On Christmas Eve a few years ago, I discovered the website of a large Midwestern mainline church. I was immediately grabbed by the glorious half-truth proclaimed on the front page:
“The Truth is Simple: God loves you, no matter who you are. No matter how you have lived your life. No matter your age. No strings attached.”
Antinomianism – irresistibly packaged. At least, that’s what the message sounds like, taken by itself. (My hunch proved true as I explored the site.) Yet every line is true, in the proper context.
“God loves you.” That is no lie. But “God loves you” does not equal “God approves of all that you do.” Perhaps the folks who speak for this church (and I’m sure there are many other churches proclaiming an identical message) would agree with this caveat. But the entire immediate context of the message on the website that I have quoted here virtually demands to be understood in a simplistic way. God loves you, end of sentence, nothing to add.
Jesus would have taken a baseball bat to this truncated gospel.
So would the entire New Testament. Nowhere in the New Testament will we find such a truncated gospel. You won’t find it in the Synoptic Gospels, where following Jesus comes close to obscuring the glorious truth of God’s grace to which this Midwestern church appeals. Ask the Rich Young Ruler. Or see what the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in his ministry is: “Repent.” Or read the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus sets the standard sky-high in places where humans have been lax with God’s law.
You won’t find this simplistic gospel in John’s writings, at least, not if you read them all, in context. When we read Jesus speaking to the woman caught in adultery, it is irresponsible to cut him off in mid-sentence and skip his “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” John writes in 1 John 2:4, “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not obey his commands is a liar, and the truth is not in them.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
You won’t even find this truncated gospel in Paul, the very guy who sets up grace almost as a negation of any kind of law. Paul denies that grace has “no strings attached” in Romans 3:31, Romans 6:1, and Titus 2:11-14.
“No strings attached” – not even gratitude that leads us to lead a different life?
Peter says it well: the “ignorant and unstable” twist Paul “to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16)
And what in the world ever happened to James? We used to cite his words “faith without works is dead” to refute the easy-believe-ism of born-again enthusiasts. When did we kick James out of the canon? I confess, I used to wish James wasn’t in the canon, because he seemed to deny salvation by grace, which made faith too complicated for me. (It’s ironic how we conservatives are told we have a simplistic faith, by those very folks who want to over-simplify the truth about God’s love.) Today, I am thankful that James’ epistle survived its near-eclipse during the early period when the New Testament canon was being formed.
Way back around 150 AD, the Church rejected the sugar-sweet replacement for Jesus that Marcion carved as an idol. As Tertullian puts it, Marcion had to “circumcise” the whole Bible (i.e. cut off everything Jewish) to get it to say what he wanted it to say. And Marcion is alive and roaring back today, not only among progressives, but even among some Southern Baptists, who quickly reject any teaching that sounds too much like “law” rather than Gospel. At the moment, the only difference between the Marcionism of Baptists and the Marcionism of progressives is that the latter group likes to affirm fornication and homosexual behavior as glorious good gifts of God.
Don’t get me wrong. Grace – the fact that God not only loves us but can welcome us into heaven, no matter who we are, no matter how we have lived our life – is the glorious Good News that set me free when I first heard that news forty-five years ago. But I never dreamed of using that grace as an excuse or license to sin.
Sin is not the last word – that is liberating! Sin no longer inevitably locks us into an eternity without God. Jesus stands ready to save “whosoever will,” with no scrap of merit or deed we can do other than to reach out and grab his rescue rope. But to say this, is not the same as to say “Sin doesn’t matter – God doesn’t care how we live.” In fact, grace itself becomes an oxymoron if it becomes what we have a right to expect (or even demand?) from God.
Imagine if the website had read this way: “The Truth is simple. God loves you. Jesus died for you. Nothing you have ever done can now stand between you and God. All we can do is say Yes to God’s love.” It’s not the same message, is it? And I suspect that the different message on the website was intentional.
Everything said on the front page of this church’s website is true. Gloriously true! These words are wonderfully inviting to lost souls who are seeking a relationship with God. But taken literally by themselves, in the context in which they are presented to us, these words are transformed from glorious truth into dangerously misleading half-truth.
It would be sad to shortchange spiritual seekers by giving them a false hope that is really not Good News at all.