Thomas Oden, long time professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University, for years wrote volume after volume elaborating and espousing the latest theories and practices — successful, up-to-date, modern, in the best liberal tradition — yet somehow he remained dissatisfied. So, quite a while ago now, he shifted gears sharply and produced a volume entitled Agenda for Theology. Toward its beginning, he recounted a dream, from which the only scene he could remember took place in the New Haven cemetery. As he wandered through the graveyard, he accidentally stumbled over his own tombstone. Naturally, he stopped to read the epitaph, which said, ‘He made no new contribution to theology.’ That does not sound too complimentary on the face of it, especially for one whose mentors and colleagues aimed self-consciously at offering new contributions to the field. Surprisingly enough, then, Oden reports not being dismayed by this final evaluation of his work but rather tremendously reassured. Why so? Because he had come to believe that the last thing we need is supposed ‘improvements,’ embellishments, or additions to the fundamental apostolic teaching. What we do need is the plain gospel of Jesus Christ, kept intact and rightly expounded in our age and every age.
Turning away to Another Gospel
Preservation of the gospel in its integrity has never been easy, not even in the first century. ‘I am astonished,’ writes Paul to the Galatians, with dismay and with none of the commendatory phrases about his recipients that mark all of his other letters,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed (Gal. 1:6—9, NRSV).
Accursed? Delivered up in a final way to God’s wrath? Strong words, repeated twice for emphasis, and clearly suitable only for a situation marked by the most serious danger. The language of perverting the gospel is strong language, too, suggesting that wrong-headed ‘adjustments’ aren’t a mere fine-tuning but a turning of the gospel into its opposite. Something is luring Paul’s converts away from their first convictions in a way that puts their very salvation at risk.
Paul does not lay out the content of the gospel once again, but only alludes in passing to the resurrection of Jesus (v. 1), and then speaks particularly of his giving himself for our sins, to set us free from the present evil age (v. 4) — probably the earliest written statement about the meaning of Jesus’ death in the New Testament. Jesus died for our sins; Jesus frees us from those powers that so easily overtake and enslave us in this life. These are huge claims, involving huge and not altogether pleasant assumptions about us and the world, but Paul does not elaborate: he obviously assumes that the Galatians know perfectly well what he is talking about. After all, Paul was never one to mince words. Presumably he had preached clearly and powerfully to the Galatians of the stunning fact that Jesus did for us what we could not possibly do for ourselves, dealing in the most unlikely way possible, on the cross, both with our sins and with the spiritual powers that entrap us — a victory made visible in his resurrection. (Interestingly enough, Galatians 1:1 is the only place in Galatians where Paul mentions the resurrection; his emphasis is on the cross.)
On the cross, God has definitively invaded our world; on the cross God has, astonishingly, set things right and set a captive humanity free. Paul does not explain how such a thing could be but simply asserts that it is so. He then spends much of the rest of Galatians contrasting the inadequacy of what we seek to do for ourselves — especially our efforts to establish our own righteousness by obedience to the law — with the full adequacy of what Jesus has done for us and offers us by sheer grace.
Paul seems baffled as to why anyone would turn away from good news like that; why, as Galatians 1:6 puts it, anyone would desert the God who calls him or her in the grace of Christ and turn to a different gospel, as if there could actually be another, Why, indeed? Consider at least four possible reasons:
1. lt is too easy.
2. It is too hard (not to mention altogether implausible).
3. It is not enough.
4. There just has to be a better, more up-to-date, more scientific, maybe more culturally appropriate approach than something as primitive and violent as a cross.
Reason 1: It is too easy
Those who were troubling the Galatians, like many in the ancient world and some today, were particularly concerned about answer 1: the gospel is too easy. It makes the old ceremonial laws unnecessary — worse than unnecessary, fatally wrongheaded. Paul’s opponents, who were presumably earnest Jews committed to their heritage, felt about grace superseding the law as a way of making us righteous before God about the way we would feel if some wild-eyed reformer advocated establishing righteousness in our society by throwing out the statute books and opening all the prison doors. It is crazy. If people are not required by the law to uphold certain religious standards, everything will come unglued, they thought. They suspected that Paul was preaching such a soft doctrine just to curry favour and popularity with the people (v. 10).
Not only Jews argued against grace on such grounds. Virtuous pagans such as Celsus in the second century were puzzled by a religion that did not demand purity but welcomed and forgave the corrupt. Celsus said, ‘Whosoever is a sinner, they say, whosoever is unwise, whosoever is a child, and, in a word, whosoever is a wretch — the kingdom of God will receive him.’ And, church historian Martin Marty comments wryly, ‘there goes the neighborhood.’1 Or, consider poet W. H. Auden’s line, ‘Every crook will argue: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”‘2 It is too easy.
Reason 2: It is too hard
But that same fact that we are saved by grace alone makes the gospel seem too hard, too pessimistic, to another group of people. Those are the ones who have been well taught that human beings are essentially good and that most of their troubles come from failing to think well enough of themselves, whether because of bad genes or a toxic early environment or a host of troubles that are not, after all, their fault. Such folks are offended at the very thought that their sins are sufficiently bad that only the death of Jesus could provide a remedy for them. What could a bloody, unjust death have to do with it, anyway? Maybe, too, they need desperately to feel in command of their own lives and are angered or frightened by the amount of waiting and trust and disentanglement from worldly standards that faith requires. See Galatians 1:4: Jesus gave himself for our sins to deliver us, it says, ‘from the present evil age’: something about our world can be counted on to lead us in the wrong direction (NRSV).
