What Is The "Offense Of The Gospel"? (Part 1)

I write a lot about the witness of the Gospel, or the proclamation of the Gospel, or the living-out-in-a-sinful-world of the Gospel, but I don’t think I’ve ever discussed the “offense” of the Gospel, or even, for that matter, what I mean when I say “Gospel.” So I’ll discuss the offense first, and then, in my next post, I’ll explain what I mean by “the Gospel.”

It’s easy for religious terms, particularly Christian vocabulary, to take on a meaning not at all consistent with Scripture, and often not at all consistent with the very thing the words themselves describe. Christian doctrine, described in certain objective words and phrases, is a collection of truth claims derived from the Bible. Doctrine is not at all a substitute for the destination it points to — relationship with Christ Jesus and the forgiveness of sin and assurance of eternal life it brings — but it informs and describes the faith represented in the life and teachings of Christ, and what we know and believe about him must, to be truly Christian, conform to the Word of God. Being in love with Jesus while caring little for the truths that describe the movement that bears his name is not Christianity; at the same time, loving the doctrines more than loving Christ, or the ones he came to save, isn’t either.

While I and other Christians happily announce to one and all that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion,” there is, nonetheless, a set of beliefs garnered from the Scriptures that we Christians not only “believe,” but consider to be revealed truth. Ours is a faith based on knowledge and a trust based on what we take to be truth; we believe what we believe because it makes sense to the Spirit-informed mind, and we act on that belief because the Spirit brings us to a response, the passion and emotion of which make it no less logical and rational. First, we know about God. Then we come to know God, running into the Divine arms on a road paved with assertions about his character, his work, and his intention for us.

The fact that a religion puts forth any claims to truth, however, is problematic to those who see truth claims as the provence of science and history; religion, they say, is entirely subjective, and assertions of fact in the realm of the spiritual is an odd, and offensive, mix of categories. We live in a time that elevates spirituality, as long as that spirituality, however rigorous in its practice, is devoid of claims of objective truth. You want truth? Facts? A historical record? Well and good, our culture says. Study chemistry, the biographies of Victorian novelists, or a history of the Haitian Revolution — but don’t insert objective truth claims into the spiritual, the last, and perhaps the only, bastion of subjectivity in an increasingly rigid, scientific, technological world.

Christians live, too, in that scientific, technological world, but we, along with conservative adherents to Judaism and Islam — the Abrahamic faiths, or “religions of the Book” — live comfortably in it because of our understanding, however different, of the historicity and factual nature that forms our doctrinal positions. And while religious faith calls for a commitment generally more life-altering than the study of, say, gastroenterology, the Abrahamic religions are as comfortable with assertions of truth regarding their faith as they are with assertions of truth regarding the ascending colon.

So while Paul and the other writers of the New Testament refer to the stumbling block or offense of the Gospel, they wrote in a time in which truth claims were expected of religious faith — or of secular philosophy, however easily discarded a particular philosophy might have been by first-century thinkers. These secular philosophies, while more fluid than absolute, were at least the product of an epistemology that insists that human beings can KNOW — that there was security in the simplest exercises in logic, a security that enlivened philosophical discourse even when “the truth” wasn’t yet apprehended, or supplanted former “truths.” (See Acts 16-18). The Jews in Christ’s time were the recipients and keepers of an extensive history of God’s dealings with human beings, as well as a Law comprised of some 400 specific commands; they might have taken offense at the truth claims about Jesus that Paul set forth, but it was the content, not the nature, of his preaching that riled them. And while the stumbling block was and is, perhaps, felt and understood differently for the first-century Jews and for 21-st century unbelievers, it is, essentially, the same truth that gets to people. It got to me 29 years ago, and I’m glad it did. Because no matter how long I live, I’d be dead now without accepting it.

The primary offense of the Gospel, Scripture says and experience bears out, is the part that insists that the hearer, no matter how educated, devoted, and enthusiastic she is in her worship, is a rank sinner. It’s so . . . impolite. Well-bred people don’t tell other people that they’re sinners, lost and separated from God and entirely unable to win his love. It really pisses people off to hear “Good News” that starts with the fact that even the nicest people among us — and we’re usually not one of them anyway — are separated from God because of their own sin. As an opinion, that’s just uncalled for; as an assertion of fact, it’s enough to incite behavior that proves the truth of the initial point with utter, and unfortunate, clarity.

