Re-Discovering the Gospels

From time to time, it’s important to revisit and reevaluate our theological beliefs.  A myriad of books, tapes, sermons, Sunday School classes, Bible studies, and retreats, can have the unfortunate effect of encumbering our faith.  The sheer volume of information from well-meaning, but fallible human sources, inevitably leads to a mixture of truth and error.  While this is not intentional, it never the less happens so we must be constantly vigilant.  In Acts 17:11 the Bereans are commended because “They received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”  This paper is about my experience as I examined the Scriptures daily, to see if what I was taught is true.

Before I share what I found, a short personal history might help the reader understand the context of these thoughts.  My father pastored several evangelical churches for more than 45 years, so I spent my childhood in that environment.  At 16, I rejected that way of life and left home to follow my dreams.  After achieving success in everything I chose to do, I was still unfulfilled and empty.  At age 26, I surrendered my life to Christ and reentered the community of faith.  I quickly became an avid student of the Bible and eventually held numerous leadership positions in a large evangelical church.  Concurrent with being an Elder and Sunday School teacher, I was active with several Para-church organizations that emphasized evangelism and discipleship.  My knowledge of Scripture, along with being asked to give leadership to these ministry opportunities, caused me to consider myself spiritually mature.  I was as committed, disciplined and dedicated as anyone I knew, but was unaware that it had produced in me a prideful spirit.  Thank God, He chose to intervene in my life through a series of circumstances and conversations.

One was a statement by a significant mentor that shook me to the core and motivated me to take stock of my spiritual condition.  He confronted me with, “You know more theology than the Apostles knew.”  It was his way of alerting me to that ugly condition known as spiritual pride.  My first response was, I do know more theology than the Apostles knew.  They didn’t have the inspired teaching of Paul about salvation by grace, spiritual gifts, or the Second Coming of Christ, etc.  Even though all that is true, I quickly recognized that they had something that was more vital and dynamic than I was experiencing.  My salvation wasn’t in doubt, but I knew instinctively that even though I knew more information than they did, they knew Jesus in a way that I had not yet discovered.  A few months later, I remembered a statement that Paul the Apostle made, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ,” and “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ.”  (Phil 3:7-8)  The instant that verse came to mind, it became very personal and very real to me.  So I told God that like Paul, this is my hearts cry.  Then at that moment and without any previous thought I involuntarily held out my cupped hands, and in a symbolic and metaphorical sense, they contained every doctrinal conviction I had, including the virgin birth, salvation by grace, etc.  I lifted my cupped hands to heaven, started to weep, and said out loud; “I will trade all of these for a heart connection with Jesus like the Apostles had.”  It seems clear to me now that the Lord took me at my word and began a process that continues until the present.  As I look back on that time, I realize that this was a major turning point in my spiritual journey.

Soon an idea began to develop that brought an answer to my prayer.  The idea was simple; I would spend an extended time in the four Gospels only plus the first chapter of Acts, and try to experience Jesus the way the Apostles did.  I was prepared to give this experiment three years like those who spent time with Him but committed to starting with at least one year.  I knew that the Hebrew culture was built on a tradition of verbal transmission of knowledge, and since Jesus had spoken to the Apostles, it seemed important for me to listen to His words instead of reading them.  This led me to purchase the Bible on tape (Cassette at that time) and to listen to it daily as I drove my car.  The method I adopted was to listen to the entire book of Matthew every day for one month, then all of Mark every day for one month, then Luke every day for one month, then John every day for one month.  Repeating this cycle allowed me to hear each of the gospels more than 60 times that first year.

To closely simulate the experience of the Apostles, I decided to avoid commentaries and simply listen to Jesus.  Even though He was not physically present, the indwelling Holy Spirit would be the one to help me understand and assimilate the Gospels.  Listening to large quantities of scripture caused me to hear things I had never read.  That was in spite of the fact that for years, I had studied the Bible by topics, doctrines, and word studies.  After listening for a while, I realized that I had been studying the music note for note, and had missed the melody.  It’s nice to hear the violin part by itself, but when all the other instruments join in, one hears the symphony.  It soon got exciting because a new thought or insight came almost every time I listened…Jesus was talking to me!  This has been going on for more than forty years now, and I can report that my doctrinal convictions haven’t changed much, but I have developed the intimacy with Jesus that I longed for.

