God has two primary goals for us, and both of them start with the gospel. According to the apostle Paul, the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16). In practice, the power of God in the gospel accomplishes two things:
1) The gospel is the message of salvation from sin through Christ’s atoning death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, and his enthronement as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. God wants me to believe in the gospel, to give my life to Jesus, and thus allow him to forgive me and cleanse me from the guilt of sin.
2) The acceptance of the gospel ushers me into an intimate and loving surrendered relationship with the Father through the Son within which he can begin to transform my heart and mind. In this process he cleanses me, heals me, strengthens me, and slowly begins to unravel and redeem the broken and twisted parts of my life, thus freeing me from the power of sin.
In most of modern Christendom, we have tended to focus overwhelmingly on the first, and paid very little attention to the second. It’s true that you cannot really have the second part without the first, but forgiveness, wonderful gift though it is, is far from all God wants for us. He never intended for us to get stuck at the first part. In fact one might even say that forgiveness is but a necessary first step toward what God really wants for us.
For the last five years or so, my ministry has primarily involved helping Christians (and non-Christians) move into this second part of the experience of God. It is a ministry of relational spiritual nurture, and it happens slowly — more like a crockpot and less like a a microwave. It doesn’t happen in a six-week (or even twelve-week) program. It happens best in the context of an ongoing relationship. Remember, Jesus spent three years with his disciples and even then they needed the Holy Spirit to finish them off.
The journey God ultimately wants to lead us all on is to a deeper experience of his love, and consequently, to a greater trust. This is discipleship, or what Jesus calls “abiding in him” (John 15:4-6).
Abiding deeply in Jesus changes us in the following ways:
1) We find an ever-deepening comprehension of God’s love (Eph. 3:16-19), enabling us to rest in that love. Paul calls this “the fulness of God.” Simply, we are learning to live loved. Living loved frees us from fear (1 John 4:18).
2) We develop a richer understanding and appropriation of grace, and the consequent freedom from a desperate need to perform or produce in order to be acceptable to God.
3) We increasingly enjoy a life characterized by a “peace that passes understanding” (Phil. 4:7).
4) We increasingly surrender more of ourselves to God (because we will not obey one whom we do not trust, and we will not trust one whom we do not believe loves us), and thus more often choose obedience.
5) We find growing freedom from the need/desire to manipulate or control circumstances and people to make things turn out a certain way (Matt. 11:28-30).
6) And overall, we experience a growing holiness (sanctification), a greater sense of being led by the Spirit, and the increasing manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
Because you cannot give what you do not have, these six ongoing internal changes God makes in us equip us for gospel blessing (what we typically think of as “outreach” or “evangelism”) in the following ways:
1) God develops in us a greater capacity to love others.
2) God develops in us a greater ability to live love without agenda (a greater capacity to nurture others in their own search for God without trying to control them or to trying to produce certain outcomes).
A Christian simply cannot engage in outreach effectively without the transformation that only comes through a discipleship of abiding in Jesus. Said another way, outreach flows naturally and organically from a life of abiding in Jesus. Fully formed disciples truly become leaven in the world around them.
Over the last ten years, these truths have become some of my deepest convictions about God’s work in the world. The place to begin all ministry must be helping people come to a deeper experience of God’s love and a growing intimacy with him. In the end, it is only the power of God that can change us. As Jesus reminds us, “apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).