The Christian Message and Its Story of God

So what is this Christian message, and why, for growing numbers of people today, has it been either ignored or judged irrelevant?

Most reading this know the standard version that features (perhaps exclusively) the “me-centered” story.  It says that you’re a sinner[1] and that Christ was given to you by God the Father, taking the form of a human being, for the purpose of taking on Himself your “sins” (more later) as a sacrifice (a payment of your ‘debt’ of being ungodly – a “propitiation”) so that through His sacrifice you (if you believe and trust in Him) would be judged right with God (“righteous”)[2] and be enabled to live with him eternally in His Heaven.  What’s in it for us is being saved from having to be judged by God as what we really are, and instead being judged “in the right”, resulting in a life of everlasting joy with God.

I would say it a little differently.  We are God’s creation, but are naturally ungodly.  In order for God, who is perfection, to be able to accept us with our imperfection into His presence, therefore, we need a way for our imperfections to go away — to be forgotten or forgiven or ignored by God.  Since we are incapable of doing this ourselves, God had to create a way to overlook our imperfections so we could be reconciled to Him.  He did this by sacrificing His incarnate self in His ‘Son’ Jesus, and then raised Him from the dead, so that if we will just believe this is true, and live our lives as if it is, He will accept us in His presence forever.

While these versions are correct, they are to me a little too one-sided in their viewpoint – the perspective of “me” – to open up the whole picture to our view.  What they don’t explain is why He did this.  That story is considerably larger.

The Problem

The problem the Christ was sent to solve wasn’t your sin, per se, but the corruption of the entire world, of Creation itself.  Most everybody knows the allegory of Adam and Eve in the garden with the snake, and their disobedience to God’s instruction.  The story relates that their disobedience resulted in God pronouncing a curse on them which, among other things, included the sentence of physical death – no small matter[3].  But before moving on, let’s set this allegory to one side for a moment and dig in a bit to this concept of “sin”.

The term “sin” refers by metaphor to the idea of an archer shooting his arrow at and missing the bull’s eye of his target – missing the “mark”.  The “mark” in this case is being approved by God as “in the right”.  There are two modalities of ‘sin’: first, as describing our human condition, that we are in a “state of sin”; the second is to describe an action, behavior or thought (“sins”) the instances of which demonstrate the truth of the first: things like those enumerated in the Ten Commandments – murder, worship of idols, not honoring your father and mother, coveting your neighbor’s stuff, etc.

The essence of this condition, irrespective of your belief concerning Adam’s role in it, is our individual dedication to ourselves – to our own welfare and well-being – and the desire to have others conform to or validate our desires.  That we are in this state is quite uncontroversial.  Skeptics need look no further than world history, their own relationships, today’s ongoing litany of violent atrocities, or numbers measuring societal overall health (e.g. divorce, abuse, addiction, etc.).  Certainly there are people who are less self-focused in their behavior than others.  But there are none – zero – who are consistently consumed with meeting the needs of others as intensively as they are with themselves.  Those who imagine themselves to be in this latter category I would suggest simply haven’t looked closely enough.

To understand and accept the truth of this condition is absolutely fundamental to making any progress whatsoever in understanding either the Christian message itself, or its immense beauty and power in treating it.  Admitting our ungodliness (“un-rightness”) is not something that we accept easily.

A short digression: one of the attitudes found among many evangelical Christians today is that all of us are “guilty” of our sin.  This phrase can be a little off-putting to the sensibilities of non- or casual believers, as it implies premeditation.  ‘You know, it’s so “hateful” of them to say we are guilty’.  However, in an absolute, judicial sense, of course, these evangelicals are absolutely correct.  For those who have not abandoned their original natures and had them transformed by faith in Jesus, to stand in God’s court of justice on the charge of un-rightness as measured by His standard can only result in the obvious judgement: “guilty”, of missing the mark.  But to me it’s not a useful perspective in trying to understand the heart of the matter.  And, understandably, people generally aren’t drawn into a story claiming they’re ‘guilty’ if they can’t even perceive a problem in themselves worthy of a charge, let alone this verdict.  So personally, I’d like to see us set this language to one side.

I think it is more useful to step back and acknowledge that, for whatever reason, we are – our human nature is – exactly that which God has made us to be, but that it is not consonant with what He intends us to be.  To argue that this is not so, to claim we are not what God wills us to be, you have to explain how it is that this nature we all share is somehow out of God’s effective will – how He’s somehow powerless to prevent the species from continuing to propagate itself in its self-absorbed state.  I don’t think there is such an explanation.  We are who He now wills us to be.  So our job is to accept this fact, and seek to understand what it is He intends for us.

