March 17, 2008

The Gospel for the Church

Posted in Sin and Grace, The Basics, Theology at 4:49 pm by Matt Porter

ItIsFinished(This is yet another stop along the way to my ideas on gospel presentation.)

Here’s the working definition I’ll be using during the rest of these posts; see my last post for a more detailed approach to it:

gos-pel (n.): God’s plan for the redemption of all creation, especially mankind, accomplished through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ

Does the Church, the Body of Christ, need the gospel? The answer to this question determines how we shape our ministry to each other and how we view our place in God’s plan.

I don’t think the answer to this question is difficult: Christians need the gospel because they are still works-in-progress. As I said last time, conservative Christians have an unfortunate tendency to limit the gospel to reconciliation/justification; our practical soteriology is limited to “ask Jesus into your heart so you can go to heaven when you die.” As I argued, this skews our ideas of salvation, focusing on the events at the beginning and end (faith and death) of our new life instead of the actual life itself. Viewing our redemption as an ongoing process gives us a new perspective which is helpful in several ways:

  • It gives us an overall view of God’s plan for us. We often hear, “If God didn’t want you to witness, he’d have taken you to heaven as soon as you were saved!” That grasps a tiny corner of a truth, but misses the much larger point. God didn’t leave us here to get work out of us, but to work in us. That work will never be complete until we do finally reach heaven, but it is his purpose for now. (Rom. 8:29)
  • It allows us to understand our life as a journey. Believing on Christ is the first step, one God intends we should continue throughout our lives. Our lives are not a series of distinct events, but a story of God’s work in us and our response to God. Focusing on the events at the start and end of this work detracts from our ability to make sense of the in-between life that we’re living right now.
  • It gives us a reasonable perspective of ourselves as sinners. We give lip service to the continued existence of the old nature, then talk like it’s possible for the Christian never to sin again. In contrast, viewing ourselves as fatally flawed sinners with whom God is working relieves us of the necessity of perfection. God already expects us to sin (you can’t argue that he expects perfection from us!).
  • It frees us from attempting perfection. In practice, we talk and act like outward, public sins are a measure of one’s spirituality. (Let me mention here that I hate, absolutely hate the word “spirituality,” as if God’s work in us could be arbitrarily assigned a quantity along some linear scale.) In reality, God’s work is on our insides, not our outsides. Did we never learn anything from all the invective Jesus hurled at the Pharisees?
  • It allows us to properly deal with specific repeated sins. Woe to the Christian who admits he repeatedly struggles with any specific sin (but especially if that sin be drinking, smoking (unless you’re in the South), or homosexuality; voting Democrat is pretty bad, too). If he is lucky, he’ll get off lightly with repeated admonishments to “just give it to Jesus” (whatever that means); unlucky repeat offenders are more likely to face loss of social standing or estrangement as a “carnal Christian.” When we acknowledge that we our sin nature is no different after our justification, we can admit that particular sins appeal to us because of our personalities—they are persistent precisely because they are part of who we are. They do not determine what we do, but they will always be with us because they are us. (See this page for an example of someone who considers himself homosexual, but refuses to live in homosexuality because God forbids it.)

Far too many of our independent, Bible-believing, separated churches have detracted from Christ’s work. We hammer home that Jesus is the only way to heaven, that the lost are hopelessly damned without him, that nothing outside of his finished work on the cross can save our wretched souls, that our righteousnesses are as filthy rags. Then we take the new convert and pile on him all the law, which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear. Oh, we don’t say that our works save us. We just say that good, growing Christians ought to be doing X, Y, and Z, and we might want to question our salvation if we find ourselves not wanting to do those things. We take those who question the effectiveness of our methods, like door-to-door visitation, bus ministry, or street preaching, and accuse them of causing division, being ashamed of the gospel, and obstructing God’s work. We take the fruit of the spirit from Gal. 5, which are all inward conditions, and change them into a check sheet of outward actions against which to measure our commitment to God. We preach tithing and faith promise giving as things which real, committed Christians do, disregarding or reinterpreting statements such as “not…of necessity” and “as he purposeth in his heart.” We take our standards on things like drinking and smoking or playing cards or going to the movies, which are not forbidden by Scripture, and disdain other Christians who participate in these activities. We smack sinners with the law to bring guilt, promise them grace and freedom through Christ, and smack them again with the law once they’re saved.

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Gal 3:1-3)

Let’s go back to that phrase, “the finished work of Christ.” If we are to believe Christ’s words, “It is finished,” we cannot limit them to one aspect of his work. Rather, everything that was necessary for the complete redemption of man, from reconciliation to glorification, was accomplished by Christ’s death. There is no aspect of our own redemption which is of ourselves or is made effective by our own works. Emphasizing or demanding works denies a basic fact: God’s work is primarily inward, not outward. God’s concern is that we have the right heart because the right heart will eventually, in God’s timing, produce right outward actions.

We in the church desperately need to hear the gospel—to hear God’s plan for us—to keep us from despair, to keep us from pride, to keep us from turning away from the faith with which we started. We need to keep Christ and his work central to our lives and our preaching, and not allow other things to displace him.

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2 Comments »

  1. Victor Gutierrez said,

    “Viewing our redemption as an ongoing process gives us…”

    I may be misunderstanding what you are saying, but if you are saying that our redemption (which by itself carries a definition of justification) is an ongoing process you are getting into murky waters and I would have to disagree with you. If you replace “redemption” with “sanctification” I would agree with everything you say.

    I want to know what you mean with redemption. I have a couple of ideas about it; but since I may be misunderstanding you, I will wait to hear for your response.

  2. Matt Porter said,

    By redemption, I mean God’s entire plan to recover creation from the fall. I mean everything that starts with justification and culminates in glorification. Redemption is used to refer to more than simply justification; see Rom. 3:24, which states that our justification is through the redemption in Christ, and Rom 8:23, which mentions the redemption of our bodies. The whole thing starts with that reconciliation to God, but continues until God has completely redeemed his creation and the curse is reversed.


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