In Part 1 of this series, we considered a common misinterpretation of the gospel message, and asked how it could come about, and what we might do about it. The following is my answer to that question.
Where We Led Fred Astray
Fred is missing a right view of God, and it’s our fault. See, we tend to address Fred’s answer to the diagnostic question as though it were all a matter of technique. We present a god who has padlocked the gates to heaven, and hidden the key under a rock somewhere. Fred, depending on being a good person, has the wrong key. If he tries to put that key in the lock, the door won’t open, and he’ll go to hell. We, believing in Jesus’ death on our behalf and His promise of life, have the right key. The lock will open, and the stingy god will have to let us in. Let’s just face it: any view where your salvation depends on you finding the right answer is just another form of salvation by works. Theological works instead of moral ones, maybe—but works nonetheless.
This whole picture is fundamentally wrong, because it builds on a fundamentally flawed view of God. “Yahweh by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens.” This is not a God that could be tricked into saving us. If He didn’t want to save us, he wouldn’t, and no technique of ours would ever force His hand.
But what does the Scripture say? “All day long,” Yahweh says, “I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” He is not reluctant to save; He seeks us. “God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” We do not get saved because of a technique, any technique. We get saved because He saves us, and for no other reason. He reaches out to us and we trust Him; He promises us life and we believe; He became flesh and dwelt among us, and as many as receive Him become sons of God.
How To Make It Right
So how do we fix our gospel presentation? First and most obvious, don’t use that diagnostic question. As the prologue of John’s Gospel does, present the true story: God is not waiting for us to come force His hand, He is reaching out to us, and we have rejected Him. “He came unto His own, and His own did not receive Him.”
Once Fred understands that God is eager to save him, the whole story takes on a different tone. God sought him; has always sought him, but Fred has fled from God. We do not appeal to Fred to adopt a different technique for saving himself; instead we appeal to him to stop running away from the loving God that seeks and saves the lost. We should seek to convince Fred of God’s love for him, because it is that love that will move Fred to love God: “We love Him because He first loved us.” Thus Fred will find, not a stingy god who must be forced to let anyone into heaven, but Yahweh, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. He will find the Father of the prodigal son, who runs to embrace him and kills the fatted calf in his honor, even though he couldn’t possibly deserve it any less. He finds Jesus, the Second Person of this Triune God, seeking a relationship with him, and willingly dying Fred’s death, so that Fred can find life and healing, so that Fred will be able to stop running from God. This is a God Fred will trust, and when that God promises to save him, Fred will believe the promise.
How do we convince Fred that God loves him? Certainly we can tell him the story, and we should. But even if we tell it well, is the story really credible? Has Fred ever seen anything, in his whole life, to suggest to him that such love is anything more than a fairy tale?
Jesus once prayed for a solution to this problem.
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
In other words, the answer is something you learned in kindergarten: show and tell. Fred will believe in the love of God when he sees it lived out in the unity of Christ’s Body. Christ is in us; as we allow Him to live through us, His love will permeate our lives and unify us with one another. For Fred, that won’t just be a pretty story, too good to be true. It will be an incredible, undeniable, breathtaking fact: God’s love will be right before his eyes, and he will know that God loves him just as God loved Christ.
If you let Christ live through you, this is what Fred will see. So it’s not just about correcting what you say, important as that is. Does your life slander God and give Fred reason to believe that He is stingy, angry, picky, and mean? Or does it present Fred with the persuasive evidence that Jesus prayed for?