Poor gospel communication…can we do better?

We’re studying the book “Just Walk Across the Room” in our church family right now, and I’m deeply conflicted about it.

The method of loving our neighbors is really really awesome in this book. Seriously, it’s similar to “friendship evangelism” but much much wiser because we’re not in friendships to look for opportunities to share the “plan of salvation”; we’re in relationships to love people, to honor and value their story and to simply care for them. When there are opportunities to share, we share wisely (and sometimes take risks), but we put a high premium on listening to others’ stories and looking how we can come alongside them in life. The primary question is “How can I love and serve this person?” rather than “How soon can I take this person down the Roman Road (which I think is a poor way of introducing Christianity anyways).”

This strikes me as a much healthier way of thinking about evangelism, but I’m conflicted because once you get past the method to the meat of the “good news” Christians have to offer their non-Christian friends, the book doesn’t offer much of substance.  I explained some of my misgivings in an email to the church folks a week ago that I’ll snip and paste in here;

“Where I experienced deep frustration with Hybels’ approach is the meat and potatoes of what we believe to be “God’s story” that we share with others when they ask us.  Hybels sets things up well, asking us to be prepared with a simple illustration or simple story to give people insight into the purposes of God. Now it was at this place in the book that I got extremely, extremely disappointed with Bill, and for two main reasons.

First, how people think about relationship with God, and

Second, how God has shown us his love and “salvation.”

Bill said, “Since the beginning of time, sensing vast distance between themselves and God, people have been consumed with the desire to somehow get over the chasm separating them from God…if they weren’t even living up to their own standards, and God was “other” than they were, then they figured God’s standards must be utterly impossible to reach…everyone seemed to agree that all people had to do to reach God was fly a little straighter, pray a little harder, become more religious, and perform more charitable deeds.”

Now I’m (Nathan) asking you to be honest, really honest right now, and look at your life and the people surrounding you, and ask one question: would you say the people surrounding you are consumed with a desire to be approved by God?  Think about this word consumed.  What does that convey to you? (willing to do anything to overcome the distance between, willing to go through any roadblock, elevating something to a place of highest importance).

I believe, instead, that many people I know really don’t care that much at all.  Where God’s commands are convenient, where his expectations are easy for them to follow, they follow. Where God demands something that will be harder, they disobey.  They don’t care. If you think that’s being consumed by a desire, striving to earn God’s good grace, I’m not sure you know what the word consumed really means. That sounds to me to be much more like laziness and spurts of caring, mostly defined by a selfish life.

So that’s how Bill sets up life, and here’s the answer he provides;

“The Bible says something remarkable about how to bridge the gap between God and man.  It says that God saw the chasm that separated immoral men and women like you and me from him.  He saw the infinite distance for what it really was…so, motivated by love, God took on the chasm-spanning responsibility himself.  He built a bridge that went the distance in order to reach sinful man.  He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die on a cross for us- the cross that would serve as the ultimate bridge. So because of the bridge,..Christ found me with a hard hat on my head, trowel in my hand, and a heart fully prepared to work every day on my own construction project. I was 17 years old when I walked across that bridge, finally comprehending that I could take off my hard hat and let my trowel drop to the concrete floor.  God had built a bridge, and by faith, I could walk across that bridge.”

Here’s a visual representation of Bill’s drawing (that is ALL OVER the evangelical Christian culture from other sources too):

the_bridge

In this answer, I see a decent dose of truth, but I see two HUGE omissions:

1) Did anything happen before Jesus died on the cross, or is that where the story starts for us? and

2) Is it true that all we have to do is acknowledge what God has done, just walk across the bridge, and we’ll be with Him forever?

I’m suggesting to you right now that the Bible doesn’t give us a picture of people consumed with a desire to know God. The Bible gives us a picture of people consumed with a desire to do what they want, when they want, however they want.  I’m also suggesting that there’s no such “chasm” in the Bible.  Biblically, all human beings need to do is turn around, realize God’s been pursuing us all along, kneel before the one who made them, and rise to obey. God responds to this movement by grafting us into his holy people, a physical different nation in the world out of every tribe, tongue, and nation; a people obedient to him who will lead the way for the world out of darkness and into light.

