Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Gospel according to

... me, in my early Christian years. Recently I was trying to summarise how I conceived the gospel in the first years of my Christian life and I came up with the following 8 points. It is meant to be represent a popular evangelical perspective with a slight charismatic twist. Would you add anything?

1) God is holy. 2) Humans are sinful and therefore provoke God's just wrath. 3) In order to be reconciled to the holy God, God's wrath needs to be satisfied. 4) Jesus died on the cross to pay this price for my sin. 5) His death averted God's wrath against sin from me, and enabled me, by believing in Jesus, to approach the holy God. 6) If I pray and ask God for forgiveness because of Jesus, I will be saved and spend eternity enjoying God's glory in heaven, instead of eternity in hell (all of this is often assigned the heading 'justification')

Associated with this are various other points which, though not the gospel directly, are associated with it: 7) Salvation begins in this life. I can experience God's life, healing and power in my life, so that I can live with victory over personal sin, pray for the sick and see them healed, experience God's provisions and blessing in my finances, job and marriage. This is another way of separating the 'justification' spoken of above from the 'sanctification' implied here. 8) The heart and centre of all of this is a relationship with Jesus, and this is sustained by daily prayer and bible reading.

In a bible course I am running I have drafted a few questions and problems for people to discuss in relation to this definition. Would you add anything to the following questions and statements? Or change any of them?

  • Does God need to punish someone in order to forgive? Jesus said to forgive your enemies. Does this understanding of the gospel imply God doesn't forgive until he has let Jesus suffer and die?
  • The gospel as outlined above assumes that the reaction of God's holiness to human sin is the problem the gospel solves. But doesn't Paul speak about God reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not about God being reconciled to us (2 Cor. 5:15-21)?
  • Why doesn't Paul simply say the above if the gospel is so easily reducible to a set of propositions?
  • The focus on sin often boils down to a focus on guilt, but do all understand the concept that well? Why do other people groups speak, for example, about shame instead?
  • In order to make people feel guilty, we invent ways of convincing people that they are sinners. We have to make a problem for them, for Jesus to be a real solution. But is that really what the gospel is about? And how do we try to make a problem for people? We try to argue that all are murderers, or all are like Hitler before God. But does this argument convince you? What does it say about God?
  • Is not this gospel a product of an older age, one that does no resonate well with many people today? I.e. the focus is on the individual, what the individual 'gets', the format of the gospel as a set of propositions divorced from its original narrative shape, the focus on heaven (spiritual reality), etc.
  • And as such, does it not fail to really connect with late or post modern people? Why is this? What are post or late modern people concerned about?
  • What about community? Is it really all about me and my personal relationship with Jesus sustained by praying and reading the bible in private (with 'go to church' tagged on at the end as a moral imperative)?
  • What about real problems in the world like poverty, child death rates in poor countries, social inequalities keeping people groups out of work, the abuse of the environment, broken marriages, drug abuse, prostitution, obesity, dissolving communities etc.? Why did things like this not find expression in the core group of issues describing the gospel?
  • Why does Paul not divorce 'justification' and 'sanctification'? Indeed, why does he mix them?
  • How many really believe this gospel? How do you feel about the implication that most won't 'go to heaven', on this basis? And how about the notion that those who don't go to heaven don't do so simply because they didn't pray a sinners prayer, or consent to the idea that they are sinners like Hitler? Why did God create all of these people if he knew they would end up in hell?
  • And why do we talk about 'going to heaven' all the time? What did Paul speak about? In what ways is that different?
  • What is good and what appeals to you about the above?


At 5/29/2008 11:23 PM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...

"What about real problems in the world like poverty, child death rates in poor countries, social inequalities . . . "

I would add to this list of real problems USA Men's Soccer [= football]. Sorry to say it but it's true.

In all seriousness though, re: "Does God need to punish someone [Jesus] in order to forgive?" I would avoid this question, as the way the whole is phrased contributes to what I think is an unhealthy division of Trinitarian labor, i.e., steers readers away from reality that God's punishment is self-inflicted, self-borne (a necessary element of forgiveness, kata Volf and others).

