Where does your Gospel lead?

I have written much about gospel lately, so much so that someone asked me the other day what I meant by gospel.  Ah yes, gospel. Yet another word from our Christian heritage that hasn't so much lost it's meaning as it's direction.  In other words, gospel is rightly defined as "good news", but there seems to be much confusion as to what IS good news especially on the evangelical landscape.   Evangelicalism as a whole is increasingly more generic everyday.  It's generic in the sense that the things that make Biblical Christianity distinct from the wisdom of our present day culture are absent or at best blurred in understanding.  The gospel has suffered as a casualty of this Christian consumerism.

When I say the gospel has lost it's direction, I believe that it is a failure on the part of mainstream evangelicalism to protect the gospel in it's zeal to disperse it.  I don't question the motives or the passion of many evangelicals in their quest to fulfill the great commission, in fact, I appreciate that the gospel "seed" is not merely cast down on the rocky ground without the passion and careful sowing that God requires of us.  I appreciate that evangelism isn't reduced to "tract planting".  But in our effort to reach the lost, have we been reckless in communicating what God says the the gospel is?  As someone who is in the ministry, and as someone who reads many philosophical viewpoints and attends ministry conferences and has candid conversations with others who have chosen the ministry as their vocation, I find myself asking the tell-tale question, "where does our Gospel lead?". I believe the answer will reveal "what" we believe the gospel to be. 

When asked, I have always defined the gospel with the stock answer that Jesus came to earth, died on the cross, and rose again so that I could be saved.  But I believe this answer is a thumbnail picture of a larger image.  It's not to say that the answer is untrue, but it is not the full view.  Indeed. I could talk about how the gospel is not only about our personal forgiveness or the securing of our eternal destiny.  I could point out that it is also about the "Kingdom at hand" as Jesus preached.  I could mention that it's about all the nations being brought under the ruler ship of Christ.  I could say that it involves world peace and the eradication of evil.  I could say all of these things are gospel, and I wouldn't be wrong.  The question is not only one of what, but where. 

Get God, or something from God?

I think it's safe to say that to many, the gospel leads them to the effects of the gospel as being their ultimate satisfaction.  As an example, the gospel I heard in my baptist church growing up was that the reason to believe in Christ was so that you could escape an eternal lake of fire equipped with gnashing of teeth and maggots crawling on your face.  Sadly, this "gospel" did not lead to Christ, it led to fear.  It led to a pursuit of safety.  Matt Chandler of the Village Church says "Heaven is not for those who want to escape hell, it's for those who love Christ."   As a result of this "gospel", there are many who experience a half dozen conversions hoping the last one will "take" and they won't wake up the next morning in a cold sweat thinking they've been "left behind".  I want to tell you, this is no gospel!  In fact, I feel a tremendous burden for those raised in this environment, because it's akin to a brainwashing that never completely goes away.

There are other examples where the gospel that people hear leads them to making the effects their ultimate satisfaction.  There's the gospel that drives people to dream about heaven.  Now that sounds good on the surface, but there are people who literally shut down in this life so they can get to the next one.  They cease "upkeep" on the little house they live in the suburbs because they're waiting for their "mansion" in the next life.  Instead of the prospect of seeing Christ, they're more excited about seeing their deceased loved ones.  Christ is like a bonus to them.  A Biblical gospel should drive us to a pursuit of Christ where He is valued above everything including our family!  Actually, a reunion with our loved ones in heaven is the bonus!  John Piper asks the tough question, "if you arrived in heaven and found out Jesus wasn't there, would that be okay with you."?

Speaking of our temporal home, often our earthly circumstances become the "where" of the gospel.  This is most prevalent in mainstream evangelicalism and I understand why.  Americans, especially, are chasing the pursuit of happiness, after all, that is one of our great American doctrines isn't it?  So there is a segment of Christianity that equates personal fulfillment/improvement with the Gospel. It doesn't seem a stretch to say that God wants to make you better. Does it?   Biblically speaking, what is a "better you" anyway?  Is it someone who is successful as our culture defines it?  I contend that "a better you" is someone like the Apostle Paul was slowly and methodically becoming every day.  His "improved self" was characterized by the choices of "sharing Christ's sufferings" or martyrdom.  Either way, His gospel, worked out, led directly to Christ.  Paul wasn't concerned with raising his self-esteem, in fact he was concerned with dying to self-esteem.  As nice as it is to have more money, a dependable car, and warm body to lie next to each night, these things don't lead to Christ. They are temporal.  They are but mere foretastes of greater joy and so I thank God for these earthly blessings, but I pray that they do not become ultimate in my life. 

