The point of the Gospel?

August 3, 2006

I recently wrote a post where one of my best orthodox blogging buddies was offended because I compared the difference between the way we saw the gospel message and the point of Christ’s coming as either:

  1. A ministry which radically transformed the world due to the new message and hope it brought; or
  2. A moment of “mystical murder” which somehow magically saved the world.

Now, I think there is another option– which is 3) all of the above- and that is where I happen to fit in.

But I didn’t start there.  And while I think the point of fundamentalist evangalism starts with emphasis #2, I, quite frankly, am uncomfortable with an outreach that starts with an emphasis on a need to first begin in belief in the more supernatural elements of the crucifiction and resurrection.

As I said, I did not start at that position.  I began my journey believing that no matter what I believed God loved me.  I modeled that off of the unconditional love I received from my parents.  I was always taught in Sunday School that God must love me even more than my parents did, and I figured that if God loves me that much he must not care too much if I believe in something so unbelievable as a guy being raised from the dead 2000 years ago.

But, I reasoned, such a being would probably care about how I lived my life– as my parents did.  He might not love me any less, but would be disappointed if I didn’t stretch myself to my fullest, reach for the best I could be, and use my full potential.  And that was something I eventually came to equate with the teachings of Jesus– approach number 1, above; focus on relationships, don’t judge, love one another, take care of the outcast, and so on.

And even as I began to become more involved in church again, I began to realize this:  even if I change my mind on issue #2, how is it going to change my life?  What am I going to do differently?  And I couldn’t answer that question, other than some intangible thing that would happen in my mind.  But, focusing on #1 and asking the same question had profound effects– for all the reasons I’ve listed.  Walking in Jesus shoes– trying to live as Jesus lived– is much harder than just believing something.  So I focused on that.

Eventually, God found me, and I found my spirituality again.  Even after that, it took a while for me to believe in such a mysterious event as the resurrection– and I’ve talked to many Christians who still don’t believe in a literal resurrection.  But I do now think it probably did happen.  But I think that whether or not it happened is less important to me than the story of it happening, and how I take that story and apply it to my life– again, how do I change the way I act, how do I behave differently towards God, my neighbors, and myself, given that wonderful message?  And so, if I were to find out tomorrow that the resurrection never really factually happened, my faith would be just as intact as it is today.  Because I know that God’s love for me is just as intact as it is today.

I think that is a problem in our outreach in the church.  I know that there are many, many, many people who came to the church only after acknowledging that the resurrection was valid.  I think that is great.  If it works for them- more power to them.  But for me, it is a self-centered focus on “what can God do for me?” or “How can I get to heaven?”  I think that the more altruistic focus is “how can I help bring heaven to earth?”, which for me is the point of #1.  I understand though, that some can’t think about #1 until they’ve been assured of #2.  Of course there are other viewpoints and valid reasons for focusing on either #1 or #2, and there are also points #3, 4, 5 and probably a lot more.

That’s because we live in a diverse world.  God is a big god.  We have to acknowledge that God works in many ways, and that those ways may work differently for different people.  What works for you may not work for me, and God knows that.  God did create both of us, after all.  Lack of that understanding is a big part of the problem in the church today- I mean come on, there are 6 <i>billion</i> people in the world today.  We can’t honestly be so self-involved to think that a one-size-fits-all religion (usually the size that fits us) would accomodate them all.

What works to bring people in to the orthodox pew will definitely not work to bring me into the church– it will send me running.  And what works to bring me into the church will probably make an orthodox person’s blood boil and wonder if he’s even in a Christian church.

Diversity is a gift from God.  We have to embrace it as such.  Some people will say that by embracing diversity we are following a new religion.  I don’t think that is true.  I think we are just finally starting to recognize that a lot of the people who have either been silently not getting their needs met, or not attending at all, are finally able to become more engaged in their faith.  That’s a win for everyone.  It is such a shame that we have to fight like cats and dogs to get there.

j

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7 Responses to “The point of the Gospel?”

