Today I begin a little series on what I perceive to be an evangelism crisis in the church. I sent my warning out yesterday that this was coming and so we begin with a look at the Gospel.
If you think that you need only explain the atonement and even use that precise word in order to share the Gospel with someone, then perhaps you are stuck with an uninspiring Gospel. If you think that the chief purpose of the Gospel is to send someone to heaven, then perhaps you have an incomplete Gospel. Either way you are not very likely to share this with anyone. You are not inspired to do much of anything with the information you hold because the cross is a good message, but it’s somehow incomplete. Going to heaven is a noble goal, but it does not speak to the here and now. Going to heaven does not deal with sin; it only makes sin an inconvenient road bump on the way to glory.
I will jump to my point for the sake of clarity: the Gospel is about living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ in this life and the next (my thanks to NT Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said).
The atonement is in there, but it’s not the whole story. The Gospel certainly includes the incarnation, ministry, atoning death, resurrection, and return of Jesus, but if you want to carry it around in a nutshell, the Gospel of Christianity teaches that through all of these historical events Jesus Christ has established himself as the Lord over everything. The elements of the Gospel such as the cross and resurrection only make sense as events that made Jesus the Lord over all creation, the first born son, the heir apparent. You can believe in a doctrine about faith, atonement, and even the resurrection, but unless you have submitted yourself to the Lordship of Jesus that was established through these events, the Gospel will not have any effective power over your life. And if the Gospel does not have any power in your life, you are not very likely to share it with anyone. What good is it doing you?
During the season of Lent a few years ago I was rereading one of the Gospels and noticed that the Resurrection accounts are really the climax of these books. The cross is important for sure, but the story does not resolve with the cross. It’s the resurrection that stirs the disciples to life and creates a new community. Suddenly it hit me, “What difference does it make that Jesus rose from the dead?” It was a curious question. I realized that my understanding of the Gospel rested heavily on the cross, but it ultimately is the resurrection that completes the Gospel message. I searched out the epistles and found the same to be true. The resurrection of Christ was central to the Gospel of Paul and I had missed it all these years.
This started a quest to rediscover the resurrection and consequently the Gospel. The resurrection means that Jesus has conquered death completely and can pass new life on to us. Our dead, worthless bodies can be raised to new life here and now because of his victory over the grave. And because he conquered death, he is now the Lord over all. My doctrine of the cross did not take me to this territory. I was now confronted with a Jesus who not only gives me new life; he also demands that I submit to his rule.
My tidy little Gospel collapsed. I did not just believe that Jesus died for my sins in order that I may go to heaven. This was part of it. But I found that I needed to receive the finished life, death, and resurrection of Christ that leads to his Lordship and submit to his rule over my life. This was the turning point. Jesus was now present and alive, taking me to a place where he was far more alive, far more relevant, and far more disturbing to my comfortable life. He did not want to be my Lord just when I arrived in heaven. That was not enough for him. His rule begins now and that has made all of the difference. And that is a message that I can share.