Is It Still Good News?

This post was written by Christian Crouch of SC.  He writes of himself:

“Christian, a native Tennessean, is the pastoral assistant at Grace Fellowship Church, an independent Reformed congregation in Irmo, South Carolina. He is the grateful husband of Chelsey and the proud father of Stephen and Cohen. Christian is a graduate of the University of the South and Reformed Theological Seminary. Among his other interests, he especially delights in seeing people understand, love, and obey the good news of Jesus Christ.”


Several years ago I played hooky from church so I could go to church. That is to say, I skipped my own congregation’s Sunday service and headed a few blocks over to another local church, where a visiting speaker was scheduled to preach. The speaker was also an author and had written several books that, as a brand-new Christian, I had devoured for their clear explanation of the Bible and warm, fatherly writing style. In my mind, he was a hybrid of John Calvin and Mike Brady. And believe me, if you knew somebody like that was preaching six blocks away, you would’ve played hooky, too.

What I discovered was something considerably less entertaining (but substantially more helpful) than that hybrid (a “Crady”? A “Bralvin”?). The author (who is not an ordained clergyman) began his sermon by reading a quote from a famous pastor (you’d know him) that went along these lines: Becoming a Christian is an act of God’s sheer grace, a totally undeserved gift;  however, your progress and growth as a Christian are completely up to you. The dramatic pause after he finished reading seemed to last forever. Then he simply asked, “Is that true?” How would you have answered?

After another awkward silence, he read the following verse from the Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
—Galatians 3:3

In a measured tone, the speaker carefully explained the message of the apostle, a man who had been personally sent by the Lord to preach the good news of Jesus (see the Book of Acts for the full story). Having proclaimed Jesus to people with little to no knowledge of the Bible, and having seen many come to a life-changing faith in Jesus, Paul was dumbstruck that these same people were now denying the basis of that good news: the simple power of trusting Jesus alone as the only means of rescue from sin and misery. By saying, in effect, that their maturity as disciples of Jesus depended entirely on their own hard work and dedication was, to the apostle Paul, a sign that the Galatian Christians had forgotten one of the most basic truths of the faith.

I wonder if you see yourself as guilty of the same mistake. I certainly am. And so are many of the Christians I know. Ask yourself: Does the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done feel important to you right now? Or was it something that really only applied to you before you became a Christian? To put it another way, is the gospel still good news, or is it just news?

Christians need to hear Paul’s message loud and clear: You still can’t save yourselves! You can’t try hard enough, succeed enough, or grow enough apart from God’s undeserved love. The gospel doesn’t just get us out of the principal’s office; in the words of one pastor, it brings us all the way home. Put another way (and in the words of yet another pastor), the gospel is not the ABC’s of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. If you know Jesus, you still need daily reminders that you are not able to save yourself and must depend on God’s promised help for any progress in your efforts to be more like him. That is good news for people who, when faced with the hard realities of following Jesus in our broken world, are tempted toward the exhausting hamster wheel of self-righteousness. The power of the Holy Spirit is always necessary to change sinners, even those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. But the good news is this: He loves to change us and is even more willing than we are to see that change happen.

Does Theology Matter?

It’s pretty common today to hear some Christians say “Theology doesn’t matter.”  Or another roundabout way of saying it: “All that matters is Jesus.”

But theology and doctrine are inevitable.  Truth is, everyone is a theologian. 1   Whether or not you think it’s important to own a copy of a systematic theology text book for your home or church library is another matter, but everyone does theology (even the atheist!).

Because the second you say “theology doesn’t matter” you have just made a doctrinal or theological statement.  “Ironically,” Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, says, “the insistence that doctrines do not matter is really a doctrine itself.  It holds a specific view of God… So the proponents of this view do the very thing they forbid to others.” 2

And when folks argue that “all that matters is Jesus” while sounding very spiritual and godly on the one hand is quite naive on the other.  For what sincere Christian is going to say “Nope, Jesus doesn’t matter” or “Jesus should have second place in our church”?  The question really all boils down to what a person means by the statement.  If they mean, “stop teaching theology and just give me Jesus,” then they are not only contradicting themselves but forgetting that one of the major aspects of Jesus’ ministry on earth was teaching.  In fact, Jesus’ disciples referred to him as “rabbi” which meant teacher (Mark 9:5; 10:51; 11:21; 14:45).  So if we are really trying to give the people Jesus, then a massive part of that is teaching what he taught. 3  And much of what Jesus taught involved “doctrines” like sin, judgment, Heaven, Hell, money, justification, the law, the Sabbath, the Last Days, and how he was the fulfillment of OT prophecy.  Jesus was a theology teacher.

Context Matters

Another complication is the fact that Jesus was living in the most religious society on earth.  His context was radically different from the one we find ourselves in today.  He could explain things quickly and easily (he was God), because even the most average or uneducated of his hearers was still living in a thoroughly religious society.  Today, in America, and many other places in the world, people lack even the most basic religious framework.  Teaching the Bible or “Jesus” to them involves many layers of explanation that may have been assumed in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day.  Almost no Israelite at that time in Israel would have argued over the authority of the Torah (the Romans would have); they may debated extensively the meaning of the words, but not the author or the authority they represented.  Today you would be hard pressed in some corners of our society to find anyone who just assumed the truth and authority of the Bible.  So giving people Jesus today involves teaching them about doctrines like the authority and reliability of Scripture, something that Jesus himself may or may not have had to do explicitly in his own day.

Healthy Churches Have a Solid Theological Base

Every healthy church will have a solid theological foundation, even if that foundation is not made up of extensive, scholarly, theological rationale.  But a healthy church that goes light on theology or ignores theological conversation and discussion altogether does not exist.  Dennis Bickers writes:

Everything must have a solid foundation on which to build… For the Christian and the church, that foundation is a good theology and doctrine… Although a church may function in many different ways, it’s essentially a theological organism that exists to transform people’s lives so those lives reflect Jesus Christ.  A faulty or weak theology will result in a weak church unable to bring about that needed transformation. 4

“No Theology” or Just “Theology Light”

What many proponents of a light theological diet suggest whether explicitly or just in practice is a heavy focus on certain teachings; not that the church should abandon theology altogether, but simply that we should not get lost in lengthy theological discussions about every aspect of Scripture teaching.

But even this notion is one that seems to contradict the plain teaching of the Lord himself.  For the last words he left us with before ascending back to Heaven from where he came was this:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Matthew 28:18-20]

Notice Jesus says “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

Everything.

  1. R. C. Sproul just published a book under this title.  See it here.  In the Introduction to that work he says “Everything we learn–economics, philosophy, biology, mathematics–has to be understood in light of the overarching reality of the character of God.  That is why, in the Middle Ages theology was called ‘the queen of the sciences’ and philosophy ‘her handmaiden.’  Today the queen has been deposed from her throne and, in many cases, driven into exile, and a supplanter now reigns.  We have replaced theology with religion.”
  2. Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton: New York, 2008), 8.
  3. Rightly viewed, this also includes the apostles teaching as well, not just the teaching given to us from the mouth of Christ during his earthly ministry.
  4. The Healthy Small Church (Beacon Hill: Kansas City, 2005), 26.