Books Gospel Interviews

Journey in Grace: An Interview with Mark Lauterbach

I have enjoyed and benefited from Mark Lauterbach and his blog- Gospel-Driven Life (for his old site here). I want to publicly thank Mark for his putting the time, effort, thoughtfulness and grace in his responses to some questions I posed to him via email. I have, once again, benefited from a man who has tasted and seen that the Lord is good most clearly in the Gospel and has committed himself to helping others to see and taste that the Lord is good most clearly in the Gospel.

For starters, would you tell us a bit about yourself, your family, and your ministry?
Thanks for asking. I am a native of Pittsburgh and a lifelong Steeler fan. I was there for the immaculate reception by Franco Harris (and if you don’t know what that is, look it up on google). My wife Rondi and I have been married for almost 29 years and she is my sunshine. We have three adult children, all graced by the Lord with faith. We have served church in the West primarily, since 1976. We have been in Oregon, Arizona, and California. I am currently the pastoral team leader for Grace Church in San Diego. I follow on the heels of a godly and gifted planter (Craig Cabaniss) who started Grace 11 years ago from scratch and laid some great foundations. I love ministry with my wife, and we cannot believe we have the joy of serving this body of people.

Q1. Would you explain your journey toward Gospel-Centeredness? Was there a watershed moment or sequence of moments?
That all began with an older man in our church in Tucson telling me one day that I did not preach Christ. Since I was in the middle of Romans I was quite perplexed. For a year or so he would make his point in various ways and I would try to understand him. I respected him greatly and thought I should hear him. About that time a friend moved to be near us. He had just completed his PhD, and when I asked him what it was about, he said he focused on the theme of the New Testament: “Jesus the Son of God came, lived a sinless life, died for sin on the cross, and rose again from death – now live in light of that.” I pressed him for more but that is what he kept coming back to . . . I was surrounded.

I set off on a journey of years. I started with the New Testament and circled or noted every reference to the achievements of the cross as I read and studied. I was shocked at how much the NT was blood stained and how I had turned it into a book of moral guidelines and rules. I was also reading Spurgeon, Charles Bridges, plus whatever I could get my hands on. I was being helped by the Lord to see that everything in the NT is a response to the Redeemer’s work. It took years. The final two “Wow” influences were Tim Keller and C J Mahaney. Keller showed me the Gospel everywhere and CJ showed me how to apply it and not just preach it.

I think the key was my re-reading of the entire NT. There are also more books coming out to help: Goldsworthy’s book on hermeneutics, and Dennis Johnson’s new book on preaching Christ.

Q2. Has your understanding of “the Gospel is for Christians” altered other facets of your theology? Why? Why not?
It has changed everything. I think all theology needs to be read through the Redeemer’s work. I think the character of God is most clearly seen through the cross and the empty tomb. I think the church is valued because Jesus died for it. I think eschatology is Redeemer centered not Israel centered (oops, that will get me into trouble with some). I could go on. There is no reason to fear that we lose something if we are focused on the cross and the resurrection. I am careful with theology that makes people feel burdened and heavy (that seems to be a side effect of Calvinism) and look for God-glorifying joy in a great salvation that brings us to God.

I now measure my own life by how much I live in the good of the Gospel every day. I measure my preaching and counseling by how clearly I help people grasp the full salvation achieved by Jesus and rest in it. Are they seeking to commend themselves to God? Are they defending themselves? Are they living under condemnation?

I have a sixth sense now for moralistic preaching. Anything preached that instructs, exhorts, admonishes, convicts – all the stuff we think makes it good – anything that does that but does not lead people to the cross seems to fall short of the apostolic pattern of ministry.

Q3. In your opinion, why do many Christians view the Gospel as only for unbelievers?
I would guess because we are all slow of heart to see the Gospel clearly. Luther said we have to remind ourselves of it all the time and beat it into our heads continually. I am so deeply self-righteous and self-reliant that it takes effort to remind myself of the grace of God. Take that tendency in all of us and mix it with lack of reading the Bible where we see the Gospel everywhere, and you have all that you need to have a “front door to salvation” view of the Gospel. I also think God is doing this work of making us Gospel centered in a new way in our day.

Q4. How do you stay Gospel-Centered in your preaching without allegorizing?
Who needs to allegorize? Most texts are Gospel centered – but there are lines to the Gospel everywhere. One of the key lines is to show how any law-demand cannot be met by us but is met in Christ. Another line is to show the sinfulness of the people in the situation and how they need a Savior. I think I read the passage praying for eyes to see Gospel issues – sin, redemption, grace, self-righteousness, etc. I think the link is often in application in its best form.

