The Need for Restoration
My friends Jonathan Storment in Abilene, TX and Josh Ross in Memphis, TN have been speaking and writing a lot about restoration. I, like they, minister among a tribe of churches called Churches of Christ. Historically, we’ve viewed ourselves as part of a “Restoration Movement”-a movement dedicated to restoring the faith and practice of the first century church. Jonathan, Josh, and others, however, are helping us see that biblical restoration is not simply about looking inward at the church and trying to restore ancient practices and beliefs. It’s more about looking outward at the world and joining God in his efforts to renew and restore broken people and broken places.
Both the church and the world are in desperate need of restoration. Writers like David Kinnaman in You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church and Rethinking Faith and UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters point out with cold clarity how the church is losing its impact on lives in an increasingly post-Christian culture. And the daily paper, Twitter feed, and nightly newscast are regular reminders of the torn and shattered world in which we live.
What do we do? On the one hand, some churches seem to ignore the question altogether. Frozen in a 1950′s way of doing church, they assume that by following “the old paths” in the way they’ve defined them, something will change. Just keep rowing–never mind that the boat’s taking on water. On the other hand, some churches look to culture to solve the issue. If the church can look enough like the world around it, it may have a fighting chance to make a comeback. (Don’t misunderstand me. I’m in favor of contextualization. What I’m talking about here is the wholesale loss of all biblical values in an effort to be “relevant”).
Perhaps we should look elsewhere. We are, after all, not the first generation to struggle with these issues. The first church did as well. One of the ironies about trying to restore the first century church is that the first century church was so messed up. Which church shall we restore? The church in Rome? They were marked by racism. The church in Corinth? Sexual sin plagued their congregation. The church in Colossae? Those Christians were pluralistic. The church in Galatia? It would be hard to find a more legalistic group than them. From its infancy, the early church was in need of restoration.
And nearly every time, the same cure was applied to what ailed the church. The cure? A gospel revival.
Notice how Paul opens and closes his letter to the church in Rome:
“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Romans 1:15 ESV)
“25 Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— 27 to the only wise God be glory” (Rom. 16:25-27 ESV)
Paul believed that what this church most needed was the gospel. The gospel would strengthen them against the weaknesses plaguing them.
Same story with the church in Corinth:
“For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.” (2 Corinthians 11:4 ESV)
At the root of the sins rampant in the Corinthian church was a unwillingness to live out the implications of the one true gospel.
What about the church in Galatia? Once again, Paul brings out the medicine of gospel:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” (Galatians 1:6 ESV)
The problem in Galatia stemmed from a lack of understanding of the gospel.
And to Christians wrestling with pluralism in Colossae, Paul brings the gospel:
“22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.” (Col. 1:22-23 ESV)
Part of the problem in Colossae stemmed from a falling away from the gospel.
What caused the deepest problems in the early church was a failure to grasp the meaning and application of the gospel. What resolved these same problems was a gospel revival. With many of his epistles, Paul was conducting gospel revival and gospel renewal.
In the forward of the book Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Jonathan K. Dodson, Crossway, 2012) Matt Chandler writes about Paul’s practice of preaching the gospel to those who already know it (kindle loc. 186). Paul does this in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. In 1 Cor. 15:1-2 Paul explains why:
“15 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”
Paul writes that the gospel is something these Christians already received—it took place in their past. But this same gospel is something “in which you now stand”—this has to do with their present and future. And, the gospel is that “by which you are being saved”—this also has to do with their present and future. Thus, Chandler writes, “The gospel is good news for our past, it continues to be good news for the present, and will remain that way for all eternity.” In other words, the gospel is not something we need just one time–prior to our baptism. It’s what is needed at all times. Jonathan Dodson goes on to write that “As it turns out, the gospel is for disciples, not just for ‘sinners’…” (kindle loc. 248).
For too long the church has treated the gospel as a medicine only needed by “those sinners out there.” The gospel is what we preach when we want to see baptism. A gospel revival is what we hold when we want to see people saved. But biblically speaking, the gospel is for us “sinners in here.” It’s what we preach when we want to see people live out their baptisms. A gospel revival is what we hold when we want to see people sanctified.
