Editor’s note: This pastor has, in recent years, experienced a deep renewal of the power of the gospel in his life and ministry. He graciously shared with us some of what he has been learning.
Wang Jianguo is the collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors thinking and writing about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation. They are committed to preaching a grace-centered gospel, developing resources for the church, and loving China’s urban centers.
China Partnership: How has your personal understanding of the gospel changed in the past few years?
Wang Jianguo: For a long time after my conversion, my understanding of the gospel was that it was only good news for those who are still seeking to know Christ. The concept of the gospel I have learned in recent years overturned my previous understanding. The gospel is not about the ABCs, but everything: not only personal salvation, but also personal sanctification; not only for the church, but also for society.
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If anything has changed in my understanding of the gospel, it is a deeper awareness of my own human weaknesses and the deep love of Christ. If one fails to recognize his own weaknesses, then the greater the scope of his ministry is, the greater the likelihood of his failure will be. It is not difficult for the gospel to ask a man to identify himself as corrupt, but it is not easy to deny himself completely and realize the depth of his sinfulness. Therefore, it is very difficult for a person to rest in Christ alone.
It says in Honey Out of the Rock, “Let sin break your heart, but not your hope in the gospel.” This has always been an inspiration to me. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Blessed are those who mourn.” Tears of mourning show one’s deep repentance over sin, but tears are not evidence of salvation. Evidence of salvation lies in the grace of Christ alone. Without hatred of sin, and repentance in sorrow and contrition, the hope of forgiveness of sins in the gospel is merely a superficial understanding of the gospel. Yet to neglect the evidence of forgiveness of sins and to be endlessly remorseful over one’s own sins is also unbelief in the gospel.
CP: Gospel theology transforms people from the inside out, and it can change the fragile yet also hard shell of a pastor. Can we hear more about this?
Wang Jianguo: Influenced by fundamentalism, as well as traditional moral culture, the teachings of the traditional church emphasized suffering and personal piety. All pastors were projected to be spiritually strong men without greed, selfish evil desires, or weakness. They all bear the image of spiritual giants. This leads to a fake demonstration of the spiritual life of pastors, a long disguise, and a pretense of strength. Building up an image like this over a long time is actually playing the role of the devil. The strong man under a veneer of moralism has no rest in his heart, and when he cannot hold on, he breaks down.
Gospel theology has deeply renewed me. In the past, I used to be condescending to all people by my labor, commitment, devotion, and self-sacrifice. Now, in light of the gospel, I realize that these “good” things are actually driven by bad motives in my heart. They are just whitewashed walls, food for the idols of my heart.
What is the gospel? The gospel is salvation. No matter how strong I am, I am still a sinner in need of salvation. I still labor, bear, give, even sacrifice myself, but the difference is that now I know that all this is just God’s way of saving me for my own benefit. When I am weak, I open up about my weaknesses. I am weak by nature, and my security is not within my own strength, but living in Christ alone.
There was a time when I was weak, and a brother sent a paragraph to comfort me: “We don’t want to see a perfect pastor; we don’t want to see a celebrity pastor; we don’t want to see an entrepreneurial pastor… because then it would be hard for us to see Christ! We want to see the weaknesses of the pastor, that he needs the covering of Jesus’ blood as much as we do; we want to see the helplessness of the pastor, that he needs the feeding of Jesus’s words as much as we do; we also want to see the timidity of the pastor, that he needs the comfort of Jesus’ grace as much as we do. In this way, we can see how the pastor can triumph in his suffering through Christ, and we can also triumph by the word of God!” In such a renewal of gospel culture, many brothers and sisters dare to open up their weaknesses to others. In their openness, they do not feel discriminated against, but deeply experience shepherding in the gospel.
CP: You have mentioned before that your understanding of ministry had been changed. What does a gospel-centered pastoral practice look like? How does it affect your perspective on challenges and struggles?
Wang Jianguo: I fall into the typical, ministry-oriented leadership style: focusing on efficiency, discipline, and results, but neglecting personal care and relationships with one another. In all ministries, if people are not focused on being built up by the gospel, then the more prominent the efficiency, discipline, and results of the group are, the more proud people will be. In those days, the disciples argued with each other about who was the greatest. Likewise, today in the church, people challenge the leaders for power and control. Only, no one can challenge me. However, the reality is that no one has the gospel for one another.
After coming to know gospel theology, the challenges and battles in ministry are still there (the same people and the same problems), but I have learned how to shepherd them from a gospel perspective (although I know there are still times when the old self comes out). If there is an argument among co-workers, even younger leaders have learned to stop immediately during meetings to reflect on the gospel. Ministry is never what we value most. Instead, we value whether our lives are being built up in the process.
CP: You say the renewal of the gospel has affected the way your church faces increasing persecution. How does the renewal of the gospel make the cross your glory?
Wang Jianguo: I am actually ashamed to admit that many times while facing law enforcement, even I myself cannot tell whether my boldness comes from the Lord or my own flesh. I confess that until now, I rely on my flesh more than on love and forgiveness from God.
We always think that only the strong will be used by God. In fact, in redemptive history, God has often used the weak. The gospel makes me realize that it is not shameful to be afraid in the face of danger, for the Lord knows that we are weak. Courage is not necessarily the absence of fear. Noble courage is going forward in spite of fear in one’s heart, knowing that there is danger. Noble courage is not motivated by the flesh of the natural life, but only by the glorious cross, driven by the gospel.
Every time we face law enforcement, we remind the congregation that this process is about bearing witness to the gospel, not about preserving ourselves. If we are persecuted for this, it is actually a blessing from God and a glory for the congregation.