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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

July 7, 2007

Life... RIGHT NOW.

Sometimes I find myself in a circumstance where I am expected to "officially" explain the Gospel, and I find myself chafing at the bit.

I know what I am supposed to say. I am supposed to appeal to people's uncertainty over what will happen to them after they die—will they go to heaven or to hell? In the last century, evangelical Christians came up with an assortment of standard ways to do this. I could break out the four Spiritual Laws made popular by Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ. Or draw the diagram that shows the chasm between God and humans. Or use analogies: the impossibility of swimming to Hawaii or jumping to the moon, for example, to explain how no matter how hard we try, we can never do enough to meet God's requirements for a sinless life. Or I could talk about how we live unfulfilled lives, searching and searching for something... but what? We try this, we try that, but nothing fills the "God-shaped hole" in our hearts. Nothing we do can fulfill our longing.

The presentation ends by telling people that Jesus is the way out of our dilemma. Jesus is spiritual law #3. Jesus' cross bridges the chasm. Jesus' sin-free life satisfies God the Father's requirements. And all we have to do is to accept Jesus and what he has done on our behalf for his work to become effective for us. Then we will be saved and be assured we will go to heaven when we die. Or, Jesus is the puzzle piece we are missing in our hearts. Life gets better for us if Jesus is in it. If we accept him into our lives, we will not feel incomplete anymore. We breathe a sigh of relief—that's settled. Welcome to Christianity!

*****

People are converted by this approach. A very good pastor friend of mine initially accepted Christ out of a fear for his eternal destiny. He took his decision seriously, and as his life became more and more entwined with Jesus, God did all sorts of interesting things with him.

But it is not an approach that touches everyone, and it is not particularly up front about what should be happening in a person's life after the commitment to Jesus is made. Depending on who is doing the witnessing, it seems to imply that praying "the sinner's prayer" is the entire point of becoming Christian, and that there's not much to look forward to, or that God expects of us after that, as long as we stay out of certain kinds of trouble.

I have never felt right about explaining the Christian faith to someone in only this way. A few years ago I began thinking of it as the "fire insurance" approach, because it seemed to me that too often that's about as far as it took people in their Christian journeys. You're afraid of the fire, you purchase the insurance, you keep up on the premiums, and you're set.

Part of my discomfort is because this approach focuses only on an eventual personal outcome. Jesus died for me. Jesus came to bring fulfillment to my life. This is a critical part of the Gospel, and its importance should not be diminished. But I have always felt that God's plan was a whole lot bigger than this, bigger in a way that I wanted to be personally involved in. While I take great comfort in, and am deeply grateful to God for the assurance of knowing where I'll end up, I realized many years ago that it is not why I am a Christian.

I'm a Christian because—growing up in the church—I came to know and like the God I was told about, and could not imagine life without Him. I'm a Christian because in my early 30s I had the privilege of having Jesus' life and person—not just his death—preached to me on a regular basis, and I fell in love with him and wanted to do with my life what he asked of me. I'm a Christian because when I spent time prayerfully reading the entire Bible, I realized who God is, that he can be trusted, and that his plan for his creation fits together, is consistent from start to finish, makes sense, and is something I want to be a part of myself. I'm a Christian because the witness of the Holy Spirit in and through my life is something I count on and cannot deny.

There is so much more to salvation than not going to hell.

*****

That we use fire insurance as the main approach to evangelism today in this country has its roots in the founders of the Protestant movement, then in the kinds of Protestants who first immigrated to America, then in the kind of society our ancestors built here, the kind of values we hold dear in our country, and the shape American Christianity has taken in the last 200 years. It is rooted in the penal substitution theory of atonement first espoused by Charles Hodge, a 19th century American theologian, which quickly became, and still is, the dominant way of viewing Christ's work on the cross, especially in the American church. Essentially this atonement theory uses an American understanding of what constitutes justice for criminals as its foundation: those who commit crimes must pay for them.

