The Long Hard Road to the Heart

“It will take the whole church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world.” That was the popular refrain in one my classes at Bible college. But the deeper you dive into seminary libraries, theological trends and liturgical leanings, the more you discover that the heralds of the Gospel are sending mixed messages. We are still searching for the whole Gospel. There is a global conversation in theology today about whether the urgent work of the Gospel is proclaiming justification by faith in Christ or working for justice in the love of Christ.

This battle over the heart of the Gospel is fleshed out in the writings of N.T. Wright and John Piper, who have famously, albeit humbly, opposed each other in recent years. They walk parallel lines on their understanding of the Law, the Gospel and the Righteousness of God, among other things. To the layman, this is the theatre of the absurd. Its the sort of pointless intellectual gymnastics that would make an ardent believer turn his back on scholarship and shake the dust off his sandals. But this is not just academic nitpicking. What is conceived in university takes shape in the city.

Our convictions about the heart of the Gospel direct the way we live out our faith in the public arena. Those who lean towards Piper will make preaching the urgent work of the church. All manpower, service and ministry will be geared to bringing people to repent and believe in Christ. On the other hand, those who lean towards N.T. Wright will make social justice the urgent work of the church. All efforts will go towards serving the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized with the goal of bringing all things – political and otherwise – under the lordship of Christ. Timothy Keller, Author and Pastor, narrows down on the fallout of this theological dilemma. He poignantly says, “Those who care about justice don’t care enough about justification and those who care about justification, don’t care enough about justice.” And the battle rages on.

With the theological sphere polarizing into two competing ideological positions, Dallas Willard’s critique of this trend is deeply significant. In his book, The Divine Conspiracy, he says, “When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins. On the left it is removal of social or structural evils. To the right, being a Christian is a matter of having your sins forgiven. To the left, you are Christian if you have a significant commitment to the elimination of social evils. A Christian is either one who is ready to die and face the judgment of God or one who has an identifiable commitment to love and justice in society. That’s it.”

Willard bemoans the disappearance of Jesus as teacher, saying ”What is taught as the essential message about Jesus has no natural connection to entering a life of discipleship to him.” Cornelius Platinga Jr. further summarizes Dallas Willard’s diagnosis of the Gospel. He says, “Extending a line of thought that runs through such Christian writers as Teresa of Avila, William Law, Jonathan Edwards, C. S. Lewis, and Richard Foster, Dallas Willard proclaims the message of ‘thoroughgoing inner transformation through Christ’ to ‘clean the inside of the cup’…Depending on our age and level of responsibility, we have a small realm ‘where our choice determines what happens’. God wants us ‘to mesh our kingdoms with the kingdoms of others’, all inside his master kingdom, ‘which pervades and governs the whole of the physical universe.'” This cosmic view of the Gospel makes transformation, in the heart of the believer, central to its message and foundational to both preaching and social justice.

The best thing God can do for us is to make us like His Son. Perhaps the greatest error we can make as Christians is to regard the salvation—the beginning of Christian life—as the end, instead of a means to the end. Peter’s instructions to work out our salvation require reflection. India needs a theology of transformation that is manifest in the body of Christ. We cannot afford to be content with a theology that requires no more than intellectual agreement to orthodoxy, regular church attendance and the customary denunciation of tattoos. Neither is it enough to equate the Christian life with fighting for social justice.

There is more to eternal life than waiting for eternity or repealing injustice. In better words, Willard says, “The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples—students, apprentices, practitioners—of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.”

Our faith is both communal and personal. The transformation of my character as a disciple of Christ is as vital as the transformation of our character as the body of Christ. With that in mind, in his book Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, Reggie McNeal urges a shift in ministry from program-driven cultures to people-driven cultures.

Urging the need to grow disciples instead of perpetuating programs, he says, “Everyday living is where spiritual development is worked out. The program-driven church has created an artificial environment divorced from the rhythms and realities of normal life…Loving God and loving our neighbors cannot be fulfilled at church. Being salt and light cannot be experienced in a faith huddle. Engaging the kingdom of darkness requires storming it, not habitually retreating into a refuge.” Where preaching the Gospel or social justice becomes the chief agenda, ministry activities will be driven by these goals. But where transformation of character and discipleship is valued, redemptive relationships and communal nurture will be evident. Justice and justification will flow from a community that is being transformed in this manner.

