Encouragement draft: pt 3

In the last instalment, I articulated how the gospel, that is, the person, work, the event of Jesus Christ, is itself encouragement, and that, thus, Christian encouragement is gospel encouragement. In this last part of my draft, I will outline various implications this would have on the activity of Christian encouragement.

Before I go on, I do not aim to make this some sort of handbook of Christian encouragement. Rather, I want to map out the directions that gospel encouragement implies. Some of these are, quite frankly, obvious. But that’s not to say that by laying the foundation as I have isn’t useful. Rather, it turns the obvious into justified and obvious.

1) The gospel as encouragement gives a pattern for our encouragement. So:
a) The gospel deals with our deep need for salvation and forgiveness. That is, it is not shallow, and neither should our encouragement be. Surface encouragement doesn’t really help much – it looks good but there might be a bigger issue lurking beneath. Good encouragement should drive at whatever the real issue is.
b) The character of God as encourager. Just as the encouragement is not shallow, neither is the encourager. As those who take seriously the call to imitate God, we need to think about our own character when thinking about encouraging others, such as thinking about being loving towards others.
c) Not everyone responds to the call of the gospel. People will not always respond positively to even the best encouragement. By the grace of God, a really badly done word of encouragement might actually be just what was needed.
d) The gospel is more than its proclamation. It is an event that heralds the eschaton. It is a person who did a freakin lot. It is God hanging on a cross. It is an empty tomb, and a king ascended to heaven. Encouragement is more than words, though words are important. How many times have we told people to look to the cross to find assurance of salvation? Encouragement can be conveyed in actions – a good hug, a gentle hand on the shoulder, a subtle expression that says “Maybe you should reconsider that”.
e) The encouragement of the gospel can and does work. It’s called being saved and changed, something that happens every day. Don’t doubt it’s power.

2) God encourages us.
a) All Scripture points to God’s work of the gospel. Thus, the Scriptures are a good and appropriate source of encouragement.
b) Whilst it helps if there are other people, you can always turn to God for help.

3) The encouragement we as Christians offer is not ours, but God’s.
a) Thus, any Christian is able to offer encouragement. It does not matter whether you’re good at it or not. It’s kinda like evangelism – everyone can do something to promote the gospel. Similarly all Christians can offer as encouragement that which has been entrusted to us to bear witness to as opportunity befits.
b) Those who are good at encouraging others do so because of the grace of God given to his church. It is not because of them, but because of God who gives freely. And so we should also thank God for his gift of those who pick us up so well, who push us effectively, who are good at well-timed, apt, appropriate responses, whose hearts overflow with the love of God.
c) We’re not God. Therefore we will occasionally, even frequently, suck at encouragement.
d) Therefore we need to be humble about this work. It’s not our strength or authority that consoles or exhorts, but God’s strength and authority.

4) The gospel builds a community, and encouragement is an inherently communal activity. It requires 2 people, the encourager and the encouraged. Even when it’s just you and the Bible, it’s really God and you. And so passages like Heb 10:25 only work if people actually listen to the bit that says we shouldn’t give up meeting together. You can’t encourage if there is no relationship.

5) There are many aspects of the gospel. Just as in gospel preaching one does not rehearse every single aspect of the gospel, so in encouragement, the answer is not wheeling out the same line (or same six boxes) every time. Rather, one should judiciously apply the appropriate aspects of the gospel to the situation. At one time, you may lean more towards the consolation side of the spectrum. At another, you may lean to a hard exhortation.

6) The direction that the gospel drives us towards is towards to God, initially in repentance, and then ever further as we seek to imitate our Lord and grow in Christ-likeness. This is the ultimate goal of gospel encouragement.

To round off, let’s compare some of these thoughts to what the other guys wrote.
Crabb talks about things like total commitment and the character of an encourager. We can see these in 1a and b. His more practical tips in part 2 of the book may sense regardless of whether the encouragement is Christian or not.
With Cheng, we can see that his definition makes more sense if our starting point is the gospel as encouragement. It validates his hunch about encouragement and non-Christians, and produces a tighter, more coherent foundation than the one based on words and the coincidence of verbal functions. After Cheng’s initial foundational work, his practical stuff stems from gospel-centredness. Thus his later chapters contain similar thoughts to what’s going on here.

In conclusion, making the gospel the foundation of Christian encouragement produces a coherent theological foundation that undergirds a key pastoral practice in the Church. Such a foundation leads to many observations about good and effective encouragement that are already well-documented, and thus, produces better justification for their use.

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