Dallas Willard would always challenge pastors to preach the gospel in a way that naturally led to discipleship: that is, people becoming lifelong apprentices to Jesus. Instead, what he saw preached in churches and evangelistic meetings was a gospel of sin management (i.e. how to get into heaven when you die) that had no bearing on what you do until you die. Here’s my attempt to articulate that gospel message in non-churchy language:
How Things Were Meant to Be
God the Father created all things. He culminated his creation by making humanity to be his vice-regents on earth. Our mission is to promote and maintain the flourishing of everything the Father created – to be little creators in imitation of the Creator. By living in harmony with the Father – that is, living in His Kingdom – we experienced a resulting harmony with our inner selves, with one another, and with nature.
What’s Gone Wrong: Doubt, Rebellion and Death
But our first parents doubted the Father’s good intentions towards them. This distrust led them to abandon their vice-regent role and usurp the Father’s proper place by putting themselves at the center of their personal universe.
When they isolated themselves from the Father, they cut themselves off from the source of life. Everything else unraveled, distorting their relationship with themselves, with one another and with nature. Death – in all its forms of non-flourishing – entered the world. This propensity to usurp (and the resulting non-flourishing) was transmitted to their descendants, to all of us today.
Severed from our proper roots in the Father, we have become turned in on ourselves, seeking security and meaning in what we can create on our own. This results in living from a false self, a non-flourishing characterized by fear, protectiveness, possessiveness, manipulation, destructiveness, self-promotion, indulgence, and contempt. Most tragically, these very dysfunctions keep us from being able to return to a proper relationship with the Father, or even really wanting to.
How to Fix It: Trust, Enter the Kingdom and Live
Happily, the Father didn’t stop caring for us when we went our own way. Right from that first day of rebellion, He put a plan into place to re-establish that relationship from our side. It started by creating the Jews as a people to be His representatives on earth – sort of vice-regents to His vice-regents – to provide an example of flourishing and to bless the other nations. When the time was right, God the Son was born as a human baby in this tribe: Jesus of Nazareth. Emptying Himself of everything but love for us, Jesus showed us how to live as true humans, living fully in the Kingdom of the Father. He then announced that this Kingdom was open for anyone who wanted to live in it like He did. All they had to do was trust that what He said was true: that they too could turn from their false selves and live the Kingdom life they saw Him living.
But one more thing was necessary. The connection with the Father that had been cut from the human side needed to be repaired from the human side. So Jesus willingly went to an unjust execution to take all that Death could dish out and absorb it, transforming it into new life through his dying and coming back to life.
Now He can share this new life with us by planting His spirit – God the Holy Spirit – within us. Instead of issuing commands from the outside to alter our behaviour, the Holy Spirit can transform our hearts inwardly so that we will naturally live from the true self.
So what’s the good news? Jesus has made it possible for us to become His students in the master class of how to be truly human, to participate in His kind of Kingdom life – a life of peace, kindness and joy now. Best of all, this life will never end – not even when our physical body should die.