By Nate Bush
Simple gospel messages are invaluable resources that have served the church well. But have we unintentionally filtered out some important components of the gospel? J.I. Packer writes that the gospel has been “streamlined for instant comprehension and response. The question being explored was: how little do we need to tell people for them to become Christians? Was this a good question to work with? In some circles, maybe so, but in most, definitely not.”1
The gospel has become a simple-to-articulate plan of salvation. It is as simple as (A) all have sinned, (B) believe in Jesus, and (C) confess Jesus. This type of gospel message is focused on making decisions but not disciples. This minimalistic, decision-focused gospel presentation has had some negative outcomes.
Scot McKnight says, “We lose at least 50 percent of those who make decisions”2 between the ages of 13 and 17. He argues, “I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’”3
Decisions vs. Discipleship
Every Christian ought to want decisions to be the result of gospel proclamation, but not at the expense of discipleship. Deciders receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life, but often fail to experience the missional impulse of the Holy Spirit and the joy of being a child of God in the family of God. We must not preach justification at the exclusion of sanctification or our adoption. This is the equivalent of preaching Jesus at the exclusion of the Father and the Spirit.
Matthew 28:19 calls for us to “make disciples . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” All Christians are to be reborn into a new Trinitarian identity.
When we are justified by Jesus, we are declared right with God. When we are adopted by the Father, we become children of God. The story of the Bible is the story of a Father who sent his Son to take a bride and adopt many children. Our adoption, not our justification, is the pinnacle of the Christian experience. Packer says our adoption “is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification.”4 He writes, “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his Father.”5
Perhaps the reason we now have so many “consumer Christians” is because they see salvation as being too Christocentric. They have failed to hear of their adoption and membership in God’s family. They have failed to realize salvation is not merely personal, but, in fact, salvation is familial. American Christians are far more likely to treat church as an event they attend than as a family they belong to.
Jesus has justified us. The Father has adopted us. And we have been sanctified and sent by the Spirit. Jesus told his apostles they would “receive power” from the “Holy Spirit” to be “witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Later, while an ethnically diverse church family was “worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:2, 3).
Christians often don’t live up to their missional potential because no spiritual person has ever prayed for, fasted over, or sent them. Too many churches operate as spiritual orphanages. They have a big group of kids, but only one or two spiritual parents taking care of them. Perhaps a failure to recognize the Holy Spirit’s work in the family of God contributes to a lack of everyday Christians living as everyday missionaries.
Theologian Henry Chadwick wrote,
The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success. The pagan comment “See how these Christians love each other” (reported by Tertullian) was not irony. Christian charity expressed itself in care for the poor, for widows and orphans, in visits to brethren in prison or condemned to the living death in labour in the mines, and social action in time of calamity like famine, earthquake, pestilence, or war.6
No Greater Cause
There is no greater cause on the planet than the mission of God at work through the family of God. Because Jesus has justified us and purchased us, we are his servants. Because the Father has adopted us and made us heirs, we are his family. Because the Holy Spirit has sanctified and sent us, we are his missionaries.
Christians are called to be a family of missionary servants.
While Evangelicals have done a really good work in preaching Jesus, this may be the time to call the church back to worship of the Trinitarian God and embrace a fuller gospel message.
1 J.I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles’ Creed (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
2 Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 20.
3 Ibid., 26
4 J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), 206, 207.
5 Ibid., 201.
6 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Penguin), 26.
Nate Bush serves as lead pastor with New City Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico.