The Essential Gospel

I like to talk about the Incarnation at Christmas. I suspect that most pastors do. We’re suckers for the gospel, particularly the gospel that starts in the womb of an impoverished, unwed, teenage girl. Of all the different gospels being preached today, the one initiated in Mary seems to be the genuine article, impervious to improvisation and immediately distinguishable from the life-enhancing gospels that are currently in vogue.

The essential gospel—the one that grew in Mary—refuses to be reduced to an add-on, a way to improve an already overcrowded life. In my opinion, any gospel that talks more about getting me into heaven than about getting heaven into me is a reduction, a spiritualized sales pitch that misses the point of the Incarnation. The gospel of my youth was reduced. As a result, we feverishly presented the “get-of-hell-and-into-heaven” gospel to anyone who would listen. There were thousands of “conversions,” and we painstakingly counted each one. Strangely, of the thousands who became followers of the Way during those years, very few exhibited any long-term interest in Christ or his church. I often wondered what went wrong, not realizing that a diminished gospel produces diminished converts and a diminished church.

Don’t get me wrong. I have given my life to spreading the message that Jesus is right about and relevant to everything. I long to see the missing sons and daughters of God come home. But I’ve been trained to use the gospel rather than allowing the gospel to use me. That’s a hard habit to break, a frustrating and intrusive inclination that resurfaces every now and then. However, my passion for purple will no longer allow me to dilute the gospel for the sake of statistical growth. Salvation isn’t another cheap, mass-produced commodity that gets offered to our culture in hopes that they’ll buy. It’s a person. His name is Jesus. And Christmas is the gospel’s first act.