Quit Dumbing Down the Gospel

Donald Miller says the message of God is more than a 3-step program.

My friend Greg and I have been talking quite a bit about what it means to follow Jesus. Greg would not consider himself as somebody who takes Jesus seriously, but he admits to having questions. I didn’t have a formula for him to understand how a Christian conversion works, but I told him that many years ago, when I was a child, I had heard about Jesus and found the idea of Him compelling, then much later, while reading the Gospels, came to believe I wanted to follow Him. This changed things in my life, I said, because it involved giving up everything and choosing to go into a relationship with Him.

Greg told me he had seen a pamphlet with four or five ideas on it, ideas such as man was a sinner, sin separated man from God, and Christ died to absolve the separation. He asked me if this was what I believed, and I told him, essentially, that it was. “Those would be the facts of the story,” I said, “but that isn’t the story.”

“Those are the ideas, but it isn’t the narrative,” Greg stated rhetorically.

“Yes,” I told him.

Earlier that same year I had a conversation with my friend Omar, who is a student at a local college. For his humanities class, Omar was assigned to read the majority of the Bible. He asked to meet with me for coffee, and when we sat down he put a Bible on the table as well as a pamphlet containing the same five or six ideas Greg had mentioned. He opened the pamphlet, read the ideas and asked if these concepts were important to the central message of Christianity. I told Omar they were critical; that, basically, this was the gospel of Jesus, the backbone of Christian faith. Omar then opened his Bible and asked, “If these ideas are so important, why aren’t they in this book?”

“But the Scripture references are right here,” I said curiously, showing Omar that the verses were printed next to each idea.

“I see that,” he said. “But in the Bible they aren’t concise like they are in this pamphlet. They are spread out all over the book.”

“But this pamphlet is a summation of the ideas,” I clarified.

“Right,” Omar continued, “but it seems like, if these ideas are that critical, God would have taken the time to make bullet points out of them. Instead, He put some of them here and some of them there. And half the time, when Jesus is talking, He is speaking entirely in parables. It is hard to believe that whatever it is He is talking about can be summed up this simply.”

Omar’s point is well taken. And while the ideas presented in these pamphlets are certainly true, it struck me how simply we had begun to explain the ideas, not only how simply, but how nonrelationally, how propositionally. I don’t mean any of this to fault the pamphlets at all. Tracts such as the ones Omar and Greg encountered have been powerful tools in helping people understand the beauty of the message of Christ. Millions, perhaps, have come to know Jesus through these efficient presentations of the Gospel. But I did begin to wonder if there were better ways of explaining it than these pamphlets. After all, the pamphlets have been around for only the last 50 years or so (along with our formulaic presentation of the Gospel), and the church has shrunk, not grown, in Western countries in which these tools have been used. But the greater trouble with these reduced ideas is that modern evangelical culture is so accustomed to this summation that it is difficult for us to see the Gospel as anything other than a list of true statements with which a person must agree.

It makes me wonder if, because of this reduced version of the claims of Christ, we believe the Gospel is easy to understand, a simple mental exercise, not the least bit mysterious. And if you think about it, a person has a more difficult time explaining romantic love, for instance, or beauty, or the Trinity, than the gospel of Jesus. John would open his gospel by presenting the idea that God is the Word and Jesus is the Word and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Not exactly bullet points for easy consumption. Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something.

Biblically, you are hard-pressed to find theological ideas divorced from their relational context. There are, essentially, three dominant metaphors describing our relationship with God: sheep to a shepherd, child to a father, and bride to a bridegroom. The idea of Christ’s disciples being His mother and father and brothers and sisters is also presented. In fact, few places in Scripture speak to the Christian conversion experience through any method other than relational metaphor.

To a culture that believes they “go to heaven” based on whether or not they are morally pure, or whether they understand some theological ideas, or they are very spiritual, Jesus is completely unnecessary. At best, He is an afterthought, a technicality by which we become morally pure, or a subject of which we know, or a founding father of our woo-woo spirituality.

