Don’t Hold Back: Leaving Behind the American Gospel to Follow Jesus Fully, by David Platt (this is a must-read book, please support the author by purchasing his book). The following are the highlights from my reading of the book.
THE GOSPEL The gospel is the good news that the one and only true God, the loving Creator, sovereign King, and holy Judge of all, has looked on men and women wonderfully, equally, and uniquely made in his image who have rebelled against him, are separated from him, and deserve death before him, and he has sent his Son, Jesus, God in the flesh, to live a perfect and powerful life, to die a sacrificial and substitutionary death, and to rise from the grave in victory over sin, Satan, and death. The gospel is a gracious invitation from God for sinners from every nation, tribe, people, and language to repent and believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, turning from all idols to declare allegiance to Jesus alone as King and trust in Jesus alone as Lord. The gospel is a guarantee that Jesus will come again in glory to consummate his kingdom for the redeemed from every nation, tribe, people, and language in a new heaven and a new earth where all things will be made new in the light of his holy presence and where his perfect rule and reign will have no end. According to the gospel, all people who do not trust in Jesus will experience everlasting judgment from God, and all people who trust in Jesus will experience everlasting joy with God.
Denominations being hijacked by one heated faction or another. Longtime church members walking away in disgust. Many Christians distancing themselves from the church, and scores of young adults, college students, and teenagers disengaging from the church altogether. And so much of this, mind you, has so little to do with the message of Jesus or God’s saving grace for our world.
In it all, we’ve seen the viruses of pride, self-promotion, and lust for power infect not just our country but our church.
I’ve come to a clear conclusion: The problem is not just an American dream that has consumed our lives but an American gospel that has hijacked our hearts.
For far too long, we have traded in the biblical gospel that exalts Jesus above everything in this world for an American gospel that prostitutes Jesus for the sake of comfort, power, politics, and prosperity in our country. The evidence is all around us. Instead of being eager to unite around the glory of Jesus, Christians are quick to divide over the idolatry of personal and political convictions.
we’re so caught up in calls to promote the greatness of our nation that we’re essentially disregarding Jesus’s command to take the gospel to all nations.
In other words, so much of what we’re experiencing in the church today—the discouragement, disillusionment, damage, doubt, and division—is a direct outcome of accepting a false gospel in our hearts.
This book is simply about charting a way forward that holds loosely to the ideals of a country that, however blessed, is destined to one day fall, and holds tightly to the gospel of a King who will never ever fail.
This family is called the church, and if you’re a follower of Jesus, you’re part of it. You’re seated around the same table. And you’re not just part of this family in the here and now. You and I will be part of God’s family forever. But today, before we reach eternity, we need to have an important family conversation. It’s going to be difficult, but it needs to happen. Are you ready? Our church family is sick. Particularly the part of the family that makes its home in America. Instead of enjoying one another’s company at the table, encouraging one another, and loving one another in word and deed, we’re caught up in a cultural climate that makes us quick to accuse, belittle, cancel, and distrust one another. Even more than being divided, so many sisters and brothers (i.e., so many of us) are hurting and feeling hurt by one another. So hurt, in fact, that many are leaving the table, while multitudes of outsiders see our table and want to get as far away as possible from it.
In the end, ethnic Jews, wealthy Romans, and impoverished Gentiles from all kinds of pagan backgrounds were joined together in the family of God. Jesus had prayed that they would stick together, and they did. As a result, the message of the gospel spread throughout the world. That’s why you and I are here today.
We divide politically. Research shows that a majority of churchgoers prefer attending church with people who share their political views, and few attend services alongside people with different political opinions. We divide theologically over differing views on spiritual gifts, the end times, modes of baptism, and leadership in the church. We divide stylistically over different perspectives on music, service length, church décor, and a plethora of other preferences.
So is there a way to be in genuine, caring, deep fellowship with people who are very different from us, just like we see in the Bible? I believe there is.
And it starts with understanding who unites us, what’s worth dividing over, and what’s not.
Three Buckets Picture three buckets with me. In the first bucket are clear, biblical beliefs and practices that unite all followers of Jesus.
Christians divide from non-Christians over beliefs and practices that fall into this first bucket. For example, if someone says that Jesus isn’t God, that salvation isn’t by grace, or that Jesus didn’t die on a cross and rise from the grave, then we should love and care for that person, but we can’t worship with them, because they simply don’t worship the same God or believe the same gospel.
The second of our three buckets contains beliefs and practices that unite followers of Jesus who join together in a local church. This bucket includes things Christians might disagree about from one local church to another. For example, one church might believe that they should baptize babies, and another church might believe that they should baptize only believers in Christ. One church might believe that women and men should both be biblically affirmed as pastors, while another church might believe that only men should be biblically affirmed as pastors.
The third bucket contains beliefs and practices about which even Christians in the same local church disagree. Members of a local church might agree about baptism, spiritual gifts, and leadership in the church, but they might disagree about how the end times are going to unfold. They might disagree about political choices and a variety of other personal convictions.
Confusing the Buckets Problems for unity in the church begin when we confuse these buckets and forget how to love people whose beliefs in any bucket are different from ours.
This language catapulted a voting choice into the first bucket, inevitably leading Christians to question one another’s faith because of the way they chose to vote.
In other words, we decided to put the issue of how people vote in a presidential election in the third bucket—identifying it as an issue about which Christians in our church might disagree but over which we wouldn’t divide.
It’s time to learn how to hold firm to our personal convictions without compromising the unique and otherworldly unity Jesus has made possible for us in the gospel.
How could they preserve their unity? Paul didn’t tell them to create different churches, one for carnivores and one for vegetarians. That probably would have been easier, just as it might be easier for our church in metro D.C. to separate according to political perspectives or a number of other personal convictions. Instead, Paul called the church to build unity around Jesus.
How do we do that? We focus on Jesus, and we clarify which buckets we’re dealing with.
