the cross

The 3 R's of the Gospel

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Some things just can't be improved on. Not that people don't try.

The 3 R's of education—reading, (w)'riting, and (a)'rithmetic—are still essential to a sound, practical education. Various approaches and strategies of learning have been tried, but the basics, and even the old one-room schoolhouse environment, have great merit.

Fads and trends come and go in most areas of life, especially when it comes to diets. The basics of good nutrition, limiting calories, and regular exercise are still fundamental to good health.

So it is with the Christian faith, especially its core—the gospel. Different paradigms and approaches are popular for a time, but the redemptive story of God's love is still the most simple and powerful element of Christianity.

Sharing the gospel

Over the years, I've heard sure-fire ways to share the gospel. The idea being that someone would have to believe once they heard one of these approaches. The problem is one size doesn't fit all.

Another difficulty is being so focused on the approach, we fail to connect with people in a personal way. They sense this and resist or outright reject what we offer.

When I was wandering in spiritual lostness, and under the influence of a mind-altering substance, I was approached by a couple college guys. I was in a different reality and mindset than them.

After sharing their plan of salvation with me, they tried to fend off any resistance I might have. They told me, "You can still have a sports car and be a Christian!" I was not in the least interested since I subscribed to the popular mantra of the day—turn on, tune in, drop out.

As addressed in my book, evangelism and sharing the gospel are too easily reduced to, "Jesus died for your sins." While this statement is true, it doesn't tell the whole story—the gospel story of redemption.

The 3 R's of the gospel

The essential gospel (my version) has three elements— He (Jesus) came, He died, He rose. These three essentials are also expressed in what I'll call the 3 R's of the gospel—relationship, redemption, and restoration.

Although these are echoed throughout the Scriptures, the Apostle John sums up these three elements in his first epistle—

  1. Relationship— 1 John 1:3
  2. Redemption— 1 John 1:7
  3. Restoration— 1 John 2:1-2

Relationship

Relationship with God has always been at the heart of the gospel. For starters, humanity was created in God's image (Gen 1:26, 27). Abraham, the man of faith, was a friend of God and seen as righteous because of his trust in God (James 2:23). And faith itself is about relationship—

Without faith no one can please God. Anyone who comes to God must believe that he is real and that he rewards those who truly want to find him. (Heb 11:6 NCV)

Jesus called His closest followers friends (John 15:15) and was condemned for being a friend to tax collectors and sinners (Matt 11:19)

Relationship with God should always be a priority when sharing the gospel. Relationship is at the heart of redemption.

Redemption

Redemption reveals the heart of God. This is expressed in the first eighteen verses of John (John 1:1-18), which summarizes the whole book of John.

It's easy to get caught up with terminology and definitions when explaining redemption. A simple way to describe it is the act of rescue and reconciliation. This is expressed in 2 Cor 5:17-19.

If our intent in sharing the gospel isn't reconciliation, then we're missing the point—a point illustrated by the three parables of Jesus in Luke 15.

Restoration

I sum up the idea of God's work of restoration as the end which is the beginning again.

What was lost in Eden is restored by Jesus on the cross. The redemptive work of Jesus restores humanity to a state of innocent relational trust, which Adam and Eve knew in the beginning.

This points us toward the end of the age, as seen in the book of Revelation. We look forward to the Lord's return for His restoration of all things (Acts 3:19-21; Rev 21:3-5).

Keep it simple and true

Much more could be said but isn't necessary. Sharing our faith and God's story of redemption should be both simple and true, not clever.

God desires a relationship with all people, and we, His creation, were created for that purpose. Relationship with God comes through faith—trusting in Him and His work of reconciliation on the cross.

Deep down, everyone knows they need restoration. King David declared, "He restores my soul" (Psalm 23:3). This is what a world wandering in darkness seeks, and we followers of Christ are charged with sharing it with them (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8).

When was the last time you shared the gospel and your story of faith with someone?

The Path and 3 Prayers

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Well-meaning people have strived to find ways to please God for generations and generations. These efforts usually create some type of spiritual path or process to reach and please God. However, each of these efforts falls short of their goal because they start from the wrong point.

How does a person please God? In particular, how does a person live the Christian life? Doing good and not harming others ranks high among the many thoughts and ideas put forth.

Some see the need for a strict moral code and religious disciplines. Others may see it as more of a philosophy of being like Jesus, which can take on all sorts of approaches.

@@All humanity's efforts to reach and please God fall short of what He desires@@. The key is what Jesus tells us in the gospels. His way is much simpler and yet more challenging.

The path and the garden

Jesus' call to follow Him

In each of the three synoptic gospels, Jesus tells those who would follow Him what they need to do (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Here it is from Luke's gospel—

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23 ESV)

People have varying thoughts about what it means to "deny" our self and to "take up" our cross. Even the simple call to "follow Me" is made complicated by various leaders and theologians.

