The Country Club Gospel

I served a church back in the 1990s where many folks in the congregation were members of the Memphis Country Club. As a pastor in my 20s, there was no way that I could afford to pay the membership fee, which I suspected was in the six-figure range. Nevertheless, I was invited to the club as a guest on occasion. I had the contacts, but not the funds.

Even if I took out a loan for the membership fee or had someone generously pay it for me, I wouldn’t have been able to cover the ongoing monthly dues. And if you can’t pay the monthly dues, you lose your status as a member in good standing. Eventually, if you remain in debt to the club, you are removed from membership altogether.

This is the way some of us have thought about Christianity. Jesus graciously pays the joining fee (which is a huge gift!), but we are left to cover monthly dues in order to remain members in good standing, not at a club, but in the Kingdom of God.

Paying the membership fee is good news. But the need to cover the dues is a burden that no one is able to sustain without faking it.

We are left with guilty, fearful consciences that we have not met the standard and are no longer in good standing in heaven.

What if Jesus has not only covered our membership fee, but has paid all our monthly dues as well? What if, in the gospel, there is nothing for us to do or pay. What if we are members in good standing, period? What if nothing can change that status?

We have the contact who also has the funds.

This is the idea Paul conveys in Colossians 2:6-10.

6 Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, 7 having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude. 8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.  9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete. and He is the head over all rule and authority. 

From 52-55 AD, Paul had been preaching in the city of Ephesus, down the road from Colossae.

See the map below.[1]

colosse photo

A man named Epaphras, who was from Colossae but visiting Ephesus, heard Paul preach and went back to share the gospel in his hometown and a church began to grow.

The letter to the Colossian church is in response to Epaphras visiting Paul in prison in Rome around 62 AD, and sharing about a dangerous false teaching that was threatening the health of the church.

What likely happened at Colossae is that a charismatic figure had attracted a following and was presenting himself as a spiritual guide whose teaching tended to combine a form of legalistic ritualism and asceticism with a dash of mysticism.

Essentially, the teaching emphasized what we needed to do in order to remain in good standing with God. In other words, according to this teaching, Jesus wasn’t enough.

Paul recognizes that this false teaching not only devalued Jesus, but also was bound to cause confusion concerning the Colossian believers’ identity.

Was Jesus enough? Or were there dues that a Christian had to pay to remain an object of the Father’s affection?

Paul makes this clear in Colossians 2:6-10.

 

NEWS, NOT INSTRUCTIONS

One thing this passage shows us is that Christianity is not a set of instructions to follow. Rather, it is news to believe.[2]

Verse 6 makes this clear, exhorting us to continue in Christ just as we have received Christ Jesus the Lord.

In the ancient world, when a King would return from battle in victory, a herald would go before him and his army declaring to the citizens, “Evangelion!” This Greek word is translated into English as “good news.” The herald was declaring a fact, not giving instructions on what the people had to do to. Victory had been accomplished and it was time to honor the King and celebrate.

In the gospel of Jesus, we are not participants in the victory. We are recipients of the victory!

Nevertheless, many of us tend to get this backwards along the way.

Part of the confusion may be connected to the fact that the Bible has been taught as an instruction manual for life—a religious Book of Virtues where Bible stories have a moral for us to follow.

This makes Christianity primarily a system of ethics, where our doing ultimately determines our standing.

There is nothing wrong with the instructions, or the moral system in the Bible. The problem is that we can’t do it!

In Galatians 3:24, Paul reveals the purpose of the instructions, “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”

The instructions of the law serve as a mirror to show us how badly we need a Savior. The law gives instructions, saying, “Do this.” But the gospel makes a declaration of substitution, saying, “Jesus did this!”

That is the message of the Bible is an evangelion—good news, not instructions.

 

IMPLICATIONS

The dimensions of our completeness are so deep and wide and high and broad that we will never be able to fully grasp the implications. Nevertheless, one aspect I want to highlight is that being declared “complete in Christ” means that God cannot love you more and will not love you less.

Paul says in verse 7 that we have been “firmly rooted” and “established” in Christ, and that (v. 10), “in him we have been made complete.”

Consider a good day.  You woke early to read Scripture and pray. You listened to your wife, didn’t yell at your kids, and let someone else have the front row parking spot at work.

Now, consider a bad day. You wake up late, snap at your spouse, yell at your kids, fall to your besetting sin and end the day with a sense that you have fallen to the bottom of the board on the spiritual version of Chutes and Ladders.

How do you think the Father feels about you when you’ve had a good day? Do you think he loves you more?

How do you think the Father feels about you when you’ve had a bad day? Do you think he loves you less?

