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Theological Thursday: “Obeying the Gospel” My Not-So-Favorite Phrase

I remember hearing a preacher many years ago speaking at a gospel meeting and he used this phrase over and over again. He urged us in the church that if we didn’t know who Jesus is then we needed to “obey the gospel” and find a relationship with him.

Obey the gospel.

Have you heard preachers use that term before? I am going to make a bold assertion and say that when most people use that term they really are not using it in a way that Paul, or any New Testament author, intended.

Let me explain. When I hear people use the term “obey the gospel” I think they are using it in a way that means, “become a Christian.” If pressed hard in Churches of Christ most would say that “obeying the gospel” is synonymous with the five steps of salvation (i.e., hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized). So in my circle when I see an Instagram/Faceboook/Twitter post of a baptism many times I will see the caption on it as: “________________ obeyed the gospel.”

There are three places in the ESV where the term “obey the gospel” is used. Paul says in Romans 10:16, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” There is a lot going on in Romans 9-11 but the context seems to be that the Jews have a stubborn refusal to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Implicit in the gospel is making Jesus king. Simple as that. The Jews were not making Jesus king and so they refused to obey (Gk., “hear under”) the good news of Jesus.

Paul again states that,  in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). The context is Paul’s discourse on judgment in 2 Thess. 1:5-12. The same Greek word used in Romans (ὑπακούω) is used here to mean that they did not listen to the gospel’s demand of placing Jesus as king. Peter uses the same phrase in a similar context of judgment: “For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). The word Peter uses (ἀπειθέω) is different than Paul’s in that it is a negative word denoting more of a stubborn, willful disobedience like rebellion.

So where does that leave us with the phrase? First, there are only three occurrences and it is hard (not impossible) to equate “obeying the gospel” with becoming baptized. I think the problem with this view is that it is a reductionist debasement of the gospel…at best. I think N.T. Wright worded it well when discussing the current milieu of how many define gospel: “I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel.’ I just don’t think it is what Paul means” (What Saint Paul Really Said, p. 41).

Scot McKnight in his book King Jesus Gospel outlines some of the issues I think we are wrestling with. He states that many evangelical churches have a salvation culture that pushes people into a “decision” (i.e., baptism, becoming a Christian) instead of encouraging them to be disciples.

  • I believe the gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about “personal salvation,” and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making “decisions.” (p. 26)
  • We are tempted to turn the story of what God is doing in this world through Israel and Jesus Christ into a story about me and my own personal salvation. In other words, the plan has a way of cutting the story from a story about God and God’s Messiah and God’s people into a story about God and one person — me — and in this the story shifts from Christ and community to individualism. (p. 62)

In Dallas Willard’s seminal work The Divine Conspiracy he outlined what he called the “gospel of sin management” as a dangerous shift in evangelical thought:

History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects.  Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally….When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual’s sins.  On the left it is removal of social or structural evils.  The current gospel then becomes a “gospel of sin management.”  Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. (p. 41).

So here is the thrust of what I think is happening when we use the term, “obey the gospel.” While our intentions are good, we are making the gospel an eternal punch ticket and waiting until God takes us home. The gospel is so much more than a get out of hell free card. Matt Chandler explained it well:

The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in includes talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad—especially about feeling good about oneself—and God factored into all of that, but the gospel message simply wasn’t there. What I found was that for a great many young twentysomethings and thirtysomethings, the gospel had been merely assumed, not taught or proclaimed as central. (Emphasis Mine. The Explicit Gospel, p. 13)

The gospel is that we radically pledge our allegiance to King Jesus who died, was buried and rose again (1 Cor. 15) and everything we do bears witness to that good news. We participate with him in bringing in the new creation. So when we love our enemy we are obeying the gospel. When we visit the widow and the orphan we are obeying the gospel. When we walk with people who are new to the faith we are obeying the gospel. When we practice holiness with our minds and our bodies we are obeying the gospel. When a neighbor is stricken with cancer and has nobody to watch her kids because her husband has to work to keep their insurance and so you volunteer to watch the kids…that is obeying the gospel. When someone sees the painful ramifications of their sin and rests in the grace of God then that is obeying the gospel. When we gracefully walk with the addicted, we are obeying the gospel.

It is much more than salvation folks. Much more.

