Where’s God?

I just got back with my students from a week at Engage, our annual youth conference. Incredible week; three days later, I am still amazed and humbled at how God worked in students’ lives.

Our theme was ‘IKON,’ unpacking what it means to be made in the image of God and what it means that we are being re-made in the image of Christ. Our speakers did a great job making the concepts understandable and applicable, and students were embracing it!

We, the church, are the image-bearers of Christ to the world. We are to live as He lived and be the place where heaven kisses earth. This is the mission He gave us; this is why the Spirit of God has been sent, that the power and presence of God goes where we go.

But last Friday, as we ended the last session and went our separate ways, was bittersweet. Early that morning, I had received a text from my wife asking if I had heard about the shooting in Aurora. The bubble we had lived in all week suddenly burst. The reality of life in this world was a cruel slap across the face.

We stopped at an Arby’s for lunch on our way back home, and there were televisions on reporting what had taken place in that movie theater in Colorado. I couldn’t take my eyes from the screen, and I couldn’t keep my mind from spinning.

A thought flashed through my mind. And not the typical, “Where’s God?” thought we have when we come face-to-face with evil and horror of this magnitude. We ask how God could allow this to happen. We wrestle with the problem of evil and a good God who is supposedly in charge of this world.

But what flashed through my mind was a different thought:

This is my fault.

This is our fault.

Where was the church? 

The Prodigal’s Salvation

Photo via Russ Morris

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

So they began to celebrate.”

Luke 15:22-24

Here is lavish grace: unwarranted, unexpected, unparalleled.

Here is sweet forgiveness: reconciling, restoring shalom, putting things back in their proper order.

Here is salvation.

This story reveals how Jesus understands the gospel, and there are two things that stand out from the father’s words and actions.

The Prodigal’s Return

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'”

Luke 15:20-21

The story takes another unexpected turn. Jesus gives us a glimpse of God’s heart.

The father is impatient and undignified in his desire for his son. He has been waiting a long time, who knows how long, refusing to believe his son was not coming back. So when he sees him, he runs to him.

Now we’ve all seen plenty of movies in which two people who have been separated are reunited. And it’s usually the same scene: At first they don’t see each other, then there’s the double-take and recognition, followed by a look of glorious shock, and finally they drop everything and run in slow motion into each other’s arms.

When we read that the father runs to his son, in our minds it’s the natural thing to do. We probably don’t realize how undignified the father is making himself. Running is not something a man of his stature would do. It would showcase his legs, which in that culture was one of the most humiliating things you could do to yourself.

The Prodigal’s Re-Education

Photo via Matthew Wynn

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.”

Luke 15:17-20

The prodigal has come to a point of repentance.

The common understanding of repentance in the Christian world is a 180-degree turn from sin to God. This is true, although it has resulted in limiting the word to the realm of moral transgressions.

Repentance is more than feeling really bad about the bad things you’ve done.

The word repentance, as it’s used in Mark 1:4, Acts 11:18, and many other places in the NT, comes from the Greek word metanoia. Breaking this word down literally gives us “after perception” or “beyond understanding.”

So metanoia, a.k.a. repentance, is a shift in someone’s perception and understanding. Therefore as I go through life, I can experience repentance in my relationship with rap music, Sunday afternoon naps, and pistachio nut ice cream, just to name a few random things. I can repent of anything.

The Prodigal’s Journey

Photo via Nadjib Aktouf

It’s hard to learn from others’ mistakes. We may cognitively understand the path we should take, we may be well aware of the dangers that lie on that other path, the history of human foibles and failures may be embedded deep in our minds, but we still choose to learn life’s lessons the hard way.

“You can’t tell me how to live!” is the cry of the toddler, the teenager, and everyman.

The prodigal son was no different.

We pick up our story here:

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went out and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.”

Luke 15:13-16

He thought he knew best. He forsook his upbringing, the way of his father. He embraced every whim and desire he had, and it was fun while the fun lasted. It might have been short-lived, but those temporary pleasures took the edge off his loneliness and emptiness.

Until the party stopped.

The Prodigal’s Request

Photo via Emre Danisman

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.”

Luke 15:11-12

When you read a passage like that, how do you hear Jesus’ voice? Is he speaking casually or earnestly? Does he have the big booming voice of a hellfire preacher, or the soft-spoken voice of a father to his infant son?

Do you ever wonder how his listeners are responding? We get no sense from the text here. Verse 13 on just continues the story Jesus is telling. But what he said most likely shocked his audience, even though we don’t necessarily get that from the passage.

You are probably overly familiar with this story. You have probably heard before how the younger son is not simply asking Dad for money to go live on his own. He is saying something much harsher.

Essentially he is saying, “Father, I want nothing more to do with you. I want to completely sever our relationship. You are dead to me.”

Quotes of Note from the King Jesus Gospel

I have resonated with the content of this book and McKnight’s call to recreate a gospel culture. And so I am providing a Cliff Notes version of the book… some Quotes of Note. May it give you an idea of the book, and possibly propel you to read the book yourself. 


