In a post-Christian culture, it’s really important Christian ambassadors are good translators. People steeped in our modern culture have a very different worldview than Christianity. It’s easy for those we’re talking with about the Gospel to misunderstand what we’re saying.
I attended a conference on “Gospel Identity” last weekend (live-streamed it—the best way for an introvert to attend a conference). Tim Keller offered some significant insights about how people get validation for their identity, and it has application in how we translate the Gospel.
Here’s the quick explanation on the different models of where we look for value, significance, and identity. Traditional models find external standards outside the individual. Living up to these standards provides individuals with value and significance. Lack of self-worth comes from not meeting these external standards. Modern identity, on the other hand, is derived from subjective standards set by each individual. The modern worldview says to look inward to find your own value, validate your significance, and reject external standards. It rejects external standards as negating our personal sense of value. This is moral relativism taken to a deep level of personal identity. Society is expected to adjust to these subjective standards; otherwise, personal validation is negated by disagreement. External standards are rejected altogether. This is why tolerance has been turned on its head. On this view, it’s not possible to tolerate someone while rejecting his views. The person’s sense of worth and his views are one and the same thing.
You can see why modern people see Christianity as the enemy. The Gospel itself—telling us we’re all sinners and need to be reconciled to God—is an external standard that shatters every attempt at personal validation.
There are lots of problems with both traditional and modern views of identity, but I’ll mention just a couple. In terms of the traditional view, we never can fully live up to any external standard, so our value is always dependent on approval of our behavior. We also have conflicting external sources, and it’s often not possible to please all.
Modern identity ends up crushing people because they’re responsible for validating their own value, but we just aren’t up to that task—it’s not how we’re designed. All of us look for validation outside of ourselves. We’re full of conflicting and changeable feelings and beliefs, so it’s never stable. It’s fragile.
The Gospel pulls away the pretense of both models to show us it’s impossible to measure up to external standards and subjective standards aren’t enough. Neither gives us the value and significance we’re all looking for.
Gospel identity, in contrast to both, has an external standard of validation—God—but the means of living up to that standard has already been achieved in Jesus. There’s nothing more for us to do other than receive Jesus’ righteousness as a gift. He took our sin and gave us His righteousness. It’s final and complete. God looks at us and sees the beauty and perfection of Jesus’ righteousness.
The beauty and freedom of Gospel identity is that it’s offered in unconditional love and is unchanging because Jesus achieved it for us. We don’t have to strive to find validation from any other source, outside or inside.
As we share the Gospel with people, it’s important to understand how this dynamic is at work in them and how it influences how they hear us. Someone who lives in a more traditional model can misunderstand the Gospel by thinking it’s a new standard to live up to. They can reject it because they think it’s one more impossible standard. The good news for them is that we don’t have to earn it.
Someone with a modern worldview may react strongly to what can seem to them like a challenge to their value. We’re telling them (and ourselves) that we’re not good enough, but that has been their source for personal significance. Their source of value based on their own sense of self-worth is fragile, and they perceive us as being judgmental, negating their significance. You may begin to realize why there’s so much hostility toward the Christian message in our culture. They are at distinct odds. But modern people are in bondage to the impossible and crushing task of validating their own value. It may take some time to help translate the message, but Jesus offers them freedom and a stable, unchanging source of love and value—something every one of us is looking for.
The fact that someone is a Christian doesn’t mean they aren’t still more influenced by one of these sources of identity than the Gospel. Christians, to the extent they are still moralists or legalists, are living by the traditional model. And many Christians today live by the modern model where they’re the final standard of whether they’re a good person or not. They believe some Christian things but decide for themselves how to live a good life. In either case, these are Christians who are not living under God’s loving and gracious authority. For Christians, it’s a lifelong process of identifying where we’re still finding our value in one of these other models rather than in the grace and mercy of the Gospel.
The Gospel gives us the humility and courage to face how deeply bad we are because Jesus took our sin and gave us His righteousness. The Gospel gives us affirmation to know that we are so valuable that Jesus loved us while we hated Him, and His love will never, ever change. There’s true peace and freedom in that unshakable fact because it’s grounded in God’s grace, not in ourselves. We can be humble because we’re forgiven sinners, and at the same time boldly live for God because we know we’re accepted and loved.
The Gospel Identity Conference, hosted by the Redeemer NYC family of churches, will probably be available at some time on the Gospel in Life website. There’s an older conference that has some of the same ideas that I recommend in the meantime.