The Gospel Examined

Power of the Gospel

The notion of ‘gospel’ is central to Christian faith, yet it’s meaning and significance has become somewhat muddy over the past few centuries, possibly because of the rise of evangelicalism.

Let me explain.

In modern evangelical usage the term ‘gospel’ most commonly signifies either that body of truth which is life changing (the good news message) or the preached message which is meant to lead people to a prescribed evangelical response, such as ‘making a decision’, going to the altar or otherwise signifying in a measurable way that they have stepped over the line from sinner to saint.

It is this second meaning which is popularised in evangelical parlance and which undermines a truer concept of the Gospel.

We refer to the four historical accounts of Christ’s life on earth as the ‘Gospels’, yet they don’t end in an altar call or a prescription of the approved response by which a person is transformed by that message.

On the other hand it is expected in evangelical circles that if a series of ‘gospel’ messages is preached it is to result in people making a public response that can be tabulated. So at the end of the series of meetings, or the ‘revival’ or the outreach, it can be said that a certain number responded, and that can be compared with last event or with the impact of a different evangelist.

This preoccupation with public record of conversions has subtly transferred the concept of the Gospel as the message good news about who Christ is and what He has done, which message is to be received and believed with life-changing effect, to the concept of the gospel as a style of message that presses people’s buttons and gets them out of their chair to join the Christian band.

Please don’t think I am cynical about getting people to respond to the gospel message. I am not denigrating the work of evangelistic preaching, but simply relating it back to our concept of ‘gospel’.

For the past six decades I have had the privilege of hearing hundreds of evangelistic messages and preaching a few of them myself. I have heard some clear and lucid expositions of the life and sacrifice of Jesus as our Saviour among those messages. I have also heard an array of messages embodying soppy sentiment, scientific mind boggling, heart tugging emotion, end of the world scaremongering and a range of other causes for action.

In those wide ranging messages, labeled as ‘gospel’ the simple message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection may be incidental or even irrelevant to the impassioned appeal for the sinner to respond.

And so the ‘gospel’ becomes in our consciousness a muddy mix of messages designed to motivate sinners to accept Christianity.

A cursory review of the New Testament message should help us clarify what the ‘gospel’ actually is and that might inform us on how best to employ it in Christian ministry. So let me throw a few observations at you and see how they prompt your own investigation of the gospel.

Apostle Paul frequently links the notion of ‘gospel’ with change in the hearer, calling it “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16) and saying that those who engage with his message will be “saved” (Romans 10:9).

So the true ‘gospel’ is more than just ‘news’, but a good news message that has life-changing effect in the hearer, should they respond with faith (believe). Do we see messages in the New Testament that speak of such change and such news?

The first public preaching message in the New Testament was that of John the Baptist telling his hearers “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When Jesus first began preaching this was his message too (Matthew 4:17). So we could say that the first ‘gospel’ preaching involved a call to action from the hearer, responding in the fear of God.

Another view of the gospel and its call on hearers comes from the mouth of Jesus in the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Here it is Christ, Himself, focusing he gospel on his own life and on the response of ‘belief’ in the hearer.

The Apostle John, in his gospel account of the life of Jesus, uses another term than ‘believe’ in discussing the appropriate response to Christ. “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.” (John 1:12)

John links ‘receiving’ and ‘believing’ as our response to the gospel, showing, as Christ did in John 3, that people can choose to receive and believe, or not.

With that background, let’s now look specifically at the ‘gospel’ as explained by Paul. We could say that the four historical gospels present the ‘gospel’ in a non-prescriptive manner, as truth to be received and believed, while Paul, address the churches, was more prescriptive about what was to be expected from believers.

So, what do we see in Paul’s approach to the gospel?

We see a determined focus on the sacrificial life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 1Corinthians 2:2

Paul’s gospel was not about how he could manipulate hearers to embrace Christianity, but was anchored on the core truth of the good news message, the work of Christ.

That was the message Peter employed at Pentecost, with great impact.

The crucifixion of Christ was a core component of Paul’s gospel narrative. “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Corinthians 1:23)

But the crucifixion message was always joined with the message of the resurrection, as Paul notes in his famous evangelism prescription in Romans 10:9 “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.”

So, when Paul said he was not ashamed of the gospel we know that he was speaking of the message of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and man’s response to that message of faith in Christ resulting in the believer establishing righteousness with God.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Romans 1:16,17

What then is the gospel?

While evangelists are ever creative about their means of prompting sinners to respond to God, the true ‘gospel’ is the wonderful message of Christ dying for us and rising to new life, as proof that sin and death are defeated, to which message man is to respond with faith, believing that Christ truly did rise from the dead, and by that act of believing receiving divine impact that saves and transforms the believer.