There are many wonderful effects of the gospel.  However, we should never let the effects be where the gospel lead us, nor should we define our natural desires as gospel effects.  So many of us value the gifts of the Creator above the Creator Himself. As Piper puts it "if the Gospel doesn't lead to Christ, then it is no gospel at all."  So when we realize that the true Biblical gospel is one that leads to Christ, our gospel definition is supplied for us.  The Gospel is Christ.  That's why salvation isn't escape from hell and entrance into heaven, although these things are included, but rather a pursuit of Christ as the ultimate treasure of our lives!  This is the Gospel we should be pursuing, the one we should be preaching, and the one we should be living and dying for!

Good News is Good Food

I confess, I eat too much fast food.  You know you eat out too much when you refer to your meals as numbers.  What can I say? I love a good Whataburger, medium fries, and large coke!  In spite of my lunchtime vice, I still prefer a home-cooked meal!  During football season we eat at home on most Sundays.  My wife will put in a roast with potatoes in the oven, smothered in tomato sauce and spices, and as soon as we get home from church I can already smell it before I open the front door! 

Like most people, I love food! After all, it’s my primary source of life sustenance along with air and water.   I even love a good deli sandwich with fresh smoked ham!  However, the meat has to be fresh because I am  paranoid when it comes to ham or any other meat in the fridge.  I always smell it before I blindly put in on a slice of bread and chow down.  Why?  Because one time I took a bite of a spoiled ham sandwich, and it didn’t even make it past my tongue!  The sandwich retreated the other direction before it had the chance to invade my stomach with it’s bacterial poison!

All this talk of food reminds of 3 gospels:  The Fast-food gospel, the Spoiled Ham gospel, and the home-cooked gospel. 

Allow me to start with the Spoiled Ham Gospel.  I want to start here, because this was my first introduction to any kind of gospel.  Having grown up in a legalistic church environment, I was subjected to many repulsive gospel presentations.  Now, that’s not to say I didn’t hear the gospel growing up at all.  It’s just that the great majority of presentations were what Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls "appeals to the will".  An appeal to the will sermon is when the preacher attempts to "get you saved" by telling you to do certain things while refraining from doing certain things.  It is classic life-crushing legalism.  It is not a Biblical gospel, it’s Pharisaical at best.  There’s just enough truth to keep you hooked, and more than enough lies to crush your spirit. If you spend 20 years immersed in the spoiled ham gospel as I was, you know that it takes at least that long to shake your soul of its asbestos!  The Biblical gospel eradicates this poison with the truth that I am, by nature, unacceptable to God because of my sin, but it doesn’t leave me to die in my sin, it offers the solution which is the perfect atonement of Christ!  The Biblical gospel leaves me with no doubt that there is nothing to do on my part. The spoiled ham gospel will say you can’t earn salvation yet demands that you try anyway! Depressing. I’ve come to realize that you can’t reach people with a gospel that harps on behavior.  Ideally it sounds wonderful, but realistically it’s spiritually impossible!

One might wonder why people who are brought up this way don’t immediately escape from it.   Why not spit it out like spoiled meat?  I contend that if someone has never tasted fresh deli ham, they are unaware of it’s taint.   What makes spoiled meat so repulsive is the knowledge one has that this is not the way it is supposed to taste.  Having grown up in fundamentalism, I didn’t realize completely what the gospel was because I was rarely presented a gospel message that was complete in itself. A complete gospel will serve two purposes, revealing our soul to ourselves, and revealing God to our souls!  If the message we hear doesn’t accomplish this it’s not really good news in the long run.

Then there is the Fast-Food Gospel.  I like fast-food because, well, it’s fast!   Today, I was amazed at how fast I walked out of a
local sandwich shop as the sub was literally wrapped and ready
before I signed my debit card receipt!  You know what else?  Fast-food tastes good!  Fast food is
fast, convenient, and delicious! I like it because it satisfies an
immediate hunger. Consumers by nature love immediate results.  This is why we gravitate so closely to the Fast-food gospel.  This gospel is the basic knee-jerk reaction to the Spoiled Ham Gospel.  I suspect that those who preach this message probably came from the same background I did.  They understood the first gospel as a life-crushing proposition, so they responded with something more palatable.  In order not to offend unbelievers, they devised a gospel that was no longer offensive.  The problem here is that the Bible tells us that the gospel is offensive to the lost. (Jeremiah 6:10)  It offends primarily because it leaves us with nothing to do and that drives us crazy!  It offends because it asks us to receive grace and simply be grateful.   That really is good news, but human nature doesn’t think so!

