Friday, December 2, 2022

The Minimalist Gospel

 

It doesn't mean giving up everything.



She came to church to get things in order. She has cleaned up her life. Stopped dating men she met at bars. Got her kids enrolled in the church’s summer camp. Cleaned out her closets. Tossed a few outfits she should never have bought. And some books and movies. She quit smoking. Made up with her sister. The only thing left is to up her commitment to God. No more clutter and distractions. Just good clean living. So here she is. Telling God what she has to offer. And what she’s willing to give up. Don’t come at her with a bucket of holy water. Don’t put her on the prayer list. This new plan of hers is all about keeping it simple. She’s even thinking about becoming a minimalist, though she’s not quite sure what that means. But she’s not here to get in over her head. She only wants to get her spiritual side in line with the rest of her shiny new life. She figures if anything should fall under the category of minimalism, it’s this thing they call the Gospel.

 
A lot of people approach God that way. The minimalist Gospel is restrained, unassuming, and unobtrusive. It assumes you’re pretty close to being okay. If it does reveal a problem, it assures you it can be corrected with little pain or sacrifice. No plying into your daily life with demands of new behavior. Sin is not the issue. Feeling loved is what counts. Repentance is simply an understanding with God that He will accept you. He didn’t before, but now He does. So, did you repent? Or did God?

A soul reaching for a minimalist Gospel will not extend repentance as far as it must go in order to be redeemed. The belief is that we don’t need to address the depths from which we must be rescued. We want a little soap and water. We want the snot wiped off. We know we need something only God can give, and so we grab a little Gospel and apply it sparingly. And keep on walking. But we’re zombies. Our skin is rotting. Our bones are dried up. We’re dressed in rags that don’t cover our skeletal remains.

A dangerous assumption is that not all sinners need a liberal dose of the Gospel. Some people need a complete overhaul, while others only need a tweak. This attitude leads to self-righteousness, which is really no righteousness at all. It settles in legalism. It pets the ego with sympathy and approval. The result is an unredeemed soul living under the guise of being a good person. And to that—the hope of being a good—the soul hopelessly clings.

The minimalist Gospel demands little from the one who accepts it. There must be a belief in God, recognition of Christ, and a level of commitment to right living. For some, this means going to church. For others, it means giving up some bad habits. It doesn’t mean giving up on everything you consider worthy about yourself. Or casting aside everything you think will set you in right standing before God. Everything that makes you who you are. Everything that makes you feel alive. It doesn’t mean giving up everything.

And it doesn’t mean gaining anything.

What is the opposite of minimalist? Outlandish, ornate, excessive. Lavish. Next week’s blog…that’s right…will be about the lavish Gospel.

Friday, November 18, 2022

The Command of the Gospel

 

What choice do I have?


A verse well-known and repeated often by Christians is Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Taking this to heart, we might conclude it’s all about the gift. And accepting the gift is all about choice. We can take it or leave it.

While an element of truth exists in the “take or leave it” approach, the gift is not a choice. It’s given to the redeemed, who do not consider the offer or ponder refusal. The choice was already made—it was God’s choice to give the redeemed eternal life. The choice of the redeemed is to follow Christ. And yet, even that is really no choice at all.

 Scripture does not offer a choice. Jesus did not give permission to determine our own method of salvation. A back-up plan doesn’t exist. Yet the clear command gets turned into something resembling a choice.

 What does the Bible tell us about making a choice? Another verse remembered—and revised—by Christians goes something like this: Choose this day whom you will serve, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

 Here’s the whole passage from Joshua 24:

14 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

Joshua gave the tribes of Israel a message from God. And then he told them what to do. If they didn’t want to, Joshua said, then they could choose something different. Something that hadn’t worked in the past. Something that would lead to death. The command was to serve God. The alternative was death.

So it is with the Gospel. The gift of Romans 6:23 is not the Gospel. It is the after-effect of the Gospel. The Gospel is not an offer to be accepted or refused depending on who you are or where you came from. It’s not a choice that will help you get to know God or define your role as a Christian. It is a command to live.
Acts 17:30:
"Truly these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent."

The “times of ignorance” when people chose to stick with their foreign gods are done. Now, at the time of the proclamation of God’s command, all people are called to turn from their old ways and serve the risen King. It’s not a chance to make it up to God for being bad. Not a way to get yourself straightened out. It’s a command to repent or die. Turn from your idols and false gods to the one true God. Or else.
It sounds like a choice, right? It feels like a choice. I can put away what I thought would fix me, cleanse me, and save me. Or I can keep on trying what I’m doing and die trying. But if I’m convinced that’s how my efforts will end, is there really any choice but obey the command? God isn’t asking me to choose. I’m covered by furious waves and He’s telling me to cling to Him or drown. And so I…choose…to cling and not to drown.

