I remember the moment it hit me, the moment I realized the Gospel of Jesus I am preaching or telling my friends about is only part of the story, and by leaving out part of God’s story I have created a new narrative that isn’t really God’s at all. I realized that for years I had only been talking about the parts of the Gospel that put me firmly in the center of the universe and in so doing I had created a new and improved Golden Calf.
It was a terrifying discovery, one that initially led me to double down on the truncated Gospel I had grown to love, but there were moments along the way that pulled at my soul in ways I could no longer ignore. I had to address my shortcuts.
I was haunted by the words from Bob Roberts Jr.’s book Transformation from several years prior when I was preparing to plant a church.
Before we can figure out where we go from here, we have to realize how deep into the woods we’ve wandered. In other words, we have to understand how we became lost in order to find our way back.
We thought the hallmarks of modernity – individuality, reason, science, and optimism – would build the church like never before. And it did grow, and lives were changed. In American culture, production, momentum, and results reign supreme. However, as Western pragmatists, we too often believed that as long as we could produce results, we didn’t need to examine the results we were getting.
This cut through me like a knife. I was filleted wide open, and my mind immediately went to thoughts of a man from church, whom I’ll call “Tom.”
Tom and his wife, “Betty,” have been part of Disciples Church, the church I planted in Folsom, California, with my family and a few close friends, since the darkest and hardest our church has gone through. They are a fun, intelligent, and well-educated couple in their early forties. They married young, and ten years into a pretty wonderful marriage, Betty had an encounter with God where she was faced with her own sin, the prospect of forgiveness, and new life. She experienced a powerful conversion and immediately immersed herself in Bible studies, books, worship, and the local church. She started coming to Disciples about five years into her journey of faith.
On the other hand, Tom remained a very kind and irreligious guy. While far from God, he was smart, well-read, and, by most measures, a better Christian than most of the Christians in our church at the time – myself included.
During a California mortgage crisis when Christians left and right simply stopped paying their own mortgages and instead chose to live in their homes as squatters for months – in some cases years – Tom kept paying his upside-down mortgage because he signed his name on the line and it was the right thing to do.
When he and his wife had trouble having children, they researched adoption and found there were thousands of kids in need of good parents, so he bought his wife a ten-passenger van and just started adopted kids.
It’s hard to overstress how good of a guy he really is; he’s a Boy Scout leader, for goodness’s sake. But he also appeared to be a thousand miles from any desire to know or follow God in any transformational way. He came to church twice a year with his wife and kids to be a good team player, but he showed no interest.
An engineer by trade, Tom is good with numbers, empirical evidence, things that make sense. So I just assumed he needed an apologist. I was wrong. I remember my earliest conversations with him about God and feeling so silly to start with forgiveness of sin; not that Tom did not need forgiveness – he was, of course, a sinner – but it all just seemed ill-advised or at least ill-timed.
We planted Disciples to help people find their way back to God; it was part of why Betty came to our church in the first place – in hopes Tom would find his way back to God in our midst. I wanted Tom to have a life-changing conversion experience and place Jesus at the headship of his life, following the leading of the Holy Spirit in his day-to-day life. Who wouldn’t want that for Tom? But beyond a powerful moment in the presence of God Himself, continuing to present a million-dollar bill plan of salvation wasn’t going to move Tom.
TransitionThey are dying for lack of God’s oxygenating Lordship, and we as pastors just keep giving them a hit on a paper bag of atonement, like a little kid who’s hyperventilating.
How does the language of the prophets – talking in vivid words of God’s work to right all things – transport Tom back to the story of the Garden and then forward with great expectation to Jesus talking to the woman at the well?
Without a robust Gospel, these connections are missed and the whole thing feels really easy to discount.
And that is why, when telling only part of the story, you and I have sold satisfied skeptics and the “generally-nice” irreligious in our world a bill of goods for which very few in a post-Christendom culture have any interest in buying.
In fact, in leaving out all of the other bits, we hurt ourselves and the relevance of the very good news we seek to live and tell. But the hurt is not because the Good News has somehow become merely Okay News. It’s because in bending their ear only to the crescendo of the symphony, they have missed all the nuance early on with Abram, Israel, and the prophets that makes the crescendo of the cross a life-changing moment.
