Thursday, January 24, 2008

Assuming the Gospel

Not long ago I attended part of a weekend seminar on mercy ministries organized by some nearby evangelical churches. I have good reason to believe that those churches understand the message of the gospel and its centrality to the mission of the church.

I’m not sure what the invited, outside plenary speakers at this seminar believe about the gospel. It’s not that they explicitly denied it. But they certainly assumed it. Regardless of whether one is convinced that mercy ministries are mandated by Scripture or even related to the mission of local churches, I hope we can all agree that mercy ministries wholly unrelated to the message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone are a gross dilution of the Great Commission.

By this I mean that believers, acting individually or corporately, may show unconditional love to the needy and disadvantaged in material ways, but they have not loved the needy in the way they most need love until they have shared the message of God’s loving, sacrificial actions and his offer of forgiveness of sins. Additionally, teaching that intends to motivate believers to show unconditional love to the needy must explicitly articulate how their acts of mercy are connected to the gospel—both in the message proclaimed to the needy and in how the motivation of believers springs from the work of the gospel in their own lives. Teaching that omits one or both is at best flawed and at worst counterproductive and undermining to the gospel.

This morning I read a review by my friend, J.A. Ingold, of a book from a completely different spectrum of evangelicalism. I am unassailably convinced that the author is a godly man who is motivated by a sincere desire to minister to the hearts of young people, just as I am convinced that people at the center of the mercy ministries seminar are godly and sincerely motivated.

Nevertheless, I know Ingold’s theological insight well enough to suspect that his assessment is spot on that this book “is not as clear as it could or should be” on the gospel. To assume that the gospel does not need to be “pervasive” (Ingold’s word) is to make two dangerous assumptions. First, it assumes that young people reading Christian books are genuine believers. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it assumes that genuine believers do not need to be reminded of the gospel. Quite to the contrary, the pattern of Scripture consistently reminds believers not only of what they have in Christ by justification, but also how the gospel motivates and empowers their ongoing sanctification. When “Christ’s absence is so conspicuous, that it misses the forest for the trees” in a book about specific areas of spiritual growth, such teaching is likewise flawed and, possibly, counterproductive and undermining to the gospel.

I'll freely admit that this is a concept that I haven’t fully grasped yet. If you knew where to look, you could probably track down sermons I’ve preached or studies I've edited not all that long ago that would demonstrate similar flaws. What I hope is clear is that we’ve failed to help anyone in our ministry efforts—whether words or actions—if we do not help them tie the truth in the message or the motivation for the works back to the foundational truths of the foundational truths and themes of God’s Word. And we can't pretend that because we know that we understand the gospel, that therefore we can be lax in consistently, clearly, deliberately reaffirming it and applying it.

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