So here is my illustration that I think captures the heart of the Bible’s “good news” for human life:

obedience-heart-of-bible1

It is my contention that human obedience to God is the heart of the Bible’s message of good news.  Period.  Not some assurance of afterlife or anything of this nature, but rather assurance of different goals, different lifestyle, and true joy that other goals and lifestyles can’t even sniff at.  And when we commit to this life, the God who made us gives us the opportunity to enjoy his fellowship and the fellowship of others for all time.

Why do I say this?  Well, this message of obedience holds true all the way through the Bible. Here’s some examples.

Genesis 2:15-17 “The LORD God took the Adam and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the Garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die…(Adam and Eve disobey) by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

Genesis 12:1-4 “The LORD had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him.

Exodus 19:3-8 The LORD speaking to Moses, “”This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Isaiah 1:13-20 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations- I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hid my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us reason together,’ says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land; but if you resist and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.

Matthew 7:24,26Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man…but everyone who hears these words and do not put them into practice is like a foolish man.”

Matthew 16:24-27Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done.

And maybe the most direct teaching on this in the New Testament;

Hebrews 10:26-31,36-39If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think those deserve to be punished who have trampled the Son of God underfoot, who have treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who have insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mind to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The LORD will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God…you need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For, ‘in just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delat.’ And ‘ but my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

Now, it’s important to note here that the author of Hebrews is not developing a picture of a God who is a cruel taskmaster; one who whips us when we fail and makes us feel like a pile of dirt all the time. What they’re saying is that if we know that something is sinful and we bluntly choose to do what we want, we have trampled the Son of God underfoot and insulted the Spirit of grace. Certainly God recognizes that we are imperfect people, that we struggle to know what is healthy and unhealthy, sinful and good, but that doesn’t negate that the commitment to obedience, courageous obedience, is at the heart of this passage AND at the heart of the Bible itself.

These verses, along with the rest of the Bible, show that God expects his people to seek transformation now, to strive with all they are to obey, and he expects them to do so if they want to be called his children. So if the answer we give to generally selfish, lazy people is one that only requires them to walk across a bridge that God made 2,000 years ago and doesn’t demand anything more from them, we’re simply not communicating God’s gospel to them. Period. This equally applies to Bill’s Do/Done illustration and the “Morality Ladder,” because they keep the same idea going.  My way of life does not matter according to these descriptions; the only thing that matters is what God has done.

We can do better.

How can I say this in a more positive way, now that I’ve offered my critique?  I’ll put it this way;  The Bible shows us a God who initiates everything by choosing to create and breathe life into what He has made. This good God gives human beings a simple way of life; obey what He, their Creator, commands and we will have joyful, purposeful life. So, if persons would suggest we should or can earn our favor with God through what we do, the answer is no. God simply told us how to live and we choose to obey or disobey that way of life. If we don’t want that way of life, then we confess we’re not God’s children; if we do, we are.

Now we have to be honest to say that obedience is a struggle because the world has been in rebellion for thousands upon thousands of years, but that doesn’t negate the deep Biblical truth that God commands and expects obedience.  When we commit to this, then God shows himself to be a graceful, merciful, and forgiving God.

Do you see the difference between this story and Bill’s?  In Bill’s, God did something two thousand years ago that just requires me saying “Yes” to, and my sins are forgiven and I can be in relationship with Him.  What I do is irrelevant.  In my story, God has been doing something for thousands of years; to convince his creation that obeying Him is the best thing we can do.  Jesus is the pinnacle of that story, the fullest expression of God’s love, and he showed us that love by his great teaching that we are to obey, his death to show his enemies the fullness of his love, and his resurrection that sets us free from the power of death. Our response to that great love, then, is to do what we’ve been created for; obey Him.  Why?  Because we were made for it. God’s in charge of the rest; forgiveness, mercy, grace, afterlife.  That’s in God’s hands.  We control what we can control by simply obeying Him.  Period.

