The Gospel at the Heart of All Things: The Gospel of Grace

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This week we are slow on blog content because the Rooted Conference in Nashville is just two days away! In the meantime, we thought we’d share an excerpt written by Cameron Cole in Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry (GCYM is a Crossway publication, and is primarily written by our Rooted writers).

“While I finished high school with a developed theology for the gospel of salvation, I had no concept of the gospel of grace. My general theology revolved around accepting Jesus for salvation, sharing Christ with others, and then trying really, really hard for God out of my own strength, using Jesus as my role model. In fact, even though I started following Jesus in the third grade, I had to look up the definition of “grace” in a dictionary, while writing a paper during my third year of college at Wake Forest.

My personal theology translated into a life of performance—an exhausting treadmill. As a senior in high school, I took five AP classes, taught myself an additional AP course, attended eight swim practices per week, wrote for the newspaper staff, served on the state board of the Key Club, and held offices as vice president of the student body and vice president of the Honor Society. College was no different. I finished Wake Forest (often referred to as “Work Forest”) as a double major in three years, while starting a de facto nonprofit. I completed a master’s degree during my fourth year.

No one would be surprised to discover that this exhausting pace wreaked havoc on my mental health. While teaching in inner-city Charlotte during my first year out of graduate school, I started to have problems with short-term memory. I lost my keys daily and often forgot my train of thought mid-sentence. Then I experienced trouble sleeping. The problem escalated when a phobic dread of returning to the school would set in as soon as I left the campus each evening.

I scheduled a meeting with my pastor, Mark Upton, of Hope Community Church, to discuss my turmoil. Mark informed me that I had two major problems. First, he said that the catalogue of symptoms I described sounded like the precursors of a nervous breakdown. He said that I needed to consult a physician and seriously consider resigning from my job.

The second issue, he said, was that I did not know the gospel of grace. He did not doubt my salvation or sincerity as a follower of Jesus. He told me these words that changed my life forever:

“The gospel is rest. The gospel means Jesus carries the burden of your life. The gospel means you will never have to prove yourself again, because Jesus has proven you on the cross.”

He explained that the same dynamic truth underlying my salvation—my need to rely on God for grace and God’s amazing generosity—extended to all facets of my life. Growing in Christ meant growing in the understanding of my powerlessness as a sinner and increasing in the practice of seeking God’s help for everything.

At the end of the meeting, we prayed about whether I should quit my job. Two days later I had a panic attack, which resulted in my inability to speak for four weeks or to read for eight weeks straight. Needless to say, I resigned. I spiraled into a deep depression for six months, but it was wonderful because I discovered freedom through the gospel like never before. God began to heal me through the message of his grace and love.

When we refer to the gospel of grace in this book, we refer to the good news that Jesus’s death on the cross does not simply seal sinners for eternal life in heaven (although it certainly does do that for those who trust him as Savior and Lord and repent of sin), but also extends to all areas of a Christian’s life. Consequently, sanctification involves a person becoming more like Christ—not only through daily repentance—but ultimately through the work of the Holy Spirit and through increased dependence on God’s grace in every category of life.

Perhaps the greatest flaw in youth ministry is the historic absence of the gospel of grace. Ministry to youth ordinarily has preached salvation well. However, after students become believers, too often the dynamic shifts to one of moralism with the primary focus centering on sexual purity, underage drinking, and general “niceness.” Too often I encounter burned out former church kids who walked away from years in youth ministry with an understanding of Christianity as simply another avenue by which one can try to be a good person. The burden of performance broke their backs and damaged their faith. What a tragedy!

Good secular organizations, like the Boy Scouts, sports teams, and public schools, encourage moral performance and character building. Christian youth workers need to understand that our unique asset in seeing lives changed is the gospel of grace. When teenagers grasp that God loves them perfectly and permanently in spite of their sins, there is great hope of transformation. When a kid adopts a gospel rhythm of life, whereby he or she sees the need for God and depends on his grace, God can bring immeasurable healing, freedom, and fruit. The gospel of grace must appear over and over again in our teaching and discipleship of young people.”

Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry was published by Crossway and is primarily written by Rooted writers. To read more about it, click here.

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