Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Gospel in Nine Sentences: A Devotional Message for the National Ministry Team

Last week, I had the opportunity to go to the Small-Town Pastors Conference. Did anybody else here go? There was a lot of good stuff – I'd recommend it to any of you. And while I was there, our brother Gary and I had a great discussion over lunch about what he had learned from one of the presenters. And the presenter had said, “The Bible is sixty-six books; the gospel is just ten words.” And those ten words were these: “Christ died for your sins and rose from the dead.” Just that, ten words!

And so after Gary attended that seminar – and we both went to another seminar by the same guy that afternoon – we stood in the lunch line waiting for food and talked through some questions about evangelism. Specifically, what is the gospel? How much of the story do we need to tell people? How much background do they need so this gospel, this 'good news' we bring, makes sense?

On the one hand, when Paul preached to the Gentiles, he didn't run through all the events of the history of Israel, because it wasn't their history; he didn't talk about Abraham, didn't mention the Exodus, didn't speak of the exile, and didn't even use the word 'kingdom'; he didn't presume their familiarity with the Old Testament scriptures.

On the other hand, even Paul's Areopagus preaching in Acts 17 was shaped by his familiarity with the Old Testament; he traced a different sort of narrative with them, but a larger narrative all the same; it certainly took more than ten words, even to sum up; and when Jesus preached, he himself defined his message as “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 24:14; cf. Mark 1:15). The words of Jesus and the letters of Paul and other apostles are incomprehensible without that broader story.

It was a good discussion. And now I see, from reading the reports, which I know you all did too, that we're going to hear from the Kingdom Extension Community about their plans to assemble a helpful glossary, one that will help us navigate key terms, including but not limited to... 'gospel' and 'kingdom.' Is there a healthy, balanced way to do that? A way that people can simply explain or organize the gospel in just a few words – and yet still be shaped by God's bigger story? That's what I wanted to talk about this morning, with the time I was given, drawing on the ways the earliest Christian preachers explained the story to different audiences as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. What I came up with may not be one sentence, but it's still only nine – and unlike most of my sentences, they're short!

First sentence: God created. That's absolutely foundational. Without knowing that, it's impossible to understand the gospel. Because if we don't have at least an inkling who God is and why we owe him our love and obedience, we can't appreciate anything that happens in the story or any preaching of the gospel. We like to talk sometimes about a 'bad news'-'good news' approach. But the truth is, God never starts with bad news. He starts with good news, and when bad news enters the picture, he offers better news to top it. And that's the picture of God we need to have! It's also the picture of the world we need to have – as a place that, deep down, was made good. This is a foundational preliminary for the gospel. It was presumed in every gospel sermon we have in the New Testament – Peter's famed Pentecost sermon opened with who God is, as the Creator and Master of History (Acts 2:17-20); Stephen's sermon to the hostile crowd opened with God as “the God of glory,” the Creator of light (Acts 7:2); the audience of Paul's synagogue preaching knew Genesis just as well as we do; and even in his preaching to Greek philosophers, Paul most explicitly proclaimed “the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17:24). It was to those who didn't know the biblical story, who weren't heirs of Israel's history, that Paul made most sure to start telling the gospel right here – with 'God created.'  This is the Creed's one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen - all summed up with 'God created.'

Second sentence: Sin invaded. And now we have the bad news. It's the next step in Genesis – sin enters the garden in the figure of the serpent; sin lures and infects Adam and Eve, steals their innocence – and as Paul would say, ever since we have been “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14), as oppressed by its power – not just sins, but Sin itself. The Jewish crowds who heard Peter, Stephen, and Paul all knew that; and when Paul spoke to the Greeks about their altar(s) to an 'Unknown God' (Acts 17:23), he referenced it, too – because Greek legend traced the origin of those altars to a devastating plague sent by a god who wasn't appeased through sacrifices to all their usual suspects. Sin invaded God's good world, and that's more preliminary knowledge for the gospel. We need to take that reality seriously. If we neglect it, then we'll either condemn the world itself as bad, or we'll turn into utopians.  We aren't merely good-at-heart people who need a bit of guidance to clear up some misconceptions.  We are oppressed, wanting for freedom; we are infected, wanting for a cure; we are trapped, wanting for rescue; we are estranged, wanting for reconciliation; we are dead, wanting for new life.

