Friday, October 4, 2013

The Procrustean-bed gospel

Along with my conviction about my writing yesterday came the reminder that I still don't really "get" the gospel like I should. Maybe no one does, but I remembered how this isn't okay and how I would really like to better understand the message of why Jesus became human, lived, died, and rose again that flashed across the first-century Mediterranean like lightning and changed the world. So I started rereading Romans—considered by many evangelicals to be the clearest and fullest presentation of the crucial message of life known as "the gospel", and the source of what God pointed out in me: "Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things." (Rom 2:1)

I'm not out to completely summarize Paul's presentation of the gospel in Romans; I haven't even finished reading and you may as well just read the book itself (Paul is probably less long-winded than I would be). I agree with my fellow believers in saying that much of Romans (certainly chapters 1-8) is an exquisite and detailed presentation of the gospel. After his introduction and greeting, Paul writes 1:16-17 almost as a header to the discourse that will follow: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”"

Then he totally changes gears in what he says next: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth." He proceeds to expound on the nature of and reasons for this wrath for the rest of the chapter. What I realized is that Paul is not just writing in a vacuum. He is doing battle with an imagined Jewish interlocutor learned in the law and trusting in his own righteousness (perhaps even his former self, the Pharisee and persecutor of Christians). This becomes obvious in chapter 2, which goes from talking about "those people" and their nasty sins to directly addressing "you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself" (2:3) Paul pulls no punches in including the Jews in his condemnation.
But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed from the law; and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (2:17-24)
Though Jews are better off in some way than Gentiles (3:1-2), they are by no means free from the universal burden of sin and have no special excuse or "out" with God for it because of their status. In verses 10-18 he puts together a virtual mashup of verses to get across the point that no one is righteous in God's sight on their own merits. No one measures up. Christians who use Romans 3:23 in a morally superior way to convict someone of their sin miss the point completely. Paul is speaking to the breadth of sin, not necessarily its depth.

But that is all an aside to what my reading of Romans so far has gotten me thinking about, and that is the idea of God's righteousness. Paul mentions or appeals to it many times throughout these chapters, first in 1:17, and repeatedly in 3:21-26.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
I started thinking: it makes sense that Paul would talk so much about how the gospel relates to God's righteousness being revealed in Jesus and in us, because he seems to be writing largely to Jewish Christians who would have grown up being instructed in the laws of God and trained to seek His righteousness—through the law. So later he writes about how Christ has released us from the law (7:6) which was roughly coterminous with being enslaved by sin and freed us to live with Christ to God (6:10).

Then I got curious about how much Paul writes about righteousness in other letters and did some research. Where Paul mentions "righteousness" 32 times in his letter to the Romans, he mentions it just once in his first letter to the Corinthians:
But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1:27-31)
So not only does Paul emphasize the idea of "righteousness" much, much less to the Corinthians, he does so in a rather different way.  Instead of it being something that belongs to God, that He reveals and accounts to us, Christ became righteousness to the Corinthians along with wisdom, sanctification, and redemption. Paul then spends most of the rest of the letter instructing and disciplining the Corinthians.

I think Paul was instructing each church in the way it needed. To those in Rome who boasted in their faithfulness to the law, Paul demonstrates how universal the problem of sin is so that they will realize their need for a savior. But the Corinthian church was apparently composed more of Gentile believers who had more of a problem with incorporating their old pagan worship practices like ritual sex with temple prostitutes (see 6:15-16), getting raging drunk (11:21), and ecstatic spiritual hysteria (see chapter 14) into their new Christian faith, not holier-than-thou boasting or legalism. So his advice to them is much more practical and directed towards rebuking their various abuses of the gospel.

I've realized that I'm not necessarily opposed to the gospel being presented as information or a series of propositions; with the nature of language, this is unavoidable to some degree. What I am opposed to is thinking that we can fully capture the "essence" of the gospel in all its richness of meaning and implications with one presentation or style. We read Romans like good Protestants and think that it depicts the pure, unadulterated, raw gospel without realizing that it is already contextualized to people under the law. So instead of contextualizing the gospel to people with other backgrounds and problems, we try to contextualize them to fit our Procrustean-bed gospel by trying to find how they are seeking their own righteousness by a law of some kind for them to be set free from, even when this narrative is a stretch.

Morgan Guyton provides some thoughts of this in his post on evangelism (which, as usual, I highly recommend you read), saying:
In a post-Christendom world, it makes no sense to talk about non-Christians “knowing [anything] to be true” about a “day of giving an account.” The problem is that the formulaic proselytism of Southern Baptists doesn’t have anything to say to someone who, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t give a flip about the concept of Judgment Day (like the cynical European journalist interviewing the pope)"
And later, he clarifies that this kind of justification-on-judgment-day evangelism is really most effective when preaching to Christians, or other similarly moralistic people. When we make it our method of winning nonbelievers, though, it may serve better to push people away from God.
In the old Christendom order, it sort of worked. When everyone was nominally a Christian, you could preach hellfire sermons and get the nominal Christians to come down for the altar call to become “real” Christians (perhaps for the third or fourth time). But in post-Christendom, it doesn’t work anymore to warn strangers about the scary God that the world has stopped believing in. Too many people have seen that scary God create scary Christians who don’t act at all like Jesus. And you can’t blame earthquakes or invasions of foreign imperial armies on God’s wrath anymore.
I worry that in our evangelism, we often address only peoples' minds (or rather, our minds, by trying to formulate a gospel presentation that jumps through all the requisite doctrinal hoops of correctness) while leaving their hearts and imaginations hungry. In our zeal to guard God's (or is it our?) holiness, we depict God in a way that most modern people want nothing to do with—and if they they reject Him, we simply chock it up to "the god of this age" blinding their minds (2 Cor 4:4), without considering that this blinding might be occurring through our misguided proselytizing.

If we make preaching the gospel about using the right method, or hitting on the right talking points, or getting the right results, we may find that it is no longer the true gospel that we're preaching. In his preaching Paul became "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." (9:22) He truly believed the gospel was a transformative message that applied to everyone: Jew and gentile, weak and strong, slave and free; but his message to each of these groups may have been quite different. "Preaching the gospel", far from being a simple learning and compelling regurgitation (how many times have you heard those two words together) of doctrinal facts pertaining to salvation, may require real humility, creativity, and a willingness to live with and understand diverse people to truly win them over.

But this is all very easy for me to say since I have the opposite problem; that is, taking the above warnings too seriously and getting scared out of preaching the gospel to anyone. And once again I reveal my tendency to write to others and not to myself. I pray for the heart of Paul as he said, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Cor 9:16) I pray that I would really get the gospel in a truly transformative way as the early church did, such that I can't keep it from overflowing into my life and relationships. That it would break out of its box of simply being that omnipresent term that evangelicals constantly throw around and come to define me.

I'm going to try to start a discussion yet again:

  • How would you describe "the gospel" to yourself?
  • What do you think of my conclusion that the law/righteousness narrative of the gospel is not its definition, but an application of it? Do you think we can be too inflexible in how we present it?
  • What obstacles do you see put in the way of the gospel that you wish could be removed?

Addendum: I should at least mention the two posts I did for my church's men's group on contextualizing the gospel: One Two

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