only real honour a human being has, namely, that as sinners they share in God’s grace and glory, that they are children of God. This realization gives our mutual speech the freedom and openness it needs. We talk to one another about the help we both need. We admonish one another to go the way Christ bids us to go. We warn one another against the disobedience that is our undoing. We are gentle and we are firm with one another, for we know both God’s kindness and God’s firmness. Why should we be afraid of one another since both of us have only God to fear?’ (104/105)

‘The more we learn to allow the other to speak the Word to us, to accept humbly and gratefully even severe reproaches and admonitions, the more free and to the point we ourselves will be in speaking. One who because of sensitivity and vanity rejects the serious words of another Christian cannot speak the truth in humility to others. Such a person is afraid of being rejected and feeling hurt by another’s words. Sensitive, irritable people will always become flatterers, and very soon they will come to despise and slander other Christians in their community. But humble people will cling to both truth and love. They will stick to the Word of God and let it lead them to others in their community. They can help others through the Word because they seek nothing for themselves and have no fears for themselves.’ (105)

‘Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons other to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.’ (105)
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Bonhoeffer on listening to one another and listening to the Word

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today some telling quotes on how a failure to listen to others reflects a failure to listen to God’s word. Let he who has ears to hear …

‘The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either’ they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.’ (98)

‘This impatient, inattentive listening really despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other.’ (99)

‘If proper listening does not precede it, how can it really be the right word for the other? If it is contradicted by one’s own lack of active helpfulness, how can it be a credible and truthful word? If it does not flow from the act of bearing with others, but from impatience and the spirit of violence against others, how can it be the liberating and healing word?’ (103)
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Bonhoeffer on conflict in the community

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today some quotes on conflict in the community.

‘No sooner are people together than they begin to observe, judge, and classify each other. Thus, even as Christian community is in the process of being formed, an invisible, often unknown, yet terrible life-and-death struggle commences.’ (93)

‘Thus it is a good idea that all members receive a definite task to perform for the community, so that they may know in times of doubt that they too are not useless and incapable of doing anything. Every Christian community must know that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the community.’ (96)

‘What does it matter if I suffer injustice [from others in the community]? Would I not have deserved even more severe punishment from God if God had not treated me with mercy? Is not justice done to me a thousand times over even in injustice? … Those who live by justification by grace are prepared to accept even insults and slights without protest, taking them as from God’s chastising and gracious hand.’ (97)

‘A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayers of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. I can no longer condemn or hate other Christians for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble they cause me. In intercessory prayer the face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died, the face of a pardoned sinner. That is a blessed discovery for the Christian who is beginning to offer intercessory prayer for others. As far as we are concerned, there is no dislike, no personal tension, no disunity or strife, that cannot be overcome by intercessory prayer. Intercessory prayer is the purifying bath into which the individual and the community must enter every day.’ (90)

‘Those who take refuge in community while fleeing from themselves are misusing it to indulge in empty talk and distraction, no matter how spiritual this idle talk and distraction may appear.’ (82)

Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community … But the reverse is also true. Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.’ (82)
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Bonhoeffer on the community together and apart

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today some quotes on the relationship between the Christian community and activities outside our shared life.

‘Every day brings the Christian many hours of being alone in an unchristian environment. These are times of testing. This is the proving ground of a genuine time of meditation and genuine Christian community. Has the community served to make individuals free, strong, and mature, or has it made them insecure and dependent? Has it taken them by the hand for a while so that they would learn again to walk by themselves, or has it made them anxious and unsure?’ (92)

‘In their solitude they can shatter and tarnish the community or they can strengthen and sanctify it. Every act of self-discipline by a Christian is also a service to the community. Conversely, there is no sin in thought, word, or deed, no matter how personal or secret, that does not harm the whole community. When the cause of an illness gets into one’s body, whether or not anyone knows where it comes from, or in what member it has lodged, the body is made ill. This is the appropriate metaphor for the Christian community. Every member serves the whole body, contributing either to its health or to its ruin, for we are members of one body not only when we want to be, but in our whole existence. This is not a theory, but a spiritual reality that is often experienced in the Christian community with shocking clarity, sometimes destructively and sometimes beneficially.’ (92)
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Bonhoeffer on silence and the word

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US which I recently reviewed (here).

Today a quote that I think is spot on. If Bonhoeffer feared people were indifferent to silence in his context, then today there is a lot of much rubbish talked today about silence and contemplative prayer. As Bonhoeffer reminds us, silence is for the Word.

‘There is an indifferent or even negative attitude toward silence which sees in it a disparagement of God’s revelation in the Word. Silence is misunderstood as a solemn gesture, as a mystical desire to get beyond the Word. Silence is no longer seen in its essential relationship to the Word, as the simple act of the individual who falls silent under the Word of God. We are silent before hearing the Word because our thoughts are already focused on the Word, as children are quiet when they enter their father’s room. We are silent after hearing the Word because the Word is still speaking and living and dwelling within us. We are silent early in the morning because God should have the first word, and we are silent before going to bed because the last word also belongs to God. We remain silent solely for the sake of the Word, not thereby to dishonour the Word but rather to honour and receive it properly. In the end, silence means nothing other than waiting for God’s Word and coming from God’s Word with a blessing.’ (84/85)
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Bonhoeffer on loving real people not community ideals

I’m posting a few quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk) which I recently reviewed (here).

Today some quotes on the danger of loving the dream of community, but not real people – a danger to which people in the missional movement are perhaps especially prone. He who has ears to hear …

‘Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.’ (36)

‘God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.’ (36)

‘Because God already has laid the only foundation of our community, because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive…. We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.’ (36) Continue reading