We have failed our people. We—I have in mind people like me: preachers, church leaders, professors, bloggers—have failed those who come to our churches, week to week, who listen to what we say, who go to our Bible studies, who read our books, who look to us for a word from the Lord. We have been too afraid of true believers, who will punish anyone who disagrees with their version of the gospel. We have been afraid to speak the truth, not just to power, though that, too, but to life itself. We have too often preached a gospel of escape than a gospel of engagement.
In the previous post, I wrote about the Bible. I’ll have more to say about the Bible here. But for this post, in this series looking at what has gone wrong in our churches, I’ll turn to the way that churches—the churches we know, worship in, and love—portray the gospel.
Let me share a little story—one, I suspect, that may resonate with other preachers who read this. I was at a church in an interim capacity. I had been there for several months. It seemed to be going well. As I recall, I had been doing a series of messages on the Jacob stories in Genesis. I love those stories for the way that they detail the complicated interaction between what God has in mind and what God’s people have in mind. These stories have much to say for what it means to live as people of faith in any age.
But one Sunday my assumption that most everyone was enjoying the series was punctured by a man who took me aside and told me that I was not preaching the gospel. I don’t remember how he said this exactly, but he presented me with a stark scenario. People, he said, including many in this church, are going to hell. They will suffer eternal torments unless they make a decision for Jesus. This, he said as vehemently as he could, is what you should be preaching. Always. Every sermon. You should be preaching people to a decision. Heaven or hell is what matters. Every sermon, in fact, everything the church does should be directed to this one goal: to save people from the fires of hell and bring them into the bliss of heaven.
Clear enough. And it’s my guess—based on my own experience—that if you asked what the gospel is to people in our churches, they would come up with some variation on what this man said to me. This is true even if the church is officially Reformed, as was the church in which I was preaching. There is a standard-issue American evangelical gospel, and this is it: Heaven and hell. If you want to spend eternity in heaven and avoid the flames of hell, you must profess Jesus.
It’s more complicated than this, of course, even for those who claim this gospel. People have remarkable spiritual lives, often unexpressed. They have passions and doubts that no in the church seems willing to acknowledge or talk about. And often they sit in the pews quietly thinking that no one knows who they really are.
The New Yorker just published online an excerpt from a memoir by Rachel Louise Snyder (“How I Was Reborn,” newyorker.com, dated April 15, 2023; accessed April 16, 2023). Snyder’s mother was Jewish; her father, Christian. While her mother was alive, they attended both synagogue and church. But when her mother died, her father moved the family to Indiana, to a new home and to a church headed by her uncle, a church she describes as “unbridled and terrifying.” People spoke in tongues. They were “slain in the Spirit.” They were baptized in a local lake—including Rachel. In their theology, “to make it into heaven, one had to be reborn, both symbolically and by claiming salvation aloud.” Rachel wanted to believe. Tried to believe. But there was a problem. Two, actually. The first was that try as may she could not bring herself to believe. Doubts clung to her. And the second was her mother.
She had watched her mother die. As her mother neared death, she prayed to God to heal her, but to no avail. As Rachel watched at the door to the bedroom where her mother lay, she heard her panicked last words, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” And then her breathing ceased.
In the gospel preached at her uncle’s church, what would now become of her mother, her Jewish, non-Christ professing mother? Her father claimed that with her last breath her mother had uttered the name of Jesus. But her father wasn’t there. Rachel was. It was not what her mother said. And if her mother is not in heaven, can there be any longer a heaven for Rachel? If heaven is to be heaven, can it include the knowledge that those we love are not there, that in fact they are in excruciating pain? Would that still be heaven?
But there is another problem with this gospel of heaven and hell. It’s not found in the Bible. Not in the Old Testament. Not in the New. You can assemble texts from here and there and put together this gospel, which is what evangelistic tracts have been doing for a long time. But if this were the gospel, if the only thing that mattered was whether you say the name of Jesus on your deathbed (or before) so that the moment you die you find yourself in heaven and not in hell, would not the Bible itself have put this together? Would not there be a coda like, say, the Great Commission at the end of Matthew (28:18-20), only this time Jesus would lay out for his future disciples this gospel of heaven and hell? And would he not have said what the man at the church said: preach this and only this. Your job is to rescue people from hell.
In fact, this is not the faith of the New Testament at all. It’s a form of gnosticism. Gnosticism is an umbrella that scholars throw over a collection of early Christian movements and writings. Or did so in the past (on this, see Karen L. King, What is Gnosticism?. Harvard, 2003). These movements seem to have in common the idea that the world is a terrible place, a world of death and suffering and the oppressive heaviness of fleshly existence. But into this world have been born spirits, our spirits, spirits that long to escape to another dimension. The way of escape is knowledge. It’s what you know (Greek gnōsis), a certain kind of mystical knowledge, that sets you free.
