The Gospel is NOT what you have been told

If your Christian experience has found you in a more conservative church that focuses on people asking Jesus into their hearts then you have probably been trained that the Gospel is all about loving God and making sure you will get to heaven. If your experience is more of a church that focuses on serving the poor and needy then you have been trained that the Gospel is all about loving your neighbor and making sure that they experience a bit of heaven right here on earth. Both of those understandings of the Gospel are mutated aberrations of what the Bible really teaches.

I have seen both of these extremes in action so many times that they have almost become cartoon caricatures in my mind. On the one hand you have the folks who regularly come up with some new gimmick for telling people about Jesus. It might be a Christian version of a Rubik’s Cube or multi-colored wrist band, or a little blue booklet that you pull out of your pocket at the most inappropriate times. In some cases it is the obligatory altar call at the end of a sermon. The message may have had nothing to do with the grace of God and the church may have the same 75 people who have been coming for decades, some of whom have walked the aisle multiple times, but we must have a chance for people to pray a sinners pray and punch their ticket to heaven. No consideration is given to the trauma or pain in their lives. No attempt is made to minister to the needs of the poor and broken in order to love them to Jesus. It is all about the message and getting that prayer done.

On the other hand there are growing numbers of people who are serving the needs of the poor and broken. They are offering the cup of cold water, giving shelter the homeless, clothing to the naked, visiting the prisoner, and a host of other wonderful things. This is especially true in the under 30 crowd in Christianity, although it has a long history in the liberal branch of the faith no matter what the age. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, but what you might never hear is anyone actually telling the poor, or the prisoner, or the homeless person that they need to submit to the Lordship of Christ in their lives and follow Him. We can’t say that for fear of sounding exclusive or arrogant and we don’t want to offend anyone.

Neither of those approaches is faithful to Jesus or the Gospel that He preached. When Jesus began His public ministry he gave a very clear picture of what the Gospel is in Luke 4:17-19:

17And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus said that He was sent to proclaim the Good News, the Gospel. They mean the same thing. So the Good News, the Gospel includes both speaking and doing. It is about telling people something and showing people something. You tell the poor the Good News, but you also set free those who are oppressed. It is about redemption. In the Old Testament there is a long history of the idea of redemption. It is about restoring something or someone to its rightful place. Often times people would have to sell themselves into slavery because of a financial disaster in their lives. If a relative came about bought them out of their slavery then that relative was called their kinsman redeemer. The idea was to restore the person to the completeness of what was lost. The got their lives back because someone paid a redemption price. The was certainly Good News to the slave.

Jesus is our kinsman redeemer. He paid the price for our restoration. We are restored through Christ to the relationship with the Father that was lost due to our sin. That restoration is not just about a place in Heaven with God. It is not just about having our lives in this world made better. It is both. The Gospel is holistic. The Good News is that life now and life to come are both to be changed by Christ. The implication of that for people who follow Jesus is that God cares about the spiritual and the physical. He cares about eternity and the here and now. He redeems our soul and our body. If God cares about such things then we should as well. We should be prepared to share the Gospel in word and deed. We should demonstrate the Gospel for our neighbor by showing them the love of Christ as we cloth them, feed them, house them and heal them. We should tell them of the love of Christ for them by proclaiming for them the message of liberty and freedom found in Christ.

That is the Gospel. It is not a lopsided mutation of only preaching or only serving. Jesus did both. He calls us to do both. If we serve people as He did, then like Nicodemus in John chapter 3, people will come to us. They will have been provoked to ask why we are the way we are. Then we can proclaim how we have been set free by Jesus.

Is Your Faith Relevant, or Provocative?

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

There is a great deal of talk among Christians these days about the need to make our faith relevant. I understand the desire, in fact for a long time I said that same thing myself. The fact is, most people just don’t see a need for Jesus in their lives. The desire to make Christianity relevant, in large part stems from the realization that in this Post-Christendom world in which we live, people just aren’t paying any attention to what Christians have to say. The assumption, probably correct, is that what we are saying just doesn’t relate to their lives. There is a great deal of truth here. The average westerner really doesn’t care about our eschatology, (when and how we think Jesus will return), or about our differences over the physical presence of Jesus in communion, or a whole list of other things we spend so much time talking about.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think having a correct Biblical understanding of these things is important. And I love few things more than studying them and helping others understand them. But that is not the focal point of being a Christian and certainly not what the non-Christian is searching for. So we have properly tried to switch the focus to questions that are relevant to them, things like how to have a good marriage, raise your kids, deal with hardship, and a host of other topics. So we have made the faith “relevant” to their lives.

But I must confess that there is a growing discontent in me over what the result of all the effort this move to relevance has wrought. I get the feeling that a relevant Christianity as it has evolved in recent years is somehow lacking real punch. It just seems way too tame and respectable. It is not a faith that reaches out and grabs people who observe it in others. When I think of the word relevant, I think of people having a discussion about some topic and a point comes up and someone says, “Hey, I think this bit of information is relevant to what we are talking about”. As such, that relevant thing just becomes one more piece among many that helps you reach your conclusion or settle and argument. So I wonder if this relevant faith that we have been promoting isn’t just one more “bit of information” that people add to the smorgasbord of their world view, in order to get by just a little easier? And I wonder of our relevant faith hasn’t become something that the non-Christian is able to take or leave with equal ease.

That leads me to the idea of provocative Christianity. A faith that really rocks is one that like Matthew 5:14-16, provokes a response from people. It is that shining light on a hill that draws people, it compels them to look and see. In fact it is a faith that leads them into a worship of the Father. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven.

A truly provocative faith is one that demonstrates itself in service to others in that name of Jesus. It is a self sacrificing faith that looks for ways to be the hands and feet of Jesus for others. It comes out of what Paul says to the Philippians that we are to consider others more important than ourselves and in this way be just like Jesus. It is really what Jesus meant when He said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we love someone with real action, servanthood exercised in humility, then they will want to know our God and worship Him.

There is a power in living a provocative faith that goes way beyond making Chrisitianity relevant. But it comes at a price. It is the price of sacrificing ourselves for others. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means some sort of death defying sacrifice where you push someone out of the way of a bus and you get killed instead. It is much less dramatic than that. It is as simple as returning the extra change a clerk gave you that was more than you were suppose to get. It is giving that young couple with the new born baby, two passes to the movies and a coupon for free babysitting on a Friday night. It is inviting that international student to your hme for Thanksgiving dinner and simply setting an extra plate. It is tipping your server 20% and asking if there is anything in their life you can pray about. It is asking your neighbor if you can pick up something from the grocery store for them when you know they are sick. The list could go on and one. But these are the kinds fo things that will eventually provoke a response of worship from people who see your light shine in Jesus name.