Christians need to hear the gospel

Christians need to hear the gospel as much as non-Christians. Why?

1/ Because there are plenty of people who identify as Christians who aren’t actually saved; who are Christian in name only. They need to hear the gospel.

2/ Because there are plenty of Christians whose faith is immature; who haven’t integrated the gospel into the their life and teaching even after many years in church (or even ministry); who need deeper roots so they can produce healthier fruit. They need to hear the gospel.

3/ Because growing in grace is essential for growing in Christ even for mature Christians. Grace is not just the ABCs of Christianity, it is A-Z. Everyone needs to hear the gospel.

The gospel has many layers

One of the things I find fascinating about the gospel is how it operates on a number of different levels simultaneously.

The Christ. The gospel is first and foremost the story of the Christ promised by God,  who entered history as Jesus of Nazareth. It tells of his life, death, resurrection, and promised return. We might call this the personal or biographical layer.

The Covenant. But widening out, the gospel is also the story of the Covenant between God and Israel coming to its climax. It tells of the inauguration of the kingdom of God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We might call this the political layer.

The Creation. But widening out even further, it is also the story of the Creation coming to its climax. It tells of the inauguration of the new heavens and the new earth, through and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We might call this the cosmic layer.

These three stories – Christ, Covenant, and Creation – all reach their climax together in the resurrection. And the best is yet to come. Good news indeed.

What did Jesus achieve?

What did Jesus achieve? Jews at the time of Jesus expected the messiah to achieve a number to things: to defeat the enemies of Israel; to restore the Temple; to gather the exiles of Israel; and to teach the Torah to the nations.

The earliest Christians, who were Jewish by and large, saw Jesus as fulfilling these expectations, but in unexpected ways. Jesus had taught that Satan was their true enemy, not Rome; that he would rebuild the Temple on the third day; that he had come for the lost sheep of Israel; and that his word would never fade. His disciples saw Jesus as fulfilling these messianic expectations through his life, death, and resurrection.

Throughout the ages, Christians have tended to drill down into different aspects of this. Some have tended to emphasise Jesus as warrior, defeating Satan and freeing God’s people; some have tended to emphasise Jesus as prophet, teaching God’s wisdom and modelling God’s ways; some have tended to emphasise Jesus as priest, offering himself as a sacrifice for our injustices. Each of these ways explains an aspect of his achievement, of the different ways in which the Messiah, Jesus, mediates between divinity and humanity.

The book of Deer

book of deer - the four evangelists
The Book of Deer

This illustration of the four gospel writers comes from the Book of Deer, the earliest surviving example of Gaelic literature from Scotland. The Book of Deer is an illuminated Christian text, similar to the Book of Kells. It is named after the monastery of Deer and contains portions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, a portion of an Office for the Visitation of the Sick, the complete text of the Gospel of John and the Apostles’ Creed.

What do Muslims find most difficult about Christianity?

I recently asked some Muslim friends, “What is the one thing you find most difficult or offensive about Christianity?” and whether this related to belief or behaviour.

The overwealming majority answered that it was the Christian affirmation of the divinity of Jesus that they found most difficult, with many expressing their objections to trinitarian and incarnational understandings of God.

Some comments suggested elements of misunderstanding, even bewilderment, especially when it came to the crucifixion and what God was supposed to have achieved through it. But even where that was the case I doubt better understanding would have bridged the fundamental gap. It was clear that the gospel itself, the good news of God among us, was the issue. Our primary teaching is the primary offense.

Even so, the responses were respectful and a number expressed appreciation for the question, one even suggesting a reciprocation in kind. Most surprising to me, many expressed positive experiences with Christians, as Muslims, again making it clear to me that it was the good news of God among us which was the most significant stumbling block.

How do we overcome this core difficultly that Muslims have with Christianity? Clearly not by education alone, for the primary problem is not ignorance. Clearly not by hospitality alone, for the primary problem is not hostility either. Clearly something more is required. Personally I suspect nothing less than a new experience of God, a sign that surprises.

