May 27, 2017

Too Much Heaven? (3): Heaven and Evangelism

I think it’s telling that the two most prolific evangelism programs in evangelicalism both approach their audience with questions that Jesus never used.

“Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?”

“If you were to die tonight, and God were to asked you, why should I let you into my heaven, what would be your answer?”

According to Mark, Jesus did not approach his world with a question at all, but with a proclamation.

Mark 1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

His first public sermon was much the same: a proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Luke 4:16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
Luke 4:19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Luke 4:20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Evangelicalism is a religion of decisions and transactions. Jesus proclaims the arrival of the reign of God. There are decisions to be made, but reducing the Gospel to a decision to accept “God’s plan for my life” or giving the right answer to the question of how to go to heaven seems to have moved well past what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry.

The decisions most often presented to Jesus’ hearers were 1) the decision to recognize the reality of the Kingdom of God and 2) the decision to recognize Jesus as the messiah who is bringing that Kingdom into the world.

As useful as John 3:16 is as a summary of the Gospel, it is not an entirely useful summary of Jesus as we meet him in the synoptic Gospels. “Eternal life” is the life of God available in the present, It is John’s version of saying “The Kingdom of God is upon you.”

In passages where Jesus seems to be inviting “decision,” he is in reality inviting a reordering of life based on recognition of the Kingdom of God and recognizing the Messiah as God with us. N.T. Wright has rightly pointed out that this is a proclamation telling us about a whole new world, and our response to it truly amounts to entering or refusing a “new creation” that is “born again” through Jesus.

Where is heaven in this? Certainly not absent, but even more certainly not central or prominent. Jesus invites sinners to believe they are forgiven. He invites all persons into a Kingdom of grace and into the missio dei. The Kingdom of God will eventual overturn all the fallen, pretentious kingdoms of men. “Heaven” is the reign of God seen from the Godward side, and we pray that it will come on earth as God answers the prayer that his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Inviting people to reserve a place in heaven is shortchanging the Gospel, and creates the problem of justifying the demands of the Kingdom of God in the interim. In the Great Commission, Jesus calls us to evangelism that invites persons to become disciples, obeying all that he commanded. This is not a second level of “fine print.” It is the Kingdom of Heaven and Jesus the Messiah as they are to be presented to the world.

The most important question for many of us is how to place the cross of Jesus in the context of the entire offer of the Kingdom while keeping the Kingdom message of Jesus in its prominent place.

A text like 2 Corinthians 5 seems to get this balance correct.

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.* The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling* the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

To the extent that our status as persons “unreconciled” to God is a barrier to entering the new creation, Christ has reconciled us. In fact, that reconciliation is spoken of as a past fact from God’s side and only a question from our side, i.e. will we enter into a reconciled relationship and become ambassadors of reconciliation.

The death of Christ as our substitute and sacrifice is the focus of that mediation. In a sense, the cross is central in our reconciliation, but Christ and the Kingdom of God are central in the Christian message. There is no conflict here at all, as the cross shows us how it is possible for Christ to say “it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom.”

The promises of God come to us by the mediation of Jesus. That mediation exists in Jesus as a person, but is focused for us in the event of the cross, where the power of the Kingdom defeats the powers of evil and demonstrates the love of God in taking sin and death upon himself that we might walk in newness of life in the reign of God.

When Paul says he “knows nothing” but the cross, he is not setting up a tension between cross and Kingdom. He is simply saying there is only one messiah: the crucified one. As astonishing as it sounded to the ears of Jews, Greeks and Romans, God’s cornerstone of the Kingdom was the stone that was rejected, cursed and nailed to the cross.

So the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus demonstrate that this crucified messiah is the victorious, vindicated King. He has brought the Kingdom to us through incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection. He is the “door,” the “way, truth and life.” He is the one who, having taken all our burdens upon himself can now invite us into the Kingdom of heaven, the new creation, and the new Jerusalem.

All of this underlines that our evangelism needs to preach Jesus, and not as a means to an end, but as the center of all that God offers to us. Christ is the Gospel. Jesus = salvation in every sense. At any moment we encounter Christ in the Gospel we are, in this one person, experiencing both Kingdom and Cross, reconciliation and invitation to discipleship, acceptance and Great Commission, missio dei as our purpose and as good news to each one of us.

Present Jesus Christ in the fullness of the Gospel presentation: mediator, kingdom-bringer, reconciler, teacher, Lord, discipler,…and you will have presented all the evangel.

Comments

  1. My, my, how we have “missed the boat,” sts. No wonder many churches have people who say all the right things and probably really believe them, but whose lives don’t seem to bear much fruit here and now. With almost the entire emphasis on getting to heaven when we die, there seems to be little incentive to be about Kingdom work here. As you’ve noted before, many skip over the implications of not only what you’re posting today, but of the last 2 chapters of Revelation.

