POSTED ON NOVEMBER 16, 2011:
One true purpose outweighs the sideshows
Where we sink the anchor of our hope matters; our lives will be shaped by it." --Michael Goheen
At the church I lead, we have three values that undergird all that we do: gospel, community and mission. The rock-bottom truth is that we really just have one value: the gospel.
In other words, the filter for all that we do -- spiritual formation, community, mission, parenting, marriage, discipleship, counseling, outreach, evangelism -- is the gospel. It is what we are praying everything is distilled through.
Here's the rub. I'm unaware of any evangelical church that doesn't formally subscribe to the doctrine of the gospel. I'm just not convinced many are living in light of it.
I grew up in a traditional church that held annual gospel revivals. At the conclusion of our worship gatherings, the pastor would always extend a gospel invitation. We were always encouraged to give money to worldwide gospel efforts. My parents even traveled the boot-heel of southeast Missouri singing in a southern gospel group.
No doubt, these things shaped my understanding of what the objective of the gospel was. In short, my comprehension of the gospel was that it was for not-yet-Christians or a descriptor for evangelistic endeavors. End of story.
In recent years, this calcified version of the gospel has been slowly breaking down in my own life. The catalyst for this shift was something I heard my pastor say once in a sermon a few years ago. His simple statement was that the gospel is for Christians too. Needless to say, this messed with me.
As I wrestled with a new reality of what the gospel is designed to do, it began to infect not only my personal life but also the ministry that God has called me to. This novel revelation, though, has brought new complexities.
It's one thing to have the gospel down accurately in your head. It's another for your ministry to be shaped by it as well.
So how do we have lives and a church community that is centered on this type of gospel belief? I believe it involves getting three things right about the gospel.
The Gospel Is One Thing
The "one-thingness" of the gospel is how our spiritual alienation with God was addressed and removed by the work of Christ on the cross. All other alienations in life emerge from that one alienation. All human obstacles are a symptom of that spiritual estrangement and our separation from God is the cause.
The gospel, then, is primarily news about the historical events of Jesus -- His life, His death, His resurrection, and His ascension -- because these events rectified our primary alienation with God. Martin Lloyd-Jones, a Welsh protestant minister, said this is why the gospel is good news not good advice.
Good advice is when someone tells you what you should do. Good news is something that has already been done and you must respond to.
It Does More Than One Thing
I always assumed that the gospel was simply what not-yet-Christians must believe in order to be saved and then we step into deeper theological waters. What I'm discovering is that the gospel isn't the first step in a stairway of truths but more like the hub in a wheel of truth.
In other words, once God rescues sinners, his plan isn't to steer them beyond the gospel but to move them more deeply into it. Therefore, the gospel is for not-yet-Christians and Christians.
In the Scriptures, justification is the Biblical truth that through Jesus, we are declared "not guilty" of our sin when we place our faith and trust in Jesus. It is a "once-for-all" act of God in which we are made right with God. After we are "justified," we then begin a lifelong process of what the Bible calls sanctification -- conforming our lives more and more to the character of God.
Most Christians rely on their sanctification for their justification, practically functioning on the principle "If I live a good life, Jesus will accept me." This is getting things backwards. If justification comes first, we should operate with the understanding that "Jesus already has accepted me, so I now can live a good life through obedience because the gospel frees me up to do so."
It Affects Everything
Even though the gospel is a set of truths to believe, it cannot simply remain a set of beliefs if it is truly believed and understood. The gospel creates a whole way of life and shapes literally everything about us if it is truly impacting us.
Pastor and author Tim Keller describes three themes of the gospel that are borne out of the historical events of the life of Jesus: the upside-down, the inside-out, and the forward-back aspects of the gospel.
The incarnation is the "upside-down" aspect of the gospel. It fashions a new kind of community that lives out an alternative way of being human. The world's values are "right side-up" but gospel values are "upside-down."
The atonement is the "inside-out" aspect of the gospel. Traditional religion teaches that if we do good works and follow moral laws on the outside, God will bless us and give us salvation. But the gospel is the reverse of this. If we know in our hearts that God has truly accepted us and loved us by grace, then we can begin to obey out of deep joy and gratitude from the inside. Religion is "outside-in," but the gospel is "inside-out."
The resurrection is the "forward-back" aspect of the gospel. The coming of the King has two stages. At his first coming, he saved us from the penalty of sin and gave us the Holy Spirit. At the end of time, He will come to finish what he began at the first coming. He will bring a new creation -- a world rid of all brokenness. Christians now live and serve in light of the future reality ("forward-back") of a new heavens and a new earth.
Martin Luther has said that we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone. True gospel belief will always lead to good works. Faith and works must never be confused for one another but neither should they be separated.
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