What Most Christians Get Wrong About The Gospel
Are we there yet?
Every parent has heard it.
Every kid has asked it.
Every human being has felt it.
We suffer from destination impatience. We rush through life, always in a hurry. To get to where, we do not know.
The late cardiologist Meyer Friedman coined the phrase “hurry sickness” to describe this rushed, worried, preoccupied, time-poor quality of our lives after his upholsterer noted the unusual pattern of wear on the chairs in his waiting room. Apparently, they had only become worn out along the front edge. With nothing to do other than wait to meet with their cardiologist, people were literally sitting on the edge of their seats.
Are we there yet?
Something in us is waiting. For what, we do not know.
Something different? Something better? Sometimes it feels like we’ve been waiting forever.
In the Christian faith, the deepest and most mysterious expression of what we’re waiting for is found in the word eternity. God has “set eternity in the human heart,” we’re told in Ecclesiastes 3:11. We have a haunting sense that there is something more than this transient world. We alone of all creatures know that “all flesh is as grass.” But God has set eternity in the human heart.
Most of us think of eternity as an endless duration of time. And yet we hunger for more than just an infinite continuation of life as we now experience it, with all its sufferings and disappointments. The fear of unending existence carries its own label—apeirophobia—and can be as unsettling as the thought of death.1
The good news is, Jesus doesn’t talk about eternal life that way. In fact, Jesus—and the entire New Testament, for that matter—defines eternal life only once, with great precision, and in a way that has been largely lost in our day: “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3, nrsv).
Eternal Life = Knowing God.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “that they may know about you.” He says “that they may know you.”
Philosophers distinguish between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance.6 For example, I might be able to describe Moscow because I’ve read about it in books and seen it in movies, but I know by acquaintance what Rockford, Illinois feels like on a hot August night and what it smells like after a thunderstorm. I know the sound of a tennis ball bouncing on the courts of East High School. I know its hopes and divisions and fears and I know Stockholm Inn Swedish Pancakes because Rockford was my home.
Knowledge by acquaintance includes description but goes far deeper. It is interactive and participatory and experiential. The kind of “knowing God” that is eternal life is an interactive relationship where I experience God’s presence and favor and power in my real life on this earth.
To know God is to live in a rich, moment-by-moment, gratitude-soaked, participatory life together.
To know God means to know myself as his beloved friend as a gift of grace.
To know God means to know what Paul called “the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10) in the details and tasks and challenges of my daily, ordinary life.
This is eternal life. It is not something way out in outer space that we can only hope to experience after we die. It is not simply being able to give the right answers at church, affirming the right doctrines, or achieving the minimum entrance requirements to cross over the bridge and get into heaven.
On the contrary, it’s something much bigger and far more amazing. The gospel Jesus preached is the Good News that this eternal kind of life is available now. By grace. Through Jesus. Forever and beyond death. “Eternal life in the individual does not begin after death, but at the point where God touches the individual with redeeming grace and draws them into a life interactive with himself and his kingdom.”7
I have a sign on the back wall of my office that I look at first thing every morning when I sit down at my desk. In large block letters, it echoes something my good friend Dallas Willard used to say: “Eternity Is Now in Session.”
God is not waiting for eternity to begin. God lives in it right now. It is the interactive fellowship and joy that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Eternity is rolling right along, and we are invited to be part of it—now.
Dallas once wrote, “We must . . . do nothing less than engage in a radical rethinking of the Christian conception of salvation.”9 I think he’s right. Somewhere along the way, the power and the promise of the gospel has been lost. We’ve shrunk it down by making it solely about going to heaven when we die, and in doing so, we’ve shrunk God down too. We have often preached a gospel that does not naturally call for “knowing God,” a gospel that does not naturally call for disciples.
But what if we stopped thinking about the gospel as simply the minimum entrance requirements to get into heaven?
What if we stopped thinking about eternal life as something we can only experience after we die?
What if we stopped thinking of Christians as people who know about God and instead focused on becoming disciples who are learning to know God?
What if salvation isn’t mostly about getting us into heaven but about getting heaven into us?
Much of the way we’re taught to view eternal life is as a destination we reach, and until we get there, we’re like anxious kids on a long car trip asking, “Are we there yet?” We think we’re just biding time until we get there, when the real enjoyment will begin. But what if we’re missing out along the way?
There are two ways of thinking about Jesus’ gospel. The more common version is thought to involve how people ensure they will go to heaven when they die. It’s about how to go from “down here” to “up there.” It usually involves affirming certain beliefs or praying a particular prayer that is thought to make a person a “Christian.”
The other understanding is that the gospel announces the availability of life under God’s reign and power now. It’s about “up there” coming “down here.” By grace. Through Jesus. Transcending death. To all who will. For the sake of the world.
The first version tends to produce consumers of Jesus’ merit. The second tends to produce disciples of Jesus’ Way.
I believe the latter version is the correct one, the one that Jesus taught, the one that “snapped history into B.C. and A.D. as if it were a dry twig.”10 He is still recruiting people for this, the great journey of inner change and outer purpose.
Maybe he’s recruiting you.
Are we there yet?
It’s time to “engage in a radical rethinking of the Christian conception of salvation.”
Eternity is now in session.
Written by John Ortberg