In a culture that worships science, relational propositions will always be left out of arguments attempting to surface truth. We believe, quite simply, that unless we can chart something, it doesn’t exist. And you can’t chart relationships. Furthermore, in our attempts to make relational propositions look like chartable realities, all beauty and mystery is lost. And so when times get hard, when reality knocks us on our butts, mathematical propositions are unable to comfort our failing hearts. How many people have walked away from faith because their systematic theology proved unable to answer the deep longings and questions of the soul? What we need here, truly, is faith in a Being, not a list of ideas.

And one should not think our current method of interpreting Scripture has an ancient legacy. The modern view of Scripture originated in an age of industrial revolution when corporations were becoming more important than family (the husband, for the first time, left the home and joined Corporate America, building cars instead of families), and productivity was more important than relationships. "How can God help me get what I want?" was the idea, not, "Who is God, and how can I know Him?"

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Imagine a pamphlet explaining the gospel of Jesus that said something like this:

You are the bride to the Bridegroom, and the Bridegroom is Jesus Christ. You must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood to know Him, and your union with Him will make you one, and your oneness with Him will allow you to be identified with Him, His purity allowing God to interact with you, and because of this you will be with Him in eternity, sitting at His side and enjoying His companionship, which will be more fulfilling than an earthly husband or an earthly bride. All you must do to engage God is be willing to leave everything behind, be willing to walk away from your identity, and embrace joyfully the trials and tribulations, the torture and perhaps martyrdom that will come upon you for being a child of God in a broken world working out its own redemption in empty pursuits.

Though it sounds absurd, this is a much more accurate summation of the gospel of Jesus than the bullet points we like to consider when we think about Christ’s message to humanity.

This article is adapted from the newly revised Searching for God Knows What (Thomas Nelson, 2010). Used by permission. All rights reserved.



misterAmuses commented…

Thanks John. I know where you are coming from. But now look at what you have written. "
The good news is God relates with us, eats with us, lives with us. He is no longer abandoning us to our enemies."

Who is "US" if it doesn't include you? Who is going to believe it is good news or truth if YOU can't give testimony that it "works"? ie. That everything that was promised in the Scripture is "fulfilled" in the world today and in YOU specifically?
When Jesus said that he was here to proclaim the Good News, or when he commissioned the disciples to go into all the world and declare the Good News, he was not telling them to go out and quote the New Testament. In every case, they were giving first person testimony, that the (Old Testament) Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus.
When I go to "proclaim" the Good News I am to do the same thing. I am telling the one who will listen to me, that everything they read in the New Testament is true. I know (and they can too) from first hand experience that this is truth. In other words I am telling "Good News".

John in writing "The Gospel" says that he is telling the "good news" as HE experienced it. Again, that translates. "I am giving you MY testimony because I was there and I saw these things happen TO ME, and those around me".
Faith, we are told in Hebrews 11, is trusting that 1. God is, and 2. That He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. No one will come to that trust if they do not have evidence that it is true. And the only evidence they will have is when believers , ie.people like you, demonstrate that God "relates with us, eats with us, lives with us. He is no longer abandoning us to our enemies."
Telling someone that you read in a book that something happened 2000 years ago is not proclaiming "Good News" if it is only theory. They have every right to say, "but that is ancient history", and they have every right to ask "So what?" But when you stand before them and say "This is how Jesus has transformed me: or as Paul might say. "that I might know him and the power of the resurrection" then we are proclaiming the "Good News" or the Gospel. Let me go one step further to "shock" you. The Old Testament is not the Good News. The New Testament is not the Good News. The Scriptures, OT, and NT, are not written for Unbelievers. The Scriptures are history and are written for believers. It is believers who are meant to be the "good news" or "gospel" or epistles read by the world, and our MESSAGE is the GOOD NEWS.The New Testament records the proclamation of Jesus and the disciples telling the people that "THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND" Their TELLING of this is the Good News. Our TELLING the people that the New Testament revelation that the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND, is the Good News for today. And we do NOT need to have theological degrees, nor indeed do we need Bible College in order to share our testimony with a fellow pilgrim. If you were "saved" only yesterday and come upon a fellow seeker, you already "know enough" to share the "Gospel". The Holy Spirit is as equally abiding in you, and empowering you with the "words to say" as He is with Billy Graham or any other renowned preacher. AND that is the message I was sharing. Yes, the more we are filled with the Word, and the more we mature, and the more experiences we have, the more eloquent we may express ourselves. But the "Good News" will not be more "good" to the one with whom we are sharing than the simplicity of the testimony: "Once I was lost but now I am found, was blind but now I see."