The first claim of the Gospel, that we are all sinners, violates every tenet of the majority religion around us. The people of the United States have cooked up and presented to one another a lovely substitute for the Christianity they continue to insist is their heritage, a culture of good behavior and vague religiosity that claims Christ, and whose adherents care little, if they’re aware at all, that they aren’t claimed by him. This was the religion of my childhood, when I was nominally Catholic and tremendously polite, dutiful, and well-behaved. I was Christian-ish; I was “basically good,” and not like the “obviously bad.” And in a Christian-ish sort of culture, where people say they’re Christian because they’re not, say, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or Zoroastrian, the ease with which “good” people cement their status by comparing themselves to Charles Manson, the September 11 terrorists, or even the obnoxious drunk down the street, is pronounced. Undoubtedly, most people do lots of good things, and most of us think we’re pretty good compared to people who do the bad things that we don’t, or who, if the judgment of sin were like a 4-H competition, would be the ones we’d most like to stand next to — secure in the belief that we’re bright, smiling, well-groomed, and quick to remind the judge that the stink and filth in the barn doesn’t come from us.

We set the bar for personal righteousness only as high as that of our neighbor’s worst behavior, and the bar of offense is low, too. We’re polite people, and polite society requires that you not go around telling people they’re sinners, they’re separated from God, and all of their good works are, as passage to eternal life, about as valuable as the bag of moldy mozzarella they threw out last night. The message might well be Christian, but it’s not very Christian-ish. It’s offensive, particularly to people raised in an atmosphere of rote civic religion — an assurance that ours is a Christian nation, and its citizens are, by birthright, members of God’s family, as long as they act like “good citizens.” Good citizens don’t like to be told that good citizenship doesn’t matter from an eternal perspective, and is wholly insufficient even from a temporal one. Polite society easily forgives the anger shown toward someone who would even suggest such a thing.

It’s understandable, really, and entirely to be expected of the devoutly “Christian-ish” — those who cling to a vaguely religious and generally decent set of behaviors and attitudes that comport nicely with national, familial, or social identification with all things Baptist, Catholic, or Presbyterian. It works well enough to continue as the nation’s true religion, and Satan has won no greater victory than that brought about by two centuries of national belief in a creed that asserts the one acceptable truth claim for the Christian-ish: that this is a “Christian nation,” which must, then, make its citizens “Christians.” Millions of people will spend eternity separated from God because they clung fervently to the Styrofoam of civil religion — the Christian-ish — and not to the Rock that is Christ.

Being Christian-ish requires adherence, in the name of Christ only when pressed or peeved, to common social mores that distinguish decent folks from bums, troublemakers, and scoundrels, but to be Christian-ish demands no real understanding of doctrine, requires a comfortable recall of Bible stories learned in childhood with little concern for Biblical literacy, and insists on deflecting truth claims and evangelistic efforts by an appeal to the “personal” nature of religion. Ronald Reagan was perhaps one of the nation’s best examples of Christian-ish, civil religion, as far as any of us can know. He captured the hearts, certainly not the minds, of millions of Christians who asked nothing more of this God-fearing hero than his occasional reassurance that he was, in fact, a God-fearing hero. Christian rock artist Steve Taylor said it well with his wry salute to Reagan in “It’s A Personal Thing:”

It’s a personal thing, and I find it odd
You’d question my believing in a personal God
I’m devout, I’m sincere
Ask my mother if you doubt
I’m religious, I’m just not radical about it

It’s that “personal” thing — private, none of your business — that, coupled with shock at being informed of one’s sinful status, is what joins with the presumptuous assertion of truth claims in the spiritual realm to make proclamation of the Gospel a three-point offense to those who hear it. The job of the Christian is to gently, lovingly, and faithfully call out the Christian-ish elements of our society, proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ with respect and humility, and bravely withstand reaction to the offense of the Gospel without adding to it by being obnoxious, unloving, and condemning. We were offended once, too. That offense got our attention, and the Holy Spirit graciously helped us over the stumbling block that is the first truth of the Christian Gospel. Because you’re a sinner, too, just like I am.

There’s no truth more sickeningly, regularly, obviously verifiable than that one.

2 Responses to “What Is The "Offense Of The Gospel"? (Part 1)”

  1. Ashwin says:

    Very very GOOD!

    I did not expect you to write something like this. I was wrong about you.

  2. Your comment means a lot, Ashwin. Please let me know what you think about Pts. 2 and 3 (when I finish it). Thanks,
    Keely

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