Andy Stanley: Reclaiming an Irresistible Gospel—Part 1

Both as an author and as editor-at-large for Outreach magazine, dozens of new books cross my desk each year, many of them written by well-known pastors. Some are certainly better than others, but few have demanded (and deserved) my attention as much as the latest from well-known Atlanta, Georgia, author and pastor Andy Stanley. Stanley needs no introduction: North Point is one the largest churches in North America, and Andy Stanley has been a frequent voice in these pages.

Irresistible: Reclaiming the New That Jesus Unleashed for the World (Zondervan, 2018) focuses on a vital question for church leaders: Have we forsaken the newness of Christ’s good news in exchange for a faith so blended with old-covenant religion that it’s barely recognizable as what Jesus and Paul preached? Have we imported the legalistic, hypocritical religion of the Pharisees and named it “Christianity”? If so, who could blame people for leaving it?

With evangelism firmly in mind, consider this provocative conversation that gets down among the very roots of Christian faith.

Andy, let’s get right down to it. What basic problem are you tackling in Irresistible?

I’m arguing for a new approach to talking about the Bible, focused on an event-based rather than text-based version of our faith.

Now let’s be clear up front: I read the Bible every day. I haven’t changed my view regarding the inspiration of Scripture. When I ask readers (and preachers) to consider stepping back from using “the Bible says” as their groundwork, instead quoting specific authors of Scripture and pointing to the resurrection of Jesus, that’s not intended to undercut the Word. It’s about putting the weight back on what’s weightiest.

This is about approach more than theology. But I understand why it feels like theology—and threatening theology for some. But was the foundation of our faith theology? Or was it an event in history? Paul said apart from that event—the resurrection—our faith is useless. I would add our theology is useless as well. So why aren’t we driving people back to the reality of the resurrection every chance we get?

How did you experience that problem as a pastor? Why’d it become so sharp that it demanded a book?

As a young student pastor I saw kids leave our church and lose faith because of something as “small” as English 101 or Biology 201. Then, after the September 11 attacks and the deep questioning that followed, I watched the New Atheists become cultural rock stars by taking apart our Bible-based version of Christianity.

The tipping point was a video I saw about 10 years ago featuring a New Atheist on a college campus. His lecture systematically dismantled the Bible. His assumption was simple (and shared by many Christians): as the Bible goes, so goes Christianity. This is ridiculous, I thought as I watched. He hasn’t put a single dent in the Christian faith. He’s just poking holes in the historicity of some Old Testament stories and is making fun of some New Testament concepts.

But that just made the bigger problem here seem starker. It dawned on me that the faith of most Christians would not stand up under the barrage, let alone a secular audience on the fence about faith. So, what was wrong? We had founded our faith on something other than Christ, perhaps.

I decided we had to do something. I wasn’t going to sit back and complain. So, I made some changes. I didn’t announce anything; I just did it. I did not change what I believe about the Bible—I changed the way I talked about it.

Is there a personal angle here? Does this speak to Andy’s own inner faith or doubt experience?

I’m so glad you asked that. This journey has strengthened my faith more than anything else I’ve ever experienced in my journey, other than one experience I had in seminary (but that’s a story for another day).

Pausing to take into consideration the humanity of the authors of the New Testament was humbling and extraordinarily inspiring. I urge pastors now to stop saying “the Bible says” and quote the remarkable people who crafted these extraordinary first century documents: “James says … Paul says … Peter says … John says …”

Wait, James? The brother of Jesus? What would your brother have to do to convince you he was your Lord? James was convinced. That’s convincing.

Paul? The one-man Jewish wrecking machine? Yes—the great persecutor became a follower of Jesus and spent his life creating churches.

Peter? The guy who followed, then unfollowed, then followed again? The impulsive coward who steps out onto the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming his friend had risen from the dead.

John? The guy who lived to be an old man, who looked back over a life filled with terror, persecution and disruption? Who, despite all the difficulty of what he’d seen, introduced a concept to the world that has become an assumption for most people in the West: “God is love.” He was convinced his friend was God in the body. And if Jesus was anything like God, God was in fact love.

This journey has strengthened my faith. It has made me a better preacher. I wrote this book to invite Christian leaders and thoughtful readers into this same stream of thinking, writing and communicating.

Tell us how you use the word “new” in the book.