Remember that every time you are tempted to govern your behaviour by what others are doing or by what the culture — any given culture — approves. Even to make deliverance from ourselves and ‘the present evil age’ sound desirable, it takes a fairly clear-eyed view of our own depth of corruption (at a time when ‘self-esteem’ is the popular panacea for our ills). People must make a rather judicious estimate of the world’s transient rewards (in a culture that presents worldly pleasures as the ultimate satisfaction — ‘he who dies with the most toys wins,’ and that sort of thing). ‘Losing one’s life in order to save it’ has never sounded exactly attractive; living life not as servants but as masters sounds much more appealing. That such proud self-sufficiency can and, indeed, should be realized — through this or that investment plan, mental health programme, educational pursuit, or physical or spiritual discipline — is one of the main alternative gospels proclaimed in our day. As a recent radio ad puts it, ‘Take charge of your future: become your own chief life officer!’ It is a false gospel, but the true gospel is just too hard.
Besides, the whole thing appears wildly implausible: a God who would die in humiliating fashion for us and rise again, and by that means make our salvation possible? Really? It doesn’t take the so-called New Atheists to cast doubt on this scenario: their arguments, as has often been observed, differ in no important respect from those of the old atheists. Actually, Paul himself was perfectly clear that the gospel was an offence to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles: such objections are hardly fresh and startling. The only startling thing is what our Lord has done for us and then asks of us — hard, implausible.
Reason 3: It is not enough
Then there are those who are not so much bothered about whether the gospel makes things too hard or too easy, but rather about its not being enough — enough, that is, to satisfy their curiosity or answer various pressing questions or deal with certain personal concerns. Recently, it has been common among some scholars, and even popular writers, to assert that since history, including texts such as the Bible, is written by the winners of the relevant culture wars, we need the apocryphal gospels and all sorts of other ancient texts to figure out what was really going on. (Consider the wild popularity of a piece of raw fiction such as The Da Vinci Code.) In their view, Scripture is just one more book with no unique authority. Well, so many things are obscure to us, and the Bible is such a relatively small book, that some such arguments sound reasonable: Are we missing out on something essential, something that has not even occurred to us yet? Is it not precipitous to make a final commitment to Christ when so much remains unknown?
Or what about the things that have occurred to us? What about all the ethical questions posed by the possibilities of contemporary science that the Bible addresses with little information — things such as cloning, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and nuclear waste? Where shall we find guidelines that get past mere political rhetoric? What about the particular concerns of persons of a variety of ethnic backgrounds; that they be treated fairly and their history and gifts be taken seriously? The gospel says little on these things. How, then, could it be enough?
Reason 4: There has to be a better way
Yet another reason for being attracted to another gospel is the conviction that, given how times have changed and how much scientific and technological progress we have made, surely we must have come up with a more adequate way of salvation by now (or, at least, have disabused ourselves of old, primitive hopes). Let’s be honest: many of us have transferred most of our daily expectations for practical help from God to science, led on by the genuine achievements of human knowledge. We turn more to doctors than to prayer for healing, more to irrigation than to Providence for success in farming, more to military technology than to an army of angels for protection from our enemies. Should we not likewise transpose our ideas of salvation into a new key? We have come of age in so many ways; is it not time we grew up with respect to our religious beliefs?
The trouble is that all of these objections and achievements, seductive though they are, do not, in the end, address our most fundamental problem. We hunger for a universe in which we matter, in which what we do and who we are has some larger importance. Without that, we will be restless and dissatisfied, no matter how comfortable and secure we manage to make our earthly lives. And we also suspect, deep down, that our internal unease has to do with faults we are powerless to correct in our own strength. No matter how often we say, ‘Never again,’ after some particularly egregious human wickedness, the horrors continue: the ‘war to end all wars’ led only to increasing violence; the Holocaust did not put a stop to genocide; and on and on. Even when achievements are real, the false gospel of progress can never by itself answer the question of what the progress is for. It leads us by its siren song without ever telling us that the road ends — nowhere, as our sun finally burns out and our planet spins off into oblivion. Furthermore, the false gospel of progress has shown itself impotent to produce moral progress: we are as helpless to become truly better people by our own strength as we ever were.
Holding Fast to the Genuine Gospel of Christ
You see, it does not really matter whether the genuine gospel of Christ is easy or hard, whether it fails to satisfy our curiosity, does not answer all our contemporary questions, refuses to submit to our efforts to nail it down rationally, or declines to put on altogether modern dress, but only if the gospel is true. Probably most of us have, at one time or another, been troubled by some of the objections I have raised; I surely have. Even so, the fact remains that our ultimate help comes from one place alone — from Calvary. The other alternatives show themselves again and again to fail, leaving us in our moral impotence and final futility. There is no other gospel — no other truly good news — than that Jesus Christ lived and died and rose again for our salvation, to save us from our sins, to remake us at last to be like him, and to give us the sure hope of being with him forever. There is no other gospel than that salvation is by grace, by God’s free gift of Jesus Christ.
The gospel is easy enough to be available to the worst, most broken, most helpless sinner, who knows he has no righteousness to offer to God, no hope of making himself better, indeed, nothing at all that he can do for himself. The gospel is hard enough to challenge the most successful person’s illusions about control of her own life, hard in its demand that we serve rather than seek to be served, hard in its clear-eyed view of our relentless sinfulness. The gospel remains up-to-date in addressing the perennial human need for meaning in a universe that seems to run on with blind indifference to the hopes and fears of its human occupants. The gospel is complete with respect to the one thing we need most, so complete that nothing fundamental can be added in its provision for our salvation. As the old gospel song puts it,
I need no other argument,
I need no other plea.
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.3
- Quoted in Martin Marty, Context, May 15, 1988, 1.
- W. H. Auden, For the Time Being (New York: Random House, 1944).
- Eliza F. Hewitt, ‘My Faith Has Found a Resting Place’, 1891.
- Taken with permission from Ministry, September 2013.
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