  1. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Jeff,

    I think this is an important discussion. I thank you for your witness. I was taken especially with your acknowledgement that, “God found me again.” Exactly. That is how it works.

    If I am the one you are talking about having been offended at your use of the words, “’mystical murder’ which somehow magically saved the world,” my offense was at what I considered a dismissive description of the orthodox point of view, using words such as, “murder,” “somehow,” and, “magically.”

    I agree with you entirely that the crux of the Gospel message is that God loves each of us. He loves us more than we can possibly imagine. If an evangelist, or a church, or a denomination, is not getting that message across in an effective way, then it is failing in its most important mission.

    I do think the message is only truly effective when we are feeling at our weakest. Especially here in America, we are inclined to take credit for our own material successes, and to blame those who are unsuccessful on what we perceive to be their own laziness or foolishness. This Horatio Alger attitude permeates our culture. It is the exact opposite of what Jesus teaches, which is, “Without Me, you can do nothing.”

    The problem for evangelical churches is this: Why do I need God’s love if I can achieve everything I want to achieve on my own? The fact is, I turn to God unfeignedly only when I realize my own poverty. I have come to realize that there is something I desperately need that I cannot get on my own no matter how hard I try. The good news, the Gospel, is that there is Someone I can go to Who can give this very necessary thing to me. A conservative evangelist might say that I come to realize that I need a Savior. But I would agree that at the bottom of it all, one just has to come to realize that he needs God’s love. It IS freely available to anyone. But in order to take advantage of it, one must first admit that he needs it. So yes, we must always teach that God loves us. But we must also help others to realize an important truth: that they are utterly incomplete without God’s love.

    The message is for people who are hurting and broken, that is to say, it is for everyone. Jesus preached His message to everyone, but the Pharisees and the Saducees and the High priests could not hear it because they did not believe they were hurting and broken. The prostitutes and the tax collectors and the adulterers, on the other hand, knew full well that they were sinners and Jesus was to them an irresistible shining beacon in their otherwise very dark lives.

    To go to the light, I am must come to realize that I, like the tax collectors and prostitutes, also live in darkness. Jesus told the temple lawyers and the pious Jews that they were not better in God’s eyes than the tax collectors and prostitutes, and they hated Him for it. They were respected by men, which turned out to be the extent of their reward. They loved the darkness more than the light.

    The point of the Passion was that it shows us the depth of God’s love for us. He loves us so much that He became a man and endured this excruciating and humiliating death just so we can come into His kingdom. We can discuss another time why, or whether, the crucifixion (which, by the way, is spelled with an “X” and does not contain the word, “fiction”) was necessary. But I hope you do concede that it was a volitional act on Christ’s part– He didn’t have to go through it. And when one accepts that the Passion was something that Jesus did for us voluntarily, and when one realizes the vast gulf between us sinners and this One Perfect Man, then the actual fact of God’s love for us becomes, in a real emotional sense, overwhelming. God loves me that much. God loves you that much. And there is nothing either of us can do to earn it. And there is nothing either of us can do to repay it.

    I believe the effective evangelistic message for everyone boils down to this: Because you are a human being, I am certain there is at least one area of your life that is a source of tremendous pain and sorrow to you. And I know you have been unable to heal this pain. Please let me show you where you can find relief and rest for your soul.

    Jesus did come to save the world and to change the world. He was not a political activist, though. He told us that we must all simply change our hearts. That is something that can only be done one heart at a time. It is a daunting and nearly impossible task. In fact, it would be an impossible task if we tried it in our own strength. Fortunately, God has sent us a supernatural Helper, the Holy Spirit.

    Blessings.

  2. Jeff Says:

    Hi Rick –

    I don’t disagree with what you’ve said.

    I do think, though, that the more important piece of the Gospel is the teaching of Jesus. After all, each Gospel dedicates far more time to the parables, the lessons, and the things we must learn from Jesus’ life then the things we must learn from Jesus’ death.

