Imagine a visitor from another planet visiting the average American church.
This extraterrestrial would more than likely see many empty pews but also hear a gospel that is killing us. This outside intruder would here a gospel that frames God's purposes in the gospel as making our life healthy, wealthy, and prosperous. This ET would hear a gospel that diminishes and belittles God, painting God as a deity that is helplessly waiting on the sidelines of life for the disasters of life to pass, all the time wringing His hands in frustrated exasperation – God is a pastoral God who can only respond to difficulties and not a sovereign God who designs all things for our good and his glory. This visitor would hear a gospel devoid of sacrifice, repentance, and a striving to enter into the kingdom, a gospel that is passive and man-centered. The mantra of this gospel would be, "It's OK to be all about God so long as God is all about you!"
My fear is that this silly scenario is not far from the truth. American Christianity has lost much of its robust nature because the gospel has been reduced to a gospel without repentance, salvation without endurance, forgiveness without being forgiving, love without accountability, and eternal life without gritty, determined, committed grace. A gospel without true repentance from sin, embraced by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone for God's glory alone is not the gospel. A gospel that does not make much of God and little of us is not the gospel.
The diminished gospel we have affirmed is dangerous. In fact, this gospel is killing us. The American gospel of Christianity is ruining and spoiling us. To suffer for the gospel is now optional, even unnecessary – maybe even sinful. The gospel that some preach has only health and wealth as its goal for the Christian. To be otherwise is to be out of the will of God. The gospel that is killing us has convinced us that church is all about having our "felt needs" met; about guilt avoidance; about being successful in this life.
The problem with this truncated gospel is that health and wealth is exactly what the unconverted desire, as well. What difference is there between the Christian and the non-Christian if their goal is the same? What difference is there between the "blessed" if one "got theirs" from the world and the other from God? The gospel of secularism and the erroneous, self-absorbed gospel of Jesus I'm speaking of produce the same product, one with the label of secular, the other with the label of Savior. Surely, we are not saying that by putting the stamp of the gospel on a lifestyle that is no different than the lifestyle of the unbelieving somehow proves that we have been blessed by God.
Let me suggest another gospel. This gospel kills, as well. But it does so by nailing our sins and desires on a cross, a cross that is embraced by repentance and belief in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The true gospel of Jesus Christ is the death of the old self with its desire for the very things the world desires. Jesus spoke of this cross in Matthew 10:38-39: "And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." The gospel of Jesus Christ declares our judgment, pronounces our sentence, and calls for our death to sin and self so that we might be awakened to a new life with new desires, motives, and purposes. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls for us to make much of God rather than self. So, while suffering is no proof of conversion neither is driving a BMW, living in a five thousand square foot home, and sending your kids to private school.
Let's be clear. If God so chooses to bless a believer with financial means or good health then let him use those resources to the glory of God. Hard work, ingenuity, and good stewardship are part of God's calling and do have rewards, even what we may call godly rewards. However, to preach a gospel with this as the goal of the gospel is not the gospel. The gospel is the means by which we come to God, not the means by which we ingratiate ourselves to the world.
Maybe what American Christianity needs is a season of suffering and persecution. Why? Is it not true that where Christianity is persecuted it grows? It is not also true that suffering and persecution have a way of exposing true believers from false? Further, is it not true that suffering has a way of stripping us of our self-righteous veneer and exposing our true motives? And doesn't persecution force us to truly depend on God? Again, Christians are not to intentionally look for suffering and difficulty. But neither are we to avoid our own death to sin and the challenges that may come from living a Christ-centered, cross-bearing, God-glorifying life.
Do you recall Paul's (Saul's) conversion in Acts 9? God told Ananias, the old sage of Damascus, to speak over Paul these words (Acts 9:15-16), "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." Later, in Acts 14:22, Luke notes that Paul preached to the believers in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch that "…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." Paul's life of suffering became a demonstration of his absolute confidence in his Savior and not in himself.
To suffer for the gospel is to crucify self (Rom. 6:6) so that we might live unto God. The gospel that makes much of us kills godliness and the church; the gospel that makes much of God in Christ kills us so that we might live with great abundance. The secular, American gospel leads to the death of God's work in us while the gospel of Jesus Christ leads to a death to sin and self so that we may truly know what it is to live! Maybe we need to once again hear Paul's testimony to the Galatian church (2:20), "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."