The Four Canons – “Around the Whole Gospel (Part 2)”

4canonsgears2016Acts 20

24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Francis Chan tells an interesting but sad story about a particular guy who started attending their church.

A while back a former gang member came to our church. He was heavily tattooed and rough around the edges, but he was curious to see what church was like. He had a relationship with Jesus and seemed to get fairly involved with the church.

After a few months, I found out the guy was no longer coming to the church. When asked why he didn’t come anymore, he gave the following explanation: “I had the wrong idea of what church was going to be like. When I joined the church, I thought it was going to be like joining a gang. You see, in the gangs we weren’t just nice to each other once a week-we were family.” That killed me because I knew that what he expected is what the church is intended to be. It saddened me to think that a gang could paint a better picture of commitment, loyalty, and family than the local church body.[1]

I am sympathetic with Chan’s blunt response: “That killed me…” It is a tragic thing to hear (that the gang was more of a family than the church) but perhaps, if we are honest, we sometimes know what he means. It is particularly tragic because a gang does not possess the one thing the Church possesses that should create an unparalleled sense of family: the gospel. A gang actually does possess certain virtues (misdirected though they often are) at its core: solidarity, a sense of brotherhood, a tight sense of cohesiveness. But the Church should have these virtues as well as the one thing that can orient it toward truth and transcendent beauty. Again, I am speaking of the gospel.

It is inexcusable for a Church that professes to have the good news of Jesus Christ at its core to be anything less than an authentic and vibrant family. “One of the great tragedies of church history,” writes Jim Belcher, “is how often different movements in the church have been guilty of reductionism and lost the gospel.”[2] That is so. If we lose the gospel we lose that which alone can make us an authentic family instead of a mere group.

I agree with Presbyterian theologian John H. Leith who wrote, “The primary source of the malaise of the church is the loss of a distinctive Christian message and of the biblical and theological competence that made its preaching effective.”[3] Yes, and that “distinctive Christian message” is the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What exactly is it that the gospel does in terms of helping us to become an authentic family? What does it bring to our life together that, say, a gang does not possess? How does the loss of the gospel as the core and center of our lives short-circuit our efforts to become a family?

To get at this, consider a comment that Paul made in his moving and powerful farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20.

24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

The gospel frees us from the idol of self-preservation and the anxiety it demands of us.

The first part of Paul’s comment is stunning in its counterintuitive force.

24a But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself

This is not a statement of self-loathing. This is not a callous death wish. This is not flippancy. Rather, it is simply Paul’s declaration that something had happened that had freed him from the idol of self-preservation and the anxiety it demands of us. In Galatians 2, Paul fleshes this idea out even more and gives the background for it.

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Paul could say that he did not account his life “of any value nor as precious to myself” because the life he once knew died on the Damascus road when he was visited by the risen Christ. There is something freeing about having already passed from death to resurrected life! In dying to self and living to Christ death no longer has a hold on us. Paul put it like this in 1 Corinthians 15:

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” 55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

That is the sense of victory that only Christ and His gospel can give us! Paul had been set free from the twin scourges of obsessive self-preservation and anxiety. We are freed from self-preservation by Jesus Christ because our old life is gone and we now live in resurrection power with our great King Jesus. We are freed from anxiety because we have already died and no longer fear the threats of death!

Kevin DeYoung has written that “anxiety…is simply living out the future before it gets here.”[4] That is a helpful definition for Christians. If anxiety is “living out the future before it gets here” then we should never suffer under its tyranny for our future is Christ and it is in His hands. We know this because it is communicated to us through the gospel.

Remove the gospel from our life together and we are suddenly at the mercy of anxiety because we suddenly no longer have confidence that the future is in God’s hands. If we lose the gospel we are stuck between the frustrations of the present and the uncertainties of the future. As a result, the concerns of the present become exaggerated in importance and imprison us in anxiety. For this reason, Luke 12 becomes an essential text for the Church. In Luke 12, Jesus first gives a parable about the futility of being obsessed with self-preservation.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 14 But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Without the gospel, we are left with a frantic need to accumulate more and more. Without a knowledge of the eternal inheritance that only the gospel can bring we have to try to actualize our inheritance here and now. Beneath this need for self-preservation is the cruel taskmaster of anxiety. It makes perfect sense, then, that in explaining the parable of the rich fool Jesus talked about anxiety.

