As I have mentioned in the past (in 2007 to be exact), I have recommended the booklet A Gospel Primer for Christians now a book you can get from Amazon. I liked the Primer so much that I contacted Pastor Milton Vincent, the author of the Primer, and requested an interview. He graciously accepted the opportunity.
This interview has encouraged me greatly, and I am sure it will encourage you, as well. For anyone, and I am sure this includes everyone, struggling with sin in any and every area of life, this Q&A should be fresh, cold water to your soul.
First off, I want to thank you for taking this time to answer questions from a no-name blogger whom you have never met. I really want to make this an opportunity of learning and gleaning the wisdom God has given you relating to the ministry of the Gospel and to share this wisdom with my readers.
For starters, would you tell us a bit about yourself, your family, and your ministry?
My wife and I are from Indianapolis, Indiana. We both went to Bob Jones University, and we graduated from there in ’87. I graduated from The Master’s Seminary in ’91, and a few months later I assumed the pastorate at Cornerstone Fellowship Bible Church, where my wife and I have been ever since. I did teach English Grammar at The Master’s Seminary for two years and Beginning Hebrew at the seminary for four years. I have four children, Brooke (17), Brendan (15), Benjamin (11), and Breanna (9). I have a terrible golf game.
1. You have written a booklet called A Gospel Primer for Christians. Can you explain why you wrote it and what your hopes are for the booklet?
To the Christians at Rome, Paul literally says, “I am eager to evangelize you who are at Rome” (Romans 1:16). Apparently, Paul felt that the Roman Christians still needed to be evangelized; and I have found the same to be true in my own life and in the lives of many other Christians to whom I minister. The Gospel Primer represents an attempt to meet the needs of Christians who, like me, feel the need for a simple tool through which they can evangelize themselves each day.
It had been a burden of mine since 2001 to write a gospel tract for Christian people, a tract which lays out for them the basics of the gospel, calls them to faith in that gospel, and shows them how they can come into a fuller experience of it. The Primer is that tract.
My hope for the booklet is simply that Christians will find the truths in it as helpful as I have found them to be in my own life. It has been rewarding in recent months to witness the interest in the primer and to hear of how it has blessed so many. This confirms to me that we all share the same basic need for the gospel each day.
2. Has your understanding of “the Gospel is for Christians” altered other facets of your theology? Why? Why not?
Yes and No. My doctrinal statement looks the same now as it did before. But my emphases are vastly different. Everything I say and do always goes back to the gospel. This wasn’t true of my ministry prior to 2001.
3. In your opinion, why do many Christians view the Gospel as only for unbelievers?
I don’t know, except to say that if I were the Devil, this would be one of my favorite lies. The gospel of Christ is so powerful that, after experiencing the defeat of seeing a person become converted, the Devil rushes in to tell them, “OK, you’ve experienced the gospel. Now let’s move on quickly to the deeper stuff”! This is a scheme that Satan has perfected all too well. Hence, we have Christians who are saved by the gospel, but who walk by the Law. They have entrusted their glorification completely over to Jesus, but have not learned the mechanics of how to leave their justification to Him also.
4. Would you explain your journey toward Gospel-Centeredness? Was there a watershed moment or sequence of moments?
Pardon the length of my reply. But since you asked, I will tell you.
I would have never acknowledged this to be the case, but I labored for most of my life to maintain my justified status before God, and I was always left frustrated in my attempts to do so. The “God” I believed in was easily ticked at me. When I would come into His presence to make right some wrong, His arms were tightly folded, and His eyes were slow to meet mine. I imagined an angry look on His face, and it was up to me to figure out some way to mollify Him.
I figured that if I beat up myself sufficiently in His presence, or pled with Him long enough, or just waited a few hours to put a little distance between me and my sin, then He might warm to me again.
This view of God would work for a short while, but after a couple weeks, the sheer quantity of times I failed God would reach a threshold where I was convinced that He was fed up with me. I also grew weary of always falling out of His favor and having to confess or work my way back into His good graces. Exhausted from such efforts, I would eventually give up actually trying to relate to God.
