I don’t suppose I have any business knocking the Four Spiritual Laws. It was through the Four Spiritual Laws that I came to be a Christian back when I was in college (the first time around). And I would venture to say that a lot of you came to be Christians by way of the Four Spiritual Laws as well. So any critique of the Four Spiritual Laws on my part would be biting the hand that feeds me. But I will not let that stop me.
The problem is that what passes for the Gospel message in most of evangelical Protestant-dom, and what an awful lot of us believe to be the Gospel, is largely derived from the Four Spiritual Laws, Billy Graham, Evangelism Explosion, or some other attempt to condense all of God’s redemptive plan for humanity into a few short and memorable statements. I would like to begin by directing you to this post by Scot McKnight in which he lays out some of the problems which are associated with this view of the Gospel. Here is his outline of what these basic statements all boil down to:
Many readers of the Bible read the whole Bible through the lens of the gospel they believe and this is what that gospel looks like:
God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
But you have a sin problem that separates you from God.
The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins.
If you accept Jesus’ death, you can be reconnected to God.
Those who are reconnected to God will live in heaven with God.
You probably recognize these statements as the basic outline for the Four Spiritual Laws and a whole host other methods which evangelicals have used to present the Gospel.
There are big problems with this gospel. Each one of these statements is true, but is not the whole truth of the matter. And if you put them all together, you get an incomplete gospel which leaves out some elements which are crucial parts of the Gospel message.
Let’s start with the first statement: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Problem: The word “wonderful”. To the average listener, this word implies a number of things which need to be discussed, clarified, and qualified with excruciating care. If you just let people think what first comes to mind when they hear the word “wonderful”, then you leave them wide open to the lies and empty promises of the prosperity gospel as taught by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, etc. And when the inevitable storms of life come and leave them feeling that their life after becoming Christian is anything but “wonderful”, then they are prime candidates for simply giving up on the whole Christian thing.
Right now, in this season of my life, I am having an extremely hard time believing that God has a “wonderful” plan for my life. And to be perfectly honest, I am also having a hard time believing that God loves me, because if He really did, then certain things would have turned out differently and my life would be on an entirely different trajectory right now.
What I can believe is this: God has a plan for my life. It may not be a “wonderful” plan, but it is a plan. As a matter of fact, it is THE plan. It is the only plan.
We think that what God is offering us here is a choice, between our own mediocre plan for our lives and God’s WONDERFUL plan. Between our own less-than-stellar plan and God’s SUPERLATIVELY SPLENDIFEROUS plan. But that is not it at all. Read the words of Jesus in this regard and it will become perfectly clear that when He says “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full”, what He really means is this: “I am offering you your life. Do you want it? Because what you are living right now is NOT your life. Now, here is your life. Do you want it?”
The pastor at my church has, on numerous occasions through the years, said that our problem is not that we are bad people who need to become good, or even good people who need to be made better. The problem with us is that we are dead people who need to be made alive. In the same way, what we need is not for God to offer us a better plan for our lives, but rather for God to give us life.
The second statement: But you have a sin problem that separates you from God. Well…it does. But if we look at everything the Bible has to say about sin, it will quickly become clear that separation from God as a result of this sin problem is the least of our worries. You see, “separation from God” is not some innocuous thing like dissolving a business partnership or breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. And sin does a whole lot more than just separate us from God. It damages us inside and out, it damages our world, and it puts us under God’s judgment. Because one day we will have to answer to God for all of the damage to His creation, both ourselves and the world around us, which is the result of our sin. And that will not be a pretty sight. In this scenario, God becomes your judge and His wrath becomes a very real problem for you; your problems run much much deeper than just not having a “wonderful” plan for your life.
Next: The good news is that Jesus came to die for your sins. Well…Jesus’ suffering and death upon the cross was an inevitable outcome of the good news that He preached. The good news which Jesus preached leads us inevitably to the cross. But it is not the cross. The singular message which permeates all of His preaching is “The Kingdom of God is at hand”. This did not mean “I am going to be crucified at 9 AM on Friday”. Instead what it meant was “I am going to preach, teach, do miracles, and proclaim the Kingdom to all who are willing to hear–and even those who are not. Because God has come into the world. God has fulfilled His promise to redeem humanity and all of creation from the curse of sin and death.”
