God's New Family & Care Groups: Gospel-centered Motivation
The Centrality of the Gospel
It should come as no surprise that a post on the centrality of the gospel would follow a post on devotion to biblical truth. After all, God’s eternal plan in Scripture unfolds with Jesus’ person and work taking center stage, and he is the good news (Luke 24:44, 46; 2 Tim 3:15-17). Moreover, as the apostles teach the Scriptures, they build the church on the gospel and weave the gospel into the very fabric of the church’s life, ministries, and mission (Matt 16:18; 1 Cor 3:11; 15:1-3).
The gospel never amounted to a “shelved” message for the church after receiving it upon first hearing. The gospel has ongoing, eternal significance for the saints. Our entire manner of life must be worthy of it (Phil 1:27), in step with it (Gal 2:14), flowing from it (2 Cor 9:13), and never shifting from the hope found in it (Col 1:23). Therefore, in the words of Mike Bullmore,
A local church will be healthy to the degree that (1) its pastors and teachers are able…to bring the gospel to bear specifically into the real lives of the people, and (2) its people have a deep personal understanding of and…appreciation for the gospel so as to be able to live in the good of the gospel daily.
We meet together as a church to help each other live in the good of the gospel daily. And that means motivating each other to follow Jesus with the gospel’s empowering truth(s). We lead each other to drink deeply from the endless fountain of God’s glory in Christ, so that our souls rise with gratitude and run with faith.
Christ-less Moralism NOT the Goal
The goal in our care for one another, then, cannot be mere behavior modification apart from a love for Christ, a kind of new ethic without the power of the cross, another morality disconnected from redeeming grace. We’re all too familiar with this sort of counsel: “Just try harder!” (self-will); “If you would just do _____, you won’t be like those ‘other people’!” (self-righteousness); “If you do _____, imagine what others will think!” (self-preservation); “Don’t do _____, or you’ll get in trouble with God!” (self-protection); “Just do more _____, and then your family will thrive…then you’ll be happy…then God will give you _____!” (self-interest); “You better do _____, or you’ll hate yourself later” (self-esteem).
Such moralistic behavior change is powerless to deliver us from sin’s death-grip, because it lacks the good news that is God’s power for salvation (Rom 1:16-17). Moralistic behavior change also fails to transform the soul, because it never challenges our most fundamental problem to begin with, our self-centered idolatry (Rom 1:18-32; 1 John 5:21). Additionally, it deceptively exacerbates the problem by supplying self-centered motivations instead of leading the heart to treasure Jesus for his own sake and for all God is for us in him. I say it “deceptively” exacerbates the problem, because sometimes the moralistic counsel actually restrains bad behavior for a time, much like a child who puts up with conforming to his parents' rules until leaving home. No true, lasting, inward change occurred; the outward behavior was but a façade, and God will call it for what it is on the Last Day (Matt 7:22-23).
Motivating Each Other with Gospel Truth
But true and lasting change that glorifies God is possible. In fact, it’s more than possible; it’s already procured through the person and work of Jesus (cf. Jer 31:31-33; Ezek 11:19; 36:26-27 with Luke 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; Heb 9:15). And this is the good news, the gospel! When received with repentance and faith, the gospel is God’s power for salvation and transformation (Rom 1:16-17; 2 Cor 3:18). Only through the gospel does God make people who were once slaves of sin, obedient from the heart (Rom 1:5; 6:1-17; 16:26). Only by using the gospel does the Spirit open the eyes of our heart to see Jesus’ glory and stir our affections for him over our self-centered idolatry (2 Cor 3:1-18; 1 Thess 1:5-10).
So, the goal in our care for one another is to encourage and admonish one another in the gospel (Col 3:16). We daily connect gospel-truth(s) to the very specifics of our lives, such that by treasuring God’s awesome holiness and judgment as well as his boundless love and grace in Christ, we are compelled to forsake sin and live in ways fully pleasing to him (Eph 5:10; Col 1:10; Heb 13:21).
