December 15, 2019

Another Look: A More Grounded Gospel

Note from CM: Back in 2015, I was reading the book mentioned below, and offered this post as part of my response to what I was absorbing from it. I’ve edited this in an update for today.

• • •

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

• Ephesians 1:22-23

The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection.

• N.T. Wright

When I was in the midst of reading N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good, I found that my perception of the gospel became more grounded.

Wright’s big point is that the gospel is an announcement of a public event that has taken place, an event which has changed everything.

  • It is not advice or instruction given to us, it is a proclamation that Jesus has become King, that God has taken charge of the world through the finished work of the Messiah.
  • God has established his rule of justice and peace in the world. God’s enemies have been defeated and will not win the war.
  • The resurrection, ascension, and outpouring of the Spirit means that the new era has begun. It’s a new day. The divine process of transforming the world has begun in earnest.
  •  The announcement of this gospel invites all who hear it to embrace the good news and become part of the transformation. “If anyone is in Christ — new creation!” (2Cor. 5:17, literal translation). The person herself becomes renewed, but even more than that, she becomes part of God’s new creation here and now, right in the midst of this present life. Through baptism she dies to the old creation and is “raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

God has taken charge of the world. Everything has changed. The new world has begun in Christ, who has taken his throne.

That is heady language. And frankly, it causes me consternation.

Here we are, two millennia later, and my eyes don’t see a new world. I observe a world that has progressed in many ways, become more civilized, technologically advanced, literate, and prosperous. But I don’t need to tell you about the unthinkable evil and suffering that continues to plague the inhabitants of earth. Every day I have a multitude of reasons to doubt that “God has now taken charge of the world.”

This is my primary theodicy question.

If the gospel is true, why hasn’t the world been transformed in such a long period of time?

Perhaps our understanding of the gospel is not grounded enough.

  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something spiritual, when in fact we should be thinking much more naturally — about becoming fully human in our lives and relationships.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something individual, when in fact we should be thinking much more about building bonds with others in Christ.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which gains us life after death, when in fact we should be embracing life more fully right now.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which separates us from the world, when in fact it calls us to participate more in the life of our neighbors, our community, our world.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which is about faith alone, when in fact it is about faith working through love.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which enables us to escape the world, when in fact it is about enabling us to more fully embrace and enjoy the world.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which is primarily about forgiveness of the past, when in fact it is about making the present and future new.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which is about my personal relationship with Jesus, when in fact it is about God creating the new people of God.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which guarantees one’s enrichment and happiness, when in fact it plays out in all the varied seasons and circumstances of life.
  • Perhaps we see the gospel as something which God alone will work out from beginning to end, when in fact God will work it out (at least in part) through his renewed people.

This last point led me to think about the final verses of Ephesians 1, two of which are quoted above. God’s divine power was displayed when he raised Christ from the dead and established him as Lord over all the powers. But then note this: “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things TO THE CHURCH . . .”

Perhaps a main reason we have not seen the kind of change in the world one might expect millennia after the announcement of God’s good news came to us is that we missed the memo: Christ has been exalted to rule the world through a church that is grounded in the gospel.

Perhaps the church herself has missed the message too many times throughout her history. We have not had an adequately grounded gospel, and even when we have, Christians and churches have not cooperated with God and walked in the newness of life into which God has brought us.

I don’t mean this to sound triumphalistic, as though the church is called to “take over the world” through power and might. Being grounded in the gospel will primarily mean that the church will produce change in the world in the same way God took control: through laying down our lives for others as Christ did.

Ephesians 2 goes on to say that God’s people have become God’s workmanship, created in Christ to walk in the good works he has planned beforehand for us. It may not be the whole reason for the world’s lack of transformation, but certainly the church has walked down alternate paths too often. Laying down our lives for the life of the world has not always been our priority — or even on our radar.

Not only do we need a fuller, more robust gospel. We need a more grounded one.

And then we need to let our feet hit the ground.

Comments

  1. Robert F says

    And then we need to let our feet hit the ground.

    Many of us have already hit the ground …. head first.