  2. Long time lurker, first time commenter.

    Thanks for this post, Michael. It really articulates a lot of what I’ve been wrestling through – particularly as someone who has run in reformed circles for years. I’ve had a growing realization that my view of the gospel is too small. While my personal salvation is one result of what Jesus has done, there is so much more happening in his redemption of the world and bringing of the Kingdom.

    It’s a weird realization to realize that in the way that most people I have been surrounded with in ministry articulate the gospel, you would be hard pressed to find a single instance in which Jesus “preached the Gospel” to their satisfaction.

    Good stuff here.

  3. Amen.

    You know, I just heard the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” sermon last month. Our church had a guest speaker. Despite the fact that he was preaching to a small but loyal congregation, most of whom have known Christ for at least a decade, and his own family, he decided to go with the evangelism sermon “just in case.”

    Then he proceeded to misquote Jeremiah 29:11, taking it to refer to the individual Christian rather than the exiled Jews. Then he spring-boarded into what those plans entail, and never referred to the scriptures again. He sure did like funny anecdotes though.

    And that was his evangelism speech. God, I’m sure, draws people to Himself in spite of it; which is why he thinks it works. But I really wish such preachers would read their bibles for what it says, not for what they can pepper their sermons with.

  4. If we presented the Gospel as it is intended (becoming true disciples of Christ and seeking His Kingdom in everything) we wouldn’t be seeing such a gap between those who profess Christ with no change in their lives and what we end up classifying as a “committed” Christian vs. a “saved” but unchanged, indifferent, or carnal Christians. I’ve seen a lot of debate through the years about these creative ways leaders come up with to descibe people who probably will be among the ones that say “Lord, Lord, didn’t we do all these things in your name?”

    Personally, I have had a hard time with most canned approaches to evangelism as they are more content oriented and make a lot of assumptions without finding out really where the person is on their journey. Thanks Michael for the helpful post. As an overseas missionary, I constantly struggle with how effective I am really being. I always figure that God is so much more interested in other people’s salvation than I can ever be, but at the same time try to be involved in what God is doing in people’s lives. It’s a great adventure!

  5. All I can say is I really love the direction you are headed with your posts, God offers us Himself in Christ through the Spirit. Thank you for seeing things in the proper context, most reformed discussions sound so crazy to me, like people analyzing the sun’s rays while it is blazing right in front of them.

  6. Your last couple of paragraphs certainly struck a chord with me. For the last few weeks I’ve been hearing ‘Easter’ sermons which preached the centrality of the cross, to the point where the cross became the be-all and end-all of what we need to know of the gospel.
    No mention of changed lives, no mention of Spirit-filled people showing love to all, no mention of Jesus almost – the cross overshadowed it all. And that’s not entirely unreasonable (especially for Easter), but I realised, reading your words that “Christ is the Gospel” that in some circles He is, in a sense, forgotten because all that matters is that redeeming act that ‘gets us into heaven’. It ends up that the entire point of Jesus’ life is to die on the cross. And that’s another thing. How often does the sermon stop there? Oh yes, there was the resurrection, but it was the cross that mattered.
    Reading NT Wright and your recent blog postings and the resultant discussions has been one of those ‘step-changes’ I seem to experience in my faith journey. I thank God that it happened now, just before I go into the final stages of training for ministry. For me, it’s been one of those ‘jigsaw piece’ moments when a few parts fall into place and there is a glimpse of the bigger picture. My reading of scripture has taken on a new dimension and, after several years of approaching it academically, I have regained a sense of the excitement when reading it.
    Sorry, this has lapsed into a bit of a personal brain-dump, but I guess I wanted to get over just how much I appreciate these blog posts and the comments (oh yes, and the book).

  7. As always, an interesting conversation.

    I’m sure you’ve heard variations on the following sermon, which left an impression on me years ago. Speaking of the Kingdom, the presenter said, “What started as a relationship in Palestine, became a philosophy in Greece, an Institution in Rome, an Enterprise in Europe and in America . . . a Franchise.

    My best personal example of the Franchising of Jesus was when (as a college student in cir 79) I helped with Campus Crusade’s “I Found It’ campaign. If I remember right, Bill Bright’s goal was that every American household would “hear the gospel,” and he got a Madison Ave. guy to lead the project.

    About thirty of us spent several nights a week in cubicles in a telemarketing “sweat shop” in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. We were each assigned a large sections of the Louisville phone book, which were reproduced on a large font printout(this was before the days of PCs). Beside the name, we had boxes to check. “Gospel presented” and “Decision made.”

    In front of us was a flip chart with a very precise dialog. In our training, we told that we could not deviate from the script, even by one word. On each page of the cardboard flip chart was a page from the 4 spiritual laws.

    I saw a “decision made” box checked by the name of a young man (on another caller’s page) who happened to live in my section of the city.

    As an experiment, I decided to step out of the sterile, formal telemarketer world and into his. I called him and went by to see him (thinking that he was a new believer, who needed help.)

