Then a tiny streak of gold began to run along his white marble back—then it spread—then the color seemed to lick all over him as the flame licks all over a bit of paper—then, while his hindquarters were still obviously stone, the lion shook his mane and all the heavy, stone folds rippled into living hair. Then he opened a great red mouth, warm and living, and gave a prodigious yawn. . . .
Everywhere the statues were coming to life. The courtyard looked no longer like a museum; it looked more like a zoo. . . . And instead of the deadly silence the whole place rang with the sound of happy roarings, brayings, yelpings, barkings, squealings, cooings, neighings, stampings, shouts, hurrahs, songs and laughter.
—C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe[i]
This passage from C. S. Lewis’s epic Chronicles of Narnia series gives me chills every time I read it. Narnia, under a deep freeze as the result of the White Witch’s spell, was emerging from winter. Having defeated death at the Stone Table with a “deeper magic,” Aslan now rescued from death the creatures calcified into statues by the witch.
This image of breathing life into death easily calls to mind the spiritual rebirth we experienced as Christians when Christ, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, invaded our lives. Prior to salvation, we didn’t think we were dead, but we were. Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 that without Christ we existed as walking dead, spiritual corpses without any ability to please God. We walked with pleasure in the ways of our father Satan, and had no life within us. But Christ, through the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, breathed life into us. The same life-giving breath that formed life at the dawn of creation has now breathed new life into His fallen creatures.
This creation, redemption, and renewal are the story of Christianity. But I wonder if the church has lost this message in some ways. I’m not speaking about a turn to heresy or those who reject the exclusivity of Christ, but I’m speaking of a development among those of us who hold fast to the gospel. We are tempted to promote a kind of near-gospel that offers blueprints for personal renewal without an emphasis on repentance made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
This Dr. Phil Jesus is attractive in a self-help society. Jesus as a self-help star who doesn’t renew us from the inside but offers a set of vague moral principles by which we can work our way to success. This Jesus is not the one who breathed life into dead creatures but the one who offers a serene pathway to your best life now.
At this point you might ask, “Doesn’t this Jesus offer life principles?” Or you may also ask, “Don’t Christian principles work at times for non-Christians who follow them?” The answer is yes. Christian doctrine holds that all truth is God’s truth. Theologians have long held that the world lives under a concept called “common grace.” This is God’s favor and providence over all of humanity, even those who have no faith in Christ. For instance, a businessman may run his business according to the book of Proverbs—wise and honest, with integrity and fairness—and yet may have never read that book. Along the way he has gleaned useful principles for life, whether from his upbringing, from his application of commonly held best practices, or by learning from wise teachers. And so he applies what can be found in the Bible without even reading the Bible. This is common grace.
Similarly, a husband and wife may enjoy a long, fruitful, intimate marriage and yet not be believers. They apply the things to their marriage that the Bible says makes marriages hold—fidelity, forgiveness, grace—and yet are as lost in their sin as anyone else. How does this happen? It is by God’s favor upon fallen creatures living in His world, under His domain, according to the way He ordered the world to work.
The Bible has good principles by which to live; it is the best collection of wisdom in the world, written by the One who created the world. So in this sense Christians should live by the Bible and be unashamed to declare that God’s way is the best way.
And yet in another sense, the Bible was not given to us by God primarily as a book of wisdom, though wisdom is contained in its pages. It’s not primarily a book of principles, though life principles can be found in its pages. It’s not primarily a self-help manual, though self-improvement can be found in its pages. The Bible is one, long, continuous story, woven through various authors and genres and thousands of years of history. It’s a story that begins with the world as it was intended to be, good and beautiful, perfect and innocent. It’s the story of who we are as humans, created by God in His image and for His glory. It’s the story of a tragic fall and a heroic rescue.
For most of my Christian life, I didn’t read the Bible this way. I’m grateful for the Bible teaching I received growing up, the gospel message proclaimed to me, the Bible verses I memorized, and the hymns we sang in church that have stuck to my soul as an adult. Growing up, much of the preaching I heard was essentially this—how Jesus could improve your life followed with five steps to do better in a particular area of your life.
I didn’t get this message from a liberal, mainline denominational church. I grew up in an ultraconservative church. The way we looked at the Bible was not as God’s unfolding revelation of Himself, the story of His work through time and history to redeem His people. We looked at the Bible as a sort of guidebook for life with a way to get to heaven in the end. It was better than Dr. Phil or Dr. Laura or even Dr. Dobson, mainly because its words were inspired by God and therefore perfect. What we missed, however, was the grand narrative. Thankfully I heard the salvific message of the gospel, but there was so much more of its riches and depth that I missed.
