the Gospel reconsidered (some things i am learning from smart people)
In a recent Pepperdine lecture, Scot McKnight (a professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago) points out that Martin Luther rejected the New Testament book of James because it seemed to him to not fit with his understanding of the gospel. But what is the gospel? Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, and Bill Bright (a trinity of bills) honed what has come to be accepted as “the gospel” in North America. It essentially says that God loves you, but you are separated from God due to sin; however, God still loves you and sent His Son to die on the cross in your place so that He could forgive your sin and you could go to heaven when you die. Therefore, the ball is in your court – accept Jesus, invite him into your heart, pray the “sinner’s prayer,” and now you are accepted and your eternity is assured. Billy Graham called it “steps to peace with God;” Bill Bright called it “the four spiritual laws.” It lies at the heart of most “gospel” presentations today.
So, what’s wrong with it?
First, nothing like it can be found anywhere in the Bible. It was unknown and unpreached prior to the 20th century. The great modern era revivalists like Charles Wesley, Charles Finney, Jonathon Edwards, and George Whitefield never said anything resembling it.
Second, it’s focus in on us rather than God. It becomes escapist and often leads to an undisciplined Christian life. It is salvation-centered, not Christ-centered, soteriological rather than Christological. It is all about me being in the in-crowd that is going to heaven, as opposed to those outsiders destined for hell. Tellingly, 90% of those who pray the “sinner’s prayer” as teenagers have nothing to do with Christianity or the church by the time they are in their 30s. Both Bill Bright and Billy Graham recognized that they were making lots of “converts,” but few disciples and tried to rectify that with organizations like the Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ.
Paul tells us explicitly what “gospel” means in 2 Timothy 2:8: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4: Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain. For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures… In the book of Acts, every presentation of the gospel contains the same elements. The gospel is the story of Jesus. It is all about Jesus, not us. There is good reason why the first four books of the New Testament are called the gospels – they tell the story of Jesus. The entire Old Testament is the story leading up to Jesus. The gospel, the good news, the evangel, is the story of Jesus.
C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second book in his seven-part Chronicles of Narnia, is a children’s story about a lion named Aslan. As the story unfolds, you fall in love with Aslan. Then, he is killed and the child you are reading to cries. But, wait. The stone table on which he was slain cracks, and the next thing you know, Aslan is alive and roaming the land. Like the child characters in the story, you want to climb on his back and bury your face in his mane. That’s the gospel – telling people the story of Jesus so they can see who he really is, fall in love with him, and bury their faces in his bosom. Any time we tell people about Jesus, God is at work.
Of course, the Gospel includes our salvation – we are forgiven, rescued, redeemed, transformed. We become Jesus’ apprentices – learning from Jesus how to live life like Jesus. It is about how we live, who we are, not simply believing the right list of doctrines (which of course varies from denomination to denomination).
As David Augsburger (professor at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California) points out in Dissident Discipleship, the good news is what he calls tripolar.
For some, the gospel is monopolar, individualistic, focused on me as I worship some projected image of a god who is really me. “My god is nature; the ocean is my temple.” It is all about my inner tranquility. It is spirituality (defined broadly) in search of self-discovery and involves the wish fulfillment of the prosperity preachers. My god and I fulfill my life. Its darkest side is seen in recent statements by members of the Trump administration, to wit, that “Allah is not a real god,” and we can kill Moslems because our god is bigger than theirs.
Another version is bipolar – it is the focus in most historic Christian churches at their best. It is a spirituality of encountering God as Other. I come to know my true self by encountering God. As I love God, I care for others. I am benevolent.
But the radical Anabaptists recaptured a biblical third way that is tripolar. This is a radical spirituality, a radical gospel of unconditional agápe (ἀγάπη) love, a love that really loves enemies, that recognizes that I love God as I love my worst enemy.
Tripolar spirituality is a connection between God, all others, including my enemies, and me. It goes beyond benevolence to active love. And that three-fold axis, which looks more like Ezekiel’s gyroscope than a simple X, is interconnected. That is, one cannot truly love God without also loving self, others, and enemies. It is the way of shalom. We have seen it in St. Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa, and Martin Luther King. Ultimately, we see it in Jesus.
My inclination, my inner default, (and I don’t think I am unique in this) is towards mono-spirituality. Surrounded by a good group of compassionate people, I sometimes approach bi-spirituality. But I cannot live out tripolar spirituality apart from (a) supernatural power and (b) true community.
The word translated “power” in the New Testament is dunamis (δύναμις). Although preachers are fond of pointing out that our English word “dynamite” is derived from it, the New Testament world knew nothing about dynamite, or dynamos. The word implies a dynamic – the enabling to do something. Divine power in us, is God giving us the ability to do something (like love enemies) that we could not otherwise do. It is God pouring God’s dynamic pure love into us so that it overflows to others, even enemies.
Still, that is not enough for me to practice tripolar spirituality. I need to be formed by living in close contact with others who sincerely want to practice the radical cruciform love of Christ. At this stage in my journey, it is that community for which I long.