The gospel offers hope

This post is by Dr. Michael Morrison, Dean of Faculty at Grace Communion Seminary.

If you are completely happy with your life, and completely happy with the way that people treat one another in society, then you may not be interested in the gospel. But if you think that life should be better, that life can be better, that your own life can be better, then the gospel offers hope

"Lost and Found" by Greg Olsen (used with artist's permission)

Created for love

The story begins long ago when humans first came on the scene. Why did God create human beings? The answer is, in one word, love. God could see ahead of time the creatures he would make, and he wanted them. He did not want them for himself, as if he needed them, but he wanted to give good things to them. His love overflowed beyond himself to want to give to others. 

He therefore made “others” so he could love them. He also wanted these creations to experience the greatest good of all, which is the ability to love, to enjoy giving. As part of his creation, God created people who are able to love. He wants us to share in the kind of life that he has.

The problem and the solution

However, people are not living up to this potential. Some people are good examples; some are not; no one is perfect. If there were no police, if there were no personnel assigned to keep order, society would degenerate. There are enough good examples around for us to see what the potential might look like, but we also see that goodness is not an automatic virtue for anyone. This did not take God by surprise – he knew ahead of time that humanity would not live up to his desires, but he created us anyway. God cannot die, so he takes a long-range view. He is patient, willing to wait for us to learn.

First, we need to learn that we cannot do this on our own. If a person thinks, “I am able to be a good person myself, even though most people cannot,” then that person has an attitude of superiority, of thinking themselves better than others.

Second, we need to learn that God wants to help – not just to increase what we already have, but willing to wipe the slate clean of all past failures, to work in us, to change our internal nature so that we can start all over. Our old inclinations need to be eliminated, replaced with new approaches to life and relationships, approaches not just modeled on but rooted in God, so that it is God working in us. It is the reverse of cancer – instead of dysfunctional cells taking over our body, it is properly functioning ways of thinking gradually taking over all dysfunctional ways. We have to consciously feed the good ways and shut down the bad thoughts, and this is done only with God working in us.

Third, we need to learn that this is a life-and-death matter. It should be no surprise that if we fail to live in the right way, that we will cease to live. But something more profound is involved, something that we were unable to figure out on our own. Just as we are not able to live exactly as we should, to do all the things that we believe are right, so also we humans are unable to figure out on our own the nature of the problem and its solution. It is not something we can put into a test tube or a microscope – it is not something we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste. It is not physical – it is, for lack of a better word, spiritual.

Because the problem is spiritual, the answer too is spiritual – it must come from the spiritual realm. It must be revealed by God. What has he revealed? That our failures can be “wiped clean” only by the death of Jesus Christ. Humanity’s failures can be removed and we can be given a new start only if someone who is God by nature becomes human (without ceasing to be divine), starts the human race anew, and dies on our behalf. We might think of this as an example of love, as an example of paying a debt, suffering a penalty, of providing a gift to appease a broken relationship. All such ideas touch on some aspect of the truth, but none of the metaphors is able to explain everything. What we do know is that God has provided this gift, at extreme cost to himself, presumably because nothing else would be effective.

Even before he created us, God knew that such a painful and personal sacrifice would be necessary – but he created us anyway. The better we understand what God has done in Jesus Christ, the more we can see what love actually is (our own definitions are distorted by self-interest) and the depth of his love for us. The better we understand Jesus as the perfect example of love, and the perfect response to our failures, the more that we are inspired by this example, the more that we want to be like him, and the more that we realize that we cannot do this on our own. We need God himself to live within us – we need the Holy Spirit to live within us.

Fourth, we need to learn that life is more than what we can see. Not only is there a spiritual dimension to life – attitudes and dispositions that cannot be measured with physical instruments – there is a future dimension to life that we cannot see. If the life we see is all there is, there is little reason to be good, little reason to love. It’s just about short-term survival. However, there is life after death, and that changes all the calculations. Future life gives us reason to learn to live in a better way, a way that makes short-term sacrifices more sensible, because they have long-term benefits. We can take a long-range view. Belief in a future life was essential to Jesus’ willingness to die to help us even when we were failures; belief in a future life is needed for us to love others, too, especially when death threatens us.

God's desire

God wants people who see a reason for living that goes beyond maximizing their own pleasure until they die. God wants people who love, who let him empower their lives, who let him transform their life goals and ways of life. God can do this in individuals, one person at a time, but since love is a social skill, it works best in community. 

God gathers into community people who accept his diagnosis of the problem, who accept his solution to the problem. They admit their inability, they welcome his help, they are motivated by a vision that a better life is possible not just for themselves, but for society as a whole. They see the love that led Jesus to die for their failures, and they are motivated by that love to use their lives to help others, to give, to love. They form a subset of society as a whole, a microcosm in which a new way is learned and lived out. This is the church.

