“The Word of God is a body of water so shallow in places that a lamb can cross and so deep in other places that an elephant can swim.” Augustine of Hippo
Is it possible to bring pre-Christians into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ in the context of a Church service while still feeding and maturing those who already believe?
As a church planter and evangelist, I often hear something like this from fellow Christians: “I agree that pre-Christians need to hear the gospel when they come to Church but what about all of us who have already heard it? If we constantly emphasize gospel messages, how will those of us who have already heard and accepted the gospel grow as Christ followers?”
My friends understand the gospel as a single message of introduction (seen as evangelism), which is followed by a life of learning how to be like Jesus (seen as discipleship). Having already been introduced to Jesus through the gospel, they now desire to hear more about how to follow His teachings. Within this understanding of the gospel, it would be frustrating and thin to be introduced to Jesus week after week through “gospel sermons.” Speaking metaphorically, my friends think the gospel is the Gerber baby food of Christianity. They believe that we hear the gospel when we are “little babies.” Then, when we are ready to grow up and become “serious Christ followers,” we begin to desire the “meat and potatoes” of Christian living by learning more about the serious teaching of Jesus and the demands that he makes upon His followers. Hence, a concerned church-goer might think that they will starve on a steady diet of evangelism (gospel sermons) while believing that the pre-Christian would never be able to swallow the food that serious disciples are eating at the “big boys” table.
The essential problem with this understanding of the gospel is that it creates a false dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship which makes the Christian feel that the gospel is a message once received that is then replaced by a life of moral training. Nothing could be further from the truth than this unfortunate falsifying of the power of the gospel. The good news of Christianity is not a message of grace and forgiveness followed by “working real hard to be like Jesus.” It is not that we eat Gerber's gospel food when we are babies being evangelized and then graduate to eating the meat of following after Jesus by learning His methods for how to behave.
Instead, the gospel can be seen as all of the spiritual foods that allow for growth. The gospel is our food whether it is Gerber’s or filet mignon. It is total, all encompassing, and complete. It is not “starter food” but the entire food pyramid. The gospel says that though I am sinful, rebellious and estranged from God, he has found a way to win my heart because of His overpowering love for me that can be found in the sacrificial life, death, resurrection, and rule of Jesus Christ in every aspect of my life (emotional, psychological, social, political, economic, etc.) for the whole of my life (from birth to eternity). The more fully and deeply I understand the gospel, the more I will grow up in Him. It will not come by using the gospel as the food that “got me going” which I no longer need once I figure out how to follow Him. Instead, I will figure out how to follow Him to the extent that I understand the gospel, thus taking in the nutrients that I need in order to thrive and survive. This will then enter into the way I evangelize or disciple and will determine whether or not I am evangelized and discipled.
Using the metaphor of learning a human language, Dr. Timothy Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City says,
We never “get beyond the gospel” in our Christian life to something more advanced. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we all make progress in the kingdom. We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6)…The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implications of the gospel, we have not “used” the gospel in and on all parts of our life… Luther says (on Gal. 2:14), “The truth of the gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.”
Once we see the gospel as total (all good food) it is suddenly possible to bring pre-Christians into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ in the context of a Church service while still feeding and maturing those who already believe. Why? Because we all need to be fed by the gospel whether we have been starving for our whole lives or feeding on the Good News for years.