I’m afraid much of our preaching and teaching in the church is like this: merely good, practical, helpful messages by godly men but that could easily be preached at a corporate business seminar. I’m afraid many of our pulpits lack the kind of Christocentric, gospel-saturated, bloody-cross-infused preaching that reminds us daily that Jesus didn’t come primarily to slightly improve us, but to breathe new life into the walking dead.
A Righteous Man Reborn
This kind of proclamation animated Jesus’s ministry. This is why I think the most shocking story in the Gospels may not be His walking on water, feeding thousands with a little boy’s lunch, or even raising Lazarus from the dead. Those events proved that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the promised one prophesied by the prophets of old. But to me, the most surprising narrative is Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus in John 3.
Nicodemus might have been the most admired religious figure in Israel. If you combined all of the warm vibes our culture holds for Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, and Pope Francis, you’d have Nicodemus. He was described as “the teacher” in Israel (John 3:10). When people had spiritual questions, it was Nicodemus who gave the answers. If anyone had a lifeline to God, surely it was this revered teacher of the Scriptures.
And yet in John 3 we find Nicodemus, the learned scholar, teacher, and spiritual leader, asking questions of Jesus, the suddenly popular carpenter’s son from Nazareth. There was something in Jesus’s message of repentance that was different than anything Nicodemus had heard. And sure enough, when Nicodemus asked these questions Jesus confronted him not with esoteric religious philosophy, but with his yet-unseen personal spiritual crisis.
Jesus pointed his finger at Nicodemus and said, “You must be born again.” This doesn’t seem like much for us who live in the West. Ever since Jimmy Carter employed it in his quixotic presidential campaign, “born-again” language has been part of our modern vernacular.
But to Nicodemus these words were a cold dose of reality and kind of a shock. After all, if anyone needed to be reborn, it was probably those crooked tax collectors at the temple, the unrepentant adulterers, and definitely the Romans who occupied the land God promised to Israel. But Nicodemus? He didn’t think he needed rebirth.
Nicodemus was already reborn, or so he thought. He was spiritual, religious, virtuous, moral. But had Nicodemus been reading the Scriptures closely, or how they were meant to be read with a redemptive-historical focus, he would have seen that the narrative of the Old Testament revealed mankind’s dangerous paradox. Scripture reveals a moral law from God that demands perfection as well as mankind’s inability to perform that law because of our depraved condition. The prophets foretold a day when a Messiah would come and establish his kingdom. The features of this kingdom would be a call to repentance and the regeneration of the heart. Ezekiel said God would come in power not simply to rescue Israel from its oppressors, but primarily to give them a new heart (Ezek. 36:26).
Jesus saw past Nicodemus’s outward religiosity and into his sinful heart. He knew that what Nicodemus needed from Him was not just an updated reading on the Old Testament law, a few pointers on how to better serve his people, or a list of best spiritual practices. Nicodemus needed what those statues in Narnia needed. He needed the breath of life from God.
Despite his performance, his knowledge of Old Testament Scriptures, and his status as an admired spiritual guru, Nicodemus was no closer to the kingdom of God than Barabbas, that dangerous criminal being held in solitary confinement somewhere in Jerusalem. Nicodemus needed what everyone needs, the sovereign work of the Spirit of God breathing resurrection and life into what was once dead. Nicodemus could apply principle after principle—even principles found in the pages of Scripture—and still be no closer to the kingdom of God.
What separates genuine Christianity from every other attempt at reaching God is that it aims not for the moral self-improvement of sinners, but the resurrection of sinners to new life. This is not just a distinctive feature, it’s a whole new paradigm.
Jesus didn’t come to be a great teacher and motivator. The stories of Scripture are not merely for our inspiration and enlightenment. We are fallen creatures created to glorify God but willingly worshiping ourselves and our false gods. Unless there is a movement of the Spirit of God within us, we are hopeless and helpless in the world. This is why Paul, that learned Jew, said that if Christ did not rise from the dead, “we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19 KJV). He knew that the human condition is inherently corrupted. We cannot help ourselves, improve ourselves, or save ourselves. Only Christ in his power can save us.
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002), 168.
Daniel Darling is the Vice President for Communications for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). For five years, Dan served as Senior Pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and is the author of several books, including Teen People of the Bible, Crash Course, iFaith, Real, and his latest, Activist Faith. He is a weekly contributor to Parse, the blog of Leadership Journal. His work has been featured in evangelical publications such as Relevant Magazine, Homelife, Focus on the Family, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, . Dan's op-eds have appeared on CNN.com's Belief Blog, Faithstreet, Washington Times, Time, Huffington Post and other newspapers and opinion sites. He has guest-posted on leading blogs such as Michael Hyatt, Jeff Goins, and Jon Acuff. He is a featured blogger for Crosswalk.com, Churchleaders.com, Covenant Eyes, and others.
Daniel Darling, The Original Jesus, Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2015. Adapted by author. http://www.bakerpublishinggroup.com