A ‘gospel’ message that does not bring the power of God through faith in Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection may be nothing more than mere manipulation, and may leave the ‘convert’ without the life-changing impact of the ‘Gospel’.

Footnote:

The gospel of Christ, including the account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, involves Christ’s reality in two broad dimensions: his earthly life (after the flesh); and his resurrected and eternal character.

The Gospel writers knew from first hand sources the account of Christ’s earthly life, divinity made flesh. The Apostle John also encountered Christ in his resurrected glory, in vision form on the Island of Patmos (refer Revelation). That infusion of the divine perspective is reflected in the Gospel of John (see John 1:1-5, 9-14).

Paul’s contribution to scripture is unique in that Paul did not know Christ in His earthly ministry (after the flesh) but only met Christ in His heavenly, resurrected glory. Paul saw a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-7), but also visited heaven in vision form (2Corinthians 12:1-7). In his heavenly visits Paul met the resurrected Christ, as indicated by Paul’s claim that Christ personally talked with him about Christ’s earthly life.

See 1Corinthians 11:23 “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread”

Paul, having his own encounters with the resurrected Christ and meeting others who had been with the flesh and blood Christ, made commentary about the difference.

2Corinthians 5:16 “Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we him no more.”

Paul’s gospel, then, did not focus on humanity. It was not about a good man who did good for us by dying selflessly for us. Paul’s gospel celebrated a divine being who experienced glory and divine authority and brought that to bear on those who believed in Him.

Philippians 2:9-11 “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul and the Apostle John stand special in their encounters of the risen and glorified Christ and we find that the encounters infused their gospel message with reflections of that divine nature.

Note that the writer to the Hebrews clearly understood the divine character of Christ.

Hebrews 2:9 “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”

Some believe that Paul authored Hebrews and the emphasis on divine elements of Christ’s existence (such as reference to Melchizedek) suggests that Paul’s divine perspective is indicated in Hebrews.

Call Down Fire?

Men and women of God regularly gain notoriety because of their failings.  They become front page news and those who oppose Christianity delight in scorning the church world based on their example.  We have seen well established identities in the Christian community exposed for various evils, including being overcome by the perennial dangers of “girls, gold and glory”.  Some have gone to jail for their sins.

The failings of men and women of God will continue to be paraded in the public arena because men and women of God will continue to fall into various temptations, as the Apostle Paul warned would happen among the elders he left in charge of churches back in his day – see Acts 20:30.

Thus we need to prepare our hearts for a godly response to those who let us down, cause our standing as Christians to be scorned, and who bring damage on the Kingdom of God by their failings.  Here is a reflection that may help us keep our hearts in the right place.

In Jesus’ day James and John took up an offence on behalf of Jesus when a Samaritan village refused to receive him.  They suggested calling down fire from heaven.  This was not as bizarre a suggestion as it might sound to our modern minds.  The great prophet Elijah had done exactly that on two occasions, 2 Kings 1:10,12.

“And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?” Luke 9:54

The actions of Elijah provided an acceptable Biblical precedent for a man of God to call down fire from heaven to consume opponents.  James and John were obviously confident that such could be done again in their day.  They were clearly strong in faith.  Surely their attitude was commendable.

Jesus rebuked them, but not because the proposal was illegitimate.  Jesus called into question the ‘spirit’ influencing the two brothers.  “You do not know what spirit is influencing you”, He said.

“But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, You know not what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.” Luke 9:55,56

Jesus contrasted the motivation directing their desire to punish with His own motivation, which is not to destroy but to save.

This experience among Jesus’ disciples informs us today as we see people of God offend us by their apparent failures.  We can take up an offence, as James and John did.  We can look for Biblical legitimacy to our vengeful feelings.  We can put out a proposal that serves our own personal feelings.

However Jesus did not serve His own feelings of offence.  He did not seek vengeance but committed Himself to God.  His mission was not one of judgment and destruction but of salvation and grace.

Despite the Biblical legitimacy of the desire for retribution a higher principle was in force and Jesus submitted to that higher principle.  He rebuked James and John for being seduced by the base motivations that stirred them to want to respond negatively to those who brought offence.

Jesus simply went on with His business, going to another village.  We don’t hear of that offending village again, because there is no need to.  If no offence is taken, then there is nothing to respond to.  If the principle of doing God’s business and bringing God’s grace and salvation is the overriding motivation then all else pales into insignificance.

Sadly we see many examples of the James and John spirit at work in the church world each time a new name is brought into disrepute.  It has been joked that Christianity is the only army that shoots its wounded.  And those who have been through the gruelling process of exposure, repentance and restoration acknowledge that they meet much more despisement from their Christian brothers and sisters than they receive grace from them.

So, prepare your heart.  The future will hold more examples of popular and recognised Christian leaders proving to have feet of clay.  At times the contempt poured on you because these others have failed will be deeply hurtful.  You will be tempted to join in the voice of the world and gossip, scorn and condemn those who fall.  You will be in good company if you do so.

But Jesus calls you to put the failings of others in its right place.  It is a sideshow compared to your calling to save lives and build God’s Kingdom.  If the failings of others makes your job harder then you will need more of God’s grace to enable you to still be effective.

Turning on your own brothers and sisters because their failings offend you calls into question what spirit is motivating you.  The spirit that attacks Christians who fall is not the spirit of Christ.

Emotional Filter

Your Emotional Filter – or “How You Fool Yourself”

Your emotional state affects how you remember and understand things.

Your emotions filter information and activate one set of memories or impressions over another.

It is therefore important to understand what is going on and to take charge of your emotions, rather than letting them rule you and fool you.

Three Settings

In simple terms our feelings tend to sit in one of three positions.  Most people are most often emotionally neutral, just getting on with life as it comes along.  On some occasions, though, we can feel very happy and upbeat about life.  These feelings might be prompted by being successful at something, or experiencing some emotionally uplifting experience.

On other occasions, though, we can feel quite down and even depressed.  These feelings might be prompted by an experience of failure or some emotionally challenging experience.

Psychologists use the term Mania for our positive emotional state and Depression for our negative emotional state.  Some people fluctuate between their highs and lows so disruptively they are diagnosed as Manic-Depressive, or Bi-polar as it is commonly labelled today.

In our normal frame of mind, not manic and not depressive, we take things as they come.  We do not have any particular emotional magnet messing with our interpretation of the information coming to us.

If in that state we were to think back on our life we would have access to all kinds of memories, good and bad, happy and sad.

If we are in a manic, upbeat or positive frame of mind our emotional filter tends to focus on and remember times when we felt this way before.  The positive feelings build on the positive feelings and we can have quite a strong sense of wellbeing, security and happiness and even a sense of invincibility, feeling confident that everything is going to go our way.

Conversely, if we are in a depressive frame of mind our emotional filter will tend to focus on and remember times when we felt depressed before.  The downcast feelings build on similar feelings and we can have quite a strong sense of depression, failure and fear of the future and even a feeling of hopelessness, as if whatever we do is going to turn out badly.

Our emotional filter is not actually a bad thing.  It’s just something we need to understand and manage appropriately.  If you are not aware of it you may end up letting it fool you into wrong thinking.

Changing Emotions

Jesus Christ talked about the ability of our emotions to completely change our memories, when he spoke of a woman giving birth.

“A woman has sorrow when giving birth, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she forgets the anguish for joy that a child is born into the world.” John 16:21

During the difficult times of a pregnancy a woman may have an emotional low and swear that she will never put herself through all of this ever again.  But after the baby is born a different set of emotions kick in and she might feel much more positive about having more children.  Her feelings of despair and discomfort are replaced by feelings of joy and delight.

Such a shift in perspective doesn’t mean she is mad, it is typical of how all of us function under the influence of our emotional filter.

Long before Jesus Christ wise King Solomon recorded the instruction of his mother about giving strong drink to those who need to forget their troubles.

“Give strong drink to him that is ready to perish, and wine to those with heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” Proverbs 31:6,7

Self-Medicating

We all know that certain foods, drinks and experiences modify our emotional state.  We use these various things to ‘self-medicate’ – to make ourselves feel good.  We can self-medicate with the first cup of coffee in the morning, a home-cooked meal, talking to a friend, listening to our favourite music, indulging in a sweet or retail-therapy. These are all ways we help ourselves feel better if we are not at our best.

I once read that cults had learned to use junk food to modify the moods of their victims.  One group would recruit young people and use them as slave labour doing such things as begging for money in car parks.  Frantic parents would track down their child and get court orders to allow them to meet their child.  Shortly before the meeting the young person would be fed up on junk food which filled their half-starved body with enough sugar and stuff to give them a high.

Under that chemical inducement the young person would feel elated and could only remember all the good things about their time with the so called “friends”.

So, we each have an emotional filter and we are each affected by it in various ways.  We also have the ability to affect it, but it too can dominate the way we think and feel about things.

