03/11/2012 08:46 pm ET Updated May 11, 2012

The Gospel Redefined

Many years ago, while hammering out the kinks of my mind on the anvil of higher education, I had this professor who was a passionate atheist, and he loved to take Christianity to task for any reason. He was good at it too. In class, we'd discuss the crusades, the church, the Reformation, and the negative effects of Christianity on the world. He would relentlessly accuse the church of disrupting or destroying native cultures with "Christian" standards. You name it. South America, the South Pacific islands, Africa, etc... He was a proselyte. He hoped to reach the uninformed (us Christians) and to help them find the light. It was intense, but it was one of the most formative periods of life. It actually began to shape in my mind what was wrong with what Christianity has often called "evangelism."

When we step outside into the big bad world, and we carry the flag of Christianity, we're going to take some fire. We like to think that's because the world is a tough place, and because we're Christians, we're being persecuted. That's true about 10 percent of the time, but for most, if they know who Jesus is, they have no problem. In my experience, sharing Jesus is not all difficult, even in a hostile environment. (I lived much of my adult life in the Arab Muslim world). Now, I may not start by telling people that they're sinners, headed on the fast track to hell unless they believe that Jesus is the Way. I tell stories. Of His life. His teachings. Anything in the four gospels. Telling the stories of Jesus is surprisingly easy, and because I'm not obsessed with converting people to a religion called Christianity, I'm able to talk about Jesus with everyone that I meet -- freely, openly and honestly -- because He's so compelling!

If we believe that the gospel is a systematic explanation of Christianity, then we find that we have to own up to and explain all the faults and failures of Christian history, and then try to convince people that what we're selling isn't that. Confusing to say the least.

Here are a few of the scenarios that "Christianity" brings to mind.

What about the Irish rebellion? The Protestants vs. the Catholics? The religious (Christian) genocide in places like Africa or the Balkans? What about the persecution of scientists like Copernicus and Galileo? Or those nasty Inquisitions? The Holocaust, slavery, and the modern "Christian" white supremacy movement?

When we preach Christianity, we discover it's quite a plateful. Trying to explain it moves the issue even further from the actual good news we hope to present. We want to explain that Christianity is good at heart, but full of flawed and forgiven people. Sometimes this is effective. Usually it's not.

When it comes to the reality of presenting the gospel, I believe that the gospel and the religion of Christianity are often two different messages. Even opposed on some points. We have to open our eyes to the possibility that we're preaching the wrong message. We're busy trying to find the boundary line that separates the saved from the unsaved, and then hoping to bring people across the boundary by getting them to think the same things we think. Here in the West, reason is king. We have doctrines and apologetics and nifty devices we use to solidify the right thoughts. If it doesn't make sense, it's not relevant.

Yes, all have sinned and fallen short of the kingdom of God. Yes, sin brings death as a natural consequence. And yes, Jesus was crucified to take our sin away from us. I don't deny these things. They're true. But where we're wrong is when we put our faith in our reason or doctrine, rather than in Jesus himself. We believe it because it makes sense to us, and so we grasp onto our legitimate reason, and we call that faith. We call that being saved. Thinking the right thoughts, knowing the right principles.

I don't want to redefine salvation. But I do want us to redefine the Gospel. It's a person to be followed. To believe in. To love and worship. Not a religion. Not even ours. Christianity. I want to strip away the thousands of years of graffiti that have been painted onto the Gospel, making it into a reasonable code of doctrines. The gospel is not an idea. It is not a belief. It is not a favorite verse. The gospel doesn't live in your church, it can't be written down in a simple message, and the gospel is not the sinner's prayer. The gospel is not a what. It is not a how. The Gospel is a Who. The Gospel is literally the good news of Jesus.

Jesus Christ is the Gospel.