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.