In my last post, I reviewed the book, Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis. It struck a chord with some, and clanged like an out of tune banjo with others. Sure, there were some fence-sitters who just wanted everyone to get along, but for the most part, people either really really loved it, or they wanted to burn it to the ground. Here are two comments I received that represent the reactions:
When I read your post, a few silent tears ran down my face. It was full of grace. Full of truth.
You are a judgmental bit*h. (Yes that was the message in its entirety.)
One book review. Two radically different reactions. I noticed that a number of the divergent comments and messages were centered on my explanation of the gospel.
Some found it repulsive, while others found it life-giving. But that’s what the gospel does, doesn’t it? It divides. And it unites. In direct reference to how the gospel would actually divide people, Jesus said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He also prayed that His true followers would be united in Him.
So it got me thinking about the gospel, and the emerging Progressive Christian “gospel” that seems to be underlying some of the contrary comments. After all, Hollis wrote that after she studied the gospel, she “finally grasped the divine knowledge that I am loved and worthy and enough . . . as I am.” (p. 30)
I’ll define both the historic Christian gospel and the Progressive gospel in a moment, but first, a couple more quotes:
He breaks the pow’r of reigning sin, He sets the prisoner free; His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me. — Charles Wesley, 1739
That God needed to be appeased with blood is not beautiful. It's horrific. — Michael Gungor, 2017(source)
Why does Charles Wesley find the blood of Jesus to be soul-saving good news, and Michael Gungor find it to be gruesome and horrific? It all comes down to how one defines the word “gospel.”
Gospel is a word that literally means “good news.” It’s used a lot in the Bible, and Christians say it all the time. The Apostle Paul said he wasn’t ashamed of it and anyone who preaches a different one should be cursed. He called it “the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes.” Jesus called it “the gospel of the kingdom.”
What is the historic Christian gospel?
Greg Koukl describes it beautifully and simply in his book, The Story of Reality. He explains that every worldview must account for four things: Creation (How things began), Fall (How things got broken), Redemption (How things will get fixed), and Restoration (How things will look once they are fixed).
For two thousand years, Christianity has had specific answers to these questions.
How did things begin? God made the world and called it good. How did things get broken? Sin. How will things get fixed? Bear with me, this part is a bit more complicated. You see, God is just. This is very good news for anyone who has ever been abused, oppressed, or mistreated in any way. It means that injustice will be paid for. No sin will go unpunished. (In other words, ISIS won't get away with it.) That sounds great if you're talking about a terrorist or serial killer, but...aren't we all sinners? Yes. It goes for us too. All sin must be paid for.
This is where Jesus comes in. God took on human flesh, lived a sinless life, and died a horrifying death to take on the sins of the world. He was raised from the dead, and whoever puts their trust in Jesus as their Savior will be reconciled to God and find eternal life.
How will things look once they are fixed? Those who reject God’s free gift of forgiveness in this life will get their wish. God will quarantine them and all evil in a place of eternal punishment called hell. For those who have received His forgiveness, He’ll wipe away every tear in a place called heaven (or the New Heaven and New Earth, to be precise) where there will be no more crying, pain, or death. Of course, entire books have been written exploring all the deeper meanings and metaphors the Bible uses to describe what happened on the cross. But this is the Christian gospel in a nutshell.
What is the Progressive Christian gospel?
Enter Progressive Christianity. Everything I just explained is something Progressive author Brian McLaren calls "The six-line Greco Roman narrative." (He lays the points out a bit differently, but it's the same storyline.) Along with many others, he rejects this view of the gospel. He suggests that this six-line narrative is nothing more than a copycat philosophy swiped from Plato and Aristotle.
Aside from pointing out some vague similarities between the ideas of these ancient philosophers and Christianity, McLaren never defends his theory much beyond simply asserting it. Yet Progressives have fallen for it in droves. Kevin DeYoung noted, “McLaren’s six-line Greco-Roman story looks like something you come up with after one semester of Western Philosophy.”
McLaren claims the true gospel can be found by reading the Jesus story through a Jewish lens. By “Jewish lens,” he means that Jesus’ “gospel of the kingdom” is not about who’s “in or out,” or who goes to heaven or hell when they die. It’s about confronting systems of oppression in the here and now and ushering in God’s dream for creation. He explains that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. Instead, this “liberator king” came to announce a new kingdom that is “much bigger than a new religion, and in fact it has room for many religious traditions within it.” (p. 139)
Is the Progressive gospel really good news?
I agree that we should understand the Jewish context in which Jesus lived and carried out His ministry. But McLaren’s “Jewish lens” and “new kingdom” focus reads more like a political manifesto championing causes like health care reform, green energy, climate change, and a “healthy, sustainable, and regenerative economy.” (p. 63)
McLaren’s main beef with the historical gospel seems to be that it’s a get your butt into heaven and ignore the world around you type of attitude. But this is not biblical Christianity. I can wholeheartedly agree with him that if this is someone’s view of the gospel, they’ve got it all wrong.
It must be noted that throughout history, Christians have confronted oppression, impacted their societies for good, and had a strong emphasis on helping the poor, orphans, and widows. We haven’t always done it perfectly, but the historic understanding of the gospel sees these good works as a sign that our faith is living and not dead. (James 2:26) It doesn’t throw sin, atonement, and heaven and hell out the window in exchange for building a better home here on earth.
So there you have it. Two very different ideas of what “gospel” means. Two ideas that contradict each other at every turn. Two ideas that elicit very different reactions.
But this is to be expected.
When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he explained that God was using him and others “to spread the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ everywhere.” He went on to say that not everyone found that smell to be so sweet.
Some thought it smelled like a rotting corpse.
This is because the real gospel confronts our personal sin—the sin we cling to and inherently love. Sin that deserves death. Even if we work together to build a better society, we will still be rotten to the core without repentance and the transformation of the Holy Spirit. Only when we grasp how treacherous our sin is can we recognize how beautiful the gift of God’s grace is. This is why a bloodless gospel is not good news at all.
To some that message is the fragrance of life, and to others it’s the stench of death. There's no middle ground. As the Apostle Paul said, "The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."
In my next post, I’ll zoom in for a closer look at how Progressives specifically answer the four worldview questions surrounding Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration.
Links to the rest of the series:
Part 2: Creation and Fall
Part 3: Redemption and Restoration
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