Divorcing God from the Gospel
"We're looking for a formula - there isn't one! There's no formula, it's a Person!"- Leonard Ravenhill
God is the Gospel
About 5 years ago I came across an excellent book by John Piper entitled God is the Gospel. Well, at least the half of the book I read was excellent as for whatever reason I never finished it. In his book as I understood it, Piper argued (I think rightly) that the Gospel message is primarily about God Himself - His character and personality revealed through His Son and His Son's work on the cross. That in telling people about the Kingdom of God being available to them now, and proclaiming Christ and Him crucified, we are declaring not only historical and factual truths, but most importantly and essentially we are declaring the nature of God to the nations.
It was not only an exciting concept to think about at the time I read some of Piper's book, but as I was digging deeper into understanding and knowing the Gospel itself, I became alarmed at how little of the true and full Gospel was being preached in most church services - even in church services that were among "evangelical" Bible churches and denominations. Key words associated with the Gospel such as propitiation or regeneration were (and are) rarely or never brought up. Along with those words, words like justification, sanctification and adoption were incorrectly explained, over-simplified or made so complicated in their description during a sermon that most of the congregation was more confused than before the pastor started talking.
Making the Gospel a god
More recently something else has begun to alarm me as, by God's grace, my eyes have slowly been opened. Not only are most congregations ill-informed as to the beautiful and powerful doctrines of the Gospel, but in many of those congregations along with others that preach those doctrines frequently and with relative accuracy, the principles and truths they teach have become of greater value to the teachers and hearers than God Himself. I have been especially guilty of this - becoming more obsessed with the truth about God than the God who is truth Himself.
So I'd be willing to dig deep in personal study of the Bible, without digging deep into God Himself in the place of prayer. I'd be willing to give up things in my life that I saw contradicted Scripture, but was unwilling to let go of those things (or grab hold of those) that the Holy Spirit prompted me to do as a matter of private, hidden obedience. There might be nothing in a particular movie that is directly offensive to the Scripture, but I might have felt a prompting from the Holy Spirit not to watch it. Yet, rather than listen to the Spirit and obey Him, I would tell myself, "well, this doesn't have anything in it that I am aware of that is against Scripture, so I'll watch it anyways." And so I would, and feel some of my sense of God's manifest presence lift off of me.
This may sound like legalism to some of you, but I'm not talking about obeying "laws" to be saved, nor trying to earn God's favor through asceticism, nor attempting to be "holier than thou." I'm talking about God inviting me and you into secret places of intimacy with Him that we cannot enter without these seemingly subtle acts of obedience, even in the place of our thought lives.
More than a Teaching, More than a Ticket to Heaven
Nonetheless, many others might say that I am still adding to the Gospel, that I am trying to be a "super-Christian" (which is not possible), because everything is a free gift from God through the work of His Son. I do agree that everything I have including eternal salvation and confidence of salvation are free gifts through Jesus Christ and that I can never earn or add to these by my works. However, the purpose and goal of salvation is not solely to get me to heaven nor to get me to live a moral life. The goal of salvation is a Person. Indeed, that person Himself is Salvation. The name, "Jesus," is a three times removed translation of the Hebrew name Yeshua, a name which literally means, "salvation," and which is represented in the following way in Hebrew characters read from right to left: ישוע
Jesus not only called us to believe in his teachings, but to believe in Himself. Not only to listen to and obey His words, but also to cling to or abide in Him. This is a calling to so much more than just an intellectual or soulful agreement with the doctrines of God that we have been called into. We have been called friends of God, sons of God, even the Bride of Christ! These Biblical descriptions point towards far more than each follower of Christ learning and agreeing with Biblical doctrines, but also growing in intimacy, relationship and understanding of God Himself. Living in such intimacy is not a matter of trying to be a "super-Christian," but simply being a Christian!