    I hung out with Rick for about eight weeks. Yes, he had said the prayer with the caller . . . but he had no concept of the Kingdom and didn’t know Jesus. Actually he was Buddhist, and ran a martial artist school. The “believer’s prayer” to him was just another tool of meditation and transcendence. He was not open to meeting the real Jesus despite our many hours together. Yet, he went down as a statistic on the I Found Report, caulking up one more for “Hearing the gospel” and “Decision Made.”

    This whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth and I felt like I had done something evil in my participation, but I was too naive to understand what the problem was then.

    Even now, it is more than ironic that there is a swath of TV channels on our cable service that are made up of either sleazy infomercials (fat-burner wraps, anti-aging supplements or get rich in real estate scemes) sandwiched around goofy-looking (and also sleazing looking) people selling Jesus.

  8. Arend Bakker says:

    I was delighted to read your post. This echoes the kind of thought & teaching I’ve enjoyed all of my life in my corner of the “reformed” community.

  9. Let us realize that God’s Spirit and work of grace can be efficacious when the cirmstances are overly structured and even manipulative. Although it is desirable to provide a spiritual combine that allows the Spirit the freedom to work in hearts as well as minds, God can and does still work.

    Paul rejoices when the gospel is shared in mocking and that the Spirit cannot be restrained by the machinations of well meaning men. I have known believers who were saved by watching Jesus Christ Superstar and are now missionaries. Many thousands have come to faith via an overly pragmatic presentation such as that employed by Bill Bright.

    So it is desirable to avoid “marketing” Jesus, but do not underestimate God’s grace to work in the hearts of sinners with a clumsy evangelistic method. And it just might be that if Jesus tarries for another one hundred years, the multi-generational offspring of present day blogs may look back on all of our methods as unwieldy and unsophistcated and even unspiritual.

    The most subtle of all deceptions is to believe that our journey has taken us into a deceptive free zone.

  10. God loves you and has a difficult plan for your life. An actual title to a sermon my husband gives.

  11. If I remember right, Bill Bright’s goal was that every American household would “hear the gospel,” and he got a Madison Ave. guy to lead the project.
    — J Michael Jones (no relation to J Jonah Jameson)

    “ABC:
    A = Always,
    B = Be,
    C = Closing,
    Always be Closing,
    Always be Closing.”
    — snarky comment from the blog Slacktivist: Left Behind regarding “high-pressure salesmen for Jesus” witnessing tactics.

  12. Charlie says:

    Rick Frueh,

    Excellent reminder. It’s always good to examine our motives and methods, but God is big, and he is able in spite of all of our shortcomings to break into the most wayward of hearts.

    I appreciate the free exchange of ideas on this site, but let’s never forget that none of us do it “right” all of the time. All of us are who we are by God’s grace.

  13. James Wilbur says:

    I thank you for this site. I myself recognize in my heart that God chose me before the foundations of the world and He called me and quicked my heart, and caused me to hear and receive the gospel by the faith He imbedded in my heart, to understand in my inner most being just who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for all those He chose in himself before the foundations of the world. Eph. 1:4
    I now wake up thanking God for saving me and as I move through my days I can see God the Holy Spirit working in my innermost being, moving me, accomplishing His purpose in me.
    I have areas in my life where I have asked God to move in me, in my unbelief and rebelious flesh, but I see Him moving in my victories, failures, with goodness and sometimes chastisement, which is also the love of God working in my life for His purpose.
    Heaven is just one of (billions) of things God has promised His children.
    I now move through my days free from having to please God, as I already am righteous and perfect in His sight, as God sees me through Jesus, and has seated me with Him in the heavenly realms at this moment IN JESUS CHRIST. Eph. 2:6

  14. Michael,
    A great article that helps to put thing sin context for me. The fact that changed lives are to be the result of a ‘decision for Christ’ is indeed often overlooked. We get comfortable and try to shoehorn Christianity into our lives rather than realizing just what a ‘new creation’ we are called to be.

    One point, though. You say,
    The Kingdom of God will eventual overturn all the fallen, pretentious kingdoms of men. “Heaven” is the reign of God seen from the Godward side, and we pray that it will come on earth as God answers the prayer that his will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Inviting people to reserve a place in heaven is shortchanging the Gospel, and creates the problem of justifying the demands of the Kingdom of God in the interim.

    Are you equating the Kingdom of God (on earth) with eternity/heaven? Not to open a can of worms unduly, but isn’t that a preterist/amillenial view of things? I don’t disagree that the Kingdom of God is, and should be, a ‘here and now’ thing and that we are called over and over to live Christlike lives to bring it about. that’s different, I think, from a heaven-on-earth concept.

  15. I am amill. I’m channeling some of Wright. I do believe the manifestation of “heaven” we are heading toward is a remade creation with the “marriage of heaven and earth.”