re-duc-tion-ism—the practice of simplifying a complex idea, issue, condition, or the like, esp. to the point of minimizing, obscuring or distorting it.
“Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day…”
(1 Corinthians 15:1-4)
“For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His Life.”
“In recent years [baby-boomers] have been opposed to organized religion but now make up half the born-again population…they are consumers…and we offered them a deal they could not turn down: for a one-time admission of weakness and failure they got eternal peace with God. That was the deal. They took it and went on with their lives as before…”
–David Wells, Professor, Gordon-Conwell Seminary
“”Believing, then, is directing one’s attention to Jesus. It is lifting the mind to ‘behold the Lamb of God’ and never ceasing that beholding for the rest of our lives.”
“If all we value is the salvation gospel (i.e., forgiveness gospel), we tend to miss the rest of Christ’s message. Taken out of context of the Kingdom, the call to faith in Christ gets reduced to something less than the New Testament teaches…”
–Rick McKinley, Imago Dei Church
“…The reverse is also true: if we value a kingdom gospel at the expense of the liberating message of the Cross and the empty tomb and a call to repentance, we miss a central tenet of Kingdom life. Without faith in Jesus, there is no transferring our lives into the new world of the Kingdom.”
“And [Paul] stayed two years…preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ…”
“Christ will not die again on behalf of those who now commit sin because death shall no more have dominion over Him…therefore we should not be puffed up…but we should beware lest somehow, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins but rather be shut out from His kingdom.”
(Irenaeus, disciple of Polycarp, ‘spiritual grandson’ of John the Apostle)
Chew on this: every person who applied blood to the doorpost in Egypt escaped the wrath of God, yes? What of those who died in the wilderness because of “unbelief” and willful rebellion in their hearts? Weren’t they “covered”? The writer of Hebrews would say, yes, they were covered, but they didn’t continue.
I had believed myself years ago that those who perished in the wilderness either (a) had not truly believed on that fateful Passover night, or (b) didn’t die and go to hell, but died as carnal, disobedient Christians, making it to heaven anyway.
But that is not the tone of Hebrews 3. The writer uses provocative language to describe their plight and destiny. God was “provoked” with them (v10) because they “always erred (strayed)” in their “hearts” and His punitive sentence was to disallow them entrance into His Rest. The context suggests an eternal rest, not just that they never experienced the victorious Christian life and still got in by the skin of their teeth. They didn’t get in. Period.
I ask again: were these not ‘blood-bought, saved, people of God’? Did they not break free of Egypt, at least geographically? Did they not make the necessary voyage through the Red Sea and pop up on the other side, dry as a bone? Did they not meet at the mountain of God, “make a decision” to obey Him, vocalize their assent (Ex 24:4), then follow Him all the way to the edge of the Promised Land?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes…and affirmative.
The gospel in the west has been reduced to a simple formula that offers the inquirer who accepts it a false security. Let me explain.
I was a fired-up-for-God teenager who couldn’t wait for Thursday night visitation in our church’s youth ministry. While the rest of my peers went into the benign neighborhoods, myself and a handful of “preacher boys” would hop into a beat-up church van and travel into Atlanta’s mean streets, like the Techwood projects. Imagine, a small gaggle of lily-whited, pressed-pants and dress-shirted church boys injected into a culture of drugs, sirens and prostitutes.
First thing I did when I jumped out of the van was to find a group of children because they were the ‘easiest’. It never took long in those summer months because kids were as plentiful as Georgia gnats, playing in the streets in perfectly apportioned ‘congregations’.
“Hey y’all!” I called out. They turned, eyes wide with puzzlement and wonder.
“Can I talk to you for five minutes?”
Tentative nods all around.
“How many of you would like to live in a mansion?” In the belly of poverty, amid the stench of burning asphalt and rotting vegetation, and flanked on all sides by worn-down bungalows, the response was obvious. Me? My own mansion? Spill the beans, mister!
In a promised five minutes I gave them the “gospel” by explaining to them that mansions crisscrossed by golden avenues could be theirs if they would only believe that they were sinners, that Jesus died on a cross for their sins and rose again, and if they would ask Him to come into their hearts.
