Andrew Wilson's GodStories
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
David C. Cook; New edition edition (July 1, 2009)
Andrew Wilson holds degrees in theology from Cambridge University and London School of Theology. His passion is to communicate the extraordinary truths of God. Andrew teaches internationally and is an elder at Kings Church Eastbourne in the UK, where he leads training and development. Andrew is also the author of Incomparable: Explorations in the Character of God, and lives with his wife Rachel and their newborn baby Ezekiel in the UK.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook; New edition edition (July 1, 2009)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Several years ago in Northern Nigeria, Emily was strung up on a tree and left for dead because she had epilepsy.1 Her tribal village had no idea what epilepsy was, let alone how to cope with it, so they tied her up and left her there, waiting for her to die from starvation or exposure. Just before she did, Daniel arrived with a small team to preach the gospel and plant a church. Horrified, he immediately cut down the young girl from the tree and put her under a doctor’s care. Then he and his team began explaining the gospel to the villagers.
Daniel has paid a price for his zeal. He, his wife, and his children have experienced pretty much every suffering you can have for preaching the good news: robbery, rape, physical beatings, death threats, the lot. But that hasn’t stopped him. In fact, from the little I have seen, his sufferings have increased his determination to establish churches and train leaders.
But as people in the village started responding to the gospel, Daniel and his team were able to plant a small church, and then build a school to educate the children. Daniel understood GodStories, you see. He had gone to the village in the first place because he knew the GodStory of world mission. He knew that he would face serious persecution for preaching the gospel, but he knew the GodStory of Christ’s suffering and was prepared to share it. When he got there, he preached GodStories about the gospel of God concerning his Son, victory over demons, and the death of death. He started bringing healthcare and education to the community because he knew GodStories about God’s kingdom, man in his image, and the renewal of creation. I’ve had the privilege of seeing the results firsthand: There is a thriving church in the village, nearly two hundred children at school every day (their English grammar is better than mine!), and Emily is still alive. Because of Daniel’s conviction that the gospel story is amazing, hope has conquered despair in that community.
And he certainly won’t stop preaching GodStories. Maybe it’s because he knows how they all end.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
The point of this book is to convince you that the gospel is amazing. It’s aimed at anyone who wants to understand the good news of what God has done: teenagers, caretakers, businesspeople, full-time mothers, artists. Knowing the gospel is the foundation for worship and mission, so the only thing we’re going to do in this book is explore the beautiful, triumphant, often-heartbreaking, and always-glorious stories that make up the gospel of God. I call them GodStories.
It’s a funny word, and you won’t find it in the dictionary. But my guess is that the idea of looking at a gospel through stories will excite lots of people. Perhaps you see theology as a rabbit warren of concepts without narratives, a series of points and principles and theories that take all the best bits (like characters and plot twists and heroism) out of the Bible, and leave behind a slightly inedible result, like eating cereal without milk or playing Scrabble without vowels. To you, the fact that this book is made up of stories—and, far more importantly, the fact that God’s gospel is made up largely of stories—should be encouraging. It will certainly increase your enjoyment of theology.
You see, just as we have one God in three persons and one church made up of many people, so in Scripture we have one gospel made up of many stories. We have one gospel, for sure: a single, unifying, big story about God and creation, man and sin, Jesus and rescue. But we also have many different ways of telling that big story because it is too large for us to grasp all at once. Even the quick summaries in the Bible itself—“your God reigns,” “the kingdom of God is near,” “God raised Jesus from the dead,” and “Christ died for our sins”—give different angles on the one big story. So seeing the many GodStories in the one gospel does not reduce that gospel in glory or splendor. Quite the opposite—it dramatically increases it.
This is true of all sorts of big stories, not just the gospel. Imagine that, instead of writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien decided to simplify things into a sentence: “Frodo and Sam left the Shire with the ring, faced a number of setbacks, and finally destroyed it in Mount Doom to save Middle Earth.” His summary would, in one sense, tell the same story, but it would be dramatically reduced in power and impact, and would probably not have sold millions of copies and been turned into three blockbuster films. The Lord of the Rings is about two hobbits and a ring, but it is also about the flight of the elves, the destruction of the forests, the corruption of mankind, the battles for Rohan and Gondor, the return of the king, and the influence the ring has on all of them. So when we read all those other stories, it adds to our understanding of the plot with Frodo and the ring, because it shows us the significance of the main story through its impact on all the others. The same is true of the gospel. But the process is far more important, for three reasons.
