"...I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, 'but the righteous man shall live by faith'" (Romans 1:16-17).
A few days ago, I wrote about the secularization of America, and the powerless American church. While I believe everything I wrote is true, it's incomplete. I have long subscribed to the philosophy that anyone can complain and point out problems, but unless the complainer also brings potential solutions, he's part of the problem.
So, here's part two of my take on the state of the American church.
As I see it, there are two central factors in this problem: The church has accepted a grossly distorted and inadequate concept of the gospel; and the church, with that, has forgotten why it exists: It has little sense of biblical purpose.
So, first things first: What is the gospel? In the most basic terms, "It's all about Jesus." The gospel is Good News that consists of what Jesus did and said, and why it matters. Anything that isn't good news to the hearer likely isn't the gospel. If we don't understand and have a passionate commitment to the central truth of Jesus, there is no reason to go on. But what does that mean? "My sins are forgiven and I'll spend eternity with God in heaven." "When I die I'll go to heaven." "Jesus died for my sins so I don't have to pay for them."
Sadly, asking people attending evangelical churches does not often bring good answers. It's all too easy to say Jesus died on a cross for me, yet have no idea of the depth or implications of that profoundly radical statement.
Here's the problem: All these common answers have a core of truth, yet they have only part of the truth. And any parent knows a half-truth is no truth. It's no wonder we are powerless and without credibility when we hold an untruth as central to our faith. This "gospel" does little to transform lives. It's little more than intellectual propositions.
Why did Paul find it necessary to write the lines from Romans, above? Everyone knew he was unashamed. In fact, he was brash and bold and constantly in trouble because of it. But not everyone shared Paul's fearlessness. Perhaps to understand him, we need to understand the context into which he wrote.
Virtually everyone in the ancient world had the same basic ideas about gods. Except Christians and Jews. The majority vote was that gods fit into one of several categories: like super-people; insects; or celestial bodies, such as the sun and stars. This concept was nearly universally accepted.
Then along came the Jews and their invisible, fearsome, loving, forgiving, gracious God. Even the Jews had trouble grasping that, and had a history of repeated failure in serving this God. After all, everyone knew gods were not like this invisible something the Jews professed to worship.
People in pagan societies lived in uncertainty. They never knew their status with their gods. If things went well, the gods were apparently pleased. If things went poorly, someone had messed up. So they offered sacrifices, many, many sacrifices, often including their own children. They engaged in all sorts of strange behavior, and most of all, they lived a life of not knowing, characterized by fear. If they didn't please the gods, after all, they might turn on them. And they never knew for sure if they were doing the right things.
Not so, the God of the Jews, although by the time of Paul, many Jews had missed the point that God was trying to make. This God went to great lengths to be known.
Paul wrote of a mystery having been revealed to him (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 1:9; 3:3, 4, 9; 6:9; Col. 1:26, 27). The mystery was this: the gospel. It was that God welcomed us, with nothing of value on our part. It was the scandal of God becoming a man, living among men, and dying as man, so men - who mostly didn't care - could live. It was the scandal of God freely forgiving and setting free from bondage all who would believe.
This is the gospel. This is Good News.
Most people aren't concerned with "some day, when I die, if I die - and I'm not really sure that will happen - I'll go to heaven, whatever that means." Most people are thinking about life today, life free of fear, free of bondage, free of condemnation and guilt. And the gospel - the real gospel - is about Life. It's about eternal life, to be sure, but it's also about Life Right Now.
If the church would be a transformation force in our culture, we need to embrace and proclaim - by word and deed alike - Life to the world. Nothing else will do. Jesus gives new life, real life. And we need to proclaim the complete, all encompassing, life-transforming Good News.
I'll write more of how we might do that in the next article.