Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Believing the Gospel


If you, like me, have spent any time in the evangelical Christian world, this word probably conjures up a strong reaction in you, one way or another. It's a noun, a proper noun, an adjective, a verb (especially in Greek), maybe even an adverb or interjection. It is the central truth that everyone needs to know, by which all followers of Jesus are to live, and which they are to proclaim to the world. The former pastor of a church in my neighborhood wrote a book boldly titled God is the Gospel, by which he means "that the highest, best, final, decisive good of the gospel, without which no other gifts would be good, is the glory of God in the face of Christ revealed for our everlasting enjoyment." (13) The gospel, as it is so commonly presented and emphasized, is the absolute bedrock foundation of our knowledge of the divine and our hope for transcendence.

The more I hear about it, the more I realize I don't understand.

My background

I entered into the evangelical world when I came to the University of Minnesota and, having been briefed on the potential dangers college presented to one's faith, looked for a Christian student organization to join, settling on Cru (then Campus Crusade for Christ). If I had to point to one Bible passage that served as the absolute bedrock foundation for everything Cru stood for, it would be the "great commission" in Matthew 28:18-20:
18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Cru took this call to "go" quite seriously, as shown in its mission statement, "Starting spiritual movements everywhere, so everyone knows someone who truly follows Jesus Christ." This translated to ministry on local college campuses, across the country, and across the world, building relationships and sharing with people the four steps to Know God Personally (which apparently used to be the Four Spiritual Laws) I've already written repeatedly on the friction I felt with Cru's emphasis on evangelism, but what I'm focusing on here is the account of "the gospel" that Cru placed such emphasis on learning, sharing, and training others to share. It is expressed concisely with four points:
  1. God, who created you, loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, for you to know Him personally.
  2. Sin separates us from God, keeping us from knowing Him and His love personally.
  3. God made a way for us to know Him personally through Jesus Christ alone.
  4. We must individually accept Christ as our Lord and Savior to know God personally.
Not long after joining Cru, I began attending the church I still attend five years later, Hope Community Church, which is nondenominational but with strong evangelical and Baptist influences (having been planted by the aforementioned neighborhood church). (Update: After doing a paper on the subject, I have learned that Hope in fact belongs to two denominations, the Evangelical Free Church of America and the Baptist General Conference, but it doesn't wear either on its sleeve) Its continuing mission: "To honor God by helping as many people as possible become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ". Its description of the gospel follows largely the same framework as Cru's, putting more flesh onto it and placing a higher emphasis on living it in community:
Quite simply, the word gospel means “good news.” It’s a such a simple message that a child can understand it, yet so complex and profound that it leaves many theologians baffled. In it’s simplest form, God created the world. We, His creatures, rebelled. But God, in unfathomable grace, sent His Son Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins.
Through faith in Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven of our sins, welcomed as sons and daughters, and empowered by His Spirit to live lives that reflect His goodness and love. This is the gospel. This is our core passion, and the source from which all of our other desires and ministries flow.
You cannot even begin to bridge the gap between the perfect, holy God and your sinful heart except by trusting in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. But we believe that no one ever “gets past” the gospel. The gospel is the means of our entry into the family of God and the means for our continued growth together in this family.
Hope’s vision is to honor God by helping as many people as possible become fully devoted followers of Christ. As such, we do all we can to continually remind ourselves and each other of this simple truth, yet spending a lifetime to figure out all of its implications on our lives.
Of course both organizations' understandings of the gospel went deeper than this; Cru has plenty of study materials available for going deeper, and there is much helpful truth in Hope's fuller explanation of the gospel. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I can't seem to follow these expressions of the gospel as far as they're meant to take me, in mind, heart, or deed.

Where I'm at now

It's not that I've rejected Cru, Hope, or my faith; as I mentioned, I still attend Hope, I still support several missionaries with Cru, and I have many productive (you could even say "gospel") friendships with people who would disagree with me. I bear no ill will towards any of them, but at the same time I know they aren't any more perfect than I am. My struggles with doubt have made clear to me the difference between having faith (or trust) in a person and believing points of doctrine. I'm convinced that Christianity is most truly the former, so as I continually renovate what I believe, the who of my belief remains steady.

