Can Southern Baptists Be Missional? Part 3: Is the Gospel a Proposition or a Person?

See Parts One and Two if you want to read the background to this series.

I think that we struggle with the gospel. I don't pretend that I have some great revelation into what the gospel is that was heretofore not seen. It is pretty clear in Scripture. But, we still struggle with it.  As Southern Baptists, we seem to have reduced the gospel to a series of propositions that must be believed and accepted. Those who articulate it like we do are in and those who don't are out. We get this tendency from Evangelicals, revivalism, and our application of modernism to our theology.  The gospel becomes "Four Spiritual Laws," or "Steps to Peace With God" that we believe in order for us to get into heaven when we die. We need our sins forgiven to get to heaven, so Jesus provides that if we repent of our sins and ask Him to forgive us. No one wants to go to Hell, so Jesus gets us out of Hell and gets us into Heaven where we will "have a mansion over the hilltop" and see all of our loved ones who have gone on before us. We'll walk on streets of gold and spend eternity in a state of bliss.  Believing in Jesus is how we get there, so we make sure that do that and "pray a sinner's prayer" to gain entrance.  All of this "gospel shorthand" might be helpful in a "gospel" presentation, but it is not necessarily helpful in positioning us to live missional lifestyles now. Nor, is it necessarily biblical.

One of the places where Paul defines his gospel is in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.  He gets pretty explicit. This is the kerygma, or what was preached about Jesus.  

   1 Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

This is all about Jesus. It is about who He is and what He did. It is about Jesus the Man, the Person. The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ.  When we are confronted with the Gospel, we are to be confronted with Jesus Christ Himself.  Do we believe in HIM? Do we throw our faith into HIM? Do we entrust ourselves to HIM and follow HIM?  When the Philippian Jailer saw the power of God in the release of Paul and Silas from prison and asked what he must do to be saved, Paul answered, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household" (Acts 16:30-31).  He didn't say to believe things about Jesus or to make a transaction with Jesus to forgive your sins so you could go to heaven when you died.  He told the jailer to believe IN or upon Jesus.  He introduced the man to a person, not a system or a set of propositions.

This seems elementary, but think about it. How many people have we talked with over the years wondering if a wayward child or friend's "prayer of salvation" will hold up if they die, knowing that their life is one of complete rebellion to God?  We give quick assurances that God knows those who are His and that He will never let one fall from His hands. But, we go back to the prayer, to the religious emotional experience. Some will say that that isn't good enough. You have to live a life of obedience and discipleship to prove that you are really saved. But, are we then saying that salvation rests on our good works or performance?  They would say "no," that good works and performance is just evidence of the inner change. But, you still end up looking to the works for confirmation.

Maybe we are talking about the wrong things, though. If our primary concern is "How do we get right with God?" or, "How do we get forgiven?" have we missed the point of what salvation really is?  Is salvation about us being saved from bad stuff so that we can live a good life and then go to heaven when we die? For most Southern Baptists and Evangelicals, that seems to be the case. For this, we only need to believe a set of propositions and then align our lives around them. But, the biblical view of salvation has everything to do with being reconciled to God relationally – and it has everything to do with Jesus. Paul says that His gospel that we must believe has everything to do with Jesus – who He is and what He has done.

John 17:3 - " Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

Eternal life is knowing the Father and the Son.  It starts the moment we come into relationship with Jesus Christ by faith. It is not attained by believing a set of propositions about Jesus. It comes from actually "knowing" Jesus, which is why Jesus said that we must be born again (John 3).  We say that most Southern Baptists get this. But, do we?

If we understood that salvation was about a relationship with Jesus – knowing Him, worshiping Him, obeying Him, and following Him – then His life would become our life. What was true about Him would become true about us.  We would see Him as more than the one who provided salvation for us. We would see Him as the Way to live.  How did Jesus live?  Who did He minister to? What did He value?  We would see as the Truth.  Truth is not a disembodied concept. Truth is a Person.  Jesus is Truth.  He defines reality for us. We need to get to know Him.  We would also see Jesus as Life, which means that there is no life outside of Him. He is our Source – the very essence of Life. We are to feast on Him.

So, Jesus shapes our lives. He shapes our spirituality, our worship, our church experience, and the way that we order things. How He lived becomes vitally important to us.  He is no longer a means to some other end.  In other words, we don't worship Jesus so we can have a happy marriage or a successful life or go to heaven when we die. We worship Him because He is life and He is all in all. We move from looking to Him for what He can do for us to worshiping Him for who He is. He becomes not just our Savior (he is that) but our guide and our wisdom and righteousness from God.

I think that Southern Baptists get this theologically, but we have struggle with it practically. We say that as long as we proclaim the gospel, it doesn't matter how we do church.  Any and all methods and approaches are okay. But, isn't the medium the message?  When our faith is reduced to following Biblical Principles instead of engaging in a relationship with a Person, we end up using those principles for our own ends. We exalt fame and fortune and the things that build us up. We value things that Jesus doesn't value. We become religious consumers who use principles to build good lives and good churches. Instead of being "sent people," we become static, focusing more on having a good life and making it into heaven when we die. I think that the gospel of Jesus Christ is much bigger than that.

