Elyse Fitzpatrick is a popular conference speaker and author and one of the leading voices in helping the evangelical church apply the gospel to all of life. She was recently kind enough to answer a few questions for For The Church on the importance of gospel-centrality and some of the alleged perils of it too. – J.W.
Jared Wilson: Elyse, how do we keep the idea of gospel-centrality from becoming the latest marketing catchphrase or trendy church style?
Elyse Fitzpatrick: I suppose that there might be people who are looking at gospel-centrality as a way to catch a marketing wave, but honestly I’m glad about it. The more the gospel is preached, the better off the church will be, no matter what motives may be behind it. I don’t think Paul was terribly concerned about pure motives either, as long as the gospel was getting out there as he said, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil 1:18).
J.W.: Pastors and theologians are getting better at preaching and writing in gospel-centered ways, but what does gospel-centeredness look like for the man or woman who goes to work every day in an environment that is irreligious and kingdom-ignorant? Like, what does the gospel-centered stock broker or insurance adjuster or auto mechanic or nurse think, say, or do?
E.F.: Obviously I’m thrilled that pastors and theologians are writing in gospel-centered ways but their writing has to be practical, as well, in order for it to connect with the woman or man on the street. We all need to see how the gifts Christ has purchased for us play out in our daily lives. For instance, the fact that I am completely forgiven for all my sins transforms the way that I respond to ungrateful customers and demanding bosses. They may demand more of me than is right but because I am forgiven I do not have to respond to them in anger, self-pity or man-pleasing. I can serve them without fearing that their evaluation of me means anything ultimate about my worth or how I am loved and welcomed by God. Because I have nothing left to prove, because I am both sinful and loved, because I do not have to justify myself in anyone’s eyes, I can love and serve my neighbors openly, zealously, generously. I can step out of the rat race of trying to get ahead of others or proving that I’m as good as so-and-so two cubicles over.
In a word, I can stop defending myself or trying to get ahead of others and lay down my life because Christ laid his life down for me. In essence, the gospel brings us freedom to love, serve and bless others.
J.W.: For many contemporary evangelicals, the doctrine of "union with Christ" is somewhat of a foreign or fuzzy concept. In your book Found in Him you explore the doctrine as not simply essential but central and, importantly, joyful. Why is union with Christ essential and central to the Christian's joy?
E.F.: Union with Christ simply means that we are not alone. We are not alone in our suffering and trials because the man, Christ Jesus, embraced full humanity, full human weakness, becoming one of us, tried as we are in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). We are not alone now, we will never be alone. That means that he knows what it’s like to live in our skin and to have to love the Father, our families, friends (and even enemies) in the worst of circumstances. Even though I might think no one understands what I’m going through, I can rest assured that he completely understands. He was made like us “in every respect” (Heb. 2:17). We are not alone in that we have a Savior who is even now still wearing our flesh enthroned at the right hand of God. Union also means that we are forever joined to him as a bride to her husband.
There are plenty of metaphors about Christ (a building, a vine for instance) and the church (a building, a vine for instance) but the reality is that we will forever be his bride. That means that he takes us to himself, grants us all the riches that he has earned and takes our debt upon himself. And it means that, as a good husband, he is praying for us and awaiting our marriage. In sum, we are not now, and never will be alone and all we need for life and godliness now and forever has been secured for us by him.
J.W.: We know that men and women, while equal, are different, but we don't need two gospels. The same gospel meets the needs of all. But are there any particular gospel implications or applications you find that must be emphasized differently or more acutely for men than women, and vice versa?
E.F.: I’m not sure that we need to hear anything different. The Holy Spirit will bring to life certain aspects of the gospel as both men and women need them. Having said that, however, I do think that women may be more interested in hearing how the gospel impacts their desire to love the Lord, their families, and neighbors. I know that many men (pastors and theologians in particular) love to speak in esoteric terms and many women may feel intimidated or simply not interested in these kinds of discussions. But tell them how your esoteric musings help them when the laundry is piled to the ceiling and you’ll have a large and joyful audience.
J.W.: Could you briefly sketch a process of sorts in how the gospel of Christ's finished work empowers or entails the fruit of a Christian's ongoing obedience?
I’d love to. Without a vibrant understanding of the depth of Christ’s work for us, obedience very quickly slides into works righteousness, no matter how much we might protest that we don’t believe we earn our way to heaven. It is only when I see that I am already completely loved, completely forgiven, and completely righteous in God’s eyes that I will have, as Michael Horton says, “wind for my sails,” both the power and the desire to obey. It is only the truth that I am loved that will make me love as John writes, “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). Therefore, if the foremost commandment of the law is to love God and neighbor, then understanding and believing God’s love for me and that I am free from trying to earn love for myself, that I will ultimately be free to obey for the right reason.
As Paul wrote, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision [religion] nor uncircumcision [irreligion] counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). It is faith in the finished work of Christ and his love for me that will enable me to strive daily to love my neighbor and it is the only truth that will encourage me to get up and fight to love again, even after I’ve failed.