Friday, May 17, 2013

What is the Gospel?

by Shawn Kennedy

When you think about words that are used, abused and highly misunderstood in our culture today, one word in particular rises to the top. It is the word love. We use the word love in our culture to describe our thoughts and feelings for just about anything and everything.

A person wakes up in the morning and quickly jumps into the shower. As the warm water runs over their head, they say to themselves, “I love warm showers.” Then they make their way into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and as they sip the coffee, they say out loud with a smile, “I love coffee in the morning.” They leave their house saying to their spouse and children, “I love you, have a great day.” They pray on their way to work and end the prayer by saying, “I love you God.” When they get in the office, they scan their Facebook account, because the night before they posted a new status update. They wonder how many people liked their post. Today, was a good day. Several people from all across the country not only liked their post, but made multiple comments. As they reclined in their chair they look over at a co-worker and say, “I love facebook.”

If you put all this together, in less than 2 hours this person has declared their love for warm showers, coffee in the morning, their spouse and children, God himself, and facebook.  And so it is not wonder when it comes to the subject of love, we are often confused, using it carelessly with little thought.

I would submit to you that what has happened in our culture when it comes to the word love has also happened in our local churches and in the larger landscape of Christianity when it comes to the word gospel. Just like the word love, we use the word gospel at times freely and careless, rarely asking and answering the question, “what is the gospel?”

I can still remember, three years ago sitting at my desk, reflecting on my life and leadership, successes and failures and asking myself this question, “Shawn, do you really understand the gospel?” It is a strange and vulnerable question for a person to ask who has a been a follower of  Jesus for twenty years, has a graduate degree in theology, teaches at a Christian college and pastors a growing church. Yet, I am convinced it is easy, as a followers of Jesus, to let our hearts and minds drift on autopilot and think we understand the gospel, but do we really? Can we communicate the gospel to friends and family with confidence and clarity? Can those in our immediate family and church family communicate the gospel with confidence and clarity?
It was on that day that I started a journey to absorb everything I could on the subject of the gospel. I approached the question, “what is the gospel?” with fresh eyes and an open heart. I wanted to be awakened again to the radical scandalous grace of God and refreshed by his ferocious love. All of this happened and more.


In the New Testament, the word gospel first appears in Mark. It is here, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that Mark shares his overall purpose and point of writing: “The beginning of the good news (which in Greek is the word gospel) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”  (Mark 1:1).
Then thirteen verses later, we find Jesus preaching and proclaiming to those in Galilee. What does he proclaim? He proclaims the gospel.
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! –  Mark 1:14-15.
At the end of the Matthew, we find Jesus saying this gospel, will be proclaimed to the entire world.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.Matthew 24:14
When you exit out of the gospel writers and enter into the writings of Paul, we find that he is unashamed of the gospel and believes it has life changing power.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.Romans 1:16
Not only does Paul believe this gospel has life changing power, but he also encourages those in the church of Corinth to stand in the truth of the gospel.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand.1 Corinthians 15:1 ESV
Then Paul goes on to say that the gospel is active and growing, not something that is passive and stagnant.
Because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth.Colossians 1:5-6


As you can see the word gospel is mentioned throughout scripture in various ways and in various settings. Yet, the question still remains, “What is the gospel?”
The word gospel in english find it roots in the greek word, “euangĂ©lion.”  The word euangĂ©lion literally mean “news that brings great joy.” When we hear the word gospel in today’s Christian culture our minds and hearts immediately run to the spiritual implications, but in the first century most minds and hearts would race to the political and historical implications. For those living in the time of Jesus, the word gospel was used to refer to life altering, history making, world shaping news.


An example of this can be seen in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. when Greece was invaded by Persia. The Persians thought this would be an easy and effortless victory, but the Greeks would prove them wrong. They would not only fight back, but successful defeated the Persians. After the battle was won, Greece sent heralds or evangelists out to proclaim the good news or gospel of their victory to the surrounding cities.
Gerhard Kittel, the German protestant professor who wrote a well known and widely used book titled, “The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” writes the following description of the Battle of Marathon.
“The messenger appears, raises a big right hand in greeting and calls out with a loud voice… By his appearance it is known already that he brings good news. His face shines, his spear is decked with laurel, his head is crowned, he swings a branch of palms and joy fills the city.” Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the NT, Vol. 2, p. 722)
Kittel describes a scene of someone bringing life altering, history making, world shaping news of great joy. It is not something that is happening, it is something that has happened.


