How to Fix the American Christian – Unifying Faith and Praxis


A current theme erupting throughout the Godblogosphere concerns taking the Church back to the Gospel. I think that’s a noble effort.

As a flawed human among flawed humans, though, I worry that even such an essential “recovery” runs the risk of leading people into a form of sub-Christianity that in the end fails to reflect the entirety of the Kingdom of God and the reason Jesus came.

I was not planning to write on this issue in this “How to Fix the American Christian” series, but when a reader objected to the series due his belief that such a series merely supplants the Gospel with “behavior modification,” I felt compelled by God to write this. In fact, I believe God provided me an apt illustration that is already deepening how I think about this issue.

In the rush to strongly delineate the Law from the Gospel, I believe we have a tendency to fall into the error of lumping the Law with the natural outworking of the Gospel. In other words, because both involve doing, we fail to make a distinction between the Law and Gospel-based praxis.

One of the beauties of the Gospel is that being finds a central place among doing. Man cannot justify himself by the doing of the Law. Instead, he rests in the finished work of Jesus, abiding in Christ. What we Christians are by that abiding now defines our being.

But like so many aspects of the faith, mistaken notions lurk on the outskirts of that beauty. We are, after all, in the process of being made to be like Jesus; we are not complete yet.

The error of equating the Law with the natural outworkings of the Gospel are addressed by James in this well-known passage:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!
—James 2:14-19

What separates the Christian from the demon is not belief in Christ. It is faith expressed through Gospel praxis. It is doing those actions that naturally extend from having been confronted with the truth of the Gospel. It is not just saying, “I believe the Gospel and no longer attempt to justify myself by the Law.” No, it means that the entire way you and I live can and must be altered by that statement. And since that involves how we live life, it must necessarily involve what we do.

Herein lies the problem with the contemporary American Church: Our praxis does not reflect what we claim to believe—and the world knows it.Tree with fruit

The illustration that best reflects this issue mirrors the agricultural focus Jesus often took in His parables.

Imagine three trees.

The first “tree” is hardly recognizable as a tree at all because its entirety remains below ground. It is all roots. That tree believes itself to be the prefect reflection of a life in Christ. It is always talking about the Gospel, defending it and affirming the five solas of the Reformation with an undying allegiance. It cannot help but sink its roots deep in the nourishment that is God Himself, praying and reading the Scriptures with enviable devotion.

But in truth, such a tree is abnormal. Because it is all below the surface, it cannot provide shade, wood, or fruit to others. It exists solely for itself. It takes from the soil and water, yet gives nothing back to the world above ground. From time to time, it may send a meager shoot up through the soil, but rarely does this act provide anything meaningful to others. Such a tree may even proudly declare how it is impervious to the wind that would knock down other trees, but it fails to see how useless it actually is, a perversion of the kind of tree that God intends.

I have three such trees in my yard, all Bradford Pears. They started out looking beautiful, but their trunks and branches were not strong, despite being deeply rooted. They cracked and split, so I had to cut them down. The stumps remain and the roots still show some signs of life, occasionally sending up sprouts. But that won’t be the case forever. For all intents and purposes, those trees are dead, their roots slowly rotting in the life-giving soil.

I’ve met plenty of Christians like the all-root trees. They didn’t start off that way, but that is how they finished. They have an apologetic that would make Ravi Zacharias seem like Joel Osteen, but theirs is an insular world beneath the soil, one the outside world never sees. They tend to live in fortress-like churches and are always talking about defending the faith. Yet for all their talk of the Gospel, the world around them goes on as if they are not there at all.

Another tree has a trunk, branches, and green leaves. By all appearances, it seems like a normal tree. It does interact with the world, doing useful things for others like providing shelter from the sun and bearing fruit for eating. Such a tree prides itself on giving back to the world by what it does as a tree. It believes itself to be the perfect reflection of a life in Christ.

