The Gospel is Never Good News to an Unprepared Heart

Sounds like a bit of an internal contradiction, doesn’t it? After all, Gospel is by definition Good News, that’s what the word means. So why the provocative title?

Well, the simplest answer is that I’ve been doing some pondering while reading a few books. It slows down my reading speed a lot, but I think I get more out of it this way. In the first place, it is because I’ve come to the conclusion that the Gospel is not primarilly about my salvation, as it is not primarilly about me at all. That sentence is enough to get me pilloried in some circles, but it seems to be quite clear when we realize that the Gospel is centrally about the Glory of Jesus Christ; the Kingdom of God (of which He is king). (see 2 Cor. 4:4)

This meets humans in one of two broad places, both of which see this possibility as very bad news indeed. The first group, the vintage Pharisee, sees this as bad as fundamentally it takes away from him the centrality of the Gospel. The Gospel (or indeed the entire universe) ceases to be about him, and becomes about some man/deity. He no longer can claim to be making god propitious to him, but instead needs to rely on another alien propitiation. He approaches the judgement seat of heaven and finds it already occupied (for the judgement seat is also a throne, and it does not have space for the pharisee). The pharisee cannot see the reign of God in Christ as good news, because in his heart of hearts, he wanted the job, and secretly believes it to have been stolen from him.

The second group, still in a problem situation, are the despairing sinners. These people actually recognize that they have done wrong in the world, and either seek to pretend that there is no justice in the world (so they can get away with it), or that if there is justice in the world, they cannot receive it. For these people, the reign of God fills them with dread, because this very fact means that the things they do, which they know to be wrong, cannot be thought of well by any just king of the universe.

In all people there is a smattering of both, but I believe that the Pharisee is far more common in the modern world than the despairing sinner. I believe that this misunderstood fact is behind both the plethora of bad “missional” theology, and the plethora of bad “dogmatic” theology.

In the end, there is a need to be brought back to the cross of Christ, where the reign of Christ can bring the usurper pharisee to humility, and the despairing sinner to hope. In both cases though, the cross of Christ must be applied to the situation. Without that, and without the preparation of the Holy Spirit to soften hearts, the Gospel as it actually is will be bad news to most.

Note: for the sake of explanation, a bad theology is any theology that differs from God as He is revealed in scripture and in so doing seeks to usurp the glory of Christ. I leave it to the reader to decide if I am guilty of such bad theology.

Elected

So if we’re all depraved, and none of us would seek God on our own, how does anybody ever become a Christian?

The simple fact is that God chooses people to save, not because of anything they are or do, but because of God’s grace.

This is a little different than what you may have heard from others. Namely, that God is waiting with baited breath, hoping that you will make the decision to come to Him, and if you don’t He’ll be utterly devastated.

Somehow, the modern west has gotten the idea that God is an adolescent schoolgirl, hoping upon hope that the object of His affections will come to Him. Now, to be clear, God desires that sinners turn from their wickedness and live  and gets no joy from the death of a sinner (Ezekiel 18:23; 32); but God is still the Lord of the universe, not that annoying lovestruck highschooler unable to get up the nerve to ask out the person He loves.

In fact, a Christian would say that we love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19), and that were it not for the work of God, we would be unable to love God or one another (1 John 4:7).

So what does this mean practically (in addition to the points from the last post)?

1) Christians need to take the power of God seriously, and see God as God, not someone who is in our debt because we deigned to come to Him. Our power to come to God is because of God’s choice.

2) we need the kind of the fear of the Lord that makes us understand that the only thing keeping us from the just wrath of God (because we’re depraved) is the choice of God to save us.

3) We need to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10), by displaying the works that are in keeping with being elected of God, including love of both friend and enemy.

Depraved

anthony_hopkins_hannibal_lecterOftentimes I find myself having to explain my understanding of Christianity. This is mainly because my theology doesn’t quite fit most of what I see operating here in Newfoundland. It’s quite common in some parts of the world, just not here.

