This post is a follow up to my last post regarding what I see as a widespread problem in American Evangelicalism. Namely, that Evangelicals have missed the boat on the Great Commission. They think they are fulfilling it but their actual practice ends up not producing disciples (students to Jesus who are learning to live their lives from Him) but converts (people who have given mental assent to a set of beliefs).
What I'm going to say next may be a bit inflammatory. If you consider yourself an Evangelical it should make you sit up a bit, maybe even bristle up a bit because it touches on something Evangelicals consider foundational. Some of you will dismiss it out of hand because it sounds so preposterous.
The primary reason Evangelicals are missing the Great Commission is that
Evangelicals do not understand the Gospel.
Now, my goal isn't to just get a reaction. I'm not simply bashing Evangelicals either, I consider myself one. Nor am I looking down on Evangelicals for this mistake, I was making the same mistake myself for many years. This is simply a gentle plea from one of your own to take another look at some of the ideologies that you may have thought were unquestionably nailed down. This can be massively unsettling. I know because I went through it, and am still going through it in some ways.
I struggled for a while trying to figure out how to communicate this. I've settled on merely retracing my own path. The rest of this blog post will consist mostly of extensive and lengthy quotes from Chapter 2 of the Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard [link]. I will be trying to pull all the main points out and making slight editing for length, clarity, and flow. Even so, this will not be a short post. This was the chapter responsible for flipping my world upside down. I hope and pray it brings blessings to you as well.
"The bumper sticker gently imposes its little message: Christians Aren't Perfect, Just Forgiven… Christians certainly aren't perfect. There will always be need for improvement. But there is a lot of room between being perfect and being 'just forgiven' as that is nowadays understood. You could be much more than forgiven and still not be perfect. Perhaps you could even be a person in whom Jesus' eternal kind of life predominates and still have room for growth.
"[It] certainly needs to be said that Christians are forgiven. And it needs to be said that forgiveness does not depend on being perfect. But is that really what the [bumper sticker] communicates?
"Unfortunately, it is not. What the slogan really conveys is that forgiveness alone is what Christianity is all about, what is genuinely essential to it.
"It says that you can have a faith in Christ that brings forgiveness while in every other respect your life is no different from that of others who have no faith in Christ at all. This view, so pleasingly presented on bumpers and trinkets, has deep historical roots. It is by now worked out in many somber tomes of theology, lived out by multitudes of those who sincerely self-identify as Christians.
"Think of the bar codes now used on goods in most stores. The scanner responds only to the bar code. It makes no difference what is in the bottle or package that bears it, or whether the sticker is on the "right" one or not. The calculator responds through its electronic eye to the bar code and totally disregards everything else. If the ice cream sticker is on the dog food, the dog food is ice cream, so far as the scanner knows or cares.
"A prominent minister spent fifteen minutes [on a radio program] enforcing the point that 'justification,' the forgiveness of sins, involves no change at all in the heart or personality of the one forgiven. It is, he insisted, something entirely external to you, located wholly in God Himself. His intent was to emphasize the familiar Protestant point that salvation is by God's grace onlu and is totally independent of what we may do. But what he in fact said was that being a Christian has nothing to do with the kind of person you are. The implications of this teaching are stunning.
"The theology of [the bumper sticker] says there is something about the Christian that works like the bar code. Some ritual, some belief, or some association with a group affects God the way the bar code affects the scanner. Perhaps there has occurred a moment of mental assent to a creed, or an association entered into with a church. God 'scans' it, and forgivenss floods forth. An appropriate amount of righteousness is shifted from Christ's account to our account in the bank of heaven, and all our debts are paid. We are, accordingly "saved." Our guilt is erased. How could we not be Christians?
"For some Christian groups the "account" has to be appropriately serviced to keep the debts paid up, because we really are not perfect. For others – some strongly Calvinist groups – every debt past, present, and future is paid for at the initial scan. But the essential thing in either case is the forgiveness of sins. And the payoff for having faith and being "scanned" comes at death and after. Life now being lived has no necessary connection with being a Christian as long as the 'bar code' does its job.
"We do hear a lot of discussion concerning what good Christians do and do not do. But of course it is not necessary to be a good Christian in order to be forgiven. That's the main point of the bar code, and it is correct."
