When I set out to read J. A. Medders’ Gospel Formed, I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. I was embarking into uncharted waters. I wasn’t familiar with Medders’ ministry, neither had I been acquainted with his writing. Gospel Formed was my very first introduction to him of any kind. And if you can only make one first impression, what a first impression this was.
In Gospel Formed, Medders seeks to examine the myriad of ways in which the gospel informs and reforms our thinking, our doing, and our growing. He endeavors to show how “the wildness of the gospel vaporizes yawning and boredom.” (36) We should never be fatigued with hearing about the gospel. It should be our continual source of wonder and worship. He makes the case that the reason for so many fleeing the Church and rejecting the faith today is a direct result of unfocused preaching. When preachers speak week after week not on the main thing but on secondary things, the congregation is left just as empty as they came — notwithstanding how entertaining your service is. The first priority of a preacher remains a singular one: To relay the message of the gospel from every text of Scripture in ways that inspire and inform congregants of their desperate need and God’s radical deliverance. If the message emanating from behind the pulpit is a different one than this, it might be time to move on.
To be sure, nothing else in this entire world can effect the change that the gospel can. We might look to a million different things to change us, fix us, grow us, satisfy us, but nothing will work except for the Holy Spirit in us. Believers often misconstrue this point, going to the law to do what only the gospel does. Our tendencies are just like those of the believers at Galatia, seeking to be perfected by works we do instead of by the Spirit’s work in us. (Gal. 3:3) This misunderstanding of Christian growth is as pervasive as ever. And, still, Paul’s rebuke rings loud and true for us today: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1)
The apostle Paul would go on to remind his readers of the expansive nature of the gospel, a Christ-centered message in which the Son of God was made the curse for us that we might enjoy the spoils of his victory. No longer would life be made to be about our performances and merits. It would be about a Son’s perfect performance and work on a cruel Roman cross. Fixing our minds on this is what it means to be transformed. As Medders writes, “Gospel-centeredness checks us out from the school of sweat-equity sanctification and into the school of grace.” (121)
The misinterpreters of Scripture seem to forget this easily. Some take the command in Romans 12:1–2 to be transformed by the renewing of our mind as something we accomplish. Through rigorous checklists and to-dos, we seek to bring about this renewal, this transformation. But this ignores the gospel-economy. This isn’t how Christ works. You don’t bring about transformation, God does. You don’t make this happen, God does. God does it all! From first to last, God is working in you and on you to accomplish his purposes. (Phil. 2:13) And so it is that we must recognize that “gospel-centered growth is energized by a Christ-centered fixation.” (Medders, 96)
Growth in grace is realized here, in a daily reorientation and reformation of the heart and soul. Sometimes we misapprehend this point, too, turning growth into another means by which we achieve and win. Christian “discipleship” programs can often turn this gospel-fixation into a video-game-style system in which we level-up with every spiritual victory and level-down with every failure. Do you see how works-based such a structure is? Do you also see how the gospel doesn’t fit into that system? Indeed, the gospel demolishes such silly growth-structures and says, “You want to grow? Believe.” The truth is, growth in grace and “advancement” in spirituality happen not as we move away from the gospel but only as we move deeper into it.
The more our souls are rattled by the awesomeness of the gospel, the less we are drawn to sin. (Medders, 130)
What Medders does so well throughout this book is remind you of the grandeur of the gospel. If you close this book and aren’t enthused and encouraged by what Christ has done for you, you didn’t really read it. At times, some of the phrasing might come across as pithy or trite. But what Medders does so excellently throughout this work is create vivid images of precisely the point he’s trying to make. For 27-chapters, he determines to remind you over and over again of the jaw-dropping power and grace of the gospel. Gospel Formed really should be read as a daily devotional. The chapters are brief enough to allow for that but deep enough to be chewed for hours or more at a time. I’d definitely recommend picking this one up and mulling over it for a while.
- J. A. Medders, Gospel Formed: Living a Grace-Addicted, Truth-Filled, Jesus-Exalting Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2014).