Divorcing God from the Gospel
Because of the emphasis in this time in many of the (especially conservative), western churches on the teachings of God and about God over/above intimacy with God Himself, the very object of the Gospel, the primary subject of the Gospel, has been divorced from His own message by many well-meaning teachers. I should say again that I am not pointing fingers here without pointing the biggest one at myself as I have been just as guilty of this. Especially when I discovered how little of the truth about God was being taught, I doubled down on learning and rightly teaching the truth about God. Yet, my hunger for prayer, which is essentially communication and conversation with God, died down drastically. It became far easier for me to listen to sermons than to listen for God's voice as I would wait before Him in the quiet of personal prayer.
And this is no doubt the case for many more men and women in what has infamously become known as the almost anorexic prayer life of most of the American church. Last I heard, the average amount of time dedicated to prayer by most American pastors was between 15 minutes and two hours per week. PER WEEK. Martin Luther, the famous reformer, spent around 3 hours in prayer EVERY DAY. John Wesley, co-founder of the Methodist denomination dedicated 4-5 hours per day to prayer, and Jonathan Edwards prayed and studied the Word of God for 13 hours a day. These men did these things not simply because they were hungry to know truths about God but because they were hungry for God Himself, even when they had assurance of their own salvation.
The Controversy of Marriage
I have noticed (especially in myself as recently as just 3 years ago) a great discomfort among most western Christians with the Song of Solomon in Scripture. Romantic poetry being found in the Bible almost offends their sensibilities of the separate, holy nature of God. Yet in the Gospel we find that God is inviting us to share in His holiness, and He intentionally guided the writers of Scripture to use marriage-related words and imagery in their description of the nature of the relationship between God and His children.
Indeed, if the Song of Solomon is nothing more than poetry about the relationship between a heterosexual human couple, then why is it also entitled the Song of Songs - essentially being described as the greatest song of all songs? This would mean that a poem exalting human love is greater in importance than every Psalm and spiritual song about the relationship between God and mankind in the whole Bible. This makes no sense! Unless we acknowledge as many others have that the Song of Solomon is also a metaphorical description of the relationship God desires to have with His church and Israel. Not a sexual relationship, but a deeply intimate one, in which we learn to not only receive God's love, but also reciprocate it while responding to Him with greater obedience and accepting more fully that He loves us with a passionate love that He wants to ignite in our hearts back to Him. He wants to start a fire in our hearts of love towards Him that burns so powerfully that nothing can put it out. That is not something to be believed instead of accurate Biblical theology, but as a central perspective in Biblically accurate theology.
The Early Church "Formula"
For a long time I was looking for the formula that would bring a regional or national revival - the key to a great move of God among His people that would lead to growth in the maturity of the church and her numbers. In recent years I have discovered that there is no formula for creating such a thing, but there is God, and that in seeking Him I might see Him cause something wonderful in our nation.
We see in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (or as some have come to call it, "Some of the Acts of Some of the Apostles), that the church in first century Jerusalem was dedicated to four things in their gatherings; Fellowship, meals together, the teaching of the Apostles and prayer. So much of what we do in church services and events in America are very good at the first three things. There are powerful teachers here, amazing food-centered gatherings that border on gluttony at times, and huge emphasis in some communities on making sure that every person feels loved and welcomed. Yet the fourth emphasis of the early church which was clearly more than just a 15-minute prayer meeting based on what we see in Scripture, remains a major weak point in so many of our gatherings. Perhaps if we were to embrace the understanding that the purpose of having accurate theology and powerful teaching of it is so that we can meet intimately with our powerful God, that might change things.
Let Revival Start with Me
As for me, I see a dissatisfaction growing in my heart these days with "church as usual," as the Lord has shown me over and over again that the reason why there is no revival in my church is because there is no revival in my heart. That will not be found solely through learning more things about God, nor simply teaching them, but through encountering God in the secret place of prayer, laying my heart before Him there, and waiting on Him in that place to work the subtle changes in me that will lead to the great changes I long to see in the world.
"Maybe you are the key to revival in your church." - Leonard Ravenhill