The Freedom and Responsibility of the Gospel
As Cody referenced in his sermon this week, in 1989, Stephen R. Covey first published his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Since that time it has gone on to sell more than 25 million copies and Covey has made a successful career of helping people and businesses be more productive, efficient, and, as the book promises, effective. As we also learned in this week's lesson, the popular phrase, "Keep the main thing, the main thing." originated in Covey's book. So, if we were to boil down Covey's philosophy of effectiveness down to its fundamental principle, we could say that to be effective in life (and business), we need to remain focused on what's most important. That sounds easy enough, right???
If that's the case though, why aren't we all living "effective" lives? How do we know we are focusing on the "main" thing? What is it? And how do we avoid becoming distracted? These are all important questions for us consider; and the way that we answer them reveals a lot about us.
For a Christian, the "main thing" has to be the gospel. It is at the core of everything we believe. Moreover, if our beliefs determine our actions (and they should), then the gospel should form the basis for not just what we believe, but how we live our lives. Here's the problem that we often find among believers; we often speak about being "gospel-centered," but often we struggle to actually define what that means. So, we have a lot of "Christians" who are trying to follow Jesus and build their lives on a foundation of gospel truth, but they have never heard the true gospel. So, what is the gospel?
At its most basic level, the gospel is the “good news” or the message of hope for salvation through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is never less than that, but it is more. I believe that scripture teaches us not just that God reconciles sinners to himself through his Son, but also for what purpose (Ephesians 2:1-10). Therefore, a more robust definition of the gospel may be as follows:
The gospel is the unifying theme of God’s word in scripture. It is the diagnosis of the broken and sinful nature of the hearts of all men. It is the gracious offer of redemption for mankind, in order that we may be reconciled to our Heavenly Father through faith alone in the finished work of his Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. It is a guarantee of the cancelling of the record of debt for our sins and the promise of the credit of Christ’s imputed righteousness on our behalf. It is a call for obedience to the commands of God, the pursuit of personal holiness, and an invitation to participate in God’s kingdom here on Earth. Finally, it is an opportunity to enjoy fellowship with God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, the reading of scripture, and fasting; that serve as a foretaste of the eternal fellowship we will enjoy one day in glorification. And all of this for the sole purpose of glorifying God, and he alone!
That's quite a mouthful, isn't it!?!? Perhaps some might say I am making it too complicated. Couldn't we just say that the gospel is that God loves us? Or maybe that Jesus saves? Well sure, both of those things are true and both of them are explicit in the message of the gospel. But when we oversimplify the gospel, it is easy to become distracted from what is true.
Does god love us? Absolutely! Integral to God's grace is his love, mercy, compassion, and goodness. You can't separate them from one another. The story of the cross is the greatest love story the world has ever known (John 3:16, John 15:13). When we focus to narrowly though on just God's loving-kindness to us in the gospel, we lose sight of other important aspects of who God is. Is he not also holy and just? How do those fit into a gospel message that is simply concerned with God's love?
Implicit to the idea of someone being saved is the assumption that they were in danger. For example, if I said to you that a lifeguard had to save a child at the pool today, you would naturally assume that the child was in distress in the water and if the lifeguard hadn't acted, the child would have drowned. The saving work of the lifeguard implies that the child was in danger. How can we share the good news of the gospel without first identifying the bad news of our sinfulness? Can the hope of salvation really be good to our hearers if they don't know they are in danger?
Here's my point, if we truly are most effective when we keep the main thing the main thing, then isn't the gospel most effective when it is presented in its fullest form? Sure, it may be appealing to avoid the ugly parts of the gospel like the brokenness of mankind; but when we do that, we no longer have good news to share. Likewise, we may wish to make the end goal of the gospel about saving people; but when we make that the finish line, rather than the starting point of the Christian life, then we have no framework for all of Jesus' commands about living lives of obedience and holiness.
The reality of the gospel, the "main thing," is so much more than just the sum of its parts. When we oversimplify the definition, when we narrow our focus too much, we lose so much of what makes the gospel true and effective. The gospel is a paradoxical message of both freedom and responsibility. We are saved by grace through faith from the condemnation that comes from our sinful acts of treason against a holy God. As scripture describes it, we have been set free from the bondage of sin (Romans 8:1-2).
At the same time, scripture teaches us that with the freedom we enjoy comes a great deal of responsibility. Our obedience to Christ doesn't accomplish our salvation (it's important that we understand that), but it does flow forth as the result of it. We are called to exist in the space created by the tension between the two. When the knowledge of what is true in our minds manifests itself as belief in our hearts, the result is always action in our members. The path leads from our heads, to our hearts, to our hands; and the gospel fills the gaps and spaces in between the three.
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 2 - The Main Thing
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Why does Paul pray for their knowledge?
2. Who are the Gnostics?
3. What's the main thing when it comes to your faith?