The “Jesus-plus” Gospel

I don’t know who Kevin DeYoung is, or why I’ve run across him so many times in recent weeks. He blogs at a place called “The Gospel Coalition,” and the masthead identifies him as “DeYoung, restless and reformed.” However, he appears to be preaching what the Apostle Paul referred to as “another gospel, which is no gospel at all” (Gal 1:6-7).

In his current post, “Gospel-driven effort,” he writes

Last week I wrote a piece about the role of effort in the Christian life. It was born out of concern that in our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel (something I have gladly advocated many times) that we are in danger of giving short shrift to the necessity of obeying biblical imperatives. My worry is that we are afraid to exhort each other, as Scripture does, to strive, fight, mortify, vivify, and make every effort for godliness.

He goes on to explain that this post responds in part to that of Tullian Tchividjian, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  His was a marvelous essay on the power of grace to transform us.

The Jesus-plus “gospel”

DeYoung, however, doesn’t seem to trust either grace or the Holy Spirit, at least not completely. He quotes Martin Lloyd-Jones:

The New Testament calls upon us to take action; it does not tell us that the work of sanctification is going to be done for us. . . .We are in the ‘good fight of faith’, and we have to do the fighting. But, thank God, we are enabled to do it; for the moment we believe, and are justified by faith, and are born again of the Spirit of God, we have the ability. So the New Testament method of sanctification is to remind us of that; and having reminded us of it, it says, ‘Now then, go and do it’. (178, emphasis mine)

Remember the gospel indicatives. Then give full throat to the gospel imperatives.

If we have any doubt as to what DeYoung is meaning, he concludes with,

We all need God’s grace to believe what is true and do what is right. We died to sin in the death of Christ. Now we must put to death the deeds of the flesh.

Notice how the emphasis shifts from being saved by grace (Jesus-plus-nothing) to  “now we must” (Jesus-plus-human effort).  As Paul said, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Gal 3:3).

Much ado about something

Am I making too much of this?  Is a little bit of human effort added to the gospel not anything to worry about?

This “little bit of human effort” thing is insidious; pastors can still preach what seems to be grace, but as Paul indicates in Galatians, to add just a little bit of anything to the pure Gospel of Christ is to lose it completely. And, Paul was not talking about justification; no one in Galatia was questioning salvation by grace alone. Paul was specifically talking about the teaching that something must be added to grace in order to live the Christian life. Circumcision. Eating Kosher. Just a little bit of striving.

It’s all Jesus, or it’s nothing.

Piper, too.

Justin Taylor (who also writes at The Gospel Coalition and who became famous by being the first to rip Rob Bell to shreds) quotes John Piper about being “more than conquerors:”

You must not be separated from the love of Jesus Christ. The aim of the attacker is to destroy you, and cut you off from Christ, and bring you to final ruin without God. You are a conqueror if you defeat this aim and remain in the love of Christ. God has promised that this will happen. Trusting this, we risk.

Notice the emphasis here. You must not.  If you defeat and remain. God has promised what? I think Piper needs to read Romans 8 again—Paul clearly states that we are more than conquerors through Christ, and that we can never be separated from the love of Christ. Not through our effort, but because of the unfailing love of Christ.

The Gospel Uncensored

There is an alternate gospel being preached, and it’s still quite popular. It’s also evil.  It’s robbing people of grace and freedom as they are conned into striving for something that has already been given them.

Do we have to strive?  As Jesus said, “The work of God is to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). And as Tullian Tchividjian said,

Christian growth does not happen by working hard to get something you don’t have. Rather, Christian growth happens by working hard to daily swim in the reality of what you do have. Believing again and again the gospel of God’s free, justifying grace everyday is the hard work we’re called to.

I strive, not to become holy or sanctified, but to proclaim the good news that is the gospel. This is why Ken and I wrote The Gospel Uncensored. In the book, I quoted from Martin Luther’s introduction to his Galatians Commentary:

The devil, our adversary, who continually seeks to devour us, is not dead; likewise our flesh and old man is yet alive. Besides this, all kinds of temptations vex and oppress us on every side. So this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine is lost, then is also the whole knowledge of the truth, life and salvation lost. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish.

I have nothing against Piper, Taylor, or DeYoung personally; I’m sure they are nice folks, and sincere. However, I think they are sincerely wrong about what they are teaching. As I mentioned above, it seems that the root of this teaching is a lack of faith in the power of Christ to transform lives; that grace and the Holy Spirit aren’t quite up to the job.

I think they are.

8 thoughts on “The “Jesus-plus” Gospel”

  1. Great stuff, Alden!

    (and thanks again Howard for the heads up on this wonderful post)

    It is classic inability to distinguish law from gospel. And, as you and Howard rightly point out, the focus is on ‘you’ and what you should ought or must be doing.

    It’s a little bit, all right…it’s a little bit of poison in the clear, clean glass of water. Now none of the water is fit to drink even though it still looks fine.

  2. I think what troubled me was the opening line of DeYoung’s statement – ‘our passion for glorying in the indicatives of the gospel’. If only that were true, I think, then the imperatives would naturally follow. The problem, of course, is the focus isn’t usually on Christ or His work, but upon us (what we do) in the most dangerous fashion – our inclination towards our own righteousness rather that the righteousness that is not of ourselves. The Gospel is certainly under threat whenever that manner of ‘adjustment’ of focus takes place.

  3. Agree that “works need not be considered vehicles of ‘attainment.'” The problem I see is that these folks certainly seem to see works in this light, especially in DeYoung’s contrast to Tchividjian’s post and in Piper’s wording.

    As I’ve said many times, I am certainly not opposed to good works (it could be argued that even to spell “Tchividjian” is a work). It is the nature of freedom and grace to do good works. However, when works are taught as law (an obligation to earn or attain what we have already been given) then we have a different gospel.

  4. And yet, Alden, as DeYoung points out—and rightly, I think—the New Testament does in many places exhort us to make such efforts. These passages very clearly refer to the volitional acts of the believer. Of course, it is “by the Spirit” that the believer enacts those things, but the New Testament Scripture does indeed posit the believer’s responsibility in the face of and in reply to God’s grace.

    Though I wholly endorse your position on the centrality and complete efficacy of grace, I’m not sure you adequately account for the plain sense of so many passages in the New Testament which obligate the believer toward Christlikeness. To argue that this is a form of works-based salvation is, I think, a misreading of those passages. In fact, it is the Apostle Paul himself who most strongly exhorts the believer to “good works.”

    Allowing for effort in the Christian life does not automatically imply a misunderstanding of God’s grace. As Paul writes, we are saved by grace, “and if by grace, then it cannot be based on works.” When Paul speaks of works he speaks of any human effort to attain to righteousness. But works need not be considered vehicles of “attainment.” As Peter writes, “make every effort to confirm your calling and election.” Faith-prompted and grace-fueled works serve as a witness, both to the believer and to the world at large, that the Gospel is both true and, importantly, transformative.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to charge DeYoung with preaching another Gospel. It seems to me that you yourself need to more adequately account for a number of New Testament passages that point to works as a necessary response to God’s free gift of grace. As always, the better theologies are those that embrace more of the Scriptural record.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *