The Way You Tell the Story of God Matters

In my previous post, I talked about the need for Christians to learn to tell their own spiritual autobiographies more effectively. I wrote, “Less and less people want to listen to religious lectures or church sermons, but they’ll listen to stories from your spiritual autobiography if you can tell them in a compelling way.”

Well, there’s a second story I think we need to get better at telling and that’s the story of God.

Here I’m referring to the grand biblical story of how God has revealed himself to humankind and how he has redeemed us from fear and death and has planned a future for the whole cosmos. It’s a monumental story of love and brokenness, fear and hope, truth and lies, and the unending resolve of our loving God and his intention to save all that he has created.

We used to boil this story down to just giving people information about how to go to heaven when they die. We reduced the majestic, beautiful story of God’s love to a story about us — our sin, our death, our punishment. Maybe you learned it as a spiel like the Bridge to Life tract:

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I don’t like this presentation, not so much for what it says as for what it doesn’t say. The Bridge to Life emphasizes individual sin, individual responsibility and individual salvation. You must choose to cross the bridge (Jesus) from earth to heaven without any mention of God coming to earth or even having a plan for the redemption of the planet. And it overlooks most of the gospels, ignoring the signficance of Jesus’ ministry and the Kingdom of God, truncating the gospel message to “Jesus came to die for you.”

That story doesn’t even sound like a story. It sounds like a sales pitch.

But this isn’t the way the writers of the New Testament tell the story. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John don’t begin and end their stories with Jesus dying for our sins. They tell a much more substantial story than that. And every detail in all four gospels is essential to the story. Even in the letters of Paul, when he intentionally refers to the “good news” he either alludes to or tells a grander story than “Jesus came to die.”

In the opening to his letter to the Romans, Paul presents a “Readers’ Digest” version of the story, as if to remind the Roman Christians of the story they already knew:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God – the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.” (Rom 1:1-6)

There’s no mention of Jesus’ death in that gospel summary other than by inference when he refers to Jesus’ resurrection. Paul’s gospel includes (a) Jesus’ messianic credentials, (b) his physical descent from David, (c) his vindication/validation by the Spirit of God, and (d) his resurrection from the dead. The line that’s left ringing in our ears is “Jesus Christ our Lord (king).” It’s a story — the marvellous, mysterious story of God in Christ, the king who was promised, the one who defeated death and rose in power.

When Paul gets to expand on the story of God in Christ we see him filling in all the details, like in his sermon at Antioch (in Pisidia) in Acts 13:16-39. I won’t copy-and-paste the whole sermon. You can read it for yourself. But the whole focus is on the events of Jesus life. Not only the four summary points from the Romans 1 passage above, but Israel’s rescue from Egypt, the rise of King David, the birth of Christ, the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ superiority to King David, his rejection by religious leaders, his death at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and his burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection ministry. Paul concludes his sermon with:

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38-39)

Note how this conclusion matches the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, but see also how Paul anchors it explicitly in the historical events of Jesus’ messianic rule, life, death and resurrection. The “good news” then is the whole story of Jesus, including what led up to his appearance and what he has been doing since.

The core message of the gospel, then, includes the story of Jesus’ birth (and how it reveals his claim to the eternal throne promised to King David), his miracles (which point to the presence of God’s kingdom and Jesus as our king), his teaching (which sounds the invitation of the kingdom and lays down its demands), his death (which atones for the sins of all), and his resurrection (which clearly establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom). We’ve got to learn to tell these stories better.

So what if we tinker with the old Bridge to Life illustration so it looks like this:

Here I’ve mashed the work of Geoff Holsclaw and Daniel Erlander to create a new bridge illustration (sorry for the cheesy hand-drawn picture).

That’s us in the top left corner crying out, “Help!” We are born into the order of sin and death. Sin isn’t something that just describes our heart, as though we only carry sin as our individual condition. It infects everything. It leads to alienation from God and alienation from each other. As you can see under the heading “Order of Death” that includes the crushing of little people in the gears of life, hoarding resources, dominating nature, excessive consumption, injustice, inequality, self-righteousness, and trust in woefully inadequate human power.

God comes to us from the “Order of Life.” In his order, there is reconciliation. We are partners. We share our resources. We strive for unity with creation. We are recipients of God’s abundance, mercy and blessing. Here, we find a new family, a new redeemed society in Christ. We love each other for their good, not for our own advantage. This is good news for the poor and powerless because we trust in God’s reliable power.

Like the Bridge to Life illustration, Jesus is the bridge between these two orders. But it’s not just his death that bridges the divide, it’s his life (birth, miracles, teaching) as well as his death and resurrection. The good news is the whole story of Jesus the king and his kingdom (or Order of Life). And the impetus isn’t on us. It’s on Jesus. He crosses the divide to bring the Order of Life to us suffering in the Order of Death.

Telling the story of God involves showing how Jesus’ birth, miracles, teaching, death, and resurrection reveal the Order of Life. It involves knowing the facts of Jesus’ life and showing how they point to this new way of being human, a way only made possible by Jesus.

In his book, The Suburban Captivity of the Church, Tim Foster says there’s a distinction between a punitive gospel and the telic gospel. A punitive gospel is one that reduces the story of God down to instructions on how to avoid punishment in the afterlife. But the New Testament presents us with what Foster calls a telic gospel. Telos is the ancient Greek word for a purpose, fulfilment, completion. The way Foster uses it, the telic gospel is the story of how we rediscover our intended purpose in Christ. If I paraphrase Foster, he might explain the good news this way:

God created the world according to his good purposes. He intended us to live with him under the Order of Life. But human sin opens the door for evil, undermining God’s purposes. We became trapped in the Order of Death. But this was never God’s intended purpose for us. He intended us to flourish in relationship with him and each other. So Jesus bridged the divide. He brought with him the Order of Life into the poisoned soil of the Order of Death. He brought healing, joy, and forgiveness. He drove out demons. He confronted corrupt officials. He fed the hungry. He conquered evil and defeated death. In his resurrection there will be a new social and political order according to God’s purposes. We live in the light of the future in the power of the Spirit.

As Dallas Willard once said, “The gospel is less about how to get into the kingdom of heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven before you die.”

Sharing the good news shouldn’t be focused solely on appealing to people’s sense of self-preservation. It should be about retelling the story of Jesus our king, and his incredible Order of Life. So here are a few things to bear in mind when sharing your faith:

  • FOCUS ON JESUS: Don’t just tell the story of Jesus’ death, but the whole story about his royal birth, the way his miracles and his teaching reveals the Order of Life, his atoning death, and his glorious resurrection.
  • USE THE GOSPELS: This might seem obvious, but use the gospels as your source. It’s fine to talk about Jesus as your best friend or the wind beneath your wings, but you need to leave people with the clear impression that the story of Jesus is an historical drama attested to by witnesses. Learn the gospels. Memorize the stories in the gospels or at least become so familiar with them you can recount them accurately. Show people how Jesus’ life and ministry points to the Order of Life he ushers in.
  • AVOID SYSTEMATIZATION: You don’t have to tell the whole story of Jesus in one conversation. And you don’t have to systematize it into a schema like the Bridge to Life or the Four Spiritual Laws or Two Ways to Live. Just know the whole gospel story so that when someone you’re talking to raises the topic of, say, fear or sickness, or injustice or corruption, or whatever, you can share a story about how Jesus addresses sickness, fear, injustice etc by bringing the Order of Life to the Order of Death.
  • EMPHASIZE THE PASSION NARRATIVE: One-fifth of the gospels focuses on the suffering and death of Jesus, beginning with his agony and arrest in Gethsemane and concluding with his burial. I know I mentioned earlier the gospel isn’t only about Jesus’ death, but that doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you ignore it. If the gospel writers thought it was that important, so should we.
  • CELEBRATE JESUS’ MESSIANIC RULE: “Messianic rule” is a fancy way of saying Jesus’ lordship or kingship. In 2 Tim 2:8 Paul gives his shortest summary of the gospel when he writes, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.” That’s as brief as he can get it and see how it focuses on his kingship (Christ means anointed one, and his descent from King David implies his royalty). Let people know Jesus isn’t just your guru. He’s your ruler.
  • BE THEOCENTRIC: So many gospel talks are so human-centered. They focus on our sin, our predicament, our need for salvation. Jesus rides in at the end to save us. But I suggest you reverse that. Talk more about God and less about us.
  • AIM FOR PERSONAL ALLEGIANCE: Jesus’ told his disciples to announce to others that the Kingdom of God (Order of Life) is here! He also regularly asked people, “Come, follow me.” When we tell the story of Jesus we’re not just sharing the biography of our favorite historical character like someone else might talk about Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. And we’re not just suggesting we read what Christ said and try to carry it out — as someone may read what Plato or Marx said and try to carry it out. Our story should culminate with the resurrected, living Christ demanding our allegiance, entering into our minds and hearts and transforming us in alignment with his Order of Life.
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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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9 thoughts on “The Way You Tell the Story of God Matters

  1. This is outstanding and so timely . The emphasis on the Gospel of the kingdom is quintessential for His church today. I so appreciate this. Thank you Mike

  2. I love this Mike, thanks for sharing

  3. Extremely helpful, Mike. Thank you.

  4. I like your model Mike. And this is certainly how I try and preach… always emphasising how we can help bring the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.
    I’ve been contemplating recently the definition of sin… is it purely separation from God? Or is it a behaviorial list of do’s and don’t’s? Sometimes I think Christian culture defaults to the later and ignores the former. What would be your definition of sin?

    Thanks,
    Vicki

  5. I agree with your assessment of the so-called “four spiritual laws”. They mean well, but so much is missing.
    Having immersed myself in the theology of T F Torrance, I know what is missing in this picture, which you have addressed in yours.
    Thanks

  6. Thank you- very timely for many. There’s a resurgence of the narrow lens that went with the likes of the Four Spiritual Laws which then focuses on what we have to do to ‘futureproof’ the church as one organisation puts it.

  7. Thanks for this thoughtful post Mike.
    Samuel Wells also has a go at retelling The Story. (He calls it the more encompassing story)

    It can be found on the ABC website. Just search for “Before the foundation of the world”: Holy Week as the culmination of God’s everlasting love.

  8. I think the three circles gospel presentation does an excellent job of giving something of the bigger story.

  9. Thank you very thought provoking. Have you written anything about how the scriptures emphasize the collective, whereas we tend to emphasize the individual.

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