Is the Gospel Really Enough?

I’ll be honest: with all the news about racial tensions, protests, eruptions, and conflicts between law enforcement and the citizenry… it’s hard not to feel just a little disheartened. 

People and the media seem so quick to throw around the label “Racist,”  and it gives me the sense that there’s been a politicalization of the racial divide.

While I’m not forgetting the truly horrible and demeaning injustices of the past, at the same time, I think, Can’t we put this all behind us yet? Why are we still having the same conversation? Is there some digressive gene at work in our society’s collective body? 

Didn’t we elect our country’s first black president eight years ago? Where is the hope and change promised in his campaign mantra? Has hope, change, harmony, and the common good been promoted since then, or have we gone backwards? What about the increase in interracial couples, and their children who are now growing up proud and strong, with great opportunity before them?

All this has convinced me that there is some truth in that statement, “We don’t have a race problem, we have a sin problem.” This truth calls us to look beyond just the externals.  It causes us to look deep inside each of our own hearts. And we find in the end that racism is a sin that originates in the human heart.

Racial Struggle

BREATH OF FRESH AIR

On a brighter and more positive note, I came across a refreshing, sound, and clear voice on this subject in Benjamin Watson. Benjamin plays tight end for the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL. I understand that he is on the injured reserve list (IR) due to an Achilles tendon tear. He writes a blog at thebenjaminwatson.com, in which he tackles some of these thorny issues. He was a interviewed as a guest on Soledad O’Brien’s political news magazine, Matter of Fact.  This program offers an inclusive dialogue with decision-makers, from community leaders to heads of state who are shaping the new American political landscape (www.matteroffact.tv). He has also made appearances on other news programs whose interest has been aroused by his unique perspective.

The initial focal point of the interview was Ben’s response to the controversy over NFL players not standing for the national anthem. His thoughts originally appeared in his blog post, “I Stand.” His book, Under My Skin, published last year, has found new traction and a legitimate resurgence of interest.

As you may know, Ben is a very winsome and outspoken witness for his faith in Jesus Christ. In the course of the interview, Soledad asks him, “Ben, you write a lot about your faith. In a lot of your posts, your solution is to focus on the Gospel.” Then, quoting the Bible verse ‘faith without works is dead,’ she asks: Ben, is that really enough?” She was not being critical; rather, she was asking the question that a lot of people are thinking. In many people’s minds, this isn’t to be taken as a serious challenge, because they dismiss faith and the Gospel as something too flimsy, too simplistic.  To them, the Gospel means nothing more than attending religious services from time to time, trying to be a good person, and saying, “I believe in God. “

It's kind of like people cynically saying, “Can God put food on my table?” Well, yes, I believe He can. The vehicle in these instances may not be multiplying fish and bread to feed a multitude.  Most often, it will not come through a hand-out or by mysteriously making you the CEO of Microsoft. More likely it will be through putting compassion in other people’s hearts for your plight, or opening a door of employment, or giving you the motivation and work ethic you need to do whatever it takes. Faith, people think, is fine. But when it comes to real life problems, we need real life solutions. So, given that template, focusing on the Gospel misses the mark.

 

ENQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW

Still, Soledad asks a valid question. Is the Gospel really enough? The mistake Soledad and many others like her make is in misunderstanding the true nature of the Gospel and what faith in Jesus Christ really is. Even as a teenager, I realized that empty rituals don’t make a difference in people’s lives. When the priest said, “The Mass is ended, go in peace,” the congregation responded, “Thanks be unto God,” as they quickly make a dash for their cars. For me, there was the drastically missing reality of a living God. I knew that over the weekend many of us in the congregation had engaged in things that were definitely not pleasing to God. As a result, I dismissed it all, concluding there was nothing real to Christianity.

The reality of the Gospel is emphasized in Colossians 1:3-6. 

3 We always pray for you, and we give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all of God’s people, 5 which come from your confident hope of what God has reserved for you in heaven. You have had this expectation ever since you first heard the truth of the Good News.
6 This same Good News that came to you is going out all over the world. It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives, just as it changed your lives from the day you first heard and understood the truth about God’s wonderful grace.