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19 thoughts on “Poor gospel communication…can we do better?

  1. I’ve been struggling a lot with atonement theology, particularly substitutionary/penal atonement theologies. This walk across the room to lead someone else to walk across a cross shaped bridge seems to fit into that theology with which I struggle.

    Thanks for your thoughts, though you do come out as a bit of a Pelagian (not that I think that is all bad). And I like your drawing, particularly that God is a man:) (heck yeah I just made a smiley)

  2. Kevin,

    I think it’s helpful to think of atonement approaches as different shades of light that come from the same prism, as long as they’re Biblical. Therefore, the substitutionary/penal atonement approach has merit, but only within the spectrum of other approaches like Christus Victor, satisfaction, etc. Substitutionary atonement people always cry foul at this, but it’s fair to mention to them the substitutionary theory has never been the only one, so they need to stop shouting, sit down, and listen to brothers and sisters. Especially when their theory results in a cross-shaped bridge that excludes human living in response to the Word of God.

    I guess, after looking up Pelagius, that I am a bit of a Pelagian, but I’d rather be typecast as someone who says, “Let the Bible speak for itself.” In that vein, if we’re casting around heresy condemnations, then Augustine’s position would be just as heretical if he thinks he captured the fullness of the Biblical narrative in “original sin” and imputed righteousness.

    And I beg to differ on the God being man thing. God is clearly a stick figure that’s so ridiculously basic it’s impossible to figure out its gender. And maybe it’s better that way. Ha ha! Nice smiley.

    Nate

  3. I hope you didn’t hear me calling you a heretic by making the Pelagian reference. You used the “h” word, not me. I would probably align myself with some pelagian or semi-pelagian thought as well.

  4. Kevin,

    I didn’t hear “heresy-hunting” from your thoughts at all. I was fresh off reading up on Pelagius and the whole controversy on Wikipedia when I wrote back to you; that was a big honkin’ mess around that time period. Pelagius got thrown under the bus for making some very good points that were supported by earlier church leaders.

    What, specifically, would you say you found attractive or unattractive about my approach, and how would it line up or not with yours? I’ve been dealing with severe discomfort with penal substitutionary atonement ideas for several years, and I’m finally starting to firm up where I think the Bible takes us to as disciples of Jesus.

    Nate

  5. Can you explain why Jesus witnessed to the your rich ruler in the manner that He did?

    How come Jesus didn’t love and serve Him. Why did Jesus allow him to go away sad? Why didn’t Jesus build a relationship with him?

  6. Wes,

    How about you speak to the substance of the post rather than quoting a single case and ignoring everything I said? When you decide to enter with respect, humility, and an interest in learning together rather than snide comments, I’m prepared to discuss with you.

    Really, that was unloving Wes. I expect more from you.

    Nate

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  9. I agree that the bridge illustration of salvation is an error but I’m having a difficulty understanding what your belief system is also. It is true that “Men ought to obey God”, but they don’t, but if they would obey God do you have a specific point of obedience relative to becoming saved?

    Also you seem to have used the term “what we have been created for” as a general philosophical perspective. Since according to Jn.1:13 NIV a natural descendent cannot be a child of God because he is a natural descendent then what is the way in your belief system that the natural born might be born of God?

    • Theodore,

      A good, Biblical question to ask would be this: “What does ‘being saved’ mean, Biblically?”

      I’d encourage you to do a word study on “salvation” and “saved” and related words in the Bible. I’ll give you a short hint of an answer now; the percentage of times “salvation” refers to an event or a happening having to do with today rather than a spiritual event that takes effect far off in the future is much, much higher than you think.

