Obama isn’t the most precise theologian. Nor should that be expected of him–he’s only a politician after all.
In a recent interview before the selection of the new Pope Francis, President Obama was asked about his thoughts on the incoming pope. He expressed his hope that the next Holy Father would be faithful to what he considers the “central message of the Gospel.” Admirable sentiment. I think we should all hope for a pope who loves the Gospel. The question we have to ask ourselves is: what do we mean by the Gospel? Well, according to the President it’s “that we treat everybody as children of God and that we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.”
Now, I don’t want to single out or beat up on the President, but when you have people like Andy Stanley using language about him being pastor-in-chief and what-not, his definition of the Gospel becomes culturally-important. People listen to it whether they should or not. As such it becomes a teachable moment. Being a preacher-type, I can’t help myself.
I can think of one clear mistake and a couple of infelicities in the President’s statement that it would be helpful to point out and keep straight.
Law, Not Gospel - The first involves keeping straight the distinction between Law and Gospel. Michael Horton explains: “God’s Word has two parts: the law and the gospel. The law commands and the gospel gives. The law says, “Do,” and the gospel says, “Done!” Equally God’s Word, both are good, but they do different things. The law issues imperatives (commands), while the gospel announces indicatives (a state of affairs).”
This is true whether you subscribe to a more “kingdom”-centered gospel about the incoming Kingdom of God and Jesus’ saving Lordship (Mark 1:15), or a more “cross”-centered gospel about Jesus’ obedient life, sin-bearing death, and vindicating-resurrection for our salvation (1 Corinthians 15:3-6). Of course I think the two go together, but some people like to play them off against one another. In either case, kingdom or cross, the emphasis is on what God does, not what we do. Now, loving our neighbors and treating all with dignity and respect is certainly something the Bible commands, and it’s essential for us to do, but it is simply not the “central message of the Gospel.” It is a command, not a promise; it is a corollary of the Gospel, not the Gospel itself. When love of neighbor is the Gospel, it is turned into a task to be accomplished, not a gift to be received. It is about what we are to do, not what God has done.
To put it another way, the Gospel is that God has treated us as neighbor and loved us to the point of giving up what is most precious to him to save us, (Rom 5:8) not about what we do for our neighbor. The latter points to the former, and necessarily follows from it, (Mark 10:35-45) but must not be confused with it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what this statement does.
Neighbor Before God - The second infelicity is that while he basically alludes to Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment of the law (Matt 22:36-40), he skips over the first “to love the Lord your God”, and moves quickly to love your neighbor. Although surely not intentionally, we are given the impression that the primary thing that the church can be doing is loving people. Now, I have no opposition to the idea that we ought to love people. My only concern is to point out that the first result of the Gospel is reconciliation with and love for God, which then leads, of necessity, to reconciliation and love for people. (Ephesians 2) Theologically-speaking, the second command flows from the first and for that reason, the church must remember that first and foremost, our hearts are to be set on God who naturally directs our hearts towards our neighbors.
General, Not Particular - Finally, there is the fact that this “central message of the Gospel” that the Pope is to be sustaining starts to sound like what Fred Sanders has called FOGBOM theology–old-school 1920s liberal theology that talks about general fatherhood of God and the universal brotherhood of man, instead of the very particular gospel of adoption into the Father’s family through the work of the Son in the Holy Spirit. While the NT does, at least at one point, call all people the children of God in virtue of God being creator all (Acts 17), for the most part the notion of being a child of God is restricted to believers who by faith have been adopted in Christ (Ephesians 1:5) and given the Spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15). In fact, this is why Jesus came, “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5); to make us by grace, what he is by nature. Now, this isn’t to deny that Christians are to love all as Jesus has taught us. It just means that even if someone isn’t our brother or sister and hasn’t been adopted by God, we’re supposed to love them just as he loved us–in such a way that it invites them in while they’re still outside. It should be our prayer that Pope Francis preaches the beauty of this particular gospel: of a God who, in grace, reaches out to welcome us uniquely, converting us from sin and rebellion by the Spirit, instead of feeding our culture’s preference for bland, general statements about God’s natural fatherhood for all. Only that Gospel will move the church to serve, love, and give of itself freely towards the poor and the downtrodden.
It’s crucial that whenever possible we keep a clear mind about what the Gospel is and isn’t, and the President’s remarks give us a wonderful opportunity to do so.
So what’s the Gospel Pope Francis should be preaching from St. Peter’s chair? I’ll let President Obama take another crack at it by quoting his remarks at the Easter Prayer Breakfast two years ago:
“We’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection…This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this ‘Amazing Grace’ calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.”
Now that’s a Gospel worth preaching.