But below the surface of this tree one finds a curious lack: It has no roots. It didn’t start that way, but over time the tree became so concerned about appearing to be a tree by being doing what a tree is supposed to do that whatever focus it needed to give to its rootings withered away. Over time, such a tree tends to burn out and dry up. And all the things it once provided shrivel.

I’ve met plenty of Christians who spend all their time trying to maintain an appearance of being a Christian, but they have no Gospel roots. Such people are all about what they do and how they act. They have no means of simply being or dwelling, no rootedness to the source of nourishment and grounding.

A few years back, we hosted the big family Christmas and got a tree from our neighbor. We cut the tree fresh from their plantings, struck by its shape and beauty. The scent from that fresh evergreen filled our house. If it dropped any needles in our living room, I couldn’t find them. We enjoyed everything about that tree, but when it had served its purpose, I dumped it on our burn pile in mid-January.

The amazing thing about that rootless, cutoff tree is that it remained green until August. Finally, a typical August drought proved too much and it finally succumbed to brown.

I said that there are three trees, right?

The only tree that genuinely serves the purposes of God is the one with deep roots in the freedom and nourishment of the Gospel and a trunk and crown that provide a full expression to the world of that rootedness by providing beauty, shelter, comfort, and food to others. Such a tree fully expresses what it means to be a unified, living thing. The roots support the tree, anchor it, and provide nourishment to the trunk and crown. The trunk and crown not only make the tree useful to others, but they deliver life and growth back to the roots. In fact, without the trunk and crown, the tree dies a slow, lingering death.

For all us Christians to be healthy, we must not only have the Gospel, but we must also have Gospel praxis. That Gospel praxis reinforces our faith as much as anything. Doing the Gospel truly does lead to a reinforcement of the Gospel in our hearts. That natural outworking enlarges us as much as a tree’s leaves provide the photosynthesis to make it grow. I can only speak for myself, but I know the profound reality of how the outworkings of the Gospel through genuine practice serve to reinforce the Gospel in me. The doing strengthens the being.

When we Christians declare that we are no longer beholden to the Law, we must NEVER confuse the doing of the Law with the doing of the Gospel. Far too many Christians are making that mistake, though, because of their well-meaning intentions to distance the Church from works righteousness. However, in the course of such avoidance, Gospel praxis suffers. This all too often leads to insular churches that are smug in their preservation of the truth of the Gospel, while at the same time they give nothing of that Gospel truth back to a dying world. And so they inevitable harden and die along with the world they are so loathe to serve for fear of betraying sola fide and sola gratia.

Preaching for Results


Jared Wilson at The Gospel-Driven Church pointed out six framing questions for preaching the word as suggested by Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I think this list is outstanding, but I also think it is missing a critically important #7. The list:

1. The Biblical Question: What does Scripture say?

To answer this we need to check translations, do our word studies, and find out exactly what words best convey the meaning of Scripture.

2. The Theological Question: What does Scripture mean?

Here we need to interpret what is said, which requires commentaries, cultural background studies, etc. At this phase, John Glynn’s Commentary and Reference Survey is a must-have for every preacher and teacher. He rates all of the best commentaries and other reference material on various books of the Bible and theological topics.

3. The Memorable Question: What is my hook?

A word, image, concept, doctrine, emotion, or person needs to be the hook that is woven through the sermon. Without a unifying hook, the sermon will not be memorable for the hearer and will end up seeming like a number of disjointed thoughts.

4. The Apologetical Question: Why do we resist this truth?

Here we are assuming that people will not simply embrace God’s truth but fight it with their thoughts and/or actions because they are sinners who, like Romans 1:18 says, suppress the truth. So, we attempt to predict their objections so that we can answer them and remove their resistance to get them to embrace God’s truth for their life. This part of the sermon must be confrontational and often results in people walking out, standing up to argue, and sending nasty emails, all of which indicates you’ve hit a nerve like God wants you to. The real fight begins at this point and a preacher needs to come with his hands up looking for an opening much like a boxer. The issue here is uncovering the idols that people have and breaking their resistance to the truth of the gospel. This is also accomplished by co-opting their cultural hopes and presenting the gospel as the only answer to their deepest longing.

