One of the most stinging indictments of Christian hypocrisy ever penned is Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry. Elmer Gantry is a charlatan preacher, a hypocrite who likes money and women and fame. At the end of the book Elmer’s controversies have caught up with him and he realizes he must now face his congregation in shame. The book ends with a truly cringeworthy description of that event.
It had come. He could not put it off. He had to face them.
Feebly the Reverend Dr. Gantry wavered through the door to the auditorium and exposed himself to twenty-five hundred question marks.
They rose and cheered—cheered—cheered. Theirs were the shining faces of friends.
Without planning it, Elmer knelt on the platform, holding his hands out to them, sobbing, and with him they all knelt and sobbed and prayed, while outside the locked glass door of the church, seeing the mob kneel within, hundreds knelt on the steps of the church, on the sidewalk, all down the block.
“Oh, my friends!” cried Elmer, “do you believe in my innocence, in the fiendishness of my accusers? Reassure me with a hallelujah!”
The church thundered with the triumphant hallelujah, and in a sacred silence Elmer prayed:
“O Lord, thou hast stooped from thy mighty throne and rescued thy servant from the assault of the mercenaries of Satan! Mostly we thank thee because thus we can go on doing thy work, and thine alone! Not less but more zealously shall we seek utter purity and the prayer-life, and rejoice in freedom from all temptations!”
He turned to include the choir, and for the first time he saw that there was a new singer, a girl with charming ankles and lively eyes, with whom he would certainly have to become well acquainted. But the thought was so swift that it did not interrupt the pæan of his prayer:
“Let me count this day, Lord, as the beginning of a new and more vigorous life, as the beginning of a crusade for complete morality and the domination of the Christian church through all the land. Dear Lord, thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation!”
Sinclair Lewis’ point is clear enough: behind all the talk of God and morality and holiness, Elmer Gantry is the same old dog he’s always been. But if the gospel of Jesus Christ is true, we who embrace it should not be the same old dogs we always were! No, we should be different. The gospel should work itself out visibly through our lives. Toward this end we have added the next statement in our covenant:
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
We covenant to embrace the whole gospel by
studying God’s Word faithfully,
learning the gospel together in family worship,
giving ear only to sound doctrine,
living out the gospel in our lives
What does it mean to “live out the gospel in our lives”? What does the gospel have to do with our hands, our feet, and our tongues? How does the gospel move from “creed” to “character”?
The gospel raises the bar for how life is now to be lived by giving us a new standard for our lives.
It becomes abundantly clear, when reading the New Testament, that the writers of scripture did not see the gospel as merely words or as merely a confession of beliefs. They saw it as bound to life itself, as making certain demands on the way we live our lives. Paul makes one of the most powerful statements in this regard in Philippians 1. Hear his words to the Christians of Philippi:
27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.
Have you ever thought of the gospel in these terms: “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ”? Have you ever asked yourself, “Is what I am about to do worthy of the gospel? Is what I am about to say worthy of the gospel? Is my conduct right now worthy of the gospel?” In saying this, Paul is saying that the gospel raises the bar for how life is now to be lived by giving us a new standard for our lives.
The gospel tells us that we have been purchased. It tells us that we have been purchased by God for the Kingdom and away from the domain of darkness that was our dwelling place before we met Jesus. For this reason, to profess to be a Christian, to profess to believe the gospel, is to profess to know that Christ Jesus has brought us from death to life. And that means that the gospel cannot be simply words. It must be a life, for it is a confession about your own rebirth!
But there is more here. When Paul says “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” he is actually making a play on words that his original hearers would have picked up on. In essence, the phrase “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” uses terminology that was originally applied to citizens of a particular city in order to communicate to them their responsibilities concerning good citizenship. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee explains:
At issue is how the Philippians conductthemselves, meaning live out the gospel in Philippi. Pivotal to the present appeal is that instead of the ordinary Jewish metaphor “to walk [in the ways of the Lord],” Paul uses a political metaphor, which will appear again in 3:20-21. The people of Philippi took due pride in their having been made a Roman colony by Caesar Augustus, which brought the privileges and prestige of Roman citizenship. Paul now urges them to live out their citizenship (conduct yourselves) in a manner—and the sentence begins with those emphatic words—worthy of the gospel of Christ.What is intended by this wordplay is something like “Live in the Roman colony of Philippi as worthy citizens of your heavenly homeland.” That, after all, is precisely the contrast made in 3:17-20, where “our citizenship is in heaven,” in contrast to those whose minds are set on “earthly things.”
The use of this metaphor is a brilliant stroke. Not only does it appeal to their own historic pride as Philippians, but now applied to their present setting, it urges concern both for the mission of the gospel in Philippi and especially for the welfare of the state, meaning in this case that they take seriously their “civic” responsibilities within the believing community. Their being of one mind and heart is at stake; disharmony will lead to their collective ruin.
The gospel is therefore a proclamation of citizenship and all the responsibilities that citizenship entails. To accept Christ is to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God! It is to take on the responsibility of living out here and now the values and mores of the Kingdom. The gospel carries with it expectations for life in the Kingdom! It is bound to our characters.
