Category Archives: Gospel

The _____ of the gospel

For the past few years, my reading and thinking has focused on the nature of the gospel. Almost five years ago, I led a seminar for our soon-to-be church plant team on the topic “What is the Gospel?” My thought then was this: if we are moving to a new city to start a new church, we had better know the gospel. If we were to going to invest time and energy in any area, I said, it ought to be a robust understanding of a robust gospel. Too often church plants rely upon marketing strategies or cutting-edge ministry technique. Maybe because we knew we simply were not that cool or talented, we decided instead to get good at knowing and applying the gospel to the needs of our neighbors and our world.

For that seminar, I regurgitated D.A. Carson’s lecture also titled “What is the Gospel?” he delivered at the 2007 Gospel Coalition Conference. I typed 12 pages (single-spaced!) of notes as I listened to Carson exegete 1 Corinthians 15, drawing out 8 characteristics of the gospel and 5 accompanying truths of the gospel. My mind was blown by the depth and profundity of the “basic” message of Christianity. Many, but not all, of my lingering questions had been answered. I had struggled with how a neatly-packaged “here’s how you get to heaven” message held broader application to bigger issues in the world. What did “my gospel,” the message that gave me eternal life, have to do with child-soldiering in Uganda or human trafficking in Cambodia? What did “my gospel” have to do with the people of the Old Testament or the grand narrative of Scripture? Carson’s lecture launched me into a study into the nature of the gospel that is still going today.

In case you haven’t noticed, a spate of new literature has emerged on the topic. Big-name Christians are pumping out books with their rendition of the good news. Matt Chandler wrote The Explicit Gospel. JD Greear wrote The Gospel. Greg Gilbert wrote What is the Gospel? Scot McKnight wrote (my favorite) The King Jesus Gospel. And most recently Tim Keller and a group of leaders from the Gospel Coalition wrote The Gospel as Center. Christianity Today magazine just launched a five-year venture called The Global Gospel Project. Lifeway just rolled out their own The Gospel Project. That’s a lot of gospel, isn’t it?

Not shockingly, not everyone agrees on everything. The discussion is one I believe we must enter into. But it’s not what I am going to do here. What all of these authors agree upon is the fact that the gospel is bigger than our attempts to abbreviate it and more far-reaching than our attempts to package it. What I plan to do in the next few blog posts is highlight a few characteristics of the gospel. Truth be told, I recently had the privilege of teaching at a collegiate summer leadership program and my posts here will summarize my messages there. These teachings will become a sermon series our church will use in the fall titled “The _____ of the Gospel.” So, if nothing else, these blogs will help me to further develop the material. Stay tuned for the first in this series!

Remembering Aaron

I remember the feeling in my gut as I walked through the student union at BGSU. I was anxious. I was scared. Not the horror movie scared but the fear of rejection and humiliation scared. I felt unprepared and unqualified for what I was about to do. I had done it a handful of times before, but somehow the intimidation and awkwardness of it never subsided. I was looking for someone with whom I could start a spontaneous conversation. A conversation about Jesus. You know, the type of outreach that receives equal skepticism (if not disapproval) from believers and nonbelievers alike.

I saw a guy reading the school newspaper. He was sitting by himself. He dressed like me. He had short hair like me. He seemed clean-cut like me. He wore cool glasses (not like me, much to my dismay). I remember thinking “I can talk to this guy.” I led with “Hi, I’m Matthew from h2o, the church on campus. Would you mind if I asked you some spiritual questions?” He agreed. I was noticeably relieved by his willingness to talk with me.

What happened in the thirty minute conversation that followed makes sense only if there is a God above who is spinning this world with a purpose and plan for us all. I learned that my new friend Aaron had been raised in an unashamedly Baptist home in Missouri. He could remember a time when, as a young boy, he invited Jesus into his heart. In high school, he went through the religious motions- church, youth group, summer camps, and Christian concerts. Yet as he sat telling me about his life with an openness and rawness that still amazes me to this day, he admitted that those days were a thing of the past. He was living as a prodigal far from home- in northwest Ohio of all places. He had unintentionally become the stereotypical college guy- went to the parties, chased the girls, drank the beer, ditched the classes, etc. And he was left feeling lost and lonely.

I told him a bit of my story. I had been a prodigal, too. Much more prodigal than him, actually. Then he said something striking: he told me God was answering a prayer as we spoke that day. You see, the reality of his brokenness had hit him that same morning. He prayed to God for the first time in a while. His prayer was simple, as I recall him telling me. Aaron asked God to show him that He was real. He wasn’t convinced anymore. He wanted to believe, to be sure. But he wasn’t sure he could. Something had happened since moving off to college. But somehow, as our Creator orchestrated this divine intersection of our two lives at a table on the second floor of the BGSU student union, his doubt disappeared. His prayer had been answered. God was real after all. Hours after his prayer was uttered a nervous guy trying to be a missional Christian asked him if they could have a conversation. And both of our lives would be forever changed. To claim coincidence here would be an offense to the sovereignty of the One who dreamed this interaction from eternity past.