It would take a book or two to explain all I’ve discovered, but this treatise is meant to address only one or two ideas that were generated in that first year of listening to the gospels.  One startling new insight came when I heard Jesus say to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” (Jn. 3:3)  I was quite knowledgeable about the Gospels and knew this verse better than most, and yet a new thought occurred to me.  Of all the people Jesus talked to, this was the only time He told someone they must be born again.  I didn’t make too much of that until later on when I heard Him talking to the rich man who asked, “Good teacher, how can I obtain eternal life?”  (Mat. 19:16)  I immediately thought Jesus would tell him he must be born again, but instead, He told him to keep the law.  He went on to say, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.”  I thought why haven’t we evangelicals picked up this idea and preached it as the way to have eternal life.  The rich man was certainly more specific than Nicodemus was; he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The answer that Jesus gave him was straightforward and unequivocal.  In fact, I don’t know of a clearer question and answer on eternal life in all of Scripture.  In spite of this, if someone asked me how to have eternal life I would never tell them to keep the law and sell all they have and give it to the poor.  However, this is exactly what Jesus did, so it made me question my understanding of how one is saved.

As I continued to listen with new ears, the evidence mounted daily that Jesus dealt differently with each individual.  He was able to look into a person’s heart and see what barriers prevented them from responding to Him.  Nicodemus more than likely felt proud of being born a Jew and thought it automatically made him acceptable to God.  In effect, Jesus told him that being born a Jew was not enough, “You need to be born again.”  It seemed that Jesus would identify what a person had built his or her life on and then would custom fit His message to his or her situation by a direct statement or parable.  He knew what the primary loyalty of each person was, and then would ask for a greater loyalty.  For the rich man, wealth was the issue, and for others, it was a relationship with parents or a career, etc.  To another, He said, one must hate his own life.  The kingdom of self is still one of the greatest obstacles to following Jesus.

It hit me with real impact that being “born again” was a term that I used often but it was not prominent when Jesus spoke to individuals or groups.  Please understand that I am not depreciating being “born again” because I believe wholeheartedly that one must be spiritually reborn, or one cannot enter the kingdom of God.  However, a thorough look at Scripture reveals that it was not the emphasis of Jesus, so it can’t be ours.  We have a lot of books and sermons explaining how to be born again, but Jesus told us in one verse. (John 3:8)  He said it’s a mystery; no one knows how it happens.  It’s like the wind, we hear and see its effects, but we can’t tell where it came from or where it is going.  We shouldn’t try to be more definitive than He was.  Giving special attention to “When were you born again” is like emphasizing, “When were you baptized into the body of Christ” or focusing on, “When was your name written in the Lamb’s book of life?”  These are both objective realities if we are “In Christ,” but using tennis terms, they are on God’s side of the net, and they are something He does.  We rejoice that they are true of us, but we don’t preach, “You must be baptized into the body of Christ.”  Again, I affirm that one cannot enter the Kingdom without being born again, but Jesus didn’t mention it to everyone, so neither do I.

I believe that if one asked Peter, James, or John when they were born again, they would probably answer, “I don’t know!”  That answer might have kept them from being accepted as a member of most churches.  However, if someone took the time to hear them out, they likely would have heard, “Jesus came down to the Sea of Galilee and asked us to follow Him.  As we did our hearts were captured, and now we believe He is the Messiah.”  Their part was to respond and follow; His part was to see that they were born from above and given new hearts.

Of course, there are conversion experiences like Paul’s, but they are the exception, not the rule.  The majority of present-day believers feel somewhat self-conscious about how they met Jesus because it doesn’t measure up to what we have promoted.  When asked to share their story, the vast majority of believers try to defer to someone else because their story doesn’t seem very exciting.  We have done them a real disservice by glorifying the dramatic conversion without telling them about the experience of the Apostles.

