1. Backtracking to What Matters, or A Preemptive Conclusion
I think that I’ve operated out of an incomplete understanding of the gospel for most of my life, and I don’t think that I’m the only one. I think that, for the most part, this is due to the comprehensive nature of the gospel rather than the inadequacies of any one presenter.
Let’s look at a familiar statement. Jesus, the Son of God, came to earth as a man, he died on the cross in order to forgive us our sins, he was resurrected, and he went back to heaven. This is a fairly standard Life Death Resurrection and Ascension presentation of the gospel; one that I’ve grown up hearing and one that I’m sure most of us are familiar with. Now answer honestly, if you told this to your non-Christian friends would they be impressed, transformed, or compelled to find out more? If you were a non-believer, and not seeking, would this statement have done anything for you? The truth is, I can’t get away from the thought that if I were an atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. that this presentation of the gospel, or its extended variations, would have fallen flat in my ears, no matter how much in need of a savior I was proclaimed to be. Yet the gospel was a pretty big deal back in the day, and not just to the Jews who were prepped and looking for it, but also to Greeks and all forms of pagans who had no expectation of the gospel. The gospel literally was the “power of God for their salvation”, and it hit a whole bunch of them pretty hard. So what is the difference between the gospel that transformed the ancient known world and our standard answer to the question, “what is the gospel?”
I know that I’ve heard the life, death, resurrection, and ascension (LDRA) statement so many times that the words have mostly lost their impact on me. At the very least, I don’t naturally think to the meaning beyond the words, and again, I don’t think that I’m the only one. I can honestly say that I love the gospel; it has become the central driving force in my thinking and contemplation of life, and hopefully for that matter, the driving force of my life. It is the good news of God and about God, and those LDRA words, though central and accurate, fail to encompass my expanding understanding of the gospel.
As a point of biblical orientation, Jesus was preaching the gospel years before his death, resurrection, and ascension, so whatever it was that Jesus was so keyed up on, it wasn’t yet dependant on the DRA portions of the gospel. An interesting reality is that people were being transformed, set free, and healed by his actions and his message long before the cross and its aftermath figured into the equation. They were effected to such an extent, that a bunch of them got excited and ran off and told people about Jesus. In doing so, the transformation, repentance, and excitement that came to them through their direct contact with Jesus also came to the people they came into contact with. Some of the people even testified about Jesus in direct contradiction to Jesus’ command. Like I said, I find that to be on the “interesting” side of things.
How many of us would still feel compelled to share our faith and the things that Jesus has done, if there was a twelfth commandment that went, “Thou shall not testify about the Lord your God to your friends, neighbors, or those you come in contact with”? My guess is that this would simplify life for a bunch of us. If this guess is true, then it is an unfortunate and enlightening tragedy.
Think about it, what if all you could do to biblically evangelize your work mates was to blurt out, “20 years ago stuff happened in my life and now I go to church on Sundays, you can try to figure it out on your own if you want… you know, or not.” Thus would begin and end the majority of testimonials. This is both compelling and rich right? Not so much. On the bright side, we would be free from the stress of having to coming up with interesting and compelling reasons for becoming Christians, and in all honesty, it would be nice to finally get out from under that strange and unnatural cloud of awkward expectation.
I know we don’t all fit into this category, but the truth is that a good natured and often genuine breed of schizophrenic Christian occupies many of the pews of our generation’s church buildings. I’ve been there myself. Happy and comfortable in church, sure of what I believed, yet the thought of approaching a friend and “witnessing” to them, bringing up an ill natured obligation and a sudden confusion about what to say and what I’m supposed to believe and feel. I refuse to believe that this is a healthy aspect of the Christian life.
Sure, there is an elite breed of passionate Christians, the natural evangelists, who exude the love of God. For these people, talking about the relevance and the love of Jesus to a stranger on the street is completely genuine, and comes as naturally as talking about a football game from the day before is to the rest of us. I love these people and maybe one day I’ll join their ranks, but I’d be lying if I said that I was one of them now (though I have had my moments). I can beat myself up over it, question the genuineness of my faith, and start trying to bludgeon people into the Kingdom out of a misguided desire to prove to myself and other Christians that I belong in the club. Or, I can ask myself what I believe and why it matters, and when I get the chance, I can tell people what that is. If it ends up sounding like the standard LDRA answer that will be just fine, as long as I know why it matters to me. Not why it should matter, but why it does matter. If it ends up sounding a bit different from the LDRA gospel, well, so did the Samaritan woman’s testimony who was at the well, and that seemed to be just fine with Jesus.
