The “Double Structure” of the Gospel

A Holy Week Reminder

In his popular commentary on the Gospel of John (John: The Gospel of Life – Judson Press – 1979) D. George Vanderlip, a Professor of New Testament at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote –

donkeyThe story is told in the imagination of the feelings of the donkey who bore Jesus into Jerusalem on the day of his so-called triumphal entry. The donkey was plodding along slowly with head down until he suddenly noticed a crowd gathering and then the people beginning to shout and throw palm branches into the street.  He immediately began to lift up his ears and quicken his pace, thinking, “They are glad to see me.  They are applauding me.” (37)

Dr. Vanderlip used this story to make the point that it’s not all about us.  As Michael Horton likes to say, “God is not a supporting actor in the movie about us; we’re supporting actors in the movie about God!”  Now, this cuts directly against the grain of our cultural preoccupation with self where we are daily bombarded with messages that say “have it your way.” 

80David Hubbard, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the mid 1970’s, said that he was troubled by the way that some churches, in an effort to be more “attractional,” were beginning to cater to the preferences of people outside the church in order to get them inside the church. Under the banner of being sensitive to “seekers” they were beginning to tailor their weekly worship experiences to better fit the expectations of those who were not there in order to increase their chances of getting them there.

The last thing you want to hear from people who have just come out of one of your worship services is: “I didn’t get anything out of it.”  Dr. Hubbard said that when we judge a church this way we typically use three criteria –

  • The “intellectual criterion” – Was the sermon as stimulating as it could have been?
  • The “emotional criterion” – How did the worship service leave me feeling?
  • The “aesthetic criterion” – Did the music, the décor, the style and the setting of worship suit my tastes?

Dr. Hubbard was concerned that this approach could easily lead a church to put the emphasis in the wrong place.  In the pursuit of customer satisfaction, he worried that product quality might begin to suffer.  When the focus shifts from Christ to the donkey, our desire for success can begin to interfere with our obligation to be faithful.  Trying to make people happy can lead you to lose touch with what it is that you are there to do in the first place.  It’s a fine line.

boatIn the Great Commission Christ sent his church “into the world” to “preach the Gospel.”  If we are to reach the “world” then clearly we’ve got to be sensitive to our audience and responsive to their needs.  But to faithfully preach “the Gospel” then we’ve got to be careful to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) and preserve “the treasure that been entrusted to us” (2 Timothy 1:14).  Finding and then maintaining the balance between cultural relevance and Biblical fidelity is tricky.  It’s a horse that you can fall off from either side.  You can be too flexible at the point of culture, and you can get too rigid at the point of Scripture.  Fortunately, we are not left completely on our own in navigating this Scylla and Charybdis.

I’ve long been reassured by what Jesus said in the Upper Room in John 15:26-27.  Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said – “you will bear witness because you have been with Me from the beginning” (15:27).  They were to proclaim what they had seen and heard (I John 1:1-3).  They were custodians of the Gospel story, “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 4).  Fidelity to this charge could be measured rather straightforwardly – were they handing on the same message that they had received (I Corinthians 15:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:2)?  Deviations from this delivered tradition were not to be tolerated (Galatians 1:1-10).  This is on us.  A faithful church must always be taking the measure of its life and message by the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).  It must be consciously “tethered to the Word.” 

But in the Upper Room, in the Gospel of John, Jesus also said, “When the Helper comes… He will bear witness of Me” (15:26).  This is on God.  Just as we have our “witness” role to play, so the Spirit of God has a “witness” role to play as well.  Bernard Ramm explained what Jesus meant by saying that “upon the objective truth of revelation must fall the subjective light of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.”   This is what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus described as feeling their hearts “burning” within them as the Risen Christ explained the scriptures to them (Luke 24:32).  As Bernard Ramm put it – “It is the Spirit who makes the heart burn as the Word is heard.  Thus revelation always comes in this double structure – the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective, the hearing ear and the burning heart.”

In this “double structure” there is a clear division of labor, God has His part to play and we have ours. It’s our job to tell the story of God’s redemptive involvement with human beings from creation through the covenant with Israel, the coming of Christ and the establishment of the church to the final consummation. Of course, we’ve got to tell this story in ways that people can actually understand it.  Our communication has to be comprehensible and just as compelling as we can possibly make it.  That’s on us.  But the impact that this story actually makes on the heads and hearts of those who hear us tell it is not our responsibility.  This is on God.  We tell the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ to bring us back into a right relationship with Himself, that’s our “witness” (John 15:27).  And then God takes what we’ve said, and through the Holy Spirit, applies it to people’s hearts where they are free to accept or reject it.  That’s His “witness” (John 15:26).

I think about these things every year at this time.

The church’s Holy Week services are always some of the best attended of the year.  As Elton Trueblood used to say, if a church member won’t come to church for Easter, they probably aren’t coming for anything!  And so the temptation is to pull out all the stops and do something spectacular while they’re here to convince them to come back the following week (almost always one of the worst attended Sundays of the year).  The count of nickels and noses during Holy Week worship services, especially on Easter, gives us a brief vision of what could be for our churches, and it is just so appealing, it makes us feel so good about ourselves as a church, so “successful,” that we start to think about what we could do to keep them coming.  And this is when the focus can begin to shift Dr. Hubbard warned. When the spotlight’s on the donkey, Christ can get lost in the shadows.

The “double structure” of the Gospel shows us another way.  Our job is to be clear, to point people unswervingly and unhesitatingly to Jesus Christ.  The promise is in John 12:32: “When I am lifted up… I will draw all people to myself.”  We witness to Christ, we “lift Him up,” and then the Holy Spirit uses that witness as the basis for His own witness in people’s hearts, “drawing people to Himself.”  Again, something that Bernard Ramm said is quite helpful – “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word” (21).  Our witness gets addressed to the outer ear, the Spirit’s witness gets addressed to the inner heart.  Our task is to be clear, consistent and compelling about who Christ is and what Christ has done.  The Spirit’s task is then to convict the hearts and convince the minds of those who listen to us.

This is why Stanley Hauerwas, the man Time magazine once called “America’s Best Theologian,” says that the future of the church is going to be found in “doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.” Anthony D. Baker, a professor of Theology down at the Episcopal Seminary in Austin explains what this means –

It all depends, of course, on what “same thing” we are doing. If we mean the same failures of acculturation, then clearly this is wrongheaded: The future of the church very decidedly is not found in coughing with embarrassment during Gospel readings, or in nervous thumb-twiddling during prayer. But if “the same thing week after week” means proclaiming the gospel, forgiving sins, and attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we must agree: The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell, or high water.

cupIf we could surrender our anxiety-ridden need for novelty, we could think about how to “work with the words” of the gospel in a way that makes God’s loving call resound anew for children and adults alike. In learning to read the gospel, we would be giving ourselves the greatest and most formative gift possible: the gift of love for the fundamental story of the world, and a way of receiving and experiencing the divine love that story narrates. Imagine a church in which children and adults of all ages, races, and classes were bound together by their common love for the words of the gospel. If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth—to love what we read, to be loved by what we read—then surely the future of the church would look a bit more hopeful.

And so this week, Holy Week, we will just tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love again, just as we did last year during Holy Week, and just as we will next year during Holy Week.  We will try to tell the story clearly and compellingly, and our focus will on Christ because Holy Week is not about the donkey.  It’s about who was on the donkey, and what He was riding it into Jerusalem to do. DBS+


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