The gospel preached in many churches across evangelical America has all of these features about it: the pervasive sense that the world has gone terribly wrong, the idea that salvation is an escape from earthly existence into another realm, and that one escapes by what one knows and professes. And like gnosticism in general, escape is the point. The biblical idea of resurrection, of a new creation, makes no sense. Why would one return to flesh when one can live in the realm of the spirit? The ancient church rejected gnosticism. The first great Christian theological work, Irenaeus’s five volume Against the Heretics, was written to counter gnosticism. Much of the contemporary church has embraced it.
And because churches have embraced it, they have little that is distinctively Christian to say to the moment in which we find ourselves. They offer people a gospel of escape, not of transformation. They offer assurances about death but little about life. They offer a way out, not a way into a deeper and fuller life.
Let me give you the briefest (although it’s not actually brief) sketch of what I have in mind, based on my own reading of the Bible and that of others. If one of the ways the church has gone seriously wrong is that it has turned the New Testament message into an escapist, gnostic gospel, what would a fuller gospel look like?
There are many ways to approach that question. If the point of faith is to be followers of Jesus, the New Testament is rich in ways to understand what that might look like. John approaches the task differently from Paul, and Paul from the synoptic gospels, and the synoptics from James. And so forth. So, take what I have to say in the rest of this post as only one way to approach the question of how to frame the gospel for this time and perhaps for any time. You will need to look at others. I’ve chosen to focus on a single word, a word that often in our culture connotes a cramped and ugly religiosity. The word is “righteousness.” But “righteousness” is a thoroughly biblical word. The Bible presents us with the challenge of distinctive, redemptive, and transformational righteousness.
Let me clear some space so that we can hear what the scriptures are talking about. the concept of righteousness is rooted in the Old Testament (Hebrew ṣedeq, ṣedĕqâ, and associated words). It gets confused (especially in some Reformed theologies) with later legal terminology: all those words that start with “just,” like “justice” and “justification.” But there is nothing abstract about “righteousness” in the Old Testament (or, for that matter, in the New). A righteous person (ṣaddîq) is one who does right by others. It’s an idea of righteousness born in villages where everyone knew each other. It’s a matter not just of what not to do but what must be done if you are to be neighbor to others.
It applies not only to people but to God. Perhaps the evocative Zechariah 8:8, coming as it does after the fall of Jerusalem and the scattering of the people, will suffice in this regard: “I will fetch them [God’s people], and I will settle in the heart of Jerusalem, and they will be a people for me, and I will be a God for them, in truth and righteousness.” The “truth and righteousness” applies to both: to God and to the people. For “in truth and righteousness,” we might substitute “and our mutual relationship will be honest and just.”
By the time of Zechariah, questions were beginning to be raised about the righteousness of God, the same sort of questions that have been raised more recently after the Holocaust. Would a righteous God allow such things? The destruction of Jerusalem? The murder of six million Jews. Has God done right by his people? Has God kept covenant with them? This is important, because in one of the most important of the New Testament statements of the gospel, Paul’s letter to the Romans, it is with the righteousness of God that he begins.
But to get there, we have to take into account another way that Second Temple Judaism provides the context for the discussion of righteousness in the New Testament. Coming from a century or so before the time of Jesus, 2 Maccabees tells the story of the Jewish revolt against the Syrians in a way quite different from 1 Maccabees. At the heart of 2 Maccabees are two chapters describing in graphic terms the horrible deaths of an old priest, Eleazar, and seven brothers and their mother, subjected each of them to unimaginable tortures and yet faithful to the end (2 Maccabees 6-7).
The author of 2 Maccabees introduces in these stories an idea fairly new at the time: resurrection. The martyrs in the stories go willingly to their deaths in part because they believe that the righteousness of God does not end with death. God will do right for those who are faithful to him. One of the martyred brothers on the point of death says, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you [the Syrian king] there will be no resurrection to life!”
Resurrection for heroes of the faith. But what of ordinary people, nose-to-the-grindstone, synagogue-going, Torah-keeping people, what of them? Jesus was actually asked this question in a surreptitious way by a young man. The story, a much more important story than is usually recognized, is found in Mark 10 (with parallels in Matthew and Luke). As Jesus begins moving toward Jerusalem, a young man runs up to him and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17). It’s the 2 Maccabees question.
Jesus answers with the conventional wisdom: keep the commandments. And he lists some of them, mostly from the second table of the law. The man replies that has kept these from childhood. It appears that he is looking for stronger stuff, something along the lines of Maccabean martyrs. Perhaps what he is looking for is what the Apostle Paul calls “Judaism” (Greek ioudai̇̈smos) in Galatians 1:13, a term which does not mean Judaism in our sense of the word, but a kind of zealotry. (On this see, James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of the Apostle Paul. Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 347-9.) Tellingly, the word appears three times in 2 Maccabees, including at the beginning of chapter 8, just after the stories of martyrs. The narrator notes that Judas Maccabeus had gone underground and recruited followers among those who “had remained in ‘Judaism’”—not simply practicing Jews, Torah keepers, but those in whom there burned a fierce zeal for the cause.
