Tuesday, February 14, 2006

what is the gospel? (a teaching)

Here’s a story of two women. It’s a true story. I know it’s true because I know both of these women. Since one of them lives in one state and the other lives in another state, they do not know each other, but they have a lot in common.

Perhaps the most significant of their common features has to do with aspects of their faith. Both of them believe in Jesus. Both have “received Jesus” (as evangelicals put it). Both would say they know that salvation is by grace alone and through faith alone. Both go to church regularly. Both believe the Bible is the Word of God, that it is inerrant and inspired by God. Both believe Jesus died on the cross for their sins and then literally rose again. Both believe Jesus is coming back some day.

Neither of them has any immediately recognizable moral failings. They don’t drink (important for American Christians...), they don’t watch movies that are "immoral", they don’t read books that are "licentious", they keep their houses clean (also important for Christian spirituality...), and they don’t use cusswords (darn it).

These two women, in that sense, have a lot in common. But, with all these things, I tell you the truth when I say you could scarcely find two women who could be more different than these two.

Now, when I say that, I’m not talking about age, even though one is older than the other. I'm not talking merely about personality types. I’m also not talking about economic or social class.

What I’m talking about is, ironically, spiritual in nature. When I say these two women are different, I mean to say that, when you meet one you see a woman who is, generally speaking, self-absorbed. This particular woman has been a Christian now for over 23 years, yet she has rarely, if ever, reached out to meet her neighbors or share a meal with them. Church, for her, is a place to go to check off the weekly list, not a place to get to know other people and serve. She is needy in the sense that she “needs” others in her life to meet her emotional and spiritual needs (rather than thinking of herself as someone who should, by now, be able to meet the needs of others). Conversations with this woman invariably turn back around to her: her needs, her things, her life. In truth, this woman is a constant emotional and spiritual drain, so, I'm sad to say, no one wants to be around her.

The other woman, I’m happy to say, is not like that. She is giving, humble, others-focused, patient, loving, kind, and (perhaps most importantly) at peace, content with what she has, content with the fact that she is God’s child. She also takes seriously God’s calling to every Christian to serve, minister and witness to others of Jesus’ life in her heart. She is like the woman in Proverbs 31 who is constantly and diligently doing good things for others.

Now, don’t get me wrong: the first woman I described believes in Jesus and has received his forgiveness, just like the second woman. In that sense, you could say she is a Christian. But I tell you the truth when I say that you could not meet two women who are more different than these two.

So, the question is: why the difference? Why does one woman look one way, while the other woman looks another way?

I have a theory: The first woman doesn’t truly understand the gospel. The second one does.

Now, you may wonder: “Wait a second, Troy. You just got done saying the first woman has received Jesus’ forgiveness. You just got done saying she believes Jesus is God, she believes she is a sinner. She knows she needs God’s forgiveness provided through Christ’s crucifixion. She knows she’s saved only by grace through faith. So…” you may be wondering, “she understands the gospel, right?”

Wrong. She understands the beginning of the gospel. Christ’s forgiveness is actually just the starting point. In fact, it could be said, although it may be debated, that Christ’s forgiveness is merely the thing that makes it possible for us to truly embrace “the gospel.”

Now, what on earth am I talking about? Let me explain. You may know that the word “gospel” means “good news”. You may also know that Jesus came into the world to announce some “good news” and his disciples were charged with spreading this “good news” to everyone.

The question we must now ask ourselves is: just what on earth was this “good news” Jesus and his disciples were talking about?

This is to say: the good news Jesus came to announce results in nothing less than the restoration of all things. This is earth-shattering good news because, as you know, the world sucks. We have lost our bearings. Half the time, the human race doesn’t even know which end is up, what is right, what is wrong, what is good, what is evil. You know the stories as well as I do. The world is not going in a direction that God originally intended. Things did not turn out the way God would have had them turn out. And if you doubt this, travel back with me to the beginning…

See, at the beginning of time, God created the heavens and the earth and humanity with the intent that everything he had created would stand in relation to him. But, because God wanted a special relationship with humanity that was not merely robotic, he created us with the ability to choose for ourselves which way we would go. It follows that, with choice, God allowed humans a small piece of kingdom authority. What I mean is this: God allowed Adam and Eve and us the freedom to rule over small slices of his creation, the freedom to exercise our will over whatever sphere we live in.