This does not always go smoothly. If the transformation is compared to a journey, we find that some of the people have barely begun, some are dawdling along the way, some go backwards for a time, while some are further down the road. Most people have habits of self-reliance, which means they keep making mistakes (different mistakes for different people). People find it hard to trust God, to accept his definition of love, to give to others without expectation of short-term benefits. They become impatient at the failures of others, even when their impatience is evidence that they also fail. They may be miles ahead in one area of life, while laggards in another.

God's method

Believers form a community, an incubator for a new way to live, a new way to hope for a better world and a better future. Believers gather to learn, to encourage one another, and to practice together what they learn. (Some believers do not gather – some think they already know enough; some are frustrated at the failures of others; some have no commitment to others – all of these are failures to love.)

What do we learn in this alternative community? We learn and are reminded of God’s love for us, of the promises he has given to us for our future, of his patience toward us in our failures, of our need for him and his generous supply to us of what we need. We learn his vision of what life is for, of how good it can be, and we are assured that it will indeed be that good in the future. We are inspired to live this way now, even if it is not in our short-term benefit. We are given a long-range view.

How do we live? We love one another, despite our various flaws and failures. We help one another. We sometimes fail, so we need to be patient with one another’s failures. At least we have the right goal and are in touch with the driving force of that goal. Church is messy. It’s not perfect. It requires patience and long-term vision.

Our love is not just our love – it is God’s love at work within us, and his love means that the church is more than a mutual friendship society – we love people who are not part of us, too. God’s overflowing love causes us to serve others; we are being changed so that we are living more like God does. We take no credit for this – it is God living in us, using the circumstances to help us learn the joy of giving. We take a long-range view, without requiring short-term benefits for ourselves, although we know that God may well use us and the love expressed through us to bring more people into the service corps, to join the community where we are learning together more about love.

God inspired Paul to write, "Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that Christ died for all people… And since he died for all, we who are convinced should no longer live for ourselves but for Christ" (2 Cor. 5:14-15). We are to live for him, to let him live in us, and just as he loved us when we did not deserve it, so also when he lives in us, he moves us to love people who do not deserve it, either. We do not ask whether they deserve it – it is a pointless question. We love them whether or not they respond to our love. We take a long-range view, seeing life after death not only for ourselves but also for them. We see beyond the short-term failures because we have a long-term vision of success. Life can be better, and will be better, through the love of Christ.

We rejoice when people join us, but we love them even if they do not. We are patient, just as God is, even if they never respond. Do we want them to join us? Yes – God also wants them to respond to his love, but his love is not dependent on their response – it is given whether or not they respond. Christ died for all.

Our response

We are motivated by the conviction that Christ died for them, just as he died for us. We are stunned by his love for us, moved by his goodness, and we want to share his goodness now as well as in eternity. So we proclaim his goodness, proclaim his death for us, proclaim the promise of a life that never ceases to enjoy God’s love – being loved, giving love. But we do more than talk – we also try to live it out. We love others, we give to others, we learn to enjoy God’s way of life.

However, what might motivate people who are not yet convinced of Christ? What might motivate them to join us? How will they want to learn more, to see how it works out in life? Perhaps it is the vision that life could be better – a better life is possible not just for themselves, but for society as a whole. We are convinced that the way of love is indeed better, and that it is possible, and that it is a rewarding way to live in this age and in eternity. We are convinced that Christ makes it possible – no, not just possible, but guaranteed for now and for eternity.

A society centered on love is possible – not from our own good intentions, because they cannot be trusted to last, but made possible by a power outside ourselves, a power stronger than all of us put together. We can have a society centered on love only if we are centered on Christ and letting him live in us. We do not preach ourselves, but Christ who gave himself for us and continues to give himself for us.

If there is no God, there is no definition of goodness. Human definitions of goodness keep changing; different cultures have different ideas of what is best. If there is no Christ, then we are stuck in our failures. If there is no Holy Spirit, we are powerless to improve. If there is no life after death, all our improvements will be cut short. Without God, Christ and the Spirit, we have no hope. 

But we are convinced that God not only exists, but that he also loves. He uses his power to help others. We are convinced that Christ not only exists, but he also loves, and he died for us, to help us. We are convinced that the Holy Spirit is God helping us, working in us to bring about his grand plan for the people he created. We are convinced that Jesus rose from the dead and that through him, we will also rise from the dead to live forever. And it’s not just living forever – it’s living forever with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit and with one another, all in the way of love. 

We are convinced that eternal life will be enjoyable – far more than this life – because it will be lived in the way of love, of giving and helping others. We are convinced that this is the only way to live forever in joy – and it starts now, in words and in action. This is not from ourselves – it is Christ living in us. We are persuaded that a better life is possible, not just for us, but for all, because Christ died for all. His love inspires us, motivates us, compels us to let him change us to be more like he is. Life could be better, people could be better, and we will be better, through Christ. It starts now, in words and in action.