It now appears what the man is up to. He’s putting Jesus to the test. He wants to know what kind of righteousness Jesus stands for. Will Jesus say to him, as the young man seems to hope: Sign up for the revolution. Will Jesus, like Judas Maccabeus, recruit a messianic army from such as this young man. But then, as so often in the Jesus accounts, the story suddenly turns. In Mark (and only in Mark), we are told that Jesus sees him, as if for the first time. Perhaps, in Mark’s telling, it’s at this point that Jesus understands what the man is really asking. And he gives him a stronger righteousness, just not of Maccabean kind: sell what you own, give the proceeds to the poor, and come, follow me. The man is not ready for this, and he goes off sorrowful.
The commentary on the story that follows in the gospels focusses on the man’s wealth. It becomes a place in the gospel accounts to attach sayings of Jesus about money. But in this story, Jesus does something else. He lays out a different kind of righteousness, not the ioudai̇̈smos of young zealots like Saul (later Paul), but a righteousness based in giving of oneself to others. A righteousness of following Jesus—all the way to the cross.
It’s this same righteousness that Jesus teaches in the collections of saying we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Explaining his righteousness, Jesus says that “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scholars and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20; note that “heaven” here and in many other places in Matthew stands in for “God”; to enter the “kingdom of God” is become part of what Jesus is doing in the world.) He goes on to explain just how his righteousness surpasses that of the religious scholars and even the Pharisees in Matthew 5 with that stunning list of changes worked on the commandments, ending with, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies’” (Matthew 5:43-4).
The point of all this—and it’s only a beginning—is that Jesus taught a way, a distinctive righteousness, to his followers. One can hardly presume to be a follower of Jesus—to name the name, as is sometimes said—without in some way recognizing that this what Jesus taught, what he stood for. It’s an irony that the kind of righteousness that Jesus expressly rejected is now preached in churches: “Sign up so that we can protect our way of life.”
Where this sometimes gets lost is in Paul. We tend to read the gospel through Paul, not Paul through the gospels, especially if we are Reformed Christians. But we have read Paul badly. We have read Paul too often through the eyes of Luther, not in terms of Paul’s own background in Second Temple Judaism. Like his contemporaries, righteousness is very much on the mind of Paul. In his greatest exposition of his view of the faith, the letter to the Romans, he states his theme in terms of righteousness: first the righteousness of God, as I mentioned earlier, and then our own righteousness with the bridge between the two being the double righteousness of Jesus. Here’s his statement of theme:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation for all who trust it: the Jew, first; then the Greek. For the righteousness of God is revealed out of faith to faith. As it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17)
“From faith to faith.” For God’s faithfulness to ours. What God began with Abraham, God is still doing, Paul goes on to claim. There are two parts to the righteousness of God in Romans. The first is revealed in the righteousness of Jesus. It’s two chapters later, in Romans 3, that Paul strikes this theme. This is what he says (here the NIV cannot be relied on):
But now then, the righteous of God has been manifested apart from the law—[although] the law and prophets testify to it. It’s the righteousness of God through the faith[fulness] of Jesus Christ for the sake of all who believe.
It goes on to speak of Jesus as the place (̒ ̒ilastērion, the “mercy seat” in the temple) where God and people meet. But my point here is different. It’s that the righteousness of God is the righteousness of Jesus. The cross is the righteousness of God. The cross reveals the way of God in the world. What’s more, there is a consistency here between what Jesus taught and what he did. He said that if want to gain your life, you must lose it. And that’s indeed what Jesus did. But the consistency is not just between what Jesus taught and what he did, but between Jesus and God. In the cross, in ways far more interesting than I can take proper account of here, the character of God is manifested. God is the God of the cross.
That first, but there is a second. God’s righteousness is also manifested in the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the Maccabean question, in a way. Will God be faithful to the one who has been faithful to him? The answer is yes. In the resurrection, the faith of Jesus is vindicated. What looks like defeat leads to victory. The resurrection is the promise of vindication.
It’s this gospel that Paul preaches for those who would follow Jesus. Faith is not simply saying the right words or even thinking the right theology. Faith is trusting the way of Jesus, trusting that if you throw yourself into the Jesus life, even though it ends in apparent failure, that God will raise up what you have done.
In the famous eighth chapter of Romans, Paul writes:
But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. (Romans 8:10-11)
“Mortal bodies” is not just our human flesh but who we are and what we’ve done. Our story. Faith is the trust to do what looks to the rest of the world as foolishness—the foolishness of love—because God will do right by what we have done. Even if what we have done ends in apparent defeat, we trust that God will raise it up.
As Paul is facing his own death, in a letter of remarkable intimacy (Philippians), he expresses his own faith in just this way. He says:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)
Is there more to say? Yes, yes, yes. More about righteousness, more about grace, more about love, more about the Spirit, more about the community of faith, much more. But perhaps in the end, the point is simpler than I have made it: if we do not stray from the teaching of Jesus, our faith will not stray far from the gospel as proclaimed in the New Testament. I’ll leave it there, coming in my next piece to how the thin gospel taught in churches makes Christians vulnerable to the Jesus-defying, reverse image of what he taught, Christian Nationalism.