At 5/29/2008 11:52 PM, Anonymous Looney said...

"Does this understanding of the gospel imply God doesn't forgive until he has let Jesus suffer and die?"

Jesus said to the paralytic, "son your sins are forgiven". Hence, at least in one instance, forgiveness preceded the crucifixion.

"Why doesn't Paul simply say the above if the gospel is so easily reducible to a set of propositions?"

Easy: The process of searching the scriptures is at least as important as knowing the correct propositions. Otherwise, we could simply list the propositions and dispense with scripture.

Corollary: Redneck Joe has just as much of an obligation to search the scriptures as Scholar Chris.

Sin: Your problem here is that you are starting with the usual man-centric definitions, rather than a god-centric one. The creator determines the rules for the creation, not the other way around - as is popular today.

Finally: If a church doesn't teach your 8-point gospel or a very close variation (7 or 12 points would be more spiritual!), I would tend to regard it as a pagan institution rather than a church.

At 5/30/2008 12:15 AM, Anonymous volker said...

Very good questions, Chris, I agree with most of the points that you imply.
I too very much struggle with the punishment aspect.
My answer to your question "Does God need to punish someone [Jesus] in order to forgive?" would be: No, he does not need to. Surely, God should be able to forgive upon us asking for forgiveness without him needing to "see blood". This is what I preached in a sermon on Good Friday, and I focussed instead on the other aspects of the atonement.

However, in retrospect I had to think about a different sermon, one that I preached on the question of theodicee. There I said that Christ's death is the answer to human suffering. And that it is also the answer to human guilt. I think the cross as well as end-time condemnation-annihilation is one side of how God deals with guilt. The biblical evidence speaks quite clearly for this. And while I struggle with this fact pretty often, there are other times when I am faced with people suffering from injustice or even myself being the victim of it, then I can see the value of God saying in Romans 12:19 'Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."'
I think a further part of this perspective is the concept of reward for good deeds in the next life - or not?

At 5/30/2008 4:11 AM, Anonymous Judy Redman said...

Some members of our congregation are working through the United Methodist Church USA's series of DVDs called "Living the Questions" (basically a presentation of Progressive Christian thought). Last night we looked at Creation. On the basis of this, I would like to offer another question to your list:

What if the problem that God had with the original two human beings that got them thrown out of Eden was not that they disobeyed God (ie sinned), but that they refused to take responsibility for their disobedience, instead trying to pass their guilt onto someone else?

I would suggest that another explanation for Jesus' death was that he was a person of integrity. Once he started down the path of calling people to repent (ie turn their lives around and follow God's teaching) and got up the noses of the authorities, his choices were to continue to do as he did and get crucified, because that was what happened to dissidents then, or to say "Sorry, guys, I made a mistake. You're really all lovely people who follow God's teachings to the letter and I wand all my followers to go back to doing what you say".

What kind of theology one develops out of this kind of thoughts I have no systematic idea, but other people do. :-)

At 5/30/2008 6:23 AM, Anonymous Looney said...

Judy, I think we have seen plenty of the Jesus-as-martyr theology over the past two centuries so that we can state where it leads. First it is side-by-side with the 8 points that Chris lists. Then it becomes preeminent, and finally the 8 points are dropped or downplayed resulting in the classic Mainline heresy: Jesus is our guru, but who needs a Savior and Lord?

Regarding Adam and Eve, I suppose we can ponder if The Fall would have been different if they had sinned only once instead of twice, but does that lead to anything useful?

At 5/30/2008 7:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Looney - just in case you missed the tone of Chris' blog, i think the whole point is that he intends to drop most of those 8 points. They may be the doctrines of fundamentalism, but they are not the gospel of Jesus of Christ.

At 5/30/2008 10:17 AM, Anonymous Ranger said...