In 1929 Charles Erdman put it like this:
The gospel is not merely a message to be believed; it is a rule to be obeyed. It does not consist merely in dogmas and doctrines to be discussed and debated and arranged in a system; it embodies vital principles which regulate the conscience and determine right conduct. It is “the gospel of Christ.” It points to him as the Lord of life. His will is set forth as sovereign and supreme. His grace is promised as sufficient to supply every need, and to overcome every weakness. “The gospel of Christ,” therefore, sets one free from minute and vexatious requirements and restrictions. It provides a great unifying and liberating principle, namely, that of submission to Christ and faith in him. One who seeks to live “worthily of the gospel of Christ” is not controlled by the maxims and judgments of men. He is not satisfied with popular codes of morality. While engaged in the humblest tasks on earth he is living as a citizen of heaven.
Do you profess to know Jesus, to have embraced His good news, His gospel? Then live like it! Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel! There should be no disconnect between your creed and your character, your confession and your life! Do you claim to know Jesus, then walk with Jesus!
The gospel, when accepted, places our feet in the footsteps of Jesus.
The citizenship imagery is powerful, to be sure, but there is another image used in relation to the gospel that is worthy of our consideration. It beautiful depicts the life-implications of the gospel of Christ. Let us approach this specific image with two background assertions. The first assertion is that discipleship, defined in its simplest form, means following in the footsteps of Jesus: walking whereHe walked and walking in the way thatHe walked. In Luke 9 Jesus says:
23And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
So that is the first assertion. To be a Christian is to walk the steps of Jesus. The second assertion is related to it. It is that to be a disciple of Christ, to be a Christian, is to walk the narrow path to glory and not the wide path to damnation. In Matthew 7 Jesus says:
13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
When we put these two assertions together, we can say that being a disciple of Jesus means walking the steps of Jesus along the narrow path to glory. To be a Christian is to be in step with Jesus. With that in mind, let us consider the amazing scene in Galatians 2 in which Paul confronts Peter to his face about Peter’s behavior.
Paul says that he and Peter were in Antioch and they were having a meal with Gentile believers. Of course, many Jews would have struggled with such a thing since Gentiles do not keep kosher. The mere presence of Gentile food on the table would have been a very difficult thing for Jewish followers of Jesus to accept, but many, like Paul, understood that the gospel called for just that: the full acceptance of non-Jewish believers into the family of God. And Peter knew this as well, which is why Peter was at the table with these Gentiles.
Peter and Paul are eating, but then a group of Jewish believers come into the room and Peter does something not only very offensive but very dangerous in terms of what it implies about the gospel. Listen to Paul’s account of this episode and pay special attention to Paul’s language about Peter’s behavior.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
Did you catch it? “[W]hen I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” There is a way of living that is “in step” with the gospel—that walks the steps of Jesus along the narrow path to glory—and there is a way of living that is “not in step” with the gospel. To notbe in step with the gospel is to veer off the path and to cease following Jesus in a particular area of life. Peter knew the gospel and had been saved by Jesus Christ when he accepted it. But on this day, in this instance, Peter’s feet had veered off of the gospel path. His feet were not in step with the truth of the gospel. A.T. Robertson sheds helpful light on this image when he explains:
That they walked not uprightly (hoti orthopodousin). Present active indicative retained in indirect discourse, “they are not walking straight.” Orthopodeo(orthos, straight, pous, foot).
Peter was not walking straight in this moment. His feet were not in step with the gospel. There is a straight path and he was not on it! G. Walter Hansen has written of this episode:
Paul’s refusal to follow Peter’s example as all the other Jewish Christians did and his open rebuke of Peter were based solely on the standard set by the gospel…Peter had contradicted the gospel.
Yes, “the standard set by the gospel”! The gospel does indeed set a standard, and it is possible to violate it, to not walk in step with it. This standard is the life of Christ Himself. That is our standard, our measuring stick. Are we walking with Jesus? Do our footsteps align with His. In Ephesians 6, Paul once again connects the gospel with our feet:
14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.
Our feet are to be shod with gospel-readiness! Perhaps we should think again about the terminology we use in calling people to Jesus. We ask people to invite Jesus “into their hearts.” But perhaps we should invite people to invite Jesus into their feet, their hands, their eyes, their tongues. To ancient people the heart might have been one synonym for the whole person, and perhaps to many it is thought of this way as well. However, the language has become so hackneyed by overuse and the contempt that familiarity breeds that one wonders if people do not think of the heart as localized, as simply one place where Jesus resides. But naming the various parts of one’s body that Jesus inhabits—that is to say allof one’s body—that might just change the way we think!
Yes, invite Jesus into your hearts, but invite Him also into your feet, your hands, your eyes…all that you are! The gospel is no mere creed. It is a life to be lived and a path to be walked. It is a narrow path but a straight path and its trajectory is ever and always in the footsteps of our King, Jesus!
Lewis, Sinclair. Elmer Gantry (pp. 312-313). Unknown. Kindle Edition.
Gordon D. Fee. Philippians. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Vol. 11 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 77-78.
Charles R. Erdman. The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1929), 63.
A.T. Robertson. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. IV (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1931), 288
G. Walter Hansen. Galatians. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 65-66.