It’s increasingly common today to hear people writing about the need to emphasize the Gospel rather than the Law… the promises of God rather than the commands of god. If you’re reading this post, it’s very easy for you to hear someone saying that, because I say that on a regular basis! However, there are some out there who write about the need to be Gospel-Centered so much that it sounds like they’re suspicious of anyone who would dare to teach the Law. I doubt that these people would actually agree with that accusation, but what they write could easily lead you to that conclusion.
While I’m a huge proponent of the Gospel-Centered movement, I think some people take the Gospel in an anti-law, Antinomian way that is simply unbiblical and contrary to the Gospel. The Gospel is so incredibly valuable because the Law is so important! If the Law wasn’t important, then sin isn’t that bad, and if sin isn’t that bad then the Gospel isn’t nearly as glorious and extraordinary as we say it is.
In my youth ministry we try to emphasize 8 Vital Signs (taken mostly from Andy Stanley and Stuart Hall’s book, “The Seven Checkpoints for Youth Leaders“): Authentic Faith, Spiritual Disciplines, Moral Boundaries, Healthy Friendships, Wise Choices, Ultimate Authority, Others First, Heart for the Lost. Some of these are more naturally Gospel-driven than others (Authentic Faith, Spiritual Disciplines, Heart for the Lost) while others are more grounded in the Law (Moral Boundaries, Healthy Friendships, Wise Choices, Ultimate Authority, Others First). Here’s a brief look at how I teach these Vital Signs:
- Authentic Faith – This is the Gospel – You are lost in your sin and will either endure the judgment you’ve earned for yourself, or you can cast yourself on the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ who took your punishment upon himself on the cross. We are not simply saved by the Gospel, we are changed daily by the Gospel. We don’t only need Authentic Faith in Jesus to “ask Jesus into our hearts,” we need to walk by faith in Christ every day. Without this Vital Sign, the rest don’t mean a thing.
- Spiritual Disciplines – People don’t get married and then stop spending time together, at least they shouldn’t! We don’t become Christians and consider ourselves “done” with getting to know God. He gives us a growing desire to know Him better through the spiritual disciplines, especially through regular time in the Bible and prayer.
- Moral Boundaries – In our hyper-sexualized world, it’s way more difficult fall into sexual sin than it is to stay pure. This Vital Sign is more about having a pure heart than it is about sex, but sexual sin is definitely one of the biggest issues that we address here. Purity matters to God, just read Leviticus if you don’t believe me (no, really, you should… it’s not the most enthralling read, but it really hammers home the importance of purity before the Lord!). If we try to be pure on our own, we’re destined to fail. If we recognize that we are impure and want to become pure, we also need to recognize that we can’t do that ourselves… we need God to cleanse us of our sin! God makes us pure through the Gospel and He calls those He has purified to walk accordingly.
- Healthy Friendships – Who hasn’t done something they never would’ve done if their friends weren’t doing it too? While Stanley & Hall make some claims in their book that I disagree with in this section, I think any youth worker could rattle off a list of former students who strayed from their faith in Christ because they started hanging out with friends who were bad influences. Faith in the Gospel radically effects how who choose our friends and how much influence we give them in our decision-making. Do you seek your identity in your friends, or through Christ? Are your friends pulling you down, or are you surrounding yourself with friends who are drawing you closer to Christ (or are you the one pulling your Christian friends down!)?
- Wise Choices – How do you decide what you want movie to watch, what sport to play, what to wear, etc.? We make thousands of choices every day, how do we make those choices? Our faith in Christ must be the foundation of the choices we make… otherwise, how will we reflect Christ to those around us?
- Ultimate Authority – Do I even need to say that we live in an anti-authority culture?! God has placed human authority in each of our lives in order to teach us how to submit to His own authority. If we constantly rebel against human authority, we will have a very difficult time submitting to God’s authority when Scripture teaches something contrary to our desires.
- Others First – Jesus Christ came to serve, not to be served. By default, we put ourselves first. Instead, we’re called to put ourselves THIRD! God first, others second, I’m third! Maybe this Vital Sign should be “Others Second,” but that just doesn’t sound right. Since we don’t need to live in a way to earn acceptance before God, we can use our lives to serve others in order to adorn the Gospel with God’s love through us.
- Heart for the Lost – If we really believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need to have a passion to see others fall in love with Jesus Christ too. If we don’t want others to embrace the Gospel, then I’m not sure we really believe it.
We need to teach Law and Gospel to students… because that’s what the Bible teaches!
Just imagine following Moses as the leader of Israel. That’s not a job I’d sign up for… talk about pressure! But that’s what Joshua did, except for the fact that he didn’t win an election to be the next leader of Israel, God chose him to follow Moses.