We became close friends over the next few years. Our lives were inextricably intertwined. We shared life. We did ministry together. We had those rare life-changing conversations. We had a depth and realness to our relationship that came so naturally. I remember when he told me he had feelings for Ali, a girl in our Bible study group. I remember a few years later praying with him in a small back room at the church just moments before he married Ali. Then I moved to Kent to plant a church. Our friendship changed. But our love for each other remained. The awe over how we first met that day in the student union never faded, and it created in us a bond that couldn’t broken by distance.

I was sitting in a seminary class when I got the text telling me that Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s ironic that I was sitting in a place that is supposed to give answers to questions about faith and life. Yet there are no token answers for why a 26-year-old would get cancer. No amount of theological precision offers hope in the midst of the reality of disease. Persistent headaches brought Aaron to the doctor and tests were run that revealed the devastating news. It was cancerous. It was in an advanced stage. It was largely inoperable. His prognosis was staggeringly bad.

As much as I remain amazed at how we met, that memory will fade long before the memory of saing goodbye to Aaron. His fight with cancer ended a year ago. On that day he met face-to-face the God who orchestrated our friendship and rescued him from the emptiness of this world. The day before he died I visited him with my dear friend Rob- Aaron’s closest friend in Bowling Green. With the door closed and Aaron unresponsive on a hospital bed situated in his bedroom, Rob and I told him how much we loved him and how he had impacted us. Not once had he questioned God in the midst of his disease. Not once had I heard a complaint or a curse. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such faith- it was innocently childlike and incredibly mature at the same time. We talked about old memories- as many funny ones as serious. And we talked about the glory that awaited him. When I spoke, Rob cried. When Rob spoke, I cried. It was both incredibly sad and entirely beautiful. Even my words here can’t approach the weight of what happened in that room.

Aaron’s legacy far exceeds his years on this earth. There are so many ways he has impacted me. Let me share just one.He has helped me to grow up. I live in a world of college students. A world where tears are typically the result of romantic break-ups. Where tragedy exists only in film. Where death is a fairy-tale. Where faith is stifled by the comfort and ease of our lives. Where desperate need for Jesus is a mystery. Yet today as I think of Aaron, I remember that there is a reality beyond what I see each day . And while I am called to this place, I must live beyond its borders. And I must invite others to this new place of depth. To journey beyond the superficiality and immaturity that, though unavoidable, is not insurmountable. To a place where we must painfully reckon with the tragedy and evil of this world in order to taste of the goodness and power of Jesus.

The ending of Aaron’s life is no less appalling to me today than it was a year ago. His death, any death, is a primal offense to our very being. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that “God has set eternity in the human heart.” My tears attest to this fact. When all the token phrases and comforting words have been said, death remains no less unnatural to us. We long for eternity. We long to live in a reality where life and all things good go on forever in all their beauty and power. C.S. Lewis once said, “If I find in myself a desire that this world cannot fulfill, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” We are made for another world, meant to enter another reality and live another story. A reality entirely different from the one we now experience. Where everything good is forever. Where love and relationships will have no end. Pain no more. Suffering no more. Tears no more. Oppression no more. Disease no more. Death no more.

Only Jesus gets us here- to this place we long for. He rose out of the grave victorious over the evil, sin, and death that reigns in our world. In Jesus we are ushered into this reality now. And though we experience it only in part now, it will one day be all we know.

(This post is an updated and expanded version of a similar post I wrote in the fall)

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part III

Today I finish my series on Lesslie Newbigin’s book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans, 1986). I introduced the series with this post and covered the first three essentials here. I will cover here the final four of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for a gospel engagement with Western culture.

