As someone part of whose role, at least, is to teach the Christian message, I am rather worried that the Christian message is itself being seriously redefined in many of our churches. In many churches we now have Lego Christianity. Lego, as most people know, is made up of small plastic bricks with which you can build any different number of things. You can make different model cars or buildings or ships or whatever your imagination fancies - all using the same blocks.
We are taking the building blocks of the New Testament message, but are making them into a very different shape, conveniently leaving out one or two that don't fit into how we think the new shape should look.
Let me explain what I mean by asking what the Christian Gospel is according to the New Testament. Then, like now, there were different emphases and beliefs, but for all the diversity, there seems to have been an essential unity. The fundamental structure was the same even if there were differences in detail.
At the heart of the Gospel, as the New Testament writers understand it, is the belief that God is going to judge the world, punish sin and sinners, and that to escape this judgement, we all alike need saving for we are all alike sinners without excuse. God himself has made salvation possible through Jesus Christ whom he sent to die for our sins. Jesus died on the Cross, but was raised by God from the dead. Salvation and forgiveness are offered through the Holy Spirit to all who have faith in Jesus. As St Paul said: 'Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.' (Acts 16:31)
There is a tremendous amount more that could be said and should be said: about the Holy Spirit, Christian living, Creation, the Scriptures, and so on. But my point is that whatever else can be said and should be said, this much at least was said by all the New Testament preachers and evangelists. You wouldn't have found anyone then who would disagree with this. It may need explaining or elaborating, but, fundamentally, it is clear enough.
This is not, however, what many Christian preachers want to say. It is too embarrassing. To change the metaphor: we take the words and make them mean something different to what they mean in the New Testament.
Peace, for example, has now becomes a message about human conflict or psychological well-being - 'peace of mind' - instead of a message about the relationship between ourselves and God: a relationship which has been broken by our sin and which can only be restored by him.
Forgiveness once meant that we first admitted we had done wrong, took responsibility for it, and accepted the blame. In other words that we confessed our sins and confessed that they were ours. Nowadays forgiveness is a term which means more like saying something doesn't matter, couldn't be helped, and wasn't our fault. It is more like overlooking or ignoring what is wrong. It is an absolution that we are quick to grant ourselves.
Jesus himself is seen differently. He is someone always there to help us and listen to us. Someone who always accepts us, never condemns us, and who would never dream of correcting us. He is our companion and friend, rather than our Saviour and Lord. The parts of the Gospel where he condemns sin, speaks of God's coming judgement and the need for us to lose everything if we are to find eternal life are, of course, conveniently ignored.
The New Testament message was a message of salvation. It was about our need to be saved and the good news of how this could happen. It is a message that is addressed to each one of us. And while it is true that we need to hear this collectively, and that it applies to society in general, it means, more than anything else, that you and I as individuals need saving. And, it needs to be said, not saving for in the first place, but saving from:
- saving from the wrath of our Creator who is angry with the way we have behaved and destroyed his creation
- saving from our sin which entraps us, ruins us, and makes us miserable
- saving from death, which is the just punishment of our sin and rebellion against God
There will be plenty of time to talk about what we are saved for once we are saved. Once, that is, we have admitted that we are sinners who need saving and have turned to God to save us. There will be plenty of time to discuss the meaning of all this for how we live and for society in general, once we have discovered for ourselves what it means to call Jesus our Saviour and Lord.