Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Gospel and the Consequences of the Gospel

In my Adult Sunday School class at Westney Heights Baptist Church last Sunday I expounded John 21:1-14, the miraculous catch of fish, which is, of course, about evangelization. John 20-21 depicts the risen, but not yet ascended, Lord Jesus Christ organizing, empowering, instructing and preparing His Church for her mission in the world. Central to the work of the Church in the time between the Ascension and the Return of Christ is evangelization. My plea was that we would keep our eye firmly fixed on the ball and not allow the world to squeeze us into the mold of making social action and social justice central to the mission of the Church. They are good in their place, but they are not the Gospel. Only the Church has the Gospel; if we don't preach it no one else will. Others may feed the hungry physically, but no one else can feed them spiritually.

It seems to me that we may well be in the middle of a Second (or is it the Third?) Great Defection from Evangelical Protestantism into liberal apostasy. A previous defection took place in the late 19th century and led eventually to the expulsion or withdrawal of many Evangelical and orthodox believers from the mainline Protestant denominations during the Fundamentalist-Modernist conflicts of the 1920's and 30's. Those events sowed the seeds for the current on-going decline of the old Protestant denominations, which is so evident today. Their decline is doctrinal, moral and numerical and the very survival (in any form) of denominations like The Episcopal Church and the United Church of Canada is in question. Certainly their gospel witness has evaporated.

Yet, incredible as it may seem, many Evangelicals are once again falling for the siren song of "relevance" by embracing the same doctrinal deviations as late 19th century Evangelicals did, including a denial of moral guilt produced by sin, the need for a substitutionary atonement, the divinity of Christ, the need for personal conversion and the need for separation from worldliness (while remaining, of course, in the world). Along with this eviserating of the the heart of the Gospel (Christ died for our sins) there must be, and always is, a new replacement "gospel" of moralism and good works. Concern for the poor, "peaceandjustice" and environmentalism come to stand in the center of the Christian proclamation instead of sin and atonement.

In a recent editorial in Themelios, D. A. Carson addresses the question of "What is the gospel?" [My comments in bold in square brackets]

"In blogs, journal essays, and books, there has been quite a lot written recently about what “the gospel” is. In the hands of some, the question of what “the gospel” is may be tied to the question of what “evangelicalism” is, since “gospel” = εὐαγγέλιον = evangel, which lies at the heart of evangelicalism. . . .[In David Bebbington's widely-accepted four-fold definition of Evangelicalism as an historic movement, the centrality of the cross is one of the four distingishing marks. This is indisputable and Carson is about to unpack it.] . . . one must distinguish between, on the one hand, the gospel as what God has done and what is the message to be announced and, on the other, what is demanded by God or effected by the gospel in assorted human responses. [This is a crucial distinction. If not made, it results in the distortion of the gospel and the failure to preach the gospel.] If the gospel is the (good) news about what God has done in Christ Jesus, there is ample place for including under “the gospel” the ways in which the kingdom has dawned and is coming, for tying this kingdom to Jesus’ death and resurrection, for demonstrating that the purpose of what God has done is to reconcile sinners to himself and finally to bring under one head a renovated and transformed new heaven and new earth, for talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, consequent upon Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and above all for focusing attention on what Paul (and others—though the language I’m using here reflects Paul) sees as the matter “of first importance”: Christ crucified. All of this is what God has done; it is what we proclaim; it is the news, the great news, the good news. [The gospel is not everything that the Church has to say, but rather a proclamation (heralding) of what God has done. The Church will, of course, have other things to say on the basis of the Gospel, i.e. "teaching them to obey all things I have commanded you," once the Gospel has been proclaimed and a local congregation of believers formed. ]

By contrast, the first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. [This must be said and it must be said this bluntly. If you find yourself resisting this truth, you may well need to examine your conscience and your understanding of the basis of your salvation.] We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. [Of course.] But they are not the gospel. Similarly, the gospel is not receiving Christ or believing in him, or being converted, or joining a church; it is not the practice of discipleship. [Here is where many Evangelicals make the same mistake with regard to piety as Liberals make with regard to social service and it explains why some Evangelicals are already half-way to Liberalism even though they look and sound orthodox. I want to stress that this insight is not a uniquely Reformed insight, as people like Brian McLaren would like you to believe (although many Reformed preachers express it very well). But John Wesley would concur with Carson here, as would Benedict XVI.] Once again, the gospel faithfully declared and rightly received will result in people receiving Christ, believing in Christ, being converted, and joining a local church; but such steps are not the gospel. The Bible can exhort those who trust the living God to be concerned with issues of social justice (Isa 2; Amos); it can tell new covenant believers to do good to all human beings, especially to those of the household of faith (Gal 6); it exhorts us to remember the poor and to ask, not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whom am I serving as neighbor?” We may even argue that some such list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. [Theologians will argue about the precise definition of "necessary" here.] But it is not the gospel. We may preach through the list, reminding people that the Bible is concerned to tell us not only what to believe but how to live. But we may not preach through that list and claim it encapsulates the gospel. The gospel is what God has done, supremely in Christ, and especially focused on his cross and resurrection.

Failure to distinguish between the gospel and all the effects of the gospel tends, on the long haul, to replace the good news as to what God has done with a moralism that is finally without the power and the glory of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascended, and reigning. [Right. This is the main problem of liberalism - moralism instead of the good news of salvation. And moralism is bad news - who can live up to the Divine standard?]

Clearly, Don Carson and I are on the same page here. It is a good editorial about a pressing contemporary issue.


Peter Dunn said...

I see this apostasy happening and it takes me by surprise how much conformity to the culture is taking place. I wonder if you would hazard to identify any current streams which are falling or have fallen into this trap of replacing the mission of the church with a social gospel and justice: Is it happening to InterVarsity, Regent College, and Wheaton College.

