Some traditions refer to the transformative work of the gospel as “progressive sanctification,” but the application of that concept is almost exclusively individual and “spiritual.” For those traditions, the gospel begins a spiritual work in the heart of a person to make that person increasingly less likely to sin, less likely to think sinful thoughts, and more likely to see the world the way God does. There are biblical reasons for the choice of the word “sanctification,” but I prefer a different term for the work of the gospel in a person’s life: “gospel integration.”
I use gospel integration because it clarifies for me that the real issue is how deeply and how thoroughly the gospel has made an impact in a person’s life. Furthermore, although progressive sanctification is a term appropriate only in reference to an individual, gospel integration can refer to the condition of a single person, a group of people, or even society as a whole. Finally, gospel integration remembers that the power of transformation is in the gospel itself. The work of a human is not necessarily to do the transformation but to more fully integrate the gospel into his or her life. The calling Paul had was not specifically to get people to believe a doctrine or even specifically to get them to obey. The calling he had was to the advancement of a transformative gospel—a gospel that had power to transform both individuals and communities spiritually and socially.
Therefore, in the spirit of the Apostle Paul, the job of any individual Christian and the job of any church is to work toward deeper gospel integration, integrating the truth and the implications of the gospel more deeply and more fully into ourselves, into each other, and even into our society at large where appropriate. Let’s start by considering what it means for the gospel to move deeply into an individual person.
The Gospel In Us
Recall the definition of the gospel I gave at the end of the last chapter:
Jesus, the Son of God, came into the world to demonstrate the Kingdom in power, to sacrifice himself for our salvation, and to call people to follow him in repentance, faithfulness, obedience, imitation, and the work of reconciliation.
It should be obvious that any true recipient of this gospel will be an individual who is overwhelmed by the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, the immensity of his power and his sacrifice, the promise of the Kingdom, and the abject atrocity of human sinfulness. As this awareness sinks more deeply into a person’s life, the first result we should see is a deep humility followed by an ever-increasing sense of awe. These two things are summarized by the foundational Christian words of repentance and worship. They go hand in hand. Repentance is the momentary decision to relinquish your own authority over yourself followed by the ongoing, lived-out reaffirmation of that decision. Worship is the continual recognition that you don’t deserve authority over your own life because there is one whose power, wisdom, and glory so overshadows your own that any thought of self-determination becomes unthinkable. Every recipient of grace begins the journey with repentance and continually re-expresses that repentance through ongoing worship.
Secondly, the work of the gospel in a person’s life always leads into a life of faithfulness, not mere belief. True faithfulness, as understood in the way of Paul, James, and Jesus, is not about assenting to specific statements of doctrine. Faithfulness is not about developing increasing confidence in statements of theological understanding. Rather, as the gospel becomes more integrated in a person’s life, that person becomes more consistent in the expressions of gospel life. Faith may start like a mustard seed, but good seeds are those that endure, and good seeds that endure bear fruit. This endurance is not to be understood merely as regular church attendance or an ongoing affirmation that you are still a Christian or even success at converting others. No, faithful endurance, according to our definition of the gospel above, expects a person to bear at least three specific kinds of fruit: the imitation of Jesus, obedience to his teaching, and participation in his work of reconciliation.
Thirdly, the work of the gospel in a person’s life will always produce these various things in balance. An integrated gospel, deeply integrated into a person’s life will not produce unbalanced fruit. A person cannot imitate Jesus while failing to obey the words of Jesus. A person can’t truly recognize Jesus as the Son of God without joining him in is work of reconciliation. Nevertheless, we must recognize our own propensity to display an out-of-balance gospel. Without diligence, we can get ourselves misaligned from the true gospel by focusing too much on one or another of its aspects. Our human sinfulness is inclined to make us prioritize one fruit over the others. We might emphasize obedience to Jesus’ teaching to the neglect of any imitation of his character. We might work toward some form of reconciliation without any emphasis on his actual teaching. On top of that, there will still be those voices in the church telling us to forget about all the behaviors and just focus on the belief itself. That voice will accuse us of living by Law instead of Grace. But this tension is merely the tension of the gospel finding deeper integration in our collective lives. Without the different voices pushing on each other, we might find ourselves, because we are sinful and selfish, losing one part of the gospel for the sake of another, but with the different voices, we become a family where iron sharpens iron and wounds from a friend can be trusted, a family where the gospel retains its doctrinal accuracy and its transformative potency; that is, if we are committed to remaining in dialogue with each other.