5. The Missional Question: Why does this matter?

We need to connect all that we have said to a missional purpose for our lives, families, church, and ultimately God’s glory. Something may be true but if people do not find it to also be important, they tend not to act on it. On this point I like to connect Scripture to the character of God, nature of the gospel, our mission in our city, and the quality of our lives both individually and collectively as a city of God within our city.

6. The Christological Question: How is Jesus the hero/savior?

The Bible is one story in which Jesus is the hero. Therefore, to properly teach/preach the Bible we have to continually lift Him up as the hero. Any sermon in which the focus is not on the person and work of Jesus will lack spiritual authority and power because the Holy Spirit will not bless the teaching of any hero other than Jesus.

Like I said, great stuff.

But I also think there’s a glaring omission.

As I look around the Church in America today, I see and hear a lot of preaching that is nothing more than pop psychology packaged in spiritual terms. It’s Christianity as self-help therapy, stripped of the cross, the blood, sin, redemption, and the Lord. In truth, it is no gospel at all.

On the other hand, I see and hear sermons that contain the full Gospel of grace. Yet something is still missing. Curiously, the item that is missing is the one item that previously mentioned pop-psych sermons address very well. And that’s to ask

7. The Praxis Question: So what are the next steps toward daily living out this truth in your life and mine?

If you read my post “The Question No One Wants to Ask…” you’ll know that our preaching today has not been very effective at making disciples. I give some reasons why in that post and note what we can do to help address the problem. I think what Driscoll lists above is very valuable at fixing the problem also. He’s just missing that seventh step.

The #5 Missional Question comes close to #7, but it’s still too conceptual. People in the seats are dying to know how the Gospel works in a practical way in their modern lives. They might hear the world’s best theological explanation of the cross, but if no one will tell them what to do to make that explanation real in their own lives, the message becomes like seed sown on hardened, baked soil.

Those of us in the seats today are clueless. Seriously, we are. Most of the foundation of Christianity that undergirded this nation is gone. We’ve got people today who don’t know what a hymn is. Even if what was in the past was merely a reflection of American civil religion, at least people understood that language and what to do with it. Today, few do.

Folks today have to be shown. They need to have someone tell them in detail what to do. Just as the Paul explicitly told the Philippian jailer what he needed to do to be saved, preachers today must give some idea what the next step should be. 'Jesus & the Rich Young Ruler' by Heinrich Hoffman“Jesus is Lord!” Yes, now what must we do next? “Sin kills!” Yes, now what must we do next?

Jesus, whenever He spoke with individuals or small groups, absolutely taught this way. Consider His example of washing His disciples’ feet. I think they got that message of love and service pretty clearly because Jesus showed them what to do next. Or take the negative example of the rich, young ruler who asked the high concept question about the commandments. Jesus responded by telling him what the next step should be in response. Jesus left no doubt as to what to do next; the ruler simply didn’t want to do it.

I’m not sure we’re preaching what to do next in Gospel-centered churches. I think we sometimes spend too much time filling people with knowledge they can’t figure out how to use. But if the difference between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is what they did and didn’t do, then the people in the seats have to know what the godly next step is for what they have learned. They must have a clearly directed outlet for praxis.

Not only this, but as Jesus showed, people need something else that very few preachers are willing to offer—and that’s for the preacher to model the truth so obviously in true servant fashion that no one can miss how the message is supposed to be lived out.

It’s one thing to say that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, quite another to show how that should inform our evangelism, and quite another again to have the preacher model how it’s done. Yet I would guess that the number of churches where that occurs in all three steps can be listed in the single digits percentage-wise. I suspect that in the biggest churches with the most famous pastors it’s impossible for the average Joe to even scheduled a meeting with that pastor, much less hang out with him doing door-to-door evangelism together.

We need that #7 question. And we need our leaders to draw alongside the people and show them how it’s done.