If you’ve been to a Bible-preaching church long enough, you’ll know: the Gospel is offensive. It’s not the message everyone is looking for, but is the truth that everyone needs. And it stings. No one likes being told they’re depraved, no one likes hearing about a high authority, no one likes to see a bloody God on a dirty cross. Most people are comfortable with the religion of relaxation or the religion of no religion which masquerades as reason. No one likes the exposing power of a blood-drenched crucifixion.
So preachers, of course, feel the need to give the Gospel a beauty treatment. A make-over. Water it down, sugarcoat it, new wrapping, and people will listen. You know the drill: we’ll do wild gymnastics to make the Gospel look as pretty as possible. Even the best preachers dress up the cross without meaning to. You can intellectualize it to death – Jesus destroyed cosmic evil! – you can play the emotional angle – someone died for you! – and you can romanticize it – he gives you a new start! Or simply because we are simple, we leave out some of the elements. It can be difficult to paint the complete portrait of Jesus’ mission, even when we sit down to really consider all its implications.
So then we always need a healthy reminder of what Paul said here, that pastors would only preach Christ and him crucified. And preach him resurrected. The church must know the offensive — and freeing — truth.
Here are four ways we can lose the Gospel. By no means is this comprehensive, but really just an ongoing conversation. The following is the bare minimum.
1) Dance Around The Word Sin
One of the reasons I made the jump from atheism to theism was the doctrine of sin. I’ve always heard, “No one’s perfect,” but the world is in a much more severe state than imperfection. Something is horribly wrong out there. My former homegrown, Hegelian, humanist worldview would assume society improves with each generation. On some levels it has: technology, healthcare, more awareness, more dialogue. But at the basic level of human desire, we lean towards destruction. Every secular art form seems to be criticizing our primal condition. Even attempts to beautify things like dance and art and poetry only assume we are naturally bent towards chaos. We try to make order and it falls apart.
When you remove the doctrine of depravity — that humanity has absolutely no ability to help itself apart from God — then you automatically jump on some other help-train. All those trains are limited in scope and mission. Even if we’re to clean up the sin problem, we’re stuck at a blind impasse of no purpose. When preachers leave out sin, they must assume there is some other problem and therefore some other solution: your weaknesses can be beat with therapy, they’ll say, your negativity with positive thinking, your self-esteem with these twelve steps. Not all bad things, but not the foundational things. Once you call sin something else, you’ve not only ignored the gunshot wound but also refused all help for it.
When you begin to see what’s wrong, you can hope to find what is right. More importantly: when you realize you cannot do the right, then you make the leap to a higher help than ourselves. If you water down the devastation of sin in your life, you will always work on it with something less than God, and this will absolutely put you in a deeper hole. The greater we see sin, the greater our Savior.
2) Atone For The Atonement
If you call yourself a Christian but don’t really understand why Jesus had to die for your sins, then you’re not a Christian. Which means you’re not saved nor safe.
When I do interviews for leadership positions, I always ask this first question: “Why did Jesus have to die for you?” Nine times out of ten, I get a strange meandering answer that sounds like the Hallmark card version of the Gospel. “Because Jesus loves me. For my freedom. For my sins. To give me life. To make a way to God.” To be fair, it’s a difficult loaded question, and all these responses are true aspects of the Gospel. I would never say the candidates I interviewed are not real Christians. But those responses still gloss over the atonement itself.
Many Christians forget what they are saved from: the justified, well-deserved, ever-present wrath of God. Our sin is a debt that must be paid. God’s wrath must be satisfied somehow. It’s what makes Him God. He must have justice or He’s no good. And in partnership with His Son, this justification happened in the violence of the cross. It was both a physical and spiritual atonement: the suffering experienced in a human body and the infinite separation from the Father on the cross. The forgiveness of sins is almost an incidental truth in light of Jesus satisfying the wrath that we deserve.
3) Get On Religion or Relationship Instead of Both
You’ve probably heard the earnest youth pastor say, “This is not a religion; it’s a relationship!” That’s true of course, but we can’t leave out the religion. Most people don’t stop to think about what they believe and instead keep it at the subjective, experiential, emotional level. It’s one experience topping another. The American church loves keeping you busy. Six months later when the emotions are gone and projects are finished, they think God is done too. Out of church they go.
Spelling out doctrine isn’t just for Bible study or theology books or that scholar or that one intellectual preacher with five degrees. It may be boring to some but only if it’s presented that way. Christology, soteriology, eschatology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, demonology, hamartiology, and theology proper cannot be relegated to two sentences in a sermon. People want to know these things. High schoolers can do calculus; they can just as much get on the Five Points of Calvinism and the multiple views of the End Times and the double imputation of Christ’s propitiation.
At the same time, knowledge puffs up and can create arrogant elitists. I’ve seen people love their books and Bibles more than Jesus. No one ever thinks it’s happening to them. Jesus was and is a real person who lived on this earth, built stuff with his hands, used the bathroom, ate food and went to bed, told jokes, loved his mom, and farted. He is just as real as your mailman and your best friend and your crazy siblings. But he is also God. To make him a moral-religious-philosophical concept is to both dehumanize him and to remove his God-status. A relationship with Jesus is to love him both for what he has done and for who he is. The criminal who died next to Jesus did not know anything about theology but he trusted in Jesus for salvation, and he was promised paradise. In the end, our religion finds itself one on one with the real flesh-and-blood person of our Savior.
4) Share Your Needs
Jesus didn’t die for your motivation, comfort, personality, success, shortcomings, psychological neuroses, or any of those desperate daddy-love needs. He may help with those things but that wasn’t the primary point of his mission. He came to rescue you from certain destruction.
This is the most tempting way to sell out the Gospel: to turn Jesus into a sensitive, dream-fulfilling, therapeutic, inspirational hippie. Who doesn’t want to be told that their life can be solved by accepting Jesus into your heart? You can replace that with anything: Accept positive feelings into your heart. Accept this diet program into your heart. Accept yes-you-can-power into your heart. Following Jesus will cost you everything. You give up your life to receive the only true life. And hardly anyone will talk about the cost.
When we share the Gospel, it’s easy to make it about what we can get out of it. It’s how our human brain is wired: to see the rewards and results. The Gospel does have a reward and a result, but it’s unlike anything our puny human brain can comprehend with immediacy or totality. Living the Gospel is a lifetime climb, like the joyful struggle of building your own house. We lose the Gospel when we make it about “our needs” and divert glory from the One who it is due. The Gospel does not make us a big deal; it enables us to make God a big deal. The cross says nothing about our worth, but says everything about He who is worthy. When we get that, that’s when true life begins.