Monday, June 22, 2009

There is no hole in the gospel

There is a book apparently circulating around my church called "The Hole in our Gospel." The byline is "What does God expect of us?"

First, I want to make it clear that while the author, Richard Stearns, means well, I strongly stand against the message of this book. I will go as far as to say that I think this book is very damaging and its core message is evil.

Let's look at a quote from the book:

"Belief is not enough. Worship is not enough. Personal morality is not enough. And Christian community is not enough. God has always demanded more."

Silly apostle Paul and his crazy ideas about salvation by faith, and living by grace and by the Spirit. Mr. Stearns presents us with a caricature of belief in grace thusly:

"More and more, our view of the gospel has been narrowed to a simple transaction, marked by checking a box on a bingo card at some prayer breakfast..."

He likens belief in grace to a "bingo card" gospel. He says that the true gospel is like this:

"... it first requires that we repent of our own sinfulness and totally surrender our individual lives to follow Christ, but then we are also commanded to go into the world - to bear fruit by lifting up the poor and the marginalized, challenging injustice wherever we find it, rejecting the worldly values found within every culture, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. While our 'joining' in the coming kingdom of God may begin with a decision, a transaction, it requires so much more than that."

I want to remind you that he is saying that there is a HOLE in "our" GOSPEL. It is the title of the book. Essentially, we cannot really call ourselves Christians unless we go to Afica and serve starving orphans and AIDS patients. It is the condition which God requires. It is the GOSPEL. Simple belief in Christ is a fake gospel, the REAL gospel requires you to do some kind of drastic level of sacrifice, all the better if it involves Africa. Somehow all of this heaping guilt and responsibility for all of the world's problems on my shoulders is good news.

Why am I so hot about this? Anything we add to the gospel is evil. Either God saves us and loves us and redeems us by His own work through Christ and the cross only, or it is human work and effort only. It is Christ plus nothing which saves us and gives us the power to do good. The message of this book lays a terrible burden upon Christians that is not really there.

The reason we go to serve, our inner motivation, our belief system and the power which guides us, is all-important. If I go under compulsion that my very redemption, my salvation, my rightness with God, is predicated upon being there, that I am SACRIFICING myself to fulfill God's demands, what kind of person am I to those I propose to serve? I am a resentful selfish do-gooder that comes as an alien whose only real concern is to ease my guilty conscience before God. I do not come to them out of real compassion and concern for their needs, but for myself; it is desperate exercise in self-redemption. There is little joy in that, and if I talk to people who are not believers, is this the message of God to them? Not, I love you, I forgive, I welcome you, I have deep compassion for your hurts and shame, but rather, I need you to press you into terrible service which you cannot conceive of and do not want?

It is a bait and switch tactic isn't it? I utterly reject it. It starts with a fake promise of love and joy and freedom, but ends with burdens more terrible than any religion in history.

I think Paul's writings in the New Testament are clear that belief IS enough. It must be grace that motivates us to good deeds.

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Ro 8:1 Nowhere in Paul's seminal books do I see the kind of 'gospel' spelled out that this book implies. I see grace spelled out by Jesus over and over. It starts with ME being the starving miserable rotten sinner, loved and redeemed by Christ, I see a father who always runs to welcome me with tears of joy and quickly clothes me and restores my dignity. Until I am solid in my place as one who is loved unconditionally and truly by the living God, and am comfortable that all of my good deeds are of grace, and that grace is all and in all and every good breath and every secret thought is redeemed and colored by grace, I can do nothing real to serve anyone. Doesn't anyone take the book of Romans and all the parables of Jesus seriously at all? Doesn't anyone shake with fear at all the hard teachings of Jesus about being pure of heart and not even being angry with people? Doesn't anyone believe that the real release is grace and forgiveness and the empowerment of the Spirit?

Do I thus say that we should not serve the poor, that we should just sit in a room in deep inner contemplation of the mysteries of God? Of course not! I say, do NOT mix up the beautiful message of the love of God and redemption for ME with ANY OTHER REQUIREMENT. A little mold ruins the whole loaf.

Why don't Christians defend grace? It is the only thing we really have at all!! It is the only thing we need. It is our only hope of serving anyone. Where is the voice that cries out, there is no hole in the gospel. It is God who saves me, I no longer am required to live up to the standards of religion. By the Spirit we are led by grace and compassion, and the crying need for every person is grace and acceptance and love. I celebrate that I have left the little prison of having to do this or that, small things or great, to earn God's favor. I am loved, now, and forever, and because I am loved with an extraordinary love I am greatly forgiven. I and my beloved do not put conditions of service on our romance. I am beloved. I serve because I love, and I love because I was first loved by Him. There is no greater message. If He, in His wisdom and love, leads me here or there, it is not the spirit of shame and obligation which is going to help me, but I will bear compassion and truth because I have been greatly loved, so I can love greatly. We belittle grace at great peril, but we triumph over every situation when we walk in the Spirit as beloved children. Belief in grace is no bingo card checkmark, it is the warp and woof of the simple Christian life. We are worse than nothing if we try to change that message. We become weapons that beat people into sullen miserable submission if we do not determine to teach nothing but grace.

The gospel is whole, and simple belief is more than enough, it is a great abundance. I urge everyone reading this to step into the light of belief in a real God who really loves you no matter what happens. Stop taking hard verses out of context so that you can interpret them in a hard way against grace. Stop excluding the passages which imply grace out of the picture so you can believe in a difficult and burdensome Christian life. The whole message of Christ obviously centers in forgiveness and grace and love. It is not your service which defines you, it is His love for you which defines you. Don't put the cart before the horse. First, find your treasure, hidden in the field, and then from JOY OVER IT you can make your sacrifices. Don't think that this is all splitting hairs and semantics. The flavor of the pure milk of the word is kindness - drink that, and refuse every condemning voice. Then you will find true compassion and will be a useful vessel to go into the world.