Maybe the Gospel is Not What You Think

Today we have a guest post from one of our former professors. Dr. Andréa Snavely discusses the role of faith in the Christian life. Especially in western culture, the gospel can easily become syncretized with our cultural, intellectual, or political worldview. Join Dr. Snavely as he discusses a gospel that cannot be rationally understood with human wisdom.

Have you ever explained your faith in Jesus Christ to someone who was not a believer and later wondered if anything you said even made sense? Don’t worry, such experiences are helpful and even necessary not only for others becoming believers but for our own understanding of just what our faith in Jesus really means. This wondering is normal because many times it simply doesn’t make sense – not to us and certainly not to unbelievers.

I mean this in two ways. On one hand, faith in Jesus is real faith only when it doesn’t seem to make sense. On the other hand, of course, it does make sense to itself, but the gospel message, and having faith in it, was never designed by God to make sense to the people of the world in the first place, which includes all Christians before they came to believe and, many times, even after believing. That includes you too, if you are a believer. As much as you might like to think you made up your own mind after “weighing all the options,” such thinking is only the product of our own illusions, perpetrated on us by all the famous emancipators of humanity from the bondages of cultural, moral, religious, and even divine constraint under which all people of all times past were “held captive.”

Probably the greatest wonder of all time is how any person living under this western influence would ever want to believe in Jesus. How could a person who believes in the kind of freedom described in America’s Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights want to submit their life to a man whose life was cut short by being nailed to a cross for causing a revolution of repentance from any desire for such personal autonomy? Are these two not mutually exclusive? The first one gives you the right to achieve the greatest success and material prosperity possible whereas the second one gives you the right to follow a social non-conformist to a cross for political troublemaking. This is because the first is based on people’s natural reasoning ability to grasp what is only logical whereas the second one is based on the necessity of the Sprit to transform one’s thinking into how Jesus thought and the message he proclaimed as his Father’s kingdom. That makes the gospel truly unbelievable.

One need only read Paul’s description of people’s inability to believe by using their own wisdom in order to understand that God was up to something quite opposed to how people think by designing a plan of salvation that defies human logic. In 1 Corinthians 1:21 Paul says, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through (its) wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” In plain terms, people do not know God in any way, shape, or form apart from having faith in Jesus Christ. For a Christian, faith comes first in our knowing the God who Jesus called his Father. People can believe in all kinds of other gods, but not in this God. That is because faith in this God is not of any person’s own doing, it is a gift from God and only by his grace. This is so that no person can boast in anything they have, think, feel, do, say, or give, period (Ephesians 2:8-11), but only in Christ. Does this sounds mysterious?

That’s because it is mysterious. Paul defines God’s work of salvation in Christ and our faith in it as a mystery, not in how the Greek mystery cult believed, but as a mystery that is now revealed in the historical person of Jesus; his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and his future and physical return to earth. For Christians, God’s salvation is not a mystery by being unknown or hidden, since it has been revealed openly before the world through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. What Paul labels a mystery is how God did it and how we believe it, both of which are and always will be complete mysteries to people of the world who refuse to repent and submit to God’s way of salvation. This is because true faith is always accompanied by repentance, that is, death to one’s self which brings about one’s resurrection into Christ’s new life, which is Paul’s description of baptism (Romans 6:1-11).

However, it’s the dying part that people get hung up on. This is because one’s own flesh (meaning all of you and all of me) cannot and will not willingly die with Christ, (to think so would be a contradiction). The dying part is only by the work of the Holy Spirit, which means how we know it is also only by the Spirit. Certainly we can know the story apart from the Spirit. In fact, anyone can know it simply by reading or hearing it, but I am referring to one’s life being defined by the story by being made part of it. We can know about the story but we become part of the story only by God’s Spirit making us other sons of God through our own death and resurrection, not by our logical thinking or by our emotional feelings. Both of these have been hijacked by western Enlightenment rationalism or American emotionalism that attempts to hang on to a form of Christianity that keeps it the most persuasive argument or the most “feel good” emotionalism so that Christians can stay in the majority and so they can remain the most powerful people in their culture.

There is only one little problem with this form of Christianity, it is not the gospel according to Paul, who believed it was only through weakness and suffering that Christians stayed faithful to their Lord Jesus. So, making the gospel appealing to a pluralistic society always unsure about any religious claims is false humility. Such reticence is only a cover for not having the Spirit to proclaim Jesus’ message of repentance. When preachers start making excuses for what Scripture says, they should simply stand up behind their pulpits, read a portion of Scripture, and then go sit down. This would be a good place to start backing up their claim to believe in the authority of Scripture; realizing they have nothing to add to God’s word if they have already abandoned any belief or trust in the Holy Spirit. Some say we need better ways to preach than how Peter, Stephen, and Paul preached in Acts in order to appeal to those around us who do not think that anything we say about Jesus Christ is vital to their own lives. What if they are right? If our message of Christ is not vital then what has changed, the gospel of Jesus Christ or our version of it? Then again, why should we think that our attempts to make the gospel appealing can be used by the Spirit to transform those who have no use for the genuine?

Scriptures that speak to the genuine gospel have been largely ignored in recent years simply because they don’t “fit into” our humanistic versions. A sample of these are 1 Cor. 1-2 (mainly 1:21), Romans 1-3 (mainly 3:21-27), 2 Cor. 4:3-6 (mainly 4:4), and Gal. 3:10-14, all based on the sermons in Acts that describe Jesus’ death as a result of humanity’s rebellion against God but that his Father raised him to vindicate him as truly his Son (Peter in Acts 2:14-36; Stephen in 7:1-53; and Paul in Antioch in 13:16-47 and in Athens in 17:22-31). Especially notice the reaction people had to these sermons; some believed and some got angry. Oh that we would have preachers today full of the Spirit to preach the gospel this way to those who do not know Christ (and even those who do), rather than all the preaching that is done to “meet people’s needs.” When people only believe in a Jesus who meets their needs then Jesus’ life and death are easily relegated to the trashbin of history. In fact, they must be for people to go on living as lords over their own lives like any other good ‘ole American, Canadian, German, or Brit as though nothing of Jesus’ life and death even matters for one who claims to be one of Jesus’ followers. Ironic, isn’t it? Then we wonder why our accounts of faith in Jesus as Lord don’t make any sense?

Andréa Snavely

Dr. Andréa Snavely is Professor of Theology at Global University. His dissertation, entitled Life in the Spirit: A Post-Constantinian and Trinitarian Account of the Christian Life, is currently being published by Wipf and Stock. In this work, Dr. Snavely presents a Spirit Christology dealing with how Christians can be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live the kind of life Jesus lived.

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2 Comments on "Maybe the Gospel is Not What You Think"

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Josh Havens
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Excellent description! I believe Pentecostals struggle with this most. I've observed those who struggle fall into two categories: those searching for ecstatic experiences, and those content with the echoes of experience from generations past. The former seek the experience because faith is "strengthened" during emotional highs. This alone, as you said, moves away from the gospel message and the truth of Jesus. The latter in a sense can become modern pharisees who say "We are children of Abraham" when God looks to change their hearts. I value my Pentecostal heritage and the emphasis on Spirit-empowered missions, but to rely on that heritage or some experience from that heritage will fall short. Only by God's grace and a subsequent willingness to repent will people having saving… Read more »
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