There Is More than One Gospel

The current riff about it is a distraction from urgent matters.

Image by Amy S from Pixabay.

For a few years now, certain players in the evangelical stratosphere—John Piper, Trevin Wax, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, among others—have been arguing about “the gospel.”  Each in turn wonder, What is it exactly?

To simplify matters (recognizing their complexity): On the Reformed side, the gospel is justification by faith.  That is, we are justified before God and his tribunal by faith in the work of Jesus on the cross, where he endured the just punishment for our sins.

Critics respond: “The good news is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” (N.T. Wright). This Scot McKnight, in many blog-posts and a whole book, summarizes as “Jesus is King!”

[Addendum: to be clear, Scot’s views are much more complex and interesting than this, and one thing I especially like about his view is that Jesus must be seen as  a fulfillment of what God has been doing with the Jews since the days of Abraham. The church’s sorry history of anti-semitism could have been avoided had the church kept this in focus.]

Both parties acknowledge that their gospel has many consequences, including forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and so forth, but they each keep insisting that the gospel is one thing, and not surprisingly, it is the thing they have identified as the one thing. [Addendum: to put it less rhetorically and more accurately, they continue to insist on one definition.]

In addition, each argues that to misunderstand this one thing/[definition] leads the church into practical error.  McKnight, for example, worries that the gospel as justification by faith encourages decisionism—that is, a simple statement of heartfelt faith is all that matters for one’s salvation, which undercuts discipleship and leads inevitably to lack of concern for personal ethics or social justice.

Never mind Paul saying this much in Romans, among other places: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (10:9).  Never mind that the thief on the cross was saved with the utterance of mere words.

Maybe the roots of paltry personal ethics and anemic social justice lie elsewhere than in a definition.

On the other side, there is concern that if we removed justification by faith from the center, then Christianity itself is doomed. In an overview history of the church, the site Monogerism, concludes: “The history of justification by faith alone is the development of two ways for one to be forgiven of sin. One way says the merits of man’s works plus Christ are need for forgiveness. The other way says the merits of Christ alone received through faith are all that is needed.”

In this view, church history really began with the Reformation.  There’s Paul, and then there’s Luther.  So much for the 1500 years between, which this view considers a millennium and a half of works-righteousness in one form or another, with only brief candles of hope flickering here and there.

Let me be clear. I love reading about justification by faith and admire the many theologians who expound it eloquently.  And I love reading about the Lordship of Christ, and have learned much in reading Scot McKnight over the years (although he is an annoyingly good golfer for a guy who rarely plays—and this I do hold against him). And yes, I get that each side makes a number of qualifications that makes room for a fair portion of the other’s arguments.  But in the end, the whole business is repeatedly presented as an either/or matter. With apologies Kierkegaard, I beg to differ. My annoyance is not personal, but it is theological.

Can I remind us that the New Testament opens with four books, which have been rightly and traditionally titled:

The Gospel According to Matthew

The Gospel According to Mark

The Gospel According to Luke

The Gospel According to John

As New Testament scholars are wont to point out, each gospel presents a slightly different take on the story of Jesus. To oversimplify with one example: Matthew is a gospel for Jews and Luke for Gentiles.  Another example: in a completely different vein, John is considered the metaphysical gospel.  Other distinctions abound, with nuances assumed.

The early church with providential wisdom, let all four stand together, despite their differences, and despite the many problems it caused early apologists and preachers sometimes (a gospels harmony is no easy thing to pull off!). They understood that the gospel is a many splendored thing, that to make it one thing was essentially to distort it.

They also understood that the gospel is first and foremost not a doctrine but a story, a story which, like all stories, includes a great deal of ambiguity, misdirection, plot twists, and endings that are new beginnings.

In short, the gospel is about King Jesus and the justification by faith and forgiveness of sins, and eternal life and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, and becoming like God and Jesus’s defeat of Satan and the assurance of the coming of the Kingdom and the radical ethics of love and faith alone and so on and so forth. There is a great deal of good in the good news, which lest we forget is what gospel means.

God in his wisdom has offered a variety of insights into the goodness of the many splendored good news.  I usually find the message, “Jesus is King,” intellectually interesting.  I believe it, but it doesn’t tend to quite touch my heart.  Preach to me about the unfathomable mercy of God in dying for my sins—well, I’m moved to tears.  Apparently, many find just the opposite to be the case. And many others, find other splendored aspects of the good news to be really good.

If I may be so bold as to suggest: This argument about the gospel-is-one-thing is a display of a typical Protestant problem: the need to prove to others that your interpretation of Scripture is not only right but must be adhered to else the future of Christendom hangs in the balance. It’s what’s lead to thousands upon thousands of denominations–a lack of unity in this portion of Christ’s body that is beyond scandal.  That is very bad news indeed.

(An interesting piece that examines exactly how many thousands is found here—it’s more complicated than many make it out to be.  It’s not 33,000.  But it’s not nothing.)

