“If someone were to ask me how to become a Christian, I’m not sure what I would tell them, except to follow Christ.”
A friend of mine on Facebook made this remark to me yesterday in response to some discussion on what is known as “The Sinner’s Prayer” (a prayer you pray asking Jesus into your heart). I had remarked, along side some other believers, that that prayer is dangerous and for lack of better terms, crappy. The gentleman had inquired as to why we would say that and that is wherein he wrote the sentence above, which prompted some quick thoughts in response. I wanted to elaborate on what I had said to him in response to what he asked.
Before I share that, however, I must dive into what we call the Gospel. As many following along here or on the Facebook page may know, I have been diving into N.T. Wright’s work as well as Michael Gorman’s. So the question of “what is the Gospel?” has been coming up and is fresh in my mind, which was good since I saw my friend’s remark about what to tell someone if they asked about how to become a Christian. In order to address that, we must focus shortly on what the Gospel is.
Without being too theological and verbose, for me the Gospel is the answer to the promises that God made to Abraham. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in the Messiah, who we know is Jesus Christ. God’s plan for the world through Israel (to borrow Wright’s language) was to sort out what had gone horribly wrong with humanity, to make right that which was wrong. The Gospel is Christ, and more specifically the faithfulness of Christ (more on that in a moment). The story of Christ is the long-awaited fulfillment and coming of a new age. It is the end of an exile. An exile filled with sin and death. The Gospel is God’s breaking into the world via Christ to set it right, to bring about the beginning of the new creation. As N.T. Wright says, it is a rescuing from sin and death and corruption and an invitation to look upon Jesus and to participate in His death, burial, and resurrection in a very real, deeply sacramental way.
The Faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel
I recently shared a post on the blog with a video of N.T. Wright speaking about the Gospel. In it, he is asked what he would share if someone asked him to share the Gospel with them in a few short minutes. He makes a great point I want to mention here that the Gospel can’t be reduced to such, and I certainly am not attempting to paint a full picture here, but merely give some thoughts on how I would do it if I had just a few moments to speak with someone about it.
N.T. Wright said that “at the center of it [being asked what the Gospel is in a few moments] must be Jesus Christ. Not a theory, not an idea, but actually something about this Person.” He gives a beautiful illustration that the front door of the House of the Christian Faith is Jesus Christ Himself; without Christ it all means nothing. He remarks that it has to do with who He was, the meaning of His death, His Resurrection, etc. It is through Jesus that God has opened the door to the new world. Wright encourages us to say a quick prayer, keep it about Jesus and something about what God has done through Christ. It is now that we can turn to the faithfulness of Christ is the Gospel.
If I were to share the Gospel with someone in passing, in a few short minutes, on their deathbed, or when asked in general, I would begin with the faithfulness of Christ. What do I mean by that? Let’s examine what St. Paul says in Galatians 2:16:
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.”
This is where I’d begin. I would explain as quickly as possible, and as simply, that through Christ God is reconciling the world (II Cor. 5:19). God’s ideal vision for the Israelites was that they’d be a vehicle through which He could redeem the world. Having given them the Law, they were to be His people and He their God. He entered into a covenant with them and has remained faithful to His covenant. Again, His plan all along was to bring about the True Israelite who would fulfill the covenant and the Law, which in turn opens the door for Jew and Gentile to belong to God’s family. The Israelites being as sinful as anyone else failed to fulfill their covenant role and the Law.
The Messiah enters.
It is through the Messiah’s faithfulness to fulfill the Law and the Covenant that we are justified. The Orthodox Study Bible has this to say about Gal. 2:16, “The faith of Christ IS the Gospel…It is the faith of Christ-His beliefs, His trust, His obedience-that justifies us, not our faith as such.” The Messiah breaks into humanity to rescue it from sin, corruption, and death by defeating those on the Cross and in His Resurrection, which liberates us from the power of sin and death. Christ, as Gorman says, fulfilled the vertical and horizontal demands of the Law in our place, so that the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled and the door to the new creation is opened.
It is not our faith, which comes and goes, that justifies us. It is the faithfulness of the Messiah that is the Gospel. It is through His faithfulness that we are declared right and found in favor with God. It is through His faithfulness that we can participate in His death, burial, and resurrection.
How Are You Saved?
Back to “The Sinner’s Prayer” aspect of the story here. Herein lies my issues with that prayer: For me it is flawed because it treats salvation like a one time event and it is not. I also do not differentiate between being saved [or getting saved] and baptism. For me baptism is being saved and it is through the grace of the waters that God save you or better yet it is God’s grace in the water. Salvation is a continual life event but to begin it one cannot just simply utter a prayer.
To be saved is to be obedient to Christ and what He taught and what the Church has taught. It is to recognize that God has done something in the world through the Messiah and that you want to partake of Christ’s faithfulness by being baptized into His death and raised with Him in resurrection via baptism. It is accepting Him as messiah and participating in His sufferings [and suffering love] which redeem us. It is cruciform theosis! We are in Christ and it’s His faith that justifies us and liberates us and vindicates us. We then are free to carry on with good works. We die daily to ourselves and work out our salvation daily.
This is what it means to be saved. We are saved by the grace of God in baptism, we are being saved by the grace of God in dying daily to ourselves, being crucified with Christ, suffering with Him, while the Spirit restores us to union with God, and we will be saved, Lord willing, in the Final Judgment. Salvation is not a one-time event. We are transformed by the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection. The faithfulness of Christ is what opens the door to salvation up for us. This is nothing we can do our own! It is a gift given to us by Christ, which we reject or embrace.
Become One with Christ
In summary, my friend was right when he said, “I’m not sure what I would tell them, except to follow Christ.” At least he is headed in the right direction. It is about Christ. I would say, to use stronger language, that is about being crucified with Christ. Justification is for St. Paul by faith, but that faith has to be understood as co-crucifixion with Christ. It is direct participation not just imitation in the death, burial, and resurrection with Christ. The old man dies; the new man is born! Theosis is the continuing work of the Spirit in our lives to conform us to Christ and to unite us with God. If I were to be asked about the Gospel, I’d say it is about Christ, His faithfulness, our participation in that faithfulness, and cruciform theosis to become one with Christ in a very real way. This is not a thorough treatment, full exegesis of any texts, or an holistic definition. There is much more that could be said, but I was prompted by Wright’s thoughts and the conversation with my friends, so I wanted to reflect on this. It is sometimes a question that may surprise us, but we should contemplate what we’d do if we were asked “what is the Gospel?” or told “tell me about God”.
I would share with them that it is about bringing our story into the story of Christ, which is one of faithfulness, love, courage, redemption, reconciliation, restoration, and more than anything, one of hope and beauty for us sinners.