In other words, in matters where Christians are free to differ, individual believers are free to do whatever we believe best honors Jesus. Look a little closer, though. Do you know what’s really interesting in this passage? Paul wrote that it’s good to have strong convictions about what we believe best honors Jesus, even in situations where we disagree with other Christians. This sounds counterintuitive, right? Since the aim in the church at Rome was unity around Jesus, we might expect Paul to have commanded, “Don’t have strong convictions on issues of disagreement.” Instead, he wrote the exact opposite: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Fully convinced—a high standard.
In the words of James 1:19, we should be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” This command is particularly appropriate for us in a culture that entices us to share our thoughts and opinions through a screen instead of looking into the eyes of our brother or sister and listening in a spirit of love.
Let’s be honest: There’s a lot of attacking and tearing down these days, and it’s coming from all sides. We demonize those who disagree with us, and we make reckless generalizations about and deliver sweeping condemnations of those people who all believe that craziness. Instead of having thoughtful discussions focused on listening first, we lob accusations like grenades. Instead of engaging in meaningful dialogue, we resort to personal ridicule. We have mastered the art of turning healthy disagreement into hateful disgust, and it leaves us damaged and divided. But this isn’t the way of Jesus, and it doesn’t honor our Father.
But those opinions and convictions aren’t what make us a family. Jesus makes us a family, which means that if we’re allowing those opinions and convictions to divide us, then we’re making them more important to us than Jesus himself. Second- and third-bucket issues can’t divide us if Jesus is the one who unites us.
As followers of Jesus, we share a supernatural bloodline that supersedes ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic situations, political parties and positions, and personal preferences and opinions.
Our family is not fundamentally African American, Asian American, European American, Hispanic American, Native American, or even American. Our family is not fundamentally rich or poor. Our family is not fundamentally Republican, Democrat, or Independent. None of these things are grounds for division among us, because our family is fundamentally Christian. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people possessed by God himself (1 Peter 2:9). In the biblical gospel, we have been acquitted of sin before God the Judge and adopted as daughters and sons by God the Father. And if we will realize and constantly remember this, we will experience so much needed healing not just in the church but in our lives.
It is well past time to leave behind an American gospel that has cultivated the ownership and torture of slaves by “Christian” masters, the killing of people alongside the burning of “Christian” crosses, the lack of support for civil rights or even acknowledgment of racial disparities among “Christian” leaders, and the ongoing racial division in “Christian” churches.
RACE IN THE BIBLE As a foundational matter, the Bible never defines different races according to skin tone, hair texture, or other physical traits like we do in contemporary culture. Instead, God creates all people wonderfully and equally in his image as one human race.
Certainly some will argue, “But I’m color blind. I choose not to see color in people, and that’s the way we all should see.” After all, Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned a future where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Right? We might, then, conclude that it’s a good thing to be color blind. But others hear claims of color blindness and ask, “Why are you choosing to ignore part of who I am, where I’ve come from, and how my family’s ethnicity and history have affected me, particularly in light of the fact that I’ve been affected in significant ways because of these things?” Calls for color blindness can come across as attempts to minimize a significant part of someone’s heritage and makeup.
THE DISPARITY CONTINUES Yet even if our hearts are completely pure—which they won’t be this side of heaven—we live in a country where different people continue to experience different benefits or burdens based on their skin color. Thankfully, by God’s grace and the action of godly men and women, race-based chattel slavery was abolished and civil rights legislation was passed. Nevertheless, undeniable statistics demonstrate that clear racial disparities still exist.
Yet with all the above caveats considered, these statistics lead to a staggeringly straightforward conclusion. Even if none of us wants skin color to matter in the United States, apparently it does. And it doesn’t just matter in our country; it matters in the church.
By God’s good design, the early church was multiethnic. But these Christians were not without controversy in their efforts to forge multiethnic community. When the Gentiles wanted to be baptized, included in the same church, and seated at the same tables, many Jews pushed back. The Jews were, after all, God’s chosen people. Paul addressed this divide clearly in a letter to the Ephesians: Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility…. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God. (2:13–19)
The biblical picture is clear. The gospel transcends the powers of the world in order to break down dividing walls and bring people from across all kinds of lines—ethnic lines included—together in the church.
This train of thought is one reason that, for decades now, church-growth gurus have promoted what’s called “the homogeneous unit principle.” In essence, the thinking is that if pastors want to reach a lot of people in the church and if people like being around those who are most like them, then pastors should focus on trying to reach one type of person in their church.
Though it’s quite popular and most churches have bought into it, building Christ’s church by prioritizing homogeneity goes against what the Bible teaches.
It is past time to leave behind a picture of the church that accommodates (and reinforces) prejudices, caters to preferences, and clings to power. Let’s humbly and intentionally put aside various comforts and traditions, and let’s step boldly and fully into the beautiful picture God envisions for his church. Only then can we tear down the American gospel, which divides and damages, and lift up the biblical gospel, which brings equality and, ultimately, healing.
When I think about Bashir, Moska, and multitudes of other sisters and brothers in Christ in settings like this, I’m reminded that only the Bible contains the truth that is worth risking life and limb to read, know, and share. It’s the treasure that brings us together in the church. Not the ideals of a country or the positions of a political party. And certainly not the most popular waves of thought in an ever-changing culture. So why are so many Christians and churches uniting around (and dividing over) opinions and preferences that aren’t clearly and directly outlined in the Bible? Could it be that we have so conflated biblical ideals with American ideals that we can no longer tell the difference between the two? Or worse, are we subtly, maybe even unknowingly, twisting biblical passages to prop up what we think over and above what God has said in his Word? And in the midst of it all, are we even paying attention to the fact that emerging generations are completely disregarding his Word as they watch the way we wield it?