  • A critique of the theory and practice of denominationalism: Newbigin was a ecumenist; he worked to bring together people from varying theological dispositions for the sake of mission. He was not one to bash denominations wholesale. What he does here, then, is critique a type of denominationalism that does little more than reveal a privatized faith with no ability to impact on the larger culture. Here is what he means: we tend to treat denominations as the means by which we choose what beliefs best suit us as individuals. We shop around, looking for a group that holds tight to what we deem most critical. Not all bad. But it’s subtly consumeristic. The unintentional result is a Christianity that is highly privatized. It’s what is best for me. It’s what I like best. it’s what most connects with me. Denominations house those who’ve come to the same decisions by themselves. Newbigin says, “Denominations cannot confront our culture with the witness of the truth since even for themselves they do not claim to be more than associations of individuals who share the same private opinions.” While still retaining denominational affiliation, Newbigin argues for a truly ecumenical movement that brings together the array of denominations “in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole community in that place.”
  • An understanding of and respect for non-Western Christianity: One of the saddest realities of church history is the fact that Christian mission was not able to shake off Western hegemony. Missionaries heralded not only the gospel but Western culture as they spread the world. We made converts not only Christians but also Westerners. What happened in the process was catastrophic: we robbed the gospel of its inherent capacity to inhabit (and transform) a culture, any culture. Yale Divinity professor Lamin Sanneh, a convert from Islam, has written about the “infinite translatability of the gospel”- that the proclamation of Christ as Lord can and should be expressed distinctly in the mosaic of world cultures. The gospel does not create one world culture- it redeems and brings to fullness every culture. I recommend Sanneh’s book Whose Religion is Christianity?: The Gospel Beyond the West (beware- he is not easy to read, but who from Yale is?). Back to Newbigin now: “The fact that Jesus is much more than, much greater than our culture-bound vision of him can only come home to us through the witness of those who see him with other eyes […] We need their witness to correct ours, as indeed they need ours to correct theirs.” If Western Christianity is to impact post-Christian Western culture, it must recognize its place within the broader scope of God’s work within the world, and it must seek to listen to the voices of Christian leaders from other places.
  • A humble boldness to proclaim the truth of Christ as Lord: here I must simply quote Newbigin:
The gospel is not a set of beliefs that arise, or could arise, from empirical observation. It is the announcement of a name and a fact that offer the starting point for a new and life-long enterprise of understanding and coping with experience. To accept it means a new beginning, a radical conversion. It has always been the case that to believe means to be turned around to face in a different direction, to be a dissenter, to go against the stream. The church needs to be very humble in acknowledging that it is itself only a learner, and it needs to pay heed to all the variety of human experience in order to learn in practice what it means that Jesus is the King and Head of every human race. But the church also needs to be very bold in bearing witness to him as the One who alone is that King and Head.”
  • Praise: I love how Newbigin beautifully ends his reflection with a call for praise. How are we to have this humble boldness to speak truth to our culture? Newbigin says it is not the product of human heroism but rather the “spontaneous overflow of a community of praise.” Reflecting on his own experience of being involved in two very different churches- Orthodox and Pentecostal- Newbigin says, “they have this in common: their life is centered in the action of praise- praise that is literally “out of this world” and is by that very fact able to speak to this world. Where this is present, the radiance of that supernatural reality is enough to draw men and women into its circle.” A missionary encounter with our post-Christian culture will always begin with praise. Our witness to our world is at the heart the overflow of a gift, says Newbigin. If we are not repeatedly astounded by the magnitude, reality, and cost of that gift, our missionary work will not endure.

Foolishness to the Greeks, Part II

This post is a follow-up to my previous post, which you can read here. You’ll need to read it in order to make sense of this one. Here are the first three of Newbigin’s “seven essentials” for the church engaging culture and bearing witness to Christ and His inbreaking Kingdom in a modern/postmodern world.

