The church will always have to war against false gospels. From the time of the Judaizers to this very day, the church has been bewitched by sacerdotalism, syncretism, decisional regeneration, social gospels, prosperity gospels, Lordship Salvation and many other false teachings.
Some of these deceptions are more obvious than others, depending upon the degree of marginalization of the person and work of Christ. All false gospels promise deliverance from one thing unto another. Things become a bit trickier when Christ remains at the center of the message.
While fundamentalists during the 1980s and ‘90s were on the lookout for anti-Christ, certain Reformed folk were setting their sights on Robert Schuller and then Joel Osteen, while still others were fighting the New Perspective on Paul and Federal Vision. During this time of disquiet, another false gospel not only received a wink but a motion toward a comfortable seat at the Reformed table. Lordship Salvation, promulgated by John MacArthur with endorsements by such notables as J.I. Packer and James Montgomery Boice, became a non-confessional doctrinal option in the broad tent of Reformed evangelicalism.
The MacArthur controversy wasn’t a fair fight. The Lordship gang of independently minded untouchables were picking on the theological weaklings within Arminian Antinomianism. Because the Reformed faith wasn’t under attack, many who grasped Reformed soteriology didn’t bother to take a side in the Lordship debate. Strictly speaking, there was no correct side to take! Both sides were wrong, though only one side positioned itself as historically Reformed. The prominent darlings within Reformed evangelicalism who weighed in on the debate were popularizers and preachers, not confessionally minded theologians. Although they took the Lordship side, the debate was largely dismissed as noise among Reformed academics because both sides were outside the tradition.
During the fog of war, a new star was arising.
While MacArthur and company were flexing their independent muscles in the Reformed evangelical schoolyard, many on the fringe of Reformed confessional theology were spooked into confusing justifying faith with the fruit of progressive sanctification. Forsaking oneself and commitment of life replaced receiving and resting in Christ alone for justification. While certain crusaders falsely, yet confidently, claimed to be defending the faith once delivered unto the saints, a new star from the multi-cultural city of Manhattan was rising above the theological smog. This talented leader was not focused on the nature of saving faith, but on the evangelistic question of what the gospel offers sinners in a postmodern context.
With the stage presence and communication skills of a CEO of a multinational conglomerate, Tim Keller sought to identify and meet a legitimate need by trying to reach the nations for Christ in the dense 23 square miles of New York’s apple.
I know no Reformed pastor who has made more disciples in such a short period of time as Tim Keller. Even Keller’s disciples are already spawning disciples!
Fast forward to 2023. The new gospel eclipses the theology of the cross.
Instead of seeing the objective act of premarital relations as sin, our greatest need is to look away from self-centered romance in order to find life’s truest fulfillment in Christ alone (or so taught Keller). The offer of Christ is no longer an offer to receive God’s reconciliation, imputed righteousness and forgiveness for uncleanness, but rather is packaged as freedom from self-idolization and the vapid fulfillment of existential experience. Christ is offered to men and women as the door to freedom from the sin of self-imposed slavery. The world with all its social woes is our unmistakable object lesson. What unregenerate person could miss what is in plain sight! The world’s poverty, disunity and abusiveness is a result of a broken relationship with God. That’s the bad news. The good news is Jesus is the remedy for the unfulfilled life and all broken and abusive relationships. Christ will satisfy our needs if only we become satisfied with Christ. It is God who makes true worshippers through Jesus Christ. Herein we find a “take it to the streets” approach to Christian Hedonism.
The new gospel would be as attractive as it is relevant to the postmodern urbanite. Of course, hell too needed to be reworked a bit. Hell is no longer a place of eternal torment and punishment for sins against a loving yet wrathful God; and outer darkness is no longer accompanied by weeping and gnashing of teeth. Rather, hell is a reasoned trajectory of living one’s life without Christ at the center. It’s a dimension to be pondered more than a place to be feared. Hell is a philosophical extension of life lived without God. It’s a place where souls “shrivel up” and no longer a place of eternal torment. Hell contemplates the future eternality for disembodied spirits resulting from a meaningless temporal existence. It’s the expansion of this life, as opposed to the wages of sin. (Likewise, heaven isn’t an inheritance and sabbath rest from the battle against indwelling sin, as it is the transcendent spatial trajectory for the Christian after death.)
Does this gospel message sound familiar?
We live in a broken world in which we try to find meaning, acceptance and healing through material pleasures, careers, entertainment, community and intimate relationships. Perhaps we even try to find meaning by trying to be a good person. But no matter how hard we try, if we’re honest with ourselves we will admit that we cannot rid ourselves of emptiness. We always seem to suffer under abuse or broken relationships leading to further discontentment. No matter how often we become disillusioned with material things, ideologies and the relationships in which we entrust ourselves, we continue to turn to those idols for ultimate satisfaction and happiness even though they fail us without fail.