GodStories and the Glory of God
The first and biggest reason we must read these stories is because the glory of God is at stake. This is vital. If the Bible is stuffed full of GodStories but we tell only one of them, we lose much of the depth and wonder of the gospel, and that diminishes our view of God, just as it would diminish my view of Gordon Ramsay’s cooking if I ate only his steamed vegetables.
If, for example, we saw the gospel simply as a story of personal salvation, we would limit its scope enormously and rob God of the praise that is due to him. Such a view would miss out on the salvation of a corporate people and would find very little place for the history of Israel, which so much of the Bible is about. It would marginalize God’s faithfulness to his covenant and his multicolored wisdom in the church. And it would ignore the fact that Scripture speaks of the whole of creation, not just human souls, being made new. So reducing the gospel to only a story of personal salvation is like playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the recorder. The melody might be the same, but much of the music’s power is lost, and the brilliance of the composer is missed.
Yet, as with music, God’s excellence is shown not just in creating new storylines, but in fusing them together so that they enhance one another. Queen brings two melodies together to form a harmony, but Yahweh weaves dozens of GodStories—Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and many others—into one another so intricately that when Jesus finally arrives on the scene, you want to stand amazed and applaud with excitement. Composers frequently write notes that clash with one another to present an unusual sound, but God allows entire plotlines to clash for generations and then get explained with a twist you would never have predicted (a servant king, for instance). Queen leaves their final chord sequence unresolved for several seconds, but God leaves Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 unresolved for several centuries before uniting them at the cross with unimaginable power and beauty. So to grasp more of the glory of God, we need to appreciate the range and depth of the gospel, by studying as many of its component stories as possible. More than anything else, the reason for writing a book full of GodStories is to remind us how astonishing and faithful and glorious and worthy of worship is the God who wrote them.
This could not be more important. If God’s glory is infinite, and my concept of him is not, then I never stop needing an increased understanding of his greatness. Furthermore, that greatness is many-sided, like a massive mountain; there is nowhere in creation I could stand and see the whole of Mount Kilimanjaro at once, far less the glory of Yahweh. So I need there to be a whole host of pictures to reveal different angles of what he has done and how it fits together. Fortunately, by his grace, this is exactly the sort of Bible he has inspired.
Scripture contains something to inspire worship in everyone. To the philosopher, there are GodStories of riddles and revelation, inquiry and truth. To the historian, there is an array of events covering thousands of years and numerous civilizations. To the architect, there are descriptions of temples being established and cities being rebuilt. To the artist, there are GodStories of beauty triumphing over ugliness, order over chaos, new creation over stagnation. For the romantic, there is a tale of a complicated relationship with a wonderful man that ends happily ever after; for the action-film fanatic, a story of a hero rescuing the love of his life and saving the world against impossible odds.2 There are genealogies for the tribesman, visions for the mystics, and arguments for the intellectuals. And displaying his glory in every one of these GodStories is Yahweh, the I AM, the maker of heaven, and earth and the rescuer of all things. Reading all of these stories will give us a bigger and better view of him.
GodStories and the Rescue of People
The second reason that we need to know these GodStories is because people’s eternal destinies are at stake. After all, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), and preaching the gospel remains one of the highest callings of every Christian. Without the gospel, people cannot be saved. So it is vital that we know what the gospel actually is and how to communicate it in ways people understand.
Everyone agrees with that sentence, I’m sure. But read it again, because it is more difficult than it sounds: It is vital to know what the gospel is and how to communicate it in ways people understand. Many churches are great at half of this but neglect the other half. Some churches know the gospel inside out but put a lot of religious or cultural baggage on it, and are therefore not very effective at communicating it to a pluralist and largely pagan culture. On the other hand, there are churches who have gotten very good at using culture to communicate the gospel but have in the process lost sight of what they were supposed to be communicating. To be effective missionaries to our culture, we need to have fixed theology and flexible culture—strong on what the gospel is, but communicating it without adding religious clutter to it—or, more eloquently, “reaching out without selling out.”3
Paul is a great model. No one could accuse Paul of not knowing the gospel or of being scared to preach it. The scars on his back and welts on his face from being stoned and flogged would see to that. Yet he used a wide range of GodStories to communicate the gospel, depending on his setting.
