It’s hardly surprising that our study of “gospel” begins with grace. Where else? I’m not going to attempt to lay out the rudiments of God’s grace, as I’ve already done that in the Amazing Grace series. Rather, I think it might be more profitable to point out how baptism, communion, and the gospel passages exclude some false gospels and teach some doctrines we often overlook.
Gospel of law
Of course, in the Churches of Christ, the biggest problem we face is the heresy of legalism. We are so steeped in legalism that we find it quite sufficient to be less legalistic than another church down the road — except for the zealots among us who seek to be the most legalistic church down the road! I mean, we actually have preachers who take pride in their works-religion.
Well, you wrap legalism in a blanket of purpose-driven or missional Christianity and it’s still legalism. Until we let go of trying to save ourselves, we’re going to struggle and fail in countless ways.
Radio preacher gospel
There’s something about AM radio that attracts preachers with really bad theology — you know, the ones who say, “Just place your hands on the radio, invite Jesus into your heart, and you’ll be saved.”
In fact, over Easter I attended a local church’s Easter pageant, which was quite well done. Before it started, the preacher came out and told us that, to escape an eternity in hell, all we need to do is check a box on a card declaring that we believe in Jesus, turn the card in, and celebrate our salvation! And this was before the drama picturing the Resurrection. It’s an odd theology that figures fear of hell is enough to save, so much so that we don’t even need to wait to learn about the Resurrection!
This peculiar brand of stale Calvinism defines “faith” as mere intellectual assent. If you’re willing to agree with the preacher on this one point, Jesus will save you.
But the Biblical teaching is “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9). The gospel is not just that Jesus is divine, but that he — and only he — rules and we must submit to his rule.
Of course, the Churches of Christ have gotten this wrong, too. Our usual baptismal confession is the Great Confession of Peter, “You are the Christ the Son of the Living God,” which can quite sufficient, I’m sure, but still missing a vital point: Jesus is Lord. The result has been to produce generations of converts converted to an intellectual gospel with little in the way of submission.
I mean, just read the comments in several previous posts here about how little respect so many have for our elders — and how many elders have been burned by unregenerate preachers. We’re glad for Jesus to be Savior, but we aren’t about to let him be Lord. No, all too often, when push comes to shove, our self-interest prevails.
Gospel of doctrine
I’m big on doctrine! But the leadership in many churches are scholarly types — often with advanced degrees — and they genuinely enjoy doctrinal debates. I know I do. As a result, we tend to lead our churches into pure doctrine rather than in pure submission to Jesus as Lord. Doctrine is important, but it’s not at the center.
Not a single baptism, communion, or gospel passage speaks in terms of being saved to master a body of knowledge. On the other hand, every passage is a teaching passage. But they teach for a purpose other than scholarship for scholarship’s sake.
(1 Cor 1:19-20) For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Gospel of covenant
Let’s now see if we can dig out a nugget or two that’s often missing from our teaching.
Communion reminds us of our covenant relationship with God. This covenant goes back to Abraham, was renewed in Moses, and fulfilled in Jesus.
The covenant is salvation by faith, but it’s a salvation that teaches us to submit to Jesus as Lord. And it’s a salvation into the covenant community, as we’ll consider further later.
Moreover, part of the covenant is that God will bless all nations through Abraham’s “seed,” and God has made us that seed. Hence, we have become a critical, essential part of God’s ancient promise to bless the entire world.
And we aren’t just beneficiaries of that plan — we are the very people through whom God will bring the plan into effect.
(Gen 22:17-18) I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, 18 and through your offspring [seed] all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
(Gal 3:29) If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
We like to avoid the implication by arguing that Jesus is the “seed,” not us, but Paul says we both are — because we are clothed with Christ (Gal 3:26-27). The blessing begins in Jesus but we are part of the process. All nations are to be blessed through us — as the body of Christ on earth.
(Mat 28:19) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
(Luke 24:46-47) He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
That “all nations” phrase pops up all over the New Testament, typically in a charge to be about God’s business.
Gospel of true humanity
We see that there are certain tensions in the gospel. We are freed from law, but freed to submit to Jesus as Lord, which seems to make no sense, really. I mean, if I have a “lord,” how am I truly free? In fact, as though just to make it confusing, Jesus and Paul often speak of their disciples being “slaves”! (Matt 20:27; Rom 6:18).
And here’s where we mess up over and over again. We know there are commands to obey, and yet we’ve been freed from law. How can it be?
Baptism teaches us —
(Rom 6:6-7) For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin– 7 because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
And this is a critically important fact. We are freed from sin. And yet, we rather enjoy sin. So how is this freedom? We find the answer in the Spirit, which is the topic of the next post — where we’ll talk about true freedom.