Meanwhile, here’s my attempt in a few short paragraphs to summarize the unparalleled wonder of God’s Word. Picture sixty-six books written by more than forty authors in three languages over the course of 1,500 years, all telling one consistent story: the gospel of Jesus Christ. No passage in the entire Bible contradicts this single narrative. Not one. Ask yourself, How is that even possible? If you asked forty people you know to write a book that told one overarching story about who God is, who we are, how this world was made, what’s wrong in the world, and how this world can be made right, there’s no chance those forty would agree. And those are all people living at the same time and likely speaking the same language. But the Bible—including books written by a farmer, shepherd, soldier, lawyer, priest, tax collector, and fisherman (just to name a few of the authors), in different languages over the course of centuries—tells one stunningly consistent story.
THE BEST KIND OF OFFENSE Yet even with the life-changing, history-transforming power of God’s Word, we are still prone to elevate our personal ideas and positions above it, as if our thoughts are better than his truth. We shouldn’t be surprised by our reckless arrogance, though. Haven’t we been like this from the beginning? Remember Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden as a serpent whispered four little words in Eve’s ear: “Did God actually say…?” (Genesis 3:1). For the first time, a cluster of deadly spiritual ideas began to take hold in the world: Our thoughts are more trustworthy than God’s truth. God’s Word is subject to our judgment. We have the right, authority, and wisdom to determine what is good or evil. We are free to disregard God’s Word when we disagree with it, or we can simply twist it to justify our disobedience to it. In the end, Adam and Eve sinned because they believed that they knew better than God. Instead of believing that God’s Word was good for them, they decided that it was offensive to them.
As we saw in the last chapter, the United States was built for centuries by professing Christians who twisted the Bible to say that Black people were of lesser human value—a hateful, unbiblical view that deceived generations of Christians and destroyed multitudes of lives, inflicting pain that still persists today. Such pain exists fundamentally because people ignored what God says about equality or twisted God’s Word to accommodate their long-held prejudices or self-serving business models. Similarly, as we will explore in a subsequent chapter, for centuries we have allowed pride in our nation to supplant what God says concerning all nations. Contemporary calls to make America great have resounded among Christians and illustrate how easily the church is distracted from our mandate to make Jesus great among all the peoples of the earth. As we will see, clear evidence shows that Christians and churches in our country are largely ignoring Jesus’s command to make disciples of all nations, to the eternal detriment of billions of people.
The reality we all need to face is clear: All of us are prone to defy God’s Word even as we convince ourselves that we’re following it.
If we’re going to elevate God’s truth above our thoughts and pass this treasure on to the next generation, then we need to get serious about hiding this truth in our hearts. At some point, we have to stop endlessly scrolling through our phones and watching our screens, filling our minds with messages from this world, and start spending our time saturating our minds with God’s Word.
God, help us to learn and remember what history teaches us: The Bible can be perversely misapplied by even the sincerest of believers. The Word of Life can be used to injure, oppress, and exploit. And that is not who our God is or what he wants for us or others.
One, they possess evident conviction about the value of God’s Word. I speak regularly at conferences for adults or students in my country, and I usually give a thirty- to sixty-minute talk once or twice, surrounded by all sorts of free time and other activities. But when I meet with Christians in persecuted countries, they come together at the risk of their lives to study God’s Word for twelve hours a day. Moreover, I see their passion to pass on their knowledge of God to the next generation. I think of gathering on multiple occasions with students from their churches for secret retreats—also at the risk of their lives—and training these teenagers from early morning to the middle of the night to spread God’s Word not just in their country but in surrounding countries. These sisters and brothers, including teenagers, love God’s Word like nothing else in the world. That leads to the second quality: They possess remarkable compassion for people who need God’s Word. Neither the adults nor the teenagers above are studying the Bible for themselves, only to stay silent about it in the world. To be sure, that would be a lot easier for them. Christians don’t get persecuted in these countries if they keep God’s Word to themselves. They get persecuted when they share God’s Word with others. But these adults and teenagers deeply love others who don’t know Jesus. During my times with them, I have seen them fall on their faces, weep, and pray for people who don’t know the gospel in their villages, in their cities, and in neighboring countries. Keep in mind that in many cases the people for whom these Christians are praying are the same people who are persecuting them. Yet these Christians know that the Bible teaches that these people will go to eternal condemnation if they don’t hear and believe the gospel, and these Christians want to do everything they can to love them and lead them to Jesus. That’s why they rise to their feet and leave these secret gatherings to spread God’s Word with literally death-defying compassion. Two qualities: conviction and compassion.
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:8) That’s exactly what Naomi is doing: justice. Specifically, she’s obeying God’s command to “bring justice to the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17). She’s doing justice in ways that reflect the kindness and humility of Jesus.
Sadly, however, we live in a time when followers of Jesus seem more interested in debating justice than doing it. Even as we are surrounded by countless people who are orphaned, widowed, impoverished, oppressed, enslaved, displaced, and abused, in our country and beyond our country, we expend so much energy on social media criticizing and shouting at one another about justice—feeling somehow that this is doing justice.
But if more of us made a calculated decision to follow in Naomi and Dr. Zee’s footsteps and engage in holistic, biblical, gospel-proclaiming, Jesus-exalting justice—if we started holding more orphans in our arms, helping more widows in our communities, providing for more of the poor in our cities, serving more refugees in our country, hosting more immigrants in our homes, rescuing more slaves from traffickers, visiting more people in prison, caring for more victims of abuse, or coming alongside more moms and dads facing unwanted pregnancies—we would discover that doing biblical justice goes far beyond posting on social media, making an argument in the political arena, or even voting in an election. We would understand at long last that loving kindness is a fundamental part of what it means to follow Jesus in our everyday lives. And in the end, we would realize that doing justice and loving kindness is how we actually experience the good life in Jesus.
But just because some have diluted or disregarded the gospel of Jesus in calls for justice doesn’t mean we should remain passive in a world full of poverty, oppression, abortion, orphans, widows, slaves, refugees, and racism. Jesus didn’t. He did justice and loved kindness, and if we call ourselves his followers, we must do the same. God requires this of us.
God hates it when his people say prayers, bring offerings, and attend worship services while ignoring injustice and oppression around them.