Jesus introduced a new movement—the church. He did this by inaugurating the new covenant that had been predicted by Jeremiah. And Jesus gave his new covenant community a new command to serve as the overarching ethic for his new movement—a command to love.

What’s the result? We have been given a new apologetic: the resurrection of Jesus. I also argue, and I’m certainly not the first, that the inauguration of the new covenant had implications for the old one. God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai was amazing for its time, way ahead of its time, legally, morally and ethically.

The New Atheists who have a heyday with the Old Testament can do so because they’re not historians. They’ve not honestly stopped to look at the context in which this amazing document was given. It afforded more freedom and rights to women, children, foreigners, slaves and servants than was commonly imaginable back then. But it had a shelf life—and the New Testament makes that point much more clearly than most of us preachers. When Jesus inaugurated his new covenant, the old one became, according to the author of Hebrews, obsolete and outdated. Not because anything was wrong with it, because something new replaced it.

Most of us don’t know where our old cell phones are. They were cutting-edge technology until the new model came along. Based on misunderstandings of this point, I’ve been accused of abandoning the Old Testament or refusing to teach from the Old Testament. Neither of those statements is true. In fact, I just preached from Genesis on the life of Joseph. But the ways that Christians base their faith on aspects of a covenant that the New Testament says have served their purpose undermines our effectiveness and sets us up for all kinds of problems.

This mixing creates what you call the “blended” gospel. Give us some more of how we blend the new and the “obsolete.”

I spend a lot of time in the book talking about this. We mix-and-match old and new covenant concepts in a way that I think the apostles would have been disturbed by. Didn’t Paul reserve his harshest criticism for Christians who kept tying themselves back to the old covenant way of relating to God and others?

Paul ought to know. He was an extraordinary law keeper who pivoted during one afternoon to become a Jesus follower. When the scales fell from his eyes, he had extraordinary clarity that many of his contemporaries missed. Perhaps many of us do too.

One covenant led to the other—by design. But because of the way most of us received our Bibles (all bound together and encouraged to read as devotional/application nuggets), we are inclined to mix and match. A little OT with a little NT. A little Moses with a little Jesus. Did anyone tell us how to read it well? Did anyone walk us through the larger story?

So, some fundamentalist preachers rail about God’s judgment against America, preaching from the Hebrew prophets. Others view tsunamis as God’s punishment of Muslims, quoting texts about his judgement of “the nations.” Teenagers graduating high school end up thinking Jeremiah 29:11’s “plans to prosper you” is a promise from God straight to them, never mind the context. They’re just being quietly set up to lose their faith when that doesn’t feel like it pans out.

God’s promises to Israel are not God’s promises to Americans. Cherry-picking our way through the Old Testament just sets us up for problems—including those attracted by Jesus. According to the author of Hebrews (8:6), we have been given “a better covenant with better promises.” So why aren’t we living like we have something better?

In the book, you advocate “putting the Old Testament back in its place—its inspired, old covenant, fulfilled, Jewish place.” You compare it to a cocoon and to a cassette tape in an era of CDs, besides the cell phone analogy you just mentioned. Knees around the world are jerking as they read this! Tell us more.

God’s covenant with Israel and the ensuing history that followed assumed a national arrangement. Jesus said he came to fulfill that, and that it would disappear when everything was “accomplished.” On August 6, 70 A.D. it did, in fact, disappear when the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple. The Mosaic covenant was never officially practiced again. It became impossible.

One of the most remarkable (and overlooked) prophecies in the Bible is Jesus’s description of the destruction of the temple. The detail he gives is remarkable. It’s exactly as it happened, some 40 years later. But most evangelicals interpret the passage as relating to the end of time. But read Josephus. Compare his description of what happened to what Jesus predicted. Clearly Jesus is describing what would take place decades after his prediction. That one speech alone should cause everybody in the world to sit up and take notice. Everybody who visits Jerusalem should gaze at the Temple Mount, bare of the Hebrew temple, and think, Wow … Jesus predicted that.

So, let’s be clear. I think that the Old Testament is the backstory for the greatest story ever told. It’s the history of ancient Israel, of God intervening on behalf of a nation he created for a specific purpose with the world in mind. But let’s face it: The Old Testament is not properly titled. The Jewish scripture includes God’s Sinai covenant with Israel, but it’s more than that.