    That is not to say that the Passion is not important. My point is just that sacrificial atonement just doesn’t hold a lot of water for me. There is a great sermon on that topic here which articulates it much better than I can.

    j

  3. Rick Harris, O.P. Says:

    Jeff, I read Rev. Bacon’s sermon. I have a few responses. First, I would assert that it is a bedrock article of orthodox Christian faith that Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross to save us all– that everyone is invited to the feast, that everyone, without exception, is equally valuable and important to God, that we have no business disparaging anyone else. For me the hardest people to invite to the table may be Osama Bin Laden and Ted Bundy. For you they may be Adolph Hitler, Fred Phelps, and the murderers of Matthew Shepherd (those people would be hard for me to invite, too). For everyone, there are individuals whom they would fervently wish not to be among those invited. But God loves us all, nonetheless. So it is fair and accurate, I think, to say that Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross in a kind of loving embrace of us all.

    Second, I think it is an unfair caricature of orthodox doctrine to say that we believe Jesus died on the cross as a scapegoat to prevent us all from suffering from God’s wrath. I believe it was quite necessary for my salvation and reconciliation to God for Jesus to die on the cross, but I don’t adopt that statement at all. Jesus died on the cross to create a way for us to be reconciled to God. I don’t think it is helpful to think of our relationship to God in terms of revenge and punishment. I think it is more the case that the spiritual universe is constructed in a certain way, that we all have free will and make choices, and that those choices have consequences. There is a wonderful scene near the end of the Narnia series where some dwarfs are rescued by Aslan from a dark structure, but they continue to believe they are trapped inside. They simply refuse to see or acknowledge that they have come into the light. The cross shines a bright light on our sin and rebellion. It places us in a proper perspective in our relationship with God, i.e., He is God, and we are not; He is holy, and we are fallen. The most pious and devout Pharisee is no better than the most venal tax collector. Or, to take a modern example, Mother Teresa is no better in God’s eyes than acorrupt corporate exectuive. It is a hard message to swallow. The cross takes us there. At the foot of the cross we find our wedding garment so we can be welcomed to the feast.

    Third, the political leaders of the Jewish community weren’t scandalized because Jesus hung out with poor and disenfranchised people. They were scandalized because He hung out with nasty, unpleasant, greedy people. Tax collectors! They were collaborators with the Roman occupiers. They preyed on fellow Jews and got rich. They cheated others. They were corrupt. They bribed others to get their positions. Everyone knew it. They were not very nice people by anyone’s standards. It is perhaps similar to the way we would feel if Jesus came back today and started hanging out with all the top former Enron executives. So yes, it was and is a message of radical inclusion, and no more palatable today than it was 2000 years ago.

    Blessings.

  4. Benny Says:

    How about this?

    The most important moral laws to Jesus were to love God completely (that was of first importance) and to love your neighbor as yourself. Do you think if someone could completely fulfill the second command perfectly that they would, therefore, have obeyed the first as well?

    In other words is loving (both in thought and deed) God’s creation the exclusive means by which we love God? Are there things above and beyond loving our neighbor that God would perfer us do or not do? Actions/thoughts/motivations that God prescribes that are unrelated to our nieghbor at all or even might anger our neighbor?

    In stripping everything away down to its bare core, this seems like it might be the point where our views of reality start parting ways. I would say that while those moral laws are very closely intertwined, that they are two distinct laws, one clearly trumping the other but still that both laws have their own merit and perscriptions.

    From your writings I get the feeling that you would prescribe the greatest commandment is truely the only fundamental commandment and that the second is subservant in that it is merely the means through which we obey the first. It is a commandment albeit merely because it accomplishes the first, primary command.