The Bible is clear. God isn’t honored by our voices when they are quick to sing songs of praise but slow to speak out against injustice. He isn’t honored by our hands when they are quick to rise during worship but slow to work against wrongdoing and inequity in our communities. People who truly worship the God above them will love doing good for people in need around them.
We wanted to know how God defined justice, and we observed that biblical justice is that which is right for people as exemplified in the character of God and expressed in the Word of God.
It’s significant to emphasize how justice is doing not only that which reflects God’s character but also that which is right according to God’s Word. We’ve all noticed how the word right gets applied in ways that are, well, not right. Courts in the United States say it’s right for you to marry someone of the same gender, but God’s Word says otherwise. Some states in our country say it’s right to take the life of an unborn child in the womb, but God’s Word does not. Many of us—even in the American church—act like it’s right to be wealthy, comfortable, and secure while we functionally ignore or even push down the poor and broken. But as we’ve seen in Isaiah and Amos, this isn’t right before God. In fact, the Bible calls it sin—rebellion against what God says is right.
INJUSTICE AND THE GOSPEL SOLUTION Injustice, then, is that which is not right for people as exemplified in God’s character and expressed in God’s Word. Examples of injustice abound among men and women made in God’s image. We lie, murder, oppress, abuse, cheat, bribe, steal, slander, and enslave. We take advantage of others to benefit ourselves. We hoard our resources. We assert ourselves as superior to others. We plunder and ignore the poor, the weak, the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. This is the story of men and women in the Bible. And it’s our story too. We’re all prone to do injustice.
Americans have advantages that Somalis don’t have, and some Americans have advantages that other Americans don’t have, so justice and mercy ask, “What advantages do I have that I can use to help the disadvantaged?”
We follow Jesus by doing justice for and showing kindness to individuals and families with special needs.
We follow Jesus by doing justice for and showing kindness to sojourners.
We follow Jesus by doing justice for and showing kindness to widows.
When I share about helping people like Patricia and her children, some people shout their support, while others claim I’m promoting some version of Christian socialism. But don’t justice and kindness involve protecting and promoting rights and opportunities for all children and families, particularly those who have significant disadvantages?
Some may object to this line of reasoning, but again, consider the way that many Christians think about abortion. We know some unborn children are at a greater risk than others. Therefore, we work to ensure that all unborn children have an equal opportunity to live, without exception. But why would we work for children to be born, only to ignore them once their moms give birth? Certainly that’s unjust (and absurd). Indeed, we care about children’s lives not just in the womb but out of the womb. We care about their good in all of life, not just their first nine months. And we care about their parents, too, before and after they are pregnant.
We follow Jesus by doing justice for and showing kindness to single parents and children and families with significant disadvantages.
Do you remember the story I shared at the beginning of this chapter about standing with Naomi in a sea of street children? Naomi distinctly remembers seeing a young boy eating out of a trash can that day. That sight led her back to her hotel room that night, where she fell on her face and asked God what she could do to help that child and others like him. That prayer led her to start an after-school program that provides food for children in the name of Jesus, and it makes me wonder, What if we all responded to injustice in the world like this? What if instead of seeing injustice and moving on with our lives as we know them, we made it a practice to fall on our faces and ask God, “What are you calling us to do about this?” Surely we would discover that, whether in our own country or other countries, so many open doors are in front of us to do justice both individually and collectively.
Without question, Christians have often ignored these open doors and settled for (or even contributed to) injustice. This is part of why so many of us find ourselves in a state of disillusionment and doubt concerning the church. We have witnessed the destruction wrought by justice-ignoring, power-abusing, self-protecting, evil-tolerating churches, church leaders, and Christians in our country. An entire generation is turning to the world in search of justice and kindness because they don’t see these things in the church.
Again, various stories throughout history show the church doing harm in the name of Jesus, whether through colonialistic mission strategies or ignorant and insensitive mission efforts, and we mustn’t repeat the errors of the past. But we also mustn’t underestimate the impact of proclaiming the gospel and doing justice here and around the world.
Robert Woodberry, a sociologist who did a decade’s worth of research on the effect Christian missionaries had on the health of other nations, came to a stunning conclusion that he said landed on him like an atomic bomb. Specifically, he found that “the work of missionaries…turns out to be the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations.” What a statement.
So let’s experience the good life. Let’s do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Let’s hold orphans in our arms, help widows in our communities, provide for the poor in our cities, serve refugees in our country, host immigrants in our homes, rescue slaves from traffickers, visit people in prison, care for victims of abuse, come alongside moms and dads with unwanted pregnancies, and do multitudes of other things that are right for people as exemplified in God’s character and expressed in God’s Word. And let’s do it all as we proclaim the name of Jesus in a world where billions of people still haven’t even heard the good news about him.
That’s when Luan said words that I will never forget. “These stories about Jesus are so good,” he said with wonderment. “And they seem so important. I just don’t understand why we and our tribes and all our ancestors before us have never heard them until now.” I’d like to ask you to consider Luan’s question: Why do you think approximately 3.2 billion men, women, and children like these men and their families have never heard the good news of Jesus?
My contention in this chapter is simple. While many factors contribute to “gospel poverty” in jungles, villages, and megacities around the world, one of the primary reasons—if not the primary reason—that billions of people remain unreached by the gospel is that the global purpose of God has always faced resistance from the nationalistic people of God. From the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, to the early church in the New Testament, to the current church in the United States, people of God have continually desired the preservation of their nation more than the proclamation of the gospel in all nations. And just as generations of God’s people before us needed to do, God is calling us to place less priority on our beloved home country—a country that will one day fall—and more priority on a global kingdom that will last forever.
Let me explain. When I was in college, I began to see that the pages of the Bible point to a clear conclusion: The gospel is not just for me and people like me, but it is for all people in all nations. Just look at how the Bible ends—with a scene in the book of Revelation where people from every nation, tribe, and language gather around God’s throne and enjoy his presence for eternity (7:9–17). I recognized that this outcome is God’s ultimate purpose, and I realized that if I’m a part of the people of God, then this should be my ultimate purpose too. If the train of history is headed toward this destination and if I wanted to live for what matters most, then I needed to jump aboard this train. I needed to do whatever I could so that people from every nation would enjoy God’s salvation.
