Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Gospel: A Matter of Specific Truths or Experiences

How specific must the Gospel message be? People answer this question in various ways. Emergent Church guru, Tony Jones, writes that it isn’t even about a set of doctrines or beliefs:

  • Jesus did not have a “statement of faith.” He called others into faithful relationship to God through life in the Spirit…he was not concerned primarily with whether individuals give cognitive assent to abstract propositions [His teachings] but with callings persons into trustworthy community through embodied and concrete acts of faithfulness. The writers of the NT were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions. (Jones, The New Christians, 234) 
This is clearly inaccurate. In a sense, the Apostle Paul did have a “statement of faith!” He had been very specific about the Gospel he was preaching, so specific that he warned:

  • But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Galatians 1:8-9)
Paul was very definite that there are a set of teachings that comprise the Gospel. In his mind, Peter was acting out a different and poisonous gospel when he withdrew from eating with Gentile believers upon the arrival of the Judaizers (“false brothers,” Gal. 2:4; the “circumcision group,” 2:12). Because Peter cowardly withdrew, Paul accused him of requiring the Gentiles to become Jews to qualify for Christian fellowship (Gal. 2:14).

Instead, Paul argued that fellowship was based on grace and not on following the Law, as Peter already understood. Meanwhile, the “circumcision group” had professed faith in Christ but also insisted that it had to be combined with circumcision. This would make the believer a Jew and enable him to also follow the Law in order to be saved.

The Jerusalem council had dealt conclusively with this question. The circumcision group contended that believers in Christ had to first become Jews:

  • Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees up and said, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses." (Acts 15:5)
However, the council nixed that motion. Similarly, Paul warned that the Galatians were following Christ for naught if they also trusted in performing the good deeds of the Law (Gal. 3:1-5). A trust in good deeds was incompatible with trust in Christ:

  • You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:4) 
To many of us, including Jones, this simple addition of the requirement of fulfilling the good deeds of the Law seems quite innocuous. Hadn’t the Jews been saved under the Mosaic Covenant prior to the Cross? What then could be so wrong about simply insisting on the very thing that God had ordained beforehand!

However, to Paul, such a theology was accursed. The Law was supposed to lead us to Christ and then step aside after it had performed its duty (Gal. 3:23). Bringing back what had been fulfilled was a matter of adding to salvation. It was also a matter of denying the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death, and this addition undermined the Gospel!

The Gospel is very specific. It can’t be added to; nor can anything be taken away from it:

  • I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book. (Rev. 22:18-19; Deut. 4:2; 12:32)
God’s Gospel was so specific that any adding or subtracting represented a capital offense. Meanwhile, Jones claims:

  • The writers of the NT were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions. 
Although “obsessed” is the wrong word, the “writers of the NT” had the highest appreciation for the proclamation of the exact teachings of the Gospel – so high that any possible distortion carried frightful warnings, while the preaching of the unadulterated Gospel was associated with great blessings:

  • For 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. (1 Cor. 1:18)
  • "Now I [Paul] commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32)
In contrast to Jones’ assertions, the Gospel had to accord with the truth about God. The Samaritans had a religion similar to that of the Israelites. The Samaritan woman explained to Jesus that their main difference was one of geography:

  • Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." (John 4:20)
Against this observation, Jesus emphasized truth:

  • "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4:21-24)
According to Jesus, salvation was a matter of worshiping God according to truth, according to the specific revelation given to the Jews.

We are obsessed today with discovering a new gospel – one that might bring all religions together. However, in order to do this, the ground-rules have to be changed. Instead of a collection of teachings (and these will differ from religion to religion), a common experience of God is now to be the new gospel – a common “language” or Tower of Babel around which all can rally. Sociologist, writer and speaker, Tony Campolo, advocates this very solution:

  • A theology of mysticism provides some hope for common ground between Christianity and Islam. Both religions have within their histories examples of ecstatic union with God, which seem at odds with their own spiritual traditions but have much in common with each other.
  • I do not know what to make of the Muslim mystics, especially those who have come to be known as the Sufis. What do they experience in their mystical experience? Could they have encountered the same God we do in our Christian mysticism? (Tony Campolo, Speaking My Mind: The Radical Evangelical Prophet Tackles the Tough Issues Christians Are Afraid to Face [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004], 149, 150.)
However, Jesus’ Gospel was a preached message to be believed, not mystically experienced:

  • Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:14-15; NKJV)
Grace came in the form of good news to the shepherds, not in the form of an ecstatic mystical experience:

  • But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
The good news was a revelation of hope, not a new technique to experience God. Even in the Old Testament, the Jews were primed to receive a saving message, not a mystical high:

  • How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, "Your God reigns!" (Isaiah 52:7) 
In fact, in Scripture there is no hint whatsoever of a salvation or union with God through learning techniques to achieve a mystical experience. Frankly, the God of the Bible cares nothing about mind-altering techniques. Instead, He cares about believing and obeying His teachings (Mat. 28:19-20).

What then does the Sufi experience? Well, whatever it is, it is not a saving union with Christ! This alone comes through believing the Gospel message:

  • Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the [Gospel] testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12)
Campolo’s hope is not a Scriptural one. However, God’s loving concern and plan for all humanity is, but we have to allow God to achieve His glorious plan in His own way. He does seem to prophecy a time when all who are left in the end will be saved:

  • On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. The Lord has spoken. In that day they will say, "Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD; we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation." (Isaiah 25:7-9)
Frankly, I don’t know how it will all play out. However, I know God well enough to know that He has a perfect plan in which:

  • Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven. The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps. (Psalm 85:10-13)
Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, but they pursued this goal in their own way, to their own destruction. Ironically, they pursued the very thing that God had already planned to give them (1 John 3:1-3)! However, they mistakenly thought that they knew better how to achieve this goal than did God. In this, I think that they represent the arrogance of this age, the arrogance of the well-fed and well-endowed, assured that they can come to God (or become God) in any manner they so choose.

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