27 April 2012

Four Dimensions of the Call of the Gospel

I observe that many words become so familiar and so elastic that they begin to lose significance.  For example, the word evangelical is popularly applied to any non-Catholic Christian group.  I've even heard the practically contradictory term Evangelical Catholic - an oxymoron if there ever was one! This word has moved so far in application from its origin that it often isn't helpful because it lacks specificity.  Other words become anachronistic.  Take the word ring in relation to your phone.  In the truest sense no one's phone rings anymore, just as nobody tapes the ball game on TV and most do not roll down the window in their car (I still do in my '98 Dakota).  We all know what we mean when we use these words in these contexts, but there is now a certain inaccuracy in it.  This is just what happens to language over time and I think it's interesting.

As a pastor there are two words that I want to make sure do not fall victim to the inertia of time.  I want to make sure that the meanings stay forever tethered to the original intent.  These words are call and Gospel.

The word call comes from the Greek verb, kaleo - "to call."  The basic idea is simple.  The word means to invite or summons; to call for a person or call a person to a task.  The exact nuance depends on the context within its usage.  However, when we run into the idea of call or calling in the New Testament, the emphasis is always on the one doing the calling, which is God.  Whenever we see call in relationship to God or the things of God, it is rooted in the authority of God to give the call.  Whether it is about the call to salvation, the call to specific ministry, or the call to holy living, the call itself is about God and not so much about us.  When I call one of my kids, I do so with a God-given parental authority.  I may call them out to correct behavior, I may call on them to perform a task, or I may call them for a conversation just to see how they're doing.  The point is that whatever my call may be on them, they should respond because I have authority over them.  Hopefully, they know as well through word and deed that I love them.  When God calls, my responsibility is to listen, understand, and obey.

The word gospel comes from the Greek noun, euaggelion - "good news."  Of course, this good news of the Bible is about Jesus, the Messiah - the fulfillment and revelation of the promise of God.  Jesus came to both bring good news and be the Good News!  He is both proclaimer of it and its content.  Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.  Those who became His disciples began to preach the good news of the Messiah (Christ), who was Jesus.  His followers would suffer for the sake of this good news. 

When I take these two words and put them together in the phrase the call of the Gospel, I want to know specifically what this means to me and to the church to which I tend as shepherd.  The call of the Gospel, of course, begins with the individual call to salvation.  This is the first dimension of the call of the Gospel.  A person must be born again, spiritually regenerated, become new within, be freed from the chains of sin, be adopted, and cleansed and purified by the blood of Christ. In other words, a person must be saved.  This most radical change comes through faith in Christ alone.   

A second dimension, once we are children of God, is to listen and obey our Master, Jesus.  He has clearly given His directions to His followers in Matt. 28:16-20.  Once we have become a disciple, He tasks us with the job of making more disciples in Him.  A disciple (Greek - mathetes) is a "trained one" or "one under instruction."  As one learning about how to follow Christ, we are to be helping lead others to follow Him.  Learning how to do this is actually part of growing as His disciple.  The command to "Go and make disciples" necessitates evangelism for that is the first step of any person's discipleship.  Beyond that we are to baptize and then teach.  As believers are called to be on mission together in the church, we don't have to search for our purpose.  It is simple and clear - make disciples.

A third dimension of the call of the Gospel relates to the cost of discipleship.  Jesus made is clear that even before we make the choice to commit ourselves to following Him, we need to count the cost.  He stressed that truly following Him meant obeying Him above all else.  He told us that sometimes this would cause difficulty in family, sometimes this would mean sacrifice, sometimes this would mean persecution and difficulty.  Jesus told us to lay our own lives down each day and follow Him.  The image of carrying our own cross is to convey the thought that we must die to self and make Him life's priority.  How is this kind of genuine self-sacrifice possible?  It can only happen when it flows from a heart truly converted by grace that beholds the beauty of Christ and naturally seeks to honor and obey God. 

A fourth dimension of the call of the Gospel involves leadership.  Jesus is Lord.  He is the head of the church.  We are disciples of Jesus.  However, the Apostle Paul gave a most peculiar instruction to the Corinthian congregation.  He told them to follow (or imitate) him as he followed Christ.  We know that Paul never taught that he was sinless or even hinted at it.  In fact, Paul admitted that he often struggled with sin and had to work at dying to sin and living for Christ.  Nevertheless, he could boldly tell others to look at him and imitate his behavior because he was pursuing Christ.  Paul was not saying that he was some kind of spiritual middle man.  But he was writing to immature Christians who were still very confused about a great many things!  If they were having difficulty getting their minds and hearts around some issues, they could at least look at Paul and listen to him and watch him.  It's kind of a terrifying thought to tell a group of believers, "hey, follow me and do what I do and you'll honor God."  However, it would seem that this is exactly where God would have us arrive.  I don't think this was just a special role for Paul.  As each one of us mature in Christ, we should reach a place of godly confidence and boldness (not self-righteousness and arrogance) in which we reach out to others and become spiritual mentors.  A pastor should definitely be this for others, and he should be leading others to do this as well.

The call of the Gospel demands radical reconciliation with God that leads to a total paradigm shift of priorities that results in counter-cultural lifestyles that bring glory to God and to the Son, Jesus.  The words, call and Gospel, cannot become confused with other words like heritage, tradition, or denomination.  Even if we substitute the word religion, we are in trouble.  The call of the Gospel is specific to one person - Jesus.  The content of this good news is specific, the mission is clear, the costs are foretold, and the consequences are eternal.  Let's make sure we get it right and keep it right!           

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