I confess that have little patience for the Jesus-junkification that is rampant among Christians in America. Visit any Christian bookstore and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find some books, but increasingly those stores are filled with dozens of products from T-Shirts to wall hangings to paintings to calendars to breath mints to greeting cards the Your Best Life Now board game (I’m not kidding). Most are emblazoned with some Scripture or Christian saying that someone has determined represents an aspect of the Christian message. Others attempt to co-opt some current cultural craze or theme for the Christian retailing market.
Some of those products touch me profoundly, some amuse me mildly, others stir wonder, as in “What in the world were they thinking?” But every so often, I am stunned by a product that is tacky and misses the Christian message by an astonishing measure. Last fall, I saw a T-Shirt emblazoned with the “easy button” from the Staples office supply store ad campaign. Only this button had the word “Jesus” on it and the slogan underneath said, ‘life’s problems / one solution: It’s just that easy.”
I had a really sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw that. Why? It is just the latest, most crass example of the “dumbing down” of the gospel in our society — and that among Christians. And I fear it is leading us towards a “gospel which is no gospel” at all, which has no Biblical basis and most importantly no power to save or change the eternal destinies of precious people.
Now, let me state some qualifiers right at the beginning of this. This whole “dumbing down” discussion has absolutely nothing to do with intellectual ability. It is not about “book smarts”, classroom accomplishments, or a person’s ability to grasp the finer points of a theological discussion. It is not a prejudicial statement about people at all. This “dumbing down” has to do with the systematic reduction of the content of the Christian message, calling and lifestyle. There is phenomenal pressure to strip the whole down to someone’s interpretation of “essential”.
And that is precisely the point. Somehow, we have gotten the idea that any person-pastor, speaker, musician or retailer has the right to reformulate the gospel in the way he or she defines as essential to get the message across or make it accessible to people. Now, many of those efforts are wonderfully well-intentioned. We see people apart from Christ, love them and long for them to know His forgiveness, life and hope. We know that “church and religion” are often confusing for people and want to help them make a connection or get a grip on Jesus. We note that the culture is awash with all sorts of spiritual options, including atheism, and want Jesus to be considered. We want to help people see that a relationship with Jesus is relevant and applicable to their real life. We want the emerging generation to see Jesus not as a dusty relic of another time, but as fully engaged in our day. Some may even be desperate to present a “cool” Jesus, especially to teenagers and college students.
There is much to applaud in those efforts. There is a love for people and a passion for those who are far from God. There is a desire for Christianity and the church to be seen as relevant to contemporary culture. And there is an urgency to make a connection between the two. All of that is good.
However, in the rush to make the gospel accessible, we have also wanted to simplify it so that secular, unchurched people can grasp it. OK. But let’s not confuse simple with simplistic.
The simple gospel is that holy God, the all-wise and just King over all, created human beings to know, love and glorify Him. (Gen. 1:27, Is.43:7, Rev. 5:11) However, all human beings rebel against God as King, favoring self-rule (also known as sin), which results in a broken relationship and places each one under an irrevocable and eternal death penalty. (Is.59:2, Jer.2;12-13, Rom. 3:23, 6:23) In infinite loving mercy and grace, God sent His only Son Jesus to live a perfect human life (the way it was intended), to die on the cross as a substitute for sinners (taking people’s death penalty on Himself) and rise again so they could have life forever. (Is. 53:1-12, Matt.1:21, Rom. 5:6-11, 1 Cor. 15:1-28, 1 Peter 3:18) Any person who will repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust Christ alone for forgiveness and recognize Him as Lord) will have a restored relationship with God, enjoying and empowered to live His life now and having the sure hope of life eternal. (Mark 1:14-15, John 3:16, 5:24, 11:25-26, Rom. 8:31-39, 10:9-10, 13, Eph. 2:4-9, 1 Peter 1:3-9)
If that’s the simple gospel, how do we dumb it down or make it simplistic?
We dumb down the gospel when we strip it of its narrative, doctrinal content and reduce it to “just choose Jesus.” Yes, there is a faith choice involved, but it is a choice with awareness of God’s authority, acceptance of personal responsibility for sin, and agreement with the Biblically revealed identity of the person and promise of Jesus.
In other words, the gospel has content. And yes, that’s doctrine. It is blatantly false to say, “Just choose Jesus and don’t worry about doctrine.” You can’t choose Jesus apart from doctrine! And it is possible that if you do, you’re choosing a false Jesus.