If we want to see the church restored so that it can join God’s world-restoration project, what’s needed is a gospel revival.
Michael Horton has written a description of the ailment of American churches and a prescription for overcoming that ailment. The description is found in his book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Baker Books, 2009). Horton argues that what’s missing in too many churches today is Christ and the gospel of Christ. His prescription is found in his book The Gospel-Driven Life (2009, Baker Books). Here, Horton urges the church to rediscover the gospel narrative and to allow that narrative to shape them into a cross-cultural kind of community. He writes “It is not merely that there is a gospel and then a community made up of people who believe it; the gospel creates the kind of community that is even now an imperfect preview of the kingdom’s marriage feast that awaits us.” (kindle loc. 57). He continues, “The Good News is not just a series of facts to which we yield our assent but a dramatic narrative that replots our identity.” (kindle loc. 70).
Similarly, Timothy Keller writes in Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Zondervan, 2012) that what is most needed in churches today is “gospel renewal” (pages 54-62). A renewed focus on the “affects virtually everything” the church does (page 46). Keller writes that “It is in accurate to think that the gospel is what saves non-Christians, and then Christians mature by trying hard to live according to biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our minds, hearts, and lives by believing the gospel more and more deeply as life goes on…” (page 48). He quotes D. A. Carson who writes “One of the most urgently needed things today is a careful treatment of how the gospel, biblically and richly understood, ought to shape everything we do in the local church, all of our ethics, all of our priorities.” (page 51) What’s needed for the restoration of the church and its mission in the world is a good old gospel revival.
A Broader Gospel
But this revival may not be anything like our memories of tent-meetings and gospel revivals of yesteryear. Because it turns out that not only do we need to be reminded of the importance of gospel. We need to be reminded what gospel is in the first place. The title of Richard Stearns’ book is telling: The Hole in our Gospel (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Stearns warns that the gospel is about more than just having “a personal and transforming relationship with Jesus” but is also about having “a public and transforming relationship with the world.” (kindle loc. 268). Not only has the gospel been missing from some churches. But even when it’s present in other churches, it’s incomplete. Gospel is too often framed solely in individualistic terms. We’ve forgotten the global and cosmic dimensions of gospel. Gospel become largely about me. It’s private. But biblically speaking, gospel is largely about us. It’s public. It’s as much about the restoration of the world as it is about the restoration of my soul.
The gospel is certainly about the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is part of the way in which Paul defines it in 1 Cor. 15. But it’s larger than this. We see this clearly in the four gospels. Listen to Jesus’ use of “gospel” in Mark 1:
“14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14-15 ESV).
Here, gospel is associated with the coming of the kingdom, the inbreaking of the reign of God. In fact, three times in Matthew it’s called the “gospel of the kingdom”
1)Matthew 4:23 – “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people”
2) Matthew 9:35 – “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction”
3) Matthew 24:14 – “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”
The gospel is about more than just the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s the narrative of how God’s reign was established, tarnished, and is being reestablished through the ministry of Jesus.
Paul points to this larger vision of gospel when he writes to the church in Galatia:
“7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal. 3:7-9 ESV).
Paul says that this promise to Abraham (Gen. 12 and elsewhere) was “gospel.”
In the book The Explicit Gospel (2012, Crossway) Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson write about two levels of gospel. There is the “gospel on the ground,” the micro level gospel. And, there is the “gospel in the air,” the macro level gospel. The gospel on the ground reveals how Christ’s sacrifice works at a personal level. The gospel in the air reveals how Christ’s sacrifice works at a cosmic level (kindle loc. 213).
Similarly, in Center Church (Zondervan, 2012) Timothy Keller writes that there is a way of looking at the gospel individually-what Jesus has done to get us right with God as individuals. But there is also a way of looking at the gospel globally-what God has done through Jesus to right all that’s wrong in the world (page 32). He argues that this second, larger, gospel consists of four chapters: creation (what God wants for us), fall (what happened to us and what went wrong with the world), redemption (what God has done through Jesus Christ to put things right) and restoration (how history will turn out in the end as a result) (page 43).
