Being reformed (that is, committed to the whole counsel of God in terms of its thought, teaching, and common threads) can, if one is not careful, sap the vitality and life out of ones persistence in prayer and zeal for evangelism. Without getting in to the finer details of why this phenomena should be both anathema and fantastically farcical to true believers, let us nevertheless presume for a moment that it can happen. So, the astute reader might ask, then, what DOES a reformed presentation of the Gospel actually look like? This recent article in byFaith Magazine gives some very helpful summation on the topic:
So what do these characteristics look like in a Reformed gospel presentation? An explanation of a God-centered gospel includes five elements. It will:
• Showcase the glory of God as Creator and Redeemer, generating an awe of Him and a profound indebtedness for His covenant mercies expressed in Christ.
• Display the logical flow of the gospel, moving from problem to solution, as well as the glorious illogic of grace, the non sequitur of God’s love of the unlovely and His justification of the ungodly.
• Carry with it the overtones of God’s sovereign work in salvation and the undertow of His purpose in election, which is initiated and ensured by Him, and contingent on Him rather than our efforts.
• Be communicated in ways that rely on the Holy Spirit whereby we see ourselves as spiritual midwives and not spiritual salesmen; whereby we are driven to prayer in dependence on the Spirit and happily submissive to His working.
• Issue a call not merely to conversion but to discipleship as the exercise of lively faith and the fruit of genuine repentance; it must convey the necessity of obeying God’s commands to believe on His Son and to turn from sin and live by grace under the lordship and for the sake of Christ.
It is interesting to note, by the way, that without the fifth bullet point, our presentation of Christ’s saving work is not in fact at all faithful to the great commission unless part of the call is to demonstrate newfound faith in the bearing out of fruit.
For what it’s worth.
I recently came across this piece from npr.org regarding the expiration of TARP, and the quandary that many in the news media faced themselves to be in, as they had no way to categorize what had happened based on the narrative they had built. Quoted below:
And narratives matter. Nothing is more central to journalistic practice than the telling of stories. Stories are how we capture, comprehend, explain and deliver the news. Without stories, we would be wandering lost across the landscape of events and sensations. We need a narrative, or we have no organizing idea.
This imperative applies not only to each days events, but to the broader sweep of occurrences in succession. We need a narrative for each week, each month and each fiscal year. We need a narrative for every electoral cycle.And once we have established such a narrative, everything is under control. Everything, that is, except whatever fails to fit the narrative.
When we here narrative, or story, we think fiction. Maybe fairy tales. But story, narrative, matters in much more significant ways. It is the thing that allows the trajectory of our lives to be plotted in some meaningful, purposeful way.
So, this brings us back to the question: how big is your story? Who or what is authoring the imperatives of your life? How is the drama unfolding, and how does the script fit? I think these are important questions to ask, because it brings several elements in to play:
- If I am the central actor in my story, how does the good of others play in to it?
- If I define the main organizing ideas to my life, how do I objectively evaluate what is good, beautiful, and true? How do I work for the good of others when it falls outside the scope of my limited knowledge?
- What do I do when things fail to fit the narrative that I have constructed?
I would propose that the only way to meaningfully answer these questions is through the
lens of the Bible, and the Gospel of Jesus. The problem is, many who are reading this are nodding their heads at that statement while at the same time importing so many things that have become “part and parcel” with the gospel of late, many due to a collapsing evangelical subculture of “Christendom”. Indeed, many who would call themselves “evangelical” have had their narratives shaped as well, but those narratives have been shaped by nationalism, patriotism, militarism, evangelicalism, and a host of other “-isms” that have become directly associated with what the Scriptures actually taught.
So what’s the point?
The point is that we all need to be continually “shaped and reshaped” by the Scriptures. We need to allow the Spirit of God to undress and redress us after his own image, rather than vice-versa. As Dr. Michael Horton puts it,
“Before we can be rescripted, we have to take a step back. While today our identities are more the scattered clippings of ideal images packaged and marketed to us in a barrage of advertising masquerading as entertainment, the “self” who is rendered in the biblical drama of redemption is a solid self only because he or she belongs to a story that is much larger than oneself.” (Horton, pp. 34 A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship)
Part of this reshaping is to recognize that we have, in some way, reduced Christianity to simply a matter of “personal faith and trust in Jesus.” While this is true, what has happened (as is so often the case) is that we fail to see the broader implications. Dr. Horton goes on to say this:
“…we must be careful not to reduce the drama of redemption to our own individual salvation. There is a kind of pietistic individualism that, though faithful enough in proclaiming the believer’s sin and redemption, fails to place that marvelous reality in the wider context of God’s plan of redemption. Christians, too, in that sort of scheme, can lack the coordinates that give a larger purpose and meaning to their lives. Like Hamlet’s “play within a play,” our story and its re-emplotment take place only within the whole play itself. We find the coordinates of our identity and role by belonging to a story and a plot that is larger than any one of us. In fact, our identity could not reach any narrative unity apart from being coordinated with a larger narrative plot, which is given in the history of Israel and Jesus. Through its twists and turns, it narrates and enacts God’s victory over the devil and his designs.” (Horton, pp. 56-57 A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship)
So, what then is the narrative? What then is the story? The narrative is God’s redemptive work. The story is his, the authorship is his, the central player is himself, and the central message belongs to him.
