A popular saying admonishes, “You may be the only Bible some people read.” What are the critical scriptural issues involved in acting out your faith in front of a watching and sometimes hostile world?
You start your book by quoting 19th-century British evangelist Rodney (Gypsy) Smith: ‘There are five Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Christian—but most people never read the first four.’ Why did this phrase capture your attention and drive you to write this book?
Dr. Conway: That’s a great question. I’m a sucker for a good quote. And this quote is truly a game changer. Notice what Gypsy Smith says: “most people never read the first four.” Talk about tragic. Smith’s words carry a great implication. It begs the question, “If the world will never read the first four gospels, then what will they read?” They’ll read you, Christian. And me. They’ll read our lives. Talk about a ‘big gulp’ moment. Yes, you are The Fifth Gospel. And unless you’ve gone undercover, you’re being watched. It’s hard to read this quote as a Christian without asking yourself, “If that’s the case, then am I living like a fifth gospel Christian?” Words like this invite us to examine our lives on a heart level. They get beneath the surface and beg for examination. We are just not supposed to read a quote like this and remain the same.
As I’ve reflected on Gypsy Smith’s words, I realize he probably never intended for his words to inspire a book. But some quotes beg for further commentary; such is the case with this quote. And it’s my desire that The Fifth Gospel will be more than read. Rather, I hope it creates a movement—a fifth gospel movement—whereby the church gains a renewed passion for living beautifully before a watching world. Isn’t it time we give the world something worth reading?
Some people might fixate on the “lost Gospels” or the Gnostic Gospels. But that’s not what you’re talking about, is it?
Dr. Conway: That’s correct. What I’m saying is many Christian’s have gone incognito for Jesus. God’s not looking for secret service agents in the church. Sadly, many Christian’s believe they’ve got this 9-5 window each week where they are free to evangelistically detach from missional living. The reality is many in the church have gone ‘missionally’ mute. The Fifth Gospel is an invitation to live less monastic and more missional. It’s a plea that asks, “Will the real Christian please stand up?”
In his letter to Rome, Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). The only ‘real’ lost gospel is the one that remains hidden in the hearts of out-of-commission believers. As believers, Great Commission-living isn’t an option, it’s a commandment. As Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). These words not only need to soak in, they need to leak out.
What do you mean by saying people should have the opportunity to read the fifth Gospel? How can a person “read” a Christian’s life?
Dr. Conway: Every Christian’s life is sending a message. The question is, “What kind of message are we sending?” As followers of Jesus, our lives are on display. They’re being read. Paul the apostle, in speaking to the Corinthians said, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Cor. 3:2-3). Our lives tell a story. A narrative. They communicate. But what do they communicate? That’s the question. Our lives are meant to be good news in a bad news world. They’re meant to be contagious. Magnetic. Desirable.
To see our life is to read our life. People should read our actions and our words and think, “I want what they have.” They should read the story of our lives and sense something otherworldly. Something transcendent. Something compelling. Our lives on earth should paint a picture of redemption for the fallen world to crave and desire. Unfortunately, as a result of falsely depicting the gospel through our lives, lots of people despise our message verses desire it. That’s sad. As Christians, our lives are meant to be lived, differently. That’s what the gospel does. It changes me. And it changes you. Yes, it transforms us. And this isn’t fiction. It’s non-fiction. It’s truth!
Explain your statement, “We have to reject the notion that the louder the gospel music, the more powerful it becomes.”
Dr. Conway: John Calvin, once said, “The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.” Calvin knew that the gospel was bigger than a tongue doctrine, that its also a life doctrine. In The Fifth Gospel, I’m stressing a desperate need for the Christian to live louder, not preach louder. That doesn’t mean the believer should put his words on pause. God forbid. As Paul declared in Romans 10:14, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” Paul was all about presenting the gospel, but not at the expense of portraying the gospel.
We enhance our impact when our words align with our works. If we want to make a gospel impact the actions of our lives must correspond to the affirmations of our lips. It’s not either/or. It’s both audio and visual. Audio-visual Christianity provides the greatest impact for our witness. The reality is, every Christian is on stage whether they like it or not. And the world is our audience. The world needs to hear and see our message. That’s what brings color to our Christianity. The greater sanctification we experience, the greater impact our lives can make on non-believers. By living large on Jesus, we give the world fewer excuses to reject Jesus at our expense. We’d all be served well to remember Paul’s words to the Philippians, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:14-16).
Describe what a “Fifth-Gospel Christian” looks and acts like.
Dr. Conway: A Fifth Gospel Christian resembles his Savior. The question, “What does a Fifth Gospel Christian look like” was essentially the aim of my research question. In fact, I read through the entire New Testament with this question in mind, “How does God distinguish his followers in the world?” If you read my table of contents, in particular, chapters 3-11 are the answers to this question. These chapters reveal how God distinguishes the Christian’s life.
For example, the world doesn’t value weakness, but God does. The Bible says, “For my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Nor does the world value suffering, but God does. Paul reveled at the opportunity to suffer for Christ’s sake. He said, “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10). What an amazing confession. If we shared that in our small group today, people would think we’re nuts.