God created. Sin invaded. Third sentence: We collaborated. And basically the entire sweep of the Old Testament is summed up in that, isn't it? That's where it gets personal; that's where we talk, not just of 'sin,' but of 'your sins,' 'my sins,' 'our sins.' Sin's invasion wasn't just something that happened long ago; it's a present reality. And it's because we all willingly pitch in to cooperate with it. What Adam did, we all ratify and support – if not in theory, then in practice – whenever we choose to follow his example and sin. That's more bad news – but a bad news necessary for people to realize as they hear the gospel. The gospel is personal, because sin is personal – because 'we collaborated.' Peter says it at Pentecost – points the finger at the crowd for their sin in crucifying Jesus (Acts 2:23). Stephen says it – points the finger at Israelite history: “Our fathers refused to obey [Moses], but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they returned to Egypt” (Acts 7:39), and “as your fathers did,” he says to the Sanhedrin, “so do you” (Acts 7:51). Paul's synagogue message echoed Peter's – even Abraham's descendants collaborated with sin in calling for the crucifixion (Acts 13:26-28). And speaking to the Greeks, he critiques their idolatry as collaboration with sin (Acts 17:29-30). If we neglect this truth, our willing collaboration with sin, our perverse efforts to actually keep the true God at a distance, then we'll march to the Great White Throne still making excuses.

Fourth sentence, and here's a turn back to good news better than the first: God loved us anyway. Even though the world was full of sin, and even though we collaborated willingly with sin, sold ourselves into slavery under sin – in spite of all that, God never stopped loving us, never has, never will. We see it throughout the Old Testament, right alongside every misstep of Israel and even the other nations. The world falls into senseless violence; but God loves us anyway and rescues a man (Noah) and his family as a remnant (cf. Genesis 6-9). The world assembles in selfish rebellion against God (Genesis 11); but he loves us anyway and chooses a man (Abraham) and his family to be his vehicle of blessing and healing to the world (Genesis 12:2), to grow into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6). They keep refusing to trust him, but he loves them anyway. They build a golden calf in the wilderness (Exodus 32); he punishes, but loves them anyway. In their new home, they fall into cycles of national sin with all its consequences but then cry out for a redeemer, and he sends a judge – because he's been listening, waiting for them, because he loves them, and us, anyway. Their kings refuse to govern justly, their priests refuse to worship purely, their merchants refuse to deal fairly, and the nation as a whole so often refuses to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in right relationship with their God (cf. Micah 6:8); but he loves them anyway, chastising them only as a beloved child (cf. Deuteronomy 8:5). He calls out through his many prophets – even in the face of Israel's willing slavery to sin, God announces through Isaiah, “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you” (Isaiah 54:8); and who can forget God's faithful love depicted in Hosea, with his promise to betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy (Hosea 2:19)? Through the penalty of exile and beyond, what becomes clear is that, though God's justice is quite on display, he loves relentlessly even this undeserving mess he calls his people. And the New Testament, too, makes it perfectly clear: “For God so loved the world...” (John 3:16). If we neglect this truth, the relentless love of God in spite of all our sinfulness, we don't just miss one truth among many; we miss God's very heart, the wellspring of the gospel and all hope. In spite of all we do and all we've done, 'God loved us anyway' loved us too much, in fact, to leave us that way.