“That’s it. It’s so easy,” I gushed. Their little eyes were locked onto mine, no doubt with the expectation with the likes that Santa would come early and tramp upon their rooftops on that smoldering summer night and change their fortunes before morning.
“How many of you would like to pray after me and ask Jesus to come into your hearts and save you?”
Hands shot into the air, attached to ramrod straight little arms, each locked at the elbow. I smiled and asked them to bow their heads, close their eyes and repeat a lyrical prayer after me. When the “amen” was pronounced, I lifted my head and asked how many had prayed that prayer—from their heart. The same number of hands dissected the heavy, stagnant air, some with fingers wiggling. With great satisfaction I counted the hands, kept a mental note of the score as I would my own points in a basketball game, and cheerily departed as they got back to their game.
There was no mention of repentance, nothing of baptism or even a promise to keep tabs on them in discipleship. I just wanted to tell the other preacher boys in the van “I got thirty-one souls tonight!”
I think of those precious ones and others I led to the Lord through the years, telling them they were forgiven but nothing about the exchanged life, abiding in Him and faithful submission to the Lord all the way to the end. Did they just think they were trading the mean streets for golden ones, or have they remained in Him (John 15:4-6)? I have often wondered.
Don’t get me wrong. I came to Jesus the same way. I was distraught over my life (not the promises of big mansions in the sky), prayed along with my Dad and gave myself over to Jesus. I applied the blood of forgiveness to the doorpost of my heart and, no doubt, His life entered mine. My concern is that we leave potential converts in Egypt, giving them a false security that they are in because they prayed a prayer and the matter of their eternal salvation is forever settled.
The Gospel that Jesus preached—and His disciples, by the way (before they ever knew anything about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ)—-was more than a gospel of forgiveness. THE Gospel not only saves from sin, but to full completion. A one-time prayer with no evidence of an abiding life is an incomplete, deceptive gospel.
I know what you’re thinking. Yes, Scott, I believe what you just said. But the fact such lives do not evidence His life and the “more, much and remaining” fruit of the exchanged life proves they never were saved. Right?
Wrong. I ask again: did those who obediently apply the paschal lamb’s blood to those doorposts in Egypt escape the wrath of God? Were they saved from His wrath? Were they, in fact, held unaccountable and forgiven?
Yes, yes and yes.
So, then, what is THE Gospel? Can you articulate it?
Let me start with mine: THE Gospel is that Jesus Messiah has come and has brought with Him His Kingdom, that is, His right to rule, and has secured that Kingdom (made provision for it) by His death, burial and resurrection (of “first importance”, 1 Cor 15:3), and is calling out to any who will come under His reign so they can become citizens of and populate His Kingdom.
My definition likely is not “perfect” but I believe it hits more to the heart of the thing God is doing in the earth since the Garden episode. Really, long, long, looong before that!
The Father has been seeking a Bride that is worthy of His Son but the problem arises when there is “no one” who can qualify (Romans 3:10). So the Second Adam—Jesus—came, perfectly obedient to the will of the Father, to set the right order, introduce a heavenly kingdom, and call out of the race of Adam a people redeemed, chaste (not a Jesus-plus-other-lovers people), and peculiar. The “first word of the kingdom” (Mark 1:15) tells us how this exchange, transfer and transformation takes place: repentance and faith.
Here is where some of you will interject: Okay, I’ll bite. What is the problem? That sounds like my gospel, at least that last phrase. That happened when I prayed that prayer a long time ago.
Ah, but saving faith is ongoing belief, not one-time belief, no matter how sincere. Jesus, in John chapter three, tells us that the full work of redemption—
May I interrupt myself?
What most of the church has heard over the last hundred or so years is a ransom gospel, rather than a redemption gospel. When slaves were ransomed or emancipated, they were free to leave their plantations and live the lives they wanted. They became their own employer, their own boss, free to live and do as they pleased. Their debt was paid. They were “free”.
Jesus did not die to ransom us only, but to wholly redeem and create a new race of people. Why? Grace, beloved. Pure, pure grace! How? Again, by grace that empowers us to live this other life that is not our own (see Gal 2:20).
Back to my previous thought:
Jesus, in John chapter three, tells us (in a conversation with Nicodemus) that the full work of redemption (THE Gospel) accomplishes more than forgiveness, as good as that is.