We recruit people to speak at our gatherings who have had an exciting experience.  Example: “I used to be an alcoholic or on drugs, but I gave my life to Jesus, and now I’m clean and sober, or I was headed for bankruptcy, and after I gave my life to Jesus, he restored my business, etc., etc.”  It is rarely communicated that while these experiences are genuine, they are the exception, not the norm.  The more prevalent conversion experience seems to be just opening one’s heart.  That can be instantaneous or over a period of time, using almost any set of words or no words at all.  Jesus hears the cry of the heart and responds by giving eternal life.

Thank God, for the “road to Damascus” conversion that some people experience, including me, but it doesn’t change the fact that Peter, James, and John are the norm for most people today.  These thoughts caused me to give deliberate attention to how people who followed Jesus got into the Kingdom.  It was a mild surprise to discover that it never happened the same way twice.  A prostitute washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, dried them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.  Even though she apparently said nothing, Jesus told her, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you.”(Lk 7:36-50)  A tax collector beat on his chest and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Jesus said, “That man went home justified.” (Lk. 18:13-14)  The thief on the cross said to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom, and Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Lk. 23:42-43)  Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”  Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to your house.”  (Lk. 19:8-9)  One man didn’t say anything; he was a paralytic on a stretcher, brought by his four friends.  Again, there is no “sinner’s prayer,” but Jesus said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  (Mk. 2:3-5)  As each of these folks received their salvation, they must have been born again at the same time, but Jesus didn’t mention it.  What I learned from this random pattern of interactions is that, while we want to systematize the gospel, Jesus never did.

Too often, we have packaged the Gospel into a simple formula so it can be used for mass evangelism.  Some people use the formula; “If you believe in your heart that Jesus was raised from the dead and confess with your mouth that he is your Lord, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9-10)  Special emphasis is frequently placed on public confession, but what does one do with John 1:12, which says, “To as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God.”  There is no confession in that verse, simply the receiving of Jesus.  So, to believe in one’s heart and confess with one’s mouth or beat on one’s chest and cry for mercy are two ways to be reconciled to God, but with Jesus, there were many, many ways for this to happen.  If we base our theology on a single encounter with Jesus, it could lead us to tell people that to have eternal life one must “stand on the street, beat on one’s chest and say, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  The rule seems to be that there is no rule or pattern at all.  People enter in as many different ways as there are personalities.  Most of us struggle with this because we want others to come the way we did or in some other measurable way.

Too often, we expect people to say, “I receive Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior” or “I have a personal relationship with Christ.”  These phrases have become so important in our evangelical vocabulary that without knowing it, we often judge people based on their use or non-use of them.  Church history tells us that about 200 years ago, the prominent phrase was, “Have you been seized by the power of a great affection?”  I choose not to make phrases more important than Jesus did.

These new insights caused me to listen with an even greater interest and a profound desire to discover the central message of Jesus.  Although I am part of the conservative wing of the evangelical church, I became painfully aware that I might have missed it.  I said to myself, if “you must be born again” was not the focus of Jesus, then what was?  Then it dawned on me; He only said that one time but used two other phrases over and over and over again.  Therefore, it is indisputable that His central message was “The Kingdom of God,” and His primary call was “Follow Me.”  In fact, the words “follow me” and “the Kingdom of God” in their various forms each appears more than 80 times in the Gospels alone.  I will leave the Kingdom of God for another paper but will now compare His call to, “follow me” with our focus on “making a decision.”

It doesn’t take much research to find that decisionism was unheard of in the early church and is a relatively new phenomenon.  In fact, it was the American evangelist, Charles Finney who started it in 1825, and regrettably, it has received widespread acceptance.  Over the last 192 years, the evangelical church has become more and more decision oriented, but Jesus didn’t ask people to make a decision about Him; He asked them to follow Him.  Of course, He knew a decision was necessary in order to follow, but He didn’t want us to focus on a static decision but rather on an active following.  He didn’t say to Peter, “Make a decision about whether or not you will follow me.”  He simply said, “Follow me.”  We claim to stay true to the Bible so why do we stick to our evangelical traditionsBy concentrating on the decision approach, we have produced millions worldwide who have decided they need salvation and therefore Jesus, but most of them are not following Him.  I am not disputing the salvation of all of them, but the decision approach doesn’t seem to produce very many authentic disciples.