As a parent, I can give you an everday example of this: Though God is the ruler of everything, he has purposefully limited the exercise of his authority to give me room to exercise my authority. In other words, God will allow me to parent my children the way I want to parent my children. This is because God wanted to grant us the grace of exercising our will so we could experience the grace of true freedom. Of course, if I ask for God’s help in my parenting, he will graciously give it to me, but if I say to him, “Push off, you cramp my style,” he will leave me well enough alone, thank you very much. God will not force his authority over me because he wants me to learn to choose him freely, thus growing in true love (for true love can never be forced).

So, here’s the deal: at the same time that God exercises his authority, he voluntarily limits his authority to give us space to exercise the authority he’s granted us by his grace. To the extent that we align our authority with God’s authority, life is good. But, to the extent that we go our own way and not God’s way, life stinks.

Of course, we all know where we’re at in the story right now, don’t we? We’re in the stink pot. But don’t let that worry you too much, because the predicament that the world is in has been a source of constant concern to God. (That stands to reason, since he’s the one who created it in the first place.) Now, because God is so concerned over the state of his entire creation, he has been doing whatever it takes to bring that creation back to the way he wants it, the way he’s always wanted it. In other words, God is (and has always been) in the business of restoring all things. And we see over several millennia that God has certainly been doing his part to put everything right again.

Ever since that day in the garden of Eden, God has been trying to restore all things, through helping humans choose to follow his authority, to bring their authority in line with his. Notice, God has not taken away our authority. He is simply trying to help us put our authority in line with his, to align our kingdom with his kingdom, our rule with his rule, our leadership with his.

So, for example, God commissions Moses to lead and form a people that would be devoted to following God’s lead, to align their nation with God’s nation, and thus to be a truly holy people. (This is what God has wanted all along.) And, we read in the Bible, to the extent that the Israelites did this, they experienced the restoration of all things. But, in times when they went their own way, they experienced the destruction of all things. You may know that the Israelites were exiled from their own kingdom, forced to live as foreigners in Babylon. After centuries of enjoying the blessings of their own country, their own rule and reign, they forfeited those blessings because they chose to stray from God’s rule and reign, from God’s kingdom.

Eventually, the Israelites were enabled by God (only by his sheer grace and forgiveness) to return to their homeland, to once again enjoy the blessing of kingdom authority, a say over their own destiny. God did not have to do this, but he did it to give them another chance to align the exercise of their authority with his wishes.

We all know that they did not do this. Again. Then, the Romans came and once again their freedom to rule, to reign, was taken from them.

So, when Jesus came (and the Israelites were subjects in a kingdom not their own anymore), what were the people longing for? What would have sounded like “good news” to their ears? Naturally: the restoration of all things. The restoration of the kingdom God had granted them.

It is in this context that Jesus came to announce the good news, the gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is available to everyone. And God is setting up a new way to make this kingdom imminently accessible. So, things can be different. Everything can be restored.”

There was just one problem: sin. Now, remember, God has always been trying to restore to earth the heavenly kingdom he originally created, the kind of kingdom where humanity willingly follows his lead. But, when humanity went its own way, a couple needs arose:

1. the need to put things right again (that’s what we’ve been describing thus far)

preceded by…

2. the need to be forgiven.

Forgiveness as a precedent to “the restoration of all things” has always been the case, even before the time of Jesus. So, in those days, God addressed this need to be forgiven with the sacrifice of animals.

But, God has always stressed with Israel that the sacrifice of animals was not to be the end of God’s relationship with humankind. Humans were to sacrifice animals so that they could then be free to follow God’s ways. The goal has always been: follow God’s ways.

This is why David says in Psalm 51: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

One could say to David, “What?! You’re a Jew! And you’re saying God doesn’t ‘take pleasure in burnt offerings’? That’s your way of life! You need those sacrifices!” But what David is saying is: “Yes, of course, the sacrifices are needed for forgiveness, but what God really wants is a change of heart, a change of life.” This is also why Jesus quotes Hosea the prophet when he says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

In other words, the main point of the good news is not mere forgiveness. That’s the starting point but not the point, the end that God wants. The point is life change, the restoration of all things. That’s what God really wants.