As in all of scripture, it is necessary to read the context (the verses around the passage in question), and so we read that the passage just prior to John 3:16—without paragraph division—is the matter of Israel, their rebellion, fiery serpents and the bronze snake. Numbers 21 is the reference point and in it we see that those who were poisoned by the toxin of the snakes (hmmmm, Genesis 3:14,15 anybody?) were told to focus on the serpent on a pole (a picture of Christ being made sin on the Cross, poisoned by the toxins of Adam’s race) and they would be delivered of the sin and live (Numbers 21:8,9).
Another interruption, please—
What did John the Baptizer say when Jesus walked up to him at the River Jordan?
Here’s what I used to quote: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
(You: that’s right, isn’t it?)
Sorry. It got me too!
This is what was actually said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Did you see it? Read it again…I’ll wait.
YES! He said the Lamb who would take away “THE sin (singular) of the world.”
Back to the suspended track of thought:
The Israelites were prone to go their own way (Isaiah 53:6), to rebel and be their own gods (see Genesis 3:5). This picture in Numbers 21 is not just a singular, historical, passing event of the wilderness. Jesus used it to put teeth to His impending work of the Cross. John, His cousin, saw it. The Cross would heal—heal!—those would “gaze” upon the Son (and never stop!) from going their own way.
“By His stripes we are healed.”
Sorry to you who use this as an ‘abracadabra’ for every matter of physical healing. Context, please?
The very next verse explains why His Passion was necessary:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way…(that is why) the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity (singular) of us all.”
What, pray tell, is THE iniquity? It is to be our own gods. It is THE sin of the Garden. Adam’s downfall. In the church we are still preaching against smoking, cussing, adultery, pants on women and new translations of the Bible—and we should keep preaching against the first three!—but those are all “berries on the bush”, a bush that needs to be wholly cut down (see Luke 3:9)!
The whole tree is man calling the shots. The anti-Tree of Life. Man deciding what is best for himself. Man straying from God (“prone to wander, Lord I feel it…”). Man on the throne. The Good News is that Jesus Messiah came to destroy that tree and His work was gloriously “finished” (John 19:30; see also John 17:4).
Look around the Church and see: are most converts trusting in a ransom gospel? Has the Gospel of Jesus Christ somehow been replaced by a gospel that promises heaven to those who stay in Egypt?
The death, burial and resurrection of Christ is of first importance. There is no way into the Kingdom unless a man is born again by faith in the Son of God. But faith—hearing God’s word, believing it as from God, and obeying it—is not a one-time proposition. It is an abiding belief. The writer of Hebrews warns saved, blood-bought, blood-washed people that neglecting their salvation can lead to drifting, unbelief, hardness and ultimately, to apostasy.
He says that salvation (from first to last*) is, first of all an “escape” (2:3) from the wrath of God and the dark kingdom.
Second, the writer of Hebrews reminds us salvation (from first to last) is a journey, a race of sorts. We must “pay closer attention”, “share” in it, “hold fast” to it, be “firm…to the end” (3:14); have “earnestness…until the end” (6:11), to “not shrink back”, and to “(be having) faith” (10:39).
Lastly, we learn from Hebrews that salvation (from first to last) is a transport, not only from the dark kingdom, its curse and damnation, but to fullness and glory (12:18-24; see also Colossians 1:13 and 1 Peter 3:18).
Is your salvation like this? This is my burden for the church. I am glad to know this Gospel that saves not only from sin but brings a yielded soul to completion, a fit habitation for God, locked in an eternal embrace with the Son as His Bride, knowing it is only by grace that any of it could be possible, not by my human effort or religion.
When we share the Good News, let’s not reduce it to a partial gospel that promises the hope of eternal life to those who feel covered by a prayer they parroted once upon a time. Nor should we complicate it with an overload of theological gymnastics, linguistics and jargon.
A woman I dearly admire said, “the way I see it, the whole gospel comes down to ‘Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way…”
Isn’t this the gospel “that will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations…and then the end will come”? (Matthew 24:14)
Well, then, let’s preach it, brother! All of it!
*Romans 1:17—“from faith to faith” is translated ‘from beginning to end’ (from the shallow end of the pool—the starting point—to the deep end where the Water of Life carries you and you cannot stand on your own two feet!)