My wife is in business, and we use a large percentage of our income to support the mission of the church, not least of all in our project called the Barnabas Venture. I am increasingly alarmed by how much socialism and marxism have become vogue amongst Christians, even by people who depend on hard working Christians like my wife. Wealthy Christians who give to missions should be careful not to support ministries who if successful undermine their potential for success. Consider, for example, also that Barack Obama has attacked charitable giving by clawing back the benefit to wealthy donors. Moreover, if there is increased taxes on people like us, we will certainly have far less to give to the mission of the church.

I know of a person, through his blog, who says that we must all shun wealth and identify with the poor; he himself practically lives with street people. But now he has turned around and said that he needs financial support because he is going to work for a different ministry. If everyone did like he does, who is left to support his ministry? I don't understand the complete disconnection from the real world.

jonathanturtle said...

"Central to the work of the Church in the time between the Ascension and the Return of Christ is evangelization. My plea was that we would keep our eye firmly fixed on the ball and not allow the world to squeeze us into the mold of making social action and social justice central to the mission of the Church. They are good in their place, but they are not the Gospel."

I don't doubt that evangelism is central to the work of the Church, however, I don't understand you're apparent desire to separate "social action" from evangelism. You say that social action is "good in [it's] place, but [it's] not the gospel," which is fair enough, but wouldn't you agree that the same could be said about a faith that is toted around in the form of propositional truths and intellectual acknowledgments? Neither of these things by themselves is the Gospel. For the Gospel seems to me, not merely something that can be grasped intellectually, but something that must be worked out in real life as well, and social action/justice seems to be an appropriate venue for such a call.

What would you consider evangelism, I suppose, would be the next question? Is it merely confronting people with tracts laced in propositional statements about ones faith?

Craig Carter said...

I don't understand why you write so pejoratively about propositions - in propositions. How can either version of the Gospel be expressed in any other form? The Liberal Protestant view is expressed in propositions every bit as much, and in exactly the same way, as the Evangelical view. This is a red herring.

Now, you ask if "a faith that is toted around in the form of propositional truths and intellectual acknowledgments?" is the Gospel. I was clear, I thought, about that. No, faith is not the Gospel. The Gospel (Good News) is that even though we are lost sinners, God has done something astonishing and wonderful in Jesus Christ for us when we were helpless. This is true apart from our faith or lack thereof and apart from our works or lack thereof. Neither piety nor good works are identical with the Gospel. They are human responses to Divine action.

Faith is a response to the Gospel. It is initially passive and simply believes the good news, recognizing that in our lostness there was nothing we could do to save ourselves. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Paul in Galatians is adamant that this faith is not works. It is the empty hand that simply receives the gift of God. It is utterly and totally passive. Otherwise it is the religion of the Pharisee in Jesus' story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector. (Liberals = Pharisees.)

Then, once salvation is received and the Spirit takes up residence in our lives - then good works begin to take place as fruit of the Spirit and arise out of a heart of gratitude. This is why James could say that faith without works is dead - i.e. not true faith. But he never says that faith is works.

You write: "For the Gospel seems to me, not merely something that can be grasped intellectually, but something that must be worked out in real life as well, and social action/justice seems to be an appropriate venue for such a call." No. Paul says it is our salvation that must be worked out, but our salvation is not the Gospel. To say that the Gospel must be "worked out" is to repeat the heresy of the Judaizers that Paul opposed so ferociously. We don't work out the Gospel, we respond to the saving work of God in us (and even our response is a work of God's grace).

You see, there is a world of difference between saying, with the NT and the Reformers, that a perfectly passive faith in what God has done for us is what it means to be saved and that once we have been saved good works will follow as surely as night follows day, on the one hand, and to say with Liberalism that, instead of a passive faith we need to do good works in order really to be saved, on the other hand. In the first case, the good works are actually the result of God the Holy Spirit working in us fruitfully. In the second, the good works are our contribution to our own salvation.

Think of Paul's attitude to circumcision. He wasn't against circumcision per se. He even had Timothy circumcised so as not to cause needless, distracting disputes. But when someone make being circumcised the prerequisite for becoming a Christian Paul opposed circumcision with all the fury and scorn he could muster because our salvation cannot be dependent on our good works. Was he crazy? Was he inconsistent? Was he all upset about a little thing? I think not.

You ask what I think evangelism is. Read Acts 2. That is it. Social work, as in digging wells and providing medical treatment, is not evangelism. It is a good thing to do and Christians should do it because they are Christians. But if we never call people to personal faith in Jesus Christ, we are not doing evangelism. Contrary to what liberal Protestants think, the number one thing every person in this world needs - whether rich or poor - is personal salvation from sin and the hope of eternal life in God. Making life on this earth more comfortable until eventually death takes us all is no substitute for evangelism. I don't know how to be more clear about that.

Craig Carter said...

Conformity to the culture is the problem all right. But Evangelicals do not seem to have a theology of cultural non-conformity. We throw all our resources into winning on issues like same sex marriage and when we lose we have no plans for living as a minority and resisting the pressure to conform. I honestly think this is why we are seeing drift.

The other reason is that we are too anti-intellectual and too casual about scholarship. We need more Evangelical patristics scholars and more Evangelicals who do both serious theology and serious philosophy. And we really need a Canadian - I think an Ontario - thinktank on the model of the Ethics and Public Policy Center or the Institute of Religion and Democracy in the US. Considering all states and provinces, Ontario is one of the most liberal jurisdictions in North America. Conservatives of all stripes are on the defensive. I think a public policy thinktank that does research and scholarship would be a huge step in the right direction - especially one dedicated to sexual revolution and culture of death issues.