The Gospel In Dialogue
Throughout church history, churches have disagreed over the doctrinal mechanics of repentance and forgiveness or over the specific methods of worship, but our biggest divisions have always been over the fruits of the gospel. That is, our divisions flow from how we understand the implications of the gospel and how we understand how the gospel is supposed to affect a person’s life. What does it mean for an individual to imitate Jesus? What does it mean for individuals and churches to obey his teaching? What does it mean for followers to participate in his work of reconciliation? What does it mean to “proclaim” the gospel to the world? How should we prioritize these different efforts when they seem to conflict?
Asking the question of “when they conflict” never occurred to me before recently. Based on my upbringing, I thought I had a good handle on what it meant to bear gospel fruit. It was always my conviction that the imitation of Jesus, obedience to his teaching, and participating in the work of reconciliation were all basically the same thing. Collectively, they meant living lives of personal holiness, living in fellowship (reconciled relationships) with other believers, telling other people how to be saved, and then teaching them also to live lives of holiness, fellowship, and saving others. But as I grew, I began to learn that other church traditions have different convictions that are just as biblical as my own. To some, it’s obvious that imitating Jesus includes promoting societal holiness. To others, imitating Jesus includes promoting societal wholeness. Some think it means working for social justice or racial reconciliation. Some think it means performing miraculous healings. Interaction with others challenged my thinking and helped me realize that my understanding of Jesus was too narrow. I needed their input to help me see Jesus more clearly. Even though my church tradition found a way to understand and prioritize the fruit of the gospel, others did it differently, and I increasingly realized my need to learn from them.
The gospel is more than doctrine, and it’s more than behavior. The gospel is a union of spiritual, personal, and social. Even as Jesus is God in flesh, so too the gospel is more than one thing. It’s even more than any one human person can fully comprehend. Knowing what I mean by the gospel is helpful, but without the dialogue with the larger body of Christ as informed by both Scripture and lived experience, my knowledge of the gospel will always be weak, and its integration in my life will always be shallow. If I want the gospel to be deeply integrated in my life and ministry, if I want it to bear the fruit in me it should bear, then I need to be in conversation with other Christians who will challenge me.
There are questions I will never be able to answer on my own from my own narrow perspective. Should we help people find spiritual reconciliation first, or should we first work toward various kinds of societal reconciliations? Is it enough for us to encourage Christians to embrace personal holiness, or should we also use our influence to promote holiness in the society at large? I should not attempt to answer these questions on my own. I need other Christians to help me keep in balance a gospel that I am inclined to shape according to my own whims.
Sadly, the history of the church is filled with stories of dialogue ended rather than engaged, and the American church follows firmly in that flow of history. We have not taken advantage of our opportunities for conversation. Instead of using a gospel foundation to drive us closer to each other in addressing the overall church dilemma, we Christians have chosen to avoid the problem by keeping things vague. Nearly every church of every background would agree that the role of the gospel-centered community is to do a few things well: Worship God, Disciple People (help them grow spiritually), Fellowship (express mutual love and support to the family of God), and Minister to the World. But by keeping the words vague, we can pretend we are in agreement when we are not, and we can redefine the words whenever we want to strengthen the lines of division. Even when we put together clear definitions, they usually involve only the first three, and if we are honest, we don’t have a clue what to really do with the last one. What does it mean to minister to the world? What does individual ministry look like? What does corporate ministry look like? What does it mean to imitate Jesus and work for reconciliation as individuals and as churches in this world? What would multi-church cooperation even mean?
To prevent these questions from getting too uncomfortable, we just stay isolated. In our siloed Christian enclaves, we congregate with others who see the gospel the way we do and we come up with specific strategic answers to our own specific questions. Some churches decide to focus on individual spiritual conversion—helping individuals become followers of Jesus, building them up in the gospel, and deploying them to reach other individuals. Some churches decide to focus on the work of societal conversion—creating a society that increasingly looks like the Kingdom of Heaven, embraces its values and morals, and promotes Jesus directly. Other churches and individuals attempt a middle path—helping individual Christians embrace some aspects of the gospel and working to advance some Christian values in some areas of the broader society. However, in most cases, whichever path a church takes, even one of the middle ones, only leads to cooperation with other churches that share the same kind of path. In truth, this kind of cooperation is just a form of isolation.
