As long as evangelicals have been handing out Gospel tracts, the Good News For the World they’ve communicated has clearly been: “Jesus died for you, because you’re a sinner.”
Concise. Attention-grabbing. And theologically, not incorrect.
Theologically, though, it’s not complete either.
In an era when morality is almost entirely subjective; when, based on this nebulous morality, most members of modern society consider themselves to be basically good; and, most importantly, when we’re willing to share and consider only those ideas that can be summed up in 140 characters or in a catchy meme; it seems only reasonable to boil Christianity down to what appears to be the essentials.
The question is: are those the essentials?
Almost. But not quite.
Recently, a missionary-in-training visited our Sunday school class to share his future plans and describe how his missions organization functions. One distinctive of this organization, he explained, is that its missionaries (who visit remote tribes that often lack a written language, let alone a Bible) share Christ by beginning with the book of Genesis. After all, he pointed out, it’s hard to understand the concept of sin — or one’s subsequent need for a Savior — without an understanding of who God is, who we are in relation to Him, and why, therefore, sin matters to Him.
It makes so much sense. And what I wonder is: why should we present the Gospel any differently, right where we are? After all — to state the ludicrously obvious — the Bible begins with Genesis. Surely God wouldn’t have inspired its authors to record the details of Creation (as well as the entire Old Testament) if He considered everything before the book of Matthew to be frankly inconsequential. And if He wants us to know about the details of Creation, He must have a purpose in sharing them with us.
Take a look at Genesis 1:27:
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
And His assessment a few verses later:
And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Gen. 1:31)
What do these verses tell us? That God made us in His image, and that what He created was good.
What does this mean for us? That we are worth something to Him. In her book Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey perfectly encapsulates the typical approach to evangelism and points out why it’s incomplete:
Consider the typical evangelistic message: “You’re a sinner; you need to be saved.” What could be wrong with that? Of course, it’s true that we are sinners, but notice that the message starts with the Fall instead of Creation. By beginning with the theme of sin, it implies that our essential identity consists in being guilty sinners, deserving of divine punishment. Some Christian literature goes so far as to say we are nothing, completely worthless, before a holy God.
…In fact, it is only because humans have such high value that sin is so tragic. If we were worthless, then the Fall would be a trivial event. When a cheap trinket is broken, we toss it aside with a shrug. But when a priceless masterpiece is defaced, we are horrified. It is because humans are masterpieces of God’s creation that the destructiveness of sin produces such horror and sorrow.
…Beginning with sin instead of creation is like trying to read a book by opening it in the middle: You don’t know the characters and can’t make out the plot.
So why does this matter?
I suspect that the frequent overemphasis on our sin nature emerged as a reaction to modern society’s firm belief in its inherent moral goodness — the belief that, in fact, when Nietzche declared God to be dead, sin died along with Him. It is well and good that we counter this with the truth: that all of us are tainted by sin, and that only by believing in the necessity of Christ’s death and resurrection can we be restored to a relationship with a holy God (Rom. 3:23-24). But if we start and end there, we show a lack of understanding of ourselves…and, by extension — because we are made in His image — of God.
Imago Dei. It means that we are more than animals. That we have souls. A will. Creativity. A sense of the beautiful. A sense of right and wrong. When mankind fell, every facet of personhood was poisoned by sin…but not lost.
When somebody gives food to the homeless, he reflects God’s image, whether he realizes it or not.
When somebody cares for an ailing parent, she reflects God’s image, even if she denies His existence.
When people gather to clean up a town devastated by a hurricane…they reflect God’s image, even if they believe they don’t need Him because they are already good enough.
Without the imprint of God, none of us would be able to do good, and when we share Christ by telling others that every good thing they do is utterly worthless, what we are really intimating is that they are less than human.
How much better it would be if we shared the whole story:
That God created something beautiful — His children, the pinnacle of His handiwork…
…that tragedy befell, and His children rebelled so that the beauty was marred…
…that, instead of punishing His children by making them strive ceaselessly for a holiness they could never fully attain on earth, He sent a Rescuer…
…so that those who realized where they came from and saw that the original beauty, though still there, was forever tainted, needed only to acknowledge Him…
…and that when they confessed their need for the Rescuer, they could throw themselves into the open arms of the One who loved them from the beginning of time.