The Heresy Lurking for Gospel-Centered Youth Ministers

Andy Stanley has caused quite the buzz over the last two months. In a recent sermon series entitled, “The Aftermath,” he made a number of statements about Christians needing to “unhinge” themselves from the Old Testament Law because the Old Covenant and New Covenant are contradictory. Predictably, the theology police attacked quickly and swiftly, with an equally strong reaction from those who defend his statements as efforts to preach the gospel of grace to those who are turned off by the traditional church.

Amid the cries of “Heresy!” and “Marcionism!” we need to take a deep breath, step back, and examine ourselves. Yes, I am worried about Stanley’s doctrinal shifts over recent years. I’m more troubled, however, by the Antinomianism that may silently lurk within the hearts and minds of many gospel-centered ministers (myself included). It may not rear its head often, but it’s there, casting suspicion upon God’s Law in favor of a better, kinder, more “Christian” way (or so we think).

For example, do we teach through the Ten Commandments and minimize the actual commands to refrain from sin? When we preach the gospel, do we skip over the weightiness of sin and rush towards the promise of grace in a way that diminishes the reality of our need for salvation? Is repentance something for non-Christians to do only once in order to enter the kingdom, or is it a consistent emphasis throughout our ministries?

We teach our students that “God is love,” and yet we often shy away from showing them just how undeserving of that love they (and we) really are. The astounding undercurrent of God’s love for us lies in the fact that he died for us while we were still sinners.

In our efforts to build on Gospel centrality, we must not discard the Law. Grace and transformation cannot fully be known or experienced without a proper view of Law.

Jesus on Law & Gospel
Towards the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus directly addressed his relationship with the Old Testament Law, saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them…Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20). And in the Great Commission Jesus commands the Apostles to “…make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Allowing students to feel the guilt and emptiness of sin and calling them to godliness is not always indicative of law-driven ministry.

Love begets obedience, not the other way around. That’s important. We do not obey in order to earn God’s love, but because we’ve already been transformed by his love. Jesus was not anti-Law. He was, however, opposed to the false idea that obedience earned God’s favor.

Many of us gospel-centered youth workers feel the weight of grace so deeply because we have drunk the cup of guilt and shame and powerlessness. It is likely that you’ve tried the Law on your own and failed so miserably to keep it that your love for the gracious mercy of God has become the bedrock of your life. Without that experience of utter failure and neediness, your experience of grace would remain cerebral rather than foundational. It is the same for teenagers.

Antinomianism and Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
Antinomianism teaches that the law is bad and holds no power over the Christian. It is not universalism, which says “We’re all fine and everyone will be saved.” Instead, Antinomians make the gospel-sounding argument that since we are under grace (not law) we are set totally free from the moral imperatives of the Law. This was the teaching of Johannes Agricola, who was sharply rebuked by Martin Luther. Agricola taught that repentance was a one-time event and was convinced that Luther’s emphasis on daily repentance promoted law-driven sanctification. Their disagreement was so severe that Luther coined the word “Antinomian” in response to Agricola’s teaching. Luther doubled-down on his first thesis, that “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” The wellspring of grace flows from daily repentance. S. Lewis Johnson explains Luther’s reasons for promoting the preaching of the Law this way:

“While Luther’s earlier position is a matter for debate, it can hardly be denied that he urged the preaching of the Law, and for several reasons. First, it is to be preached to the unbelievers to awaken in them a sense of sin which might prepare them for the reception of the gospel. And, second, the Law is suitable for inciting the justified to good works. Luther also urged the preaching of the Law for the outward disciplining of the ungodly.”¹

Not every verse in the Bible is about grace. While every verse of Scripture must be read within the metanarrative of the gospel, some passages proclaim judgment and conviction of sin while others command the children of God how they should live. While not every verse proclaims grace, every verse does fall into a gospel-category: our need, God’s provision, or descriptions of the gospel-shaped life. Studying good Biblical Theology helps us know how to read every verse through the lens of the gospel while remaining true to sound exegesis of the text.

Gospel-centered Youth Ministry doesn’t mean we teach “grace only.” We preach a gospel of sola gratia, but this doesn’t eliminate the Law; rather, it puts the Law in its place. Teach the Old Testament. Teach about sin and our great need for salvation. Call students to obey God’s Word. And do it in a way that highlights the connection between God’s love for us as the precursor to our obedience to him. We must help our students to see that they obey who they love. Truly understanding what God did for us – miserable offenders – through the cross can’t help but turn our hearts towards him. We must embrace the teachable moments to help identify the false gods in our teenagers’ lives – even (and especially) in those who are already genuine Christians.

Indeed, the entire Christian life is a life of repentance. God’s grace doesn’t free us from the need to repent. Rather, God’s grace frees us from the fear of identifying our sin; we can drag it before the cross and turn away from it because we know our guilt and shame have been stripped of their power through Christ. There is no need to hide anymore! The Law doesn’t have power to produce guilt or shame for the Christian – instead, it reminds us of the incredible grace that is ours in Jesus Christ.

As we evangelize and disciple teenagers, let us remember that grace is more than an idea. It cannot simply be explained or taught. It must be experienced in the pain of failure and brokenness. And the Law produces this failure and brokenness, as it convicts us of our inability to keep it. Grace has no real power if it isn’t preceded by a real, intimate awareness of the depth of our own sin. Let us not shy away from teaching law. It is the precursor to truly knowing the magnitude of God’s grace.


¹ S. Lewis Johnson, Jr, “Studies in Romans.” Bibliotheca Sacra 130, no. 520 (Oct 73): 329.

Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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