Gospel of grace needed for sinners, saints

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by Lauren Crane

In sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with dying men, the problem is not only a culture that does not want to hear the gospel message, but Christians who do not understand the gospel, and thus don’t preach it or live it out.

A refocusing on the gospel and how to display it to a watching world was the focus of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s annual 20/20 Collegiate Conference. The conference was held on February 5-6 and sought to explore the topic, “A City Within a City: Church, Culture and Counter-Culture.” Speakers Daniel Akin, Matt Chandler, J.D. Greear, Clayton King and David Platt discussed the gospel and its implications for all aspects of life.

Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church in Highland Village, Texas, opened the conference via a video sermon for the conference attendees. Chandler, who suffered a seizure on Thanksgiving Day and was later diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, was unable to be physically present at the conference, but he prepared a message to be delivered on the chapel screen.

To view photos of the conference, please click here.

“What’s happening, that so many could grow up heavily involved in church and then walk away for a decade?” Chandler asked, referring to a study that showed the alarming numbers of young adults who have walked away from church after years involved. “Here’s what we discovered. By and large, for that generation, the gospel was assumed and it was not explicit.

“The leaders and preachers and ministers assumed (knowledge of the gospel),” Chandler said.  “People get confused on what saves them and what doesn’t save them. They get confused, thinking Christianity is works-based and they push it together with all other world religions.”

Thus, Chandler sought to explicitly state the gospel in two ways, what he calls “the gospel on the ground and the gospel in the air.” One approach sees the gospel message as it articulates the relationship between God and his creation on the individual scale – God, man, Christ, response. The “gospel in the air” looks at it on a broad scale – creation, fall, reconciliation, redemption. However, Chandler cautions against picking only one approach and focusing solely on it.

“If you look only at the gospel on the ground, it becomes very individualistic – ‘God came for me and died for me.’ It’s a reduction of the Gospel in its entirety. You forget that God is doing something monumentally bigger than saving you,” Chandler said. “However, on the other hand, if the gospel becomes just social justice, it is not the gospel. You taking care of the poor is not the gospel, and that does not save you.”

Teaching out of the text of Romans 12, Akin spoke on how believers should respond to the gospel. “To have a city within a city which looks distinctively like heaven, you have to have a specific kind of citizen, and Romans 12:1-2 gives you a portrait of what those individuals will look like.”

Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, said the Christian life should be characterized by consecration, transformation and satisfaction. First, looking at the idea of consecration, Akin said believers should follow Paul’s command to “present your bodies as living sacrifices.”

“If you’re going to give yourself to Jesus as a living sacrifice, that is a volitional decision you and only you can make for yourself,” Akin said. “In the Bible, a sacrifice is almost always something that is killed and dies. How can a sacrifice be both a living thing and a dead thing? When you live out this Gospel as a city within a city, you would sacrifice for those things that mean everything to you.”

Akin said that transformation will come about through the renewing of our minds. “If Satan can’t keep you from getting saved, he’ll work his hardest at making you ineffective once you’re saved. The Bible says if we’re not careful, we can start to look a whole lot more like the world than like Jesus. How do we combat this? By the renewing of our minds.”

Saturday’s speakers, amidst breakout sessions on a number of topics, articulated the gospel again to the conference-goers. Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, defined ways in which the Bible says the Christian faith should be lived out. Holding his Bible in his hands, Platt said, “There are over 4.5 billion people who, if this book is true, are without Christ and headed to an eternity in hell. There is vast spiritual need. Add to that a vast physical need. God has chosen to measure, in part, the integrity of his people’s faith by their response to the poor.”

Platt challenged the student to live radically for Christ. “I want to call us to forsake it all in radical abandonment to Jesus Christ. I want us to envision what it looks like when the church is a radically gospel-centered community that is spending ourselves for the spread of God’s glory.”

Platt said this gospel-centered community should be marked by two distinctives – a radical concern for the needs of the world and a radical commitment to Jesus Christ.

“Those who are most effective at reaching the many are those who are most passionate about reaching the one,” Platt said. Mentioning several ways in which his church is striving to be involved in changing the lives of people in Birmingham, Platt said love should be the earmark of all they do.

“I want to encourage you in a culture and church that, in an increasing sense, does not trust his word or rest in his authority,” Platt said. “No matter how wide, tall or high the walls are that the culture sets up against the gospel, they all come crashing down in the face of Jesus.”

Platt said no human effort can merge the two ideas. “The name of Christ and the needs of the world coming together – this is gospel-centered community. Christ alone can bring this picture together.”

In the culture in which the American church finds herself, Greear said there are a myriad of objections to the exclusivity of the gospel message.

“Nobody objects to you following God or saying you love God,” Greear said. “It’s when you say Jesus is the only way to God that people object. You will be pushed to compromise, and you cannot do it.”

Naming some of the cultural objections to Jesus’ claim that he is “the way, the truth and the life,” Greear said most see this approach to God as archaic or arrogant. “It’s not being arrogant, but being convinced that Jesus is who he says he is. There can be just as much arrogance among the people who say Jesus isn’t who he says he is.”

Greear said many claim a more post-modern approach, saying whatever works for each person is fine for them.

“To say that religion is subjective and has no objective truth doesn’t make that true,” Greear said in defense of truth. “We can’t just define God as we want him to be – he is what he is. You don’t get your own personal Jesus. He gets to define himself.”

However, one of the most widely-heard excuses may be that Christianity is both divisive and unfair. “All religions are exclusive – but the gospel of Jesus is unique. It’s not based on what we have done, but what Christ has done for humanity.”

Greear said, “The gospel, if you really understand it, doesn’t lead you to exclusivism. It leads you to grace.”
When believers grasp the significance of the gospel – not only in their own lives but its power to transform a culture – they will be able to be an effective city within a city. King, a well-known evangelist to youth and college students, said to be salt and light in the world, Christians need to examine their own heart first, and then be intentional about speaking the truth of the gospel into the lives of those around them.

Looking to the example of Paul in Athens in Acts 17, King said Paul was concerned with the idolatry of the city, as well as bold in speaking the truth.

“Are we bothered by the idolatry of our culture? Are we bothered by our own idolatry? Sometimes the idols we bow down to are good things that we allow to be a god in our lives,” King said. Recognizing the idols, but not condemning the idolators, King said Paul “honors the influential thinkers and movers of the city he hopes to affect with the gospel. Why do we think we can win the lost to Christ when we make fun of them and mock them? We can’t win people to Jesus when we’re mean and cantankerous and ugly to them.”

King also said Paul exhibited a thorough knowledge of the culture he hoped to affect with the gospel, being familiar with customs and traditions. “When you do ministry among another culture that may not be your home culture, you have to learn the culture.

“It’s easy for us to go to the places we are comfortable in and talk about things we are familiar with. It’s easy to stay where we feel comfortable – intellectually, socially and even theological,” King said. “Being a city within a city, we should indeed find community with people we’re like-minded with. However, if that’s all we do, we form little Christian ghettos and we withdraw from culture and the culture begins to crumble around us.”

This gospel of grace is what each of the men expounded upon during the conference. This gospel of grace is what they preach. It is the same gospel of grace that the men exhorted the gathered believers to preach with their lives and with their words to a watching world, so that culture might be changed for the glory of God.

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