While the crucifixion is indeed central to the gospel, it does not exhaust gospel. Gospel is so much more. It’s the entire narrative of God’s regime toppling/ regime building plan which finds its greatest fulfillment and expression in Jesus. In How God Became King: Getting to the Heart of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012), N. T. Wright tells of a Bible study group he belonged to when he was a teenager (kindle loc. 215). The group decided to do a study on five questions about Jesus: Why was Jesus born? Why did Jesus live? Why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus rise again? And why will he return? (Wright adds that they should have considered an additional question-Why did Jesus ascend?) Wright was asked to study the question Why did Jesus live? He suddenly realized he had no idea how to answer that question. The other four seemed relatively simple to answer. But he had never truly considered “that question in the middle.” Later in life he observed that most Christian groups tend to define “gospel” primarily using those other four questions (kindle loc. 262). The gospel, to most people was “a precise statement of what Jesus achieved in his saving death (‘atonement’) and a precise statement of how that achievement could be appropriated by the individual (‘justification by faith’).” But, Wright observed, the four Gospels seemed to use the word “gospel” to refer to something more than that–something related to the question of Why did Jesus live? In other words, there’s more to gospel than we might realize.
And what’s needed is a revival of the whole gospel. Only a whole-gospel revival will bring about a whole-church restoration. Only the whole gospel presented to the whole church and allowed to shape the whole of life will enable us to once again pursue God’s restoration project on earth.
Such a revival will, according to David J. Bosch (Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Orbis, 2003)) allow the church to better define and take up its mission on earth. Bosch writes about how, historically, the church has struggled to truly understand her mission. Because “everything is mission” then “nothing is mission.” And the church has run to and fro from one fad to the next, from one view of mission to another. But a gospel renewal, according to Bosch, centers the church on her true work. A renewed focus on a larger gospel helps the church say “no” to the good and “yes” to the best.
What is that larger gospel? Bosch defines it in the manner hinted at by N. T. Wright. It’s centered on six events:
- Incarnation (manger and ministry)
- Crucifixion (cross)
- Resurrection (tomb)
- Parousia (return)
These are the same six events sprinkled throughout biblical summary statements of the importance of Christ:
John 3:16-17 – 16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
1 Cor. 15:3-8 – 3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Col. 1:15-20 – 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
Phil. 2:6-11 – 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
1 Tim. 3:16 – 16Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
Heb. 1:1-4 – 1Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Rev. 1:5-7 – and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
What kind of restoration might this gospel renewal bring? Here are just some of the many implications from three of the six gospel-events:
How Incarnation Restores the Church
Through incarnation (Jesus’ manger and ministry), at least the following took place:
- Jesus closes the distance to us because of a desire to be with us. The incarnation revealed an attitude (Jesus desired to be with us) and an action (he closed the distance to us). Jesus crossed moral chasms, cultural canyons, and relational craters to be with us. He didn’t remain safe behind the heavenly walls. He moved into our neighborhood. He drew near.
- Jesus serves and sympathizes with the lowest. In his incarnation, Jesus experienced the lowest of our lows. He knew temptation, fatigue, hunger, betrayal, disappointment, and even spiritual pits. Thus, he sympathizes with us in our lowest moments. He walked in our shoes. In addition, he served the lowest of the low. He helped children, women, tax collectors, the poor, lepers, the lame and hosts of others on the margins of life. He walked beside those whom others had forgotten.
- Jesus becomes good news through good words and good works. In his incarnation, Jesus became the good news so desperately needed through his teaching ministry (good words) and healing ministry (good works). He did not emphasize one over the other. He brought both to a broken world. For example, in Matt. 5-7 Jesus brought the good words of his Sermon on the Mount-a life-changing teaching. He followed this in Matt. 8-9 with healing and help.
- Jesus brings life before death not just life after death. Had Jesus only been interested in saving our souls and getting us to heaven, there would have been no manger. Jesus could have just arrived on the scene as an adult, walked to Jerusalem, and embraced the cross. Instead he spent three decades being present with people. He was just as interested in our here and now as he was our hereafter.
