Thursday, May 15, 2008

Is Evangelicalism Still Christian? - Pt. 3: Focus on God's Glory vs. Man's Benefit

Evangelicalism is a divided camp these days... I'm not talking though about the usual denominational differences, or even the sparring over issues which, on the surface, look like relatively harmless intramurals (for example, gender roles in leadership). There is a struggle for the very soul of the Church - and it is, accordingly, extraordinary in its scope and practical import*. It is a division between “ME-Centered” and “HE-Centered” Christianity.

In Part 2, we discussed briefly the difference in approaches to defining the Gospel and suggested that ME-Centered Christianity defines the Good News of the work of Jesus Christ in terms of our benefit (or INTERNAL to us), but HE-Centered Christianity understands that the Good News is THE WORK OF JESUS itself (EXTERNAL from us). The difference is significant first because your definition of the Gospel determines the message you proclaim – it defines your FOCUS. And the Evangelicalism is divided today in its message to the world.

The “ME-Centered” message is framed in terms of how God can help you, and a “HE-Centered” message proclaims God’s Glory and man’s responsibility. And while it is important to note that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, they are not necessarily always compatible either.

I’ll illustrate the distinction with two very pointed examples… two views of the “Gospel” from Evangelicals with very different focuses (emphasis added):

First, in anticipation of Mother’s Day, Moody Radio ran several times the following “evangelistic” 60 second spot (listen here):
“It’s that time of year again when we honor the most influential women in America. That’s right, our mothers! This is a day we pay tribute to the noble job they do in raising the next generation. But to be quite honest, sometimes as moms we don’t feel so glorious. Our love is masked by anger and frustration. We can’t seem to do it all, and we certainly don’t feel like a super mom. The good news is, we are not alone in this job of parenting. We have a wonderful Heavenly Father who is able to strengthen us with His love, wisdom and patience. The Bible says, “God redeems our life from the pit and crowns us with love and compassion. He satisfies our desires with good things so our youth is renewed like the eagles.” God loves you and desires to help you. If you would like to know more about a relationship with this wonderful God through His son Jesus please call 1-888-Need Him. Someone is waiting to talk with you. Call 1-888-Need Him. I’m Karol Ladd wishing you a Happy Mother's Day!” (Emphasis added)
Second, consider this from John Piper’s book God Is The Gospel: (available free at the link!):
“Today—as in every generation—it is stunning to watch the shift away from God as the all-satisfying gift of God’s love. It is stunning how seldom God himself is proclaimed as the greatest gift of the gospel. But the Bible teaches that the best and final gift of God’s love is the enjoyment of God’s beauty. “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). The best and final gift of the gospel is that we gain Christ. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8). This is the all-encompassing gift of God’s love through the gospel—to see and savor the glory of Christ forever. (Introduction: What The World Needs Most – The Gospel’s Greatest Gift, God, page 8)” (Emphasis added)
Ladd's focus in the first quote is on MAN's BENEFIT, while Piper's is on GOD's GLORY in the second. There is no small distinction between the two.
  • If your understanding of the heart of the Gospel is that God PRIMARILY wants to do something for your benefit, then your message will be something like this: “YOU can experience God's best... God has a wonderful plan for YOUR life... 'God loves YOU and desires to help YOU.'”
  • On the other hand, if you believe that the Good News is PRIMARILY about God bringing glory to Himself and us into line with His will and purpose, your message will be something like this: “GOD’s greatest gift to the world is Jesus Christ … God’s love for us is demonstrated in His amazing sacrifice of His own Son, and gaining Him is greater than anything else – any loss, any suffering, any pain – all are nothing compared to Him. It is worth EVERYTHING to 'see and savor the glory of God in Christ forever!'”
In practical terms, ME-Centered Christianity sees and proclaims the Gospel as “about us” and for our benefit. HE-Centered Christianity sees the Gospel as all “about God” – from Him and through Him and for Him from beginning to end. Consider the following perspective, shared by John Piper at Wheaton College Chapel in October, 1984, Piper said this (the whole talk in context is on the link):
“I would like to try to persuade you that the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. Or to put it another way: the chief end of God is to enjoy glorifying himself.