  2. Andrew Zook says

    “Laying down our lives for the life of the world has not always been our priority — or even on our radar.” This here, directly confronts the whole “cultural war” ethos of “getting back our country” – or – “defending our religious liberty”. doesn’t it?
    You make a good point and do it charitably… I’m afraid though, that for many, it’s not that they miss it or relegate it, but that we have been taught to actively oppose this mission of “laying down our lives for the life of the world…”

    • For all its talk of Jesus and the Gospel, the American church is very much of the Old Testament spirit. The Ten Commandments… a powerful “priesthood”… establishing “righteousness” by the sword…

      For all the talk of Jesus, it’s like we never met Him.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Yeah, it has been a sad couple of weeks watching the world.

      There is that famous line from Emperor Julian The Apostate lamenting Christian charity: “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

      Boy Howdy, would nobody in the United States write an equivalent line today. 🙁

      • Christiane says

        from the past, also this:

        with the passing of ex-Rep. Caldwell Butler of Virginia, a speech he gave is remembered from the time of Watergate that calls to account those who are keeping ‘silent’ and avoiding their duty to respond to carrying out what was honorable at the time

        https://youtu.be/mfgRvSPlUIQ

        wish we had more folks in Congress these days with this kind of integrity, but thank God for the work of such men as Caldwell Butler in the days of Watergate . . . great American public servant

    • “laying down our lives for the life of the world…”

      That sounds very heroic and all, but I often wonder what that would look like in the life of the average Orthodox (or Lutheran, or Catholic, or Pentecostal) Blodgett out there who is just trying to raise a family and make ends meet. Unless I am mistaken, all these social justice saints of whom y’all are so enamoured, like Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier, were celibate. Dorothy Day wasn’t, I guess,

      I’m gonna quote the redoubtable Viking Manx. If you ain’t tithing, kwitcherbitchin’.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > raise a family and make ends meet. Unless I am mistaken,

        I am willing to push back on this; not all, but many of those “average Orthodox (or Lutheran, or Catholic, or Pentecostal)” are doing a fare bit better than “make ends meet”.

        And “make ends meet” often gets defined on a pretty generous scale. Again not for everyone, but for many of those keeping those churches afloat? Yep.

        And I hear a lot from those “just trying to raise a family” bemoaning either their lack of connection or their concern for their children’s screen-time, etc… Well, maybe, I don’t know, do something differently? The lack of imagination is profound.

        > all these social justice saints of whom y’all are so enamoured

        Those aren’t what I am thinking of.

      • We’ve covered this ground a lot, Mule. Ordinary faithfulness. Loving one’s neighbor. Building strong connections in the community. Nothing heroic, just life lived Christianly and well. Love mercy, do what’s right, walk humbly with God.

        • David Cornwell says

          Yep. A life lived like this and a Church serving like this is in many ways the essence of the gospel. Doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, and eschatology most of the time are divisive and difficult. This doesn’t mean throw out these things, it just means to get the correct priority. And to recognize that we see through a glass darkly.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          The problem is that is see most of my co-parishoners, and their counterparts in other churches, doing exactly this.

          Now, I can afford to tithe because I live in a majority African American neighborhood. I estimate that if I were to move to a majority White nieighborhood, the increase in housing costs alone would eat up all the excess funds in my budget, and my wife and I would have to take second jobs to pay for it. For all the chatter on this board about Mule the Nazi in his wifebeater t-shirt, I get along tolerably well with African American folk and admire them greatly.

          But if all the Republican “bullies” from the suburbs started following my lead…oops, that’s happening. They call it gentrification and it’s raising real estate values and driving some of my neighbors from their houses. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the negative talk about gentrification, and I have to assure the good Black folk that I and my family don’t want to gentrify anything, but White faces attract more White faces, and so it goes.

          Actually, it isn’t Republicans movinng in to my zip code, it’s gay White men, who seem to be the Panzer corps of gentrification. Maybe Finn could shed some light on this, since he is far more real estate savvy than I am.