- Jesus’ ministry flows from his intimacy. Again and again, Jesus spent time alone in desolate places, connecting and communicating with his Father. His ministry to others flowed from his intimacy with the Father.
And through a sustained focus on the incarnation, the church is restored to at least the following elements of mission:
- We close the distance to others because of a desire to be with others. Often we as individuals or congregations do not have the desire to be with those of a different faith or no faith. We communicate that we wish to be separate from them. Yet the manger compels us to cultivate a desire for relationship with those so different from us. And, it compels us to close the distance to them. Further, even when we have the desire to be with others, we don’t always take the steps required to close the distance to them. As congregations, we maintain rigid traditions based more in church culture than in Scripture and these end up maintaining an unnecessary distance between us and those we hope to reach. The manger compels us to erase as many of these gaps as possible related to culture/preferences. And, as individuals we remain in our cliques and silos, rarely even connecting superficially with those around us. The manger compels us to invest time in forming relationships with neighbors and others.
- We serve and sympathize with the lowest. As individuals and congregations, we seek to walk in the shoes of others in their lowest points. And we seek to walk beside those whom others have forgotten. We sympathize with and serve those on the margins of life and those in the pits of despair.
- We become good news through good words and good works. There is a tendency for us as individuals or congregations to focus almost exclusively on one or the other. We either focus on bringing good words to the world (preaching, teaching, writing). Or we focus on bringing good works to the world (serving the poor, digging water wells, adopting orphans). The manger, however, compels us to bring both. We are to be known for both our good works and our good words.
- We bring life before death not just after death. Christianity in the Western world has gained a reputation for focusing almost solely on life after death. Preaching has emphasized heaven or hellfire. Ministries have focused on saving souls. The manger, however, calls us to also focus on the here-and-now of the people and communities around us. We are to be agents through which the kingdom breaks into the present.
- Our ministry flows from our intimacy. The manger calls us to abandon all perceived conflicts between contemplation and compassion, between inaction and action, between meditation and ministry. One flows from the other. Our Western culture prizes action and results over prayer and reflection. Yet if we wish to love others as Jesus did, we must renew our conviction that ministry to others flows from our intimacy with the Father.
How Crucifixion Restores the Church
Through crucifixion, at least the following took place:
- Jesus’ displays unlimited love for the unlovable. Simply put, we are all unlovable. At times we feel this deeply. It’s in these moments of guilt and self-doubt that we are shocked by the reality of the cross. Whereas our love for ourselves has limits, Jesus’ love for us has none. Anytime we question God’s love, we need only look to the cross. (This is sometimes called the moral influence/exemplar theory of atonement).
- Jesus conquers power with powerlessness. We are enslaved by sin and Satan. Jesus’ death, however, vanquished these foes. We’ve been liberated-not by might but by mercy; not by strength but by weakness. (This is sometimes called the Christus Victor theory of atonement).
- Jesus’ effort, not ours, earned our salvation. Christianity is spelled D-O-N-E, not D-O. It’s based on what Jesus has done, not on what we do. Jesus took our place and did for us what we could not do ourselves. Our relationship with the Father is based on grace not works. (This is sometimes called the substitutionary atonement theory).
- Jesus’ sacrifice for all creates a community for all. Jesus’ death opened access to the Father for every race, gender, and class. Despite our color, cash or country, the cross creates a community to which we all belong.
- Jesus’ persevered despite his pain. The more right an action, the more likely it will bring critique and condemnation. This was never truer than in Jesus’ life. Yet Jesus did not allow the resistance to dissuade him from what he believed to be God’s will.
- Jesus’ purpose was worth his full surrender. Jesus had a mission worth dying for. He possessed something greater than anything, even his life. Thus he willingly surrendered all for a greater purpose.
And through a sustained focus on the crucifixion, the church is restored to at least the following elements of mission:
- We display unlimited love for the unlovable. Individuals and congregations are called to display unlimited love for the unlovable. We are called to forgive rather than seek revenge. We are called to extend mercy where none exists. We live with open hands, giving love freely and generously.
