The Gospel Has Got to Be More Than Forgiveness for Sinners

The Gospel Has Got to Be More Than Forgiveness for Sinners December 23, 2017

transforming gospel

If you ever watch someone like Ray Comfort do street evangelism, you see a perfect picture of western salvation. His job is to prove to bystanders that they’re sinners in need of a savior, and he does this by quizzing them on the ten commandments.

“Have you ever told a lie?” he asks them. Inevitably they admit that they have, and he informs them that they’re guilty of bearing false witness, guilty of breaking God’s commandments,  and need to accept Jesus to avoid the fires of hell.

The gospel message of western evangelicalism is empowered and bolstered by sin. The bigger the sinner, the more attractive and beautiful the gospel message becomes. Why do so many people in the prison system become Christians? Because the gospel promises them forgiveness and the love of God in spite of the horrible things that they’ve done.

The more unforgivable your past behavior, the brighter the light of absolution and reconciliation with God. And we eat those testimonies up. We’re never so enraptured as we are when listening to a redeemed sinner sharing their story in church. And the bigger the sin, the more dramatic the gospel seems.

Don’t get me wrong; forgiveness for wrongs committed is an important element of the gospel. But is it the whole message? What does the gospel offer to someone who has done the best they could to be a good person? I know that the typical (Reformed) answer is that we’re all desperately wicked and in need of forgiveness. But the gospel message becomes incredibly anemic when I have to fish around for whether you’ve ever told a lie.

More importantly, what do we do with a gospel where everyone begins at the finish line? There has to more to Christianity than repeating a pastor’s prayer during an altar call. What good is a gospel with the power to save but not to transform? These are the questions that conservative evangelicalism has needed to answer since the 1920s, and its fruit proves that it’s never found an adequate response.

The gospel of the complacent

It’s interesting to see Paul say, So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26–27) The idea that Paul could work as hard as he did for the gospel and still worry about being disqualified is incredibly provocative.

In the gospel I’ve been raised on, you’re locked in when you profess Christ. Your job is to try and be a good, obedient follower of Jesus. But don’t worry, you’re saved by faith alone and your profession is your key to the glories of heaven. After all, as the bumper sticker suggests, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”

It’s a gospel for those who are uncritically satisfied with themselves and their achievements. As long as you don’t commit major sins like murder, adultery, and liberalism, and you read your Bibles and attend church regularly, you’re golden.

The gospel of perpetual repentance

What if the magnitude of “bad” people’s sins isn’t what gives the gospel its luster? What if the good news of the gospel shines in the lives of people being transformed by Christ? It seems that people aren’t “compelled to come in” by our smug self-satisfaction, but by our love, our sacrifice, our fruit.

This would mean that Christians aren’t just people who have repeated a prayer and now wait for heaven, but are thoughtful and reflective people who are in process. They’re not looking around at other Christians in order to maintain their standard of goodness but are being transformed into the image of Christ.

This would mean that Christians are in a constant state of recalibration and repentance. They’re willing and ready to shed perspectives, views, theologies, and opinions that prohibit them from ascribing value to others in the way Christ does.

This would mean that their viewpoints and attitudes can’t be static, but they’re constantly open to change and adjustment. If we’re not willing to change our minds, how can we expect the understanding of finite people to expand enough to view the world through the eyes of an infinite God?

The gospel needs to be more than a panacea for sinners. We’re not marketing a detergent that can only truly be demonstrated on the toughest stains. The gospel is the method that God is using to redeem all things to himself and morphe people into his image. Not the image of a complacent, self-satisfied God, but of a wild, dynamic God of love and sacrifice. When we’re able to produce believers like that, we won’t need to rely on sin to sell the gospel.

 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Arlene Adamo

    “They’re willing and ready to shed
    perspectives, views, theologies, and opinions that prohibit them
    from ascribing value to others in the way Christ does.”

    Such a very wise essay.

  • Paul

    One of the problems with the good news being about forgiveness is that, according to the long entrenched Christian theology of atonement, when forgiveness is mentioned in the New Testament, the assumption is that God is the one doing the forgiving. However, very few places make mention of God in connection with forgiveness. If you simply change the word forgive or forgiveness into one of the other common definitions for “aphiemi,” many verses begin to make more sense. For example, in Mark 1:4, it states that John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the “for the forgiveness of sins.” Other definitions for the Greek word are “release, letting go, abandonment.” My impression is that John baptized people who were expressing repentance and they were promising to be more intentional about the “letting go” of their own sins. Isn’t that what we are supposed to do after baptism – abandon our unloving actions? Wouldn’t it be good news to hear that others were joining you in trying to treat each other with kindness and love? The good news is not that God will forgive you if you believe the right theology. Mark 1:14 tells us what the good news should be.