Our biggest problem is we are separated from God who made us to be in relationship with him. The good news is we can be restored to God who is the only one that can give our lives meaning. Jesus came to give us life abundant. But to be restored to God we must turn from self and believe Jesus paid for our sins. That is the only way our emptiness can be replaced with meaning. We need a relationship with God who is the author of all meaning. We need that relationship because God created us as relational beings.
The bad news is, if you continue to seek meaning apart from God, upon death you will enter into an eternal darkness void of all meaning and bliss. If you don’t seek in this life meaning from God, you’ll get your heart’s desire forever. You will reap for all eternity more of what you’re experiencing now, a meaningless life where self is at the center. Hell will be where you send yourself. Your punishment will be your unquenchable search to find fulfillment in created things, apart from God at the center. So, I urge you, come to Jesus for the forgiveness of sins so that you might find meaning now and forevermore. Only through Christ can God heal your brokenness and give your life the true meaning for which you were created and have been searching.
That’s basically a cocktail of gospel presentations I’ve read over the years. The problem isn’t that the word “sin” is utterly absent from the contemporary gospel presentation. Rather, sin is so ill-defined that the theology of the cross loses its context, and by that its relevance. If our greatest need may be motivated by a self-absorbed desire for meaning, then Christ crucified for sinners isn’t being offered.
Any gospel that denies the theology of the cross is another gospel. It’s also not very enticing!
If the “meaningless” of this life is life’s eternal penalty, I suppose most can accept that consequence without too much dread. But who will say they can embrace being cast into biblical hell? The stakes of the game of life aren’t terribly high if one actually enjoys his selfish life.
That man’s life outside Christ is meaningless is a minor point. Even Christians don’t always find fulfillment! Man has a sin problem. His very existence outside mystical union with Christ is an offense to God. The contemporary gospel isn’t that we can escape God’s wrath, gain a right standing to God’s law, and be adopted as sons of God in Christ. Today’s gospel exchanges life’s disappointments for meaning. The felt need we are to try to elicit with the gospel is one of purpose and fulfillment, not reconciliation through deliverance from the wages of sin, which is death.
The true meaning of the cross is contextualized not by purpose but by what is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness.
What we know by nature is not that our lives are meaningless but that we are under God’s wrath for our transgressions. The cross deals with man’s ultimate problem as revealed to us in conscience. It is in the context of God’s revelation that a theologically informed gospel of reconciliation must be preached. God’s fury is upon the impenitent, whether there is hope of better meaning or not! The relevant-relational aspect of the cross is that hell-bound enemies can become friends with God through the one time propitiatory sacrifice of Christ for our sins.
The theology of the cross and the doctrine of justification unearth man’s need and by extension the biblical gospel.
Consider the multi-faceted import of the cross of Christ:
* Propitiation presupposes wrath.
* Satisfaction presupposes justice, which again presupposes wrath.
* Expiation presupposes the middle ground of enmity being removed through a propitiatory sacrifice that exhausts God’s wrath.
* Reconciliation presupposes alienation because of sins that deserve God’s wrath.
* Sacrifice presupposes an offering for sin that deserves God’s wrath.
* Redemption presupposes deliverance from bondage, and condemnation, which demands God’s wrath.
* Love is Jesus suffering the unmixed wrath of God for unjust sinners.
The theology of the cross is not one of restoring meaning to life. The cross is a symbol of love, mercy and grace, which finds its only expression in the context of the wages of sin, which is death, not want of purpose. Because today’s gospel is not theological, it’s not biblical.
There’s a wisdom to the cross that relates to theological justification.
How the cross brings meaning to life isn’t at all obvious. However, when we begin to understand our need for mediatory reconciliation through a perfect righteousness and satisfaction for sins, the cross is not just intelligible but can be seen as the profound wisdom of God.
As I taught my adult daughters since they were little children, sinners like us need two things to stand before a holy and righteous God – a perfect righteousness that’s not our own and God’s gracious pardon for our sins. What we need to stand in the judgement is accomplished only through the active and passive obedience of Christ. Accordingly, our greatest need is not for meaning in life but to be justified in Christ. The new gospel dilutes our sin problem, and, therefore, the gospel’s remedy.
The contemporary gospel in light of the perceived need of postmodern sinners is way too creative:
Therefore, this approach:
Tim Keller has it backwards. One can be saved without understanding that sin is idolatry, but nobody can be saved without a self-awareness of “doing bad things”!
But aside from the obvious, the new gospel doesn’t live up to his own strictures. If confronting sexual lust is off limits to postmoderns due to idiosyncratic standards of subjectivity, then on what basis may we appeal to good and ultimate things when dealing with postmoderns? Don’t good and ultimate things presuppose God, his valuations, and ethical absolutes, no less than the guilt of sexual lust? Consequently, this new message is no less arbitrary than it is inconsistent. The gospel has become too clever by half!