Fifth sentence: Jesus died to liberate. That's the centerpiece of the gospel, the core message – without that meaning, it's no gospel at all. There is no gospel without Jesus, God's Son, God's Word (or, as per the Creed, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made), the very life of God poured into human flesh as the only solution to our condition. (Again, as per the Creed: For us humans and for our salvation, [he] came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.) We were slaves to sin; Jesus died to set us free: If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36; cf. Romans 6:6). We were lethally infected with sin; but by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). That makes clear what we mean when we say, “Jesus died for your sins” – he died to cancel out all that collaboration, he died to break those chains, to give you freedom. (Again, the Creed: He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried.) And instead of just saying that Jesus died – an undeniable historical fact, which is of course mentioned in the sermons in Acts by Peter (Acts 2:23), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 13:27-29) – we get to make clear why it's good news. Health is good news! Freedom is good news! That's how he was crucified for us! That's what Paul said in his synagogue preaching: “Through this man, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39). And in being made free from sin's chains, in being made free from sin's penalty, we find forgiveness and peace with God – the hope of a restored relationship. All possible because 'Jesus died to liberate.'

Sixth sentence: Jesus lives – so trust. And there's the flip-side, the other core pillar: the Resurrection. Even to the Greek philosophers, Paul reached the great climax of his sermon by declaring that God had raised Jesus from the dead (Acts 17:31). It was central to Peter on Pentecost, that God raised [Jesus] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it (Acts 2:24), that this Jesus, God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses (Acts 2:32).  Stephen, on the day of his preaching, saw the risen Christ firsthand and proclaimed him in his martyrdom (Acts 7:55-56).  All Paul's synagogue preaching centered around that same truth, that “God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:30) – a truth he confesses even to the Greeks, about God raising him from the dead (Acts 17:31; cf. Acts 17:18). There can be no gospel where Jesus doesn't die for us, true. But there can certainly be no gospel where Jesus stays put in the grave. Praise God, Jesus is alive! Do we know that this morning? (We certainly confess it in the Creed: On the third day he rose again.) And there's only one response that makes sense to a crucified and risen Jesus Christ: Trust him. Have faith in him (John 14:1). Keep faith with him. Those who reject him, and the word of God about him, are choosing to reject eternal life and cling to death (Acts 13:46). This sort of freedom and life comes only to “everyone who believes, everyone who trusts and has faith in the God who did this (Acts 13:39). If he can conquer his own death from within a tomb, he can conquer death's hold over me and you. That's good news! Life is good news! The good news, as Paul preached it in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, is that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us, their children, by raising Jesus (Acts 13:32-33). That is how God fulfills his love-borne promise to his sin-slain creations. And so what sin killed in us can't stay dead when the resurrecting power of God we see in Jesus is on the scene. That's the victory God gives us – and he gives it to those who trust in Jesus and not their own works or worthiness. 'Jesus lives so trust.'

Seventh sentence: Jesus rules – so listen. That's the gospel, too. Peter closed his Pentecost sermon by emphatically saying that “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). Stephen called out to Jesus as 'Lord' with his dying breath, when he saw Jesus positioned as standing judge at the post of ultimate authority: the Father's right hand (Acts 7:55-59). (Like the Creed says: He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.) Paul, preaching to Greeks, agreed with Peter and Stephen that Jesus was the one through whom God would judge the world – that's an exercise of Lordship (Acts 17:31). And we know that salvation comes only by confessing that Jesus is Lord and trusting in his risen life (Romans 10:9). This is where the traditional expression of the gospel intersects with what Jesus said about the kingdom. Jesus needs to be confessed as the Lord, the King, through whom the kingdom of God was brought to earth and under whose rule it still extends its life-giving dominion which hath no end. If we neglect this truth, we risk ending up antinomian, or turning inward and making the gospel a private hobby. And just as the only right response to Jesus living is to trust him, the only right response to Jesus ruling the kingdom is to listen to him, to obey him – to keep his commandments, as he so often said (e.g., John 14:15) – to live like he's in charge, because he is. We're saved by faith in the risen Jesus, for service to the ruling Jesus, created [anew] in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (cf. Ephesians 2:8-10). 'Jesus rules so listen.'