To the Jews in Damascus, he proved that Jesus was the Messiah (Acts 9:22). To the Jews in Pisidian Antioch, he preached forgiveness of sins and freedom from the law through Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 13:16–41). To the pagans in Lystra, he spoke of the creator God who showed his presence by giving them crops and good weather (Acts 14:14–17). To the pagans in Athens, he proclaimed an independent God who did not need serving and who would one day judge the world (Acts 17:22–31). To King Agrippa and Festus, he shared his personal testimony (Acts 26:1–23). So, although we know from Romans that Paul was utterly convinced of justification by faith, redemption, and being in Christ, we know from Acts that these weren’t always the GodStories he started with or stuck to when preaching to unbelievers. Others, equally true, were often more appropriate to his audience.
In none of this are we saying the gospel needs to change. That would be a terrible mistake because it puts the desires of man above the desires of God, which is idolatry. What we are saying is that there are numerous GodStories in Scripture, and it might be that the best way of saving some of God’s image-bearers is to start our preaching with a slightly different GodStory to the ones we are used to. The main planks of the gospel—a loving God, fallen humanity, rescue through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and so on—will never alter. But how we nail the planks together might.
GodStories and the Health of the Church
The third and final reason for writing GodStories is partly a product of the first two: The health of the church is on the line. At one level, this is obvious: If the church isn’t worshipping God properly or reaching the world with the gospel, then it is a waste of space and time. There is more to it than that, however. Again and again, in the pages of the New Testament, we find writers contending for the gospel because they care about the church.
To the Galatians, Paul reinforces GodStories about being justified by faith apart from the law, and about Jews and Gentiles being one in Christ.4 The Corinthians, on the other hand, seem to understand that, but need a strong reminder about Christ being crucified, their sanctification, and the bodily resurrection. First John focuses on the incarnation GodStory more than others. Hebrews tells us about the priesthood of Jesus and the superiority of Christ to the major Jewish symbols. In none of these cases is evangelism the point. Instead, a failure to understand these various GodStories leads to division and sexual immorality and false teaching and backsliding, respectively. So the health of the church depends on understanding the fullness of the gospel.
The gospel is not just for guest meetings or open airs, as you would think to hear us sometimes, but for the people of God. The outstanding explanation of the gospel in Romans, remember, was written to Christians; Paul tells Timothy to preach the word to his church until he’s blue in the face (2 Tim. 4:2); and Paul’s aim to visit the capital of the world was generated by a desire to preach the gospel amongst the church there (Rom. 1:15). If preaching the gospel to the church means simply reiterating the call to repent and be saved every week, then it is no wonder that so many preachers (and listeners) struggle. But if it means explaining to the church the full extent and scope of the GodStories in Scripture, then you could preach for a lifetime and never repeat yourself.
Thank God that there are so many to go round. If you’re in an introverted community of mature Christians, you can study the mission of God. If you love seeing people saved but you aren’t quite sure what to do with them when they are, you can look at freedom from sin. Frustrated artists can look at God’s beauty; frustrated activists, his justice. If you don’t get the Old Testament, then you can look under every verse and every rock until you find Christ. If you get only the Old Testament, then see how all of God’s promises are now yes and amen. Whoever you are, wherever you’re reading this, you can find a GodStory that will expand your view of God and revel in it. Then you can experience the joy of sharing it, in a culturally appropriate way, with someone who doesn’t know it yet. The world has nothing in comparison.
So we need to know and preach and live the gospel. The good news that shines through every GodStory will bring us closer into worship, push us further into mission, and draw us closer into community—face down, flat out, all in. This book is just an introduction to a few of them. But they might change your life all the same.
GodStories usually do.
1. The names of the people in this story have been changed.
2. Adapted from David Murrow, Why Men Hate Going to Church (Nashville, TN: Nelson, 2005), 15.
3. This phrase is the subtitle of Mark Driscoll’s excellent book on the subject, Radical Reformission (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004).
4. If, that is, we recognize that Galatians might tell more than one GodStory at once, rather than (as sometimes happens) playing them off against each other. For an excellent explanation of how we can and should embrace both these GodStories together, see Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004).