    I hate to sound like I’m stuffing your mouth full of words you’ve never said but have really been interested lately in figuring out exactly where a fundamental like me and a libral like you actually part ways. There isn’t much we agree about but I’m wondering if most of that isn’t just fruit from a rotten vine (either yours or mine or both of ours, I suppose). I’m very much fascinated with where your vine and my vine actually sever. Do you think there are multiple root causes or do you think there is a singular schism in thought from which all disagreements flow?

    One idea of mine is that perhaps it’s in how we view Jesus’ 2 greatest commands. Maybe it’s just as simple as errancy vs. inerrancy of scripture? I don’t know. I hate to be a reductionist about it but if there’s a simple, straightforward issue of disagreement it would make more sense to me than accepting that we’re fundamentally different at every turn as if you preferred blue socks and I red, you liked franks and beans and I beans and franks. Instead I’d prefer to think we disagree on really very few issues it’s just that those issues are so “far up the vine” that everything from there naturally starts down different paths in a very logical and reasonable manner (“if 2 followers of Christ differed on this one point then naturally they would rightly follow Him differently in all these other ways…”). Despite vast differences, I can hold to a certain unity in that type of singular (or at least very small) fundamental disagreement.

    Like I said this source of diversion is more of a question for discussion than something I’m prescribing to be true. This might not interest you nearly as much as me but something I wonder about every now and then. You being more accepting and open-minded than me, you may not have any concerns with us approaching God differently as I naturally would.

    Anyway, no worries. Someone else needs to get married so we can see each other again!

    By the way, your old backyard is a disc golf course now. I’ve been out there playing as much as I can get time away to do it. I definately would have hung out at your house more if that course had been there back when yall lived there! 😉

  5. Jeff Says:

    Hi Benny –

    I wrote this post so long ago, it sounds like to do your question justice would require time to read the thread and try to figure out the theological sequence again– time which I don’t have right now with my summer load.

    From what I do gather so far, though, I think that I have something both to ask and to say:

    Background for my question: It sounds like you are inferring that I do not differentiate between love of God and love of neighbor, and that this distinction is very important to you. I am not sure whether I differentiate between these two things or not– to answer that question we would have to go back even further with the building blocks of theology and describe how we know God– and I believe we only know God because of the incarnation: because of God’s revelation to us in God’s humanity; so it is only possible to love God through God’s humanity because God is so vastly bigger than humanity can comprehend. So I do not believe we can do anything but love God’s humanity. But I am not sure that I have said that there is no differentiation between loving God and loving neighbor. But then again, I have not said that I believe there is not, either.

    Now for the question: If loving God and loving neighbor are two separate things for you, what does loving God mean, exactly? I use love as a verb here and not as a noun– that is how I read the gospel: not “feel love for God” but “love God” as an action– how is that manifested, which, as humans, means that there is necessarily something happening in this material world in which we live? Does this loving of God have no effect on our neighbors?

    So that is my question. The statement I want to make is something I am picking up on in the later part of your post. I hope this does not sound like I am “picking on you” or your beliefs- I am trying to state facts, verifiable in most church history textbooks. The “fundamentalist” movement, which has only developed in the last 200 years or so, is a very modern innovation. It tends to focus on personal feelings over tradition and God’s work in the church, allowing individual experience to guide doctrine and dogma in a way that has been unprecendented in the prior 1800 or so years. If “personal experience” — that is, love as a feeling or purely experiential and individualized affect– is the sole indicator of fulfilling God’s law, than it is a very recent innovation in the history of Christianity. Again, this is not a liberal statement but a statement of Christian history– and my belief that moving away from tradition makes me not liberal, but actually, in this case, quite Orthodox (although I also believe in experience, to a degree). It also clearly makes me not a fundamentalist, although I do consider myself an evangelical in the strict (but not the vernacular) sense of the word. Labels are very tricky, at any rate.

    j

  6. Benny Says:

    “If loving God and loving neighbor are two separate things for you, what does loving God mean, exactly?”

    … I think I would ask myself in a little different fashion, more along the lines of: “Since loving God and loving neighbor are two separate commands, as prescribed by Jesus, what then does it mean to love God?”