This gospel is being served in our modern day evangelical church.  It is sometimes linked to prosperity with claims that God wants to make you rich if you’ll only be more faithful.  But it’s not limited to financial prosperity.  Ironically, even those who denounce this gospel end up preaching the same gospel anyway.  Except this time it’s not wealth, but well-being.  Instead of emphasizing the object of faith (Christ’s work on the Cross), it is the individual’s faith that is exemplified!  There’s little mentioned about the characteristics of a divine grace which extends itself to undeserving sinners who will never seek after God (although they’re referred to as "seekers" which is a less offensive replacement).  This gospel tastes good, but it is dangerous to the soul!  In McDonald’s like fashion, it is mass produced for a consumer audience.  Powered by this marketing engine, it is presented in the form of "being a better you" which can be equated with desirable goals such as being a better parent, spouse, and manager of money.  Of course, these are all things we should desire and Christians should seek to glorify God in these ordained positions of father/mother, husband/wife, and steward.  However, being a better you is not our essential spiritual need.  Our biggest need is not improved behavior in various areas of life!  Our biggest need rests in our souls and only God truly knows its condition. It is our own depravity that keeps us from seeing the true condition of our souls!  This is why we need the Gospel!  There is nothing inherently evil about fast food, but the realization will arrive some day that all of these years of gorging fries and quarter pounders produced an undesirable effect to your physical health.  The same is true of a fast-food gospel.  You will come to a realization that despite all of the good, "Christianizing" information you received over the years, that something is still amiss!  It is something in the depths of your soul! A Fast-food gospel will provide no lasting nourishment for your soul.  That’s not to say that it won’t satisfy your short term hunger.  That’s not to say it won’t taste great! But just as Jesus scolded the religious right of his day by pointing out to them that they spend all their time cleaning the outside of the cup while the inside smells wretched, that’s exactly what certain gospel presentations do.  They work on the outside of the vessel, and leave the inside totally unchanged!   So in an attempt to counter the legalistic tendencies of the spoiled meat gospel, the fast-food gospel has introduced a new form of legalism.  Both gospels appeal to the self and crowd out the gospel of grace!

Finally, there’s the Home-Cooked Gospel.  Home cooked meals just taste better, and even the unhealthiest ones are better for you than the average fast food meal or at least seems like it.  It’s certainly better than a spoiled ham sandwich. A meal like this is fulfilling because you realize the preparation involved.  There’s the carefully selected ingredients, the right mix of spices, and slow cooked in the oven at just the right temperature for the exact amount of time.  Finally, you sit down at the table surrounded by family and friends as you share your lives for this brief period of dining pleasure! 

The Home-cooked Gospel is the only message that satisfies the soul.  It doesn’t strong arm you into impossible expectations and it doesn’t promise a life without suffering.  As a matter of fact, the home-cooked gospel promises that there will be suffering in this life.  ‘But doesn’t Christian life promise peace and joy‘ you ask?  Yes, but it is peace and joy for your soul, not your flesh.  This is where prosperity gospel is so dangerous.  It confuses the state of the soul with the desires of the flesh.  The Apostle Paul knew the difference! This is why he was able to sing praises to God while in prison.  This is why "to live is Christ, to die is gain" was his sustaining mantra!  No one realized the gospel as strongly as Paul.  The self-acclaimed chiefest of sinners knew exactly what the gospel was in its fulness, and exactly how deep it went to raise him up to his new life! 

We as ministers of the Gospel have a simple but important responsibility.  We are commanded to preach the gospel.  There is faith involved in doing this simple task.  The faith is in the Word of God and it’s claim of power.  The faith is in the Holy Spirit to convict and penetrate hearts.  There’s no need to spin it, take the edge of it, or make it more relevant.  The gospel is relevant all by itself.  More than anything, I desire for people to receive Christ, but it has to happen by his prescribed way of gospel preaching and the work of the Holy Spirit! 

As individuals, we must focus on the fact that God has done all of the necessary work and we have but one response.  We are to receive it!  No morality to achieve, no work to do, nothing more.  He’s prepared the meal and has invited us to sit at his table and eat!