      As for your second question, “What is the way in your belief system that the natural born might be born of God?” My answer is simple; Listen to your Creator, submit, and obey. And in obeying, find life. As John the Baptist put it, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

      This raises a question: How will they know? The answer; The church being the church. Living as people fully submitted to God, imperfect but repenting, struggling but committed, and praying “May your kingdom come and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

      Nate

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  11. “Except ye be born again”, what description do you have for the born again process? For example. All humans are naturally born into death by the exact same process and the natural birth process also by God’s design designates that natural birth cannot create any human that is a child of God only by the process of natural birth. So then there must be a single process for each human that has been perfected by Jesus’ crucifixion for escaping from death. This claim you are making in answer to “How will they know” the church being the church for your answer, is the amalgamation of proposed processes without merit. For the word “church” represents a mixture of concepts and practices from Anglicism to Zootsuitism that allows for the exercise of human decision to pick a suitable process to his own liking. However Jn. 1:13 says that none of God’s children are born by human decision, but you are insisting that they can be which is contrary to God’s opinion. I think what ever your concepts and opinions are they are equivocations that waver with what ever wind of doctrine that the momentary flit of thought produces. It is the broad way of contemporary religion that leads to destruction and you think they have merit? Please!

  12. Theodore,

    You completely ignored my first question. I’ll pose it again, “What does ‘being saved’ mean, Biblically?” Do a word study on it on Bible Gateway. Delve into what salvation means across the variety of mentions in the Scriptures.

    As far as being “born again,” I have two answers.

    My first answer illustrates what I think is a bit ridiculous about your quoting one verse and torturing the interpretation beyond recognition of what the Scripture is addressing. And my first answer is this; everyone is a child of God. The Creator gives us the gift of life and breath and places us in the middle of a stunning creation. So that’s the foundational reality. That’s God’s continuing initiative.

    When it comes to us confessing to be God’s children, that’s the aspect that John 1 is addressing. Keep in mind that John was writing to an early church with large numbers of Jews trying to figure out how their Israelite identity meshes with Jesus’ unique authority, and large numbers of Gentiles trying to figure out how they, as pagans, can be a part of God’s people.

    John the Baptist exhorted those who came to be baptized in repentance that they could not claim biological heritage of Israelite lineage to be considered God’s children, but are God’s children through “producing fruit in keeping with repentance.” Jesus addressed this in John 8, saying to ethnic Jews, “f you were Abraham’s children, then you would do the things Abraham did.”

    So that’s why, in my second answer, I emphasize the importance of the church. Far from being a “mixture of concepts and practices from Anglicism to Zootsuitism,” this is a simple emphasis on the group of people Jesus calls his “body,” literally his hands and feet and heart and life in the world. Speaking Scripturally, Jesus proclaimed, “I am the light of the world,” (John 8) and said to his disciples in Matthew 5, “You are the light of the world.” So as his disciples follow his teaching, we carry his light and very being in the world. A radically committed church living and speaking the heartbeat of God exemplifies God’s love in the world, which leads others back to what they were created to be.

    I’m not on the broad way of contemporary religion, brother. I openly confess Jesus as Lord, the fullness of truth and the exemplar of what we all are intended to be as human beings.

    I’m simply acknowledging that wherever relative justice or compassion or care is found in this earth, it is God’s justice and compassion and care. When the church loses its way and ceases to acknowledge this (preaching a gospel with other-worldly, after-death effects), others will be (and are) much better at God’s justice than we. This is offensive to God, and we therefore should get our feet back on solid ground.

    Jesus’ importance is found in his life, teaching, death, and resurrection as a whole package. If we dare to suck the cross out of the larger context of Jesus and focus on it as performing some magical transaction alone (without any real, rooted human response), we have moved into the realm of heresy and will begin to preach a gospel different from that of Jesus and the prophets and ancestors before him.

    • Nathan,
      “Every one is a child of God”?-!! Ridiculous! See Rom. 9:8 “In other words, it is NOT the natural children who are God’s children”. Faulty “gospel” communication will continue to be just that as long as it is falsely assumed that the naturally born are also the children of God.

