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Grace-Driven, or Moralistically Bound?

  • Joy Allmond Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jul 24, 2012
Grace-Driven, or Moralistically Bound?

Several years ago, when Matt Chandler began to baptize — in large numbers — young adults who had grown up in the church, he sensed an epidemic of this generation of churchgoers who did not actually know the gospel.

The 37-year-old pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, TX, says that many people have substituted, as he calls it, "Christian therapeutic moralistic deism" for the gospel. The real gospel. The explicit gospel.

His experience in the church has taught him that many Christ-professing people are not actually sure what it means to be a believer in Jesus Christ. Some of them think they are Christians simply because they have been in church their entire lives. A portion of those in the "Bible Belt," the southeastern United States, might believe they are Christians because they live in the south. Others may think they are believers in Jesus Christ because they avoid certain behaviors.

Chandler's fear is this moralistic ideal is deceiving many, acting as a barrier between their hearts and the real gospel.

"Early on in my experience here at The Village [Church], we were seeing a lot of people come to know Christ in a life-transforming way. Yet, a lot of these people had grown up in church, around church, and many of them for a very long time had been dedicated to church. But ultimately, they did not love Jesus."

This realization is the driving force behind his first book, The Explicit Gospel (Crossway Books, to be released April 30). He began to have conversations with the people who had a strong church background, but no real gospel understanding. He wanted to title his book The Explicit Gospel because of his belief that the gospel is too often assumed in the evangelical church.

"Some of them were actually exposed to the real gospel, but just didn't have ears to hear. But what was shocking to me was that a lot of them had never really heard it," he said.

"They had heard to not have sex before they got married. They also heard that they shouldn't get drunk.  So, they heard those things, but it seems like the churches they grew up in assumed the gospel and hadn't made the gospel primary in regard to their teaching, preaching, and how they designed ministries of the church to work."

Why is the Real Gospel Not Taught?

Chandler believes that the explicit gospel is not taught because so many in the church mistake moralistic — albeit, well-meaning — teaching for the gospel. Since people assume that other churchgoers know the gospel, they tend to move on to other things, namely moralistic teaching: preaching the dos and don'ts without preaching the motivation behind the actions — the gospel.

"You don't want to see your teenage daughters get pregnant. You don't want to see your son strung out on drugs. You don't want your kid to cuss like a sailor, and you don't want your kid watching movies that will rot his brain," he explained.

"So, what you try to do to manage that is control or modify that behavior by giving steps away from it. But, what we know biblically about transformation is that the Holy Spirit does that work through regeneration. We need to push people toward holiness."

Behavior Modification vs. Grace-Driven Effort

Chandler believes that behavior modification grows out of a fear of hell (without a fear and love for God) and self-determination to avoid unholy deeds.

However, he explains that grace driven effort comes from a heart that sees Jesus as more lovely than their sin. It is out of a motivation to know Jesus more than anything else. He points to Colossians 3 as an explanation for this.

"When the Bible talks about sanctification, it tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, and to set our minds and hearts on things above. Then, in Colossians 3:5, we're told to put to death all these sinful things," he said.

"We can put to death these things because our eyes are on Jesus. That's grace-driven effort. It is to love Jesus more than your idols and sins. A true affection for Jesus really is the only way to put to death the sin in our lives."

The Role of Doctrine in Knowing the Explicit Gospel

If we are to know and communicate the explicit gospel, we must have a grip on sound, biblical doctrine: an understanding of what is true about God and what is true about Jesus Christ, and a firm belief in what was done through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

"Honestly, the reason we want to be — need to be — anchored in the Word of God is because all of our hope in this life and next is anchored to this man, Jesus. What we learn about Jesus Christ can't be just what we think about him, but has to be how He has been revealed through Scripture," said Chandler.

"When we are rooted in God's Word, we are anchored in such a way that our idea of the gospel cannot be shaken. Otherwise, we will be tossed about by every wave, as Paul wrote. We need this anchor so that we are not tossed about like children."

A Message for the Church

Chandler hopes that the church will commit to defining the gospel more clearly, as they apply it more to their daily living. He has specific hopes for pastors.

"I really want pastors to understand that the transforming work of God is found in the gospel. We have to be very careful not to preach moralism. We need to bring people back to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, regardless of the topic," he urged.

"So, when it comes to the text, we cannot force it, but the power to apply it to what we're teaching goes back to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When I say that, I'm not saying to tag it on the end during the altar call. But really cultivate a place that is saturated in the gospel."

Matt Chandler is the lead pastor of The Village Church, a multi-campus church in the Dallas metroplex of over 10,000 people. His sermons are among the top-selling (free) podcasts on iTunes and he speaks at conferences worldwide. Prior to accepting the pastorate at The Village, Matt had a vibrant itinerant ministry for over ten years where he spoke to hundreds of thousands of people in America and abroad about the glory of God and beauty of Jesus. He lives in Texas with his wife, Lauren, and their three children: Audrey, Reid and Norah.

Joy Allmond is a writer for She lives in Charlotte, N.C., with her husband, two stepsons and two dogs. In her little spare time, she can be found training for a triathlon, concocting her latest culinary masterpiece, watching college basketball, or buried in a book.

Publication date: April 18, 2012