        • john barry says

          CM, Thanks for the heads up, I would have missed your comments. I am totally on board with what you say and that should be our goal as individuals. Here in USA , no problem and pretty easy.
          The Christian community in the middle east are being eliminated and uprooted by events, what is their recourse other than becoming martyrs ? What can individual Christian do with the burden of the Jizya tax and Kafir that was/is placed Christians. What can an individual Christian in China do to practice and promote his faith against the powers that be. Could a Christian that followed the advice on living as a Christian win political office or have a lot of secular influence in California or NYC today or even have a true chance of presenting his viewpoints? I am sure there are many Christians in Europe that are living good Christian lives as you described but their influence in the culture and society are diminished and soon their beliefs will be in the category of the Amish in the USA. Again, perhaps I am making a mountain out of mole hill or I just do not get it.
          However, as an individual I like have to say again I like your comments to Mule and we can certainly in the USA practice our faith as you describe.
          Many articles /comments here make me think and to channel Yoda again “Thinking I do not like, Simple I am”
          Darth Vader “Luke, Debbie Reynolds daughter is your sister”. Can you give me a hand?
          I am going by memory and the quotes might be a little off.

  3. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Great post, again.

    I can’t help but to step back to see the w-i-d-e distance between this perspective and either Evangelicalism or that of Generic Cultural Christianity.

    • “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” ? G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > It has been found difficult

        I wonder even if that is true.

        A conversation a couple weeks back with a co-worker who has kids and takes them to church every week: ‘the take away is “just don’t be a jerk”‘ That was the summary of Christianity. My feeling is among my White Suburban co-workers is that is probably a The mainstream view; now admittedly I am assembling that belief from random bits of conversation from over ~20 years. But there isn’t anything in it that which seems to inspire, and maybe most importantly not even inspire them to stand up to the bullies who reign from that space.

        A more grassroots Gospel is desperately needed.
        I cannot imagine where it will come from.
        The Fortress of Apathy looms unassailable.

        • Christiane says

          when even ‘christians’ urge you to keep silent while Their Annointed Emperor torments children, then you know we’ve got problem. . . . .

          I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. Christians of all people should be screaming ‘it’s WRONG, it’s IMMORAL, and yes, it’s UN-AMERICAN to torment innocent chidlren for any country’s political agenda, least of all ours

          This call to keep ‘silence’ . . . . some ‘code’ for if you speak out, you will be thwarting God’s Work through His ‘annointed one’?

          no, just no

        • ‘the take away is “just don’t be a jerk”‘

          That’s the negative. The positive is “bless your persecutors and leave judgment in God’s hands”.

          Of course, far too Christians today don’t even get the “don’t be a jerk” part, but we gotta start somewhere…

          • Christiane says

            well, refusing to take a stand for the sake of children who are being persecuted by our own government is being a ‘jerk’ . . . .

            honestly, I can’t imagine it happening HERE, it’s like an echo of ‘but they’re only JEWS’

            if we can’t hear that echo, we need to get our heads examined
            if we CAN, and we still don’t respond to speak out against the abuse, then we need to get our hearts examined

            this is the most serious thing we have seen happen in our country in a long time, and I expected better of us than ‘christians’ telling people to keep silent so as to endorse Trump’s ‘annointed’ work

            it was too much for me . . . still hurting . . . . . those kids are still hurting and I’m not blessing their persecutors . . . heck no! They can persecute me, and that’s one thing, but the children? Please!

            • john barry says

              Christiane, In your honor and a few others I have modified the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game to 3 Degrees of Trump . There are a few simple rules
              1. Within 3 not 6 references you must connect the original subject to Trump
              2. The original and final degree relating to Trump must be negative. There of course can be no positive degree linkage as because of course there is nothing positive about Trump. Fox News stories cannot be cited. CNN can only be cited 90 percent of the time with no limit on MSNBC mentions.
              3 3 Degrees of Trump players must be from a “blue” state as they are the storekeepers of all things negative Trump
              4 No matter what the subject is about, within 3 moves there must be a negative connection to Trump. Simple words must be used to accommodate Trump voters.
              5 Anyone who does not play is deplorable.

              Thanks and enjoy the game. Focus , focus , focus.

              • Christiane says

                LOL, This, I love !

                you’ve outdone yourself, JB

              • Christiane says

                I need more of this kind of stuff.

              • My friend visited Trump in the Oval Office to announce a big business initiative. He didn’t like him. Does that count? Do I win? Is there a game? Am I in the right room?

              • Robert F says

                My brother worked for an electrical contractor in Atlantic City in the 80’s who was stiffed by Trump. How many points do I get?