Why do I say that? In our rush towards the “easy button Jesus”, we have too often communicated that people can choose a Jesus on their own terms and of their own definition. So, people choose the Jesus who makes my problems better, the Jesus who makes my bank account bigger, the Jesus who makes me less afraid, the Jesus who keeps me from being lonely, the Jesus who makes me part of the church, the Jesus that my friends like, the Jesus who will fix my messes, the Jesus who most closely matches my politics, the Jesus who makes my dreams come true, etc., etc. Now, most of those longings (except the bank account one) can legitimately point a person to Jesus. But the gospel at its core is not a self-help program to get to life as I think it should be; it is to transform my life to become what God has designed it to be. It is falling on Jesus alone and trusting Him to shape my best life now and for eternity.
So, it is crucial that we equip Christians to know and have conversations about the substance of the gospel, which is centered on Jesus. No, we don’t have to rehearse the full gospel content in every conversation with a spiritually lost or seeking person. But, we do have to use the Biblical gospel as the North Star for those conversations. We are always tracking in that direction, and pointing our friends there.
On the other hand, we also dumb down the gospel when we reduce it to a mere outline of the doctrinal content. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but hang with me. Again, in an attempt to make the gospel accessible, people have put the gospel into the form of scientific formulae. The Four Spiritual Laws, Evangelism Explosion’s diagnostic questions and guided conversation, FAITH and other evangelism plans more have placed the gospel in a set order of statements and affirmations. The clear implication is that if a person gives the “correct” answer a question or affirms belief in the doctrinal statement, they are encountering and responding positively to the gospel.
But the gospel is never just about the affirmation of Biblical truth. Lots of people can answer the right belief questions on the Barna surveys. But does that signal a residual memory of the Christian story or dependent expression of faith in the Jesus to whom the truths point? Receiving the gospel involves an expression of a person’s will, which cuts to the heart. (Acts 2:37) It’s one thing to affirm “Nobody’s perfect, everybody’s a sinner”; it’s another to confess “I am a sinner, a guilty rebel before God.” (1 Tim. 1:15-16) It’s one thing to affirm “Jesus is God’s Son who died on a cross and rose again”; it’s another thing altogether to confess that “Jesus is God’s Son who died as my substitute, rose again and is my only hope for salvation” (Rom.7:24-25a)
This is where the gospel is not easy. It is easy to talk in abstract about theological ideas; it is difficult to come to grips with it personally. Confession of sin is a dagger to human pride, and is often not easy. In a pluralistic society, submission to Jesus as the exclusive way to God (John 14:6), is often not easy. In a world that celebrates personal rights and designer destinies, it is not easy to respond to a call like “lose your life so you can save it.” (Matt.16:25) The gospel simply must be pressed to the heart, so that the will responds to Jesus..
Why is it so essential that we resist the easy-button, dumbing down of the gospel in these and other directions? Because we have no warrant to redefine or reformulate the gospel of Jesus that was “once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3-4) That gospel has not changed, no matter the challenges of our contemporary situation.
Why is it so essential that we resist the easy-button, dumbing down of the gospel in these and other directions? Because we inevitably end up with another gospel. A man-made gospel. Usually a cross-less gospel which has no power at all, much less power to save. (Rom. 1:16) Listen to Paul: 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-not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed….For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. (Gal. 1:6-9,11)
Why is it so essential that we resist the easy-button, dumbing down of the gospel in these and other directions? Because it doesn’t match what Jesus Himself stated without stuttering: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matt.7:13-14) Note what is at stake-destruction or life.
If we make the gospel simplistic and so veer away from the Biblical gospel, we are responsible for placing people in mortal danger. Jesus does not take that lightly. (Matt.18:6) Now, we aren’t to make the gospel hard by adding a bunch of requirements to it-that’s legalism. The gospel Jesus gives us is hard in itself when presented with integrity. That’s why some people who heard Jesus Himself present it could not take it and walked away. (John 6:60-69) But hard or not, Jesus’ gospel is the only gospel that rescues sinners from certain death.
There is no easy-button gospel. But there is an honest, truthful, joyful, hopeful, soul-satisfying, devil-crushing, death-avoiding, life-transforming, family-saving, chain-breaking, eternity-shaping gospel of Jesus.
That is the gospel we must live, proclaim and share until our dying breath.