‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.’
— 2 Corinthians 1:20
If you wanted to know what my top priority in thinking about God, Christ, discipleship, and theology is, I think I would say it is keeping it all personal. Maybe it’s because I know that I’m quickly and easily drawn to abstractions and ideas that I know I have to be more on guard than others might have to be. Maybe it’s because, underneath the liturgical-sacramental trappings, I am still a simple, Jesus-loves-me style evangelical who wants to see that relationship kept front and centre in worship, in discipleship, and theology. One of the ways I’ve tried to keep things personal is by paying attention to the language and terms I use day to day in the life of faith. Here are a few examples of words I try to use, and ways of thinking I try to avoid towards that end.
As a short prefatory aside, I think to trace this personalising instinct to one person’s works, it would be those of Eugene Peterson. Reading his spiritual theology series alerted me to both the tendency to turn Jesus from a person into an idea, and to the power of the words we use in the shaping our thinking. As he himself said: ‘We start off using words, and then they start using us.’ My favourite book of his, perhaps my favourite Christian book full stop, is Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, though The Word Made Flesh is a great read on what words mean.
1. Revelation: If you can say ‘Christ’ or ‘the Holy Spirit’ instead of ‘Bible’, do so
Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Yes, but we could say: Jesus loves me, this I know, for Jesus told me so, and his Spirit testifies with my Spirit that I am a son of God. Metrically, of course, this doesn’t scan, but perhaps you take my point.
As Christians, we can only take the Bible as our starting point for any serious statements about who God is and how he acts, or who we are and how we must respond. But the revelation comes in an order: the Son reveals the Father, the Spirit reveals the Son and the Father in the Scriptures (both before Christ’s incarnation and after). And so it is that the Scriptures gain their authority: we believe what is written because it is the word of Christ, and the word of the Spirit who has spoken through the prophets.
A simple way to keep theology personal is to press through the text to appeal to Jesus. We don’t believe what we believe about, say sexual ethics, because ‘the Bible says xyz’, but because Jesus Christ says xyz, and we know he said it because it is in the Bible. Even if we’re not quoting a red-letter verse, we’re still right, since all 66 books are his words. By saying, where we can, ‘Jesus says’ rather than ‘the Bible says’, we get in the habit of affirming a lofty doctrine of Scripture, and keep things focussed on the teachings, commands, and revelation of the person of Christ. Win-win, if you ask me.
2. Mission, Motives, and Discipleship: If you can say ‘Christ’ instead of ‘Gospel’, do so
‘The Gospel’ can quickly become a bit of a slogan. We want ‘gospel-centred’ books about, this and that, we want to be gospel-people with gospel-convictions, doing gospel-work and giving our money to the gospel. None of this is wrong, but sometimes you can hear a lot about what we do for the gospel, and surprisingly little about what we do for Jesus. Again, none of these terms are invalid, or unhelpful, and this great post by Nijay Gupta from a few years back is a great demonstration of the diversity of ways in which the word ‘gospel’ is used — Paul made the word do a lot of work for him. And, to be fair, you do hear the term ‘Christ-centred’ a lot as well.
And yet — some things I’ve read and heard use the term ‘gospel’ so much and ‘Christ’ so little that one has to ask what the significant differences are between the Christian cause and mission and say, the cause of global socialism. There are ideological differences, sure — but the biggest difference between the two is that Marx and Christ are different. One is dead, one is alive. One was a German philosopher, the other is the enthroned king of the universe. One gave genesis to nations that killed millions and drove many millions more into poverty, the other continues to be the light of the world and, in Dostoevsky’s terms, the guarantor of freedom for all men. Most importantly for our purposes here: you can have a relationship with Christ, but not with Marx. You can love Christ, and he will love you back (cf. this video from Mike Bird is great).
Where possible, I suggest we would do well to talk about Jesus before we talk about the gospel. That’s not a contradiction — after all, Christ is the content of the gospel, all God’s promises are yes and amen in him. So, rather than being driven by ‘gospel convictions’ we could say with Paul ‘the love of Christ compels us’. Rather than being gripped by the gospel, or changed by the gospel, we can be gripped by Christ, and transformed by the Spirit of Christ. Again, I’m not saying this use of the word ‘gospel’ is wrong, it is certainly Biblical, but it must be held in a healthy balance with the person of Jesus, and find its centre of gravity there.
This is focus on Christ is important to remember in light of abuse in the church as well: domineering leaders from Mark Driscoll to Steve Timmis to Jonathan Fletcher and so many others can get away with throwing people under the bus ‘for the sake of the gospel’ or ‘for the sake of church planting’. It is much harder to say that your bullying tactics are ‘for the sake of Jesus’ — at this point, the contradiction comes into the light and is exposed. It’s much easier to coerce people into making swearing allegiance to a movement and making invasive demands on their time because it is ‘good for the kingdom’, but I can’t tell you to ignore your family for church because ‘it is good for Jesus.’ Obviously that isn’t a quick-fix, it isn’t a fool-proof preventative measure, but church cultures that focus on the person and the heart of Jesus rather than the progress of ‘the gospel’ will be a harder places for abuse to flourish.
3. Growth: Measured in love for Christ and Others
Finally, we ought to make sure our vision of discipleship is focussed on Christ. One of my observations is that in this regard, evangelicals are better at talking about sin than about righteousness. Perhaps the most common way in which sin is described in evangelical churches is as being a rejection of God, and an estrangement from him. Children are often helped to understand sin in terms of an acronym: Shove off God, I’m in charge, No to your ways. Yet, in my experience, godliness is not often thought as the opposite of sin defined in this way, that is, an acceptance of God, and reconciliation leading to increasing intimacy with him. For many people, whether they have been taught it or not (they probably haven’t), spiritual health is assessed in terms of the question of what they do. 1) Read your bible, 2) say your prayers, 3) tell your friends about Jesus: these are the three greatest commandments in the minds of many believers.
Yet the discipleship and growth Christ is interested in is relational and even affectionate. When he is asked what the greatest commandment is, he says to love God and neighbour. When he teaches his followers what discipleship means, he says if you love me, obey my commands and so love each other. When he restores Simon Peter after his resurrection, he cares about one thing: do you love me?
We struggle with this because we aren’t used to dealing with people on these terms. In most other spheres of life, we are scored on productivity, and so we want to be able to point to things we’ve done or learned. Am I growing in godliness? Well, I know the Bible well, I even love it (cf. point one above)! I am involved in ministry for the sake of the gospel (cf. point two)! Martha and Mary spring to mind. But Christ is not interested in what we can offer, he is interested in us, so he doesn’t want our productivity, he wants our hearts. So when we consider spiritual growth, only two questions matter: do we/they love Christ more than before? do we/they love other people more than before? These metrics matter more because they are less easily taken away. Age, illness, and disability can destroy productivity, but not love. Maybe that’s why God makes love necessary for Christians in a fallen world, but not productivity.
Conclusion: Yes, you should take it personally
I’m sure there are other examples. These are three thoughts of the top of my head, and I hope they help in some modest way. My aim is not at all to criticise, but to make sure that we don’t succumb to the temptation to make Christianity — sorry, following Jesus — about ideas or ideologies. We impoverish ourselves when we don’t make as much as we can of the fact that God did not bring us into a world of abstractions, ideas, or ideologies, but into the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. Christ made God known that we may know him and be known, that we might live in him and he in us. As Jesus himself put it: ‘I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.’ (John 17:26)