Listen to God’s advice to Joshua, “Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:7-8). That’s God’s advice for how to “finish strong.”
Along the way, Joshua fought the battle of Jericho… and many others too! In all of these battles (with one notable exception, but I’ll leave that story for your own perusal) he was successful because he obeyed God’s commandments. He did not do more than God told him to do, and he didn’t do any less than what God told him to do.
Towards the end of his life we see Joshua making a covenant between the LORD and Israel, commanding them, “Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD…. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14 & 15). We later read, “The people served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the LORD had done for Israel. …After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:7 & 10)
So Joshua finished strong… but Israel didn’t. We see these principles at work:
- It’s better to actually obey than to simply say you will.
- When we cultivate a consistent prayer and devotional life we stay connected to God.
- If you really live obediently to God’s Word, those close to you (like your friends and family) will see and know what’s most important to you.
Remember the ladder we use as an icon for this Vital Sign doesn’t mean we “climb our way to heaven” – it means that when we practice the Spiritual Disciplines we get a new perspective (a “bigger picture”) on life. If you want to finish strong, make sure you practice the Spiritual Disciplines. Read your Bible, spend time in prayer (more than just saying grace before meals), find an accountability partner, get alone and spend time alone with God in silence and solitude. If you want to start reading your Bible but don’t know where to start or how to understand what it says, please talk to P.Mike (he would love to talk with you and has devotional books you can use to get started).
Whenever I read about the Centurion’s Faith in Jesus in Matthew 8:5-13 to heal his servant, I’m tempted to mumble under my breath, “that’s just crazy.” Imagine being there: Jesus (a wandering Rabbi) is talking with a Roman Centurion (whom most Jews would label as being the scum of the earth), and Jesus ends the conversation by saying, “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.”
The Centurion wants his servant to be healed but tells Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” That’s faith! Personally, I’d want to see my servant healed before watching Jesus walk away; I’d want to know “it worked.”
God really can be trusted! He will do all that He has promised He’ll do. But here’s where so many of us go wrong – we expect God to do things He hasn’t promised. There are a few absolutely necessary ingredients to having Authentic Faith:
- Believe what the Bible says about Jesus – He’s God, perfect and holy, and died on the cross then rose from the grave.
- Believe what the Bible says about you (all of us, really) – That we’re all sinners and have only earned judgment from God
- Believe in God’s promises given through Scripture – That we are “redeemed” (set free) from sin and judgment by trusting in who Jesus is and what He’s done. (that’s the biggest promise, the rest are worth learning too! FYI: God does not promise a comfortable and “happy” life).
Are you holding onto those promises, or onto other promises? As we reflect on the Vital Signs, we remember how important it is to make sure the faith we’re “sitting in” is like a sturdy, reliable chair which will actually hold us up with all our weight is on it.
When I say “Barry Bonds,” what comes to mind? “Cheater,” “Steroids,” “Liar.” What about “Greatest hitter in baseball history?” No – why not? Barry Bonds finished his career as the best home run hitter in baseball history… at least on paper. Technically, when it came to his career he “Finished Strong,” but along the way he lost the respect of baseball fans all around the world. There’s a lesson in here for all of us: When we finish, it’s not just about what we’ve done but how we’ve done it.
We are two weeks into our series, “Finishing Strong.” This theme is taken from The Parable of the Talents where a King gives a bunch of money (a “Talent” was a weight of measurement equal to roughly 70-80 pounds… so even one talent was a LOT of money!) to three servants so that they would conduct business for him while he’s gone. When the king returns the three servants are called to account for how they have used their Talents: Two servants doubled the money entrusted to them and are told “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share in your master’s happiness!” The other servant buried his Talent/money in the ground, and the king said, “You wicked, lazy servant!… Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents.”
I believe that most people want to finish their lives “strong.” But that doesn’t happen automatically. If you live your life on autopilot then you’re not going to finish strong, you’ll finish mediocre at best. Notice that the king said “You’ve been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” We so often only count the big things in life as being important, but Scripture teaches that God pays attention to the little things too… because they are what lead us to how we handle the big issues and challenges in life. If we are faithful with little, we are more likely to be more faithful with much.
Over the coming weeks we will be examining the lives of various people throughout the Bible and asking “Did he/she finish strong?” and then looking at how each of the Seven Vital Signs have determined how that person finished.
- Is your faith on “autopilot” or are you intentionally making your faith in Jesus Christ a priority?
- Are you being faithful with the little things in life, or do you write them off as insignificant?
- What would it mean to you to “Finish Strong” in life? If your answer has to do with worldly success, remember that even if you die with millions in the bank it won’t help you when you need to give an account before your King and Creator.
Below is a video I’ve found of Francis Chan speaking on the “little things” principle from the Parable of the Talents (wish I could’ve shown this during youth group!):