Can we just let the justification by faith crowd preach the message God has placed on their hearts? And can we let the Jesus is King crowd do the same with their message?  And can we let the divisive ramblings of theologians be replaced by attentiveness to God’s Word as it comes to us week by week? Meaning, when the week’s reading in worship is about justification, preach justification; when it’s about Jesus’s lordship, preach Jesus’ lordship; when it’s about the power to become like God, preach that; and when it’s about the resurrection of the dead, preach that.  And so on.

Of course, there are boundaries to what the gospel is and is not–of course! And theologians need to be attentive to such matters–that’s one of their jobs. But really, upon consideration, is this matter really the hinge upon which the future of the church hinges right now? Perhaps history will prove me wrong, but I think not.

Instead of arguing about the gospel, or even arguing with one another, let us use our intellectual gifts to argue with the real enemies of the many splendored gospel, about intellectual matters that display deep fault lines in our world, like pervasive relativism, idolatrous materialism, humanistic secularism, and attacks on all forms of religious belief across the world.

The world is dying in unbelief and is threatened with worldviews and practices that endanger people’s souls.  Arguing for a one-thing gospel is, to people like me anyway, a distraction from baptizing and discipling the world.

(Of course, in publishing this, I recognize I’m doing the exact thing I preach against—arguing about the gospel!  Which just goes to show I’m just as Protestant, and perhaps just as divisive, as by brothers and sisters.  Lord have mercy on us all.)

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Naturally, my publisher will rightly consider me remiss if I didn’t encourage readers to check out my recent book:  When Did We Start Forgetting God?: The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future (Tyndale, 2020).

Addendums (nuances!) added on 5/5/2020 after conversations with Scot.

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My Latest Book Just Released

That book would be When Did We Start Forgetting God? The Root of the Evangelical Crisis and Hope for the Future.

Regarding the book, there is some good news and bad news. The book is (as of this writing) #1 on Amazon’s “New Releases in Christian Church Growth” list. Bad news: they upped the Kindle price! If the topic interests you, the paperback is cheaper for now.

As most of you know, I spent 30 years embedded in various magazines at Christianity Today, most recently as editor in chief of the flagship. This book is my take on the state of evangelical spirituality—the good, the bad, and the beautiful.

I’ll be honest I only allude to the way forward, because frankly, I’m a fellow struggler in trying to understand what exactly it means to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Still, I believe I’ve tapped into a pressing need in my own life and that of Christians in general.

If you want a taste of what I’m driving at in the book, you can read a few essays from my The Elusive Presence series, which I published last summer. They constitute the opening chapters of the book, more or less.

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Who Made Us God?

I failed to note this article in the National Catholic Reporter when it was first published.  Unfortunately, it is perennially timeless.  Some readers have been concerned I’ve been hard on the religious right and have gone easy on the left.  But as this article shows, I’m an equal opportunity offender. Some excerpts:

What does it profit a person if he should gain all his political wishes but then lose his soul? Most of us answer, “Quite a bit, really,” especially if we can throw religious believers under the bus for their political views….

… attacks on the sincerity and worthiness of another’s faith are wielded by the religious right and the religious left. It is the air we breathe in our Christian churches — well, maybe not in worship, but apparently, in Protestant churches at least, during the coffee hour. It’s not only Trump’s gaffe during the prayer breakfast. It’s also our gaffe day in and day out at our breakfast and dinner tables at home and at church….

… if our democracy is to have any future, we need to get out of the business of judging the internal state of others’ hearts.

Read the whole piece here.

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‘Essentials’ in a Pandemic

Perhaps you are aware of the “essential controversy”—meaning the umbrage some Christian leaders have taken because the state has determined that only grocery stores, medical facilities, gas stations, and the like are considered “essential” services.  By implication (it is argued), the state is saying that religious services are “not essential,” thus forbidding worship and other religious gatherings.

This has offended some in more sacramental traditions, especially some conservative Roman Catholics, but also a fair number of Pentecostals.  They argue that corporate worship is essential, and for some the receiving of communion is especially so.  The feeling is that if at a time like this church is not seen as essential, and allowed to operate like these other services, it will seem even less so once the crisis is over.

This is poppycock. And shows a great deal of confusion among believers who should know better.  Of course corporate worship is essential. But when the state talks about essential services, it is not doing theology.  It’s not talking about all the dimensions of human life, but only those that concern the physical well-being and safety of its citizens. This is one of its proper concerns.

For the Christian, especially those in sacramental traditions, there is no fundamental divide between the spiritual and the physical.  That is the point of the incarnation, after all, when God became flesh and dwelt among us.  It was an act of divine blessing, making holy all of our physical existence.  To care for and preserve human life, then, becomes a divine calling.  It’s the reason Jesus spent so much of his energy healing people of their physical infirmities—it was a demonstration that the tangible, physical world God created is to be treated with the deepest respect and care.

