A businessman embarks on a journey in the first-class cabin of a train in Spain. To his delight, he finds that he’s sitting next to the famous artist Pablo Picasso. Gathering up his courage, he turns to the master and says, “Señor Picasso, you are a great artist, but why is all your art, all modern art, so screwed up? Why don’t you paint reality instead of these distortions?” Picasso hesitates for a moment and asks, “So what do you think reality looks like?”
The man grabs his wallet and pulls out a picture of his wife. “Here, like this. It’s my wife.”
Picasso takes the photograph, looks at it, and grins. “Really? She’s very small. And flat, too.”(1)
Leadership means defining reality, and reality means more than a simple two-dimensional snapshot of the world, even though the snapshot may be true. We have too often reduced the wonder and majesty of the gospel of Jesus Christ to a simple snapshot from a wallet while trying to present him to a world that sees reality more like Picasso. While a true representation as far as it goes, it so reduces the gospel that it easily misses its greatness.
Here is the fundamental challenge as we make disciples: the gospel, this most amazing idea and truth in history, is not only for unsaved people to begin a life with Christ. No, salvation opens the door to go deeper. I once thought of Christianity as a descent up to the mountain of sanctification, a climb based far on my ability than God’s grace through Christ; the harder I worked to I scale the peak, the more I would improve at cussing less and lusting less and while gaining ground at witnessing, giving more, and so on. But now I see that the way to growth comes from plunging into the ocean of gospel truth found throughout the pages of the Bible. The more we grasp the power of this creating God, see the evil of our own depravity, and grasp the wonder of his grace, resulting in a greater understanding of his glory, the more we will help equip students to live well.
In Luke 24, the risen Lord explained the central idea of Scripture in his conversation with the disciples on the road to Emmaus in verses 44-48. In this passage, he told them everything in Moses, the Psalms, and the Prophets, meaning all the Scripture they had, must be fulfilled. And then he told them what these Scriptures say: that the Christ must suffer and rise from the dead, and that repentance and the forgiveness of sins will be preached to the nations. Jesus makes crystal clear the redeeming mission of God through all of Scripture. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul related Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection to all the Scriptures.
The Mission of God
The mission of God is central to all of Scripture, all of creation, all of history, and therefore, all of life. Jesus and his work on the cross speaks to everything from attitude (see Philippians 2) to forgiveness (see Ephesians 4), from how we understand finances (see 2 Corinthians 8) to how we deal with sexual temptation (see 1 Corinthians 6), or from how we deal with disciple-making (see 2 Timothy 2:1-2) to how we understand marriage (see Ephesians 5:25). Our encouragement in facing persecution for Christ is the gospel (see Acts 4:23-31), and our instruction in how to live all of life (see 2 Corinthians 10:9-21) is found in the gospel. Give disciples the message of God so they can spend their lives living out the mission of God.
A few years ago, I took a different approach to looking at Scripture and sharing the good news with others. I shifted from trying to spit out the most basic propositions in as brief a summary as I could, to telling them the great, epic Story of the gospel seen in Scripture. I realized most people I talked with had no clear idea of what the Bible’s message is, but saw it as a reference book for problems or a guide for morality. Where does the gospel start? With a virgin birth? At the cross? According to Luke 24:44-48, Jesus said all Scripture from Moses forward points to his work on the cross. Unlike Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which separates the Bible into individual stories for moral training, for Jesus there is one message in Scripture, all of Scripture, and that message is the gospel.
When viewing the gospel from the perspective of all of Scripture, we see four parts to the plotline: creation, fall, rescue, and restoration. We have tended to share somewhat about the Fall and focused specifically on the rescue, or redemption. And indeed, this is part of the heart and soul of the Gospel Story. But in a post-Christian world, we must see the gospel in its fullness. In his book The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons observes that we too often see a truncated gospel that faithfully offers the fall and redemption parts of the Story, but largely ignores the aspects of creation and restoration.
Communicating the Story
The challenge we face today is a challenge of theology, not ability. We have not failed to communicate, but we have communicated too often and too well a superficial faith that contradicts the heart of the gospel, which calls us not to a minimal standard but to the surrender of all of life. “We are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe,” Kenda Creasy Dean has astutely observed regarding student ministry: “Namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us’—which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.”(2) She goes on to note how most students in our churches today cannot articulate clearly the fundamentals of our faith. While we obsess with lengthy series on dating or other topics, have we failed to give them a foundation in the glorious Gospel Story?
The opposite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is gospel-centered theism. We must help believers see that they are not the center of the universe and that God does not exist to please them. We have to help them get a grasp of the sovereign God who does not exist to make them happy and otherwise leave them alone. We have to move from a snapshot to help believers and unbelievers see the great drama of redemption.
(1) Adapted from Seth Godin, Linchpin (New York: Penguin, 2010), 2.
(2) Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 12.
Alvin L. Reid is husband to Michelle and father to Josh and Hannah. He is a professor of evangelism and student ministry at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as a popular speaker and author. He has written numerous books on student ministry, evangelism, missional Christianity, and spiritual awakenings. Follow him on Twitter: @AlvinReid.
[This was adapted from As You Go: Creating a Missional Culture of Gospel-Centered Students by Alvin L. Reid, published by NavPress. Used with permission from the author.]