Monthly Archives: March 2009

What Is The Gospel? Part II

In yesterday’s post, I said that traditional presentations of the gospel are failing because they are trying to answer a question that no one is asking.  What question do I mean?  This one:

How can you get forgiveness of your sins?

The centerpiece of virtually every evangelistic message is a presentation of the cross of Jesus as a pathway to forgiveness of sins.  That’s the point of the “Romans Road,” (a fundamentalist favorite) as well as the traditional “Five Step Plan” in Churches of Christ.  It’s also the point of all those illustrations you’ve seen that show how sin creates a gulf between you and God, but the cross can bridge that divide.  Like this one:

Sin Separates


Cross Bridges

Or all of these.  And if you click on any of the links that sends you to, you’ll see some variation of the same gospel presentation–the one about Jesus solving your guilt problem.

And it’s true.  The cross solves our sin problem.  Forgiveness is made available through the blood of Jesus.  If anyone wants to know “what can wash my sins away?” “Nothing but the blood of Jesus” is still the right answer.  I am fully convinced of that.

But very few of the people we are talking to want to know that.  They don’t think of themselves as sinners.  They don’t feel guilty.  It doesn’t seem intuitive to them that their sins separate them from anyone, because all their friends indulge in the same things they do.  Maybe occasionally they feel the some sorrow because of their choices, but they chalk it up to bad luck, or maybe a “dumb mistake”–but not sin.  They think of themselves as good people who don’t particularly have a problem.

Not only that, but there is evidence that shows that the life of the average church-goer and the average skeptic are pretty much alike.  Ron Sider covered that in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.  Worse, on the personal moral hierarchy of, say, a twenty-something semi-liberal thoroughly skeptical college grad, Christians are seen as the problem, not people who have a solution.  When those folks look at evangelicals, they see narrow-minded, ignorant and hateful people who seem to care a great deal about unborn babies, but vote against programs to provide food and insurance to the kids who are already here.  They see people who commit adultery and file for divorce at the same rates as the secular world, but who vote against same-sex marriage because gays will “undermine the institution of marriage.”  They see folks who claim to follow the prince of peace, but who gladly support optional wars and turn a blind eye to torture.  When they look at the church, they don’t see a reason to lend us any particular creedence on moral issues.  And when we, who are already fighting a reputation for hatred and hypocrisy attempt to spread the good news by saying, in essence: “Hey you–you need to realize that you have a sin problem….”  Ugh.  No wonder our churches are shrinking.  If we had a contest to figure out which approach would guarantee us the fewest converts, our traditional way would be a strong contender for first place.  It’s an unwelcome message that unintentionally reinforces everything our detractors are saying about us.  

Yes, it’s true.  All humans have a sin problem.  But it’s not the only truth there is.  And it’s not all there is to the gospel.  But more on that later.

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What Is The Gospel?

Over at Internet Monk, where I am moonlighting as one of the “Evangelical Untouchables,” Michael asked us how we would present the gospel (in two paragraphs!) to a group of secular twenty-somethings.  You can read the responses here.  This is mine:

One thing we can say with certainty is that the power structures of the world repeatedly engage in abusive practices that harm and dehumanize. Governments will displace native peoples, indulge in slavery, and commit war crimes. Accounting firms will cook the books; banks will risk our money for a chance to enrich themselves; churches will loudly decry certain sins while covering up their own. And then the people who caused the most harm will be offered bonuses. Not all power structures will do this, and not all the time, but it’s definitely the general trend.

The good news of Jesus is that the one with the most power–ultimate power–chose to become a servant. And he taught a way of living the rejects personal power and privilege while subverting the power structures of the world. It’s no secret to anyone that the institutional structure called ‘church’ has often missed the mark on this, trying to impose its will through petitions, politicians, and the personality of the pastor. But I want you to know that those kinds of power grabs reveal the nature of our humanity, not our Lord. When you’ve seen churches act like that and wanted to pull your hair out, I don’t think it was because God is a lie. I think it’s because we, as God’s creation, sometimes have a gut-level response to harmful distortions of the God who is True. Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves and take up the cross. To be baptized is to die on the cross with Jesus, and rise into a new kind of life centered on love of God and of others. The good news–in part–is that the Spirit of Christ can empower us to live a life modeled on his own. Following his example, we don’t run into the world trying to conquer it, and we don’t run away from the world into a protective isolation. We engage the world to join God’s work of helping the hurting and fixing what is broken–including all those broken power structures.

The comments were interesting.  One person, presenting himself as a secular twenty-something, said that mine was the only reponse that wouldn’t offend him.  Others argued (implicitly) that offense is part of the gospel presentation or else we are leaving something critical out.  At least one person wasn’t sure what the gospel was in my message.

If I had it to do over again, I would be more clear about what the gospel is: God is rightful king of the cosmos, and He is restoring, repairing and renewing everything.  That’s it.  We seldom hear that our “gospel meetings” and “gospel presentations” because Western Christianity overall has been so caught up in the culture of individualism that we’ve managed to take a universal renewing and make it all about where my wispy soul goes after my body stops working.  So we have books and sermons with titles like “He Did This Just For You.”  There is no sense in which that is true.  Jesus did not die just for me.  And to take the Biblical message and make it about “me, me, me!” or even (individual) “you, you, you!” is to distort enormously.  Yes, as part of the cosmic restoration God is doing, I also am granted forgiveness and renewal, true, but when we frame the matter in terms of “what I get out of it” rather than “what God desires for the world” we open up the possibility (however remote) that we’ll develop an aberrant Christianity so relentlessly focused on the individual that a question like “if you died tonight, would you go to heaven?” sounds like a good thing to ask people.

It’s not.  It just isn’t.

First, it’s not Biblical.  There is no scriptural record of anyone asking anyone else anywhere anything like that.  Second, it’s a completely backwards eschatological vision.  The promise is about Jesus coming back and the New Jerusalem descending to Earth, and to make it about individuals escaping the world rather than God renewing it couldn’t be more wrong-headed.  Third, this kind of narrow-sighted theology feeds the mentality that Christianity is about what I get out of it, therefore worship must be about what I get out of it, therefore I should shop for a church that gives me what I want, because, after all, I’m so important that he did this all just for me.

What has become the traditional presentation of the gospel is troubled from the start because it sets up all the wrong expectations.  And it’s failing because it tries to answer a question that no one is asking anymore.  But that’s in part two, tomorrow.


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