In time, and the more I processed that conversation, the more thankful I became. A new way of thinking was emerging, one that hadn’t existed in my mind until that breakfast. For on that morning, I learned that there is a type of person who is extremely passionate about the spread of the gospel to all nations but who doesn’t become a missionary. Do you know what I discovered that type of person is called? A Christian. After all, the Spirit of God is passionate about all nations knowing the love of God. This means that if God’s Spirit dwells in you, then you will be passionate about all nations knowing the love of God. To be a follower of Jesus is to live with zeal for all the nations to know Jesus. The spread of the gospel among all the nations is not a program for a chosen few. It’s actually the purpose for which we all have breath and the end toward which all of history is headed (see Revelation 7:9–10).
First, when the Bible talks about nations, it’s referring to specific ethnic groups or people groups, thousands of which exist in the world today. It isn’t referring to the geopolitical entities we call nations today (after all, most nations today, including the United States, didn’t exist when the Bible was written).
I love being in a church where many veterans and military members attend and serve as leaders alongside others who help make our nation’s government function. I have the highest respect for one of our pastors who served for decades as a Navy SEAL, participated in countless missions around the world, and saw far too many of his comrades not come home. As I was writing this chapter, Pastor Todd (as he’s known by so many in the church) spoke at a lunch to honor former and current military members in our church and community. He and others like him are heroes in our house. Obedience to Jesus’s command to make disciples of all nations doesn’t mean we don’t love our own nation. But we need to ask ourselves: Is it possible that pride in our own nation can keep us from living for God’s purpose in all nations? Absolutely, it is. And it’s been that way from ancient times.
THE GREAT IMBALANCE Surely I’m not like Jonah, we say to ourselves. But let’s not draw this conclusion too quickly. Let’s at least examine our hearts with a few simple questions. Pause and answer these honestly: Have you ever wanted your way more than you have wanted God’s will? Are you inclined to settle for the comforts of people and places that are familiar to you instead of paying a cost to go to people and places that are foreign to you? Especially if those people are also threatening to you or perceived as your enemies? How often do you pray for and desire the good of other countries that might be considered enemies of the United States? Is it possible for you to know about the character of God yet not show the compassion of God to others? Are you prone to disconnect the mercy of God in your life from the mission of God in the world? Do you sometimes care more about your earthly desires than others’ eternal destinies? What do you truly want more: a comfortable life in your nation or the spread of the gospel in all nations? If we’re going to accurately answer these questions, we need to look at the evidence in our lives, as well as our churches.
Yet, of our giving toward “missions work,” most Christians have no idea what percentage actually goes to spreading the gospel among the billions of people in other nations who have never heard it. The answer? Approximately 1 percent. (It’s true—we’ve done the research.) In addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars we in the church spend on ourselves, approximately 99 percent of our giving to “missions work” goes to places like Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa where the gospel has already gone. In other words, even when we think we’re giving to missions, we’re actually ignoring the billions of people who most need the gospel.
What’s worse, the number of people who haven’t heard the gospel is increasing every day through population growth. This means that unless we rectify this great imbalance in what we’re giving to and living for, more people than ever will continue to die and go to hell without hearing about the saving love of Jesus. We’re talking about billions of people going to hell for all of eternity while we spend our resources on our American churches and our American way of life. Surely true followers of Jesus are not content with this.
CHANGING OUR DAILY LIVES Look closely at what Jesus told his followers, and think about the implications for your life if you claim to be a Christian. Jesus’s first command to his disciples was “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). He said repeatedly, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). His final command was specific and clear: “Go…and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Not “Come, be baptized, and ride things out in one location.” Not “Say a prayer, go to church, read your Bible when you have time, be the best person you can be, and throw your leftover change to the nations in need of the gospel.” Not “Syncretize your American lifestyle with what it means to be a #blessed Christian.” No, it’s clear from the Bible: Being a disciple of Jesus means letting his global purpose drive everything you think, desire, and do in your family, work, and church, for the rest of your life. Which means however and wherever Jesus wants to lead your life.
Are you willing to pack your bags and move to the Middle East to make disciples there? If not, according to Luke 9:23, you’re either not a Christian or you don’t understand Christianity. Because Christians have surrendered the right to determine the direction of their lives.
We are wasting the privilege of prayer if we’re not using it for God’s purpose: the spread of his glory among all the nations.
Wealth for the Gospel Recognizing God’s ultimate purpose also changes the way we—as the people in whom the Spirit of Jesus dwells—use our money. After all, God has put us in one of the wealthiest countries in the history of the world. Has God really done this just so that we can acquire more and newer and better possessions that won’t last? Or has God given us relative wealth for the spread of his worldwide worship?
I love this! It doesn’t matter whether you’re a student living off ramen in a college dorm room or you’re an executive raking in the dough—by God’s grace, we all have a unique and meaningful part to play in God’s purpose among the nations! And being a Christian means stewarding our possessions for this purpose.
When God Brings the Nations to Us It’s not just about praying and giving, of course. Christians personally go and make disciples among all nations. And you and I can start right outside our front doors. Millions of people have immigrated from other nations to the United States, some permanently and others temporarily, including a million international students on college campuses.
Sadly, as I mentioned earlier, research shows that evangelical Christians are some of the Americans who are most upset about these newcomers. I’m not at all presuming there aren’t significant concerns with our country’s immigration legislation (or the lack thereof). But out of all people in our country, shouldn’t followers of Jesus be first to rejoice that, in a very real sense, God is bringing multitudes who have been far from him near to us in order that we might share the good news about Jesus with them?
Indeed, Acts 17:26–27 is true: God is sovereignly orchestrating the movement of people from different nations—immigrants and refugees alike—so that they might find Jesus.
