When “Believing the Gospel” Doesn’t Work

Maybe you’re like the many men and women who I’ve talked to.  Having been through Sonship (a fairly well-known discipleship program in conservative Reformed circles) or having digested the writings of Keller or Powlison or Tripp, your still struggling.  Or, maybe your version of “believing the Gospel” came from a preacher who told you that the answer to your lifetime of guilt was greater “Gospel depth” or deeper “Gospel transformation.”  And so, you searched high and low for that newer and better way, the Gospel way, only to try to believe better and repent better and be less guilty.  And that, too, didn’t amount to much.

Just recently, I was talking to yet another person whose digested all the writings and listened to all the sermons and read all the tweets, and ‘Gospel repenting and believing’ isn’t working.  He went through Sonship.  And each time he talked to his Gospel phone coach, he’d confess his latest idol.  “I’m justifying myself through my attempts to repent better, and repentance is now my idol.  So, I’m repenting of my repentance, but I’m still neck deep in feelings of guilt.  What’s wrong with me?”

“Gospel Tweeting” is the latest phenomenon.  The answer to all our problems is this:  Just believe the Gospel!  If it was that easy. This seems to me to be the newest quick fix, the most recent Christian cliche, and I’m growing weary of it.  I’ve counseled people who’ve done the full Sonship workout only to be more racked with guilt than ever.  They are repenting of their failed repenting and repenting of their failed attempt to confess their failed repenting.  They’re more twisted in guilt than ever.  And the ‘Gospel Twittersphere’ isn’t helping.

This is oversimplified Calvinism.  Period.  It doesn’t take the complexity of sin seriously enough, though it claims to in every way.  It doesn’t take it seriously because it oversimplifies the remedy, leaving troubled and struggling people feeling even worse.  Gospel counselors tell people that their troubles amount to a failure to believe the Gospel.  Freedom is available, we’re told.  Just repent and believe! Over and over, preachers are trying to boil this down to 140 characters on Twitter.  And I think it’s Gospel arrogance.

The problem is that we’re far more complex and psychologically broken that we’re often aware of.  It’s not just “unbelief” that bears down on us.  It’s a whole host of things – neural pathways grooved by years of living a certain way, a “divided heart” that thrives on its habitual polarities, weakness of will, and the extraordinary brokenness manifesting in the systems we inhabit, whether in our families or workplaces or churches.  And if I’m not being pessimistic enough, consider John Calvin’s words:

“But no one in this earthly prison of the body has sufficient strength to press on with due eagerness, and weakness so weighs down the greater number that, with wavering and limping and even creeping along the ground, they move at a feeble rate. Let each one of us, then, proceed according to the measure of his puny capacity and set out upon the journey we have begun. No one shall set out so inauspiciously as not daily to make some headway, though it be slight. Therefore, let us not cease so to act that we may make some unceasing progress in the way of the Lord. And let us not despair at the slightness of our success; for even though attainment may not correspond to desire, when today outstrips yesterday the effort is not lost. Only let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal; not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds, but with continuous effort striving toward this end: that we may surpass ourselves in goodness until we attain to goodness itself. It is this, indeed, which through the whole course of life we seek and follow. But we shall attain it only when we have cast off the weakness of the body, and are received into full fellowship with him” (Institutes, 3.6.5 or pp. 1:689)

But the problem extends beyond understanding the complexity.  It’s the cure that is far more difficult.  Having counseled too many men and women who beat themselves up for not growing fast enough by repenting and believing, I’m convinced we do many people a disservice (and harm!) by oversimplifying both the problem and the cure.  Those fearful of modern psychology need to begin listening at this point, because what we’ve found is that growth and maturity isn’t found in a method or a discipline or a repentance exercise.  In fact, growth is harder, longer, more painful, and more puzzling than many of us care to admit.  People who we serve in the church would like microwavable strategies, but the fact is that growth and maturity isn’t microwavable.  It defies programs and methods.  It frustrates the most competent pastor or therapist or spiritual director.  And, it can’t be captured in a tweet, even a well-formed Gospel tweet.

I admire the hearts of my friends out there who attempt to tweet Gospel cures.  They mean well.  Most are pastors, and you know who you are.  And I really do like you a lot.  But, hear me when I say that people are suckers for your 140 word fixes.  Why do you think you get re-tweeted so much?  We’re suckers for remedies and methods.  We love a sound byte.  But I’m asking you to step back and consider the complexity.  Do you really see people growing that quickly in your churches?  Do you really see ‘Gospel transformation’ happening in a “repent and believe” moment?  I’m prone to think that this is where we need a good dose of those old stories, like Pilgrim’s Progress, that highlight the long and difficult journey.  Because most people I know don’t find that the methods work.  Most people I talk to struggle day to day just to believe, just to utter a one word prayer, just to avoid another outburst of anger or another deluge of cynicism. Most people find that it takes a lifetime to believe that they are the prodigal who is lavished with a Father’s prodigious love.

