Easter Preparation: The Gospel You Might Be Missing
The big day is coming quickly. It’s almost Easter Sunday and all over the world pastors are working hard to show up on this Super Bowl of Sunday of Preaching with their best. As we now fully emerge on the backside of the Covid epidemic with impressions of revival in our midst, it’s no secret that many of us are coming into this fresh season of ministry with all the expectations that Easter brings with it.
And it’s why in this article I think it is incredibly important for all of us to hear the gospel again with fresh ears. Is it possible that too many of us are functioning with a truncated version of the gospel that will leave us powerless in our pulpits this Easter Sunday? And what would it mean for us to return to a fuller view and vision of the gospel that might not only relieve some pressure on us, but also lead us to preach with the power of the gospel from our core? Here’s what I mean.
The gospel is Jesus.
The gospel is Jesus himself—his birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. I express the gospel this way because I get it from the books called the Gospels. It’s an awkward reality of evangelicalism, at least in the English-speaking world, that we assert our belief in the gospel, and we assert our belief in the Gospels, but we don’t functionally believe that the gospel comes from the Gospels. By and large, we get our gospel from Paul.
Don’t misunderstand—you can find the whole gospel in Paul, and we can’t live without Paul. But in conservative circles especially, we tend to identify the gospel as certain brilliant Pauline analogies that convey the significance of crucial elements of who Jesus is and what he did (which aren’t even all that Paul has to say on the subject) and then we treat the Gospels (especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as supplemental at best. In 1944, historian Will Durant wrote of the Reformation that “Protestantism was the triumph of Paul over Peter,” by which he meant the Catholic Church centered in Rome. Then referring to the evangelicalism of his day, Durant wrote, “Fundamentalism is the triumph of Paul over Christ.” 1
With respect to conservative Christians’ attachment to Paul, Durant makes a good point, but by glibly associating liberal Protestantism with Christ, he misses the point. I see two broad mistakes that Christians, liberal and conservative, make with the gospel. Many Christians preach the gospel as Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection and downplay the rest, while many others preach it as Jesus’s birth, life, and ascension and downplay the rest.
Lately I’ve seen increasing conflict in churches, especially between older and younger generations, over which parts of the gospel they think Christians should pay attention to. It is essential that we bridge this divide, because without a full gospel, we will never have power for a full mission.
When the gospel is only Easter weekend
Many Christians define the gospel in terms of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. To them, our chief problem is the sins we’ve committed arising from the sinful nature in us, which deserve God’s judgment and sentence of eternal death. They recognize our helplessness to fundamentally improve our condition, most of all to regain right standing with God.
Because we’re unable to save ourselves from God’s wrath, we need someone to save us by taking our place. The only one who could stand for us is someone who is one of us but is also totally pure, unlike us. So God graciously supplied his Son to die in our place as the sacrificial victim to atone for our sin. When God raised Jesus from the dead on the third day, it proved that Jesus didn’t deserve to die, and therefore he is qualified to be our ransom and redemption and the propitiation that puts us totally right with God.
These Christians identify salvation, at least primarily, as a status transfer in God’s sight from guilty to innocent, from estranged to adopted, from unholy to holy. This status transfer qualifies us for a place with God in heaven after we die, and eternal life in a new creation after the last judgment.
Does this gospel sound familiar to your experience? Most of the Christians I know personally hold to this gospel, and I continue to believe it 100 percent, because it is crucial for eternal life.
Still, notice how this expression of the gospel foregrounds Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection and backgrounds the rest of his story. The other stuff functions as supporting material for the main thing. In this version of gospel, we need Jesus’s birth (incarnation) only because a fully divine, fully human person is the only adequate sacrifice.
We need Jesus’s life only because it demonstrates his sinlessness. And we need Jesus’s ascension only because it’s how he takes his blood to heaven to atone for our sins as our High Priest. In this telling, Jesus’s birth, life, and ascension matter mainly because they facilitate his substitutionary sacrifice. In effect, the great bulk of the Gospels isn’t significant except as far as it serves what happens at (almost) the end of the story.
Let me be clear: This gospel is not inaccurate, but it is inadequate.
When we lose the birth (incarnation) of Jesus, we lose the truth of Immanuel, God with us—that God is already present and at work wherever we find ourselves. Because everything was made through the preexistent Jesus and holds together in him, Jesus is already before us, present and active, wherever we go on mission. We don’t have to pull people into the presence of God; instead, we have to identify how God is already present in the situation and start there.
Jesus acted out the implications of God’s omnipresence for mission when he spoke in parables. Jesus saw the gospel all around him—in seed, in fish, in a bush. The gospel is built into creation, speaking in everyone’s experience of life. Without this conviction, we contort ourselves trying to get people to hear the gospel instead of perceiving how the gospel is already speaking to people—they just haven’t recognized it yet. When we lose the incarnation of the preexistent Son of God, we substitute our relevancy for God’s creativity
When we lose the life of Jesus, we lose the pattern for our own lives and the lives of the people we’re telling about him. Even if we succeed in getting people to accept Jesus, they don’t actually become like Jesus, because we’ve only promised them something they’ll receive tangibly in the distant future, for the most part. In the meantime they may stop doing bad things, and they may even start doing some good things—praying, reading the Bible, and so on—which are very important. But they lack a pattern of what to do and who to be in most of the hours of their week that’s all that different from what anybody else is doing and being.