It’s one of those sweet mysteries that settle into the hearts of the redeemed. He commands. He offers freely. I choose. I have no choice. In fact, I am unable to choose. Perhaps that’s why He made it a command. An offer implies acceptance, and so gives us the impression that we’ve made a choice. But a command requires unfailing power from the One who declares it, and demands nothing from my drowning soul except to live.

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Wavering Severity of the Gospel

And the invariable tenderness of the offer.

Last week I blogged about the Actual Gospel, and I mentioned a statement I’d heard that we Christians can be rough on people concerning their utter sinfulness. Maybe, this person said, the preacher’s too hard on the congregation with his constant sin bashing. The long-time believer surprised me when he threw in, “It’s not like we’re ax murderers or anything.” 


This is where the severity of the Gospel begins to waver. Surely he wasn’t insinuating ax murderers are the only condemnable sinners. If you want to know who needs a rescue from sin, just take a walk down the Roman Road. If you’re unfamiliar with Christianese, the Roman Road is a quick and easy way to explain the Gospel by walking a sinner through selected verses in the book of Romans. 

 If you want to know how I feel about Christianese, read this: A Beginner’s Guide to Talking like a Real Christian 

Now, don’t think I’m opposed to repeating comfortably memorized scripture when you’re sharing your faith. Go ahead and do it. There is nothing more perfectly designed for reaching the lost as the Word of God. Here’s that walk through Romans:

3: 23 …for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

6:23 …the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

5:8 …God demonstrates His love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

10:9 …if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.

10:13 …whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

Is it that simple? Yes. Can a sinner repeat these verses three times and go to Heaven? No. Can a believer forget, or never realize, the depths from which he was rescued? I don’t know—that’s God’s call. I do know people who never did anything horrible and seem to feel they deserve to be saved, but they’re not sure those other people—the ones who sin big—deserve God’s grace. I’ve never met a redeemed ax murderer but if I did, he’d probably be sure about it. He’d understand the severity of the Gospel.

I call it severe because it’s strict in its application. You can’t choose the light serving instead of the mega platter. It’s difficult for a rebellious heart to grasp, and harsh in its demand of death as penalty for sin. It causes irreversible and ongoing destruction to the sin nature of an individual, and eventually to the overall effect of sin in the world.  Another definition of severe: plain, unelaborated. Nothing added. That’s the Gospel.

I use the word wavering not as an indicator of the Gospel’s lack of stability. It is not unsteady nor does it fluctuate. But sometimes we believers can waver. We disregard the fact that we were hell-bound sinners. We thoughtlessly suggest salvation is for church people, not for the freaks who insult our sensibility. Or just as misguided, we insist that sin is sin and it doesn’t matter if you tell a white lie or bludgeon someone to death. God’s got it covered.

 Wait, doesn’t He? Does it matter if I sin big or sin little? No, it doesn’t matter—not when comes to settling my eternal destiny. To the person at the other end of my little lie, or the blade of my ax, it matters severely. The guy I lied to can forgive me if I go to set things right. The other guy, well, he’s dead.  If he could, he’d say my sin against him was much, much greater. Will God forgive me? I can ask Him. From prison. Does God redeem imprisoned, entirely guilty murderers? Of course. What do you think He meant when He said, “ALL who call on the name of the Lord…?”


But didn’t Jesus teach that if we think about sinning then we’ve already broken the law? You know, lust in your heart and all that. Do you suppose He meant having a bad thought is the same as having an affair? Ask your spouse. Jesus was telling us we’re sinners, even if we don’t carry through on every evil deed we imagine.
 We’ve broken fellowship with God with just a thought. Kind of makes you forget about the ax murderer. None of us has a chance of getting away with anything.

Will there be good people in Heaven who never did anything worse than tell a white lie? I’d like to meet that person. But yes, good people will be there. Not because they were good, but because they met the One who put an end to their self-righteous speculation of their own goodness. Will there be murderers in Heaven? I hope so. Otherwise, it’s a thin Gospel God poured out for us. Of course, it isn’t that kind—not lean or wimpy. Not at all wavering. But gloriously severe. What other kind could rescue us?

 

 

 


Friday, October 28, 2022

The Actual Gospel


Is there more than one?

