Can You Summarize the Gospel in One Sentence?

How would you express the core message of the Christian gospel?

Job counselors often advise job seekers to boil down their experience, skills, and job objective into a short two-minute presentation. That is the length of a short elevator ride. It may be all the time a job seeker has to make his or her pitch to a potential employer that they meet at a networking event.

It’s a useful exercise because it helps to separate the core of one’s appeal from its elaborations. And the focal point of that elevator speech is the benefit you can provide to this employer.

Recently I took part in a workshop at a national conference on Christian education. The speaker was Dr. John Vest, Assistant Professor for Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. In an adaptation on that tool of the elevator speech, he challenged us to summarize the gospel in one or two sentences.

A newspaper reporter is reputed to have given that challenge to Karl Barth, whose systematic theology runs for several volumes. How, the reporter asked, would Barth summarize his massive theology in one short statement? Barth responded by quoting the children’s hymn: “Jesus loves me/This I know/For the Bible tells me so.”

A biblical condensation of the gospel

So it should be easy to take up Vest’s challenge. But it is not, especially for Presbyterians like me who value a full-bodied theological education. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been playing with this challenge.

What is the core message of the Christian gospel? After turning over several alternative ways of expressing that core in my own mind, ways that invariably trapped me into a swamp of words, I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel of John has done the job for me already. It does it in the classic words of John 3:16. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 I am reluctant to use this verse in any discussion of the gospel because of how so many Christians, even well-intentioned Christians, have abused it. For example, I don’t hear the author of John saying: “You better believe in Jesus because if you don’t, God will be angry with you and damn you to hell. But if you do believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven when you die. So give your life to Jesus right now before it’s too late.”

I read the verse in a different way. First of all, I hear John announcing good news in the very first words: God loved the world. John’s gospel is not about an angry God who is so enraged at sinful humanity that God will damn every one of them if they don’t repent. John’s gospel is about a God whose character and motives are all about love, love for the creation that God has made. Compassion drives God’s actions.

That love is not reserved just for the select few he has chosen (what traditional Reformed theology has labeled “the elect”). The object of God’s love is the world (in Greek the word cosmos). I read that as every human being, indeed the whole cosmos. What lies at the heart of the gospel message is good news that God is a God of love, not wrath.

A message for the world of the walking dead

Now it is also a given for John, as well as the other New Testament writers, that the world that God loves is a flawed world. It is a world of frustrated potential. All life is born just to begin its journey to death.

Human beings particularly fall short of their potential. We dream of a life of health, abundance, harmony, and peace. But our dreams are never fulfilled to the degree we dream them. That’s why I like the way Brian Blount, President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, describes our lives as a kind of zombie life, a life of the walking dead.* This is how I understand John when he talks of perishing. It is to live life without hope of it ever getting better.

God sent his only son, Jesus, to address this dilemma. Jesus does so not by a gory death that will somehow appease God’s bloodthirsty anger. Jesus does so by opening a pathway into that potential we dream about. By his teaching, by his actions, by his example, including his submissive death by crucifixion, Jesus manifests the way of God’s love, and then invites us to enter into that same way. This requires a radical re-orientation of our attitudes as well as our behavior.

For John, eternal life is much more than just going to heaven when we die. Yes, there is a promise in the gospel of something glorious coming after death. But the concern of John is more with life here and now.

That comes through clearly if you pay close attention to the seven miracles that John labels as “signs of Christ’s glory.” They begin with the miracle at the Cana wedding when Jesus turns water into wine (John 2:1-11). This signals the mission of Jesus to transform our ordinary, routine lives into something rich and Spirit-intoxicated. It is a wonderful affirmation of the goodness and potentiality of earthly life as we live it.

The signs continue with the healing of the royal official’s son (John 4:46-54), then the healing of the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethzatha (John 5:1-9). Jesus’ mission is about healing, both of our bodies and souls. Following these two miracles we get the sign of Jesus feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1-14) and then the sign of Jesus walking on the sea (John 6:16-24). Jesus addresses our physical needs as well as our fears and anxieties.

Then follows the two most astonishing miracles, the healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) and the raising of dead Lazarus (John 11:1-44). I call them the most astonishing, because although all the signs have double meanings (both literal as well as metaphorical), the spiritual references of these two last miracles become especially clear.

What all of these signs are pointing to is the rich and complex meaning of eternal life as we encounter it in John’s gospel. All of them are about entering into a depth of life here and now that begins to fulfill God’s creative intention. Jesus will call this living life abundantly (John 10:10).

John will bring this complex meaning of eternal life to a peak where John quotes Jesus as saying: This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (John 17:3). Eternal life is about a living relationship with the loving Creator. That relationship becomes a spring of living water within the believer’s heart (John 7:37-39).

