Monday, September 15, 2008

Manger, Cross, Crown

I have a great burden with this blog, and in general with my life, to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ relevant, logical, attractive, compelling, desirable, and power for people in this generation, specifically those who may think they are getting by fine without it. In other words, one may think it is reasonably “easy” to share the good news of Jesus Christ with someone who is hurting, struggling, or facing the difficulties of life; because they are usually more open to a message of hope. However, I personally have found that it is very challenging to present and explain the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the beautiful, healthy, wealthy, successful, intelligent, funny, blessed people that are so prevalent everywhere. Why is that? At the core, there is nothing corny or undesirable about Jesus, so why should so many people presume they are too cool to surrender their life to Him?

I am sometimes tempted to believe the lie that all these people have fallen into, which is that they don’t need the Gospel - their life is fine. They’re living the dream. God is only a crutch; or a consultant at best. My heart breaks for these people, almost more than those in poverty, because their need is hidden behind the forgery of health, wealth, and prosperity, and their openness to the most important message in the world is very small, and getting smaller by the day.

What I am convicted to try to do, with the power of the Holy Spirit, and with the authority of the Word of God, is peel back the canvas that is the American Dream, not to remove it or its luxuries altogether (though those who do not leave house and family and everything to follow Christ have no part in the kingdom of God), but to reveal behind it something far more amazing, by anyone’s standards, namely, the original, authentic “painting” of redemption as revealed in the Bible. And then let God give back the luxuries (which are not innately evil) according to His will. In other words, I believe the Bible reveals a much better dream, and specifically the Gospel of Jesus Christ offers much more joy, fulfillment, pleasure, happiness, and life than every other alternative, and ultimately it’s not even a “dream”. It is a reality, and truth, and necessary for the ultimate hope and joy of every human being – those in poverty or those in million dollar homes with beautiful and successful families. The American dream and the things of this world are fantasy and will pass away. The kingdom of God will never end.

Atheist Ellen Johnson said on Larry King once something to the effect of that she can’t accept something that’s not believable (eternal life) just because the outcome is desirable. She goes on to say that we should just deal with it and work to prolong and enjoy life now instead of “living for death”. What a pity. Well, I can’t accept an outcome that’s not really believable anyway (lack of existence) when the alternative is infinitely desirable (heaven). And I can’t allow myself to risk something that’s infinitely dreadful (hell) when the alternative is not only believable and desirable, but also offers a life right now that is much more enjoyable and (praise God) shorter, than a “prolonged” life enslaved to sin. But that’s just me. As Tim Keller says, the hopes of our hearts, and the narrative lines of our lives can only be completed in Jesus Christ. Everything else is an unfinished narrative with no hope and eternal torment waiting in the wings. No American dream is worth that.

The trick, then, is to explain what the Gospel is; or be able to articulate it to both these groups of people in a way that is simple, complete, correct, faithful, effective, and brief (um, if necessary), so that they can have the opportunity to believe it and be transformed. I probably will continue this effort for the rest of my natural life. With this post, I’m only trying to start the process to help you (and me) understand and apply the wonder of our Lord and Savior to save sinners, edify saints, and bring glory to His name. This effort is a compilation of thoughts by the two pastors whom I most respect: John Piper and Tim Keller (in some cases verbatim); along with some other thoughts and ideas I have picked up along the way.

The first thing I want to do is offer an explanation of what the Gospel is. I believe there is only one Gospel, so this should be easy, but since the human mind is depraved and our hearts are deceitful, distortions have made this much more complicated, and it is important to include everything that the Bible includes about the ultimate Good News of Jesus Christ. The other reason this is not as easy as it should be is that there is no single Bible passage that includes every component of the Gospel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke speak mostly of the Gospel as the Kingdom of God; John speaks mostly about the Gospel as eternal life; the Book of Acts has a focus on resurrection; and Paul in his letters seems to speak mostly about the Gospel as justification and atonement. So how do we simplify the Gospel in one message if the Bible never did?

Then I want to offer some examples and methods of presenting this one Gospel in a way that is effective for the hearers. Though there is only one Gospel, it can and should be presented in different forms based on the audience, as Tim Keller explains, and as the Biblical examples verify. I will focus on the explanation of the one Gospel first, and the examples of presentations last. The headings in bold are the three parts of the Gospel as explained by Tim Keller, originally outlined by Simon Gathercole. Beneath each heading is more explanation on these parts, including a “theological” word to identify the part, a Christological understanding (how it involves Jesus), and then also the components of the Gospel (in italics), according to John Piper, that must be included or there is no Gospel. I hope this format makes sense.


The theological word to identify this first part of the Gospel is incarnation. In the person of Jesus, God emptied himself of his glory and became human, entered our world and lived a sinless life, perfectly portraying a life of selfless service and providing a perfect picture of God himself. From a Christological point of view, this part can be best understood from the life of Jesus. By John Piper’s explanation, the essential components of the Gospel included in this part would be that it is a plan, and an event. The Gospel is a plan: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..." - 1 Corinthians 15:3. Jesus was the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of every Old Testament prophecy and this plan was put in place before the ages began. The Gospel is an event: "...that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day..." - 1 Corinthians 15:4. Jesus walked on earth, as part of history, and really physically died and really physically rose from the dead. If God the Son did not come to earth in the form of a baby in a manger, as fully God and fully man in the incarnation, live a sinless life, as part of an eternal plan that existed before the foundation of the world, and as part of an actual, accurate, historical event; then there is no Gospel.