Mega-churches, with their slick programs and activities, are often idolized for their success. But recent studies have shown that while people in larger churches are often pleased with their church’s ministry activities, they show little evidence of personal transformation over time. On the other hand, people in smaller churches, where everyone knows each other, often feel unhappy with their church but show greater signs of character transformation.

In an internal study at Willow Creek Community Church, one of the most influential mega-churches in the world, it was discovered that its most engaged members were expressing significant frustration with their own personal growth. In fact, many were contemplating leaving the church. According to Christianity Today’s summary of the study, “A quarter of those self-described as “close to Christ” admitted being spiritually “stalled” or “dissatisfied” with the role of the church in their spiritual growth.” This is not to discount mega-churches or extol smaller ones. Its about placing people above programs. When church ministry, large or small, is focused on people, relationships, discipleship and depth of fellowship – over and above events, programs and activities – transformation is inevitable over time.

Lets push our imagination further. As the body of Christ in India, when we recognize that salvation calls for daily transformation into the likeness of Christ, our ears and our hearts will be surprised to hear that the whole Gospel confronts anything in us that does not resonate with the kingdom of God and its King. For instance, Christ died for all and His kingdom is peopled by all – every tribe, nation and tongue. This is where the rubber hits the road in our country. Historically, South India and North East India have counted for much of Christianity in the country. Yet, these regions remain the epicenter of subtle, if not outspoken, caste, tribe and ethnic segregation. The Gospel has been accepted to a certain degree, but its transformative, redemptive power has been curbed by generational prejudice. We have yet to learn to love our neighbor. We have still to live out the whole Gospel.

It has become culturally acceptable to regard believers from other castes, tribes and communities as outsiders—foreign to the familiar—believers who are respected, but restricted to the other side of the fence. These invisible boundaries become particularly tangible when questions of marriage rise to the surface. Bishop Dr D.K. Sahu, NCCI General Secretary, commented: “The Indian church has to make a confession first. If you are alienated in society and you become a Christian, you are alienated again. We tell them, ‘if you become Christian then there is no discrimination’, but once they become Christian they are looked down upon by Christians of higher castes. A higher caste Christian will never marry a Dalit Christian, yet we say we are all one.”

A Gospel that merely requires repentance for eternal security, commitment to social causes and loyalty to tradition as proof of faithfulness will not penetrate to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Inevitably, it fails to judge the prejudiced thoughts and attitudes of the heart, and even perpetuates caste-ism and tribalism in Christian clothing. But Marriage and the Gospel are very closely related to each other. In his book, The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller writes, “This is the secret—that the Gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind.” In marriage, like the Gospel, we are united by Christ and begin a journey of transformation into His likeness.

The Gospel doesn’t merely reconcile us to God. In this remarkable reality, the lines that separated us from each other are blurred by the blood of Christ. Two that were once opposed to each other can now become one. There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. The Gospel and marriage, have in them, the power to reflect God’s reconciling love to a world that is deeply divided against itself. The verbal Gospel becomes a visible reality in marriage when two that were separate choose to become one. Even more so, marriage is that relationship which most reflects the unity in diversity of the Trinity. How ironic, then, that churchgoing Christians in our nation remain opposed to seeing any diversity or reconciliation in marriage when it comes to caste, culture and color.

Clearly, this doesn’t mean all marriages must be inter-cultural for the sake of racial reconciliation, but it does require that our hearts are transformed by the whole Gospel and set free from prejudice and culturally cloaked segregation. As a believer, I was privileged with parents who gave me one instruction for choosing a partner for life. She had to be someone who loved the Lord. Everything else was skin on bones. Our nation has yet to experience the power of the Gospel in the prejudiced corners of our hearts.

The Gospel gives us a new standing with God, but it also gives us a new standing with each other. India will not move forward in its pursuit of God until we realize that we are truly, and desperately, backward in our relationship with each other. Until we are transformed through discipleship and the reconciling power of the Gospel, the hole in our Gospel will be plain for the whole world to see.

First published in Christian Trends Magazine

Image Credit: Sean MacEntee

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