              • Robert F says

                When calculating the points, please remember that Atlantic City is in NJ, a Blue State.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > That’s the negative. The positive is “bless

            Maybe. I do not believe that is the message people are receiving; intentionally or not.

            It might point back to this data point: “””Only 8 percent of adults say they are interested in hearing pastors’ views on issues such as same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, abortion, guns, tax policy, climate change, drug policy or religious freedom”””

            Somehow that didn’t scandalize the churches.

            Maybe sermons are not an effective communication paradigm?

            • Adam,

              Maybe if those pastors would spend more time talking about the things Jesus talked about those adults would be more likely to listen. Even the outcasts in Jesus’ day (those ‘sinners’) were interested in hearing him. He talked a lot more about poverty, justice, and how we treat others than he did about sex, abortion, drugs, etc. The Sermon oh the Mount is literally all about how we treat others. When was the last time you heard a sermon (in an evangelical church) from Matt 5? Matthew, Mark, and especially that radical communist/women/s libber Luke, are the most neglected books in an evangelical church (unless it’s Christmas or Easter).

              After 40 years in church I have finally begun attending a church where I actually hear the voice of Jesus. But it’s not an evangelical church.

  4. john barry says

    So exactly what would be the take a way from the above well written article to a young new Christian finding his way in the real world. What exactly does it mean to lay down their lives to follow Christ? Does it mean they should not be afraid to physically die for their faith, which is not a concern in the USA. Does it mean to devote your life entirely to the spreading of the Gospel and if so how in we do not engage in what is called culture war fare?
    How do we become renewed people if we do not change when we become Christians? The people of Christian faith have always participated and I would say surely have changed the world by their actions based on their faith. Bill Gates and many others do what they consider to be good works without a faith based motive, is that what is needed? If we do not individually accept Christ what will make us a new person, our works like Bill Gates? Corporate worship is needed to maintain the bond we have with other Christians and reach out.
    The movie Silence about the Jesuits in 16th century Japan who were doing their peaceful missionary work and gaining converts. When the warlords, the powers in control, decided to rid Japan entirely of Christianity by killing all the Christians, making people renounce their faith and horrible but effective actions they did eliminate Christianity in Japan for centuries . The true believers in Japan then laid down their lives for their faith and the spreading of the Gospel stopped in Japan, there were no Christians for centuries and really has no influence now. How would the above article apply to this situation? Jump to 1945, when the nation based on Christian values, had complete control over a defeated Japan. How did that nation respond? How about the church in Communist China and other oppressed nations.
    Perhaps I am taking this too literally. It is a nice Bible study, internet dialogue with much to consider and ponder but as a concrete guideline to advance the Gospel I can not grasp the thought. Of course, I had to watch Star Wars 3 times to finally understand why Darth Vader being Luke’s father was a big deal and I never saw it coming.
    As Yoda would say “sharp, I am not”.

    • John, see my comments above to Mule.

    • “to devote your life entirely to the spreading of the Gospel… how in we do not engage in what is called culture warfare?”

      Depends on how you define the culture that needs fighting – and it depends even more on what you consider the proper weapons for such a fight.

      “Bill Gates and many others do what they consider to be good works without a faith based motive, is that what is needed?”

      Such things are necessary, but not foundational.

      “The true believers in Japan then laid down their lives for their faith and the spreading of the Gospel stopped in Japan, there were no Christians for centuries and really has no influence now. How would the above article apply to this situation?”

      Perhaps more people should have volunteered to die. That’s what really shook the Roman persecutors…

      “I had to watch Star Wars 3 times to finally understand why Darth Vader being Luke’s father was a big deal and I never saw it coming.”

      I wouldn’t read too much into that. A great writer, Lucas was not. 😉

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > define the culture that needs fighting

        Maybe dispense with the Fighting? Framing matters, both in the results and who it attracts [which then feeds back into the results]

        Find things to be FOR! I know, it’s crazy. It is certainly more fun [most of the time].

        > A great writer, Lucas was not.

        Truth! And now we are only one movie away from post-Lucas. With each movie is writing issues have become more obvious.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > Does it mean to devote your life entirely to the spreading of the Gospel and if so
      > how in we do not engage in what is called culture war fare?

