September 25, 2020

iMonk 101: Gospel Relevance=Gospel Application

foodpantry.jpgWe’ve been talking about how the Gospel and good works that aren’t the Gospel line up over at the Boar’s Head. With the announcement that St. Francis never said “Preach the Gospel. Use words when necessary,” but the discovery that Peter told wives to win their husbands “without words” in I Peter 3:1-2, it would be good to think about the topic of this essay: the Gospel always applies. (From March of ’07.)

Studying Acts with my students, it’s freshly clear to me that the immediate struggle of the early Christians was not only, or even particularly, theological, but practical.

How do we live out, in the church, family, community and world, the significance of Jesus NOW?

What kind of behavior, actions and community appear in “”the Kingdom of God” as Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit create it on earth (and as the church is a “demonstration plot” of the Kingdom?) That is what we’re praying for…right?

What are the relevant issues where the application of the way of Jesus will make an immediate difference?

I heard Mike Goheen say something like this: faithfulness to the gospel and the relevance of the gospel to culture are the same thing. This is deeply true, and pulling them apart damages everything that the church is left on the earth to do. The assumption that “culturally relevat” means skateboard services is ridiculously shallow.

It amazes me that the apostles immediately know- they KNOW- that Christianity has to be applied in ways they had never thought before. Perhaps the story in Acts 10 is a window to how the Holy Spirit stirs us up to get off of the roof and down into a Roman’s house.

The Apostles apply the Gospel broadly. There must be a different kind of economics. There must be a different kind of inclusion around the table and in relationships. There must be prayer, breaking bread, teaching doctrine, but there is more. You cannot leave out the issues of hunger, inclusion, assistance, mercy ministries, economics or even political theology. While you can point out the kinds of issues that weren’t addressed, it’s remarkable what kind of issues are addressed…and how they are addressed.

“Christian culture” is always a counter-culture, not a consumer culture, an entertainment culture or a political lobby. “The Church” is not just a gathering of people loyal to Jesus who believe certain things, but it is a movement of people who apply the gospel to those issues in their midst that demonstrate the meaning of the Kingdom of God.

There is a lot of scholarly controversy over whether the “communal” passages in Acts reflect the teaching of Jesus or whether the Apostles are going beyond what Jesus taught and forcing an application of the gospel that Jesus did not require.

This “either/or” may be missing the point. If a particular form of the application of Jesus’ teaching turns out to be a failure on some level- such as the communal experiment of Acts 2 and 4- that does not mean that it was wrong to conclude “the gospel must be applied and practiced, as well as believed.” If this is a failed “program,” it is not a wrong application of the Gospel. Jesus leads us to issues of ownership, the lordship of mammon and the meaning of being one body. We may not see the Acts “commune” passages repeated throughout the New Testament, but we do see the relevant questions and hear the relevant applications in most of the New Testament letters.

For example, Paul may not have approached the issue of slavery the way a Justice Mission might today pursue the same issue. But does anyone argue that Paul believes Christ does not transform, undermine and put in motion the eventual end of slavery?

This is why I can commend many Christians for their attempts to put the Kingdom of God into practice even if I disagree deeply with their particular application. I have mixed agreement with many liberals and conservatives, but I commend them for seeing that Jesus has a meaning for politics, relationships, community and culture.

This is the kind of “cultural relevance” that many churches and younger leaders are seeking that is ignored or misunderstood by critics. Caricatures always criticize younger leaders and missional churches for seeking to be “cool,” but what is to be said to those who are asking these questions:

What are the pressing human needs in the community that surround us, and how can we help meet those needs?
What are we doing to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the widow and visit the prisoner?
What are the ethics of building when the maintenance of facilities takes away substantial support for mercy ministries?
What priority can we give to supporting denominational programs as we seek to use our resources to become a missional congregation?
How do we connect the gospel as proclamation to the application of the gospel?
How can we make our gospel application meaningful to those who see any application of the gospel as capitulation to liberalism?
How can we keep our application of the gospel from manipulation by those with agendas that are not Christ-centered?
How can the teaching of the faith and the application of the faith in proper balance so that the faith confessed and taught is never displaced by works of any kind?

One other thing is sadly clear: there were and will always be people who do not want the Gospel to change things. They want women in their place, economics ordered as best benefits them, politics left to the politicians and “those people” left to suffer since the poor will always be with us. The only widows who should be cared for are the ones they know. People of different color, different beliefs and different religions aren’t our business. We should grow our church by sticking to our own kind.

That kind of sad thinking- untouched by Jesus and the power of the Spirit- will always be around, and those engage in it are usually generous with their views. The application of the Gospel means responding to those kinds of opponents as well. We give an answer, we choose to suffer in order to love, and we keep doing what Jesus would do.


  1. “The Church” is a gathering of people loyal to Jesus who believe certain things, but it is a movement of people who apply the gospel to those issues in their midst that demonstrate the meaning of the Kingdom of God.
    I believe the word NOT is missing out. How ironic. Theory puts the NOT in the first part, reality and practice however, in the second part. Let’s get real folks…

  2. For me, one of the errors of gospel application is the perceived requirement that a direct gospel appeal must be made as part of the thing being done.

    If a church decides to provide meals for the homeless, then there will probably be an obligatory sermon, or at a minimum, the handing out of pamphlets. It’s as if we are incapable of caring for others simply because they need the care and we can provide the care.