This distinction makes it possible, though still difficult, to admit that I am no longer able to affirm many of the things about the gospel I hear regularly. Over the last two years, my time and attention became increasingly devoted to maintaining my view of "the gospel" in the face of my growing doubts, rather than getting around to living it. I felt a growing disconnect between what I claimed to believe, or felt like I was supposed to, and what I actually did, as if my faith were missing a crucial step. More specifically, I'm talking about the view of the gospel expressed in claims like these (all invented, but based on my experience), the likes of which I hear frequently:
  • "The good news of the gospel is that we can stop trying to earn our way to God and rest in the completed work that Jesus did for us on the cross."
  • "The gospel is the wonderful message of how despite our sins, we can each have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and look forward to an eternity in heaven with Him."
  • "Because Christ is the One to whom all Scripture points, you should look for Him in every part of it."
  • "Jesus came to abolish religion." (okay, this is a real slogan that went viral a few years ago)
  • "After hearing the best news in the world, how much do you have to hate your neighbor to not pass it on?"
  • "On the cross, Jesus took the deadly wrath of God we deserved and paid the penalty of death that we owed for our sin so that we might be forgiven."
  • "The book of Romans is the most clear, complete, and glorious presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ that we have."
  • "The purpose of the law is to condemn sin and show how we can never be good enough for God. Jesus came to set us free from the curse of the law because we could never be good enough for it and it was never really meant to convey salvation anyway."
You may say, "These claims don't really represent what I believe. You're attacking a straw man!" I hope that I am. What I am trying to get at are bad habits that we (especially I) are prone to in our handling of the gospel, but not intrinsic to it. I am trying to critique these caricatures of the gospel as they are understood in my head, not necessarily as they actually are. Several of the above statements (the first five) I wouldn't actually disagree with, just say that they're incomplete or misleading. I am posting my thoughts publicly because, though I may be mistaken in some of the ways I heard what "the gospel" is, I don't think I'm alone. As God helps me through my own doubt, He also calls me to try to help others.

Or, on the other hand, you may say, "These claims describe what I believe. How can you not affirm them and still call yourself a Christian?" In which case, I ask that you take what I'm going to say as constructive criticism, and that though these beliefs didn't work for me, I am glad that you hold them. But I ask that you consider the possibility that the gospel is better than you think, that these things don't wholly define it. I don't think it's a huge stretch to say that God and His gospel are big enough to allow for multiple points of view.

What I'll be writing about in the immediate future are the clues that led me to rethink my assumptions about the gospel (which often resembled the above sayings), things which tend to be bundled in as part of "the gospel" but which I came to suspect don't necessarily belong. My questions, as they coalesced, became kind of like a house, with a front door and a back door. The front door is the things about the gospel, as I heard it, that I either couldn't believe, rejoice in, or live practically as the "good news" it is supposed to be. The back door is a problematic implication that no one else seemed to see, but which has preoccupied and challenged me for over a year.

But where there is a time to tear down, there is also a time to build up, and I look forward to it. A lot of my present doubts about the gospel began in 2012-2013 when I took a survey class of the entire Bible, which left me much more confused than when I started as I kept finding more cracks in my beliefs. I'd like to try again, and seek to understand the gospel in the narrative of the whole Bible. This isn't something I can resolve in a few days, or weeks; it will be an ongoing project that will hopefully represent a new, more positive direction for this blog.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Dear David,

    I hope you are well. I like to read your blog because of its insight & sincerity, seen above as always, but I’m perplexed. After a BA in philosophy, I know that another man's thoughts are never what they first seem. Above, we could be in substantial agreement, but something feels off. Consider the following; we can both grow from discussion to follow:

    1. Ideas have consequences.

    2. A person is not a set of propositions, but those which can truly be said of them reflect who they are.

    3. While Christianity is more than ideas, it will never be anything less.

    4a. Fellowship is a function of that held in common, unity of that which unites.
    b. Christian unity & fellowship is based on a central reality: three persons.
    c. This reality can be expressed vaguely in many ways, but concretely in some.
    d. Where they exist, concrete expressions of the faith are found in propositions (doctrines).

    3+4. While Christianity is more than doctrines, doctrines define the outer boundary of Christian unity & fellowship. There may be an inexpressible reality within, but in some basic sense, our experience of faith must be governed by doctrines.

    5. I can’t renovate what I believe of someone without changing who I'm relating to. Your assumptions about the minimum wage, suits, smiles, frowns, etc. all determine—rightly or wrongly, intentionally or not—the nature of your relationships.

    6. This is more so with God, Truth, who is seldom experienced in tangible, direct revelation.

    PAUSE: There's a big difference between being doctrinaire & open-but-grounded. We may not know as much as we imagine or abuse scripture in the process. This is unchristian academic conduct. However, as clarity is a gem in all aspects of life (particularly relationships), clear doctrine is an absolute gem when it can be found.

  3. 7. The bible is seldom immediately clear: it’s ancient literature in other languages, written by complex & varied authors. This doesn't mean it isn't clear, just that we can't be facile in how we relate to God’s word.

    8. If the bible has objective meaning, it lies in what the original authors intended. Poetry must be read as poetry, Israelite history as such, Paul as Paul, Peter as Peter, etc. It may or may not be easy to access this originally intended meaning, but this is where the truth lies.

    9. The bible is one revelation from the same God, as determined in the patristic period by those in a position to judge, confirmed by the unprecedented preservation of the text, internal witness of the spirit, etc.

