Saturday, April 26, 2008

Is Evangelicalism Still Christian? - Pt. 2: External vs. Internal Gospel

In Part 1 of this series, we suggested that there are two competing religions in Evangelicalism these days - The Christianity of "He" vs. The Christianity of "Me" (and its close cousin in many circles, the Christianity of "We"). The differences are startling, and so I hope to begin to demonstrate how important it is for us to understand the issues and, more importantly, stand up for the right side in the argument. As I noted before, the wrong one appears to be winning today.

Before we dive in, a word of explanation: I've styled the issues as dichotomies and they are philosophically; in application, practice is more likely a question of priority and focus. I've "cartooned" the issues in summary to point to highlight and clarify the issue. So think through this carefully with me.

Let's start at (arguably) the
MOST IMPORTANT POINT: What is the Gospel? What is our primary message - the thing that is "...the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16)?

nature of the Gospel is that it is External to Man , as opposed to Internal to Man. It is an external reality which has, of course, internal result. But the Gospel itself is external, not internal. And if we get this message wrong, we miss the point - and the power of the Gospel itself.

What do we share as the Gospel? What do you share when asked? Are you ready to answer the question?

Today, many sadly share, as the Gospel, a message of their own experience - something like this:

"I was once [fill in the blank, usually not good], and now I am [much better, thank you] because I [did something, for example (a) accepted Jesus as my personal savior (b) asked Jesus into my heart (c) trusted Christ for salvation (d) walked an aisle (e) prayed a prayer (f) etc.]"

Others may share a different message, like this:

"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life..." or "You were created for a purpose..." or "the only way to true [pick as many as apply (a) happiness (b) joy (c) peace (d) security (e) prosperity (f) health (g) freedom from addiction (h) etc.] is through Jesus."

There are many variations on this theme, but the common element is this: They are "internal" messages - their primary focus on "ME" - My problem, My benefit, My action, My result.

The only problem is this: That's not the Gospel. The Gospel is external to us - and while it may result in some of the "internals" its nature and focus is very different. The Gospel of the Bible is this:
God saves sinners by grace, through faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on their behalf. Men are saved by grace through faith in Christ’s work, which a free gift from God, and are freed from the power of sin to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. There is no other way to be saved, and those who do not have faith in the atoning work of Christ on the cross will be judged accordingly and condemned to eternal punishment in Hell.

If I were allowed a little more precision, I’d say this:

  1. Because all men are by nature sinful, they are rightly judged as guilty before God and subject to His wrath, which if unsatisfied will result in their eternal punishment in Hell.
  2. There is no way for any man to satisfy God’s righteous judgment.
  3. The Gospel (good news) is that Jesus Christ (God’s only Son and God Himself), died to satisfy the just requirement of His wrath for those whom the Father has given Him, and was raised from the dead to accomplish their justification.
  4. Accordingly, God saves sinners by giving them the ability, through regeneration (the New Birth) to have faith in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ on their behalf.
  5. Having begun this good work in those who are adopted into God’s family through Christ’s death and resurrection, God Himself will bring the good work to completion, ultimately through the sanctification and glorification of His children.
  6. This process increasingly allows God’s children to love, obey and enjoy God and to glorify Him.
  7. All those who are not converted in this manner remain under the just wrath of God, and will ultimately be condemned to eternal punishment in Hell.
Here's the truth: The Gospel is not your experience. The Gospel is not primarily even about you. The Gospel is not “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” The Gospel is not “God wants to be in a relationship with you.” Apart from Christ, God does NOT love you in any way that will result in your eternal benefit! We who are in Christ are the beneficiaries of the Good News,

The Gospel is an event in history, for a specific purpose with a definite result. In that sense, the Gospel is external to usit is not about us, but from God, of God for God. It is not an “internal” event or experience.

• It is not “I was once [ ] and now I am [ ].”
• It
isn’t “asking Jesus into your heart”, or “accepting Jesus”. It is not something that I am called to do or to experience and, it is not a relationship.

The result of the Gospel in our lives is all of these things, but the
result is to be distinguished from the Gospel itself – which is that God saves sinners by grace through faith in the atoning work of Christ’s death on the cross.

Finally, the Gospel is, of course, the work of God. It is a free gift – and our appropriation of the work done by God is not by any work or human effort or anything of us. And it needs to be said these days that the Gospel is not ANYTHING that starts with the phrase
“God longs for…” The Gospel of the Bible is what God accomplished, not what He hopes might possibly happen.

In that sense, then, the Gospel is external – the results are internal. Why does this matter? The Gospel is what must be preached, and it – not the internal result(s) – is “the power of God unto salvation” for those who believe it.

I've heard frequently that, in witnessing, we don't need to "get theological" or cite a lot of Bible verses - we just need to tell our story - share our experience. That's fine, I guess - as long as you get around to telling people The Gospel. Your experience isn't The Good News.

So how does today's Evangelical Message stack up against this? Pretty sadly in my highly unscientific sampling. All too often in sermons, I hear the results - benefits to us, etc. discussed as “the Gospel.” Troll around the web today and look at the sermon series being offered and it's pretty astonishing - especially in the "seeker" and "emergent/emerging" oriented churches. All too often, I hear and see the following:

Power and Experience as the Gospel
Prosperity and Health as the Gospel
Personal Reformation and Life Transformation as the Gospel
Psychological Therapy as the Gospel
Social Action and Justice as the Gospel
Compassion for the Least and the Lost as the Gospel

Some of this is good, some is not. Some is right and some is wrong theologically. That's not my point here, which is this: If the "Message" preached or proclaimed is not Jesus Christ Crucified for Sin - it's not the Gospel. If the message you share is "internal" it's not The Gospel, and it's not the power of God unto salvation. And ultimately, it's like the sign above... it may be true, but it misses the most important thing.