The harvest of the Gospel for the Colossians included FAITH (in Christ Jesus), HOPE (laid up in heaven), and LOVE (toward all the saints). These are referred to as the three eternal realities that are a must to live life to the fullest. They are realities that do not fade away, and Paul said that they are the fruit of the “truth of the Gospel,” wherever it goes: “It is bearing fruit everywhere by changing lives.” I want to look specifically at the fruit of transformation which is always the hallmark of the Gospel, and why it really is enough to address troubled times and seemingly insurmountable problems. This is always the expectation of what the Gospel produces. We must make sure that we really have the Gospel, or better still, that the Gospel has us!

 

EXAMINING THE FRUIT

Jesus cut to the heart of things when He said “by their fruit you shall know them.” From my own experience and from my earliest days as a Christian, I’ve heard the exclamation, “the fruit of the Gospel is found in the change of the lives.” I would like to examine with you the nature and the profundity of this change. While we are not perfect, when you discover the dimensions of this change, then you can answer Soledad O’Brien’s question with the certainty that focusing on the Gospel really is enough. Let us read the text, 2Cor.5:11-20, first: 

11 Because we understand our fearful responsibility to the Lord, we work hard to persuade others. God knows we are sincere, and I hope you know this, too. 12 Are we commending ourselves to you again? No, we are giving you a reason to be proud of us,[a] so you can answer those who brag about having a spectacular ministry rather than having a sincere heart. 13 If it seems we are crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are in our right minds, it is for your benefit. 14 Either way, Christ’s love controls us.[b] Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life.[c] 15 He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.
16 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!
18 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. 19 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. 20 So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”
 

This passage is so rich because it delineates for us all the aspects of change that result from the Gospel being preached, experienced and lived out. Take a tour with me as I identify nine of them.

1. The introduction of the fear of the Lord. Verse 11: “Because we understand our fearful responsibility to the Lord.” Paul is letting us see the things that motivate him, that enable him to survive and overcome. Why is the fear of the Lord so important? It informs us of our ultimate accountability to God, that we are not in control, and will one day have to answer for the lives we lived. The fear of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom.” It teaches us how to live skillfully with God and others. It also confirms Paul’s accurate diagnosis of the human condition: “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is the missing element in our society, from the top down, making no distinction. 

2. The controlling power of the love of God. Verse 14: “For the love of Christ controls us.” Here are two sides of the same coin: the fear of God and the love of God; we need both. How do we know this is true? Because Jesus died for us, which is mentioned four times in this passage. The cross is the unchanging focal point of the love of God. "God demonstrated his love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The love that “passes knowledge” is a controlling force in the life of a Christian. It motivates us, it holds us within bounds, it hems us in, calling forth a mighty response.

3. The realization that we are all in the same boat Verse 14: “Christ died for all … that we have all died to our old life.” Notice the word all, regardless of age, skin color, possessions, or station in life. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God“ puts us all in the same group. It means that every life matters, and there is no room in any of us for self-righteousness.

4. Establishing a completely new orbit. Verse 15: “He died for everyone so that those who receive His new life will no longer live for themselves.” How radical is this, since our natural tendency is to live for ourselves? For our possessions, our passions, our appetites, and people like us. It often takes a long time to learn, but this kind of living solely for one’s self, is a dead-end, guaranteed to drag us down. It was Copernicus, the German mathematician and astronomer, who postulated the model that placed the sun rather than the earth at the center of the universe. This is established the modern scientific model of the solar system, but in 1543, this concept was viewed almost as heresy by many. It's still a difficult lesson to learn: that we were designed to orbit around Christ; not vice versa. This is why Paul goes on to say that, “instead they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.” A new Center for living, not insisting on having our own will or way, but submitted to Christ’s will. The premier verses about change and the Christian life is Romans 12:1,2. 

"And so, dear brothers and sisters,[a] I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.[b] 2 Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect."

This is true freedom, and lies at the heart of the courage, tenacity, and prevailing dimension of the Gospel.

