Recovering the Gospel's Power: A Conversation with J.D. Greear
Today, I’m happy to welcome a pastor-friend of mine, J.D. Greear, to the blog to discuss his new book, Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary. J.D. is pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, NC. Gospel also includes a small-group companion piece called Gospel Revolution.
Trevin Wax: J.D., few people would be so bold as to call their book Gospel. (I can think of four other books with this title, but they’re all in the Bible!) But that’s what you’ve done. You’ve expressed in laypeople’s terms the type of confidence and security that comes from believing in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a nutshell, what is the insight into the biblical gospel that has revolutionized your spiritual life in the past few years?
J.D. Greear: Ha, yes. I figured with a title like “Gospel,” no one could really critique it. I hope readers will forgive the hubris.
The burden behind the book is that many of us who grew up in conservative, evangelical churches have failed to avail ourselves of the power of the gospel. We know it as the forgiveness of sins but not as the power of transformation.
The Great Commandment leaves us in a dilemma: it tells us that God’s expectation of us is that we love Him with all our hearts, souls, and minds. But how can true love be commanded? Obedience without desire is drudgery, both to us and to God.
What the law cannot do, however, the gospel does. It is only as we learn of the richness and beauty of God’s love for us that we grow in love for Him. The Spirit of God uses the message of God’s acceptance of us in Christ to produce in us what religion is entirely unable to produce: a desire for God.
Nothing we are commanded to do for God will change us as much as dwelling on the news of what He has done for us.This is where so many of our church traditions have gone wrong—not in emphasizing bad things but in emphasizing good things at the expense of the gospel.
Trevin Wax: You and I come from similar backgrounds – strict observance of the letter of the law, lots of focus on rules, church standards, check-list Christianity, etc. You’ve mentioned that, in the past, even some of your mission work and pastoring was done from this kind of mindset. What was the turning point for you?
J.D. Greear: Honestly, it was listening to Tim Keller preach at the Resurgence conference about 5 years ago. I don’t want to say it was all brand new, but in that moment it felt like so many things clicked—like Luther when he described how all in a moment a flash of light burst through all these truths sown into his mind over the years and he saw how every verse, every story, had always been about justification by faith. I saw how justification by faith had always been the point—not just for salvation but sanctification as well. All the verses I had learned as a child in AWANA, the mission trips I had gone on, and the John Piper books I had read in college had been pointing at standing in hushed awe of the God of the gospel, an awe that leads to worship and then to life change.
God wasn’t just trying to correct my behavior; He was recapturing my heart—and He wouldn’t do that through a list of what I was to do for Him but through the message of what He had done for me. Tim Keller certainly was not the first one to preach the gospel to me, but in that moment, by the grace of Jesus and the power of the Spirit, it all made sense. It was my “John Wesley listening to Luther’s commentary on Romans” moment. I get emotional just thinking about it. It’s one reason I was so honored to have Tim Keller write the foreword for this book.
Trevin Wax: As I read through your book (a second time!), I paid closer attention to the “gospel prayer” you use as a tool for spiritual formation in your own life. How has this prayer helped you, and why do you recommend it to others?
J.D. Greear: I didn’t write it all at once; it developed over the course of about a year and a half as I tried to grasp what it really means to align my thinking with the gospel. I taught it in several “versions” to our church before settling on the form it is in now.
Peace, joy, radical generosity, audacious faith, and unwavering trust are all the fruits of dwelling on the gospel. I have certainly seen that in the last 5 years. That is the “secret,” if you will, of the gospel: these fruits are not produced, at the heart level, by focusing on them; they come by focusing on Jesus. That is what makes the gospel truly a “revolutionary” message.
Trevin Wax: One of the statements from that prayer is “Your presence and approval are all I need for everlasting joy.” There are some who might interpret this line as sounding a little like a prosperity-gospel teaching. I can imagine a TV preacher twisting it to mean something like Be happy in Jesus because He loves you and is with you. How does the biblical gospel keep our need for God’s approval and presence from turning into a self-centered, sentimentalized view of status-quo living?
J.D. Greear: The prosperity gospel presents God as a means to an end. Cloaked in the language of faith, it teaches us to use God as a means to the things we really love. The true gospel makes God Himself the end. Faith’s desire is not a bunch of things from God; faith is seeking more of God Himself. After all, that’s what the forgiveness of the gospel is all about: not the rewards of heaven or escape from the punishments of hell but reunion with the God in whose presence is fullness of joy. So, in saying, “You are all I need for everlasting joy,” the point is not “You are all I need to gain access to other things that will give me joy” but “You Yourself are all I need for joy.” I hope I make all this clear in the book, but you’ll just have to buy it to see (smile).
Trevin Wax: One last question… just out of curiosity. How in the world did you manage to get Tim Keller to write the foreword?
J.D. Greear: Ha! He told me that he doesn’t do that a lot anymore, but then I told him that my book was “simultaneously better than he ever imagined but more in need of his endorsement than he’d ever dared hope,” and that seemed to win him over.