If this technique is more effective, it’s not because it philosophically comports with postmodernism. Indeed, this technique is less confrontational, but that’s because it probes the non-offensive and speculative why, as opposed to declaring the objective fact of what. It shifts the focus from an uncomfortable discussion about the immediate and obvious acts of sin (that mustn’t be declared as sin!), and tries to map a want of true fulfillment to a contestable defect that’s general to all. This approach is too impersonal, not relevant and, therefore, contra-relational. (Oh, the irony!)
Jesus calls out the greedy for their greed, not for their lack of fulfillment. The woman at Sychar was confronted for her promiscuity, not her idolatrous reasons for it. Judgement will be according to deeds done in flesh, so why avoid a conversation about “doing bad things”? (Revelation 20:12) There’s no authoritative word from God that reduces the reason for fornication to misplaced fulfillment. In fact, idolatry is frequently listed as one sin among many, but not a source for any. (I Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19–21; Ephesians 5:5; Rev 22:14)
The new gospel trades in non-confrontational high talk by positing sins such as fornication as an extension of idolatry, a fruit of sorts. By trying to identify the root of sin instead of addressing concrete sin, (over which the Spirit convicts and exposes), our need for Christ becomes too abstract. Sin is redefined and consolidated into making good and finite things ultimate. Whereas people know fornication is sin, it is not so obvious that the reason for fornication is due to not being satisfied with God.
Not to belabor the point:
We can be assured that the Holy Spirit, for a time, will bring conviction upon the simplicity of fornication, but on what basis do we think that the Holy Spirit convicts sinners according to a complex derivation that concludes guilt for trying to find meaning and pleasure in self-centeredness?
Fornication is the corruption of something good for a myriad of complex reasons that are not necessarily clear to us. For instance, one might fornicate for a need for money, which could be due to expensive physical addictions that are no longer traceable to idolatry. Or, one might fornicate because of being turned over to sin because of idolatry. In other words, fornication can be punishment for idolatry but not due to an active pursuit of idolatry. One could even fornicate to get back at one’s parents, or to take vengeance on the spouse of their partner. One might commit such acts of the flesh to gain power over someone else, or because someone has gained power over her. One even might become increasingly idolatrous because he is a fornicator! One can develop physical dependence on fornication that no longer seeks the sin for idolatrous reasons. The pattern of sin can be circular rather linear. For instance, greed can be the source of increased idolatry by which increased idolatry gives way to more greed. In sum, the new gospel engages in a losing apologetic by getting into speculative analyses rather than sticking to sin and the offense of the cross.
The Spirit binds himself to revelation, not speculation:
The Spirit convicts according to the law of God. If one suppresses the pending judgment for fornication, then what hope is there that the alleged philosophical root of fornication will be any less suppressed? Would we plead with a postmodern serial killer on death row to confess his sin of murder, or would we ask him to search for the idolatrous intricate reasons for his sins so that he might repent of those?
How theologically abstract and removed from the immediate sin at hand do we really want to get, and which want of conformity to the law of God should take preeminence? By deifying created things (like fornication), we indeed manufacture idols of the heart. No Christian should question that. But isn’t idolatry often rooted in a lack of love for God, which can stem back even further to a lack of faith in God’s goodness? There’s a theological breadth and depth to sin that is eclipsed and trivialized by glossing it all over as idolatry.
It’s at best trite to map all sin to the one sin of idolatry. God gave us the Ten Commandments, not just the first of ten. Even if it were possible to trace all sin back to some broad understanding of idolatry, paradigmatic theology such as this ends up passing the granular particularity of sin through a filter so permeable that nothing specific to the individual is captured, while most everything passes through as indistinguishably irrelevant. Should we try to trace all sin back to pride, a lack of love, self-centeredness or any other root of evil? Or would a more biblical approach be to try to gently expose the sin that is obviously before us, in hope that God might be pleased to illuminate lost friends to other contributing sins, as we trust that in the light we might see light. (Psalm 36:9)
It’s beyond my pay grade to discern why a man would defile a women or why a women would ensnare a man. What I do know is one must repent of such sins and trust in Christ to be saved.
Perhaps the reason postmodernists don’t resist such gospel confrontation is because postmodernism has no place for the absolute truth of idolatry! Or perhaps it’s just because such an approach isn’t quick and powerful, or sharper than a two-edged sword. (It’s decidedly dull.) Yet even if our postmodernist friends, as they try to remain true to their worldview, were to acknowledge their subjective idolatry while trying to rid themselves of its fruits, then it wouldn’t be because idolatry is inherently and objectively sinful on God’s say-so, but because their anxiety is selfishly inconvenient, which itself is an idolatrous motivation!
Any offer of salvation that doesn’t offer the hope of forgiveness through the theology of the cross isn’t good news. It’s another gospel, which isn’t another. (Galatians 1:6,7)
As for the “gospel for the uncircumcised”, the Bible is clear.
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