Last week my Sunday school teacher used the term the actual Gospel, and it yelled, “Hey, I’m a title!” Titles do that. After class I told my teacher I was stealing, uh, borrowing it. I placed it at the top of the “things to write about” pile in my head and went to church.

I wondered why my teacher felt the need to use this idiom. He said it in reference to what's available in the wide world of Western Christianity. What American seekers of all things Godly are apt to find, or not find, when they walk into a church. 

"We need to make sure we're giving people the actual Gospel," he told us.

Was he lumping his students into the church of the itching ears the Bible warns about? Did he think we might have trouble distinguishing the real thing from the counterfeit? Would we settle for something soft and comfortable? Diluted? I scratched my ears and shook my head.

Now, when I watch a TV preacher or pick up the latest bestselling self-improvement book, I expect to hear the truth, yet I sometimes find myself disappointed. Sorry, but I don’t want to learn how to be a better Christian. Well…yes, I do. But not from somebody who’s got a formula for success. As far as doing all the things Christians are supposed to do and getting all the things Christians are supposed to get, who came up with that list?

Celebrity Christians aside, when I walk into a sanctuary I expect I will hear the actual Gospel. But my teacher brought up the fact that many churches in the post-modern, post-Christian, totally relevant new world I so easily forget about are filling itching ears with facsimile gospels, just like the Old Book said they would.

What I hear at church on a regular basis seems quite the opposite of telling people what they want to hear. A few weeks ago I heard a comment that maybe we can be a little tough with the Gospel by telling people they need Christ because they’re sinners. My pastor would say something like dirty, vile, rotten sinners. But when I hear that, I don’t take offense. It makes me really, really happy. No, grateful. Not just grateful. Free. And freedom is what keeps me coming back for more.

The Gospel—there is none but the actual—is not about telling somebody they’re so loved, so perfect just the way they are that God can’t take His adoring gaze off them. And it’s not about telling people they’re so up to their necks in evil nastiness that God can’t stand the sight of them. It’s about God being so good and loving and forgiving that He desires to rescue us. God liberated me despite the depth of my sin, but He also disregarded the general goodness that might leak out of me before my death. Am I rotten? Yes. Wonderfully made in God’s image? Yes. That’s why He rescued me.

So how does that add up to freedom? Because my sin has let me go. It’s powerless. Because my goodness has let me go. It’s powerless. Don’t tell me I can sin less by being good. Don’t tell me I can improve my goodness by sinning less. If I’m good it’s because I’m forever bound to His goodness. If I’m escaping the sin that still calls my name it’s because I’m eternally bound to His righteousness. If all that being bound sounds like the opposite of freedom, then you don’t understand grace. If your itching ears entice you to forget about sin, to set your own moral gauge because God just wants you to be a good person, then you don’t know the actual Gospel. 

If you're under the impression you're too good for Hell, find a new church. If somebody’s harping on your vile, corrupt, evil self without telling you how to get free, then you’re getting suckered. Find a new church. But if you’re hearing that you’re vile, corrupt, and evil and somebody’s got to pay for it, keep listening. If it's the actual Gospel, you're about to find out who paid the price of your freedom. 

                                                        Spoiler alert: It wasn’t you.     

Friday, October 14, 2022

The End of the Gospel

 


In years past I wrote several “gospel” blogposts. The first was inspired by a Sunday School teacher who referred to the “actual gospel.” This term jumped out at me as a title, and I wrote about it. More writings followed. 

I wrote about other subjects—the condition of our society, the advancement of science as it pertains to the human condition, the darkness around us. But my favorite subject has always been the truth and light of the gospel.

After the passing of time, and the downward spiral of our world, I came to the conclusion that I had little else to say except this: I have nothing to offer but Christ crucified. The statement based on I Corinthians 2:2 summed up my feeling that there was not much left to write about. This decision was my own. It was not necessarily God’s will for me, and I knew that. I knew it all along. But my writing became sporadic. I stopped working on an unfinished novel. I blogged occasionally but lost the discipline of sticking to a schedule. And as happens when a writer doesn’t write, I became a bit hopeless, a bit cynical. I sabotaged my own sense of completeness.

But what does it matter if I write? Other writers, many others, impart their influence and encouragement with far more skill and talent than I could ever offer. All the great deliberations have been expressed within the binding of a book or the glow of a screen. My little voice means nothing. And yet, I am compelled by my Creator to live out His design for me. To offer Christ crucified the best way I know how, with words on a page.

