This guest post was contributed by two-time Southern Seminary graduate and church planter Devin Hudson who writes at Grace Is The Point. Devin is the current and founding pastor of Grace Point Church in Las Vegas.
In recent weeks, I have been thinking through some of my theological tenets (that’s tenets meaning beliefs and not tenants meaning occupants of an apartment complex … I always get those confused). Before delving in, I need to admit that for the last couple of years, I have put my theological reading and development on the back burner. While I have read a few theological books here and there, I have for the most part taken a sabbatical from theological knowledge.
Those who know me well know that I have earned 2 Master’s degrees in theological and biblical studies as well as a Ph.D. in New Testament. All that really means is that I spent several years of my life reading, discussing, and writing about theology. By the end of my studies, I was a bit burned out on theological studies. So when I started Grace Point Church, I refocused my attention to more practical matters. To be honest, I was tired of theology (or at least reading and studying it).
Now after starting a church from scratch in a truly post-Christian culture like Las Vegas, I have started re-engaging some of my theological beliefs. I have always believed it is less complicated to hammer out your theology sitting behind a desk in a study or in the cubicle of a seminary library than it is doing real life ministry in a context where people may or may not even believe in God, are living with their sexual partner, are in more debt than they will ever pay off, have little time or regard for spiritual matters, and do not give a rip whether you can parse a Greek verb. What I have discovered doing ministry in this context is that my tidy theological system often falls short in helping these people understand what it means to follow Jesus in this type of culture.
One thing that I recognized in my academic journey is that the more I learned the more I realized how much I do not know. The more I think I have figured out – the less I actually do. It seems to me that I know a lot less after earning my degrees than when I was a nascent Bible college graduate. I have to admit that I was one of those Ph.D. students who kept waiting for the Ph.D. police to enter one of my seminars and say, “Hudson, what are you doing here? You are an idiot and we need you to leave.” Thankfully that scene never occurred and I was able to stay around until I finally walked across the stage and heard the president of the seminary say, “Congratulations Dr. Hudson” which by the way was the first (and probably the last) time I have ever been referred to as Dr. Hudson (I try to get my wife to call me Dr. Hudson but her response usually includes the words “Yeah right. I earned that degree as much as you”). To be honest with you, my not-so-serious and athletic DNA wanted to slap the president on the rear end and say, “Thanks bro. It’s been fun.” But I did not think that would be appropriate in light of all the robes and regalia and the Ph.D. police might actually show up for that act.
I get annoyed when I spend very much time with people who feel like they have it all figured out theologically (usually they are first year seminary students who have read a little Piper and suddenly are experts on the doctrines of grace). Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the more I have learned the more I have realized how much more I need to learn. And the more I affirm the sovereignty of God the more I realize how little my mind can grasp its magnitude. And perhaps it also has to do with the fact that the more I learn the more I realize that following Christ is more about day-to-day living and not so much about how many theology books I have read. I can say that because I still read a lot. I still read a book every week or so along with several journals. But the longer I am on this journey, the more I realize that head knowledge is easy. Debating Calvinism and eschatology and ecclesiology is easy. What is difficult is being a faithful father, husband, pastor, and Christ-follower. What is difficult is living out the gospel in everyday life. What is difficult is serving the people in my community without an agenda. What is difficult is loving the unlovely people in our city. What is difficult is being a good neighbor. What is difficult is being intentional about meeting and befriending people who do not have a relationship with God. What is difficult is trying to teach people in a 30-minute-a-week window how to follow Jesus 7 days a week.
Head knowledge is easy. Listening to CDs of great teachers and pastors is easy. Reading another Puritan devotional is easy. Articulating the five points is easy. What is difficult is making the gospel simple enough for sinners to grasp the absurd and illogical nature of grace. What is difficult is believing in grace to the extent that I completely trust it to change people who do things for a living that make me uncomfortable. What is difficult is trusting God to transform people and not my own preferences and rules. What is difficult is not only teaching and preaching grace but believing, and I mean really believing, in grace. What is difficult is explaining how grace prevails regardless of how dark a culture becomes. What is difficult is believing God can work in ways that go beyond my own rationality and explanation.
Here is what I have experienced: we love to talk about the gospel but I am not so sure we really believe in the gospel. I am not so sure we believe the gospel is enough. I am not so sure we believe the gospel can work in the lives of people who do not fit in our preconceived notions of what a Christian looks like, how a Christian acts, and what a Christian is supposed to believe.
God has been stretching me. He has been using real life stories to test my confidence in the gospel. He has been using real life people to contest my compact, uncluttered systems. He has been using real life problems and questions and life experiences to challenge my claim that I believe God is sovereign over methods and philosophies and books and sermons and conferences and pastors and neatly packed theologies.
