Every day I receive mailings and promotions for new book studies that promise to reinvigorate or revolutionize the church. They are typically well-packaged, with glowing endorsements from nationally recognized leaders who tout the life-changing content of the material. Like most things in the world of Christian publishing, there are some that are good and some that are bad. Most of them receive a cursory glance before finding rest in the recycling bin. I got one yesterday, however, that’s prompting this brief post.
I need to admit up front that I haven’t read this book. I’ve only seen the promotional packet. So this isn’t a book review and I’m not attempting to engage with the actual content of the curriculum. I’m just sharing my frustration with what I find to be the misleading, inaccurate, and very theologically confused statements that permeate the promotional materials.
The book is called Be the Message, by Kerry and Chris Shook. (You can find all of this online here.) I’ve heard of the Shooks before, though I don’t know much about them, except for the booklet’s statement that they “are two of today’s most gifted communicators offering a clear, contemporary and creative teaching style” and that Kerry is the senior pastor of “Woodlands Church, one of the largest churches in America.” The intent, obviously, is to convince me that this stuff is trustworthy, relevant, necessary, and powerful.
Again, this isn’t a book review or even personal criticism of the Shooks. But here’s what I find so frustrating about the way this material is presented: it speaks a lot about the gospel, yet seems to misunderstand what the gospel actually is.
“I’m tired of hearing sermons”, the front reads, “I want to see one lived out.” Ok, got it. Perhaps unnecessarily dismissive of the preached Word, and moving in the whole ‘deeds not creeds’ direction, but not totally out-of-bounds yet.
It goes on inside to say “…help your church members impact the community and demonstrate that the gospel was never just words to be spoken but a life to be lived”. Now we’re starting to play a little fast and loose with words and categories. Yes, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). Yes, a life of discipleship should impact who we are and even those around us. Yes, Protestant and evangelical Christians often need to be reminded that salvation by grace alone through faith alone must still issue forth the fruit of the “good works, which God prepared beforehand” for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). But we can’t say that the gospel itself is “a life to be lived”.
The ‘gospel’ itself, as is so often pointed out, is a word that means good news. News is an announcement about something. News is the heralding of a message. News is the communication of an event. News is not action. (Despite what your local TV station may claim about ‘action news’.)
Having blurred the lines of definition and category already, the booklet goes all in on the confusion with this:
“They [the Shooks] discovered a profound secret: You Are the Gospel. As they explored the deeper truths of Scripture, the verse ‘the word of God lives in you’ came alive. Digging deeper, they discovered that the gospel message is really about life message–your life lived out…the gospel is not about what you say. It’s about who you are and what you do.” (emphasis original)
This line of thought isn’t new–it goes back to the infamous St. Francis of Assisi quote (“Preach the gospel at all times, and, when necessary, use words”) and shows up in the more contemporary, “You may be the only Bible that someone reads” expression. But it fundamentally confuses important categories, and, by doing so, empties them of their real meaning.
Again, I haven’t read the book, but I’m assuming that the promotional materials accurately reflect its content. So while I do affirm and applaud their desire to encourage Christians to live as if what they claim to believe is actually true, I think some of their language is profoundly unhelpful (at best). Here’s what I think must be made clear:
You (and your life) are not the Gospel.
The Gospel is the announcement of what God has done for us in Christ. The Gospel is the heraldic pronouncement that Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are the means by which God has redeemed for himself a people who are zealous for good works (Titus 2:11-14).
Compare the statements above to what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you a re being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you–unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. (1 Corinthians 15:1-6,11)
Notice all the things that Paul says that stand in contrast to the Be the Message message.
- The gospel is something that he preached, not did.
- Our belief is lodged in that message, not in someone else’s character.
- The gospel he delivers is an account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection–accomplished in accordance with Scripture and for the sake of the sins of his people.
Paul never says: “Look at my life, and by observing that, intuit the content of the apostolic proclamation. Watch the way in which I act towards others, and through that, deduce the fact that the Son of God was incarnate, lived a life of perfect obedience to the Father, died for the sake of the sins of his people, was raised again from the dead on the third day, and grants salvation to all who cling to him in faith.”
Paul’s life was not the gospel. Neither is mine; neither is yours. But his life bore witness to the transformative work of the Spirit as he proclaimed the gospel to all who would hear.
Should what we do align with what we say? Yes, certainly. Do we need to take seriously the call to live in ways that bear witness to God’s redemptive work? Yes, absolutely. Must we fervently pursue a life of fruitful and faithful discipleship? Yes, with earnestness.
But our lives are to be lived in light of the gospel, and as a witness to the regenerative and transforming work of the Spirit–not as the gospel.
If my life is the gospel, then we’re all in trouble. But if my life–through words and actions–can bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ and transforming work of the Holy Spirit, then something much greater may be in view.