THE GOSPEL: Password OR Performance?

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A long time ago (ok a long, long time ago) when I was but a child we lived next to a large field which my friends and I regarded as our little kingdom. Looking back it seems like we spent most of the summer from dawn to dusk playing in that field. One of our favourite activities was building a secret “gang hut” among the bushes. Once constructed each and every time you entered the inner sanctum of our little tribe you had to tell the person inside the secret password. Those from other “gangs” who didn’t know the secret words were shot, with water pistols. When it came to gang huts in the West of Scotland in the early 70s entrance and exclusion was all about what you knew.

There are times when I think as evangelicals we have almost reduced being a Christian to about the level of getting into my childhood gang hut. Salvation has been preached as it its just about knowing the right thing, the Gospel. That’s why we have the ludicrous situation where people, who stuck their hands up in a church service or evangelistic rally and prayed a prayer but whose life has changed in no discernible way, still claim to be “saved.” They must be saved it is argued because they know and accept the Gospel, that Jesus died for them and so they are forgiven. In this way of understanding, “knowing” those facts means they are “in” and they get the one way ticket to heaven.

A while ago I read Scot McKnight’s “Embracing Grace” book. In the first chapter he takes on this whole issue of what it means to be saved by the Gospel. McKnight asks, does it simply meaning intellectually accepting what Jesus did for us on the cross or is there more involved? Theologically McKnight is getting involved in the perennial debate the church has about the relationship of faith and works in salvation. His interest in this subject is not however is not to get involved in some abstract theological discussion. He believes that the credibility of the Gospel and so the church is being undermined by the fact that there is all too often a gap between what the Church proclaims about the Gospel and the experience of the Gospel people outside the church have when they come into contact with Christians and the Church. He writes “This generation is challenging the church to perform what it proclaims, or, to use less elegant language, to put up or shut up.”

He uses a metaphor to help us grasp his position he says at the start of the chapter, “The Gospel is more like a piece of music to be performed than a list of ideas to endorse.” What this means in practice is that to have any credibility the Gospel must be both proclaimed and also performed. Mcknight here I think is simply echoing James’ warning about divorcing works from faith. Our works don’t save us, our faith does, but our faith isn’t genuine if it doesn’t result in works. As far as I understand it even Martin Luther said something similar, that we are saved by faith alone, but faith never comes alone, it always accompanied if genuine by good works.

He goes on and draws out further implications of the relationship between proclamation and performance when it comes to the Gospel. He points out the reality that everyone except those inside church seems to know, that the gospel which is actually proclaimed by a Church to the surrounding community and to those who are seeking God is not in reality the one which is preached from the pulpit but the one which is performed by the people of the church 24/7. “If you look at a church and what it does and how it operates you will see the Gospel of that church” The Dutch Reformed Church preaching about the reconciling power of the Cross in Church buildings across South Africa whilst supporting the oppression of the blacks is a very obvious example of this. Other churches tend to be a little more subtle, but only a little. I have seen people with addiction problems struggle to “fit into” church because they worked out that whatever was preached about grace in worship services the Church community didn’t seem to treat them with a love that wasn’t earned or deserved. I have seen people tentatively step into church communities then leave after they were witnessed how people treated and spoke to one another at the AGM, they didn’t seem to believe despite all the preaching about love that love was actually an essential part of the Gospel in the church.

It is always a fine line to walk when you discuss the relationship between faith and works, proclaiming and performing the Gospel. For me Scot McKnight gets the balance pretty well right. I like the music metaphor, music when you look at on a score looks uninspiring but when its performed nothing can make the impact it does. Music’s beauty is only truly comprehended through performance, I believe its the same with the Gospel. I might be a preacher but I know however eloquent or effective my sermons about the Gospel are, the beauty of the Gospel and indeed its credibility will only really be seen and heard fully in its performance by us as individual Christ followers and as the Body of Christ.

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