It was a Thursday night during my latter college years. I went with three guys whom I had discipled earlier in my college years to restaurant called Shoneys. Three of us were committed to ministry full-time. In fact, at the time we were either currently serving or had served on a church staff.
We sat there eating our meal and our discussion centered around the church. We were complaining about church. We were frustrated by the church. We were experiencing what many who want to change their world. We had almost finished and the waitress dropped our check off beside me. Not long after she dropped it off, she returned to pick it back up and take it with her. I assumed that she had made a mistake and took the check to correct it. When she didn’t bring it back, I asked her for our check and she told me that someone had been taken care of the check. Stunned, we stood and in a louder than normal level said “Thank You!”. A voice from my right sounded: “Guys, got a minute?”. We turned to see a man sitting alone so we went over to talk with him.
He told us that he had come from Canada and owned a ski resort. He was in Huntsville, AL for a convention for a group of Christian men who worked in the marketplace. He had driven around the entire city of Huntsville and felt compelled to stop at this particular restaurant. He was seated two tables from us. And it was he who picked up our check that night.
He told us that he could hear our conversation. He noted that we talked a lot about the church. We griped and complained. We shared our frustrations. He also noted how we talked about the gospel. It was important and people were not sharing it with others. Then he noted specific people sitting around us. He told how they were listening as well. One lady, he said, was captivated by our discussion. Another was listening intently as well. Then he pointed out something that has haunted me and yet driven me ever since. He said to these four college guys, “You talked about the church and you talked about the gospel, but you never once mentioned the name of Jesus. You had the chance to point a whole section of people to the only one who could save them. The church doesn’t save people. Jesus does. So guys, let me ask you, ‘What does Jesus mean to you’?” That night we went around the table and described what Jesus meant to us. He gave us a blessing and sent us on our way.
That experience transformed my life. Theology is great. The Bible is wonderful. But it is really all about Jesus. Nothing else. No one else. It is Jesus and Jesus alone. It is the name of Jesus that transforms life. No other name under heaven can do that. The most important thing we can do is have a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus. Everything in life flows out of that one relationship.
A friend of mine recently wrote a book about Jesus. He is somewhat well-known and had many endorsements of the book from very well known people. He was shocked, however, that a whole group of folks from the reformed and neo-reformed theological persuasion refused to endorse the book. It wasn’t because of who wrote it. It was because of its emphasis. The book was totally about Jesus, not the gospel-centered language of today. The book challenges people to be formed around Jesus, and him alone. But this group of people would not touch it. His conclusion was that they were more interested in the principal of Jesus rather than the person of Jesus. It was a revelation.
I am afraid we are losing Jesus. I am afraid that we are elevating parts of the message of Jesus and replacing Him with them. The faith of Christ followers is found on in Christ. That faith is not found in Bibliolatry, worshipping the Bible. It is not found in theology. It is found only in a powerful, present, and persistent relationship with Jesus.
My doctoral mentor, Len Sweet, and Frank Viola put together a Jesus Manifesto, which has turned into a book, Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ due out June 1.‚ In the preamble of their manifesto, they state:
Christians have made the gospel about so many things ¢â‚¬¦ things other than Christ.
Jesus Christ is the gravitational pull that brings everything together and gives them significance, reality, and meaning. Without him, all things lose their value. Without him, all things are but detached pieces floating around in space.
It is possible to emphasize a spiritual truth, value, virtue, or gift, yet miss Christ . . . who is the embodiment and incarnation of all spiritual truth, values, virtues, and gifts.
Seek a truth, a value, a virtue, or a spiritual gift, and you have obtained something dead.
Seek Christ, embrace Christ, know Christ, and you have touched him who is Life. And in him resides all Truth, Values, Virtues and Gifts in living color. Beauty has its meaning in the beauty of Christ, in whom is found all that makes us lovely and loveable.
