The stories of faith going back to our Old Testament forefathers show us how easy it is for the people of God to lose the gospel. Throughout church history, God has raised up men and women to call the church back to the most important thing. One of the most famous moments of this call to return is when Martin Luther nailed his statement of where the church had lost its way to the front door of the church in Wittenberg.
So how does the church so easily forsake the gospel?
We Forsake the Gospel When We Stand in Judgment
Throughout the gospels, it is easy for us as Christians to view ourselves as on “team Jesus.” We are always the first to obey Him, show His love to others, and hang on His every word. We forget that our natural draw is to be the religious leaders of the gospels rather than the disciples of Jesus.
The religious leaders are the perfect foil for how many people outside of the church view Christians today. Christians are the first people to throw stones at others. We are the first to stamp someone who disagrees with us as worthy of divine judgment.
The “cancel culture” of our current moment has been the practice of religious people for generations. If someone does not look the part, they are out. If someone does not believe the correct theology, as defined by us rather than the Bible, they are out. If someone is exposed as a “sinner,” we social distance as quickly as possible.
The same Jesus who was accused of “receiving sinners and eating with them” (Luke 15:2 ESV) has followers who avoid broken people as if sin was a viral pandemic. We can justify this avoidance and rejection by promoting our own holiness and religious piety. We are “good Christians,” and guilt is clearly by association.
If the church is going to reach the emerging generations with the gospel, grace must be the story we tell. We must surrender our desires to judge to the One who will judge even us in eternity.
We Forsake the Gospel When We Leave No Place for Struggle
The fear of judgment leads many in the church to struggle alone. Whether that struggle is with their own sin, believing that God is who He says He is, or with the lack of grace they have experienced from the church, the church should be a place where we can wrestle in the safety of community.
Throughout the book of Job, we see that God is not afraid of our questions, struggles, and doubts. As followers of Jesus, there will be moments when we feel like our prayers are hitting the ceiling, like God has forsaken us, and like we are lost. It is in these moments when we need the encouragement and community of others.
We need to be reminded that the dark is always deepest before the dawn. We need to be reminded that Jesus will “make all things new” (Revelation 21:5 ESV). We need to hold on to the faithfulness of God in the lives of others as we struggle to see His hand at work in our own.
Often, pastors do not help with building the environment where it is alright to struggle. As leaders in the church, pastors feel the pressure to be the chief religious performer. Since people are watching them and their families, they feel like the only sins and struggles that they can share with the church is their lack of patience or the fact that they did not pray enough this week.
If pastors would embrace some gospel vulnerability, the church could become a place of healing for many. In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul expressed his own struggles with a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Paul was clearly struggling with oppression and difficulty in his own life, yet he allowed that struggle to point him and the church back to grace. Paul writes:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV).
Church needs to be a place where people can be weak and vulnerable because in that weakness, Jesus shows His great strength. It is in our own personal weakness that we experience the greatness of grace and extend that grace to others.
We Forsake the Gospel When We Forget Our Own Experience of Grace
When we forget where we would be without Jesus, we lose grace for others. As we have seen in the last month, grace is not from our performance but because of Jesus’ great gift. We have been invited into a new life and called to share that life with others.
When the church loses the gospel, it loses the mission. It loses hope. It loses the message that the world so needs. It ceases to be a church. Church without the gospel becomes a building, an establishment, and a religious hierarchy. These are things that no one will be compelled to believe in and join.
Several years ago, Andy Stanley was teaching on the three B’s of church: believe, behave, and belong. He said that often churches mess up the order of these things. When they do, they miss the gospel. The misplaced order is to:
- Behave- have good morals and religious performance
- Believe- have correct theology and the “approved” understanding of the Bible
- Belong- be welcomed into the church to experience love, grace, and acceptance
For many, they must correctly perform and correctly believe hoping for one day they will be able to belong to the church. If Martin Luther was to nail his call back to the gospel on the front door of our American church, the message would be to belong, believe, and behave.
The gospel invites us into a community, invites us to follow after Jesus, and invites us to experience His work of life change in us. It is all about the invitation of Jesus. When churches lose the gospel, they focus on who they can judge, who they can “cancel,” and who they can reject. As Jesus set at lunch with a group of “undesirables,” He would want us to open our churches and tables to people who need grace as well.
Are our churches places of grace? Are we people of grace? The gospel was not merely meant to change us but to change the world. Are we a church known for that gospel, or have we lost the greatest message of all?