Last weekend was one such instance. Somebody asked me after Church to explain “calvinism”, which for me means an explanation of the doctrines of grace. When I explain these ideas, some people hear it with joy, others respond as I did when I first heard it (what an evil understanding of salvation).

For the sake of clarity, though, I’m going to go through the five points, why i believe them and what that means practically.

The first point is that I believe people are depraved. I am included in that “people”.

This means that i think people do not in themselves seek to do the right thing, and even when they do the “right thing” as seen by outsiders, it’s for the wrong reasons. This means that while I think people stumble into “good” acts from time to time. people cannot be good in and of themselves. 

Of course, I see that the Bible teaches this. Just 2 examples:

“There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.  All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”  (Romans 3:10b-3:13).

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)

More importantly, with very little reflection on my own motivations at any given moment, even as people praise me for doing something good (and even as I do things that are seen as good), I can tell that my heart is not really aiming for the good of others, much less the glory of God. In and of myself I am really not a good person.

So what does this mean?

1) Christians are not in themselves more righteous than unbelievers, or even people who openly embrace their sin. We are in ourselves on an equal footing. This means that when we tell others who do not believe that they are evil and going to hell, we need to be careful that we don’t get (or give) the idea that because we are saved we are any less evil in ourselves. We could not embrace God any more than the unbeliever could, and we were saved by God while we were still enemies of His. 

2) Christians need to pray for unbelievers that we talk to, as much as preach to them. Conversion is an act of God, not of ourselves. This means that the goal in evangelism is to make the Gospel clear, not to make them believe it (we can’t do that). they are depraced and incapable of coming to Christ unless God leads them.

3) Christians need to be thankful to God for our salvation. Not in a lip-service kind of way, but because we actually are completely dependent on God for our salvation, not on our superior intellects, reasoning skills, superior faith ability, or indeed anything else. In ourselves we are depraved. We are saved by Jesus at all levels.

4) Finally, Christians should be freed from the silliness of pretending that we are righteous. We should not embrace sinful behaviour, but since we are depraved, we shouldn’t be surprised when once in a while sin creeps up in ourselves or others, and we shouldn’t be shaming when it does. We simply need to call one another to repentance and act in grace, not because we are better than those we call to repentance, but because we are saved by Christ.

In the end, the realization that we are in ourselves not good, and incapable of coming to God on our own is not simply a downer, but a fact that once remembered avoids the pride that so easily ensnares Christians, and reminds us that in Our faith we do not ask people to look at us for the ultimate value of our faith, but to Jesus Christ.

soli Deo gloria

Online Reading (March 14, 2008)

Law: Indian court clears Richard Gere of obscenity. They did not comment on his acting ability.

Culture: Is Polyamory the next part of the Anglican “listening process”?

Conference: Video is now available for all main sessions at the text and context conference. They are really good talks, but a sizable investment of time (about 80 mins each)

Christian Life: J.I. Packer reviews his life and counts surprises.

Online Reading

Al Mohler:   comments on the disagreements around Bp. John Shelby Spong’s visit to Australia.

Calvinism: Justin Taylor posts a helpful passage by R.C. Sproul (and links Piper) on limited atonement.

Baptism: A debate over credobaptism and paedobaptism continues with Ligon Duncan’s defense of paedobaptism.

Statistics: Are inflated statistics a lack of integrity?

Church and State: The government of China has moved to regulate reincarnation. (no, I’m not joking)

Online Reading

Bridge: Speaking of which, Desiring God has some video of the disaster in Minneapolis with a voiceover of a Piper sermon reflecting theologically from the message “Where is God?”.

Calvinism: Mark Dever continues with reason 9 of 10 in “Where’d all these Calvinists come from?”, this episode: John Piper.

Abuse: A new ministry calls Christians to deal with the sin of child abuse in their midst in a Godly way.

Theology: Is pride behind a drift to heresy?

Atheism: Richard Dawkins wants to raise the notoriety of Atheists by getting them to wear a large red A.