To be clear, that doesn’t mean we wait to obey God until all our motives are unmixed and pure. Not only are we incapable of such exhaustive self-knowledge, but God is always worthy of our obedience, even when acting out of duty in the moment. But if we want true and lasting change—if God-glorifying obedience flows from delight (over duty) in who he is and what he has done on our behalf in Christ—then the gospel must move our heart.
Connecting Gospel Truths to Specifics
What does this look like? Perhaps a few examples from Scripture will help. But let me make two clarifications at the outset.
First of all, please guard yourself from categorically using the following examples as the only “go-to” passages for addressing these heart issues. Sin manifests itself in different and complex ways, and the Spirit might have us use different passages to minister more specifically to a friend. Thus, we should be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading in this regard and use all Scripture as it richly speaks to these issues from different angles.
Second, we should also remember that the gospel not only informs what we bring to each other; it also informs HOW we bring it to each other. The gospel has much to say about our demeanor, attitudes, tone, patience, speech, and so forth (Eph 4:15; Col 3:19; 4:6; Jas 1:19). It leads us to use wisdom when speaking to each other (Col 3:16), so that our words aren’t slapped on like BAND-AIDs to gaping wounds or hurled crassly without regard for the other person’s state of being (Rom 12:15). The gospel leads us to use words that fit the occasion and give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29). The gospel obliterates our own pride and self-righteous attitudes, so that we never come to each other as if we’re not just as vulnerable to the same temptations (1 Cor 10:12-13; Gal 6:1). And the gospel further moves us to back our counsel with sacrificial deeds of service that show we’re willing to walk closely with the other person as long as it takes to see them happy in Jesus (John 13:34).
So much for the clarifications. Now on to our examples.
Example 1: Turning from Sinful Anger
When James commands us, “Be slow to anger,” he quickly explains how our obedience flows from gospel truth: “for the anger of man does not produce God’s justice” (Jas 1:20). Essentially, James is telling us not to confuse anger with hidden idolatry. When we refuse to turn from our sinful anger, what we are basically saying is that we can dish out God’s justice better than he can. Thus, we foolishly attempt to usurp God’s authority. In contrast, James is telling us that we must put off the idolatrous old self, who constantly attempts to be God, and to put on the new self, who is wholly content with God being God and with God exercising his justice with wisdom, most pointedly and decisively seen in the cross of Christ and the Lake of Fire (Rom 3:25-26; Rev 20:15).
Example 2: Husbands Loving Their Wives
When Paul instructs husbands to love their wives, he does so from the riches found in the gospel. He connects the gospel truth of Christ’s sacrificial love for his bride, the church, to the tangible, every-day way a husband should relate to his bride. Indeed, a husbands sacrificial love for his wife flows from the sacrificial love Jesus showed first for his church (Eph 5:25-27). Even when there was nothing lovely in the church to merit Jesus’ favor, Jesus chose to love her, giving his life for her, in order to make her lovely. Such extravagant love toward us husbands not only sets the example for love, it radically transforms our souls to love as Christ loved. The cross is more than example; it is power when applied by the Spirit. Because Jesus cleanses us from all defiling, self-centered preoccupations, husbands are freed to love as Christ loved, to lead with sacrificial service, to pursue her well-being daily, and to seek her holy happiness in Christ.
Example 3: Fighting Sexual Immorality
Paul motivates the believers in Corinth to flee sexual immorality not because of the health risks (self-protection), and not because they might get caught (self-preservation), but because the believer shares a covenant union with Jesus that far surpasses any union this world can offer (1 Cor 6:15-18a). Christ has been faithful to win us as part of his bride since he covenanted with his Father in eternity past, and such faithfulness he manifested in his coming and death (cf. Eph 1:4; 5:22-33). We flee immorality, because we’ve been married to a new husband whose enduring love far surpasses what we can find online, whose lasting beauty far outshines the lust of the eyes, whose comforting presence far outlasts the empty relationships of this world.
