In his second chapter of The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes about the two gospels of sin management. The first makes Christianity all about forgiveness of sins and getting into heaven. The second focuses on fighting social evils. But neither pays real attention to the fact that God has called us to live all of our lives in Christ – not merely believe certain things about him, partake in some theological transaction, or try to make the world a better place through our well intended efforts.
“History has brought us to the point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin: with wrongdoing or wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual existence, is not included in what is now presented in the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally…Transformation of life and character is no part of the redemptive message.”
“The issue, so far as the gospel in the Gospels is concerned, is whether we are alive to God or dead to him.”
“What must be emphasized in all of this is the difference between trusting Christ, the real person of Jesus, with all that that naturally involves, versus trusting some arrangement for sin-remission set up through him – trusting only his role as guilt remover. To trust the real person of Jesus is to have confidence in him in every dimension of our real life, to believe that he is right about and adequate to everything…the “gospel” is the good news of the presence and availability of life in the kingdom, now and forever, through reliance on Jesus the Anointed.”
Referencing John 17:3 – “The Biblical ‘know’ always refers to an intimate, personal, interactive relationship…The eternal life of which Jesus speaks is not knowledge about God but an intimately interactive relationship with him.”
“To be committed to the oppressed, to liberation, or just to ‘community’ became for many the whole of what is essential to Christian commitment…a social ethic that one could share with people who had no reliance on a present God or a living Christ at all…But this ‘gospel’ turns out in practice to be little more than another version of the world-famous American dream.”
“The current gospels, left and right, exhibit the very same type of conceptual disconnection from, and practical irrelevance to, the personal integrity of believers-and certainly so, if we put that integrity in terms of biblically specific ‘Christlikeness.’ And both lack any essential bearing upon the individual’s life as a whole, especially upon occupations or work time and upon the fine texture of our personal relationships in the home and neighborhood.”
“Strangely, we seem prepared to learn how to live from almost anyone but [Jesus]…Where we spontaneously look for ‘information’ on how to live shows how we truly feel and who we really have confidence in.”
“We who profess Christianity will believe what is constantly presented to us as gospel. If gospels of sin management are preached, they are what Christians will believe. And those in the wider world who reject those gospels will believe that what they have rejected is the gospel of Jesus Christ himself – when, in fact, they haven’t yet heard it. And so we have the result noted: the resources of God’s kingdom remain detached from human life. There is no gospel for human life and Christian discipleship, just one for death or one for social action. The souls of human beings are left to shrivel and die on the plains of life because they are not introduced into the environment for which they were made, the living kingdom of eternal life.”
Willard is quick to acknowledge that forgiveness of sins, entrance into heaven, and social action all have their place; it’s just that they are to flow from the heart of the real gospel, not become gospels in their own right.
Of my greatest challenges as a pastor was trying to help people “unlearn” their misconceptions of the good news, including the idea that Christianity is all about being a “good person.” Each of these pseudo-gospels are incomplete, self-powered, harmful religious perversions which lack any positive transformative power because they are all void of any real, dependent, ongoing relationship with the source of life – Jesus Christ.
That being said, I feel like I still have much to learn about the what the gospel really means. Ron Martoia’s book, Static: Tune out the “Christian” noise and experience the real message of Jesus was helpful in this regard. I’ve also read some good articles over the years, and I think that digging into the scholarship of N.T. Wright will be enlightening, too.
Perhaps marriage could be a helpful analogy to think about all this. Few would claim they had a great marriage if their spouse didn’t know, love, or trust them – even if that spouse did nice things around the house or wore his or her wedding ring every day. Yet for some reason many want that kind of arrangement with God – a formal, social contract void of any real relationship.
Now, when the love bond between a married couple is in place, it’s only natural that a desire to grow in character, good deeds, and commitment would follow – but to make the essence of the marriage about being a committed, good person who does nice things is to completely miss the point. I’ve known marriages like that and there’s one word to describe them: dead.
A few questions for you to think about:
- What version of the gospel were you presented with growing up?
- How has your understanding of the gospel changed or evolved over the years?
- Do you find the marriage analogy useful? If so, why?
- Where do you think you may need to grow in your understanding of what the gospel really means?
Feel free to leave a comment if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you!