Crazy Contradictions

The operation of our emotional filter can be seen in those situations where people say completely contradictory things from day or day, or even from moment to moment.

If a person does not have control over their emotions they can display quite alarming swings in their moods, and with the mood swing comes a complete rewriting of their history and perceptions.

When someone feels happy with a loved one, such as spouse, sibling, parent or child, that emotional state triggers memories of all the times they have enjoyed that relationship.  Induced by such memories and feelings they might say something like, “You are wonderful! You make me SO happy!”

However if they then feel offended by that same person their emotions can switch to the opposite setting and suddenly they not only feel negative about that person, but somehow they can now remember many times when they have felt the same negative way.  This time they might say something like, “You have always been SO hurtful! I’ve never really liked you. I wish I never knew you!”

On both occasions the person can speak quite sincerely.  For that moment all the thoughts, memories and feelings they have access to match what they are saying.

Quite often in such an upset the emotions settle down and the person feels apologetic for their excessive outburst.  They may then say something like, “I didn’t really mean what I said when I was attacking you.”

Once again the person is speaking sincerely.  They now review what they said and they don’t have access to all the dominating emotions and memories that fed their negative feelings.  They now have a more reasonable view of things and they try to patch up the relationship.

Clearly it is dangerous to be so out of control emotionally.  Not only will we be pushed like a boat in the wind, but others around us will be hurt and confused by our changeableness.

Rule Your Own Spirit

We each need to have rule over our own spirit, controlling our emotions, managing our emotional filter so it doesn’t fool us and make a mess our perceptions.

Step One – Realise you have an emotional filter that can fool you into believing things that are not true, because they are skewed, either positively or negatively.

Step Two – Recognise your predisposition, toward unrealistic upbeat feelings, or unrealistic negative feelings, or even to switching from one to the other erratically.

Step Three – Ask God to help you get “rule over your own spirit” so you don’t get pushed around by your emotions or the skewed sense of reality from your emotional filter.

Step Four – Get your friends and loved ones to function as a reality filter for you.  Find people who are balanced (not overly optimistic or overly negative or critical) and get them to check your ideas with you.

Step Five – Wise up about life and reality.  A good way to do that is to read the Bible and learn Christ’s principles for living.  They will be an anchor for your life and give you a reference point to test whether you are out of balance or not.

Scorn – Hidden Source of Contention

Over this past year or so several words have taken on new significance in my understanding.  Recently the word “scorn” took my attention and I am surprised how significant this topic may be in daily life.  So let me unpack it a little for you.

The key verse that brought ‘scorn’ into focus for me is Proverbs 22:10…

“Cast out the scorner, and contention will exit; yes, strife and reproach will cease.”

Here I saw a key link between scorn and ‘contention’.

Many homes live under the weight of contention so scorn could prove to be very relevant.

Previously I linked contention with pride, because of Proverbs 13:10…

Only by pride comes contention: but with the well advised is wisdom.”

Scorn is another piece of the contention puzzle.

Contention is linked to scorners and also to pride.  So scorn must be an expression of pride.

Scorn includes contempt, disrespect, disapproval, criticism, dislike, derision, indignation and disdain.

The link to pride probably sits with the scorner feeling a sense of elevation or superiority over the one scorned (that’s pride) so they judge the failings or poor qualities of the one scorned.

So scorn blocks forgiveness, because the scorner is not looking to act humbly or in good faith, but to serve their pride.

The scorner takes a place of pride and superiority over the one who is scorned so they do not adopt a posture of grace and forgiveness.

If there is contention in your home or your relationships you can be sure there is pride and scorn.

Many years ago my marriage was under great strain.  I had offended Susan by my persistence to achieve a goal, without seeming to care for her struggles in the process.  For many months our relationship was strained and I found Susan difficult to relate to.  All that time she struggled with feelings of offence, knowing her attitude was not right but not able to break free from it.

Late one night we were finally able to talk about the tensions and Susan poured out her string of hurts and feelings of offence caused by my actions.

All I could do was admit that I had burt her and ask her forgiveness.  Then the way forward was in her hands, not mine.  I said to her, “You know what you have to do.”  We were well aware of the need to forgive offenders in order to come to freedom ourselves.

Susan said she already knew she had to forgive me.  She was struggling to do so.

When she got to it, Susan’s forgiveness took only a few moments to say but it changed the atmosphere completely and set our relationship free to blossom again.  The impact was profound, even though the forgiveness process was almost momentary.

Think about your situation.

Is there contention, strife or reproach in your relationships?

Does the contention and strife settle down when someone else leaves the room, or when YOU leave the room?  Who is the ‘scorner’ in your situation?