I would then go weeks and months where all I would do was simply try not to do anything too stupid or overtly sinful. But inwardly I harbored much sin, and, over time, I would find myself acting out in ways that would scare me and bring the Spirit’s conviction upon me. Feeling convicted over such sin, I would return to God as a prodigal and renew my efforts to please Him this time around. With a burst of energy, I would throw myself into trying to relate to God once again, only to end up a couple weeks later exactly as I had so many times before: frustrated, defeated, and exhausted.
I operated this way through college and seminary, and even through the first decade of my ministry as a pastor. All the while, I hung onto my faith, because I knew something better was available. I just didn’t know how to get to it. God was gracious to teach me many things along the way that continued to move me forward, but rest in Christ eluded me.
In April of 2001, I was in the fourth week of a season of renewal in my walk with the Lord. I was relating to God with renewed passion and was experiencing significant growth as a result. But the same wearisome agitation began to grow over me as the days wore by.
Driving home from work one day, my mind came back to the Lord after I had allowed my thoughts to drift for about ten minutes. I was instantly concerned about what I might have just been thinking about in the previous ten minutes. “Have I been thinking anything sinful?” I asked myself. “If so, then God would be angry at me for letting my thoughts wander so. Or maybe I wasn’t even thinking sinful thoughts, but perhaps God is still upset with me because I wasn’t thinking on Him instead.”
My mind began to agitate, and I winced under the Lord’s gaze. “Lord, are we OK?” I asked. “Have I thought any thoughts that have offended You? Do I need to make anything right in order to restore our relationship?”
I anxiously replayed my thoughts from the previous ten minutes. I felt I needed to do this in order to know what the countenance of God was towards me at that moment. If He was angry, then I had to get back into His good graces.
A feeling of nausea began to sweep over me. “Surely, relating to God can’t be this difficult!” my heart screamed. “Why is it so hard to stay in His good graces? I can’t keep track of every thought in order to make sure that He stays graciously disposed towards me! This isn’t possible!”
Feeling exhausted at the thought of a lifetime of having to tend so obsessively to keeping myself in the good favor of God, I felt an extreme urge to trash the whole effort.
The words of a hymn came to my mind and I began to sing them: “Jesus, I am resting, resting, in the joy of what Thou art . . . .” As I sang the words, I agonized over the fact that my own experience was far removed from the rest about which the songwriter spoke.
When I got home, I found that my wife and kids were not at home. So I grabbed my Bible and began reading Romans 5 out loud as I paced the floor in our living room. What led me to Romans 5 I don’t recall. But I’m glad I landed there, because the chapter saved my life.
I started reading: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have an introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand. And we exult . . . .”
As I continued through the chapter, my soul was stirred by the inspired ravings of a man who exulted in, rather than worried about, his justified status before God. This justification brought him into a gracious standing with God that was accomplished and always maintained by Jesus Christ.
The more I read, the more I began to see something I had not seen before. As a justified one, I am under God’s gracious favor at all times because of what Jesus did! This favored standing with God has nothing to do with my performance, but only with the performance of Jesus! As I read through the length of the chapter, I began to see that my justification was not something to agitate over, but to exult in, not something to wrestle for, but to rest in. I stole a glimpse into chapter 6 and realized that even when I sin, God’s grace abounds all the more as He graciously maintains my justified status.
The above realizations may seem like no-brainers to some, but Paul’s teaching on justification hit me that day like never before. Indeed, I had always believed I was justified, but I guess I treated my justification as some sort of legal fiction that had little direct bearing on the mechanics of how God related to me and how I related to Him. I suppose I would have imagined God saying, “Yeah, technically you’re justified, but I’m angry with you anyway for what you did today!”
But now I realized that absolutely 100% of the wrath I deserve for my sins was truly spent on Jesus, and there is none of God’s anger left over for me to bear, even when I fail God as a Christian. Hence, God now has only love, compassion, and deepest affection for me, and this love is without any admixture of wrath whatsoever. God always looks upon me and treats me with gracious favor, always seeking to work all things together for my ultimate and eternal good. All of these realities hold true even when I sin.
Being justified in Christ doesn’t mean that God no longer cares about my sin. He does care, and He is grieved by my sin. But His gracious favor upon me remains utterly unchanged by my sin, and no wrath is awakened in Him against me. In fact, God favors me so much when I sin that He sends chastisement into my life. He does so because He is for me, and loves me, and He disciplines me for my ultimate good.