  • A recovery of the doctrine of eschatology: The “eschaton” means “the last things,” so eschatology is the study of the “last things”or the “last days”- themes prophesied about in the Old Testament and discussed directly in the New Testament. Most people mistakingly believe eschatology refers only to the events surrounding Christ’s second coming. However, since the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we have been living in last days. All the NT authors believed this, and so should we. Christ’s Kingdom on earth is both a present and a future reality. Theologians call this the ‘already but not yet’ nature of the Kingdom. What Newbigin is saying here is this: As Christians, we must resist the temptation to travel to the extremes. The first extreme so rejects the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it causes people to “opt out of the struggle for a measure of justice and freedom in public life” and instead only focuses on personal piety in preparation for final judgment. In other words, people say things like, “This world is going to hell and I’m just holding on until Jesus comes back.” Here there is no passion to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. This perspective is entirely unbiblical and Newbigin is alerting us to its danger. The other extreme so embraces the ‘already’ of the Kingdom that it mistakingly equates all political and social advance as God’s reign, grossly de-emphasizing the uniqueness and fullness of the Kingdom that is reserved only for Christ’s second coming. This has been the classic belief (and mistake) of mainline Protestant denominations. Newbigin reminds us that “even the best social order is- in God’s sight- an organization of sinful men and women and therefore always prone to corruption.” No amount of social advance can remedy or reverse the disease of the soul- sinful nature. We must live in the tension between these two extremes. A proper eschatology will propel us into a type of work for justice and compassion that is not an end in itself but rather a sign and foretaste of what is to come when Christ returns. We do not engage in social justice because it’s “the right thing to do;” we do it because we are called to enact today what someday will be the only reality. In a sentence, we must embrace an eschatology that thrusts us into God’s redemptive work now rather than sitting on our hands awaiting our own personal redemption later.
  • A biblical view of freedom: Newbigin argues here for a freedom that simultaneously upholds the truth of the Gospel while reserving the right for others to dissent. We’ve all been nurtured in an Enlightenment understanding of freedom that defines it as the ability to make our own decisions about what is good and true. Newbigin points out that is is precisely the opposite of biblical freedom. That type of “freedom” leads to destruction. Newbigin concludes, “True freedom is a gift of grace  given by the one who is in fact Lord; that gift, freely given, can only be received in freedom. It follows that the church cannot bear witness to that gift unless there is freedom to refuse it. Yet the church must still bear witness that this is the only true freedom: to belong wholly to the One by whom the space of freedom is created, and whose service is perfect freedom.” If the church is to engage our culture, we must do so without an arrogance that belittles or a forcefulness that manipulates.
  • A de-clericalized theology: I think Newbigin’s pastoral brilliance emerges here. Though a scholar with a robust academic pedigree, he refuses to disconnect theology from real life. He laments the relegation of theology to scholars without input from the laity (everyone other than the pastors/leaders). Newbigin boldly states, “We are in a situation analogous to one about which the great Reformers complained. The Bible has been taken out of the hands of the layperson; it has now become the professional property not of the priesthood but of the scholars.” To engage in a world that is increasingly secularized, Newbigin reminds us that we must foster conversations where “real-world” people wrestle with the meaning and application of the Gospel. What I love and find insightful is his realization that the Gospel is not a “toy” for academic play but the pronouncement Christ’s Lordship in every human realm and place. It can and must speak to every person where they live, work, and play. Church leaders need to be instructed by those who are speaking and embodying Christ on the ground, in the midst of the messiness and darkness of a lost world. When this happens, Newbigin says, the fatal divide of the public and private will be brought back together.

Foolishness to the Greeks

Lesslie Newbigin is my hero. If I could travel back in time and study under any one person within the history of Christianity, I would choose Newbigin. Weird, right? Why not someone famous like Calvin or Luther? Or one of those Great Awakening heroes like Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield? Or someone old-school like Augustine or Origen? I love (I really do) reading all these men. Their respective influences upon Christianity are immeasurable and unceasing. But I would choose a guy who is practically unknown by most Christians. A guy who was alive just 13 years ago. Lesslie Newbigin was the jack of all trades. Missionary. Theologian. Author. Ecumenist. Pastor. What I most admire about this man was his ability to both describe our modern culture with a piercing and penetrating discernment and prescribe an intelligent way forward for the church on mission. His life bore witness to his unyielding belief in the power of the gospel to transform a culture. And long before it was trendy to use the word “missional” Newbigin was calling the Western church to repent of its spiritual apostasy and indifference toward mission. He saw mission as not merely an activity of the church, but rather as primarily the activity of God, flowing out from the very nature and character of the trinitarian God.

A few years ago, my friend Mark gave me a book authored by Newbigin. It’s titled Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel & Western Culture. Newbigin’s intention is this: to “consider what would be involved in a genuinely missionary encounter between the gospel and modern Western culture.” He explains with brilliance the effect of post-Enlightenment modernity upon the work of mission, then casts vision for Scripture speaking directly to this culture. Near the end of the book, he deals with the role of the church in this modern/postmodern world. Before prescribing 7 answers, he sets up the situation with these words:

A private religion of personal salvation that did not challenge the public ideology was perfectly safe under Roman law, as it is safe under ours. On these terms the church of the first three centuries could have flourished under the rule of Caesar precisely as this kind of evangelicalism flourishes under protection of our kind of society. But the authentic gospel cannot accept this kind of relegation… To make disciples is to call and equip men and women to be signs and agents of God’s justice in all human affairs. An evangelism that invites people to accept the name of Christ but fails to call them to this real encounter must be rejected as false.

But how is this to happen? How, in practice, is the church to challenge our culture in its public as well as its private aspects in the name of Christ? What kind of churchmanship will enable us so to preach the gospel that men and women are called to be disciples in the fullest sense- men and women and children whose personal and corporate life is a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s kingly rule over all creation and all nations? How, in particular, are we to do this, we who are sent not to one of the ancient world religions but to a society nourished in its deepest roots by a Christian tradition but governed in its explicit assumptions by a pagan ideology? And how can we be missionaries to this modern world, we who are ourselves part of this modern world?

These are the essential questions we must wrestle with as we have now come to realize that Christendom has disintegrated. Rather than lament the fact that America has become pagan and secular, we ought to embrace the missionary situation as an opportunity to boldly proclaim and embody the gospel afresh. Newbigin answers his questions above with what he calls “seven essentials.” I will cover these in a series of posts I plan to write over the next few weeks. So be looking for new posts soon!