Do you face contention and strife in many of your relationships?

Are you sitting in judgement of others, elevating yourself in pride, thinking you have the right to hold them in contempt, disapproval and indignation?

If you take the place of ‘judge’ over others God will judge you severely and one of the judgments is that God cuts you off from the benefit due to you through those you despise, which could even be your spouse and family.

And consider another verse about ‘scorn’, the very first verse of the Book of Psalms.

“Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful.” Psalm 1:1

The ungodly walk, sinner stand, and scorners sit.  Scorners make themselves comfortable in their place of scorn, pride and judgement of others.  They probably affirm their right to stay in that seat of judgement through all manner of justifications and fault-finding.

If you are a scorner you are probably very inflexible and slow to come around to grace and forgiveness.

If this touches you in some way then please take a lesson from my lovely wife and get out of that seat of scorn into the wonderful freedom that grace and forgiveness pour down upon us.

Getting on with Life

There are many things to distract us in life.  In younger years we feel as if we have unlimited time ahead.  Yet life is short and it slips by quickly.

We are wisest to keep in mind that human life is a temporary stay during which we determine our future destination.  We are created beings answerable to our Creator and will be judged by His high and holy standards, not our own opinions.

Key issues of life, then, include placing our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour, to release us from our failings and make us God’s adopted children.  Living in the Fear of God is also vital.  We are not our own and this life is not our own.  We live for God.

In my young adult years I was impacted by the verse that says we are created for God’s pleasure (thus not to live just seeking our own).

“You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for you created all things, and for your pleasure they are and were created.” Revelation 4:11

Let me see if I can spin a summary of life and its relevant values, as I see it now in my seventh decade.

Most of our life will be of little consequence.  Who cares what you had for breakfast a week ago?  King Solomon referred to this ‘everyday’ insignificance as ‘vanity’.  In fact Solomon declared that “everything is vanity and vexation of spirit”.

“I have seen all the works done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Ecclesiastes 1:14

That doesn’t sound very encouraging, does it?  But I find it rather delightful.  Let me explain.

The only things that will really count in your life are those things that have eternal significance (such as your choice to put your faith in Jesus Christ as your saviour, which makes you an eternal child of God with a future in Heaven) and those things that are part of God’s plan for His Kingdom.

Joshua, Rahab, Samson, Ruth, David, Mary, Paul and a host of other people recorded in the Bible had significant moments in their life when they were part of God’s overall plan.  But those same people spent years of their lives doing things that were completely insignificant.  We don’t care what they had for breakfast, or what their voices sounded like, or whether they ever saw snow, or how fit they were.  They might have had time in their lives when they were very worried about their weight, health, popularity, zits, competitive performance, and so on, but all that comes under the heading of ‘vanity and vexation of spirit’.  Who cares?

In the same way there are things I have to do in my life.  There are things God wants me to do and there are ways I can do things that are not vanity and vexation of spirit, when I am doing what He wants so His Kingdom is blessed.

Then there are all the other things I get to do.  And all those other things are the vanity of my life.  I can get all worked up about them and vex my spirit (get agitated, argue with people, lose sleep, etc), but no matter how anxious I become there is no big deal at all.  I am just wasting my energy and my time.

Many of the characters God used in Bible history, and it is true with multitudes of others as well, just went about their normal daily life of ‘vanity’ until God called them, anointed them, gave them special opportunity or whatever.

Gideon was threshing wheat when God called Him.  Ruth was just caring for her mother-in-law.  Elisha was ploughing a field.  David was minding sheep.  Mary was minding her own business.

For a while those people became the focal point of some plan God was working.

But after God’s plan was fulfilled most of what they did with the rest of their lives was in the category of ‘vanity’.  That doesn’t make what they were doing wrong, but it was no big deal.

Mary lived a long time after giving birth to Jesus.  She had several other children, cooked meals, cared for the family, and all that.  Her key moment in history was over and her life was absorbed in the general day to day of life.

Noah lived a long time after the Flood and in those years he probably did all sorts of things, but the Bible doesn’t have much to say about those many years.  They were mostly filled with ‘vanity’ and probably some ‘vexation of spirit’ as well.

For you that means that you are to get on with life, but don’t get too carried away with it.  Most of what you are doing is probably in the category of vanity anyway.

However, along the way God will give you many opportunities to be used by Him, in moments that are very precious and may bring powerful results for God’s Kingdom.  Be ready to flow with God’s plan as and when it touches your ordinary life.

And the rest of the time, enjoy the life God has given you, because that enjoyment is God’s gift.

“And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.” Ecclesiastes 3:13