    10. A clarity-seeking approach to scripture can be summarized in at least three statements:
    --1) Clear passages should be favored over the unclear.
    --2) Teaching passages are the most illuminating (history isn’t normative, poetry is affective, etc.)
    --3) Intentional references are preferable to incidental ones on any given topic.

    11. By implication: Romans 4 would be the most clear, complete, & glorious presentation of justification. 1 Corinthians 15 is the only scripture passage which clearly, explicitly & intentionally explains "the gospel".

    To conclude:

    I. I DON'T embrace much of evangelical theologizing. Leaping to Christian readings of the OT is bad exegesis. Reducing theology to cute statements with a proof-text behind them is passing off spiritual milk as meat, bad pastoring. A facile faith is one barely worth having.

    II. I WON’T reduce the faith to a set of propositions. True Christianity consists in orthodoxy, orthopraxy, & orthopathy: right thinking, doing, & feeling. If we hold the same doctrines but feel differently about them, we believe different things. Dead theology is heretical!

    III. I INSIST that fundamentals of the gospel are expressed in statements like "salvation by faith alone" or "justification by the imputed, alien righteousness of Christ". To revise these is to revise the gospel itself, altering one's relationship to the Persons behind it. However much the faith may primarily consist in its mysteries, changing one clear scriptural doctrine is to abandon the whole faith.

    Happy searching; be careful.

    Yours in Christ, ~Mason M. Mitchell

    1. I pretty much agree with you, up until your last conclusion. You say you won't reduce the faith to a set of propositions, yet you say that to modify one of the propositions expressing the fundamentals of the gospel "is to abandon the whole faith". Isn't this reducing the faith to a proposition, i.e. equating the truth of the gospel with what is expressed in the proposition, and denying that there is anything beyond the proposition that could allow for it to be revised?

      On a more technical note, why did you split this comment into two? Is there a maximum comment length?

  4. Dear David,

    I had to split it because the response length is capped at 4,090 characters, which is suspiciously less than, say, 4,090 characters. At least it got me to trim things down before I double posted anyway.

    Back to your comment: there would appear to be a tension, but I don't believe it's there. If I give you the most beautiful painting of Caravaggio's but withold, say, the canvas, do you still have a masterpiece? Does this mean that renaissance painting is nothing more than oil, pigment, and canvas all lumped together? You don't even have a work of the same kind.

    Let's say I introduce you to the girl of your dreams: she's a woman of character, personality, intelligence, and beuty. The only cache is that I conjured her up permanently missing a few vital organs. Does this mean that a soulmate is nothing more than flesh and blood? Even though she is of the same "kind" of person, she's dead.

    Accordingly, let's say that Christianity is far more than what words can say, certainly ours, formed after a meager life time in the face of infinity. Fair! But if our Christianity is less than what words can say, we run the risk of turning it into a different kind of thing than Christianity or killing what we hold dear.

    IF it can be shown that scripture teaches some things clearly- the triunity of God, the incarnation, and so on, then these teachings cannot be denied within the bounds of the faith. Will we understand the trinity fully? Not by a long shot. Might our handling of salvation & sanctification be a bit presumptuous or trite? Perhaps. Whatever the cautions, however, fundamentals are fundamental.

    This is really a gateway into a larger conversation, as I am assuming that these doctrines are clear and central enough to be considered fundamentals. It is a conversation harder to find among evangelicals, who tend to avoid the question of "fundamentalism proper" for many of the concerns you state above, along with a fear of partisanship or divisiveness. This need not be the case: knowing what you share, where to draw lines and where to respect differences is the saving grace of all relationships.

    Does this clarify things?

    Yours in Christ, ~MMM

    1. Thanks for the good, clear explanation. I think I would disagree with your assumption that there are doctrines "clear and central enough to be called fundamentals", except those explicitly handed to us as such in Scripture, e.g. that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 Jhn 4:2), that He is the son of God (1 Jhn 4:15), or that Jesus is Lord and God raised Him from the dead (Rom 10:9). We have it on good (i.e., inspired) authority that all who profess Christ are obligated to affirm these things.

      Once we tread any further than this, there is some amount of our own interpretation (however small) in whatever conclusions we reach. (Granted, the translation of the Biblical manuscripts is itself a kind of interpretation, but I'm not too concerned with that in this case) This may involve putting together Biblical statements into larger doctrines (e.g. the Trinity) or clarifying statements that, standing alone, are hard to pin down, such as that Jesus is the Son of God. In cases like these, simply arriving at the propositions by which the "fundamentals" are stated involves our own, fallible interpretation.

      So I think what I am trying to do is differentiate what the Bible says to us from what we do with what it says. This is something like an application of the position of critical realism (as expounded by N.T. Wright and others) to biblical interpretation. There is a difference between trying to revise what the Bible actually says and trying to revise the conclusions we draw from interpreting it. If I stray into doing the former, it was not intended and feel free to call me out on it, but the latter is an inescapable corollary of our finite humanity.