Friday, November 4, 2011

The Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel

I have extolled the virtues of the Jesus Storybook Bible in past posts. Reading a story from the Bible has become a nightly ritual that my kids wouldn’t let me skip if I wanted to; they love the illustrations and the well-crafted Bible stories.

But what I love most about it is not the fact that my kids love it; what I love most is that it is a good grown-up Bible, for it tells the whole Gospel. In every story, Old Testament or New, it points out how that story fits into the tapestry of God’s interaction with man, and how that story points to Jesus. So when my kids learn about Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt, they learn how this story was foreshadowing of when Jesus would lead us from slavery. When my kids learn that David was a hero for defeating Goliath, they learn that one day Jesus—the Great Hero—would come to save us from the giants of our sin. When they learn about Rachel and Leah, they learn that God sees the inside, and chose the “ugly” sister to be the princess who would give birth to the line of Jesus.

Because of this, my six year old already probably has a better gospel education than many who attend many modern evangelical churches every week.

Unfortunately, we Christians today (particularly the evangelicals among us) have become what Scot McKnight calls soterians (salvation people) rather than evangelicals (Gospel people)—that is, we teach only a part of the Gospel (the plan of salvation) and neglect to preach the whole Gospel.

What is the difference? As McKnight well puts it in his King Jesus Gospel, the Gospel preached by early Christians was more than just salvation—our salvation is only one part of the magnificent Gospel. The Gospel is “the narration of the saving story of Jesus…as the completion of the story of Israel”.

The Gospel is not, “I am a sinner and Jesus died for my sins and saved me.” That is a part of the Gospel. But what the Gospel really is, is this: that an Almighty Being of purity and goodness chose to create man; that man rebelled and fell, creating a world unlike the perfection originally meant for it to be; that God interacted closely with one group of man for millennia with man to rescue him from himself—sometimes through violent punishment, sometimes through longsuffering forgiveness, sometimes through miraculous salvation, sometimes through poetic verse, sometimes through covenantal law; that this God took flesh and sacrificed himself innocently for man’s transgressions; that in the end God will turn all the suffering and agony into the inverse, and run it all backward to remake Creation anew, as it was meant to be from the beginning of time.

This is the Good News. It is more than simply the question of, “What happens to a particular individual who dies?” (Though, of course, when we are that individual, this is a quite important question!)

The Good News is the entire Gospel, cover to cover—the story of God and Jesus, a story in which man is a prodigal son (and occasional villain), who is redeemed not in the end, but in the middle, of the Great Plotline. The protagonist in this story is not you or I; the protagonist is God—the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. The antagonist is Satan and fallen man. Though the story has the appearance of tragedy, the protagonist lives forever (via the ultimate dues ex machina), and in the process fallen man is redeemed. The final act of this saga is yet to come, but it sure reads like it will be pretty exciting…

Make no mistake: the Gospel is not the story of, “How do I get to heaven when I leave earth?”; the Gospel is the story of, “How did God make creation, how did it get messed up, and how will He remake it anew?”

Our individual stories of salvation are a part of this, to be sure: each saved individual is a rock, and those rocks make a glorious tower in the courtyard of God—a monument to Jesus’ sacrifice in the great Eternal City. But to focus only on this part is to rob us of the rich beauty of the entire story—it is like studying only Mona Lisa’s eye, rather than the entire painting.

Unfortunately, few churches today teach the whole Gospel. Just for curiousity, I picked a fast-growing evangelical church in Little Rock that is built in the megachurch ‘style’. In its 2011 sermons, here was the breakdown in topics: 52% “practical self-help”; 24% lessons on holy living; 19% on personal salvation; 5% on the doctrine of the church; 0% on the Gospel story. [Note: What do I mean by “the Gospel story”? By now I hope you know! But basically, I mean—the history of what God did, and what He promises to do; and who He is; and how His story fits together. This could be done through topical stories of Biblical exegesis, but it is essentially…learning about God and His story.]

By comparison, the verse breakdown in Peter’s message on Pentecost was: 0% “practical self-help”; 4% lessons on holy living; 8% on personal salvation; 0% on the doctrine of the church; 88% on the Gospel story. Paul’s messages to the Romans and 1 Corinthians 15 break down something like this: 0% “practical self-help”; 6% lessons on holy living; 6% on personal salvation; 46% on the doctrine of the church; 43% on the Gospel story.

So what does this show? It shows that Paul and Peter did talk quite a bit about salvation – something like one of every ten verses was about how to make ourselves right before God. And they did discuss how to live a holy lifestyle a bit (something like 5-8% of their discussion.) But 80-90% of what they talked and wrote about was the big-picture Gospel—the good news of God the Creator, interacting with Israel, becoming man, dying wrongly, being resurrected, forgiving our sins, and planning an invasion at the end of time. The focus was on Jesus, not on us. Our salvation is an output of the Gospel story, not the key pivot on which the whole thing turns.

By comparison, the modern evangelical church focuses perhaps a bit more on personal salvation than they should, and much, much more on “practical” messages about how to live than they should. And, most damningly, they spend virtually no time discussing the actual Biblical story, the actual Gospel account. Perhaps this is why Biblical illiteracy is so rampant in America. (Sadly, 84% of Americans say the Bible is important to helping them make decisions, but only half can name half of the Gospels, less than half know the Bible starts with Genesis, and two-thirds don’t know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount).

You see, by focusing the message on us and our salvation, we make ourselves the shrines of our own religion. We divorce salvation from its proper context within the great story of God rescuing His creation; instead we make it all about how we can get forgiven for our bad behavior. The end result is that Christians talk about Jesus, without knowing anything about Him.

Am I saying that there is something wrong with preaching about holy living and personal salvation? Of course not. Am I saying that we should focus on trying to make everyone theologians? Don’t be silly. (After all, sometimes when it comes to theology, we must remember Edgar Allan Poe’s dictum from Murders in the Rue Morgue: “What is complex is mistaken (a not unusual error) for what is profound.”)

What I am saying is that the three major focuses of most church sermons today—holy living, personal salvation, and practical self-help—share one trait: they are all about ourselves, and not about God. We focus completely upon the “self” part of our relationship, instead of focusing on God—who is He? what did He do in the past? how does He want us to worship Him? what is His story?

We must put the “selfish” Christianity to death. We must stop the self-centric preaching which equates worship with “practical self-help plus salvation plus holy behavior”. Instead, we must go back, as did Peter and Paul, to preaching the Gospel. And the Gospel is not about us. The Gospel is all about God and His creation—how it went wrong, and how it is being made right.

If a children’s Bible can do it; why can’t we?

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