But take my word, if you share this truth from God’s Word, no matter how many times you explain that you’re not advocating for particular political positions on immigration or refugees, you will be labeled a leftist whose ideology is harmful to the future of our country. It’s astonishing how zeal for our nation—and even specific political policies in it—overpowers passion to share the gospel with people God is bringing to us from other nations.
Leverage Your Life: Throughout my years as a pastor, I have seen so many good people resist any call to spread the gospel in other countries. We have enough needs and problems here, some say, so we should just focus on our country. And to be clear, the Bible never teaches that all Christians should pack their bags and move to another country. But in a world where billions don’t even have access to the gospel, surely God is calling a lot more of us to go to them. And even if we don’t go, biblically he’s calling all of us to be a part of helping spread the gospel to them.
There is an adversary in this world who doesn’t want the gospel to go to all the nations. He wants as many souls as possible in hell, and he is diabolically committed to keeping the nations from hearing about the kingdom of heaven. I use this language with great intentionality and solemnity. Again, we’re talking about more than 3,200,000,000 people (and increasing every day) who are separated from God by their sin, who are on a road that leads to an eternal hell, and who can’t be saved from this fate unless they hear and believe the gospel. God, help us feel the weight of this reality. Why are we not talking about unreached people all the time in our lives, families, and churches today?
Why are we not praying, giving, going, sending, and sacrificing in every way we can to spread the gospel among all the nations? We certainly wouldn’t say this out loud, but could it be that we’ve grown accustomed to a church culture in our country that seems pretty content with turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to billions of people on their way to hell who have never even heard the truth about how to go to heaven? In other words, Could it be that we have actually become comfortable with missing the heart of Christ?
And of course we’re divided. Wouldn’t our discussions—and our perspectives on disagreements—change in the church if we collectively took the time to look into the faces of suffering refugees in Syria and starving families in Sudan who are on a road that leads to eternal suffering and have never heard how Jesus wants them to have eternal life? Wouldn’t we be less inclined to fight one another and more inclined to fight for them?
Why is a teenage member of a cult—a cult with a counterfeit and condemning gospel—more excited about and committed to going to the nations than Christians are, even though we have the true gospel of Jesus Christ? And why are we as the church—the true bride of Christ—not raising up the next generation with the expectation that they will take the gospel to the nations as we passionately cheer them on?
I think about all the students I spend time with in our church and on college campuses. Many tell me that the greatest hindrance to taking the gospel to the nations is actually their Christian parents. Parents are telling children to study, practice sports, and learn instruments, and we’re overseeing hours upon hours of their days in front of screens. We prioritize taking them all over the place for all kinds of activities, telling them they need a good education so they can get a good degree, find a good job, make good money, and have a good family with a good retirement. These aren’t unworthy concerns. But in the middle of it all, we need to ask a more significant question: How are we training the next generation to accomplish the Great Commission?
Or consider potentially more significant questions than that: Are parents and other adults, young and old alike, showing the next generation what commitment to the Great Commission looks like in action? Do today’s students see in their dads and moms, and men and women around them in church, a zeal for God’s glory and love for all people, including those who might be perceived as enemies? Do they see modeled before them an all-consuming passion and vision for the proclamation of the gospel in all nations? Because this is the vision of Christianity we see in the Bible, and it’s totally different from the vision being cast in our country.
This scene of desperation didn’t stop. They kept praying and praying and praying. My friend explained some of what he was hearing: “Some are praising God. Some are thanking God for his grace in their lives and families and the church. Others are confessing sin. Others are interceding for people in need.” “How long will this last?” I asked. “Until they’re finished,” he answered. “On Friday nights and into Saturday mornings, they pray all night long instead of sleeping. Others gather at four every morning to pray for an hour or two or three.” I looked around the room and realized that the crowd hadn’t assembled that night because they were excited about hearing the latest, greatest Korean Christian band. They weren’t gathering because they were eager to hear me preach either. A crowd of people had crammed into that building because they were zealous to meet with God.
Listening to that roar of prayers—these urgent, passionate voices lifted to God—I had a realization. I am a part of and a leader in an American church culture that loves doing so many things: engaging in programs and activities, meeting to discuss ideas and plans, and creating events and entertainment, concerts and conferences, or entire churches that revolve around charismatic speakers and musicians. But we rarely come together with zeal just to meet with God.
As I near the conclusion of this book, I believe this is one of the primary reasons—if not the primary reason—the American church is in its current state. For far too long, an American gospel has fueled desires for all sorts of things other than the one thing—or, more appropriately put, the One—we most need. And I believe this means our greatest need moving forward—over and above everything else—is simply to cry out in individual and collective desperation for God and God alone as the prize of our lives.
Apparently, what makes heaven so great isn’t the gold streets or beautiful mansions we have so often imagined in our American gospel, as if God is trying to compete with (or outdo) our economic prosperity. What makes heaven so great is the reality that followers of Jesus are finally and perfectly with God, the One who is better than all the best things of this world put together.
The psalmist expressed it well: One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple. (27:4) “One thing,” he said. More than anything else, he wanted to be with God. He just wanted to look at him. He just wanted to speak to him. All of God is all he wanted. Let’s pause to ask, Is that all we want?
SEEKING, THIRSTING, FAINTING I see this picture of God as the prize of our lives so clearly in Psalm 63. Listen to David’s language there: O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (verse 1) Doesn’t that sound like God was the one thing David wanted and earnestly sought?
This brings us to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Christianity is extreme obsession with God made possible by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We love family, friends, health, work, money, success, sex, sports, exercise, food, and a host of other things in this world. Of course, we believe in God, and we say we worship him. But do we want God more than we want family or friends? Do we want God more than we want comfort or success? Do we want God more than we want money or possessions or any number of pleasures in this world? Do we want God more than we want to be liked? Do we want time with God more than we want sleep or exercise or a host of other things that fill our busy schedules? Do we want the Word of God more than we want food every day?
