The Offense Of The Gospel, Part 2 — What is "The Gospel"?

Earlier I discussed the three-fold nature of “the offense of the Gospel” described in Scripture — the impolite discussion, first of all, of “personal” things like religion in a culture that freely discusses anything else, the insistence of the Christian that truth claims have a place in discussing spiritual things, and the always-unwelcome assertion that the hearer of the Good News must contend with the bad news that he or she is a sinner.

But what message could possibly be important enough to risk offending another? What is it that Christians feel so strongly about that they would risk alienating those they most want to impress, favorably, with their message? And how have seemingly innocuous ideas of what makes a “good” Christian demonstrated a very real, and very troubling, departure from the core of Christianity itself?

In a predominately “Christian-ish” culture such as ours, where different religious views and traditions are considered secondary to a homogenized code of decency and right conduct that has become a civic religion regardless of the origin of those mores, it’s common to hear that certain actions are “Christian.” We take a casserole to a sick neighbor because it’s “the Christian thing to do.” We trumpet modesty, thrift, kindness, generosity and civility as “Christian” virtues and consider a lifetime of decent conduct and membership in a Baptist or Methodist (or Catholic, Pentecostal, or Episcopalian) church sufficient testimony to the “Christianity” of the deceased. Most tragic is the blithe assurance we hold regarding our own faith, as long as it’s vaguely grounded in Christian tradition and produces a life of virtue and civility. The Christian-ish — the substitution of civil religion and tradition for true commitment to Jesus Christ — may produce and encourage right living, or maybe not, but it is responsible for the spiritual death of millions and millions of people — good people, the kind of people we all want to be, who die in their sins because they know all about Jesus and yet don’t actually know him.

It’s not the enemy of our souls who is responsible for all of this, although he certainly reaps the benefit. The impotent and accommodating witness of Jesus’ disciples in this country has ushered in an era in which the right political views and an uncomplicated decency is considered “good enough,” just as individual sinners, myself most definitely included, consider themselves “good enough” when first confronted with the claims of Jesus Christ as represented by the Christian Gospel. It’s as offensive as it is untrue that the personal and public virtues of thrift, modesty, kindness and tolerance are somehow “Christian.” Of course they’re part of the expected conduct of Christians, but they’re also virtues common to Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and other adherents to various religions and faith traditions. Neither is this “ethic of decency” solely practiced and embraced by religious people; it’s entirely possible to be a decent human being and reject with vehemence any idea of the transcendent, whether in the form of a Deity or not.

It sullies the testimony of Christians to assume that all good conduct is “Christian.” If that’s the case, then, why exalt, much less work to proclaim, the Gospel of Jesus Christ? If good behavior were somehow enough, wouldn’t the encouragement of virtue be sufficient, both for individuals and for society as a whole? Even if individuals could agree that they are sinful, and that society is saturated with sin, wouldn’t feeling bad about it be enough?

It’s here where the offense of the Gospel is revealed in all its jarring, complacency-smashing beauty. It isn’t enough to be good; it isn’t enough to cling to a particular religious tradition’s truth claims, and it isn’t enough to wish for the good of others around you. “The wages of sin are death,” the Bible proclaims, and even the fiercest opponent of the Christian Scriptures has to acknowledge that the world is reeling with violence, greed, and oppression, and reeking of bigotry, hatred, and destruction. Refusing to call it “sin” doesn’t make it less so, and while it’s often difficult for people to see themselves as sinners, most people can honestly say that the world around them is, in fact, sinful. So what is the Christian’s response?

The only possible response is the only possible remedy for humankind’s disastrous individual and corporate circumstances — the Gospel of Christ. It’s both simple and profound, easily understood and yet terribly difficult to accept. The Gospel of Christ makes the staggering claim, first of all, that all of us are sinners. A debate over original sin, while interesting, isn’t necessary to illustrate the point — in tallying our sins, God stops counting at one. Just one sin is enough to separate us from a Holy God. And that’s the good news — there’s no need to expend any energy in trying to determine if we’re in need of a Savior. I’ve sinned more than once just today; thank God he no longer counts mine against me, solely because of the work of Jesus Christ. The Gospel proclaims what I don’t want to believe and offers hope that I don’t want to need; it announces that we are, undeniably, separated from God because of our sin. We may all recognize the degree to which we’re hurting — separated from peace — because of the effect of other people’s sins against us, but we struggle with the idea that we, “good” as we are, are nonetheless separated from God.

The Good News gets worse, in a sense, by proclaiming that there is absolutely nothing we can do to remedy our situation — to bridge the gap that exists between God and us because of our sin. God wants us to do good things; the Christian’s faith is evidenced not by her words but by the “fruit” she demonstrates, and that fruit better correspond to the character of Christ Jesus. The Bible refers to the expected and empowered conduct of the Christian as the Fruit of the Holy Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, mercy, and self-control, and it describes behavior that’s inconsistent with life in Christ.

But the emphasis on our good works is not their contribution toward one’s salvation — they contribute nothing. That’s another blow to the unbeliever, for whom good works are seen as appropriate currency to gain favor in the market of faith. Desirable as they are, our righteous deeds and most sincere virtue are utterly worthless as a means of gaining salvation. Being “Christian-ish” requires a steady flow of good works tepid or fervent; being Christian requires acknowledgment that nothing we do, have done, or will do, no matter how beautiful, pious, sincere and loving, can change our situation. Our sins condemn us just as our righteous works fail us.

But our Gospel offers us hope in the form of the death and resurrection of Christ. Here it is in a nutshell: The Gospel proclaims that we’re all sinners (the one writing this easily as much as anyone reading it), and that our sin separates us from God. In God’s great, unfathomable love for us, he sent his son, Jesus, to pay the price for our sins in our place, dying on the cross so we don’t have to die in our sins. His death paid the price; his resurrection ensures our victory over sin and our union with him here and after our physical death. He paid the price, bridged the gap, died in our place, and did it fully in love, for all humankind. Because of Jesus Christ, my sins, past, present, and future, are no longer counted against me; to God, the “guilty” verdict is done away with and my innocence is guaranteed. I still sin — any Christian who says she doesn’t is lying — and yet my Savior’s death and resurrection is a verdict of righteousness and victory applied to my account, solely because of him — his righteousness, his love, his work on my behalf and yours. That exchange is available to all, simply because of the astonishing love of our God. All it takes is faith — plus nothing.

So if my good works, my sincere efforts to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with my God, don’t save me — don’t impress God so that my sins are overlooked, like some cosmic set of scales that may or may not tip toward goodness on my part — why should I continue doing them? That’s the subject of my next post, an unexpected Part 3 that is necessary, I think, because while the Gospel message is sufficient for salvation, the Christian life cannot stop at securing one’s eternity by trusting in Christ. The Christian’s testimony should rightly keep relationship with Christ in faith as its primary focus, but too often “getting saved” is seen as the end. It’s just the beginning, and that’s where the societal transformation that being Christian-ish cannot bring about comes into play.

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