Example 4: Using Your Body Rightly
In the same argument of 1 Corinthians 6, Paul also tells us why the believer can use his body to glorify God. Again, he catapults the believer into obedience by connecting massive gospel truths to the specifics of how we use our physical body (1 Cor 6:18b-21). Basically, the price for your deliverance from sin that you could not pay, God paid for you by crushing his own Son on the cross. And in this way, he has bought and brought you out of slavery from your sins, not to rule us as some kind of tyrant, but to fill you with the glory of his presence in the Holy Spirit. That means you are not owned by sin; you are owned by the God of infinite love who has purchased you from slavery and made you his own temple that he fills by the Spirit. Listen to the Spirit's voice when he calls you away from the world and its temptations, and let him use your body for righteousness. That applies not just to fleeing sexual immorality, but to fleeing other things like gluttony, laziness, gossip, etc.
Example 5: Dying to Stinginess with Money
When Paul encourages the Corinthians to support the poor in Jerusalem, he does so not by threat or promises of worldly comfort, but by pointing them to the gospel: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Again, he connects the specifics of life, the use of money, to gospel truth, God’s generosity in Christ. God was infinitely generous when he sent his own Son to die for our sins. The grace found in Jesus’ sacrificial generosity toward others in need is actually what changes the heart and empowers the believer to give sacrificially. As the generous Christ lives in his people, so does his generosity; and we then make the sacrificial adjustments to meet the needs of others.
The examples are replete in Scripture and many times intertwined with hundreds of other gospel truths simultaneously. The gospel is rich and comprehensive, because Jesus’ work is comprehensive. One day, he will unite all things together in himself (Eph 1:9-10). But until then, hopefully these few examples will stir you to motivate one another with the gospel as a church and in care groups. Of course, we’ll only be able to pursue this with one another well when we’re around each other, and even more, when we’re inviting others into our lives to help us connect gospel truth(s) where our souls most desperately need it. But this we will take up further in chapter four.
- Our biggest problem is separation from God. How has the gospel solved this problem in your own life? How does the gospel and your relationship with God prepare you to minister to others?
- Do recognize any tendencies in yourself toward Christ-less moralism? How are you most vulnerable to counsel others? See the examples given above regarding self-will, self-righteousness, self-preservation, self-protection, self-interest, self-esteem. What aspect of the gospel are you missing that then leads down one of these paths?
- The gospel addresses every area of life to bring transformation. Take time to consider how the gospel addresses at least three of the following areas: sinful anger, depression, self-control, guilt, shame, fear of others, joy, thanksgiving, sexuality, power, evangelism. Discuss your answers with a few people in your care group.
- In what ways might your own care group grow in gospel-centered counsel? Are there weaknesses you observe that need strengthening? Write them down, share them with your care group, and then pray for fruit.
Resources on Gospel-Centered Counsel
- Vincent, Milton. A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God's Love. A short book to keep nearby for daily reminders of the depth of the good news. Re-tells the gospel in topics, in story format, and in a poem.
- Tripp, Paul David. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change. A very helpful guide to serving one another with gospel truth. Replete with good examples. Develops a super helpful and memorable outline of gospel care, Love-Know-Speak-Do.
- Lane, Timothy and Paul David Tripp. How People Change. A book that is similar to Tripp’s Instruments, but much shorter. Again, the real-life examples are helpful. Also includes a memorable Tree diagram that helps take us from our circumstances to the heart and then to the gospel.
- Bridges, Jerry. Transforming Grace: Living Confidently in God's Unfailing Love. Leads us away from performance-based sanctification and toward trusting in God's grace throughout the Christian life.
- Harvey, Dave. When Sinners Say "I Do": Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage. Short and very practical read targeted for married couples. Very humbling considerations here, and many encouragements included from the cross.
- Tripp, Paul David. War of Words: Getting to the Heart of Your Communication Struggles. A great example of how the gospel is applied directly to the use of our tongues. Very wise, convicting, and healing.