If we continue this historical plight, we find that the very word of Mark would have connected in the minds of his readers in profound ways. For what Mark says about Jesus is the exact phrase attributed to Caesar Augustus. An inscription that was discovered from the first century reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Caesar Augustus” (Priene 105.40).
When it was first inscribed it carried with it the message of life altering, history making, world changing news that Caesar Augustus was on the throne. The point that is being made and reinforced that this is good news, joyful news worth celebrating and rejoicing over. At least from  the perspective of the Romans.
When the word gospel is being used in the New Testament it is clearly referring to the life altering, history making, world shaping news about Jesus and his Kingdom. It communicates something has happened in history and as a result the world will never be the same. The gospel of Jesus is good news about a conquering king and battle won.


As I continued on my journey, I took the time to research how other pastors and theologians answered the question, “what is the gospel?” Here are some of the answers that stood out to me.
Tim Keller in his book, “The King and The Cross” writes: “A gospel is an announcement of something that has happened in history, something that has been done for you, that changes your status forever. It is not good advice, it is good news.”
Martin Luther in his book, “Basic Theology” writes: “The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s son, who died and was raised, and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.”
Alistair Begg in his book, “Keep Me Near the Cross” writes: “Here’s the gospel in a phrase. Because Christ died for us, those who trust in him may know that their guilt has been pardoned once and for all. What will we have to say before the bar of God’s judgment? Only one thing. Christ died in my place. That’s the gospel.”
N.T. Wright in an article for Christianity Today writes: “The gospel is the royal announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus, who died for our sins and rose again according to the Scriptures, has been enthroned as the true Lord of the world. When this gospel is preached, God calls people to salvation, out of sheer grace, leading them to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the risen Lord.”
Scot McKnight in his book, “Embracing Grace” writes: “The gospel is the work of God to restore humans to union with God and communion with others, in the context of a community, for the good of others and the world.”
John Piper in an interview on the gospel states: “The Gospel is the news that Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, died for our sins and rose again, eternally triumphant over all his enemies, so that there is now no condemnation for those who believe, but only everlasting joy.”


After tracing the word gospel through scripture, looking at if from a historical perspective and then learning from pastors and theologians, I would like to share with you how I define the gospel. In one sentence, I would define the gospel as the good news of Jesus and His Kingdom. If you gave me three sentences, I would define the gospel in this way:

The gospel is the good news that God who is holy and just, looked with grace and mercy on our sin, and in His great love sent His Son to proclaim and establish His Kingdom. Jesus came to sacrificially and selflessly die for us so that, by His death, resurrection and power, we could receive new and eternal life. It is through Jesus that sin is forgiven, people are reconciled to God, and the world will one day be made new.

If you had three sentences, how would you define the gospel?
As I reflect on my journey, I have learned that the gospel is never something you outgrow or grow beyond. Instead as a follower of Jesus you continue to grow each year into a richer, deeper, fuller understanding of the gospel. It fuels our faith, shapes our prayers, directs our ministry and reminds us of our worth and God’s spectacular glory!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ordinary: Christian Living for the Rest of Us

---by Tim Challies

Not every idea becomes a book. Not even every good idea becomes a book. Between the author and the bookstore stand agents, editors and publication committees tasked with deciding on the few books worthy of time, effort, advances and marketing dollars. I have had far more ideas rejected than accepted. Books on simplicity, the environment, evangelism, pornography and probably many more besides have received the trademark “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is one that haunts me: Ordinary: Christian Living for the Rest of Us.

Yesterday I did some maintenance in Evernote, an application I use to store ideas. I came across the files for Ordinary and my finger hovered over the “delete” button for a moment. It was tempting, but something compelled me instead to open my word processor and begin to write. I couldn’t kill the idea because it is just too near to me. It has been on my mind for three years, at least, and in the back of my mind for far longer than that.

I believe there is an intangible kind of value in living a book before writing a book. The best books are the ones that flow not out of theory but out of experience. Better still are the ones that combine proven theory with actual experience, the ones the author writes in that sweet spot, that point of overlap between the two. Theory is easy to come by; experience is hard won. Theory comes quickly—you need only read a book or two; experience comes only with the slow march of the time that challenges and so often obliterates the theory. I can almost always tell a book that is all theory and no experience. It is a book of head instead of heart, law instead of grace, impossibility instead of practicality.