What do we need proclaimed by the Church today? We want to see our children, family, neighbors, friends and community come to salvation -
They need the Gospel. We want to grow in obedience to our Lord. We want to be more like Him - We need the Gospel.

The Evangelical Church today is overrun with messages and preaching that focus internally - and miss the mark of the Gospel itself. The Gospel is a factual description about "HE" not a report about "ME". And while this may seem picky, if you think about it, the focus of the Gospel presentation will follow through out its application... if it was all about you in the first place, it will be throughout the rest of your experience as well. But if the focus initially is on what Jesus did, it will continue to focus on Him as well.

So what's your Gospel Message?

Next time: The Primary Focus - God's Glory vs. Man's Benefit

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Is Evangelicalism Still Christian?

There comes a time when thinking people need to ask hard questions, and this is the one I've been wrestling with for some time now. It may seem like blasphemy to even ask something like this, but I am increasingly convinced that there is a great divide in modern evangelical thinking and, like the road pictured here, we're not all moving in the same ultimate direction.

I'll be exploring this further in upcoming posts, but I'll start with my working conclusion: There are two competing religions in Evangelicalism these days. They are incompatible and they are at war for the souls of men, women and children in our midst. Pick your metaphor: The two are oil and water, black and white, night and day, right and wrong... one is a reflection of God's will and purpose and the other is a lie as old as the Garden and the deceiver in it.

They use the same language. They cite the same scriptures. They profess the same faith. But they are TOTALLY different in their nature. Contrary to the wishful (and ignorant) thinking of many who name the name of Christ these days, they do not represent "differences within the family" and they are not insignificant - one is orthodox and the other is apostate.

And I am deeply concerned as the wrong one appears to be carrying the day.

I'm going to spend a few posts talking through this, but at their heart, the two competing religions are The Christianity of "He" vs. The Christianity of "Me" (and its close cousin in many circles, the Christianity of "We"). Here is just a brief list of the most significant differences ("He" vs. "Me"). They address the same questions, but present very different answers (I'll let you guess which is the right viewpoint!):

The Primary [fill in the blank] :
Nature of the Gospel -
External to Man
vs. Internal to Man
God's Glory vs. Man's Benefit
God's Sovereignty vs. Man's Decision
Result of Christ's Death
God's Completed Work vs. Man's Available Opportunity
Purpose of Sharing the Gospel
The Glory of God vs. The Benefit of Man
Vehicle for Articulating Faith
Embracing of Creeds vs. Accomplishment of Deeds
Means of Discipleship
God's Completed Work vs. Man's Ongoing Responsibility
Measure of Security
Christ's Work and God's Promise vs. Man's Decision and Consistency
Nature of Worship -
God-Focused and Reverent vs. Man-Focused and "Relevant"
Characteristic of Pastors
Shepherding vs. Leadership
Identifying Characteristics of Followers
Fidelity and Obedience vs. Comfort and Power
The Evangelical movement is unapologetic in embracing the "Christianity of Me." Increasingly, this is evidenced by (among other things) our
  • Unprecedented rejection of doctrine as unknowable at best and irrelevant at worst, combined with
  • Belligerent embracing of Biblical illiteracy and
  • Insatiable appetite for entertainment, even at the expense of authenticity
To the extent that this is happening, it isn't just a difference of opinion... it is an assault on the Gospel itself, and must be addressed and rejected by everyone who loves Jesus.

The Church Universal has survived - even flourished - through days of apostasy before, and it will through these dark days. It is, after all, the Bride of Christ - and He who began a good work in the Elect will bring it to completion. But we who are living in this time must take seriously the call of Scripture to be discerning - to watch out for false teachers - to beware of false doctrine - to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints... The problem is real, and the time for playing and pretending is long over.

So explore this with me if you will... whether you agree with me or not in my conclusions, I trust you'll see that the issue I'm raising is real - and perhaps at least a real discussion can begin. Is it possible that those of us who are "evangelical" are rejecting the very fundamental tenets of the Gospel itself? And if there are really two irreconcilable paths in Evangelicalism these days, which road are you on?

Next Time: "'He" vs. "Me" Christianity - Is the Gospel External or Internal?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tonight: "Worship" on Fox

In a truly surreal moment, finalists on the TV show "American Idol" recently performed the song "Shout To the Lord." (If you didn't see it, they did it not once, but twice!)

Some are calling this an opportunity, others are blasting it... I see this as just one more blurred line between the secular and sacred. In a Christian culture that has seemingly lost the ability to distinguish between "worship" and "entertainment," this seems perfectly appropriate I guess. Aside from the promo intro, this looks like what most evangelical churches are striving for these days.

Apparently, there is some ruckus about this in the blogsphere. I'll confess to being happily ignorant about the whole thing until this morning, when I stumbled across a post over at the blog. I was especially intrigued by this comment from "MCG":

"Philippians 1:15-18: It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. If it's good enough for the Apostle Paul, it's good enough for me :)

[two comments later...]

"I do think that in terms of what matters---the Gospel spread---it is a net benefit that the song was sung on American Idol... Many people who have never heard that song, or at least who have never considered it seriously, were exposed to a powerful declaration of Jesus Christ... The Gospel was, indeed, spread."
Really? Is singing Shout to the Lord "preaching Christ"? Do the lyrics of the song proclaim the message that Paul is celebrating in Philippians 1? What is "the Gospel" that we're talking about?

You may think I'm being picky - and maybe that's the case here. But it does raise the question I've been wrestling with for some time now. I've been threatening to take it up, and will do so later today or tomorrow.

For now though, I can say one thing about the American Idol thing: We know they aren't worshiping because no one has raised their hands. :-)