For John, this focus on life is the core message of the gospel and its purpose, as John makes explicit in the concluding words of his gospel: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name (John 20:30-31).

 What makes the gospel message persuasive?

 The persuasiveness of this message comes, however, from the reality of the lives that Christians who accept this gospel live. If their lives manifest a sense of being more fully alive, of being people who are breaking out of the mass of the walking dead, who seem to experience enhanced living through knowing God in spite of whatever conditions of life they are living in, then their gospel will capture and attract the attention of others.

But when Christians live lives that seem to deny the love of God for humanity, lives that seem constricted, narrow, and judgmental, then their gospel will be drained of any attractiveness or power, no matter what scare tactics they may employ.

In conclusion, John 3:16 may be a superb summary of the gospel. But as my unpacking that verse shows, this summary is dense. I am stuck having to use a lot of words to explain what its means.

Which leads to my final point. I believe the simplest and clearest explanation of the gospel comes not from our words, but from the lives we live.

But now let me throw out John Vest’s challenge to you. How would you summarize the gospel in one or two sentences?

______________

* I picked up this wonderful image from Brian Blount’s 2011 Lyman Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School. The lectures were published in the book, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014).

 

 

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How Do We Come to Know God’s Character?

Discerning the character of God requires donning special spectacles.

In my last posting (The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience), I wrote about the crucial role of religious experience in answering the question: How do I know God is real? Religious experiences are not infallible proofs for the existence of God. Nonetheless they have played an important role in grounding my own confidence that in such experiences I confront something/someone divine that is real, not a delusion.

Believing God exists, however, does not carry one very far into a full-fledged Christian belief. After we are convinced that God is real, a new question emerges: What is the character of this divine presence we have encountered in our religious or mystical experiences?

If we base our theological reflection on a study of nature alone, we end up with more questions than answers. Is God one or many? Polytheism seems just as compatible with the evidence of nature as any monotheism. In fact, polytheism has been the preferred answer for most people in human history.

Is God good or evil, or just plain uncaring? Again if you try to answer that question by an appeal to nature alone, you get more equivocal answers. Certainly the finely tuned order of the natural world suggests that its creator is not only powerful, but supremely wise.

Is that divine power, however, beneficent? All the natural disasters that have devastated human life would suggest otherwise. At the very least the divine power is unpredictable and possibly capricious.

So where do Christians and Jews get their idea that the divine power they perceive in their religious experiences is a God of justice, love, and forgiveness, committed to their ultimate welfare?

Historical events as revelations

Christians and Jews don’t get that understanding of God from any contemplation of nature. Instead they draw these conclusions from theological reflection upon events in history where they believe God intervened and acted. These events, these acts of God as we call them, reveal God’s character, will, and intentions.

For Old Testament theology, those events include the call of Abraham, the liberation of the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and their subsequent journey through the wilderness, the establishment of Israelite life in the land of Canaan, the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, the exile of the Israelites from Canaan, and their restoration to the land under the Persians.

Within those events, the experience of the Exodus is especially revelatory of the character of God. In it, we encounter a God committed to liberation, to covenant living, and to compassion for the underprivileged. This Exodus experience reveals a God committed not to the status quo, but one who leads us out of that status quo into something new and more life giving.

Through theological reflection upon this Exodus experience, the Israelites came to one of their greatest insights into the character of God. God is a God of committed, loving grace.

The book of Deuteronomy expresses this insight explicitly in a passage in which Moses addresses the people of Israel just before they leave the desert to enter into Canaan. It reads:

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

This passage identifies the motive behind God’s actions on behalf of Israel as God’s gracious love and faithfulness. As the theology of the Old Testament and then of the New Testament unfolds, we find that God’s actions on behalf of Israel become the paradigm for how God relates to all humanity. God chooses all of us to be God’s people not because of our superiority, but because God dearly loves the good creation which God created.

For the New Testament, the decisive historical event that reveals and fulfills this character of God is the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Here we find revealed the depths of the compassion of God. For in those events Christians assert they discover that the character of God is supremely the character of self-giving love, a love that expresses itself in service.

The events of Jesus Christ also confirm those insights into God that we find in the Old Testament. That’s why for Christians the capstone of Biblical theology is reached in the assertion of the Gospel of John: For God so love the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)

The Bible offers our spectacles

And here’s where the Bible comes into the picture. The Bible is a collection of writings that report these historical events where the faith communities of Judaism and Christianity have seen God’s intervention into history. The Bible also gives us the theological reflections that those believing communities have used to interpret those events. Through that dialogue between the events and the theological reflections upon those events, our confident assertions about the character of God emerge.