But here we arrive at a potential problem. If we’re not careful, we can receive and enjoy these good gifts in such a way that we begin to love them more than we love the God who gives them to us. In fact, I would take this one step further. It’s dangerously possible for every one of us to love family, health, hobbies, possessions, or pleasures in this world—and to even sincerely thank God for these things—but not to actually love God.
What do I mean? Picture yourself alone at sea in a storm. Your tiny boat is rapidly taking on water, and you know you’re about to drown. Then over the waves you see a large ship steaming toward you. It settles next to your tiny boat, and the crew hoists you out of the water. Wouldn’t you be relieved? Yet stop and ask, Does feeling grateful for your rescue by ship mean you now love the captain of that ship? Maybe. But maybe not. You see, it’s possible to love rescue without actually loving the rescuer. I believe this scenario describes what so many people in my country call Christianity today. A host of people don’t want to go to hell and will gladly take a supposed lifeboat to heaven. But when you look at our lives, it’s questionable whether we actually want the One who saves us. We don’t spend a lot of time with him. We don’t meditate on his Word. We rarely talk about him with others. Apparently, it’s possible for us to gratefully enjoy all kinds of good things and even thank God for them, but when it comes down to it, our hearts aren’t really for the Giver. Our hearts are for the gifts. And loving and desiring gifts more than the Giver isn’t Christianity. It’s idolatry.
Let’s go back to our questions, then. First, why do our hearts long for gifts over and above the Giver? Could it be that we aren’t seeing how truly satisfying God is? This seems to be at the root of the first sin in the world. Adam and Eve chose a gift—a piece of fruit and all the good things they thought it would bring—over God.
In the end, the reason we want gifts more than the Giver is that we have too high a view of gifts and too low a view of God.
So if we’re going to experience love for God that is greater than any other love, we don’t need to try harder; we need new hearts. We need a fundamental transformation at the core of who we are. We need God in his grace to open our eyes in a fresh way (or maybe for the first time) to see how indescribably wonderful and absolutely desirable he is.
In other words, we need to repent. And when I say “repent,” I don’t just mean saying “I’m sorry.” I mean we need the kind of repentance that only God’s Spirit can produce deep within our hearts. We need to fall on our knees—individually and together in our churches—and cry out to God, honestly confessing everything we value, desire, or love more than him, including family, friends, comfort, sex, success, money, possessions, pleasures, power, reputation, sleep, exercise, food, or, in the end, life itself.
But during this long season, my time alone with God was basically nonexistent. Sure, I would pray in a worship service I was leading, but I would hardly ever meet with God alone. I studied the Bible in order to preach it but almost never just to know God. That scares me. I could be successful in the eyes of the church and the Christian culture around me without any real desire for Christ.
In this way, the gospel of Jesus is fundamentally different from an American gospel that says, “Come to God, and get [fill in the blank].” We fill in the blank with social position, political power, national pride, or personal comfort. Or maybe we fill in the blank with forgiveness, a free pass out of hell, and guaranteed entrance into heaven. But those who hear the biblical gospel hear a different invitation: “Come to God, and get God.” And this true gospel invitation to seek God as our sole purpose and greatest prize is the antidote we most need for the ideology that’s poisoned the church in recent days. Amid all the rifts in the church, we desperately need to seek the One who alone can reconcile us.
Thomas À Kempis, medieval author of The Imitation of Christ, wrote, Do not those who always seek consolation [i.e., good gifts from God] deserve to be called mercenaries? Do not those who always think of their own profit and gain prove that they love themselves rather than Christ? Where can a man be found who desires to serve God for nothing? 
If we want this in our life—if we want Jesus as our life—we must leave behind mercenary religion. Let’s trade in all its false promises of ultimate satisfaction in gifts, and let’s step into the wealth, power, and freedom that are found in repenting of all lesser loves and running to the God whose love is better than life.
He then quoted another person’s account: Man after man would rise, confess his sins, break down and weep, and then throw himself to the floor and beat the floor with his fists in perfect agony of conviction. [One man] tried to make a confession, broke down in the midst of it, and cried to me across the room: “Pastor, tell me, is there any hope for me, can I be forgiven?” and then he threw himself to the floor and wept and wept, and almost screamed in agony. Sometimes after a confession, the whole audience would break out in audible prayer, and the effect of that audience of hundreds of men praying together in audible prayer was something indescribable. Again, after another confession, they would break out in uncontrollable weeping, and we would all weep, we could not help it. And so the meeting went on until two o’clock a.m., with confession and weeping and praying. What had begun as a simple gathering turned into a full-on revival. It continued the next day and the next and the next.
Today South Korea sends more missionaries around the world than any other country besides the United States, which is pretty remarkable when you realize South Korea is roughly the size of Indiana. Stop and feel the weight of that.
In the Bible, however, we find that the path to true power and prosperity is actually paved with self-hatred. Jesus made that clear in John 12:25: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” These words obviously don’t mean that Jesus is calling us to minimize the beauty of what it means to be made in the image of God, but in light of how that image has been marred in each of us, Jesus’s initial call is an invitation to deny ourselves and take up not a dream but a cross. The biblical gospel is a clear call for all of us to crucify ourselves.
I hope that it’s abundantly clear that the American gospel and the gospel of Jesus are two fundamentally different invitations. We can’t choose both, and the church today is filled with the wreckage from those who’ve tried. And that brings us to the options before us: Either we unite as the bride of Christ around the gospel of Christ and the authority of his Word, or we unite as a social club around our country’s ideals and our personal positions. Either we bridge the ethnic divide that Christ has abolished, or we deepen this divide that our country has perpetuated. Either we elevate God’s truth or our thoughts as supreme, and either we share God’s truth with compassion, or we repel the next generation. Either we spend our lives doing justice and loving mercy, or we spend endless hours debating justice and ignoring mercy. Either we reach the unreached with passion to make disciples of all nations, or we ignore the unreached with passion to make our lives in our nation great. Either we pursue God as the prize of our lives now and forever, or we prostitute God for prizes that will all fade. An American gospel accompanied by a casual, comfortable Christian spin on the American dream leads to Christ-defaming division in the church and damnation for the nations, as well as the next generation.