      If this is a question it goes back to the lack of imagination. Can someone, or their church, really not come up with anything?

      I like one pastor’s suggestion of setting the bar very very low: Do you know the first name of each one of your actual neighbors? Let’s start there [and likely, we aren’t there, so…]

      > Does it mean they should not be afraid to physically die for their faith,
      > which is not a concern in the USA.

      Why do we always have to go to people dying? And then accuse people of being “radical”, SJW,s etc… . No wonder we cannot escape the Culture warfare.

      I’ve proposed it before, and I know it will never get traction, but a New Year’s resolution of No-Warfare-Rhetoric is a good thing. If nobody is shooting at you, your church, your car, your neighborhood; then its not warfare.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Why do we always have to go to people dying? …a New Year’s resolution of No-Warfare-Rhetoric is a good thing. If nobody is shooting at you, your church, your car, your neighborhood; then its not warfare.

        A month ago there were three shots fired into a car stopped at the corner two houses down from mine. Someone was at war with someone else it seems. I wish it took two to make a quarrel.

        I like one pastor’s suggestion of setting the bar very very low:

        I do too, but next you know he’ll be suggesting actual conversation with them.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Someone was at war with someone else it seems.

          Not saying it doesn’t happen. But it does not happen to a whole lot of people who sound as if they are perpetually “at war”.

          > next you know he’ll be suggesting actual conversation with them

          I think that was implied by “first name”? 🙂 I know, it is scandalous.

  5. “It is not advice or instruction given to us, it is a proclamation that Jesus has become King, that God has taken charge of the world through the finished work of the Messiah.”
    Two things about this:
    1. This is an eternal truth. It is fixed in eternity but unfolding temporally. Therefore it is easily scoffed at by anyone who doesn’t see. (Actually no different than any spiritual statement but of note due to the grandiosity of the proclamation). The accomplishment of the cross and resurrection has implications far beyond us, unless you want to include us as players in the unfathomably vast world of the spirit. It has to do with God being God in that world we do not yet know. We are only glancing against the Kingship of Christ in its immensity. We are partakers but of what we are not completely informed.
    2. Seeing the “finished” work, in light of the insanity around us and in our own hearts, is a tall, and continuous, task. Seeing the obvious (mercy and compassion, loving neighbor as self) and seeing beyond it (contemplation, prayer, open-heartedness, humility of spirit, etc) are fundamental to Christianity.

  6. I agree with you completely CM. My issue is theodicy. It does me little good to say that God’s Kingdom doesn’t seem to be making much progress because the church is/has been disobedient/ignorant/whatever to that vision (mostly ignorant I’m afraid). Instead of God being unable to bring about that progress he is unable to lead his church to bring it about. It’s the same problem, just pushed back a little.

    There is precedent for this though. The history of Israel in the OT is much the same. Maybe God needs to pick better teams, or give them better coaches.

  7. Burro (Mule) says

    In order for CM’s vision, and it is a good one, to be realized, we need a more robust ecclesiology than is currently being offered by anyone on the block, including, hélas, my own fractured communion. The centrifugal forces are very strong right now in the wider Church, and I can’t imagine, say, Robert F or Eeyore signing on to any program they didn’t have a hand in crafting.

    The State, as usual, is more than willing to pick up the slack. The problem with the State is not that Trump and the country club set is in charge of it and gleefully tormenting brown children. Tormenting somebody’s children to preserve its institutional continuity is part of the State’s mandate.

    PS – anybody who uses the phrase “local church” is part of the problem. The Church is by nature fractal. All of it is reflected in any part of it, however miniscule.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > In order for CM’s vision, and it is a good one, to be realized, we need a more robust ecclesiology
      > than is currently being offered by anyone on the block

      We agree on that.

    • Robert F says

      I’m not signing onto any program at all, whether I have a hand in crafting it or not. I share my countrymen’s distrust of that level of commitment to human-forged programs or human-made institutions. It was several decades ago while reading cultural critic William Irwin Thompson’s The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light that I first came across the idea that social institutions, especially religious ones, tend to develop into forms opposite from their original intention; I continue to think that is essentially true, and that as a result loyalty and commitment to institutions of any kind should only be provisional.

  8. Jesus laid down his life, but he did so rather un-heroically.