What if this cropped picture was all that an athlete was shown to understand the game of basketball? How would the crop affect his approach and mindset?
Sure, ball handling is an important part of the game, but if the picture was expanded, a few key elements would be brought into focus. The hoop, for one. Also a defender, other teammates, the lines on the court, and so on. The care of the ball would no longer be the center of attention.
I think the Gospel has suffered a similar cropping, and our limited view has crippled the unity, growth and effectiveness of the Church.
When we study the resurrection in my New Testament classes, I start with a Gospel presentation based on the one I learned growing up. I put together a synthesis of the Four Spiritual Laws and the Romans Road, and even mix the Wordless Book and Bridge Illustration in there.
Sin separates us from God. Jesus came to restore that relationship by presenting himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin, satisfying the wrath and justice of God. If we believe in Christ’s sacrifice, and accept Jesus as Lord of our lives, we can be saved, now and forever.
Heads nod from every denomination. I ask if I’ve left anything out, and people sort of shrug and shake their heads. That’s pretty much it.
Then I read I Corinthians 15:18: …if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless. You are still in your sins.
Wait. I thought Jesus died for my sins. I thought he said, “It is finished” on the cross. Why would Paul claim that it wasn’t finished until three days later? Would our faith really be useless if Christ had paid the price for our sins and simply gone to heaven? Did he really have to bodily rise from the dead?
There are other questions and concerns that would make me hesitate to share this Gospel presentation with a smart agnostic.
God was not bound to the sacrificial system. He made it up. Does that make him bloodthirsty? Am I supposed to forgive my brother 70X7 times, but God won’t forgive me unless something dies? If that’s true, what business did Jesus have in forgiving the sins of that paralytic with just a word? How could he forgive sins without sacrifice? And if he could, why not forgive everyone without going to the cross and making his father seem so unreasonable?
There are more worms in that can, but I think you get the point. Sadly, when unbelievers start voicing objections like these, young evangelists often leave the conversation shaking their heads, assuming the ground was too hard for the gospel seed. But what if the seed was too soft?
The penal substitution metaphor is legitimate and powerful. It helps us to understand the grace of a God who would be willing to give anything to restore relationship with what was lost. It is clearly part of a historical setup for the Jews, along with other feasts and rituals and holy days.
However, if we make penal substitution the only metaphor for salvation, we risk cropping out certain critical aspects of the Christian Gospel.
The Holy Spirit:
Many would agree that the penultimate presentation of the gospel is found in Romans 6 – 8. You may be surprised to find that the penal substitution metaphor is nowhere to be found in those chapters. It’s back in Romans 3 & 5. In chapter 8, the solution to sin and condemnation is the indwelling life and power of the Holy Spirit.
Why is the Holy Spirit ignored in our gospel presentations when it holds such a prominent place in the Gospel? Is it any wonder why we are so conflicted and confused about things like spiritual gifts, and the filling and baptism of the Spirit, taking the teaching and application to extremes?
Paul considers the resurrection of Christ as the critical moment of history. This is where Jesus becomes the first human being to ever emerge on the other side of death and depravity, inviting the rest of creation to join him there. When we are united with Christ in spirit, we share in his resurrection life. This renewal begins in our spirits, transforms our souls, and will ultimately change our bodies. From that perspective, we could say that we have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved, all at the same time.
The resurrection points toward the new heavens and earth as presented in Revelation, a return to Eden, in a sense, which is the central hope of the Bible. Sadly, this hope is not a part of our Gospel presentations. Unlike Christ, we present an escape from this earth, placing an unbiblical emphasis on heaven and hell.
Our Gospel presentations tend to emphasize individuality over community. We call Jesus our personal Lord and Savior. According to the first of Bill Bright’s Spiritual Laws, “God loves you, and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Sure. But should we also mention that God loves everyone, and has a plan for all of humanity?
What if a basketball coach emphasized individuality? “There’s no TEAM in I!”
What if a company existed primarily to pay your bills and give you great benefits? Maybe that’s why you want the job, but that’s not why the company exists. Companies exist to do something, and when you join the company you become a part of that greater mission.
What is our greater mission? Why did Jesus start the Church? Shouldn’t that be a part of our Gospel presentations?
There are more casualties of our cropping that come to mind. Our emphasis on “in or out” can dull our passion for things like spiritual growth, church unity, identifying the strategies of the enemy, or working toward the health of our bodies, families, societies or environments. If we already have our tickets to heaven, what’s the point of cleaning up down here?
Do you agree that our Gospel presentations could use an upgrade? If so, what adjustments would you suggest. If not, why not?