Why The New Pope Shouldn’t Listen to Obama’s Advice

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.

“Thanks for the advice! I’m gunna go be pope now.”

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.

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  • Great piece. Great piece. Thanks, Derek.

    [Obama: the central message of the Gospel is] “that we treat everybody as children of God and that we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.”

    Bullshenanigan. Even before I read the rest of the column I thought: What a burdensome, weak, pathetic, ready-made-for-spiritual manipulation false “gospel.”

    By the way, this is why Biblical Christians must be involved in politics.

    This is why Christians must reject old statistics- and “freedom”- and “America’s conservative heritage”-based political arguments and instead base their arguments on the Gospel.

    This is why we must stay in culture, even political culture: not to Save the Nation, not to pretend that changing civil laws will change hearts, not to ignore the Gospel’s central message of God Himself dying and resurrecting to save those dead in sins — but to live out that Gospel and combat false religions such as secular-liberalism.

  • Ellen

    We are at no risk whatsoever of Pope Francis listening to President Obama’s “advice.”

  • I agree with Ellen. Why do so many seem to demand that the Pope change so as to give us whatever we want out of him -whether we’re Protestant, feminist, or whatever? These guys have steered a big ship for a lot of years. And they’ve never done it by popular vote.

  • Matt

    Thank you Derek. Enjoyed the article and your perspective.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Allow me to take this opportunity to shamelessly plug my post from a few weeks back:


  • Yeah, I don’t think he’ll be a popular vote Pope or really listen to the President. Everybody’s got an opinion, though. Heck, I do.

    Also, S.L. Whitesell’s piece is good. Go read it.

  • Trent, Fresno, CA

    Thanks for this thought provoking article.

    It seems that, in the end, the only issue is that Mr. Obama calls the commands of Jesus outlined within the Gospel, “THE Gospel.” But there is nothing else outside of that statement that is inappropriate, inaccurate, or unbiblical, correct? Mr. Obama is correct that Christians (Popes included) should, “treat everybody as children of God and… we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.”

    That kind of lifestyle is the Christian response to the truth of the Gospel, right?

    Therefore, if our pragmatic actions are the same (i.e. treating everyone as children of God, and loving in the manner exemplified by Jesus), whether these actions are the Christian’s expression of the Gospel or the Christian response to the Gospel matters very little.

    Mr. Obama’s point seems to be expressing the hope that the new Pope will reflect the Christian ethic of loving God through loving neighbor. Perhaps it’s not as big a deal as we tend to make it when his interpretation of terms doesn’t match ours, especially when the actions that result are the same.

  • S. L. Whitesell

    Trent, the problem is in calling the “central message” of the Gospel this kind of basic charity work. To be fair, Obama, didn’t say “social justice” or the usual things we’ve come to expect. But I think Derek’s reading of it is fair. I doubt when Obama said “love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them” that he meant by preaching the Gospel to them and standing firm in the truth of God’s design for humanity.

    In our view, the Gospel is first about remedying our standing with an infinite Creator who judges the world. As Derek indicates, it’s easy for moderns to skip over the “love the Lord thy God” part and skip right to “love your neighbor.” And as I emphasize in my two papal posts, love of neighbor can’t be divorced from the message of sin, atonement, and redemption according to God’s ordained plan – neither for the Catholic church nor for us evangelicals.

  • Trent,
    Thanks for your thoughtful push-back. I think S.L. caught a number of things I would say. Also, as I indicated, this is helpful as a teachable moment in order to clarify something for an American audience that is caught up in the sort of pragmatism that only asks, “What’s the result?” Or thinks that if the outward actions are the same, then no big deal. It’s a very big deal though, because to understand the Gospel as gift, instead of Gospel as command changes the very way we obey the command. One motivates us to serve in gratitude, the other only in fear. There’s more to say, but I think the Michael Horton article I quoted and linked above is a helpful one at this point.


  • Trent, Fresno, CA

    Thank you both for the helpful perspective. As I’ve been thinking about it throughout the day, I continually come back to the idea that perhaps our own definitions of “gospel” and “salvation” are far too limited.

