In the Middle Ages, the gospel became overshadowed by rote following of traditions and rules. It has been argued by many that the church often degenerates into a tool for control. So, the result of ‘the gospel’ is conformity to an external code of self-righteousness. People desperately hope that their good behaviors will satisfy the standards of the church, and so eventually they will get to heaven and avoid hell.
The Reformation occurred when these layers of tradition were stripped away and scholars like Erasmus, Zwingli, Calvin and Luther read the Bible with fresh eyes and called people out of a system of hypocrisy and corruption. They emphasized that we are saved by grace through faith. No person has to perform for God in order to be saved because no works can justify a person before God as judge. God judges all people and finds them guilty, but he provides forgiveness for sin through the death of Jesus Christ. All people, regardless of past conduct, can gain access to heaven.
The unintended consequences of Reformed belief are very sad. The code of conduct advocated in the Bible has been lost to many believers. Because we are not saved as a result of our works, good works are not part of the gospel in the way we tell it. In the Bible, though, Paul and other authors emphasize a new way of life which emerges for the Christian. The ‘work of faith’ and the ‘labor of love’ sets Christians apart from surrounding people. Jesus insisted that people would see his followers’ good works and praise his Father in heaven. Quite frankly, that is not happening in the West these days.
The gospel should lay out the best life – what some people call the ‘good life’ – and it should call people to live it. The best life is one lived with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. It can not be entered into by merit, but only by the grace of God. The emphasis in the gospel of the last century has been to do with punishment. It has also been very much centered on individuals rather than God. It focuses on the sin problem that people live with. Our sin stops us from going to heaven and getting our great reward. In fact our sin sends us to hell and the images of hell are horrific. Everyone wants to go to heaven and no-one wants to go to hell. Removing the barrier of our sin gets us to heaven. End of story. So, converts say sorry for their sin, ask God to take it away and wait to die so they can sip lemonade next to the pool in the eternal vacation in the sky.
The problem is that the New Testament gospel does not read like this. Jesus’ gospel calls for repentance. It calls for a new way of life. He builds upon John the Baptist’s call for repentance. The new life of the gospel is centered on new relationships where people love God with all they have. In short, the gospel is a call to worship. Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount the kind of conduct that must be eliminated and the kind of conduct that must begin. He calls people to a life free from anxiety and full of faith. The good news of the gospel is that this faithful, loving, and peaceful new life will never end. It is given by God and it is maintained by him.
So conduct is part of the gospel. People are released from the captivity of sin and self-centered living into a new life focused on God and serving others. Paul recounts to his converts how his gospel taught others to walk worthy and to please God.
We need to show that God’s way of life is good and true. Then we need to call people into that new life – a life where sin is forgiven and a new perspective is created.
Written after reflection on 1 Thessalonians.