A couple of illustrations may show how far we have gone with decision-oriented evangelism.  Several years ago, Dick Halverson, one of my mentors, told me of a survey that was sent to churches, para-church organizations, and TV ministries all over the country.  It was pretty complete, covering the size of the budget, number of staff, areas covered, etc.  One question was, “How many decisions for Christ have been made in the United States through your ministry over the last ten years?”  They were astounded when they tabulated the results because the number was over 600 million.  It would be laughable if it were not so tragic because this means that the entire population of the country has each been saved twice.  If the question had been, “How many people are following Jesus as a result of your ministry,” it would have been a completely different result, because they could not answer that question accurately.  It is readily assumed that none of the reporting entities intentionally misreported, but that they did so, makes the joke about “I saw that hand,” seem like reality.

I know that polls are notoriously unreliable, but a Gallup poll reported that 74% (3 out of 4 people) say they have made a decision for Jesus Christ.  If the survey is correct, our current evangelistic methods are working quite well.  However, something must be drastically wrong with both the poll and our approach when the majority of the U.S. says they have made decisions for Christ, and we continue to see the problems of our society.  Decisions for Christ aren’t making much difference, and it seems to be an indictment on our presentation of Jesus.  Those who are active followers of Jesus do make a difference in their world.
Many people worship Jesus on Sunday but don’t take up their cross daily, and follow Him.  Worshipping is important and part of following but too often; it is the only part that many people take seriously.  The Bible bookstores are full of books on leadership and worship but not many on following.  That may be because only about five to ten percent of all believers are following Jesus.  Billy Graham says; “Ninety percent of all believers live carnal lives.”  He did not mean immoral lives, but rather, if they do not know how to walk in the Spirit, then they are living fleshly lives.  My experience is broad, and I’ve found that also includes many pastors.  They are saved, name in the lambs’ book of life but not following Jesus daily.  So let’s stay true to the Scripture that says, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author, and perfector of our faith.”  (Heb. 12:2)

After recognizing the primacy Jesus gave to “follow me,” it dawned on me that it was also a primary metaphor throughout Scripture.  “Those that are LED by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Rom. 8:14)  “WALK in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” (Gal 5:16)  “Let us RUN with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb 12:1)  “I PRESS ON to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Phil 3:12)  The early believers were called “FOLLOWERS of the Way.” (Acts 24:14)  Please notice, the words, “Led,” “Walk,” “Run,” “Press On” and “Followers” are all descriptions of a relationship with movement in it.  We are encouraged to stay on the go, so to speak, in our walk with Christ.  That is fundamentally different from a static decision.

We can learn a lot from several interactions Jesus had with Peter.  While he was still a fisherman, Jesus said to him, “Come follow me.” (Mat. 4:19)  This first following was an external following, but later Jesus gave Peter the Holy Spirit, and it became an internal following.  At the trial of Jesus, Peter stopped following for a while and even denied Him. (Lk. 22:56-62)  After His resurrection, Jesus met with him on the seashore and asked, “Do you love me?”  (Three times, because he had denied Him three times)  After Peter gave his answer, Jesus predicted Peter’s death as a martyr, and then said, “Follow me.”  Peter asked, “What about John?”  Jesus answered, never mind about John; “You follow me.” (Jn. 21:18-22)

My conclusion from the three years of dialogue between Jesus and Peter is that the message of Jesus for the non-believer is “Follow Me.”  For the believer, it’s, “Follow Me.”  For the believer who has stopped following it is, “Follow Me.”  For when you’re wondering why this is happening to you and not to others is, its still “Never mind, Follow Me.”

“Follow Me” was and continues to be His primary call.  I pray that an emphasis on following Jesus will be restored as the essence of our message.

Address Comments to:  gfmurray@gmail.com