The false gospel of self righteousness

“As we bring the gospel home to our family, we dare not do so as a self-righteous older brother. Even if our family members are out squandering their inheritance with prostitutes or wallowing in the mud with pigs, if we’re pointing to our record of good behavior while condemning their wicked ways, it will be some message other than the gospel that they hear. They would be wise to reject such a message.” (Randy Newman – Bringing the Gospel Home)

Gita and Gospel

“Here, then, we have the secret of that similarity which we are all so clearly conscious of, when we read a Gospel alongside of the Glta. In the Gospels we have in historical form the authoritative utterances of the historical Jesus; in the Gita we have the imaginations of a poet-philosopher who was clear-sighted enough to realize that an incarnate god would have many things to say about himself, and that his teaching would bear the note of authority. When, however, we look for exact parallels between the two, they are hard to find: the books are so utterly diverse in origin and teaching that they have little in common except the tone of the master. In a few cases, however, the resemblance is rather striking.”

“The Gita is one of the most eloquent possible proofs of the fact that the human heart cries out for an incarnate Saviour. Scarcely less impressive is the evidence furnished by the reception of the Gita by Hindu readers: not the greatest of the Upanishads, neither the Chandogya nor the Katha, has had one quarter of the influence exercised by this late poem; and the secret undoubtedly is to be found in the attraction of the man-god Krishna. How many generations of pious readers have found in the story of the life and teaching of the incarnate god something to which their deepest and most persistent religious instincts have responded! How many to-day turn to Krishna in their trials and troubles!”

“On the one hand, then, we have the imaginative portrait of Krishna, surrounded by millions of adoring worshippers—touching spectacle! On the other, stands the historical Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Man and Son of God, stretching out His nail-pierced hands to India, as He says, “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Rightly read, the Gita, is a clear-tongued prophecy of Christ, and the hearts that bow down to the idea of Krishna are really seeking the incarnate Son of God.”

Farquhar, J. N. (John Nicol), 1861-1929

The Gita and Gospel is available for free in ebook format here.

The Incomplete Gospel

I love the incompleteness of the Gospel of Mark. It ends without ending: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) It invites us to ask, “But if they said nothing to anyone, how come we’ve heard of this?” Evidently, it didn’t end there.

This evening I was re-reading Thomas Hoover’s “Zen Culture” when I came across these comments: “The ideas taught by asymmetry in the visual arts are paralleled in the literary arts by the device of suggestion … Explicit art ends with itself; suggestive art is as limitless and profound as one’s imagination can make it.” The Gospel of Mark is just that: suggestive, profound, not limited by the ending of the text.

Contextualisation is often misunderstood

Are we sure we understand contextualisation? This afternoon I stumbled across an article on Reclaiming Contextualization by Dr David Sills, a Professor of Christian Missions and Cultural Anthropology.

David comes from a much more conservative background than myself, so our sensitivities differ somewhat, but I really appreciated some of his comments on contextualization which struck me as very thoughtful and balanced. Here is a sample.

“When someone argues that Paul never contextualized the gospel and so they do not either, it is obvious that someone has redefined the term contextualization.”

“The problem is not the practice of contextualization; it is a misunderstanding of what the word means.”

“…contextualization is simply the process of making the gospel understood.”

“The only reason to utilize filthy language or to reference explicit sexual behavior would be if the local culture communicated used filthy language in every conversation so much that no message would make sense without it. Television programs without such language would require subtitles for them, as they would not understand the message without filthy language and sexual anecdotes. Of course, this is not the case. In fact, much of what many call contextualization is simply an effort to be trendy and edgy. It may be effective, it may attract a hearing, it may not be offensive to the hearers, but that is not contextualization; that is marketing.”

“Because no missionary or preacher would ever want to change the gospel message in any way [Ed: there are subtleties to this that require reflection], many shrink back from the hard work of contextualization. However, if you do not contextualize, you are doing just that—changing the gospel. You become a modern-day Judaizer.”

“The term glocalization refers to the ways that multinational corporations carry on the same business in many countries but with subtly nuanced changes. McDonalds still sells hamburgers in Malaysia but the girls behind the counter wear their little paper hats on top of their head-coverings and they call their product “beefburgers,” not hamburgers, to avoid offending the Muslims who would never eat ham. We don’t eat ham on our burgers either, but the culturally offensive name prevents Muslims from getting near enough to find that out. It is the exact same product but clothed in a culturally sensitive form. Contextualization is essential, not simply trendy or stylish, and it does not water down Christ’s message.”