  • “What if the good news of the gospel shines in the lives of people being transformed by Christ? It seems that people aren’t “compelled to come in” by our smug self-satisfaction, but by our love, our sacrifice, our fruit.”

    Amen! People weren’t attracted to Jesus because of his rigid moral code, his “correct” doctrine, or his demand for an outward show of piety. In fact, these were the things he chastised the Pharisees over. No, people were drawn to him because they experienced the tangible fruit of his love and compassion towards them. And people are still drawn to him that way…

  • Jon Noble

    Jayson, if you are not familiar with the New Perspective on Paul, I encourage you to read up on it. I think you’ll like it. You’ll find it in Gordon Fee, Luke Timothy Johnson and many others. You’ll also find quite of bit of it in the early Church Fathers. I found it in Irenaeus of Lyon some years back, long before I’d ever heard the term.

    The basic idea is this. Jesus didn’t come just to provide forgiveness. Jesus came to be a Second Adam and reclaim/adopt/recreate. In this Second Adam we are being renewed. Salvation doesn’t just mean forgiveness, it means becoming like Jesus. To the early Christians, Salvation and Sanctification were inseparable.

    You’ve started a good conversation here.

  • raven nevermore

    You point out pertinent ideas, that there has got to be more than forgiveness. Forgiveness is only the beginning, the intellectual position of belief to start a relationship with God. The other crucial aspect is sanctification as an experience in being justified with God because of Jesus and faith. This other aspect is about growing spiritual with some reasonable deep thinking, which evidences itself in a pure clean conscience. You need to write a part two.

  • Curtis Pullin

    One of the most intriguing concepts about salvation can be found in Eastern Orthodox theology and in the writings of the Fathers of the early church–the idea that believers become divine by sharing in the divinity of Jesus. This is referred to as “theosis” or “divinization.” Orthodox Christians and the Church Fathers believe that this is a process, not something that happens when a sinner’s prayer is said during an altar call. Here is an example from Clement of Alexandria: “[H]e who listens to the Lord, and follows the prophecy given by Him, will be formed perfectly in the likeness of the teacher—made a god going about in flesh.” I admit that it is a bit jarring to read “made a god going about in flesh” while referring to a believer, but it was formed by their experience of God as incarnate in the person of Jesus and how that played out in personal and communal salvation. Food for thought.

  • If you find this post intriguing then it’s time for you to start reading Luther.

  • Chari McCauley

    We are born again; for me that means re-educated.

  • Bravo Sierra

    Re: “His job is to prove to bystanders that they’re sinners in need of a savior”
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1fce7a0c6ade1ba0b25a57833b4ae7e47bb6edb3932d84c0d78670549b703dcf.jpg

  • Obscurely

    Jayson, I’m not sure what kind of evangelicals you’re hanging with, but maybe you’re knocking down a ‘straw man’ here? My own experience with them as a progressive pastor (and as one myself, back in the day) is that they have a mature biblical understanding of forgiveness being the means to transformation — I’m surprised you didn’t mention that one of the pillars of evangelicalism (at least the kind I’m familiar with) is, “Faith without works is dead.”

  • Tim

    “The gospel needs to be more than a panacea for sinners. We’re not marketing a detergent that can only truly be demonstrated on the toughest stains. The gospel is the method that God is using to redeem all things to himself and morphe people into his image. Not the image of a complacent, self-satisfied God, but of a wild, dynamic God of love and sacrifice. When we’re able to produce believers like that, we won’t need to rely on sin to sell the gospel.”

    Love this statement.

  • Brandon Roberts

    nice article

  • Richard Beavo

    You don’t have to go outside the Bible to see that being a follower of Jesus was more than forgiveness of sins. It is written throughout the pages. Peter sums it all up in his second letter to the early believers:

    2 Peter 1:1-11
    To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ:
    Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord;
    seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.

    For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.

    Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence,
    in your faith supply moral excellence,
    and in your moral excellence, knowledge,
    and in your knowledge, self-control,
    and in your self-control, perseverance,
    and in your perseverance, godliness,
    and in your godliness, brotherly kindness,
    and in your brotherly kindness, love.

    For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    For he who lacks these qualities is blind or short-sighted, having forgotten his purification from his former sins.

    Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.