I discuss other aspects of the Christian life that allow us to distinguish ourselves before a watching world. Like our joy! Oh, the difference our joy can make. Or the way we love one another. Remember Jesus’ words, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). What was Jesus saying? He was teaching his disciples how to distinguish themselves in the world; how to live like Fifth Gospel Christians.
An often-overlooked sub-theme in Scripture is that God asks us to do the ridiculous. It’s one way he distinguishes his followers in the world. For example:
- God promised Abraham he’d be the father of many nations (Gen. 12). Then, after finally receiving his promised son, God tells Abraham to go kill him (Gen. 22). Any way you look at it this plan doesn’t make sense at first glance.
- In order to conquer Jericho, Joshua was told to walk around the walls of that city once each day for six days, and then on the seventh day, seven times (Josh. 6). Are you sure about this, God? Yep.
- Ezekiel was commanded by God to publicly lay down on his left side for 390 days, then flip over and lay on his right side for another 40 days (Ezek. 4). Was this some new diet fad? He was a living sidewalk sign. Go figure.
- Isaiah was commanded to walk naked for three years to get his message across (Isaiah 20). Um, excuse me, God. Did I hear from you correctly? Uh-huh.
- Naaman, the leper was instructed to dip in the Jordan River seven times to be cured. A solution shunned at first by Naaman (2 Kings 5). It seemed absurd. Can you blame him?
- Gideon’s army was reduced from over 30,000 down to 300 (Judges 7). Talk about ridiculous. Or was it?
- Jesus sent his disciples out on a mission with next to nothing (Matt. 10). They couldn’t even take some trail mix.
It’s important to remember, each of these stories had a bigger point to make. God met Abraham, Joshua, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Naaman, Gideon, and the disciples when they followed him in the ridiculous. Not only that, many onlookers saw that God distinguishes his people by leading them in the apparent ridiculous.
I end the book by discussing the role of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. Most people see the Holy Spirit as a sort of a mystical enigma. I seek to show how the Spirit of God can radically use your life to make a gospel impact. It saddens me to think that Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” He never saw the distinguished church. The distinguished believer! The Fifth Gospel is a call to distinguish your life for Christ, Christian.
How is your book a “manual of life skills”?
Dr. Conway: The Fifth Gospel is not some theoretical utopia. No, it’s intensely practical. Yes, it’s biblically grounded and defensible, but I also show through different examples how these principles can be lived out. Not only that, at the end of each chapter I list several “Gospel Appeals” in order to drive home the point of each chapter. Furthermore, I developed a study guide that I think my readers will find useful that they can use for further dialogue in a small group context. In fact, I’m taking my own church, Life Fellowship, through a sermon series called, “The Fifth Gospel” as I seek to equip us to be a Fifth Gospel church. This sermon series starts the Sunday after Labor Day, so be sure to tune in via podcast. I’d encourage every reader to start a Fifth Gospel small group in their local church. In fact, you can speak to your pastor and ask him to join the fifth gospel movement. Imagine what it would look like to see a world full of Fifth Gospel Christians!
What role should the Bible have in the everyday life of a Fifth-Gospel Christian?
Dr. Conway: Like food, the Bible should play a key role in our lives. Just as we don’t avoid eating food, we shouldn’t avoid feasting on God’s Word. Imagine if you craved Bible intake as much as you do food intake. And what would happen to our physical bodies if we ignored food the way we often ignore God’s Word? As humans, we’re both material and non-material beings; configured of both body and soul. And just as our bodies need to be frequently fed and exercised to stay healthy so too do our souls need daily spiritual development to grow. The Bible is our soul food.
Yet, we must remember when we study the Bible that the Scriptures weren’t given merely for our information, but for our transformation. As James, the half brother of Jesus so aptly put it, “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22).
When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of taking Bible Study Methods with Dr. Howard Hendricks, affectionately referred to as, “Prof.” He used to say, “Interpretation without application leads to spiritual abortion.” Talk about graphic. Prof was stressing to his students that Bible study must lead to life change. That’s the role of the Word in our daily life.
I’ll never forget when Dr. Mitchell, a professor of mine in Bible college said, “The Bible is an organism. It’s the only book that you read that reads you.” Think about it. While you read the Bible, the Bible reads you. The author of Hebrews put it like this, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
The reason the Word of God can read us is because the Word is alive. So when you go to the word next time, remember you’re not only opening it to read, it’s opening you to read you. And the more you read the Word and adjust your life to it, the bigger your fifth Gospel witness will become. That’s why living a word-adjusted life is important!
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Conway: Thank you for your thought out questions. And to your readers, let’s get the word out—together—#jointhefifthgospelmovement. Imagine if Christians everywhere started asking each other, “Are you a fifth Gospel Christian?” May we all call each other to really live out our faith!
Bio: Bobby Conway is lead pastor of Life Fellowship Church (@lifecharlotte) near Charlotte, NC. He’s a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary (ThM) and Southern Evangelical Seminary (DMin), and is the author of Hell, Rob Bell, and What Happens When People Die?. Bobby is also the founder and host of the One-Minute Apologist. In addition, he and his wife, Heather, serve on the Family Life “Weekend to Remember” marriage conference speaking team.