Embracing the Full Transforming Power of Jesus
I posted an article last month in which I posed the question of whether we, as people of faith, are asking enough of ourselves when it comes to meeting the critical needs of a complicated and troubled world. If you missed it you can find it here. Since then I have continued to wrestle with this and similar questions and, based upon my own life, have been disappointed by the unsettling, but readily apparent, answers. If my own life is reflective of the broader Church—and I suspect it is—then where have we gone wrong?
There can be no serious debate over the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Even among non-believers there is a general recognition that individuals who have sincerely embraced His redemptive message are radically changed. We can argue about the whys and hows and to what extents, but the phenomenon is easily observable. We all have either experienced it ourselves or know of someone else who has—at least in the western world. I should also note that we can probably all point to others who have claimed such an experience but who have failed to exhibit the radical transformation that I am describing. For purposes of this discussion, I will set such people aside and submit to you that, in such a case, the problem is with the individual in question, not with Jesus. It is why I qualified my description above as one who has “sincerely” embraced His redemptive message. The point is this. The power of Jesus Christ to transform the life of an individual is well recognized and easily observable.
But if this is the case, then why has the Church, which is essentially an aggregated body of transformed individuals, largely failed to meet the critical needs of society? Wouldn’t it stand to reason that as the individual is transformed and is joined to a body of other transformed individuals, that a natural byproduct would be a gradual transformation of the broader society? And by transformation, I am not referring to a subjugation of the society to Christian authority and values. We live in a pluralistic society. Such a subjugation is not only improper and misguided but also undesirable. It is what we rail against when we hear of Muslims attempting to impose Sharia law on an unwilling populace. The transformation that I am suggesting is the alleviation of the suffering and injustice that Jesus confronted during His ministry on earth.
There have been periods in the history of the western Church when this has appeared to be the case. The Church has been dynamically involved, not only in the spiritual welfare of the community, but also in its physical and social well-being. The historian Kenneth Scott Latourette in his monumental work A History of Christianity, wrote:
“From individuals who have been inspired by Christ and from the Church has issued movement after movement for attaining the Christian ideal…Christianity has been the means of reducing more languages to writing than have all other factors combined. It has created more schools, more theories of education, and more systems than has any other one force. More than any other power in history it has impelled men to fight suffering, whether that suffering has come from disease, war or natural disasters. It has built thousands of hospitals, inspired the emergence of the nursing and medical professions, and furthered movements for public health and the relief and prevention of famine.”
He goes on, but I think you get the point. It is an impressive list. But look around. Where is the dynamism and social conscience of the Church today?
Now I am not attempting to suggest that the Church today isn’t at all concerned with such things. I do not believe that is the case. There are many worthy ministries that are making a tremendous impact on their communities. But it must be noted that the vast majority of the work in such ministries is being carried out by a very small percentage of the total membership of the Church. The discouraging and obvious conclusion is that it seems the average Christian’s level of engagement with and influence on his/her community has markedly declined from historical norms. Why is this?
There are a number of factors that could be put forward—apathy among the faithful, the distraction of affluence, disillusionment with the broader society, defeatism in the face of seemingly overwhelming problems. I’m sure that you could add to this list from your own observations. But let’s be honest with ourselves. None of these are new phenomenon. The Church has struggled with these issues repeatedly throughout history. It seems that there must be something deeper at work.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that there has been a fundamental shift in our view of the role of the Church in society, particularly in Evangelical circles (my circles). When Christ spoke about the Kingdom of God, He was speaking of the sovereign rule of God over all creation. The Kingdom wasn’t meant to merely describe some future state in heaven. Recall His words in the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6.
“…Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
He also declared in Luke 17:21
“…behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
It is already among us! We are not transformed for some future purpose. We are transformed for the here and now, as well as the eternal. Which brings me back to my original question—where have we gone wrong?
I have a theory. It seems to me that in the last century, and continuing up to the present time, the Evangelical Church has seen a shift in its primary missions emphasis. Rather than taking a more holistic approach to missions, i.e., expressing our love for individuals by seeking to meet both their physical and spiritual needs, the Church, in its well-meant zeal to introduce those outside the Church to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, has tended to reduce the gospel message to one of simple repentance and salvation. On the surface, this would appear to be an appropriate response to a society that is rapidly moving away from a predominantly Judeo-Christian ethic. After all, Christ was clear in His call for personal repentance and His offer of eternal life to those who would believe in Him. But in practice, this shift appears to have had a number of unfortunate side effects. For one thing, this overly simplistic presentation of the gospel can be misinterpreted to offer new believers a quick and convenient “get out of hell free card” without the need for any further commitment. The idea that a person can simply mutter a short prayer of forgiveness, “invite Jesus into his heart”, and go upon his way absolved of all consequences is appealing but misleading. Jesus did not call the apostles to bring people to repentance. He called them to go and make disciples. Repentance is certainly part of making a disciple, but it is only a part. Describing the full nature of a true disciple is beyond the scope of this post, but for our purposes here let us define a disciple as one who has accepted the claims of Jesus as to His Lordship over all creation and who is committed to a life of obedience to His commands. Jesus summarized those commands in Matthew 17:37-39:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There you have it—service both to God and man. Jesus very clearly placed them side-by-side. So when we attempt to separate evangelism from the loving service of our neighbors, we preach an incomplete gospel. We have dumbed down the overwhelming grace of God. As a result we become known for what we oppose rather than who we serve. In addition, we become complicit in building a generation of shallow church-goers who take comfort in their assumed immunity from God’s judgment, but who fail to fully embrace the immeasurably richer lifestyle of loving service to mankind. And part of that service is introducing people to the fullness of a life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus instructed in John 13:35:
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Therefore, let us, in love, embrace the full gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us invest a greater portion of ourselves and our resources in the service of others. Let us demonstrate our concern for the souls of our neighbors by our great love and attention to their needs and well-being. And in so doing may He be glorified among the nations and His blessings overflow to all. May God bless and guide us as we seek a better way.