- We conquer power with powerlessness. Individuals and congregations do not solve the community’s or country’s problems by storming city hall or rioting in the streets. Our hope lies not in influencing the rich and famous or the political and prestigious. Might never makes right. Instead, we adopt strategies of powerlessness-humble acts of death to self and self-denial that carry with them remarkable powers of transformation.
- We oppose all efforts to earn salvation. Individuals and congregations refuse to create communities which lean toward any form of legalism. We welcome and embrace individuals before they “get their act together” not after. We proclaim a message of grace to a world loaded down with works.
- We sacrifice to create a community for all. Racial reconciliation becomes a priority for individuals and congregations of the cross. We seek to become multi-colored and multi-racial. We engage in missions to people groups far unlike ourselves. We respect Christian perspectives from other nationalities and seek not to impose our Western practices and perspectives on Christians of other nationalities. Racism, sexism, ageism, and all other “isms” die quickly and mercilessly in our communities.
- We persevere despite the pain. Critics will not stop those who follow in the steps of the cross. The presence of criticism or condemnation, especially from other Christians, does not necessarily indicate that we’re on the wrong path. It may in fact be a sign that we are on the right path. Individuals and churches seek to fulfill God’s purposes for them despite the resistance from others.
- Our purpose is worth our full surrender. We’ve been granted a mission worth everything, even our lives. We believe there is nothing more fulfilling that God’s purposes for us. Thus we full surrender all we have and are to that mission.
How Resurrection Restores the Church
Through Jesus’ resurrection, at least the following took place
- The tomb conquers the evil we fear will conquer us. The empty tomb is the beginning of the end for every human and spiritual source of evil which we fear. Though we live in a state of already/not-yet regarding this evil’s end, we know that all forms of evil around us and within us are on their way out. Death. Disease. Dictators. Demons. Satan. Sickness. Sin. The first strike of midnight has rung. It’s only a matter of time before we see the final defeat of all that keeps us up at night.
- God brings renewal where there seems to be only ruin. This is now the hallmark of God’s way of working. He sneaks into situations marked by utter ruin and breathes into them renewal and regeneration. Prior to Sunday morning, the tomb symbolized hopelessness. Yet even there God brought renewal. There is no heart, no home, no city, no situation so ruined that it lies beyond God’s renewing power.
- Jesus’ bodily resurrection shows God’s concern for creation. There is tremendous significance to the fact that Jesus was raised with a physical body. He is no ghost. He is no apparition. Though transformed, Jesus remains a bodied being. This demonstrates God’s concern for creation in general, and the body in particular. Our existence now and in the future is a material one.
And through a sustained focus on the resurrection, the church is restored to at least the following elements of mission:
- We fear no evil as we engage in loving others. Since the tomb is the beginning of the end for all that threatens us, we now have no fear. We can engage freely and boldly in acts of charity and mission in spite of threats from spiritual and human powers.
- We participate in bringing renewal where there seems to be only ruin. We are now the sole community on earth who believes in God’s power to restore any broken person and any broken community. No sin is too strong. No devastation is too deep. No poverty is too pervasive. No corruption is too complete. There is no person who lies beyond the renewing power of God. There is no city that lies outside the renewing work of God. Though others may walk away, thinking that person, that city or that community is hopeless, we believe otherwise. We love in a way that demonstrates unequaled optimism and faith in the God of the tomb.
- We serve others in ways that benefit their physical bodies and physical surroundings. Because of the resurrection, we believe that the material world matters. Thus we minister not only in ways that save souls, but in ways that restore and honor creation in general and bodies in particular. Health and wellness, medical care, environmental concerns now become part of our larger mission. We demonstrate a comprehensive love for others.
In the book Gospel (Broadman & Holman, 2011, J. D. Greear) Timothy Keller writes in the forward about 1 Pet. 1:12:
“12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” (ESV)
Something is happening on earth that is so provocative that even the angels in heaven are captivated by it. They continue to look into it, to explore it, and meditate upon it (kindle loc. 159). How much more true is this for the church. The more we truly grasp the treasure of the gospel, the more we will long to look into it, be restored by it, and pursue its restoration mission so that others, too, will be granted this gospel treasure.