So, for example, the other day I read in Luke 22 what I have looked at a dozen times but never noticed before. Jesus tells the 11 that they will abandon him. He celebrates the Lord’s Supper with them. They immediately start fighting about who is the greatest! It is shocking. There they are in the presence of the Son of God who humbled himself for them – and they are arguing for pre-eminence in the group. So, Jesus teaches them about servanthood. That is Gospel-rich by itself. They need a Savior before they need moral teaching about humility. Luke makes that clear. But then the next verse bowls me over – he looks at these 11 who have been bickering and contending for honor and he says, “You are they who have continued with me in my trials.” Wow, — that is not what I am thinking. I am thinking they ARE his trials. But he, in grace, anticipating the cross, points out grace in their lives. I can use that passage to show how we all need a Savior – and how grace-filled eyes see people differently – and Jesus is the example for us. I can also point out to people that this is how Jesus sees his own – including them.

Q5. What is the most challenging aspect for you in preaching? What have you done to overcome these challenge(s)?
The biggest challenge is my own dull heart and my tendency to think that I am done with preaching after I have preached – and to miss application. It still takes me 14 hours a week or so to do a sermon. It all depends on if it is a new series (takes more time up front), a topical series (more work), and if the passage is simple or complex. Half of my time is spent on the sermon itself and most of that is trimming and ordering the flow. Seeing Gospel connections is often helped by the other pastors, who will go over the passage with me. And even when we are all committed to the Gospel as central, we still have differences!

Q6. What advice would you share with people who are aspiring Pastors/Elders/Counselors within a church?
The first issue is to put yourself under the oversight and evaluation of your pastors – and if they are not willing to do so, find a church where they will. Proven character and careful evaluation of character is so important. And it can only take place where you are known. Getting a “call” means nothing unless it is tested and you are evaluated. The second is to give yourself to serve the church. Don’t worry about preaching. Find a place to serve. Change diapers. Help in the parking lot. Teach children. Serve because you love the church. This will test your heart motive too! Third, find ways to care for people. Initiate care, friendship, hospitality. Don’t wait until you have an official ministry to do ministry! Fourth, find some avenue for practice and growth in preaching. Get evaluation as you go. Fifth, be more trusting of how other people see you than how you see yourself. Don’t think you have certain gifts if no one else sees it. But they will see where your gifts are and will serve you.

Q7. What are some of the challenges you face as a Pastor in California?
Same as everywhere – sin is real, Satan blinds the unbelievers to Jesus, sanctification is partial, and I am my own biggest problem. I actually think more of about the specific people I serve and know than about statistical averages. I have never met a statistical average.

All that aside, in my opinion the unique features to California are 1. Climate, 2. Cost. Our sunny weather means people are always on the move and rarely at home. The cost of housing affects everything. People have to spend a larger portion of their income to be in a home, even rentals. I may add a third: we are the rootless coast. Mark Dever described it this way. England is made up of the people who stayed. The Eastern USA is made up of the people who left. And the West is made up of the people who left the East. People here are fairly independent and rootless. That is why they came here. So, we call people to apply the Gospel to all these areas of life.

Q8. Who are your past/present heroes of the faith? What draws your attention to them?
I was very influenced by Tozer-Spurgeon-Packer early on. They drove my heart into the grace and glory of God. I have also been very influenced by Piper, Keller, Mahaney. I would say Eugene Peterson kept me sane when I was trying to be a pastor in churches that wanted a CEO. I do not recommend anyone anywhere without encouraging discernment. Only the Bible is infallible.

But I would say my real heroes are people I know and not just people I read. I admire my wife for 26 years of burying her life into our children when she had many desires to do other things besides. She has followed me through many tough times. I admire my children for their love of Christ even though they have seen some painful times in churches I have served. I admire CJ Mahaney for his humility and joy. I admire Steve Shank (who is on the Leadership team of Sovereign Grace) as he has moved so many times for the Gospel I cannot count them. He does it with joy and leads his family to the same. I admire John Piper for living in the city near his church and living simply. I admire my friend Drew because he is more kingdom focused than self-focused and gave me an opportunity to serve short term a few years ago. I admire a whole variety of folks for their love of the church, their teachability, their pursuit of godliness, their grace filled living. I admire people for their lives more than for their books.

Q9. You have written a book called The Transforming Community: The Practice of the Gospel in Church Discipline. Can you explain why you wrote it and what your hopes are for the book?
Well. I wrote it because when a friend asked me what God had taught me most deeply in twenty years I discovered I had been through a huge number of church discipline cases. It is a reflection on those lessons and how I grew to see that the Gospel informs how we do discipline. I wish I could redo all those years of ministry as I made so many mistakes. I also wish I could re-write it as I do not think it is well written – but I try to set out the grace motivated, careful process of dealing with sin that I think we find in Scripture. What is funny is that it was published as I went to the Pastors College for Sovereign Grace! As I re-read it during my first year with this family of churches; I found that I was seeing it lived in some clear ways. I am convinced that if the church will humbly and graciously deal with sin and encourage each other, we will see significant grace in our lives. But it takes faith and courage and humility. And that comes from the Gospel.

You can purchase the book from Amazon: The Transforming Community: The Practice of the Gospel in Church Discipline.

UPDATE: Mark’s sermons are now online!