The earliest Christians saw salvation a little differently, and I think more completely. They believed that the primary work of Christ on the cross was to overcome the forces of evil in the world that hold humans captive. Christ's death on the cross was a liberating act that defeated evil and its power and freed those who follow him to live in a different way, the way God has always intended humans to live, and the way we will live when Jesus returns. We therefore have a new purpose to our lives: to be God's ambassadors and heralds in the world, showing everyone else there is another, better, God-honoring way to live. Jesus' resurrection was a powerful demonstration that not only was death no match for the power of God that raised him, but also that we who put our trust in him also have the promise that the same will be true for us.

The early Christians called this theory of what Jesus did Christus Victor. It is the way that seems truest to me to explain what salvation is and what the Gospel is really all about, and it is how I explain things when I am asked to do so.

*****

In 2006 the well-respected theologian N.T. Wright wrote Simply Christian, a book that aimed to concisely explain what Christians believe. At the end of the book, Wright concludes:

Despite what many people think, within the Christian family and outside it, the point of Christianity isn't "to go to heaven when you die." The New Testament picks up from the Old the theme that God intends, in the end, to put the whole creation to rights. ... That is the promise which resonates throughout the Bible story...

The great drama will end, not with "saved souls" being snatched up into heaven, away from the wicked earth and the mortal bodies which have dragged them down into sin, but with the New Jerualsem coming down from heaven to earth, so that "the dwelling of God is with humans." (Revelation 21:3)

Paul and John, Jesus himself, and pretty well all the great Christian teachers of the first two centuries stressed their belief in resurrection. "Resurrection" doesn't mean "going to heaven when you die." It isn't about "life after death"... it's about "life after 'life after death.'" ... God's plan is not to abandon this world... rather, he intends to remake it. And when he does, he will raise all his people to new bodily life to live in it. That is the promise of the Christian gospel [and that] is what the Christian vision of salvation is all about.

What Christians believe, Wright says, is that God's future has already arrived in the present, in the person of Jesus:

In arriving it has confronted and defeated the forces of evil and opened the way for God's new world, for heaven and earth to be joined forever... This is the launchpad for the specifically Christian way of life.... it is the new way of being human... the way which anticipates, in the present, the full, rich, glad human existence which will one day be ours when God makes all things new.

We Methodists like to say that as Christians we live in the "already but not yet."

*****

I remember this spiel Bruce Springsteen did during the song "Light of Day" on the 2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band. He'd bring the song to a screeching halt near the end and go into his best tent revival preaching mode. "I see people LOSSSSSST!" he shouted, and then made up some funny shtick about why they were lost. Then he'd do it again. "I see people LOSSSSSST!" he shrieked, and the reason would be some other funny thing. He did this a couple more times, and then he made his sales pitch. "Now unlike my competitors, I can not, I shall not, I will not promise you life everlasting. But what I can promise you is life... RIGHT NOW." And the place would go wild, and the song would start up again and everything was wonderful.

Now, I've had my share of religious experiences at Springsteen concerts. But this is one I've pondered extensively over the years. Because Bruce, who actually knows his Bible prety well, was very wrong on this one. He is in good company though; a lot of the church thinks the same thing. Does Christianity promise life after death through faith in Jesus? Yes it does. But whether we in the church have been preaching it or not, our faith does also promise "life... RIGHT NOW." The fact that so few people—Christians and otherwise—see things this way speaks to how much has been lost when we reduce the Gospel to fire insurance.

We need to start preaching the whole Gospel. It's essential to be honest with those we hope will convert about what following Jesus really means, and what he expects of us here, in this life. And it's time we saw living a faithful life, being part of God's plan for the reconciliation and remaking of the world, and being changed more and more into Jesus' likeness as the joy and privilege it is. It is "life... RIGHT NOW."

Contrary to what we might fear, preaching the Gospel unabridged would result in many more people coming to know—and live for—Christ than the incomplete fire insurance argument we've been using for the last couple hundred years. May we have the courage to do so, and may God bless our efforts to bring people to him.

.

...And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

—2 Corinthians 3:18