Here is the question that haunts me: do I really believe the gospel is enough? Do I really believe the gospel is enough to heal marriages and overcome addictions and forgive unmitigated depravity? Do I really believe the gospel can work through means that contest my “well-thought-out” theology? Can the gospel emerge from distorted teachings? Can the gospel emerge through life experiences? Can the gospel emerge without all of the theological pieces of the puzzle in place? Can the gospel emerge if a person does not have all their t’s crossed and i’s dotted? Can the gospel emerge if a person does not yet fully embrace all the dogma we tend to require? I want to say “yes I believe in the gospel that much” to these type questions but do I truly believe it? Do I truly believe the gospel is enough to overcome the details that do not square with my preferences? Do I really believe in the power of the gospel or do I just pay it lipservice?
When we are confronted with a situation where someone has come to faith in Jesus through a means that is outside our normal path, how do we respond? Is our tendency to make sure they really understand? Is our tendency to make sure they have all the right answers? Is our tendency to make sure they have a date and time linked to their confession? Is our tendency to make sure they have the right answers or prayed the right words? Do I really believe in a gospel that surmounts right answers and formulas and systems? Do I really believe in a gospel that is so simple that “believing in Jesus” is enough (Acts 16.31, Rom 10.13) and yet is so complex and illogical that the human mind can’t grasp its many nuances? Do I truly believe in a gospel that does not make much sense in our “something for something” way of thinking? I think if I really believed in this gospel then I would teach and live it in a way that spoke of the magnitude of its scope and not its limits.
Does the gospel include content? Absolutely. Does that content have certain non-negotiable elements? Absolutely. But is it my tendency to also prescribe tenets that fit my particular system or theological framework or soteriology? Absolutely.
As I continue to discover more and more about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ, more and more about what that looks like or does not look like in everyday life, and more and more about the power of the gospel, the more I realize that God cannot be limited to my own system of beliefs, my own theological box, or my own assumptions about how God can and cannot work.
I am intrigued by Paul’s words in Philippians where he rejoices that the gospel of Jesus is being proclaimed by people who have impure motives and doctrine (1.15-18). What was important for Paul was the gospel itself. What was secondary for Paul was the tool God used to communicate the gospel. What was first tier for Paul was the fact “Christ is preached.” What was second tier for Paul was the fact God used vessels that most of us would render impotent by our standards of who is acceptable and who is not.
I am also fascinated by Paul’s words in Galatians where he is clear that the gospel he proclaimed and believed in did not evolve from the beliefs of a theologian or some human system. The gospel he trusted and proclaimed stemmed from a raw revelation from Jesus himself (1.12). Paul consulted no human (1.16), including the theologians of Jerusalem or the apostles themselves (1.17). Paul had no systematic theology books or journals or formulaic explanations or sinner’s prayer solutions. He had only the gospel of Jesus – the unadulterated, life-transforming gospel of Jesus. I have to wonder what classes Paul would have had to go through in the modern church before he was accepted and approved. I wonder how much head knowledge he would have had to obtain and where he would have fit in our evangelical culture of what system is within acceptable limits and what is not.
Do we believe for one second that Paul did not have some serious theological issues to work through in his own life and thinking before he fully appreciated the gospel? Paul was raised to think in a certain theological framework and pattern. Of course it required time to work through his own preconceived ideas of who Jesus was. Even the disciples struggled with this reality all the way to the time Jesus left them. At the same time, do we question whether Paul or the disciples were genuine followers during their theological excursion of discovery? We have to admit God used an unusual means to capture the attention of Paul, a man who was 100% religious and yet did not have the gospel. I am not sure the method God employed is one that would make the “Top 10 most effective evangelistic methods” of the modern church. I am not sure at his conversion if Paul (or the disciples) could have articulated all of the tenets of the gospel. As a matter of fact when Paul recounts his Damascus Road event, he never speaks of formulas or prayers. He does speak of following and obeying what God said to do. Even his description to Agrippa of his early message is a little outside my evangelical formula-driven comfort zone (“repent, turn to God and prove your repentance through your good works” … Acts 26.20).
Is there any doubt that Paul was an adamant defender of the gospel? Just read his comments about those who tried to alter it. He was radical about his defense of the gospel. And yet Paul never attempted to formulate the gospel into some 3-step program or 25-word prayer. What Paul seems to recognize is that the gospel cannot be reduced to the point it loses Jesus and yet it cannot be complicated to the point we determine how it is preached and who does the preaching or to the point it fits within some type of system. For Paul, what is important is that the gospel is advanced. And what is even more important is that we recognize God is the overseer of the gospel and not our own undeveloped, finite thoughts on something as immense as the gospel.
The longer I serve in Las Vegas, the more I realize how God works through means that are way beyond my own level of comfort, the more I realize how essential it is to trust the gospel and allow God to work in the lives of people, the more I realize that grace is extraordinary and cannot be restricted to a theological box of my own system or thinking, the more I realize that getting people to buy into some system of my own making does not change who people are, and the more I realize that the gospel is about God and not about me.
I must learn to trust the gospel – I mean really trust it. I must learn that the gospel is indeed “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Rom 1.16).