Part 3 in a 10 part series. View series intro and index.
It is not just enough to know conceptually that every text is a road to Christ. It’s also not enough to know how to set up a devotional time. After all, intellectual knowledge never saved anyone from hell and creating a good devo plan hasn’t either. The only hope for the world is the gospel–the fact that God entered creation in the person of Jesus Christ and has accomplished redemption for his people through Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.
It’s not uncommon for Christians to “move past” the gospel after initially accepting it. You come to Jesus by faith, they argue, then you need to white-knuckle it and work hard. Some Christians say that the gospel is the “ABCs” of the Christian life. Tim Keller, on the other hand, has said that the gospel is the “A to Z of the Christian life.” The gospel (Gk. evangelion) means “good news.” Why would you ever want to move past good news? Paul asked just that to the Galatians: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?…Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and work miracles among you do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:3, 5).
If the gospel is “good news,” then there must be bad news, right? The bad news is that we cannot have a right relationship with God because we are rotten from the inside out. Even our best deeds are utterly disgusting to God (Isa. 64:6; Phil. 3:8). It’s not just an external problem; we do not just do bad things, we are bad (Rom. 3:10-18).
Because of this, the gospel is rooted in God’s self-substitution for sinners. Because we cannot obtain righteousness before God, he must stand in our place as our perfect substitute and obtain “an alien righteousness” for us. God did this through Jesus Christ.
At the center of this self-substitution is the cross. Because our sin is against an infinitely holy God, we deserve infinite, unimaginable condemnation and wrath. Thankfully, Jesus lived the life we should have lived and he died the death we deserve to die. He absorbed the wrath of God for us, and became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). It is on the cross that Jesus exchanged our sin for his righteousness in order that we might be justified (i.e. declared righteous) before God (2 Cor. 5:21). Those who receive this by faith–not works–are justified (Rom. 3:24-25; see Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). Therefore, Jesus is our complete substitute Savior. This is good news.
Unfortunately, this precious doctrine of Christ as our substitute is not held tightly among Christians as it once was. In Don’t Call It a Comeback, Greg Gilbert writes, “I’m convinced that part of the reason many evangelicals have begun to lose their grasp on the cross is that we have lost sight of why we need to be saved. We’ve forgotten, and even in some cases deliberately disregarded, what sin is and how profound is its offense to God” (74).
Up to this point, I’m sure a few of you have wondered what this all has to do with having a devotional time. It has everything to do with a devotional time! Gilbert brings us back to our times in God’s word. The first step to a life void of the gospel is to forget or disregard how awful our sin is. Martin Luther once said that a Christian’s entire life is one of repentance. When the gospel is the lens through which we see life, we keep our hope in Jesus and stay repentant.
In turn, if the gospel is not the lens through which we see all of life, we will not be repentant, and will never have a disciplined, ongoing devotional life. If the gospel is the “ABC’s” of the Christian life, your devotional times will eventually become more and more about you and less and less about God. This will lead to one of two outcomes. First, it may lead to self-righteousness. Every passage will be a avenue for you to ride off on your high horse because you succeed (most of the time) at keeping the rules more often than your family and friends. Second, it may lead to utter despair. Verses and chapters will be horrific constructions of condemnation because you just can’t seem to muster up the motivation or ability to obey.
But if the gospel is your “A to Z”–your only righteousness and plea before God–I contend that your devotional times, though not perfect, will be healthy, vibrant, and full of Christ. Verses, chapters, and books will be avenues to a world greater than yourself because they will point you away from yourself and toward God. What the psalmist prayed will actually happen: “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain!” (Ps. 119:36). The Scriptures (even the Old Testament!) will show you the depth of your sin and the greatness of your need, yet at the same time the power and sufficiency of your substitute Savior and conquering King.
Jesus and his gospel must be your sole source of righteousness before God. The sin in our lives is a failure to fully believe the gospel. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 1:8 that God will repay with affliction “those who do not obey the gospel.” To obey the gospel means to believe its truth and efficacy in your life. When I am harsh with my wife, I fail to believe that God has given me grace instead of wrath, though my sin against God is infinitely greater than anything my wife could do to me. When I exalt myself, I fail to believe that I am perfectly accepted in God’s eyes through Christ and do not need to seek man’s praise. When I lust, get greedy or envious, or comfort myself with food or TV, I fail to believe that Christ is my all-sufficient Treasure and that he alone is worthy of my utmost affections.
If this is your perspective on the Christian life, your devotional times will be marinated with the gospel. You must think this way, and if you don’t (or don’t think you can) you must ask God to be gracious and help you. I don’t always think this way. My life is a continual battle to believe the gospel. Often I feel like the father of the demon possessed boy who cried, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
The only hope for your life–and for your devotions–is the gospel. When you find yourself lost in the deep waters of Scripture during a quiet time in the morning, don’t look for a command to obey or a spiritual nugget to get you through lunch time. Those will do as much good as a paddle without a boat and an arm floatie on an elephant. Climb aboard the unsinkable ship of the gospel of God’s grace, revealed fully in his Son Jesus Christ.