I spoke to the youth yesterday from Isaiah 36-37 on “Letting God be God over enemies.” We are going through a series in Isaiah called “Let God be God,” looking at God’s role in our daily lives over practical struggles such as sin, fear, enemies, emptiness, etc. I started off my talk by telling the youth that if they have not received Christ’s work at the cross into their lives, then God is still their enemy. I explained that its not harsh to say that, because the bible uses the category of “enemy” to describe our state before God apart from Christ (Romans 5:10). God has gone to every extreme to make us no longer his enemies in the gospel, but if we reject what he has done for us at the cross, we will not benefit from what God has done in the slightest degree – just as medicine we refuse to take will not make us at all better.
What I said seemed to be well received, and I thought we had a great morning together. But this morning I’m reflecting on the reality that as basic as this distinction between a believer and an unbeliever is, in both Scripture and in classic evangelical theology, so many teenagers in our American church culture have never heard this kind of teaching before. For so many youth in the church today, the reigning theological paradigm seems to be a watered down, “Jesus is your buddy” message, more informed by our cultural idols than by Scripture. The “Jesus is your Buddy” message emphasizes God’s niceness and His desire to help us deal with bad things like stress and emotional pain, but is sadly distant from biblical teaching on the specifics of the gospel, including sin, judgment, atonement, repentance, and holiness (and forget about bringing up topics like hell, divine wrath, or church discipline – we are way too hip and clever to even take them seriously).
Like all gospel counterfeits, the “Jesus is your buddy” message has elements that can be affirmed. God is kind, and He does want to help us deal with bad things like stress. (In fact, we talked just the previous week about “Letting God be God over stress.”) But when the “Jesus is your Buddy” message is the dominant theological message in play, the functional center of a ministry, then frankly, we have failed our youth. We have not taught them accurately who God is, what the Christian message is all about, or what it means to be the church. No wonder so many of even our most committed students graduate high school and quickly abandon the church and/or their faith – they’ve never understood the gospel and its power and role in their lives! And no wonder so many people, unbelievers and believers alike, become so fed up with church culture – for the “Jesus is your Buddy” produces a deeply unhealthy culture. It creates a lack of reverence in worship, a lack of accountability in relationships, and a lack of fruitfulness in personal spiritual growth. Sin and dysfunction are rarely dealt with, so they linger, and then fester.
What is the solution? I don’t have all the answers, but I believe that the central need of the church is always the Word of God. Simply put, we must re-focus on the true, biblical gospel. And what I’m learning more and more these days is that to see the gospel and its role in our lives, it must be distinguished from the pseudo-gospels that tend to spring up whenever the true gospel is lost. Its not enough to say, “Christ died for your sins.” People can still construe that within a “Jesus is your Buddy” framework (sort of). We’ve got to make clear distinctions. We’ve got to say, “the gospel is this, not that.” We’ve got to say, “the gospel is that Christ died for your sins, and here is how that is different from the “Jesus is your Buddy” message.”
That isn’t easy, because the unhealthiness of a “Jesus is your Buddy” culture can become deeply entrenched and reinforced, just like a dysfunctional family system which “self-protects” against the threat of healing and progress, or like a sick body which fights to reject a medicine. To dislodge the unhealthiness and endure the opposition takes courage, and perseverance, and above all, suffering. But that’s the great thing about the true gospel. Whereas the “Jesus is your Buddy” message turns the gospel into a mechanism for acquiring our own idols, and thus is incredibly flimsy in its effects on our lives, the true gospel makes us treasure and value Christ so much that we are willing to lose all things for His sake. In the true gospel, Jesus is not a means, but the great and glorious end. And He is so wonderful, so beautiful, so enthralling, that suffering for the sake of advancing His cause is actually a joy.