An end, or a pause, in my writing does not mean an end to the gospel. It carries on by the will of God, continually changing the world around me, with or without me. I’d rather it be with me.

But while I struggle to pen these words, the world is not changing for the better. We’re being pushed, seemingly crushed by those rulers, those authorities, those powers of this dark world. (Ephesians 6:12) They want to end the gospel. To silence us and, to some extent, we have become silent. But not completely.

There are still churches that preach the gospel above all else. Still pastors and leaders who will not cower but lift up the name of Jesus as the only hope of conquering evil. Still teachers and writers and students of Scripture who won’t bow to societal pressure or accept the lies of cultural shifts. And while the church in general remains either cautiously vague or thoughtlessly uninformed, there are those willing to voice a properly discerned warning to the lost and saved alike that the end of the age is near. This is not the end of the gospel, but the gospel of the end, which is the same as it was at the beginning, unchanging and eternal. Now and always we are called to, with honesty and humility, speak the gospel.

For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. I Thessalonians 2:3-4

I feel the need to repeat myself, and so I’ll rerun my “gospel” posts over the next several weeks. Afterall, I still have nothing to offer but Christ crucified. But that doesn’t mean I can’t keep saying it over and over in every creative way the Lord impresses upon me. So, while I’m posting reruns, I’ll set my mind on writing anew, knowing I can do nothing without Christ who strengthens me. I’m one of those believers who discerns the lateness of the age, and it seems I spend more and more time smiling at the sky in anticipation of the Great Return. But I can’t just stand around waiting. I’m not out of time, or inspiration, or words. It’s best for me, for all of us, to be busy about our Father’s work, to run the race, and to finish strong.

The end of the gospel is a non-issue. It can’t be stopped. The gospel of the end is no different than the beginning. It will not be silenced. It knows no end. But our days are numbered.

“The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. Romans 10: 8-10

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Absolute Rest for Your Soul

 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

These words follow a prayer in which Jesus praises His Father for revealing the secret things of God not to the wise, or accomplished, but as to children, meek and unspoiled. This wasn’t meant to exclude anyone. Assuring the hope of the Gospel for everyone, Jesus begins His invitation with the most inclusive words: “Come to me, all…”

The great proclamation of rest and release is one that most believers have memorized and clung to with deep hope. It is the exhale, the sigh of relief, the respite from strife. So easily applied to our own daily struggles, the words give us permission to take a timeout. No matter the nature of it, work is hard. It weighs us down, whether physically or mentally. We all need a minute or two to rest our weary bones, to cease from the struggle. We can’t hold up under the pressure of what we’ve brought on ourselves, and we need God to give us a break.

Wait. Is that what Jesus said? Maybe, right now, that’s what you need to hear, and that’s okay. But it’s much, much more. It’s so grand and glorious that we have to step back and view it from a broader plain. Its promise is rich and eternal, and we can’t process it as simply a way to get through our current insufferable predicament. Its message carries us beyond the physical and mental, to the spiritual. We must, to find absolute rest, believe the instruction completely and apply it comprehensively. 

The first people to hear the bidding to come and rest were steeped in the tradition of God’s covenant with Israel. Imagine their burden. All they knew was the to follow the law. All of it. Every degree that to us seems to demand the impossible. It was, for the children of Israel, a heavy burden, too great to bear. But then this Teacher, or Prophet, or Son of the Living God— if He was to be believed—came with something new. Something unheard of. In essence, Jesus told His listeners to stop struggling. No need to keep trying to work it out. He was about to take care of it once and for all.

Did those who heard this news understand the fullness of the repose that was about to be given to them? It was a gift, not to be earned, requiring nothing except to come and rest.

Now, perhaps we have forgotten what those souls of Israel once knew. We can’t truly grasp what it was like to live under the burden of the law. But we do know that the law points us to Christ. We know the cross and the empty tomb. We know redemption. We have a Savior. And we can rest in Him.

Can we ask God for rest from what this world bombards us with day to day? Of course. But it’s not everything. In comparison, it’s really not anything, for this world will soon pass away. It is the burden of sin that’s too heavy, the yoke of the law that’s impossible for us to bear on our own. But the way of Jesus is light. His yoke on us is that we simply believe. His heart toward us is gentle. He rescued us by becoming a humble servant. That’s where we find rest for our souls, our eternally free, unchained souls. If we don’t have to work for it, what reason could there be not to rest in it? The yoke and the burden are no longer ours. They are His. Praise God and breathe that long awaited sigh of relief.