    As I interact with these terms I can’t help but think that salvation must include the “heavenly rewards” that is so often the focus of our preaching, but it also must include and expand other aspects of salvation far beyond simply “heaven.”

    Salvation must include shalom, right relationship with God and with neighbor. There must be dynamics of healthy, wholistic relationship across all the spectrums. Salvation is surely not only, or not merely, a spiritual, end of life thing.

    Therefore, “gospel” must mean more than simply the 4-point plan of salvation. Firstly, I agree with your Markan examples that the “gospel,” being a hijacked Roman political term, must include the same “real-world” political allegiance implications for us as it did for Mark’s first audience. There is a call here to switch allegiances and change citizenships. That must be part of the “gospel” message too, right?

    I find it incredibly fascinating and compelling that Mark 1:15 outlines what we as readers should be looking for when we seek watch Jesus throughout the rest of Mark’s story.

    “After John was arrested Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the (gospel) of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the (gospel).”

    We’d expect to see these kinds of terms and phrases appear in the next chapters. We should be on the lookout for terms like “gospel,” “fulfillment of time,” “kingdom of God,” “repent,” or “believe.” However, over the next 7 chapters, the bulk of Jesus’ ministry, Mark never records Jesus as saying ANY of these terms, except for Kingdom of God, in the context of parables. Instead we see Jesus performing all sorts of “social justice” actions, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, confronting demons, commanding armies, bridging racial boundaries, etc.

    So what are we to take from this? That Mark 1:15 mislabeled Jesus’ ministry, or that the heart of the Gospel and social justice are, in fact, linked. There is more to “the Gospel” than merely relationship with a gracious God, it IS that, but also more. There are other aspects of the gospel and salvation that must be tied to social justice. There is a faithfulness component to the gospel, and the experience of salvation.

    I don’t think the love of God part can be dropped. I agree with you there, but certainly Jesus seems to clarify that such a love is expressed in faithfulness. In the same way, love of neighbor cannot be dropped. The two must be held together.

    Now, again, I’m trying to learn and I’d love your assistance processing these ideas. Perhaps, if you have the time, you could help me get a more solid understanding of a biblical definition of “gospel.”

    Once again, thank you for the opportunity to have conversation.

  • Trent,
    Again, great comments, I would push you again to consider what I wrote:

    Michael Horton’s quote: “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).”
    Now my follow-up:
    “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.”

    My point is that as far as what you’re saying about the kingdom, salvation, shalom, etc. that is fine, I don’t object and I for the most part, vociferously insist on. What I would say is that Jesus is the one who brings the kingdom. God is the one who extends his rule. The Gospel isn’t, “Go out and bring the Kingdom.” It is, “The Kingdom of God is at hand because I am bringing it” and the response is to repent, believe, and be brought in. Part of being brought in means turning and participating in it. What I want to do is clarify the difference between the Gospel (what Jesus does), and the response to the Gospel (what we do moved by the Holy Spirit). It’s the difference between cause and effect. The two can’t be separated often-times, but they should be distinguished.
    I hope this helps. Thank you for your thoughtful engagement.

  • Trent, Fresno, CA

    Thank you Derek. That is really beneficial for me. I appreciate your patience and clarity.

    I suppose I’m trying to find a way to bring the “Kingdom-centric Gospel” AND the “cross-centric Gospel” together. I’m trying to find the perspective where we no longer see the two “shades” of the Gospel separately but instead see the whole thing in its entirety. Surely there’s a theological stance where the two are held in harmony, and I’m just struggling with how to harmonize them.

    When I hear “cross,” of course I think forgiveness, mercy, grace, etc., but I also hear massive political implications, and kingdom impact. So that’s the journey I’m on.

    Thank you SO much for this. It has been really fun and enlightening.

  • Trent,

    Glad to help. If all commenters were like you, writing would be a lot easier.


