Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission

The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our LipsThe Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips by John Dickson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dickson begins with four confessions. I’ll repeat the two that I find most significant. First, when he was a budding evangelist, he was guilty of reducing the gospel to a couple of theological truths, ignoring the fact that the gospel is a story. Second, he “came to assume that the only important means of promoting Christ was talking about him” (22).

Before tackling either of these early mistakes, Dickson grounds mission in the Bible’s most basic doctrine, which is that there is one God (26). And what does this monotheism have to do with mission? “If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord” (27). What follows is an exploration of Psalm 96 and Matthew 28.16-20. The following quote pretty much sums up the significance of tying missions to monotheism:

We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel is more than a rescue mission…it is a reality mission (35, emphasis added).

Now Dickson is ready to tackle his second mistake, which was to think that the only activity that promoted the gospel was talking. He makes an important distinction between proclaiming the gospel and promoting the gospel (23).

Then he focuses on the example of Jesus. Jesus’ mission is captured perfectly in his words: “to seek and to save what was lost”. Note the emphasized verbs: “Through his preaching Jesus declared that salvation, through his death and resurrection…he would accomplish that salvation, and through the generosity of his social life he embodied that salvation” (51, emphasis added). Dickson calls us to a “‘salvific mind-set’, that is, an outlook on life that cares deeply for the salvation of others” (60).

What other activities promote the gospel besides talking? We can promote the gospel with our praying (chp 4), our giving (chp 5), through the good works of the church (chp 6), Christian behaviour (chp 7), public praise (chp 10), and in daily conversation (chp 11).

In the chapter on Christian behaviour, Dickson has this to say after mentioning the atheists Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkings:

In the end, the only way to dispel the story that Christianity has been imperialistic, arrogant and harmful is to offer a powerful counternarrative in our lives, day by day committing ourselves to Jesus’ vision of a kingdom marked by meekness, peace-making and love. (105)

Dickson handles his first mistake in chapter 8, What is the Gospel?

“The modern media term ‘newsflash’ probably comes closest in meaning to the ancient word gospel” (112). The theme of the gospel is the kingdom of God, that God reigns through Jesus Christ.

To put it in simple and practical terms, the goal of gospel preaching-–and of gospel promoting—-is to help our neighbours realise and submit to God’s kingship or lordship over their lives. (115)

The content of the gospel is the deeds of the Messiah, as shown by a quick analysis of 1 Corinthians 15.3-5. In this passage, there are five parts to Paul’s summary of the gospel (117):
•    Jesus’ identity as the Christ
•    Jesus’ saving death
•    Jesus’ burial
•    Jesus’ resurrection
•    Jesus’ appearance to witnesses

The third part, Jesus’ burial, is especially helpful in showing that the gospel “is not only a theology—a message about atonement and lordship—it is news of events (121).

The Christian gospel was a news report:

The earliest Christians never said simply, “Here’s the message: see if this rings true for you,” or “Try our doctrines and see if they improve your life.” Believers always said, “Look, these things happened in Palestine recently and a whole bunch of witnesses saw them with their own eyes.(122)

Recently, much has been made of the difference in Jesus’ gospel and Paul’s gospel. I like Dickson’s solution:

The connection between Paul’s gospel and the books we call the Gospels is obvious. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all demonstrate Jesus’ messianic credentials before emphasizing his atoning death and glorious resurrection. (123)

The rest of the chapter keeps getting better and better. It is worth the price of the book. But to avoid copyright infringements, I will skip to the author’s summary of the “core content” of the gospel (139):
•    Jesus’ royal birth secured his claim to the eternal throne promised to King David
•    Jesus’ miracles pointed to the presence of God’s kingdom in the person of the Messiah
•    Jesus’ teaching sounded the invitation of the kingdom and laid down its demands
•    Jesus’ sacrificial death atoned for the sins of those who would otherwise be condemned at the consummation of the kingdom
•    Jesus’ resurrection establishes him as the Son whom God has appointed Judge of the world and Lord of the coming kingdom.

To return to the question asked by the chapter’s title, here is the author’s definition from the introduction:

The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity. (22)

Chapter 12 (A Year in the Life of the Gospel) is an innovative chapter in which Dickson weaves the principles he’s been writing about with some stories he’s combined and tweaked to show us what can happen when Christians live according to a salvific mind-set. Appendix 1 provides gospel sound bites—short responses to different topics that come up in conversation. In Appendix 2 Dickson attempts a modern retelling of the gospel.

This book is undoubtedly the best book on evangelism and promotion of the gospel that I have ever read. I highly recommend it.

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