I can still vividly recall the message the Lord used to call me to repentance and faith at an early age. It was, in a word, “judgment.”
The picture was clear: a great white throne, all my deeds on display, and me standing face to face with the Ancient of Days. This wasn’t exactly a “turn- or-burn, hellfire and brimstone” sermon, but the Lord did use it to confront me with the truth that one day I would give an account for my deeds and be judged. I felt rightly condemned. Thankfully that message didn’t end with judgment, but went on to explain that there is a refuge through this judgment named Jesus. That very evening I fled to Christ as my deliverer and was saved.
A Co-Opted Message
I thought of this recently as I read a paper by a Zimbabwean theologian on the “African concept of salvation.” One line jumped off the page: “Salvation in Shona religion…does not relate specifically to the afterlife. Shona religion is anthropocentric; it is life-affirming.” This didn’t compute. What kind of salvation was this? As I read on, I realized the author wasn’t just describing the animism of African Traditional Religion (ATR), but rather he went on to show that this theology still permeates much of Africa that is considered “Christian.” Whether by design or drift, the gospel once brought by missionaries has been co-opted by the cyclical animistic worldview. The result in many cases is that Jesus has become just another spirit-medium to call upon for tangible results in life—here and now. Incidentally, this syncretism explains why the so-called “prosperity gospel” has spread like a bushfire in this part of the world.
But what kind of salvation is it if it is focused primarily on the here and now? Or in the words of Jesus, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” (Mark 8:36). As I finished the paper and was just about to launch a tirade against an “African heresy,” the Spirit stopped me with a question. While this teaching is certainly a problem in Africa, when was the last time I had heard (or preached!) anything resembling a “turn-or-burn” message back in the States?
Much of American Christianity has (rightly) recoiled from the emotionalism of some revivalists. But in many cases what has replaced the “hellfire and brimstone” has been a kind of “Jesus-as-life-coach” gospel. Do you feel lonely? Do you feel helpless? Are things in your life not as you want them to be? Come to Jesus. He can save your marriage. He can help you become a better parent. He can be your friend and walk with you through trials. He can mend your brokenness and restore you to what you were created to be. In summary, Jesus wants to make you the “best you that you can be” and help facilitate your “best life now.” Much of American Christianity, whether by design or drift, seems to have fallen into a pattern of what one might call Western Animism.
The question we must continually ask, whether in Africa or Alabama, is basic—what is the gospel? If we are to proclaim the “good news” to all creation, then we should know what this “news” is. Can Jesus heal marriages? Absolutely! Does Jesus want to mend brokenness and restore God’s image? Yes! Does Jesus even care if a person’s crops grow and they have food on the table? I sure believe so. But do these kinds of things encapsulate the gospel? When we preach Jesus as the Savior, what are we saying He saves us from—temporal suffering, poverty, disease, oppression, etc.? Or is there a greater salvation to which these kinds of temporary blessings point as a mere foretaste?
Eternally Good News
Right now, millions of people are suffering in ways most of us cannot imagine. Following Jesus may (or may not) have an effect on their level of suffering for the next forty, sixty, or eighty years, for the Bible gives no guarantees on that (despite what prosperity hucksters say). But the Bible does give us this assurance—if a person is not in Christ, then all the suffering he or she encounters in life (awful as it may be) is merely a shadow of the suffering to come with God’s eternal wrath. But if that same person hears the gospel and believes, then whatever the Lord may (or may not!) choose to bless them with in this life is not intended as an end in itself. The blessings and struggles of this life are merely appetizers to awaken their longings for another world.
As those who believe the biblical gospel, we need to be the kinds of messengers who do not focus our hearers on the temporary things of this world, even if the things in question aren’t branded Mercedes or Armani. Maybe the temporary “thing” our hearers long for is simply the easing of pain or liberation from physical captivity or oppression. Our gospel is still far better.
Don’t get me wrong—we should certainly work toward certain temporary blessings and thank God for them if they come. But ours is ultimately a gospel of sin and shame removed, guilt and wrath averted, sin and death overcome, and eternal reunion with our Creator in the kingdom of His Son. Ours is a gospel, Jesus said, which moth and rust cannot destroy nor can thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). And that’s a gospel that is truly good news for everyone, no matter what symbol is on your hood or what kind of crop the rainy season brings!