I invite you to embrace the biblical gospel in your life and in your church. But where should we begin? Consider six steps that I believe can be a starting point for shaking free from the vestiges of an American gospel and stepping into the fullness of the biblical gospel. I don’t presume that these six steps are exhaustive, but I believe that they are
1. CULTIVATE COMMUNITY ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN When we get to heaven by God’s grace, we’re going to be with a lot of people of different ethnicities who had different convictions while they were on earth and who were from different generations. So why are we waiting until heaven to experience divinely designed community, especially when Jesus made it possible for us (and called us to enjoy it) here on earth?
There are fifty-eight other “one another” commands for Christian community in Scripture, so go out of your way to obey them all, including commands to listen to one another, encourage one another, believe the best about one another, please one another, lay aside preferences for one another, and forgive one another.
2. SEEK GOD EARLY, LATE, AND LONG If the one thing we most need moving forward is to cry out in desperation for God alone as the prize of our lives and of our churches, then we need to seek him early, late, and long. If you don’t already have daily time set aside just to be with God alone in prayer and his Word, start there. If possible, make this a concentrated, extended amount of time to commune with him—sing to him, pray to him, listen to him, and sometimes just sit in silence before him. Rise early, set aside time during the day, and/or stay up late. Regardless of when, this one practice of unhurried, uninterrupted time with God will not just revolutionize your spiritual life; it will revolutionize your entire life.
Years ago, I heard someone say, “God does not reveal the intimate things of his heart to those who casually come and go.” These words have stuck with me ever since, and I’ve found them to be true, especially since I’ve been a part of longer prayer times alone and with others.
3. MEMORIZE A CHAPTER OR BOOK FROM GOD’S WORD Seeking God involves saturating your mind with God’s Word and nurturing compassionate conviction in your heart around it—much like we saw in Bashir, Moska, and other persecuted sisters and brothers. Like them, we need to trust and treasure God’s Word over and above everything, including our thoughts, our country’s ideals, our political positions, and popular trends. And I know of no better way to let God’s Word transform the way we think than to hide large portions of it in our minds and hearts through memorization.
In light of my hypothetical thousand-dollar challenge, consider Psalm 119:72: “The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” The real question isn’t whether you can memorize. The real question is whether money or God’s Word itself is more valuable to you. Or maybe another way to put that question is this: Are you willing to seek God’s Word only if it’s a means to some end, like money? Or is God’s Word worthy enough in your estimation to be the end? The Bible is a treasure that is worthy of our lives, so let’s dedicate our lives to knowing it.
4. SHOW COUNTERCULTURAL COMPASSION IN THE WORLD At the end of chapter 3, I asked a series of questions about our posture toward those who may not be Christians or may hold opinions very different from ours. Many of the people I listed are likely to have had negative interactions with Christians, or at least to have a negative impression of the church. They might include more liberal members of school boards, abortion rights activists, Muslims or others from different religions, members of the LGBTQ community, or members of the opposing political party who differ from you on just about every possible position. And I could list many others.
It’s time we show countercultural compassion to those who don’t agree with us. It’s time we show them that the Word of God is not a weapon we wield against them but rather words that move us to show love and kindness to them. Toward this end, I want to encourage you to do three specific things in relationship with at least one person who might expect Christians to be hostile toward them: Share life. Get to know them on a personal level, genuinely becoming a good friend to them. Listen to their struggles. Learn about their perspective. Seek to understand their story. Assume the best about them. Along the way, to the extent to which they are open, share your life with them in similar ways. Show compassion. Go out of your way to care well for them. Not with any other motive than to be a reflection of God’s love in their life. Just as Jesus taught us, love them as yourself. Speak the gospel to them out of genuine love for them.
5. DO JUSTICE In chapter 4, I listed different ways of doing justice (though that list isn’t comprehensive) and challenged all of us to hold orphans in our arms, help widows in our communities, provide for the poor in our cities, serve refugees in our country, host immigrants in our homes, rescue slaves from traffickers, visit people in prison, care for victims of abuse, come alongside moms and dads with unwanted pregnancies, and do multitudes of other things that are right for people as exemplified in God’s character and expressed in God’s Word. With this as a starting place, spend time praising God for how he is currently enabling you to do justice in the world around you by the power of his Spirit. Then pray and consider one, two, or three specific additional ways that God might be leading you to do justice as an individual, as a family, or as a church.
6. REACH THE UNREACHED God has given you a unique and significant part to play in the spread of the gospel among all the nations, so this final step involves making a plan to ensure you don’t miss out on his purpose for your life. I encourage you to intentionally live out biblical passion for unreached nations by answering three questions (and the last one has two parts, so I guess it’s technically four):
How will you pray for unreached nations? Come up with a plan for making time to pray for people who have never heard the gospel. Consider how to make time to pray as a family and with others in your church.
How will you give to unreached nations? In chapter 5, we explored the need to rectify the great imbalance by giving to the spread of the gospel among the least reached people in the world.
How will you go to unreached nations? This question has two parts because I want to encourage you to think about where you live as well as wherever God leads.
First answer, How will you go to unreached nations where you live? As we saw in chapter 5, God has brought people from unreached nations to our communities and cities.
Then answer, How will you go to unreached nations wherever God leads? More than 3.2 billion people won’t be reached with the gospel if we all stay where we live. At some point, somebody needs to go to them, and that somebody could be you. Or me.
So here we sit, and the choice is before us. The American gospel or the biblical gospel. Worldly division or otherworldly unity. Homogeneous community or multiethnic beauty. Twisting God’s Word or trusting it. Repelling coming generations or reaching them. Talking about justice and missing the good life or doing justice and experiencing the good life. Zeal for our nation alone or zeal for all nations on earth, particularly those who still haven’t even heard the gospel. God as a means or God as the end. Worldly power and fading prosperity as we promote ourselves or heavenly power and everlasting prosperity as we crucify ourselves. Let’s embrace the biblical gospel.