Once we acknowledge God’s hand in (or at the very least, allowance of) our human condition, we can then move on to perhaps a better appreciation of the gulf that exists between us and Him, and that it’s unmistakably clear that we are not naturally equipped to be “right” in God’s eyes.  (Our imperfections only serve to emphasize God’s perfection.)  This is the entire plot of the Bible.  No, it seems He’s got something else up His sleeve, not just to show us something more of who He is and what His love for us looks like, but also, and remarkably, to provide a solution for us so that we can stand before Him in acceptance and love, producing for us unfathomable joy.

Restoration to Right Standing With God

God’s plan from the beginning was to reconcile and restore this corrupted world to Himself, and undo our ‘sin’ and the curse on Adam’s humanity, including death.

Isaiah covers this fundamental truth in a single verse (although of course the Bible has hundreds addressing our condition of sin and its effect on our relationship with God) in which he says this:

Isaiah 59:2 ( ESV ) 2    but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.

So we’re separated from God (the only possible arrangement given our nature), and when we exercise our nature we, predictably, do things that are not godly causing Him to suspend communication (or communion) with us.  To repeat, this is the result of the two modes of “sin”: our natural state – ungodly, or missing the mark of Godliness; and all of the individual transgressions of the rules of living that God would have us follow, and that we routinely don’t, due to this nature.  And while we can vainly “try to do better”, we’re just unable to correct our underlying problem.

So it becomes crystal clear that if this problem (our separation from God) is going to get resolved, it is going to have to be the One who created us in the first place that will do the resolving.  His solution was to interject Himself as the man Jesus and take on Himself all of the necessary judgement for the un-rightness that inhabited His creation, then resurrect Himself from the dead, and in so doing, defeat death and undo its curse. And once He had accomplished this, the payoff for those who believed and trusted in Him was to be spared from having to face His judgement as un-right, un-godly, since that judgement had already been carried out on the Christ on their behalf.  Those who believed, then, would be reunited with God and experience everlasting love and joy with Him.

What do we have to do to experience this everlasting love and joy?  Well, it depends on who you listen to. It’s somewhere between: acknowledge that we can’t fix ourselves, turn away from (‘repent’ from) the life we have been living apart from God, and rely on (trust) Him for everything from now on; or, essentially nothing.

I mentioned earlier that Christianity has a wide range of belief systems. The more prominent are codified in things called theologies, which are collections of interrelated doctrines of belief.  How you interpret the Christian message hugely depends on which system of theology you subscribe to.  The two main Protestant variants of these are:

  • Reformed theology: This emphasizes the absolute control by God of everything – His super-sovereignty. In this belief system people are helpless, spiritually defective beings that can only be redeemed from their condition and its final judgement if (and only if) God has chosen to redeem them by His grace.  This system of belief rejects that man has freewill that is effectual in choosing God.  When God chooses you, it’s over; you are guaranteed life with Him forevermore, and He made this choice before the beginning.  By the same token, if you’re not chosen, you’re not chosen forever and face His certain judgement, and there’s absolutely no amount of contrition or repentance on your part that will make any difference whatsoever.  Not good news if you’re not picked in this lottery.
  • Various flavors of “Arminian”, or more recently Wesleyan, theology: In this belief system the key distinction with the reformed is that man actually does have free will; that he can make effectual choices regarding God, and is equipped to respond to God. So people who believe this way will tell you that they repented of their old life, they chose to love and to follow God/Christ, they chose to pray the “sinner’s prayer”, etc.  To the reformed, “they” had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this.  They were just acting out the plan God enacted before the beginning by His Grace.

The reformed therefore believe you have to “do” nothing (since you’re unable to do anything anyway) to “go to heaven” (after you die), which is their near-exclusive concern.  If you’re chosen, you’re going.  God’s grace is preeminent and all sufficient to overwhelm your potential disinterest in, or even hatred of, Him.  (I should say that if you find yourself in this theological camp, I don’t mean to imply that you, personally, are or were disinterested in or hated Him, only that in the view of this doctrine it’s irrelevant.)  The free-will folks, by contrast, believe you have to make the choice to a) repent of and quit what you have been, and b) confess and believe that Jesus died for your redemption and is Lord, and c) trust and follow Him.  Once you’ve done those things, both theologies would agree that your life then is to love and serve God, and your neighbor as yourself, through the gift of the Holy Spirit which enables you to actually do so.

Now both of these theologies generally hold that once the deed is done (i.e. the choice/commitment, whoever is responsible for it), it’s done — forever[4].  Catholics have a somewhat different view.  They believe that you need ongoing “propitiation”, God-provided remediation of the individual sin-actions you commit, which can only be dispensed by a priest, who assumes the place of Christ in your forgiveness during the Mass/Eucharist.  So at the end of the Mass, you’re once again good, until you walk out of the church door and start being human again.