It is for this reason that the Bible continues to play such a central role in the life of faith within both the Jewish and Christian communities. We return again and again to this written word to be reminded of those historical events and to be challenged by the theological interpretations that those written words give to those events.

John Calvin famously taught that the Bible is the spectacles through which we look to understand the God we perceive in both nature and human life. Whereas the God we perceive in nature remains somewhat blurry, through the Bible the character of that God comes into sharp focus. The Bible is also the spectacles through which we discern the character of the God we encounter in our religious experiences.

Those who are unconvinced by the Jewish or Christian faiths will be forever puzzled as to why we believers give such importance to these writings from the ancient world. For much of the modern world, science provides the interpretative spectacles through which we see and interpret the world. Writings that many today regard as outdated and mythical can provide no doorway into the truth.

But for people grounded in a biblical faith, it is the Bible that gives us that interpretative key. That is why we invest so much time and energy in reading, studying, and discussing this book. For in this book we discover the character of God that guides the way we worship, believe, and live.

 

The Slippery Witness of Religious Experience

Can religious experience settle the question of how do we know God is real?

I have a friend who is a scientist. He is also an atheist. He says that he is so because he sees no scientific evidence that there is a God. And scientific evidence is all that counts with him. So he keeps challenging me with the question: How do I know that God is real?

We’ve talked this over many times. I agree that science cannot prove the existence of God–nor does it disprove that existence. Science does raise the question why the universe seems to manifest so much finely tuned order. Can chance alone account for that order? I think not, but my friend thinks it does.

How do we know that God is real? For me, it finally boils down to the fact that I have at times sensed a mysterious, invisible presence making itself known to me. Yes, I have had some experiences that might be described as mystical.

But sometimes that presence is not sensed with any of my senses. I simply have this inner confidence that that presence is here, even though I have no basis I can point to for this confidence. In this sense, I like to say that I sense it intuitively, which may be what we mean when spiritual masters talk about knowing the spiritual spiritually.

What this suggests is that for me the only conclusive answer to the question of how do I know God is real is the answer of religious experience. When we experience God in our lives, we come to believe that a mysterious presence is present in and behind and above the world as we experience it. Theists, like Christians, Jews, and Muslims, call that presence God.

Only the reality of religious experience, I suspect, can account for the persistence of religious belief and practice throughout the ages in a variety of cultures. That persistence does not prove the existence of God, but it does raise the question why religious belief and practice are so pervasive among human beings.

However, religious experience is no more an infallible proof for the existence of God than any of those notorious philosophical proofs. Religious experience can rightly be challenged. There are those who charge that religious experiences are nothing more than psychological delusions. We only experience things that are created by chemical interactions in our brains or created by social and cultural suggestions. Religious experiences are just projections of our own inner needs and compulsions.

So the witness of religious experiences can be slippery. For some persons, the experience seems to confirm our belief that God is real. Other persons, however, may have similar experiences and find them not convincing at all. They discount what has happened to them. So doubt can constantly haunt our most precious religious moments.

A Gospel Testimony to the Mystery of Faith

I think the Bible confirms this. In particular, I am struck by the passage that closes the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 28:16-20). This short segment recounts the final appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection. In that final encounter Jesus charges his disciples to go out into all the world and make disciples. He also promises to be with them always. Christian preaching has labeled this passage the Great Commission.

It must have been an overwhelming experience for the disciples. Talk about being in the presence of the numinous. These disciples had experienced Jesus’ crucifixion. They had known their master was dead. Then their world had been turned upside down. Their master returned to them alive, fully alive. And now he was instructing them again with this special charge. What could be more supernatural than that?

Most of us would want to fall on our knees in awe. In fact, Matthew tells us the disciples did so there on that mountain top. He says they worshipped Jesus. That makes perfect sense.

But then Matthew adds a bizarre note. He says some of the disciples doubted. Here in the middle of what most of us would expect to be a fully convincing religious experience, we find some are not at all sure. Some of those doubters may have thought they were in fact experiencing some group-induced delusion. Their mental assumptions would have told them that what they were experiencing could not possibly be real.

And so we see how the witness of religious experience can cut two different ways. Some experiencing it fall down in worship; others waver in doubt. Religious experience is not necessarily as conclusive as we might like. A mysterious factor of faith still enters into our judgment upon the experience. Why one person interprets the experience real and another does not remains one of the great mysteries of life.

I find my religious experiences very conclusive in why I believe God is real. I choose to trust my perception and base my life and behavior on it. But I must always be ready to concede that I might just be wrong. Believers step out in faith, not conclusive knowledge, and wait to see what life brings us. For if that divine presence is real, then it will transform our experience of life and our way of living.