Let me be clear about this, there are different presentations of the gospel, just as there are different people who profess it, and there is a beauty, versatility, and power in this variety. There are also different gospels, and as far as Paul was concerned, this is not an “Okay” thing. As a matter of fact, it is decidedly bad and a bit on the demonic side… not that you care about that sort of thing. In order for a gospel to be The Gospel, it needs to align with the person of Jesus. Ever notice how Paul never seemed to correct, discipline, or confront people with the law or with anything other than the gospel and the person of Jesus? Well, there was a reason for that. The gospel and the person of Jesus was literally the entirety of what Paul cared about. I think I’m starting to understand where he was coming from, and it’s starting to get to be a comfortable place for me. I don’t even mind talking about it.
What is starting to click, what is beginning to establish itself as home for me, is the reality that Jesus is the beginning and end of the good news about God. This is because Jesus is the beginning and end of God. I believe that the fullness of the gospel is summed up in a simple statement, “When you see Jesus, you finally begin to know God.” All of your other broken and distorted concepts of the gray haired angry, displeased, disappointed, or otherwise indifferent distant creature in the sky gets crushed and pulverized under the sandaled and one time bloodied feed of Jesus. Jesus says, “Listen up! I don’t care what you thought before, I Am! I am the authority on who my Father is. Now, did you have any other questions?”
I say that Jesus is the beginning and end of God because, according to Revelation, he is the Alpha and the Omega. According to John, Hebrews, Colossians, etc. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God and all of creation was created through him and is held together by him. These writers don’t exactly leave a lot of wiggle room as to the prominence of Jesus as the action of God and the representation of God in creation. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t exactly understand how the Trinity works. That whole same but different, unified but separate thing still gets a little fuzzy for me sometimes. That said, I am completely at peace knowing that Jesus represents God, God represents Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is an indispensable player in the relationship. To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas’ thoughts on the Holy Spirit, “The Spirit is the love that passes between the Father and Son.” This puts an epic twist on the consequences and implications of being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ or being ‘baptized in the Spirit’, doesn’t it? But that’s food for a later thought.
Paul said that he wasn’t ashamed of the gospel, because it was the power of God for our salvation. That means that the good news about God, which is that Jesus is God, is the very power of God to save us. “Saving us” being the act of bringing us back into relationship with God. You see, God was not the one who rejected us; He never stopped accepting us, pursuing us, desiring relationship with us, or trying to reveal Himself to us. Jesus didn’t die so that it would be okay for God to like us again, because God never stopped loving us. God didn’t need to save us from any brokenness in His orientation to us, but from brokenness in our orientation to Him.
The Old Testament is literally full of God’s attempts to reveal Himself and be in relationship with His people. Don’t get me wrong, there were some rough spots, God definitely brought some “doom” down on the Israelites from time to time, but it was always with an eye towards bringing them back to Him and towards revealing Himself to all nations. The law itself was given (I believe) as a second option, after His initial desire to reveal himself to all of the people was rejected… by the people. Even the law itself was intended to pull people towards God. It was not God’s rejection of us that we ever needed to worry about, it was our rejection of Him that crippled us and gave us over to an oppressive master, one that we needed to be saved from, one that we could not free ourselves from.
Jesus didn’t enable God to like us again, he enable us to know God, and in knowing God to choose God, and in choosing God to love God, and in loving God… to live. In Jesus, God accomplished what He had set out to do in Eden. In Jesus, God walked with man; He knew humanity and was known by humanity. In Jesus, God said, “This is who I Am! You have always been enough for me, am I enough for you?” Over the last couple thousand years, countless men, women, and children have answered “Yes” and are now alive and becoming alive in the unfolding knowledge of God.
The good news, the gospel, the power of God for our salvation, is the self-revelation of God. Jesus, himself, is the gospel of God. It’s not just found in what he did, but it is found in every molecule of who he was.