Jesus’s life story isn’t merely descriptive, and it isn’t prescriptive—it’s definitive.
When we lose Jesus’s life, we lose discipleship. Discipleship is more than behavior control; discipleship is a new kind of life. And if our gospel doesn’t include Jesus’s life, it doesn’t offer the invitation or make the demand for the new life that God extends to us. That’s a life that’s more than behavior modification; it’s a life of abundance.
The life of Jesus that God holds out to us is also a life of power, so when we lose Jesus’s life, we also lose the effectiveness we might have had in whatever we’re doing but especially in mission. We try to figure out how to do mission our own way. But once we see these principles in the Bible applied in multiple contexts, and we realized they could be applied in our own, a whole world of effectiveness in life and in mission opens up for us.
Speaking of power, what happens when we lose the ascension (kingship) of Jesus? We lose the authority of a new order that’s already begun breaking from the future into the present. It shouldn’t be this way! We represent a new system where the true king is back on the throne, where upside-down things are right side up, where wrongs are made right, where diseases are healed.
Our gospel is a statement to the world that the way things are is no good, but it’s not always going to be this way. A new day is coming. In fact, everyone is invited to play in the new and better society in anticipation of its fullness while still living in the current one.
But this play isn’t just pretend; the Christian life isn’t a costume party. It’s no dress rehearsal; the mics are hot. When the Son ascended to the Father, he received the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on those who believe. We are clothed with power from on high, not for our pleasure, but for a purpose—to back up our talk with something tangible, “for the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).
When we lose the ascension of Jesus, then, we lose justice and authority. For Euro-American Christians, social reform and signs-and-wonders spirituality fall into totally different categories (and a lot of Christians don’t want anything to do with either one!). Euro-American believers need to accept how far outside the norm we are.
Almost anywhere you go in the global South and East where the gospel of Jesus is exploding, you find Christians at the center of social transformation movements and ending poverty for millions, and in the same places you find miracles like the Book of Acts. The reason is simple: Christians there really believe that the king is coming and that it’s their job to prepare the way. And their world and people’s lives really change.
When we lose these aspects of the gospel by hiding them behind Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, we proclaim a truncated gospel that leads to transaction, not transformation. It becomes natural for us to make decisions, not disciples. We confuse relevancy for creativity. We recruit volunteers for our calendar instead of sending missionaries into theirs. And we become peddlers instead of priests.
A gospel without the cross
We’ve seen what we lose when our gospel prioritizes Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection and relegates the rest to supporting material. This is not the only gospel error, however, because the other common problem is to reverse it—to foreground Jesus’s birth, life, and ascension and forget the rest.
As a complete inversion of the atonement-centered gospel I outlined earlier, these versions of the gospel make Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection supporting material for the stories they really want to tell. In the progressive gospel, Jesus’s death and burial demonstrates the extreme length he would go to show us God’s compassionate love, though it doesn’t actually affect our status with him. His death and burial also underscore the wickedness of evil social systems, and they prove that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors who falsely claim a divine right to rule.
Meanwhile, the awkward story of Jesus’s resurrection—whether or not it literally occurred—comforts us that hope springs eternal and that God’s love is always with us, even beyond the grave.
When we lose the death of Jesus, we lose two crucial attributes of true and lasting change. The first is redemption. Everyone wants things to change, whether the whole world or their personal life, but who is willing to suffer for it? I’m not asking who is willing to experience suffering on the way to the golden age. I mean, who is willing to suffer for it—who is willing that their own suffering would bring it into existence?
Today, however, I see many Christians with no tolerance for suffering, and that’s bad news for anything changing. Change means that something dies in each one of us. If you want abundance in your personal life, nine times out of ten you’re going to have to die to attachments that are keeping the abundance out. Otherwise you’ll flush away all the abundance God is trying to give you. And if you want a just peace on earth, at some point you’re going to have to die to your grievance at those who stand in the way—you’re going to have to die the death of forgiveness. Otherwise the beloved community can never come.
Jesus’s death is the model of a kind of transformation that’s far deeper than most people are willing to go. Jesus demonstrated that losing can win far greater victories than fighting ever could. There is no lasting change without redemptive suffering, tasting death, especially an undeserved death at the hands of your enemies, for the sake of something good that you may not even see yourself. Redemptive suffering makes a testimony that the world cannot ignore. Hard-hearted people brush off the grievance of an arsonist. They have a harder time dismissing the grievance of someone who kneels before a fire hose and a police dog.
Second, when we lose Jesus’s death, we lose our humanity. We gain entirely too much confidence in our wisdom and righteousness. It’s so easy to see problems as coming from everywhere outside ourselves and nowhere inside ourselves. It’s so easy to think that if only the people in power would change or if only my bank account would change (and quite possibly they should) then everything would be better.