Over the next few days, I wrote out some truths regarding my justification on a 3×5 card, and I carried that card around with me everywhere I went. I would pull the card out and read it several times a day. As I did so, I could hardly believe my good fortune. I drank in the doctrine of my justification like a dying man drinking a tall glass of water in the desert. The way those truths put my soul at rest was indescribable.
So delicious was the good news regarding my justification that I began to fear that perhaps I had misunderstood something. With fear and trembling, I ran what I had learned by two fellow-pastors and by the elders of Cornerstone. I also consulted a few evangelical theology books to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding something. To my great relief, I got a green light from all of these checkpoints! They all confirmed that I was rightly understanding what the Scriptures taught regarding my justification.
I felt like a kid in a candy store. How did I not see these things before? The Gospel is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. And it’s true!
The 3×5 card soon turned into the front side of a half sheet of paper, and one side quickly turned into two. I called it “A Gospel Primer” and kept inserting it into our church’s Sunday bulletins to make sure everyone was getting the good news of the Gospel. I kept quoting the contents of the Primer to myself in order to remain mindful of the grace of God in which I stood, because I found it too easy to get out of “gospel mode” and fall back into a performance-based relationship with God. Eventually, the single-page primer turned into a 78 page booklet, now entitled, “A Gospel Primer for Christians.”
Released from the burden of having to maintain my righteous standing with God, I quickly found that I had enormous amounts of passion to put into growing in holiness and ministering God’s amazing grace to other people. I had never had such energy available for ministry before, because so much of it was consumed with tending to my standing before God. I also found the grace of the gospel producing in me a huge passion to love and obey God. In moments of temptation, I enjoyed saying to myself, “You know, I can commit this sin, and God’s grace would abound to me all the more as He maintains my justified status. . . . But it is precisely for this reason that I choose not to commit this sin!” In such moments I would walk away from sin with laughter in my heart.
To keep a long story from getting longer, let me close this off by saying that I still struggle with sin, and I daily fall short of what I know God wants from me. But, without question, the Lord allowed me to turn a significant corner in my sanctification in the Spring of 2001. There are still many areas of my life which I have not yet brought the gospel fully to bear upon. And I am still learning and growing in my experience of the fullness of the gospel. But, as exciting as what I’ve already learned is, I see Jesus standing there saying, “There is more.”
And to me, a hell-deserving sinner, that’s just plain crazy. God’s grace is amazing!
5. How do you stay Gospel-Centered in your preaching without allegorizing?
I’m still growing in my ability to be gospel-centered in all I preach, and I have much to learn. While I have found it worthwhile to put forth the extra effort to be gospel-centered in every sermon, I don’t always feel that I have nailed it the way I should. In fact, in some ways I feel as if I am in Kindergarten on this topic. Nonetheless, what follows are some meandering thoughts that reflect my thinking and practice up to this point.
There are clearly gospel texts in Scripture (Isaiah 53, Ephesians 1-3, etc.), and, of course, I preach what’s there.
If I am preaching a prescriptive passage in the Old Testament, I preach the text for what it says in its context, but then tell people that they can only hope to be what the text calls for if they are centered on the gospel. I can tell them that every command in the Law is specifically designed by God to serve as a tutor to show them their bankruptcy and bring them to Christ (gospel!). If they are already saved, then every command in the Law is designed to bring them back again and again to Christ and His gospel.
Where the gospel is not explicitly in the text (as is the case with many proverbs), I preach the text and then bring the gospel to bear on the application. I suppose in such cases I am not applying a gospel-hermeneutic to the interpretation of the text as much as I am providing a gospel method for thinking through the application of the text.
When preaching Old Testament narrative, I think one can always bring the gospel to bear on the interpretation and application of the text. As a case in point, one can preach on David slaying Goliath, and he can talk about God preserving His people (particularly David!) through whom the Messiah would come (gospel!). By way of application, the preacher legitimately can ponder the strong-mindedness of David and ask what resource is available to us today to give us that same courage in the face of our enemies, particularly the principalities and powers we must stand against. The gospel provides abundant fuel for courage. Other gospel connections can easily be made.