The reason this may sound strange is that we tend to be more familiar with our duties than with God's designs. We know why we exist - to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But why does God exist? What should he love with all his heart and soul and mind and strength? Whom should he worship? Or will we deny him that highest of pleasures? It matters a lot what God's ultimate allegiance is to!...

God did not leave us to guess in this affair. He answers the question at every point in redemptive history from creation to consummation… From beginning to end, the driving impulse of God's heart is to be praised for his glory. From creation to consummation his ultimate allegiance is to himself. His unwavering purpose in all he does is to exalt the honor of his name and to be marveled at for his grace and power. He is infinitely jealous for his reputation. "For my own sake, for my own sake I act," says the Lord. "My glory I will not give to another!"

My experience in preaching and teaching is that American evangelicals receive this truth with some skepticism if they receive it at all. None of my sons has ever brought home a Sunday school paper with the lesson title: ""God loves himself more than he loves you." But it is profoundly true, and so generation after generation of evangelicals grow up picturing themselves at the center of God's universe.”
(Emphasis added)
Is this hard for you to hear? I winced when first I read that, but the more I think about it in light of Scripture, the more I realize that it is true… and very different from our “default setting” in proclaiming the Gospel – which too often may sound like a sales pitch for how the non-believer’s life will be better than it is now if they will just come to Christ. But faith in Christ certainly does not promise a more comfortable life now, temporal benefit, exemption from sickness or freedom from the pain and suffering of humanity. Christians suffer in all kinds of ways, through their own imperfections, through the common effect of sin in the world... and for God’s Glory consistent with His will and purpose (Romans 8:28).

Proponents of ME-Centered Christianity frequently argue that they aren’t changing the heart of the Gospel by focusing on the benefit to Man, they are simply trying to make the Gospel more ACCESSIBLE by speaking in terms of Man’s need. HE-Centered Christianity argues that, intentionally or otherwise, attempts to make the message ACCESSIBLE frequently are actually seeking to make the Gospel more ACCEPTABLE – and the world WILL NOT, and therefore CAN NOT accept the truth of the Gospel (Romans 8:7). Our responsibility is to tell the Whole Truth to a world we understand is, by nature, hostile to it. ME-Centered Christianity avoids that hostility altogether and, to paraphrase William Willimon:**
"Unable [or unwilling] to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity, and it improved."
The focus of the Gospel is NOT primarily to bring benefit to us - but to bring glory to God. There are today hundreds of thousands of people in misery around the world. Many of those people’s stories are unknown and untold. We read about Typhoons, Earthquakes, Tornadoes (just during the past week!) and the toll of death, destruction and misery is almost unimaginable. What is the Church’s message to those in the real world – including those in such desperate circumstances?

The Evangelical ME-Centered Gospel falsely promises (implicitly and sometimes even explicitly) deliverance from temporal difficulty because it places MAN'S BENEFIT as the focus of the message. But this type of thinking isn’t just “historically aberrational” in Christian theology, it’s silly. Worse yet, it is empty – imagine carrying that message to the people in Myanmar or China this week! The Gospel doesn’t EXEMPT us from the world’s problems, it gives us reason to GLORIFY GOD as we go through them and, as a result, to TRIUMPH over them. This is the focus of HE-Centered Christianity… and it is the message the World desperately needs to hear.

Next Time: Our Focus: What’s “THE Problem?”

*By the way, others much smarter than me have written insightfully about this issue. If you look on the right side of the blog here, you’ll note a series of books which do a great job of articulating our current state – or which provide helpful background material from prior generations. If you’re interested, I’d recommend in particular David J. Wells’ new book The Courage To Be Protestant, which ought to be required reading for every Evangelical leader today.''

**On a related note, you may be interested in this very helpful interview with Willimon called
"A New Evaluative Question: "Would Jesus Have to Be Crucified to Make This Sermon Work?" from Modern Reformation Magazine.