Yet how often do we as followers of Christ use insider language? How strange would it be for a first-time visitor to church to hear someone pray for “traveling mercies” or in Sunday School to listen as another insists that she wasn’t “angry,” but “righteously indignant”? Visitors might as well turn to us and demand: “English, please!”
There’s another common expression that falls into the same lingo category. It’s the word “saved.” A “personal evangelist” may ask: “Are you saved?” When he receives a blank look, he tries again: “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?” He’s digging himself in deeper, piling jargon upon jargon, as the hapless victim looks for any excuse to escape.
But let’s suppose that an individual is truly curious. We’ll call her Ashley. She listens politely, and with time begins to piece together what the church teaches about “good news.” The irony is not that the church is saying too much. Rather, the church is saying too little.
The “gospel” presentation too often is boiled down to a sales pitch. A small group of Christians approached a former student of mine on the street. Afterward, he summarized their presentation as an invitation to join “Club Heaven.” Of course, those weren’t their exact words, but that was the extent of their good news. To be “saved” – from their point-of-view – is limited to deliverance from eternal punishment and admission to eternal happiness with Jesus in the afterlife.
In their defense, as Ashley digs into the New Testament, she discovers that the word “saved” is found in the Bible. She reads of Peter, who in his first sermon claims: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Soon she discovers that only God can do the saving (Ephesians 2:8-10). But what she also finds out is that God’s rescue plan is much bigger than just herself or others. It includes her, but touches everything. God wants to save it all! (Romans 8:19-23). Creation is “frustrated” and in “bondage to decay,” but will soon be “liberated.” As Al Truesdale notes in With Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism (p. 81) , gospel is good news for us and for all creation.
On this we all agree: God is the subject of the sentence. It is not we who save; God saves. But the question then becomes: What does God desire to save? In grammatical terms, what is the object of the saving? John 3:16 makes that clear. God loves the “world.” In Greek, the word is cosmos. The cosmos is all of creation, of which we humans are an important part. Yet it’s even bigger than that. For a creation that has gone off-kilter following the disobedience of Adam, God has a rescue plan, and that plan involves both Jesus and the church.
Sometimes preachers warn us against getting involved in the “social gospel,” as if such an involvement would distract us from the real work that God has given us to do. The implication is that we should avoid fellowship with the so-called “liberal churches” that don’t “believe the Bible,” that like talking about social justice, the environment, or things that only have temporary value. We, on the other hand, should devote ourselves to “soul-winning,” telling people about Jesus and getting them to heaven. But let’s go back to Ashley. As she becomes more familiar with the Bible, she soon finds out that it’s not a choice between doing one or the other. It’s not “either/or.” It’s “both/and.” Because God wants to save all of creation, she realizes that there is no conflict between telling her friend, Joy, about Jesus on Monday and on Tuesday planting a tree. To focus only on one while neglecting the other would shrink the gospel, in the process making it less relevant.
Jesus saves, but what does he save? I’m glad for a gospel that encompasses all of God’s creation, including you and me. That’s a big enough gospel to demand our very best.