We further isolate ourselves by playing the “everyone is entitled to their own opinion” game. Now, as I will discuss later, every church has its own calling when it comes to how to do its part of the Great Commission, but the work of the gospel, the unity of the Body of Christ, and the mission to reach the world are too important to leave to chance. The gospel intends to be integrated deeply in our lives and to result in much fruit being borne from our lives both individually and globally, and it behooves the Christian church to cooperate in that effort! The gospel calls Christians and churches to bear our fruit together in unity. Even if we do not agree on all strategies, should we not at least agree on the gospel and its overall application?
Finally, the division among Christians based on echo chambers and vague speech has resulted in a new animosity. We might not agree on the specific applications of the gospel, but should we not stay engaged in the conversation with one another as iron sharpening iron? We have not done that. One perspective demonizes the other as watering down the gospel while the latter accuses the former of having a dead faith. One perspective embraces an uncritical activism while the other accuses them of being too “political” and shuts down further conversation. But the conversation, contentious as it may be, must happen because the integration of the gospel is too important a thing to be misunderstood and the unity of the church is too important a thing to be lost.
The Acts 15 Path
As I see it, Christians today are in a similar place to where we were back in the earliest days of the church.
In Acts 15, we learn of a dispute that arose when some Christians from Jerusalem arrived in Antioch and began to teach the church that before a person could be a real Christian, that person needed to become a Jew. Specifically, the men needed to be circumcised. It was a dispute about how deeply the gospel changed things or should change things, and it was such a problem that Antioch sent a delegation including Barnabas and Paul south to Jerusalem where a counsel was convened to address the issue. After much conversation, after strong words from Peter and Paul, and I’m sure after many words from those promoting circumcision, James, the brother of Jesus, summarized the conclusion of the council this way:
“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
Acts 15:19-21 NIV
Applying the gospel to the new reality of Gentiles coming to faith led to a conflict of opinions. Some thought that circumcision and living by the Laws of Moses were central components of faithfulness to God. Others saw Jewish laws as peripheral or even canceled. What should the early church do? One option of course is to let everyone have his own opinion. There could be some churches that ask everyone to be circumcised, there could be other churches that don’t. There could be some churches that say, “make your own decision if circumcision is right for your own family,” and other churches that say, “here’s what the Scripture says on the topic.”
Is it really worth all the potential division to try to come up with one approach? Isn’t it better to “keep the unity of the Spirit” by letting everyone just do their own thing? Or is it possible that some deeply practical issues, unaddressed by existing Scripture, should be deeply addressed by deeply concerned people?
After a great amount of dialogue (arguing, I’m sure) and prayer, James gave a summary of three behaviors all Christians were encouraged to embrace:
- Christians should abstain from food sacrificed to idols.
- Christians should abstain from sexual immorality.
- Christians should abstain from eating blood.
It’s notable that they came to an agreement that left out circumcision but did embrace other specific items from Jewish Law. Why would they choose these specific behaviors? Thankfully, these early leaders actually gave their reasoning. Their stated reason for these recommendations was that people everywhere (especially the Jewish Christians) already had consciences formed by the Law of Moses and these three behaviors were a minimal concession toward people of that conscience.
These three guidelines didn’t last forever, though. Years later, as the gospel continued to progress throughout the ancient world, Paul reached areas that were not so dominated by a Mosaic conscience, and in those contexts, he said completely different things about the Jewish dietary restrictions. In fact, he actually claimed they were bad rules—merely human rules:
Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
1 Timothy 4:2-5 NIV
Paul was claiming that God’s new word (probably through the teaching of Jesus and the vision given to Peter on the roof) had consecrated all food and therefore had undone the dietary restrictions of the Jewish law. In this statement, Paul eliminated two of the original three guidelines, and reduced them to one. In fact, Paul often rejected or reinterpreted the dietary commands, but he never stopped vigorously defending the prohibition against sexual immorality. Therefore, our takeaway from Acts 15 must be something that goes beyond the three specific injunctions. Our lesson is not to be found in the three guidelines but in the values undergirding those guidelines. Those values are informative to us today as we try to formulate a foundation for a united, gospel-focused church. I’ll mention four.
First, the early church recognized that some issues are central and others are peripheral. Remember the motivating issue was circumcision, but the counsel didn’t even mention it in the letter they sent out to the new Gentile Christians. Instead, they mentioned other issues that were more important, issues that were more central. Clearly, they had an idea that some things were central to the Christian life (e.g. making it easy for people who are ”turning to God”) and other things were peripheral.
