21 May 2010

Interview with Tim Chester on Gospel Growth

Readers of this blog know that one of the reasons it exists is to blow the trumpet for gospel-centered living and enjoyment of justification as a critical though counterintuitive way we move forward in sanctification. The gospel is not a ticket in to Christianity but the food that nourishes us our whole lives long as Christians.

Tim Chester's You Can Change: God's Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions is a wonderful resource helping us understand how we live such a life. It is saturated in the Bible, informed by church history, psychologically penetrating, personally honest, and, best of all, rooted in (not merely mindful of) the gospel of grace. It was published by InterVarsity in the UK in 2008 and has recently been released by Crossway here in the States.

Tim is part of the leadership at the Crowded House, co-director of the Porterbrook Network, and director of the Northern Training Institute. He's co-author, with Steve Timmis, of Total Church, and a regular blogger at www.timchester.co.uk.

He kindly agreed to answer some questions about the book and the role of the gospel in Christian growth.

Tim, what's the big idea of You Can Change?
I think what I'm trying to do is to show how change takes place through faith. I want to move people away from just focus on behaviour because if we focus on behaviour then our efforts to change will always tend toward legalism. Instead I want to focus on the heart because where our hearts lead, our emotions and behaviour will follow.

But I want to make these ideas practical for people. I guess the basic idea is this. Behind every sin is a lie. We believe that sin offers more than God. So the key to change is recognizing that God is bigger and better than anything sin offers. That's not easy or straightforward. It's a day by day challenge to look to God, to find hope and help and satisfaction in him.

In some ways I tried to write the antidote to self-help books in the form of a self-help book!
Who have been the main three or four living influences on your understanding of how we change as believers?
There are some obvious people: Tim Keller, John Piper and the guys at CCEF. I think also of my community in The Crowded House with whom I have worked on these issues, both at a theological and practical level. My breakthrough moment came when expounding Romans 1 in my church - realising the way that sinful behaviour flows from exchanging the truth of God for a lie and worshipping created things rather than the Creator. That's how I arrived at my claim in the book that our twin problem is trusting lies (the false promises of sin) instead of trusting the word of God, and worshipping, desiring, treasuring things more than we treasure God (which is idolatry).
For thoughtful, theologically untrained Christian readers, what is the single best book by a dead guy you would recommend that supports and reinforces what you've tried to do in You Can Change?
It would have to be John Owen. I suggest people read him in the abridged and simplified paperbacks which are published by Banner of Truth. I remember getting frustrated reading his book The Holy Spirit because Owen never seemed to tell me what I needed to do. This is how it happens, he would say, and I was waiting for a prescription to follow. But he would then describe the work of the Spirit in me. Only about three-quarters of the way through did I catch on that this was the point! That said, the book I would start people off with is The Mortification of Sin - not a snappy title, but pure gold.
What have you found to be the most common misunderstanding Christians have about how growth takes place?
That we're saved by faith, but then grow by law. That's the idea Paul is countering in Galatians, yet it's still with us today. Some people say that Paul rejects the law as a means of salvation, but say we still need it for sanctification. But that, it seems to me, is precisely what Paul's opponents were saying in Galatia. So in 2:15-16 when Paul says "we know that a person is not justified by works of the law" he is appealing to what he and his opponents have in common. But the logic of this, he goes to suggest, is that I shouldn't "rebuild what I tore down." Or in 5:3 he says that if you are going to include some role for the law then you need to keep the whole law and that means you are severed from Christ. How then do we live and continue and grow as Christians? Paul's answer is life in the Spirit and "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (5:18).
Many of us have grown up in an evangelicalism that loves and preaches and defends justification by grace alone through faith alone, yet either implicitly or explicitly suggests that once we are justified we "move on" to the hard work of sanctification, grateful for our justification yet functionally leaving it behind. Justification gets us off the ground at conversion in the past and lands us in heaven in the future, yet has little relevance in the present. You Can Change helpfully deconstructs and corrects this idea (e.g. pp. 26, 45, 75, 107). How would you articulate the connection between justification and sanctification as it relates to Christian growth?
It's important to begin by saying that they are different. Sanctification is the process of change in which we become more like the Lord Jesus. Justification is our standing before God (our being right with God). Sanctification is gradual and has its ups and downs. Justification is a completed act. It was completed at the cross. Whatever is happening in my Christian life, my standing before God is secure and unchanging because it rests entirely on the finished work of Christ. It is not in my power to affect that standing - for good or ill! There's a lovely line in the Augustus Toplady song, "A Debtor to Mercy Alone," which goes: "More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in heaven." Sadly it's often amended in modern versions. The point is that Christians who have died and are now in heaven with God may be more happy than we are, but they're not more secure. Our standing is as sure as theirs. If we merge sanctification and justification then that assurance is lost.

But neither are justification and sanctification unrelated. Sanctification takes place as we believe the truth of justification. When we stop feeling the need to prove ourselves to God, then we are free to serve him for who he is - not for what we think we might get from him.

That said, I don't think justification is the only truth we need to believe to grow, nor do I think a failure to believe it is the only reason we sin. In You Can Change I identify four truths about God (the four Gs as some have characterized them):
  • God is great - so we don't have to be in control
  • God is glorious - so we don't have to fear others
  • God is good - so we don't have to look elsewhere
  • God is gracious - so we don't have to prove ourselves
All our sinful behavioural and negative emotions stem from a failure at a functional level to believe one of these truths. So they're a great diagnostic tool - both for ourselves and when pastoring others. But more importantly, they offer hope. Learning to have faith in these areas offers the real prospect of change through faith. It means we are speaking good news to people and that's what we're after - gospel-centred change. Legalism says, "You must not . . ." The gospel says, "You need not . . . because God is bigger and better than sin."
From where I sit, it seems there is something of a gospel renewal taking place in diverse segments of Evangelicalism - increasing numbers of books, blogs and preachers blowing the trumpet for fresh freedom in the gospel of grace for believers. From where you sit in the UK, do you sense something similar?
Yes, I do. I think some key influences (in no particular order) are: Tim Keller with his emphasis on the gospel being the A-Z of Christianity rather than the ABC. (2) John Piper with his emphasis on enjoying God and the pursuit of joy as the driver of change, duty, discipline and the willingness to embrace suffering. (3) CCEF with their emphasis on the centrality of the heart as the shaper of behaviour. (4) The missional church movement with its emphasis that all of life and church needs to be shaped around mission.
If there's one thing you want readers of You Can Change to retain long-term, what is it?
An ability to connect their everyday struggles and temptations with faith in the God of the Bible so that they experience his word as good news on a Monday morning as well as a Sunday morning. And I want people to recognize that the life of obedience is the good life - not the life we have to put up with to get a ticket to heaven.
Thanks for taking time to answer these questions, Tim, and, most of all, for writing the book. God bless your continued ministry.


Drew Hunter said...

I love this book! Thanks for the interview.

Gavin Ortlund said...

yes! Great interview and what a reminder of the truly transforming power of the gospel!