One caution is in order. I think the preacher does well to treat Old Testament passages in their original context, and he should do the work necessary to discern how they were intended to be understood by their original readership. Some preachers might bail out on this process and jump too quickly to the gospel. In such cases, they actually diminish, rather than enrich, the gospel appreciation that such texts are ultimately intended to cultivate.
If I preach the commands of Scripture, even New Testament commands, without pointing people to the gospel, then I am nothing more than a preacher of the Law. After preaching some command in Scripture, such as “let all bitterness and wrath and anger . . . be put away from you . . . ,” I frequently tell our people, “Do not walk out of here merely resolving to do a better job of obeying this command. Instead, start gorging yourself on the gospel and you will catch yourself doing exactly what this passage tells you to do.”
6. What is the most challenging aspect for you in preaching? What have you done to overcome these challenge(s)?
For me, the most challenging aspect of preaching is the preparation process. Studying with tools of exegesis in one hand and a sword in the other, dealing with the fury of hell that seeks to impede my advancement in the text, often serves to make preparation excruciating. I envy men who rave about how much they enjoy their sermon preparation. Perhaps one day this will be my experience. For now, it is often the most painful part of what I do (this is not to say that there are not moments of rejoicing!).
It helps me to go into my sermon preparation with the mindset of a soldier. Sentinels of hell have stationed themselves around every truth in Scripture, and the mindset of a warrior braces me to fight the necessary fight to get at those truths for my own benefit and the benefit of the people to whom I am called to minister.
7. What advice would you share with people who are aspiring Pastors/Elders/Counselors within a church?
If you can do anything else, by all means do it. And if you can do anything else, you probably aren’t called. Ministry is not for the faint of heart. It is gritty and often messy. If you wish to be comfortable, do yourself a favor and avoid ministry.
The downside to avoiding ministry is that, when you reach your deathbed, you will have lived but one life. However, if you wish to live a thousand lives, and truly laugh all of your laughter and weep all of your tears, then ministry is definitely where it’s at.
Also, it seems that the longer I am in the ministry, the more I become a “one-tool” pastor/counselor. The one tool I have in my tool box is the gospel; and I’m finding that it works on everything!
Whether preaching or counseling, always direct people to the gospel, and then let the gospel wield God’s power in their areas of particular need. Follow Paul’s example by teaching gospel truth and then helping people to reason their way from gospel truth to whatever practical issue they are dealing with. This will save you a huge amount of work in the long run, and you will see for yourself why Paul calls the message of the cross “the power of God.”
8. What are some of the challenges you face as a Pastor in California?
Probably nothing any other pastor doesn’t face. People are the same anywhere. Actually, one of the greatest benefits to pastoring a church in California is that churches tend to be more racially integrated out here. One of the centerpieces of the gospel is that the death of Christ has obliterated the racial and socio-economic distinctions that once divided us outside of Christ. The journey to a racially integrated church is fraught with fewer obstacles out here than in some other parts of the country. I am extremely thankful for this.
9. Who are your past/present heroes of the faith? What draws your attention to them?
This is a difficult question for me to answer. I look up to so many people! Rather than boring you with a long list of heroes, I will give you just four, two of them from the past and two of whom are alive today.
The Apostle Paul is my greatest hero and dearest brother in the faith. The Lord used his fanatical zeal for the gospel to give me light and show me the way forward when my soul was at a critical impasse.
William Wilberforce. He was a gospel-driven man who worked and spoke with great conviction of the rightness of his causes, yet he did so with a humble consciousness of his own sin and graciousness toward others.
CJ Mahaney. I know of no other man who exudes the spirit of the apostle Paul more than he. CJ speaks and emotes about the gospel the way I’ve always imagined that the apostle Paul did when he was alive. I love him for that.
Jerry Bridges. Bridges’ book, The Discipline of Grace has had a huge impact on my life, and I will always be grateful for his introducing me to the role of the gospel in the life of the believer.
I would like to thank Pastor Milton Vincent for this interview. If you have any questions to ask him, I am sure he would not object (I previously asked if I could do a follow-up interview if needed). You can visit his church’s website at: http://www.cornerstonebible.org/