Ordinary is a book I have lived. I live it every day. I live an ordinary life, pastor an ordinary church full of ordinary people, and head home each night to my ordinary little home in an oh-so-ordinary suburb. I preach very ordinary sermons—John Piper or Steve Lawson I am not and never will be—and as I sit with the people I love I am sure I give them very ordinary counsel. A friend recently confessed his initial disappointment the first time he visited my home and got a glimpse of my life. “Your house is so small and your life is so boring.” Indeed. It’s barely 1,100 square feet of house and forty hours every week sitting at a desk.

And here’s the thing. I am thrilled to live this ordinary life. Nine days out of ten I wake up in the morning overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to live a life like this. I live it without guilt and regret. I live without the desire to be extra-ordinary and without feeling the need to do radical things. But then there is that other day, that one out of ten, where I feel guilt and discontentment, where I want life to be so much more than it is, where I am convinced that I am missing out on a better life and missing out on God’s expectations for me.

Ordinary is book that was not rejected out of concern that it would be unbiblical or poorly-written. It was rejected because the people who have to take a bet on the book’s likelihood of success are convinced you would not want to read it. And to be fair, I am not sure that I would want to read it either. The message I heard from the decision-makers was this: “You can’t market a book like that. It won’t sell. Nobody wants to read a book on being ordinary.” They are probably right. Nobody wants to read a book on ordinary living because nobody aspires to be ordinary. It is not likely to sell as a book or a theme. Crazy, wild, radical, more, greater, higher, this-er, that-er, the comparatives and superlatives, these are the themes that fly off the shelves. But once we’ve been crazy and radical and wild and all the rest, why do we still feel, well, so ordinary? Why do we still feel like we’re missing out?

Though the experts stand between me and a book published, printed and distributed, they have no jurisdiction over this web site, so I plan to explore some of these themes right here. I want to explore this desire to be more than ordinary and this low-grade guilt that compels us to try to do more and be more and act more. I am convinced that we do not need to make ordinary synonymous with apathetic and radical synonymous with godly. I want to explore some of these themes because I encounter them in my own life, I see them in the pages of bestselling books, I hear them at conferences, I counsel against them in the people I pastor, and I often battle to convince my own wife that ordinary is good. It is all God asks of us. It is all God asks of her.

Ordinary is Christian living for the rest of us. It is for people like me and, in all likelihood, people like you. It is for Christians who have tried to be more than ordinary and who just have not found what they have been looking for. It is for Christians who have never tried to be more than ordinary and who are content that way. It validates our sheer normalcy and refutes our desire to be anything greater than that.

It is about being ordinarily excellent, ordinarily passionate, ordinarily godly. It is about trusting that such ordinary saints are saints indeed, fully acceptable, fully accepted, fully pleasing to the One who created and called us.

I think we may just find that this desire to be more than ordinary and to live a life so much more than ordinary exposes as much sin as sanctification. Perhaps we will find it is one thing to pursue godliness and end up with extraordinary challenges, extraordinary responsibilities or extraordinary opportunities, but another thing altogether to pursue the more-than-ordinary as a goal. We may well find that the Christians who really get it are the most unremarkable of all.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The New Legalism: Missional, Radical, Narcissistic, and Shamed

A few days ago on Facebook and Twitter I made the following observation:

Being a “radical,” “missional,” Christian is slowly becoming the “new legalism.” We need more ordinary God and people lovers (Matt 22:36-40).

This observation was the result of long conversation with a student who was wrestling with what to do with his life given all of the opportunities he had available to him. To my surprise, my comment exploded over the internet with dozens and dozens of people sharing the comment and sending me personal correspondence.

I continue to be amazed by the number of youth and youth adults who are stressed and burnt out from the regular shaming and feelings of inadequacy if they happen to not being doing something unique and special. Today’s Millennial generation is being fed the message that if they don’t do something extraordinary in this life they are wasting their gifts and potential. The sad result is that many young adults feel ashamed if they “settle” into ordinary jobs, get married early and start families, live in small towns, or as 1 Thess 4:11 says, “aspire to live quietly, and to mind [their] affairs, and to work with [their] hands.” For too many Millennials their greatest fear in this life is being an ordinary person with a non-glamorous job, living in the suburbs, and having nothing spectacular to boast about.