Many ‘liberal’ Christians pretty much ignore or dismiss God’s judgement altogether (and thus the need for Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection), and simply concentrate on “doing good” stuff as demonstrated in their work on many popular social or environmental “causes”.  So while they continue to acknowledge and refer to Christ, his role to them is nearly exclusively as a moral role model rather than a Savior, and thus isn’t really Christianity.

The Message of Life in Christ

This Christian message I’m talking about, and the one the Bible (and specifically Jesus) teaches is the one that says this: in order to enter His “Kingdom”, where this everlasting joy happens (regardless of who did the choosing!) you have to turn in the opposite direction from your current life (i.e. repent), gradually abandoning your old ‘gods’ and goals and devotion to things here in the world, while having utter faith that the Spirit of Christ will sustain you in your new life in all things[5], and that His plan for your life is immeasurably superior to your own.  In other words, after intentionally committing to abandoning your old self, you are to live your life as Christ would live it if He were you.

It is one thing to say a prayer of repentance, even if thoroughly sincere.  It is, however, an entirely different proposition to take up the vocation of the step by step abandonment of your worldly priorities.  This latter is the life of a disciple, a follower, of Christ.  Oswald Chambers breaks it down this way:

“To believe in Jesus means retiring and letting God take the mastership inside. That is all God asks of us.” –Oswald Chambers, in If Thou Wilt Be Perfect from Quotable Oswald Chambers

Sadly, as is common today, the kernel of this idea has been reduced to a bumper sticker: “Let go, and let God.”  Would that it was as easy as that message implies!

I should emphasize that another crucially important part of this message has been virtually lost:  when one commits to Christ His Holy Spirit enters and begins the transformation of that person so that doing the will of God/Christ is not only possible, but what he increasingly finds himself wanting to do.  And when that person positively responds, he finds himself in what Jesus calls the “Kingdom of the Heavens”[6] (or the “Kingdom of God”).  Now this transformation isn’t completed instantaneously, nor even in an entire lifetime.  But the disciple knows unmistakably that it has begun[7].

The Kingdom is the state of being in which Christ’s spirit manifests and expresses itself through us, one to another. And this was Jesus’s key message: Believe in Me and through the help of the Holy Spirit you will enter the Kingdom of God here and now.  None of this “saved for heaven” stuff.  No.  HereNow.  It’s here now, in our “midst” [8]This is the message that has been lost.  And its loss – the failure of people to hear, understand and live it — is in my opinion at the very heart of our society’s illness.

It’s not hard to see how unpopular, even disdained, this message of self-sacrifice is within the culture outlined in the Introduction.  Whole generations have been indoctrinated that “my will’, “my wants” and “my needs” are the only things important.  The Bible refers to its antidote as “dying”[9],[10],[11] to yourself.  Now certainly that’s not intimidating to the secular or casual Christian ear! 😉

There are other reasons why this message has been lost, not least because churches, by and large, have just stopped teaching it, perhaps unsurprisingly in this age of feel-good-about-yourself messaging.  And, virtually no modern churches make any intentional effort to build disciples (habitual followers of Christ) among their members, which was the only mission Jesus gave to His Church[12].

There’s so much more that could be said (and I’d like to say) on all these topics; sin, theologies, discipleship, the Holy Spirit as God’s love-enabler, the loss of the Christian message, etc., etc.  Perhaps later if we have time, we’ll dive back into one or more of them.  (I hope to write on the Christian Life in an upcoming edition.)  But for now, this should be a sufficient synopsis of the Gospel Message of Christ:  we’re ungodly; we can’t change that; God forgives our ungodliness through Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection if we entrust ourselves to Him; we’re called to believe and to live as though Christ were living our lives for and through us.

Non-believers typically don’t accept the premise of this message for a couple of reasons.  Either they don’t accept that there is a creator God, or they don’t accept that they are so far away from God’s intention for them that they need Him to “redeem” them.  (This later group is actually the tougher crowd, as their self-satisfaction proves a more formidable challenge to their understanding than those who casually dismiss the existence of God.)  In the next couple of these installments, we’ll take on the first objection and try to lay out a case for God’s existence.  In the meantime, if you are one of those who doesn’t believe in God, please just play along for the moment and assume you’re mistaken.  It won’t cost you anything. 😉

Conclusions

If in fact there is a God who created us and our universe, try for a moment to imagine how unbelievably intelligent, creative, powerful and, yes, glorious He must be.  And Creation wasn’t just some interesting physics experiment on His part (“Wow, this will be really cool!  I can’t wait to see what happens!”).  It had a very detailed and precise purpose.  The Bible says He “knew” us before we were; before the foundation of the world.[13]  This idea of “foreknowing” when you’re talking about God is more than an advanced awareness, or prescience.  It has more of the sense of being intimately knowledgeable of not just the presence of the created one, but of every detail He had specified he would embody in His Creation before the creation event.  If you stipulate for a moment that God exists, that He knew you from before the beginning, then you have to also realize that at the creation event He unleashed exactly the energy, forces and a little later matter, that He would 14 billion years later knit together into the person you see in the mirror.  This is the logical conclusion that you must carefully and seriously reflect upon.