“Moralists see the fall and believe that the Father is ashamed and thinks they’re foolish. So, more often than not, they stop trying to walk because they can’t see the Father rejoicing in and celebrating his child. Church of Jesus, let us please be men and women who understand the difference between moralism and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s be careful to preach the dos and don’ts of Scripture in the shadow of the cross’s “Done!” Resolve to know nothing but Jesus Christ crucified. We are not looking to conform people to a pattern of religion but pleading with the Holy Spirit to transform people’s lives. Let us move forward according to that upward call, holding firmly to the explicit gospel.” (Explicit Gospel, p. 221).

Tim Tebow, Virginity and Grace

I am sure by now you have heard of the news of Tim Tebow and Olivia Culpo breaking up because, reportedly, he will not have sex with her.[1] The New York Daily News reported:

“She had to break up with him because she just couldn’t handle it,” said our insider, “He still hits her up, but she just can’t deal with the sex thing. He’s pretty adamant about it, I guess.”

From that the onslaught of memes, gifs and backhanded comments have come at Tebow’s expense. I guess this should not surprise us, as when you have such a polarized view of sex it will only lend itself to an onslaught of criticism. This kind of report is only an indicator that our culture is such a sexually charged culture. Sex is in music, TV, video games, commercials, billboards, social media and every sort of outlet you can imagine.

Tim Tebow is weird and I like it and wish more people were like him but I want to emphasize something very clear:

Virginity or the loss of virginity does not make you any more or less a Christian…Jesus does. Click To Tweet

Massive campaigns (Purity Ring) and other mission efforts make virginity seem like the crème-de-la-crème of Christian virtues. If you have slipped or messed-up in this area then you are damaged goods. Jen Pollock Michel wrote a post a couple of years back called, “Virginity Isn’t Our Holy Grail” that speaks to what I am saying (long quote):

Implicit in what I’m reading about purity from Bessey, and a host of other women, such as Elizabeth Esther, Rachel Held Evans, and Carolyn Custis James, is a broad concern over how the church handles and presents God’s teachings on sexual sin. This topic matters a great deal, considering that nearly 80 percent of self-proclaimed Christians are having sex before they are married.

The church has been pushing purity standards for ages. Esther refers to the shame she carried with her as a virgin into her marriage because she’d kissed a couple of boys before her husband and because she had masturbated. Esther would argue that the church’s restrictions are becoming more rigorous, and by outlining its own capricious rules, the Church has inevitably constructed a “new and improved virginity.” But is there such a thing as hyper-purity, a sexual standard more rigorous than God’s? Referring back to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, where he insists that lust is equivalent to adultery (Matt. 5:27-30), I’m not so sure.

God’s purity standard is effectively impossible to meet. We can, though, fall guilty of making God’s grace small by making sexual sin big, whenever the church insists that non-virgins are cast beyond the reach of grace. Sexual promiscuity is not the unforgiveable sin. Let’s not forget those featured in Jesus’ genealogy (Judah, the man who slept with his daughter-in-law, mistaking her for a prostitute; David, the king who murdered the husband of his mistress), nor those winning mention in the Hebrews 11 Hall of Faith (Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered the Israelite spies, and Samson, the man with a weakness for beautiful women).

The Bible, in weaving its long history of redemption, is not a storybook of heroes. Failure, even sexual mistakes, has not once tied God’s hands. He accomplishes what he wills through the worst of us. But unfortunately, virginity has arguably become a modern-day idol of the church. According to Tim Keller, idolatry is fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Virginity, which is rightly good, has unfortunately become ultimate, idolized in some churches as, in Bessey’s words, become “a barometer of our righteousness and worth.” Virginity is not a moral merit badge. Whether or not we have had sex before marriage, we are all lawbreakers (James 2:10). None can feel superior ¾ not even the virgins among us.[2]

To be fair, Tebow is not advocating that he is some superhero because of his virginity but the onslaught of media coverage seems to think that virginity is the mark of a true Christian. The mark of a true Christian is the outward reflection of an inner realization that Jesus, through his grace, has ransomed that person from a life of darkness. He is like the publican who simply uttered: “Have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).

I will try my best to teach my children healthy sexuality but with that comes a teaching of hearty grace.

Once again my friends…all is grace.


[1] http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/confidential/tim-tebow-find-zone-article-1.2447008

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/february/virginity-isnt-our-holy-grail.html?paging=off