Joshua Newberry commented…

You and I see the work of God differently. I have no reason for trite cliche's that no one but the churched understand (barely).

The "Old Testament" is more than prophesies about Jesus. That's just all the church tends to teach on. It's the story of God's interactions with the family of Jacob through history. There were successes and there were failures.

The Good News, is that God instead of ruling from the Temple came to man on a peer level while still being God. He related, he taught, he shaped the world.

Do you think he was surprised that he would be rejected? Why would he be, theIsraelite's rejected him hundreds of times. He just knew that this way His story would be told.


misterAmuses commented…

Joshua: I believe that you and I agree much more than you suppose. My original comment was to encourage Blix that the Gospel is NOT that complicated and that when we give our testimony of what Jesus means to US, we are in fact declaring the full revelation that you are spelling out.

I have come to something of what I am calling my "Unified Field" concept. The "key" that ties all of Scripture together, especially for the unchurched with whom I interact on a regular basis.
I point out to those troubled with some (fanciful) "interpretations" that if they were to look carefully at the Scriptures and take them in context, they would find that the ONE theme from Genesis 1:26/27 where God says "let us make man in our image" right through to Revelation 22:21 where we read "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people" is ALL about relationship.
And when we understand that the word "faith" is only used twice in the OT, (KJV) and that "faith" "belief" etc. is better understood as "trust" then we see more clearly, how God was emphasizing "trust" from the very beginning.
The great "Protestant" battle cry: "The just shall live by trusting" is the truth of the Scriptures expressed in every covenant of the OT, and in every "sacrifice". Without the "trust" the rites and acts were meaningless.
Without the "faith/trust" it has always been impossible to please God. And that which is not of faith/trust is sin.
Hebrew 11 (so called "faith" chapter) says repeatedly that it was "by trusting", that each of those named knew "deliverance" or "salvation".
Before the birth of Jesus, these "saints" knew that "
God instead of ruling from the Temple came to man on a peer level while still being God. He related, he taught, he shaped the world.
"It is in the Psalms and statements like Micah 7:18 that we know that those of "faith" experienced God, not as One ruling from the Temple but one who met with them in a relationship. And thus Jesus came to call them back to the truth that God had been showing them for centuries. And he taught them about the Father caring for them as he does the flowers and the birds. And why he had to deliver the message that they had to "change their thinking".. (Repent). Not of their sins, but their very concept and understanding of what he kingdom of God was about.



Glenda commented…

The good news is about God in "me", in "you", in "us". Such a wonder!

Mike Davis


Mike Davis commented…

I would say even the summarized portion if the Gospel in this article, had to be researched and pick a part from different portions of bible. The whole statement is true about eating his flesh and becoming one with Jesus, but there lacks an emphasis of Sin. Unless a person knows what he is being saved from then there is no hope.
The Gospel is good news of God stepping down making a way for man to come close to God without Him striking man dead because if his sin. This is all possible through Jesus who came to the earth, lived a sinless life that we should have, Died a death meant for us. In order that we could be be close to God. 1 Cornthians 1:1-5 Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures that, he appeared...

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