    In other words, I don’t know that I like the distiction any more than you or anyone else, but it’s clear to me that the distinction has been made nonetheless. I can’t gloss over that or wiggle out from under it. I can’t, as the serpent did, approach God’s word in a manner that says, “Did God really say, …?”.

    “Yes, He said it!” I must tell myself. The question I then have to struggle with is how I’m going to react to His revelation. Will I reject it or accept it? Will I allow myself to bend and change around God’s truth or reject His truth revealed or worse: twist it’s meaning into something I can bite into?

    I guess I’ve associated “loving God” (the verb, which I agree is the only authentic way to talk about love) with “obeying God”. As I type though i’m thinking maybe there is more to it though since fear can be just as good a motivator as love when it comes to achieving obedience [1 Jn 4:18; There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love].

    I should probably state it this way: I can’t disobey God and love God at the same time; it’s a contradiction.

    … I don’t know. I really don’t. I know there is a difference because Christ makes the distinction (between loving God and loving neighbor). It makes it a little more palettable for me to try to reason it out in my head so I understand it and can explain it, but if I don’t quite understand it, it doesn’t make it any less the truth that Christ revealed. My best shot at it is that the act of “loving God” is the act of “obeying God”. That is a huge act, that among other things, includes loving our neighbor. But it also includes obeying the 10 commandments (the first few of which have little to do with loving our neighbors). If I love my neighbors but need a graven image attempting to reflect God in order to give him praise then I’m not loving God. If I love my neighbors but make a higher priority of doting time and praise and money on my children then on God, I’ve put another god before Him and I don’t love Him. To disobey Him in any way is to not love him. This is why John says “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” [1 Jn 4:10]

    I don’t love God apart from Him giving me the power to do so. It’s that simple. I could tell you all the ways I’ve shown (through verbs) all the ways I don’t love Him. I’ve disobyed Him continually. If it weren’t for His super-natural ability to change my heart I would continue to not love Him at all today. Fact is I still do not show love to Him although He is gracious to continue to show me love and change my heart.

    I guess the point is I have to acknowledge there is a distinction between loving God and loving neighbor as it’s revealed. I can take stabs at explaining and understanding it, but may never fully understand it or may think I do, but find out later I got it all wrong.

    One nice thing is that while Jesus does make a distinction, scripture makes it clear that the distinction isn’t all that distinguishable [1 Jn 4:12; No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us].

    Now that is a cool verse and I know we’re in agreement about that.

    I don’t know. I’ll say this though, I am definately of the opinion that if I agree and am compatible with all of scripture that it’s just as likely that I am bending it’s meaning to suit my liking as much as I am being bent to come under the authority of it. The fact I don’t positively have all the answers and don’t even like some passages at all tells me that this isn’t the Gospel according to Benny (my initial reaction after reading Romans 9 was something to the extent of, “… you know I don’t think I’d ‘of written that”).

    I like we serve the same God. I like we live under the same grace. I’m glad that if we don’t love each other that we don’t stand a chance of loving God [1 jn 4:20-21].

    I too hope none of this sounds like I’m “picking on you” either. If it does please just assume it was an attempt at wit or sarcasm or some other clever quip that missed it’s mark due to it being written down and not in person.

    As for the whole “liberal” and “fundamental” labels… I was throwing those out because those are probably 2 labels that you and I, respectively, get labeled in many people’s minds – labels that are just as often used negatively as positively. I’ll try avoiding these man-made labels going forward. They are just too emotionally charged to do much good. They’ve all gotten too trappled on and used to call people names all too often.

    In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been spending some time in 1 John 4 lately 🙂

  7. Jeff Says:

    Hey Benny –

    Thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

    From what I can tell, I can’t really find any disagreement between our positions on this topic, although we may use different words to explain them and have different ways of interpreting scripture.

    Do you think that is accurate? If not, can you help me understand what the differences are in your mind?

    j


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