I don't think it's necessary or fair to label people who hold to these points (or at least to most of them) as "fundamentalists" or to say that their gospel isn't the real gospel. There are some great scholars both historically and presently who hold to some of these points, and wouldn't be fundamentalists in any sense of the term. Chris more rightly defines them as a particular brand of evangelicalism.

Lol, I had a really long comment that disappeared somewhere into the night when I tried to post it. Anyways, let me try to recall the points.

I think if you hold to these points you are forced to read the OT God as being very vengeful, angry and constantly in need of appeasement. That's just not the case. Particularly in the DH, but throughout all of the OT we see a God who loves despite sinful actions while at the same time does punish when he feels necessary. It's not this pressure cooker God who is building up more and more pressure getting ready to explode at the Judgment, but that Jesus somehow satisfied through His death.

As such, I can't agree with the second half of your second point (although I can't deny that we are sinful), nor your third point. By necessity I also deny the fifth point, but believe through Jesus we do now have access to God (ala Hebrews and other parts of the NT).

I disagree with the fourth point because it's narrow. I believe that on the cross God reconciled the world to Himself. I also believe that he bore my debt (ala Col. 2) and forgave my sins. I also believe that he enabled a new type of community rooted in the worship of a crucified God. I also believe that God triumphed over earthly powers and cosmic evil. I could list more and more "I also believe" statements, but I think you get my point. I tend to fall into the "Community Called Atonement" camp that Scot McKnight wrote about and see the crucifixion as being a much broader and encompassing event than simply "to pay this price for my sin."

I would struggle affirming six and seven for a variety of reasons. One, I don't believe we will spend eternity "in heaven," but on the new earth post-resurrection. I think we will surely enjoy God's glory, but that we will also do and experience much more. Furthermore, "salvation" does begin in this life since believing in God frees us from judgment and brings us from death to life (John 5:24), but I don't think your following points about prosperity are true. At the same time, I do believe very strongly in God's healing power and believe that we are called to actively pray for His will to be done in the world which includes physical healing.

I agree and disagree with your final point. I believe Jesus is the center of everything. As such, he can be communed with through prayer, through the Lord's Supper, through reading Scripture, through the community of the church, etc. At the same time he is the criterion for understanding each of these things. He's the center.

Finally, I passionately want to get back to the meaning of community in Jesus. As such, I think it is good to question propositional and individualistic theology. At the same time, I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and think we can still learn much from this period of church history, while still striving to move back toward a more narrative theology that is more communally focused.

At 5/30/2008 8:27 PM, Anonymous Jason Pratt said...

{{Would you add anything to the following questions and statements? Or change any of them?}}

Since you're asking these questions (I mean as the point of your post), and not my evaluation of the 8 points, nor how I would answer or address the followups...

I would add to the followups the question: do points 2 through 5 (perhaps also 6) involve a schism between the intentions of 'God' and 'Jesus'? Or not? If so, would that schism be important? (If so, why? If not, why not?) If not (a schism of intention), how does the wording, as given, sufficiently help someone understand no schism of intention between the Persons of God is involved?


At 5/31/2008 11:42 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for your helpful comments, JB. And I am glad to agree with you about the football!

Hey Volker, surprisingly the meeting revealed to me that penal notions of atonement are really not common here!

Hi Judy, thanks for that tip. SOmething fresh sounds just perfect for me. Interesting thoughts on integrity. A useful perspective, even if not a completely embracing model.

Hi Ranger, some great thoughts. Yes, sure, many of these comment could be qualified. I am with you on teh community aspect, something I need to relearn I suspect.

Thanks for the link, Ordinand, I'll have a look. I think there is a lot of Platonism in some versions of evangelicalism. Some of it, dare I say, is healthy enough - but in my allergic reaction against it in any form, I loathe it wherever I smell its scent!

Hi Jason, great questions. I think this is a point JB was hinting at above.

At 6/01/2008 9:27 PM, Anonymous James Pate said...

As far as why doesn't Paul present those proposotions, I think that he does. That's what the Book of Romans is, right?

But I liked that part about do we have to convince people they're like Hitler to show them their need for Christ.


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