How can we determine what Jesus meant? The simplest way I know is to look at His living example and how it fits with what He says. Life example is a basic essential to good leadership, whether to be a good leader or gain insight to what leadership involves.

3 prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane

Before Jesus went to the cross, He asked the Father if it could be avoided. This is also found in the first three gospels of the Bible (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Matthew's gospel gives us the most detail and insight into these three prayers of Jesus (Matt 26:39, 42, 44).

Each of the three prayers is similar. Jesus asks His Father if the "cup" of suffering death on the cross can be avoided. Each ends with Jesus' willingness to do the Father's will over His own.

Reading through the details of this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, reveals how difficult it was for Jesus.

He tells the disciples that His "soul was overwhelmed to the point of death" (Mark 14:34 NIV). In Luke, we're told His sweat was "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44 NIV).

All of this shows us the great struggle Jesus had with accepting the Father's will. This is why following Jesus may be simple on one hand, but difficult and challenging, as well.

Self-denial

Luke reminds us the basic call to follow Jesus is a daily choice, not a one-and-done decision. @@Self-denial is a continuing choice to not go back to our embedded selfish way of life@@. It's an ongoing act of repentance—turning to God and away from our selfish nature.

Denying our self is to acknowledge the futility of living by our inherent selfish nature, which includes such things as—self-indulgence, self-justification, self-fulfillment, self-righteousness, and whatever else that places self at the center of attention in our life.

Most believers don't move beyond this first step of following Jesus. This leads to a performance-based relationship with God similar to trying to live by the Ten Commandants of the Mosaic Law (Exo 20:1-17). It's not the path Jesus calls us to walk (Gal 3:3, 10-14).

@@Following Jesus requires living by faith, only possible through God's grace at work in us@@.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12 NIV)

Our cross

Moving forward in the next step of following Jesus also requires a daily choice. As it says in Luke, we are to "take up [our] cross daily." The apostle Paul gives us a picture of these first two steps—

Brothers and sisters, I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back, I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14 GW)

This is illustrated by a swimmer doing the freestyle stroke. As the swimmer reaches forward with one arm, she pushes down and back with the other arm. It's a continuous double-action stroke along with a flutter kick that propels the swimmer over the surface of the water.

The cross was an instrument of death and a symbol of shame (Gal 3:13). Unlike the liquid and smooth stroke of a swimmer, taking up our cross—dying to self—usually involves a lot of kicking and screaming on our part. @@The selfish nature does not die easily@@.

None of us embrace shame or death easily, let alone willingly. And yet, this is what the call to follow Jesus requires—embracing a death to our selfish nature and life.

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, who was brought back to life, will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once and for all to sin’s power. But now he lives, and he lives for God. So consider yourselves dead to sin’s power but living for God in the power Christ Jesus gives you. (Rom 6:8-11 GW)

@@Following Jesus requires us to embrace death to our selfish nature and life@@.

Following Jesus

At first, most believers don't realize what's involved with following Jesus. I remember hearing it explained as signing a blank contract that Jesus fills in with details later, as we live out our faith in a daily way.

@@Denying our self and taking up our cross are prerequisite to following Jesus@@. As John the Baptizer said of himself in respect to Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30) This is the point of the first two steps—the decrease of self—the selfish nature.

I remember enduring prerequisite courses in college to get into courses I really wanted to take. After diving into those major courses, I realized the need for those prerequisite classes. They provided a foundation and framework for what I would learn later.

@@A most obvious essential to discipleship is following the example of Jesus@@.

This includes His three prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46). In each of these prayers, Jesus struggles with surrendering His personal will to submit to the Father's will, which was dying on the cross for the redemption of all humanity.

If Jesus, the Son of God, struggled with submitting His will to the Father, why should we think it won't be a struggle for each of us as we follow Jesus? This is why self-denial and dying to our self precede and lead to actually following Jesus.

Each step requires us to submit our will to God, just as with the Lord's three prayers. Each step is a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment choice. Each choice is a conscious decision to submit and surrender ourselves to the Lord.

A final thought

This continuous, daily choice to follow Jesus will put us at odds with the world around us. Following Jesus in genuine discipleship is the culture of the God's kingdom, and it's counter to the culture of the world around us.

At times, @@what Jesus asks of us personally may seem different and at odds to how other Christian believers live and follow Jesus@@. I often hear what Jesus spoke to Peter after restoring him from Peter's three denials of Jesus—

"...what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:18-22 NIV)

For me this means I need to keep looking ahead to Jesus, not at others or anything else that would distract me from faithfully following Jesus. I believe it's a personal call from Jesus to each of us.


If you'd like to get a better handle on walking this path of following Jesus, I highly recommend The Calvary Road, by Roy Hession.