Neither is true. He loves us perfectly, completely regardless of what we do or have done. Remember, the Father sent the son to reconcile us to himself when we were rebellious, unworthy, unlovable sinners. His love for us is not contingent upon our obedience. When we get that, we will begin to rest, experience freedom and even notice that our desires for obedience are greater than before.

My friend, Johnny Long, has created a discipleship course called Grace 4 Life. When I feel as if I have been forsaken by God due to my sin, I read this. He writes,

When we wake in the morning, our heart’s computer boots up in “orphan mode.” We stumble out of bed [as] spiritual amnesiacs who have forgotten who God is and who we are. We must be reminded that this is God’s world, that he is in control, that we are… God’s loved sons and daughters. We must preach the Gospel to ourselves, remind ourselves that Christ is seated at the right hand of our Father in heaven—making us sleepy-headed morons beautiful to his Father–clothing us in his [perfect] righteousness.

Thank you, Johnny. And thank you, Jesus.

I need this reminder daily. Why? Because the enemy knows that I struggle to really live by grace in the Father’s gift-love.

The enemy whispers that God may have to accept me, but he only tolerates me. He doesn’t treasure me. I am a disappointment. Then my sin is paraded in my mind in grotesquely living or me to remember and meditate upon.

Of course, the common denominator with these charges and critiques is a focus on my continuing, remaining sin—objective reasons why God should reject me.

Then Paul, like Johnny, provides a needed corrective to my wandering, unbelieving heart.

33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:33-34)

What we need to see in living color is the fulfillment of justice upon my sin in the bloody sacrifice of Jesus. I need to meditate on the love and grace of God and the objective reality of the finished, reconciling work of Jesus on my behalf.

 

TRANSFORMING GRACE

When the objective reality of the love of God comes home to my heart, that I am complete in Christ, I will begin to change.

I call this transforming grace.

In 2 Corinthians 5:14, Paul says that it is the love of Christ that compels us to obedience and mission. Not duty. Not fear. Not guilt.

Commenting on this dynamic of a grace-empowered living in the context of Colossians 2:6, the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible says,

“In the same ways that we received Christ—through faith, by grace—we move forward…The gospel [union with Christ] is for sanctification, not only justification; not only for conversion but for growth.”

In his classic, True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer wrote,

“I became a Christian once for all upon the basis of the finished work of Christ through faith. That is justification. The Christian life, sanctification, operates on the same basis, but moment by moment. There is the same basis (Christ’s work) and the same instrument (faith); the only difference is that one is once-for-all and the other is moment by moment…”

Of course, the ESV Gospel Transformation Bible and Francis Schaeffer are merely echoing the dynamic of spiritual change that Jesus describes in John 15:4-5, where the Savior reveals in a word picture how sanctification works, and why faith in our union with Christ is the means for change.

4Abide in me, as I also will abide in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. 5“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

In summary, what Jesus is saying is that spiritual transformation takes places from the inside out. In other words, as I abide by faith in Jesus as my perfect righteousness, the sap of the Holy Spirit (so to speak) flows from the Vine and into the branch at the point of the faith union between the believer and the Savior. This is how the believer is filled with the Spirit. When filled with the Spirit, I begin to have new motives and desires, along with a new ability to fulfill the longings of my new desires, which are no longer desires fueled by the flesh, but by the Spirit.

This is especially significant when we realize that to be filled with the Spirit is to be filled with the fullness of the love of God (Ephesians 3:16-19; Romans 5:5).

__________________________

One of my favorite photos is my wife holding our first-born immediately after she was born. Covered in blood. “She’s beautiful!” She was mine. Perfect. Complete.

Kristy’s labor was a labor of love… and so was the labor, the work, the sacrifice of Jesus.

Colossians 1:22, “He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

That is the way the Father sees you in Christ. When I can see the Father seeing me that way, everything changes.

_________________________________

Discussion Guide – Chapter 4

  1. Have you ever considered the gospel in light of the membership fee to a club and the monthly dues? How did that affect you?

 

  1. Describe how the gospel is news and not instructions. What is the primary purpose of the law?

 

  1. What does it mean to you that the Father loves us with a perfect, complete love that does not waver based on our behavior? Does that sound dangerous to you? Why or why not?

 

  1. Engage with Francis Schaeffer’s statement,

“I became a Christian once for all upon the basis of the finished work of Christ through faith. That is justification. The Christian life, sanctification, operates on the same basis, but moment by moment. There is the same basis (Christ’s work) and the same instrument (faith); the only difference is that one is once-for-all and the other is moment by moment…”


[1] From <http://www.esvbible.org/resources/esv-study-bible/introduction-to-colossians/>

[2] Thank you, Tim Keller, for this insight.

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