Good Job, Jeff Purswell…

October 22, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Over yonder at CJ Mahaney’s “blog” (is it really a blog if no comments are permitted?), Jeff Purswell tackles the subject of the gospel.

And he does a good job of it.

Although it takes him an agonizingly long while to define what, precisely, the gospel is – and involves some awfully high-‘n’-mighty vocabulary, like the word “entailments” – he does, finally, get around to saying this, which in my opinion is the strongest, clearest definition of “the gospel” that I’ve ever heard from anyone at Sovereign Grace Ministries:

So what is the gospel?

Although this brief survey is far from complete, it consistently reveals that the gospel is good news concerning Jesus and what he did to accomplish salvation for sinners.

In other words, the gospel is objective. It tells us what God has done to save his people. It consists of concrete, historical events, rooted in Old Testament promises, types, and institutions that were fulfilled in Jesus. It promises that all who trust in Christ and his work will receive forgiveness and life. Of course, this isn’t merely a catalogue of events of only historical interest; all of this has massive implications for our lives. But we must not confuse the gospel message itself with the outworking of those implications.

So, for example, although the gospel calls me to respond to what Jesus has done, strictly speaking it doesn’t include my response—repentance is not the gospel. Although the gospel introduces me to a life lived in glad obedience to God, strictly speaking it doesn’t include that life of obedience. Our existence as Christians involves unspeakable privileges, significant responsibilities, and untold promise. But those things themselves are not the gospel.

Of course, all of this begs the question, if this really is SGM’s working definition of “the gospel,” then why, in SGMville, does the good news of what Jesus has done for us constantly seem to get lost in the shuffle of how people are supposed to respond, and always in the context of SGM’s own culture?

I mean, every time I’ve ever heard a Sovereign Grace pastor use the phrase, “Bring ‘the gospel’ into [fill in the blank],” the bottom line is ALWAYS about something that a person must then DO (or not do) in response.  For instance, in the teaching given to SGM pastors about “the counseling process,” it seems like SGM teaches its pastors to use “the gospel” as some sort of trump card, a magic bullet to minimize even the most serious mental illnesses.  It’s like since Jesus did all this suffering for us, and since our biggest problem (sin) is already therefore solved, we really have no reason to be concerned about any of our other problems.  Here is just a tiny exerpt from the transcript of Andy Farmer’s teaching (my commentary is in blue):

[16] Um.  So.  Ah.  Depression medication, um.  And so I got to know some of their story and so I was able to catch up with them.  About the Gospel.  Obviously they’re both believers so they’re – very confident in that, uh, historically and in the present, but I could recognize that – that the Gospel has taken hits in their lives.  [Kris says:  Once again, Mr. Farmer is speaking of the Good News of Jesus as something that seems like less than a historical fact of Jesus’ defeat of death, sin, and the devil.  Once again the Gospel is spoken of instead as something that can “take hits.”  I just find this terminology odd.  The Bible never speaks of the Gospel as being able to “take hits” or be detracted from by the trials of life.  Why do SGM pastors speak of it in this way?]  One of the things I’ve recognized with Jeff is that he is – he is – his solutions to the problems are all pragmatic.  They don’t require any faith, they don’t require anything from God to do.  They’re just – it’s not because he – he’s committed to that, it’s just because that’s where he’s gotten to.  “What do I gotta do to fix her?”  So his gospel deficiency is he thinks he – the Gospel is what you do in order to have the right to be able to fix your own problems.  That’s his functional gospel.  You believe this so that now you have the right to fix your problems.  So one of the things I’m recognizing is that I have to help him recognize that his solutions, though logical, started from that frame of reference, though they – so one of the things I’m helping him with is, “Yes, that’s a great idea, but if you’re not trusting in God, it’s not gonna work.”  

[17] Oh, man, who said that today?  You hear so many great things at the conferences you forget where they come from.  [Crowd chuckles.]  Um, but – but if you, uh, ah – I don’t think I’m gonna go there, gotta get it into context, ah – but – so – so – I recognized that with him.  With her, I recognized that, that she is having – I asked her about her devotions, her – and she’s having intense devotions.  She’s not working, she was debilitated by, by the depression.  And that’s the way she’s understanding herself, debilitated by the depression.  She couldn’t handle the pressure, and so she’s having like four-hour quiet times.  But we’re on – what is she doing in her quiet times?  She’s just journaling.  She’s spilling it out into a journal.  She’s basically regurgitating bad stuff and feeding on it. 

[18] [Chimes sound]  That means it’s, um, 12:30.  OK.  Um, so – so anyway, she’s uh, so I get, OK, I got to help her see that that’s not healthy devotions.  That’s a wrong understanding, built on a wrong understanding of the Gospel.  The Gospel isn’t – devotions not meant for me to get what’s out here onto paper.  Devotions are meant for me to get what’s out there into my heart, into my thinking on a daily basis.  So that’s a Gospel issue for her.  So I just – we talk about that a little bit and I move on.

[Kris says:  Does the Bible condemn spending 4 hours journaling?  Where in Scripture would we find God’s thoughts about one’s devotional habits being a “Gospel issue”?  I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Mr. Farmer’s ultimate advice to this woman, but it just seems to me that if pastors in Mr. Farmer’s audience are going to receive an example of weighing in condemningly on a member’s personal devotional habits, there ought to be some more specific Scriptural guidelines for doing so.] 

Note how oddly “the gospel” is spoken of in this segment.  It certainly doesn’t seem at all consistent with what Mr. Purswell shares today on CJ’s blog.  Rather than being about the accomplished fact of what Jesus has already done for us, “the gospel” in the above exerpt is something that can “take hits” because of a person’s attitudes toward problem-solving, or because of a person’s (supposedly) faulty devotional habits.

It’s a good step in the right direction, of course, to read Mr. Purswell’s blog post today.  But how consistent are his words –

So, for example, although the gospel calls me to respond to what Jesus has done, strictly speaking it doesn’t include my response—repentance is not the gospel. Although the gospel introduces me to a life lived in glad obedience to God, strictly speaking it doesn’t include that life of obedience. Our existence as Christians involves unspeakable privileges, significant responsibilities, and untold promise. But those things themselves are not the gospel.

with what SGM churches actually proclaim through their actions on a daily basis?

If “the gospel” is really all about what Jesus has done for us, then why does “the gospel” within SGM seem to hinge on all sorts of elements of our response TO the gospel, like our participation in a very specific kind of church life?

After all, Sovereign Grace Ministries views its church-planting efforts as “missions.”  In fact, SGM does very little else to “spread the gospel” except to start more SGM churches, which typically pop up in suburbs that are already saturated with plenty of other decent Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming churches.

So what’s going on here?

I’m glad that Jeff Purswell has taken the time to give us such a good definition of the good news of Jesus’ accomplished work on our behalf.

It just seems to me like what he wrote bears little resemblance to the reality of daily life within most SGM churches.