Our friends are walking away saying, “Nice song,” but they are left unmoved. We have settled for proposition but left out all the power!
We tend to share what Dallas Willard loved to refer to as the Gospel of Sin Management, something which he would say fosters “vampire Christians” who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven.
But if we return back to those in that room in Acts 13 and the experiences that followed their lives moving forward from that point, we realize, in part, that their impact was the result of the Holy Spirit’s work through the telling of a robust Gospel.
Scholars would take us on a long journey through 1 Corinthians 15 and John 1 and several other stops in Romans as well to frame a picture of a robust Gospel.
However, for the sake of space, let’s look at the same picture from another angle in Colossians 1.
He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:13–20 NRSV)
With this as our text, we see the Good News of Jesus as simple to understand and live, but inescapably robust.
Verses 15 and 16 place Jesus at the center of creation and carries through every age and season – in the waiting, the desert, exile, the Promised Land, and every other stage.
Verse 17 says, “and in him all things hold together.”
This Kingdom theology states that God is currently at work in your life.
It carries right through to the current age of working out our faith in the church, as shown in verse 18.
In his book How God Became King, N. T. Wright says, “The whole point of the Gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven.”
Scott McKnight in The King Jesus Gospel calls out the elephant in the room when he reminds us, “Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles however, were obsessed with making disciples.”
And he goes on to write further that “evangelism that focuses on decisions short circuits and—yes, the word is appropriate—aborts the design of the Gospel, while evangelism that aims at disciples slows down to offer the full Gospel of Jesus.”
So when a church stops being obsessed with decisions and now starts developing an obsession with disciple-making, everything changes. I am completely convinced this is the progression of the missional life God has called you and me to live as disciples of Jesus.
Remember Peter and John’s boldness of Acts 4? The religious leaders indict them after a healing but take pause when they see their boldness. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
Scott McKnight, in his chapter entitled “Gospeling Today,” advocates for this kind of boldness once again, saying it can only be found when it is framed in Israel’s story: the narration of the saving story of Jesus.
Firstly, we often get a bit of the life of Jesus. We never miss the death. We speed over resurrection and typically leave out completely His exaltation and ascension. His coming again makes clear the completion of the story of Israel.
Secondly, the Gospel centers on Jesus’s Lordship, that he was becoming King in earthly skin.
Thirdly, our Gospel telling must include the summoning of people to respond to the call of God in repentance, faith in Christ, and baptism.
And then finally, the Gospel saves and redeems. The Apostolic Gospel promises forgiveness, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and justification.
But this final crescendo is just a pleasant tune or a nice fairytale bedtime story to anyone outside a Christendom worldview who has not been introduced to the first three.
As you might have guessed, the story of Tom has a glorious continuance. In discussions with his realtor, Dan, Tom began to awaken to his deep desire to welcome God’s rule and reign in his life.
His realtor also happens to be a pastor on our staff – just one more reason to advocate for bi-vocational ministry in a missional context.
Their house deal was getting a bit bumpy. Tom was stressing, and Dan – along with another Christian friend – began to discuss the beauty of this robust Gospel.
The God in our waiting.
The God in the desert.
The God of exile.
The God of the Promised Land.
The full story was coming into focus for Tom, and he was seeing this grand arc of God’s story of reconciling all things, a story that comes to grand completion in Christ and subsequently celebrated and reflected in the life of a disciple.
Tom needed forgiveness of sin, and I know for a fact he is very grateful for the promise of heaven. But what Tom now understood was the Kingdom of God all around him, which sat just out of reach until he placed his life under the reign and rule of Jesus. It is exhilarating these days to watch him lift his hands in worship or stay for a second service to take additional notes on a study.
The unfortunate reality of getting multiplication right but not getting the robust Gospel is that we simply multiply that which we know we can count:
Budgets and buildings.
But when the robust Gospel is the centerpiece of our multiplication, we find God’s Kingdom advancing and joy abundant in every season.
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me. (Colossians 1:24–29)