Christians renamed the Jewish scriptures in the second century. For Jewish people, it’s not the “old” anything. But after the destruction of the temple Gentile believers hijacked Jewish scriptures for their own purposes. Gentiles had no interest in the Jewish religion or Jewish interpretation of their own texts. They assumed that since most Jews missed their own Messiah, they did not understand their own prophets.

Fine. But isn’t what we call the Old Testament, as a body of literature, different than the covenant it describes? It sounds like you’re conflating the two.

Yes, they’re different. It’s a grand story, not just the outline of a religious agreement between God and Israel. There is continuity between it and the NT. It’s sequential. It all hangs on three primary covenants: Abraham, Moses and New.

My concern—and the reason I’m pushing so hard on this—is that it’s not just the specific law that we find. My concern is that the way most Christians are presented with the Bible as children is the way we carry it into adulthood. This is why our faith is often so easily dismantled.

But it’s not just the law, it’s that the worldview shaped by those laws is lived out and extended through the other literature—the Psalms, Proverbs, the Kings, the Prophets (who prophesied to their specific contexts) and more. I think that Exodus through Malachi takes place in a specific context, under God’s covenant with Israel. Now, are there things said by the prophets that are universally true? Absolutely. Things in the Psalms that can encourage Christians? Absolutely. But first and foremost, we must look at those in their historical context. David, for example wrote from the perspective of “I love the Law!” and that was part of a whole nationalistic thing that simply does not apply to Christians. I think this is a big deal.

OK. Then help us understand Peter, who wrote this of the prophets: “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who preach the gospel” (1 Pet. 1:10). Didn’t the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures have a future community far bigger than Israel—including us—in mind as they crafted their work?

I read that as Old Testament prophets understanding that there was something new and different coming. They foretold the coming of the Messiah—and it wasn’t until quite late that Jews wrapped that expectation around an individual who would save the people. The Messiah idea evolved over time.

Also, I think that Peter’s writing this with the benefit of hindsight, having seen the fulfillment of it all in Jesus. You see what you’re looking for, right? Until you know what you’re looking for you can’t see it. I think there’s a lot of that going on on the other side of the resurrection. Like the suffering Messiah—that came as a surprise to the Jews, right? But now, when we read the Old Testament, we see it all over.

I think that the primary thrust of the Old Testament prophets was nationalistic, for the Jews, and directed to the Old Testament context they were speaking to. I wouldn’t bet my truck that they understood that there was going to be something like the church in their future. They thought in terms of militaristic real estate as God’s kingdom. I think it’s unfair for us to assume they could think in any other way.

Hmm.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make here: Our Christian faith can stand on its own two nail-scarred, resurrected feet. If all we had was the New Testament—if we lost the Old or it had so many holes poked in it that we couldn’t take it seriously anymore—that doesn’t tank Christ. The fact that someone predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and it happened exactly as Christ predicted—that’s remarkable. Then there’s the prediction of the resurrection, eyewitness accounts and the inexplicable birth of the church. Even Bart Erhman, an atheist, admits that there’s no way to get the 3.5 million Christians we see by the fourth century if there had not been an explosive growth early in the life of the church. Something about their message was …

Irresistible?

Exactly. Someone like Bart can dance around that all they like, because it’s uncomfortable for them. But there was something way beyond the norm happening. I’m not discounting what the prophets said, but let’s get this straight—our whole faith doesn’t dangle by the threads we sometimes hang it on, like the historicity of a six-day creation, the Red Sea crossing and so on. If science says that it’s physically impossible for Noah to have gotten every animal in creation on one boat, we don’t have to wring our hands and become agnostics. Our faith is founded on something bigger than that. It all comes back to our message of countercultural, self-sacrificial love. It comes back to Jesus.

In Part 2 of this interview, Andy Stanley gives reasons for returning to a simple gospel, clarifies his stance on the Old Testament, and gives us an essential question to ponder and live out.

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Listen to a sample of chapter 1 below (narrated by Andy Stanley):

Communicator, author and pastor Andy Stanley founded Atlanta-based North Point Ministries in 1995. Today, North Point consists of six churches in the Atlanta area and a network of 30 churches around the globe that collectively serve nearly 70,000 people weekly. and author of several books, including Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World (Zondervan, 2018).

Paul J. Pastor is editor-at-large of Outreach, and author of multiple books on spiritual formation, including The Listening Day series of devotionals (Zeal Books). Instagram: @PaulJPastor. Website: PaulJPastor.com.