Critical contextualization provides the needed balance. On one hand, failure to contextualize at all adds extrabiblical requirements to salvation. On the other hand, allowing the culture to contextualize with no theological or biblical limits results in syncretism and aberrant expressions of Christianity.

This is where the hermeneutical community brings the needed balance. As the believers in a culture have come to know the Lord, they join the preacher in studying the Bible to know how to contextualize it among them.

When the preacher or missionary does not understand the culture, language, or rules of the game in a society, his presentation of the gospel is often offensive for all the wrong reasons. When hearers reject the cultural misfit who does not understand them or their cultural heritage, they also reject the gospel without even knowing it.

Of course, we must contextualize the gospel message so that our hearers can properly understand it. Shame on us if we ever debate that. The current debate may be over marketing techniques but let us never sacrifice the necessity of critical contextualization.

I recommend you read the rest of the article, but I will leave you with this thought: how much of what you call contextualisation is just marketing? This article prompts me to ask that of myself once again. Part of the reason it is called critical contextualisation is because we are called to critique ourselves. Before we throw stones at Driscoll or his detractors or anyone else, have we examined our own practice?

The Gospel of Jesus? Or the Gospel about Jesus?

Some people see the the Gospel of Jesus as being in opposition to the Gospel about Jesus. They note that Jesus announced the coming Kingdom of God. They note that Paul and the other apostles announced the resurrection of Jesus. They see the different language and conclude this represents a fundamental difference between the two. I think this perception represents a fundamental misunderstanding.

The way out of the impasse, I think, is to recognise that the apostles announced Jesus as King with the same breath as they announced the resurrection. King and Kingdom are intimately related. To acknowledge Jesus is King through his resurrection from the dead is to acknowledge the Kingdom of God has now come on earth. There is no need to draw a line between the personal gospel of evangelicals and the social gospel of liberals. Both contain elements of a larger truth.

The Good News: It’s Not All About Guilt

Yesterday I suggested that we need to be more aware of cultural diversity and of the guilt-innocence, shame-honor and fear-power paradigms intermixing in glocal cultures.

I also suggested it has implications for how we share the good news, for our paradigms shape what we see as good news.

Today I want to draw people’s attention back to the Bible, which engages with all three of these cultural paradigms.

Guilt, Innocence and the Gospel

How do we judge yourself? Never mind God’s standards, what about your own standards? Do you always live up to them? Does falling short of your own expectations get you down? How do you deal with that? Here are some passages on guilt and God’s forgiveness to reflect on.

Genesis 44:16
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.”

Deuteronomy 25:1
When men have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty.

John 16:8
When he comes, he will prove that the world’s people are guilty. He will prove their guilt concerning sin and godliness and judgment.

Romans 5:16
The result of God’s gift is different from the result of Adam’s sin. God judged one sin. That brought guilt. But after many sins, God’s gift made people right with him.

Hebrews 10:22
So let us come near to God with an honest and true heart. Let us come near with a faith that is sure and strong. Our hearts have been sprinkled. Our minds have been cleansed from a sense of guilt. Our bodies have been washed with pure water.

Shame, Honor and the Gospel

Have you ever done something that brought friends into disrepute because they were associated with you? Dig it bring them down with you? Did it sabotage more than just your hopes? Here are some passages on shame and God’s welcome to reflect on.

Proverbs 3:35
The wise inherit honor, but fools he holds up to shame.

Zephaniah 3:19
At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you; I will rescue the lame and gather those who have been scattered. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they were put to shame.

Romans 2:7
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

1 Corinthians 12:23
and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,

1 Peter 1:7
These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Fear, Power and the Gospel

Have you ever felt anxious? Have you ever let your anxiety and a lack of perspective lead you down a destructive path? Have you ever felt powerless and overwhelmed? Here are some passages on fear and God’s empowerment to reflect on.

Isaiah 11:2
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD –

Luke 10:19
I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.

Luke 12:4-5
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.

Romans 1:16
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

1 Corinthians 1:18
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In the face of guilt, shame and fear the resurrection of Jesus all good news, but what resonates more will depend on where you are coming from.