Dallas then goes on to discuss "Some puzzling facts:"
"According to Gallup surveys, 94 percent of Americans believe in God and 74 percent claim to have made a commitment to Jesus Christ. About 34 percent confess to a "new birth" experience. These figures are shocking when thoughtfully compared to statistics on the same group for unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealings, and the like."
He goes on to discuss the multitudinous high profile failings of many of our Christian leaders, concluding with:
"We often wonder if the celebrities who advertise foods and beverages actually consume what they are selling… This is the very same question most pressing for those of us who speak for Christ. Surely something has gone wrong when moral failures are so massive and widespread amoung us. Perhaps we are not eating what we are selling. More likely, I think, what we are 'selling' is irrelevant to our real existence and without power over daily life."
He then discusses a well known leader who was taught as he was growing up that "if I was a Christian, then people would see a marked difference in my life!! And… that the closer I was to God [the] greater and more visible that difference would be." This same leader, over the decades had seen so many of his mentors and colleauges fall that he comes to the conclusion "I don't believe that anymore… Whatever the change is, it is not so much outward as it is inward. This difference that God makes is often visible only to God."
"The suggestion is that the change that makes a person Christian, whatever that is, may be totally undetectable from the human point of view. Only God's "scanner" can detect it. Apparently, that is "Christian reality" now. At least, many of our best-known leaders seem to think so."
He then asks us to consider the idea that maybe these failures, are not something that happens in spite of our efforts, but perhaps the failures occur precisely because of our efforts.
"The current situation, in which faith professed has little impact on the whole of life, is not unique to our times, nor is it a recent developmet. But it is currently at an acute stage. History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message."
"Once we understand the disconnection between the current message and ordinary life, the failures just noted at least make a certain sense. They should be expected. When we examine the broad spectrum of Christian proclamation and practice, we see that the only thing made essential on the right wing of theology is forgiveness of the individual's sins… The current gospel then becomes a 'gospel of sin management.' Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message. Moment-to-moment human reality in its depths is not the arena of faith and eternal living."
This disconnect between the Christian message and ordinary life stems from the fact that the message has been reduced to simply "sin management." For those on the theological right, this means that we have a "sin debt" that needs paid off. If the debt gets paid off before you die, you get Heaven. That's the good news. Being "saved" then is an issue of whether or not you have the "bar code" so that God's scanner will read your "bar code" and pay off your debt. The primary bad news is the debt. The primary good news is the payment. Both of which don't impact you until after you are dead. The goodness of then of the "good news"is excluded from our current lives that we live. The goodness only comes after we have died. The gospel has been divorced from any real effect in the day-to-day that in which we actually live now.
As Dallas puts it
"[For those on the theological right] getting into heaven after death is the sole target of divine and human efforts for salvation… But we get a totally different picture of salvation, faith, and forgiveness if we regard having life from the kingdom of the heavens now – the eternal kind of life – as the target. The words and acts of Jesus naturally suggest that this is indeed salvation, with discipleship, forgiveness, and heaven to come as natural parts. And in this he only continues the teachings of the Old Testament. The entire biblical tradition from beginning to end is one of the intimate involvement of God in human life."
This then is a better way of thinking of what salvation is: "intimate involvement of God in human life." The issue isn't whether we have believed the right things to obtain the "barcode" and the accompanying entrance into Heaven.
"[The issue is] whether we are alive to God or dead to him. Do we walk in an interactive relationship with him that constitutes a new kind of life, life 'from above'? As the apostle John says in his first letter, 'God has given undying life to us, and that life is in his Son. Those who have the Son have life."
"What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person Jesus, with all that that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him – trusting only hi role as guilt remover. To trust the real person Jesus is to have confidence in him in every dimension of our real life, to believe that he is right about and adequate to everything."
"When all is said and done, 'the gospel' for [those] on the theological right is that Christ made "the arrangement" that can get us into heaven. In the Gospels, by contrast, "the gosple" is the good news of the presence and availablity of life [within the rule of a happy, good, loving, God], now and forever, through reliance on Jesus the Anointed…"
"Accordingly, the only description of eternal life found in the words we have from Jesus is " This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only real God, and Jesus the anointed whom you have sent."