What is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less. Christianity is not an ideology. Christianity is not a philosophy. Christianity is the ¢â‚¬Å“good news¢â‚¬ that Beauty, Truth and Goodness are found in a person. Biblical community is founded and found on the connection to that person. Conversion is more than a change in direction; it¢â‚¬â„¢s a change in connection. Jesus¢â‚¬â„¢ use of the ancient Hebrew word shubh, or its Aramaic equivalent, to call for ¢â‚¬Å“repentance¢â‚¬ implies not viewing God from a distance, but entering into a relationship where God is command central of the human connection.
In that regard, we feel a massive disconnection in the church today. Thus this manifesto.
We believe that the major disease of the church today is JDD: Jesus Deficit Disorder. The person of Jesus is increasingly politically incorrect, and is being replaced by the language of ¢â‚¬Å“justice,¢â‚¬ ¢â‚¬Å“the kingdom of God,¢â‚¬ ¢â‚¬Å“values,¢â‚¬ and ¢â‚¬Å“leadership principles.¢â‚¬
To that JDD, I would add the language of gospel-centered. Through the neo-reformed movement, the new language of “gospel-centered” has become the premier person-defining, life-shaping power. Language is important. Usurping Jesus with the gospel declares that Jesus is only important in that He died to give us the gospel. Life is not defined as a person being formed into the image of Christ, but a person being formed into image of the gospel. In changing the focus, some have surrendered Jesus for the gospel.
Let me say up front that I have reformed leanings. More and more, I have become functionally reformed. There is nothing I can do to keep the Spirit from working in my life. As he decides to form me into the image of Christ, as he decides to move me, as he decides to prepare me, I have no power. In fact, in the past few years, I have realized that I am truly powerless over my life. All I have comes from the indwelling Wind, the Spirit of God, working in and through me. And His work is a work that forms me into the image of Christ.
Let me also state the gospel is not unimportant. It is the power of God unto salvation. However, the language of gospel-centered is the language of work. The gospel language is a language hoping to propel us to go and share the gospel. The language of gospel hopes to compel us to the ends of the earth. It is also a language of guilt. We use guilt to try to coerce people into doing something. There is a danger here in both of these implications. By replacing Jesus with the gospel, we are dangerously close to forming a works-based definition of salvation. And by guilting people into sharing the gospel we are describing an incomplete gospel which limits its impact. For more on that, read this.
We need to recapture, for sure, the call to go and tell. However, the danger we face by defining life through gospel-centered language is that we are emphasizing a pragmatic, functional Christianity. The focus of our faith is located around a certain set of practices where the primacy of life is found in telling people about Jesus.
The denomination of my youth has even changed its focus. It shouldn’t surprise me as we are primarily a pragmatic denomination, not a theological one or a Christ-shaped one. This denomination that elevates the Bible has how centered itself in the great commission. The emphasis the denomination is promoting challenges us to center our churches, institutions and people around the great commission. I am all for the great commission. But the denomination is using the language of pragmatism. Church is about doing. Denominations are about doing. People should be about doing. While they spend a great amount of time, money and words talking about the great commission they spend little time talking about the great commandment. They are challenging people to go and tell, but spend little energy on emphasizing practices that form us into the image of the one who created us.
The failure of replacing Jesus with the gospel, the kingdom, social justice, or anything else, comes as we separate our functional expression of life from a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus. It must be noted that a person’s “doing” results from their “being”. We act out of how we have been formed. This is why we must make Jesus the priority. This is the reason for loving Him with every aspect of our life: heart, soul, mind and strength. We must orient our formative practices around the image of Christ. Neglecting the great commandment is to create a lifeless and debilitating religion. Jesus’ own words remind us what is to be most important in our lives: Jesus and him alone.