The theological word to identify this second part of the Gospel is substitution. Every view of the atonement includes the fact that Jesus became our substitute on the Cross, bearing our sin and absorbing God's wrath, securing our justification by grace, not our works. From a Christological point of view, this part can be best understood from the death of Jesus. By John Piper’s explanation, the essential components of the Gospel included in this part would be that it is an accomplishment, an offer, and an application. The Gospel is an accomplishment: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed." - 1 Peter 2:24. Jesus on the cross bore our sins, paid the price of redemption, endured God's wrath in our place, and completed a life of perfect obedience. The Gospel is an offer: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." - John 3:16. The accomplishment of the cross is offered freely to be received by faith alone apart from works of the law. The Gospel is an application: "You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God." - 1 Peter 1:23. Because of the accomplishment, and through the accepted offer of the Gospel, God applies to us regeneration (new birth), eternal life, faith, forgiveness, justification, reconciliation, adoption, and sanctification (growth in godliness). If Jesus did not die on the cross, as our substitute absorbing the righteous wrath of God that we deserve, achieving for us our justification by faith and imputing to us the righteousness of God in Jesus upon our acceptance of it as a free offer, and in turn apply to us the benefit of the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and much more; then there is no Gospel.


The theological word to identify this third part of the Gospel is consummation. After his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and will restore creation destroying suffering of all kinds and will prepare an eternal place of joy for those who belong to Him. From a Christological point of view, this part can be best understood from the resurrection of Jesus. By John Piper’s explanation, the essential component of the Gospel included in this part would be a supremely happy future. The Gospel promises a supremely happy future: The final destiny promised in the gospel is God - regeneration, forgiveness, justification, adoption are not the final good in the Gospel - they are means to an end; the end is God himself. The Kingdom of God is ultimately forgiven people rejoicing in perfect community forever in the deepest desire of their heart, namely, Jesus Christ, who is the glory of God. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, overcoming for us the power of sin and death, and through God the Holy Spirit deposit to us the hope of ultimate, eternal consummation of not only our physical bodies, but also the entire material world where there will be no more sin, or tears, or suffering, or injustice, or imperfection at all, providing for us a supremely happy future with Him as our center; then there is no Gospel.

"A church that truly dwells in the Biblical gospel will look quite unusual. Because of the upside-down kingdom / incarnation aspect, the church will put great emphasis on deep community, cell groups or house churches, and will emphasize radical giving and sharing of resources, spiritual disciplines, racial reconciliation, and living with the poor. Because of the inside-out kingdom / substitutionary atonement aspect, the church will put great emphasis on personal conversion, experiential grace renewal, outreach, and church planting. Because of the forward-back kingdom / restoration aspect, the church will put great emphasis on seeking the welfare of the city, neighborhood and civic involvement, cultural engagement, and training people in "secular" vocations out of a Christian worldview. Very few church movements are able to integrate and inter-relate these ministries and emphases because of a comprehensive view of the Biblical gospel."
The first problem with this explanation, you might say, is what about sin? Don’t you have to explain sin when presenting the Gospel? The answer is yes, but this was not a Gospel presentation, but the Gospel itself. When presenting the Gospel, you have to figure out how to explain sin based on who you’re talking to; in other words, use different forms of the same Gospel based on your hearers. This is what all the followers of Jesus did. Please read this Tim Keller article, or listen to this sermon, to see where I'm getting this from. I'll quote him verbatim here because I could no better explain it myself.

Four things to do when preaching The Gospel in all its forms:

1. Don't put all the gospel points into any one gospel presentation.
2. Use both a gospel for the "circumcised" (traditional, moralist) and "uncircumcised" (postmodern, relativist)
3. Use both a "kingdom" and an "eternal life" gospel.
4. Use all the forms and let each group overhear you preaching to the others.

"Won't this confuse people? No, it will stretch them. When one group - say the postmodern - hears a penetrating presentation of sin as idolatry, it opens them up to the concept of sin as grieving and offending God. Sin as a personal affront to a perfect, holy God begins to make more sense, and when they hear this presented in another gospel form, it has credibility. When more traditional people with a developed understanding of moral guilt learn about the substitutionary atonement and forensic justification, they are comforted. But these classic doctrines have profound implications for race relations and love for the poor, since they destroy all pride and self-justification. When more liberal people hear about the kingdom of God for the restoration of the world, it opens them up to Christ's kingship demanding obedience from them in their personal lives. In short, every gospel form, once it hits home in the hearts of its "target" audience, opens them to the other points of the gospel made more vividly in other forms.

"When you preach several different gospel forms with some regularity, you are more true to the Bible, you make your own listeners more balanced and mature in their understanding, and you make your own church more diverse. Instead of having a homogeneous group taken from just one slice of our pluralistic society, you have a mixed body of people from across the cultural spectrum.

"Today there are many who doubt that there is just one gospel. That gives them the warrant to ignore Paul's gospel of atonement and justification. There are others who don't like to admit that there are different forms to that one gospel. That smacks too much of "contextualization", a term they dislike. They cling to a single presentation that is often too one-dimensional. Neither of these approaches are as true to the Biblical material, nor as effective in actual ministry, as that which understands that there is one gospel in several forms in the Bible."


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