Next: If you accept Jesus’ death…Timeout. The Bible NEVER uses that phrase!!!!! The invitation the Bible gives us is to believe. Believe that Jesus is who He says He is. Believe that He is Lord. Believe that He is Messiah. Believe that He is the Son of God. Believe that everything the Bible says about Him is true. Accepting Jesus’ death on the cross as the payment for your sin is part of it, to be sure. But a very small part. Isolate this one part and focus on it to the exclusion of all else, and the Gospel becomes a different message altogether.
…you can be reconnected to God. Yes…but it’s a whole lot more than that. We now have an identity. We are now part of God’s family. We are part of God’s Kingdom. God has determined that He is going to do certain things in us and through us. We are now restored to right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. God has done all this. We believe it, receive it, benefit from it, and live it.
So you see that there are serious issues with each component of the gospel according to the Four Spiritual Laws which is prevalent in much of evangelical Protestant-dom. But if you put these components together, you will see that this message in its totality represents a gospel which is woefully lacking in regard to certain critical elements. If you read the Scot McKnight piece which I linked, you will find that he goes on to say that the gospel message which is the sum total of these components is so individualized that it contains no place whatsoever for the church. Any and all forms of community are irrelevant.
Every line of that statement is more or less true. It is the sequencing of those lines, the “story” of that gospel if you will, that concerns me and that turns Jesus’ message of the kingdom into a blue parakeet. And it is not only the sequencing, it is the omitting of major themes in the Bible that concerns me. What most shocks the one who reads the Bible as Story, where the focus is overwhelmingly on God forming a covenant community, is that this outline of the gospel above does two things: it eliminates community and it turns the entire gospel into a “me and God” or “God and me” gospel. Who needs a church if this is the gospel? (Answer: no one.) What becomes of the church for this gospel? (Answer: an organization for those who want to do that sort of thing.) While every line in this gospel is more or less true, what concerns many of us today is that this gospel makes the church unimportant.
I believe this gospel can deconstruct, is deconstructing, and will deconstruct the church if we don’t change it now. Our churches are filled with Christians who don’t give a rip about church life and we have a young generation who, in some cases, care so much about the Church they can’t attend a local church because too many local churches are shaped too much by the gospel I outlined above.
When the gospel according to the Four Spiritual Laws becomes prevalent in evangelicalism, church becomes nothing more than a gathering of believers who are united around “accepting Jesus” in order to get into heaven, and proclaiming that others must “accept Jesus” in order to get into heaven. There is no cohesion here, and no raison d’etre apart from this message and possibly culture war, church growth, relevant teaching, correct doctrine, cool music, life coaching, or some other thing that affirms the individuality of our Christian experience.
But the people who participate in these churches will inevitably think to themselves, “Why am I here?” And if the association based on culture war, church growth, correct doctrine, or whatever isn’t strong enough, then when things get rough they will be gone. Some will just check out altogether in order to pursue their “walk with the Lord” on a solitary basis; some will defect to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy because in those environments the church has a very compelling raison d’etre–it is there that you receive the Sacrament, a real meeting with God which changes you from the inside out, making you into a different person as you walk out the door than you were when you walked in. In Catholic and Orthodox churches, this meeting with God and resulting transformation happens every week.
Whereas in evangelical churches, pretty much all we get is information. If this information is compelling enough there may be some life change and it may be possible to point to this and say “That’s why I’m here”. For that reason, it is very necessary for evangelical churches to focus on relationship building, mentoring, opportunity for involvement in ministry which can only happen within the context of a large scale movement. If those things are not present in a church, then the people of that church are quickly running out of reasons to remain there. So don’t be surprised to see that prodigious amounts of younger evangelicals are walking out the doors of our churches, never to return for as long as they live.
Jesus came to start a movement, and the prime mark of that movement is community. Communities that are shaped around Jesus, doing the things that Jesus was doing, teaching the things that Jesus taught. The compelling question of the Christian life is “How does my life look like the kind of life that Jesus was living and talking about?” And a very large part of that question is “How does my life fit into the movement that Jesus came to start?” So if you believe a gospel which has written off this movement as irrelevant, then it will be no surprise if you decide at some point that there is nothing for you in evangelical church life.