We can see, then, that the first woman in “the story of two women” doesn’t really understand the full essence of the good news. God wants to transform her character as she lives in the light of his kingdom. He doesn’t merely want to forgive her, he wants to change her.

So often Christians think if someone prays a prayer, acknowledging that they’re a sinner and that they need Christ’s forgiveness, that if they “receive Jesus”, then they’re “saved”. They’ll receive what evangelicals call “eternal life”, which they take to mean as this: “when you die you’ll go to heaven.”

But this is a misunderstanding of the full message of the gospel. Yes, the good news is that Jesus offers us eternal life, but the great news is that eternal life is not solely reserved for when we die. Eternal life is a quality of life, not merely a quantity of it. And Jesus offers to us “the eternal kind of life now” (as Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy says). That’s what Jesus means when he says, “I’ve got some good news for you. The kingdom of heaven is available (i.e., ‘at hand’).” Eternal life is available now. The kind of life that can only be found in God is free for the taking, right now, long before you die. God can restore all things.

In that light, it seems absurd that Christians are often merely content with “Receive Christ, read your Bible, go to church and pray. That should cover you. That’s good enough.”

I say that’s “absurd” because this doesn’t mesh with the message of Jesus and the early Christians. The Christian life, life in the kingdom of heaven, they tell us, is more like an exciting race that can be run with our whole heart and that involves our whole life, our whole world, the whole of our existence. It's a race that results in the restoration of all things. With that image in mind, read these words from Brian McLaren in the book Adventures in Missing the Point:

“Consider the Parable of the Race. Once upon a time, in a land of boredom and drudgery, exciting news spread: ‘There is going to be a race! And all who run this race will grow strong and they’ll never be bored again!’ Exciting news like this had not been heard for many a year, for people experienced little adventure in this ho-hum land, beyond attending committee meetings, waiting in lines, sorting socks, and watching sitcom reruns.

“Excitement grew as the day of the race drew near. Thousands gathered in the appointed town, at the appointed place. Most came to observe, skeptical about the news. ‘It’s too good to be true,’ they said. ‘It’s just a silly rumor started by some teenaged troublemakers. But let’s stick around and see what happens anyway.’

“Others could not resist the invitation, arriving in their running shorts and shoes. As they waited for the appointed time, they stretched and jogged in place and chattered among themselves with nervous excitement. At the appointed time they gathered at the starting line, heard the gun go off, and knew that it was time to run.

"Then something very curious happened. The runners took a step or two or three across the starting line, and then abruptly stopped. One man fell to his knees, crying, ‘I have crossed the starting line! This is the happiest day of my life!’ He repeated this again and again, and even began singing a song about how happy this day was for him.

“Another woman started jumping for joy. ‘Yes!’ she shouted, raising her fist in the air. ‘I am a race-runner! I am finally a race-runner!’ She ran around jumping and dancing, getting and giving high fives to others who shared her joy at being in the race.

“Several people formed a circle and prayed, quietly thanking God for the privilege of crossing the starting line, and thanking God that they were not like the skeptics who didn’t come dressed for the race.

“An hour passed, and two. Spectators began muttering; some laughed. ‘So what do they think this race is?’ they said. ‘Two or three strides, then a celebration? And why do they feel superior to us? They’re treating the starting line as if it were a finish line. They’ve completely missed the point.’

"A few more minutes of this silliness passed. ‘You know,’ a spectator said to the person next to her, ‘if they’re not going to run the race, maybe we should.’

“‘Why not? It’s getting boring watching them hang around just beyond the starting line. I’ve had enough boredom for one life.’

“Others heard them, and soon many were kicking off their dress shoes, slipping out of their jackets, throwing all this unneeded clothing on the grass. And they ran—-past the praying huddles and past the crying individuals and past the jumping high-fivers. And they found hope and joy in every step, and they grew stronger with every mile and hill. To their surprise, the path never ended—-because in this race, there was no finish line. So they were never bored again.”

Let’s run the race marked out for us. The race of a new life. The race of the kingdom of heaven. You can experience the eternal kind of life now. Jesus is saying to us: “I’ve got some good news for you: things don’t have to stink anymore. Life doesn’t have to be this way. The world doesn’t have to be this way.”

God really can restore all things, because the kingdom of heaven is available to you right now. A new way of life is available right now. And that, my friends, is truly good news.

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