Alan Hirsch says that consumers will never be missional. It is impossible. Their orientation is fundamentally different than laying down their lives for Christ. Instead, they are trying to save their lives through pursuing safety and security and are using Jesus to get what they want. I think that a propositional approach to the gospel instead of a relational approach encourages this from the beginning. We aren't just calling people to believe a set of truths. We are calling them to forsake all other allegiances and to come into a relationship with God. Hirsch goes on to say that people must first be disciples of Jesus. We must learn to walk in the Way. Only then can we be sent people, living missionally in the world, because that is what Jesus did and that is what He calls His followers to do.

Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." – John 20:21

We are sent by God. But, if our focus is on saving our lives, even eternally, through believing a set of truths about Jesus instead of throwing ourselves by faith into a relationship with Jesus, we might be one of those that Jesus tells to depart from him because He never knew them (Matt. 7:21-23).  Unless we know Him, we will not be like Him. I know that all of this seems basic, but it is amazing how many of us go decades in the Christian life without ever taking seriously the idea that our lives are actually supposed to look like Jesus instead of being a sanctified pursuit of the American Dream.

It is all about KNOWING Jesus. To know him means more than believe information about Him. It means to perceive, to experience, to encounter, to actually have a relationship. Christ within. I know information about President Obama and believe that he exists. But, I don't know Him. We are to KNOW Jesus, not just information about Him. I think that we struggle with this greatly, as evidenced by what we value, uphold, and highlight in the SBC. Much of it looks little like Jesus Himself.

Do you know Him?


4 Responses to Can Southern Baptists Be Missional? Part 3: Is the Gospel a Proposition or a Person?

  1. May the Lord save us from self-absorbed and self-made religion. Checking off the boxes of right doctrine and right churchly and individualistic practice is far easier for our sinful natures to stomach than knowing Christ personally and walking in Him daily. I believe you’re right that when we approach things that way, we twist it all into something of our own making, and in our American culture, we turn it into the American Dream. Thanks for this exhortation. I need to know Christ more, love Christ more, live in Christ more, trust Christ more, and delight in Christ more, and I am challenged and exhorted. I am not where I need to be or where I want to be. God help us. Let us run hard after Christ.
    But, are you also concerned about the gaping abyss on the other side? The first pitfall is what you have identified: a Christless doctrinaire church-attending religiosity that is the repackaged American Dream. But isn’t mystical walking with a god of our own making also a danger? Propositionless gospels turn out to be the repackaged American Dream too, and in our post-modern, subjective, inward bent, feeling oriented-culture, I would suggest that is a current and living error. God ends up being a reflection of ourselves. How can that be corrected without the objective propositional revelation in Scripture? The Postmodernists say there is no such thing, and we can make words say whatever we want them to say. But, if that’s true, then why do they write so many books full of words they evidently expect us to understand? : ) Surely, exegesis is possible. And, isn’t the American church delinquent in its biblical exegesis?
    I would suggest the Southern Baptist Churches you critique in your post above have two problems. First, they don’t really have good doctrine derived from good exegesis. I would argue that a lack of orthodox teaching is a serious problem across American Christianity. And, second, they don’t really know Jesus Himself. They are not walking in Him. How can we choose between propositions and the person of Jesus? The video you posted is excellent! It is also a string of propositions, which point us to a Person. One is a means; the other is the End. The very word gospel means good news. How can there be news without propositions? Propositions are fundamental, while Christ Himself is Supreme and Ultimate. Would you agree?

  2. Yes, I would agree. I am not saying that propositions don’t exist. Not at all. I am saying that the Person of Jesus rises over the propositions. Jesus is not a series of propositions. He is a person. That is my point. It seems that we call many into an intellectual relationship with propositions where we affirm certain things instead of into a relationship with a person who is vast in the aspects of His character. I am not calling for the elimination of propositions, but rather for a recogition that Jesus is a person that we are to know and follow. It sounds elementary and few would disagree, I think. But, when you really think about it, it makes a big difference.
    I like your last sentence. That is a good way of saying it.

  3. Let me also clarify that in saying that Jesus rises above propositons I am not trying to denigrate the propositional truth of Scripture. Rather, I am just trying to say that all of it points to the Person of Jesus Himself. I am not promoting an undefined, mystical view of spirituality that we can redefine as we desire, because Jesus has form and weight and meaning. We see who He is in the gospels and throughout the Biblical revelation. Many Christians, however seem to focus on the propositions because the seem to be controllable. A relationship with Jesus as Lord puts Him in control. I am not arguing against truth as objective or the commands of Christ. I am just locating it relationally instead of primarily intellectually or even just morally.
    Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

  4. Alan, we are on the exact same page there. May God help us to think and be and live according to this profession. Press on brother.

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