But Jesus’s death won’t let us get away with that. It forces us to confront the reality that each of us has a dark side so huge that it took the death of the Son of God to cover the guilt of it—nothing less would do. Even if we’re innocent victims of a system, that doesn’t make us good guys by nature. We’re bad guys.
That’s the scandal of the cross, the offense that everyone wants to avoid. But this recognition is absolutely essential for true and lasting change. People who don’t appreciate the depth of the evil they are capable of and presently practicing are sure to vent it on others as soon as they get the opportunity. Merely give an oppressed person power, and they will oppress. Merely give a believer abundance or authority, and they will wreck their life and the lives of everyone around them.
Real change only happens when the people who want change realize how easy it is for them to contribute to the problem they hate without meaning to. Real change doesn’t come until the change-agent is chastened by how little difference there is between themselves and whoever’s standing in the way, that both are sinners in desperate need of the same Savior. Without that awareness, there’s never a revolution, only regime change.
That kind of cautiousness is unpopular, but it’s essential to the gospel, as we see in the burial of Jesus. When we lose Jesus’s burial, we lose acceptance and anticipation. Without Jesus’s burial, we can’t wait for anything. In fact, to many people, waiting is sinful. If you pray to receive healing, and you don’t announce that you have been healed before your body changes, it means you don’t have faith. Or if you don’t demand perfect justice immediately, you’re enabling oppression.
But the gospel of Jesus’s burial is the reminder that we live in the already-but-not-yet. Good Friday has happened; the war is as good as won. But Easter Sunday hasn’t come yet; we’re still on the enemy’s ground. We live in the time between times—we can expect things to be better, but we can’t expect things to be better. Jesus’s burial is the model of accepting where we are in God’s timing while we plead, “How long, O Lord?” awaiting the promised completion. Without acceptance we’re liable to burn everything down in our anger; without anticipation we’re liable to burn ourselves down in despair.
That also ties into the resurrection of Jesus. We’re at risk of anger and despair whenever someone makes us a promise, because there’s always the danger of overpromising and underdelivering. That’s the curse of every promise of change, whether of an individual, a community, a nation, or a world. So often either the promised change doesn’t come, or it does come but it’s not as great as it was supposed to be.
Ironically, even though world-changers and life-changers overpromise, they underdream. The most glowing picture of the abundant life or the beloved community is doomed to disappoint because it doesn’t rise above this life, this world. The best we can do here and now is still here and now. It’s still trapped in our limited imaginations. But what does God promise? “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9–10).
When our gospel is truncated this way, foregrounding Jesus’s birth, life, and ascension and hiding the rest, we fuel activism, not redemption; we lead revolt, not revolution. Or else we soothe but don’t satisfy, and we make fans, not followers.
|When we lose Jesus’ …||… we lose …|
|birth||God’s activity and creativity|
|life||discipleship and a life-giving way of life|
|death||redemption and humanity|
|burial||acceptance and anticipation|
|resurrection||imagination and satisfaction|
|ascension||justice and authority|
The gospel means whatever we need
Not a single leader wants to operate with a truncated gospel. In fact, many who do so are highly critical when they see others doing it. What they fail to see is that the gospel they rely on feeds the problem. One Christian unintentionally plays up one half of the gospel, so in reaction some alienated believer plays up the other half. Then the first one reacts by preaching against the other half, and back and forth it goes.
We end up with two preachers preaching against each other because they’re each preaching for half the truth. Like a tug of war, the harder one preacher pulls, the harder the other one pulls to counterbalance. Neither preacher is going anywhere. They’re both powerless, and Satan laughs. It may serve his purposes better when we preach dismembered gospels than when we preach no gospel at all—it inoculates people to the real thing and secures them in their unbelief.
When we firmly hold what the whole gospel is, it gives us the freedom to explore what the gospel means in our place and day. The gospel is the too-good-to-be-true news in any circumstance. That’s why the Bible explodes with different metaphors for it. When Jesus is dealing with the sick and disabled, of course the gospel means healing. When Paul is navigating his way through courtrooms as a Roman citizen, of course the gospel means justification.
But in all times, places, and circumstances, to all kinds of people, the gospel is that
- Jesus was born, so God is present and working wherever we go
- Jesus lived, so we can learn to live the best kind of life
- Jesus died, so we are redeemed and redeemers
- Jesus was buried, so we wait with patient hope
- Jesus rose, so we expect more than we can imagine
- Jesus ascended, so we bring the glorious future into the present
This article is a modified excerpt from Dave Rhodes forthcoming book Forging Future
Church. Easter Prep: The Gospel You Might Be Missing appeared first at https://leadnet.org/category/church-next/
At Clarity House, we love being a safe place for leaders to wrestle these sorts of questions. We specialize in assisting church teams in discerning a shared vision that is coupled with disciple-making clarity.
1 Will Durant, Caesar and Christ: A History of Roman Civilization and of Christianity from Their Beginnings to A.D. 325, The Story of Civilization, vol. 3 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1944), 592.