The Awful Finality of the Gospel
(Awful: That strikes with awe; That fills with profound reverence;
As the awful majesty of Jehovah.)
Noah Webster 1828
It was April, 1945. The war in the European theater was rapidly drawing to a close as Allied forces encroached on and controlled every key front. The German bus carrying a cosmopolitan cadre of prisoners moved stealthily from one location to another as its Gestapo guards fled the impending inevitability of their discovery. Among the Russian, English, French, Italian and German prisoners was a German pastor who, on Sunday April 8th, shared the Word and led them in prayer. Barely through praying, the Gestapo reappeared, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” A British officer, Payne Best, recalled the pastor’s last words as they prepared to take him away: “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life.” The next day at Flossenburg, he was hanged.
Author, pastor, theologian, Nazi resister and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s message and life epitomized the essence of what Christ’s call to follow essentially meant. His death at the vindictive hands of a defeated satanic government served to accentuate the finality of what the true gospel of Jesus Christ demands of all who would answer the call to follow Christ. Although the literal giving up of one’s life has been the destiny of many down through the ages, for the majority who choose to take up the cross it is principally a spiritual reality. In his seminal work, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer expressed it this way: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
I have a great concern today that many sincere Christians are living an illusion with regard to their faith, that they are living with a substanceless gospel leaving them spiritually vulnerable. In essence, they are building on sand, not rock. Ultimately this is always going to be the responsibility of the individual. However, the church bears tremendous culpability as well since it is the guardian and purveyor of the faith. I am saying these things because the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel represented in the New Testament, the gospel Jesus and the disciples preached and the early church lived is not evident in most churches today and subsequently not reflected in the lives of most who attend these churches.
I believe America is on the cusp of experiencing the most trying and difficult times the nation has ever known since its inception. Mostly I believe this because America has garnered to herself the effusive blessings of Almighty God while simultaneously wholesale rejecting God from every aspect of its national life. Concomitantly, the church has failed miserably to be the culture shaping, Christ exulting salt and light it was called into existence to be. That which is coming upon this nation is going to make the 20th century depression look like child’s play and it is not going to be solved by an unprincipled government throwing more worthless currency at it. Only those persons with an authentic relationship with Christ are going to be able to navigate the murky, turbulent waters of the days ahead. It will be those who have legitimately found the gospel of the kingdom who will overcome and be prepared to lead others into truth and reality.
The gospel of the kingdom is a call to follow Jesus into the fullness of his life. It is a call to be where he is spiritually, where he is in relationship with the Father.
Anyone who wants to be my disciple must follow me, because my servants must be where I am. And the Father will honor anyone who serves me. (Jn 12:26 NLT)
The gospel of the kingdom is a call to love not the world, to divest oneself of all worldly kingdoms, transferring one’s allegiance completely to the kingdom of God. The gospel of the kingdom is a call unto living an entirely new life in Christ totally relinquishing all ownership over oneself. When the Chinese first translated the Bible, they had difficulty finding the right characters for the Holy Spirit. They translated him as “resident boss.” The gospel of the kingdom means being completely under new management.
Those whom Jesus called are said to have gotten up and left everything and followed him. They literally walked out of one life into a completely new life experience. It was like Israel coming out of Egypt or Lot leaving Sodom; it was like leaving one world and entering another one.
So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him. (Lk 5:11 NKJV)
After these things He went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he left all, rose up, and followed Him. (Lk 5:27,28 NKJV)
The awful finality of the gospel is that we are called out of a place of spiritual death into an everlasting life in Christ wherein we will never have to look back again. This is what it means to become a new creation in Christ. Jesus was clear about the finality of the gospel; “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Making a decision for Christ is a decision to forsake the old self-life, to adopt a whole new set of priorities and values, to take on new interests while watching old habits and concerns fall away. In the early church, the evidence they looked for in new converts as denoting their authentic relationship with Christ was a change of belief, a change of behavior and a change of belonging.
To present the gospel without vividly laying out its demands is to set new believers up for potential discouragement, despair and ultimately denying the faith. Minimally, a white-washed version of the gospel is simply an invitation into a lukewarm Christian experience looking for a Laodicean outcome. The truth be told, persons will not stand by and defend that which they have only given intellectual assent to. We will only adamantly hold to and defend the truth we are actually living out in our lives. In other words, the reality of the gospel must be absolute conviction in our lives.
Soft-soaping the presentation of the gospel through highly emotional appeals in hopes of winning converts to Christ is reprehensible evangelism. Answering the call to follow Christ—in all that entails—must be an open-eyed, sober act of one’s will, not the emotions. Studies on the effectiveness of mass evangelism over the years have demonstrated that only about 6% of respondents, those who “went forward,” in evangelistic crusades were still holding biblical beliefs and behaviors one year later. Could it be that the church has failed completely to comprehend the significance of Jesus’ command by simply seeking “decisions” rather than “making disciples?”
Jesus didn’t seek starry-eyed followers with romantic notions of what it would mean to be his disciple. Consider these verses from Luke 9:
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Then He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.” And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (NLT)
When I was a kid growing up in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, most of our playtime was spent in pretending and acting out various scenarios of our imaginations. One of the favorite themes was military adventures, playing war. Of course, the depth of our naivete regarding the true realities of warfare could not be overstated. Those of us who later participated in our country’s armed forces learned first hand of the cost exacted in such an endeavor.
Jesus may have been dealing with a similar naivete in those following him as recorded in Luke 14:
A large crowd was following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, “If you want to be my disciple, you must, by comparison, hate everyone else—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. But don’t begin until you count the cost.” (Luke 14:25-28a, NLT)
“But don’t begin until you count the cost!” How many who would faithfully share the gospel include that challenging, eye-opening caveat? Jesus went on to illustrate his warning with two stories, both of which succinctly told his listener that one should not commit to follow without first determining the inner resources were sufficient to stay the course. The message is clarion—to begin and then falter, would not only leave the individual in dire spiritual condition, but would also invite the mockery of the enemy upon the Christian faith in all its glorious ramifications.
We are living in a day where personal integrity is shamelessly deficient. In the past, when “a man’s word was his bond,” most stood good for what they committed to as a matter of character. In yesteryear, marriage was entered into as a permanent relationship with no forethought of resolving life’s difficulties by divorce. Today, we have progressed all the way to “no-fault” divorces or simply forgoing the institution of marriage altogether.
Jesus finished his teaching on counting the cost of discipleship with the following sobering admonition:
So no one can become my disciple without giving up everything for me. (Lk 14:33 NLT)
The awful finality of the gospel demands we both live and proclaim the full message of this new life of the kingdom of God. Anything less would constitute an aberration and misrepresentation of the faith. In essence, to proclaim less than a complete gospel is to disrespect those who we are hoping to lead into this new life in Christ. To represent less than the full nature of Christ’s call to follow is to fundamentally advocate for “another” gospel.
Remembering the words of the martyr…
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”