Gospel tweeters:  Relax.  You are far more screwed up than you think.  And your cure is far too simplistic to help.  This journey requires more than a 140 characters of Gospel happy juice.  A big and good God requires a long and difficult Exodus journey for real change to happen.

9 comments

  1. I appreciate your insightful comments and the wisdom you bring to the Gospel tweeting community. I myself have certainly been guilty of such tweets. But, I also believe that the Holy Spirit is more than capable of using any avenue to reach folks who are struggling with any crisis, be it great or small.
    Whether via a powerful sermon, a heartfelt testimony, a meaningful counseling session, a simple act of kindness, or even a mere 140 character tweet, I believe God’s grace can transform us by any means He chooses… and in the time of His choosing. Waiting on and trusting in His timing as we struggle through the rebuilding process is difficult indeed. But – His love and wisdom will not fail us. It seems to me that the more we expose ourselves to the Gospel, the greater we can grow in His grace.

  2. Thank you Chuck. I’ve grown weary of contextless, 140 character quips that I would argue most people forget 2 hours after reading them. Life is much more complex than that, and change takes the hard, difficult work of the inner journey.

  3. Hello Chuck,

    I tend to agree with theme of this post for the most part; however, as pastors and friends, are we not also to encourage and spur on folks? A simple word of encouragement or a simple slap upside the head with a word or quip or quote can make one see a situation or season they are in through different lense – no?

    It may not create immediate transformation or results, but it may be like a chisel in the hand of a sculptor and be part of the creative process of someone’s living out the Gospel instead of just “believing it”. When I post things, I don’t go into it thinking, okay, my 140 words for the day are going to transform the world. If I feel led to post something anywhere, it is my hope that God uses it to help, encourage, laugh, or smile. If we think we are accomplishing anything more in those mediums, we are deceived.

    p.s. Dude, one cannot see a thing when you are responding to your posts. One has to type elsewhere and then copy and paste into the response box. Just an FYI.

    Peace & 1 Love,

    Richie

  4. Thank you for this post and the other more recent and related stuff on CCEF. I love the teachers that are behind the mantra and continue to learn from them. But there is a kind of triumphalism or over realized eschatology at play, I think. As Walker Percy put it once in an interview, “We are a pilgrim people. We aren’t very smart.” At the very least, anytime the biblical command to “Repent and believe” can be re-iterated “Just repent and believe” something terribly important is missing.

  5. God bless you for this. Sometimes I can’t find a single word for my prayers. Sometimes I struggle to confirm belief in faith itself. Please keep writing. Thank you.

  6. Hey
    guys. I found this blog while searching for something else and
    decided to read it. I am reminded of Heb 12:14, Rom 12:18, and Phil
    4:2. With so many souls being lost to hell every day, how can one
    justify attacking another church’s or another believer’s method of
    proclamation? Unless we are shining light on wolves who are clearly
    preaching false doctrine, live at peace. Keep the tweets coming.
    :)I am one who believes that the vast majority of our
    problems stem from not believing something about the gospel. Long
    story short, for the last 23 years (not including the last 8 months)
    I couldn’t explain the power of what Christ did on the cross and what
    it means to all of us with ease. My hands would be sweaty. I’d be
    nervous. It was really an ugly sight to behold. Over the last 8
    months however, by God’s grace, I understand how much I need him, how
    my self righteousness has gotten in the way of knowing Christ, and
    being free from the sins that I have allowed to bind me much of my
    life. I am free. I noticed you, Chuck, and none of the
    commenters posted scripture. How come? What I have learned from
    James chapter 1, and 2 Peter 1:3-9 (especially vs 3) to just name a
    couple, I have learned that, while most of my life, I have struggled
    with sin, fighting it and using my own strength. When in actuality,
    I am already free from it. I am a new creation. I am already
    COMPLETE in Christ with everything I need to live a godly life that
    honors my father above. I also was forced, in reading James, to
    acknowledge that if I am struggling with sin, it is because I wanted
    to do it. Now I am not so blind to say it won’t be hard. But our
    God has given us a spirit of power, not of timidity. And one of the
    fruits of the spirit is Self Control (that is present in us when we
    allow King Jesus to rule in every area). It’s not easy, but
    it IS simple. You can do all things through Christ who gives you
    strength. That isn’t just a verse that kids memorize in Vacation
    Bible School. Understand the power of what Christ did through his
    life, death, and resurrection.

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