One of the besetting sins of contemporary evangelicals is that our intellectual and theological lives are cluttered. As Francis Schaeffer once summarized the problem, we tend to think in bits and pieces, and not in wholes. All the things of earth are there, right in front of us, but they are not sorted out. There is a reason for this jumble, and my summary of that reason is that we have trained ourselves through a misguided pietism to thwart the intelligent workings of the grace of God.
Instead of pursuing Augustine’s great observation about virtue being a matter of rightly ordered loves, we have taken all our loves and just dumped them into a junk drawer. When the volume of our cluttered loves grows too big for that, we move them all to the fright room.
Let’s change the image in order to highlight the pietist attempt at a solution. Instead of a drawer, closet or room, imagine a set of shelves. All the details of our lives are crammed onto those shelves—our politics, our job, our family hassles, the state of the lawn, the office politics at work, and so on. But then some pious Christians see all that clutter, and react against it, which is understandable (Mark 4:19), but they do this in an odd way. They know that Jesus should be on the top shelf, and just a handful of unobjectionable and decent things on the second shelf, like family and church, and then down on the third shelf you might be allowed a hobby or two, provided it was a staid hobby like stamp collecting, and provided also you didn’t let it get out of hand. More than fifteen stamps total could be idolatry.
But in order to make room for this “simplified” life, all the other clutter is just swept off the shelves and onto the floor. All the clutter of actual life is still there, mind you, but now you are walking on it.
If you want to do some background reading on some of the basic assumptions in what I am about to try to get across, I would recommend this and this. Oh, and this. And before we go on, let us remind ourselves again of Augustine’s insight:
And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable Good. When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately,
Augustine, City of God
The Sin of Gospel-Centeredness
Of course, of course. Give me a minute. Something can get your attention without being click bait.
True, there is a sense in which every true Christian is to be gospel-centered. Certainly. But we have been the victims of a very subtle trick, one worthy of the father of lies. “Just make sure you always have the center fixed on the gospel. Nothing more is needed.” That sounds pretty good, but it only means that the devil knows how to lie by omission. We actually must do two things. The first is to make sure that “Christ and Him crucified” is right at the center, the absolute center. Yes, and amen.
But the second thing, without which the first is just wind and confusion, is that we must make sure that the circumference is located all the way out at the edges of our life. The gospel, which is at the center, must be at the center of a big circle, not a teeny one. Two questions—what is the center, and where is the circumference?
Gospel-centered sounds great, but we need to follow up with the question, “center of what exactly?” The answer has to be the center of all, the center of everything.
Have you ever wondered whether I write about culture and politics too much? Have you ever thought that there were too many jokes, too many cartoons? Has your wife ever asked you, “was that a meme too far?” Has the worry ever crept into your mind that I have taken John Piper’s glorious insights about Christian hedonism, and then smuggled the blues, bratwurst, and beer into the picture? And then on top of all that, what about the polemics . . . how does fighting with all these Saracens and Philistines fit into a gospel-centered approach?
But the supremacy of God in everything does not mean turning our experience of the mundane world into an evening chapel service, lit only by candles. It also means fighting the Saracen. It means taking the authority of Christ out into the world, at high noon, walking all the way out to the edges, and pounding in the stakes there. The supremacy of God in everything means relating it to absolutely everything, including the messy stuff. It includes the really messy stuff, and making sure not to leave out parliamentary brawls over who shall be Speaker of the House. This is another way of saying that this word “everything” should actually include everything, and not just have it be a word that preachers like to use if the sermon is dragging a bit.
So everything includes presidential politics, and Delta blues, and corn on the cob, and Jane Austen novels, and micro-processing, and COVID controversies, and wood working, and motorcycle maintenance, and ancient history, and the study of cuttlefish, and metaphysics, and painting seascapes, and designing fabrics, and starting small businesses, and coaching baseball, and farming 6,000 acres, and farming 3 acres, and waging war, and learning auto mechanics, and winning the hand of the girl you love, and resolving noise disputes with your neighbors, and learning Greek, and framing your house, and shoveling your front walk, and feeding the livestock, and deciding whether to do take-out for dinner tonight. Kuyper really touched the thing with a needle when he said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’ˮ
But be doers of the Kuyperian insight, and not applauders only, thus deceiving yourselves. So at the same time, be forewarned. Seeking to apply the authority of Jesus Christ to absolutely everything is the fast track to getting yourself labelled extreme, and perhaps cultic.
So the problem with the gospel-centered pietist is not that he is too pious. His problem is that he is not pious enough. His piety is kept in a pretty small box. It hasn’t been outside in years. And not only does he try to keep his circle small enough to remain tidy, he polices others to make sure they keep their circle small also. If any of his friends start showing signs of restiveness, wanting the circumference to be enlarged, he worries aloud that they are actually trying to draw other circles elsewhere, with other centers. He worries aloud that they are drifting away when they are only growing up. He fears they are falling behind when they are actually lapping him.
And of course the problem will be complicated by certain dense brethren who take this argument of mine about growing up, and who use it as a cover for their desire to actually drift away. They want a stretchy Kuyperianism, but stretchy only to the left, the kind that makes room for raunchy movies and voting for Biden. They do want other circles, other centers. So somebody clueless is always up to something. But never mind those guys. Let us reapply what Jesus said to Peter. “What is that to you? You follow me.” The fact that other characters squander their talents in ways they ought not is never to be taken as an argument for wrapping up our one talent in a napkin and burying it. That’s never a good argument.
In Thinking Be Men
The Lord Jesus told us to avoid making superficial judgments. “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment” (John 7:24). Paul tells us to put away childish ways of thinking (1 Cor. 13:11). One of the tasks that wisdom has is that of giving subtlety to the simple (Prov. 1:4). At the same time, this is not a license to complicated everything in a harmful way. The early Christians rejoiced before the Lord in gladness and simplicity of heart (Acts 2:46).
So grace is not a generic joy juice. It is not neutral, it is not impersonal, and it does not work indiscriminately. Grace is a description of the personal presence of a personal Spirit, who is at work in our lives to structure and order it rightly. Grace is personal, and works intelligently. In referring to the intelligence of grace, I am not talking about us being intelligent about grace. I am talking about the intelligence of grace as manifested in and through the Spirit’s dealings with us.
Richard Sibbes puts it wonderfully:
“For the very nature of grace is to unite all things to the main thing . . . Then the Spirit of grace, seeing there are many useful things in this world, has a uniting, knitting, subordinating power to rank all things so they may agree to and help the main thing . . . Little streams help the main stream by running into it; so grace has a subordinating power over all things in the world, so that they help the main. ‘One thing have I desired’ and I desire other things if they help the main thing.”
Richard Sibbes, A Breathing After God
Another way of saying this is that grace has a plan. Grace is intelligent. Grace sorts everything out. Grace stacks the boxes in the right order. Grace equips a man for cunning work (Ex. 31:3-5). The rightly ordered loves that Augustine spoke of are a description of virtue. But when the loves are rightly ordered, who was it that did the ordering? Not us.
Look at that Sibbes quote again. The Spirit of God is actively engaged in doing what needs to be done.
It is true that we are called to add to our faith virtue (2 Pet. 1:5). Remember that virtue is the right ordering of our loves. But who does all this? What power is at work in us? “As His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3).
When God knits us together in the womb (Ps. 139:13, ESV), the activity involved looks something like the gif I included above—and for each baby being formed this happens trillions of times. The Holy Spirit of God is an infinite artisan. And He is no less spectacularly at work when He is assembling the new man in Christ. He is knitting us together.
“And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.”
Colossians 2:19 (KJV)
But there is a difference between the new man taking shape and a baby being formed physically in the womb. We are bent, broken, selfish, busted, rebellious, uncooperative, and educated beyond our intelligence. We are a project that fights back, that gets underfoot, that tries to unravel what the Spirit is knitting. It will not work in the long run, because God will have His way with us, but He has set Himself the additional challenge of working on unwilling material.
We are God’s art project (poiema, Eph. 2:10), but we are a painting that keeps getting into the paint box ourselves and smudging everything up.
How do we do that? Well, the verses just before Col. 2:19 and the verses right after it tell us how we get in the way of the Spirit’s cunning and intelligent work. We do it through various ham-handed legalisms. We try to take control of what we mistakenly regard as an out-of-control process, which only seems out of control because of our ignorance, and we do this by submitting ourselves to extra-biblical requirements. We let people judge us with regard to meat, drink, holidays, or liturgical calendars (Col. 2:16). Forgetting that we died in Christ to the rudiments of worldliness, we submit to man-made ordinances, like touch not, taste not, handle not (Col. 2:20–21). In short, because we do not trust the Spirit’s intricate work in the womb of the world, we think to take over the process. We don’t take it over successfully, obviously, or thwart it, but we do retard it.
Because we have become worldly in this way, we have refused to become earthy. And so it is that rank-and-file Christians have been made to believe that the leadership of this great venture should be granted to the raised-pinky set, to the fastidious, to those who are extremely nervous about any kind of real engagement with the world outside their particulaar cloister. The work of God is thereby reduced to the management of a tiny ecclesiastical and doctrinal circle, with the gospel right at the center of it. The gospel is right where it ought to be, right at the center, but it is not doing what it was intended to do, which is to transform the world.
Because, for the faithful, there is nothing in the world that is allowed to be outside the circumference.
Fragmented and Fragmented Some More
The reason we are now living in a fragmented culture is because the millions of Christians who live here are such fragmented thinkers. And they are fragmented thinkers because fragmented preachers preach to them.
I do not declare that all such preachers are somehow unsaved—bits and pieces of them are certainly going to Heaven. The rest of thir bits and pieces are going to dogs . . . in order to show America how we are supposed to go to the dogs in a winsome and gospel-centered way.
“His watchmen are blind, they are all ignorant; They are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; Sleeping, lying down, loving to slumber. Yes, they are greedy dogs which never have enough. And they are shepherds who cannot understand; They all look to their own way, every one for his own gain, from his own territory.”
Isaiah 56:10–11 (NKJV)