At the core of my existence, I wrestle with this topic. I love the Church. For all of her warts, she is the bride of Christ — but some of those warts are pretty ugly and big. In my opinion, none are so large and misgiving as the American Church’s understanding of the Gospel.
The American Church Gospel is emotionally unhealthy and powerless, in part because we don’t share the whole Gospel, in part because we let sin (rooted in self) drive the conversation, and in part because the Church is unwilling to live out what it invites people to do. Let me pull each of these apart separately.
We don’t share the whole Gospel.
I have an e-book addressing this topic at further length, but to keep things simple, the Gospel is not the Gospel of salvation. It never has been and it never will be. We have to stop saying that when we share a salvation message with people, we are sharing the Gospel. It’s not what we’re doing.
I am not trying to undermine the importance of the salvation message in a person’s life, but it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is the Good News that God has broken the power of the evil forces keeping us oppressed. There is new creation bursting forth right in the midst of this one. The Gospel is the message of freedom from the oppression of all this world uses to trap us. The Gospel is a laying down of our own perceptions about life — all of them — in order to find what real life is all about.
Jesus said, “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:39). I do not think what Jesus is alluding to here is that we give up everything and then we get heaven as the paycheck at the end of life. Although we do find heaven if we endure, what Jesus is talking about here is bigger and broader than that.
What He is saying is that when we lay down or lose what we think brings us happiness, what we find is a better version of life awaiting us. We figure out the pursuits the world invites us to are not nearly so valuable as we once thought. In fact, they are a shadow and a shell of what true life is all about. Jesus’s invitation is to that fullest life.
The Gospel is not an invitation to a self-deprecated life, although there are many sacrifices to be made. The Gospel is an unfettered invitation to what is truly the fullest life possible — a life without regret, a life worth living — life to its fullest.
Tell the whole Gospel.
We let sin drive the story.
We are often taught about the “sin cycle” of the Old Testament. I have a foundational problem with this line of thinking. It places the emphasis of the story on our mistakes, our sin, our problem. We set God as the great problem solver.
When we talk about sin as the driver of the Gospel, we place ourselves in the driver’s seat. It isn’t about God and His grace and His plan. It isn’t about God’s redemptive heart and His great love for us.
Even when we talk about Jesus on the cross, we let sin drive the whole story. Let me state this emphatically: This is a completely egocentric understanding of the plan of redemption. It is as if I made my decisions and the rest of the universe — including God — had to respond to me.
Hear my heart in this: Your sin did not put Jesus on the cross — His great love for you did. That should be what we talk about when we talk about the cross. Then, like Paul, I preach the cross and Jesus crucified, but not from the position of being ruined, but from the position of being inspired to be something better.
Before you say, “But we should feel bad…” — that statement is diametrically opposed to grace. Grace is all about not paying for what we did wrong and being forgiven because the one who forgives believes more in our potential than our mistakes. We, then, as God followers, must see people the way God does. We must talk to others the way God does. We must love, forgive, give grace, and call out people’s potential the way God does.
Tell the whole Gospel.
We don’t practice what we preach.
In the book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells a story about a Christian group who set up a confession booth at a large college party. As people entered, they didn’t sit and listen, but began to repent to those who came in and sat down. They repented of their own sin, of how the Church had let people down, and how they had chosen not to speak up before now.
The Gospel we preach invites people to repent. Repentance at one level is simply admitting and apologizing for our mistakes. If this is central to our Gospel, why is the Church not better at it?
The Church destroys people when we refuse to admit wrongdoings, and we leverage clerical authority as the reason for not having to do so. We take the voice of those with questions. We demean those who want to help.
If you want your Gospel to be powerful, then practice what you preach and get the plank out of your own eye before you tell others what they must do. This promotes humility on both sides of the conversation. In the midst of that, the true Gospel message takes root deeply in our lives, and God is glorified.
Here is my deepest concern, via Galatians 1:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!
This was Paul’s message to the early Church. What was his Gospel? Acts 19:
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God.
This was Paul’s Gospel. It should be ours, as well.
May you be bold in your radical message of God’s amazing grace. May you never let sin drive the conversation, but God’s determination to redeem every story. May you tell the whole Gospel. And may you practice what you preach.