A few years ago, I watched one of my dear friends start maturing and growing spiritually. There seemed to be a tangible difference in the way she served her family and in the way she related to her husband. This was not an act; the Lord was working in my friend's life. Instead of rejoicing with her and seeking to learn from her, I became envious. I told myself that it was okay, that we are allowed as Christians to “covet” someone else's sanctification because it would drive us to try hard and do better and become more spiritually mature ourselves. This was at the height of my gospel amnesia years, and I had “moved on” from the gospel and was busy growing and becoming “more sanctified” with all those “right things” I was doing. Except that I wasn't growing, my heart was becoming darkened with envy. I actually envied my friend's spiritual growth; I wanted it for myself, and not in addition to her, but instead of her! Is that not sick with sin? How very Cain-like of me. If that's not gospel amnesia, I'm not sure what is. It grieves me deeply when I think about how sick my heart was that I would resent the work of the Holy Spirit in my friend's life. This went on for almost an entire year until one day I couldn't take the conviction from the Sprit any longer. This sin was crushing me. I called my friend and admitted everything. Of course she forgave me. It's not like my poor friend hadn't noticed that I had been irritable with her for almost a year, but she waited patiently for me to come talk to her. She was very longsuffering, way more than I had ever been with her, to my shame.
This type of sin is real in the local church and it needs to be brought into the light. As long as we keep our “little” sins hidden in the dark we have no hope of overcoming and standing victorious over them. The entire time I was being eaten by envy over my friend's spiritual growth, my longsuffering friend had been praying for me. She saw that I was in bondage. I will dare to say that gospel amnesia is that—bondage.
SPIRITUAL COVETEOUSNESS & SPIRITUAL PRIDE
Have you ever felt ashamed or guilty because you can't seem to keep up with someone else's sanctification? On the other side: have you ever let words slip from your lips (e.g. how many times a week you do family worship, what books you are reading, which parenting and education method you are using, etc.) to show how far along your family is on the sanctification spectrum? In other words, have you ever “preached Christ” out of envy, rivalry, or selfish ambition (Philippians 1:15–17)? I certainly have.
Spiritual covetousness and spiritual pride are real, and can do damage to relationships and to a church body. These are subtle sins. Nourished by the fertile soil of a gospel amnesic church culture, they creep into hearts under the guise of the call to “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24). They manifest themselves in a myriad of ways across countless personalities. How does this type of thing happen? How do we get to a point in the local body where we resent the work of the Holy Spirit in someone else's life, or sling around our spiritual pride provoking our brethren? How do we forget that it was he who said, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion?”
The answer is: gospel amnesia. We forget the gospel and the cross at the heart of the gospel. We forget the work of Christ.
The local church is a messy place; a place full of sinners in need of their savior every day. You and I are part of this organism. Hence, if we personally have gospel amnesia, we can imagine how that could exponentiate within the local body. Here too we have to ask ourselves: What has become the center of our local church? What excites those in the pews around us?
SINS IN THE LOCAL CHURCH
There is sin in every church, because every church, no matter how small or how selective, is made up of fallen humans.
Gospel amnesia flourishes in a local church where there is a disconnect between doctrine and culture. An obvious case would be a church where there is no gospel preaching. Another would be a church that is obligation-heavy and gospel-light. Yet another is where there is a fair amount of gospel doctrine with little or no gospel action.
Ray Ortlund, Jr. asks in his sermon Justification versus Self–Justification, “What kind of dark church culture can a mentality of self-justification (gospel amnesia) create?” (I am substituting 'gospel amnesia' knowing that the gospel is more than just the doctrine of justification.) Here are some of his answers: Selfish ambition, manipulative power of exclusion, a sense of grievance toward some, a redefining of what it takes to be an acceptable Christian (a “Jesus + Something” mentality), biting, devouring, insecurity, anxiety, fear and anger. I would add suspicion, warring over secondary matters, verbal or non-verbal pressure to adhere to unstated rules, a culture of affectation, preoccupation with outward behavior, and a lack of humility and transparency. A church rife with gospel amnesia can trumpet all day long that they hold to the gospel, but if the fruit of church culture shows otherwise, they have effectively de-gospeled the gospel. (My deep gratitude to Pastor Ray Ortlund, Jr. whose sermon helped me to crystalize some of these thoughts. His phrase “de-gospel the gospel” had me taking notes feverishly while driving and listening.)
When members of a church are blinded by gospel amnesia, dealing with sin in the congregation is hampered by a lack of grace and a gospel-centered rebuke and restoration process. How can a people tackle difficulties in their relationships and in their body life when they have forgotten the gospel, Jesus has been marginalized, and the center has become many things, none of which is the gospel and cross work of Christ!?
The friend I mentioned has long since forgiven me. Although we went through more hard times, the Lord has always brought us back together. I will say this: The only reason our relationship survived such heavy sinning was due purely to the cross of Jesus. When the two of us grabbed hold of the gospel again, when we started understanding the grace of God and when we became more comfortable with our identities being in Christ, that is when our friendship truly deepened, and love—Jesus' love—covered a multitude of sins.
What has become the center of your life in your local church?
Luma Simms (@lumasimms) is a wife and mother of five delightful children. She studied physics and law before Christ led her to become a writer, blogger, and Bible study teacher. She blogs regularly at Gospel Grace.