The Christian faith is kaleidoscopic, and most of us are color-blind. (11)

… “the gospel” is the story of Jesus of Nazareth told as the climax of the long story of Israel, which in turn is the story of how the one true God is rescuing the world. (12)

… we all urgently need to allow this deeply biblical vision of “the gospel” to challenge the less-than-completely-biblical visions we have cherished for too long, around which we have built a good deal of church life and practice. (13)


At the root of the many problems that trouble the “church visible” today, there is one simple source: the message that is preached. (15)


At the most conservative of estimates, we lose at least 50 percent of those who make decisions. (20)

What Does It Mean To Place Faith in Jesus, Part Three

What faith in Jesus looks like has a lot to do with our understanding of the gospel. If we limit the gospel to the plan of personal salvation, then faith means trusting Jesus as Savior.

However, if we see the gospel as God becoming King on earth as He is in heaven, then faith means trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord (a.k.a. King). Now Christianity becomes all about obedience and allegiance, rather than mental affirmation of information. Discipleship is a natural outflow of this kind of faith, rather than an unnatural persuasion that feels more like a square peg being jammed into a round hole.

Now the purpose of life for Christ-followers becomes making God King on earth as much as we can until Jesus comes back and finishes the job.

Making God King on earth begins with me making God King of my life. And that is going to take some work.

It begins by looking again at Jesus’ gospel. I must understand what Jesus’ message meant to his original hearers if I am going to have any chance of properly contextualizing it for my life today.

What Does It Mean To Place Faith in Jesus, Part Two

In the last post, we looked at the gospel message as it is typically put forth today, what Scot McKnight has labeled the ‘soterian gospel’ and identified as not being the original gospel but rather the plan of salvation.

Before that, we looked at the elements of story and how each version of the gospel sees God’s Story. I do not know that McKnight would totally agree with how I’m comparing the two, but this framing is what is most helpful to me. The picture below shows how I see these two storylines differing.

The Soterian Gospel vs. The Story Gospel

Again, the gospel we are used to (the Four Spiritual Laws, the bridge illustration…) is really just the Plan of Salvation. Sharing it is not wrong or invalid, but as we saw in the last post, it easily leads to a one-dimensional, one-way, me-centered relationship with Christ.

That is not to say that the Billy Graham crusades (for example) were pointless, or that God cannot use this skinny version of the gospel to bring us into right relationship with Him, expand His kingdom, and bring glory to His name. But for those of us who take the Great Commission in Matthew 28 seriously, we must always be seeking to make the message we bring be as close to Jesus’ original gospel as we can.

So asking ‘What is the gospel?’ and ‘Who is Jesus?’ are essential questions for each generation to freshly wrestle with as we stand on the shoulders of the generations before us. We cannot be afraid of the search, but it must be a search done humbly and with open minds in Christian community, led by the Spirit, immersed in the Scriptures, contextualized in history, and tested theologically.

In the next post, we will examine what faith in Jesus looks like based off of ‘the King Jesus gospel.’

What Does It Mean to Place Faith in Jesus? Part One

A few years ago, we had an evangelistic team do a convocation at our local public junior high and high school. There was a lot of preparation and buildup, encouraging churches to work together, and equipping students to be missionaries to their campus. It was well-coordinated and seemed like a promising event that would have a lasting impact. This was a big event for a small town, and buzz and momentum were building.

One of the things we were told by this group ahead of time was 80% of students that came back the night of the convocation responded to the gospel. 80%. Conservatively, each church could expect to see thirty new students coming to our youth ministries after this event. I must confess I was a little skeptical of the promised impact, but also hopeful.

The gospel presented that night was an accurate depiction of what Scot McKnight has labeled the ‘soterian gospel.’ The presentation was short, not-so-sweet, but compelling. If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would be one minute later? Do you want to know for sure that you’ll be in heaven? I’ll tell you how you can be sure…

After listening to this, and seeing students respond by standing (several of my committed, core students stood too), I understood why 80% of any young crowd would respond. I mean, if you were about to go rappelling down the face of a 200-foot cliff, wouldn’t you check the connection one more time before going over the edge?

With the ‘soterian gospel,’ placing faith in Jesus means making a decision to be saved. The main issue here, IMHO, is realizing you need to be saved. If I become aware of a problem I cannot resolve, and someone comes along offering the solution I need (and it doesn’t cost me anything), why wouldn’t I take it? It’s a pretty easy decision to make, isn’t it?

It’s actually more of a non-decision. It’s like choosing between bacon and brussels sprouts. That’s not a real decision because the sprouts are out, and bacon is the winner every time. Duh.

So all we really need to do with the ‘soterian gospel’ is work on our methods of persuasion, helping others realize their need of a savior.

And once a person makes that decision, it’s a done deal. Although now our method of persuasion focuses on convincing that discipleship is the way to grow and go. The problem is discipleship in many regards is more like brussels sprouts than bacon. Taking up your cross daily does not have as much natural appeal as going to heaven. It’s a much tougher sell.

Which brings into focus the reason behind the issues the church in America is facing. Sorry for using this cliché, but who’s going to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?

In 1998, Dallas Willard wrote The Divine Conspiracy. In this book, he expounds on this kind of limited gospel and names it ‘the gospel of sin management‘: the “reduction of gospel to salvation and the reduction of salvation to personal forgiveness.”

Later in his book he writes, “‘Gospels of Sin Management’ presume a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind… (and) they foster ‘vampire Christians’ who only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven.”

That sums it up. The message of the ‘soterian gospel’ allows for, and even provides for, the existence of ‘vampire Christians.’

Now we need to turn our attention to what McKnight calls the ‘story gospel,’ or the King Jesus Gospel.