      • Theodore,

        Consider the practical implications of what you’re saying. If the average human being isn’t a child of God, then what are they? What label would you put on someone who isn’t a disciple of Jesus? Are they non-human, sub-human, expendable, nothing, soulless beings? Do any of those labels fit your perspective? What say you?

        I think you’re so caught up in your Biblicism you can’t see the forest for the trees. Does Romans 9:8 negate the image of God in humanity? Does it make people orphans? bastard children without possibility?

  13. I kinda figured the imperative “ye MUST be born again”, or not enter the kingdom of God, a direct quote of Jesus by the way, would quickly pluck your feather ruffle string. Maybe it was some off the cuff comment of his, aye? So what about this one?

    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13

    The law he is referring to is a law that has been added AFTER Jesus’ crucifixion. Disobey this law and it is impossible to become born again of God. So what is your born again process? In case you did not understand the first time I asked you. Actually I agree of the need to have one’s feet on solid ground, but the identity of the ground which is actually solid is certainly not the retort that all the naturally born are children of God by that process. For if they are there would have been no reasonable reason for Jesus’ crucifixion. Aye?

  14. Danae,
    You need to be very, very cautious about the English translations of the Bible. For a plural possessive pronoun to the English speaker’s mind is unilateral and inclusive. However in the Bible this is not the case. Rightly diving is of paramount importance or one reads their self into something from which they have been excluded. God has only one set purpose for each man. “And for Your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man” regarding that this man’s life was lost by bloodshed when he was crucified. Ref. Acts 2: 23 NIV “God’s set purpose”.

  15. Nathan,

    i like your thoughts, but it raised a few questions for me.

    First, is Hybels suggesting what has been termed “no lordship salvation,” a la Charles Ryrie? If he is, then there is a problem. Or, is he simply trying to teach that we should find Sabbath in Jesus, not try to work our way there? I guess I’m asking if he really eschewed godly obedience after “walking the bridge.” (I haven’t read the book, so I couldn’t say what exactly he means or doesn’t.)

    Second, I agree that the bridge analogy is too simplistic, and neglects to mention with how God dealt with people in the past. I don’t wonder if some of this comes from a faulty view of the Old Testament. Many evangelicals see the OT as something written for other people, and only really useful for us as examples of what to do and not to do. Therefore, it would not be useful in explaining salvation.

    However, the earliest Christians (I’m thinking Epistle of Pseudo-Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen), and apparently certain writers of the NT (Paul’s sermons in Acts, and especially the author of Hebrews), seem to think that the Old Testament was about faith in the promised Messiah as the means of reconciliation with God. This makes the OT a story of people living in and out of that truth.

    Third, I don’t wonder if “reconciliation” might be the best way to talk of salvation, at least in our society today. It still needs explanation, for sure, but I think it works better than “saved” (not that we can legitimately throw that word out altogether).

    The Bible speaks of God’s working to reconcile all things (Col. 1:21-23). So, first, we are reconciled to God for this life and the one to come. Then, we are made agents of reconciliation and given a ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:16-21), as we have been prepared for good works (Eph. 2:10).

    In this way, the Gospel isn’t simply about getting to Heaven, but being reconciled to God. Then, as God’s reconciled people, we are given the ministry of reconciliation, which includes a vast array of things–trying to see others reconciled to God, working to deal with injustice, working to exercise biblical, godly dominion over creation, etc. In the end, when we die, we simply continue our reconciliation with God in His place, instead of the place He created for us. But, reconciliation starts here.

    Doug Pagitt, while i’m not a huge fan, helped me realize that if we simply present the Gospel as “go to Heaven not Hell,” then we really shortchange the idea of life with God. We, instead, believe that life with God is so good that even if this life is all that exists, it would still be better to be reconciled to God than to live this life apart from Him. I fear that the “bridge” approach misses that.

    Those are some of my initial thoughts. I hope I didn’t get too far away from the original post. Sorry I missed this, which was apparently written a while back. I took a break from blogging and reading blogs (it was consuming too much time and effort), so I missed some stuff. In this case, I missed some good stuff.

    -Alan

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