While we’re thinking about God’s beauty, knowledge, and unimaginable creative power, we need to also spend some time in that same regard considering Jesus since, as He himself said: “I and the Father are One.”[14]  It’s common for moderns to view Jesus as a world-class teacher of compassion, but as otherwise just an ordinary guy who roamed around Israel 2000 years ago stirring up the uneducated bumpkins with His pretty talk.  Let’s first look at Him from the assumption that His claim (to be one with God) is true.  If it’s true, then what He said and what He did goes way beyond stirring up some bumpkins in Galilee.  What he taught was what God said; as regards blessedness; as regards entering His Kingdom; as regards our un-rightness; as regards rejecting Him; as regards love; and as regards those who would be led to Him.

If you take the position of skepticism – that He was an unmatched moral teacher, but just that – then you’ve got plenty of company, but you also have to somehow rationalize His claims13,[15], and the multiply-attested accounts of His miracles, and the multiply-attested accounts of His appearances to and interaction with His disciples and hundreds of others following His death.  Establishing a correct estimation of the person of Jesus is crucial, as with the understanding of sin, to making progress in understanding His message.  Again, Dallas Willard is worth hearing[16]:

Our commitment to Jesus can stand on no other foundation than a recognition that he is the one who knows the truth about our lives and our universe.  It is not possible to trust Jesus, or anyone else, in matters where we do not believe him to be competent.  We cannot pray for his help and rely on his collaboration in dealing with real-life matters we suspect might defeat his knowledge or abilities.

And can we seriously imagine that Jesus could be Lord if he were not smart?  If he were divine, would he be dumb?  Or uninformed?  Once you stop to think about it, how could he be what we take him to be in all other respects and not be the best-informed and most intelligent person of all, the smartest person who ever lived?

…Small wonder, then, that the first Christians thought he held within himself “all of the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).  This confidence in his intellectual greatness is the basis of the radicalism of Christ-following in relation to the human order.  It sees Jesus now living beyond death as “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, the ruler of the kings of the earth, … the first and the last, the living One,” the one who can say “I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever more, the master of death and the world of the dead” (Rev 1:5,18).

Next up, we’ll explore the proposition that there is, in fact, God.  We’ll look at three main types of evidence for God: 1) the Bible itself, as the widely accepted “word of God”; 2) scientific “evidence”, which can be seen in cosmological physics, microbiology, and the fossil record, among other places (don’t worry – no equations), and; 3) experience.  By experience I don’t mean exclusively personal experiences with God[17], as compelling as some of those are, but the experience of simply seeing and knowing true followers of Christ and observing their distinctive “otherness”.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.

[1] Romans 3:23 ( ESV ) 23for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

[2] The term right or righteous comes from carpentry or construction.  They convey the idea of a perfect right angle, or the perfect verticality of an ‘upright’.  Justify or justification have similar roots, and convey the idea of proving the verticality of a member (justifying it) by lining it up with a plumb bob.

[3] There are those, however, who argue that physical death was actually a gift of mercy, inasmuch as without it, Adam and his descendants would have simply been forced to live separated from God for their eternal lives.

[4] Not exactly true.  Some Christians believe you can lose your salvation.  Those affected are those who might not have had it in the first place.

[5] John 14:16-17 ( ESV ) 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,£ to be with you forever,  17even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

[6] Matthew 4:17 ( ESV ) 17From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

[7] Philippians 1:6 ( ESV ) 6And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

[8] Luke 17:21 ( ESV ) 21nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”£

[9] Colossians 2:20 ( ESV ) 20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—

[10] Colossians 3:5 ( ESV ) 5Put to death therefore what is earthly in you:£ sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.

[11] Romans 6:2-4 ( ESV ) 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?  3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

[12] Matthew 28:18-20 ( ESV ) 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in£ the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  20teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

[13] Psalms 139:15-16 ( ESV ) 15    My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16    Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there were none of them.

[14] John 10:30 ( ESV )

[15] John 14:6-7 ( ESV ) 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  7If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.£ From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

[16] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper, 1998, p94

[17] Having been blessed to have such an experience, nothing is quite so convicting as being allowed to see/hear/feel the very presence of God in a situation.  There really is no possibility of turning back after such a day.  All you want is more and more of it.

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