Here are a few thoughts on how we got here:

(1) Anti-Suburban Christianity. In the 1970s and 1980s the children and older grandchildren of the Builder generation (born 1901 between 1920) sorted themselves and headed to the suburbs to raise their children in safety, comfort, and material ease. And, taking a cue from the Baby Boomer parents (born between 1946 and 1964) to despise the contexts that provided them advantages, Millennials (born between 1977 and 1995) now have a disdain for America’s suburbs. This despising of suburban life has been inadvertently encouraged by well-intentioned religious leaders inviting people to move to neglected cities to make a difference, because, after all, the Apostle Paul did his work primarily in cities, cities are important, and cities are the final destination of the Kingdom of God. They were told thatGod loves cities and they should too. The unfortunate message became that you cannot live a meaningful Christian life in the suburbs.

(2) Missional Narcissism. There are many churches that are committed to being what is called missional. This term is used to describe a church community where people see themselves as missionaries in local communities. A missional church has been defined, as “a theologically-formed, Gospel-centered, Spirit-empowered, united community of believers who seek to faithfully incarnate the purposes of Christ for the glory of God,” says Scott Thomas on the Acts 29 Network. The problem is that this push for local missionaries coincided with the narcissism epidemic we are facing in America, especially with the Millennial generation. As a result, living out one’s faith became narrowly celebratory only when done in a unique and special way, a “missional” way. Getting married and having children early, getting a job, saving and investing, being a good citizen, loving one’s neighbor, and the like, no longer qualify as virtuous. One has to be involved in arts and social justice activities—even if justice is pursued without sound economics or social teaching. I actually know of a couple who were being so “missional” that they decided to not procreate for the sake of taking care of orphans.

To make matters worse, some religious leaders have added a new category to Christianity called “radical Christianity” in an effort to trade-off suburban Christianity for mission. This movement is based on a book by David Platt and is fashioned around “an idea that we were created for far more than a nice, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream. An idea that we were created to follow One who demands radical risk and promises radical reward.” Again, this was a well-intentioned attempt to address lukewarm Christians in the suburbs but because it is primarily reactionary, and does not provide a positive construction for the good life from God’s perspective, it misses “radical” ideas in Jesus’ own teachings like “love.”

The combination of anti-suburbanism with new categories like “missional” and “radical” has positioned a generation of youth and young adults to experience an intense amount of shame for simply being ordinary Christians who desire to love God and love their neighbors (Matt 22:36-40). In fact, missional, radical Christianity could easily be called “the new legalism.” A few decades ago, an entire generation of Baby Boomers walked away from traditional churches to escape the legalistic moralism of “being good” but what their Millennial children received in exchange, in an individualistic American Christian culture, was shamed-driven pressure to be awesome and extraordinary young adults expected to tangibly make a difference in the world immediately. But this cycle of reaction and counter-reaction, inaugurated by the Baby Boomers, does not seem to be producing faithful young adults. Instead, many are simply burning out.

Why is Christ’s command to love God and neighbor not enough for these leaders? Maybe Christians are simply to pursue living well and invite others to do so according to how God has ordered the universe. An emphasis on human flourishing, ours and others, becomes important because it characterizes by a holistic concern for the spiritual, moral, physical, economic, material, political, psychological, and social context necessary for human beings to live according to their design. What if youth and youth adults were simply encouraged live in pursuit of wisdom, knowledge, understanding, education, wonder, beauty, glory, creativity, and worship in a world marred by sin, as Abraham Kuyper encourages in the book Wisdom and Wonder. No shame, no pressure to be awesome, no expectations of fame but simply following the call to be men and women of virtue and inviting their friends and neighbors to do the same in every area of life.

It is unclear how Millennials will respond to the “new legalism” but it may explain the trend of young Christians leaving the church after age 15 currently at a rate of 60 percent. Being a Christian in a shame-driven “missional,” “radical” church does not sound like rest for the weary. Perhaps the best antidote to these pendulum swings and fads is simply to recover a mature understanding of vocation so that youth and youth adults understand that they can make important contributions to human flourishing in any sphere of life because there are no little people or insignificant callings in the Kingdom.