    We put on our matching t-shirts emblazoned with Jesus fish symbols, crosses and some inane church vision statement, we take down contact information for “follow-up”, we provide childcare during events and then proceed to put a high-pressure salvation sales pitch on these children, we send everyone away with a shopping bag full of church material (when a bag of groceries might have been more helpful), and on and on.

    I don’t know which is worse, sitting through a day of hard sell to buy a time share under the guise of a “free two-day vacation package” or taking advantage of the plight of others to force them to sit through a gospel hard sell during our “community fair”.

  3. I don’t see a struggle between words versus deeds. Whether or not St. Francis did indeed say that quote which has been attributed to him, it boils down to: live the Gospel. Not just lip-service; live it.

  4. Cassandra Williams says

    After reading your article on the coming collapse of evangelical Christianity and reviewing your bio, I thought you might be interested in checking out my new book from Alban.
    The book seeks to reclaim insights on authentic discipleship from the 1st century Christian communities and apply those to today.
    Here’s a link to the book

    and one to an article excerpted from the book.–5b1Xf4NfnIfLOY7fH3hslHbqoENjF715kBCo=

  5. I’m not so sure that first Christian community experiment in Jerusalem was failure when it comes to being a good example of living out the gospel in a community context — rather I think that community had to be dispersed as the seeds of new (though certainly different) communities in other places. It’s not that they were off base in sharing meals and worldly belongings or in dedicating themselves to the apostles’ teachings or in evangelizing on Solomon’s Porch. It just seems that there for a while they may have become a little too focused on their community, temporarily forgetting Christ’s directive to take His good news to the whole world. And as Jews, they may have retained some of their former religious attachment to the temple, which had been the center of Jewish worship for centuries. In order to build them together into a new temple “not made by hands,” I think God may have had to apply some pressure in order seperate them from that old, physical symbol of the new emerging spiritual reality. It’s interesting that Paul (then Saul) headed up the persecution that scattered that original community, which resulted in the planting of church communities in places like Damascus. Besides, Jerusalem was about to get leveled to the ground by Roman legions (something Christ foretold), and the physical survival of the early church was at stake.
    With all that said, I think that God sometimes has to break up the party and take away our religious security blankets, both for our good and the advancement of His kingdom. And sometimes what He needs from us is just a little flexibility and a willingness to adapt and change when necessary.

  6. Christopher Albee says

    Greg Ogden described the Church in a way that was, to me, pretty unforgettable (and I paraphrase): “The Church is nothing less than the corporate replacement for Jesus Christ.” Great Commission aside, our charge is to do and teach the same things that He did and taught; it is no accident then that Paul dubs the Church the body of Christ.

    Okay, so if someone were to walk through the doors of our local church this Sunday, would she come face to face with Jesus in all who attend there? Be honest now….

    If the answer is “No” then how can that local body by any means apply the gospel to those outside their number as Jesus would? If the body of Christ is maimed, or hurt, or is otherwise unrecognizable as Jesus, it cannot as a body bring help and hope to a dying world. Sure, there’ll be some who possess a mighty compassion or zeal that compels them to minister as Jesus would, but they will be operating as individuals.

    Paul sets forth in a straightforward manner how that the Church is the fullness of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23); and how that the body of Christ must grow into its Head, which is Christ; and how that this growth is accomplished as a result of pastors and teachers etc. equipping God’s people for works of service to build up the body (Eph 4:7-13). Whether these works ought to be inwardly or outwardly focused is probably a matter of debate elsewhere. But it’s probably both.

    Point is, our ability to apply the Gospel to the world around us lies in great part with the willingness of pastors and teachers to equip their fellow members of the body to do it. It is a leadership issue. Do our leadership then equip their fellow members of the body with knowledge of who Jesus is? Do we grow in our knowledge of Christ through the the gospels? That is, do we know this Son of God? Have we witnessed His compassion and seen how He reaches out to the downtrodden, maligned and forgotten? Have we been caught up in His zeal for announcing the kingdom of God?

    No? How then can we apply the gospel as the body of Christ if we don’t know Whom we embody? We can’t.

    But conversely, the key to applying the Gospel is to begin with Jesus and get to know the One whose feet we are to convey the Gospel; whose hands we are to touch the lost with compassion; whose lips we are to speak words of reconciliation from God; whose arms we are to hold the broken and dying; and whose heart we are to feel His burden for a world that needs Him desperately.

  7. Wow, I really like this post!

    We’ve just finished producing a DVD aimed at helping the church think through issues around justice and mercy from a gospel perspective.

    In doing so, we’ve found that the church quickly divides between a kind-of theological conservatism that seems to fear becoming liberal, and a social response that wants to question the core truths of the gospel.

    There’s a bit of a trend to hold justice/mercy issues and “gospel” in opposition, but we found that as people get some hands-on experience trying to proclaim the gospel to really broken people they quickly understand the need to think through the kind of theology you are promoting here.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    In doing so, we’ve found that the church quickly divides between a kind-of theological conservatism that seems to fear becoming liberal, and a social response that wants to question the core truths of the gospel. — Mick Porter

    i.e. a split into a Social Gospel without personal salvation, and a “Bible-Believing (TM)” Fundamentalist Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

    Both completely out-of-balance in opposite directions.