Eighth sentence: Jesus breathes – so mobilize. I'm tempted to replace the word 'mobilize' with three words: 'Gather, grow, go.' The good news isn't just about what God did in the Son; the good news is that the Son hasn't left us alone, but breathed his Spirit into us, still breathes his Spirit into us, so that we can do the work of the kingdom (John 20:22; cf. Acts 2:33).  As Peter preached in his evangelistic message on Pentecost, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). And the only appropriate response to the gift of his Spirit is to mobilize – we gather in fellowship, we grow through mutual edification, and we go into all the world and disciple, or train, every nation, every demographic, every neighbor and every neighborhood (Matthew 28:18; cf. Acts 13:47).  The only appropriate response is to let the Spirit work love in our hearts and let the Spirit's love come to expression in our hands and feet. This is why we aren't snatched up to heaven when we're saved – not just because the earth is God's good creation (which it is), but because we all have a mission on it, right here, right now. And without conveying that sense of purpose, that mighty adventure, that challenge and assurance all in one, I wonder if so much of our evangelism isn't selling the gospel short.

Ninth sentence: All will be new. “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again” those words are ancient. So are the words of the Creed, that Christ shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom shall have no end. And when he does return in glory, he'll make all things new (Revelation 21:5). And that takes the gospel story to the end – what we see fulfilled at the close of Revelation, but what we hear promised throughout the Old and New Testaments. God's name will be hallowed. God's kingdom will come. God's will will be done (Matthew 6:9-10). New creation will be born, not just in seed but in the fullness of reality. Death will be swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54). (Again with the Creed: We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.) Tears will be wiped away when all things are made new, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things [will] have passed away (Revelation 21:1-5). That's the good news – and it's good news for the world, not just good news of escape from the world, the way we sometimes misstate it. This is God's game plan for the world we live in, to bring heaven here, to restore paradise here, to live here with us, to make it and us new together (cf. Romans 8:19-23). That's good news! That's the goal of the gospel.

God created. Sin invaded. We collaborated. God loved us anyway. Jesus died to liberate. Jesus lives, so trust. Jesus rules, so listen. Jesus breathes, so mobilize. And all will be new. Thirty-one words – a step beyond those original ten – but these nine short, easy sentences sum up the story, the excitement, the adventure, for all people: Jew and Gentile, man and woman, young and old. They cover, or at least bracket, the range of Jesus' preaching, of Peter's preaching, of Stephen's preaching, of Paul's preaching. And yet it's simple – you can type them in two lines and capture all that depth, and anyone can understand.  They are the gospel rubric into which everything else we need to say will fit.

Why are we spending time here this morning, here in the gospel, in these truths that we all know, that we all confess? Because we are nothing without the gospel – the whole gospel. Evangelism isn't just for those outside the church. There's a diagram in the book Discipleship That Fits – if you haven't read it, you need to, it's top-notch – and the authors point out that evangelism and discipleship both happen before and after conversion. Before conversion, evangelism takes top billing, but discipleship has already begun. After conversion, discipleship takes top billing, but it builds on the continuing gospel preaching of the church. We need to be perpetually re-anchored in these truths; we need to navigate by seeing ourselves and our world in the grip of this story.

And, I'm convinced, most every failure of the Christian walk – including distortions of leadership – can be traced to either treating this 'good news' like it isn't news (that is, like it isn't true) or else like it isn't good. Last time we met as the National Ministry Team, we heard a devotional message about godly leadership, and about the importance of sharing the gospel in each Christian message. I wanted to build on that. See, if we don't appreciate the gospel, in all its depth and in all its simplicity, we run the risk of going wrong. It anchors in the central truth of Christ crucified and risen – that's the perfect love of an all-gracious and all-merciful God. And yet it really is the gospel of the kingdom, where true leadership looks like the Kingdom's King, who knelt to serve and died to save and taught us wisdom for living and bade us keep his commandment of love. We must be immersed in this gospel, as believers, as pastors, as a National Ministry Team, as a denomination, as a church. So that's how I think we should begin this National Ministry Team meeting: by opening our eyes once again to what Paul called “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). May we always see, think, feel, and live in that light!

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