But that may mean that we have to allow our stories to be re-scripted. And that may take recognizing that central ideas and guiding philosophies have to go.
And that will require something that only the Spirit can provide. Grace and faith.
Admittedly, this next quote is a bit long, and could be complex. I encourage you to thoughtfully read and process it all.
For Christians to regard the work of culture in any literal sense as “kingdom-building” this side of heaven is to begin with an assumption that tends to lead to one version or another of the Constantinian project, in which the objective is for Christians to “take over” the culture, fashioning all of the world in the image of the church or at least in accord with its values. Typically, this assumption leads to the dualism in which the culture either declares Jesus as Lord or it doesn’t. Christians are either “winning” the culture or “losing” it, “advancing the kingdom” or “retreating,” which is why all versions of the Constantinian approach to culture tend to lean either toward triumphalism or despair, depending on the relative success or failure of Christians in these spheres. This is why it is always dangerous to aspire to a “Christian culture” or, by extension, a Christian government, a Christian political party, a Christian business, and the like.
(James D. Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World pp. 233-234)
At first glance, this quote can seem at least controversial and possibly heretical. After all, we have been taught throughout all of our Christian lives that the duty of good, pious Christians is to go and impact culture, win the culture war, etc.
The problem with this predominant mentality is that the thing cherished is, in fact, a quasi-Christian utopia, where the morals, ideals, and values of the church are reflected and replicated in society. While eschatologically this is true that what began in a garden will consumate in a city (or empire, depending on your rendering of it), and the full and final manifestation of the Kingdom of God will in fact reflect all that he is, because the promise of Revelation comes finally to bear:
 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”
(Revelation 11:15 ESV)
But how, then, do we go about bringing the world that is to come here and now? How do we bring God’s shalom on earth if it is not brought through a culture war?
The answer comes when we examine what exactly we are questing for. Our utopia or Christ’s exaltation. What exactly are we trying to create?
In thinking about what a rediscovery of a “doctrine of vocation” might look like in our contemporary context, we must turn our attention to the notion of “building the kingdom of God” and the problematic trappings that come with the employ of that phraseology within the modern context of our evangelical ghetto:
It is also important to underscore that while the activity of culture-making has validity before God, this work is not, strictly speaking, redemptive or salvific in character. Where Christians participate in the work of world-building they are not, in any precise sense of the phrase, “building the kingdom of God.” This side of heaven, the culture cannot become the kingdom of God, nor will all the work of Christians in the culture evolve into or bring about his kingdom. The establishment of his kingdom in eternity is an act of divine sovereignty alone and it will only be set in place at the final consummation at the end of time… Perhaps it will be that God will transform works of faith in this world into something incorruptible but here again, it is God’s doing and not ours.
(James D. Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, pp. 233)
And so why, then, would we come out of our evangelical ghetto, if what we are doing is not in the strictest sense “kingdom work”? More on that to come later.
How does this quote strike you? Does it offend you, provoke you, or affirm you?
When I divide my existence into two separate parts—“ministry” and “my life”—guess which one gets the short end of the stick? Guess which one has to get by on my leftover time, my leftover energy, my leftover finances, and my leftover passion? If I see ministry as something that I do when I step out of my life—that is, when the church has programmed and scheduled some form of ministry for me—then the vast majority of my life is mine for the using. But Scripture teaches the reverse of those priorities. It challenges me with the reality that nothing I am or have belongs to me. I do not have a life divided into God’s part and my part. It’s all “God’s part,” the whole thing. He purchased it at the cross, when he redeemed me from a life of hopelessness on earth and eternity in hell. My life does not belong to me in any way, shape, or form. God owns me and everything my life contains.
What are some ways that you fall in to the trap of creating a “spiritual” and a “real life” kind of dichotomy? What are ways that the church falls in to this trap? How can we champion for people to be set free?