When the disciples in Acts 4 were arrested by the religious authorities, they were charged with teaching Jesus and his resurrection from the dead. Yet when challenged by the authorities about the power they were using to heal a formerly crippled beggar, Peter didn’t call on the name of the gospel. He didn’t call on the power of the kingdom. Peter stood before the highest religious leadership found in Israel and proclaimed a name: the name of Jesus. The religious of their day were baffled because these men were not part of the up and coming rabbinical leadership. But it was evident that these disciples had a power beyond any the religious leaders could muster. It was an astonishing revelation. The only way that the actions of the disciples could be explained was that had been with Jesus. They had been with him night and day. They had seen and heard him pray. They knew how he read the scriptures, in his fresh, creative way, drawing out their inner message and finding his own vocation in the middle of it. Now that he had died and had then been astonishingly raised, and had been exalted into the heavenly realm, all Peter and John had to do to explain what they were about was to develop the lines of thought they had heard him use over and over again. It was all about Jesus. They simply reflected Jesus, the one who had formed them.
The name of Jesus has power, kingdom-power, healing power. It makes the lame walk, just like Jesus did. Paul put it decisively: this kind of God is not about talk, but about power (I Cor 4:20). Where God’s power is at work to bring real change, real healing, and real new life, there are people who are naming the name of Jesus and are noted for being with Jesus.
It is the deep and abiding relationship with Jesus that forms us. We are formed by our relationships. We are formed by our experiences. The kind of Jesus we are in relationship with is the kind of Jesus we will be formed into. Jesus is the central and defining figure in the spiritual life. His life is revelation. He brings out into the open what we could never have figured out for ourselves. He is God among us: speaking, acting, healing, and helping. “Salvation” is the big word into which all these words fit. The name Jesus means “God Saves” – God present and at work saving in our language and in our history.  Salvation, however, includes transformation of all our life, not just the eternal.
Jesus tells us everything we need to know about God. As we read, ponder, study, believe, and pray the Gospels we find both the entire Scriptures and the entirety of the spiritual life accessible and in focus before us in the inviting presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh. 
Unfortunately, “while the Gospel writers present Jesus in a feet-on-the-ground setting not too different from the town and countryside in which we live, and in a vocabulary and syntax similar to the language we use when we sit down at the dinner table and go out shopping, they don’t indulge our curiosity. There is so much that they don’t tell us. There is so much more we would like to know. Our imaginations itch to fill in the details. What did Jesus look like? How did he grow up? How did his childood friends treat him? What did he do all those years of his groing up in the carpentry show?” 
Eugene Peterson, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology states:
It didn’t take long for writers to appear on the scene who were quite ready to satisfy our curiosities, to tell us what Jesus was really like. But “lives” of Jesus – imaginative constructs of Jesus’ life with all the childhood influences, emotional tones, neighborhood gossip, and social/cultural/political dynamics worked in – are notoriously unsatisfactory. What we always seem to get is not the Jesus who reveals God to us, but a Jesus who develops some ideal or justifies some cause of the writer. When we finish the boook, we realize that we have less of Jesus, not more. 
By accepting Jesus as the final and definitive revelation of God, the Christian church makes it impossible for us to make up our own customized variations of the spiritual life and get away with it. It is not that we don’t or haven’t tried. But Jesus prevents us from thinking that life is a matter of ideas to ponder or concepts to discuss. “Jesus saves us from wasting our lives in the pursuit of cheap thrills and trivialized diversions. Jesus enables us to take seriously who we are and where we are without being seduced by the intimidating lies and illusions that fill the air, so that we needn’t be someone else or somewhere else. Jesus keeps our feet on the ground, attentive to children, in conversation with ordinary people, sharing meals with friends and strangers, listening ot the wind, observing the wildflowers, touching the sick and wounded, praying simply and unselfconsciously. Jesus insists that we deal with God right here and now, in the place we find ourselves and with the people we are with. Jesus is God here and now.” 
My hope is that we begin to recover Jesus. My prayer is that Jesus becomes the one in whom we have a deep relationship and deep experiences that form us into his image. The imago Christi is His goal. It is the Spirit’s role. It is our highest calling.
1. Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology, 31-32
2. Ibid, 32.
5. Ibid., 33.