Thus Christians, of all people, can applaud the state for anything it does to contain a virus, even if that means temporarily closing down religious gatherings.  For the state is more or less doing the work of Jesus at this point, working for the health of every one of its citizens.

This does not mean corporate worship is no longer considered essential—of course it is!  Is there any Christian on social media who is arguing that virtual worship and virtual prayer meetings are sufficient?  In fact, sheltering in place has made us more aware than ever of the inadequacy of virtual gatherings and of the absolute need to be physically with other believers. On the one hand, these virtual gatherings deeply encourage us.  At the same time, they only exacerbate the longing we have to be physically together again.

This is not a new phenomenon, this longing:

Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again.     — 1 Thessalonians 2:17

Why Jesus Fasted from Worship

And then there is this: Even in normal times, we sometimes temporarily forsake something essential.  Fasting is the best example.  We give up that which is physically essential for our survival to deepen our relationship with God.  Solitary retreats are of the same species.  Jesus himself did both, fasting alone for 40 days and nights, forsaking corporate worship (for at least five Sabbaths) and food, both essentials.  It is not much of a stretch to say that, by God’s providence, we are today asked to fast from corporate worship and the sacraments for a time, and that this will not decrease our faith but only allow us to ground ourselves deeper in him.

How can this be so?  Here’s one aspect: Fasting from corporate worship forces us to recognize that God is to be met not in just some ethereal space of the mind and heart, but most deeply when we are in the company of his friends.  This helps us see one continuing consequence of the incarnation, that is, of how God makes himself known today.  Worship is not merely fellowship on steroids—otherwise any gathering would do. Worship is not a spiritual pep rally, where we are privately lifted into God’s presence while enjoying the therapy of praise choruses. Instead, worship in the presence of other human bodies is that mysterious event in which we find that loving God and loving the neighbor are not really two commands but one, that one cannot be had without the other.

It’s Not About Us

And that leads us to one more dimension, which has little to do with us.  The act of refusing to meet is an act of love for our neighbor.  We abide by the state’s order first and foremost because it’s a way to help prevent the spread of a disease that can devastate the lives of millions. How can we love our neighbor at a time like this?  We can willingly give up something essential, like corporate worship and the receiving of the sacraments, so that we won’t inadvertently make life more risky for our neighbor.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted in his The Cost of Discipleship:

If there is no element of asceticism in our lives, if we give free rein to the desires of the flesh (taking care of course to keep within the limits of what seems permissible to the world), we shall find it hard to train for the service of Christ. When the flesh is satisfied it is hard to pray with cheerfulness or to devote oneself to a life of service which calls for much self-renunciation.

In the end, I think our complaints about having to forsake anything at any time boils down to one thing. We mask it as concern about creeping secularism or the freedom to worship or lack of faith in God’s protection. But, if I may hazard a guess based on my own weaknesses, for most of us, we just loathe self-renunciation.

And yet self-renunciation is about the essential act of faith, beginning with forsaking sin and evil at our baptism. Despite all the bad news surrounding recent events, it doesn’t take a theology degree to understand that this is an opportunity for self-renunciation like none other. 

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Refocus

As readers of this site know, when I retired, I was in the midst of a media flurry. The cause was my December 19 editorial questioning Donald Trump’s moral fitness for office. Since I wrote that as editor in chief of Christianity Today, it aroused substantial interest across the world. I’ve had requests from not only major US media, but also print and video outlets in Japan, France, Canada, and others. They have all seemed eager to talk to an evangelical who questions a controversial president heartily supported by so many evangelicals. They are also interested in learning more about evangelicals.

I’ve tried to be accommodating, as my schedule has allowed, because in nearly every interview, I was able to give insight into current evangelical life to reporters unaware of its nuances, and sometimes I’ve been able to talk about the Christian faith to unbelievers. To be frank, I’ve not been particularly enthusiastic about all of this (well, except talking about our Lord), but I felt that providence had opened a door and it was my duty to walk through it. I was also convinced there would come a time to move on.

Well, that time has come–or better the time to move back to what I’m really interested in, what I believe is the core calling at this stage of my life: trying to increasingly understand the dynamics of the spiritual life. At times, that pursuit will attend to politics, but I rarely feel compelled to write about this intersection–I’m just not that interested in politics, to be frank. But I’m fascinated with the relation of faith and culture, and that of the individual believer and the church–and especially in what’s going on in the deeper recesses of our souls.

This Lent–and the forced retreat demanded by current pandemic–have helped me refocus, or better, remind myself of what I need to be doing in the next stage of my life. In the coming weeks, you’ll see changes to this site to match this new focus, and I’ll explain those as they evolve.

In the meantime, if you are interested in my emerging thoughts on the dynamics of the spiritual life, you’ll want to register to receive email updates–just go to the top of the right column on the home page to subscribe.

More to come….!

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