Secondly, the early church leaders were unafraid to call some things sin while also realizing that some things are contextual. They never said eating meat sacrificed to an idol was a sin, only that it violated the widespread context of people who understood the Law of Moses. That means even they considered those commands to be contextual, and Paul reaffirmed the contextual status of those dietary commands. Eating meat sacrificed to an idol might be sinful, but it depended on the context (see Romans 14:22-23). However, when it came to sexual immorality, there was no equivocation. Every New Testament writer agreed and reaffirmed that sexual behavior outside of a proper marriage (see 1 Corinthians 5 & 7) is sinful every time in every context, and Paul was especially unafraid to be quite blunt about it.
Thirdly, the early Christians were part of a long heritage of proclaiming God’s will to the wider world. Note that James didn’t specifically refer to the consciences of Jewish people when he mentioned the guidelines. Instead, he mentioned the broad knowledge of the Mosaic Law even in the broader society. In other words, one reason Christians should not eat meat with blood in it is that the unbelievers might be offended! The Jewish Law had been proclaimed to the wider world for generations, but Christianity was only at the beginning of that journey. Eventually, the world would come to learn more about God’s will through Jesus, but that hadn’t happened yet. The Jewish law had been proclaimed all over, and therefore, even unbelievers had their consciences marked by that Law. The same thing was about to happen again. Through the witness of the Christian church, the message of Jesus and the work of his followers would transform the broader culture. Together, by teaching and living this authentic message they would turn the world upside down.
Fourth, the early church understood the value of dialogue, consensus, and diversity. Even though Paul is sometimes quite feisty in his approach, and even though he sometimes aggressively opposes his opponents, he nevertheless endorsed a restriction in Acts 15 that he would later minimize in his ministry. In Acts 15, he accepted the dietary restrictions even though he knew they wouldn’t apply for all people at all times. He, along with the other leaders, demonstrated a willingness to hold fast to the message of Christ’s death and resurrection but to be flexible over the ways different groups of Christians lived out their faith. Even the early church knew that not every church would look the same and not every city would have the same kind of ministry. Those first Christian leaders understood that finding common ground was more important than moral uniformity.
These four principles show us how those closest to Christ chose to live out their Christianity when cultures and values came into conflict. These four principles illustrate how a doctrine can remain the same while implementations and community morals can be more fluid. In our modern world, we are facing a similar clash of cultures, and therefore, we should employ a similar set of principles.
The Questions We Must Answer
The early church, faced with its very first dilemma over how the message of the gospel interacted with the realities of the world around them, gathered together and decided to find common ground in the midst of their normal divisions. Through their efforts at dialogue, they chose to prioritize what was central and allow the peripheral to fall away. They chose to clearly label sin as sin when sin was sin but to also recognize that sometimes sin depends on the context. And finally, they realized that their message was part of a long tradition of bringing the truth of God to the people of the world. The early church decided these values would govern the interfacing of Church and society. These values should equally govern us today.
I’m sure the conference in Acts 15 wasn’t always the most pleasant to experience. I imagine that Paul and Peter were each boisterous individuals in their own right, and I bet the Jewish believers were just as set in their ways. Nevertheless, they were convinced that they had a transformative message that made deep changes to both individual and society, so they did the hard work of dialogue, and God honored their decision. I believe the church in America today—and I’m specifically singling out the evangelical camp here—needs to do this work again, but today it’s not about circumcision and dietary restrictions. Today, our work involves a complex web of questions over the church and its relationship to morality, spirituality, psychology, politics, social justice, racial reconciliation, environmental concerns, and even evangelism! The church didn’t suddenly get more complex, but the world around us is vastly more complex, and our dilemma remains the same: How should followers of Jesus interact with the world around us? Thankfully, the values expressed in Acts 15 can govern our response just as well as they did back then. All we have to do to begin is to convert the values expressed in Acts 15 into some specific questions for us today. I propose four of them.
First, because some things are central and some things are peripheral…
Which values are central to the Christian life and which are peripheral?
Secondly, because there is a difference between what is actual sin and what is a contextual concern, and because there is a difference between the expectations of a Christian and an unbeliever…
Which central values are internal to the Church only and which should Christians promote in the society at large?
Thirdly, because the calling of the church is to be engaged in the world through the work of discipleship and reconciliation, but also because methods carry their own moral force and spiritual implication…
How should we, individuals and churches, promote those values?
Fourthly, because individuals and churches each have their own calling before God…
Where is there room for disagreement?
These four questions will shape the remainder of this book.