Hebrews 2:1 “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what
we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”
You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. It
goes something like this…The first generation believed and proclaimed
the Gospel and from the Gospel drew certain social implications. The next generation assumed the Gospel and advocated the social implications. The third generation denied the Gospel and all that were left were social implications.
Proclaiming, assuming, denying is the downward spiral of losing the Gospel. It is a very subtle drift: for a church to be evangelical, it must get its definition and identity from the Gospel, the evangel, which means the “good news”. Where is evangelical Christianity on the above-mentioned continuum? As a movement, is it in the proclamation, assumption or denial stage? I believe we are drifting dangerously toward assuming the Gospel.
Assumed evangelicalism believes and signs up for the Gospel. It certainly does not deny the Gospel. But in terms of centrality, priority, focus and direction the evangelical church is giving increasing energy toward concerns other than the Gospel and its distinctives. It is gradually elevating secondary issues to a primary level, and in some ways is being swallowed up by the prevailing culture of the day. This dynamic is hard to see because it is difficult to get “outside” of ourselves. We may do the right things and affirm orthodoxy yet still be dangerously drifting. We cannot afford to ignore the deceptions of our own hearts and the world in which we live. Both of these can subtly distort and truncate the Gospel, and we can lose it.
If assuming the Gospel is a recognizable phase in which an individual, movement or church may find itself, what does this phase actually look like? What are its characteristics? The following is useful for a diagnosis as to what stage best describes ourselves and our ministries. Are we proclaimers, assumers or deniers?
To what extent does the Gospel dictate and shape our priorities in life, and the vision and strategies of our churches?
Paul was no stranger to this problem. Reading his letters carefully illustrates the danger of losing the Gospel in one to two generations. In Romans 1:1-6 Paul summarizes the Gospel that the rest of the letter will unpack. Paul says that the Gospel is God’s (v.1); is in the whole Bible (v.2); is about Jesus as Man and divine King; concerns His death and resurrection (v.3); and is confrontational (v.5). The organizing principle or heart of the Gospel is Jesus Christ is Lord (v.4b). The question for us to ask is are we gradually leaving these core beliefs behind to move toward new initiatives or are we retelling, rehearing and reliving this same Gospel story? Are we growing in joy and gratitude or are we driven into service devoid of a worshiping heart?
How would we know if a church is assuming the Gospel? There are two obvious symptoms. The first is legalism which is making and keeping ourselves acceptable to God on the basis of our achievement or performance. This symptom sees the Gospel primarily as a message that sinners and outsiders need to hear when they slip into our churches. When the Gospel is limited to unbelievers we begin to adopt other ways of relating to God and others that are legalistic. The Gospel of grace and resting in Christ is replaced by a frenetic striving to have assurance of God’s approval with a focus on the Law and what we must do. Spoken and unspoken rules determine who is in or out, spiritual or unspiritual, and an exclusivism results. This is only a step away from denying the Gospel.
Legalism may exist in any heart or church and is easy to spot. Everyone appears neat, tidy and problem-free, and the preaching is an exercise in scolding and setting unrealistic standards. If your pastor is assuming grace instead of daily experiencing it, you would never feel safe enough to go to him with your moral failure. We will either be proud, because we think we keep the rules, or filled with guilt and despair because behind closed doors we know we aren’t “living up”. Assuming the Gospel means that we regard it as what gets us to heaven but that other things are needed to make us good Christians—Jesus plus something else.
The antidote to legalism is always to recover the sheer scandal of the Gospel of grace. When was the last time that truth quickened my pulse and made me want to dance? A church that believes the Gospel versus assuming it is staying constantly amazed by grace.
The other symptom of assuming the Gospel is license. This is thinking the Gospel of grace is so amazing it really does not matter how we live from now on. License means we assume the Gospel is what makes us right with God and because of that we can now do whatever we want. The licentious person says I am saved by grace so my sexual immorality, emotional abuse, coveting, lying and gossiping does not really bother God. They are ignoring the effect that grace really has in our lives when we grasp it properly. Grace teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age (Titus 2:12). However, there is another type of license and this is probably more likely to afflict the church as a whole—practical license. What happens here is that the Gospel is assumed as being true but in the actual practice of the church the Gospel is lost. Spiritualities of differing traditions that are hostile to the Gospel are encouraged without a prophetic critique. Experience is elevated as the criterion of the truth. Christian living is intensely personalized, privatized and individualized. This leads to a myriad of distortions. This kind of practical license is a generation away from establishing a skewed conception of the Christian life as the accepted norm.
The antidote to this kind of assuming the Gospel is to reflect more deeply on the content of the Gospel and to ask whether this content shapes our lives as Christians. Is our spirituality Gospel spirituality marked by the Bible, the cross, Christ as Savior and Lord? Is our experience Gospel experience, marked by a growing awareness of our sin and a deepening experience of God’s grace in our lives?