The Gospel is never negotiable. It cannot be adjusted to fit special needs. It is what it is. It applies today in the same way it applied 2000 years ago. It will apply in the same way years from now. It is an absolute. Everyone, everywhere, and in every age will face the same question: where do you stand with the Christ?
When Jesus proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God, he said: “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). I believe that if we want to be faithful disciples of Christ, then we need to embrace both conversion and covenant on an ongoing basis. We need the balance of both. Conversion is the growth element and covenant is the context in which growth occurs.
Now conversion to the Good News demands a continuous response. In other words, grow or die! If we are to remain faithful to this eternal Gospel we must be dedicated to growth. I have come to understand that the process of conversion is in the present continuous tense. Even the Christ grew as he lived on the earth. Look at the end of chapters 1 and 2 of Luke: “And the child grew and became strong in spirit…” “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.”
New Testament examples:
Let me give you a few examples from the New Testament. First, let’s look at Mary, the mother of Jesus. She moves from discipler of Jesus to disciple of Jesus. Look at the absolute beauty of Mary’s inspired song recorded in Luke 1:46-55, which is rich in truth, tradition and humility. It’s a true canticle – a song of praise, recounting the deeds of God, recorded in Scripture. It’s a great teaching that I’m sure, as a mother, she passed on to her son. It’s filled with great ideals. (Long before she conceived Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh in her womb, she allowed the Word to take root in her heart.) But, as a disciple she “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Later, in the Gospels we see Mary change with her life’s experiences: (1) when Jesus was “lost” in the Temple, (2) at the wedding feast of Cana when the wine ran out and (3) at the Cross where she is silent.
Peter, the chief Apostle, is another example. He moves from impetuousness to a humble submission to the will of the Lord. In Matthew 16:22-23, he rebukes Jesus. He attempts to speak for the Lord; he betrays Jesus. Then, at the turning point in his career, Peter falls to his knees and is completely overcome (Luke 5:8)!
Yes, he turns from discipler to disciple. At the end of John’s Gospel we see prophetically a far different person than the outspoken fisherman of the earlier chapters. We see a man who will ultimately offer up his life for the Kingdom. The path of coming to faith is different from that of coming to the mere knowledge of God. Just look at the maturity of Peter as expressed in 1 Peter 1:3-9. If maturity equals the producing of spiritual fruit, then Peter had a bushel full!
Paul – the ultimate Christian disciple maker in the New Testament – had taken part in the martyrdom of Stephen. He consented to Stephen’s death and breathed threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus. He acquired legal documents for the imprisonment of the followers of Christ.
Later, in his aggressiveness as a disciple, he would confront Peter to his face over the issue of Judaizing Christians. But, toward the end of his life we see a humble disciple who, from prison, encourages the Christian communities with godly profundity and wisdom – a sure sign of a mature man of God. You can see a great example of this in his letters to the Colossians and to the Philippians.
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.4 When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory…16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.Colossians 3:1-4, 16-17
The people of Israel in the Old Testament may have been Jews, but they weren’t necessarily religious. In other words, they may have bought into “the way of life,” but not the Messiah or his prophets. It is possible for us to do the opposite. That is, to accept Christ and reject “the way of life” he has so generously given us. Growth occurs in context. If tomatoes need a hothouse, we, too, need a field in which to flower. We need covenant; we need community!
God is a covenant maker
If you look through the Bible you can see many instances in which God made a covenant with people: (1) Adam & Eve, (2) Noah, (3) Abraham, (4) Israel, (5) the Levites, (6) Phineas, (7) David and (8) of course, there is the New Covenant that he made with all of us. Christ is the mediator of that covenant and the Holy Spirit is the administrator of it. The sheer number of times in which God made covenant should give us a hint of how God works with a people. A covenant helps us to keep our promises, to manifest our love, to agree on certain things, to remember, to pass important things on to the next generation, to walk in God’s abundant blessings, to remain rightly related to the Lord, to instill in each of us a healthy godly fear. A covenant can also help us to understand the everlasting nature of God’s covenant, to be more God-like, to love with a deeper commitment, to obtain the mercy of God, to learn how to worship, to tug God’s heart, to set apart certain things for the Lord, to be free and to be better brothers and sisters to one another.
We are a covenant people and we keep covenant in all sorts of ways: not neglecting to meet together, keeping holy the Lord’s Day, worshiping, tithing, praying, serving, doing works of mercy, etc. We meet in covenant gatherings to do the Lord’s business together. This is our time. We need each other more than we could ever imagine. The glaring example of righteous lives is in our midst. We need the challenge to outdo one another in zeal. If you shoot low, I will only shoot lower, but if you reach for the stars, then I’ll reach for them with you as well.
Small groups provide a pastoring, caring environment to spur or aid growth. Where else can we find acceptance, worth and compassion, but with the brothers and sisters? What if, like Solomon, you prayed for wisdom and knowledge and God sent you to your men’s or women’s group to receive it?
What if we walked into our small groups looked around and said this: “These folks here are a means of grace for me today!” Growth isn’t optional. It is absolutely imperative for us if we are to reach our goal of being changed into the image and likeness of God (2 Corinthians 3:18). Let’s face it, sanctification (Romans 6:19), transformation (Romans 12:2) and growth (1 Peter 2:2) should be present continuous actions for us. We are called to offer our bodies in slavery to righteousness to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. If we want to mature in our salvation, then we need the on-going help and support of one another. The Scriptures give ample reasons for this:
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.Ecclesiastes 4:9-10,12
A launch pad to maturity
The Christian community should be a launch pad to maturity. A launch pad is a platform with a supporting structure from which a rocket can take off and head for it is destination. As a people, we find this supporting structure in our brothers and sisters who will pick us up when we’re down and help us go further than we could on our own (Deutero-canonical book of Sirach 37:12). We need to encourage, counsel, and pray for one another. Spiritual progress can only happen with the aid of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Our goal and destiny is nothing less than immortality, union, and glory with God.
Gerard Manly Hopkins (1844-1899) penned in verse this great mystery of our faith when our mortal nature will be changed in an instant at the last trumpet sound when the Lord Jesus returns in glory:
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,from the poem, That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire, by Gerard Manly Hopkins
I am all at once what Christ is,
Since he was what I am, and
This jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch,
matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.”
This article by Tom Mangan was first published in the July 2010 Issue of Living Bulwark.
Top image: Photo of cross on top of an Austrian mountain by Thanti Riess on Unsplash. Free to use under the Unsplash License.