5. A makeover of how we view others. Verse 16: “So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view.” The true Gospel trashes the superficial, external, and carnal regard for other human beings. I can tell you that this collides head-on with the spirit of our age, which promotes and revels in such shallow and fleshly measurements. PEOPLE magazine is the devotional literature of our day: seeking value in looks, money, status, celebrity, and other things that do not last. It’s all about image. That captures the essence of our celebrity culture. If we live like that, we are denying all that Christ died for. James, who is known for not pulling any punches, writes in James 2:1-4

2 My dear brothers and sisters,[a] how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

On the positive side, the Gospel causes us to see others through the eyes of Christ. When I am focusing on the Gospel I don’t view people as smart, black, white, Mexican, wealthy, or for what they can do for me. The place where God-directed evaluation should be most on display is in the church. Our congregation is made up of such a diversity of people. We are all “one in Christ, “and we are a veritable United Nations of people groups. I’ve often thought that if it were not for Christ, you would surely have a brawl if you put all these folks together in one place. That’s why I have trouble with single ethnicity churches, whatever the race represented. An all white, all black, all Mexican, or all Asian church is not an accurate reflection of either Christ or His Gospel. It definitely is not the "coat of many colors” that displays the Father's love and favor.

6. The amazing difference of Christ’s presence. Verse 17: “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person (new creation); the old life is gone, a new life has begun.” This is one of the first Bible verses I memorized after I got saved, since it mirrored and explained what had happened in my life. This is why the old saying is true: a man with an argument is no match for a man with an experience. This is the heart and focus of the Gospel. It is also why nobody is ever too far gone; there’s always an opportunity for a second chance. The key to this transformation occurring and remaining a reality is to be "in Christ." The term describes the most intimate union possible, and it has an explosive quality to it. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, boom! new creation! Sometimes that explosion is very dramatic; at other times it is more subtle. But either way, it results in an everlasting newness. Paul uses this same creation metaphor in 2 Corinthians 4:6.

6 For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

7. The realization that God always takes the first step Verse 18: “All this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ.” Our condition before Christ came into our lives was not that we were just a little off, but that we were enemies of God, deeply alienated from Him and from others. Our conversion is entirely a work of God. He took the initial step when Christ died for our sins in our place on the cross. I can never forget what Christ did and has done in my life. November 15, 1970 will always be my Genesis, the beginning of a new life in Christ. When I am reconciled, at peace with God, it’s amazing how the barriers that separated me from others comes down as well.

8. The recognition that we are all ordained. Verse 18: “God has given us the task of reconciling people to God.” When I say ordination, I’m referring to a sacred task, not a flimsy and meaningless piece of paper. From time to time – usually from an unexpected source – you may hear: “I can marry you, I’m ordained.” You’re what? Yes, I'm ordained by the Universal Life Church. Here is an authorization that came from filling out an application online with a certain fee attached to it. When I talk about being ordained, I’m not talking about an official position in a church, or of speaking behind a pulpit. I’mtalking about a focus on the Gospel that brings a concern about sharing with others the good news that has made such a difference in our lives.

9. An embracing a special role and placement. Verse 20: “So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’” Paul’s first century hearers would have understood this bold analogy to an ancient ambassador of Imperial Rome. The truth about ambassadors, then and now, is that they do not come in their own authority with their own message. No, both their message and authority come from another, from Jesus, The King of kings and Lord of lords. Wherever we go and whenever we speak, it is in His authority. There is a burden and depth of passion that a focus on the Gospel brings. Yes, God is truly urging and pleading with you through others, through His ambassadors.

 

If you were to ask me, “Do you believe in miracles?” I would say, “Yes, because in Christ, I am one!” We have two great truths here: the believer’s position: “in Christ,” and the believer’s character: a “new creation.” Before I close, I want to remind you that the writer of these words in the text was a virulent anti-Christian intellectual who seized, imprisoned, and abused believers. He was a co-conspirator in the murder of the first Christian martyr. He was well developed in his religiosity: a Pharisee of the Pharisees. But, when he met Jesus on the Damascus Road, everything changed, and all things became new.  A new name, a new way of looking at himself, a new nature, a new set of friends, a new lifestyle, a new mission, and a new and glorious future.  

All in all, a truly beautiful thing. It is interesting that the Bible’s word for change or transformation is the same root from which we get our English word, metamorphosis: that mysterious yet beautiful process whereby an ugly caterpillar is changed into a beautiful butterfly within the cocoon. 

So to answer Soledad’s question, with all this in mind, Yes. This Gospel is really enough!