  • S. L. Whitesell

    Brian Mattson criticizes the “two kingdoms” approach, sometimes pretty harshly. Here’s one of his posts: http://brianmattson.squarespace.com/journal/2011/8/13/did-calvin-believe-in-two-kingdoms.html

    And Wayne Grudem literally wrote the book on it. Okay, not THE book, but he did write a book about modern political issues: http://www.amazon.com/Politics-According-Comprehensive-Understanding-Political/dp/0310330297

  • Yeah, I’m not sure that this post really is a two-Kingdoms related one, but I’m note entirely sold on it although I’m sympathetic. Actually, Tim Keller has a great section in his work Center Church on the various church/culture relationship models. Basically most of them have something going for them.

    Also, is it bad to say that I’ve never had any desire to read Grudem on anything?

  • Trent, Fresno, CA

    Thanks to you both for the resources.

  • Juno Lin

    Christians and Catholics are a funny bunch. Christians in American scream and yell how due to our so-called “liberal” laws, that Americans have “abandoned God” and that God is “no longer present” in our daily lives.

    Yet the Catholics and their egregious, horrendous child abuse scandal illustrates why NO COUNTRY should put much faith in religious leaders.

    Where was that so-called “presence of God” when all of those child abuse scandals were happening right under the watchful icons and statues of Jesus/Mary/Holy Spirit?

    Exactly..it was nowhere to be found…because if Christians and Catholics actually stepped outside of their deluded selves and try to be objective, they would realize that any religion is just a myth that exists for the sake of preserving power that benefits themselves.

    To the trend of American becoming less & less religious, I’d have one thing to say to the church: good riddance!

  • Juno,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m really not sure what, if anything, it has to do with the content of the post given that I don’t really talk about religion fading, not feeling God’s presence, prayer in schools, the rising secularity of the US or any of those issues. It does sound like you’ve got some real anger at the abuse of religion and the problem of why a good God would allow such tragedies and travesties to occur. I’d like to suggest a good book that starts to tackle some of these issues as well as other very normal, understandable objections to faith in Christ. Tim Keller’s NY Times Bestseller “The Reason for God.” It’s tone and content commend and it’s kind of an instant classic. Intellectually rigorous yet sensitive I think it might start speaking to some of your concerns.

    I hope you have a good day.


  • D-

    I’m right there with you on the gospel explanation. However, if we’re going to knock the President for not being a precise theologian, lets take care to be precise theologians ourselves. This means that we shouldn’t say things like national political leaders who profess Christ should be “expected” to misunderstand the Gospel. You don’t want us improperly distinguishing between Law and Gospel (and rightly so), but those kinds of flippant statements about who should and should not be expected to be “precise” enough to explain the Gospel drives an unbiblical divide between the sacred and secular. The reformers would not be happy campers about that either.


  • Joshua

    Good article. I appreciate the even tone you take in this simple yet slightly politically-tinged discussion.

    When you talk about loving God primarily, then loving others, I understand the spirit behind your thoughts.

    However, let’s not lose sight of the biblical passages that challenge us by (1) positing how we can claim to love God, whom we haven’t seen, and not love others, whom we do see, and (2) declaring that if we do not give food or drink, clothing, shelter, etc. to the least of these, it’s comparable to not doing so unto Jesus.

    I believe without the context provided by passages like these, many Christians have pressed forward with their own ideas of loving God, which include political wrangling and grandstanding under the cover of advancing the Kingdom, and refusing to show compassion or engage with those we’ve sometimes indifferently denigrated as outsiders, whether they’re a different race, nationality, orientation, or simply dismissed as those “liberals”.

    I believe that the while many Christians, like you, have the right idea about what the Gospel is about as well as the need for loving others to flow out of loving God, many too readily equate “loving God” with promoting legalistic and political agendas, even if unintentionally.

  • Dave

    Thanks for the excellent article, Derek. I suspect that Obama’s Gospel comment regarding the new pope was unscripted and original thought more reflective of his actual theological understanding, whereas his quote from the Easter Prayer Breakfast two years ago was scripted and telepromptered for him. Kudos to that speechwriter and to Obama for keeping a truly Gospel-grounded person on his staff.

  • Little Sheep

    A careful reading of John 1:12 & 13 clarifies that not all people are children of God. All are His creation yes …but not all are His children …big difference! Mr. President may not know the difference!