Why the Gospel Must Always Have the Last Word in Youth Curriculum

Cool story about how we got to know new writer Josh here at Rooted: he emailed to thank us for the Rooted Reservoir curriculum, and his comments about why he liked it struck a chord in our heart for gospel-centered youth ministry. So we reached out and asked him if he could tell us more- and we are so thankful he said yes! 

If you’re like me, you’ve searched far and wide for gospel-centered resources to use in your youth ministry. You likely set aside time to watch videos, explore demo curriculums, and maybe even check out the “about us” page on creators’ websites. Doing due diligence is part of our jobs.

Despite the claims for gospel-centered programs, many tend to leave our students with a quest to do something or change in some way. “Ok, what’s wrong with that?” you may be asking. “Shouldn’t we be moved to change or grow based on what we are being told in Scripture?” Well, yes, and no.

We can discuss topics like loving our neighbor, giving our anxiety to Jesus, and serving one another week after week; but if our message doesn’t leave our students with the gospel, we are only adding to the list of things they should do but never fully can. I’m not only talking about making sure we mention that Jesus died for their sins. I mean that we must make sure the gospel itself always has the final word in our teaching.

This is where we need to distinguish the difference between the law and the gospel. Understanding the way Scripture uses these two classifications will help us to teach the gospel faithfully in our youth ministries, allowing it to have the last word in every lesson.

The Law

The Old Testament law was given not only as rules for a functional community, but as a covenant between God and his people. This law was to be kept completely and perfectly so that Israel could call themselves the people of God and be covered under his care and protection. God promised to be with them and to prosper them. Keeping the law was their end of the bargain; it wasn’t up for debate. And dire consequences were laid out for those who did not heed his law.

If we followed God’s law perfectly (which we cannot), we would live amazingly abundant lives and our neighbors would also, because his laws are for our good and his glory. But God’s law is so much more than just a list of rules that we are expected to follow.

Paul says in Romans 5:20, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” This is a funny thing to say. It seems as though the law was given so that trespasses will decrease. After all, didn’t God want us to not do these evil things? Why on earth does Paul say it like this? As we read the next verse it tells us exactly why, “so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Ultimately the law is not just a set of guidelines. It is not just there to keep the peace or inspire us to be better or to be “on fire” for Jesus. It is there to show us how miserably short we fall from God’s perfect expectation. Every time we hear the law preached, we should see our sin—and not just a little sin. The magnitude of our sin should draw us to understand our deep need for Jesus Christ.

The Gospel

The gospel of Jesus is the good news that Jesus Christ died on the cross after living a sinless life. In doing so, he paid the full price for our sin so that we could have true life in him. He redeemed us from our sin, all of it.

Students (and adults alike) seem to have such a hard time understanding how deeply loved they are. In a classroom setting it is easier to understand this concept, but when faced with their own sin and shame when they are alone it is hard to remember that they are loved despite current failings.

The truth of the gospel cannot simply be something we sprinkle in along the way. It must be taught relentlessly. Teenagers need to hear the perfect requirements of the law, and then they need to be brought to life with the message of the gospel—that those requirements have been met by Jesus. When we understand the gospel, the law should bring us to our knees, not in shame of what we have done, but in awe of the One who loved us despite our sin (Rom. 5:8).

If we truly believe that Jesus paid the price for all our sin—past, present, and future—then there is now nothing left for us to do to earn His love and forgiveness. We don’t have to go out and do more or be better.

Leaving Teenagers with the Gospel Every Time

It is this message of the gospel that moves us to change. It’s not by choice or effort, but by the work that the Holy Spirit does in us as we hear Scripture preached, as we are convicted of our sin, and as we are reminded of the scandalous love that our Father has for us. The faith that He instills in us (true faith) is naturally accompanied by works (true goodness). Those who see how deeply lost we are without the work of Christ are moved all the more to respond as we are shaped by Christ.

Here’s the problem: When we add a dash of law at the end of a message, we are simply saying “Yes, God did His work for you, BUT now you have to go do this…” When we give this message, where does that leave our teenagers? Well, it may give them passion at first. It may lead them to do some good. Ultimately, though, when teenagers realize they still can’t accomplish what they set out to do (even though they’ve tried so unbelievably hard!), they are left in despair with their shame and maybe even resentment towards their Creator. But when we point them to the Good News of Jesus, that changes everything.

Now, here is the hope that I have found in the gospel (and have forgotten, and re-learned, and forgotten and had to re-learn again): Even if we have failed to give the gospel the last word in our teaching, God’s love covers that sin, too. The beauty of it all is that it is not my work or my words that have any power. It actually is the Word of God working in all his mysterious ways that has the power to change a heart (mine included).

Because of the work that He is doing in us, our job is to tell our students that Jesus truly paid it ALL! They don’t have to go out and do better—and we don’t have to preach better—to rest in the grace that abounds so wonderfully despite our sin.

It doesn’t matter what sin you are wading through right now. God loves you in Jesus. He is with you. Rest. Have peace. You are forgiven and are deeply loved.

Josh Neiss is the Student Ministries Director at Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Brethren Church in Minot, ND. He and his wife Rebecca have been married for 13 years and they have three children, ages 11, 9, and 7. God called Josh out of a 15-year career in construction and cabinet making to serve as a youth minister, despite closing the door to vocational youth ministry 15 years prior. While Josh is new to this role in vocational youth ministry, he rests knowing that God often calls those that don’t fit the mold to serve his purposes and equips them for the role to which he has called them. He has a passion for teaching the importance and necessity of the gospel and that our identity is only found in Jesus.

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