As Church Planters, we all have what Paul Tripp calls “Gospel amnesia.” We know the truth (probably); we just don’t allow the truth to set us free. We have to remember that every hardship in life and ministry — marriage conflicts, parenting questions, financial struggles, fear of the future, loss of vision or focus, divisiveness in leadership, etc. — is an opportunity to apply the Gospel. Even saying it like that is wrong.
We don’t “apply the Gospel” to the issues of life as if it was a mathematical formula. The Gospel is not a principle to master or a procedure to follow. The Gospel is life. It is how we live life as a Believer. It is how we relate to ourselves, to God, and to each other. The Scriptures put it like this: “The just shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). The just, the righteous, the people of God, live only by faith. We don’t live by effort or insight or emotion; we live by faith in the work of Another, and his name is Jesus.
What is the Gospel and how do we live out the Gospel in the constantly challenging call of church planting?
The Gospel as Substitution
To put it succinctly, the Gospel is not about what you are supposed to do for God. Instead, it is about what God has done, and continues to do, for you through his Son, Jesus Christ.
The Gospel is about Jesus; it is not about you. To live by the Gospel is to live by the work of Jesus on our behalf. We readily teach and preach substitutionary atonement, but we also ought to teach and preach substitutionary sanctification.
Jesus is not so much a model as he is a substitute. He doesn’t simply show us what to do and then expects us to do it. The Bible does tell us to follow His example and follow in His steps. Jesus did command his disciples after washing their feet, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). He is the Model of what a Gospel life looks like.
But here is the reality, both the bad news and the good news of the Gospel: We can’t do what He has done without Him.
Romans 5:10 says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (emphasis mine). The Gospel that brings salvation teaches us to say yes to God’s commands to love, serve and obey, and gives you the power to say no to your flesh and live a self-controlled, godly, Gospel life! (Titus 2:11).
We are saved by the life of Jesus. We are not saved by our efforts at mimicking the life of Jesus. Jesus did not die as a martyr for his cause; he died as a Savior for his people. And he did not simply come to show us how to live; he came to live for us, in our place. You see, the Gospel sees Jesus primarily as our substitute, not our model.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re a baseball player. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning and you’re up to bat. The outcome of the game depends on you. If you make an out, we lose. If you get a hit, we win. Now, let’s say in your dugout, sitting on the bench, is the greatest hitter who ever lived, and he is in the prime of his career. As you approach the plate, which would you rather do? Would you rather go back to the dugout and treat this Hall of Famer like a hitting coach — ask his advice, get him to correct your stance to improve your swing, and pick his brain as to what the pitcher might be throwing. Or would you rather go back to the dugout, sit on the bench, and have this Hall of Famer pinch-hit for you? If the game is on the line, you want the bat in the hands of someone who is far better than you are. You don’t want a coach; you want a pinch-hitter. You don’t want a model; you want a substitute. You don’t want your limited abilities; you want his (seeming) unlimited abilities.
Application to Church Planting
The dark side of the call and work of a Church Planter tempts us to think, “I’m the man. I have the skills. I can hit. I’m the future Hall of Famer. The assessment said so. And everyone is watching so I have to hit.”
Jesus is not simply a model; he’s a substitute. He doesn’t show us what to do and then simply expects us to do it. He does it for us. You see, the commands of God have no power. They simply show us what we are supposed to do, but at the same time they show us how unable we are to do them. The commands of God show us God’s holy character and his perfect demands, but they also reveal our sinfulness and our inability to keep those demands. We do not have the ability to do what God commands us to do. What we need is Someone to do it for us.
To be honest, it is rather arrogant to live like Jesus as simply a role model. We end up thinking that all we need is some advice, some instruction, that we can do this thing called ministry on our own, that we just need a little help. To believe that Jesus is simply our model is to put the focus on us. It is to put great hope in our abilities. Our goal, then, is to try to get better. But to believe that Jesus is our substitute should produce humility and put the focus on Jesus.
Jesus as our “role model” is a common denominator in the theologically liberal churches and the conservative moralistic churches. It is simply answering the question: “What would Jesus do?”
Little faith is required in a role model. When I learn how to do something from a model, what is required is not faith but hard work. If I am learning from a Hall of Famer how to hit a baseball, then I will study and practice and work hard. But if I am depending on a substitute to hit for me, then what is required of me is faith. I must believe that my substitute is able to do it. I must have faith in his abilities, I must distrust my own abilities, and I must accept his results as my own.
John MacArthur summarizes substitution very well, “On the cross, Jesus wasn't a sinner, but God treated Him as if He was; and you're not righteous, but He treats you as if you are. On the cross, God treated Jesus as if He had lived your life, so He could treat you, as if you had lived His.”
The word “Gospel” occurs so often in the New Testament it is clearly a summary term for the basic core of what Christianity is all about. But what is at that “core”? Click here to download your FREE eBook “3 Perspectives of the Gospel” today!
At CMM, we believe every pastor, church planter, ministry leader, and missionary is created to thrive in ministry. We suggest getting a C.R.O.S.S. Coach to help walk with you through the challenges you’ve never faced before. A C.R.O.S.S. Coach will help encourage and equip you every step along the way. Learn more about C.R.O.S.S. Coaching for Church Planters today!
Dr. Tom Wood
I've been in the Church Planting business my entire career. I want you to know, you don't have to plant a church alone!