After Jesus revealed himself to people through his actions, words, and often the power of the Spirit that was in him, they ran off and told people about him, they asked if they could follow him, they served him, or they walked of and said “well, that was nice, I wonder what’s for dinner.” In the case of some of the teachers and experts in the law, they rejected him and eventually succeeded in killing him. In each case, people were given a perfect reflection of God and were given the chance to respond. Is the LDRA statement of the gospel, as we think of it or as it is presented to non-believers, a perfect reflection of who God is? I’m not saying that it isn’t, I’m just asking. I’m asking because for me it isn’t, it falls short of describing what I love about the gospel, it falls short of what I love about God. It is without a doubt included, and it may very well be an apt reduction of the essential aspects of the gospel, but to the uninitiated, it doesn’t present the nature, the character, or the driving motivation of God towards the initiated and uninitiated alike.
If I were to try to convince a person why they should try, and in fact love, crème brulée, I wouldn’t tell them, “Well, it’s heavy cream, vanilla, eggs, and sugar that has been charred with a torch.” Is that technically accurate? Yes. Would that make a person’s mouth water who has experienced the finished product before? Possibly. Is that going to entice a person who isn’t a big fan of heavy cream or eggs to try it? Unlikely. Does that description do the dessert justice? Noooo, it does not! That would be like saying the Grand Canyon is big or that Michael Jordan was a basketball player. If you want someone to try something that they have never considered before you need to tell them why you love it, what it means to you, what it has done to you or for you, and why you think they will love it. The gospel, according to its very nature, is highly personal and relational; it can only honestly be presented in the same way.
Until we ask ourselves, “What is the gospel and why does it matter to me?” and then give ourselves the time to answer from our hearts as well as our heads, we will have a difficult time encouraging and supporting others who are in the “Christian club” and honestly communicating with those outside of it.
I am still unsure of what would make a non-Christian care about the Gospel, but I am learning why I care about the gospel. I’m seeing how it encourages, strengthens, heals, and comforts Christians who have been living without the fullness of it, and I’m seeing it set people free. The gospel is still a big deal; in fact, I think it is the only deal.
I don’t know how to present the gospel to non-believers because I don’t know what the point of connection is for them. I don’t have a witnessing formula or a new and improved Roman Road to walk down. If I know someone who is “seeking” or “questioning” then I can present to them what I believe, but beyond that I feel pretty helpless. I’ve found that the majority of non-Christians who have been attracted to Christianity have been impacted much more by the lives that are lived than by the arguments presented. The often used yet still relevant words of St. Francis of Assisi ring true when it comes to practical effectiveness, “Preach the gospel always, if necessary use words.”
Even in my helplessness I recognize that there is something to be said about integrity of action, people see it and it gets their attention. Many years ago I spent about three months traveling through several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. At the time I was hoping to become established in some long term ministry, but I was being as passive as I could, not wanting to force my way into something that was out of balance with what God was doing. Subsequently I was exploring, visiting friends, listening to God, and helping out wherever I could. Though I returned home according to schedule, this outing provided a mass of insights into the Kingdom of God, the world, and myself in general. Many of the lessons that came over those three months are still active in me today.
One such lesson came during my time in Zambia. At one point, I found myself with some local friends and we got to talking about the local street kids, one thing led to the next, and pretty soon we were starting a basic outreach to them. In the process of taking about thirty of the kids out for a meal at a local lunch place, two police officers called me over to them. Having had some limited experience with authority figures in Africa, I was assuming a shakedown of some sort or a chastisement for “enabling” the street kids to stay on the street. It wasn’t until I was walking away from the meeting a few moments later that my apprehension and defensiveness dissipated enough for me to comprehend what had actually taken place. Instead of seeing a westerner and trying to get something out of him, they were actually just curious about what was going on. With smiles on their faces they asked me who we were and why we were doing what we were doing for the kids? The only answer I could come up with was, “Well, we’re Christians, this is what we do.” After a few more awkward words, at least on my part, they expressed their surprise and gratitude and went on their way.