22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. 32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

When we become an authentic family around the whole gospel we become a family that has been freed to be here – truly to be here – for one another because we are no longer having to expend our energies trying to save our own lives.

An authentic family around the whole gospel is a family set free from anxiety and obsessive self-preservation.

The gospel frees us to remind those within and to invite those without.

Having been freed from self-preservation and anxiety, we are thereby freed for mission. The second half of Acts 20:24 arises organically from the first half.

24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Paul was able to focus on finishing his course because he had been freed from the tyranny of self-preservation and anxiety. This ministry had for Paul and has for all of us two components: (1) to remind those within and (2) to invite those without.

The ministry of reminding refers to the ways in which we remind one another of the liberating power of the gospel by modeling this freedom in our own lives. So an authentic family around the whole gospel is a family equipped to minister to one another by reminding one another that we should not live like atheists, that we should not be bound by anxiety! And the beautiful thing about the ministry of reminding is that it oftentimes does not even need actual words. When you live a life freed from anxiety and freed from obsessive self-preservation your very life becomes a testimony to the reality of the gospel and your very life becomes a reminding testimony to the power of Jesus Christ!

The ministry of reminding also involves calling one another back to the gospel when we effectively abandon it in either word or deed. Imagine, for instance, that you encounter a member of the church who is perpetually upset about things that are unimportant, that are tangential, that are secondary or tertiary in importance. Or imagine that you are part of a group in the church that consistently forgets the centrality of the gospel. Perhaps their attitudes and actions would, if left unchecked, possibly untether the group or even the larger congregation from the centrality of the gospel. Perhaps they want the church to be a club. Perhaps they want it to be a mega-clique or sect around this or that issue. Whatever it is, the ministry of reminding is a ministry in which we call one another back, time and time again, to the gospel.

The gospel also frees us for the outer ministry of testifying “to the gospel of the grace of God.” When the gospel of Jesus Christ is truly situated at the center of the Church, the Church is freed to proclaim the good news and to reach the world. Anxiety robs us of mission. The need to preserve the self robs us of mission. But the gospel, in freeing us from theses scourges, frees us for mission!

What this means is that the Church, to be the Church, must keep the gospel central. It must be an authentic family around the whole gospel.

Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson have observed that, “the motto of the Welsh Revival was, ‘Mend a church, save the world.’”[5]

Just think about that: “Mend a church, save the world.”

The Church is the primary means by and through which God now reaches the world. If the Church loses the gospel, the Church loses the only reality that can actually empower it to be and do what the Church must be and do! If the Church loses the gospel, we will be consigned to the ash heap of history!

The philosopher Giorgio Agamben has asked:

Will the Church finally grasp the historical occasion and recover its messianic vocation? If it does not, the risk is clear enough: it will be swept away by the disaster menacing every government and every institution on earth.[6]

This is true. The “messianic vocation” Agamben speaks of is the vocation of being the body of Christ in the world. Put another way, if the Church is not centered on and therefore advancing the gospel of Jesus Christ then what, really, is the point?

What must be resisted is the seductive but ultimately vacuous idea that what is best about the Church is the fellowship we have here. No, what is best about the Church is that it is the steward of the eternal good news of God in Christ…and out of that, we have a fellowship that cannot be matched or rivaled! Again, if you aim for fellowship and abandon the gospel you will lose both fellowship and the gospel. But if you aim for the gospel above all else you will gain it and fellowship!

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Get the gospel right and you will be in a position to get the other things right as well.

An authentic family around the whole gospel: this is what the Church must be.


[1] Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit. Kindle Loc. 1069-74.

[2] Jim Belcher, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books), p.121.

[3] Timothy George and John Woodbridge, The Mark of Jesus (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2005), p.81.

[4] Kevin DeYoung, Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random … Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, etc. (Highlight Loc. 475 [Kindle])

[5] Stetzer, Ed; Dodson, Mike (2010-07-19). Comeback Churches (p. 54). B&H Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[6] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom. (New York, NY: Seagull Books, 2012), p.41.

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