The intent was never to produce an action that would open a door to witness to people (however awkwardly and ineffectually); the intent was simply to help out a few kids, which was motivated by compassion. People, regardless of their religious or philosophical orientation, tend to recognize and respect integrity of action. If you love somebody, friend or stranger, for the singular reason of loving them, because that is what you do regardless of the response, you win. When you love someone for the purpose of producing an opportunity to witness or in order to gaining the moral high ground, then the success is determined by the response rather than the action. The difference may be subtle, but it is relevant. Hypocrisy and lack of integrity in actions destroys the witness of the gospel. People aren’t dumb, so don’t lie to them and don’t lie to yourself. If the reward for behavior, at least as it pertains to the gospel (though possibly, this should be considered in all aspects of life), isn’t found in the action itself, then perhaps it is time to reevaluate the initial motivation. There is a massive tangle of thought that is opened up through this comment; unfortunately, it’s not yet time to work through it all. In fact, we have already gone much further down this track than I intended to. The basic point is this: Think through why you are doing what you are doing, because if it is different from what you are putting on the surface, people are probably aware of the disconnect even if they aren’t sure of the details.
Returning to the main trail and the issue of connection, I’ve sat in on some painfully useless conversations in which, hopefully, well meaning, Christians tried to argue people into belief with various statements attached to phrases like “The Bible says” and “According to my pastor”. These arguments ended with easily guessed at results. Now I have no problems arguing theology with non-Christians, I’ve had many thoroughly enjoyable discussions with good friends who fit this bill. The challenge is in recognizing that arguing theology and sharing the gospel are two entirely different conversations. Christian theology is generally understood to be heavily dependent on the Bible; conditions of belief don’t change this. People who disregard the “truth” of the Bible will concede its authority and importance in arguments concerning Christian theology. “The Bible says” and “According to my pastor” are legitimate starting points in presenting an argument on this topic (this assumes the mutual understanding that pastors, in general, have spent some time studying the Bible as well as church tradition and doctrine, therefore, their opinions can carry a bit more sway than the average person’s).
When “sharing the gospel” with a person who doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible and doesn’t know or respect my pastor, almost any statement that is attached to either of these two authorities will lack connection with the person at the other end of the conversation. Just because statements from the Bible, my pastor, C.S. Lewis, or Bonhoeffer carry authority and “connect” with me, doesn’t mean they are universally authoritative. If a Muslim, attempting to proselytize me, anchored their key statements with “The Prophet Mohamed says” or “According to Sharia Law”, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to me, if anything, it would raise my defenses and prepare me to disagree with the next statement regardless of what it was. Does that mean that the Bible or any of those other sources aren’t useful in discussions of faith? Not at all, I just can’t assume it connects with them the same way it connects with me.
Connections matter, and most of the time the only connection that I can offer is why it matters to me. The problem with this is that I love the Bible, it connects with me, which means almost any description that I give for the gospel is going to connect up with the Bible, or something that someone said about the Bible. All of this brings us in a loop back to the statement that I don’t know how to present the gospel to non-Christians. This is probably why I’ve mostly stopped trying, at least verbally. If you ask me a question, I’ll try to answer it, if I have something to say, I’ll try to say it, but if you are a non-Christian who finds yourself in a conversation with me, rest easy, you are under no great threat of being exposed to my highly questionable skills of proselytize…ation. But, if you are a Christian, things change.
I think that Christians need to hear the gospel every bit as much as non-Christians. Ever notice how all of the writing in the New Testament, except perhaps Luke and Acts, were addressed to and for the benefit of the existing community of believers? There was a reason for this, the believers needed to hear, be reminded of, and be strengthened by the truth and the power of the gospel. This is still the case today, and in this task the authority of the Bible most assuredly connects.
Before you are tempted to jump to the conclusion that I don’t care about non-Christians or don’t want to concern myself with them, let me say this: We all carry the weight of glory (if you don’t know what this means, we’ll get to it. Even then, you need to read C.S. Lewis’ work by the same name), and as such, we all matter. We matter in a big way, as does our eternal destination.
The following chapters are in no way comprehensive statements of the gospel, they are simply revelations of the gospel that have had an impact in my life, and when preached, they seemed to benefit others as well. The LDRA of Jesus is absolutely essential in the revelation of the gospel; these are simply different perspectives on the same gospel that has forever been established through Jesus.